Second Chances I: When Love Takes A Holiday Nobody Wins

by Arianna

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Robert Bielak (Mercenary), Gene O'Neill and Noreen Tobin (Love Takes A Holiday)

A’ two-parter’ that includes the events of Mercenary and Love Takes a Holiday

Dusk had fallen an hour before, but a thin wedge of rosy light still bathed the rims of the mountains to the southwest. Taking positions on either side of the heavily forested path, they crouched in the shadows, waiting for the man they’d agreed to capture - a conscienceless assassin who killed with cold precision. Following a lead from the Spartans who’d asked their help in bringing him to justice, they had come the day before to the nearby seaside village where the assassin was known to take refuge. Asking around casually, pretending to be friends of their quarry, they’d quickly learned that Derk Petronicus had a cottage outside the village. Then that afternoon, seeming to be simply lounging at one of the outdoor tables of a dockside tavern, they had spotted Derk coming off a ship just as the light had begun to wane. They’d watched him briefly, a solid, rugged man in a leather jerkin and pants, the faded scars of old battles on his arms and over his brow but, oddly, he was not heavily armed. His hair was cropped very short, and he looked strong but tired - like a careworn soldier home from the wars, relieved and even relaxed to be back safe and sound. He carried a simple pack over his shoulder as he strode down the gangplank, and men working on the docks called out in welcome as if he were a friend, someone they knew and respected - even liked. The heroes had exchanged wry looks, thinking the folks hereabouts obviously could not know a killer lurked under the apparently benign exterior. It wasn’t unusual for men to play such disparate parts in life - ruthless murderer and peaceful neighbour - for even the worst of men needed a safe place to call home.

Briefly, they’d considered trying to take him in the village, but decided it could be too dangerous to innocent bystanders, for both heroes knew Derk would not surrender quietly, or be overcome easily. So, while he ambled home, weary from his long journey, they’d run ahead to take up position to ambush him. Neither liked the idea of skulking around in the shadows but they hoped that, by taking him by surprise, they might avoid undue violence and be able to subdue him quickly. Earlier in the day, they’d spotted a prison ship entering the harbour, and hoped to catch it before it set sail again, to escort Derk back to face the Spartan court.

It wasn’t long before they heard footfalls, muted by the thick layer of moldering leaves over the path, and each tensed, readying for the attack. Hercules shook his head silently, looking unhappy, and Iolaus grimaced, and then blew out a silent sigh. They felt more like footpads, robbers waiting to attack a helpless passerby, than warriors on the side of justice. But there was little time for such wry thought or vague regret, for Derk had reached their position, and they rushed out to nab him.

A slight rustle of grass, the slide of a pebble under a boot - there could have been no other warning, but the assassin reacted instantly, leaping into a high flip through the air to land several feet down the path, facing them in a crouch, a wicked knife appearing as if by magic in his hand. He scowled at them as they skidded to face him, then rasped, “Trust me - I’m not worth dying to rob. There are easier victims for the likes of you.”

Straightening, not thrilled with being taken for a common thief, Hercules called back, “Derk Petronius, I’m Hercules, and we’ve been sent by the Magistrate of Sparta to bring you back for trial - for the murder of Lycus. We can do this the hard way or the easy way - it’s up to you.”

Derk’s eyes narrowed as he studied them, and then he shook his head. “I won’t go willingly,” he grated.

“The hard way, then,” Iolaus observed mildly with an ironic glance of feigned weariness at his friend. “Why does it always have to be the hard way?”

Shrugging, Hercules reached for a branch hanging overhead and snapped it free, wielding it like a club. They strode the first few steps together, a measured, unhurried pace toward the wary criminal; and then they suddenly charged in unison, Iolaus going low to tackle Derk, Hercules swinging high, to catch him if he tried to leap out of the way. Derk rolled sideways, swinging his pack hard to clip Iolaus across the temple, even as he tumbled under the heavy sweep of the demigod’s club. Stunned by the sharp blow, the blond warrior dropped, only barely conscious; Hercules wheeled to follow the assassin, lifting his club barely in time to stop the knife flung at him with deadly precision, the blade burying itself to the hilt in the length of wood the demigod held in front of his body. Grimacing, the Son of Zeus tossed the improvised club aside and leapt to tackle Derk, even as the man bent to grab up a long branch to use as a staff.

Again, Derk avoided the big man’s hands, rolling away and scrambling back onto his feet, poised for battle - and appearing as cool and confident as if he were taking a simple stroll in the woods. Iolaus pushed himself back up onto his feet, shaking his head and squinting as he regarded their foe.

“Packs quite a punch,” he muttered as he circled around, putting Derk between them.

“Back off, Hercules,” the assassin called quietly, his voice low and controlled but challenging. “I have no grievance with you and your friend. Leave before someone gets hurt.”

“I can’t do that,” Hercules replied soberly. “I gave my word that I’d bring you back to Sparta.”

Once again the heroes converged on the assassin while he waited, his head cocked, listening to Iolaus’ approach, however nearly silent it was, while he watched the demigod. Suddenly, he exploded into motion, swinging his lance wide as he whirled, catching Iolaus so hard that the smaller man was smashed back and high, to crash into a tree. The lance came around and lifted toward the demigod’s head, as the man twirled, a blur of motion, but Hercules caught the staff with one strong hand, stopping it cold and then he jerked it forward, leaving Derk momentarily off-balance, his own arms quivering from the shock of the sudden block of the heavy branch.

“I’m tired of dancing around,” Hercules growled as he yanked Derk toward him, and slugged the man, a swift uppercut that sent the murderer flying backwards to land hard on the ground, the breath driven from his body. Charging after him, as swift as he was, the demigod had barely laid hands on the man before Derk recovered, bringing his head up to smash under Hercules’ jaw. And then they grappled, both men grunting as they traded heavy blows. Derk twisted, lashing out with one leg, knocking Hercules from his feet, and then he dropped onto the demigod, his hands around the demigod’s throat, squeezing hard.

Hercules clawed at his attacker’s hands, trying to pry the fingers apart, while Iolaus leapt upon the man’s back, one arm around Derk’s throat in a suffocating headlock. The desperate assassin heaved his back, trying to shake Iolaus off while still attempting to choke the demigod into unconsciousness.

“I can’t hold him!” Iolaus yelled. “Do something!”

Giving up on breaking the grip of the fists around his neck, Hercules brought his fists up and around, smashing into Derk’s head - and the man finally crumpled to the ground, unconscious.

Panting, Iolaus pulled the limp body off Hercules and gave his gasping friend a hand up to his feet. “Definitely the hard way,” the smaller man groused as he rubbed the side of his head, wincing at the lumps that were already beginning to swell from the blows he’d taken. Looking from Derk to Hercules, he watched his friend massage his sore throat as he asked, more than half-seriously, “He a long lost relative of yours? ‘Cause I gotta tell ya, Herc, this guy is a LOT stronger than the average bad guy.”

“I noticed,” Hercules agreed grimly. Shrugging, he turned away to pull sinuous and sturdy vines from the trees as he muttered with disgust, “Who knows? Maybe Zeus and his great-great grandmother had a fling.”

Iolaus rolled his eyes, but bent to roll Derk over and pull his wrists together so that Hercules could bind them, and then they bound his ankles. Smoothly, Hercules hefted the unconscious man upward, to carry him over one shoulder as they turned to head back to the port; Iolaus limped a little behind and kept a wary watch on their prisoner in case he woke up before they had him well and truly secured.

Derk was strong, but the chains on the prison ship were stronger.

It was full dark by the time they reached the village, both men glad of it so they wouldn’t have to face any argument from people who evidently thought Derk a friend. Torches flared in their iron brackets, spaced distantly on poles along the dock, splashing light into the oppressive darkness of a starless night. The air was heavy with humidity, redolent of salt and fish, and water lapped softly under the pier as their boots thumped heavily on the wood.

Iolaus hailed the guard patrolling the deck of the ship, Enyalios, “Hey, we’ve got a prisoner to bring aboard.”

The heavy-set, ugly mercenary waved them up the gangplank as he called forward to alert the Captain. “Take him below,” he directed, his manner bored, even callous, not interested in the details. What was one more sack of human scum? There were dozens just like the one hanging over the big man’s shoulder already chained in the hold.

Grimly, Hercules and Iolaus carried Derk down the steep wooden flight of steps, having to work together to get the limp man down the narrow ladder. Another guard looked up at their appearance, and prisoners called out with sharp derision, cursing and grumbling in the fetid darkness. They followed the surly watchman into the bowels of the hold, to a wooden pillar in the middle that must be the base of the mast that rose high above the deck over their heads. Hercules, once again carrying Derk over his shoulder, having to crouch a little in the close quarters, sunk to his knee to lay their prisoner on the damp planks, and the guard clamped iron manacles, linked to a chain securely attached to the pole with iron bolts, around Derk’s wrists, while Iolaus cut off the bindings around the unconscious man’s ankles.

They had just risen again to their feet when the Captain of the vessel appeared, a shabby clerk behind him carrying a wax tablet and a small pick, to scratch in the information he needed to update their ‘inventory’ of human cargo. “Who’s this?” the stocky, swarthy Captain demanded sharply. “And who are you?”

Hercules gazed mildly at the aggressive man, ignoring the arbitrary and harsh tone. “This is Derk Petronius, wanted in Sparta for murder. I’m Hercules and this is my partner, Iolaus - we were asked by Sparta’s Magistrate to bring him back for trial.”

“Ah, yes, we’d received a message to watch for you, Hercules,” the man replied with a nod, placated. “But only for you.” Turning to Iolaus, he said gruffly, “Your passage will cost twenty dinars.”

“What?” Iolaus exclaimed, offended and astonished by the outrageous sum. Sparta was no more than a day and a half sail away, around the mountainous headland at the base of the Pelopponese. Sure, going by boat was more convenient and quicker than the five-day climb into and over the craggy mountains; but, even so, the fare was ludicrous, especially for such noisome and filthy accommodations in the hold, along with the prisoners.

Shrugging, unconcerned about the small man’s umbrage, the Captain retorted, “Sparta will pay Hercules’ passage, and that of his prisoner, but I’ve been told nothing about you. Twenty dinars, or get off my ship.”

“Now wait just a minute,” Iolaus growled, ready to argue, but Hercules lifted a hand for peace.

Sighing, the demigod turned to his friend. “It’s alright; no reason for both of us having to make this passage - the accommodations aren’t exactly comfortable. I can manage Derk. And, if I recall, you have a ‘friend’ not too far away, in the village up in the mountains. Right?”

“Well, yeah, but that’s not the point,” the blond grumbled with a sidelong hostile glare toward the Captain.

