The hills were green and lush and the spring breeze ruffled through the grasses like a maid’s comb in her lady’s hair. The clearing was higher than the surrounding woods and provided a nice place for travelers to stop and rest, or just look out at the surrounding countryside. But today a band of thugs had claimed the clearing for their own, and their purpose was to do Hera’s immortal bidding---kill Hercules.
The scruffy band of men looked road weary and dirty; with torn clothing and hard muscle’s showing as they dismounted from their prancing horses.
“Get ready,’ their leader ordered. “They’re almost here.” He turned to the smaller leaner man, younger than the rest and soft of flesh, a man most certainly not a laborer or even less, a warrior.
“Keep the horses quiet, little man,” the leader spoke down to Gnatius with derision.
Gnatius nodded and took the reins from the bigger man, eager to please. If he did this job well, perhaps there would be some dinars in it for him.
“Uh, don’t worry; I’m great with horses, practically raised in a stable.” Gnatius sounded a little overconfident, like a salesman with a bad product. “Any chance of getting my dinar in advance?”
The thug stared at him without amusement. “Silence! Or I’ll pay you with this,” he hissed in warning, raising a sword and cocking his head as he listened for the approaching footsteps of Hercules and Iolaus.
The lead thug turned to his men. “Let’s go!” he ordered as his men scrambled to bushes and over hill crests to secret themselves away.
Meanwhile Hercules and Iolaus strolled companionably along through the woods, reaching the part of the path which entered the clearing. Iolaus was getting tired of hearing Hercules complain about his cooking, about cleaning his own clothes and general tasks of daily mundane existence. Sure Hercules tried to make it seem like a joke, but Iolaus saw through it only too quickly. He’d been there himself. Hercules was lonesome. Oh not for companionship, but more for a help mate.
“You know Herc, it might be time for you to get married again,” Iolaus bantered lightly, knowing full well what Herc’s response would be. He slipped his sword and scabbard up across his shoulders and used it apply pressure to the tight muscles at the base of his neck.
“It’s usually nice to meet somebody you like before you get married,” Hercules retorted, turning his face away from Iolaus’ knowing glance.
“I know, but it can’t be a bad thing.” Iolaus wondered if the pain of Dei’s death would ever subside to a simple dull ache or if Hercules would always use it as a shield to avoid female relationships.
Hercules let a heavy sigh escape his lips. “Iolaus, that’s all my mother ever talks about.” His frustration was evident and he opened his mouth to continue but stopped short at the sight of the thugs coming toward them.
The two heroes watched in wonder as one man jumped high in the air, actually performing a full flip before landing easily onto his feet and continuing his approach.
“Oh look, Acrobats,” Hercules declared.
“Whaddya mean acrobats?” a particularly mean looking thug growled in response.
“Aren’t you performing at the festival?” Hercules queried, puzzled.
“Cut the comedy and draw your sword Hercules,” the lead thug threatened as he held his battered but sharp blade up offensively.
“I, I don’t have a sword,” Hercules toyed with the man, still uncertain whether these men were performers or thieves, and waited for Iolaus to respond.
“Oh, wait a minute I do,” Iolaus answered, also still a little confused. He pulled the sword out of his scabbard and displayed it to the men.
“Oh, there you go,” Hercules offered. “Now, what is this all about?”
The lead thug sneered at the two men and took a step back, reaching behind for what his compatriot offered. “I have a message for you---from Hera.”
He took the proffered spear and flung it straight and true at Hercules. Hercules stepped back with lightning quick speed and Iolaus stepped in as if to protect the demigod. The spear sailed now directly at Iolaus’ heart, but Iolaus didn’t flinch. Hercules was with him and he trusted the big man with his life.
As if on cue Hercules snatched the spear out of the air, only inches from Iolaus’ chest.
He didn’t even bother to glance at the spear, instead concentrating his fierce glare on the thug.
“Same old message,” he spat in disgust. “Uh, could you give her my reply?” His eyes gleamed with anger now, thinking of Deineira and the children, of Ania and her children, of the havoc and pain Hera had caused in so many lives. He stood poised for a fight, with the spear held horizontally like a Bo staff.
Iolaus could sense Hercules’ agitation. Great, a fight before the festival. Why couldn’t these thugs just leave them alone?
“Uh, now Herc?” he asked as he held his sword in both hands, legs opened into a fighting stance.
“Yeah, now would be good,” Hercules answered as he swung the staff at the nearest thug.
The two men fought like whirlwinds, spinning and kicking, taking on two and three men each. Iolaus matched Hercules man for man, fearing the demigod’s anger with Hera would cause him to hurt some one inadvertently. Dust rose and men shouted as Hercules and Iolaus efficiently fought Hera’s thugs.
Behind the hill, Gnatius was having trouble with the horses. They were getting agitated with the sounds and scent of the sweating brawling men. They tossed their heads. Pulling at the reins Gnatius tried to hold them back, leaving him feeling like the tail on a kite. And they pranced. Gnatius hated how they did that. It was hard to keep track of all those hooves and just knew his own foot would get stomped sooner or later.
“Whoa, whoa. Please horses!” Gnatius begged. “Please, please! I don’t want to die!” He could picture himself being dragged to his death by running horses, tangled in their reins, or stomped to death by the pounding hooves, or with his throat laid open by the thugs if he couldn’t hold onto the horses long enough for them to escape.
“Whoa, whoa!” Gnatius called as the horses tugged harder, frantic now, sensing the fierceness of the battle. “Always get the money first, Gnatius,” he spoke angrily to himself as he felt the reins being pulled out of his hands. The horses could feel the grip loosen and as one, the pack pulled away, rearing and spinning, raising a cloud of dust that enveloped Gnatius as he turned away from them in fear.
“Please come back!” he called after the retreating equines. “Don’t run off!” he entreated them, but they ignored his pleas and disappeared over the next hill and became nothing more than shadows as they entered the cover of the forest.
Behind him, Gnatius could hear the battle going badly for the thugs. Soon they’d return for their horses, looking to make a quick escape but find them gone. And if Gnatius stayed, he’d be dead. He put no more thought into the decision. Gnatius turned and ran.
Iolaus and Hercules finished off the band of thugs in no time, themselves no worse for the wear. They watched as the men ran to where the horses once were, heard the exclamations of surprise and anger, and chuckled to themselves as the remaining men scattered.
“Ha!” Iolaus declared. “Just what I needed to get the old blood flowing.” He spun his sword and sheathed it in a single move, dancing lightly on his feet to loosen the tense muscles.
Hercules wasn’t as elated as Iolaus at the outcome. This whole thing smelled wrong. These thugs were too wimpy to be commissioned by Hera, this was a ploy, a trap, something like an appetizer, as Iolaus would say.
Hercules turned to Iolaus. “Why do I get the feeling that Hera’s not through with us?” he remarked warily.
Nemesis had been summoned by Hera. It wasn’t her first time, far from it. As hit woman of the gods she had served most of the Olympians at least once, some more, but none as many times as Hera. And Nemesis had found out that when Hera summoned, you answered. Neither god nor mortal was free of Hera’s vindictive and omnipresent wrath, differing only in the degree to which one was punished varied.
Nemesis stood on the hill top looking up at the roiling sky, the dark tumescence of the clouds and the speed with which they flew, seeming almost to be escaping Hera herself. And Nemesis knew that there was trouble. Hera had found someone lacking in some way or another and the old witch, er---the boss-wanted to dine on flesh suddenly.
Nemesis shook out her mane of hair and stood waiting, hands on hips, legs apart, pretending to take aim on the smallest and fastest of the passing clouds. She would relish the chance of a contract that held a little challenge. Immortality was boring if couldn’t find a greater opportunity with every job. She wanted to hone her skills and be able to meet any demands, set up any kill. That’s what it was all about.
“Bring it on Hera!” she thought.
But when the peacock feathered eyes appeared in the sky the thought was placed in head that it was she whom Hera found lacking today. The words and thoughts raged in her with a vehemence she knew had to mean Hera herself was putting them there, proving that she was the one with all the power, she was the most omnipotent of goddesses and a lesser goddess such as Nemesis was no more than a head servant.
“Hera!” Nemesis shouted out angrily. “Why am I being punished?” The skies above grew darker still, the peacock eyes icier and Hera’s voice rolled over Nemesis and through her like the thunder which accompanies a lightning strike.
“Once again you disobeyed a command of mine!”
“But your order was unjust!” Nemesis shouted back defiantly, knowing exactly which order she’d disobeyed. She narrowed her eyes in anger. “Hercules doesn’t deserve to die.”
“That’s for me to decide, not you!” Hera’s voice rumbled louder, shaking the ground on which Nemesis stood so proudly, yet the archer held her ground. Hera noted the lesser goddess’s lack of fear at the reprisal of the Queen of the Gods, and it angered her even more. This one was a definite problem. She would have to be dealt with.
“Your services are no longer needed here.” Hera’s voice had grown cold and even, calculated to strike the archer deep in her courageous heart.
Nemesis tipped her beautiful golden face up to meet the Queen who would show only her eyes. She scanned the clouds and with sudden realization she understood that the contract was on her.
“What do you mean?” Nemesis asked stunned. She couldn’t be killed, that was Zeus’s decree. But what then?
“I mean,” Hera laughed, a sharp edge to her voice like a blade of ice. “From now on---YOU are a mortal.”
And Nemesis found herself cast from her defiant stance to her knees as a bolt of Olympian lightning struck her. She felt her insides grow cool as the breeze blew across her now sensitive skin and the pain in her chest as Hera extracted that special “Something” which had made her a goddess. The dirt clung to her knees and small shreds of grass stuck wetly on her palms as she pushed herself back upright.
Nemesis stared up at the sky as Hera’s laugh echoed away and the peacock eyes faded. The sky cleared and the sun shone down again as Nemesis turned in slow circles examining herself. She wondered at the now dark hair, the tanner skin. She touched her legs first, then her arms, staring down at herself as if she was garbed in new cloth. And truly she was, for today she felt all the pain of a mortal.
The rocky beach was far from deserted today. The ocean itself lapped tamely at the shore like a beloved pet dog, but the people who gathered there milled restlessly about. Hera had promised them a surprise and Hera’s surprises were not to be missed. And so they had gathered, calling out supplications to the Queen of the Gods, offering tokens of loyalty and hoping to buy her good graces. Men called in hushed voices for mercy and women called out for family assistance, but the atmosphere along the shore was watchful.
Gnatius had heard that there would be a gathering here today, and to him a gathering meant dinars. It meant people trying to win favor with the gods, people whose minds and hearts were in a better place for almsgiving than at any other time. So Gnatius had run here, away from the thugs where he could both hide and possibly make a few dinars as well.
Gnatius tried to make his eyes look blank and he stumbled across the rocky beach in the direction of the softer shore line.
“Dinars for the blind!?” he called out in a nasal voice, trying his best to be pitiful. “Dinars so that I may beseech Hera to end my blindness?”
Gnatius tried not to show it, but the turbaned man ahead looked wealthy. He was corpulent, obviously not hunting for his own food, and well dressed in silken robes. Surely he would have a coin or two. He staggered over against the rich man.
“Money for the blind, eh?” The rich man sounded skeptical, but Gnatius could hear the sound of coins jangling in his pocket.
Gnatius bumped purposely against him then backed away. “Oh yes, please. Hera will look kindly on you sir, and so will I if she hears my prayer,” Gnatius wheedled.
The rich man was not so easily fooled. He’d seen his share of beggars and this one was simply a con man. Well, he couldn’t afford to look bad to Hera; he’d test this boy. The rich man took a dinar and tossed it up high in the air. The sun caught it, glinting off as it spun. Gnatius made a dive at it, and then suddenly realized his mistake.
“Uh-oh!” he groaned as the man stepped away from him.
“Fraud! You’re not blind!” the man declared loudly, ruining any chance Gnatius might have had at making the ploy work.
But Gnatius was not to be deterred from his quest for dinars. If anything the young man was quick thinking and if not likeable, at least harmless. “Hera the merciful!” he called out. “I can see!” He turned away and muttered under his breath. “Cheap old man.”
Well, he’d have to try something different. Perhaps if he worked the other side of the beach---. “Dinars for the lame!” he called out as he hobbled away.
The rich man paid the con man no heed. He knew that Hera would do as she promised. An offering to Hera, he thought. This coin would be better used for her. He thought quickly of what he would ask Hera for and tossed the coin in to the quiet ocean.
The coin landed with a quiet splash and the rich man started to turn away.
“Wait!” a woman’s voice called in surprise.
Around him the rich man heard the excited murmuring of the crowd and he spun around to see what was happening. The water was rising at the spot where his coin landed, growing taller and forming a shape! He watched in fascination as the water quickly took the form of a female, yet remained water, fluid and clear, rippling. Then, to the crowd’s astonishment the water grew suddenly solid, becoming a woman of flesh and bones and more muscles than any of them had ever seen.
The crowd gasped, women covering their mouths and men’s eyes widening in astonishment as the naked woman moved through the waves seemingly walking on the water.
”Look! It’s coming ashore!”
“Something from Hera!”
“It’s coming ashore!”
Excited voiced called out in wonder as the people stood still as glacial stones deposited on the beach.
The rich man couldn’t hide his excitement. His coin had changed into a woman, a strong and beautiful one at that. She would do many chores for him without tiring and bear him lovely children.
“Praise to Hera!” the rich man cried. “I prayed to Hera for a beautiful wife and here you are!”
Hera’s new enforcer stepped out of the water and stood face to face with the rich man. Her body glistened with the droplets of water as they cascaded down her perfect flesh, running through the ridges left by her well defined muscles. There wasn’t a scrap of fat on her from her small feet, up her strongly muscled calves and thighs and over the swell of her buttocks and hips.
Truly a glorious woman, the rich man thought as he let his eyes wander further up across the chest. No heavy drooping breasts on this woman, or upper arm flabbiness. She had shoulders broad enough to carry an ox’s yoke easily. Her neck was graceful and slender yet sinewy. But it was her face that struck the man.
She was as expressionless as an empty cereal bowl. High cheekbones, thin lips, and smooth, shiny dark hair framed her face. But her eyes were frightening. They were as black and flat as a shark. Come to think of it, the rich man suddenly realized, she was as much like the sea predator as he could ever imagine a woman being---so sleek and beautiful and wet.
The rich man’s thoughts went no further. The enforcer stood impassively and with a single efficient move struck the rich man dead with a palm heel strike to the throat.
“OH!” People started to scream and back away, stunned at what they had just seen.
“What has she done?” a man called out.
Another voice answered, “I think he’s dead. She killed him.”
