Hercules squinted a bit against the bright sun as he stepped out of the courthouse and began walking down the busy Athenian street.
“You know,” Iolaus remarked, falling into step beside him. “This is one trip I’m glad to see the end of.”
“Me, too,” the demigod agreed, putting a companionable hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Two’s company, but three was definitely a crowd.”
“I don’t know,” the hunter grinned. “The Athenians seemed pretty happy to get their hands on Goth.”
“Let’s just hope they keep their hands on him,” Hercules murmured, not liking to think about such a sadistic warlord on the loose in Greece.
“I don’t think we have to worry. His war crimes record is colorful enough to ensure they lock him up and throw away the key. Add that to the looting, and not to mention the killing of Argeas.”
Iolaus’ face darkened slightly as he thought of his murdered friend. Hercules nodded and squeezed his shoulder in sympathy as he saw the fleeting sadness pass over his partner.
“Well, what do you want to do now?” he asked, hoping to take his friend’s mind off the tragedy. “Do you want to move on, or hang around here for a few days?”
“I don’t know,” the hunter replied, thinking it over. “Who do we know in Athens?”
“We could always drop in on Lyla and Deric.”
“Lyla and Deric?” the hunter repeated, frowning as he tried to place the familiar sounding names. He stopped dead in his tracks and stared at his friend indignantly as the memory finally came to him. “You mean the girl and the centaur that tried to kill you at that wedding in Nespa?”
“They were misguided, briefly,” Hercules tried to explain. “They also refused when Nemis sent them to kill me while I was blinded. They spared my life.”
“Yeah, but they didn’t do anything to help you,” Iolaus argued as he resumed walking. “They left you there alone and blinded, at the mercy of a Hera worshiping lunatic that they knew had it in for you.”
“They went out of their way to warn me,” the demigod continued. “They did what they could. Deric gave me his reasons for not wanting to go against Nemis, and I respected him for that. They’re good people, Iolaus. They were just caught in a bad situation.”
“All right,” the hunter conceded. “But you aren’t really serious about wanting to visit them, are you?”
“I heard they moved to a village just outside the city,” Hercules told him. “We’ll be passing right through it, and I wouldn’t mind stopping to say ‘hello’. You know just as well as I do how tough life can be for a centaur in a human village. Deric was a student of Cheiron, back before he took over the Academy. I feel like we owe it to him to make sure everything’s all right.”
“Fine,” Iolaus agreed, somewhat reluctantly. “We’ll stop by. But I’m going to have my eye on them.”
“Just one?” the demigod teased.
“The other one’s going to be watching your back,” the hunter declared firmly. “I’m not having a repeat of Nespa. Which, incidentally, would never have happened if I had been there with you in the first place, instead of Salmoneus.”
The two heroes turned to look at each other in disbelief as the all too familiar voice sang out from the fork in the road behind them.
“It can’t be,” the demigod whispered.
“Me and my big mouth,” Iolaus muttered quietly.
“I thought that was you,” the exuberant salesman cried out as he caught up with them.
“Salmoneus,” Hercules greeted him with a smile of resignation. “You’re really getting around these days.”
“I could say the same for you, my powerful, positive friends. Mmmmmmmmmmmm.”
“Salmoneus, are you ok?” Iolaus asked, arching an eyebrow. The man had his faults, but he was often mildly amusing.
“Couldn’t be better,” the salesman replied heartily. “Just finished a self-actualization seminar with Robertus Tonicles. Man’s a genius. Makes money hand over fist.”
“I’ll bet,” the demigod said wryly. “Tell me, what, exactly, is a self-actualization seminar?”
“It helps you fertilize the nurturing flower within,” Salmoneus explained, closing his eyes and posturing. “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.”
“What’s with the humming?” the hunter demanded.
“That’s the internal harmonic, that leads you to the flower. It helps you be.”
“And what is it you want to be?” Hercules inquired skeptically.
“I want to be the best possible Salmoneus I can be. And I want to teach seminars.”
The demigod shot his partner a here-we-go eye rolling behind the salesman’s back.
“I want to help others be the best possible...thing they can be,” Salmoneus continued. “For a modest price.”
“I’m sure you’ll do well,” Hercules told him, slapping him on the back.
“Desire, focus, grab, hum,” he lectured. “Mmmmmmmmmm.”
“Sounds like fun,” Iolaus shrugged, not getting it but willing to play along.
“You have no idea,” Salmoneus assured him. “Hey, seems like we’re going the same way. Mind if I tag along? Mmmmmmmm.”
“As long as you don’t hum,” the demigod said firmly.
“I can do that,” the salesman promised. “So, where’re you off to?”
“Oh, Herc wants to pay some old friends a visit,” the hunter answered, keeping the sarcasm in his voice subtle enough so that their traveling companion wouldn’t pick up on it, although he knew his partner would.
“Remember Lyla?” Hercules asked, ignoring his friend.
“Oh, that girl who went off with the centaur?” Salmoneus clarified.
“Yeah. She and Deric moved out here, and I’m just hoping they’re finding the locals more friendly than they were in Nespa.”
“Hmmm, Lyla,” the salesman mused thoughtfully. “Lyla. Does she remind you of anyone we both know?”
“Come to think of it, she looks a little like Xena,” Hercules replied.
“Xena?” Iolaus repeated.
“Different disposition though,” Salmoneus was quick to assure him.
“This just keeps getting better and better,” the hunter grumbled under his breath. “So where do they live?” Salmoneus asked as they reached the outskirts of the small village that was their destination.
“I’m not sure,” Hercules told him.
“Then how are we going to find them?” the salesman persisted.
“It’s not like a centaur really blends in,” Iolaus pointed out. “I’m sure someone can tell us.”
“Excuse me.” The demigod halted a passing woman who was headed in the opposite direction with her young son. “We’re looking for some friends of ours. A centaur named Deric and his wife, Lyla. Do you know where we can find them?”
The woman quickly looked away, and a bad feeling simultaneously descended upon the three men.
“What is it?” Hercules demanded.
“There was a fire last night,” she relayed sadly. “I’m sorry.”
She offered to take them to the remains of the home, and the trio followed her in shocked silence down the road. They veered off into a clearing in the trees that was littered with charred wood, the thick scent of acrid smoke heavy in the air as they moved through the debris. Some of the timbers were still warm and smoking, and Iolaus instinctively knew his partner was blaming himself for not arriving sooner, in time to prevent such a tragedy.
“This is all that’s left of their house,” the woman explained. “The fire was so hot, you could see the flames all the way into town. Even the bodies were reduced to ashes.”
“What an awful way to die,” Salmoneus murmured mournfully.
“What is this?” Hercules asked, picking up a long handle that sported a meticulously forged three pronged iron piece.
“I don’t know,” the woman replied, a little too quickly.
“I know,” her son piped up. “That’s the symbol of the Cretans. They’re the guardians of the...”
“Darius!” she silenced him sharply. “He’s just a foolish lad, full of wild stories.”
“I’d like to hear more,” the demigod announced, his suspicions aroused.
“We don’t know anything,” the woman insisted firmly. “Come, Darius, we must get home.”
With her son in tow, she left the three men alone with their grief under the skeletal frame of the house.
“Deric and Lyla didn’t deserve to die like this,” Hercules said, his voice quiet but resolved.
“Nobody does,” Iolaus agreed, fixing a steady gaze on his partner. It was a look that assured him that all his previous misgivings had been put aside, and he was ready to help his friend with whatever it took to bring whoever had done this to justice.
“I take it you don’t think the fire was an accident,” Salmoneus observed.
“No, I don’t,” Hercules answered, steel forming in his normally kind blue eyes. “Let’s go find out more about these Cretans.”
The demigod turned and began striding back to the road that led to town with Iolaus trotting beside him. Salmoneus was forced to jog slightly to keep up, but he did his best. He wasn’t a hero and he didn’t know what help he could be, but what had happened to the two innocent people wasn’t right, and he was willing to do whatever he could to ensure it didn’t happen to anyone else.
They arrived at the village and strolled casually through the marketplace, looking like three travelers leisurely passing through. But the two seasoned warriors knew how to scout while appearing unassuming and unthreatening, and two pairs of blue eyes carefully scanned the busy street, looking for anything amiss or incriminating. They both spotted the vendor at the same time, and Hercules approached him with Salmoneus while Iolaus hung back, tensed and ready for trouble.
“That’s an interesting tattoo,” the demigod began conversationally, gazing at the familiar design on the man’s left forearm. “Does it signify anything?”
“Yeah,” the man responded gruffly. “Purity and strength.”
“Is that so?” Hercules said as another man approached to stand beside the vendor and Iolaus’ hand unobtrusively came to rest on the hilt of his sword. “I saw a mark just like it over at the house that burned down.”
