Ares stood with his hands on his hips and stared into the field approvingly. All the little skirmishes were fine, but what he wanted was a really big battle, something to set the pace for an out and out war. He could always count on the Spartans to mix things up, but the Eleans, now here was a new group to mold.
“There’s nothing like a nice bloody battle,” He thought to himself. “Oh yeah! The screams of fury and the grunts of pain, the whimper of the dying and moaning of the injured are just a symphony to my ears. And the scent of blood - - -what can I say?” He looked around the verdant field and saw only the falling warriors, the crushed grass. He inhaled the metallic scent of the spilled blood deeply through flared nostrils. “I AM powerful!”
Ares was exhilarated. When there was a war being waged every muscle fiber in his body tingled. “It’s better than sex,” he thought to himself, “and lasts longer too! Well most of the time anyway.” Ares sighed, love or war, it was all the same, the peaks and valleys of human emotions.
The God of War stretched and surveyed the meadow. He could see the Spartans geared up and ready for the Eleans. The Spartans were true fighters, but the Eleans were catching on to them quickly. Sure, they had few things to learn yet, but if they proved themselves worthy Ares would make sure that they had the knowledge and weapons they needed to keep the war going.
“Yup there they go! Oh, right away with the swords! First blood goes to the Spartans but my Eleans aren’t backing down. Yeah baby this is GOOD; I’m feeling all warm and tingly inside. More fighting men, more fighting!”
Ares rubbed his hands together. He’d been instigating the various warring factions for weeks and had almost gotten the tensions to a head. A small battle here and a skirmish there, a few men killed, bad feelings brewing, it was almost perfect now.
If the Eleans won today the Spartans would mass their scattered forces and come together to quell the insurgence. If the Spartans won then the small but growing number of splinter groups, like the Eleans, would feel compelled to show their might, power in numbers and the battles only promised to get bigger, and bloodier. Ares had set things up well.
Then Ares saw the little kink in his plan, that pesky blonde friend of his obnoxious half brother, surging right into the fighting as Hercules followed on his heels. Did they really think they could stop the fighting so easily, Ares wondered?
‘Well don’t get hurt brother dear, because it’s only a beginning.” Ares snickered before he disappeared, leaving the two heroes to pick up the pieces.
Hercules watched from the corner of an eye as Iolaus grabbed one of the Elean solders and spun him around, tossing him with a mighty throw against the base of a tree, then twirled like a whirlwind on another with a kick that stopped the warrior dead in his tracks. The field was echoing with the clang of swords and the goading insults of the opposing fighters, and already Hercules felt like gagging the metallic scent of blood floated so strongly through the air. He grabbed a strong young man wearing the blue garb of a Spartan, and holding him by the arm, growled at the boy.
“This has got to stop! No more fighting! What’s wrong with you people! Enough already!”
The Eleans were on the run, only a few remained on the battlefield and Hercules could see that Iolaus was now fighting the remaining men alone. The Spartans had retreated when they recognized Hercules, knowing that there was no battle to be won today, but perhaps soon - - -
The young man he was holding fought back uselessly. “You’re either with us or against us!” he shouted.
“I’m not with anybody, but I am against fighting,” Hercules spoke like a father scolding his child.
“Then you must be a coward!” roared an Elean solder who ranged up on Hercules and his captive.
Hercules shot him a look of derision. “Actually I’m Hercules.”
He looked around for Iolaus, wondering how this warrior had managed to get this close with out his friend stopping him. He saw Iolaus taking a punch to the kidney and figured he was busy.
The Elean saw Hercules’s moment of weakness, caring for his friend, and took the opportunity to raise his sword and let the hilt strike the Spartan captive directly on his unhelmeted head, before he turned to dash off. He’d accomplished what he needed. This Spartan was an up and coming fighter, and the sword wielder wanted him to know that he had met his match.
Hercules felt the Spartan go limp, falling to the ground and spun on the retreating Elean soldier, the last of his lot on the battlefield.
“Now that’s what I call being a coward,” he muttered to himself. He gently picked up the unconscious Spartan and carried him over to the shade of a tree.
“Well my friend, you are going to have one heck of a head ache when you wake up.”
Iolaus sat leaning against the tree Hercules had laid the Spartan under. He rubbed his side as if somehow this would magically make the spreading bruise disappear. Staring down at the young soldier, he shook his head,
“He’s nothing more that a boy Herc. He should be out chasing girls or learning a trade, not joining the Spartan army.”
“I know,” Hercules sighed. “War holds too much allure for bored young men. It’s great to know how to fight, but to go out looking for trouble is different.”
Iolaus stared down on the reclining youth, a frown of disapproval on his lips.
“Hey Herc, he’s waking up.”
The two friends stared down as the Spartan tried to clear his head. Hercules put his face close to the young man’s trying to get him to focus on him.
“Good afternoon,” he said seriously.
The Spartan shook his head, and then had second thoughts as a wave of nausea rose in his throat. He let his head drop back on the cushion of grass and closed his eyes until the spinning sensation stopped.
Iolaus grinned over at Hercules.
“Don’t think he’s getting up and running anywhere, do you?”
“Nope,” Hercules answered sussinctly.
The young man opened his eyes again and stared warily at Hercules. “Why are you still here?”
“We just wanted to make sure you woke up. You got hit pretty hard back there.”
Yeah,” the man moaned. “It feels like someone dropped the Parthenon on my head.”
“Here,” Iolaus offered sympathetically. “Have some water.” He handed his water pouch over and watched as the soldier drank long and thirstily from it.
“Who are you, really?” he questioned, handing the water pouch to Iolaus but his eyes never strayed from Hercules.
“I already told you,” Hercules reminded, then gestured over to Iolaus. “And this is my friend Iolaus.”
Iolaus watched, grinning as the incredulous Spartan shot first him then Hercules a skeptical look.
“Uh-uh, nobody stays impartial in this war, especially not Hercules. He always helps the Spartans.”
“I only help those who need help and are worthy of it.”
“Yeah right!” the Spartan shot back and tried to raise himself off the ground. “Ahh,” he moaned and fell back clutching his head.
“Hercules didn’t even need to look over to know that Iolaus was moving to the youth, slipping an arm under his back to help him up.
“Come on. We gotta get you some place to have somebody look at those wounds.” Hercules reached around to help Iolaus steady the Spartan as he tilted dangerously away from Iolaus.
“What do you mean ‘we’!” the warrior spoke in haste, almost falling as the meadow spun before him and his legs grew rubbery.
Iolaus grabbed him tighter and felt Hercules reach a steadying hand to help.
“Wanna ask that again?” Hercules stared assessingly at the Spartan as he fought to remain upright. “I don’t think so,” Hercules advised as Iolaus managed to get the Spartan standing. “Now, where are we going?”
“That’s a half day’s walk. Think you can make it?” Hercules asked, his voice concerned as the Spartan clung to Iolaus and tried to take a staggering step.
“I can make it,” he answered with bravado.
“Good.” Hercules answered with an edge of uncertainty. “Have a name?” Iolaus heard the worry in Hercules’s voice, and knew that his friend didn’t want to be bringing the boy back dead and trying to find his family.
“Well Damon, let’s be on our way.” He went to slap the youth on the shoulder but stopped short when he saw Iolaus’s threatening glare.
“I’m coming back here. I’ll get those Eleans. You can count on that.” Damon blustered, still not able to stand unassisted.
“Uh huh,” Hercules answered as he reached around to help Iolaus.
And from the edge of the meadow Ares watched and laughed.
Iolaus gave up helping Damon when the youth reached the edge of Propontus. He knew how belittling it was to be carried, and neither he nor Hercules wanted to wound Damon’s pride any further.
The threesome walked through the market, Hercules watching for any sign of unsteadiness on Damon’s part and Iolaus watching the food stalls and pretty girls.
Damon tried to walk at a steady pace, still fuming and humiliated at being knocked unconscious.
“When I find that Elean who blindsided me I’m going to tear his lungs out!” Damon blustered as he stumbled, concentrating more on his words than maintaining his balance while his head spun wildly.
A vendor stepped forward, concerned. A towns man, he knew the youth’s parents years ago and had heard about the fighting. He reached out and placed a steadying hand against Damon’s chest.
“Feeling pain son?” he asked not bothering to hide the concern in his voice.
Damon felt his anger and humiliation rising hot and hard, and instead of thanking the old vendor turned, shouting in his face.
“What are you staring at? I don’t need your sympathy! No Spartan does!”
Iolaus shot a look of disdain to Hercules, who simply shook his head and grabbed Damon’s arm, pulling him upright.
“Right. I forgot.” Hercules suppressed a frown of judgment, turning his face away, but it wasn’t lost on Damon.
“You guys can forget pretending you’re heroes. The real Hercules would be bigger and stronger than you are.” He turned to face Iolaus. “And the real Iolaus wouldn’t be a regular guy like you, he’d seem more important.”
Damon’s face grew sullen as they reached the edge of the market square and entered the village. He let the two men escort him to a weathered wood frame house, small but tidy, standing as one of the first homes of the village.
“This is it. My Aunt should be here. She’s sort of a homebody,” Damon explained as his world swirled about him. His head throbbed and now that he was home he let down his guard and allowed himself to stumble up against an I beam that supported the roof of the small house.
Hercules reached out to support him, easing him down and he turned to Iolaus.
“Why don’t you stay with him? I’ll see if anyone’s a home.”
Iolaus nodded as Hercules knocked on the door and entered without waiting. Inside the rooms were dark and small, only a thin beam of light filtered through small windows. The dirt floor was hard packed and little dust rose up as he ventured cautiously inside.
“Hello,” he called. “Hello, is anyone home?” He scanned the interior and stepped further in, wondering if Damon had lied to him. “Huh, looks deserted,” he observed quietly.
Hercules never heard the footsteps as the figure of a powerful woman stepped out of the shadows, swooping in on him like a goshawk. Before he could even startle she had his great bulk lifted high over her head, one hand on his chest and the other applying pressure to his groin.
“Whoa, whoa! Hey, hey, hey!” Hercules called out as he felt the pressure of her hands shifting to maintain balance.
Iolaus, hearing the surprise in Hercules’s voice dashed in, stopping at the door as he stared in wonder at Atalanta, holding the demi-god over her head as effortlessly as if she was simply plumping a pillow. He crossed his arms on his chest, stifling a laugh as he watched Hercules’ face redden while Atalanta continued to hold him, her hands shifting, but never leaving his groin and chest.
“Hey Herc!” Atalanta said playfully, not bothering to hide the pleasure in her voice and giving him a little tweak as she turned her face up to his.
“Atalanta?” Hercules couldn’t keep the disbelief out of his voice. She was in Propontus?
“Looking good!” she crooned as she let her eyes wander across Hercules’s trapped frame. She let her hand push in on his muscles and crotch just enough to see his face redden more, not at all embarrassed to have him in this hold.
“Thanks,” was all Hercules could think to mumble, his face as red as a cook flame.
Iolaus chuckled and leaned back against the door frame. He would have enjoyed being in Hercules’s current position, even though his friend found Atalanta a bit too forward. Nothing like a pretty woman who knew what she wanted.
“Whatcha been doing,” Atalanta asked casually, letting her hair cascade back over her chaste dress.
“Oh, just hanging around,” Hercules laughed, finally finding the humor in the situation.
“How’s your mom?” Atalanta shifted again, setting her legs solidly as if in this new position she could hold him forever.
“Hera been giving you a hard time?” she queried, cocking her head, eyes twinkling as she tweaked him again.
“What?” she asked in reply to the inaudible mumble that escaped Hercules’s lips.
“Could you, uh, put me down please?” Hercules shifted to the side a little to relieve the pressure he was feeling.
“Oh, sorry,” Atalanta giggled, not feeling the remotest bit sorry for Herc’s discomfort. She let him down gently, lowering him as she would a set of weights, and as he dropped to her shoulders she slipped an arm around his own shoulders and another at his back to support him. Hercules seemed to almost drift down as she gracefully placed his feet on the floor.
“Thank you,” Hercules answered trying desperately to maintain some dignity in spite of Iolaus’s barely suppressed giggles.
Atalanta didn’t even cast a glance at Iolaus. Her eyes were occupied and she didn’t attempt to hide the lust she felt. Gods this man was a hunk!
“Yeah!” was her only response, and it left Hercules wondering if it was acknowledgement or simply a cry of victory.
He shook his head in wonder.
“You’re an Aunt?” Certainly not like any Hercules had ever had.
Hercules waited outside with Iolaus. The day was warm and the sun shone brightly as the few clouds in the sky skittered by like frightened kittens.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy that!” Iolaus laughed, arms crossed and eyebrows raised as he leaned against the house. “Your face wasn’t red from just embarrassment buddy!”
Hercules kicked the dirt. Atalanta was a fine looking woman, and nice too, good hearted.
But she wanted more than Hercules was ready to give, although he suspected that she’d settle for less for the time being.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Iolaus acknowledged with a sly smile. “But it doesn’t mean you didn’t enjoy it.”
Hercules was spared answering when Atalanta opened the door, her merry laugh spilling out before her and filling the air with her joy at seeing Hercules again.
“What’s so funny?” Hercules asked, wondering if she was in cahoots with Iolaus.
“Hercules!” she punched him in the arm, turning away the suspicion on his face. “It’s Damon. As soon as he hit the bed he was talking in his sleep. He kept saying ‘I can’t believe its Hercules’.”
Iolaus rolled his eyes. “Oh that line again!”
Atalanta grabbed Hercules arm and lead him away from the house, reaching for a hoe and placing it with workman like efficiency over her shoulder.
“I’m glad he took your word for it. He sure wasn’t going to take mine,” Hercules offered.
“To tell you the truth, he doesn’t usually put much stock in what I say. See, he thinks his aunt leads a dull life.”
Iolaus trotted along to keep up with the pace and turned a glance to Hercules. Atalanta’s frustration and sadness was evident in her voice, her downcast eyes.
“Do you agree?” Hercules asked although he suspected he knew the answer already. This wasn’t the leather clad, rough and ready blacksmith he remembered from his last visit. This Atalanta was positively demure, with a long covering dress and a lot less spirit.
“Yeah, I’m afraid so,” she spoke without looking up. “My life has been as boring as cold porridge since I came here.”
“That doesn’t sound like you,” Hercules observed. He picked up the sleeve of her aqua dress, heavy and concealing. “Come to think of it, this doesn’t look like you either.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t been in the mood to wear leather since Damon’s mother died. I thought he needed someone to take care of him, so I moved here.” She sighed heavily as she stopped at the community garden. Taking the hoe she attacked the soil with a vengeance, slicing away the weeds and loosening the soil around the roots of her plants.
Iolaus felt sorry for her. She’d been so vivacious and outgoing, so unafraid to reveal herself before. And now she was like every other woman in this village, in any village for that matter. Just one of a herd, caring for a child, a garden, a home. Eking out a living that was neither satisfying nor particularly desirable. It was a life she’d never asked for, and didn’t suit her.
“His father die too?” Iolaus asked gently.
“Yeah. My older brother. Another Spartan gone to the other side. Every time I go visit his grave I can’t help but think that Damon’s bound and determined to wind up right there next to him!” She stabbed at the ground angrily, but couldn’t hide her fear or the catch in her voice.
“Not all warriors die,” Hercules attempted to console her.
She whirled around to face him, eyes moist and mouth set in a grim straight line. “But Damon doesn’t care about anything except fighting. It’s not just his father’s death he’s trying to avenge; it’s the death of every Spartan who ever fell on a battlefield.” She paused, locking her eyes onto Hercules’s.
Iolaus remembered feeling that way too, when he was about Damon’s age. Youth and their feelings of immortality fueled Ares’s wars. And men like his father had kept the fuel coming, men who didn’t understand that there was more than one way to solve a disagreement.
“Someone’s got to stop this war,” Atalanta spoke solemnly.
“A lot of good men have tried,” Hercules returned.
“And died,” Iolaus added sadly, as the memories rose unbidden.
“But always by fighting!” Atalanta emphasized. “There’s got to be something else.”
Hercules looked past her, chased by his own thoughts. “I agree. There has to be a better way.”