Around her the crowd panicked, thrusting at each other, tripping and stumbling in the soft sand, tripping on rocks as they tried to get away from this strange woman of the sea.
The Enforcer was oblivious to all this. She knew only that Hera’s command in her head said that she must cover herself, and so she reached down and pulled the silken cloak off the rich man’s corpse, and draped it loosely over her shoulders.
“May the gods’ forgive me,” Gnatius whispered to himself as he watched the Enforcer stride purposely away from the dead man. Moving in like a vulture, he slipped a hand into the man’s pocket and pulled out his money purse. “I need this more than you do,” he whispered to the unhearing ears.
“Stay away!” a woman screamed as she moved out of the Enforcer’s path.
Gnatius suddenly realized that he was finally in the right place at the right time.
”A man could get rich picking the bones off her victims,” Gnatius muttered to himself. He stood quickly.
“Wait!” he called to the Enforcer. “Where ever you’re going I can help you!”
She turned her head with swift efficiency. “Where is Hercules?” Her voice was flat, no emotion, no desire, just simple statement of fact.
Gnatius was unnerved, but not to be deterred where dinars were concerned. “You want Hercules? I know where to find him.” He found it hard to stare her in the face, but continued, after all a dinar was a dinar.
”Follow me, partner.”
As the two unlikely companions walked away from the beach the Enforcer softly repeated her flat mantra.
“Must kill Hercules.”
Hercules never seemed to sweat, Iolaus realized with chagrin. It was as if no matter how hard the work was his friend was never fully taxed. Iolaus, on the other hand was finding his muscles feeling increasingly weary. Lugging the lumber for setting up the tables necessary to the vendors, Iolaus felt his stomach clench in a pang of hunger. He and Hercules had worked all morning, and the smoke rising from the cooking meats, the aroma of baked goods was making him wish someone would come by and offer them a snack, or meal or---anything really.
The calls of the townspeople, friendly jests and greetings, rose through the air like the smoke as they helped each other set out their goods for display. Iolaus could feel the excitement in the air as preparations progressed.
“Uh, you know Herc, correct me if I’m wrong, but to me a festival means fun! You’re not supposed to work!” Iolaus dropped his lumber and wiped a sweating brow with his forearm.
Hercules looked down at Iolaus and could see that his skin was glistening with sweat and a fine coat of dust clung to his arms and neck, trickling down in small streams. Iolaus was working hard, but Hercules knew he would be adequately repaid.
“Every year we come to the festival,” he reasoned. “We eat their food---drink their wine. Don’t you think it’s time we repaid their generosity?”
Iolaus rolled his head to loosen his stiff neck and shoulder muscles and then hopped lithely up onto the table they had just finished setting up.
“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, I know it’s good to help people, but this is a festival!” Iolaus tried unsuccessfully to keep the protest out of his voice. “I mean, we’re supposed to be having fun!” He reached over to a basket of apples being carried past and plucked a piece of fruit out with the skill and dexterity of a pickpocket.
“I’ve got nothing against work, but-“Iolaus bit into the apple, letting its tart juice run down his chin. “Well, work’s work,” he said with a shrug of his shoulder and his mouth full.
Hercules sighed. Iolaus was being stubborn. Maybe his friend was tired, but the reward would be there in the end.
From behind the two men the voice of their old friend, Clytus, the town smith rang out.
“Can you help me with this anvil?”
Iolaus sighed and took another bite of the apple. “Uh, I would, but my arm…” He held up the broken, but almost healed arm and looked down on it ruefully.
Hercules raised an eyebrow and spoke quietly so only Iolaus would hear. “But it’s …um…work?”
Iolaus snorted and swallowed the bite of apple, enjoying the brief work break.
Hercules turned to Clytus, “Sure I’ll give you a hand.” He grabbed the heavy anvil and picked it up as easily as if it was nothing more than a piece of paper.
“I’ve got it,” Hercules shot a glance at Iolaus’s smirk, and watched while it turned into a look of sudden realization as a pretty woman stared admiringly at Hercules’s bulging muscles.
“I can’t believe one man can lift that thing!” she declared in admiration, before turning away to haul her pile of wares to her table.
Iolaus jumped off the table, his eyes never leaving the blonde, blue eyed young woman’s slim figure.
“Huh,” he said to himself first. Then shouted out to the young lady, “Let me give you a hand with those.”
The woman turned a sweet smile on Iolaus.
“You’re so kind to help.” Her voice was like a melody to Iolaus’s ears, and suddenly he felt stronger, less sweaty and ready to work again. He grabbed the girl’s swords and carried them to a table for display, all the while mumbling with the last bite of his quickly tossed apple filling his mouth.
Hercules turned a grin on his friend. “I, uh, thought you didn’t feel like working?” He raised an eyebrow in mock question.
“Who me?” Iolaus responded while noticing the young ladies appreciative smile. “No, no, no! I love to work!”
“Yeah, he loves to work,” Hercules added, with a slap on Iolaus’s shoulder and a nod to the girl.
Iolaus turned away from his friend and back to his reward.
“So have we met?”
The Enforcer strode silently along the path out of the woods, seeming unaware of Gnatius’ buzzing along at her heels. The rich man’s cape flowed out behind her like a billowing sail as she moved forward at a pace that Gnatius was finding difficult to keep up.
Down the road, Gnatius could see a merchant coming, carrying his wares. Behind him were the guards he paid for safe traveling. This road would be overrun by bandits as the merchants made their way in large numbers to the festival in hopes of making a few dinars. The guards would ensure his safety. Gnatius rubbed his hands together gleefully. Perhaps he could make a few dinars too. The Enforcer was the best fighter Gnatius had ever seen, and the two guards would be no match for her.
“He-he-he!” Gnatius laughed as the Enforcer strode unwaveringly along the center of the road. The merchant glanced in alarm at her and carefully stepped around her, continuing along. The guards, however, refused to separate, choosing instead to confront the silent woman.
“Move along,” the male guard ordered with a sneer as his female counterpart stood at his side ready to defend him, should a fight ensue.
The Enforcer spared only a minute glance at the male and turned her eyes instead to the female. She stared assessingly at the battle worthiness of the leather as Hera’s cackling laugh rang through her thoughts, causing her to blink and cock her head. The emptiness except for the sole obsessive thought of her mission to kill Hercules fled from her waterlogged brain as she obeyed Hera’s evil command.
“Give me your clothes,” the Enforcer spoke flatly to the female guard, her stone dull eyes fixed on the battle leather.
The guards could sense that this was no ordinary bandit. Who robbed for clothes when a merchant carried expensive wares? The two guards snuck a quick glance at each other as they shifted into battle stance.
The Enforcer stepped forward and in one efficient movement picked the woman up by the throat letting her hand close almost into a fist around it.
Gnatius sucked in his breath. Gods was she strong. As the robe sleeve slipped up he could see other bulging muscles, so perfectly sculpted as if from pure granite. There wasn’t even a tremor of fatigue as the Enforcer held the female guard high, letting her legs dangle and kick. The guard struggled to rip off the leather garb and managed to weakly shrug it off, choking for air, the desperate hope of living shining in her dull eyes.
The Enforcer let the now naked woman fall to the ground. Hera was telling her to let go, that the woman would serve as a warning. She complied, as she had before and would again. Hera was her conscience.
Gnatius giggled in glee, hardly believing his luck. The Enforcer had stripped off the rich man’s robe and stood naked, next to the also naked body of the female guard as she bent to pick up the cast aside leathers. Two naked women in one day and both gorgeous! Could it get any better than this?
“Gods I love this woman!” he exclaimed to the male guard kneeling in horror next to his partner.
Gnatius was getting frustrated. They’d walked all day and this Enforcer hadn’t killed anyone since the guard. She didn’t stop anyone. She didn’t hit anyone. And his feet were sore! No dinars and sore feet, could it get any worse?
He stood behind the imposing warrior as they strode down a steep slope, the Enforcer always scanning, never talking. Approaching them was another merchant. Gnatius figured he’d better take the bull by the horns this time.
“No need to kill this guy, just knock him on the head or something so I can take his money.” He stood, hands on hips as the Enforcer silently assessed her environment.
The sound of Hera’s voice in her head was becoming more insistent and angry as well. But she had no direction to follow. Puzzlement, a new feeling filled the Enforcer and she struggled to understand this.
“Am I getting through to ya?” Gnatius buzzed at her ear. He walked in a tired circle, like a horse cooling down after a race as he muttered in anger as much to himself as to the Enforcer. “Ok, the strong silent type. I can live with that.” He watched in dismay as the merchant passed them and the Enforcer did nothing except cock her head and blink.
“Hi,” Gnatius waved to the merchant, trying to keep the resignation out of his voice. He turned angrily to the Enforcer. “Hey, how am I supposed to get any dinars if you only kill people stupid enough to get in your way?”
His droning pushed out Hera’s voice. The Enforcer turned her flat black eyes on him with a mechanical turn of her neck.
“Where is Hercules?”
Gnatius threw his hands in the air in frustration. “Hercules again! You know, your one track mind kind of limits our conversation.”
The Enforcer stared unwaveringly at him, and Gnatius felt an icy finger of fear trace his spine. This was not a woman to mess with. He could get hurt.
“Straight ahead,” he answered, backing down quickly.
Nemesis sat in the crowded bar, ripping into a roasted quail. Such new experiences, and not necessarily unpleasant! Oh sure, this was a tavern, smoky and loud and smelling of ale and dirty men exuding their macho pheromes. She’d been in taverns before, having killed her fair share of drunken losers as she perfected her archery skills, but never before had she been in one to eat.
“What a strange feeling hunger is,” she murmured as she licked her greasy fingers after tossing a bone on the plate in front of her. The tavern keeper shot her a strange look, but she never even saw it as she pushed another piece of the tasty meat into her mouth.
“I’ve never experienced it before because gods never get hungry,” she continued with her mouth full.
“You were a god, huh?” the tavern keeper spoke skeptically. This woman was spinning a tale, and a good one at that. He hoped she wasn’t some crazy, come to eat his food for free and slip away during a brawl or when his back was turned.
He leaned across the table. “Honey, it’s my job to listen to the story, no matter how crazy, but the customer still has to pay the bill.”
Nemesis looked up, pulling a bone from her mouth, stripping it clean of skin and meat.
“Money?” Now this was a new concept. Gods had everything given to them; after all, they were entitled. It suddenly seemed to her that she had much to learn about life as a mortal. Money! Imagine that! Now what was she to do?
Nemesis didn’t have to ponder for long.
“Always happy to rescue a pretty damsel in distress,” A voice to her side drawled. She turned her face and let her eyes rest on the battle scarred face of a one eyed drunk, who tossed a coin onto the table and let it slide to the tavern keeper.
She felt him place a rough hand on her shoulder, trying to slide it down her chest and slapped it away.
“Thank you,” she answered, turning back to her food and otherwise ignoring him..
“The drunk laughed and leaned down to her. “Oh, there are better ways to thank a man, you know?”
Nemesis let her food drop to the plate. If she had her powers she could have killed him right now. Just grab a bow, slip an arrow in and snap! He’d be a carcass on the floor. A goddess chose who would touch her and when. And no one talked to a goddess like that. But she wasn’t a goddess anymore and this could be a problem.
She stared back at the man unwavering. “I think I know what you mean,” she answered coolly. “I’ve only been a mortal one day, but I wasn’t born yesterday.”
The drunk wasn’t about to back down, not from a woman, especially a pretty one. “Well, this is rough country,” he warned. “A delicate little thing like you could use a man’s protection.”
Nemesis wiped her hands on the napkin and raised an eyebrow. She stood slowly and gave the drunk a sly grin. Easy mark, she thought. Okay, I can win this little game. “Oh protection. Is that what you had in mind?”
“Uh-huh.” The drunk stared down at the smaller woman, noting her fine bones, slim shape and sinewy muscle. What a prize she could be!
Nemesis walked with self assurance around the table as the room quieted and all eyes turned her way. She met the man’s stare with one of her own, noting his hunters garb and weapons. She turned her face up to his proudly.
“Well I could protect myself if I had your bow and arrow.”
She stood there, face to face with the drunk, exuding confidence as she rested her small hands on her delicate hips.
“Let’s have a contest,” she suggested. If I win, you give me these.” She nodded to his bow and quiver of arrows. “If you win, I give you what you want.”
The tavern rocked with the hoots of men and cat calls of women, all choosing favorites and bets were called out. Money rang as dinars rolled into tables and the drunken man grinned down at Nemesis, standing strong.
“You’re on,” he spoke with bravado. Turning he nodded across the room. “See that chain on the far wall?”
“If I hit the bottom link dead center I win, right?” Nemesis drew her chin up smirking.
The drunk shot her a look of disdain. “Make it closest. I don’t want to be here all day. Ladies first”
Nemesis nodded, speaking softly to herself. “Dead center is closest of all.” She took the offered bow, feeling its weight and for the first time realizing that it was heavy in her hands, a large hunter’s tool and not the fine weapon of a goddess. She placed an arrow into the wire and drew back, noting the tension and feeling the pull on her arm muscles, the cutting across her now mortal fingers. But Nemesis didn’t bother to worry about the discomfort and unsettling weight of the weapon she simply aimed carefully and let the arrow fly.
Thunk! The arrow hit the wall, embedding itself just a hair’s breadth away from the bottom link. Nemesis sucked in a breath of disbelief, her body stiff with surprise even as calls of encouragement and surprise at her marksmanship rang out around her.
“Lucky shot,” the drunken man muttered in anger.
“I have NEVER missed that badly!” Nemesis’s voice wavered with disappointment as she felt her confidence fall. She had never once considered that she could actually lose a lot here, and suddenly she felt her stomach tighten.
“Yeah, right!” The drunk shot her a look and snatched the bow away, grabbing another arrow from the quiver. He placed it with the certainty of knowing his own weapon against the string and in one fluid motion drew back, sighted and let the arrow fly.
Nemesis held her breath, realizing as she watched that he was in fact a skilled marksman, and even drunk could be a problem. Her heart pounded as she watched the trajectory seemingly taking forever. The arrow head struck the wood, imbedding only slightly farther away from the link that her own.
The drunk sighed heavily at the knowledge that he now didn’t get the girl, or keep his bow. “Okay, but that wasn’t even a contest. I’m drunk!” he shouted angrily.
“It WAS even!” Nemesis retorted. She felt a choke in her throat and the breath catch in her chest as her predicament hit. “I’m mortal.” The realization struck her that had the man not been drunk he could easily have won. How much she had lost! She snatched the bow angrily, taking the quiver of arrows, making sure to also retrieve the arrows from the wall and turned on her heel. She slammed the door as she left.