“You mean the centaur’s house. Shame about that,” the vendor remarked, sounding anything but sorry.
“Stranger, let me give you some advice,” the second man spoke up. “We don’t care for their kind around here.”
“What kind is that?” the demigod demanded, all traces of friendliness quickly leaving his tone.
“Huh, that should be obvious. Just look at them. They’re not like us.”
“That’s a relief,” Salmoneus declared theatrically, emboldened by the presence of his large friend.
The vendor turned to his companion, a cruel smile creeping over his face.
“You know the difference between a centaur and a three-legged dog?”
Hercules snapped, the steel in his eyes becoming blazing fire. He grabbed the man by the front of his cloak, hoisting him up in the air, watching him choke and gasp for breath as he dangled there in front of him. His buddy started to move forward, but was halted by the tip of a sword at his chest, courtesy of the hunter’s lightening fast reflexes.
“People died in that fire!” the demigod said angrily. “I don’t want to hear any centaur jokes!”
Hercules turned to see a young woman watching from across the way, a weary mask of pain marring her pretty face.
“Hasn’t there been enough violence and suffering already?”
The demigod debated that question for a brief moment, then released the man, sending him crashing to the ground. Following his lead, Iolaus withdrew his sword, slipping it back into the sheath at his waist.
“Who are you?” Hercules asked, not in the mood to deal with anyone who was an advocate for the slime that could mock the dead.
“My name is Leuriphone,” she told them. “I’m Lyla’s sister.”
The demigod’s demeanor changed dramatically as he approached her.
“You have my sympathy,” he murmured.
“You were a friend of Lyla and Deric?” she inquired.
“Yes,” Hercules answered. “I was.”
“Come with me.”
The young woman led them through the marketplace to a small but pleasant house where she invited them in. Introductions were made as she gathered together refreshments for her guests, but instead of being awe-struck by the legendary son of Zeus, Leuriphone just greeted him with a sad smile.
“So, you’re Hercules.”
“Let’s keep that between us for now,” the demigod suggested, wanting to keep a low profile while they tried to ascertain exactly what had transpired at the house outside of town.
“Lyla and Deric always spoke well of you,” Leuriphone told them as she filled the goblets on the table with water.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner to stop this,” Hercules said softly, pacing restlessly around the table.
“It’s hard enough losing them that way,” she murmured. “But their son was barely three years old.”
The demigod paused in his pacing, startled by her revelation.
“They had a child.”
Salmoneus and Iolaus glanced at each other, the full weight of the tragedy hitting them. The salesman set his goblet down, a heartfelt sorrow on his face while the hunter eased back in his chair, the bread and cheese on the table forgotten as he temporarily lost his insatiable appetite.
“Oh, yes, he was born while they still lived in Nespa,” Leuriphone continued, her voice growing bitter. “One of the reasons why they left was so they could bring him up in a more accepting environment.”
“Burning down homes with people inside isn’t exactly what I call accepting,” Salmoneus said tightly.
“No one thought it would come to that,” she explained. “And actually, for a while, things were fine. Deric got work as a farm hand; Lyla took care of the house and Kefor. They were happy.”
“What changed things?” Iolaus asked.
“The Cretans,” Leuriphone answered, sliding down into a chair. “They started poisoning the minds of the locals.”
“You know, why don’t you tell me about these Cretans?” Hercules said, disgust evident in his voice.
“They’re a mean-spirited bunch, claiming to protect the Athenian purity from contamination by foreigners, minorities... anyone who’s different.”
“And Deric stood up to them,” the demigod concluded.
“He was brave and fearless,” Leuriphone concurred. “They hated him for that.”
“And none of his neighbors came to help,” Salmoneus muttered, knowing that even he wouldn’t turn a blind eye while good people were persecuted unjustly.
“The people around here are decent and hard-working,” she maintained. “But easily influenced, especially when times turn bad. When the floods ruined the crops, it was easy to blame Deric and Lyla for their troubles.” Leuriphone’s lips trembled as her eyes filled with tears. “That poor child.”
Salmoneus reached out a hand to cover hers, offering what little comfort he could. Iolaus turned in his chair to look back at his partner. They were unanimous in their silent communication. No matter how long it took, they weren’t leaving until they avenged this horrible crime.
Merkus called together an emergency meeting of his fellow Cretans, filling them in on the events that had occurred in the market that afternoon. As they huddled at a table in a dark corner of the inn pounding ales, he described the three centaur lovers and voiced his concerns.
“They’re nosing around. They’re gonna be trouble,” he insisted.
“Well, they’re really not bothering anyone,” Demicles objected.
“Look, we don’t like centaurs in this town, and we don’t like centaur-lovers,” Jakar preached, ignoring the kid. “It’s that simple.”
“I say we give them a farewell party,” Sepsus growled, an eager gleam in his eye.
Jakar and Merkus heartily agreed, but Demicles wasn’t so sure. They goaded the boy mercilessly, but in the end, he decided not to join them, setting off for home amid their taunts.
“What do you think?” Merkus asked, nodding at the kid’s retreating figure as they filed out of the tavern. “He could be a liability.”
“The boy’s soft, but he’ll come around,” Jakar said confidently. “What about Cletis?”
“He headed up to the bluff,” Merkus told him with a smirk.
“Well then, since he’s having his own party, we’ll have to have ours without him,” Jakar grinned. “Go get the others.”
“You ok, Herc?” Iolaus asked quietly. They had left Leuriphone’s house and had gone back to the market, but they had failed to find any signs of unrest and their new ‘friends’ were gone. Checking the rest of the village produced nothing out of sorts, and the wooded roads surrounding the town were quiet and peaceful. As they headed back for the marketplace, the hunter took the opportunity for a hushed word with his solemn friend, for Iolaus knew that seeing the burnt house had to have evoked painful memories of his partner’s own family.
“I’m fine,” Hercules told him with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I just want to find who did this.”
“We will,” Iolaus promised. He didn’t say the words, but the demigod clearly read “I’m here for you” in his friend’s earnest gaze.
“I know,” Hercules said softly, in response to the nonverbal statement, rather than the verbal as he squeezed his partner’s shoulder in thanks.
Salmoneus witnessed the exchange from a few paces behind, stroking his beard thoughtfully. Everyone knew the horrible story of what Hera had done to her stepson’s family, and it didn’t take a genius to see that Hercules was reading parallels between that and what happened with Deric and Lyla. Quickening his step to catch up, the salesman did his best to try and take the demigod’s mind off of it for a bit.
“Hercules, I really think you should join me in the self-actualization field.”
“We’ve been through this before,” the demigod sighed. “I don’t want to be part of your schemes.”
“It’s not a scheme!” Salmoneus protested vehemently. “It’s a way to help people. You’re a hero to so many; you could help people reach their full potential. Be all they could be.”
“Hmm, like you?” Hercules asked, grinning in spite of himself.
“Exactly,” the salesman enthused.
“Yeah, Herc,” Iolaus chimed in, catching on to what their companion was doing. “Don’t you want to be the best Hercules you can be?”
The demigod opened his mouth for a witty retort, but shut it abruptly as they the rounded the bend in the road, the smile quickly leaving his face.
“Uh-oh,” he murmured, nodding at the five men waiting in road. “I think we’ve got company.”
“Good company or bad company?” Salmoneus asked, knowing he probably didn’t need to. With Hercules, it was never good company.
“I’ve got a feeling it’s bad,” the demigod replied as three more men came up behind them. “We hope you liked your little visit to our village,” Jakar sneered.
“Uh, we just got here,” Salmoneus spoke up.
“You’re not missing much, immigrant,” Sepsus added.
“I really prefer you didn’t call me that,” the salesman spluttered.
“What would you like to be called?” Merkus asked mockingly, stepping up behind him and brandishing a hard, polished club.
“That’s, uh, ‘Mister Immigrant’ to you,” Salmoneus relented nervously.
“Well, Mister Immigrant, I’m about to brain you.”
The salesman’s abrupt shout halted not only the Cretans, but also the two warriors. Hercules and Iolaus exchanged ‘what is he doing’ looks as their companion held two fingers aloft and began to hum vigorously.
“Why are you humming?” Merkus demanded in confusion.
“I’m finding your internal flower,” Salmoneus explained. “Mmmmmmmmmmm. Ha! It’s a weed!”
With impressive speed he lunged forward, jabbing his two fingers in his foe’s eyes. Ducking out of the way, he avoided the club of assailant number two, although the third man wasn’t so lucky. Scooping up the club that Merkus dropped, the salesman used it to bash the feet of the Cretans.
“Not bad,” Iolaus said with a touch of admiration. “You’ve been practicing.”
“Yeah, well, feel free to join in any time,” Salmoneus yelped, ducking out of the way in time so that number three inadvertently got his revenge on number two.