“Maybe you two are the ones who can find it,” Atalanta spoke urgently as she slipped an arm around Hercules waist and turned to head back to town, her vegetable bed tended.
At the Elean camp a ragged group of men assembled at the call of a horn, forming a straight line in front of their commander. The men tried to stand straight, but they were sore from the fight, and some were still nursing open wounds. But the commander had called and that took precedence over personal comfort.
Tarkon stood glaring at his men, an imposing figure wearing the horned helmet of a Nordic warrior. Legend among his men told of Tarkon beheading its wearer in a fierce battle at sea many years ago. Not that it was true, but Tarkon preferred his men to believe it. It was certainly a better story than his wife had given it to him.
Tarkon paced angrily in front of the rag tag band of men, his eyes locked on theirs. They had not defeated the enemy Spartans, and though the battle had ended a draw, nothing short of victory was acceptable to Ares. And Tarkon wanted his men to realize that they were indeed fighting Ares’s battle.
He had heard the murmur of his men that Hercules was undefeatable, and his midget spy had reported that the men were disheartened. If Hercules was fighting with the Spartans then how could they win? So they had run when they could have had victory, and the glory and the weapons that Ares had promised if they’d won would now be denied. Tarkon did not tolerate cowardice.
He stood tall and angry, facing his men with a scowl, his body trembling with rage and the men knew they were in serious trouble.
“I don’t care if it was Hercules! Which one of you ran first?”
He was greeted by a squirming wall of silence, no eyes upon him.
“Nobody ran. Is that what your silence is saying?” He paused and ran his eyes down the line. They’d tell him. “Then you’re a pack of spineless liars! Tell me who it is or you will all pay for his cowardice!”
A few of the men cringed, and those who had been with Tarkon longest knew that he meant business, and that paying wouldn’t be with money. But they also knew that there was no way this was going to work to anyone’s advantage except Tarkon’s, so the more experienced warriors stood mutely, eyes straight as the newer recruits danced nervously from foot to foot. Finally one of the newest mercenaries stepped forward.
“It was him!” He nodded to another young man a bit further down the line.
The accused fighter growled, his face twisting into a mask of fear and anger. “Blow it out your ear!” He responded, leaning to his accuser.
“Easy to talk tough now!” The first man roared back.
“You’re crazy!” the accused shot back as he stepped threateningly forward.
The accuser was shaken. He could see by Tarkon’s expression that he wasn’t gaining any favor. Desperate for help he turned to the man next to him.
“You saw him, didn’t you Brontus? He ran like a rabbit as soon as he heard Hercules’s name.”
The accused soldier was weakening as Tarkon approached, his face icy, decision already made. “It wasn’t me! No Tarkon, it wasn’t me. I swear it wasn’t!”
“He’s a liar!” The accuser shouted as the silence of the room caused his voice to echo.
The accused soldier was sweating. He backed away from Tarkon as the leader stepped forward. But it was the wrong move. Tarkons second was behind the soldier and in the blink of an eye he had run his blade completely through the soldier.
“No!” the man groaned softly as he slumped bonelessly to the dirt floor of Tarkons tent.
Tarkon wheeled around to face the solder who so quickly sold out his comrade in arms.
“There! That’s how cowards are dealt with in the Elean army! As for those who betray their comrade’s secrets - - - no matter how terrible - - “Tarkon raised an eyebrow at his second, who now stood behind the traitor.
The second wielded his knife with a swiftness born of experience, and the accuser had time for only the shortest of screams as he too fell in a twisted heap at Tarkons feet.
“They die too,” Tarkon finished as he let his stare slip down the faces of the row of men. “The rest of you should learn to keep your own counsel, the way Brontus did.” He nodded in approval at the young warrior who had had struck the Spartan Damon on the head, the last to flee.
“From this moment on everything you do, EVERYTHING must be about pleasing Ares. The God of War was angered by your failure today. There’s only one way to appease that anger - - - by killing Hercules.
Ares strutted behind Tarkon, unseen by the leader or his men. He held his head high and looked across at the bedraggled men wondering if they were indeed worth his time. But they were mortals, toys for the gods, so maybe he would keep playing with them. Ares paced unseen, considering them.
Certainly the leader, Tarkon, was loyal to him, and the men had fought well up to the point of Hercules’s arrival, especially the young Brontus; now there was a soldier with potential. He had not been put off by the measly half god, attacking the Spartan Damon even while he was at Hercules side.
Hercules! Now that was the kink in the plan. Propontus had been the perfect place for his next battle to be fought. There was that wonderful tract of green land, small hills for charging up so more men would die and valleys for the blood to pool in. But now Hercules was in Propontus and it didn’t bode well for his plans. Well, he’d just have to prove that he was the stronger, in spite in half brother’s reputation.
To the victor goes the spoils, and in this case it could very well be that sexy blacksmith who mooned over Hercules so. Ares licked his lips. Come to think of it, she was quick, strong, and beautiful much like a certain raven haired warrior princess who he once claimed as his own - - - until Hercules intervened! Well Atalanta would be his. The battle would be fought at Propontus and the Eleans would beat the Spartans. They were just SO rigid in their thinking, leaning to Hercules. They’d find out, you don’t bet against the God of War.
Yes, this could be good.
Iolaus walked through town at Hercules’s side, keeping a wary eye on the town’s people. Atalanta was going to check on Damon and would meet them later back at the house. But Hercules was having one of those feelings, that his relatives were somehow involved and that he was therefore responsible to negate their evils.
Everyone in town seemed to be squabbling, Iolaus noted. No one was happy with prices, and while bartering was common, this was simply sniping and insulting. He stopped and shook his head as a middle aged man, cursed an older woman, unhappy about the price of her chickens, but when he screamed HAG! into her face, and she reciprocated by fighting back Iolaus had about enough.
“Hey break it up!” Iolaus called out, pushing the man away from the elderly woman. He turned an angry glare at the man and positioned himself between the two combatants, not even bothering to hide the disgust on his face.
“Mind your own business!” the man spat and Hercules stepped over to Iolaus’s side.
“What’s wrong with you people?” Hercules flung his hands out widely, turning to encompass the market place. “Is this all this village does is fight? Why don’t you talk about it instead of beating each other senseless?”
Iolaus and Hercules stood side by side, facing down the crowd, ignoring the murmurs of discontent as the people, who knew enough not to contend with the demigod and his partner, backed down.
The market place grew quieter, and people kept to themselves as Hercules and Iolaus decided to walk on. They kept an their ears open for conflict, and though the undercurrent of anger was palpable there were no more outbursts as they walked out of the marketplace.
“What’s eating them?” Iolaus snorted as he headed towards the woods, thinking that a nice gift of a few rabbits for supper would please Atalanta, and there was a woman he didn’t want to anger.
“I don’t know,” Hercules, mused. “But if my radar is right it’s more than the prices that are getting under the skins of these people.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Iolaus sighed. “It sure seems like they’re over reacting. I mean, what man in his right mind would call an old woman a hag because she needed to sell her chickens?”
“Maybe she was his mother in law,” Hercules joked, catching Iolaus’s eye.
“Ha. But what are we going to do about it?”
“Iolaus, I don’t know yet.” Hercules admitted. “But something will come to us, it always does.”
Iolaus slipped stealthily through the grasses, pausing at the huge tree trunks on the edge of the woods. Rabbits like grass, and if he was going to find a few it would be here in this magnificent meadow. The sun glistened off the small break in the woods and Iolaus crouched low, scanning for telltale holes and listening for the small scurrying steps of his prey.
Hercules crouched low behind him. In all his time with Iolaus he had never gotten the hang of rabbit hunting. Fishing - - - piece of baklava, quail - - - a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but rabbits, they were different. They frightened easily. They didn’t run in a straight line and they never ventured far from their burrows. Besides that they were quick. And Hercules had to admit that Iolaus was quicker that he was. Maybe it had to do with size and compactness, but Iolaus never saw a rabbit that he couldn’t catch and Hercules admired him for this. One of these days he’d learn to catch a rabbit with the finesse of his buddy, but until then he was content to watch and learn.
The two men silently scanned the field. Iolaus watched the grasses, to see if they moved differently from the wind direction. Hercules followed Iolaus’s glance. Iolaus pointed silently and Hercules saw it, a small area where the grass was beaten down, a parting of the blades and two long furry ears. Hercules nodded and as Iolaus started to slip stealthily forward.
Iolaus was nearing the rabbit, almost within reach of its ears. The hunting knife hung ready at his belt as the rabbit chewed contentedly at the soft green grass. Just as Iolaus silently reached out to grab his supper, the rabbit sat up. It had heard something, certainly not Iolaus. The two men turned to each other as the rabbit hopped its zigzag path back to safety. They both heard what had caught the rabbit’s attention. Some one was coming into the clearing.
At the other side of the clearing two young boys emerged from the opposite edge of the woods, arguing.
“You’re not listening to me!” the small blonde shot back at his taller friend, grabbing his arm to stop him.
“Yes I am, and I’m better than you!” the taller boy shot back with a challenging glare.
“You are not!” the smaller child refuted indignantly.
“I am so!” the argument continued. “And I’ll prove it!”
Yeah?” the smaller boy spoke with newfound triumph in his voice. “Then I’ll race you to that big tree over there. Then you’ll see that I’m faster than you are. Come on! I’ll even let you say when.”
The bigger boy looked down at his friend, a smile splitting his face, quickly replaced by his game face. He crouched in position.
“Ok. Ready, set, go!”
The two boys burst away from their starting places, legs pumping hard and breath coming in spurts. They ran with bounding steps through the grasses, and when the taller pulled in front, the smaller dug deep and ran harder, faster pulling right alongside his friend. The two boys reached the tree at the same time, dropping to the ground winded.
“We tied!” the smaller called out victorious, and reached his hand out to the taller boy, who grasped it and pulled his friend upright again.
The boys turned back to the way they had come, talking easily and stepping confidently, heads together as if in a childhood conspiracy as Hercules shot Iolaus a glance.
Iolaus looked back, wonder in his eyes. This was better than a rabbit; it might even be an answer to their problem.
“That’s it!” Hercules declared as he clapped Iolaus on the back.
Hercules and Iolaus caught up with Atalanta in the village market where she was buying some fresh vegetables to go with the rabbits Iolaus had slung over his shoulder.
“Races?” Atalanta questioned Hercules as she hefted a tomato in her hand. “Like you and me running to see who’s the fastest?”
“Right,” Iolaus cut in. “But there could be more events than that. You could throw the javelin or discus and I don’t know, how about a jumping contest?”
Atalanta put the tomato into her basket and turned to Hercules.
“No body gets hurt or killed.” She remarked.
Hercules stared across at Damon, a challenge on his face. “No, it’s speed and strength that determines the best warrior, not swords.”
Damon stared back, tightlipped.
“I think that sounds great, guys,” Atalanta smiled as she gave Hercules’s arm a squeeze. “How’d you two ever come up with an idea like that?”
Hercules stared directly into Damon’s eyes, speaking more to him than to Atalanta. “We saw two kids who were smart enough to realize that they didn’t have to fight to decide who was faster. They raced.”
Damon snorted. “Kids?”
“Mm-hmm.” Hercules kept his stare on Damon.
“Don’t knock em Damon, you’re still one yourself,” Atalanta observed, joining the staring contest.
“That’s not what the Spartans say,” the youth retorted.
“Oh, yeah. That’s right, you’re a Spartan. But you’re a young one.” Atalanta didn’t try to hide the sarcasm.
“I don’t have to listen to this!” Damon retorted angrily, unable to find a better response to his Aunt’s logic.
“Try, it might save your life.” Iolaus leaned into the youth raising his eyebrows.
Damon, surrounded by people who cared, felt trapped. All he’d wanted for the longest while was to avenge the death of his parents, and as a Spartan, he felt as if he could do just that. He didn’t care about himself, only about righting the wrongs of his past.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” he retorted, letting the sass slip out unintended. He saw the hurt shadow across his Aunt Atalanta’s face and felt sorry that he’d used that tone of voice, but not the words.
Iolaus stepped in. “Not many warriors are until they’re actually doing it. But you CAN postpone the experience.”
“Yeah, if you do what we’re talking about,” Hercules added. Atalanta crossed her arms over her chest and the trio cast their eyes as one on Damon.
Damon stood facing them off, unspeaking, jaw jutting.
“I think he’s afraid of being tested physically,” Atalanta observed as if Damon was nothing more than a little experiment. “What do you think?” she asked the men.
Iolaus grabbed a piece of fruit and bit into it, tossing a dinar down to the vendor. He chewed thoughtfully and answered. “It’s a possibility.”
Damon could take no more. “Hey what do you want me to do?” he shouted in frustration. “Just name it. Anything at all.”
Hercules stared over at Atalanta with a knowing grin. His eyes shifted down to her ample breasts, two of her best weapons, and then back up to her eyes. She answered his grin with a knowing one of her own.
“Anything?” they asked in unison.”
Damon paced in the main room of his Aunt’s house. This whole thing was a stupid idea, and if they hadn’t questioned his manhood, he wouldn’t ever have agreed to this.
“I can’t arm wrestle you, you’re my Aunt!” he protested.
“Sit down!” Atalanta ordered, broaching no argument. She pointed at the small table where they took their meals.
Damon turned to Hercules, his chin raised proudly and his chest puffed out. “Hercules, will you talk some sense into her? She’s got to realize that no mere woman can beat a Spartan.”
Iolaus laughed out loud, not able to stifle it and crossed his arms on his chest. This was going to be good. The kid was clueless.
Damon shot him a glance that might have withered a lesser man, but Iolaus merely grinned and tipped his head to the boy.
Hercules raised a hand in defeat and replied, “Ah, good luck”.
“Sit down!” Atalanta ordered again and this time Damon complied.
“This is crazy,” Damon muttered under his breath as his Aunt leaned over the table.
“Are you ready?” Iolaus asked, his eyes twinkling with the promise of a wonderful surprise.
“Just one second,” Atalanta stopped them. She stood in front of the three men, and reaching up to her shoulder released the catch that held on the loose fitting and concealing dress she wore. The fine aqua material dropped away, slipping off her body like a wave lapping the warm sandy shore and Damon gasped as he saw his Aunt in all her glory for the very first time.
It was an eye opening experience.
Atalanta stood before him wearing nothing more than a skimpy leather outfit that barely concealed the magnificent full breasts, the slender hips and long legs. Her body was even more muscular than Hercules’s, its every contour sharply defined by lean power from great genetics and years of working a forge. Her shoulders were broad and her silken hair fell against them and slipped down her back like a waterfall, and below her slim hips Damon could see that her buttocks were partly exposed by the brevity of the costume, and even those were rock hard.
“Aunt Atalanta!” he gasped, his eyes finally settling on her breasts which she made sure were strategically at eye level
Hercules simply smiled knowingly at the lad’s response, but Iolaus laughed in appreciation.
“Secret weapons,” Iolaus acknowledged as Damon tore his eyes away from his Aunt. “I think you could stand to find out a lot about your Aunt, and women in general too.”
Atalanta stood strong, taking her seat across from her Nephew.
“Put your eyes back in your head and listen to me. If I beat you, you’re going to quit acting like you’ve got a death wish, and you’re going to compete in these games Hercules and Iolaus thought up. Can you live with that?” She leaned forward and Damon dropped his eyes from her face, and then quickly pulled them back up. “Well Damon, can you?”
Damon sat speechless, knowing suddenly that he had the disadvantage here and that he’d been set up, but unable to take his eyes off his Aunt. What a strange secret she’d kept from him all this time! She had given up a life he’d never even thought to ask about to come take care of him, and he’d treated her with the derision that all Spartans reserved for women. If he’d been wrong about this, what else had he been wrong about?
“Uh, Damon?” Iolaus waved a hand in front of the young man’s face to get his attention. “We both know how distracting your Aunt can be. Ask Herc, he had a face full too. But you have to come back to us here and answer the question.”
“Huh?” Damon responded, stunned. “Uh, you want it, you got it.” He shook his head to clear his mind.
“All right, you both ready?” Hercules asked wanting to get started.
Damon stared fiercely at his Aunt’s beautiful face, seeing her for the first time as the powerful and kind woman she really was, and tried to put on a fierce face. It wouldn’t do to arm wrestle her in a less than Spartan state of mind.