To say he was exhausted was an understatement. What was with these people? Couldn’t they do anything for themselves? Not that he minded helping; it was what he did. But with the women around, he couldn’t work any less than Hercules and expect to get a second glance. And Hercules could really work! Iolaus staggered over to a grassy area at the edge of the town square, sweating and groaning as he dropped like a sack to the cushion of green below.
Hercules watched him, mirth shining in his eyes. Iolaus HAD worked hard, but Hercules never saw this behavior if they were doing something Iolaus considered important, like slaying a monster or working the forge. No, Iolaus’s problem was that he wasn’t having fun yet, Hercules decided. He strode over to where his friend laid and cast a shadow over Iolaus.
“Water?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Iolaus sighed without opening his eyes. He knew it was coming; Hercules was nothing if not predictable. Bracing for it he felt the welcomed splash of water being poured on his face. His hair plastered against the sides of his head and he could taste his sweat as it washed off his face.
“Thanks,” he answered as the last of the water rolled off him.
“Now you can enjoy the festival,” Hercules grinned.
“Yeah, if I live that long,” Iolaus grumbled. He pushed himself upright with a groan.
The two men watched as a bird, so small and graceful floated effortlessly past, its wings singing in the breeze, and landed across from them, alighting on an arrow shaft protruding from a target set up for the games.
Hercules stared, losing himself in memories for a moment. “Funny,” he spoke absently not even looking at Iolaus, instead concentrating on the bird as it ruffled its feathers. “That bird reminds me of a woman I know.”
Iolaus shot the unseeing Hercules a strange look and spoke uncertainly. “Oh, you mean she liked to wear feathers?”
Hercules chuckled, shaking his head. That was more Iolaus’s kind of woman. “No, no.” He spoke with hesitation, not sure whether he wanted to go over this with Iolaus. But it was he who brought it up so he simply gave a little cough and continued. “She- - - she’s an archer, and my first love - - - very beautiful. Uh, you’ve never seen her, though she’s met you.”
“Well,” Iolaus was still uncertain where this conversation was going. He could feel Hercules’s reticence. Taking his time, he stood and shook the water out of his hair like a wet dog and then smoothed it back. Facing Hercules, he continued, opting for humor. “I don’t remember any feathered beauties in your life. On the other hand - - -“ Iolaus’s head swiveled as a lovely slender young blonde walked provocatively past him, giving him her best come hither stare. “I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“What mind?” Hercules joked, glad that Iolaus saw fit not to enquire further.
Iolaus stared after the girl, watching to see where she went and pacing off in her trail while Hercules glanced absently the townsfolk putting up banners and joking lightly with each other. He supposed that Iolaus would be off chasing women a good part of the festival and he would end up being the one to judge events and work the crowd. Iolaus always got the girl.
It was then that he saw Nemesis stride into town. His breath caught in his chest and his mind whirled. Nemesis! Who was she here for? As much as he loved see her, he knew her arrival usually meant trouble. Well this time he wouldn’t let it.
“Nemesis!” He jumped up and approached her. “I was just thinking about you.”
A smile split her pretty face and she couldn’t help but giggle. “You were?” She felt flattered. “And what were you thinking of?” She pressed her body tight against his, feeling the power of his muscles against her skin. “Kissing me hello?” she teased, knowing that she’d been waiting for this moment for too long. The taste of Hercules’ lips and the feeling of his strong arms around her waist had kept her company many a night since they’d last been together.
“Now that you mention it,” Hercules spoke softly, pulling her into his arms. Maybe it would be Iolaus working the crowd this festival.
Gnatius was hot and tired. The Enforcer continued on her quest with the dogged determination and untiring stride of something more mechanical than human. Well, if she wanted his help finding Hercules she was just going to have to let him rest and quench his hunger and thirst.
“Here, come on,” he said as he entered the first tavern he’d seen in miles.
The strange twosome entered the tavern and a hush settled, but only for a moment. As soon as the Enforcer assumed her resting stance, legs apart and arms just barely away from her side, and began scanning the room the cat calls started.
“What is she looking at?”
Gnatius wondered that too. He’d had plenty of time to observe her with that vacant look on her face, head cocked and seemingly listening to - - -what? The sloshing in her mind? Voices? Gnatius didn’t know and at the moment, didn’t really care. This adventure wasn’t turning enough dinars into his pocket. As soon as she got where ever she needed to be, he was going to ditch her anyway.
Gnatius approached the bar. Time to get a little information. He eyed the tavern keeper as the man approached, wet rag out to wipe down the counter.
“Could you do me a favor? I told the little woman I could find Hercules. I did see him around here earlier. Would you happen to know where he is now?”
“Information comes with the ale,” the tavern keeper intoned, eyeing Gnatius and then flicking a glance at the strange woman coming up next to him.
“Oh,” Gnatius frowned.
“Which isn’t free,” the tavern keeper added. He put out a hand and took the dinar that Gnatius offered, and then pushed a wooden mug of ale back to him. “Your man’s further up the road at the festival. He’s there every year.”
The Enforcer stared across at the Tavern keeper her eyes as flat as her intonation as she queried, “Where is Hercules?”
Gnatius was not going to leave without his ale, though. Darn it, he was hot and thirsty enough to dry up and blow away in the next breeze. “We’ll go see him soon as I’ve had this,” he told her without even sparing a glance.
“What is this?”
Truly she was a strange woman, Gnatius thought to himself. Who didn’t know what this was? “It’s ale, “
She didn’t respond, just stood next to him with that blank stare of hers.
“Beer?” Gnatius tried again. “You know, barley, hops, water?”
“Water, yes!” she answered as if something had finally clicked, then grabbed Gnatius’s mug and tipping it to her lips downed the entire contents at once.
Gnatius watched the ale dribble down her face, and wishing he’d had a little more of it before she snatched it away, but knowing not to mess with her.
“A guy could get thirsty watching her drink,” he said ruefully thinking of his own parched throat and sighing.
“I’ll drink to that!” the tavern keeper responded heartily, thinking that this woman could probably drink many dinars worth of ale.
“More water!” The enforcer demanded. She stopped, cocking her head. The voice was there. Hera was telling her to hurry, replenish her fluids and go. She grabbed another ale and downed that one too.
Gnatius could picture his stolen dinars being handed over to the tavern keeper, trickling away from him like the ale. “Hey, hey! Take it easy!” he said to the woman, now on her third ale. “That stuff ain’t free and it definitely ain’t water.” He no more wanted this powerful woman drunk and angry then he wanted to be broke again.
“Got to keep ya in tip top shape.” He nodded at the Enforcer, but knew enough not to take the mug away.
At the back of the tavern the scarred and one eyed hunter who’d lost his bow just the hour before to the pretty archer who passed through watched this new woman. She was a fine looking specimen and so scantily clad that he could see her powerful muscles, and that was making him hot. He’d been made to look the fool by the other woman and now, he thought in his drunken mind, was a chance to redeem his manly status before the others.
He approached the woman at the bar quietly, trying for a measure of self assurance.
”You know, when I see a woman who likes her ale like you it gives me a little tingle all over.”
The Enforcer sat silently, not even turning her head his direction. He decided to try again.
“Quiet and shy. I like that in a woman.”
Gnatius looked over at the drunk warningly. He placed a hand on the dirty mans shoulder. “Let me give you some advice,” he started.
“I want more!” The Enforcer interrupted him.
“You don’t want to mess with her,” Gnatius spoke urgently now, as he saw the gleam in the drunks eye. “She’s” But his words went unheeded as the drunk’s smaller friend shoved him aside, also wanting a piece of this action.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he added as he turned back to the bar and let the scenario develop.
“More Ale for my girl friend, bartender!” the drunk hollered loudly so everyone could see that he was making it with this one. He leaned closer to the Enforcer, letting his vest lightly touch her shoulder.
“You don’t mind me calling you my girlfriend do you?
The Enforcer reached for the new mug of ale, more interested in that than the man and ignoring him much as she had Gnatius.
“Good,” the drunk continued. “You know honey, you don’t have to go to the festival with that runt. Me and my friend will give you all the drink you want. Then we can have a festival of our own, just the three of us. What do you say?” He reached for her face, grabbing it with a rough palm.
The Enforcer moved quicker than any one at the tavern had ever seen. In less than a second she had the drunks arm, snapped it back and broken it. He cried out in pain and rage and his friend pulled out a hunting knife, slashing out and tearing into the Enforcers arm.
At the bar the Enforcer sat quietly amid the uproar, her arm wide open and leaking not blood, but pouring out water. A gasp rose from the patrons at the sight and just as suddenly, the wound closed without any intervention and her flesh was healed and scar less.
As everyone starred, the Enforcer went back into action. She turned on the man who cut her. She drew back a powerful arm and with one blow sent him flying across the tavern and right through the wall. Then without hesitation turned on the drunk, sending him slumped unconscious to the floor.
Around her, patrons scrambled to escape.
“What is she?”
“She’s a monster!”
“She’ll kill us all!” a woman screamed.
Gnatius knew his time here was done, but couldn’t resist taking a few dinars out of the money purse of the fallen drunk.
The drunk was waking, trying to stand, trying to come back against the Enforcer. But she stood like a stone wall, impervious to blows and stronger than even Gnatius could imagine. She simply stuck out her fist and tossed the man out another section of the wall to rest in the dust with his friend.
This time Gnatius was really afraid. She wasn’t human. She was powerful and unstoppable.
“Hercules doesn’t stand a chance!” muttered to himself in sudden realization.
Hercules strolled through the festival with Nemesis loosely holding his arm, barely able to believe she was here. His childhood love, the first girl he’d ever kissed, the woman he was thinking of today, and who would show up? It was almost beyond belief. Sounds of the festival droned and buzzed while vendors and friends darted about like birds and bees to flowers. But Hercules barely heard or saw anything except Nemesis.
Nemesis was just as glad to see Hercules. She knew that as a mortal she had much to learn, and who better to teach her but Hercules? The gods had stripped her of her powers, but Nemesis was willing to wager that a certain demi-god would be able to empower her in other ways, so that she’d be ready for her new journey.
But first to break the news - - -
“Do I look any different to you?” Nemesis asked tentatively.
Hercules continued strolling and lifted his free hand to his mouth. He hated when women did that. It was one of those questions which couldn’t be answered properly without knowing what the woman wanted to hear. It was what he and Iolaus referred to as a “trap question” and there was only one answer which might satisfy the asker.
“Well, uh, you look beautiful as always,” he stammered.
“Why thank you for the complement,” Nemesis returned. “But that’s not what I asked. “I asked you if I ‘looked’ different.”
Hercules caught the tentative edge in Nemesis’s voice and stopped, turning to really look at her. Okay, time to step in it with both feet.
“Uh, okay, let me see.” He stared at her. “Your hair is a little different.”
“You’re right,” she answered, but that’s not what I mean.
Hercules sighed. Of course she looked different, but women changed their hair color and their clothing color pretty much at whim. They were never happy with one outfit, the length or color of their hair or nails. In truth, if a man looked closely, he could see something new everyday. Hercules felt at a decided disadvantage.
“Alright, your clothes,” he answered, picking what he thought would be a safe answer.
“No,” Nemesis answered in frustration. She felt so different, and had been changed physically as well by Hera’s actions. How could Hercules have not noticed? Her punishment after the “Iolaus incident” hadn’t been just Hera’s stripping her of her immortality, but of her golden beauty as well. Sure she was still petite and nice looking as mortals went, but she was no longer a blonde beauty, no longer had that sparkle and sass. Hera had administered not just a spanking, but also a beating as well, so to speak. And Hercules hadn’t noticed anything. Nemesis suddenly felt very small.
As Hercules stood staring helplessly at Nemesis he felt a rough hand clap him on the shoulder.
“Hercules! Thank you for your help, I’ve set aside my best wares for you, and your lady friend to try out,” the merchant declared happily.
Hercules whirled to his friend, eyes wide with astonishment. No one saw Nemesis until that person was to die! “Well thank you Clytus. We’ll be right over.”
He turned back to Nemesis as Clytus strode away to his stall whistling.
“Nemesis!” He couldn’t keep the anger and skepticism out of his voice. She wasn’t here for his friendship; she was here for a hit!
“He can see you!” Hercules spoke with quietly contained anger, an edge of pain in his voice. “You only let mortals see you as you’re about to kill them. Not Clytus!
Nemesis moved to reassure him, slipping a restraining arm around his waist. “No Hercules, that’s not it!” She stared up at him, wishing she’d got around to this sooner, just told him outright. “Hera got angry at my policy to kill only those who deserve to die, so she made me mortal!”
Nemesis spoke with righteous indignation. “That’s right. I walk among the mortals now, like them in every way. She took my weapon, lessened my skills and even altered my appearance a bit so that I would understand that she had caused me to lose everything. But I knew one thing that I couldn’t ever lose; you or your friendship.” She reached up and tenderly ran a hand across Hercules cheek.
Hercules stood in stunned disbelief. “There were a lot of differences he hadn’t noticed. Maybe he should look a little more carefully next time. Suddenly the light dawned and Hercules realized that what she had done for him, for Iolaus was her crime.
“It’s because of me, isn’t it?” he said. “You stood up to her like I encouraged you to, and now you’re being punished for it.” He hung his head. “I’m sorry Nemesis.”
“Don’t be, she answered bravely. “The last straw was when she ordered me to kill you. And if mortality is the price I have to pay for not doing that, then so be it.”
“Then I owe you my life,” Hercules felt a warmth creeping from his toes upward and he allowed himself a lascivious glance at Nemesis. As a mortal, he could finally justify loving her. Hera had no idea how good this punishment would be, for both of them.
“Hercules,” Nemesis broke into his thoughts. “Don’t be so sure you aren’t a target. Hera created someone to replace me, an enforcer. I just realized now that my coming to see you probably led her right to you!”
Back at the tavern, Gnatius and the Enforcer were affecting an escape. The crowed bar was a riot of angry and hysterical people and now soldiers had arrived.
The Enforcer strode purposefully over to a chariot, left by the soldiers as they entered the bar to see what the ruckus was about.
Gnatius wasn’t ready to leave yet though. There were pockets to be picked and purses to be lifted; no one would be paying attention to what he was doing withal this commotion. Besides he was still hungry and thirsty.
“We really should stick around and eat something. We have a long walk ahead of us, and I don’t travel too well on an empty stomach, if you know what I mean.” Gnatius tried to slow down the Enforcer.
She ignored him and stepped into the chariot, picking up the reins and readying to slap the horse’s rump with them.
“Hey! What’s she doing?” one of the soldiers called out in indignation as he cast his eyes the Enforcer’s direction.