The Cretans began attacking en masse, and the two heroes needed no further encouragement. Hercules thrust out an arm to closeline his first attacker and backhanded the second. Another man came out of the bushes, and the demigod dodged his wild swing easily, grabbing his arm and twisting it painfully. Iolaus leapt to his back, delivering a brutal spin kick to the man that tried to rush him from behind. Hercules head butted the Cretan in his grasp and tossed him through the air to land in the back of the wagon a few feet down the road. The hunter’s adversary struggled back up, only to meet with a hard right and have his legs swept out from under him. Iolaus moved aside, giving Hercules room to send the guy sailing down the road to join his buddy in the wagon. The last man standing came forward with a yell. Hercules grabbed his partner’s wrists and spun him around, flipping him over his shoulders so that his boots connected hard with the advancing Cretan. Hard enough to launch him into the wagon with his pals. The donkey that was harnessed to the wagon had had enough and took off down the road with a loud bray.
“Yes!” Salmoneus shouted triumphantly, pumping the air with his fist. He rushed forward and tried to high five the demigod, who was less than cooperative.
“Is there some reason you’re trying to slap my hand?”
“I saw it in an athletic contest once,” the salesman explained. “It’s a way for winners to congratulate each other.”
“So, why don’t they just say, ‘Nice job,’ or ‘Congratulations’?” Hercules asked.
Salmoneus laughed, then realized his friend was serious.
“You need more fun in your life,” he declared, slapping the demigod’s arm affectionately.
“You do,” Iolaus agreed with a straight face and a merry twinkle in his eye when his partner turned to him for rebuttal.
Jakar got to his feet behind them, fixing them with a heated glare.
“You haven’t seen the last of us.”
“We can always hope,” Hercules muttered. He led the way back to the village, leaving the Cretans to slink away and lick their wounds.
As night began to descend over the land, the threesome decided to call it a day and headed toward the inn in the marketplace.
“A mug of mead for my friends,” Hercules told the innkeeper as they approached the counter. “And we’ll need two rooms for the night.”
A hostile murmur went up from the other inn patrons, and the keeper glanced around nervously before he shook his head.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”
“Look,” the demigod snarled, about out of patience. “We just had this discussion with your tattooed friends. The mead and the rooms.”
“This is not the way to attract a convention crowd,” Salmoneus commented as the innkeeper reluctantly began to dispense the drinks.
The door to the inn slammed open, startling everyone within. A loud gasp went up from the crowd as a body was thrust inside, sliding bonelessly to the floor. Deric suddenly appeared, filling the door frame with his bulk, his face a mask of fury.
“This is the first,” he shouted ominously. “But it won’t be the last!”
“Deric!” Hercules cried out, moving forward. But the centaur was gone, leaving only his enraged threat behind.
“I will have my revenge!”
Deric’s act had caused quite a bit of chaos in the small village. Shock, panic, and outrage all ran rampant among the people. Resulting in a mostly sleepless night, both for the good guys and the bad. Dawn’s early light found the ranks of the bad growing, as the Cretans’ lies and accusations began to take hold of those already unnerved by the fierceness of the centaur and the apparent evidence of his brutality. As Hercules, Iolaus, and Salmoneus emerged from the inn in the morning, they found the Cretans already hard at work, rallying the townspeople against Deric as they advocated forming a lynch mob.
“Be quiet, listen! The centaur has gone berserk,” Jakar called out. “We have to stop him before he kills again.”
“He’s turned into a monster,” Merkus added. “He’s burned his own house, and he’s killed his own family.”
“Now, hold on,” Hercules commanded, striding forward. “You don’t know that!”
“You don’t know centaurs like we do,” Jakar insisted.
“Maybe we know them better,” the demigod said haughtily, putting a restraining hand on his friend’s shoulder as he felt Iolaus bristling beside him. “We were taught by one.”
“The only way to protect ourselves is to track him down and kill him,” Jakar shouted, dismissing the centaur lovers in order to reheat the bloodlust of the crowd. They cheered at his words, caught up in the frenzy.
“He deserves a fair trial!” Hercules yelled over the din, dismayed at the aggression that was seething all around him.
“Well, here’s the magistrate,” Merkus announced, confident that the law would fold to their side.
“You trust him? Let him decide,” Salmoneus urged, confident that the law would rise to their side. “Wise Tersius,” Jakar began grandly, feigning reverence as the magistrate approached to investigate the commotion. “We have a grave problem. The centaur, Deric, is not dead.”
“He’s gone mad,” Merkus continued. “He killed Cletis and then dumped the body at the roadhouse.”
“Then he must be brought in,” Tersius ruled. “I‘ll need volunteers.”
“If the magistrate pleases,” Hercules said, his respect sincere. “We’d like to go along.”
“We don’t need outsiders helping us,” Jakar protested, not wanting them to interfere with his plans for the centaur.
“I only want to make sure the fugitive is brought back alive,” the demigod declared, giving him a hard look.
“So be it,” Tersius decided. “The outsider and his companions will accompany you.”
Salmoneus hadn’t counted on being part of the posse, and he wasn’t happy at having been included. He was prepared to argue, but realized it was probably pointless.
“As you wish, wise Tersius,” Jakar grumbled before turning to his fellow Cretans. “Get your weapons!”
The crowd began to break up, but centaur slurs were on everyone’s lips. Hercules ignored them, sidling up to his partner.
“You’re awfully quiet,” he observed.
“Something’s bothering me about this whole thing, Herc,” the hunter mused. “Listen, you guys go on ahead and keep an eye on our friends. I want to have another look around. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” Iolaus replied.
“All right,” the demigod agreed, trusting in his friend’s instincts. “Be careful.”
“You, too,” the hunter advised with a pointed look at Jakar.
They clasped arms briefly, and then Iolaus turned and began walking out of the village.
“He’s not coming with us?” Salmoneus asked, moving up to Hercules and watching the hunter slip away. “Iolaus has his own investigating to do,” the demigod told him.
“Wouldn’t it be better if I did some freelance investigating, too?” the salesman speculated. “You know, around here?”
“Nice try,” Hercules grinned, slinging a companionable arm around his friend and steering him over to the gathering posse. “Come on.”
The hunting party set out, picking up the centaur’s path right away. Not only was Deric not bothering to conceal his trail, but he seemed to be leaving as many obvious signs as he could, a fact that didn’t sit too well with the demigod.
“This is easy, boys,” Merkus crowed. “We’re on his tracks!”
“Yeah, it’s too easy,” Hercules murmured in an aside to his friend.
“Easy is good,” Salmoneus stated. “You think.. you think it’s a trap?” He laughed nervously, immediately becoming highly concerned with his well being. “Should I be worried?”
Picking up on the excitement in Merkus’ voice, Hercules nodded to the salesman and they sprinted after the mob.
“There he is! Let’s get him!”
“Looking for me?” Deric challenged from the top of a hill.
“Let me talk to him,” Hercules ordered, pushing his way through the crowd. “He knows me. Deric! It’s me, Hercules. I promise, no harm will come to you if you give yourself up.”
“I’m not stopping until I avenge my wife’s murder!” the centaur shouted.
“Don’t make things worse,” the demigod begged him. “You’ve already killed a man.”
“It was an accident,” Deric explained, softening for a brief moment. Then the forcefulness reentered his voice. “But he deserved to die.”
“Then let a court decide that,” Hercules continued. “Give up, and come back with us.”
“And what chance does a centaur have in a court of humans?” the centaur scoffed.
“You have my word,” the demigod promised. Something caught his eye, and he saw Merkus attempting to ambush Deric from behind. “No, wait!”
“You murdering beast!”
The centaur turned, disarming the man’s spear with his sword.
“Soon you’ll be joining your centaur-loving wife,” Merkus spat, drawing his own blade.
Deric lunged forward, sending the weapon skidding out of the man’s hands, and his backstroke felled the Cretan for good.
“This is your fate too, Jakar!” he vowed. “I’ll be back for you! And the others!”
“Kill him,” Jakar seethed. “Kill the monster!”
Arrows began to fly, but the centaur was out of range. Hercules watched sadly as Deric turned and stalked off, rapidly disappearing from sight.
Iolaus walked around the charred remains of the house, looking it over with a critical eye. There wasn’t much left, but he still had his doubts that a fire, no matter how devastating to a home, could completely obliterate all traces of the inhabitants. He had born witness to the work of the gods that could reduce a mortal to scattered ashes, but he had also seen plenty of man made fires that had failed to do the same. And now that Deric had proven himself to be alive, it left the hunter with questions that he was determined to find the answers to.
Not finding anything useful among the burnt wood, Iolaus moved out, his practiced eye scanning the woods around the house until he found where the Cretans had grouped before they attacked. He was also disheartened to see four separate trails leading off in four separate directions. With a sigh, he decided the first one was as good a place to start as any, and began diligently following the tracks that led off to the west.