“I know, but we don’t have twenty dinars, and there’s no point in fighting over this,” the demigod cajoled. “Look - go have some fun. I’ll meet you in a week, maybe a little more. Shouldn’t take any longer to get to Sparta and catch another ship back.”

Iolaus grimaced but then sighed, the tension leaving his shoulders. “If you’re sure…”

Hercules smiled as he gripped his friend’s shoulder. “I’m sure. No reason for us both to suffer this voyage. Go on. Have a good time.”

Grudgingly, Iolaus looked at the chains that held Derk secure and nodded. “Okay, but you be careful. Don’t take chances with him - his strength and skills aren’t natural.”

“I’ll be fine,” the demigod chuckled warmly. “C’mon, I’ll walk you back up to the dock.”

With nary another look at the officious Captain and his toady, the two friends sauntered out of the hold and back up into the fresher air of the night, deciding where they’d meet in the next week or so before Iolaus lightly skipped down the gangplank. Hercules stood on the deck, his arms crossed loosely as he watched Iolaus amble along the dock, smiling indulgently and waving back when Iolaus turned to lift his hand in a salute before he faded into the shadows of the night. And then the demigod sighed and once again rubbed absentmindedly at his still sore throat. Taking a deep breath of clean air, he resolutely turned and headed back down into the dark, dingy and foul-smelling hold.

Iolaus hadn’t willingly left his partner to escort Derk to Sparta, but truthfully he didn’t really mind not having to stand watch over the prisoner in that hell-hole; Hercules was right - they weren’t both needed to escort a bound man, however dangerous he was, to court. Still, it grated, to always seem to be the invisible one, dispensable, the one no one noticed or valued. Chewing on his lip, he told himself to let it go. After all these years of being in his best friend’s shadow, he should be used to it, not still aggravated by being deemed inconsequential or outright overlooked. What did it matter what other people thought, anyway? Herc trusted him, valued him. That’s what counted, that and the fact that he knew without anyone having to tell him that he made a difference for the good. Yeah…that’s all that really mattered. His step lightened as he strode up through the town, and then out into the countryside. A smile began to play around his lips as he contemplated the next few days, and renewing his acquaintance with the luscious and very friendly Evanthea.

He was whistling as he slipped into the cool shadows of the forest. It was still early and he could travel for several hours before having to make a camp for the night. Grinning to himself, he figured he would reach the small hill town by noon the next day, and would be enjoying a warm welcome as well as far more comfortable accommodation shortly thereafter.

Derk jerked into consciousness, softly cursing his fierce headache and then stilling warily as he realized where he was and that his wrists were manacled in heavy iron cuffs. Jerking vainly at the chains that held him bound, he shook his head and then sighed, his expression flatly resigned, before lifting his gaze to meet the steady blue eyes of his captor.

“So - you’re taking me to my execution,” he rasped bitterly to the demigod who sat on the deck near him, leaning against the thick pillar of wood to which he was chained.

“I’m taking you to be tried for your crime,” the demigod retorted. “You’ll have a chance to tell your side of the story.”

Smiling with no trace of humour, contempt in his eyes, Derk shifted into a more comfortable position on the rough planks and muttered, “You’re a fool if you believe that, Hercules.”

The Son of Zeus snorted as he leaned his head back against the post and closed his eyes, already wishing the voyage was over before it had even begun.

“It’s blood money that you’ll be collecting,” the assassin said softly as he closed his own eyes, seeking the respite of sleep. “You’re no better than I am. A mercenary who lends his arm and strength for gold.”

Hercules shook his head. “You’re wrong,” he murmured back. “It’s justice I seek, not gold or glory.”

“Like I said,” Derk grated. “You’re a fool.”

“Shut up!” a voice called from the stinking darkness, stridently whining.

Both strong men sighed and shrugged, and then slipped into uneasy sleep.

Dawn came and went, gray and foreboding. Three hours later, the Enyalios weighed anchor, unfurled her broad sails and let the gusting wind take her out onto the increasingly turbulent sea.

Iolaus shivered in the cold water of the clear rushing stream as he quickly washed the residue of the soaproot from his body. Hurriedly scampering back onto the bank, he used his vest to dry off quickly and then got dressed before carefully shaving with the razor-sharp blade of his hunting knife. His morning ablutions complete, humming happily under his breath, he stowed his gear into his pack, made sure the embers of his small fire were well and truly dead, and then set off whistling in happy anticipation of the hours to come. The sun was warm, but the light wind cooled him even as it scudded clouds across the azure sky. Stopping briefly in the lush meadow not far from the edge of town, he picked a small bouquet of wildflowers and then, with a bright smile, he set off to find the lovely Evanthea.

Virile young men, musculature bronzed by the sun and long hair loose around their shoulders, wafted large fans to stir the fragrant air in the goddess’s very private sanctuary. Torches flickering in ornate wall brackets cast a soft light over the opulent salon, burnishing the silk tapestries and carpets. Urns overflowing with richly scented flowers in shades of pink, rose and purple, and flasks of rare body oils and lotions were scattered decoratively around the room, on the floor and on intricately carved tables and shelves. In the centre of the chamber, beside a luxuriously padded narrow table, a third male slave, the most beautiful of them all, focused all his attention upon the goddess under his hands as he massaged her flawless back and shoulders.

The Goddess of Love was propped on her elbows, a scroll in her hands and a disgruntled expression on her face as she read with a tone of tedium, “…and my husband spends too much time in the tavern and not enough in our bedroom. Please help. Also, he snores. Signed, Sleepless in Cyprus’. Ugh! Another lame request. Can’t these people get a life?” Momentarily distracted from the wearisome petition by the strong fingers working on the tense muscles along her spine, she lowered her head and purred, “Uh…mmm. Oh, that’s good - totally good. Make me forget this stuff.”

His voice pitched to be soothing, the slave observed with admiration and respect, “Aphrodite, I don’t see the point of rubbing oil on your skin.”

“Oh, it’s just this new process I’ve hit on. It gives me this killer bronze glow,” she explained with some of her more usual enthusiasm and vibrancy.

Looking unconvinced that anything could improve on what was already perfection, the masseur turned away briefly to gather up more scrolls that had been sent from temples scattered all over Greece. There was never any shortage of mortals seeking his goddess’s divine favours. Handing them to her, he said deferentially, “Here are more petitions from your shrines.”

Her face fell as she took them with a long-suffering sigh. Once again propping herself up on her elbows, she unfurled one and read with sarcastic humour, “Uh, ‘Dear goddess, single Athenian female seeks single Spartan male for fun and games. Please send recent sketch’, yadda, yadda, yadda.” Tossing the scrolls to the floor, she stood abruptly, the woven sheet of stiff reeds barely covering her nakedness. Shaking her head, an unusual expression of grim resolution settling over her petal-fresh and stunningly beautiful face, she exclaimed, “I’m just over this Goddess of Love’ gig! Gag me.”

Puzzled by her words, though used to her moods when she felt overwhelmed by the demands placed upon her and thinking it was time to give her a break from the paperwork, the slave asked soberly, “You’ve had enough?”

“Absolutely! I am like…extremely versatile. No more hiding my talents. They’re going to be out there for the world to see,” she replied firmly, nodding with sharp determination, referring to her role and not simply the paperwork.

Sensing an unusual depth of profound dissatisfaction in her manner, feeling her frustration and tension as if it were his own, the obliging slave murmured huskily, “An hour of passion may soothe you.”

Throwing up her hands, unconcerned and totally uncaring when the thin coverlet slipped the floor, Aphrodite declaimed with fervour and unusual cruelty, “Boring! You bore me! These,” she went on, waving a delicate hand at her possessions and treasures, “bore me. Love bores me. I quit!”

The slaves looked nonplussed and uncertain as to what to do to soothe her - but she had already stomped off to reveal her other talents to the world of mortals.

The Enyalios pitched and rolled heavily on the roughening sea, her wooden hull and masts creaking alarmingly under the strain, the sails stretched taut in the wildly blowing storm that had overtaken them barely two hours after leaving the small port. Below deck, in the stinking bowels of the ship, men chained to the wooden frame of the labouring vessel were wide-eyed with fear for their lives. Voices dry and raspy with growing alarm, some already crying out in terror, called out in piteous demand, “Don’t leave us down here!” “We’ll drown like rats!”

But the sullen guards, preoccupied with weighing out their own chances of surviving the voyage simply snarled back, “Shut up, or I’ll toss you overboard! You stay chained!”

Yanking on the metal links that held him bound to the base of the main mast, a scowl not quite hiding his own disquiet, Derk growled, “We’re never gonna make it to Sparta!”

“We’ll make it,” Hercules retorted with feigned confidence, sincerely hoping his belief in the ship’s seaworthiness would be prophetic. Cutting a hard look at his prisoner, he added for good measure, “You murdered a man. You will stand trial for that.”

Snorting derisively, the mercenary spat back, “You are a fool! The seas are filled with pirates. If the storm doesn’t kill us, they will.

Bracing his back against the pillar of wood as the ship rolled violently, an expression of grim resolution on his face though he, too, was concerned about the sturdiness of the vessel, the demigod simply muttered, “We’ll see.”

The volcano, a majestic snow-capped mountain spewed tendrils of black smoke into the clear blue sky. Beneath its mantle of thick, green forest and rugged stone, ancient lava tunnels formed corridors warmed by the nearness of molten rock and, in the centre of the mountain’s belly, the God of the Forge hammered with weary discipline, finishing up the final headpiece of the squad of armoured warriors commissioned by Ares. Hephaestus had learned a great deal about creating metal beings since he’d built his first, years ago - a mechanical woman he’d hoped would somehow lessen his loneliness. But, her creation had been a mistake and he’d never again given his creations the appearance of humanity; they were ambulatory weapons and tools of battle, nothing more. After securing the headpiece to the sturdy body of armour, he made a small gesture and the thing marched with a metallic clanking to stand with its brothers near one wall. Indifferently, with an air of abject sadness, the god limped back to his anvil and, picking up his next project and a hammer, turned his attention to a shield he was fashioning for Perseus. But, after a moment, he paused and, hammer in hand, he bowed his head and sighed.

Behind him, his most trusted servant, Iagos, entered the cavernous chamber and shook his head as he studied his master, curling his lip at the hideous scars that marred the left side of the god’s face and throat, and left him lame on that side. Schooling his expression to one of subservient compliance, he moved closer as he cleared his throat and asked with humble and wholly feigned concern, “Something troubles you, noble Hephaestus?”

The God of the Forge stiffened and then looked over his shoulder at his minion, but didn’t truly see Iagos in his too familiar and inappropriate wool robe, his fleshy face flushed by the heat. Looking past the mortal toward an object shrouded by a silky, deep blue cloth, he murmured, “Only that which I can never have.” Disconsolately, he clanged down his great hammer, a finishing touch upon the bronze feline he’d created. The mechanical monster was a thing of sinuous beauty and raw danger as it stretched and lifted its head for its maker’s caress before bounding away to its station at the entrance to the caverns.