Gnatius’s eyes lit up. “I like it, I like it!” he chortled. “Not one for chit chat but always thinking.”
“Hey you!” The soldier approached the chariot and Gnatius stepped back to watch.
The Enforcer cocked her head. There was the voice again, Hera telling her to dispatch the man to Hades’s realm. It would be quicker to take the chariot and go, but Hera’s voice was an insistent clanging, like an alarm clock that needed to be attended to, and the Enforcer was after all bound to serve Hera. She stepped out of the chariot.
“That’s my chariot!” the soldier raged.
The Enforcer heard only Hera’s goading as she stood solidly in front of the man. His voice was a simple murmur as he flew into action. One single spinning back kick was all it took. Mortals were so soft and easy. She connected with her otherworldly strength and let the blade of her foot strike his head soundly, sending the man sailing in a high arc back against the semi demolished tavern. The soldier’s helmet took a separate path, jarred from his skull by the blow of her foot.
She leaned over, taking the souvenir in her hands and staring at her reflection in it. It shone like water. Curious. Hera’s voice urged her. “Go find Hercules”. The Enforcer turned to Gnatius and placed the helmet on his head.
“Safety first, ha!” he laughed. “I like that!” But inside he was beginning to wonder if head made another bad choice here.
The tavern at the festival was an especially busy place, and this day was no exception. The place was packed as people stood shoulder to shoulder, sloshing mugs of ale, and trying to talk above the din around them. And of course, Iolaus was there. This was where the two women he’d been eying all morning had come for lunch, and Iolaus decided now was the time to really make contact.
As Hercules and Nemesis made there way through the crowd, bumping apologetically, Iolaus enjoyed the light stroking and touching of the two blondes, who listened, enraptured, as he talked of his adventures with Hercules, always a sure thing when it came to women.
“And the fate of Greece hung in the balance as,” he stopped short as he spotted Hercules. “Hold that thought,” he said, reaching out to touch the nearest blond, the one who seemed upset that he was paying less attention to them than to the approaching Hercules.
“Hey!” Hercules called as he spotted Iolaus.
“Yeah, yeah,” he brushed off a protesting blond, clutching at his arm, suddenly a bit uncomfortable with their aggression. He pushed away from them and waded through the sea of villagers and guests, over to where Hercules stood with a gorgeous woman on his arm, at the bar.
“Iolaus!” Hercules grinned. “I’d like you to meet someone. Remember when I’d mentioned my first love?”
“Oh,” Iolaus answered knowingly as he stared the pretty brunette up assessingly. “The woman with the feathers.” He gave Nemesis a grin, noting the large golden bird necklace nestled luckily against her breasts. So Hercules HAD found someone, and quickly too.
“Well, sort of.” Hercules hesitated as he watched Iolaus size up Nemesis, wondering how he’d take the news. “Un, this is Nemesis, in the flesh, but not the feathers.” He raised an eyebrow as he saw where Iolaus’s eyes were lingering.
“Nemesis,” Iolaus, spoke thoughtfully and turned his eyes up to her face. “So you’re named after the hit woman of the gods?” He chuckled lightly, “I’ll bet you got teased at school!”
“Uh, Iolaus,” Hercules said as he leaned forward to his friend. “This IS Nemesis.”
“Yeah right,” Iolaus waved a hand dismissively. “Anyway it’s good to see Hercules with a woman again. Lately he’s been a real ‘goody two sandals’ if you know what I mean.” His blue eyes twinkled as Nemesis let a knowing smile grace her lips.
“It’s nice to meet you again Iolaus,” she said, taking his hand in hers.
“Oh, we’ve met?” He shook his head. “I don’t think so.” Iolaus knew he would have remembered meeting a woman as beautiful and friendly as this one before, and certainly he would have remembered if Hercules had introduced her before as a girlfriend. That would have been a rare occurrence and certainly memorable.
“Trust me, you HAVE met her, but this time it’s under better circumstances.”
Hercules allowed himself a droll smile, reading Iolaus’s thoughts.
“I am THE Nemesis.” She held her head proudly, but there was sadness and pain in her voice.
“Ha!” Iolaus laughed. Must be one of Hercules’s silly jokes. He bit his lower lip thoughtfully. But then again, they both looked pretty serious, maybe not.
The crowd jostled Iolaus and from the corner of his eye he could see the two blonds who’d been paying so much attention him just a few minutes earlier leaving on the arms of another man. He’d come that close to having TWO women. Hercules wouldn’t do this to him, not even as joke, he realized. Hercules didn’t joke about the gods.
“Wait!” Iolaus exclaimed. “You mean she was going to kill me? She’s your friend and she was going to kill me? Wait a second, I can see her now- - - can’t I? So that means, uh,” Iolaus began to back away, pushing against the crowd, meaning to disappear and become the hunter, not the prey.
Hercules could see that Iolaus was more than upset he was horrified. That Hercules would be standing nonchalantly next to a god assigned to kill him, and infact introduce her to him must have crossed his mind Hercules suddenly realized. “Iolaus wait!” he called out. But Iolaus was already slipping into the mob of people. Hercules turned to Nemesis. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
Meanwhile, the Enforcer was speeding through a field, no longer even following the road. Hera’s voice scolded her for any caution she would taken, and the chariot was taking a beating. The horse was lathered with sweat, its foamy flanks glistening as the muscles rippled powerfully. Hera approved of the steed. She would give it more energy and endurance so that her Enforcer could make to the festival even quicker.
“Must kill Hercules,” The Enforcer chanted the refrain that was chorusing through her mind.
“Look out!” Gnatius screamed in fear as he cowered behind his powerful cohort.
But the Enforcer heard only Hera. Recklessly she whipped the horse onward, pushing for more speed and courage as she drove the chariot through any obstruction on her straight path. And Hera cackled in her head, promising to make both her and the animal indestructible to accomplish the mission.
Hercules had cornered Iolaus just inside the tavern door, grabbing him by the tattered purple vest and hauling him unceremoniously away from the crowd. He needed to get his hot headed friend calmed down so they could talk without anger. Hercules could see how upset Iolaus was, first at being a target, and secondly at him, for putting him in this mess and for hauling him around. Hercules needed to make Iolaus understand.
“A true friend is not afraid to give a friend advise when he’s making a mistake!” Iolaus spoke hotly, jabbing Hercules in the chest.
“Iolaus, it’s” Hercules protested but saw Iolaus’s head swivel away towards the shapely blond who sidled up to him, pressing herself close.
“Hi,” Iolaus smiled at her, liking the feel of her warm skin against his.
“Hmmm,” she murmured, letting her tongue lick at the corner of her mouth as she stroked his chest with a beckoning finger.
Gods knew Iolaus wanted to go with her, but Hercules stepped on his toes, lightly, but a definite reminder who he should be looking at right now.
“Uh, I’ll be along later,” he spoke regretfully as the blonde moved away, shooting Hercules a glare that would have melted a frozen titan.
“So, true friend, can I give you some advice?” Hercules intoned.
“Hey don’t change the subject, Hercules,” Iolaus jumped in. “This is about you and Nemesis. Look I know your mother thinks that you should get married again, but it’s a mistake to get hitched up with a HITWOMAN!”
Hercules couldn’t help but laugh. Ex-hit woman, he thought, wondering if his mother would like that any better. He noticed Iolaus casting a wary eye in Nemesis’s direction and followed with a wanting glance of his own. Hit woman or not, he had to admit that he still had feelings for her.
“I’m not going to marry her,” he reassured his best friend. “She’s an old love who is now a friend. Now, come here! Nothing is going to happen to you!” He tossed an arm over Iolaus’s shoulders, propelling him towards Nemesis, meaning to straighten out this rift now, before it could have a chance to get any bigger.
Iolaus tried to protest. He hated when Hercules hauled him around like this, but he knew that his stubborn streak would have left him protesting even longer, and he could see that Hercules was eager to get back to Nemesis. And hey, she was good looking. And after all, Hercules didn’t lie.
Hercules plunked Iolaus right next to Nemesis, pushing him firmly to the bar. ”Hi,” he addressed Nemesis with a grin, and then turned to Iolaus. “I want you two to be friends,” he warned. “So stay here and bury the hatchet. Better than that, forgive and forget. Think you can do that? Just let bygones be bygones?”
Iolaus rolled his eyes. “Any more clichés while you’re at it?”
Hercules clapped Iolaus on the back. This was working out better than he’d hoped. Iolaus would keep Nemesis occupied so she wouldn’t stray and he could get some business of an essential nature taken care of. Hercules didn’t want either of his friends trying to take down one of Hera’s enforcers and if she got to the festival they’d most certainly get involved. He had to find her and stop her before she got here. But how to get away, he mused.
“Hey Hercules,” Clytus said as he bumped into the hero, pushed by a patron edging his way to the bar.
Hercules’s eyes lit up, his answer had arrived. “Hi Clytus. Oh, Clytus wait.” He thought fast. “I, oh, uh, I have to go judge a pie eating contest.”
Clytus seemed puzzled, but went with Hercules as the big man wrapped an arm around his shoulder to steer him away.
“Uh, this soon?”
Hercules hadn’t been thinking of the time. The pie eating contest was scheduled as one of the last events of the day. Here it was lunchtime. But he had to leave. He’d make the excuse work.
Iolaus eyed him questioningly.
“I’ll be right back,” Hercules tried to sound reassuring, knowing that once Iolaus got telling a story and drinking Ale time would mean nothing to him. He turned and threaded a path out of the tavern.
Iolaus turned face to face with Nemesis. He had to believe Hercules knew what he was doing; after all he had that demi-god thing going for him, and didn’t make too many mistakes.
“Well, I guess I should feel honored,” he began without hesitation. “After all, I’m one of the few mortals to see the notorious Nemesis and live to tell the tale.” He leaned into her, his face showing the fine lines of worry, but still with a twinkle in his eyes. “Uh, I will live, won’t I?”
Nemesis touched his forearm reassuringly.
“I’m not that Nemesis anymore, Iolaus. I disobeyed the gods and I spared your life - - - because - - - I watched you long enough to see that you’re a brave and honest man. And I saw someone that I would be proud to have as a friend.” She dropped her eyes, uncertain of how he would react, and then brought them back up to his. She wouldn’t play this mortal role meekly.
She held her head up, eyes meeting his firmly. “And I think that if you looked at the real me you would see a friend too.”
Iolaus was touched, dumbfounded really. She was pretty okay for a hit woman. “Yeah, well thanks,” was all he could think of to say.”
The chariot was wrecked but the horse stood unscathed even after the punishing trip this far. It had withstood the rocky ground, the hard slaps of low branches and even went right through the hard wood of a barn obstructing the Enforcer’s route. But with this last overturn, the chariot had shattered.
No matter. The horse was still ready to go, barely sweating and certainly not panting. It was a fine steed, and Hera made it even stronger. The Enforcer removed the traces holding the chariot to the horse’s flanks. She must complete this mission. It was Hera’s will.
Gnatius hated horses, always had. They were big and unpredictable and a person could get hurt too easily by one. Those hard hooves, the great weight pressing against you, even the large flat teeth, so perfect for nipping at shoulders. Horses were broken bones, bruises and bloody bites waiting to happen. Well, he was done here.
“No no, not the horse. No way. You’re on your own partner.” He waved her off, but hoped she would reconsider. On foot they could make a few dinars.
The Enforcer spared him only a glance, her face expressionless. She bent her knees, powerful legs pumping as she jumped in one clean efficient motion directly onto the horse’s back.
“Hera says, must kill Hercules.”
Wait a minute, Gnatius thought to himself. This whole thing was about Hera? How had he missed that? Well then this was a different story. Perhaps the horse wasn’t all that bad.
“Hera? He finally spoke the thoughts. “I’m on Hera’s team? Ha! Finally made the big time!”
The Enforcer kicked the horse’s ribs, urging it to start.
“Wait!” Gnatius yelled, swinging from a tree branch onto the horse’s back and slipping his arms around the Enforcer’s steely waist.
The horse galloped away faster than an Arabian, surefooted over the rough terrain.
Hercules had left the tavern, not quite sure which way to go, but knowing enough to trust his senses. He decided to simply head away from town on the main road, where he would hopefully meet up with this enforcer. After all, Hera was not the secretive type. She was more likely to use the direct approach, hence the main road.
Hercules didn’t have to worry long about getting directions. Just as he stepped onto the road, a chariot careened up, the occupant screaming almost incoherently and the horse lathered and sweating, its sides quivering with each labored breath and it’s tongue lolling .
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” Hercules caught a dangling rein and stopped the chariot before it crashed right into the tavern. “What’s wrong?” he asked the panicked woman.
“I saw a man die!” she screamed, looking thought Hercules, deep into her own mind. “Torn apart by bare hands! It was terrible!”
“Who did this?” Hercules asked evenly, hoping he could calm the woman.
“She shook her head and shivered. “A monster. I’m next, I know I am!” Her voice rose in panic as she glanced over her shoulder, back down the road. “It’s coming along the sea wall from Skoura! It’s after Hercules!”
“Yeah, yeah,” she answered, barely hearing him and certainly not believing him. “I gotta get to the festival and warn him.”
“No, I’m - - -“ Hercules protested to her unhearing ears.
“Hyah!” the woman screamed whipping the horse again.
Hercules watched as the chariot careened off down the road, the woman ranting to herself and heading unexplainably away from the festival. He shook his head. Well, it would give him time to find this monster and take care of it before she got turned around and caused a panic.
Hercules stood at the sea wall, starting up the grassy hill that ended abruptly as the land fell off becoming a cliff of enormous proportions, its bottom nothing more than rough salty waves and spike sharp boulders. He’d rushed here, racing along the edge of the sea wall, where it started lower and the beach was suitable for swimming. It would again drop off smoothly further along, but here was a spot from which he could look for this new monster’s approach.
Hercules scanned the horizon. The sea was a cold gray and he could see that waves were capped in white. The long grasses at the crest of the hill waved in the light salty breeze. Hercules stood silent and alone. He saw no hit man, no monster or killing machine, yet he knew there would be one. Nemesis wouldn’t lie to him, and the woman out side the tavern was simply too panicked to have not seen one. He placed his hands on his hips. He’d keep waiting. Hera would send someone or something, and soon, of that he was certain.
In the distance Hercules saw a woman striding along, coming to the crest on which he stood. She certainly seemed self assured, as a woman might have to traveling alone to the festival. Her motion was choppy, like the slapping ocean at the base of the cliff. Well, the least he could do would be to accompany her part way, Hercules thought to himself. A woman shouldn’t have to travel alone.
Hercules started toward the nearing woman, noting her incredible physique, the muscles rippling under the flesh of her legs and arms. Maybe a soldier, he thought to himself.
