Without their prince, Nestor’s soldiers were lost. Most of them had dispersed, going back to their families or heading off to find a new army to serve. But a handful of the less honorable men had stuck around Ceryneia, sulking as they tried to figure out how to recapture their dignity.
“There must be a way for us to take the Golden Hind,” one of the soldiers grumbled to his companions as they marched through the village square. “For the gold in those horns and hooves, it’s worth a little risk.”
“If you think going against the Hind AND Ares is a ‘little risk’, go ahead,” his buddy disagreed. “I want no part of it.”
They came to the well, and the first soldier grabbed the little man that was in his way and shoved him roughly aside as he snatched up the dipper and helped himself to the bucket of water that had been drawn up.
“Move over, Shorty!”
Caught off guard, Iolaus had staggered a few steps before regaining his balance, but he froze with his back to the men, bristling in anger as the derogatory comment echoed in his ears.
“‘Shorty’?” he repeated to himself, scarcely believing that anyone had dared to insult him so gravely.
“Hey, you’re the one the Hind shot,” the second soldier called out as he recognized the hunter. The rest of the men hadn’t given him a glace, but at this declaration they all took a good look and began to concur.
“Then he and Hercules whaled on us!” the first soldier reminded his friends. He pointed to Iolaus, forgetting he still had the dipper in his hand as he flung water everywhere. “I think an apology’s in order.
“It’s ok,” Iolaus said sarcastically as he turned around to face them. “I forgive you.” They were not amused and began to circle around him, drawing swords. “No guys, really. No hard feelings, huh?”
The first soldier made a move like he was about to attack, but he never got the chance. Iolaus kicked him hard in the gut, and when he doubled over in pain it was an easy matter to toss him down the well. Spinning around, the hunter kicked out at the next soldier, sending him flying backwards with enough force to knock down four others. Leaping up, Iolaus caught the bar over the well that secured the rope and bucket and sailed up and over it, circling it in an impressive feat of gymnastics and using his momentum to knock down the soldiers within reach. As the rest of the men quickly backed away, the hunter let go of the bar, flipping in midair and landing lightly on his feet on the ground as he assumed a defensive stance. For a moment, his foes hesitated, both unnerved by his acrobatic skill and the deadly expression on his face.
“He said he forgives you.”
Iolaus glanced back to see Hercules emerging from the doorway of the inn where he’d been watching with amusement.
“I’m a forgiving kind of guy,” he shrugged with false modesty.
“You see, I’ve known Iolaus a long, long time,” the demigod continued as he stepped forward, making his way to his friend’s side.
“He has,” the hunter agreed.
“And if he says he forgives you, well, he forgives you.”
But if the men had been considering backing down, the arrival of Hercules and the thinly veiled contempt the two warriors had for them wiped all thoughts of retreat from the soldier’s minds. Collectively, they began attacking, rage over their past humiliation and desire to get their revenge outweighing better judgement.
Hercules saw the man rushing him from behind and backhanded him as he was raising his sword, hitting him so hard that he became airborne. Not bothering to watch as the soldier landed on two of his friends, the demigod instead turned to his partner and they locked wrists. Both of them spun around and Hercules flipped Iolaus over his head as the hunter took out two men, one on the upswing and one on the downswing. The hunter caught a soldier with a spin kick, and then he turned back to the demigod. They repeated the maneuver, with Hercules doing the flipping this time and likewise taking two men out of the battle. The demigod landed and ducked down, letting Iolaus roll across his back, using it as a launch pad as he did an impossible looking half twist in the air to slam into another soldier. As soon as his partner was clear, Hercules righted himself and kicked the next man rushing them into oblivion. The soldiers began to wise up and rushed the duo all at once, concentrating their forces. Almost without thinking, the demigod grabbed his friend by the arm and yanked as he began turning in circles. Iolaus yelped as he left the ground, feeling helpless as his partner whirled him around.
“Take it easy!” the hunter hollered. “Herc! Is this really necessary?!”
“In a roundabout way,” the demigod replied offhandedly as he used his friend as a weapon to knock down the entire circle of advancing soldiers. When they were in the clear he released the hunter, wincing slightly as he watched him dizzily try to get his bearings. “Sorry, Iolaus.” But there was no time for sympathy, for the battle raged on. Another kick sent another soldier flying into one of his friends. And Hercules took his time with the next one, roughing him up a little before sending him crashing to the ground. Iolaus recovered quickly and met his adversary head on, blocking his swing and kicking his legs out from under him. But he became distracted and left that soldier as he spied the one he’d sent down the well climbing back out. The one who had called him “Shorty”. Hopping up onto the edge of the well, the hunter sent the jerk back down it with one good punch. Another man immediately attacked him with his sword. Iolaus ducked under the blade, disarming him with one kick and sending him sprawling in the dirt with another.
Wanting to prove that his partner was not the only one capable of fancy tricks, Hercules rushed his next opponent, grabbing him around the shoulders to anchor himself as he sailed through the air around the man’s body. Landing back in front of him, the demigod finished him off with a hard right. Two soldiers rushed him from opposite directions and Hercules ducked, letting them crash into each other. But it wasn’t hard enough in his opinion, so he grabbed the two stunned men by the front of their tunics and pulled, slamming them into each other and knocking them senseless. Two men were rushing him from behind, and he backhanded one but the second managed to leap onto his back. With all the divine strength he could muster, the demigod heaved the soldier off of him, watching as he flew into the heavens to come crashing down on a nearby roof.
“That’s got to hurt,” Hercules murmured to himself, feeling more satisfaction than sorry.
There was only one soldier left and he was facing off with Iolaus. The demigod went to help as his partner, still up on the edge of the well, kicked the man back into his arms. Caught up in the frenzy of the battle, the hunter didn’t seem to realize it was all over and kept lashing out at the man.
“Iolaus!” Hercules said sharply, commanding his attention. “I’ve got him.”
“Oh, yeah.” The hunter backed off, his bloodlust fading and his usual good humor returning as he watched his partner toss the guy unceremoniously down the well to join his buddy. “All’s well that ends well.”
“Looks like your arm’s good as new,” the demigod commented as they began to stroll through the square.
“Yeah, thanks to Serena,” Iolaus told him. “But two weeks rest is definitely enough. I want to head to Thessala.”
“I’d like to stay a little longer,” Hercules said quickly.