Wary of the unnatural animal but hiding his disquiet, assuming a hearty tone of encouragement, Iagos countered, “But you must press on, great god of fire. None of the other gods has your skill and artistry.”

“No!” Hephaestus protested with all the pain that filled his heart. Press on? Pushing past the obsequious servant, he limped to the most beautiful thing he’d ever created, fashioning it tenderly with all the love in his soul. Pulling off the cloth that hid his masterpiece, he gazed longingly at his one real treasure - a stunning golden bust of Aphrodite, the curling tresses as wild and abundant as the silken tendrils of her hair, the face exquisitely beautiful - perfection in every way, from the noble brow and wide, thickly lashed eyes, and straight, pert nose, to the voluptuous lips, charming chin and elegant jaw above the delicate throat and gently rounded shoulders. His love, his only love for all the centuries of his life; his secret love - for how could he, the ugliest god to walk the earth, ever dare to speak of his passion or need, his desire to cherish her for all eternity?

Only one other knew of his obsession, the knowledge passed from father to son. The father had been a truly devoted servant, not this poor obsequious substitute, but even a god has to have a confidente, some one soul to trust with the depth of his devastating, hopeless loneliness. “Iagos,” he sighed poignantly as he gazed at the beloved face, “how do I conquer my obsession for her?”

But he might have spoken to the stone of the mountain itself for all the sympathy, let alone empathy, he received in return for his absolute trust. Eying the abandoned, nearly finished shield avariciously, Iagos replied with gruff encouragement, “With work, Master.” But, when Hephaestus turned to look at him, his gaze shadowed with weary pain, the servant amended hastily, his tone softer and wheedling, “I mean…only you can make the armour for the other gods.”

Closing his eyes in longing to be understood, bowing his head as if exhausted, the god replied achingly, “There’s a great emptiness inside me.”

Taking on the air of a wise councillor, Iagos shook his head as he lifted his hands in an appeal to be heard and heeded. “That’s because you seek the unobtainable. Set your sights more realistically,” he continued, his tones becoming more thoughtful and encouraging, “perhaps on the beautiful Leandra. My father told me you once proposed to her.”

Bitterly, Hephaestus turned away and his voice was tight with remembered humiliation as he replied, “Yes, and even she - a mortal - rejected me.”

“Hmm,” Iagos murmured, truly tired of the morose manner of a master he did not love but served only selfishly, with hope of some great reward if he served well enough. A speculative gleam lit in his eyes as he wondered if this might be the golden opportunity he’d anticipated for so many long years - his chance to obtain freedom and wealth. “Well, maybe she’s, uh, changed her mind,” he offered tentatively, almost holding his breath until he could see how the god would react to the bait. “After all, it’s been fifty years.”

Hephaestus looked up with a startled frown. The span of mortal years meant little to him and he’d forgotten how long it had been. Guilt flaring in his eyes, he exclaimed softly, “So much time has gone by. I must remedy that.”

But Iagos’ thoughts were not on the time that had passed, or even upon the god’s air of sorrowfulness - he was too preoccupied with his potential source of power and wealth. “This shield you’re crafting for Perseus,” he asked with seeming innocence, “is it as powerful as it is beautiful?”

“It will be when it’s finished,” Hephaestus affirmed distantly, his mind on other, more pressing matters. “Iagos,” he carried on, his voice strong and firm as he reached his decision “I’ll lift the curse on the village of Cyllabos today…but I won’t force myself on Leandra.”

Recalled to his lord’s preoccupations, Iagos jerked his hungry gaze from the shield, once again the effusive if humble servant who only longed for his Master’s happiness. “Ah, nor should you have to. Uh, let me talk to the girl…find out how she really feels.” As if that mattered - she was his meal ticket and she’d damned well agree to a match with Hephaestus and be glad of it or pay the penalty.

Hephaestus bowed his head as he thought about it. Swallowing, he finally nodded and straightened his shoulders as he lifted his gaze back to Iagos. She wasn’t Aphrodite, but she was a lovely woman, and kind. He could learn to love her, perhaps - and, at least, he wouldn’t be so alone if she could love him in return. With a measure of desolate, desperate hope in his voice and lighting his eyes, he vowed, “If you can convince her to come to me lovingly, and freely, I’ll give you anything I have.”

“Ah, not necessary,” Iagos demurred, waving a hand negligently at the offer and then gripping his lord’s shoulder briefly in a gesture meant to convey compassion and selflessness. His voice rich with warmth, he assured the wretched, lonely god, “I live only to serve you.”

Hephaestus watched him hustle away, and then he turned to gaze once more upon the features of the only woman he would ever truly love. Wordlessly, tears in his eyes, he tenderly draped the blue cloth back over the sculpture, hiding it from view. Forcing back the lump in his throat, his face a mask of despair, he finally turned away to resume work on the shield of invisibility for Perseus.

Men bellowed in anger that thinly veiled their fear, demanding to be set loose, or howled and keened in terror too sharp to be denied; rats chittered and squealed as they vainly sought escape from the heaving, twisting vessel. The very wood of the hull groaned under the relentless assault of the furious sea and the vicious, shrieking wind. The ship shuddered as it was pummelled and tossed like a child’s toy by the powerful tempest, and the beleaguered boat began to break up, water first leaking, then rushing through gaps in the planks. But for two or three dim oil lamps that somehow remained alight despite the violent pitching of the craft, the prison hold was dark with shadows and chaotic with the hopeless screams and beseeching of prisoners to be set free, to take their chances on the sea rather than be dragged to their death when the ship finally gave up her struggle and sank. Cold seawater sloshed around the men’s ankles and then their knees as they fought for some grip and balance, and when the lurch and pitch of the ship cost them their footing, they strove to keep their faces above the water line, desperate not to drown like rats in a barrel.

As bad as it seemed, the demigod still clung to some slight hope that the ship would not flounder, but the grim set of his shoulders and gritted teeth revealed that the hope was dying. The vessel lurched violently, sending him rolling hard into the wooden hull. “So much for pirates,” he muttered hoarsely as he staggered back across the heaving deck to brace against the thick base of the mast, wishing the danger they faced were as simple and straightforward as thieves and murderers. He could pit his strength against other men, his skill against their cunning and greed, but he was as helpless as any of the others in the face of Poseidon’s unbridled wrath.

“Hercules! Unchain me!” Derk cried out urgently as he attacked his chains in a furious frenzy, even while realizing he had no hope of freeing himself. “We’re going to capsize!”

“Just hold on!” the demigod counselled, his eyes narrowing as he weighed the rights and wrongs of freeing a murderer or of condemning an as-yet untried man to die. Surely the boat would not flounder but manage to stay afloat, despite the turbulence of the sea. But the ship rolled and twisted, pitching violently, surprising a cry from Hercules as he fought for his balance, “Whoa!”

“If the boat sinks,” the mercenary growled harshly, desperation in his voice as he tried to hide the icy fear that gripped his bowels and crushed his chest, “I’m gonna go down with it!”

“We’ll all go down!” Hercules replied tightly, wondering if he was about to find out if he was indeed mortal.

“You won’t!” Derk argued angrily as he shook his chains helplessly. “You’re not chained to it! Cut me loose!

“We’re going down!” one of the guards yelled sharply, as he lurched in panic toward the ladder and fought the waves of water pouring down from the swamped deck above. “Every man for himself!”

Wordlessly, the plea of one human being to another in his eyes, Derk held his chained wrists toward Hercules. If the demigod did not free him now, he would die. He might die anyway but, gods, he wanted a fighting chance to survive.

Hercules cast one last look around the crumpling hold and, even as the ship lurched heavily onto her side and men were tossed screaming in fear of impending death, he lunged forward and grabbed the chains that bound Derk to the mast. His muscles bunching with the effort, a low growl of strain in his throat, the demigod yanked, pulled and finally snapped the loops of metal, freeing the mercenary to the mercies of the sea.

The ship continued to roll, the planks of her hull tearing and ripping asunder as she was finally and fully breached by the surging sea. The Enyalios groaned mightily and shrieked as she came apart, and then she was sinking fast…

The bouquet of wildflowers held loosely in his hand, Iolaus ambled into the busy village, singing softly beneath his breath and smiling in anticipation as he made his way down the narrow crowded lane. Ah, it would be good to see Evanthea again, and to hold her soft body in his firm embrace, to hear her laughter and revel in the sparkle of her eyes. Distracted by his thoughts, he only noticed that the settlement seemed vigorous with people darting here and there, calling to one another but, just off to the side as he passed, in a small cul-de-sac before a shop’s door, a man cried out compellingly, “I want you! I love you!”

But the woman spurned his amorous advances, sneering cruelly as she grated, “Your love isn’t strong enough!”

Taken aback by her chilling response, the man protested, “Mine?” For, surely, it was her love that was lacking and not his own passion that was insufficient. He reached out to draw her into his arms, confused by her resistance, for they had had a loving marriage for the last fifteen years - until just moments before.

But she lashed out at him, pushing him violently away, as she shouted, “No!”

He couldn’t believe her ire and sought to reassure her of his love but, with impatient hostility, she grabbed up an amphora of wine and smashed over his head. Staggering backward, his hands cradling his aching head, he moaned in pain and dismay.

Blinking at her vehemence and aggressive rejection, sidestepping to avoid the stumbling stranger, Iolaus quirked a brow and murmured with some commiseration for the poor fellow, “Huh, must have been a bad year.”

But he’d hardly taken two more steps before he heard a man singing to his woman, “My true lover - ”

The crooning words were rudely and sharply interrupted when the good lady snapped, “Shut up!” And she yanked his sitar out of his hands to beat him about the head with it, driving him off before casting the light thing of catgut and wood aside.

“Chrysala! Why did you do that?” he exclaimed in shock as he dodged out of her reach, nearly bowling into the ambling hunter.

“Maybe she’s no longer fond of your…instrument,” Iolaus suggested wryly, but he frowned as he began to take in the strident voices and snarling tones of the women around him, and the confused, imploring expressions of the men who were being summarily rejected to the left and right all along the street.

Another woman’s voice rose above the clamour of the laneway, harsh and abrasive, nasty in tone and brutal, “I’m tired of you and your rags. Get out of my way!” Roughly, she pushed at the poor fellow in front of her, sending him tumbling down a short flight of steps to sprawl awkwardly in the dust of the road.

Iolaus gaped in surprise. He knew this man and could not believe such a gentle soul would warrant so abusive a dismissal. “Mykonos! My friend! Come on,” he called out encouragingly, as he bent to help the confused man to his feet.