“Say when,” he answered as he clasped his Aunt’s hand in his own.
“When.” Hercules called.
Atalanta slammed his hand to the table before Damon could even think to push back, and he felt a twinge of discomfort in his shoulder from the strength of her push. Atalanta sat quietly staring across the table at her Nephew, her face alert and playful.
“How’d you do that?” Damon asked, unable to keep the shock out of his voice as his final illusions of his aunt were shattered.
“Didn’t spend all those years as a blacksmith for nothing,” Atalanta answered, cocking an eyebrow. “Now how about the games?”
“Uh, sure,” Damon stuttered. “Just as long as I get to race you sometime.”
Iolaus walked over to Damon clapping him on the back, knowing that the boy was trying desperately not to lose face.
“Damon, even Hercules lost to her.”
The youth nodded dumbly as Hercules turned to Atalanta.
“Is there a place around here for that?” He asked
“Yeah, let me show you,” Atalanta offered. She glanced over at Damon, concern etching her beautiful face. She’d only wanted to save his life, change his mind about war, not strip him of all his pride.
“Damon, don’t worry about losing.” she spoke softly. “It’s true. I did beat Hercules once, but I had to use more than my arm.”
Hercules chuckled. “I think Iolaus can tell you about that. Come on, we’ve got some games to set up.”
Atalanta lead the men through the woods behind her modest home, following a trail so faint that even Iolaus would have had to slow down to find it in places. The trees were old, broad and tall and there was little new growth on the forest floor, the canopy was so full. The sun broke through in small freckles on the soft loamy soil as the group stepped carefully around the briars and mushrooms that that needed so little light that only they could flourish here. Each step kicked up a small cloud of rotted leaves and the air around them was scented with wet vegetation and so very cool that Iolaus felt a chill across his bare arms.
Atalanta’s steps slowed, even though the trail was now clear, and Iolaus figured they were getting close to the place she’d told them about, deep in the woods.
“I really don’t like this man we’re going to see,” she admitted to Hercules.
“Maybe I should have come here by myself,” he spoke as an after thought, wishing she’d told him this sooner. For Atalanta to be concerned, as strong and capable as she was, was disconcerting.
She read the thought on Hercules’s mind and sought to reassure him. “No it’s not that, it’s just he’s so strange.”
“Strange?” Hercules questioned.
“Well let me put it this way,” Atalanta said. “He keeps trying to look up my skirt.”
Iolaus laughed as he watched her from behind, or he watched her behind, he wasn’t sure which, since she’d elected to lose the dress for good and stick with her old standard of skimpy leather. All the better to move in, she’d said, and Iolaus had heartily agreed, taking a position behind her.
“Oh like that’s gonna get better when he sees you now,” Iolaus remarked.
“And what’s so strange about that?” Hercules added.
“Hercules!” Atalanta laughed, as she grabbed at his arms, wrestling a bit playfully then releasing. She shook her finger at him and went to punch his arm, but Hercules twirled out of reach.
Atalanta’s eyes twinkled with delight, and Iolaus could see how much she cared about Hercules. Hers would be an unrequited love, he thought sadly, and perhaps she knows that, because Hercules cares too much for her to put her in Hera’s way.
Iolaus watched as Hercules laughed back, grabbing Atalanta into his arms and called to her, “It’s a joke!” He could see that Hercules cared deeply for Atalanta too. But Iolaus knew Atalanta had her own path to follow, and Hercules would not set her up as a target. The hunter could feel Hercules’s pain as he released her, and could see just a bit of the light leave Atalanta’s eyes as well as they separated.
She turned, “Don’t start with me,” she laughed over her shoulder, trying to cover her feelings and pushed though a small area of undergrowth where the light filtered through a bit more. Iolaus could see that a clearing was ahead, at the edge of which stood a small shack, like a caretaker’s cottage, and this was where Atalanta was headed.
Atalanta touched Hercules’s shoulder, enjoying the warm feel of his skin and firmness of his muscles, and knocked on the decrepit door with the other.
“Hey Psoriasis,” she called out. “Are you home?”
“Psoriasis?” Hercules shot a glance over at Iolaus who answered it with a shrug.
From inside, a voice that was naggingly familiar called back, “Who is it?”
“It’s Atalanta,” she called to the closed door, and turned, shooting a grin over her shoulder to Hercules.
The familiar voice grew closer. “Oh yes!” it answered smoothly, and Hercules almost thought he heard the drip of saliva as the handle turned. “Coming my dear, coming,” the voice continued. There was a muffled “oof”, a falling sound, then “Oh my where did that rock come from? This place is such a mess!”
Hercules listened, his head cocked to the side, almost sure he knew whom the voice belonged to, but Iolaus simply leaned back against a tree and laughed, waiting for the door to open as the handle shook. He knew exactly who the voice belonged to, but wasn’t about to blow the surprise. Psoriasis indeed!
“Salmoneous?” Hercules wasn’t able to keep the surprise out of his voice.
“Shhh! Shhh!” the disheveled little salesman cautioned, a finger to his lips and a look of surprise on his own face, as he hurriedly ushered the three guests into the shack. “Someone might be watching! Hurry up, come on, come on!”
Hercules could hear the fear in the smaller man’s voice, saw him check behind Hercules to see if there was someone else there, a threat perhaps?
Salmoneous ushered them in with a quick wave of his hand, and a finger still on his lips.
Hercules had to duck as he entered the door. The shack was small; only two rooms from the look of it, and the whole thing seemed to be in an incredible state of disrepair. There was little in the way of furniture, and a mossy bench seemed the place where they were all supposed to sit. Through the roof, beams of sunlight streamed through the pinprick holes where the shingles had started to rot, dotting the carpet of dirt and old leaves. In a corner was a fine blanket, folded in the shape of a bed roll. The whole place had the stench of mold, of wet leaves and moist soil, simply a forest inside a hut, and Hercules wondered what had brought Salmoneus this low.
“Psoriasis?” Hercules asked. This wasn’t the man who had been his eyes when he was blind, who had managed to somehow befriend Xena when she was still a warrior, and who had helped Iolaus fight Darphus when he wanted to kill the Warrior Princess.
“Yeah,” Salmoneus stumbled over the words, turning his back so he wouldn’t have to face Hercules. “An alias is sometimes necessary in my line of work.”
Atalanta placed a hand uncertainly on Hercules shoulder and he turned to her in explanation. “He’s a traveling salesman.”
“I knew I couldn’t trust him!” Atalanta sighed in frustration as she stared solemnly across at Salmoneus.
“I wouldn’t go that far - - -“Hercules started, but Salmoneus cut him off.
“I’m so misunderstood!” He threw his hands up in the air and turned away, pacing across the small room and finally turned back.
Atalanta meanwhile had taken a seat on the log, as casually as if she’d done the same thing a number of times.
Salmoneus turned to her, staring lasciviously at her leather clad body, so hard and muscular and so exposed. He leaned towards her, his eyes meeting hers. “In matters of the heart, I’m loyal, dependable - - -and very inventive. And may I say, you’ve never looked lovelier my dear?”
Iolaus snorted as Atalanta stuck out an arm and pushed Salmoneous gently but firmly out of the way.
”Why don’t we just stick to business?”
“Huh, business?” Salmoneus tried to sound innocent.
“Yeah, you know, like why you need an alias?” Hercules reminded him.
“Oh.” Salmoneus cleared his throat. He turned to face the still standing Hercules. “Well, I was on the Aegean Peninsula conducting games of chance, you know the shell game? And the locals couldn’t find the shell with the pea under it. Repeatedly. They thought I was trying to cheat them!” Salmoneus tried his best to sound righteous and hurt at the same time.
“Imagine that!” Iolaus piped in, raising an eyebrow.
“They didn’t just run me out of town; they’re still looking for me, which is why I’m hiding here on my brother in law’s estate.”
Hercules’s head was spinning. Salmoneus had a way with the language. He could speak so fast and so convincingly that it was easy to get sucked in and lose track of the full picture.
“Wait!” Hercules said, holding up a hand. “The same brother in law that ran the den of iniquity?”
“You remembered him?” Salmoneus lit up. “He’d be flattered!”
Atalanta shifted and the smell of the crushed moss rose perfuming the air. The room was cool and Atalanta drew her arms around herself for warmth.
“He shouldn’t be,” Hercules intoned, unable to keep the judgment out of his voice as he turned away.
“Look Psoriasis,” Atalanta interjected as he sat down next to her, snuggling up close, ostensibly to keep her warm. Hercules lifted an eyebrow, and Iolaus wondered if there was a streak of jealousy rising.
“Salmoneus,” the traveling salesman answered as he pressed his shoulder close to hers and stared mooningly up at her.
“Whatever,” Atalanta said, but her voice softened. She could see that he meant no harm, and if truth be told, it was nice to have a man pay attention to her without feeling as if it was a competition.
“Why don’t you just show Hercules the place?”
“What place?” Salmoneus asked, genuinely puzzled. Certainly not this shack, a come down if ever there was one.
“The open field,” Atalanta urged. Hercules wants to put it to good use.”
“Oh, that place!” Salmoneus felt on more solid ground now. Here was something he could sell with ease. “My pleasure.” He turned to Atalanta. “Did I mention that your golden gorgeousness makes my teeth hurt?”
Atalanta had heard enough. She stood, walking over to Hercules and taking his hand, making her allegiance known.
Salmoneus never expected that. He’d been pushing closer, all the better to touch that gorgeous body with his own. When Atalanta stood, the bench became unbalanced and Salmoneus slid as it tipped, falling in a soft lump to the wet earth below.
“He never quits.” Atalanta shrugged as she took Hercules hand more tightly in her own and led him out.
The land was lush and green, a large rolling field with a smattering of trees. The grasses were tall, unclipped by the teeth of farm animals, making for a cleaner playing area. A light breeze ruffled through the seeding grass and wild flowers and their perfume scented the air. Iolaus couldn’t help but think that this spot was simply a little piece of Elysium, and if he searched closely enough he might find Ania and the boys, Deineira and Herc’s kids hiding in the grass.
He forged into the field, letting the grasses brush against his boots and the leather pants that guarded his thighs. Breathing in deeply he closed his eyes and pictured what it would be like to have a gathering of competitors here. He’d shoot his arrows with accuracy that defied anyone to best him. And run: he’d speed across the rough ground, feeling the smoothness of the grasses and the push of the wind at his back, nothing more than encouragement for him to finish first. This was the perfect place. He could feel it in his bones.
It was as if Hercules could read his partner’s thoughts. He turned to the blonde, eyes wide in glad surprise. “This is perfect,” he breathed. “I can’t believe that no one has ever found a use for such a beautiful place!”
Iolaus laughed, the sheer beauty sucking him in, filling him with energy and hope. He ran. Up the hill, over rough spots and even spots he shot like a small cannon ball, legs pumping and arms tight to his body. The wind lifted his golden curls, and as he reached the summit, he raised his arms in victory, a smile splitting his handsome face.
Hercules’s breath caught in his throat. Even though Atalanta reached for his hand, he couldn’t take his eyes off Iolaus. This man represented all that was good and honorable, strong, faithful and kind, all that was mortal. As he raised his arms victorious, the sun glinted off him like a gold medal, the rays reaching down as if even Olympus was caressing him. Iolaus was the spirit of competition, and as Hercules stared up at him he knew in his heart that if this former warrior could take such glee in games, so could the Spartans and Eleans.
Atalanta let her eyes fall away from Hercules and she scanned the surroundings, focusing on the best spots for each event and wondering how many competitors would show up.
“The Gods probably never thought this would be anything except a battlefield,” she murmured, wondering how many had died on this spot in all the years of its existence.
Salmoneus watched Hercules as he stared thoughtfully at Iolaus, and then shifted his eyes to the beautiful Atalanta. Now here was a woman who was pinning her sights on the wrong man. Why Hercules liked her, sure, but he wouldn’t settle down, at least not for a while. Even Salmoneous could feel the restlessness in the big man and besides the chemistry wasn’t right. Now he, on the other hand would settle here and now if only Atalanta would give him a second glance.
“Very inspiring, huh?” he said as he clapped Hercules on the back hard enough to dislodge Atalanta’s hand from the demigod’s.
“Yeah,” Hercules answered almost absently as he continued to stare at Iolaus, who now stood hands at his side, surveying the area from the heights.
“Now if there’s a way to make a dinar here, I’m all for it,” Sal started, thinking that if he was going to risk exposure while he was in hiding, perhaps a little compensation was in order.
Hercules watched Iolaus start to descend the hill, and then turned to face Salmoneous.
“I’m sorry, Salmoneus. This is strictly a non profit event.” He fixed his eyes on the traveling salesman’s and saw a measure of disappointment showing there.
“Non profit?” Salmoneous stumbled over the words, momentarily stunned.
“Mmm.” Hercules nodded as he turned his focus back to Iolaus who was racing pell mell down the hill, arms and legs pumping and hair flying along behind him like a kite’s tail. He saw Iolaus hurdle over a fallen tree, and reach unfalteringly for a broken branch that lay in front of him. Never losing a step, he hurled the branch like a spear and sent it flying, only to land imbedded in the ground at Hercules’s feet.
“Non profit!” Salmoneous stuttered out in astonishment. “Uh, uh, excuse me. No, no no, I - I think I deserve to have a return - - - for my labor invested. Don’t you agree?” He turned to Atalanta for support, drawing close to her. She smelled so sweet, so floral, and so feminine that Salmoneous couldn’t help himself. He sniffed her shoulder, wishing he could do much more than that.
“Uh-uh. I’m not part of anybody’s bargain,” Atalanta warned him as she stepped away and fixed a warning eye on Salmoneous.
“Just a thought,” Sal sighed, wishing that for once she might reciprocate even a teeny tiny bit of feeling for him.
“What do you think we should call these games?” Hercules asked absently as he watched Iolaus run down the final descent, nearing the spot where they all stood. This just might work.
Salmoneous, still feeling the sting of Atalanta’s rebuke answered quickly. “Give me a moment - - - how about the Salmoneous games?”
Hercules shot him a warning glance, trying to keep the disdain off his face.
“No, no, no. We can’t. I’m sorry,” Salmoneous stuttered again, feeling Hercules’s judgment. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ve got these sore losers there after me.”
Hercules shot him another look, and then turned back to a panting Iolaus as his partner stopped, grabbing Hercules’s arm for support.
“No, no, no. We should call it,” he paused as he stared off in the distance where the snow capped Mount Olympus rose majestically, tall and sharply peaked, seeming to almost tear a hole in the sky. “We should call it the Olympics.”
Salmoneous glanced over at Hercules, trying to judge his response. “It’s majestic. It’s evocative. It’s - - - it’s Olympian. Unless this brings up your family troubles?” Salmoneous tried to cover all his tracks.
Hercules turned to Salmoneous in surprise and pleasure. “No, I like it. The Olympics.”
Atalanta clapped Salmoneous on the back, unaware of his innate creativeness. “I can’t believe you were finally good for something.”
Salmoneous stretched so that he could be closer to Atalanta, but Hercules stepped between them.
“Oh, I’m good for so many things,” he said with an encouraging smile.
Hercules brought himself back to the here and now as Iolaus paced, cooling off in front of him, a happy grin announcing his approval.
”Now that we’ve got something to offer them, we’d better go find out what the Spartans and Eleans think of it.” He shot warning glance at Salmoneous who was trying to caress Atalanta’s arm.
“Uh, Salmoneous? Don’t do anything that might make Atalanta hurt you, okay?”
“I should be so lucky!” he shot back, knowing that his words were spoken truthfully.
Atalanta reached around Hercules and administered a fierce backhand to Salmoneous’s chest.
“Uh!” Sal responded as he breath was knocked out of him. Iolaus laughed and pulled him back, away from Atalanta’s reach.
There was an uneasy stillness lying heavily over the Elean camp. The executions of the two soldiers had cast a pall among the remaining men, and they stayed in their tents, away from Tarkon’s view, fearing that his wrath would not be satisfied unless more died.
And indeed they were wise to do that, as Tarkon was restless, pacing in his own tent and letting his mind rerun the battle. He feared Ares as much as he worshipped the God of War. Ares wasn’t satisfied with mere victory; it was bloodshed that he craved. And if he didn’t get it, Tarkon knew that he would be the next sacrifice.
