Protean Challenge

by Arianna

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Brian Herskowitz

Windchimes danced lightly in the hot breeze, their ethereal melodies ever changing and lifting delicately into the air as Thanis stepped outside. He pushed back the vibrant, woven, blanket across the entrance to his home, to let the air circulate inside, and walked away from the good-sized thatched cottage by the river, past the cooling shade of the surrounding trees, toward the sloping green fields. A man in his middle years, but still fit, he wore a long sand-coloured tunic over a longer, burgundy robe, edged with a band of hand-embroidered silk, and leather bands around his wrists. He was carrying a pitcher, filled with fresh cool water for the men helping him but, when his gaze lit upon the ten-foot high block of rough, raw marble, he was distracted.

Wandering over to the upright rectangular mass of shaped stone, he muttered softly, “What do you want to be? Huh?” Moving around, examining it from each side, he tentatively reached out, only to pull his hand back and ponder it further. He frowned and cocked his head, as if listening, and thoughtfully scratched his reddish brown beard. “A lion? A gladiator?” he suggested to the mute block of rough marble.

Some distance away, their torsos bare and glistening with sweat, Hercules and his best friend, Iolaus, laboured to create a long, narrow trench. As the blonde shovelled more heavy clay out of the way, heaving it to the side, he grumbled to the demigod, “Explain to me, again, why we’re doin’ this.”

Wielding a pick to loosen the earth further along the slope, Hercules grinned over his shoulder, and replied cheerfully, “Ah…because it’s fun!”

“Oh, good,” Iolaus grunted, and heaved another heavy shovel heaped with earth.

Sighing, Hercules stopped working to turn toward his partner. “Look,” he explained, his tone placating, even cajoling, “if there isn’t a place for the runoff from the rains to go, all the crops in the valley will be destroyed.”

Digging out another load of earth, Iolaus nodded matter-of-factly, as he replied, “I know.”

“You do?” the demigod returned, seeming surprised, but then remembered that Iolaus’ own farm had been on sloped land.

Taking a brief break to ease his back, Iolaus observed with mild irritation, “You know? If Thanis spent more time farming instead of sculpting, he wouldn’t have this problem.”

The demigod didn’t disagree but he shrugged philosophically, as he swung his pick over his shoulder and, muscles rippling, swept it forward and down, burying its sharp end into the hard earth as he replied, “Ah, but he’s an artist.”

“So?” Iolaus turned to look up at his friend.

“You know how they are,” the demigod responded as he pulled the pick loose, and then turned back to see Iolaus looking at him, with some confusion. “No?” When his best friend shook his head, Hercules jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the artist in question, and Iolaus turned in time to hear Thanis cajoling the large lump of stone, “Come on, how can I help you unless you help me?”

Chuckling softly, Iolaus looked up at his friend who was regarding him with amusement. Both men laughed lightly and turned back to their work. Glancing up, toward the outbuildings, Iolaus observed good-naturedly, “At least there’s a nice view.”

“Where?” Hercules asked, pausing to look around…and seeing Thanis’ lovely daughter, Daniella, busy plucking a chicken, the feathers blowing around her and away in a light fluffy cloud. Iolaus chuckled as the demigod paused a moment to appreciate the delicate beauty of their environment. “Ah, so you like chickens,” Hercules teased, grinning when Iolaus laughed heartily.

Cheerfully, they continued the hard, manual labour, giving their muscles a good workout under the hot morning sun.

A few minutes later, Thanis approached, full of apology. “Hercules, Iolaus, I’m sorry,” he explained as he held out the pewter water jug. “I-I meant to get this to you before now.”

“It’s not a problem,” the demigod assured him as he reached for the welcome refreshment, but his partner was faster. “Ah…” Hercules started to protest, and then just smiled indulgently while Iolaus thirstily downed the much-appreciated cool water - and then, there only being a little left, the sweaty warrior tipped the jug over his body to cool his hot skin, sighing with relief - and only belatedly catching the look on his Hercules’ face. Suddenly chagrined to have used all the water himself, Iolaus grimaced in apology. Shaking his head, Hercules waved off his concern.

Handing the empty jug to Hercules as he turned to Thanis, Iolaus asked hopefully, “Is Daniella going to come and join us?”

The demigod looked ruefully at the empty vessel and set it aside.

“I don’t think so,” Thanis shook his head. With a quick look at his only child, his expression creased in mild concern, he added, “That daughter of mine has been off in her own world, lately.”

“Oh,” the blond acknowledged, disappointed.

“But I’m sure she’ll snap out of it, soon,” Thanis continued hopefully, snapping his fingers to show them, and, perhaps himself, how quickly she could return to her normal good spirits.

“How’s your sculpture coming, Thanis?” the demigod asked, sounding truly interested.

“Ah…it’s only three weeks to the exhibit in Athens,” the artist replied with no little frustration, “and I’m still waiting for the rock to tell me what it wants to be!”

“Yeah,” Iolaus nodded sympathetically, “yeah, rocks are stubborn that way.”

Delighted that Iolaus understood so well, Thanis concurred absolutely, “Right. Right.” Sighing, he shook his head at the stubborn whimsy of rocks, but then moved to another subject, “Say, I have to go into Volos. I thought, uh…”

“Oh, I’m there,” Iolaus hastened to volunteer, as he scrambled out of the ditch.

“W-w-wait!” Hercules exclaimed, sincerely surprised to be abandoned. “Aren’t you gonna stay and help me dig?”

“Nah. Hercules…thank you,” Iolaus replied, as he soberly handed his shovel to the demigod, appreciating that his friend wanted him to stay and continue to have such a good time, “but, uh…no, no, you stay. Have all the fun. Bye.”

Shaking his head, not amused, Hercules scowled at the work that remained and sighed. “Fine,” he muttered as he tossed the shovel away and bent to pick up his pick. “Great,” he groused as he again swung the tool, digging deep into the earth.

Loading another of what seemed like a bottomless pile of heavy sacks onto Thanis’ wagon, the blond warrior grumbled, “Ah, Iolaus, you had to volunteer...” Looking up, he could see and hear Thanis’ unhappy conversation with the village’s metal-worker, Trilos.

“That’s unfair!” the thin, dyspeptic man in a long green tunic and robe, that did nothing for his sallow complexion or dyspeptic frame, protested sharply.

“Now, listen - you listen to me!” Thanis argued, his voice rising. “I am not paying you extra so you can stuff your greedy face with food!”

His voice now rising as well, as their argument escalated, Trilos protested, “Food?”

“I will walk to the next town…” the artist harangued…

…while the metal-worker shouted over him, neither of them listening anymore to what the other was saying, “What am I supposed to do?!”

“…before I come back and do business with you!

Well, go to the next town! I don’t care!” Trilos yelled, repeating himself for emphasis, as Thanis stalked off in disgust. “I don’t care!

“What was all that about?” Iolaus asked, curiously, when Thanis joined him by the wagon.

“Ahh - Trilos keeps raising his prices. Greedy fool!” the artist grumbled. “Forget about him. I still got a couple ’a things I’ve got to pick up. I’ll be right back.” And then he wandered off again.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Iolaus muttered sardonically, as he bent to heft yet another sack into the bed of the wagon.

Suddenly, a woman screamed and cried out, “That’s mugging!

Alarmed, Iolaus looked upon and around, and was shocked to see the artist bash the metal-worker on the back of the head. “Thanis?” Iolaus gasped, and then called out, “Thanis, no! Don’t!” as he watched Thanis rifle in his stunned, barely-conscious, victim’s belt, grabbing Trilos’ purse.

Shocked, scarcely able to believe his own eyes, Iolaus watched his friend brush past the butcher, Bornus, a large, muscular man with a brutal face, who yelled after him, demanding to know what was going on…but Thanis was already scurrying down a narrow alley, and was soon out of sight - but not before he’d paused, and looked back, with an odd look of satisfaction on his face.

The warrior raced to the fallen man’s side, pushing through the curious crowd that had gathered, ordering, “Stand back. Give him some air.” Kneeling, he helped Trilos’ sit up, and supported him as the stunned man rubbed the already emerging lump on the back of his head.

Less than a minute later, Thanis appeared from another direction, whistling unconcernedly. Bornus shouted angrily, “There’s Thanis! He’s the one who did this!” The crowd echoed his charges, as Thanis strolled over to see what was going on.

Unimpressed with Bornus’ outcries, Thanis challenged, “What are you babbling about, Bornus? Did what?”

“Ah, spare us your lies!” Bornus shouted back. “I saw it!” Reaching out, he grabbed the artist by the arm, to restrain him, and was soon ably assisted by several of the good men of the town, who swarmed around Thanis to ensure he didn’t escape.

When Thanis looked utterly confused, and struggled against those who held him, Iolaus asked softly, “Why did you do it, Thanis?”

Do what?!” his friend demanded, confounded.

Trilos dabbed the back of his head, as he charged angrily, “You hit me on the head and robbed me, you thief!”

I’m no thief!” Thanis retorted, insulted. He turned to the warrior, and appealed for help, “Iolaus, tell them!”

“But” Iolaus sighed helplessly, “I saw you do it.”

“That’s impossible.” Thanis protested, but the crowd had wound itself up to a righteous rage. A woman yelled, “Take him away!” and they dragged him off, Thanis struggling and shouting, “No! I didn’t do anything! Let me go!

Enough talk!” Bornus bellowed. “It’s time for action!

No, wait!” Iolaus protested, chasing after the ugly crowd, only to be blindsided by a strange man in the crush, who violently slammed the heel of his palm up and under the warrior’s jaw, knocking him flat before he knew what happened. Several men kicked him and stomped on his back, before moving on.

Bornus, the bully, picked up a rock and shouted, “I say we stone the thief!

The angry crowd roared its approval, but Iolaus spit out the earth of the square and scrambled to get between Thanis, who’d already been quickly bound to a post in the square, and the murderous crowd. “What’re you doing?!” he yelled at people who were normally peaceful, but were now screaming for blood.

Don’t, I’m begging you,” Thanis implored, seriously afraid. “You people know me. You couldn’t possibly believe I’d do anything like this.”

You can’t just kill the man,” Iolaus tried to reason, shouting above the yelling crowd. “He deserves a trial!