The hunter narrowed his eyes as he studied his friend. He’d been stuck in Ceryneia because the demigod had been insisting that he take it easy for a few days. And although Iolaus had been 100% fine, he had agreed, for he knew how much his close call had disturbed his partner and he thought Hercules just needed a little time to get over the scare and make sure he was really all right. But the demigod had just admitted he was good as new, which meant something else was going on. Something Iolaus didn’t want to think about.
“You still want to try and save the Hind?” he asked, hoping that was all it was. “Forget it. She knows how to look after herself.”
“It’s more complicated than that,” Hercules hedged.
“It’s not the Hind,” Iolaus concluded quietly, his fears realized. “It’s Serena”
The demigod walked off with no elaboration, and the hunter let him go. He knew Hercules was hiding something from him and he was getting fed up with cryptic answers and evasive explanations. It was an insult to his intelligence if the demigod really thought he was pulling the wool over his eyes, and Iolaus was tempted to chase after him and demand to know what was going on once and for all. But he didn’t. For two weeks he’d accepted the enigmatic disappearances and vague accounts without confrontation. All for the simple fact that he was afraid of the truth. He’d dreamed of Serena, and she had been real. And he’d dreamed of Nestor’s death, and it had come to be. Coincidences, he was sure. The product of a crazy fever dream. But he still couldn’t help feeling wary. He’d envisioned Hercules proposing to Serena. Which was utterly ridiculous. The demigod, Mr. I-Don’t-Kiss-On-The-First-Date, would never ask a woman he’d known for two weeks to marry him. And yet, Hercules wouldn’t leave town.
Iolaus sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Images of his visions, which had begun to fade into memory, came back to haunt him, more vivid and clear than ever. Hercules and Serena and Ares and Gabrielle... and himself. Plunging his sword into his best friend’s side. The demigod looking at him, blue eyes full of shock and grief. Blood gushing from the wound. Crumpling into the dirt, still and lifeless. The hunter pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes in a futile effort to stop the images as his breath started coming in gasps.
“Are you all right?”
Iolaus looked up, seeing Hemnor standing before him in concern.
“Yeah, fine,” he replied quickly. The hunter had finally managed to convince the man that he was really and truly healed, and he certainly didn’t want to give him any excuse to start thinking otherwise. Hemnor meant well, but he was ten times more hovering than Hercules at his worst.
“We’re still on for this afternoon, right?” Hemnor didn’t look convinced, but he seemed willing to let the matter drop.
“Don’t worry,” Iolaus assured him. “Hercules and I will be there to help you raise your cistern.”
Hemnor nodded, giving him a friendly clap on the shoulder as he moved off. The hunter sighed again, forcing himself to calm down. Those dreams were only dreams, he told himself. Nothing more. And after they fulfilled their promise of help to the villagers, Iolaus vowed to talk to Hercules. Make him see that it was time to move on, and they could go to Thessala and put this whole mess behind them for good.
“We’ve prepared food for the altar.”
Ares ignored the servants and instead bellowed out his nephew’s name.
“Have you seen Serena?” he demanded when the godling appeared in the temple.
“Yes, I have,” Strife finally admitted, after debating whether or not to lie and save himself from his uncle’s displaced rage as he noticed the very long, very sharp dagger Ares was wielding.
“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger, OK?” Strife reminded him, wandering out of immediate reach. “I saw her with your brother, Hercules.” The godling pretended to be interested in the spread on the altar, but in reality he was eying up the serving girls. “You might as well face it, Uncle. She’s starting to play you like a flute.” He couldn’t resist goosing the girl nearest him, and only the fact that he was a relative of her master kept her from slapping him.
“Don’t push it,” Ares threatened him. “She’s devoted to me.”
“Yeah, well, so was your other star pupil, Xena, remember?” Strife said nastily. “She left you standing, and guess what? Hercules is doing it again!”
“That was different,” the god of war argued. “Xena had a character flaw. A small speck of morality. He took advantage of it. No, Serena is the Golden Hind. She owes me her life, and I won’t let her go.”
“Well, who would?” Strife began casually. “If her blood will really kill a god, that means you’ve got the edge on all the gods on Olympus. I wonder if it’s really true, though.”
“Don’t even go there,” Ares warned him.
“I was just curious, you know?” He approached his uncle, growing serious. “I need something to do. A project I can use my talents on. Get my teeth into.”
“Don’t let curiosity lead you into ambition,” the god of war cautioned in a low voice. “You might not like where it takes you.” He paused, mulling things over. Although he would never admit it, especially to Strife, he was also beginning to doubt the Hind’s loyalty. Which was the key factor in his new plan to destroy Hercules, and without it, all would be in vain. But, in the art of war, nothing was ever set in stone. Ares prided himself on his gift of strategy, and he knew that if the Hind did betray him, he could find a way to make that work to his advantage. Which meant he might have a purpose for Strife in the near future, but in the meantime he was content to let things play out. “For now, keep an eye on this...situation with Hercules and Serena.”
“You know I will.”
Strife turned to leave, the serving girl spinning around to give him a don’t-even-think-about-it glare as he passed.
The Hind raised her bow, letting the arrow fly. It embedded itself into a tree truck, slicing it’s predecessor cleanly in two. She raised the bow again, releasing once more. Likewise, that arrow hit it’s mark, shearing the previous arrow in half. But as she sighted again, a slight movement in the forest captured her attention. With lightening reflexes, she turned and shot the deadly arrow off into the bushes. Only to have Hercules appear with the weapon in his hand, giving her a reproachful grin.
“Oops,” she murmured, glad that Hinds were incapable of blushing.
“Shoot first and ask questions later?”
“It’s my Ares training,” Serena explained apologetically.
“Like I said, ‘Shoot first and ask questions later.’” the demigod repeated, a bit scornfully. But his Ares induced bad mood evaporated as the magnificent Golden Hind underwent her transformation and stood before him as a mortal woman. “That is still a miracle to see,” he whispered in awe.
“When you’re the last of your kind, sometimes a little miracle helps to survive.”
“I‘m glad you’ve survived,” Hercules told her as he approached. She reached out to stroke his cheek but he stopped her, taking her hand. “I need to talk to you.”
“I know,” she said, her eyes sad but accepting for she knew this day would come eventually. “You’ve come to say goodbye.”