“It’s our way of life that Hercules is threatening,” his second in command spoke earnestly, hoping to sooth Tarkon. ‘We’ll spill no more blood unless we do something about him soon.”
“Soon yeah, but not before we - - -“Tarkon was interrupted by the arrival of Brontus, the soldier who had fought so bravely against the Spartans, unafraid of Hercules.
“Tarkon,” The young soldier addressed his leader with fervent eyes and a slight bow of the head. “Our scouts tell us that Hercules is still in Propontus.”
Tarkon stared with interest at Brontus. Now here was something he might be able to use.
“They better know why he’s staying, or they aren’t doing us much good.” Tarkon’s voice came out in a low growl, like a dog warning of its intention to bite.
“There’s talk of a woman,” Brontus offered, daring to stare directly into Tarkon’s eyes now.
“Then he’s distracted,” the second in command offered too quickly. “We should appeal to Ares for a weapon that will finish Hercules once and for all.”
“No!” Tarkon barked. “I don’t want the God of War thinking we can’t take care of business by ourselves.”
“I’m not afraid of Hercules!” Brontus interjected. “Even when those with me ran away, I stayed to strike one last blow on the Spartans.”
“You were the last man back here. I’ll grant you that.” Tarkon rubbed his chin thoughtfully. This boy may be of use, he thought.
“And I’ll be the first to attack them!”
Tarkon liked the young man’s vigor, his self confidence. It would serve them both well.
“The first of many,” Tarkon spoke knowingly as he put a hand on Brontus’s shoulder. “Brontus, find out what Hercules is up to, come.” He led the young warrior to the fire outside his tent.
Ares watched from his scrying glass. Foolish half brother with his little mortal toy! The Olympic games, how corny could you get? But of course Hercules was going to try and sell the idea to real warriors. Ever the peacemaker.
Ares continued staring into the glass pensively, with his well muscled arms crossed over his chest. Brontus. This was a mortal that may have some future use, he thought. If Tarkon failed to get the job done, and that weasel of a half brother actually pulled off his childish games he would have to punish the Elean leader. But that might be fun, he grinned to himself as he thought of how the man would squeal when he tortured him. If he didn’t just reduce him to ashes.
Ares waved a hand dismissively at the scrying glass, and the crystal clear picture faded to a swirling fog. He turned and shook the cascade of jet black curls, feeling them tumble against his neck. Tarkon was a fool if he actually thought he could defeat Hercules without Ares’s help. But then, Tarkon was a mortal.
Ares paced restlessly, the smoke from the candles swirling around him like dust devils. Perhaps he should pay a visit to Tarkon. That would shake up the mortal, and hopefully fuel the Eleans for dynamite battle. Lot’s of blood. Too bad the Spartans would lose the games.
Hercules had decided to visit the Spartans and issue them an invitation to the games. Iolaus would visit the Eleans. Not that Hercules wanted it that way, Iolaus had insisted. The Eleans were more likely to listen to him than to Hercules, since they were likely working for Ares and on the watch for the demi god. And besides he was smaller, sneakier, far less threatening in size and demeanor and would be able to slip into their camp easier if need be.
So Hercules set out for the Spartan camp with Damon at his side instead of Iolaus, and worried about his partner going alone against Ares’s chosen warriors of the moment. He tried to reassure himself with thoughts of Iolaus’s unique ability to relate to almost anyone, his congenial demeanor, and if worse came to worst, his amazing eastern self defense techniques.
Hercules had convinced himself that Iolaus would be fine by the time he came to the Spartan camp. He couldn’t dwell on his partner and pay attention to what he was doing, so he simply trusted Iolaus’s instincts as he had so many times in the past.
He walked into the Spartan camp unstopped as the guards, recognizing him, stood with their mouths open. Only one man stepped out to greet him, a powerfully built older man with the relaxed confidence of a born leader.
“Hello Taphius,” Hercules greeted the man with a nod.
“Been a long time, Hercules,” Taphius acknowledged.
“The battle of Dardania, if memory serves me.” Hercules met the leader’s eyes with a knowing stare of his own, and they shared a glance that told of tales better left untold.
“I have the scars to prove it,” Taphius confirmed as Hercules’s eyes dropped to the older man’s flank area, where he knew those scars painted a ragged outline that had once almost displayed a kidney.
The glance wasn’t lost on Damon. “See Hercules! That’s how I want to live! The hot blood of combat surging through my veins.” Damon’s intensity and desire to be like his leader shone through the vehemence of his words.
Hercules turned to the young man, who stood proudly under Taphius’s solemn stare.
“Sometimes a mans only choice is to fight. That doesn’t mean he should make a living out of it.” Hercules clapped a hand down on Damon’s shoulder.
“He’s right Damon,” Taphius confirmed.
Damon’s fierce glare almost bore through the older man. “What about all the times you said you wished you were a young warrior again?” he countered.
“It was my youth I wanted back, not the battles I spent it on!” Taphius shook his head sadly and rubbed his side. His bones hurt more nights than not and the ground never got softer, though his body seemed to feel it more acutely.
“I could never believe that!” Damon answered, taken aback. How could he have been so wrong? Perhaps his leader was saying this for Hercules’s benefit.
“Well you should,” Taphius warned, a sad sigh escaping his lips. He turned to Hercules. “Now what’s this proposition you’re talking about?”
“Olympics?” Taphius echoed, not quite keeping the uncertainty out of his voice.
“Games,” Hercules explained. He threw an arm in the air, gesturing broadly at the scope of it. “Simple sporting events; racing, contests for jumping - - - and throwing the discus and javelin.’ He turned to Damon now, clapping him soundly on the shoulder.
“And to make sure young Damon here doesn’t get bored - - - a boxing match.”
Taphius considered it for a minute, scratching his chin thoughtfully. The idea was sound as far as he could judge. “A warrior would always be ready to fight if he trained to do those things,” he mused as he stared thoughtfully across at Damon.
“Uh, yes,” Hercules responded. “And it might help slow down the fighting. Or even stop it.”
“I hope I live to see that day!” Taphius shook his head sadly and cast his eyes downward knowing that that day would never come, for he was a Spartan leader, and war was his business. As long as Ares existed, he would never be out of work.
Hercules kept his thoughts to himself. This had been too easy. He hoped Iolaus would even now be convincing the Elean leader that The Olympics were the new way to solve differences.
Salmoneous puffed as he tried to keep up with Atalanta. My that girl had a good stride on her. And legs! They stretched so far, and the muscles! Salmoneous was almost glad he was behind her, certainly a nice view. But he wanted to talk to her, and face to face was always the way to do that. Eye contact sealed the deal. He would know that.
“You should slow down, my heart’s delight!” he called forward to her. “I have so much to contribute.”
“Yeah, it’s certainly not muscle,” Atalanta called over her shoulder at him as she raced through the town market, intent on getting home and leaving Salmoneous far behind..
“Ha! You got me there too!” Salmoneous called out honestly. He wasn’t a muscular man, but he had his strong points. Ask those fifty daughters of kin Thespius that Hercules cast off. He was a great sales man, and he knew people. He had other tricks up his sleeves as well. He could hunt quail and write better than most people write too. Just because he wasn’t muscular and was a little follicularly challenged didn’t mean he had no strong points.
“I have a beautiful mind!” And a fertile one too,” he called ahead. His legs ached and his lungs burned. He could feel his heart beating quickly, and was unsure if this was because of the exercise or the view of Atalanta’s barely covered, muscular behind.
Atalanta stopped dead in her tracks and Salmoneous almost bumped into her. In truth he wanted desperately to feel his flesh against her, but the salesman in him knew that he needed to sell himself first. And Atalanta would be a tough customer.
“Okay, thrill me,” she challenged, her hands on her hips, and an eye brow cocked as she stared sternly down at Salmoneous.
“Huh? Here?” Salmoneous felt his heart flutter as he gazed up into her incredible brown eyes, watched the wind lift her hair like a silky golden curtain away from her shoulders.
Atalanta was still angry that he had lied to her. That cock-a-mamie story about watching his brother’s property and the silly alias - - well, she’d find a few alias’s of her own for him.
“You’re time’s almost up Phlebitis!”
“Salmoneous,” he corrected her, then dropped his head and placed a hand on his chin, thinking quickly. He was a thinking man, and he should certainly be able to do this. “Give me a moment. Give me a moment.”
Atalanta tapped her foot in the hard packed dirt of the market and stared away from the salesman, watching the bustle of the crowd and thinking that she had a million things she could be doing if she wasn’t saddled with Salmoneous.
“Ooh, ooh, ooh! I know what the Olympics need! Prizes” He jabbed a finger at Atalanta, then pulled it away quickly. “You gotta give the winners a reward, something to hold onto, something to put on their mantelpiece. Something to pass on to their golden haired children,” his voice went soft as he tried to step closer and press against Atalanta. Just one little touch - - -
Atalanta stepped away, shooting him a warning glance, but the little salesman was too self absorbed at this second to really notice, so she turned her eyes on the hills from where they’d just walked. Salmoneous actually had a decent idea, she realized. Perhaps he could be useful after all, but she’d need him to prove himself after the last episode.
“They need, - - - it’s too bad I don’t still have that treasure trove. That would have been perfect, I mean top of the line stuff,” he threw his hands in the air in frustration.
“Trinkets don’t impress me,” Atalanta spoke absently, thinking that something else might work better.
“They don’t?” Salmoneous couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice.
“Uh-uh,” she answered, still looking off to the hills. Maybe Hercules was there at this very moment. Maybe he was on his way back to her. What would look good on Hercules, besides nothing at all?
Atalanta’s eyes brightened as a thought came to her. “If you ask me, I think a wreath of olive leaves is all we need for each winner.”
“I could do olive wreathes,” Salmoneous volunteered, happy to assist this golden sculpted gorgeous female, anything to get closer to her, to stay in her good graces.
“Prove it!” she challenged as she shot him a half smile and walked away.
Tarkon paced the shelter of his tent. Too many things had gone wrong for the Eleans. Ares was supposed to be on their side, yet Hercules had arrived, and the result was the loss of two men and the angry undercurrent of the others. Well, the dead wood would be gone and even though he may end up with significantly fewer men, the ones he had would be strong and loyal
Tarkon stared across at his second in command, who held a map of the terrain near the Spartan camp. The plans must go on. Ares had declared it.
“The best place to strike would be here, where the tree line provides natural - - -“
“Tarkon!” Brontus called out urgently as he raced up to the commander, tossing open the tent flaps and entering unbidden.
“I said no interruptions!” Tarkon snarled.
“But he’s here!” Brontus tried to explain.
“Who’s here?” Tarkon queried, now finding himself curious who could cause this solid young warrior to be so rattled that he would disobey a direct command.
“Iolaus, friend of Hercules!”
Brontus’s eyes were wide.
“In our camp?” Tarkon tried to keep the stunned surprise out of his voice. “And no one alerted us? What were our guards doing?”
“Well,” now Brontus hesitated. “Now that’s the problem.”
Tarkon didn’t wait to ask, instead he pushed roughly past both Brontus and his Second, smacking open the musty tent flaps and causing a back draft of dust to hit the two. He strode out to the edge of the clearing where he knew that four guards should have been posted.
It was with both rage and dismay that Tarkon saw the men, caught and bundled in netting as neatly as a gift wrapped to impress. But it wasn’t a pretty picture as the nets rolled and moved like larvae infested sores and his men called out in anger and chagrin, asking for release.
Iolaus threw his hands in the air, as much for emphasis as to show he had no weapons. He was careful not to smile. “I tried to tell them I was just here to talk, but they just didn’t want to believe me.”
“They have no reason to trust you, friend of Hercules. You both fought for the Spartans more than once if I recall correctly.” Tarkon narrowed his eyes. So this was Iolaus of Thebes, a mortal worthy of the friend ship of not just a demigod, but of a few of the gods as well. The one chosen to travel at Hercules’s side as partner was not a man to be taken lightly.
“You don’t see any Spartans with me now, do you?” the golden haired man spoke evenly, but a twinkle showed in his blue eyes, while his posture spoke of his confidence, the net of his skill.
“Maybe you think you don’t need any,” Tarkon shot back, seeing his confidence as a challenge.
Iolaus shook his head. “You’ve got things wrong. I’ve come to ask you and your men to compete in the Olympic Games.
“Tarkon stood momentarily silent. A warrior playing games? Was this an invitation to a play date? He was a man, not a child!
“Games?” he spat, as if the word itself had a sour taste.
“Yes” Iolaus answered, raising an eyebrow in challenge.
“The son of Zeus sends his partner to ask us to play games?” The whole situation seemed more than ludicrous, it was insulting and Tarkon simply snorted and shook his head. A joke. It had to be someone’s idea of a joke.
Iolaus caught the leader’s surprise and uncertainty. “Glad I could cheer you up,” he cocked his head in challenge, letting his arms fall loosely at his side in case things didn’t turn out well.
“You want games, friend of Hercules?” Tarkon was angry, with his men for letting this upstart in to their camp, and with Iolaus for making his men look bad. Surely Ares would see this. Tarkon wondered whether he would stand up to Ares’s punishment.
Tarkon turned to the men who came to stand like a human barricade at his side. “One hundred dinars to the man who brings me his head!”
There were six men left standing, and none wanted to be the last off the line. With cries of “Let’s get him!” and “The dinars are mine!” they charged at Iolaus.
But Iolaus was ready. It was only half a dozen men and Iolaus knew in his heart he could take them; had to since he’d convinced Hercules to let him come alone. He spun like a small tornado, throwing out a leg like a tree stump and felling the first man at him.
Iolaus paid no attention to the swirls of dirt, raised by the fallen Elean, turning instead on the approaching twosome at his left. He chopped out to the side with an arm like an axe and landed a punishing blow to the throat of the first Elean of the duo. He heard the rasp of breathing cut off and felt the man drop like a rock at his side. But the other was close. Iolaus rechambered and spun back and away, giving himself time and distance to perform a perfect flying side kick. He felt his lead foot sink forcefully into the second Elean’s belly and heard the hard whoosh of air being forced out of the man as he buckled over.
Iolaus landed with less grace than he wanted, missing the trailing leg, which was supposed to support his landing had there not been an Elean under it. He found himself on his side in the dust and rolled quickly to a kneeling position, trying to orient himself to where the next attack would come from, but too late.
Iolaus took a blow to the back of his head from a large tree limb wielded by a gleeful Elean who was already counting his dinars.
“That was cheap!” Iolaus protested as his head swam and he fought to remain oriented. Instead of falling forward as he was expected to do, he went back with his head and caught the off guard attacker in the groin with his head, feeling the satisfying squash of tender manhood against his skull. The attacker dropped, balling over and clinging desperately to himself as he tried to keep his cries to mere whimpers.
Iolaus used the moment of stunned silence that followed to get on his feet, and the last two Eleans saw that the golden fighter was still up and very much in the battle.
“Come on” Iolaus motioned with his fingers and the two men raced in tandem like bulls to a toreador.
Iolaus jumped easily out of the way, ignoring the trickle of blood that moistened the back of his neck. His head hurt and spinning didn’t help, but he pushed his own discomfort to the back of his mind and instead went to work polishing off the last two Eleans.
The Eleans looped back, splitting apart and approaching one from each side. Iolaus had seen that trick before and turned to face them, running directly at them with a loud yelp. He moved to one of the men, knowing the other would angle towards him and as they pincered in, he jumped out of the way letting the two men collide. They hit with a sickening thud, and fell to the dust, struggling to get up. But Iolaus had had enough. He quickly axe kicked first one, then the other, feeling the crunch of ribs beneath his heel.
In the end, only Iolaus was left standing. He struggled to maintain his composure, though his lungs ached from the activity and the dust he’d inhaled, and his head throbbed as if he’d been hit with a tree.
Tarkon was furious. “What’s wrong with you?” he screamed at his fallen men. “I said kill him! I want his body sent back to Hercules!”
“It’s your turn Tarkon. Your men have had enough.” Iolaus stood solidly defying the Elean commander, with fallen men around him and the squirming netted guards twisting like a sack of worms near the camp entrance.