And what would a trial prove that your eyes haven’t already seen?” Bornus sneered, as he handled the sizable rock in his hand lovingly, obviously itching to throw it.

“Maybe, there’s an explanation. Maybe…” the warrior argued desperately.

But Trilos cut him off. “You’re an outsider! You don’t have any idea what’s been goin’ on around here, lately! One crime after another, and still nobody caught! Until now.”

It doesn’t make sense to blame Thanis for everything!” Iolaus countered furiously.

“Maybe not,” Bornus agreed, only to continue with arrogant assurance, “but his punishment will stand as a warning to any other thief that comes to Volos.”

No,” Thanis protested, sick with fear, unable to understand what was going on, or why his neighbours wanted to kill him.

Wait a second!” Iolaus argued back, advancing on Bornus. “What’re you trying to do?!

But someone cried out, “Get the outsider!” - and a large cluster of men suddenly attacked Iolaus, manhandling him out of the way.

Bornus wound up his arm as he shouted at the hapless artist, “Thanis, you’ve betrayed your neighbors!

What’re ya waiting for?!” someone yelled, as Iolaus struggled desperately against the men holding him back, but there were too many for him to break free.

And now ya gotta pay for it,” Bornus cried, as he threw the rock hard. Thanis cringed helplessly, wincing as he closed his eyes - but a hand shot out, catching the heavy rock, just before it hit the artist full in the face - and then crushed the solid stone into dust, much to the awe of the gathered crowd, shocking them into silence.

“You don’t wanna do that,” Hercules intoned repressively.

“Who do you think you are,” Bornus demanded angrily, a big man himself, he was not, in the least, intimidated by the big stranger, “butting in this way?”

Having finally broken free of those restraining him, when the astonished villagers loosed their grip at the appearance of the demigod, Iolaus loped to join his best friend - the two of them bracketing Thanis, protecting him. “He’s Hercules,” the warrior told them.

“Right, and I’m Jason,” Bornus sneered, “leader of the Argonauts.”

“Hey, I know Jason,” Iolaus retorted, continuing contemptuously, “and, believe me, pal, you are no Jason.”

“If you are who he says who are, big fella,” Bornus continued, ignoring Iolaus, unwilling to give up brutalizing Thanis, “you wouldn’t be standin’ in the way of justice.”

“Oh, I believe in justice,” the demigod drawled, “as long as it’s just. Now, what happened?”

Trilos whined, “He hit me on the head and robbed me!”

“We may have had our differences,” Thanis protested, “but you know I’m no criminal!”

Shaking his head at the blatant lies, Trilos shouted back, “Your friend here was a witness.”

“Well, that’s true, Hercules,” Iolaus admitted quietly, reluctantly. “I-I saw the whole thing.”

Bornus had had enough of the talk; he wanted to stone Thanis. “Satisfied?” he demanded impatiently, as he strutted toward the hapless artist, looming over him. “Now, step aside while I rid…”

Nobody,” Hercules snapped, as he strong-armed Bornus, stopping him in his tracks with one strong palm on his chest, and then pushed him back, “is getting stoned while I’m here.”

Backing away, the bullying butcher shouted, “We want justice.

Killing a man for stealing isn’t justice,” the demigod shouted right back.

That’s what you say!” argued the bully.

“Anyone who wants to take the law into his own hands,” Hercules called out to Bornus, and the crowd that backed him, “is gonna have to go through me.”

“And me,” Iolaus added bluntly, as he glared at the Bornus and the bloodthirsty villagers.

Taking on two strong warriors seemed to have less appeal that stoning a confused and bound artist - the people murmured uncertainly as they stirred restlessly, thinking it might be best to just slip away.

Not prepared to fight the two men, for all his aggressive ways, Bornus backed down. “All right,” he muttered, “but you still haven’t told us what you’re gonna do with him.”

“You must have a magistrate around here, someplace. We’ll let him handle this,” Hercules suggested, while Iolaus untied Thanis from the pole. “Any complaints?”

“No,” the crowd grumbled.

“Good,” Hercules nodded, as Thanis rubbed his raw wrists, and then the demigod laid a steadying hand on his friend’s shoulder as he said, “Let’s go find him, Thanis.”

Two guards lingered in the background, waiting for the magistrate’s decision, as Thanis pled his case in the large opulent, candle and torch-lit, official’s hall of business. “I’ve been doing business with Trilos for years. We’ve always argued over his prices. They’re too high, if you ask me. But I’d never steal.”

Unmoved by the protestations, the Magistrate, a grey-haired man in a gold robe with a heavy chain of office around his neck, called, “Guard…take him to his cell.”

As the guards dragged him backwards up the steps and out of the hall, Thanis cried out to his two friends, “I need your help. I really do.”

“We’ll do everything we can,” Hercules assured him. Turning to the Magistrate, he asked, “What’s gonna happen to him?”

“Oh, he won’t be stoned,” the man replied blandly, relieving both heroes. “We’re not barbarians.”

“Huh, that’s a relief,” Iolaus murmured, while Hercules nodded in agreement.

Taking his seat behind his desk, the older man continued, “We’ll simply chop off his hands.”

What?!” Iolaus exclaimed, horrified.

Just for stealing?” Hercules protested, equally appalled.

“It’s a sign of the times, my friend,” the Magistrate sighed. “With all the crime we’ve had in Volos lately, we have to make a statement, or else who knows what’ll happen next?”

“But, Thanis isn’t a criminal,” the demigod argued.

“Yeah, he’s an artist,” Iolaus added, unable to believe such a cruel and unjust punishment would be levied.

“I know,” the older man sighed, not insensitive to their protests, having his own personal views of Thanis. “My oldest son posed for one of his sculptures.” Shaking his head regretfully, he continued, “But that doesn’t change what people say they saw Thanis do.”

“He swears he’s innocent,” Hercules pointed out.

“They all do,” the older man replied, with cynical bluntness.

“Oh, come on,” Iolaus protested. “You have to let him tell his side of the story.”

I don’t have to do anything!” the Magistrate replied with an annoyed scowl, having had enough of the argument. He turned his attention to the notes on his desk, wordlessly dismissing them. But the two heroes approached and leaned on his desk, looming over him wordlessly. Sighing as he looked up, the official capitulated. “All right. In the interest of fairness…I’ll delay punishment for twenty-four hours. If you two can find absolute proof of his innocence in that time, he’ll be a free man. If not - I suppose he’ll have to sculpt with his teeth.

The two friends exchanged anxious looks - it didn’t give them much time.

Their first stop was the jail below the Magistrate’s Hall, to see Thanis and find out if there was anything more they could learn from him.

Dejectedly, very frightened, Thanis pressed his face to a square-shaped opening in the grill-like iron, cell door, his hands clinging to the metal. “What would I be without my hands?” he agonized. “I couldn’t sculpt, I couldn’t farm. There’d be no use for me!

“We want to help you, Thanis,” the demigod told him, “but you’ve got to help us first.”

“Just listen to reason,” the sculptor begged. “If I’d robbed him, you really think I would’ve shown my face back there?”

“I- I know. It doesn’t make any sense,” Hercules agreed with a frown. “But even Iolaus said he saw you.”

“I wish I’d been looking the other way,” the blond sighed as he crossed his arms, still unable to believe Thanis was a thief, despite what he’d seen.

“Where were you during the robbery?” Hercules asked, hoping for another witness who could place Thanis elsewhere during the assault. “Whoever saw you should be willing to speak up.”

Moaning softly in despair, Thanis shook his head. “It’s no use,” he replied hopelessly. “I went looking for the draper, to buy Daniella a bolt of fabric. But he wasn’t in his shop.”

“Did anybody see you?” Iolaus demanded, ready to clutch at any straw.

Thanis thought about it, but then sighed as he shook his head. “Afraid not,” he admitted. In confused frustration, he opined, “It’s as if the gods are punishing me, and all the other good, decent people in this village.”

Iolaus looked up at his half-god friend, both of them mystified about what was going on in Volos.

“Be brave, Thanis,” Hercules consoled his friend, before they left to find some answers. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

As they walked through the busy village lanes, people pushed and shoved irritably, everyone tense and in a foul mood.

“What is going on here?” Iolaus demanded, puzzled and perplexed. “All this turmoil, and they’re not even at war.”

“Yeah,” Hercules agreed, frustrated at the oddness of the whole situation, and very worried about Thanis. “Look, you better get back to the farm, and tell Daniella about her father,” he suggested to his partner.

“What’re you gonna do?” Iolaus asked.

Hercules sighed and lifted his arms expressively, as he replied, “I’m gonna go talk to Trilos, and see if I can make any sense of all this.”

“Good luck,” Iolaus offered, sincerely.

“Yeah,” the demigod grunted, as they headed in separate directions.

The shop was filled with the work of a highly skilled artisan; knives and swords, shields, tools of all kinds, chisels, armour, and an amazing variety of metal framed mirrors, many covered with light sheets of white gauze filled baskets, shelves and covered racks and walls.

“Thanis is crazy, I tell you,” Trilos sighed, shaking his head, while he rearranged a mirror on a display frame.

“What makes you say that?” Hercules demanded, curious.

“He kept saying I owe him money for a dozen chickens,” the artisan replied, “Look around. Do you see any chickens?” Ambling across the room, he picked up a plate of homemade treats and held it out to the demigod. “Dolmars?” he offered, “They’re fresh. The wife made them this morning.”

“Ah, I’m not hungry,” Hercules declined, “Thanks.”

Shrugging and choosing a morsel for himself, Trilos murmured, “Okay.”

“Thanis said the two of you have had your differences in the past,” the demigod probed, going back to the issue at hand.

“Yeah,” Trilos agreed easily. “That’s because he’s a cheapskate.” Waving to a rack of chisels, he gave his side of the conflict, his words a little garbled as he chewed on his treat. “He thinks I should send him those s-sculpture chisels for nothing. Maybe all artists are like that.”

Grimacing, Hercules sighed. “That still doesn’t explain the robbery, or why he came back right after it.”

“Well, obviously, he’s not much of a thief,” Trilos observed sardonically. “Mmm,” he murmured, enjoying another of his wife’s creations. “Are you sure you don’t wanna try one of these? They’re good for what ails you.” Pointing to the lump on his head, he added, “Even cured my headache.”

“That’s okay. My health is fine,” the demigod again declined. “It’s Thanis’ I’m worried about.”