“No.” The demigod shook his head, thinking nothing could be further from the truth. For two weeks he’d been wrestling with his feelings, and he’d finally come to grips with the fact that he could never say goodbye to her. After his beloved Deianeira had been taken from him, he didn’t think he’d ever love anyone that much again. Certainly, he never envisioned himself marrying again, but he had come to realize it was time to lay the past to rest and embrace his future. He still loved Deianeira, and he always would, and the happy years they had spent would forever hold a special place in his heart. But Serena, so unlike any woman he’d ever met before, amazed and enchanted and delighted him. She filled his heart with love and joy and light, and in two weeks she had become the best part of his world. They were two outcast souls, for the first time able to ease that loneliness they both carried with each other. He wanted, needed her in his life, always. It was sudden and radical, he realized, but he had never been more sure of anything as he got to his knees before her and pressed a beautiful jeweled necklace into her hand. “Um, I’ve come to ask you to marry me.”
Serena was rendered speechless, his proposal having been the last thing she’d expected. She could only look at him before her, feeling her heart breaking as she desperately wished things were different. But they were what they were, and that left her with only one option. As her initial shock wore off, she reached down and took his other hand, gently helping him to his feet as she gave him back the necklace.
“I am flattered that you would consider marriage for us. But it can never be. And you know why,” she added pointedly, a bit peeved with him for making things harder than they already were.
“What I know is that I love you,” Hercules vowed, leaning forward to kiss her.
“And I love you,” Serena told him as she backed away, growing frustrated that the demigod was so caught up in the ideal that he was forgetting to see the reality. “But I can’t live in your world. When a mortal touches me, I turn into the Hind. It would happen sooner or later.”
“It can work, Serena. We’ll find a way.”
“Well, that WOULD be a miracle,” she spat, attempting to jolt him from his unshakable optimism. “But I belong to Ares.”
“No, you belong to yourself,” he told her forcefully, halting her as she tried to leave. “No, he may have saved your life and taught you how to survive, but one life can’t belong to another.”
“Look, I know how you feel about him. He’s told me of your jealousy.”
“I am not JEALOUS of him!” Hercules turned away and began to pace. Things were definitely not going as he had hoped. “I RESENT him, yes, because he’s the god of war. He treats mortals as his playthings and he stands for everything I’ve spent my life fighting against. Serena, you can’t believe everything he tells you.”
“Why would he lie to me?” she demanded.
“Because he’s Ares!” the demigod shouted. He strode toward her, taking her by the arms, desperate to make her understand. “He is USING you! With your blood, you’re his weapon against all the other gods.” It was true, and she knew it. She’d seen the kind of treachery Ares was capable of firsthand. But in the years she served him, she’d gone to great lengths to convince herself that he wasn’t completely cold and calculating. That he did value and protect her as more than a possession, and that the day would never come when he would betray her, taking her life to use as the ultimate weapon. But even though she knew Ares was ruthless and that Hercules, the kind, compassionate, caring man she loved, spoke only the truth, she could not deny her loyalty to the god of war. Whatever his motives, she owed him her life. A fact she could not simply overlook.
“I know what he is,” Serena admitted as tears filled her eyes. “But without him, I wouldn’t even be here!”
“Fine,” Hercules acknowledged as he pressed the necklace back into her hand. “Then tell him ‘Thank you, very much’ and marry me.”
A finger at her lips stopped the protest before she could make it.
“Yes, you can,” Hercules insisted. He let her go and took a step back, his face sad but still hopeful. “Yes, you can,” he repeated before turning and heading out of the forest to give her time to think and consider his offer.
With little else to do in the two weeks he was supposed to be resting, especially while Hercules was off on his own keeping his little secrets, Iolaus had occupied his time helping out around the village with various tasks. He hadn’t minded pitching in, for the Ceryneians were mostly a good group of people. And he did owe Hemnor a lot for everything he’d done for him while he was dying, not to mention the fact that the man was covering their tab at the inn. So he’d been glad to help out with a few chores, large and small. Although the present task was definitely of the large scale, and it was looking to be rather impossible without the aid of Hercules’s strength. However, the demigod had yet to show up, a fact that had not escaped Hemnor’s attention.
“He said he’d be here. He’ll be here,” Iolaus replied with a confidence he didn’t quite feel. The demigod was late, as usual, and the hunter had quickly come to expect the tardiness. Although he knew Hercules would show up eventually, he was tired of waiting and decided to get things moving, on the off chance they didn’t really need divine strength after all. “Well, come on,” he announced as he slid down from his perch on the cistern. “Let’s try and hoist it anyway. Maybe we can surprise him.”
Hemnor and another of the villagers took their places along the rope.
“Ok, pull!” the hunter commanded. They began straining for all they were worth, but the heavy tank didn’t budge an inch. A few of the villagers watching had some comments, but none of them stepped up to help, which made Iolaus all the more determined to raise the cistern. “Come on, get your backs into it,” he grunted.
“Excuse me. Excuse me.”
Iolaus spared a glance to the stranger that had approached him, raising an eyebrow as he took in the man’s appearance. He was dressed as a soldier, sort of, with a chest plate and weapons, but he was loaded down with more supplies than any warrior with sense would want to haul around. And then there was that hat...
“Have you seen a guy named Hercules?” the stranger inquired. “He’s got his partner, uh... E-Ebole, I-Ibole, oh, what’s-his-name?”
“Yeah, that’d be me,” Iolaus told him, too preoccupied with his current labor to be indignant.
“You’re Hercules?” the man exclaimed excitedly. “You’re Hercules?” His enthusiasm dimmed slightly as he studied the hunter. “I thought you’d be... taller.”
“No,” Iolaus clarified, rolling his eyes. “I’m what’s-his-name.”
“Oh. Well.” The stranger stepped back and assumed a lofty pose. “I am, of course, Joxer the Magnificent!”
“Oh, Joxer the Magnificent,” the hunter mused.
“Never heard of you.”
“Does the name, ‘Xena,’ mean anything to you?” Joxer inquired haughtily.
“Oh, yeah,” Iolaus confirmed. “Yeah. Her, I know.”
“Oh, well, you’re only looking at her mentor, master, and former trainer,” the man told him smugly as he got into his face.
“I wish I was looking at you on the end of this rope,” the hunter muttered, unimpressed. “Helping, pulling, and not talking.”
“Oh, oh, right.” Joxer picked up the end of the rope and took a step back. “Well, you know, I figured Xena’s kinda slow, and I figured Herc’s a little more my speed, you know?” He let out a scream as he backed right into a water trough, tripped, and fell in.
“The Magnificent!” Iolaus grumbled in disgust, shaking his head.