Tarkon wondered if this man was indeed of the gods as well as his friend was. Certainly he hadn’t learned his fighting from the Spartans. Perhaps he had been telling the truth when he said that that they were not with the Spartan fighters now.
“What are you going to do?” Tarkon growled, fully expecting Iolaus to fly at him as well. Tarkon had no back up now, and he doubted that he’d be able to kill this fighter alone. But he would try if he was pushed.
Iolaus dropped his arms to his side. “What I came here to do,” he answered as if it was perfectly obvious. “Invite you to the Olympics. We’ll see you tomorrow in Propontus.” He gave Tarkon a small nod of respect. “High noon.”
Tarkon stared back at the smaller man without answering.
“Unless you’re afraid of a little athletic competition,” Iolaus goaded, hoping that this would force his hand.
“Tell Hercules that this will be his final game,” Tarkon warned.
“As if,” Iolaus laughed and turned away, leaving Tarkon standing stunned.
Atalanta stood in front of the cook fire she kept burning in her house. The tinder and split wood she held gracefully in her arms were no more punishing than holding a small child would be. Yet, as she looked into the fire she let her mind wander. Not so very long ago she stood in front of a much larger fire, and let her muscles work until they were well honed and achingly tired. She’d used her hands and thoughts to create and help others. But that was then, and now she was a simple homebody.
Not that caring for Damon had been a burden, anything but! He’d enriched her life in so many ways, ways she never thought she’d experience. But she had to admit that she was frustrated. She missed her smithing. She missed the roar of the forge, the feel of the hammer in her hand and the pounding that shook every bone in her body as she lifted the hammer and let it fall on the red and glowing metal, shaping it into a perfect tool. She missed the heat and the sweat. And she missed the exhaustion and aches her body felt as she fell into bed at night so tired she sometimes forgot to even pull up the covers.
But wasn’t she doing something like that here, with Damon? Not pounding metal, but shaping and molding him into perfection? At least that’s what she’d hoped to do. But now he was bent on destroying himself in a silly war that would never really end and never really be won by anybody. She sighed heavily and placed a few pieces of wood on the fire, dropped some tinder in to stoke it up faster, uncaring when the flames licked at her arms. He skin was toughened, and this fire was no more dangerous than a pet compared with the temperatures of the forge.
Satisfied with the fire, she took off the pot of vegetables she’d been cooking. In the corner a few of the men from town were talking softly to themselves, waiting for Atalanta to show them where to go and what to do to set up for these games Hercules had proposed. The light in the room was dim, the windows small and the air was warm and smoky from the big fire in the small house. Atalanta couldn’t help but wish she was outside, racing or tossing a discus, anywhere but here right now, alone with her thoughts and fears for Damon while the men kept to themselves.
Atalanta’s musing was broken with the opening of the door, light streaming in and smoke being sucked out. Fresh air infused and Atalanta’s mood lightened as Salmoneous pushed through with a huge grin wearing a wreath of olive leaves on his head.
The pudgy salesman stopped in front of Atalanta and shot her a winning smile. Certainly now she’d see him in a new light.
“So how does it look?” he asked as he turned his head side to side, letting the light catch the wreath.
Atalanta had to admit that she was surprised. The craftsmanship was superb. Who would have suspected that Salmoneous had such talent with his hands? She smiled at Salmoneous and as the men in the corner turned to look she slapped his arm playfully and said, “Not as good as it’s going to look on a champion. And you’d better have more than one of them.”
“Have no fear, radiant Atalanta. My motto is to every victor, an olive wreath.” He lifted the wreath off his own head and placed it tenderly on Atalanta’s knowing how much she wanted to win one, seeing the hunger and need she tried so desperately to hide.
Atalanta laughed, a pure and delightful sound. “Good work Salmoneous,” she said. “I’d better start keeping you closer to me.”
She smiled across at him and Salmoneous felt his heart skip a beat. “You mean it?” he asked, hoping but not believing that she might actually mean it.
“Yeah, absolutely.” Atalanta threw an arm around Salmoneous’s shoulders and steered him toward the group of men. “Look, my nephew and his friends are going on a little outing with me. Why don’t you come along?”
Salmoneous suddenly felt lighter, stronger, and manlier. Strong, beautiful, golden Atalanta was at his side. He could do anything.
“Lead the way, golden muse,” He sighed in happiness. “Lead the way.”
At the Olympic field the men worked steadily to set up for the events of tomorrow. Atalanta envisioned a festive and colorful greeting for all the participants and guests. There would be tents and flags and the areas for the different games would have to be marked off. A lot of work would have to be done in very little time.
Atalanta was helping the men set up the main tent, a large and colorful canvas canopy that Salmoneous had graciously provided. It had been stored on the property and was stiff from folding and lack of use, but serviceable. The men grunted as they tried to lay it flat, stretching and pulling until it lay just right. Then they inserted the pole in the center hole and pulled on the rope to raise it up.
Atalanta was excited. Things were going smoothly.
”All right, hang on! We’re getting there!” she called out.
Salmoneous had joined the men erecting the tent, grabbing the center pole. If Atalanta wanted a tent, he’d find her one, make her one, and put her tent up, whatever it took.
From the edge of the woods, Hercules and Iolaus emerged, having met at Salmoneous’s shack as planned. Hercules had been first at the meeting point, as his invitation to the Spartans had gone smoothly. Although he’d expressed full confidence in Iolaus, he’d still been worried.
But Iolaus had arrived only hours behind Hercules, and only slightly worse for the wear. His head sported a new lump and his golden hair was stained with blood, but his spirits were high. Hercules let out a sigh of relief at seeing the hunter slip through the narrow path walled by tall tress, and tried to feign sleep. He’d teased Iolaus about his head, although he stashed his concern deep inside.
They walked out together and stopped, just at the edge of the wood, taking in the scene of Salmoneous trying desperately to prove himself to Atalanta.
“Wait! Wait, wait a second,” Salmoneous stuttered in confusion as canvas, drapes and poles enveloped him.
“Wait, wait a second.” But the men still moved, setting the tent in place and holding their corners.
“Hey stay there!” Salmoneous shouted, feeling the tent rise and lower again. “Don’t move, wait a second, wait. Wait!”
Hercules turned to Iolaus. “Salmoneous working? It must be love!” he turned the corner of his mouth up in a half smile.
The two men walked over to where Atalanta stood, watching in amusement.
“Wait a second. Wait, wait!” Salmoneous kept repeating. “I don’t think these poles are going to work. I have a better idea.”
But it was too late. The pole gave way.
“Wh - - -, Hey!” The tent collapsed, with a soft swoosh, enveloping Salmoneous in its musty depths, slowly flattening and leaving a heaving lump just off the center.
Hercules covered his mouth to keep from laughing and Iolaus crossed his arms on his chest and simply smiled.
A muffled voice called out from under the heavy canvas.
“It’s no problem. I’ll be right out. Let me find the exit for a moment!’ The canvas shifted and heaved, but no Salmoneous emerged.
“Wait a moment! Wait a second! It’s around here somewhere!” The canvas sagged back almost flat then rose again. Hercules moved to the edge and placed a finger to his lips to keep the men and Atalanta from laughing.
“Wait a second!” Salmoneous called out, still trapped and trying to maintain a shred of dignity.
“Come on, Gingivitis!” Atalanta encouraged as Hercules lifted the edge of the fallen tent to let a sliver of light in.
The tent convulsed as Salmoneous moved toward the light. A large swell in the tent moved towards Hercules and Salmoneous continued his monolog.
“I really didn’t need any help. But, thank you my beautiful golden” - - - Salmoneous backed carefully out of the tent and turned to embrace Atalanta, instead finding Hercules there.
“Hercules?” he said, trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice.
Hercules chuckled and reached for Salmoneous’s arm. “Is everything okay, Salmoneous?”
Salmoneous bristled, embarrassed. Had he known Hercules was here, he would have punched his way out of the tent, or charged out, or maybe emerged more confidently. And Hercules’s mirth hurt him. Sure he was used to being the butt of a lot of jokes, but he’d helped Hercules and considered him a friend, and here Hercules was laughing at him.
“What makes you think it’s not?” he shot back, trying to save face and shooting a furtive glance in Atalanta’s direction hoping she wasn’t laughing too.
But Atalanta wasn’t even looking at him. It was as if he’d suddenly disappeared. She was standing next to Hercules, staring adoringly at his face, her shoulder touching his arm. Salmoneous suddenly felt like nothing more than a field mouse who was watching his meal being eaten by a rat.
“How’d it go with the Eleans?” Atalanta was asking Hercules, as if it was him, not Iolaus who had approached the Spartan’s fierce opponents.
Hercules shot a glance at Iolaus, but saw that his buddy was already helping Damon and his friends pull the tent back into position.
“Well, Iolaus didn’t have an easy time but they’ll be here.” Hercules said, staring across at Iolaus, while Atalanta stared at him.
Salmoneous felt a burn deep inside. He wanted to turn back to the tent, but instead let the paralysis of his embarrassment hold him captive to Atalanta’s adoration of Hercules.
Damon trotted up, proud to be in the same company as the Demigod.
“Yeah, well they’ll be getting a different kind of beating than they’re used to,” he asserted.
Hercules turned his eyes to Atalanta. “Damon, you’d better tell your friend that he needs to make sure that the tent is secured well. The Eleans may be trouble.”
“Hey,” Atalanta spoke, not taking her eyes off Hercules. “We’re not done yet. We’ll get things done right, and soon.”
Hercules heard the defense of Damon in her voice and backed off.
“No no. Don’t worry. I’ll help.” He reassured Atalanta. “It’s all right. Where would you like me to start?” he deferred to her.
Atalanta smiled seductively at Hercules. This was too easy. “Is this a trick question?” she asked in disbelief. She reached over to Hercules and took his shirt in her hand, pulling it open and running the other hand seductively through the hair on his chest. Atalanta knew when words weren’t necessary. She turned, with a short glance over her shoulder at Hercules, and swayed seductively away from the field.
“Ohhhh!” Salmoneous groaned with unrequited desire. He stared over at Atalanta’s buttocks, barely covered with that tiny thong she wore. His feet felt as if they were glued to the ground, and he didn’t bother to move away from the tent that Hercules held above his head so enthralled was he at Atalanta’s departing assets.
“Whoo!” was all Hercules could manage as he let go of the canvas, letting it fall back on Salmoneous and followed Atalanta’s path away from the clearing.
“Hey!” Salmoneous complained as Hercules let go of the tent and it fell back on him. “Is this how you’re helping?”
Iolaus raised a knowing eyebrow as Hercules walked seeming hypnotized behind Atalanta, and hoped that there was room at the inn tonight.
At the Elean camp Tarkon was furious. There would be no more unexpected hostile visitors, Tarkon was seeing to that. He stood in his tent with his second in command and six of his most loyal warriors, his hands balled into fists, and lips tight with rage. Out side the screams of a man being sacrificed to Ares floated ghost like and horrifying through the camp.
Tarkon took little satisfaction in the sounds of the man’s torturous trip to Hades realm. His warriors would know that there was a price to pay for becoming lax on guard duty. In fact all the camp would be sure to follow his directions after this; At least until the next time, which hopefully wouldn’t be soon.
Scream louder, he thought angrily. Scream so that your comrades never forget, so that Ares hears you and responds to my requests. He stood, head raised at the altar filled with the blood of the two men killed earlier for running in battle, and tattling. The metallic odor of the blood pool permeated the tent and the red stains on the rock cistern holding it attested to the fact that Tarkon needed Ares.
“I come to you not in shame, oh mighty Ares, for we have served you well,” he called out with confidence. “The blood we have spilled has nourished your crusade to bring war to every corner of the earth! And never have we asked for help or adulation!”
Tarkon stopped here. This would be the difficult part, to ask for help without sounding weak or needy.
“But the time at hand calls for special measures,” he continued carefully. “Hercules is close by. Hercules, who stands between you and domination. Hercules, who can be defeated only if you intervene, with the power that you and you alone can provide!”
“Ares! I beseech you!” Tarkon called out. “Help us kill Hercules! Help us preserve a way of life that is devoted to war!”
Before his voice had died out, before he could lower his hands and before his men could even take a soft breath, a loud crack sounded and a cloud of smoke with tongues of fire appeared in front of the altar. Tarkon’s men stepped back, but Tarkon stepped forward.
“Yes!” he cried out, raising a fist in the air.
When the smoke died down, the formidable, black leather clad figure of Ares stood, hands on hips and a knowing sneer on his lips. His dark eyes scanned the inside of the tent as he insolently flipped his dark curls off his face. He shrugged his shoulder like a panther stretching after a nap and let his head roll back and around over his broad shoulders. He didn’t look at the men, but Ares knew they were staring with awe and fear and that with the snap of his fingers they would drop like subservient dogs at his feet, ready to obey any command. So afraid of a whipping!
No words were spoken as Ares let his eyes settle on the motley band of what Tarkon thought were his best warriors. Warriors! Ha! They were no better than curs, kicked too often and not fed enough. They would fight when the master told them, but not because they loved to fight, or lived to fight, simply because they feared NOT fighting. If they made it out alive, they considered themselves fortunate. Only one in a thousand warriors truly knew the power and honor of death in battle. True they all spoke of it, but intellectual knowledge differed significantly from heart knowledge. Ares knew that most weren’t glad to die, they simply winked out of existence like the puny mortals they actually were with simple thoughts of wives and children and mothers. And Ares wanted heart warriors.
“Tarkon!” Ares spoke with his most commanding voice as he allowed all in the room to stare at his beauty, and quake before his wrath.
Tarkon stepped forward, hands at his sides and gazed up at the face of his master. If the others were curs, here was a pit bull, unafraid, obedient and willing to fight to the death. For his loyalty, Ares would favor him with an answer to his prayers. Besides, why lose the chance to destroy his meddlesome half brother, even if indirectly?
“I’ve heard your request.” He sniffed in disdain and raised an eyebrow. “And I will help you, but I expect further sacrifices. You must prove your loyalty.”
Tarkon raised his eyes to Ares’s own, and Ares could see the fire in them. Good. He wasn’t afraid of Ares demands, but what of the pack behind him, too scared to step forward as Tarkon had done?
“Is there only one man here with enough courage to answer the God of War?” Ares asked tightly, his eyes burning and his fists tightening and relaxing at his sides. He took a muscled arm and raised it, pointing at the altar and the cistern of blood.
“That’s what becomes of the fearful, the weak!” he spat as the warriors shifted, glancing at each other. None of them had ever been in the presence of the God of War before, and if they found Tarkon intimidating, Ares made him seem like a house pet.
Ares could smell their fear, the sweat of their nerves tingling like stick lightning, and the cold moistness of their skin like a foggy sunrise. They were too afraid to even run. Except for one, the young man named Brontus. He stared openly at Ares, and at the invitation stepped forward and stopped one step behind and to the right of Tarkon.
The men watched Brontus and drew strength from his unrelenting courage. They moved forward in unison behind him until they stood in a solid line, just behind Tarkon and Brontus. Like men determined to save face when meeting the executioner.
Ares merely flicked his hand at the cistern of blood, and it began to boil and steam. The metallic scent permeated the room, the gray mist swirled like mystic fingers of the dead, alternately enveloping and caressing the warriors, welcoming them.
“Your weapon.” Ares said simply, staring at the men and then letting his eyes settle on Tarkon.
“Yes indeed!” Tarkon turned to his men. He could also feel their fear, as he did before any battle of importance. He could see the uncertainty they tried to hide, and knew that once again he would have to find their hearts and enlarge the courage therein, take away the negative thoughts and empower them to do what MUST be done to win the battle.
“Those of you who have marched with me the longest, come drink!” he exhorted. And you will be strong again!”
The men looked warily at the blood, but true to their training, did as they were told. Dipping their cupped hands into the boiling blood, they brought the foul liquid to their lips and let it slip warm and comforting down their throats.
Brontus moved forward to join them, but felt the restraining hand of Tarkon on one shoulder and the colder, firmer grip of Ares on the other.
“You have another mission,” Ares spoke directly to Brontus for the first time. You will compete in these Olympic games as the Elean representative. Your fight will come when these men have arrived, after the festivities have started.