“Doesn’t make any sense, him robbing me,” Trilos agreed, but then added with no little frustration, “Nothing makes any sense in Volos, anymore.”

“Well, thanks for your help,” Hercules replied with a frown of frustration, as he took his leave.

Back at the farmstead, Iolaus called, “Daniella? You home? Daniella?” He checked the house and the outbuildings, wondering where she could be - but then he heard a soft, pleasant humming, and followed the sound to the river - where he found Daniella’s deep scarlet gown, and the beautiful maiden, herself, submerged to her throat as she bathed in the river. Unable to help himself, Iolaus gaped in sincere appreciation of her delicate loveliness…and envy of the lucky river.

She turned, surprised to see him, not having heard his calls, “Iolaus?”

Caught staring, embarrassed, he quickly turned his face away and stammered, “Yeah. Uh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. But, um, I-I do have to talk to you.”

“Well, you found me,” she observed mildly, wondering what he wanted.

“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed, not sure where to look, and even less sure of how to break the bad news.

Seeing his disquiet, concerned, Daniella asked, “Could you get me my dress?”

“Wh…uh, yeah,” Iolaus agreed, spotting the silk garment hooked on a nearby tree. Picking it up, he then wasn’t sure what she wanted him to do with it. “Yeah. Uh…”

“You don’t have to be embarrassed,” the young woman assured him matter-of-factly. “Just bring it to me.”

Moving down to the shoreline, he held it open for her, turning his head away as he murmured a little uncomfortably, “Okay. Here you are.” Daniella was a sweet, innocent young woman, and he really didn’t want to put her in a compromising position.

She stepped out of the water, and turned her back to slip her arms into the sleeves, drawing the fabric around her as she stood close to him. Unconsciously, Iolaus’ grip stayed with the material and ended up with his arms wrapped around her. A pleasant experience. “Thank you,” Daniella murmured, amused. “You can let go anytime you want.”

Startled back to full awareness of what he was doing, Iolaus jumped back, releasing her, “Oh! Uh, yeah…sorry.”

Turning to face him, the beautiful maiden asked, “Were you spying on me?”

No, Daniella!” the warrior protested, shocked that she’d think that of him. “I’m not that kind of guy.” However, unable to deny that he was very attracted to her, he added softly, “Even though I-I think you’re truly lovely…”

Charmed, she smiled softly at the sincere compliment, but then wondered, “Well, then, why are you here?”

Sighing, he replied, “Uh, well, there’s been some trouble with your father.” He swallowed, and then continued, “He, uh, he stole from a merchant - a-a guy named…Trilos? And, uh…he’s in prison.”

“My father would never do something like that,” she asserted, having no doubts.

“Daniella, I saw the whole thing,” Iolaus reluctantly told her.

“It wasn’t my father,” she insisted, pushing past him to head to the house.

“Well, um…” Iolaus began, as he followed after her…

Hercules had just come back out into the marketplace when he was accosted by an old hag, with long straight grey hair, garbed in a shapeless black robe. “I can tell your future,” she told him boldly.

“Uh…thanks,” the demigod replied, as he took a step to the side to move around her, “but I’d rather be surprised.”

But she wasn’t prepared to let him go. “The great Hercules isn’t a believer?” she mocked. “But you will be…you will be…

Caught by the cunning manner of the hag, thinking there was something…familiar…about her, Hercules gave her a penetrating look. “Do I know you?”

“That’s not the question,” she chided him. “The question is - do I know you? And I do, son of Alcmene.

Becoming annoyed by the overly-familiar manner, the air of mystery, as well as subtle threat, Hercules demanded, “If you’ve got something to say to me, say it now.”

“Leave Volos,” the hag commanded. “There’s nothing here for you but misery.”

Quirking an unimpressed brow, the demigod quipped, “Well, you know what they say - misery loves company.”

Offended, she lifted her chin, her eyes narrowing unpleasantly, “You act as if this is a joke!” she charged, angry.

“Then tell me more,” Hercules offered.

But the old woman sniffed, as she intoned, “There’s nothing more to say when tragedy is in the air.” And then, with a sudden explosion, a large cloud of smoke appeared where she had been standing. Startled, Hercules looked around for her, unable to believe she could disappear that easily…but all that was anywhere nearby by was a rooster, scratching on the ground.

Daniella quickly changed into a simple sleeveless gown of deep burgundy silk, and belted it tightly around her waist, the full skirt draping in graceful folds around her hips. Then she let her long, dark tresses down, holding them away from her face with a headband around her brow. As soon as she was ready, the two of them set out for the village.

“If you told me a little more about the crimes around here, maybe I could help,” Iolaus offered, still seeking information that might aid her father.

“I told you what I’m going to do,” she stated firmly.

“Talk to Hercules, right,” Iolaus sighed. He shook his head, more than ready to agree that his best friend could be very helpful, but so could he, given a chance. “I think you’re forgetting that he and I fight side by side, you know,” he offered, uncomfortable with bragging, but wanting to convince her to trust him. “I mean, we’ve been up against some pretty…”

“Iolaus?” she interrupted repressively, “I’m not in the mood to be impressed.”

Sighing, he threw up his hands. “Sorry.”

“They haven’t cut off my father’s hands yet, have they?” she asked then, and he suddenly understood her testy belligerence…it was fear.

Instantly sympathetic, shaking his head, he asked, “How did you…?”

“I saw it once when I was a little girl,” she replied, with a shiver of repulsed and horrified memory.

“Oh,” he murmured, genuinely sorry she’d ever had to see anything like that.

“Tell me about my father,” she urged then, so very frightened for him.

“The magistrate gave us twenty-four hours to prove his innocence,” Iolaus advised her, soberly.

“Then there’s still time,” she sighed with relief, and she hastened their pace toward the village.

In less than fifteen minutes, they passed under the village gates and entered the large public square. As they walked past a fifteen-foot statue of a hoplite warrior, she paused to look up at it. “My father gave this to the village,” she explained to Iolaus. “It was the first sculpture he ever displayed in public.”

“Ah,” the warrior murmured, admiring the impressive figure.

“You should’ve seen the look on his face when he realized that he could touch people with his art,” she continued softly with fond recollection, smiling unconsciously at the memory of his joy. But the smile faded as she demanded, her voice cracking, “How could anyone think that the hands that created this belong to a thief?” Tears glittered in her eyes, and Iolaus gently took her into his arms, to comfort her.

Just then, Hercules appeared at the far end of the market square, and called out urgently, “Iolaus! We’ve got trouble! Come on!

“I gotta go,” Iolaus told her, sorry to leave her when she was so upset, but having no choice.

What’s going on?” she demanded, feeling overwhelmed…and afraid for the two heroes.

“I’ll tell you when I find out,” he promised, as he turned to hurry away.

Hercules called out impatiently, “Come on!” And then the demigod turned to race down a narrow, dark alley.

Don’t worry!” he called back, to reassure her, as he raced after his best friend. “I’ll bring Hercules back for you.

Iolaus chased into the alley, which was crowded with booths and all manner of goods for sale. Someone called out, “Melons! Two for a dinar!” He paused, looking for Hercules, but not seeing him in the confusion of the milling crowd of shoppers.

But Hercules popped back around a far corner, and called urgently, “Iolaus! This way!

Where are we going?” the warrior shouted back, but got no answer. Grimacing, realizing that with whatever the emergency was, there wasn’t time to share a lot of details, Iolaus muttered as he chased after his partner, “That’s okay. W-we can talk later…

The cell door clanged open, and the Magistrate cautioned, not unkindly, as Daniella ran forward into her father’s embrace, “Keep it short…all right?”

“I promise, I won’t let them hurt you,” she vowed passionately as she clung to him, weeping. “I promise I won’t.”

“Oh-h-h-h-h-h…don’t cry, Daniella,” Thanis tried to comfort her, aching to see her so distraught on his behalf. “No, no, you’ve got to be strong.”

“But, this is my fault,” she whispered wretchedly.

“No…no, no,” he protested, as he held her and patted her back to soothe her. “That’s not true.”

Sniffing, she pulled back to look up at him, tears brimming in her eyes. “There are so many things that I want tell you,” she murmured brokenly, “and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to.”

Finding a smile for her, Thanis reassured her, meaning every word, “All that matters to me is your love.”

“I am so sorry,” she whispered, looking away. “I am so, so sorry.

Bornus’ harsh voice cut in, mockingly, as he strutted into the cell, “No need for you to apologize…it wasn’t you who robbed Trilos.”

Whirling on him, she demanded angrily, “What are you doing here, Bornus?”

“You could say I came to see you,” he drawled as he leered at her. “But, uh…that never seems to interest you much.”

“Leave her alone!” Thanis ordered, as he moved forward, between them. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”

“You’re not gonna like it, Thanis,” he sneered. “I volunteered to carry out your punishment.”

Animal!” Daniella screamed, as she lunged at hjm, but Thanis, afraid for her, pulled her back.

“Whoa!” Bornus laughed mockingly, as he grabbed her arm, “Calm down, my sweet!”

“Bornus,” Thanis growled, “don’t you hurt her!

“What kind of man are you, anyway?” Daniella demanded with contemptuous disgust. “Volunteering to maim someone who’s trying to bring beauty to this village! Someone who’s no more guilty than you are.

“That’s not for me to decide,” the bully told her, smiling broadly, well pleased with his role in the little village drama. “I just wanna let you know that it’s nothing…personal.”

“You’re wrong,” Thanis replied darkly. “It’s very personal.”

Iolaus raced through the maze of alleys, but had lost sight of Hercules, and was blocked each way he turned by vendors and their customers. Though he listened hard, hoping for some signal, he couldn’t hear any sounds of conflict over the cacophony of the shouting and bartering around him

“This is ridiculous,” he muttered, completely frustrated. But he kept pushing through the crowd, desperately trying to find his friend - very worried that Hercules needed his help, and he was failing to be where he was supposed to be…

But no matter where he looked, how many little lanes and winding alleys he searched, he couldn’t find any sign of his best friend anywhere.