“What are you waiting for?” Jakar hissed as his men hesitated. “Keep going!”
“Uh, Hercules, you don’t want go in the swamp at night, do you?” Salmoneus asked hopefully as his friend stopped, letting the others pass by. “I mean, there are bugs, and snakes, and little things that... ”
“No, we’ll make camp here,” the demigod acquiesced.
“Good choice. Excellent choice!” the salesman agreed heartily. He crouched down next to his companion, who had begun gathering up kindling for a fire. “Not that I want to change your mind, but why don’t you want to go into the swamp?”
“Cause we’re on the wrong trail,” Hercules informed him. “Centaurs don’t like swamps.”
“Uh-huh? Shouldn’t we be on the right trail?”
“We have time,” the demigod said, unconcerned. “I don’t think he’s trying to run away. We’ll pick up his track at first light.”
He rose, pressing the armful of wood into his companion’s arms as he led the way to find a suitable campsite.
“I hope Salmoneus and Hercules are having better luck than I am,” the hunter muttered to himself as he hung a freshly killed rabbit over the fire. He stretched out, making himself comfortable on the hard ground as he waited for his dinner to cook. Iolaus had followed all four of the trails leading away from Lyla and Deric’s house, and he had been disappointed to discover they all circled around to lead back to the main road.
“There has to be something we’re missing,” he mused, locking his hands behind his head as he stared up at the full moon. He began replaying the events in his head, starting with when they first arrived in town and found the smoldering house, leading up to the moment when Deric burst into the inn with Cletis’ body.
“Cletis,” the hunter said out loud, sitting up as a thought struck him. Thanks to Jakar’s loudmouth ranting, he knew that Cletis had encountered Deric on the road outside of town. Some of his fellow Cretans had brought his abandoned wagon of supplies back to the village, reporting signs of a struggle. Jakar and his buddies had trumped it up as the crazed centaur viciously attacking an innocent, unarmed man. But Iolaus suddenly realized the real question wasn’t what had happened in the woods, but rather why it happened. Cletis was a simple merchant that lived in town and sold cheese and wares in the market every day. “So what was he doing carting a wagon of supplies outside of town in the middle of the afternoon?”
But the quiet night held no answer for the hunter. So as he turned the spit, rotating his meat over the fire, he resolved to go out in the morning to the place Cletis was killed and find out for himself.
“Shouldn’t Iolaus have caught up to us by now?”
Hercules shrugged, unconcerned, as he poked at the fire.
“He must have found something worth pursuing.” The demigod didn’t know what it could have been, but he could only hope his partner’s instincts had been right and that he was having better luck than they were. Trusting in Hercules’ judgement and letting the matter drop, Salmoneus uncorked his water skin and drank deeply, then passed it to his companion. A rustling in the shrubs alerted them to someone approaching, and both men automatically assumed it was Iolaus coming to join them after all. So both were equally surprised when the bushes parted and the young man from their group slowly approached them.
“You’re back early,” Hercules observed. “Giving up so soon?”
“Jakar called the search off till morning,” Demicles explained. “Two men from the village drowned. Can’t see anything out there.”
“So, Deric’s still running around free,” the salesman surmised.
The boy nodded slightly.
“Thirsty?” Hercules offered him the water skin.
“You weren’t with those who attacked us yesterday,” the demigod pointed out. “Why not?”
“I have no quarrel with you,” the kid replied, almost seeming surprised that it wasn’t obvious as he handed back the water skin.
“Neither did your friends,” Hercules reminded him. “That didn’t stop them.”
“Sometimes, they get... over-zealous.”
“Is that what happened at Deric’s house?” the demigod asked evenly, watching as something fleeting passed over the boy’s face.
“I have no idea what happened at the centaur’s house,” Demicles told him, not sounding too convincing.
“Don’t you?” Hercules questioned. “They’re your friends.”
“You’re not really fond of Deric, are you?” Salmoneus inquired.
“No, not really.” The kid grew defensive, squirming under the accusation he could see in the other men’s eyes. “Look, my mother’s sick. And I can’t even get hired at the farm where the centaur works cause he does the job of three men.”
“Is that Deric’s fault?” Hercules demanded. “He had a family to provide for, too. Does he get the pay of three men?”
The boy hesitated, not having thought of that before. But any breakthroughs the demigod may have made in terms of the young man’s misguided thinking were cut short as Jakar and his friends came storming up to them.
“Demicles, stay away from the outsiders. Stick to your own kind.”
The Cretans quickly herded the kid away, berating him as they went.
“Do you think he knows more about Lyla’s death than he’s letting on?” Salmoneus wondered.
“No question about it,” Hercules replied, glaring through the darkness at the retreating men.
Iolaus carefully went over the area where Cletis’ wagon had been found. There were some signs of a scuffle, but not a lot to go by. He knelt on the ground, examining the wagon tracks and the marks that indicated where it had overturned. Moving further down the road, the hunter picked up some tracks that might have been Cletis’. They were spaced far enough apart to indicate whoever had made them had been running, and a set of hoofprints mirrored them almost exactly. Iolaus followed them, coming upon a slight disturbance on the ground. Easily overlooked by most, but to his well practiced eye it stood out clearly. A slight scraping, as if the running person had fallen. The hunter examined the area thoroughly, and as he moved aside a few fallen leaves, a metallic glint caught his eye. Half buried in the dirt was a small key, shiny enough to make him think it hadn’t been there long. Speculating that Cletis had lost it when he’d fallen, Iolaus tucked the key into the pouch at his belt for safekeeping.
Wanting to cover all the bases, the hunter made a quick sweep of the area, and his efforts were rewarded as he came upon another trail leading into the woods. The ground was disturbed and branches were broken, telling Iolaus that the running man was indeed running again, this time in a panic. Convinced that Deric hadn’t killed Cletis on the road where he’d lain, the hunter followed the trail all the way to the edge of a sharp ravine. It came up quickly, and he guessed that in his maddened frenzy to escape, Cletis hadn’t seen it in time to stop. Also of particular interest to Iolaus was the fact that the hoofprints stopped well before the ravine. And with that, the hunter was convinced. Deric was no murderer. Cletis’ death had been an accident. One question answered, but one still remained. What had the Cretan been doing so far out of town, and where had he been going with a wagon full of supplies?
At daybreak, Hercules and Salmoneus slipped away from the others and formed their own search party. The demigod doubled back from the swamp, and it didn’t take him long until he found what he was looking for.
“Deric’s tracks?” Salmoneus asked as his friend knelt by some marks on the ground.
“He made a false trail leading into the swamp,” Hercules confirmed. “Here’s the way he really went.”
“Uh, shouldn’t we get the others?” the salesman inquired, a bit nervously.
“I’m not sure they care about bringing Deric back alive,” the demigod said generously. He knew they didn’t want Deric alive, and he had no intention of subjecting the centaur to a lynch mob before he got the chance to talk to him first. Looking around, Hercules pointed to a closely packed grove of trees. “He probably spent the night there.” They moved on, but after a few steps the demigod knelt down to examine the ground once more.
“What? What is it?”
“Interesting tracks,” he murmured. The suspicion that had begun to form when Deric had threatened that he was going to avenge his wife’s death, and only hers, grew stronger as he studied the new tracks.
“What interesting? Like bear tracks interesting?” Salmoneus babbled. “Like lion tracks interesting? Like crazed-centaur-ready-to-attack-us interesting? What do you mean, interesting, huh?”
Hercules looked at his friend with a trace of amusement, deciding not to tell him what he suspected until he was sure.
“Come on?” the salesman repeated in disbelief, sure he was being walked into a dire situation that was apt to result in pain or suffering. Taking a deep breath he tried to steel his nerves and harness his internal harmonic. “Mmmmmmmmm.”
“You have nothing to worry about,” the demigod assured him dismissively.
But Salmoneus was not convinced, and did his best to try and make his fearless friend see the gravity of the situation.
“I mean, the guy’s obviously deranged. He’s already killed two people. What’s to prevent him from sneaking up on us and attacking us from behind?”
Hercules finally managed to break through the stream of nervous chatter and shut his companion up.
“I think,” he began, speaking slowly and deliberately. “If you were to keep quiet there’d be a lot less chance of him hearing us approach.”
“I could do that,” Salmoneus concurred.
The demigod kept going, shaking his head and wondering if maybe he shouldn’t have left the salesman back in the village after all. As they came around the lake and stepped up into a small clearing, he came to a stop as he spied a crude hut.
“Stay behind me,” he ordered.
“Good idea,” Salmoneus agreed, not having any intentions of putting himself in a position to be a target. He followed his friend cautiously, humming quietly to himself as the big guy checked the clearing. But the salesman almost choked as the bushes rustled and a small figure emerged behind them. “Uh, Hercules....” The demigod waved him off. “No, but really..”