“What am I to do with you?” Ares sighed as the Hind presented herself to him.
“Have I disappointed the great Ares?” she asked.
“No,” he replied. “No, I’m actually quite pleased. I saw the way you handled Hercules. Refusing his proposal without saying, ‘No’. Stringing him along. It just made my day.”
“I didn’t say no because I wasn’t sure of my feelings,” Serena explained carefully. “Now, I am.”
“Well, good.” The god of war rose from his throne and approached her, his dark eyes burning with intensity. “Good. And now that that’s over, you and I... oh, I have such plans.”
“No,” she told him. “I’ve come to ask you for my freedom.”
“You really know how to make the moment, don’t you?” Ares turned his back on her, crossing his arms over his chest. “Supposing I’m not in the mood to give it to you?” He turned back around as she moved toward him.
“Then I’ll take it,” Serena said calmly. Now that it had come down to it, she realized that Hercules had been right. She was not a possession to be claimed, and she owed Ares her thanks only, not her life. She was not going to let him keep her from love and happiness, and she ran the tip of her bow along his dark beard to remind him that his weapon against the other gods would be just as lethal to him. “You know I can.”
“And I could do the same,” he growled menacingly. “I could take you.” She lowered her bow, but her eyes flashed dangerously. “Your anger excites me,” Ares continued in a seductive voice. “The possibilities, the two of us... You’re not making this easy.”
“Then I have your permission?” Serena asked. She would go to Hercules no matter how he answered, but she thought it would be easier on them all if he would agree to let her go.
“Well, let’s just say I’ll give you a little leeway,” Ares granted her. “A little personal time so you can find out how boring my brother, Hercules, really is.”
It was better than a refusal, and Serena decided to take what she could get.
“I will always be grateful,” she told him, bowing before him as he draped himself back onto his throne.
“Don’t be tiresome,” the god of war admonished her, jerking his eyes toward the door as a dismissal.
The Hind had scarcely left the temple when Strife appeared, unable to believe his uncle had given in so easily.
“Maybe, it’s just me. I’m sure it is, but you gave her permission to hang with Hercules?”
“You misunderstand my gift to my brother,” Ares told him with a sinister grin. “You ever hear of the Trojan Horse?”
He began to laugh at his own cleverness and Strife joined in, although the godling had no idea what his uncle was talking about.
Iolaus stubbornly refused to admit defeat. They had picked up another man and Joxer had taken up the rope again once he’d dried off. Together they had managed to raise the cistern a few inches off the ground, and the hunter was determined to go all the way.
“Come on, you guys,” he pleaded. “Pull!”
The men all took a deep breath and put their backs into it yet again. For a moment nothing happened as they strained at the rope, but then the cistern rose a few more inches.
“There, see,” Joxer announced while Iolaus chuckled in triumph. “It’s ‘cause I’m using both hands.”
“So am I.”
The others spun around to see Hercules at the end of the rope, and they all let go as the demigod began to raise the cistern by himself. Iolaus approached his friend, giving him the its-about-time glare.
“I know I’m late,” Hercules grunted as he took the cistern higher.
“No, no, no, no, you’re not late,” the hunter joked. “We were just... warming up.”
“Yeah,” the demigod said sharply, obviously not in a joking mood.
“What is the matter with you?” Iolaus demanded.
“It’s Serena, isn’t it?” the hunter asked, hoping he was wrong but unable to think of anything else that would be upsetting his partner that much.
“Let’s just finish this and get out of here,” Hercules snapped.
Iolaus agreed, feeling a wave of relief flood through him. Once the cistern was secure, they’d move on to Thessala. Away from Ares, away from Serena. He refused to believe the dreams he had were scenes of the future, but he still felt better at the prospect of putting a little distance between them. Just to be on the safe side.
“Listen, can you tell me when this guy, Hercules, is gonna get here?” Joxer whined as he approached the hunter. “Cause my hands are gettin’ calloused.”
The man had already proven himself to be no genius, but it appeared his cluelessness had no boundaries. Iolaus wiped his hand over his mouth to hide his grin and then pointed to the man holding the cistern that four of them hadn’t been able to lift.
“Uh, that’d be him.”
““Mm-hmm,” the hunter confirmed.
“I thought he’d be...a little stronger,” Joxer declared.
Iolaus snickered and Hercules paused in his pulling to turn and give the man a hard glare. He looked away, shaking his head, but his snide comment died away in his throat as he spied a woman moving hesitantly into the village square.
“Serena,” he murmured in surprise.
Joxer followed his gaze, whistling in appreciation.
“Hey,” Hercules warned him. Together with Iolaus they shoved him out of the way and the demigod wound the rope in his hands around a post in the ground that his partner was bracing for him. Then he handed off his burden to his friend.
“Got it?” he asked, not waiting for an answer.
“Yeah,” the hunter replied, a little confused as to what he was supposed to do with it and just how long he’d have to hold it.
Hercules ran to meet Serena, just in time to avoid catastrophe. A group of children were playing ball, and one of the boys was so focused on the game he wasn’t watching where he was going. Serena managed to catch the errant kick just as the demigod caught the boy before he bumped into her.
“Nice catch,” he said admiringly.
“You, too,” she smiled, tossing him the ball. He gave it back to the boy who thanked him and ran off back to the game. Serena watched him go with a trace of wistfulness. “Oh, they’re having so much fun. I always wondered what it’d be like in the village. You know? People living their lives. I like it here.”
“It’s dangerous for you to come here,” Hercules reminded her gently.
“I thought is was worth the risk,” she told him softly as she held out the necklace he’d given her.
“Right. Of course.” The demigod reached out and took it from her, feeling a profound ache welling up inside him. “I wish I could change your mind.”
“You can’t,” Serena said. Her serious demeanor crumbled and she couldn’t hold back a mischievous grin. “I had to give that back to you so you could give it to me at our wedding.”
For a moment Hercules was dumbfounded, and then the ache inside him was replaced with blinding joy as her words sunk in.
“You mean, ‘yes? Yes?’” he demanded, wanting to make things absolutely clear. She nodded, and he scooped her into his arms, lifting her off the ground to twirl her around in happy circles as she laughed in delight. Hercules put her down but did not let her go, leaning in to kiss her, feeling like he was about to burst with happiness. The world ceased to exist, at least until he heard his partner calling his name. Reluctantly breaking away from his new fiancee, the demigod turned and saw that the rope holding the cistern was beginning to fray and snap.