“…playing games when we should be trying to save Thanis from the world’s worst manicure,” he growled, helpless frustration and anxiety growing into irritated anger. “Hercules! Come out, come out, wherever you are!” he called out, and then listened intently for any response. Nothing. Sighing, he looked around, worry in his eyes, and then resolutely continued searching…

Hercules emerged from one of the alleys around the square, and spotted Daniella looking a little lost as she waited for them to return. Quietly, he came up behind her.

“Daniella?” he called softly.

She jumped, and whirled around, and then relaxed when she saw who had come up so close, so silently. “Hercules,” she gasped, “you startled me.”

“I’m sorry,” he apologized with a fond look, as he gazed down at her.

“Did Iolaus catch up with you?” she asked, looking past him, wondering where the warrior was…

“Yes,” he assured her, warmly. “He asked me to look after you.”

Heaving a sigh, as they’d been gone a considerable time, she told him, “I was afraid that something terrible happened.”

Frowning with concern, he asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve been such a fool,” she confessed, wringing her hands. “I didn’t think it would come to this.”

“Come to what?” he demanded, as he watched her intently.

“You’re in danger,” she told him, obviously very afraid for him.

Surprised into a laugh, the demigod asked, “Now why would I be in danger?” Sobering, he stepped closer to her, as he said with great confidence, “I know exactly how to solve the problems here.”

“You do?” she asked hopefully, but was afraid he really didn’t understand the danger.

“Yes, of course,” he assured her warmly, as he tenderly took her hands in his. “You forget - I am a god. And you have nothing to worry about - absolutely nothing,” he assured her firmly, while gently tracing her cheek and jaw, and then her lips, with one delicate finger. “Your father will be fine. You have my word,” he breathed, as he cupped her face and captured her lips with his own.

A few feet away, Iolaus charged out of an alley, still anxiously searching for Hercules, when he saw…his best friend kissing a woman that Hercules’ knew he genuinely cared for…and froze. Suddenly pale, his expression crumpled with hurt, he sagged a little, unable to stop gaping at what had to be deliberate - hadn’t Hercules just led him on a merry chase to get him out of the way? And then he turned, shaking his head, to hurry away…

His lips still pressed to Daniella’s, Hercules watched his best friend stumble away - a cold, calculating and very satisfied look in his eyes…

A knife slammed into the centre of the large wooden target leaning against the tavern wall, just as Hercules walked into the dim interior, and sighed with relief when he spotted his best friend. “Iolaus, there you are,” he called out. Sauntering over to his partner, he added, “I’ve been looking all over for you!”

Coldly, the warrior brushed by him, to retrieve his knife from the target. “I don’t think so,” Iolaus snapped.

Disconcerted by the odd tone and behaviour, the hurt, or was it anger, that Iolaus was projecting like a solid wall of defensiveness, Hercules blinked and asked, “Did I…miss something?” Like a magnet drawn to a lodestone, he trailed after Iolaus, following him to the target, where the older man pulled the knife clear.

“Nope, everything’s just swell,” Iolaus muttered, refusing to look at the demigod as he stomped back to his original place, Hercules still shadowing him uncertainly. Turning, the blond threw the knife again, with such angry force that it buried itself almost to the hilt in the target.

“You don’t…sound like it is,” Hercules observed tentatively, concerned and very confused, as he again followed his best friend back to the target.

After retrieving his weapon, Iolaus sighed as he finally turned to face his friend, cutting a quick look up to Hercules’ face before he again turned away - but not before the demigod saw the hurt pain and anger in Iolaus’ eyes. His jaw tight, the warrior confessed, “Look…I saw you. Okay?”

And then Iolaus strode away again, not wanting to have this conversation - not wanting to see Hercules at all, at least not until he’d calmed down.

But Hercules continued to trail after him, becoming increasingly anxious about how upset his best friend was, but not having a clue about what Iolaus was talking about. “Saw me what?” he demanded, unable to figure out what he’d done to upset Iolaus so badly. Why, Iolaus could hardly stand to look at him!

“You really want me to say this,” Iolaus grated, shaking his head. Turning to confront his partner, he said bluntly, “I saw you kissing Daniella.”

Astonished, baffled, shocked into a surprised laugh at the outrageous statement, Hercules protested, “Iolaus. I-I’ve never kissed her. I mean, I haven’t even seen her since I left Thanis’ farm, this morning.”

Don’t lie to me,” Iolaus challenged, furiously - it was bad enough, without Hercules pretending he didn’t…wilfully betray him. He’d confided his attractive to Hercules! His best friend had known, full well, how he’d felt when…

What?” the demigod challenged, stunned, unable to believe Iolaus was calling him a liar.

“I said, ‘Don’t lie to me!’” Iolaus repeated, his voice rising as his emotions roiled.

Why would I lie to you?” Hercules stormed back, completely mystified and very, very concerned about Iolaus’ odd behaviour and claims to have seen him…kissing Daniella? He wouldn’t do that! He just wouldn’t - he knew how Iolaus felt about her. Iolaus knew he knew! How could he possibly believe…

Snorting, having had more than enough, Iolaus shook his head. “I can’t imagine what’s going on in your head,” he grated bitterly, hurt and confused, and then pushed past Hercules to quickly stride out of the tavern.

What…?” Hercules demanded, as he wheeled around, but Iolaus was already gone. Abruptly stopping another patron of the tavern, who was wandering by with a mug of ale in his hand, the demigod asked helplessly, “Do you have any idea what he’s talking about?”

The stranger shrugged. “Uh-uh,” he muttered and then moved on.

“Neither do I,” Hercules muttered, baffled. He frowned with complete confusion, and then he, too, loped out of the tavern, intent upon finding Iolaus and sorting out whatever was going on. But, once outside, as he looked anxiously around, he couldn’t see his best friend anywhere. “What is going on?” he muttered, deeply worried.

Biting his lip, Hercules set off to search until he found his partner…

Hercules had been searching for sometime when he turned down yet another short alley, this one apparently deserted. Passing under a number of stone arches, he called out, as he’d been calling since he’d begun this search, “Iolaus! Come on, Iolaus, let’s talk about this!” But there was no response. Nothing.

Continuing on his way toward another alley that branched off to his left, he suddenly caught a sudden, brief, glint of light on metal, deep within the shadows, behind the bushes growing to his right, and a little ahead. Frowning, he continued forward more slowly, cautiously, wondering if the mysterious village trouble-maker was about to make an appearance…and then, to draw whoever it was out, Hercules paused, with his back to the threat.

And he didn’t have to wait long.

His sword already drawn, the madness of rage in his eyes, Iolaus launched himself forward with a yell, cutting a sweeping slash at his best friend. But, alerted to the danger, anticipating an attack, the demigod had already ducked away and whirled around to face his adversary, kicking the sword away reflexively - but his mouth dropped open in stunned shock when he saw who had been lying in wait for him.

Are you out of your mind?” Hercules demanded, an incredulous expression, very near horror, on his face - none of this made any sense!

But Iolaus only barred his teeth, roaring inarticulately, as he charged again, and Hercules grabbed him to toss him away. Landing hard, Iolaus growled and then scrambled, somersaulting to regain his sword.

“If this is about Daniella, you’re making a big mistake,” Hercules asserted firmly, completely unable to believe that Iolaus was seriously trying to kill him. But his best friend just yelled again and came at him, sword lifted for a killing blow - and the demigod whirled to the side as he stuck out his leg to trip his partner, so that Iolaus flew, sprawling, into the dust.

Iolaus leapt to his feet, and lashed out with a vicious kick to the demigod’s jaw, snapping Hercules’ head back and to the side. When he launched himself forward to slug the demigod, Hercules caught his arm and spun him around, hitting his best friend’s chest with the heel of his palm - hard - shoving Iolaus flying to crash onto his back.

Breathing hard, sick to be forced to accept that, for whatever reason, Iolaus really did intend him serious harm, Hercules warned, “Iolaus - I am just about out of patience.”

But the blond ignored the warning as he drew his knife, and once again yelling in a fury of rage, he attacked with lightning slashes.

Hercules backed up, tried to block, but the knife was too fast, and sliced open a burning cut on his right bicep. Shocked, Hercules looked down at the bleeding cut, and then looked up with a cold glare. “No more,” he growled, furious at the betrayal, unwilling to take any more abuse. Iolaus was his best friend! Hercules had always trusted him, beyond all others! How could he be doing this?

When Iolaus attacked yet again, Hercules grabbed him by the arm, holding the knife immobile as he squeezed until Iolaus dropped the weapon, he reached for his partner’s other arm, …and then he whipped around, so that he was holding Iolaus’ arms above his head, his friend’s back against his, and he flipped Iolaus in an unwilling, fast, Thermopylae, and - as the warrior landed - the demigod hauled back, as he never had before, ever in all the years of their friendship, to seriously punch him, to lay Iolaus out…

…when Iolaus appeared at the end of the alley, dumbfounded to see Hercules battling and about to punch out - an exact duplicate of himself! Astonished, he yelled, “Hercules!

Startled by the very familiar voice, the demigod looked up and gaped, gasping, “Iolaus?

The ‘Iolaus’ he was holding, and had been ready to punch into the next week, turned to growl to the new arrival, and then wrenched violently away from Hercules’ grip, to tear away down yet another alley, while the apparently ‘real’ Iolaus raced as fast he could down the alley to join Hercules.

You all right?” the blond demanded anxiously as he stared after the incredible sight of himself running away, and then frowned, in sudden sick concern, when turned to see the knife wound Hercules was gingerly examining.

Y-y-y-y-yeahnow that I know that wasn’t you I was fighting,” the demigod replied, stammering a little with the magnitude of his relief, unconsciously revealing how shaken he’d been, however mild he tried to keep his tone. “I’m…I’m fine.”

Scowling with confusion and concern, Iolaus reached out to touch the wound, empathy in his voice, as he murmured, “Ooh…that hurt?”

Ow!” Hercules exclaimed, as he flinched away and gave Iolaus an indignant, disbelieving look for hurting him.

“Sorry,” Iolaus offered in a small, voice, genuinely sorry and immediately contrite.

Back in the tavern, the two friends chose seats at the bar, sitting close together, as Iolaus called for a bowl of water, a cloth and a bandage to care for his partner’s wound. The blood drizzling down the demigod’s injured arm, past the fingers Hercules compressed over it, twisted something deep inside of the warrior. It grieved him beyond words to think that, when it happened, Herc had believed it was him who’d been trying to kill the demigod. When the supplies arrived, Hercules squeezed out a cloth in the bowl of water, and then washed the blood off his arm to clean the wound.