“Quiet,” Hercules snapped.
“You gotta take a look at this,” Salmoneus insisted, pointing across the clearing to where the tiny centaur had appeared.
Even though the demigod had half suspected that Deric and Lyla’s son still lived, the sight of the child was enough to momentarily stun him. He exchanged a shocked look with Salmoneus, then slowly approached the boy, who did not seem disturbed by their presence.
“Don’t be afraid,” Hercules said softly. “We won’t hurt you.”
Both men halted, and the demigod turned to see Deric with his bow ready and a deadly serious expression on his face.
“Do you come as friend or foe?”
“What do you think, Deric?” Hercules asked him. “You once spared my life. I can never be your enemy.”
After a few tense moments, the centaur relented and lowered his bow. The demigod approached him, realizing they were in a very familiar position.
“It seems like we’ve been here before.”
“The last time you were blind and helpless,” Deric recollected.
“And I’m still indebted to you for not killing me then,” the demigod told him gratefully.
“I gave you my reasons.”
“Can I move now?” Salmoneus called out, still frozen in place.
“Yeah.” The centaur grinned slightly at the bit of comic relief before turning back to his former adversary. “Your battle with Nemis has grown into legend.”
“You heard how he died?”
“Only that it was at your hands.”
“There’s more to it,” Hercules relayed. “His cave started collapsing on us. He held it up until I could get Penelope and Cheris out.”
“I’m glad he died a good death,” Deric said sincerely. “He wasn’t always bad.”
“It’s never too late to put hatred and vengeance behind you,” the demigod suggested.
“And you want me to do that now?” the centaur asked, his features hardening.
“I don’t think Lyla would’ve wanted you brought back on a stake.”
“Let’s take a walk, Hercules. If your friend will look after my son.”
“No problem,” Salmoneus agreed, realizing that Deric didn’t want to discuss the details of his wife’s murder and his subsequent course of action in front of his son. As the demigod and the centaur headed off through the trees, the salesman knelt down in front of the child. He didn’t have much experience with kids, but he figured he could make a connection. “Hi. My name’s Salmoneus. Do you know how to hum?”
To his delight, the little centaur started humming, and Salmoneus joined in, figuring that this babysitting gig was going to be a piece of cake and wondering how he could turn it into a profit making venture.
The Cretans, who unfortunately were not quite as dumb as the demigod had hoped, had finally figured out they were on the wrong trail and had stumbled across the right one.
“Over here,” Sepsus called, checking the marks on the ground. “These tracks.”
“They go up that way,” Demicles shouted, pointing up the hill. “The centaur tricked us.”
“He won’t get away this time,” Jakar vowed, waving the men forward.
“This was her favorite place,” Deric said sorrowfully as they stopped underneath a huge oak tree on a hill overlooking the valley.
“I’m truly sorry,” Hercules told him with heartfelt sympathy.
“No more than I,” the centaur murmured, giving the demigod a sad smile, for he knew that the man beside him could sincerely empathize with his pain.
“Cheiron told me how much centaurs fear fire,” Hercules began. “That had to be the hardest thing you ever did, going into that burning house.”
“It was never a choice,” Deric shrugged. “But the whole place was an inferno. I couldn’t see anything, and the roof started caving in when I went through the door. There was nothing I could do. I found Kefor hiding in the woods, but Lyla... She never made it out.”
“I know what you’re going through,” Hercules tried to console him with the voice of experience. “Revenge isn’t the answer.”
“Oh, but it is,” the centaur said harshly. “I’ve tasted it. And it’s sweet.”
“At what cost?”
“I’m not afraid to die,” Deric declared adamantly.
“And who teaches your son when you’re gone?” Hercules asked him, trying to get him to see past his anger. “Leuriphone? What does she know of life as a centaur?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have stood up to them,” the centaur sighed, his rage quickly melting into weary guilt. “We should’ve just moved on.”
“You can’t blame yourself for standing up for your rights,” the demigod reminded him.
“Can’t I? Lyla would still be alive!”
“You did the right thing,” Hercules reassured him. “Sometimes, the price for that is very high. The world is a less-than-perfect place, but giving up on it won’t help. Is that what Lyla would have wanted? Is that why she loved you?”
“What do you want me to do?” Deric asked, defeated.
“Go back,” the demigod urged. “Turn yourself in.”
“And let her murder go unpunished?” the centaur exclaimed. “How could I do that? I know who was there. Cletis told me before he died.”
“Then tell the magistrate what you know, and let justice prevail. Deric, your son doesn’t deserve the life of a fugitive.”
Hercules could see he was getting through to the centaur. Deric bowed his head before the massive tree, silent for the span of long minutes. Then he finally raised his head, his eyes damp as he looked at the man who had become his friend.
“Ok,” he whispered. “For Kefor. I’ll do it.”
Salmoneus let out a big sigh of relief as he stepped out of the hut and saw Hercules and Deric returning, his idea of starting up a facility to care for the children of busy parents during the day completely undone.
“Oh, boy, am I glad to see you guys,” he moaned. “You have no idea how much energy a three year-old has. I was afraid you were never coming back.”
“I have to speak to Kefor for a moment,” Deric announced.
“He’s very cute, by the way,” the salesman told him, not having meant any offense.
“You’ll have to watch him a bit longer,” Hercules informed him as the centaur disappeared into the hut. “Deric and I have business in town.”
“The kid doesn’t even take a nap!” Salmoneus whined.
“Oh, Salmoneus, you’ll be fine,” the demigod assured him, a teasing gleam in his eyes as he pulled a piece of straw from his friend’s hair. “Remember: desire, focus, grab, hum.”
But as the salesman tried to take his own advice, he was quite sure that the internal flower of Robertus Tonicles had never been up against a rambunctious three year old centaur.
Deric explained to his son that he needed to temporarily leave him, trying to make the boy understand without exposing him to any sordid details.
“I promise you, it’ll be just for a short while.”
“Are you going away like Mommy?” Kefor asked him solemnly.
“No,” Deric answered firmly. “I’ll be back. I swear to you, no matter what happens to me, I’ll be back for you. Give me a hug.” As he hugged his son tight, the centaur vowed that he would keep his promise. He was willing to trust Hercules for now, but if the demigod failed him, then he would do whatever it took to get back to his son, and no one would be able to stop him. “I’ll never leave you,” he swore, meaning it with all his heart. “I love you.” It was hard, but Deric finally let go and left Kefor, stepping outside and fixing a hard look on the two men that were waiting.
“I want my son to be safe.”
“Don’t worry,” Hercules assured him. “Salmoneus will keep him safe.”
“He’ll be safe. I’ll be a wreck,” the salesman said, only half joking.
As Deric started to follow Hercules, Salmoneus suddenly realized the magnitude of the responsibility he’d been saddled with.
“Whoa! Wait a minute. What does a three year-old centaur eat?”
“There’s food in the corner,” Deric tossed over his shoulder.
“What if he gets a splinter?”
“You can handle it, Salmoneus,” Hercules called back. “Self-actualize. Get in touch with your feminine side.”
The salesman paused, not sure if he should be insulted, or if he should incorporate that into his seminar. Deciding to worry about it later, he turned back to the hut, humming wearily. But as he pulled the flap back from the door, he quickly stepped back out with a sharp whistle.
“Not potty-trained, huh?!” he shouted after the two retreating figures. They both ignored him. Resigning himself to his fate, he grabbed the small shovel resting against the side of the hut and went inside muttering to himself. “If he can handle the Aegean Stables...”
Once Hercules and Deric arrived back at the village, they were immediately surrounded by a group of children who delighted in the sight of the half-man, half-horse.
“It doesn’t look like everyone hates you,” the demigod observed, smiling at the innocence of the children.
“Nobody’s born with prejudice,” Deric said with a touch of bitterness. “They’ll get older. They’ll learn.”
“Or maybe someone will teach them the right things,” Hercules offered as they approached the magistrate’s office. “I have someone here to see you.”
“You came back. Of your own volition?” Tersius inquired.
“Yes,” the centaur replied. “Because I didn’t kill those men in cold blood.”
“Men? I thought it was just Cletis.”
“Deric killed Merkus in the woods,” Hercules informed the magistrate. “In self-defense. I witnessed it.”
“And that earlier fight with Cletis? You have witnesses to that?”
“No,” Deric answered. “But I know he had a part in the attack on our house.”
“You have proof of that.”
“He confessed to me,” the centaur insisted.
“And now he’s dead,” the magistrate reminded him.
“It was an accident,” Deric protested. “He tried to run away from me, and he fell down a ravine.”
“I‘ll have to hold you in custody until it can be proven one way or the other,” Tersius ruled.
“Custody,” the centaur sighed. “You mean in jail.”
“I don’t make the laws. The Athenians do that. I merely uphold them.”