“Good to see you, Iolaus,” Mykonos said with some surprise but no less warm sincerity as he brushed off his clothing and rubbed his aching arm, for it was good to see a friendly face in the midst of the acrimony that had suddenly come over what seemed to be the whole village.

“Yeah,” Iolaus nodded in acknowledgement as he looked around, his frown deepening as he took in more and more of the contentious behaviours and the wanton hostility of all the women he could see. “Uh, what’s going on?” he asked, as he turned his troubled gaze back to his old acquaintance.

“I have no idea,” the other man exclaimed, shaking his head as he looked around, wincing at the strident abuse being levelled at his friends by the women who purported to love them. “The women are all behaving strangely.” Shrugging with a quizzical expression, as if to say there is no understanding women, he sighed, and then asked, “Where’s Hercules?”

“Uh, he’s escorting a prisoner to Sparta for trial,” Iolaus reported. “So it’s ‘R and R’ for me,” he went on with forced cheerfulness, still somewhat disgruntled about having been excluded from the voyage. But, his expression cleared, his eyes lighting again with expectation and the hope of a pleasant sojourn in the village as he looked around and asked, “Have you seen Evanthea?”

Mykonos turned and pointed toward a shop at the far end of the street. “She’s over there but,” he continued, as he turned back to warn the warrior, “uh, be careful.”

“Careful?” Iolaus countered, his face lighting with a broad grin as he shook his head. “A week with Evanthea is like a walk in the clouds.”

But Mykonos was not about to have his warning dismissed so lightly. “If she’s acting like all the others, you may find yourself in a thunderstorm.”

Snorting softly, memories of his last visit with the lovely lady fresh and tantalizing, Iolaus simply smiled and walked on, eager to renew her acquaintance, unaware and uncaring that Mykonos was following in his wake, curious and not a little concerned. “Evanthea,” the warrior called out as he got closer, and reached to touch her arm, to turn her to face him.

The tall, elegantly curved woman with flowing red curls looked around at his call, her eyes widening as she recognized him. “Iolaus,” she said with some surprise.

“Hi,” he grinned exuberantly, moving forward to enfold her in a warm hug.

But she evaded his grasp as she pulled her arm back and then putting her whole body into the punch, she belted him across the side of his head, sending him crashing to the ground, stunned more than hurt, and slightly breathless at the sudden shock of the unexpected attack.

“Whoa. Evanthea. You know,” he protested, aggrieved, “I walked all the way from Kiriakos to spend some quality time with you.”

“I never want to see you again, ever!” she snarled, and then kicked him to drive the point home. “Get it?”

“I get it!” he retorted as he curled away from her abuse and foul temper until she stomped away, and then accepted Mykonos’ arm as he hauled himself up, more confused than angry. Her behaviour made no sense; she had no reason -

A woman’s bitter voice rose high with recrimination as she pounded after a hapless man who sought to escape her fury, “…but I will catch you!”

Completely nonplussed, Iolaus gaped at the women who all seemed to be berating their men. “Is it something in the water?” he asked uncertainly, trying to make sense of the madness that had overtaken the village.

“Zeus only knows,” Mykonos murmured as he bent to retrieve Iolaus’ medallion from the ground at their feet. Chagrined to note the leather cord had broken, the hunter tucked the simple but cherished possession into his belt for safekeeping until he could purchase or fashion another thong. Mykonos patted his shoulder in commiseration before wandering off to try to once again appease his beloved mate.

All around him, Iolaus heard women’s voices raised in ire. “Get out and stay out!” one exclaimed as she booted her man into the street. Iolaus caught the stumbling fellow before he fell, and helped him regain his balance as he asked, “Are you all right?” But the stranger simply shook his head, his expression broken-hearted as he gazed at the cold mask of rejection on his wife’s face before unhappily making his way out of her sight.

Another woman yelled, “You pathetic imitation of a man!” Iolaus watched her lash out with a broom, and he frowned, appalled by the bitterness and violence. The men all around him were well and truly cowed, their arms held high in defensive postures, their expressions muddled and forlorn. But, just then, in the midst of all the strident acrimony, the hunter heard a high ripple of delighted laughter, and he whirled around, seeking its source.

“I recognize that laughter,” he muttered to himself as his narrowed gaze raked the market square. “Aphrodite.” But she wasn’t visible. Raising his voice above the clamour around him, he called out, “Aphrodite? Come on, I know you’re here, somewhere!”

He heard her lilting laughter again, and then there was a shower of pink sparkles as she appeared to him, and only to him. Looking around at the disputing couples, she sighed in thinly veiled contempt. “Look at these mortals! Losers! Isn’t this awesome!” But then she laughed again, her smile blooming brightly and dimpling her cheeks as she observed playfully, “That Evanthea throws a mean right, huh?” Lifting her hand, she wafted the discarded musical instrument towards her and then plucked it from the air. Strumming with great vigour, if little talent, she called, “Whaddaya think? Me - goddess of music!”

Not at all amused by her antics, Iolaus strode toward her as he waved his arms about and demanded, “Aphrodite, are you responsible for all this?”

“Totally!” she crowed with glowing satisfaction. “I maxed out on the love gig,” she continued to explain at his appalled expression. “I’m shifting my career gear. Time to find a new energy field, alter my aura.” She strummed the sitar again, but frowned at the truly hideous noise it made at her touch. “Music?” she mused, but then tossed the offending instrument away in disgust. “Not.”

The Goddess of Love was about to vanish, intent upon searching for her new gig, when Iolaus reached out toward her and exclaimed, “Wait!” Scarcely daring to voice his concern, very afraid of her answer, but needing to know, he demanded, “Does this mean that there’s…there’s no more love in the world?”

Snickering, her hands on her hips, ‘Dite replied sarcastically, “Whoa, are you observant or what?” Chuckling with abundant amusement, she added, “Put it this way: guys still want it, but women couldn’t care less.”

As if to punctuate her statement, an older woman yelled harshly, “Come back here, you weasel! I’m gonna role you into a pancake!”

Aphrodite grinned broadly as she watched the old crone lumber after her quarry, a rolling pin held threateningly in her gnarled grip.

“So, how come it only works on women?” Iolaus asked, appalled by how much Aphrodite was enjoying the chaos she had created.

“Duh!” she replied, wide-eyed and hands held in the air for emphasis, “If men felt the same way, where would the fun be?” Looking around, she nodded with vigour, well satisfied. “This rocks!”

“Aphrodite,” Iolaus protested, desperate to make her see how terrible the situation truly was, “people depend on you! Don’t you realize the…the enormous implications of what you’ve done? This is going have sad consequences, tragic repercussions. Besides,” he went on, a slight whine of misery and personal grievance coming into his voice, “I got a week off.”

Dite blinked, her lip curling disparagingly. “Tell someone who cares, Sweet Pea,” she drawled coldly, and then vanished.

“I hate that,” Iolaus griped as he stared at the empty space and grimaced. Now what was he supposed to do?

The horrendous storm had finally blown through and the sun was hot in the clear, early afternoon sky when Hercules began to regain consciousness on the sandy beach. At first, he was only aware of pain, dull and aching in his back and legs, sharp and sickening in his left arm and radiating into his chest. Groggily, as the gritty sand under his cheek began to itch maddeningly, hearing the soft lap of waves against the shore and the call of gulls, he started to wonder where he was and what had happened. Gradually, chaotic and alarming memories of the ship breaking apart and then of his desperate struggle to free as many men as possible before they were all dragged to the bottom of the sea flickered in his mind. Nausea curdled in his belly, and bile rose to burn the back of his throat as he realized that virtually everyone on board must have perished. The turbulent waves had been vicious in their violence and it had taken all his strength and determination to survive, to fight their powerful undertow, until he’d managed to grab onto a spar. Even then, he’d had difficulty keeping his head above water and, in the confusion of the storm, he’d not been certain of where land and safety might lie. So he’d concentrated on simply staying afloat, resisting the lure of the deep and his exhaustion until his boots had brushed sand and he’d staggered ashore, still hammered by the relentless wind and waves that threatened to draw him back into the sea. Something had rammed him hard, driving him to the ground and robbing him, finally, of consciousness.

That something was still resting heavily on his back, pinning him to the ground.

Moaning softly, biting back a deeper groan, he heaved off the heavy remains of the shattered mast, but gasped at the ripping hot agony the movement sparked in his arm and shoulder. Slowly, he lifted and rolled his head and grimaced at the ugly sight of a shaft of wood, as slender and sharp as a dagger, impaled through his left arm just below the elbow, and soaking his gauntlet with blood. Gritting his teeth, he shifted to get a grip on the large splinter, perhaps from the remains of the mast, and summarily yanked it straight out. Breathing heavily, sweating from the effort and shock, he studied the filthy thing, the four-inch tip of it dark with his blood. Closing his eyes against the fiery pain that burned from the wound, he tossed away the stick and focused on quelling the nausea that roiled in his belly. Grunting with effort, he managed to push himself to his knees and lifted his head to take stock of surroundings - hopefully to find other survivors among the detritus of the stricken ship that littered the shore. Even as he fought back waves of darkness and dizziness, he felt a moment’s gratitude that Iolaus had not made this trip with him, for there was no guarantee they would have both survived the wretched frenzy of the stormy sea. He felt battered, as if every part of his body was bruised and mauled, and he again closed his eyes, concentrating on breathing slowly. Weak with exhaustion, he leaned forward, curling in on himself as he supported his injured arm and rested his forehead on the cool sand. But, as tempting as it was to give way to darkness, he knew he had to tend to his arm and rise to search for other survivors who might need his help.

Again, he straightened his back and squinted against the dizziness and the blinding pain that blasted through his body. Hearing a step, he turned his head and saw Derk approaching him. The mercenary looked none the worse for their harrowing voyage and near drowning. His prisoner stopped and loomed over him.

“Thanks for saving me,” Derk rumbled with an ironic half-smile, though his eyes were dark and unreadable. And then there was a blur of motion as the mercenary slammed Hercules hard with a heavy broken plank, catching his head in a merciless blow that drove him senseless into the sand. Derk looked down upon the demigod for a long moment, and then tossed his impromptu club aside before turning to lope into the forest that verged on the beach.

Smiling with unctuous self-satisfaction, Iagos led his small troop of thugs out of the forest into a small clearing that overlooked the valley below.

“In a moment, we’ll go down to the village below and, uh, politely invite Leandra to come with us,” he drawled, his voice oily before it turned as hard as his soulless eyes as he continued, “or drag her, kicking and screaming.”

Confused, one of his muscle men, a stocky man with a beard and unkempt hair, narrowed his eyes as he stared into the large open meadow that stretched far into the valley. “What village?” he demanded, seeing nothing that gave any sign of human habitation.