“Oh, yeah, that’s... that’s Iolaus.” Hercules started toward him, but then turned back to Serena. “I’ll be right back, ok?”
“Hercules!” the hunter called out, a little more frantically. Again, the demigod started forward but turned back to his love.
“Now, you did say, ‘Yes,’ right?” he asked, wanting to make absolutely sure.
“Yes,” she replied quickly before kissing him once more.
“Uh, you know, when you’re ready,” Iolaus called out desperately as he struggled to hang onto the rope. “But now would be good!”
“This is so cool!” Hercules enthused as he left Serena and literally skipped back to the cistern. Just in time he prevented the post from ripping out of the ground and he helped Iolaus maneuver it back into place and hold it steady. “She said, ‘Yes!’”
The hunter was concentrating on the problem at hand and it took a second for his friend’s words to register.
“What do you mean, ‘She said, “Yes.”’?!” he yelped. “Well, she...”
The demigod’s explanation was cut off as the rope snapped. The cistern began to fall, and one of the man who had been trying to secure one of the safety ropes became tangled as it whipped through the pulley and wrapped itself around his neck. As the momentum of the cistern took the ropes with it, the man was yanked from the ground, and the crowd watched in horror as he was hanged before their eyes.
Immediately Hercules and Iolaus went into action. The demigod threw himself under the cistern, bracing it with his back and preventing it from falling any more. Iolaus, realizing that the man was too high for anyone to reach, called for a ladder. But the situation became even more grave for Serena. The commotion was drawing a crowd, and she hovered nervously as she found herself hemmed in by a wall of people that were a little too close for comfort.
“OK, folks, just back on up,” Joxer ordered, deciding to take command of the situation. He moved before the crowd, intent on shooing them off. But Serena was surrounded and couldn’t move out of the fear of brushing up against someone. A fact that seemed to annoy Joxer. “Listen, this is no place for a lady.”
“I...I’m a friend of Hercules,” she said quietly, hoping that she could convince him to leave her be.
“You’re a friend of Hercules,” Joxer repeated patronizingly. “Yeah, everyone’s a friend of the big fella’s. Well, look, we’re all very busy here, so, folks, if you’d please, just back on up, and we’ll... “ He began moving forward, determined to dispel the onlookers even if he had to use force. “Please, just step back...”
In the thick of the action, Iolaus heard Serena scream. He turned to look for her and watched in shock and disbelief as the beautiful woman began to morph and change and transformed into the Golden Hind. She pranced in fear, taking in all the stunned villagers that were surrounding her. Without thinking, Hercules started to go to her aid, but the hunter stopped him, reminding him that a man’s life was hanging in the balance. Reluctantly, the demigod stayed put, praying that Serena would be safe until he could get to her.
The villagers all seemed unsure what to do, but then a bearded man stepped forward and made up their minds for them.
“It’s the Hind!” he shouted. “Kill her! Kill her before she kills us!”
Men started advancing on her, armed with staffs and rakes, waving them threateningly. Serena was trapped, with no way out. She could hear Ares’ voice in her head, encouraging her to invoke his training and open fire. And although she knew she could easily fight her way free, she did not take up her bow. She longed to join this village, but if she killed any of these people she would only be reinforcing their fear and hatred and ensuring they would never, ever accept her. So she remained passive and put her trust in Hercules to save her. But the demigod was helpless, his blue eyes radiating his anguish as he saw the men attacking her.
“Leave her alone!” he cried out, but his command was ignored. He could only watch, trapped in his duty to save one man and powerless to save the one he loved as the villagers began to lasso her.
Iolaus had been spearheading the rescue attempt, and with his quick thinking and instruction a ladder was brought and Hemnor and some others finally got the hanged man down. As soon as they’d gotten the pressure off him, the hunter turned to his friend and gave him the all clear.
Dropping the cistern, Hercules called out to Serena, reassuring her that he was coming. The bearded man tried to stop him, but the demigod heaved a heavy bag of flour at him and knocked him to the ground. Without missing a beat, he grabbed a shield off a nearby cart and tossed it into the air, intercepting a spear that another man had thrown at the Hind. Planting himself in front of Serena, the demigod grabbed the ropes securing her and yanked, sending the men restraining her flying.
“Back off!” he yelled in fury. Turning to her, he broke the ropes around her waist and then turned back to address the crowd. “If anyone wants to hurt her they have to go through me!”
“And me,” Iolaus chimed in as he leapt to his friend’s side.
“And me, your worst nightmare!” Joxer added, joining suit. “Don’t worry, fellas, I’ll take care of the crowd.” He moved off, dispelling the throngs that were already dispelling on their own, since the drama seemed to be over.
“It’s all right, Serena,” Hercules tried to comfort her. “It’s over.”
“No,” she cried, pulling away from him. “This is impossible.”
The demigod watched her gallop back to the forest, and then he turned to his partner. He knew Iolaus had every right to be angry with him for not telling him the truth, and he was beyond grateful that the hunter had supported him without even a moment’s hesitation in spite of it.
“Thanks for standing by me.”
“Hey, we’re friends,” Iolaus reminded him. “We don’t need to thank each other.”
“You better go.”
The hunter knew that the demigod would have rushed right after Serena, but he was waiting for a reaction. And while they definitely needed to have a long talk, Iolaus knew now was not the time. So he generously gave his friend the permission he’d been silently asking for to go and make sure Serena was all right. Hercules trotted off and Iolaus sadly watched him go, neither one noticing as the bearded villager who had incited the riot dissolved into the image of a cackling Strife.
Serena had been terrified, but once she was back on familiar ground she calmed down quickly. In fact, when Hercules caught up with her she had already resumed her human form. She was understandably disheartened, but the demigod consoled her, assuring her that she had done the right thing by not lashing out at the villagers. He told her that he hadn’t initially been accepted in his own home town either, but eventually the Thebeans had come around. And, he promised, so would the Ceryneians. They were good people, and she just needed to give them a chance to prove it.
At first she wasn’t convinced, but as Hercules talked, Serena began to believe him. She trusted him with her life, and he definitely knew much more about mortals than she did, so she was willing to accept his vow that everything would work out. For the chance of a life with him was definitely worth another try.