Brontus looked up into Ares face unafraid, but the God of war was watching the men who sipped on the blood. The transformation was beginning.
Ares watched, chocking back a laugh as the warriors who sipped the blood began to shake. They shifted questioning glances at each other, assessing their brothers to see whether each of them was feeling the same thing.
Oh yes, Ares thought. You will now become true warriors, not mere mortals. Your hearts, your minds, your bodies will truly be mine. You will be transformed from dogs into wolves, a pack of killers serving one Alpha, me.
Ares allowed himself to laugh out loud as he saw Brontus and Tarkon staring in horror at the men, now writing in the dirt at his feet. The screams of the warriors had replaced the cries of the sacrifices ones, and Ares felt himself growing more powerful, more omnipotent by the second.
No longer truly men, they were growing hairier, their nails shot out long and thick, and their muscles bulged. Dogs they were, dog men, obedient killers, mindless to outside influences, driven by instinct and desire, infinitely useable,
Tarkon was unnerved. Ares had spoken of sacrifices, and he supposed this was what he’d meant. But Tarkon was used to blood, to swords and knives, fists and clubs, not miraculous transformations. But it was his men who were giving their life and Tarkon knew he was simply lucky. For now.
“Behold the power of Ares!” he shouted and Brontus stared at him in stunned disbelief.
The young man glanced to Tarkon then back at Ares. “I’ve never seen anything like them!” he whispered in horror.
Ares chuckled. Nothing like the innocence of youth. “Tomorrow morning they’ll be killing - - - while you’re playing. The birth of the Olympics will be the death of Hercules.”
The two men caught up with Salmoneous when he never expected it. As one grabbed his shoulder and the other confronted him the salesman pulled up to a fast halt. He recognized them too late.
“Help!” he called, his heart threatening to fly out of his throat. The words came more strangled and frightened. “Whoa! No, no!”
Salmoneous looked around in panic. “Hercules!” he called out.
“Remember us?” the first man spoke threateningly.
“Let him talk,” the second hissed, then turned to Salmoneous. “But if you do it too loudly, I’ll gut you like a fish!”
Salmoneous nodded quickly and though just as fast. He’d have to sell himself, his innocence in this matter. “Hello fellas, everything alright on the Aegean peninsula?” he started.
“Everything except our finances,” the second man growled.
“Oh, that.” Salmoneous grimaced. This wasn’t going too well, at least for starters.
But before the men could proceed further, Iolaus slipped stealthily up. Sal’s shout for Hercules had caught his ears, and Iolaus knew he had to investigate.
Iolaus stepped up to the threesome, gripping the first man’s arm and pulling it away from Salmoneous’s arm.
“Keep your hands off him,” Iolaus spoke a stern warning, but his eyes were conciliatory.
“But he cheated us out of our money!” the second man railed angrily.
Iolaus turned to Salmoneous. “Did you?” he asked as he shot a warning glace to the frightened man.
“Ah, the odds are always with the house,” Salmoneous spoke, thinking he’d found a way out of this.
“Salmoneous!” Iolaus chided, but inside he knew how Sal felt. His own days as a thief would never be forgotten; the lying, the trying to cover his trial, the low self esteem. No, Sal didn’t need that. There were a lot of other things Sal could do that were honest; he just needed to be convinced of that.
“I didn’t cheat them exactly,” Salmoneous continued. “I mean, it’s called the shell game, you know?”
There was only one thing to do if Salmoneous wanted to redeem himself. “Give it back.” Iolaus told him.
Salmoneus threw his head back and his eyes opened in surprise. “Huh?”
“Now!” Iolaus commanded, glaring across at him for effect.
Salmoneous’s face seemed to melt as he pulled the pouch of coins off his belt with a heavy sigh. He wordlessly handed it back straight armed to the first man.
“Is it all there?” Iolaus asked the man as he opened the pouch and pawed through the coins.
“Yeah, the second man answered after a nod from the first.
“Good. Now go back where you came from,” Iolaus suggested. “You don’t always need to strong arm people. Talking can often solve the problem.”
The two men simply nodded their thanks to Iolaus and left.
Salmoneous turned to Iolaus.
“You saved my life!” he spoke with amazement. “Yeah,” Iolaus answered. “And don’t make me regret it. Stop stealing from people and use your talents to make your money. You are a likable guy, sell stuff.”
“Oh thank you, thank you, thank you!” Salmoneous bubbled over with relief. “I’ll do that. Really.”
Iolaus slapped him on the back. “Come on Salmoneous. Let’s go see if we can find Hercules and Atalanta.”
Night was falling. The sky was darkening and the stars twinkled on and off as wispy clouds raced by. Overseeing all was the great single eye of the moon, casting its knowing stare on the entire world, tracking its goings day and night through all the ages.
Hercules spread his travel blanket out on Atalanta’s porch, hoping that Iolaus would show up, and thinking that he needed to stay outside if he wanted to keep his emotions under control. Atalanta had been coming on to him all day, and he wouldn’t be a man if he didn’t notice, and want her. But his problems with Hera made any close relationship impossible. Everyone that he loved had been touched by her evilness, except for his mother. But that was only because Zeus protected her.
He couldn’t, no wouldn’t subject Atalanta to Hera’s wrath simply to satisfy his own needs, no matter how beautiful she was, or how aroused she made him. No, he was better off on the porch.
Hercules smoothed the blanket and looked out over the railing towards town. Iolaus should be here soon, unless he thought that Hercules wanted to be with Atalanta.
Atalanta looked out through the open door curiously. She’d had her share of men trouble, always afraid to ask a pretty woman out, intimidated by her strength, but she hadn’t expected Hercules to fall into that category. Heck, she thought he liked her. It wasn’t as if he pulled away from her touch. Atalanta couldn’t figure out what was holding him back, but being an optimist, decided to give it another try.
She stepped out onto the porch. “Hey, you don’t have to sleep here.”
“Huh!” Hercules turned in surprise. “Hi how are you,” he stammered, as he stared across at the beautiful Atalanta and lost any coherent thought he might have had.
“Did you hear what I said?” Atalanta asked, smiling at Hercules.
Hercules continued to smooth his blanket and studiously turned his eyes away from the beautiful blacksmith.
“Uh, yeah. But this is as good a place as any to spend the night.” Hercules tried desperately to keep the discomfort out of his voice.
Atalanta stepped closer, ignoring his stammer. She was used to that. Men did it around her all the time. But Atalanta had learned to go for what she wanted.
“Better than with me?” she asked as she stroked his back, letting her fingers glide lightly across his shoulders and down his arms.
“Uh-oh” - - - was all Hercules could get out before Atalanta had spun him around and had him in her arms.
“Give it a chance Hercules,” she cajoled sweetly. “You might enjoy yourself.” She leaned forward and Hercules sat down, hard. Atalanta wasn’t one to lose an opportunity. She sat on Hercules’s lap.
Hercules was stunned. Where was Iolaus when he needed him? “Yeah,” he stammered. “But you know…”
He never got to finish. Atalanta pushed him down flat and on her hands and knees leaned over him, letting her firm breasts fall right at Hercules’s eye level.
“Come on, what do you say?” she half teased, half goaded wanting what she knew she probably wouldn’t get.
Hercules was flustered. The bottom half of his body was at odds with the top half and the struggle was leaving him bothered. The words just wouldn’t seem to come out, and his eyes kept traveling to the forbidden breasts.
“It’s - - -you know, I just,” he stammered and tried unsuccessfully to collect himself. “You know, it, - - - it just doesn’t seem right.”
Atalanta didn’t wait for his continued protests. She leaned closer, closer.
That chest was falling closer to his. He could smell the sweet perfume she wore, jasmine or gardenias. Her legs around him were firm, her body warm. It was so distracting, so enveloping.
“Wait a second,” Hercules gasped as Atalanta placed a warm kiss on his lips. He closed his eyes in spite of himself, lying back for just a second to enjoy it, but Hera’s face intruded on his thoughts.
“Oooh, Hercules,” Atalanta breathed. Her chest rose and fell with the beating of her heart. She could barely believe that she was here, under the full moon, with the heat of Hercules strong body beneath her loins. It was the stuff of dreams, and Atalanta didn’t want to awake.
Salmoneous pushed aside the brush that hung over the path to Atalanta’s home. In his left hand he held a delicate bouquet of flowers, and with his right he held open the leaves. But he didn’t step forward. His eyes were riveted on Atalanta’s porch.
Salmoneous took in a deep and disappointed breath. Atalanta was astride Hercules, kissing him and looking like she really enjoyed it. He watched as Hercules flipped her over, laying her flat on his blanket, his hips and thighs softly astride Atalanta’s pelvis. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but in his heart he knew that he’d been a fool to even think that she could care about him.
Salmoneous’s heart beat slowed, his breath was soft and time seemed to stand still as he watched them together. Why not me? He thought to himself. Hercules is a traveling man with not a dinar to his name, relying on the kindness of others. He’d never settle down. But Salmoneous could provide for a wife, heck he was good salesman, he could provide for a whole family of little golden haired beauties. But it was Hercules who held the beautiful Atalanta between his thighs, not Salmoneous.
Salmoneous tossed the beautifully smelling delicate flowers aside and silently let the foliage slip back into place, covering him, obscuring the view and saving him from further disgrace. He took careful steps back down the path from which he’d come, wanting to run pell mell, but wanting even more to simply disappear.
On the porch Hercules didn’t know quite what to say or do. More than anything he wished Iolaus or for that matter ANYONE would arrive and save him from Atalanta’s attention. But it wasn’t happening.
Hercules stood, taking a deep breath and fighting for control. He reached down and helped Atalanta up, holding her an arm’s length away.
“I’m, um, I’m hoping for the breast, - - - no, no, BEST for these games,” he stammered. “But you never know, um, til you know.” He shook his head, trying to clear it, trying to get a coherent thought. “You know?” he finally said, at a loss for words.
Atalanta stared across at him, downcast. She didn’t try to hide her surprise or her hurt that Hercules wouldn’t respond to her, yet she wasn’t about to end this without a last try.
“I’m afraid I do,” she answered softly. “But my offer still stands.’
Hercules chuckled uncomfortably, wanting to explain himself but knowing that to do so would only make Atalanta even more determined to have him. She wouldn’t be afraid of Hera. He ran his hands nervously through his hair.
“I, I hope I didn’t insult you,” he offered in way of an apology.
Atalanta could see his confusion, and his desire, but that he didn’t act on it puzzled her. Still, in her eyes there was hope yet.
“How could you? You’re so cute when you’re nervous.” She reached for his cheeks and gently pulled his face close to hers, leaning forward to place a soft kiss on his lips, then drew away with a smile.
“Good night, Atalanta,” Hercules spoke quietly.
“Good night Hercules,” she responded and turned back to the door, walking with a gentle and inviting sway of her hips back into the house.
Hercules watched as she left him with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
“What is wrong with you?” he asked himself in exasperation, and fell back to the porch floor with an arm over his face.
Salmoneous walked through town dejectedly. He didn’t want to see anyone, but here was Iolaus looking curiously at him and offering to walk him to wherever he was going. Trouble was, Salmoneous didn’t really feel like going anywhere. He didn’t feel anything but anger, humiliation and dejection. But Iolaus simply walked alongside, like a small guard dog, content to be strolling in silence and listening to the world around him.
Salmoneous found himself talking. There was something about Iolaus that just invited confession. He was such a regular guy, but even more than that.
“Why can’t just one beautiful woman want me? Hercules needs a more spiritual type woman.”
Iolaus grinned, keeping his thoughts to himself. In a way he could identify with Salmoneous. For a long time he was bothered that all the women seemed to flock to Hercules. But when he stopped thinking about that and accepted himself as he was, he’d never had to spend a night alone if he didn’t want to. Salmoneous just needed to learn the same lesson. Problem was he’d have to find it within himself, not from someone else, and that was the hard part.
So Iolaus simply walked aside the salesman to make sure he got safely to wherever he was staying. Then he’d head back to Atalanta’s. Hercules would either be done or waiting for him. Probably waiting, Iolaus grinned knowingly to himself.
“I’d take good care of a woman,” Salmoneous prattled on. “I’d massage her with oils. I’d pay special attention to her beautiful sk - - -” But he was cut off by a kick to the shin.
“Ow!” he hollered and shot a glance across at the tattered wagon they were passing. Not seeing anyone he looked down. There was a midget, and an ugly one at that, grinning evilly up at him and seeming just too happy about inflicting pain.”
Iolaus stared at the wagon and its strange owner. Something wasn’t right about it. He supposed they were here for the games, but still it just didn’t feel right. He’d have to tell Hercules and see what his friend thought.
”What do you think you’re - - -OW!” Salmoneous bellowed as the midget kicked him once again. He glared down at the small fellow and stepped around him glaring. It was time to get home when even a midget could get under his skin. The midget just grinned and watched as Salmoneous and Iolaus walked away.
“Short but nasty,” Salmoneous complained to Iolaus.
Iolaus clapped him on the back. “Yep.” He changed the conversation. “I’ve got an idea. Do you have anymore of those togas you were trying to sell last year? There’s going to be quite a crowd tomorrow.”
“Hey!” Salmoneous said, perking up. “That’s a great idea. I can do team colors. And support your team colors. Colors for officials, I can see it now. I’ll make back all those dinars I lost today and more!”
The two men continued on talking, not seeing the Elean stepping out from behind the shabby wagon.
“This is going to be good,” the Elean muttered with a snicker as he watched them depart.
The day of the Olympics dawned crisp and cool, with a sun so bright that the dew sparkled on the grass. The birds sang their trilling sonatas hopping restlessly from branch to branch as they sought their mates. The grass rippled across the field rising and falling just as the people of the Far East did before their gods. The soil was damp and moist and as Hercules felt the soft give beneath his feet, he knew the day would be perfect for the first Olympics.
As the day warmed the field came to life. Men and women arrived, some to compete and some to sell their wares. The flags set up to mark the area flapped with bright colors, the fabric snapping and clapping like so many appreciative hands. Vendors called out as more people arrived, pausing at the decorative tents and blankets to peruse the food and wares, while over in the competitor’s area, men were flexing and strutting like peacocks. Hercules surveyed the area with a sense of pride. This was starting quite well. Except for those darn togas. Salmoneous must have gotten to the entrance extra early and sold togas to every one. Hercules shook his head in wonderment.
Amid the sea of blue and brown toga clad men, one lone figure stood out. Atalanta wore her scanty leather garb that showed just enough to distract, but not quite everything. Her muscles flexed and relaxed as she worked out with the heavy weights. Her skin gleamed in the sunlight with the softening and enhancing oils she had applied. Her golden hair so long and soft gleamed as the sunbeams caressed it. She alone stood out as an individual.
Hercules stared across at Atalanta wishing that things could be different for him. Her face was tight with determination, yet her eyes shined with hope. Hercules knew how much winning one of these games meant to her, not just as a show of strength, but also as an affirmation of her belief that women could be empowered through physical means which strengthened their bodies and spirits. Atalanta’s whole life had been about competition, about proving herself equal to any man, about showing men what women could accomplish if allowed, and showing women what they were capable of should they desire to pursue it.
Hercules could think of no more fitting tribute than to set an olive wreath on Atalanta’s brow. But there were a few more details to iron out. Salmoneous hadn’t shown up last night as Atalanta and Hercules had asked and Hercules had needed to run some thoughts by the idea man.
“Salmoneous!” Hercules called out.
“Yeah?” Salmoneous called out as he came dashing over to Hercules’s side.
Hercules turned to him, raising a hand to his chin and gently rubbing it in consideration. “We need to find a symbol for these games,” he spoke, half in question, but also knowing that to be remembered a gimmick was often necessary.
“I agree,” Salmoneous answered without hesitation.
Hercules took Salmoneous by the arm, intending to lead him over to a quieter area where the two of them could discuss ideas, but as they passed a booth, a familiar voice sang out.
“Hey red hots! Get your red hots right here!”
Hercules spun around to face the vendor, surprise etched onto his face.
“Not you again,” he addressed Falafel, the ever present purveyor of inventive new foods. “Do you have a home?”
Falafel leaned forward, almost searing his shirt on the flames shooting up from his newly devised burner. “Do your teeth a favor. Sink your teeth into a red hot,” he advised with a solemn nod.