Deric looked to Hercules for reassurance, and the demigod gave him an encouraging nod.
“Stay. It’ll be all right. I’ll be back.”
Willing to trust for the moment that Hercules would find a way to clear his name, Deric allowed the magistrate to escort him to the jail, to what he could only hope would be a very temporary confinement.
“Kefor,” Salmoneus sang out as he crept up to a large bush. “Kefor? Where could Kefor be hiding? Where could Kefor be hid- ?! Not there. OK.” Changing direction, the salesman decided to try the hut. “Kefor? Kefor? Where could Kefor be hiding? Where could Kefor be hiding? Where could Kefor be hiding?! Oh.” The hut was empty as well, and Salmoneus went back outside with a weary slump to his shoulders. “Kefor? Kefor? Where could Kefor be hiding? I like hide-and-seek, too, but I didn’t stay hidden forever.”
He went down the embankment to the lake, but he failed to spot the little centaur behind any of the large rocks or stumps. Out of ideas, he headed back up to the clearing, thinking that it was no wonder none of the Cretans had found the kid in the woods the night they attacked the house. “Kefor, please,” he groaned. “Your Uncle Salmoneus isn’t as young as he used to be. He’d really like to... ” The salesman trailed off, having heard a sound coming from the hut. He peeked inside and saw the boy, standing behind a hay bale with the saddest expression on his little face.
“There you are,” Salmoneus sighed, entering the hut and kneeling down next to the hay. “Kefor, what’s the matter?”
“It broke,” the child said mournfully, holding up his wooden toy.
“Let me see.” The salesman took the ox from him, noting that the string tail that caused the horns to move had merely come undone. “I can fix that, don’t worry.”
Kefor watched him reattaching the tail, like his mother had done for him many times before.
“When’s Mommy coming back?”
“Kefor,” Salmoneus said gently, desperately trying to think of something to say. “Your Mommy is away.”
The boy just looked at him, knowing that it hadn’t been an answer to his question. With a forced smile, the salesman handed over the mended toy and ruffled the child’s hair.
“There you go,” he declared. “Good as new. Now how about another game of hide and seek?”
To his immense relief, Kefor grinned and nodded his agreement.
When the Cretans had come upon the hut, they had found the immigrant and the little centaur, but had seen no sign of Deric or the other outsider. They decided to remain hidden and keep watch while Demicles ran back to town for any news of the centaur’s whereabouts.
“What did you find out?” Jakar demanded as the boy returned, flopping down into the grass beside them.
“Deric gave himself up,” he panted. “They’re holding him in jail.”
“That’s a problem,” Sepsus theorized. “He can implicate us all.”
“It is a problem, but I think I have the solution.”
“This is wrong,” Demicles spoke up as Jakar pulled out a long knife. Things had definitely gone too far. “I don’t want any part of this.”
“You’re already a part of it,” Jakar hissed. “You’re in this as deep as the rest of us.” “I didn’t do anything,” the boy protested. “I didn’t even carry a torch.”
“That’s your version,” Jakar threatened. “Mine could differ, unless you do as I say. Come on.”
“Shut up!” Sepsus ordered as Demicles tried to resist. He grabbed the boy, yanking him along as they approached the hut.
“The kid’s inside,” Jakar said, tightening his grip on the knife as an evil smile oozed across his face.
Hercules flung the doors of the jail open and stormed up to the bars of the cell.
“Deric, what’s going on? I just came from the Magistrate. He said you confessed. That you admitted killing Cletis in cold blood.”
“I did,” the centaur confirmed, not looking at his friend.
“What?” the demigod demanded in disbelief. “We both know it’s not true!”
“I had no choice,” Deric told him hollowly.
Hercules spun around in frustration, then turned back to the centaur.
“They’ll hang you now, you know that.”
“I had no choice,” Deric repeated, grasping the bars of his cell.
“What is that?” the demigod questioned, seeing something in the centaur’s hand and getting a sick feeling.
“It’s my son’s toy,” Deric whispered. “They’ve kidnaped him. They said if I didn’t confess, they’d kill him.”
“What about Salmoneus?” Hercules asked quietly.
“They didn’t say.” The centaur had been so preoccupied about the welfare of his son, he hadn’t thought about the man they had left in charge of his care.
“I’m going to find out,” the demigod said over his shoulder, already heading for the door. “Don’t worry, Deric. I’m going to get your son back, and we’re going to get the men responsible for all of this.”
But first things first. Hercules raced out of town, back to the hut out in the woods, fearing that he was going to find his friend dead. Much to his relief, the salesman hadn’t been hurt, merely tied up although he was far from happy about his plight.
“The scum!” he seethed as the demigod worked to undo the binds on his wrists. “They wouldn’t’ve gotten away with it if they came at me like men, instead of sneaking up while I was playing hide-and-seek.”
“Did you recognize any of them?”
“Yes. They were the same ones who attacked us outside of town. And that kid who came to our campfire.”
“Demicles?” Hercules blurted in surprise. The boy hadn’t given him the impression that he had any real malice in him. “Any idea where they took Kefor?”
“No,” Salmoneus replied. “They didn’t seem concerned about hiding him, though. They just wanted to make sure that Deric got his kid’s toy! Swine! Lucky for them they outnumbered me. I would’ve wiped the woods with them, huh?!”
“Yeah,” Hercules grunted as he heaved the salesman to his feet. “I’m sure you would have.”
It had not been easy, to say the least. Iolaus had spent all morning thoroughly investigating the area, examining every broken twig, looking at every bruised leaf, and literally leaving no stone unturned. Finally, after hours of searching, he discovered a path veering off from the road about a mile from where Cletis had met his end. It was not much of a trail, and an attempt had been made to cover what tracks there were, but Iolaus definitely had a tracker’s eye. Once he spotted it, he assessed that whoever had passed through had done so not long ago, maybe a day or two. Drawing his sword, just in case, he began to follow the tracks, being careful not to leave any of his own.
The trail did not lead far, just what the hunter construed to be a safe distance from the road. It ended with a ramshackle shelter, ropes lashing together a canvas and some tree branches. Iolaus hid in the bushes for a few moments, watching and listening. He failed to detect any signs of life, so he cautiously approached. Easing back one of the pine boughs from the entrance of the makeshift tent, he peered inside. A ray of sunlight glided in through the hole he had made, illuminating a woman sitting on the ground, bound and gagged, her frightened eyes blinking against the sudden light. Even though her face was half covered, Iolaus knew he had found Lyla. His friends were right: she did bear a resemblance to Xena.
“Who are you?” she snapped as he knelt beside her and removed her gag.
“My name is Iolaus,” he told her, pulling the small key he’d found out of the pouch on his belt. As he anticipated, it fit neatly into the manacles on her wrists. “I’m a friend of Hercules.” Lyla sagged in relief at the sound of the famous demigod’s name, realizing her ordeal was at an end. Iolaus undid her restraints, no doubt the handiwork of the blacksmith, Sepsus, and helped her outside, supporting her as he steered her to sit on a nearby stump.
“Just rest there a moment,” he advised with the voice of experience. “The feeling will come back into your arms and legs in a few minutes.” He gave her his water skin and she drank gratefully in big gulps.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” she sighed when her thirst was slaked. “I didn’t think I was ever going to see a friendly face again.”
“Everyone back in the village thinks you’re dead,” Iolaus told her. “How did you end up here?”
“I heard the Cretans coming that night,” Lyla began, her eyes getting a faraway look as she relived the nightmare. “I woke my son and sent him running for the woods. When they attacked, I tried to fight back. But they had torches, and the house caught fire. I was trying to drive them off, but someone hit me from behind. When I woke up, I was here. Cletis and Merkus were rigging up that shanty, and they told me that once they took care of Deric, they would come back and reeducate me. Teach me how to love my own kind. They were laughing... Cletis said that once I had a real man, I wouldn’t need to go slumming around the stables.”
She trailed off, shuddering slightly at the memory, and Iolaus put a comforting arm around her shoulders.
“Hey, it’s all right,” he reassured her. “You don’t have to be afraid any more. Cletis is dead. And even if he wasn’t, I wouldn’t let him get near you.”
Lyla looked into his kind blue eyes and smiled, thinking that her rescuer and Hercules were indeed two of a kind, and not surprised that they were friends.
“But what about Deric?” she asked softly. “And Kefor? Are they all right?”
“Hercules is taking care of Deric,” Iolaus told her. “I’m sure they’re fine.” He didn’t know what to say about her son. They hadn’t known that Lyla had seen the attack coming and had sent the boy off, so maybe there was a good chance that Kefor hadn’t perished in the fire after all. But the hunter didn’t know for sure, so he decided to ignore the question and distract her. “Do you think you can make it back to the village? I know a few people that are going to be really happy to see you.”