He had no right, Iolaus realized as he pushed his empty plate away and picked up his mug of ale, to mock Joxer’s stupidity. For it seemed that his own was rivaling that the of bumbler’s these days. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t figured it out on his own. Hercules had obviously been completely infatuated with Serena, but instead of bringing her to the village he was always running off to the woods to meet her. Hiding her from the hunter when normally he would be introducing them. Verbally declaring war on Ares. And making his cryptic illusions to the fates of Serena and the Hind being one and the same. It really didn’t take a lot of imagination to at least suspect Serena was the human form of the Hind. But with a sigh, Iolaus realized the real reason he hadn’t made the connection was because he hadn’t wanted to. Because it lead him right back to the place he’d been so desperately trying to avoid.
Serena was the Hind. She belonged to Ares. But Hercules had fallen in love with her. And she’d said, “yes”. There was only one question he could have asked her where an affirmative answer would have made him so deliriously happy. This wasn’t like the time the demigod declared his intent to marry Psyche, which was so obviously brought on by a spell of the gods. Iolaus knew this time it was for real, and his heart sank to think about it.
She was beautiful, and she had obviously won the demigod’s heart. Iolaus owed his life to her. But the mere thought of her made him shiver. For he couldn’t picture her without seeing her as he had in his dreams. Three visions had now come to pass. Too many to write off as coincidence. And while he still wasn’t sure how Gabrielle fit into the mix, it was now very clear how Ares was involved. Which meant Hercules was in danger, but his love for Serena was blinding him to it. What Iolaus didn’t know was if the danger was from Ares, or himself. The vision he’d had of himself stabbing Hercules.... It couldn’t possibly come true. And yet, he hadn’t thought it possible that his best friend would propose to a woman he’d only known two weeks, either.
It was as if they were heading down an unknown road. Iolaus, for reasons he couldn’t comprehend, had been given a few landmarks. He recognized them as they passed, but was left in darkness between them. There had to be a way to escape. A detour that would lead them to safety and away from the proverbial end of the road. But he couldn’t find it. All he could do was just wait in dread for the next landmark to appear.
Hercules eventually found him, ready to have their long overdue talk. A talk that Iolaus was no longer sure that he wanted to have. But he took a deep breath as his partner entered the inn and slid into the chair next to him, resolved to forge ahead.
“Yeah,” the demigod answered. “She’s safe.”
“Thanks for telling me about her.” The hunter couldn’t keep the hurt from his voice, but he decided he was entitled. After all, it wasn't exactly a minor detail that could just slip your mind. Hercules had purposefully not told him the truth about Serena and he couldn't understand why. They were partners. They trusted each other with their lives. And Iolaus didn’t know why the demigod had felt like he couldn’t entrust him with this.
“Iolaus, I meant to, but I wanted you to get to know her first.”
“Well, it’s a little hard to get to know someone that you’re never allowed to meet,” the hunter pointed out.
“I know,” Hercules said, looking away. He truly hadn’t meant to keep his friend in the dark for so long. But Iolaus had almost died, and it had terrified the demigod. He couldn’t bear to come that close to losing him again, so when Ares had come into the picture he’d decided that it would be better to keep the hunter away from the danger, safely out of the line of fire. Hercules had only had good intentions, but looking back he could now see how much of an insult his reticence had been to his friend.
“Herc, we’re supposed to be partners,” Iolaus reminded him. “Equal partners. I accepted the risk and the consequences that go along with that a long time ago. I chose to be here at your side. It’s where I want to be, but it doesn’t work if you try and hold things back from me. I don’t need it or want it, and I’m not going to put up with it. I trust you to watch my back, and I’ve vowed to do the same. But I can’t do that if you’re not going to be honest with me!”
“You’re right,” the demigod murmured, having been humbled. “I’m sorry.”
“Ok.” The hunter relented, seeing that his friend was sincere in his apology. “So now tell me the truth. This thing with Serena... It’s serious?”
“We’re going to be married,” Hercules confirmed.
“You know...” Iolaus paused, clearing his throat slightly as his voice began to waver. “If you’re happy, I’m happy. I’m glad you found someone.”
“But?” the demigod prompted, thinking that his friend couldn’t have sounded any less sincere.
“She belongs to Ares.”
“No, did,” Hercules corrected. “We belong with each other now.”
“Herc, when are you going to learn that things aren’t always black and white?” the hunter asked sadly. “You know Ares better than that. She BELONGS to him, and just because Serena declares herself free doesn’t mean he’s going to let her go.”
“Oh, he will let her go,” the demigod vowed vehemently.
“You’re taking on the gods, you realize that?” Iolaus continued. “Don’t you think they cause you enough trouble? Why would you go and beg for more?”
“Because I love her,” Hercules said simply.
The hunter sighed in frustration, scrubbing a hand over his face. That love he professed was blinding Hercules to reality, and Iolaus had no idea how to make him see it.
“I’m sure you do love her,” the hunter tried again. “But have you given any thought to what this means? Serena is the last of the Golden Hinds. She can’t live among mortals. And no matter where she goes, poachers will follow for her gold. How are you ever going to make this work?”
“Why are you doing this?” the demigod asked, not accustomed to such negativity from his friend.
“Because you have your head in the clouds and I’m trying to get you to see that there are repercussions,” Iolaus answered impatiently. “Ares is not going to let her go. Her blood is a weapon that will keep the other gods at bay. As long as he has her, he’s got an edge on all of Olympus. And that is something he is NEVER going to give up. But even if he does, what does that mean for you? If her blood can kill a god, it can surely kill you, too.”
“Iolaus, I know that this is far from an ideal situation,” Hercules told him. “Believe me, I have thought about everything you’re saying. Agonized over it, actually. But the bottom line is that I love her, and she loves me. She’s worth any risk.”
“Ok.” The hunter swallowed hard, trying to remain calm. “Let me ask you another question, as your friend. In all of this thinking, have you thought about what it is that you do? That we do?”
“Yeah.” The demigod shrugged, not even considering it an issue. “Nothing’s changed. We’ll still be a team, doing the same things. It worked before. When I was with Deianeira...”
He trailed off slowly at the mention of his dead wife’s name.
“Is she worth that kind of risk?” Iolaus asked him gently. “Hera took your family once. Are you willing to risk Ares doing it again?”
“No, I’m not,” Hercules declared with steel in his voice and fire in his blue eyes. “That’s why I’m going to his temple to settle this once and for all.”
“Oh, come on!” the hunter protested. Even without his visions he would have considered such a move to be suicide. “You know how dangerous that is! If you go there and start pushing his buttons, he will kill you and not even Zeus will be able to stop him.”