Salmoneous stared down at the phallic red meat charring over the burner. “Eh, it kind of looks like,” he started.
Hercules cut him off. “Never mind what it looks like,” he warned. “What is it?”
Falafel hesitated, thinking. “A hot dog?” he finally stated as more of a question than an answer.
Hercules and Salmoneous stared at each other in uncertainty and questioned in unison, “Dog?”
Falafel could see their hesitation and wondered if he had made a mistake in the naming of the new product. It had seemed so right until he said it.
“Uh, not necessarily,” he answered. “Come on, try one. You might like it!” he urged. “A little mustard? Some relish?” he prodded.
“No thanks,” Hercules answered a bit too quickly, but Salmoneous stood examining the vendor’s cart and stroking his beard.
Falafel turned to Salmoneous, knowing when he’d lost one customer but caught another’s eye.
“Got your curiosity up, didn’t I?” he questioned. “Perhaps you’d like your dog with a little sauerkraut, huh?”
Salmoneous wasn’t interested in the food. “Not necessarily,” he answered, thinking he just might have solved Hercules’s symbol problem. “I’m interested in your torch there.”
Falafel caught Salmoneous’s eye and with hands on hips answered,” That’s not a torch.”
“Use your imagination,” Salmoneous advised with a wise smile as he reached for the burner.
“Thank you.” Salmoneous took the burner and walked away, tossing a few dinars at Falafel. I’ll return it soon,” he called out as he disappeared into the crowd.
Hercules stood on the small staging area that had been erected for the winning athletes to stand on when they were receiving their wreaths. High enough to put a person above the crowd, it seemed like the perfect place to make an announcement. Around the perimeter of the stage the brightly colored flags flapped like a mosaic frame. Hercules raised a hand at the growing crowd that flocked around him, trying to silence them, calling out a few times before actually accomplishing this.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced. “Could I have your attention please?” He turned a slow circle to see everyone before continuing.
“Welcome to the first Olympics. I hope you discover the spirit of the games, that there are ways for men to compete other than on the battlefield.”
The surrounding crowd applauded, some with vigor, others simply out of politeness.
Hercules continued, turning first to the blue toga clad team. “I salute the Spartans, for being brave enough to set aside their weapons and participate in these events.” Again the applause as the crowd turned to the Spartans.
Hercules extended an arm to the brown toga clad Eleans next. “And equally to the Eleans, who had the courage to honor us by doing the same.”
The crowd continued their polite applause.
“We’re about to find out who is the best among them in five different athletic events. So good luck to everybody. And now,”
But he was cut off by a breathless Salmoneous, rushing onto the staging.
“Wait a minute! Hold it! Hold it!” He called out. “We can’t start without the Olympic torch!”
The audience murmured in surprise, turning to each other with puzzlement.
Hercules echoed their thoughts. “What do you mean - - -Olympic torch?”
Salmoneous was excited. “Wait til you see it!” He gave a mighty whistle that echoed across the now silent field. He turned to Hercules with a huge grin splitting his happy face. “Now as you were saying Hercules?”
And at that moment Hercules saw the crowd begin to part like great waves piling up and leaving open a dry path for a single runner, whose footsteps were just now audible. Hercules strained to look.
Down the path ran Iolaus. He wore his boots and leather pants, but he was vest less. The climbing sun shone off the fine misting of sweat that outlined his chest and arms and his hair flowed out behind him as he strode, torch in hand, with racing pace through the gasping crowd and up the staging to Hercules. Behind Hercules a great dish of oil stood on a finely turned torch handle, and into this Iolaus dipped the torch Salmoneous borrowed from Falafel.
The oil in the dish rose into flames, tall and bright, high above the crowd. The audience and athletes began cheering and clapping with a noise of such joy and delight that Hercules felt the pride he normally stowed away rise in his chest. They’d done it!
Hercules turned to a beaming Salmoneous, letting his confidence in the former con man show. “Good job Salmoneous,” he congratulated the man and raised his hand in a high five. Then turning to the crowd he slipped one arm around Iolaus’s heaving shoulders and the other around Salmoneous and cried out.
“Let the games begin!”
Salmoneous had made a killing by the time the Olympics were starting. Every Spartan, every Elean, the supporters of both teams, the officials and many of the audience all wore his togas, “official gear of the Olympics” as he had hawked it. Salmoneous felt good. Iolaus had been right. There was more money to be made honestly than by cheating. And it helped to keep the teams straight. Not that everyone was on a team, but it did whittle down the competitors to manageable groups to follow.
So now as the javelin contest was blossoming, the official was ready to measure and the competitors had been named. Brontus, champion for the Eleans was to go first.
The brown clad young man was an imposing figure, solid and strong with thick arms capable of doing significant damage if he chose to use them for that. But today he planned to use his strength to toss the javelin further than any other man did on any other team.
Brontus stepped up to the line, shifting his weight to place it directly over his wide stance. He hefted the javelin, feeling the weight of it in his meaty hand, and slipped it forward a little for better balance. Drawing back his arm, Brontus put all his power into the whipping action that let the javelin fly. And fly it did, soaring in a high arc so that the watchers had to shield their eyes from the sun. The javelin seemed to catch on a breeze, like a hawk, flying without even a beat of its wings, and ever so gradually began its descent, finally imbedding itself deep in the soft earth.
Thee spotter ran to measure the distance it had flown past the already marked one hundred paces mark.
“One hundred seventeen and six!” the spotter called out. The crowd went wild, cheering and hooting their appreciation for Brontus’s effort.
Brontus turned to Damon with an eyebrow raised, obviously pleased with his effort. “Beat that,” he challenged the other man.
“No problem,” Damon responded, stepping up to the line that Brontus had vacated.
Damon took the second javelin. He slipped his hand along the shaft, feeling for the balance point and breathed in deeply to find his own center. Brontus’s javelin seemed a long way off and Damon knew he would have to put in a mighty effort to even meet it. He set his jaw in steely determination and drew back his arm. With a jerk, he let his javelin soar, lower than Brontus’s shot, but faster and straighter. The javelin shot through the air, past the hundred paces mark and dug itself deep into the ground. Damon held his breath as Brontus stood with his arms across his chest waiting for the call on its distance.
“Dead even!” the spotter called,” and the crowd erupted in cheers.
“Hey, it’s a tie!” Salmoneous grinned. Ties were good, no fighting. But no winner either and this was about determining a champion. He thought quickly. No one seemed to want to challenge the two men, and in truth it would be nearly impossible to beat the mark they had set. But Salmoneous had another idea.
“Unless Hercules wants to step in and” - - -
“No, that’s not why I’m here,” Hercules interjected.
Atalanta could feel his discomfort. She stepped up to the line as the men and women stared at her in disbelief. A javelin toss wasn’t a woman’s contest. What was she thinking?
“Then I guess it’s up to me.” She smiled shyly, having known many of these people as simply Aunt Atalanta, conservative dresser, and quiet newcomer. Now, in scanty leather garb covering her top and nothing more than a thong on the bottom to let her muscles be free to work, she cut a striking figure quite different from the neighbor woman most people could ever remember.
Atalanta stepped back a pace, took the javelin and felt it for balance.
Brontus off to the side stood amazed and even a little angry. “No woman has any business in the Olympics,” he muttered to himself.
Hercules stepped closer to the Elean athlete, brushing against him. “The Olympics are open to anybody,” he spoke in defense of Atalanta. “You ready Atalanta?”
“I was born ready!” she retorted, facing Hercules, then turning back to the line.
Salmoneous whistled and let out a small moan, fanning himself as Atalanta displayed her best assets.
Atalanta didn’t hesitate. She knew what she was capable of and intended to do it. She tossed the javelin with a quick bunching of her muscles and a short hopping step. The javelin flew as if it would pierce the sun, speeding so fast the crowd could barely track it. Her form was magnificent and neither man nor woman of the crowd or the competitors could find flaw with it.
“One hundred and twenty seven and one quarter!” the spotter called, incredulous.
Atalanta grinned ear to ear and danced happily as the people called out in stunned disbelief. This was Atalanta, a town woman! How could she best the warriors?
“Incredible!” Salmoneous declared with a mooning stare at Atalanta.
Atalanta turned to Hercules. “Good enough for you?”
“Ah, yes,” Hercules answered. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first Olympic champion. The winner in the javelin throw - - - Atalanta!”
The crowd roared and cheered as Atalanta fell on one knee, head bowed and Salmoneous bounced over, olive wreath in hand to place it tenderly on her head.
“What a woman!” Salmoneous declared softly, and felt the consoling pat on his back by Iolaus.
Atalanta rose and faced the crowd. “And I owe it all to clean living!” she called out for the warriors benefit as the people applauded.
“All right! To our next event - - - the foot race!” Hercules announced.
“It’s in the dell,” Salmoneous called out with a wave of his hand to indicate where everyone should go next.
Hercules turned to Atalanta. “You going to try your luck?”
“You need to ask?” she grinned at him.
“Probably not,” he answered with a shake of his head.
A short distance away Brontus and Damon stood together, the beaten champions. Brontus wore a stunned expression, thinking for sure he would have won the event and with a shake of his head turned to Damon.
“I don’t believe it. Who is she?” he asked.
“She’s my aunt,” Damon admitted, unsure whether to be proud of her or ashamed by being beaten by a woman.
“Really?” Brontus couldn’t keep the shock out of his voice. Atalanta was one beautiful woman and she certainly didn’t look old enough to be Damon’s aunt. He sighed and with a shake of his head continued. “If all your women are this strong, it’s no wonder we had a hard time beating you Spartans.”
He turned and headed to the dell while Damon stayed to wonder at his aunt yet again.
Tarkon had been watching the exchange. He didn’t like that one of his best warriors was consorting with the enemy. A game was a game, but this was between events and Brontus should have kept his distance. He stepped quickly after Brontus, catching the young man by the arm and turning him around to face him.
“Don’t go soft on me Brontus!” Tarkon warned.
“I’m not, I’m not. It’s just” - - - he found the feeling in his conscience difficult to accept. The Spartans weren’t simply warriors; they were men and boys with families, much like the Eleans.
“Just what?” Tarkon demanded.
Brontus stared across at Tarkon, seeing for the first time how closed this leader of his really was. Tarkon didn’t seem to understand.
“It’s just that everyone seems to be getting on just fine. Maybe we should try and work things out.”
“Shut up!” Tarkon hissed squeezing Brontus’s arm with a fierceness that hurt deep in the muscle. “Everything is going to go exactly as I planned it. Or else it’s not just my wrath you’ll feel, it’s Ares’s!”
He let the threat hang as Brontus shrugged the older man off and turned his back to leave.
Behind them Hercules and Iolaus strolled side by side, talking quietly and watching the exchange between the two Elean’s moments before. Iolaus carried his vest tossed over one shoulder and let the sun beat down on him, bronzing his chest.
“I don’t like the look of it,” Iolaus shook his head. “And that beat up old wagon with the nasty troll…uh, midget, too many odd things here.” He shook his head.
“I’m getting that feeling too,” Hercules mused. “Maybe you’d better run in the foot race, that way we can be at separate ends of the field without drawing any suspicions.”
“Good idea,” Iolaus agreed. “Small but quick, that’s me. Maybe I’ll just myself a olive wreath.” He grinned and punched Hercules bicep.
“OW! I owe you buddy,” Hercules laughed. “Maybe I’ll buy you one of Salmoneous’s dresses.
“Yeah, well I’m glad we weren’t roped into wearing those ridiculous togas,” Iolaus laughed back. “Heroes can’t be wearing dresses and actually fight. Can you imagine what would happen if you tried to kick someone in the head?” He giggled now at the visual image.
“Iolaus get your mind out of the gutter,” Hercules grinned back at his friend, “I think we’re getting company.” The two men slowed their steps as they head the rushing approach of feet behind them.
“Hey Hercules!” Atalanta called out. She caught up from behind and grabbed Hercules’s arm. Iolaus glanced away, trying to choke back his mirth at the thought of Hercules in a dress, ah, toga.
“I didn’t get a chance to thank you back there,” Atalanta continued.
“For what?” Hercules asked, truly baffled.
“For not caving in when the Elean warrior wanted to make this boys only.”
“Ahh,” Hercules nodded, understanding now. “It wouldn’t have been right if we’d done the Olympics that way. I was just trying to be fair.”
Iolaus rolled his eyes. Here’s where the kiss came, and anytime else Atalanta managed to get close enough to Hercules. He wondered if Atalanta would still kiss Hercules if he’d succumbed to the toga trend.
“Well not every man would have, and I appreciate that.” Atalanta leaned over and pulled Hercules into a kiss.
Iolaus ran his hand through his hair distractedly and turned away.
Atalanta released the demi god and dashed off to the dell, readying herself for the foot race.
Iolaus turned to Hercules, as the big man stood dazed with the words you’re welcome on his lips, but Atalanta gone.
“Come on Herc, you’re going to miss the race.”
Iolaus wanted to enjoy the games, but he felt uneasy. This had all gone a bit too easily. And as he lined up with the other runners he knew he wanted to win a olive wreath as well. But that wasn’t going to happen. He couldn’t be in the lead and be are and ready if something should happen. His job was on the field, Hercules would guard the back perimeter. When the race was over, Iolaus knew he’d have to be last to leave.
The men at the starting line jostled each other for position, hands clenching and unclenching and sweat already starting to streak down their brows and ribs in spite of the cool breeze. At the end of the line Atalanta stood serenely, yet ready, unbothered by the posturing of the men. Iolaus crouched lower, readying for a quick start.
Behind them Hercules called for attention.
“The first runner to reach Salmoneous,” he indicated where Salmoneous was scrambling at the far side of the dell, “Is the winner.”
“Right here! Right here!” Salmoneous called out, making sure everyone saw him.
Hercules turned to Damon, noting the expression of stunned disbelief on the young man’s face as Salmoneous leaped repeatedly with robes flying and sandaled feet slipping.
Damon laughed and jostled Brontus beside him. “Only thing I’m scared of is beating this guy so bad he quits.”
“In your dreams!” Brontus tossed back.
“Hey you’re all gonna eat my dust!” Atalanta challenged, enjoying Brontus’s admiring stare.
“Well, it sounds to me as if everybody is ready,” Hercules muttered running a hand through his hair and pushing it away from his face. “Runners? Take your places.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to join us Hercules?” Atalanta teased, indicating that she’d make a place for him beside her.
“Uh, that’s all right, thank you,” Hercules stammered, knowing full well what her real meaning was.
The crowd cheered as the runners stopped moving, setting ready for the call to start.
“Okay, on your marks! Get ready! Go!” Hercules called out above the tremendous cheering of the spectators.
The line of blue and brown togas, accompanied by one golden haired half clad sidekick and a barely dressed leather clad woman moved forward, at first as one, then as an undulating line and finally with distinct individuals standing out.
At the finish line Salmoneous hopped and gyrated, his robe flowing like a red flag to a herd of bulls and the contestants pounded closer to him with each step. From the middle of the pack Iolaus ran, not as hard or as fast as he would have liked, but with an eye to watching the runners, making sure no trouble broke out.
Iolaus saw the wagon at the same time Hercules did. It was the one he’d seen in town last night with Sal, the one with the nasty midget. It pulled out of the woods and into the dell headed straight to where Salmoneous stood, open mouthed. The tattered burlap rags covering the back of the wagon flapped like bat wings off the dark wood of the rundown carriage, the bay horses bucking and rearing as they were pulled to a stop.
The midget stepped out, grinning evilly and lifted the flap at the rear of the carriage. He stood as if presenting the start of a festival, arms out stretched excitement on his twisted face. From the back of the wagon six creatures emerged.
Hercules was taken aback. “What the” - - - he started but was interrupted by Tarkon.
“A little surprise for you Hercules,” the Elean leader sneered.
Hercules assessed the new arrivals. They were more monsters than men, obviously of the gods, and most likely part of Ares’s minions. Their skin was scaly like the leg of a chicken with errant tufts of fur not unlike the guard hair on a wolf. Their faces were some what human, but had a reptilian look as well, with the heavily lidded eyes and lipless mouths. But what struck Hercules the most was their size. They were built like wild boars, all muscle and square and solid. Hercules could see that this wouldn’t be an easy fight.