Beside him, still amazed at seeing his own double, Iolaus murmured, “I could’ve sworn that was you kissing Daniella.”

Hercules quirked a meaningful look, as much as to say, ‘you should have known I’d never lie to you,’ at his best friend. But all he said was, “I tried to tell you.”

Embarrassed, Iolaus set aside the apple he’d been nervously munching on, and shrugged uncomfortably; his eyes downcast, he apologized wryly, but with very real sincerity, “Well, I’m sorry. My…my hearing’s not too good when jealousy plugs up my ears.”

With a barely perceptible nod as he set the wet cloth down, Hercules wordlessly accepted the sincerity of his friend’s regret for having doubted him. After all, Iolaus wasn’t the only one who’d been completely fooled into believing his best friend had been doing something totally incomprehensible that day.

But, at least now, the demigod finally knew what was going on. “It was Proteus,” he told his partner.

Proteus?” Iolaus echoed, surprised. “You mean - the god who changes shapes?”

Leaning his elbows on the bar, Hercules looked up and nodded, “The one and only,” he confirmed, and then went on, “I knew him when we were kids. All the gods used to tease him mercilessly, and I went right along with them.”

Why?” Iolaus asked, honestly surprised, as he reached for the square of gauzy linen the proprietor had brought with the bowl of water and the rag.

“Because he was, I don’t know,” Hercules admitted, not proud of himself, “funny-looking.”

Ripping a bandage strip off the square of material, Iolaus quirked a surprised brow as he said candidly, “Well, that doesn’t sound like something you’d do.”

“Yeah, I know,” Hercules agreed with a sigh, as he watched Iolaus tear the strip at one end to form ties. “I was young and I didn’t know any better,” he explained a little sheepishly, and then took the bandage from Iolaus to try, awkwardly, to wrap it around his wounded arm. “We eventually became friends, but then, uh, that was because my mother taught me I shouldn’t ridicule anyone simply because they’re different than me.” When Iolaus wordlessly took the bandage from his hand, and began to gently roll it around his arm, he murmured, “Thanks.”

“Well, you know? When I saw him,” Iolaus observed, innocently, as he continued to wind the linen around his best friend’s injured arm, though he had difficulty suppressing a grin, “I thought he looked incredibly handsome.” And then they both laughed softly, easy with one another, and poignantly glad of it, after each having miserably thought the other had, inexplicably, turned on him.

“Well, don’t be too flattered,” the demigod chuckled, as he watched Iolaus carefully tend to his wound. “He can assume the shape of any living form. That’s the way he’s always survived.”

Tying off the bandage, Iolaus asked, “So, if he’s your friend - why does he wanna hurt you?”

“I have no idea,” Hercules sighed, “but I am gonna find out.”

“Here,” Iolaus murmured, as he meticulously tucked the ends of the ties under the dressing, to keep it secure. “There ya go.”

“Thanks,” Hercules acknowledged quietly, as he thoughtfully, delicately, fingered the bandage. And then he said, softly, as he looked up at his best friend, “You know? For a while there - it seemed like our fight about Xena all over again.”

“Hmm,” Iolaus murmured, as he reflected that Herc had been really shook up when he’d thought his best friend had turned on him - had tried to kill him, not once but twice - and then, he emphasized with a low, steady voice, “Yeah, only this time, it wasn’t me.”

Well, I’m glad,” the demigod blurted out, with very spontaneous, and touchingly heartfelt, sincerity.

“Well, you should be,” Iolaus replied with a teasing grin, though his eyes were soft in acknowledgement of Hercules’ so evident relief that they were ‘all right’; well understanding his friend’s feelings, because he shared them, in equal measure. “It’s the only reason you had a chance.”

Hercules chuckled as he lashed out with a quick, flicking backhanded smack to his buddy’s chest, and Iolaus exclaimed, “Ow!

Immediately, with an expression of exaggerated innocence, Hercules reached out to touch the place above his best friend’s heart that he’d just lightly hit, deliberating mimicking Iolaus’ earlier gesture in the alley and, as he teasingly holding the tip of his finger there, asked, “Oh, I’m sorry. Does that hurt?”

And they both snickered happily…

As the day waned, they caught up with Daniella, and walked her home, where they talked over the situation inside the house. The interior was dim and cool, and there was evidence of Thanis all around them in the half-completed sculptures and stone work that took up a good part of the interior. Daniella and Iolaus sat at the large wooden table, while Hercules paced for a bit, as they reviewed what they knew so far.

“How did you know it was Proteus and not Hercules who…?” Iolaus asked tentatively, his eyes averted.

“…was kissing me?” she clarified. At his nod, she said bluntly, “Because it was like kissing a frog. It was cold and clammy and…well, I-I just never thought…”

But her voice fell away, and she broke off in confusion.

“…that I would kiss like a frog?” Hercules asked. Iolaus giggled, and Hercules chuckled slightly with amusement, as he leaned on the back of the chair across from his partner. “Thank you. I appreciate the vote of confidence.” Returning to the matter at hand, he asked, “Now…why is Proteus causing all these problems in Volos?”

“It’s my fault,” she admitted miserably. “It’s because of me.”

“He’s a god,” Iolaus protested. “What could you have done?”

“I chased him away, when he was spying on me while I was bathing,” she replied with a direct look.

“Oh,” Iolaus froze.

Hercules catching some underlying tension, gazed at Iolaus inquisitively. But the older man only grimaced wryly, and then they both returned their attention to Daniella, who was continuing her explanation of what had happened.

“It all started about a month ago at the lake. I had just stepped out of the water and put on my gown,” she reported, “…when a handsome young warrior walked up and bowed, like I was royalty. He said he had seen me and lost his heart.”

“Did you know it was Proteus?” Hercules asked quietly.

“No, not right away,” she told him. “But then I saw his reflection in the water, and he wasn’t a warrior at all.” Her expression shifted, as she remembered his ugly countenance, and then she continued, “He was a hideous, deformed creature. I ran as fast as my legs would carry me.”

“Now he’s making Volos pay for the way you rejected him,” the demigod sighed.

“No one’s going to suffer more than my father,” she replied, her eyes wide and shadowed with fear for him. “Hercules, his life is his art. If the villagers take that away, he’ll die.”

“The magistrate’s never going to believe us,” Iolaus said to his friend, his tone anxious, “unless we can prove it was Proteus posing as Thanis.”

Straightening, the demigod replied firmly, “I’ll take care of that.”

“How?” Daniella asked plaintively.

“By finding Proteus.”

Very aware that they were running out of time, Hercules before the sun the next morning, and headed out to Volos, intent upon finding Proteus and saving an innocent man from a hideous punishment he not only did not deserve, but which would ruin his life.

The sun was up by the time he strode into the already busy marketplace, and Hercules soon spotted the old hag that had warned him to leave before tragedy struck.

Proteus!” the demigod bellowed, as he strode forward, purposefully.

Startled, the hag looked up and squeaked, “Heh?!” And then she turned and bolted away, into the narrow warren of booths and displays of goods and produce.

Charging after her, Hercules was frustrated to have lost sight of the chameleon-like god, but then turned and spotted the strutting rooster. Diving forward, Hercules crashed into the dust, but missed the grab as the chicken took off in an agitated flurry of feathers. Grinding his teeth as he pushed himself to his feet to scramble after the fleeing fowl, Hercules muttered disparagingly, “Proteus, you chicken!”

He lost sight of the bird, briefly, but then, spotting the fowl in question, Hercules once again lunged to capture the strutting, elegantly plumed, even haughty, chicken.

But, the rooster squawked and took off at a run, weaving a frenzied and erratic trail under shelves and barrows, carts and display tables…with the demigod hot on its tail, determined not to let Proteus escape. As Hercules chased through the narrow, twisting passageways, he couldn’t help but attract incredulous, and increasingly irritated, attention - after all, the sight of a very large, strongly muscled, Son of Zeus chasing full-tilt after a hysterical chicken, is not one that the folks of Volos saw every day.

Is he crazy?!” one vendor cried out, astonished.

Drunken fool!” a villager snapped, scampering to get out of the way of the rampaging demigod.

Clumping awkwardly through very narrow walkways cluttered with pottery vessels and bowls, copper pails and pots, and around bursting sacks of grain, darting around shoppers, trying not to careen into them, the determined demigod chased the chicken - and just when Hercules thought he had his quarry cornered, the rooster swivelled and scooted between his legs, squawking madly…and the chase was on again.

Look out!” an alarmed woman screamed, thinking he was going to run her and her husband down.

Hey! Not-not you, again!” a man complained, exasperated when Hercules crashed by a second time, hot on the trail of the scurrying rooster that skittered pell-mell, hither and yon.

Have you lost something?” one concerned soul asked, trying to be helpful, as the demigod peered under linen-covered tables and overflowing shelves…but then he was off again, running helter-skelter, careening around tight corners, like a mad man.

He didn’t have any time to stop and explain…the rooster was escaping under a table laden with women’s garments, and he plunged onward, after it.

What’s he up to?” another demanded, watching him tear through the layers of cloth, flinging flimsy women’s shifts and shawls into the air, trying to get to the bottom to see if the chicken was lurking underneath.

Alarmed, the salesman’s threatened, “Hey! Ya tear it, ya wear it.

Hercules mumbled, “Uh…I guess you don’t carry my size…’

But, catching sight of the wily bird a couple of booths away, he was off again, the intrepid hunter, unflagging, inescapable and inexorable…

…taking a corner too fast, Hercules crashed into a display of fruit and vegetables, with a mumbled, “Sorry.” Produce flew in every direction, and he heard a woman behind him shout in complaint, “He’s ruining everything!

I’ll help you clean up, later,” he gasped as he pushed on, the vendor shouting after him, angrily, “You betcha will!

For just a moment, an eternal instant, Hercules felt his gut clench…he’d lost sight of the rooster, and had no idea when it had disappeared to this time. Time was running out; Thanis’ fate was on his shoulders, Daniella was counting on him - he’d promised to help! Desperation flared in his eyes as he panted, looking madly about - and then he spotted his adversary, flying over a mound of grain sacks.