“He’s not going to kill me,” Hercules promised him. “And I’m not going to push his buttons. We’re just going to have a discussion and come to a little understanding.”
“If I can’t talk you out of this then I’m coming with you,” Iolaus told him.
“No.” The demigod shook his head. “I appreciate the offer, but this is between me and Ares. But once I get back, I want you to be the best man at my wedding.”
“Aw, Hercules,” the hunter sighed. It appeared nothing he could say was going to change his friend’s mind. So maybe actions would speak louder than words. If he gave the demigod an ultimatum, it might at least get him to stop and think for a minute and consider what he was doing. “Look, you getting married... It does change things. Yeah, I should be your best man, but if I’m honest, I have a bad feeling about it. And I don’t think...” Iolaus looked away, unable to meet his best friend’s blue eyed gaze. “I’m going to go on to Thessala.”
“Oh.” Hercules rose from the table, hurt and a little angry. “Well, I hope you’ll reconsider.”
The hunter leaned back in his chair as the demigod strode out of the inn. Long years of being partners, friends, and brothers. More years than he cared to think about. And Hercules had just tossed that all aside without so much as a backward glance as he chose his love for Serena above all else.
Iolaus sat for awhile and brooded over another ale before he left the inn and wandered into the marketplace. He found Joxer surrounded by some of the same soldiers he and Hercules had fought that morning. The hunter wasn’t sure what had sparked the conflagration, but it appeared that Joxer was about to get the ego beaten out of him. Iolaus couldn’t understand how such a pest had been hovering around Xena and had managed to escape intact. He’d been about ready to knock the guy out just to shut him up and his level of patience was much higher than that of the unpredictable warrior princess.
“Listen! You don’t know who you’re dealing with!” Joxer informed the soldier that had dared to lay hands on him. He was prepared to continue, but paused in his diatribe to wave a hand in front of his face. “Whoo! Didn’t anyone ever tell ya not to chew on your socks?”
Iolaus sighed as they tossed the hapless man into a rack of cookware. Joxer was an idiot, but he couldn’t stand by and let him get trounced by the soldiers.
“Leave him alone.” The demand was quiet, without enthusiasm. Normally, the hunter would have been happy to teach these guys yet another lesson, but at the moment he was too heartsick to enjoy himself.
“Look who’s back,” one of the men taunted him. “You don’t have your partner with you this time.”
Iolaus glanced around him and ambled up to face the thug.
“I don’t need Hercules.” The words tore at his soul, but he figured he’d better start trying to get used to them.
“Because I’m here! Joxer the Magnificent!” His voice was muffled by the pot on his head, and Iolaus and soldiers alike collectively rolled their eyes as Joxer fell while trying to struggle out of the confines of the rack of shelves.
But then all attentions turned back to the imminent fight. Iolaus slammed his palms into the chests of the two men closest to him, sending them reeling away. He met the next soldier rushing him with a hard kick to the stomach, dropping him to the ground. The hunter began focusing, harnessing all his worry and turbulent emotions and channeling that energy into his feet and fists and making every man that rushed him regret it. He was like a whirlwind, lashing out with kicks and punches, spinning and weaving and ducking and proving himself to be lethal and untouchable. With eyes in the back of his head, he saw a soldier coming up behind him, preparing to bash him with a wooden chair. An elbow to the face made sure that the man would not be getting up until the fighting was over.
Joxer was trying his best to participate, swinging wildly in the air, hoping to hit something. A soldier decided to go after the easy prey and attacked him. The punch reflected harmless off the metal pot that was still on his head, but the force of the blow caused Joxer to spin around and he accidently caught his foe in the head with his balled fist. He wasn’t so lucky with his next opponent, and the soldier tossed him back into the rack of cookware.
Someone finally managed to kick the hunter’s feet out from under him, and he fell back to land in the discarded chair. The soldier backhanded him and then kicked the chair legs, shattering the wood and dropping Iolaus to the ground. But he rolled with the fall and sprang to his feet, ready for the two men that grabbed his arms. He leapt up, flipping himself over and wrenching free from their grasp, punching one and kicking the other. The hunter found himself missing his sword that he’d left back at the inn, but he had always been good at improvisation. Snatching up two frying pans, he wielded them with deadly seriousness, slicing through the air with ominous ferocity. And when the soldiers failed to take the hint, he battered them senseless.
The fight was over, but Iolaus didn’t feel any of the satisfaction that he had earlier that morning. He merely went to Joxer, who was busy issuing threats to nobody.
“Listen, you... I’ll take you on one at a time, or all of you at once! ‘Cause that...” Feeling a tap on his shoulder, Joxer swung around hoping to get lucky a second time. Iolaus ducked the swing and grabbed him by the shoulders, turning him around and pulling the pot off his head. “Oh, you.” Joxer looked around at all the felled soldiers and nodded approvingly. “Good. Good. My plan worked perfectly.”
“Yeah,” Iolaus said, giving him a look of disbelief. “Yeah, you’re quite a boxer, Joxer.”
“Thanks, Iolaus, I... ” Joxer trailed off, realizing just a hair late that the hunter was being facetious.
“You’re wasting your time.”
Serena looked up in surprise to see Ares approaching through the trees.
“What do you mean?”
“He’s not going to marry you.”
“He promised,” she protested.
“Half-gods tell half-truths,” Ares informed her with a shrug. “He doesn’t love you, Serena. He’s just using you as a way to get at me.”
“I don’t believe you,” she told him after a slight hesitation.
“Would I lie?” the god of war asked smoothly. “I protected you. I taught you how to protect yourself. I showed you how to be the hunter instead of the hunted. And then my brother comes in and turns you all around. I saw what happened in the village. You could have wiped all those irritating mortals off the face of the earth. And instead you let them treat you like an animal. Is that really how you want to live from now on?”
“It’s not really any of your concern,” Serena said stubbornly.
“You’re worth so much more than this,” Ares told her gently as he brushed a wisp of hair from her face. “You can come home if you want to, Serena. Everything will be as it was between us. I’m willing to forgive... and forget.
The god of war stepped back and vanished, leaving her to think about his words. For a moment, Serena was scared. Doubts flooded her mind, and for a moment she wondered if it were all possible. If Hercules really could be using her to get at his brother. And for a split second she almost turned and ran back to the temple, to the security that Ares provided. But taking a deep breath, Serena realized Ares was lying.