“Hercules,” the woman intoned flatly, no threat to her voice. She could hear Hera, a frantic edge to the voice in her head which identified this man before her.
Hercules was puzzled. Was he supposed to know her? Iolaus was the one who remembered every woman they came across, Hercules was at a decided disadvantage here.
He cocked his head and took a step forward. “Excuse me. Did you come north from Skoura? I don’t want to scare you, but there’s a creature running around out here who,”
He never got to finish. The Enforcer was within striking distance and Hera’s commands were ringing in her head. Kill Hercules! She took the mighty Hercules down with a single straight punch to the chest.
Gnatius, hidden away and watching, wondered how many dinars Hercules carried and when he’d be able to get them. After all, he was on Hera’s team. She’d provide for him.
Hercules lay on his back, feeling the hard ground beneath his shoulders, suddenly realizing that it would be just like Hera to send a woman as Nemesis’s replacement.
“Packs a Hell of a punch,” he finished, rising to his feet. “Look, I’m not going to fight a woman.” Hercules grabbed the Enforcer’s forearms, holding them tightly to avoid another blow.
But he hadn’t planned on her legs.
The Enforcer was not to be deterred. She could see nothing but Hercules; hear nothing by Hera’s cackles and goading. Every muscle fiber screamed to fight, and fight she did. Faster than Hercules could think, she raised her leg, chambered it and let her foot kick up so that it hit Hercules full in the face in it’s rise well above her head. Hercules went flying in an arc, landing once again flat on the hard ground.
The Enforcer was quick and untiring, machinelike in her precision. She flipped, landing next to Hercules as he tried to stand, and spinning like a tornado she kicked him down once again. But she wasn’t done. ‘He still breathes!’ Hera’s voice screamed in her brain. The Enforcer straddled him, staring curiously down at the being that caused this noise in her head to echo and grow louder.
“Must kill Hercules,” she said simply as she raised her powerful leg straight up over her head once again, letting it down full force in a powerful ax kick to Hercules chest, knocking the air right out of him.
Hercules tried to get up, struggling to rise to a sitting position, struggling to inhale. She’d knocked the breath right out of him, something he’d never had happen in a fight before. Powerful and deadly, were the thoughts running through Hercules’s mind. But the thoughts were knocked away by the Enforcer’s machine gun kicks to his face.
Hercules was hurting. Blood ran down his face from an abrasion on his temple from the sole of her foot. His nose trickled blood and the corner of his lip was split, yet this Enforcer stood impassively waiting with her head cocked. Hera’s instructions, Hercules suddenly realized! He jumped to his feet. He could hit her when Hera provided the distraction. But he’d have to give her reason to pause, seek Hera’s words.
The Enforcer turned her face his way, those iron gray pupil-less eyes revealing nothing, but then perhaps there was nothing to her, except Hera. Hercules moved forward to strike, but the Enforcer was faster. She struck him in the abdomen with a series of punishing blows that doubled him over and left him wishing he hadn’t eaten quite so much at the festival, but that stopped her for a moment, and Hercules took advantage of it.
Hercules swung back, the blow from his huge fist enough to tip even her over. But she was back up; head cocked in that listening pose, waiting for instructions. Hercules was done with talking. This was Hera he was fighting, not a monster or even a woman. It was simply Hera exacting her toll on him for yet another unknown reason, or perhaps for the same old one: that he was alive.
Hercules hit her again and she came back at him with those dangerous legs of hers, but this time Hercules wasn’t taken by surprise. He set his feet firmly in a fighting stance and kicked her with his longer legs, hard, as she flew at him.
The Enforcer found herself airborne, landing none too gently on the edge of the cliff, head hanging over. She could see the sharp rocks below and hear the pounding of the surf. It was nothing more than a background symphony for Hera, whose voice now screamed in her head. “I will triumph. Must fight. Must kill Hercules.”
She struggled to her feet, grabbing a tree limb downed in a storm as if it was simply a Bo staff, even with its foot width diameter.
Hercules saw only Hera. “Are you sure we can’t talk about this?” he taunted.
She easily swung the limb, but Hercules was ready. He grabbed the free end, pulling back on it and causing the Enforcer to lose her balance. Hercules took good advantage of her stumble. He held tightly to his end of the tree limb and started spinning in circles, growing faster and more powerful with each turn. Finally as the Enforcer held on to the end of the limb, feet no longer on the ground and Hera voice nothing more than cymbals clanging like non rhythmic, non melodious noise, Hercules let go of his end.
He watched as the limb and the Enforcer both hurtled over the cliff edge and fell the long drop down to the jagged rocks below. He saw the limb reduced to splinters and sighed in hatred and relief as the Enforcer split into droplets and disappeared into the churning sea.
Hercules wiped the back of his hand across his bloody lip, smearing the blood from his nose and knowing he was lucky to get out of this so lightly injured. But he had done his job. The festival would be safe.
It was harder to wipe away the thoughts of anger that danced through his head.
“Hera, I wish that was you down there!”
At the festival Iolaus was having a great time with Nemesis. She was an attentive listener and liked his stories. Iolaus had even let the two blondes disappear on the arm of another man while he entertained her. Her laughter buoyed him, and though Hercules had been gone a lot longer than a pie eating contest would normally warrant, the time passed quickly for Nemesis and Iolaus.
Iolaus took a bite of his meal, followed by a deep swig of ale, watching as Nemesis dug into her own meal. By the gods, that woman could eat, he thought, then turned back to his story.
“So then Hercules said ’But wait a minute, I’m half a god,’
Nemesis erupted in giggles and Iolaus laughed heartily at this punch line, which was only about half true, but who cared? It worked. He felt a hand plop down on his shoulder and turned.
Hercules stood, bruised and bloodied. The abrasion on his temple couldn’t be washed away, although he’d cleaned up the nose and tended to the lip. He’d dusted off his woven leather trousers and yellow shirts, but just looking at him Iolaus knew he’d been in a fight, and a good one at that.
“What happened to you?” Iolaus asked, giving Hercules the once over.
“Uh, Hera Happened.” Hercules looked over at Nemesis knowingly.
“Hera? Wait a second. You went out to judge pies. When did Hera get a grudge against pies?”
“You snuck off on your own to find Hera’s enforcer, didn’t you!” Nemesis accused, lecturing him.
Iolaus was lost. No one had told him anything about an enforcer, or Hera’s newest rampage. Hercules had kept something from him, and Iolaus hated when he did that.
“Enforcer?” he questioned, trying to keep the hurt from his voice.
Hercules heard the pain in Iolaus’s words, but knew that had his friend come, he might not have lived through this fight. And he desperately didn’t want to lose Iolaus.
“Hera’s replacement for Nemesis,” he explained, leaning heavily on Iolaus, feeling the strain his muscles had taken. “Except this one doesn’t carry a bow or have much of a personality. She throws a mean right hook though.” He rubbed his jaw tenderly, hoping there would be no bruising there.
“She?” Iolaus said, obviously taken aback by his partner’s story.
“Yeah, she,” Hercules answered. “And I’m glad I won’t have to fight her again.
Did you win?” Iolaus asked, leaning back into Hercules to support him and handing him the half drunk mug of ale.
“She’s lying dead at the bottom of a cliff,” Hercules declared with finality.
Iolaus nodded, supporting Hercules.
But Nemesis just sat quietly, reflective and thoughtful. She’d been a goddess only yesterday and she knew Hera only too well. The Queen of the Gods would not give up this easily.
Back at the beach, at the foot of the sea wall near Skoura, Gnatius sat dejected. He’d thought this warrior of Hera’s ould lead him to riches, just ride on her skirt tails and he’d be cruising along. But it hadn’t turned out that way at all. He’d gotten very little dinars and ended up in a section of Greece where he was too well known to get away with his little scams. He had a long walk back to where he could blend in with the scenery, and he was hungry and tired too.
“So you bet on another loser,” Gnatius berated himself. He picked up a rock from the shore, and back handed it into the water, watching the salt spray rise as it plunked into the surf. His stomach growled and the salt air was making him thirsty.
His whole life had been a string of bad decisions, each one compounded by the next. He’d been so sure that this time he’d done what was right, and still it hadn’t turned out in his favor. He’d have to reassess, start over. He wasn’t making ends meet as a con man; maybe he could be a salesman?
Well, he’d have to head back soon, he thought as gazed absently across the water, or he’d be in the wrong place at night fall. He had decisions to make and the long walk home would give him plenty of time to think. Gnatius squinted his eyes as he glanced one last time at the sea. Something was moving out there!
He gasped as he saw the water rise in a column, sparkling and shimmering right where he’d tossed his rock. It was a sign! The water coalesced, becoming the figure of a strong and fluid woman, and began striding through the waves back to the shore where Gnatius sat.
“There’s no killing you partner!” Gnatius screamed as the Enforcer emerged, wet and whole. “Welcome back!”
Nemesis had a lot to learn about how fun it was to be mortal and she was in just the right place to learn with just the right guys, Iolaus thought to himself. The day was waning, the sun getting lower in the sky, but there were still two events to be attended.
Hercules’s presence was essential, as it boosted sales, kept the riff raff away and prevented the numerous small fights that inevitably broke out where people ingested ale and indulged in competitions. He cleaned up, careful to let his hair drape across the abrasion on his temple and headed over to the chicken catching competition.
This was a competition Nemesis felt quite at home with. She might not be a goddess any more but she knew how it felt as a bird. She could relate to the chicken and that would serve her well.
“You sure you want to try this? Chasing chickens is dirty work.” Hercules looked over at Nemesis, so clean and pretty in her soft dress and tried to picture her rolling in the dirt with a squawking chicken flapping it’s wings in her face, but couldn’t.
Nemesis answered with a laugh. “Maybe, but not if you’re smart.” She placed her hands on her hips and tossed her head back.
Hercules and Iolaus looked at each other with shrugs and positioned themselves in crouches to spring after the chicken quicker. In the center of the marked off area a man held the chicken by its feet, shaking it a little to agitate it.
“Ready?” the man asked and the crowd roared with excitement.
The chicken flapped free from the man’s now loosened grip, getting up enough so everyone could see it, then falling to the ground where it began its erratic zigzag path of escape. Hercules and Iolaus joined the crowd of contestants flopping after it. Dust clouds rose as bodies met dirt and other bodies piled on top, but the chicken kept running.
Nemesis stood quietly on the side, watching the mortals all rolling like happy dogs just to catch the poor bird. She would have simply thought the bird over to herself were she still a goddess. But she, too, was mortal now. She felt sorry for the frantic bird. Chickens weren’t too smart, but she guessed if she was a chicken she might think that this fuss was about a cleaver and her head, and she’d be frantic too. She tried to project a quiet and reassuring presence.
The chicken escaped yet another pair of hands and Nemesis could hear Iolaus laughing at Hercules from somewhere inside the dust cloud. “Here little chicken” she thought, and the bird flew right at her.
Nemesis stretched out her arms, clucking a small welcoming sound to the frightened hen, pulling its trembling body close to her own as Hercules and Iolaus starred dumbfounded at the clean woman holding the hotly contested chicken.
“I told you it was easy,” Nemesis retorted with a half smile of satisfaction as she gently stroked the chicken, calming it as the noise of the astounded crowd and cries of disbelief echoed through the square.
Well, Iolaus thought to himself, pie eating isn’t going to be so clean, even for her.
So when they stood at the pie eating booth with cream pies in front of them for the last event of the day, Iolaus had to shoot Hercules a knowing glance as reality hit Nemesis.
Nemesis looked to Hercules with disbelief after eyeing the gooey pie. “So I have to eat it with my hands?”
“No, no,” Iolaus chuckled. “Who said anything about hands?”
Hercules joined in. “What’s the matter? Ex- hit woman afraid of a little pie?”
Nemesis wasn’t afraid of the pie, and certainly had the appetite to eat it, but when she saw Hercules tuck his hands behind his back and hunch over the pie, and heard Iolaus’s laugh of delight she figured this wasn’t something she would be coming out of clean.
“Go!” the judge shouted, and Nemesis watched for a brief second as Hercules and Iolaus bent forward like pecking birds and placed their faces into their pies.
Iolaus ate with gusto, quickly passing Hercules efforts. Hercules seeing this decided that he needed to take matters into his own hands.
“Hey Iolaus, let me help you,”
He reached over Nemesis, delicately lapping at her pie to minimize the cream distribution on her face, and shoved Iolaus’s whole face into the pie.
Iolaus came up sputtering and laughing. It wouldn’t be a pie contest if Hercules didn’t do that, and it wouldn’t be a pie contest if he didn’t fight back. Besides Nemesis was simply too clean.
“That does it!” Iolaus chortled, and grabbed a handful of cream pie, flinging it at Hercules. Nemesis was coming up for air as the glob sailed by and caught the tail end of it across her own face. Hercules was up for the challenge and before a winner could be declared, the air was white with cream pie.
Nemesis screamed as a hunk of Hercules’s pie got her square in the face and Iolaus landed a fair size hunk on the back of her head.
“Should have stayed down and kept eating your pie, Nemesis,” he laughed. And Nemesis, in mock anger, joined the pie fighting fray.
The evening breeze was cool, and the moon was slipping up the eastern horizon as Nemesis strolled through the town, her arm wrapped in Hercules’s, fingers tight against his biceps. The calls of the vendors hawking their wares and the laughing of revelers told of the joy of mortal relationships. The feeling of the breeze tickling her skin and the soft brushing of Hercules’s leather trousers against her leg were sensations she never felt a need to explore - - - before this morning.
Nemesis watched the tree leaves ripple as they headed to the edge of town, where it was quieter, where they could be alone. The soft fluttering reminded her of this morning, her last flight, carried by a soft wind up to Hera, and then cast forcefully back to earth. She realized that she had lost much, but gained so much more. Being a mortal wasn’t the curse Hera had intended; instead it was the greatest gift of all.
She turned her face to Hercules, watched his eyes marking paths through the constellations, saw the light cast by the moon deeply etching the care lines into Hercules’s eyes, and she felt something she hadn’t felt in its truest form since, oh a certain demi-god kissed her at the age of ten.
“This is so beautiful here,” Nemesis murmured, listening for Hercules assent, hearing the small noise. “Especially being with you,” she ventured.
“Well, there’s nothing like being with old friends,” he answered cautiously, not looking down at her, almost afraid of the feelings this one small, now mortal woman could evoke in him, wondering if he was ready and if she meant what he hoped she meant.
“Friends?” Nemesis spoke with soft surprise. “I was hoping that we’d be a little more than just friends.
Hercules turned to her, taking her small hands into his. “What do you mean?” he asked tentatively, wondering if that was teasing he’d heard in her voice.