There you are!” he cried, jubilant - and made a running leap, diving over the stack of sacks. There was a flurry of agitated clucks and scrambling, scuffling sounds and a few flying feathers, a grunt of triumph - and Hercules emerged the victor, clutching the rooster in both hands as he stepped away from the dark interior of the booth.

“Gotcha!” the demigod crowed, with no little satisfaction. “Now, I’ve had enough of this, Proteus. We have a lot to talk about,” he sternly lectured the dejected bird, glaring at his captive, eye to eye.

“Excuse me,” a peasant woman, with a chicken firmly secured under one arm, cut into the relatively one-sided conversation, her lips thinned in barely controlled irritation.

“Huh?” Hercules asked, distracted from his serious reading of the riot act to the fowl in his tight clasp.

“Can I have my rooster back?” she demanded, vastly unamused by his incomprehensible antics.

Startled, the demigod gaped from her to the bird and back again. “He’s yours?” he clarified, just to be sure.

“Yeah,” she replied tightly.

Swallowing, flushing with embarrassment, Hercules handed over the rooster, mumbling, “Oh…sorry.”

She snorted as she took the rooster firmly under her other arm and stomped away.

Hercules looked up and around the market square, too sick knowing that he’d lost track of Proteus, to worry over-much about having looked like a fool.

Behind him, a young adolescent girl with long, tangled hair, wearing a grimy shift, lurked in the shadows of a necromancer’s booth, watching him with a glare of pure malevolence…

Danielle stood at the window, watching the road to town, her mouth dry and her throat tight with anxiety. They’d awakened a little while before to find Hercules had already gone. The warrior wasn’t surprised, as he’d known Hercules plan, and they’d agreed Iolaus should stay with Daniella, in case Proteus came back after her - and so as to not leave her alone at such a frightening time for her.

Iolaus had gone outside to check the perimeter of the property, and when he returned, Daniella asked, “Any sign of Hercules.”

“I’m afraid not,” he told her, sorry to see her so scared.

Despondent, she bowed her head as she murmured, “Oh.”

“You have to have faith in him, Daniella,” the warrior urged, coming to stand behind her. “I’ve never seen Hercules fail - not when he can get face-to-face with whatever he’s after.”

Swallowing, her gaze lifted to again search the empty road. “He’s a good man, isn’t he?” she asked, her voice low.

Nodding, thinking he understood that she was attracted to his best friend, not surprised but conscious of an ache in his own heart, he confirmed with steady, very solemn and compelling conviction, “Yeah. Yeah, he’s the best.

Turning to face him, searching his eyes, she said softly, “I want you to know, that no matter what happens today - I feel the same way about you.” Seeing surprise in his eyes, not waiting for him to respond, she turned away. “I have to go. My father needs me.”

But Iolaus detained her for a moment, as he laid a comforting hand upon her shoulder, and vowed, “Daniella, uh, whatever happens - I’ll be by your side, every step of the way.”

The Magistrate, accompanied by a cluster of guards and Bornus, strode through the jail to the sculptor’s cell.

“It’s time, Thanis,” the official told him, doing his duty, but not very happy about it.

Already?” the stricken man gasped, looking up from the cot on which he’d been sitting and staring sightlessly at the floor. He paled, and couldn’t suppress the slight tremble of fear and nausea that ripped through him at what was about to happen.

“I’m afraid so,” the Magistrate confirmed, as the cell door swung open and he waved Thanis out.

Impatient to get on with the execution of the sentence, Bornus growled, “Aw-w-w, move it! You certainly didn’t drag your heels when you robbed Trilos!”

But my hands!” Thanis couldn’t help but protest. “My…my art.”

“No one cares about those chunks ’a rock except you!” the butcher told him brutally, as he roughly bound the artist’s wrists together with coarse rope.

Having had enough of the cruel jibes, the Magistrate called out repressively, only too aware of the tragedy of the act about to take place, to stand silent, “You’re wrong, Bornus. I thought Thanis’ sculptures were beautiful.”

Turning to the Magistrate, Thanis demanded, desperation in his voice and eyes, “Well, then, how can you…?”

It’s justice!” Bornus growled, as he brutally shoved Thanis toward his fate.

Running out of time and options, Hercules sought out Trilos, to beg his help. Finding the artisan outside his workshop, setting up racks of mirrors covered with the sheer gauze, and stacking swords and spears, the demigod called out, “Trilos…”

Surprised, the metal-worker looked up, and said sarcastically, “Well, look who’s here. Come to see Thanis get his just desserts, have ya?”

“It wasn’t Thanis who robbed you,” Hercules insisted.

Shrugging, Trilos peered at the demigod, as he drawled, “I think you’ve been in the sun too long. Or is this knot on my head an illusion?”

“Hardly, but it was Proteus who put it there,” Hercules tried to explain. “He took Thanis’ shape.”

Highly sceptical, Trilos mocked, “The god, Proteus?”

“Yes,” Hercules replied simply.

Snorting, Trilos argued, “Why would he waste his time in Volos? And what would he possibly want with my money?”

“You were just a convenient target, Trilos,” the demigod sighed, and then explained, reluctantly. “He’s angry because he can’t get Daniella to…fall in love with him.”

“Nice story!” Trilos chuckled humourlessly, not believing a word of it.

Desperate, Hercules implored, “All I want is a favour. Just ask the magistrate if he’ll delay Thanis’ punishment. He’ll listen to you. You were the victim.”

Unmoved, the Trilos shook his head. “Give me a reason,” he grunted.

“To spare an innocent man’s life!” Hercules exclaimed, unable to understand how any man could be so lacking in compassion. Swallowing, making an effort to remain calm and reasonable, he added, “And to give me the time to find Proteus.”

“Nice try, Hercules,” Trilos refused, turning away.

Unwilling to give up, Hercules grabbed his arm, demanding, with no little frustration and a tone that begged reconsideration, “What would it hurt?!

Trilos just shook his head and pulled away. Before Hercules could go after Trilos, he saw Daniella running toward him out of the crowd…

“Hercules?” she panted, anxious, looking very upset. “I’m so glad I found you.”

“Daniella,” Hercules exclaimed, alarmed by her agitated state, “what’s wrong?”

Looking around, obviously uncomfortable, Daniella implored quietly, “Um…could we, uh, talk somewhere?”

“Yeah, sure,” Hercules nodded, lifting his head to look around.

“Private?” she asked with wide eyes. Cutting her a quick look of concern, he nodded, and led her into Trilos’ deserted shop, to sit on a wrought-iron bench under a shrouded bank of mirrors.

“Here. Just catch your breath,” he soothed, as he settled her on the bench. Sitting down beside her, Hercules urged gently, “Tell me what happened.”

Daniella swallowed, hesitated, and then murmured, “It’s Iolaus. He kept trying to kiss me when we were walking here. And then he went into a rage when I told him…” her hand slipped over his, on his thigh, as she looked at him limpidly, “that my heart belonged to someone else…you.”

The demigod stiffened at her touch, and looked down on her hand covering his. Shaking his head, he stood to move a pace away. He knew his best friend was attracted to her, had been badly hurt when he’d thought Hercules was pursuing her, regardless of Iolaus’ feelings. Sighing, he told her, “Daniella, I…th-this isn’t right.”

“Even when Proteus was posing as you, I couldn’t deny what I was feeling,” she confessed, standing to walk toward him, stopping close in front of him. “That’s why I didn’t try to stop you…well, I-I mean him …from kissing me.” Her voice lowered, becoming husky as she continued, and she lifted her hands to lightly caress his chest as she murmured, “Ever since then, all I keep thinking about is you. The feel of your skin against mine…the taste of your lips.”

Hercules was vastly uncomfortable, and he found her behaviour - out of character - as he looked up and around, his jaw tight…and it occurred to him that the way she’d just described Iolaus’ behaviour was also, vastly, out of character for his best friend…

“Oh, Hercules…you know we should be together,” she whispered longingly.

Daniella leaned into him, one hand dropping to her side…to draw from the deep pocket hidden by the loose folds of her skirt, a long, deadly knife…

Suddenly, she whipped the blade up, but Hercules caught her wrist and twisted her around, easily disarming her, as he said cheerfully, “You’ve got to do better than that, Proteus.”

The body of Daniella struggled desperately to escape, but it was Proteus’ voice that commanded desperately, “Let me go!

No!” Hercules shouted back, as he turned to haul her toward the Magistrate’s office. “Not until you tell the people of Volos what you’ve done.”

Iolaus and Daniella rushed through the narrow streets from the edge of town toward the market square, passing people busy about their own business

“Do you think they’ve started yet?” Daniella panted, as they paced along briskly.

“No,” Iolaus replied tightly, looking around at the people that they were passing. “Everybody’d be there if they had.”

“How can they be so vindictive?” she demanded, unable to understand such malevolence. “My father never hurt them.”

His lips thinned, his expression grim, Iolaus grated, “The smell of blood brings out the worst in people.”

She kept looking around, anxiously, as they moved hurriedly through the town. “I don’t see Hercules,” she muttered.

“Daniella, we will save your father,” Iolaus assured her, knowing that her nerves were stretched with fear and dread, and that she was barely hanging on to any semblance of calm. “That is,” he added with a slight grin of encouragement, “if Hercules hasn’t done it, already.”

“How?” she demanded, as she paused to face him, distraught. Her father was about to lose his hands - and it seemed everyone in town was glad of it, couldn’t wait to see it happen. How could one man possibly stop all of them?

“I’ll think of something,” he promised, then took her arm to lead her on to the square… “Come on.”

As Hercules was dragging ‘Daniella’ through the streets, she pulled on his grip, dragging her feet, trying to slow him down, as he strode on relentlessly.

“The girl is mine!” Proteus insisted, the voice odd in the young woman’s body.

She doesn’t love you!” Hercules grated, not unsympathetic, but Proteus’ machinations had gone ‘way past reasonable, and he’d done real harm this time. Suddenly, the demigod was jerked to a halt as if, instead of dragging a wisp of a girl, he was hauling along an ox that had dug in its heels. “Now, what?” he muttered, turning to confront Proteus…

…only to come face to face with himself - and to be slugged by a ‘Hercules’ that wasn’t pulling his punches.