He’d barely spoken when the air began to shimmer, as if the sun were glinting off wisps of shifting fog, and then, magically, a collection of wooden out-buildings and thatched cottages appeared on the face of the empty meadow, hazy at first and then more solid. The men could hear the distant squeak of wagon wheels and the call of voices as the inhabitants went about their business.

That village,” Iagos gloated, and then continued to lead them down along the narrow path.

Bored and not a little woebegone, Iolaus ambled aimlessly in the forest. He supposed he could hunt, or find an inviting fishing hole, but seeking amusement to pass the time on his own until Hercules returned from Sparta wasn’t the way he’d planned, or hoped, to spend the next few days. Nor did he particularly want to dwell upon the fact that there would never again be any love, or even affection, between men and women - or not so long as Aphrodite was on strike. He could only be grateful that she hadn’t forsaken other kinds of love, filial, fraternal and parental, or the world would really sink into utter chaos. So far, at least, she only seemed to have a hate on for romantic love. Still, life would be bleak without it - and, ultimately, without it there would be no more life. For it was Eros that led human beings to want to be together, to share a life and raise a family. Sighing, he shook his head and dearly hoped the Goddess of Love would soon get over her mood, whatever had caused it, and go back to doing her job.

Hopefully, she’d come to her senses before the week was out and he could get some quality time in with Evanthea.

An arrow whipped past his nose and smacked into a tree trunk not an inch from his head, startling him sharply out of his ruminations about love and, more pointedly, the lack of it in his life. He looked up and around angrily, seeking the idiot hunter who was too incompetent to tell a man from a stag, and he heard a familiar voice bemoan, “Bummer, I missed.”

Furiously, Iolaus stormed toward the voice and soon came upon a disconsolate Aphrodite, who was nevertheless gamely fitting another arrow into her bow in her determination to emulate her sister, Artemis, and prove that she, too, could be a capable ‘Goddess of the Hunt’.

“You almost killed me!” Iolaus raged, his face flushed and his eyes sparking with the fury of having barely missed a stupid and meaningless death at the hands of this incompetent huntress - and hiding his confusion as to why she’d want to kill him in the first place. He’d thought they were friends, well, sort of friends, as much as a mortal could be to a goddess who was flighty and, besides, he was her favourite brother’s best friend. Not that he expected that to count for anything, but still, there was no reason for her to be so aggrieved that she’d failed to skewer him with that arrow!

“Chill, Curly,” Aphrodite shrugged, easily seeing past the anger to the hurt confusion. “Not you - the tree. Okay, so I need a little practice to become the goddess of the hunt.”

Exasperation replaced the rage and the hurt in Iolaus’ face and eyes. Throwing up his hands, he exclaimed, “Aphrodite, you can’t be Artemis. People depend on you for - ”

“Like I care, Sweet Cheeks,” she pouted, then flounced a little as she sniffed and lifted her bow, squinting prettily as she sighted along the arrow. “Call me irresponsible.”

“You’re irresponsible,” Iolaus rejoined with hearty agreement.

“Cool,” she retorted, but grinned at him charmingly, melting his ire.

Still, he had to make her understand that turning her back on her rightful and needful role was disastrous. More placatingly, hoping against hope she might actually listen to him, he said compellingly, “Aphrodite, you have been meddling with the forces of nature. There’s going be no more love in the world for generations to come. There won’t even be any ‘Generations to come’.”

Quirking a brow, her lip curled adorably as she nodded, allowing as he had a point. But then she shrugged her shoulders, tossed her head and turned away to again lift the bow and sight along the shaft, as she rejoined, “Super bummer…but not my problem.”

Iolaus was going to argue further when he winced at her stance and couldn’t stop himself from blurting, “No - wait. You’re doing it all wrong.”

Huffily, she snapped back, “First time I’ve ever had a complaint about my technique.”

“I meant your archery,” the hunter hastened to explain; the last thing he needed was to personally alienate an already irked Goddess of Love. Between his prowess as a hunter and his habitually helpful nature, he couldn’t resist the unconscious urge to show her what she was doing wrong. Nor was he even really aware of the liberties he was taking as he moved in close behind her, his hands covering hers as he leaned against her, his cheek against hers, and corrected her stance while sighting along the shaft. “Okay,” he muttered, and then seemed to realize against whom he was snuggled up tight, and nearly choked. However, he recovered quickly, returning to the matter at hand, as if giving hunting lessons to the Goddess of Love was an everyday sort of experience. Clearing his throat, he murmured, “Now, squeeze… and release.”

The arrow flew straight and true to its target and the goddess laughed with innocent abandon, as delighted as a child. “That rocks!” she exclaimed happily, no longer bored with her lot in life. Looking appreciatively at Iolaus, she continued with great good humour and satisfaction, “I got a personal trainer. Right on!”

Iagos strode arrogantly into the centre of the village, flanked by his thugs. Once he’d reached the market square, and saw with evident satisfaction that he’d attracted considerable attention from the locals who were crowding around uneasily, he called out stridently, “Men and women of Cyllabos, I come to you from Hephaestus. Give over Leandra. You’ve already suffered his curse once. Don’t defy him again.”

One of the village elders scoffed at him and challenged, “You’re not his messenger. An older man came this morning!”

Scathingly, Iagos shouted back, “That was my father, you dumb fool! He’s dead - fifteen years, now!”

“Impossible!” the gaunt elderly man scolded, thinking the man amongst them must be crazy. Fifteen years? Nonsense. It had only been that morning - they all knew that well.

A woman called out, sounding nervous and irritated. “What is he talking about?” she demanded. For all that he sounded insane, one never knew with the gods and none there wanted to offend the mighty Hephaestus.

“Is it?” sneered Iagos, ignoring the woman and dealing directly with the village elder, daring him to be certain that it could not have been fifty years.

“It can’t be true,” a man called from the crowd, which was growing restive.

“Look at your vineyards, all withered and dry,” Iagos told them brutally, enjoying his power over them. “Your fields, barren and empty.”

Another man muttered just loud enough to be heard in the anxious silence that had descended over the villagers, “He’s right.” And a woman replied, her voice thin and afraid, “What’s happening?”

“If I tell Hephaestus you refused him a second time, at sunset your village disappears forever!”

Everyone began to mutter and jostle with escalating fear. What would happen to them - forever? Would their souls be lost? Horror filled their minds and hearts at the very prospect of simply vanishing for all time, unremarked and unremembered.

“Wait. Leandra went to the stream looking for her son,” the elder told Iagos nervously. Much as he hated to forsake a neighbour, a woman they had all known all their lives, it was all of their lives that was now at stake. Best if they cooperated. After all, a god could take what he wanted regardless of their thoughts or feelings. There was nothing to be gained by fighting or resisting, and everything to be lost.

“Ah,” Iagos murmured, his expression calculating. Impatiently, he waved his men toward the river where he planned to accost Leandra and take her, willingly or not, to his master.

Iolaus moved in a careful crouch through the forest, intent upon the trail of a boar, the erstwhile Goddess of Love and aspiring Goddess of the Hunt, stumbling awkwardly behind him. Her normally glamorously groomed hair was limp and frazzled, and her skin glistened with sticky sweat. Insects hummed and buzzed around them, distracting and irritating her…and her feet hurt.

“Hunting sucks,” Aphrodite whined as she huffed at a lank curl that had fallen over her eyes, boredom and discomfort fast making her irritable.

Quickly holding up a cautionary hand, Iolaus whispered, “Shh.” The boar wasn’t far off now, and they ran the risk of spooking it.

Ignoring him, aware only of her own increasing misery, ‘Dite griped, “Uh, I mean, what does Artemis see in this? Hours and hours of looking for some huge, ugly, hairy pig.”

“Boar,” the hunter corrected absently, not really paying attention to her as his concentration was fully upon tracking his prey. “Shh.”

“I’m hot; I’m sticky,” she groused, sounding almost tearful in her frustration. This was definitely not the good time she’d imagined. And then her face froze in horror, before crunching in disgust as she looked down at her delicate feet. “Ewww,” she complained, now well beyond her limits of tolerance, her voice rising in disbelieving dismay, “and what’s this I just stepped in?”

Excited to have finally spotted the boar, Iolaus pointed and said with hushed urgency, completely unaware that Aphrodite had blinked out of sight, “Over there. That’s a boar. Okay, go for it!”

When nothing happened, he turned and realized he was alone, that Aphrodite had abandoned the hunt, and his disappointment was clear as he muttered unhappily, “Awww.” But he had only a moment to reflect on the goddess’s lack of commitment and fortitude before a scream ripped through the primeval quiet of the ancient wood.

“Get your hands off me!” the hapless woman shrieked - and Iolaus plunged through the undergrowth to lend assistance to the maiden who was, quite evidently, in great distress. He could hear her tearful protests, and the fear in her voice, as he drew closer, “Please! I can’t leave until I find my son!”

Through the trees, the hunter could see the stocky, self-satisfied man who leered at her as he said unfeelingly, “Marrying Hephaestus is more important than finding your brat.”

The blond woman appeared to be in her twenties and was clearly distraught, her face flushed and tears glittered in her eyes. “Wait!” she pleaded, struggling against the men who were dragging her off toward the volcano and the God of the Forge. “He’s only three!”

Emerging from amongst the shadows and trees, Iolaus growled, “Leave her alone.”

Annoyed, not particularly impressed with the small blond interloper who was attempting to play the hero, Iagos said dismissively, “Don’t interfere with things you know nothing about! You stupidly risk your life!”

Unimpressed with the cruel, officious man and his insults, Iolaus shrugged indifferently as he held his aggressive position blocking their path, and his eyes were hard as he replied flatly, “So, call me stupid.”

With a put-upon sigh, Iagos rolled his eyes and then gestured to one of his men to take Iolaus out. The thug rushed at Iolaus, but badly underestimated the deft skill of his smaller opponent. The warrior scarcely moved, but the roundhouse blow aimed toward his head missed, the hapless attacker finding himself off-balance as his arm whistled through air, and then tumbling as he tripped over a well-placed boot. One hard chop to the back of his neck and he was down and out cold.

Grabbing hold of Leandra, Iagos sent his second man-at-arms into the fray but, despite the lessons he might have learned from watching his comrade bite the dust, the goon fared no better. His expression twisted with sadistic satisfaction when he managed to close and get his arm around the small blond’s throat, and he intended to choke the life out of Iolaus. But he soon found himself sailing through the air and hard into a thick tree trunk - and then sagging, like a sack of yams, to the ground.

Iolaus whirled to face Iagos, who had begun to drag Leandra away. “Hey! You’re next, pal,” the hunter called out as he loped after them. When the manipulative and cowardly toady realized his protectors had been soundly, and very speedily, defeated, he paled and let go her arm to push her away before he ran into the shelter of the forest.