“Hercules,” she whispered as she pressed herself up tightly against him. “I’ve never stopped loving you.” She held her breath, for the first time caring what someone really thought of her, wondering if he would hold the mistakes of her past against her, unsure even of the tumult of feelings roiling inside her.
“Nemesis,” Hercules sighed squeezing her hands a little tighter. “I think you’re feeling vulnerable because you’ve never been mortal before.” The words caught in his throat like phlegm, needing to come out, yet not wanted.
Nemesis could see his hesitation, yet the moonlight’s soft glow illuminated an edge of pain in Hercules’s sad smile. He had said what he must, not what he wanted, she realized, a song starting in her heart.
“Being mortal has nothing to do with it. I’ve always loved you,” she confessed, and her face bore witness to her honesty.
Hercules stared down on her dark loveliness. No longer the golden goddess of retribution, she seemed even more beautiful and far more reachable now. Hercules could never love a goddess, but a mortal woman was within his realm, especially a mortal Nemesis.
”And you know I’ve always cared about you,” Hercules was never as good as Iolaus at getting his thoughts and feelings out, and he found himself stammering as he tried to tell her his own feelings, yet give her a way out if she wished.
“I just didn’t think - - you know after we broke up - - -you and your job - - -“ Hercules shifted side to side, his eyes scanning back and forth along the horizon, not settling on Nemesis, afraid that if he looked on her again, he’d lose his heart. And he didn’t know if he was ready for that.
Nemesis felt his discomfort and couldn’t let him continue. “Hercules,” she tipped her head back. “Will you just kiss me?”
Hercules finally allowed himself to look down on her face. His heart felt like a tight fist in his chest as he strangled out the word “sure” and leaned forward.
His lips met hers in a chaste embrace, the feelings kept tightly under wraps, as Hercules allowed himself only a soft brush of contact.
“We can do better than that,” she reassured him as he pulled away, locking his eyes onto hers.
“Probably,” he answered, feeling a new courage pounding through his veins and warmth creeping up his loins. ‘Now or never’ he thought.
Hercules gathered Nemesis up in his arms, pulling her frail, soft figure into the firm muscles of his arms and chest. He leaned his face down and took her mouth eagerly with his wanting lips, pressing his body tight to hers, feeling her own heat and need.
“Gods,” the last coherent thought raced through his mind. “We’ll have to find a room at the Inn.”
Gnatius was feeling frustrated. All this woman did was walk in precisely measured steps, at a set speed and talk to herself. He’d tried talking to her reasonably but she never answered. He’d tried nagging her and he’d even tried begging. He was beginning to think he’d get more response talking to a plow. And he wasn’t making any money either.
Well, Gnatius,” he said to himself. “It’s not like she asked you along. And she never gave you any promises either. You put your own expectations on her. Perhaps it’s time to cut your losses.”
Gnatius followed along though, lagging in his steps and in his determination as well. “One last try, he thought, so Hera doesn’t think I’m a quitter.
“Hey!” he called as he jogged up to the Enforcer. “Remember me? Your partner? The guy who knows where Hercules is?” He grabbed at her shoulder to try and turn her, get her to face him and talk.
The Enforcer stopped and cocked her head. The voice was back. She must rid herself of this hindrance who slows down her mission. Hera demands action.
“Hello!” Gnatius called out in frustration.
The Enforcer swung around. “Must kill Hercules.” She spoke her mantra. With one hand she grabbed his fingers off her shoulder, picked up Gnatius and flung him as hard and as far away as she could.
Gnatius flew in a straight line at a speed he didn’t believe possible. Were it not for the tree he landed hard against he was sure he would have flown straight to the top of Mount Olympus. Gnatius clutched at the branches, pulling himself up, away from her. His back ached and a trickle of blood ran down from a cut on his arm. But as much as his body ached his pride hurt worse. He wanted to rail out in anger and degradation at her, but self preservation dictated he stay silent.
Gnatius watched from the tree as the Enforcer turned impassively back onto her path, walking in her precisely measured steps at her set speed, head cocked and muttering ‘must kill Hercules’ and he realized he was lucky to be alive.
Tomorrow he’d go home. He wasn’t part of Hera’s team, in fact no longer wanted to be. It was time to turn over a new leaf
Hercules stood at the window of his recently obtained room at the Inn. The streets below were filled with revelers screaming and laughing. Fires burned brightly in pots to light the roadway and the smell of the food stands drifted through the breeze. The moon was ascending the velvet blackness of the night sky. Behind him, Nemesis sat on the bed, the only light in the room the romantic flicker of the candles she’d lit.
Hercules felt unsettled, that demi-god thing that meant trouble, but couldn’t pin point the cause. He thought about Iolaus, wondered where his friend would sleep tonight but Nemesis’s voice called his journeying mind back to the room.
“Hercules, you must get lonely sometimes.”
Her voice was soft and Hercules turned around to inspect her. She wore her mortality well, he thought. Her eyes were still dark, but softer now and her figure was more alluring in the flowing dress she wore, rather than the tight armor-like hit woman garb. Hercules let his eyes trace the fullness of her breasts and the thinness of her waist before answering.
“Sometimes.” He let the thoughts of Iolaus and the unsettled wariness slip away as he walked slowly over to where Nemesis sat. The candles cast their golden glow in a small cocoon around the two reunited lovers.
“Are you lonely now?” Nemesis whispered, leaning back and letting her dark hair cascade over her shoulders and down her back like a river and Hercules found himself wanting to be baptized in it.
“What kind of question is that?” he growled as he leaned forward and pulled her to him. She smelled like flowers, sweet in the early spring and welcome after the long winter. “I’m never lonely with you,” Hercules whispered onto her head as he brushed his lips against her hair.
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” she answered with a tender smile.
Hercules was done with words. He wrapped himself tightly around Nemesis and the two fell back on the bed, locked in embrace and no longer hearing the noise of the festival or feeling the cool of the night, aware only of each other, of their needs and desires and of the passion that bloomed in their hearts.
The Enforcer strode into town taking giant steps. She tipped her head to the side, staring at the vendors, the throngs of people swimming into and out of her view. She scanned the crowds waiting to hear the voice which guided her actions. The noise outside her body was loud and competitive, confusing. No guidance. She continued forward mechanically.
To the left the Enforcer thought she could hear clanging, much like the noise in her head when Hera spoke. Perhaps the one she was seeking would be there. So she headed to the familiar, uncaring who she brushed against or what merchandise she knocked over, blocking out the angry calls and focusing on her goal. Must find Hercules.
Pushing through the open doors, the Enforcer found herself in an alien environment, so dark and hot and fiery that for a brief instant an original thought entered her mind. Danger! This was not fluid or cool; there were no soft shushing sounds that accompanied her when Hera’s voice was absent. She scanned her surroundings, for the first time feeling something except a purely driving force, uncertainty.
Ahead of her men were busy with hammers and metal, banging and striking the glowing red weapons they fashioned, making the noises so like Hera’s voice. So many people! There were smiths, and apprentices, working over a huge flaming forge, helpers working the bellows to stoke the fires while others fed the flames with wood or coal, whichever their master commanded to keep the fires the right temperature.
The forge area was dark and windowless, lit only by the fire, alternating in dimness and light as the flames rose and fell at the hands of the apprentices tending them. Across the room the Enforcer spotted a catwalk of long boards, from which the assistants could douse any fire that might get out of hand. Smoke swirled and as she sniffed the air, the Enforcer became aware of steam as well. Water. Fire and water together. Surely she would find Hera’s commands here, united as one, as she had heard and felt them all day.
She picked up a long and heavy sword from a display rack next to where she stood. It was finely crafted and she could feel the balance it had in her strong hand as she lifted it, letting it swing and twirl.
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” Clytus nodded at the gleaming weapon the Enforcer held. He stared curiously at the woman, as finely honed as the sword she had chosen. “You’re new around here. Kind of shy too, I’m guessing,” he paused, waiting for this strangely attractive woman to speak for the first time.
He shook his head as she simply stared at him. “There’s no need for that. People are friendly around here.”
The Enforcer cocked her head. His voice was not Hera’s, but bore no threat. In the back of her mind a small noise started, competing with the clanging of the hammers. “Listen” she heard.
The smith sized up the new woman. Strong, but slight. She had chosen a weapon suitable for a much larger man. He could see that she wasn’t putting it down however. Perhaps - - -
”Maybe this would be more your size,” He suggested as he picked up a smaller sword, a little lighter but just as deadly.
“You need no sword!” The voice was insistent; her head was ringing with the anger that was being spilled into it. The Enforcer took the weapon she was holding and tossed it, uncaring and with more force than foresight sent it winging right into the wall at the back of the forge, a mighty feat for even a strong man.
Clytus took offence. She could have hurt someone! Anyone with an iota of common sense would have at least yelled to clear the path! Did she think his weapons wouldn’t stand the test?
“What’s the matter?!” he growled. “Hercules says my swords are the best at the festival!”
The Enforcer focused her flat black eyes on the smith. “Hercules?”
“That’s right, the one and only. If you don’t believe me go to the Inn, ask him yourself!” The smith turned away to retrieve the sword. It would need to be put back on the rack. A sword this fine would surely sell for many dinars at the festival.
The Enforcer turned, striding out the door, not caring about swords or festivals or the injured feelings of the smith. All she cared about was doing as she was commanded.
“Must kill Hercules!”
Iolaus wasn’t having the great time he’d hoped. Here he was at the tavern, unable to get a little female companionship and Hercules was upstairs having a great time with Nemesis. Usually it was him asking Herc not to return to the room, not the other way around, and ouch! There were the two blondes he’d had a chance at before Herc had dragged him away to meet Nemesis leaving on the arm of some other lucky guy!
“Iolaus, Iolaus, Iolaus!” he groaned shaking his head. No girl, no room for the night (unless he got a girl with one) and he’d worked so hard today getting this festival set up. Could things get worse?
His acquaintance grinned back at him, also void of female companionship. “I know what you mean,” he commiserated.
The two men stared across at the door, waiting for a new arrival or two, an unaccompanied and preferably decent looking female. And they were rewarded.
Blocking the light that filtered in through the open door from the fire pots was a strong and slender, scantily clad, dark haired female. Very much alone too. She stood in a wide legged stance, arms at her sides and her silhouette was striking.
“Iolaus!” Iolaus whispered to himself with a sharp intake of breath. Yes! Maybe the night wasn’t lost yet.
His companion elbowed him. “Come on, let me try this one.” He took Iolaus’s lack of comment as assent.
Iolaus watched as the Enforcer made her way in to the room, gait stiff. The closer she came, the more wary he felt himself becoming. Sure she was beautiful, but there was a void about her. Well, he wasn’t exactly looking for a brainy conversation tonight, but this seemed even deeper than a lack of intelligence. There was something else about her, something he couldn’t put his finger on - - -
“Hi. Around here it’s a crime for a doll like you to be alone at the festival”
“Oooh!” Iolaus groaned. That was the worst line this guy had used all night. No creativity, or no experience, Iolaus concluded.
The Enforcer turned away, scanning and listening for Hera’s command.
“Please don’t ignore me, I’ve got better lines,” the man cajoled, but the Enforcer didn’t respond.
“I think she’s heard all of your lines,” Iolaus jested. He stared assessingly at the Enforcer. Not his type, he thought. Too cool, too hard, she looked like trouble.
The Enforcer turned to the two men, face as blank as an unwritten scroll. “Where is Hercules?” she intoned.
Iolaus stared at her eyes, noting the blankness; saw the defensiveness of her posture. Realization hit as he took in the warriors garb, the muscular limbs and the single-mindedness of her question. This woman was more than trouble, and Hercules hadn’t finished the job he’d started out to do this afternoon.
“He’s not here.” Iolaus answered firmly, unfolding his arms from his chest and widening his own stance, readying for a fight.
“All the women want Hercules,” his friend complained, but Iolaus ignored him, continuing to hold the Enforcers attention on his own blue eyes.
The room seemed to melt away as Iolaus confirmed his worst suspicions.
”You’re the Enforcer. You’re supposed to be dead.”
“I’m back,” she answered simply.
“Everybody out of here!” Iolaus shouted. The room must be cleared. She had no conscience, no morals. She was Hera incarnate! Everyone was in danger! “Get out of here - - - quick as you can!” he screamed, moving in front of her to block her as the room erupted in panic.
The Enforcer cocked her head. No voice answered, just an evil laughing. Not Hercules, she thought. But not liked by Hera.
Iolaus stood firmly planted in front of her, legs wide and arms raised in fighting position as the people in the tavern ran shrieking and slamming into each other to escape.
“You get to Hercules - - - over my dead body!” he spoke menacingly.
He watched her step a foot forward, cocking her head again. She looked powerful, strong and unafraid. He could see no weakness in her. Thinking better of his statement he amended it.
“Over my strong objections!”
The Enforcer had received her instruction. This was Hercules’s friend and she must kill him to get to Hercules. Quicker than Iolaus had ever seen, the Enforcer punched.
She landed a hard blow to the chest that knocked the wind right out of him and sent him reeling backward. Iolaus fought to regain his balance, pain deep in his chest and drawing his breath an effort. For an instant the room grew foggy, but he thought of Hercules, and what would happen if he couldn’t fight her off. Iolaus dug deep and found that he could stand without wavering, but too late.
The Enforcer had him by the vest, and lifting him right off the ground, she used his momentum to slam his head against a table. Iolaus was only able to fire off a single punch before he felt his head contact the old hard wood, felt the ale running into his hair and the food tipping in soggy lumps against his head as dishes overturned, and mugs rolled crashing into slivers around him.
He didn’t even have a chance to get up. His head was spinning, pain shooting through it and still he tried to fight back. He swung out a foot, connecting with her side but had no momentum. She picked him up as if he was no more than a feather, heaving him down onto the table with such force that he slid on his back down the entire length of it, slipping through the slopped over food and drink, with the shards of glass tearing at his back and arms, lodging in his scalp.
Iolaus wanted nothing more than to lie on the table and moan, maybe pick out some of the glass buried under his skin, but he couldn’t allow himself that small comfort. The Enforcer had jumped up onto the table and was striding straight for him.
How could he do what even Hercules hadn’t been able to do? Just keep fighting, he thought to himself. Something will come to you, hopefully. Iolaus jumped to his feet to face his opponent. This time he had a moment to ready himself and planting his legs solidly on the table hit the Enforcer with a round kick directly to the head, followed by a quick hook kick. He’d taken many a foe out with that combination, but it didn’t even faze the Enforcer.
As he rechambered his leg, she made her move, a swift and powerful answering round kick to Iolaus’ already aching chest.