The demigod was staggered, and when he turned back, his alter ego backhanded him viciously, sending him slamming into a solid oak wall. When he bounced off, ‘Hercules’ brought his clasped fists down hard on the back of the demigod’s neck, doubling him over, and then kneed him, hard, before dragging him back up, one mighty arm locked around Hercules’ throat.

I warned you to leave!” ‘Hercules’ growled, as he choked his victim. Unable to pry the grip loose, the demigod reached back and grabbed his assailant’s arm, doubling forward to throw ‘himself’, over his head - and then kicked ‘Hercules’, sending him skidding into a tall rack of pots that crashed down over the sprawled imposter.

Proteus-Hercules grabbed a pot as he scrambled to his feet and threw it, following it and lifted a mighty leg to kick the demigod. Hercules ducked the missile and shifted to catch the boot coming toward him. He straightened and flipped ‘Hercules’ back to crash through a table. Moving to apprehend his adversary, the demigod ducked when ‘Hercules’ lashed out with a long length of wood, but it caught his back with horrendous power, driving him to his knees.

Proteus-Hercules kicked out hard and fast, three times clipping the stunned demigod on the head, again sending Hercules flying, but when he leapt onto the sprawling demigod, Hercules caught him and executed a back flip, sending Proteus in a high somersault through the air. As the demigod rolled back onto to his feet, to go after the god, Proteus-Hercules took off at a full run, down a side alley.

This is really weird,” Hercules muttered as he dashed off in ‘his’ wake.

The imposter crashed into an unwary passerby, knocking him flat, and then cut through an arched side-passage, doubling back. Close on his heels, Hercules cut a quick look at the accidental victim, and seeing he was all right, skidded around the corner in hot pursuit.

The crowd had gathered, ghoulishly anticipating the ‘justice’ to be rendered on the stone block on the platform at the end of the square. Voices rumbled with self-satisfaction that what was about to happen was only ‘right’, that Thanis had done the crime, and had ‘to pay the cost’.

Bornus pushed Thanis toward the small, altar-like stone, somehow fitting in a bizarre way, the sculptor thought bleakly, as he was about to sacrifice his hands to a parody of justice.

The Magistrate climbed the steps up to his official, throne-like chair which had been set some distance away, so that he could look upon the rendering of justice, and witness it being done at his command. Taking his seat, he intoned darkly, “Thanis, you have broken the laws of Volos, and must now receive the appropriate punishment. As no evidence to support your innocence has come to is my duty…”

“Wait!” Iolaus shouted, as he and Daniella raced into the square.

Bornus rolled his eyes, as he muttered with barely contained impatience, knowing their appearance only meant more delay.

“Give Daniella a chance to speak,” Iolaus insisted, his muscles tight with tension, his face lined with anxiety, as he wondered where Hercules was…they were cutting it too close.

“This better be good!” Bornus grunted, disparagingly.

Let’s get on with it!” a man in the crowd shouted, earning a nod of agreement from the butcher.

But the Magistrate was prepared to give the sculptor every possible chance to have his innocence proven. “Go ahead, Daniella,” he allowed, kindly.

“My father’s innocent,” she called out clearly, but the crowd rumbled in disbelief. Determined, she carried on, “It was the god, Proteus, who attacked Trilos.” Laughter greeted her remarks, almost drowning her out, but she shouted over the mockery, “He’s the one causing all the problems here.”

Belligerently, Trilos strode forward, and called out contemptuously, “That’s the same rubbish Hercules tried to tell me! Well, I know who robbed me! It was Thanis!

No, no, no! No-o!” the artist cried out, in desperate protest.

“You’re wrong,” Daniella called back to Trilos, staunch and undaunted in her defence of her innocent father.

But the Magistrate sighed. “You’ve got to have proof, Daniella,” he told her.

Enough of this nonsense,” a heckler called out.

Proteus took my father’s place,” asserted Daniella, desperate for them to believe her, but they were laughing at her again, not listening, as she explained, “He deceived everyone - the way he always does.

Furious at the mockery, and sickened by the blood lust of the villagers who were so eager to see the hideous mutilation of any man, let alone one who was innocent, Iolaus shouted out, “Go ahead. Laugh. But Proteus can assume the shape of any person or anything he wants. He could be here among you, now. He could be you,” he told them, pointing at a woman, who backed up disconcerted, “or you,” indicating a nondescript man, who looked bemused at the accusation.

Pay no attention to him!” Bornus yelled, afraid the crowd was beginning to listen to Iolaus. “It’s a trick! He’s playing games with your minds!

Trilos was quick to agree. “That’s right!” he called out, and then insisted, “Thanis must be punished!

No, you can’t!” Daniella wailed.

Quietly, the Magistrate cut in, putting an end to the debate, as he said again, “You’ve got to have proof, Daniella.”

The back passageway dead-ended behind Trilos’ shop, where Proteus-Hercules was waiting in ambush. As soon as the real Hercules flashed into view, he came up behind him, hitting him again with a double hammer blow to his back, driving the demigod to his knees.

She’s mi-i-i-i-ine!” the maddened, desperate god screamed, as he grabbed a sword and lifted it, bringing it down in a sweeping arc - but Hercules ducked and swivelled, avoiding slash after slash, and then he leapt away to roll into the shop - where he grabbed up a pike. ‘Hercules’ stalked after him, swinging the sword aggressively, again bringing it down, intending to cleave into the demigod’s back, but Hercules swung the pike up and back, blocking the blow, and then swivelled to attack. They traded slashing blows, each blocking the other, until Hercules twisted and smashed upward, catching his double hard under the chin, sending him sprawling back - the sword flying - but Proteus-Hercules rolled as he landed, and turned with a grimacing growl…far from defeated…

The time had come. The Magistrate turned formally to the town’s butcher, the worthy ‘volunteer’ who had stepped forward to help execute justice.

“Bornus,” the older man called flatly, “you may carry out the sentence.”

Cheers broke out as Bornus beamed, and inclined his head slightly, as he called back happily, “It’ll be my honour.”

Repulsed, Iolaus snarled, “You know nothing about honour!” And then he launched himself across the square, a flurry of fury, to smash a fist into the big man’s face, and drive him to the ground.

Guards swarmed around Iolaus, but he fought as if his own life depended upon it. Spinning and kicking, striking out with lightning punches, leaping into a double kick to take out two at a time - but there were too many and he turned, after laying out more than half a dozen guards, to find a dozen more armoured men levelling their spears at him, surrounding him - and he knew that further resistance would be utterly futile.

He slumped in momentary defeat, and allowed them herd him back to Daniella’s side.

Even as he rolled to his feet, Proteus-Hercules grabbed another sword from a basket full of weapons Trilos had crafted for sale, advancing in a frenzy of rage, screaming, “Why did you have to come here? Why-y-y-y-y-y?” He advanced implacably, totally out of control, bent upon murder, as he brought his sword around hard - driving the pike from Hercules’ grip and following up with a powerful, completely unrestrained, backhanded blow that sent the demigod flying further into the shop.

Hercules scrambled for a weapon of some kind, but they were all outside. As his mirror-image stalked in after him, ready to finish it, the demigod desperately grabbed a shrouded shield, and swung around just in time to block a killing blow. For tense moments, he blocked slash after slash, and then swung the shield hard, as a kind of battering ram, driving his counterpart back.

But Proteus-Hercules wasn’t going to quit until he’d triumphed, and he came back at Hercules again. Hercules raised the shield, and caught another heavy downward slash, kicking out under the shield to drive the god back. But it was no use… Proteus-Hercules just wasn’t going to quit.

The sheet around the shield compromising his grip, Hercules tore it off, and swung it up to block yet another sweep of the sword…

…but Proteus-Hercules caught his true reflection in the burnished metal and froze, his face twisting in an agony of despair and anguish…and then he screamed, “N-o-o-o-o-o-o!

Suddenly understanding what had happened, Hercules looked around him - at all the shrouded mirrors - and began desperately dragging off the covering sheets, baring them two and three at a time.

N-o-o-o-o!” his double protested wildly, twisting away, but everywhere he looked, he saw his own much-loathed image. And he cried out, shrieking in hideous desolation, “Ah-h-h-h! A-h-h-h-h-h-h-h! Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h!

And still the demigod bared more mirrors, so that there were endless reflections of Proteus in his true form. The creature flinched from them, twisting in hysterical need to escape…but there was no escaping himself. “N-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!” he groaned again, in hopeless despair…and transformed back into his true form.

Trembling, his maniacal rage spent, quivering with self-disgust and humiliation, he cringed away from Hercules, weeping, “All I wanted was to love and be loved in return. Was that too much to ask?

It was piteous, and the demigod was not unmoved. One time, he too, had mocked this poor, deformed creature. “No,” he replied. But, his voice thick with understanding, he continued with a heavy, irrefutable truth, “but you can’t…you can’t force someone to love you.”

His head bowed as he shook with hopeless despair, Proteus demanded brokenly, ‘How else was I supposed to do it?”

Sighing, Hercules moved closer, to stand behind the small, hunched figure, compassion flooding his eyes as he looked at the sad god, his head bald but for tufts of wispy hair, his face lumpy and misshapen, his body thin, pallid and an odd bluish-white, like the belly of a fish. His joints were knobby, his fingers malformed and crooked, with a ceaseless tremor that shook his whole frame. Cursed with the power to become any form he wanted - Proteus was condemned to also be the most hideous being in all creation. Swallowing, his voice low with kindness, Hercules said softly, “You have to be who you are, Proteus. That’s all anybody can be.”

But, look at me,” he moaned in an agony of self-hatred.

“That never stopped us…from being friends,” Hercules reminded him gently.

Bowing his head, so ashamed for what he’d tried to do to Hercules, Proteus confessed brokenly, “You were my only friend - but now I’ve done so many terrible things. You’ll probably never want anything to do with me again.”

“There’s still time left to make amends,” the demigod told him, his own throat tight with pity.

“There is?” the god implored, looking up at the demigod with tears in his eyes, pathetically hopeful…

“Yes, but - we’ve got to get going. Come on.”

Bornus climbed to his feet, and gathered up his broad, curved sword.

You’ve got the wrong man!” Iolaus yelled in futile protest.

Please believe us!” Daniella screamed, begging…

“I wish I could,” the Magistrate sighed.