Leandra stumbled to the ground, but Iolaus was swiftly by her side, to help her stand and to ensure she was unharmed. “Thank you. Thank you so much,” she gasped, biting back a sob of relief. She was shaken and pale from the attack, and amazed a stranger had risked helping her.

“It was nothing. Just - just don’t hit me, all right?” the warrior replied warmly, if a little warily, given his experience in the nearby town.

But Leandra evidently found his comment baffling. “Why would I hit you, when you just saved me from being kidnapped?” she asked uncertainly.

“You mean, you don’t feel like beating me senseless, or…?” he replied, relieved.

“No,” she told him with an odd look, wondering why this strange man thought she’d be angry with him. But she had no time for such questions for it really didn’t matter. “Come,” she said with a doubtful look around, quite evidently nervous, as she took him lightly by the arm. “We better get back to my home. There are bandits out here. Or the She-demon might turn you into stone.”

Grinning, preening just a little with the knowledge that he was about to impress this attractive young woman, Iolaus told her warmly, “Well, you have no fear on that score. Hercules helped me defeat the She-demon, oh, a couple ’a years age.”

Distracted, still watching the shadows, afraid of being attacked again, Leandra asked, “Who’s Hercules?”

Dumbfounded, Iolaus stopped on the path and turned her toward him. “You mean, you’ve never heard of Hercules?” he demanded, adding with wry humour, “Friend of Iolaus?”

Frowning, she shook her head. Really, this man was most strange. “No. Please, let’s go quickly,” she urged him. “Perhaps by now, my son has returned to the village.”

Startled, the warrior looked after her as she hurried off down the path. They were in the middle of nowhere, the only town a halfday’s walk back the way he’d come. “What village?” he called after her, and then loped down the path in her wake. And, much to his astonishment, in minutes they came out of the woods and he saw the village less than a quarter of a league away.

But he was absolutely positive it hadn’t been there that morning - or ever, so far as he could remember.

Hercules gradually became aware of the insistent pounding in his head and the flare of fiery pain from his shoulder and arm. Stiffening his jaw against the nausea that threatened, he blinked and looked up into the cloudless, late afternoon sky. With a muted groan, he supported his left arm and then slowly sat up, to look blearily around at the wreckage scattered on the beach; pity for those who had lost their lives warred with fury in his heart as he remembered Derk assaulting him with the club. Swallowing, he realized that he must have been unconscious for hours. Blowing a breath through his nose, gritting his teeth, he stripped off his leather shirt and the linen undershirt beneath. Using his teeth to hold the linen, he ripped off a long strip with his right hand and then fashioned a sling to support his agonizing shoulder and wounded arm. Biting his lip, he figured his left shoulder must be dislocated, but there was nothing he could do about that at the moment. Gingerly pulling on his leather shirt, he then did his best to clean the wound in his arm with salt water, and bound it with more linen he ripped from his ruined undergarment. Gods, the arm was painful, and from the redness and suppuration of the wound, he figured dismally that it was no doubt infected. There wasn’t anything he could do about that, either, or at least not immediately. Reaching out to grasp the club Derk had tossed aside, the demigod levered himself to his feet and swayed unsteadily, weakened by the loss of blood and suffering a concussion from the hard blow to his head.

He glanced down at the sand, noting the direction of the footprints he’d spotted when he’d first awakened. Lifting his eyes to the forest, he grated with bitter irony, “Thanks for saving me.” Truthfully, he didn’t understand why the mercenary had left him alive, and was surprised to think such a conscienceless man would have such scruples as to hesitate to murder him simply because he’d freed Derk from his chains, giving him the chance to live when the ship capsized. Regardless of the whys or wherefores, Derk was still a criminal that had to be brought to justice. Resolutely, if weakly, Hercules began to follow the footprints, determined to once again subdue the brigand and continue their journey, one way or another, to Sparta.

“Cyllabos?” he replied, looking mystified, after asking her its name, “Not only have I never seen this village, I’ve never even heard of it.”

“You’re not from these parts, then?” she answered, wondering where he had come from.

“No, just the opposite,” the warrior replied, looking around the market square, a baffled expression on his face, “my dad grew up around here.”

“Well, he must have heard of it. Cyllabos has been here for centuries,” she said matter-of-factly, not really caring in her desire to rush home and see if her missing son had returned.

Iolaus was trying to make sense of the odd manifestation of a village where he knew there had been only an open meadow not so long ago when a man turned and saw Leandra, and paled as he gasped, “Leandra?” Before she could reply, he took off running.

“Hmm, that was weird,” Iolaus grunted at the villager’s odd behaviour. The man had seemed shocked…and then terrified. But others in the square, and how odd they seemed, caught the hunter’s attention. Something wasn’t right here; everything seemed off, somehow out of kilter. Not normal. “Um, what’s with all these old-fashioned clothes, anyway?”

“What do you mean, ‘old-fashioned’?” She sounded a bit huffy, as if he’d just insulted her and every other woman present.

“Ah, no. They’re…they’re - they’re nice,” Iolaus stammered, not wanting to cause offence. And the woman certainly seemed innocent enough; she’d been the victim of the attack on the mountain, after all. But this village didn’t exist. And hadn’t that jerk who had grabbed her said something about Heph? Iolaus thought about the God of the Forge as he followed Leandra through the small village. He hadn’t seen Hephaestus in years, not since the days at the Academy, but they’d been friends at the time. Somehow, Iolaus was having a hard time reconciling those goons and the abduction of an innocent woman with what he knew of the god, who was basically a pretty good guy, so far as gods went, if a little reclusive and lonely.

Leandra turned back to him, regaining his attention as she said with evident gratitude, “Iolaus, I can’t thank you enough. The least I can do is offer you supper.” But her face clouded again with worry, and she called over her shoulder as she hastened off, leaving him in the village square, “After I locate my son and give him a piece of my mind.”

Iolaus was about to hurry after her, willing to help look for the missing boy, but he was abruptly accosted by two of the men of the village.

“He’s the one!” the younger of the two said venomously, and Iolaus recognized him as the man who had been looking at them oddly a short while before.

“Stranger, you brought Leandra back?” the elder demanded roughly, as if he could scarcely imagine such a dire deed.

Confused by their antagonistic behaviour, not understanding it, Iolaus nevertheless readily admitted that he’d helped the young woman. “Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That was me. She was being attacked by a bunch of guys, so I kinda…”

His voice dropped off in his embarrassment that he hadn’t been able to single-handedly apprehend the three villains and haul them back for the local magistrate. “I’d have nailed ‘em all if Hercules had been with me,” he said unhappily.

“Who’s Hercules?” the elder asked, looking around in confusion.

Startled into laughter by the question, thinking it was a joke, Iolaus echoed, “‘Who’s Hercules?’” But, then, he realized the man wasn’t the least bit amused and seemed seriously mystified. “Wait a minute,” the warrior said then, sobering. “You mean, you never heard of him either? Where have you people been?”

Iolaus might have pursued the discussion, but the villagers were beginning to crowd around and they looked decidedly unfriendly - even downright hostile. Deciding that until he had a better handle on what was going on, retreat might be the best idea for the time being, he stammered uncertainly, “Uh, you know? I-I-I’d love to stay and chat, but, um…I got a dinner-date, so - ”

“Because of your foolish actions, we’ll be cursed by Hephaestus - again!” the elder shouted at him, rigid with anger and what looked very much like terror.

Iolaus began backing away from the gathering crowd, not looking where he was going and, consequently, banged up against a tinker’s cart loaded with pots for sale. The crowd began murmuring angrily, but he couldn’t figure out what had upset them or why they seemed so pale with fear and downright furious with him. How bad could a curse from Hephaestus be, after all? The god wasn’t cruel or malicious by nature. And why would he curse an entire village? There had to be some mistake here.

“Stop him!” a man shouted from the crowd

“Yes!” a woman cried in agreement, adding with vindictive rage for what his act would cost them, “Kill him!”

Immediately, the crowd roared in agreement, and another voice yelled, “Stone him!”

Iolaus blinked and shook his head. They had to be kidding, right? They wanted to stone him to death for having helped an innocent woman evade assault and kidnapping? What in Tartarus was going on? But any speculation was cut short as sharp, hard projectiles were launched at him with devastating accuracy. He yelped, “Owww!!!” when one found its mark with stinging, numbing brutality, and he tried to evade other flying rocks, but there were too many. Cornered against the tinker’s wagon, there was nowhere to go, no shelter to be had. But the pots and pans gave him a desperate idea. Snatching up two of the sturdy, iron vessels, he began knocking stones back into the crowd, his backhand particularly powerful.

“Kill him!” someone shouted again.

“You people really know how to roll out the welcome wagon! Ow!” the warrior yelled back, ducking and slapping rocks with unerring aim back at those who had flung them at him. His return fire began to have effect as rocks and stones pelted the crowd, blunting their hunger for blood. They pulled back, and then one after another, some in twos and threes, stole away, nursing bruises and bitter about their cursed fate.

Once the crowd had cleared, Iolaus tossed the pot and pan he’d purloined onto the wagon and, noticing the tinker standing peacefully nearby, groused heatedly, “Huh! Friendly little town you got here!”

“It used to be,” the merchant mused with a sad shrug. Though not a resident of Syballus, he’d passed through the village countless times over the years, hawking his wares. He ached inside to realize that he’d been caught in the curse with the rest of them, disappearing from life and the world for at least fifteen years, if that unctuous fellow was to be believed. His wife might even be dead, and his children long grown up, his neighbours and friends perhaps gone like dust in the wind. But, he had no intention of being trapped forever with the rest of the villagers, and he climbed up onto the wagon, clicking his tongue and flicking the reins over his sullen mule. It was beyond time to move on.

Before he could go, however, Iolaus asked, “Hey tell me, what is all this about a curse and, uh, Hephaestus?”

The tinker shook his head. “My advice,” he said grimly, “forget about it and leave. I intend to.”

With that, he got his mule moving and the wagon lumbered smartly out of town.

“Thanks. Great,” Iolaus muttered, waving away the dust raised by the mule’s hooves and the iron-rimmed wheels of the cart. Turning away and looking around the village with no little frustration, he mumbled, “Ask a simple question.” Shrugging, he was just heading off to find Leandra and help in the search for her son, if the boy hadn’t simply turned up at home, when he heard familiar giggles behind him.

“Hephaestus,” Aphrodite laughed fondly. “I haven’t seen the Hephster since we were teenagers. Class voted him worst dresser.”

“Aphrodite,” the warrior acknowledged, squinting a little as he took in her new ‘look’. She was very primly dressed in blue silk with a high lace collar, perched upon a stool with a heavy tome on her knees and decorative spectacles in her hand.

Catching his appraising look, the goddess explained, “Hmmmm, it’s an image thing. Like right now, I just scream, ‘Intelligence’ - right?”