Iolaus fell back, clutching his ribs, knowing that there were probably several broken. He gasped roughly for air. He tried to will himself to relax and focus, as he had been taught in the East, but the pain and the danger and the fear for Hercules left him wanting. Yet he knew he couldn’t stop. Not unless he was dead or unconscious. She would kill Hercules.
Iolaus pushed back his pain. This time he kicked out from his lying position and made a sweeping move that hurt him more than it hurt her, but it took out her legs, and as she fell before him, he kicked her down flat. He staggered to his feet, readying to stomp her, but she rose as well, unharmed and shaking the hair out of her eyes.
The Enforcer raised her leg and before Iolaus could find his balance, she was machine gun kicking him, the repeated blows landing on his already aching head. Iolaus fell back as she kicked him repeatedly, wanting nothing more than to close his eyes and the darkness claim him, but he couldn’t. His heart was with Hercules, and if he had to take the punishment to save his friend, he would.
Iolaus rose, moaning and dirty, his hair matted with food and blood, his lip split and an eye already swelling to the point of uselessness. A stream of blood trickled from his nose and his arms were abraded in so many places he seemed tattooed with cuts. The light of the few remaining candles sparkled off the shards of glass sticking out in random punctures from his shoulders, head and the back of his arms, leaving him looking something like a crystal porcupine.
She stood staring flatly at him, without emotion or even thought, more zombie than woman and Iolaus dug deep to find more strength, to that spot where Hercules resided inside him. Pulling back his arm he threw a straight punch that was so powerful that the Enforcer’s head snapped back with a crack. But she simply shook her head and turned her blank face back to him unaffected.
Iolaus needed a weapon. He could feel his strength waning with each painfully labored breath, but he had none handy. He made a grab for her and with a swiftness that took her by surprise, if she felt anything, he picked her up and hurled her into a pile of swiftly abandoned chairs, splintering them. Iolaus stared as a pike of wood from a broken leg impaled the Enforcer side to side through the chest.
She rose, not even aware of her injury at first, only realizing it when the pike of wood struck something as she moved forward. She glanced down; a look of mild curiosity flickered across her face, quickly replaced by the familiar and unreadable blankness and simply pulled it out.
“Aw,” Iolaus groaned as she pulled it out. He clung to his own side, suddenly realizing that he wouldn’t win this battle, and would be lucky to be left alive. She had sealed up completely, unharmed and scar less. “No blood he murmured.”
His friend stared at the Enforcer, realizing the gravity of the situation and knew he needed to get Iolaus to leave. “Come on Iolaus,” he cajoled, the fright evident in his voice. He stared in horror at Iolaus’s battered body, the blood that ran down his face, the stooped stance and acute pain etched around his eyes and knew he had to do something.
“Come on!” he urged Iolaus as the Enforcer removed the pike completely, tossing it to the floor. He pushed Iolaus over to a ladder.
Iolaus had to get away, had to warn Hercules. He couldn’t leave through the door, not with the Enforcer behind him, but he could go up and perhaps drop down closer to the door. He started up the ladder.
The Enforcer listened to Hera’s voice once more. Almost done, she thought. Then the prize is ours. She moved quickly to the ladder and with inhuman strength grasped both long bars in her hands and ripped it completely in half. The rungs fell free and Iolaus was tossed roughly to the ground at the Enforcer’s deadly feet.
The last thing Iolaus remembered was the crack of his nose breaking and a flash of light as a foot slammed into his face. In the smothering darkness he heard the Enforcers voice intoning one word.
The room was a dark spinning tunnel, and Iolaus could hear the frantic voice of the man he’d been trying so unsuccessfully to pick up girls with calling out his name. But he couldn’t seem to pick his head up off the floor, every movement made him feel like vomiting, made his head throb. Every muscle ached, every bone creaked. His broken arm hurt like it hadn’t in weeks and each breath tore through him like a piece of jagged ice. And his nose - - - oh how it hurt! He couldn’t breathe through it, and gasping, he began choking up blood.
Even his teeth hurt, and Iolaus didn’t want to be brought to reality. He wanted to sleep until he was healed, to have some pretty girl nurse him to complete health, and a little something for the pain would be nice. But the voice was insistent.
“Iolaus! Wake up, come to!”
Arms were wrapped around him and he felt himself being lifted unwillingly in to a sitting position. Some one was dashing water onto his face.
“Come on! Open your eyes before they swell shut!”
They weren’t already?
“Iolaus, it’s after Hercules! That thing will kill him!”
Iolaus struggled to open his eyes, and was greeted by a huddle of concerned faces. Hercules - - - had to get to Hercules! Even the dim light of the tavern hurt his eyes, but he kept them open and focused on a spot on the far wall, trying to let his chi take control, not the pain. He took slow even breaths through a gaping mouth, lips too swollen to even purse. He became aware of blood crusted on his face, his nose and in his hair, of the slivers of glass sticking in his back and arms, and of things that weren’t pain, but signs of life. He could feel and that was good. If he could feel, he could get to Hercules.
Iolaus struggled to get to his feet, and the arms around him lifted and steadied him as well. He fought to remain standing, waiting impatiently for the room to stop swirling, then put a foot tentatively forward. One step, then two. The arms released him. Iolaus kept his eyes focused on the door. Had to get across to the Inn, had to warn Hercules. Each step was a little easier as Iolaus found his chi still strong.
At the Inn, Hercules lounged back against the silken sheets on the soft mattress with Nemesis snuggled at his side. He closed his eyes, thinking back to the morning and how he’d never suspected that his day would end like this. He could feel Nemesis’s fingers caressing his chest, sliding down his belly and though the heat was starting to return he ignored it - - - for now.
“Hmm, we should get back to the festival. I’m sure they could use our help.” He spoke playfully, teasing Nemesis and knowing she didn’t want him anywhere but here. A soft breeze lifted the curtain at their window, and the small flapping sound of the cotton made Hercules think of Nemesis, of her bird form and all she’d given up. He turned to her, brushing his lips against her hair and breathing her scent.
“You’re always doing something for others,” Nemesis protested. She stroked him a bit lower. “You should do something for yourself every once in a while.” She kissed his neck softly and tucked in closer to him, enjoying the hard feel of his body.
“Well, it’s my nature,” responded, shifting so she could further convince him that staying was right.
“I’m sure the festival can survive without you for the rest of the night, and so will Greece.” She trailed her lips down his neck and spoke softly against his chest. “You need to allow yourself some happiness, you deserve it.”
Hercules agreed, and turned fully to Nemesis, wrapping his arms around her and enjoying the feel of her hair against his arms as she tipped her head up to him. Her breath was soft and warm, and - - -
The door burst open with a slam and Hercules turned in surprise and alarm away from Nemesis. His jaw dropped as he saw Iolaus struggling to cross the floor to him, heard the rasp in his voice, the ragged edge of his breathing, smelled the freshness of his blood.
Hercules jumped up, not even bothering to cover himself and caught Iolaus before he fell in pain and exhaustion to the floor. Nemesis carefully pulled up a sheet and moved, so Hercules could place Iolaus’s battered body, carried so tenderly onto the bed. Hercules propped up pillows and helped Iolaus to a sitting position, resting against the back board, and then reached for something to cover himself.
Iolaus reached for Hercules, placing a bloodied hand on his best friend’s forearm and giving it a squeeze. He leaned over to hear what Iolaus was gasping out.
“The Enforcer. She’s alive!”
The Enforcer was beginning to feel something. She was no longer numb. During the fight at the tavern, the noises in her head had been almost unbearable. The cackling and laughing had caused her to lose her focus not once but several times. Her opponent had been able to get some kicks in, even a punch, something that should never have happened. And she had assumed he was dead, but Hera told her even now that he was alive, and with Hercules.
This would never have happened if Hera had just let her work. Must find Hercules. Must kill Hercules. The thoughts popped into her mind again unbidden. She didn’t know what she felt even now, just that Hera had graced her with it at the moment she saw the golden fighter go down for the last time, when she stared down at his blood and new bruises, at the cuts, abrasions and glass and saw the motionless slump of his body a shiver had slipped inside her and a feeling of - - - what?
“Satisfaction,” Hera answered the only original thought that the Enforcer had ever had. And I will grace you with more than that if you do this job.
The Enforcer liked the feeling. That there could be more feelings was interesting. But for now she must comply with Hera’s desire. She strode through town, cocking her head, listening to Hera’s urging. She must find a weapon. Hercules will not be easy to kill. She is lucky to have a second chance. She feels a quick stabbing pain where the wooden pike impaled her, then nothing. Hera is letting her know what will happen if she fails. She will feel many things, none pleasant.
A man ahead tossing weapons, catching them under the flickering light of a fire pot catches the Enforcer’s eyes. Take it! She hears Hera say.
The Enforcer plows through town like a driverless chariot, taking a long knife from the juggler, knocking over stands and pushing people with a force that sends them flying comet like through the night sky. The crowds run screaming in fear, wondering where Hercules is when they need him, knowing that without him, she can never be stopped.
The Enforcer lets no one and nothing stand in her way. Hera’s voice is growing more insistent by the second. Hercules is near.
At the Inn, Nemesis was tending to Iolaus’s wounds, an arm around his shoulders and a damp cloth dabbing away the blood on his face. She managed to get much of the blood out of his hair, but cleaning facial wounds could be tricky, she was finding out.
Hercules paced the room, feeling guilty and responsible for Iolaus’s beating. Anyone else would have been dead, but Iolaus - - - he was best mortal fighter that Hercules had ever seen, and that was what had saved him. But still Hercules knew he should have been there too. Together they would have defeated her. Instead he was fulfilling his baser desires with Nemesis while the Enforcer was beating Iolaus to a bloody pulp and now she was out hurting gods knew whom. He should have listened to his brain not his heart he chastised himself.
Nemesis couldn’t watch Hercules. She could imagine what he was thinking and found it easier to atone to Iolaus with kind, but heartfelt words and a tender touch.
“You have the courage that the gods lack, Iolaus,” she spoke with admiration.
Iolaus chuckled. At least one good thing had happened out of all this; he had a pretty girl tending to him. “Yeah, I would have won, but she’s not human,” he answered with bravado.
“Well she’s of the gods,” Nemesis reassured him.
That had been painfully evident to Iolaus during the tavern fight. And as badly as things had gone, he had still limped away with a new piece of information.
“Yeah, well under her flesh its water. She’s made of water.”
Hercules stopped his pacing. Water. This was something he could use. “That’s why she didn’t die when I fought her! She fell off a cliff and disintegrated. I thought she was destroyed, but she must have re formed in the ocean.” Hercules was reflective. What to do with this new information - - -?
Iolaus voiced the question Hercules was thinking. “Well, how are we going to defeat her?” He grimaced as Nemesis bathed the bridge of his nose a bit too roughly.
“I don’t know,” Hercules mused. “Water is the most powerful force on Earth. It can move mountains, sink continents.” He rubbed his face and stared out into the night. “Everyone’s got a weakness,” he muttered.
Nemesis was also feeling guilty, but in a different way. She didn’t regret her tryst with Hercules, but she did feel bad that Hera was doing this because she had refused to. She should have found a way that pleased everyone, or at least the people that mattered. But she had been cock sure of herself and acted impulsively, sparing peoples lives and thinking that Hera would accept it. She should have gone to Zeus for back up; he was the only one who could rein in the old witch. Well, maybe she could set things right yet.
She stood up, handing the cool cloth to Iolaus and facing Hercules. “Whatever you do Hercules, I’m there for you.”
“No, no, not now, not when you’re mortal,” Hercules brushed her off. “You could wind up like Iolaus or worse.”
Iolaus groaned. He DID hurt everywhere, but he thought that Hercules could have been a little less condescending. Of course Nemesis would be hurt worse, she was a mortal now, and a female, and her skill was with archery, not her fists.
Nemesis took exception to Hercules’s words as well.
“You’re not the only one who has a bone to pick with Hera,” she retorted.
Iolaus groaned. His head throbbed and all this arguing didn’t help.
“Nemesis, you could die. I won’t take that risk.” Hercules reached out and brushed his palm across her cheek, feeling the hot anger there, trying to calm her with his own deep caring.
Nemesis averted her eyes from Hercules’s piercing stare, staring instead at Iolaus, taking in his suffering, and then turned away from him as well. This was all her fault, and she’d find a way to right it. Better to go down in a blaze of glory than sputter out unknown. She reached for the wet cloth Iolaus held.
Nemesis took the basin of water and bloodied cloth and left the room without a look back.
Hercules moved over to sit on the bed next to Iolaus. He placed a hand on Iolaus’s thigh and stared into the battered face, noting the split lip and swelling around the eyes, the cut across the nose and the way the smaller man splinted his ribs when he breathed.
“Iolaus,” he started to apologize, but was promptly cut off.
“You know Hercules, it’s not your fault that I got hurt. I chose to fight her.”
Hercules shook his head. “But if I’d been there with you the out come might have been different.”
Iolaus shrugged. “True,” he admitted. “But it just shows we have to do this together.”
“You can’t, Iolaus, look at you. I have to go. She won’t stop coming after me.”
“We both know it can’t be done alone,” Iolaus cajoled.
Hercules stood, pacing again and opened the door. Where was Nemesis? She should have been back by now. Looking down he saw the wash basin still full of bloody water and the soiled rag next it. Instantly he realized what had happened.
“Nemesis!” he called out and Iolaus heard the panic in Hercules’s voice as the bigger man turned back, staring in anxiety at Iolaus.
“She’s gone! She’s gone after the Enforcer!” His voice caught. She had no idea how impotent her mortality had made her, that she would be used as nothing more than a lure for Hera’s evil.
Iolaus hurt in places he’d never hurt before, but he knew what he had to do.
“Let’s go.” He stood, finding strength and courage in the face of Hercules’s pain. “I’m coming with you.”
Nemesis hadn’t forgotten what it was like to have power, strength and abilities that far outstripped anything she could do now. She may have lost those, but she still had her courage. And she remembered what it was like to be a hit woman. Perhaps, just this one last time - - -
“Hera won’t stop me,” she vowed. “And she won’t kill Hercules if I have anything to say.”
Nemesis had slipped silently into the street, careful not to let Hercules know what she’d planned. Now in the center of town, she could see the havoc the Enforcer had caused. Stalls were overturned, goods strewn about and shattered. But the Enforcer had done something that Nemesis never would have done, she’d left a trail. People streamed away from town, screaming in fear. The panic of their voices sat cold and hard in Nemesis’s belly, but still she continued down the wake of destruction that would lead her to Hera’s new Enforcer.