Faint,” Iolaus mumbled, even as Bornus settled Thanis’ bound hands on the stone block. It was taking all the sculptor had to stand and hold in his terror - his horror - of losing everything that held his dreams…he trembled with his effort not to weep…

What?” Daniella gasped, distracted.

Faint,” Iolaus ordered, “it’s our only chance.

The Magistrate lifted his hand, as he called to Bornus to carry out the sentence. “Bornus.”

Ah-h-h!” Danielle moaned, as she slipped to the ground, startling the guards, and distracting them so that their grips loosened.

Iolaus immediately snapped back a hard jab to the guard still restraining him, and broke away to grab another guard coming at him, flipping the man over his shoulder into the dirt, and then bending low as he kicked powerfully back and up, sending another flying. Twisting, he kicked again, dropping another guard to the ground.

Hold on to him!” Bornus yelled, disgusted with the continued distractions and interruptions. He had a job to do and he intended to do it.

Iolaus leapt up onto the back of another guard, pummelling his helmet sharply, and then whipped his fists back, hard, jabbing two more coming at him from behind, so that they fell like stones. He rolled backward, his hands seeking the ground as he let loose the guard he was riding, and he rolled quickly, kicking upwards and disabling the man. A whirlwind of fighting fury, he grabbed another guard and smashed his forehead into the man, stunning him…

…but there were too many, far too many, for any man, even a hero, to hold off forever…

A guard rushed up behind Iolaus, as he was exchanging blows with another, and clubbed the warrior so hard that he staggered. Grabbing Iolaus’ legs, while another guard held his upper body, they lifted him, belly down, and held him mercilessly, while a big guard rushed forward to kick upwards, burying the toe of his hobnailed boot viciously in Iolaus’ gut, and then again…and still again. The pain was so sharp, so intense, that Iolaus couldn’t bite back moans of agony.

Relentlessly, they dragged him back to Daniella, and held him tightly determined to ensure that he’d not get another chance to disrupt Thanis’ dismemberment.

Let’s get this over with!” Bornus shouted.

Nodding, the Magistrate agreed as he called back, “Begin.”

Thanis had been watching the Magistrate, but as the official’s arm lifted, he pressed his eyes shut, holding himself rigidly as he waited for the blow that would end his dreams forever…but he dared not cry out, lest he only add to his sweet daughter’s wretchedness…

Bornus raised the ugly blade above his head, as he watched for the Magistrate’s signal - and when the official’s arm dropped - so did the sword.

Daniella screamed, and turned to bury her face in Iolaus’ chest, as the blade flashed downward…

…but…a large hand closed over Bornus’ grip on the sword’s hilt…and the sudden abrupt stop of the descending sword was so solid and shocking, the butcher thought for a moment he’d missed Thanis’ wrists and had slammed into the stone itself…

Don’t be in such a rush,” Hercules snapped. Pushing Bornus away from Thanis, he stepped forward to confront the Magistrate, as he charged, “I don’t think my twenty-four hours are up yet.”

What now?” the Magistrate demanded, his patience with the histrionics long-expended.

“You’re punishing the wrong man,” the demigod asserted, as he had, all along.

“I’m afraid it’s too late for us to consider that,” the Magistrate replied wearily. He wasn’t a cold or cruel man; he didn’t personally want to see Thanis butchered - but he had a job to do, responsibilities to uphold, and these continued delays were, in themselves, cruel to the man who was held upon the brink of losing his hands with no respite. Poor Thanis was shaking like a leaf and couldn’t withstand much more of this - if it was inevitable that he lose his hands, then it was kinder to do the deed and be done with it, than to continually torment him with hope, when there was no hope.

Even if I have Proteus as proof?” Hercules challenged back. He gestured to his right - and a small figure, shrouded in a black, hooded cape, climbed up onto the platform to stand and face the crowd.

Proteus pushed the hood back, and then threw off the cloak. The crowd gasped, and exclaimed in horror, at his hideous ugliness, stunned by something so grotesque. Swallowing, gathering his courage, he stood as tall as he could with his hunched back, and told them, “I was the one who attacked Trilos.”

But…they laughed at him, finding him ridiculous once the shock of his repulsiveness had passed - and he cowered, humiliated.

Oh, get out of here, shorty!” Bornus bellowed at him. “You’re standin’ in the path of justice.” And the crowd snickered at his wit.

Leaning back against his regal chair, the Magistrate demanded of Hercules, “How can we possibly believe that this pathetic creature is a god?”

“Show them, Proteus,” Hercules directed, his voice tight, his expression contemptuous, as he glared at Bornus.

The crowd gasped as the god’s shape began to shift, scarcely believing what they were seeing - and they all gaped when the figure of Thanis formed from the hideous creature to stand straight and stare out at them defiantly.

“Is that good enough for you?” Hercules demanded, and then he again turned to Bornus, as he drawled, “Or would you rather have him be the bully with the sword?”

Proteus again shifted shape, growing taller and broader, until Bornus stood where Thanis had been.

Gasping, feeling suddenly faint, Bornus moaned, “Oh, my…” and he sagged backwards in his whoosiness…but Hercules grabbed a fistful of his collar and held him up.

The Magistrate shook his head, as if feeling a little stunned himself. Calling out, with a slight tone of sarcasm as he addressed the erstwhile ‘volunteer’, he directed, “Bornus! When you pull yourself together, free Thanis, would you?” And then he turned to Thanis’ daughter, as he ordered those who held her, “Guards! Set Daniella, and her friend, loose.”

Freed, Thanis ran to his daughter, and drew her into a tight embrace, as he murmured her name, “Daniella.” Standing beside them, Iolaus smiled to see such a happy outcome but then, as he looked toward the platform at Proteus, the smile faded as compassion filled the warrior’s face.

The stunned crowd was still watching the drama play out, when the women’s garments vendor recovered sufficiently to observe distastefully, his words loud in the silence of the square, to the woman who kept roosters, “I can see why Proteus changes shapes.”

Nodding, she could only agree as she said, over-loudly, “If I had a dog like that, I’d kill it.”

Furious, unable to believe the insensitivity of the louts who populated Volos, Iolaus shouted at them, angry and disgusted, “What is wrong with you people? Give him a break.

And Hercules raised his own voice, to shout to the crowd, “Proteus came here knowing that you would probably laugh at him! And yet, he still had the courage to do what was right - and save Thanis. If you feel you have to judge him - judge him for that - not for how he looks.”

Proteus bowed his head, appreciating the support, but he pulled the cloak back up around himself, to hide his freakishness. Uncertainly, he stepped down from the platform, and slowly approached Daniella, the beauty he’d so hoped would somehow see beyond the beast that he was. “Daniella, I don’t know if I can ever make up for what I’ve done to you…your father…this whole village,” he murmured, painfully honest and unconscious of how beautiful his deep, melodious voice was, as it resonated in the silence of the square. “But please believe me when I say that I never meant to hurt anyone. I only wanted to win your heart.”

Grateful that he had come forward to save her father, she replied kindly, “I believe you - and thank you for what you’ve done today.” She reached out to tenderly stroke his cheek, and he caught her hand, bowing his head to place a reverent kiss on her palm. And then, his head still bowed, as he couldn’t bear for her to look upon his face any longer, he turned away toward Hercules, who’d come to stand by his side.

“Would it be all right if I left now?” he asked, humbly. “I’m embarrassed with all these people around.”

Hercules laid a supportive hand upon his shoulder, as he replied gently, “It’s all right. You can go. But try to remember that, somedaysomeone will see you for who you really are.”

Proteus nodded, wishing he could believe that, but he couldn’t. Flipping the hood up over his head, he cowered a moment, and then the cloth lost its form, crumpling to the ground. Hercules bent to lift it away…

…and a beautiful, blindingly white dove flew into the air in a long sweeping arc to the sky, where it hovered a moment against the impossible blue…and then vanished from sight.

Back at Thanis’ farm, idling away a beautiful morning in the orchard as their visit drew to an end, Iolaus observed, “That must’ve been very strange - fighting Proteus.”

Barking out an uncomfortable laugh at the memory of it, Hercules quipped, “Yeah - I was beside myself.”

But at the sound of Iolaus’ delighted laughter at the sally, he relaxed and laughed more easily with his friend. Turning, they saw Thanis and Daniella approaching, and waved at their hosts.

“Hercules, you’ll be happy to know the rock has made its decision,” Thanis announced happily. “I am going to carve a likeness of you, that even Proteus couldn’t match!”

Touched, the demigod bowed his head briefly, a warm smile on his lips. Looking back up into the sculptor’s eyes, he replied sincerely, “Why, thank you, Thanis. I’m flattered.”

“Well, after everything that you’ve done for us,” Daniella told him, “it’ll be a wonderful way to remember you.”

“That’s, uh…nice,” Iolaus replied, summoning a smile of genuine delight for the honour being paid his friend, but…

Daniella reached out to touch his arm, as she grinned impishly and said, “Don’t worry, Iolaus. Father hasn’t forgotten about you.”

“Oh, really?” the warrior brightened, intrigued. He’d be immortalized in stone, too?

“Absolutely!” Thanis confirmed, and held out a small, rectangular object wrapped in bright cloth. “I went to the quarry this morning, and I found the perfect stone for you.” With enthusiastic delight, he unwrapped the cloth, and then held out a shaped length of pale marble just a little longer than his hand, for Iolaus’ inspection.

“Uh-huh,” Iolaus swallowed, trying to look suitably excited, but it appeared that he’d be immortalized as a parchment-weight. “That’s great. Thanks, Thanis,” he managed to say as he summoned a smile, and was proud to know he’d sounded genuinely appreciative.

“Well, if you like it, you oughtta see the rest of it,” Thanis enthused, pleased.

“What?” the warrior inquired, confused. He’d thought the stone the sculptor was holding was all there was.

But Daniella pointed to the slight hill behind them, as she said with evident delight, “Up there.”

Turning, Iolaus’ face burst into a glorious smile, as he beheld the solid rectangle of marble that had to be at least eight feet high… when it was completed, it would be exactly proportional to Hercules’ statue, as the two of them were in life. Delighted, he laughed as he pointed toward it, and turned to his best friend, “Look at that, Hercules. It’ll be you and me, side by side!”

The demigod gazed fondly at his partner. Smiling broadly in return, he slung an arm around his best friend’s shoulders, as he replied warmly, “Well, then, they’ll be perfect.”


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