Bemused, the hunter nodded with vague agreement. “Yeah. Yeah, whatever,” he replied, wondering how anyone could get bored with love. “So, now you’re covering Athena’s territory, huh?”

“Nah…tried,” Dite drawled disconsolately. She waved toward the book before making it vanish in a puff of air, “This stuff gets old real fast. They should, like, put pictures in those things, or something.”

Walking toward her, Iolaus offered with just the slightest tinge of sarcasm, “Hey, well, here’s an idea. Be the goddess of love. No heavy reading.” But, he really didn’t want to tease her too badly, and there were more important, or at least more immediate, problems at hand. She was a goddess - maybe she would know something about the ‘curse’. “Aphrodite, there’s something strange going on here in Cyllabos, and no one will tell me what it is.”

“Cyllabos? Cyllabos! Of course!” she reflected and exclaimed with a beatific smile. “Apollo told me all about it. Hephy zapped ‘em with a curse.”

“And?”

Shrugging, caring less about Cyllabos than her own quest for meaning, the gorgeous goddess shrugged prettily and pouted, “Who remembers details?” But her eyes began to twinkle as apparently some details resurfaced, “At the time, Apollo and I were rolling around in the back of his chariot.” She laughed merrily as she gazed around at the villagers who were peering at Iolaus, unable to see the goddess and wondering who the mad stranger was talking to. Making a moue of disapproval, she observed dryly, “Uh, judging by their clothes, I’d say Hephy zapped ‘em with a fashion curse.”

Iolaus rolled his eyes and sighed. Apparently, he’d get no more help or information from her than from the tinker. “Thanks, Aphrodite. That’s cleared things up,” he said ironically, but another question occurred to him, one that she might be interested in answering. “Uh, there’s another thing. Men and women here, they seem to be getting along fine. Why is that?”

Giving him a wide-eyed look of disdain, she retorted with heavy sarcasm, “Do I look like the oracle at Delphi?”

Snorting softly as he threw up his hands and turned away, Iolaus grumbled to himself, “Boy…wish Hercules was here.”

He’d not meant to be overheard, but Aphrodite cried out enthusiastically, “Hercules! Of course! My brother’s gig! I could do that easily. Action, adventure - but first, the right outfit. That’s key.” She abruptly departed in a puff of slightly pink white smoke in search of the perfect costume for her next adventure in trying out other people’s careers and lifestyles.

Iolaus gaped at the place she’d been, a frisson of disquiet rippling along the back of his neck. “What have I done?” he sighed, shaking his head. With a last puzzled and wary look at the villagers who remained half hidden in their doorways or in the shadows of sheds and cottages, he turned away to find Leandra. If they’d tried to stone him for rescuing her, what might they now try to do to her?

Iagos had mussed his hair and disshelved his clothing before staggering dramatically into Hephaestus’ forge, his two battered and bruised henchmen limping dolefully behind him. His hand to his heart, gasping heavily as if barely able to get his breath, he rasped piteously, “Oh! Oh, mighty Hephaestus!”

Turning, his eyes widening at his servant’s evident distress and then taking in the beaten men with Iagos, he demanded sharply, “What’s this? Where is Leandra?”

His voice catching, as if he were on the verge of tears, so great was his distress to have failed his lord, the oh so humble servant fell to his knees and bowed his head most respectfully as he blurted, “Forgive me, lord. I have failed you.”

Impatient with such behaviour, and deeply hurt by what he understood to be a sharp rejection of his proposal of matrimony, Hephaestus swallowed hard to quell the surge of emotion that threatened to strangle him, but his voice was heavy with deep disappointment as he directed kindly, “Get up, Iagos. I understand.” Turning away to hide the anguish in his eyes, he carried on with as reasonable and accepting tone as he could manage, “She has no wish to be my wife.”

Scrambling to his feet, reaching out as if to touch the god’s arm but then hesitating, Iagos hastened to disagree with Hephaestus. “Oh, she’s willing. But the villagers,” he exclaimed, “they mocked you. They jeered at your name. They called you the great…” but he paused, as if reluctant to reveal the brutal truth, only to manfully continue, “god, ‘Hideous’.”

Sighing, turning his face away from his devoted servant, the God of the Forge murmured despondently, “It’s my destiny to be alone.”

“No! She wants to marry you!” Iagos cried out then. The anger in his voice was real, however false his words as he carried on mendaciously, “But as we were returning, a dozen of villagers fell upon us.” Well, he certainly wasn’t about to admit one short and rather unimpressive, scruffy stranger had defeated his men at arms and driven him off, like the coward he was.

Hephaestus stiffened and turned to face Iagos, hope mingling with a kind of disbelief at the indignity perpetrated upon his men and the audaciousness of the villagers. “So, they’re keeping her from me?” he clarified, to be certain of Iagos’ message - a message he wanted so much to believe.

“Her screams of protest still ring in my ears,” Iagos assured him, with warm drama. As if asking a great boon, he continued silkily, “Oh, please, Master, give me the means to bring Leandra here, where she wants to be.”

His expression hardening, his voice and manner harsh, that the woman he hoped to make his mate was held from him against her will, the god decreed, “Take this armour, that I’m making for Ares.” With an imperious gesture, he animated the tall, bulky metallic men that stood against the wall; with a rattle and clang, they snapped to attention, awaiting his order. “Do as he bids!” Hephaestus compelled them, and they tramped heavily into position behind Iagos.

Gloating with his success at deluding his lord so masterfully, Iagos whirled away and led the armoured warriors into the dark corridor beyond the forge, and then out of the cavern toward the village below.

Hercules proceeded cautiously through the darkening forest. The day was waning and the shadows lengthening, making it harder to follow the mercenary’s trail, especially as Derk had begun covering his tracks after leaving the beach. Biting his lip, the demigod wished that Iolaus were with him, for he knew no better hunter or tracker - no one could evade detection when his partner was on their trail. Wind whispered hauntingly through the trees, shifting the shadows, so that Hercules started briefly, thinking he’d seen movement. Frowning, fighting the headache and nausea of his concussion, doing his best to ignore the agony burning relentlessly up his left arm and into his shoulder, the demigod narrowed his gaze, certain Derk was nearby.

A moment later, his quarry’s voice confirmed his instincts, as Derk drawled disparagingly, “Don’t worry. It’s just a tree stump. But you’re wise to be careful.” When Hercules stiffened and turned to face him, the mercenary said dryly, “Now, I figure we’re even.”

“How do you figure that?” the demigod rasped angrily.

“You saved my life on the boat,” Derk reminded him, and grinned wryly as he added, “and I didn’t kill you on the beach.”

“Aw, I suppose I should thank you,” Hercules drawled sarcastically, gratitude clearly not on his agenda.

“If I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t be here,” the mercenary told him with flat confidence.

“Well, I’m here now.”

“Like I said, we’re even. But if you keep on comin’ after me, I will kill you,” Derk warned over his shoulder as he loped into the shadows.

But Hercules was not to be so easily diverted. He took off after the mercenary and Derk, not surprised, whirled back to meet him, swinging a solid length of wood with stunning strength and speed.

The demigod staggered back, off-balance, but managed to raise his own club fast enough to block the blow that was hard enough to rock him. Gritting his teeth, he swung his own improvised weapon, driving Derk back a step, but the mercenary wasn’t intimidated. He came back again, swinging with vicious, murderous intent. Hercules lurched back, behind a tree, just before the blow caught him, but Derk kept coming and the son of Zeus was forced to dodge between the narrow trunks to avoid the deadly club. A low rumble of fury in his throat, Hercules advanced, but his bad arm put him at a disadvantage; despite his great strength, the loss of blood and his debilitating injuries were costing him in speed and dexterity. He caught Derk a glancing blow, but not enough, not nearly enough, to subdue the man. They grappled, briefly, and the mercenary dropped down and back, flipping Hercules over his head. When the demigod hit the ground, the breath was knocked from him, and agony flashed white-hot up his arm, through his shoulder and into his chest. Gasping, the big man forced himself to roll, anticipating attack, but when he lurched to his feet and looked around, Derk was gone, as swift as the wind. Startled, Hercules looked around, wondering how the mercenary had disappeared so silently and completely. His eyes caught movement, high above, and he gaped to see his adversary climbing a tall tree with the nimble surety of an Amazon. In a flash, Derk was leaping and swinging from one branch to another, high above the ground, fast disappearing into the shadows.

The mercenary’s voice echoed back, harsh but clear, “I’m warning you! Don’t follow me!”

Panting for breath, the sweat of fever on his brow, Hercules sagged a little in weariness. The day was waning and it would soon be dark. Even on his best day, he couldn’t have tracked Derk in the strange forest shrouded by the depths of night. But he swallowed and straightened, pain etched on his face and haunting his eyes. Slowly, planting one foot in front of the other, step by step, he followed his adversary into the shadows.

The sun was setting, the sky a brilliant fire, as they pirates rowed from their small but nimble vessel to the beach. Their voices echoed across the water as they called to one another, speculating about the possibility of the gold they might find. “Think anyone made it off the prison ship?” one called out as their boat grounded on the shore. Leaping out, they hauled it further inland, above the advancing tide.

“Spread out! Look for survivors!” the first mate called.

“Search the beach! Maybe the gold washed ashore!” their Captain, Sordis, ordered. The pirate, lean as a whippet, his face as skeletal as a death’s-head, glared around, greedy for the wealth that might be hidden here, as if he were not already weighted with enough gold, dangling from his ears and wrists, encircling his scrawny throat and arms. His lips a thin, cruel line, his dark, dead eyes as sharp as a hawk’s, he searched for some evidence, some clue, that their search was not in vain - and his scrutiny was rewarded. Grinning widely without humour, salivating like a glutton before a feast, he pointed to the sand and growled, “Tracks - human tracks.”

The first mate, a square, sturdy man, dropped to one knee, to study the prints more closely. They were scuffed, barely visible. “Someone was tryin’ to cover them,” he speculated.

“Try over there!” someone called, the eager hunger for wealth in his voice.

“Why bother?” Sordis snorted, casting a sideways look at his mate. “Unless the gold was on the prison ship, like you said.”

“Over here! Tracks! I see tracks!” one of his men yelled excitedly. “Here! This way!”

Another added, “There are only two sets ’a tracks.”

Sordis rubbed a claw-like hand over his mouth as he considered the scanty evidence before them. “The gold is either at the bottom of the ocean…or those two buried it.”

“What if they don’t want to tell us?” his first mate speculated with a woeful glance along the lengthy shore and then to the forest beyond. Without some clue, they could dig for the rest of their lives and never find the treasure chest.