Lyla felt weak, and more than a little stiff and sore. But she was a tough woman, and it was going to take a lot more than that to keep her from reuniting with her husband and son. She held out a hand in invitation for the hunter to help her up.
As soon as Hercules and Salmoneus arrived back at the village, they were approached by Leuriphone, who had obviously been looking for the demigod.
“Someone wants to talk to you,” she told him.
“He’s afraid to be seen. Come to my house.”
She darted off and the two men followed her, entering her home to find Demicles waiting nervously.
“You have something to tell me?” Hercules greeted him, hoping that the kid had repented the error of his ways.
“I was there the night the centaur’s house burned,” Demicles confessed.
“What happened?” the demigod inquired.
“There were five of us. We were just gonna scare them, you know? Centaurs and fire?”
“Go on,” Hercules urged, already not liking the story.
“Things got out of hand,” the boy said quietly. “Lyla knocked the torch out of someone’s hand, and the straw caught. That’s when I ran for the woods.”
“Leaving a woman trapped in a burning house,” the demigod concluded in disgust.
“I was afraid,” Demicles whispered.
“Of your pals, or the fire?” Salmoneus barked, putting a comforting arm around Leuriphone, who was visibly upset by the tale.
“Both,” the boy replied, hanging his head in shame. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.”
“At least you found the courage to come forward,” Hercules sighed, willing to grant the young man that small concession.
“There’s one more thing,” Demicles admitted, swallowing hard as he looked the demigod in the eye. “We all scattered when the fire started. I was the first to run, and we all got split up. We regrouped at the tavern afterward, but...”
“But?” Hercules prompted him.
“Cletis and Merkus didn’t show up for a long time. I thought maybe something happened to them, but Jakar said they were taking care of a minor detail. He wouldn’t say what. But I overheard him and Sepsus talking earlier today. They didn’t know I was listening, and from what they were saying... Well, Lyla might not be dead.”
“What?” Leuriphone cried out. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” Demicles told her. “I’m not even sure they were talking about her. But they said that once they’d seen Deric hanged, they’d be free to devote themselves to the education of the centaur loving slut.”
“Could it be possible?” Leuriphone whimpered, almost afraid to hope. “Do you think Lyla could still be alive, Hercules?”
“I don’t know,” he answered slowly, although he had to wonder if perhaps that was the angle Iolaus was off pursuing . “If she is, we’ll find out. But first we need to deal with clearing Deric’s name. Now that he’s confessed, Jakar won’t waste any time in rallying for his execution. Demicles, where did they take Kefor?”
“I can show you,” the boy offered.
“No, just tell me,” the demigod instructed. “You need to talk to Deric.”
“To Deric,” Demicles said, a mix of confusion and fear in his voice. “Why?”
“I think you know.”
“If I tell him what I just told you, he’ll kill me,” the kid protested.
“He’s in no position to kill anyone,” Hercules reassured him.
“I don’t think I can face him,” Demicles sighed, turning away.
“How can you face yourself if you don’t?” the demigod asked gently.
“All right,” the boy reluctantly agreed, knowing he was right. “I’ll go talk to Deric.”
“Salmoneus can go with you,” Hercules told him. “But first, tell me where I can find Kefor.”
Hercules strode up to the building Demicles had indicated and knocked brazenly on the door.
“What do you want?!” came a gruff voice from inside. After a moment, a man stepped out.
“Excuse me,” the demigod began politely. “But aren’t you supposed to be guarding the little centaur?”
“Yeah?” the man grumbled suspiciously.
“Then, what’s he doing outside?” Hercules pointed matter of factly and the guard moved away from the door, going over to look around the corner. When he turned back, he met with a killer right and from that point on was guarding the inside of his eyelids. The demigod propped the limp body against the building, but when he turned he was confronted with the tip of a sword.
“Not so fast, foreigner.”
“You’re not gonna fall for a trick like that, are you?” he asked the second guard. The man attacked. slashing the air wildly with his sword. Hercules dodged him easily three times, until the man managed to jam his blade firmly into a wooden post. “Here, let me help,” the demigod offered, watching the man struggling to pull his steel free. Hercules got in position to yank the sword loose, but instead elbowed the guy hard in the jaw, sending him crashing into oblivion next to his friend. Satisfied, Hercules started for the door, but was shocked when a third man rushed out, armed with a spear. “Three guards for one little kid?!” he muttered incredulously.
The man attacked, and the demigod ducked, whacking him in the chest and doubling him over. Never one to miss an opportunity, Hercules grabbed the sword that was still embedded in the post. He pulled it back and let it fly, the blade bending and snapping back to smack the guard cleanly in the face, sending him soaring to join his buddies. The first two had recovered somewhat, and they foolishly decided to try a joint attack. Hercules felled them all with a single punch.
“Now, don’t go anywhere,” he advised wryly, even though none of them showed any indication of having the capacity to move. Ducking cautiously through the door, which for the moment seemed to have spilled it’s entire guard content, Hercules entered the gloomy building, calling out for the little centaur.
“I can’t do this,” Demicles protested as the salesman forcibly shoved him up to the door of the jail.
“To clear your conscience, you’re going to have to do this!” Salmoneus insisted.
“There’ll be no justice!”
The voice caught their attention, and they both turned to see a mob massing across the marketplace.
“Unless we take it in our own hands! We have to be the law!” Jakar shouted.
“Oh, I don’t like the look of that crowd,” the salesman muttered, knowing this wasn’t shaping up to be good.
“Uh, we better get some help,” Demicles suggested.
“All right, you get the Magistrate. I’ll get Hercules.”
“There may not be enough time,” the boy pointed out as the group started marching their direction amid rumblings of killing and stoning. Realizing it was going to have to be up to him to prevent another tragedy, Salmoneus tried to swallow his fear and planted himself in front of the door to the jail.
“Out of the way,” Jakar snarled.
“What do you people think you’re doing?” Salmoneus began, trying to sound like Hercules giving one of his shame-on-you speeches.
“Get out of our way, immigrant,” Sepsus ordered.
“I‘m getting really tired of hearing that word,” the salesman said tightly, bristling.
“Then step aside,” Jakar commanded. “We’ve come for the centaur. To give him a taste of his own justice.”
“Let’s just calm down, and talk.”
But the salesman was roughly shoved aside as the crowd advanced, flinging open the door and entering the jail. Jakar was in the lead, and he got to Deric first, brandishing a knife at his throat and whispering under his breath.
“Come quietly, or your son dies.” The Cretan turned to address the rest of the villagers. “Take him!”
The mob moved in, seizing the centaur roughly, looping a rope around his neck and dragging him from the cell.
“Wait!” Demicles cried out, stepping forward as he realized things had gotten horribly out of control. “He didn’t murder anyone! He killed only in self-defense!”
“Don’t listen to him!” Jakar urged. “Death by stone!”
“I was there the night of the fire!” Demicles continued, undaunted. “What happened at their house was no accident.”
“Who cares? We don’t want their kind here!” Jakar roared. The rest of the crowd agreed, murmurs lamenting the safety of both their jobs and their women. “The only good centaur is a dead centaur!”
“Hold it! Hold it! Hold it!” Salmoneus screamed, trying to halt the crowd. But he was again pushed aside as they hauled the centaur out of the jail and into the street.
“Get him out here where we can see him!” Jakar called gleefully.
“Death to the centaur!” someone else shouted.
“Stone him!” Jakar ordered, his beady eyes cold and hard. He bent, picking up a good size rock and throwing it as hard as he could at the centaur.
Deric closed his eyes and winced, but the impact never came. He opened his eyes to see the demigod holding the rock, having caught it scant inches from his head.
“Hercules!” he gasped in wonder. “My son?”
“He’s safe with Leuriphone,” the demigod assured him, tossing aside the man yanking on the rope around his friend’s neck Turning, he fixed his I’ve-Had-Enough stare on the crowd, preparing a Herculean lecture that Salmoneus could merely aspire to. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt the fun. The centaur’s crime is that he’s different from you and me. Well, then let him die. Only, let the man who throws the first rock be someone who’s not different.”
“You don’t live here!” a villager accused him.
“Someone who’s the same as everyone else,” Hercules added.
“Who are you to judge us?” a woman demanded.
“You,” the demigod continued, pointing out an average looking man. “No, wait, you have blue eyes. See, most here have brown.” He singled out another in the crowd. “You! No, you’re taller than most. No, this may be harder than I thought. Which of you is normal, and which is different?”
“Don’t listen to him! He’s trying to trick you!” Jakar warned.
“Maybe we should start with those who have tattoos, and we’ll stone you,” Hercules threatened ominously, giving the Cretan a glare that was colder than ice.
“You’re an outsider,” Jakar sneered.
“Yes, I am,” the demigod admitted. “But how many of you can say you’ve been here for two, or three, or even four generations?”