Nemesis was clever. She’d spent many years making plans, no hit was ever random, and she couldn’t afford to make a mistake. Her ability to think on her feet had made her great at her former job, and she knew she’d have to use it here as well. Every opponent has her weakness, Nemesis thought, and she would find this one.
Men had pride and lust, women had emotions and children, but what could be used against this Enforcer? Nemesis thought fast, staring at the rigid stance of her opponent as the Enforcer scanned the town, looking for Hercules. Iolaus had said she was made of water, a very useful piece of information. Water was the most powerful element on earth, capable of moving mountains and reducing boulders to sand. What would destroy water?
Nemesis surveyed the wreckage of the festival: Broken swords, smashed stalls, chickens running loose and eggs broken and smeared. A few overturned fire pots smoldered and meat and vegetables lay spattered on the dirt, as the kettles of boiling water they cooked in lay rolling on their side hissing and steaming. Steam! Nemesis suddenly realized that water too had a weakness. Fire turned it to steam. She had to get the Enforcer to fire, battle her there. But where?
Nemesis looked around as the Enforcer moved away, heading to where Nemesis herself had just left, the Inn. She thought quickly, couldn’t let Hercules get hurt. Reaching for her bow and arrow, she formulated a plan.
The Enforcer approached a cowering man, reaching for him and intoning her mantra, “Where is Hercules” when Nemesis let her arrow fly. She watched as it impaled the Enforcer, and she then stepped forward to draw the monster’s attention.
Nemesis danced sideways toward the forge as the shouts and cries of the town’s people rang out, now fearing the Enforcer would rampage, as an injured beast would do.
“I thought that would get your attention,” Nemesis called out, nodding her head at the arrow as the Enforcer turned her way, deftly tugging out the arrow and sealing back up with a minimal water loss
“If you want Hercules, follow me,” she grinned and turned to enter the open door of the town forge.
The Enforcer cocked her head. There was that voice again, urging her this time not to kill Hercules, but to kill this one first. She heard the word “traitor” over and over, but didn’t know what it meant, didn’t understand a lot of what the voice ranted. But she did know her job, and that was to kill whomever Hera wanted.
Nemesis turned around, framed in the doorway and back lit by the mighty fires of the forge. “Come on, Hercules is in the forge!” she called out.
Nemesis didn’t look back, she had no need to. The Enforcer would follow. She wound her way through the men working there as she surveyed the area. She would have to find the right spot. The cat walk! She could lure the Enforcer over the fire pit and figure out how to get her to fall in. She raced up to the heavy wooden planking thinking that if she could get the Enforcer in just the right position, shoot her as a distraction then tip the planking, the Enforcer would fall directly in to the fire and vaporize. But she’d have to be quick. Nemesis remembered suddenly that was no longer as strong as when she was a goddess, but didn’t let that deter her. She’d find a way. She always did.
The Enforcer entered, and Nemesis watched her cock her head. Smoke rose around her and in the dim light she seemed more mechanical than human, no matter what Hera had intended. The scent of the molten metals, the red hot coals and sweat filled the air, making it heavy and breathing a chore. But Nemesis barely noticed. She was on a hunt she meant to win.
“Hey! Up here” she called and noticed with satisfaction that the Enforcer heard her.
Nemesis edged backward on the planking, finding a cross plank where she could lift the main beam and hopefully toss the Enforcer into the fire without endangering herself. Around her the men were beginning to notice that the battle outside had entered their forge, and the milling about stopped, even though the foreman yelled at them to get back to work. It wasn’t everyday that they got to watch two beautiful and scantily clad woman fight.
Nemesis positioned herself strategically, happy with her plan. Goddess or not, she thought she could do this. She fit an arrow into her bowstring as the Enforcer approached the catwalk, drew it back when she came up onto the main plank, ready to implement her plan.
“You’ve gotta go through me to get to Hercules,” she spoke softly as she stood facing the approaching Enforcer.
Hercules raced outside, panic rising in his chest. Nemesis didn’t know what she was getting into! He stood for a second, waiting for Iolaus, and surveyed the wreckage. That all this destruction could be caused by one relatively small female was testament to her power, and if Hercules wanted to be honest, it actually frightened him. He had never encountered anything like her, had no experience to rely on, and Iolaus - - - he turned and watched as Iolaus tried valiantly to act as if his pain was minimal. Iolaus was all heart, but today he needed power too. He hoped that even though Iolaus had been through a rough day, he’d find that little extra which would pull him through this one last battle.
Hercules knew he needed Iolaus.
Iolaus walked as quickly as he could, given the broken ribs and sore muscles. His ankle was swelling and his knee was having trouble deciding which direction it wanted to go, but usually it wasn’t where he wanted it. Darn that fall from the ladder stunk! He could feel Hercules’s impatience and tried to wave him on, but Hercules stood in the street waiting for him.
Iolaus didn’t want to be a burden. He could see how much Nemesis meant to Hercules and understood the urgency of finding her now.
”Go!” he screamed above the noise of the frightened crowd. “I’ll be right behind you! The forge! It’s our only chance!”
Hercules nodded and raced ahead while Iolaus bit down on his lower lip and picked up the pace. He tried not to grunt as he bent over, reaching for a sturdy piece of wood, broken off a vendor’s stall. He would need something to lean on since his leg was being so uncooperative. This would do it! He picked up his pace as he put more weight on the stick than the leg.
Iolaus reached the forge just as Hercules was rushing the catwalk. He could see Nemesis at the far end, arrow set and bow string drawn back. But the Enforcer was ready. She’d grabbed a heavy sword on entering the forge and before Nemesis could let the arrow sail had flung the heavy weapon directly at the former Goddess.
“Nemesis!” Hercules screamed.
Iolaus watched in horror as the weapon fell just short of Nemesis, striking the cross plank and slicing it in two. He sucked in a breath, so deep the pain shot like The Enforcer’s sword through his chest as he saw Nemesis plunge in surprise on the long fall to the hard dirt floor of the forge, striking her head with an ominous dull smack.
Nemesis laid still and silent on the forge floor, arms and legs askew and bow flung far from her unreaching hands. Iolaus felt his stomach clench. His heart ached for Nemesis, and for Hercules.
Hercules charged up onto the planking with Iolaus close behind as the Enforcer turned to meet him.
“Wrong person lady! Remember us?”
The Enforcer stood in fighting stance, solid and wide legged across from Hercules with her head cocked. “Hera says kill Hercules.”
“Yeah I know,” Hercules answered tightly. “But she never has the courage to say it to my face.”
Iolaus meanwhile had taken the liberty of borrowing two swords from the forge supply. He tossed one to Hercules, who caught it deftly. The Enforcer stepped closer and Hercules brought his sword down, wanting nothing more than to kill her with one strike. But she was fast, and blocked his blow, parrying with her own sword with a swiftness Hercules hadn’t seen in her before.
They parried blow for blow, as evenly matched as Iolaus had ever seen. Iolaus held his breath now, wishing that the planking was wide enough for him to get to Enforcer too. He would be at Hercules’s back, at his side, wherever the big man wanted him, but now stood impotently waiting for a moment where he could prove his worth.
Hercules was angry. He didn’t like fighting with the swords, it was ineffective and time wasting. He wanted this Enforcer dead and he had to get to Nemesis. He took a chance and when the Enforcer stopped for a second, head cocked and listening he raised a powerful leg and aimed a kick directly at her chest.
The blow staggered the Enforcer, causing her arm to swing back and the sword to drop.
Hercules threw his sword aside and advanced on her, eyes blazing and heart as fiery as the furnace below them.
The Enforcer had listened carefully. Hera was pleased with the forge as a site for the final battle. There were more than enough weapons here. Swords were too quick, too painless. Hercules must feel the life being wrenched away from him. The Enforcer grabbed a heavy iron chain and tossed it directly at Hercules, her flat shark like eyes holding his.
Iolaus gasped as he saw the chain wrap around Hercules’s neck and the Enforcer draw it tight. Hercules! He had to help Hercules!
Hercules struggled. The chain was cutting off his air. If he tried to loosen it, he wasn’t free to fight her and she jerked the chain harder, kicked him and swung him like a sack of grain against the planking. Still Hercules managed to get up, but the Enforcer simply pulled on the chain, jerking him back like a dog on a leash, and then kicking him back down.
Iolaus couldn’t just watch. This was Hercules, and hurt or not he wouldn’t simply stand by. He raced as quickly as he could up the planking. The Enforcer would have to let go of the chain if she meant to stop the blows he rained down on her. He struck her over and over with the heavy cast on his arm, and with the hilt of the sword to the side of her head, but she simply tried to wave him away as one would a mosquito. Iolaus wouldn’t be deterred. He was alarmed with the cyanosis on Hercules lips, around his mouth and the pink lines where his eyes should have been white.
Fight Hercules! He thought to himself and pounded a flurry of blows to the Enforcer’s head. Hercules slipped his fingers under the chain and as Iolaus continued to distract the Enforcer and managed to loosen the chain enough to get a single deep breath. It was all he needed.
Hercules found his strength and determination infusing anew and rose to his feet. Two could play at this game, he thought and grabbing a hold of the chain he gave it a mighty tug. Iolaus, seeing that the Enforcer was off balance, took the opportunity to give her a final shove and the momentum slammed her down flat on the planking.
Jumping away, Hercules turned to Iolaus. “The rope!” he shouted.
Iolaus knew exactly what Hercules wanted. He’d seen the trap being set up and now the conditions were perfect. He took his sword and flung it with a hunter’s accuracy to the rope holding the planking safely away from the fiery forge below. The shot was perfect, slicing the rope cleanly through and Hercules jumped away towards Iolaus as the Planking fell.
Iolaus grabbed his friend, steadying him and the two balanced precipitously on the edges of the remaining planking while the Enforcer slid down into the fire below. They watched in satisfaction as she started simmering and then, body shaking like the bag of boiling water it was, simply evaporated in a cloud of steam, dissipating into the air, with no water to reform.
In her last moments the Enforcer found that Hera did indeed keep her promise, but it wasn’t what she would have wanted, had she known what desire was. The Enforcer was allowed to feel what the rain of blows Iolaus placed upon her felt like, what the fire from the forge did to her skin as it seared deeply, and what it felt like to boil inside. And in the final seconds, as she began to dissipate, she felt one other new sensation - - - relief.
The two men rushed to Nemesis’s side as she began to stir, the room full of steam and hissing, and Hercules took her tenderly into his arms, lifting her against his chest and enjoying the feeling of he small stirring movements and breath against his shoulder. She was alive!
Hercules his took two friends to the Inn that night. He didn’t bother to clean up the wreckage of the festival, but chose instead to clean up his friend, and his lover too.
Nemesis healed quickly. Ice to her bruises and rest were enough to mend her physical injuries, but the psychological ones were more elusive. Nemesis had found out that no matter how clever she was, she truly was mortal, and had all the limitations of a mortal. She wasn’t as fast or as accurate a shot as before. Her body was not able to take the punishment of even a simple fall. And bruises hurt. Life as a mortal was by far more difficult that she could ever have imagined and if she was going to make it she had a lot of learning to do. Her decision would be how to go about learning things she needed, alone or with Hercules?
Iolaus needed a little more attention. Hercules couldn’t believe his brave companion had managed to make it to the forge and actually help him fight the Enforcer. In his heart he wondered if he would have been able to defeat her without Iolaus. He didn’t want to know. Iolaus had almost given everything, had been willing to give his life for Hercules and Hercules knew that if it ever came to it, he’d do the same for Iolaus.
So Hercules wrapped the swollen knee and swollen ankle, carefully icing them every four hours around the clock for two days. He cleaned Iolaus’s cuts, splinted his ribs and brought him food and drink whenever Iolaus wanted it. He washed his friend and tenderly set him under the covers for rest, and when Iolaus slept he sat with Nemesis.
Nemesis couldn’t help but see the bond between Hercules and Iolaus. Oh she’d always known about it, all Olympus knew about it. But to see it in action was breathtaking. She knew she couldn’t come between them. And her staying with Hercules would surely do that. So she made her decision, without any input from Hercules. She may be mortal, but she would learn to take care of herself. Then maybe someday - - -
The festival was over and clean up was done when the two heroes finally decided to get on their way. There were places to go, monsters to fight. And Iolaus was tired of the bed, of all the pampering.
As they walked slowly away from the village Iolaus let Hercules and Nemesis plow on ahead. He was slow with the leg wrapped and using a crutch, besides, they had unfinished business to attend to. And Iolaus could figure out that it might not be the way Hercules wanted it. He could read a woman, and Nemesis was ready to part ways with them. He’d seen that look before, too many times actually.
Up ahead Hercules let Nemesis slip her hand under his arm and grip it. She was so small and soft there beside him. He enjoyed the way she made him feel and was glad that her injuries were slight.
“I’m glad to see you’re feeling better,” he ventured, unsure what to say at this point.
Nemesis knew exactly what she wanted say though. “Well, becoming mortal has brought its own complications.”
“Hmm?” Hercules raised an eyebrow.
Nemesis stopped, turning to face Hercules. “I think I need to spend some time alone, to figure out where I should go next,” she blurted out, carefully watching for Hercules’s reaction.
He reached out to take her hand, stroking it with his fingers. Iolaus had warned him about this.
“I’ll miss you,” he said softly. And he truly meant it.
Nemesis smiled up at him, happy with his understanding. “Well you know Hercules, the new me could find out that I love you even more. And then I would MAKE you fit me into your life.”
Hercules stared down at her brave smile. She was truly a special woman, and he hoped she would indeed come back to him.
“Really? I’d like that.”
Hercules took her in his arms, pulling her close and gave her a kiss, soft and simple, a kiss of promise but not lust, and then he stepped back.
Nemesis gazed back up at him. She hated to go. But she needed to do this, she needed to grow and she wouldn’t do it with Hercules. She would be protected and cared for and babied. She would follow her own path for now.
“Goodbye Hercules,” she spoke softly, releasing his hand and turning away. She headed down the cross road alone, turning back only once for a small wave good by.
Hercules stood with a lump in his throat as Iolaus hobbled up just in time to keep him from going after her.
“Aw that was excellent work on the goodbye kiss,” he spoke as he hobbled up, voice thick from the swelling on his face and lip. “You know, if you really want a relationship to last it’s crucial to develop the good by kiss,” he informed his friend with a mischievous grin.
Hercules slapped Iolaus on the back. “Well, it’s always good to hear from an expert on romance.”
“Yeah. Ow!” Iolaus stumbled and Hercules caught his arm with a chuckle.
Iolaus righted himself, pulling away from Hercules. He stepped forward still sore, but knowing how lucky they all were to be alive. He was ready, crutch and all for a new adventure.
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