“Then we will just have to persuade them,” Sordis drawled with an evil smile. There was nothing he enjoyed more than torturing men to learn their secrets. His smile broadened as he contemplated the fun to come, and then he began to laugh, a raucous, brutal sound, scarcely human.

The gang of pirates strode purposefully across the beach, following the tracks into the jungle.

Puffed up with prideful arrogance, Iagos strode into the village square like a conqueror, his metallic thugs clunking and clinking along in his wake. The simple folk quailed before him, terrified of the armoured warriors and sick with the fear of having provoked Hephaestus’ wrath. Surveying them all with a smirking sneer, Iagos told them with brutal glee, “You’ve angered Hephaestus. So, laugh, eat, drink wine…because this is your last day on Earth. And then, you disappear forever - as if you never existed!”

“Ah! Please!” a man groaned, despairingly.

The elder paled and swallowed hard, hating what he must do. His hands were trembling and his voice quaked as he asked timorously, “If we find her, will Hephaestus give us another chance?”

Iagos looked him up and down and then scowled around at the others, as if reluctantly weighing the desperate request. Finally, he nodded sharply. “He gives you until sunset!” he called out with cold satisfaction, knowing Leandra and, more importantly, Hephaestus’ reward would soon be in his grasp.

Iolaus walked warily down the lane he’d seen Leandra take, past cottages that were well kept, if obviously poor. Women peered out of windows or from shadowed doorways, frightened and feeling helpless; children, unnaturally quiet having picked up on the fear permeating the air like a noxious miasma, squatted in bare yards or huddled together, watching him with wide, hollow eyes as he passed. He found Leandra’s cottage simply because it was the only habitation from which there were sounds of activity with no one at the door or window, waiting and watching for disaster to come upon them. He went through a gate in a low fence and up to the open doorway. Leaning against the frame, he watched her for a moment, noting her tension in the abrupt, jerky movements of what he rather suspected was normally a graceful woman. She was busy preparing a meal for him and her wayward son: a soup simmered in the small hearth, and she was chopping vegetables for a salad.

“Find your child yet?” he asked quietly, already knowing the answer by her manner and the absence of any child in the one room cottage.

She started at the sound of his voice, and turned sharply, before shaking her head and returning to her task. “No, and that frightens me more than anything Hephaestus might do,” she finally replied tightly around the lump in her throat and fighting the urge to weep.

Coming into the room, moving to stand close to her, Iolaus asked gently, “Leandra, what’s going on?”

Refusing to turn to face him, she shook her head and grated, “Iolaus, I warn you - don’t get involved.”

“I almost got stoned back there,” he told her then, his voice firm if still calm. “I am involved.”

Sighing, she set down the knife and bowed her head briefly before turning to gaze sightlessly out the unshuttered window. “Hephaestus has chosen me to be his wife,” she admitted, her voice low, almost inaudible.

Frowning, confused by the knowledge that she had a son, the warrior asked, “Aren’t you already married?”

Wearily, she turned to face him, and he could see that the grief and sorrow of profound loss still haunted her eyes as she replied, “My husband was killed two years ago, in the Punic Wars.”

Taken aback, he blinked, his expression disconcerted. “Punic Wars?” he echoed, biting his lip. “My grandfather fought in those, but that was over fifty years ago.”

“You must be mistaken,” she asserted, confident in her knowledge. She would never forget the day the word had come. Her son had been barely a year old, and her beloved husband had not lived long enough to even see him. Not an uncommon tragedy, but painful just the same. And now her precious son was missing and she thought she might well go mad with worry if she didn’t soon find him. The horror that he might have been taken by bandits or the dreaded SheDemon, or drowned unnoticed in the river, plagued her, though she gave no voice to her deepest fears.

A man Iolaus thought he recognized from the square loomed in the doorway, and shouted to someone behind him, “Here she is!”

Tired of the hostile attitudes and the negligent way these people treated their neighbours, especially their lack of support for a young widow and mother, Iolaus held up a hand, wanting to discourage any interruption of the conversation they were having. He felt he might finally be on the verge of understanding what was going on. “Uh, one moment,” he demurred, when the man strode into the cottage uninvited, but got no further. Other villagers piled in behind the first, and moved quickly to grab at Leandra.

Furious with the cavalier way they manhandled the woman, Iolaus lashed out with fast punches and a couple hard kicks to initially drive them back. But then the wall was torn asunder as a huge, metallic monster burst inside, mindlessly destructive. The animated creature backhanded Iolaus and sent him flying to crash into the far wall, but he shook off the pain and scrambled back into the fight to defend the poor woman. Diving past the armoured warrior, he managed to snag one heavy arm and, using the full measure of his weight and leverage, ripped it loose. He whirled then, using the arm as a club, bashing it against the monster’s chest and finally, with a hard spin, swung it like a sword and took off the head. The unnatural thing floundered around, but was capable of no further concerted damage or threat.

Gasping for breath, sweating from the effort of the pitched battle, Iolaus turned to ensure Leandra was all right, only to discover that two of the villagers were dragging her toward the doorway. She was fighting them, but to no avail. He lunged toward her as she cried out, “Iolaus! Find my son!”

He called her name, but then something hard connected with the back of his head, a chair swung by a villager that cracked apart on impact, and he pitched forward, unconscious before he hit the packed earth of the cottage floor. When he awoke to the merciless pounding of his head, he found himself bound and being watched by several of the villagers. The last rays of the sun were slanting in the doorway, streaking shadows across the floor. Disgusted, he grimaced and pulled fruitlessly at the chains around his wrists.

The village elder informed told him soberly, “For the safety of all, we’re keeping you here until sunset.”

“What about Leandra?” he grated, fury only barely contained in his hot gaze and rasped tone.

“Never mind her. We’re saving you from Hephaestus as well.”

“Oh, forget about me,” Iolaus shrugged. He’d taken his chances with the gods before and no doubt would do so again, and soon. If Hephaestus had kidnapped the woman, a confrontation between them could not be far off. “What about her little boy?” he asked then, remembering Leandra’s plea as she was dragged away.

Shrugging, the old man replied, “There’s no sign anywhere, of young Skouros.”

“Skouros?” Iolaus repeated, a cold ball of awareness he wasn’t yet ready to acknowledge forming in his gut. “That was my father’s name.”

Looking away, out the door, the elder mused, “He was probably playing down by the brook when the village disappeared the first time.”

“Wait a minute,” the warrior frowned, his eyes narrowing. “You mean the village disappeared?”

“For fifty years,” one of the others replied flatly. “And now Hephaestus threatens us again. This time, forever.”

“Lucky little Skouros,” the elder reflected, envying the child, “probably escaped the curse.”

“When my father was three years old,” Iolaus told them, still not sure he could quite believe what he was saying, the conclusions he was drawing, “they found him playing by the brook. He’d been abandoned.”

“Well, if it was him, at least he had a full life,” the old man replied morosely. “We may never have one.”

Stunned by the enormity of what he was learning, Iolaus gasped, “Then, that means Leandra is my - ”

But his words died in his throat as first one villager and then another fell senseless to the floor, as if punched by some invisible force. Laughing, Aphrodite materialized and struck a pose. “Pretty Herculean, huh?” she gloated happily.

Iolaus took in the skimpy leather jerkin, and the tight, form-fitting leather shorts that left long, lovely legs in full view, and he gaped a little, forcing his attention to the mace she carried jauntily in one pretty fist. “Uh, frankly, Herc never looked so…” but words failed him and he had to clear his throat before he continued onto safer ground, “and, uh, he doesn’t carry weapons, either.”

“But I love accessories,” Dite pouted, and then smiled brilliantly, her eyes sparkling like diamonds in a sapphire sky as she added definitively, “and this matches.”

Iolaus gave her a quizzical look but then recalled himself to the situation at hand. Lifting his chained wrists, he prodded, “A little help here.”

Grinning at him, she blinked and the chains fell away. He scrambled to his feet and led the way into the gathering dusk outside.

Iagos shoved Leandra ahead of him along the dimly lit stone corridor. Taking her arm in a bruising grip, he leaned in close just as they came to the entrance to the cavern containing Hephaestus’ forge, and threatened coldly, “Now, smile. And play the happy bride-to-be, or your village disappears forever - along with your son.”

Her face rigid with fear, she blinked against the tears that threatened and nodded, taking a breath to steady herself as they moved into the light. Hephaestus turned and paused at the sight of her, the expression in his eyes warming with pleasure and gratitude. And then he limped toward her to gently touch her cheek.

“Leandra,” he murmured, emotion thick in his voice, “welcome.”

“Thank you,” she managed to reply, but she couldn’t raise a smile for him, no matter how hard she tried. Instead, she dropped her eyes, as if overcome with embarrassment and shyness.

“I told you how eager she was to see you,” Iagos asserted, though her manner conveyed little enthusiasm.

“You come freely?” Hephaestus asked, wanting to be certain for he would never force himself on anyone. It wasn’t in him to be brutal and he knew the pain of loneliness and sorrow too keenly to ever inflict it on another.

“Yes,” she whispered, flicking a quick look up at him to underscore the affirmation. For her son’s sake, she would do and endure anything.

“She’s not repulsed by me,” the God of the Forge sighed in relief, seeing no pity or horror in her gaze when she looked upon him. Smiling slightly, he said with hearty goodwill to his minion, “Well done, Iagos. Claim your reward.”

Feigning humility, a concept with which he was entirely unfamiliar, Iagos stammered unconvincingly, “Oh…oh it’s - only if you insist. I-I-I-I-I-I…perhaps this shield you’re making for Perseus?” And then he anxiously held his breath, waiting to see if his fondest desire would, indeed, be granted.

“When it’s finished, it’s yours,” Hephaestus assured him warmly, not noticing the gleam of triumph in the schemer’s eyes. Turning back to Leandra, the god told her with gentle consideration, “Iagos will show you to your room.”

With a last hungry look at the Shield of Invisibility, Iagos waved Leandra out of the cavern. “This way, My Lady,” he intoned, barely keeping the sneer of success off his face.

Hephaestus watched them go and then bowed his head, wishing he felt greater joy in this moment. Leandra had come to him willingly and would love him - would fill the emptiness of his life with her touch and the balm of her company. But his gaze drifted to the blue silk-covered bust and his treacherous heart ached with despair. True, he might no longer be alone…

…but nor would the emptiness inside ever be truly assuaged, for the love his life would never love him.

The pirates crashed through the undergrowth, eager to capture the two survivors of the Enyalios’ sinking. Though it was growing dark and they would soon have to defer their pursuit until first light, Sordis chivvied them further into the shadows. “I can smell them,” he crowed, having caught the lingering sweet taint of blood in the air. “Come on!”

Soon…soon they’d corner and capture the hapless travelers.

Soon they’d have the gold…

Sordis’ evil laughter rang out into the gathering gloom.

To be continued…



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