“I can,” Sepsus declared proudly.
“You seem to be in the minority,” Hercules said quietly, facing down the burly man. “Maybe we should start with you.”
“Don’t listen to him!” Jakar shrieked. “What are you waiting for? Get him! Kill him! Stone him!” No one moved, and he could see he was losing them. In a rage, he picked up another rock and launched it at the centaur. Deric hadn’t been ready, and the stone caught him squarely in the temple. He reeled backward, momentarily stunned. But that quickly turned to anger as he reached up and felt blood oozing from the wound. The centaur had clearly had enough, and Jakar saw something snap in his face. Wisely, the Cretan took off running, but Deric immediately galloped after him with a roar.
One of the other Cretans tried to follow, but Hercules swung out a leg and tripped him. He turned to block the swing of a second man, catching his arm and backhanding him hard. Deric caught Jakar easily and pulled no punches as he worked out his rage on the Cretan. The demigod blocked another man rushing him with a spear, disarming him and landing a brutal hit to the chest, sending him flying. He used the spear to whack two men coming at him from behind, then broke the weapon over his knee.
One of the Cretans that had attacked them on the road wormed his way out of the crowd and began approaching Hercules, but Salmoneus stepped up behind him, tapping him on the shoulder.
“Yeah,” the man sneered. “You’re that little immigrant.”
“Immigrant?” the salesman said indignantly. “You bigoted piece of... There’s a quail on your head.”
“Huh?” the Cretan asked in confusion.
Salmoneus sounded his quail call, and when the man glanced up, he snapped his head forward, bashing the Cretan soundly. He went down, but the salesman also staggered back in pain, hands clutching his temples, deciding he would leave all the fancy head butts to Hercules from that point on.
“How do people do that without getting headaches?” he moaned.
Salmoneus turned to see a Cretan sneaking up behind him, but fortunately there was a sneakier hunter behind him. Iolaus grabbed the man by the shoulder, spinning him around, then delivered a lethal head butt that sent the Cretan into oblivion.
“Practice makes perfect,” he advised cheerily, holding up his hand for a high five, with which his friend happily complied.
“It’s about time you showed up,” the salesman whined, although he sported a teasing grin.
“Sal, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Iolaus told him, slipping an arm around his shoulder.
“Just where did you immigrate from, anyway?”
The salesman shot his companion a dirty look, but the hunter just laughed and dashed off to go help Hercules.
A very large Cretan took his place, advancing on Salmoneus with a deadly gleam in his eye as he pulled out a knife. But a length of chain flashed through the air, wrapping around the blade and yanking it from his hand. He turned to find Demicles, and the boy rather skillfully pummeled his former friend into the ground, seeming to take great glee in doing so.
“You’re all right!” Salmoneus told him with a whistle of admiration.
Sepsus attacked Hercules, getting him down with a club to the stomach and the kidneys. But the demigod reacted quickly, reaching out and twisting the foot of the big man, sending him crashing to the ground. He leapt to his feet and kicked the Cretan’s club hand. The club went up in the air, and as Iolaus appeared by his friend’s side, he caught it and used it to repel the last Cretan standing. Hercules hauled Sepsus up from the ground and sent him flying through the stable wall to land face first in something that didn’t appear to be mud.
“Well, they say you are what you eat,” the demigod said with a shrug to his wincing partner. But both warriors were quickly distracted by the sound of Deric’s voice ringing out over the chaos.
“You’ll die for what you did to Lyla!”
Hercules turned to see the centaur hoisting Jakar up over his head, aiming for the deep well in the center of the marketplace.
“Deric!” he called out, trying to stop him. “Is revenge the only legacy you can pass on to Kefor? Is there no room in his life for compassion and forgiveness?!”
The centaur hesitated, unconvinced.
A collective gasp went up from the crowd as Lyla appeared. She ignored them, only concerned with her shocked husband.
“He’s not worth it,” she urged, slowly moving toward him. “You’re better than that.”
Deric heaved the man in his arms, tossing him down in the street.
“Filthy beast!” he hissed down at the prone figure, then he trotted over to his wife. “Lyla, how?”
“I didn’t die in the fire,” she explained, taking his hands. “I’m so sorry you were led to believe that I had. Cletis and Merkus kidnaped me. Iolaus figured it all out and brought me back here.”
“And you were supposed to wait at Leuriphone’s,” the hunter reminded her as he and the demigod approached. He’d been trying for stern, but he couldn’t keep the grin off his face.
“Thank you,” Deric whispered, tears in his eyes as he pulled his wife into his arms. “Thank both of you, for all that you’ve done.”
Demicles let the reunited couple have a few minutes, then he came forward, slowly, but with determination.
“I was a part of those responsible for the attack on your house,” he confessed. “I didn’t have a torch, and I never meant for anyone to be hurt. But I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
“Sorry won’t change what happened,” Deric told him.
“Neither will holding onto your hate,” Hercules said gently.
“He’s not on their side anymore. He fought against them,” Salmoneus informed the centaur.
Deric looked down at Lyla, and his heart filled with love at the realization that she was still with him. His friends were right. If he wanted the cycle of hate to end, he had to make a start.
“Apology accepted,” he stated, holding out his hand. “Friend.”
“Friend.” Demicles agreed with a smile of relief, taking the centaur’s hand in a warrior’s shake.
“So, you’ve decided to stay.”
“Yeah,” Deric told the demigod. “You were right.” He glanced over to where Iolaus was playing with his son. “Kefor is too young to be a fugitive. We can’t run forever. Besides,” he continued as his wife joined his side. “Lyla’s always loved this land.”
“I think it’s a wise choice,” Hercules agreed. “There are a lot of good people here, if you give them the chance to prove it.”
“We’ve already had several people offer to help us build a new home,” she reported. “Now that you and your friends have cleared out the Cretans, Hercules, I think the rest of the people will come around.”
“It won’t take them long,” Iolaus predicted warmly as he returned Kefor to his parents. Just as Hercules had said, the hunter quickly saw for himself that Lyla and Deric were good people. Any ill will he may have initially had over the Nespa situation was soon dispelled by the good natured centaur and his lovely wife.
“Where did Salmoneus disappear to?” Deric inquired as Kefor picked up one of the many new toys with which the salesman had gifted him.
“He got a message from his brother-in-law while he was hounding people with his self-actualization courses in the marketplace early this morning, trying to teach them how to hum,” Hercules explained with amusement. “The message asked for his help, so he headed off right away. He asked us to say goodbye for him.”
“Promise that you’ll come back once we have the new house built,” Lyla said in invitation. “Both of you.”
“We’d be honored,” Hercules replied.
A round of farewells was said, and the two warriors left the happy family and took up the open road once more.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” the demigod sighed, glad that what had seemed like a horrible tragedy when they’d first arrived had ended so well.
“Yeah,” Iolaus murmured, his mind on other things. “Hey, Herc, let me ask you something. What do you think the attraction is? You know, woman and centaur.”
“They don’t have much choice,” Hercules told him. “There aren’t any female centaurs.”
“I know that,” the hunter exclaimed, a touch exasperated. “But what draws a beautiful mortal woman to a centaur? And how does that... you know, work?”
Iolaus frowned, using hand gestures to try and mime the physics of such a union.
“I guess there’s no accounting for love,” the demigod said, hoping that his partner would be satisfied and drop the subject. But he should have known better.
“Yeah, but how does the positioning work?” the hunter pressed. “Do you think that the centaur maybe gets down and ...”
“Iolaus,” Hercules interrupted quickly, holding up his hand before the words ‘hung like a’ could come out of his friend’s mouth. “This is one you’re just going to have to chalk up to the mystery and ingenuity of nature.”
“All right, all right,” the hunter conceded with a laugh. “But Salmoneus was right. You do need more fun in your life.”
“Come on,” the demigod told him. “Let’s get moving.” He looked over at his partner, grinning slightly. “If you’re done horsing around, that is.”
“Ooh,” Iolaus grimaced, clutching his chest dramatically. As his theatrics were ignored, he trotted to catch up with his friend. “Didn’t know you had it in you, Herc. Are you ok? I know that probably took a lot out of you.”
“I’ll be fine,” Hercules said dryly. “But that meets my quota of fun for the day, so don’t expect any hand slapping for awhile.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes until Iolaus spoke up again, unable to let the matter rest.
“How does a mortal woman give birth to a centaur? I mean, that’s got to be a pretty big package, wouldn’t you think?” Again, he went to hand gestures to try and work out the logistics. “It just doesn’t seem possible. And can you imagine the midwife attending? That has to be a surprise, huh? Or maybe they don’t use a midwife. Maybe they get a foaler...” Iolaus trailed off, looking over at his partner in confusion. “Hey, Herc? Why are you humming?”
No centaurs were harmed during the production of this written document.
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