On the field, the runners were scattering. Sides were forming and alliances being forged, as the Eleans were grouping around the area of the Ares’s minions. Salmoneous ran, falling and getting up again panicked while Iolaus tried to stop him, get him under control, knowing they would need all the help they could get and in a crunch, Salmoneous could be counted on to come through.
The wagon was still rolling and Salmoneous fell yet again, slipping on the grass. Behind him the wagon was rolling as the horses rushed out of control across the dell straight at the salesman.
“Hercules!” Salmoneous called out, now over on his back staring in horror at the carriage bearing down upon him.
But it was Iolaus who was closer. He dashed to Salmoneous, grabbing the hefty guy and pulled him to his feet and away from the wagon, which crashed over the spot where Salmoneous had lain only seconds before.
At the back of the dell Hercules muttered to himself, thinking of a plan of action. “Mesomorphs,” he said softly. There must be a way to beat them, something besides simply brute strength. Even as a demigod he knew he might not come out of this unscathed. But every monster or godly creation had a weakness. He needed only to remember what it was,
Tarkon wasn’t about to let him have time to think.
”Ares sent them especially to you,” he laughed without mirth. Then he raised his sword to his men and shouted. “Eleans attack!”
Hercules spun on Tarkon so quickly that the leader had no time to react as Hercules’s mighty fist smashed solidly into his face, knocking him to the ground immediately.
Taphius, leader of the Spartans called out, “We’ll take care of things on this end Hercules!”
Hercules nodded, hoping the Spartans knew enough to stay away from the Mesomorphs and leave them to him. He didn’t want any unnecessary deaths, especially at the hands of Ares.
The brown tunics flew into battle against the blue tunics, and instead of worn fighting garb, the two warring factions were easily identified. The clang of swords and the cries of battle resounded as the dewy grass of the dell was trampled, and the morning mist was sliced cleanly by the weapons.
Hercules spun around, catching sight of Iolaus, heading toward the Mesomorphs. Atalanta was racing toward the cart as well, not letting anyone, either blue or brown clad in her way. Iolaus punched an Elean with a straight arm, knocking the man into a sideways spin that caught him off balance and dropped him like a rock. Hercules stopped looking and started running.
His legs pumped, the leather boots digging into the turf and sending up clods behind him, thighs bunching and stretching as he urged more power from them. The cart was looming larger with each stride but Hercules didn’t stop. At the last second he sighted on one of the Mesomorph reaching to grab Atalanta and with a flying side kick, soared through the air feet first directly into the creature’s belly.
The Mesomorph dropped, but only momentarily. It was enough time for Hercules to reach out to Atalanta and pull her to her feet again.
“You really are fast, aren’t you?” she retorted, a little embarrassed at being taken down so easily.
“Only as fast as I have to be,” he answered.
Hercules had no time for witty repartee. The Mesomorphs were on him. Around him, Eleans and Spartans clashed, but the creatures didn’t care. This war was Ares’s, and he had promised that Hercules was theirs. One of the Mesomorphs picked up Hercules as if he as no more than litter on the side of the street. Holding him high over his head, he tossed the demigod with a simple short movement that hurtled him straight at a tree. Hercules felt his shoulder connect solidly against the rough bark and sucked in a deep breath as he felt the skin tear away when he slid down the tree.
Before he could stand another Mesomorph was on him. Hercules found himself in the uncomfortable position of hurtling once again through the air and being caught by another of the scaly tufted beasts, who promptly head butted him. The dell swirled and Hercules wondered if they had rocks in their heads.
Iolaus had been fighting the Eleans until he saw that Hercules needed him. He’d tried to never leave his friend alone in battle since the fateful day of his death at the hands of an Amazon, but there had been times when it had been a necessity. None of those times had been shining moments for either of them though. As he stared across the Olympic field at his companion, he realized in horror that Hercules was not faring well without him.
Iolaus rushed over to where the pack of Mesomorphs was ripping at his friend like wild boars on a fresh kill. He could see that Hercules was dazed, and even from a distance he saw the huge knot forming on his friends head, streaming blood. He launched himself over the last few yards at the huddled group with the intensity of a boulder slung from a catapult and hit the tightly bunched group with enough force to send them sprawling.
”Herc!” he cried out as he caught sight of his bruised and bloodied friend. He reached his small hand out to Hercules’s big one and pulled the demigod upright. Staring with concern at Hercules blank face, he reached up and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Come on Herc!” he urged.
Hercules heard the voice of his best friend. His mind reached out through the fog, trying to grab at the sound, needing to be pulled back. He wasn’t alone, and that insistent caring in Iolaus’ voice called to him.
Hercules registered the urgency in Iolaus’s voice and focused on his friend. He tried to maintain his balance, but knew that the single step he took was more of a stagger than a swagger. Behind Iolaus he saw another of those damn Mesomorphs approaching.
“Iolaus!” he tried to warn, tongue thick and head still swimming, but Iolaus was intent on helping Hercules, keeping him safe. Hercules needed to pull himself together. He couldn’t let Iolaus get hurt.
Still the Mesomorph kept coming closer. Sudenly the spot behind the creature erupted in a blaze of brightly colored robes and bearded salesman.
“Don’t you get nasty with my friends!” Salmoneous warned. “You’re a walking hairball!” He slapped at the Mesomorph as if it was a pesky mosquito, over and over, drumming rhythmically on its leathery flesh.
The Mesomorph was distracted. It turned to see its annoyance and Iolaus hit it with a strength he didn’t know he possessed, sending it careening across the dell.
In the center of the field the battle between the Eleans and Spartans raged. Ares stood unseen pacing through the men, unaffected by the swords and knives, mimicking punches and chuckling at the carnage.
“Go Eleans!” he chanted with upraised fist. “Now this is what I call Olympic Games. I mean, that’s what they do up there anyway, fight, meddle or make love. So one out of three ain’t bad.” He could feel his power growing with every punch landed, with every slice of a sword or stab of a knife. Nice!
Across the field Ares spotted the Spartan they called Damon on his back, the Elean Brontus straddling him. Yeah, two great fighters involved in a one to one. He stepped closer. If one of them died he’d really feel strong. Not that he wasn’t already, but a blood sacrifice was always an upper.
“So, you got what you wanted!” Damon shouted in Brontus’s face.
“Tarkon did,” Brontus countered. “I didn’t. All I wanted to do was to apologize for hitting you when your head was turned.”
Damon wanted to believe him, his voice was sincere enough, but the heavy stick in his hand and the fact that the Elean was holding him down didn’t help. But he didn’t have time to peruse the matter.
“Duck!” Brontus called out as he swung his stick and struck down a young Elean trying to get a knife into Damon.
“Do you believe me now?” he asked as he threw down the stick.
Brontus stood, releasing Damon and pulled him up onto his feet.
”Yes I do,” Damon answered fervently, grasping Brontus’s arm in a warrior’s handshake.
Ares shook his head in disgust. Must be the work of that do good half brother of his. Well, payback was a bitch wasn’t it? Ares winked out, only to reappear where Hercules and Iolaus were trying to keep the Mesomorphs at bay.
Ares watched with a sneer, as back at the rise Hercules and Iolaus continued their battle with the Mesomorphs. They struck and kicked at the monsters to no permanent avail. Sure they could pound them back; but the Mesomorphs kept coming back for more. And Iolaus was getting tired; Hercules could see that fighting the larger heavier warriors of Ares’s minions was taking its toll. There had to be another way.
Hercules punched another Mesomorph, feeling the comforting and strengthening presence of Iolaus at his back. His friend was sweating, skin hot and breathing hard, but he stood solidly protecting Hercules. Hercules was grateful for that too, because he wasn’t anxious to take another beating.
With monsters there was always a way to win. With the Hydra, it had been fire. Sometimes just smashing one against the other was enough, but Hercules had tried that to no avail. So fire it would be. He had to try something.
Hercules looked for someone close that he might know, someone he could trust and spotted the colorful flowing robes of Salmoneous. He wasn’t paying enough attention to the Mesomorphs though, and as Iolaus kicked two away, Hercules was grabbed by the throat by another.
“Ha!” Ares made himself visible to Hercules now. “Enjoying the workout with my Eleans?” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Oh yeah bro,” He continued as Hercules, his wind cut off by the monster, gestured frantically to Salmoneous. “Score one for my side! Do I get an olive wreath?”
Hercules shot him a look of disdain and would have replied in kind if only he could speak.
Iolaus, aware of Hercules predicament, was frantic with his inability to help. Right now the smaller man fought two of the Mesomorphs, who kept returning like balls on strings whenever he kicked or punched them away. He simply had to trust that Hercules would be okay or that somehow he’d find a way to help him, a moment free of these unrelenting creatures would be all Iolaus needed.
Salmoneous saw Hercules’s frantic gesturing and the action wasn’t lost on him. As Iolaus continued the battle, Sal rushed straight through Ares and stopped at Hercules side. The salesman wasn’t strong, or even particularly brave on his own. But with Hercules he could find a deeper part of himself, one that was able to face terror without weeping. He bent over to hear Hercules as the big man pulled against the strangling hands of the Mesomorph.
Ares, taken aback by Salmoneous’s rush straight through him, stepped back a bit to take a look at the person who dared help Hercules.
“Hercules, be careful!” Salmoneous called out trying to keep his terror at bay. His hands shook and he couldn’t lose the feeling of icy cold that struck him as he’d rushed to Hercules.
“Hercules, what can I do, what can I do?” he cried as he saw the reddening of Hercules’s face, the strain in his arms and shiver across his body as his air supply was gradually cut off.
Iolaus kicked back another Mesomorph, glancing worriedly at Hercules and seeing Salmoneous was there, continued his fight.
“Get the torch!” Hercules gasped out, pulling the Mesomorph’s hands away from his throat just enough to take in a deep breath.
“What!?” Salmoneous questioned. The sounds of the battle filled the air, and Hercules’s voice was hoarse.
“Get the torch!” Hercules repeated.
“The torch!” Iolaus almost screamed at Salmoneous as he hit yet another Mesomorph intent on killing Hercules.
”The torch! Right!” Salmoneous answered with a sigh of relief at finally getting the message straight.
He turned and ran frantically, hitting that same cold spot. But he didn’t slow down in spite of the chill he felt even with his heavy robes.
Ares was done with the pesky salesman. Once, in his invisible form was excusable, but to pass through him twice was simply disrespectful. There wasn’t enough dying here. The fat man had to go. Ares left Hercules side and spoke urgently to the nasty midget guarding his wagon. The midget nodded.
The midget reached into the wagon and drew out a spear. He leaned back, took aim and started chasing Salmoneous. Salmoneous let out a whoop ran wildly, eyes rolling and head spinning back and forth in search of help. This time it was Atalanta who came to his aid.
Atalanta snatched the spear away from the midget, who suddenly realized his predicament. He looked frantically for Ares, but not seeing him, ran. The midget’s legs were too small for fast travel, but never the less he beat a path back toward the wagon as Atalanta urged Salmoneous on and took aim on the midget.
“Go Salmoneous! Get the torch for Hercules!” she urged.
Salmoneous nodded, for once not even thinking about how sexy she looked and made a bee line to the Olympic torch.
Atalanta knew this would be an easy shot. Heck, she’d won the javelin contest with a toss not even a third of this. She set her legs, pulled back her arm and let the spear fly.
Ares watched with a smile of lust on his face as he assessed Atalanta. Never mind she’d just pinned one of his men with a spear through the clothes. The man was expendable, but the woman was incredible. Mmm! Maybe SHE’D walk through HIM. He sucked in a deep breath. Now wasn’t the time to materialize, but later perhaps he could win her away from Hercules. Yeah that was the ticket. A gorgeous woman and getting back at Hercules, it could be done, he thought.
Salmoneous was back at Hercules side, dodging the swinging arms of the Mesomorphs.
“Hercules! The torch!” he called out and seeing Hercules’s slight nod of acknowledgement, he tossed it, but lost his footing, slipping in the blood on the grass.
Atalanta was at his side. “Salmoneous!” she screamed, afraid that the Mesomorph would kill him. “Get up!” she grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet.
Salmoneous was panting out small sounds of panic as Atalanta started to lead him away from the worst of the fighting. She wasn’t sure what would happen when Hercules wielded the torch, but she surely didn’t want Salmoneous in harms way.
“Come on Salmoneous. Let’s go,” she spoke soothingly.
“Hercules!” Salmoneous called out in loyalty as Atalanta tugged him away.
But Hercules had already torched the Mesomorph who tried to strangle him, and kicking Iolaus’s attacker away, the demigod sprinted over to the carriage.
“The battle’s over here!” He called, knowing Ares was still there, and Ares appeared this time to all of them.
The warriors stopped fighting at the sound of Hercules’s voice and Ares’s mean laugh. Everyone turned to see the showdown as Hercules brandished the torch.
“Take this!” Hercules spat, and waving the torch threateningly at Ares, he instead tossed it into the wagon.
The people gasped as the wagon exploded. One by one Ares’s Mesomorphs exploded too. Brontus covered his eyes. He wouldn’t cry, even those these men were once his friends. He was a warrior, but he knew whose side he’d never fight on again. Ares’s.
Ares tried to maintain an air of superiority, but Hercules could see that he was angry.
”Lost again, Ares!” he called out as much for the warriors’s benefit as for his own.
Ares turned away. There was one last way to get back at his brother. He stared across at the midget pinned like a fly under a thumb, struggling to release himself from the spear.
Hercules followed his gaze. “No!” he yelled. But it was too late.
Ares grinned in pleasure and chuckled as he hurled a fireball at the small man, engulfing him in instant flames and reveling in the momentary screams of the dying man.
“Ahh!” he said in satisfaction with a shake of his head, then disappeared.
Hercules surveyed the faces of the contestants. They stood soberly, considering what had just happened. The Olympic Games wouldn’t be ruined, he vowed.
Dirty and bruised, he spoke to the people with conviction.
“Now, where were we when we were so rudely interrupted?”
“We had a race to finish,” Atalanta answered loudly. The crowd cheered and straggled back to the starting line.
“You know,” Salmoneous mused. “None of this could have been accomplished without you.” He turned to face Hercules. “It’s very, uh, Herculean.”
“Why don’t we just say “Olympian?” Hercules laughed as he patted Salmoneous on the shoulder.
Atalanta was relieved that Hercules was unharmed, and that the games would go on. Never a better time than now to let Hercules know, she figured.
“Either way, it gets you a kiss big guy!” she retorted. Atalanta was fast, and she went for what she wanted. She grabbed Hercules as he stood in uneasy surprise and pulled him down into a deep embrace, then spun him back so he was almost parallel to the ground.
The crowd whooped and cheered as Atalanta planted a big one on Hercules lips, and Iolaus stood with arms across his chest and a chuckle caught in his throat.
Damon watched his Aunt enjoying her new Olympic prize and turned with a grin to Brontus. “See how spontaneous Spartan women are? You’re going to like it around here.”
Brontus let his jaw drop. Damon had a valid point. He stared at the beautiful warrior woman who was finally ending her long embrace and watched with a grin on his lips as she simply released him and let him plop unceremoniously into the grass.
Hercules stared up at her stunned as she turned next to Salmoneous.
Atalanta pulled Salmoneous by the robes closer, her lips nearing his and Sal sighed and tipped his head up, eyes closed in anticipation.
“You weren’t so bad either, she breathed, and Salmoneous leaned into her magnificent hard body, lips puckered and ready. But he was disappointed when she placed a simple soft and sincere kiss on his forehead.
Atalanta turned to Iolaus who held up his hand in restraint. “Herc and I have rules about sharing women,” he laughed, although in truth, had he thought that Hercules wasn’t interested, he’d have gladly kissed her and good too. But he knew that Herc’s shyness was a cover for his true feelings.
Atalanta laughed and turned away, no offence taken. “Now, which way was that starting line?” she called over her shoulder.
The three men stood, watching Atalanta’s retreating figure, eyes focused on the long blonde hair, the strong lean body, and especially the thongs and the exquisite tight buttocks the thong exposed.
Hercules sucked in a deep stabilizing breath. “Now THAT is what I call Olympian,” he remarked.
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