He had come to her, staying Zeus’s hand and standing up to the king of the gods, demanding that her life be spared. But more than the gift of her life, Ares had been a friend when she’d had no one else to turn to. Gentle and caring as she’d grieved for her lost sisters, protecting her and pledging to keep her safe. She, in turn, pledged her loyalty to the dark god. And then he began teaching her, cultivating her gentle nature into a warrior spirit, encouraging her to release the rage within until she became a tool of war, cutting down anyone that dared to cross her path before they could do the same to her. It was what she felt she owed Ares, letting herself become what he would make of her and serving him with unquestioning faith. But now she saw how wrong she had been.
No matter how gentle his tone or sweet his words, his eyes were cold and hard and glittering with callous ambition. The complete opposite of his brother, whose blue eyes sparkled with kindness and warmth and unconditional love for her. Serena realized Hercules had been right. Ares was a master manipulator, careful to lead her to believe that everything he did was for her benefit. She though he had earned her trust, but now she could see it was all an act. The god of war cared nothing for her, apart from her power as a weapon against the other gods. She also knew that he wouldn’t hesitate to use her as it suited him, even if it meant her death. And with that realization, all doubt was permanently removed from her mind. She would always be grateful to Ares for saving her, but her loyalty had shifted to the one who truly deserved it. Hercules was her future, and Ares existed only in the past.
“Ares!” Hercules called out as he entered the temple. “Show yourself! Come out and face me!”
“You are becoming a singular annoyance, Brother,” the god of war said wearily as he materialized behind the demigod. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to tell you to forget about Serena,” Hercules told him firmly as he moved forward to face him. “We WILL be married. Don’t interfere.”
“Why would I?” Ares asked in a bored tone. “I really don’t think it’s going to happen. Not given the cost.”
The demigod chuckled dangerously.
“Don’t threaten me.”
“Surely, you didn’t think the gods would smile on such a union,” Ares began, moving away to stroll through his temple. “I mean, what? Mingle your blood with hers? I think that gave them pause to contemplate what kind of powerful offspring that might produce.”
“If you have something to say, say it,” Hercules spat contemptuously as he followed him.
“You might say I brokered a deal. After all, the Hind does belong to me.”
“She belongs to no one,” the demigod insisted angrily.
The god of war grinned wolfishly. But he chose to let the matter drop, for the terms of the deal were too good to waste time bickering over petty details.
“To allow this... marriage to take place,” Ares continued gleefully. “The gods have decided that you must make a small sacrifice.”
“Nothing they demand would be too great,” Hercules vowed.
The god of war took a step closer, leaning in conspiratorially.
“They want you to surrender your strength. Your power.” Ares savored the look of shock that came over the demigod’s face. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you said that nothing was too great.”
“Zeus would never go along with this,” Hercules whispered, sickened to think about doing what was demanded of him.
“Oh, wouldn’t he?” Ares asked challengingly.
The demigod turned away, the magnitude of the decision hitting him. He knew in his soul that he couldn’t trust the gods and anything they asked for was bound to work against him. This demand they had issued, it had nothing to do with Serena. It was simply a device meant to destroy him.
“It wouldn’t stop me from helping people,” he said tightly. “You can’t take my heart.”
“Oh, that is a pity,” the god of war agreed. “But I suspect your fervor to aid mankind might diminish once reality sets in.” He clapped his hands together, moving forward to stand next to the reeling demigod. “So! What’s it to be? You lose her? You lose your powers? This is a limited-time offer. You need to choose now.”
Hercules suddenly felt tired. He was tired of the continuous fight with the gods. Tired of cleaning up their messes, and tired of being a pawn in their games. Tired of always looking over his shoulder, and suffering their abuse just because of the lineage he’d had no control over. And he was tired of being a target, and he was even tired of the constant pressure to come to the aid of strangers just because he had strength. But mostly, he was tired of being alone. He loved Serena with all his heart, and he was ready to give up the man he’d been in order to begin a new life with her. And maybe, just maybe, the gods would lose interest in a mere mortal and finally leave him alone once and for all.
“I choose Serena,” Hercules declared confidently.
“I win,” Ares gloated.
“No,” the demigod snarled, turning and grabbing the god of war in a crushing grip. “I win!”
“Ooh,” Ares grinned triumphantly. “Nothing like a brotherly embrace.”
He reversed their positions, latching on to the demigod as he began to drain the divine heritage from him. It was excruciating, and Hercules couldn’t hold back his screams as the strength and power was ripped from him, severed from his being. Fortunately, the process only took a few moments. And then the former demigod collapsed on the floor, shaking with weakness and listening to Ares’ sinister laughter echoing through the temple as he wondered if he had just made the biggest mistake of his life.
“Now, listen, Iolaus,” Joxer called up from the ground below. “Another side benefit is, I’m an excellent cook. How do you like your steak?”
“Alone,” the hunter muttered, realizing that there was no escape even twenty feet up in the air. After their adventure with the soldiers, Joxer had seemingly gotten it in his head that they would make a good team and began regaling him with all the grand adventures they were sure to have. Iolaus tried subtly brushing him off, but the guy didn’t really get subtle. Telling him to get lost really didn’t have much of an effect, either. In desperation, he had retreated to the newly raised cistern, but he still was denied a moment’s peace.
“Listen, would you stop checking those ropes?!” Joxer yelled. “I say, on to Thessala! You know, fortune, fame, and glory await us!”
“Yeah, good, go,” Iolaus told him. “Don’t keep them waiting.”
“You know, you can quit looking for Hercules, ‘cause he’s not coming back,” Joxer continued. “I mean, even if he does, he’s marrying, you know, Goatgirl, or whatever. Where are they gonna have the wedding? The chapel at the zoo?”
“Listen,” the hunter said firmly. “I’m staying here till I know he’s all right.”
“Oh, yeah, now. Yeah, yeah, he’s fine. Don’t worry about Herc. He only went to have it out with the god of war. I’m sure he’ll be back as soon as they’re done having tea and honey cakes. Excuse me while I fall down laughing.”
Joxer hit the ground, holding his sides as he laughed robustly. But Iolaus ignored him, having spotted the demigod coming down the street. He called out to his friend and waved at the villager holding his rope to lower him down. Impatiently, he jumped off his perch with a few feet to go and hurried to meet his partner. He’d been distressed to learn that while he’d been battling Nestor’s soldiers yet again, Hercules had made good on his threat to confront Ares. The horrible vision of the temple had been playing and replaying in his mind ever since, even though he tried to console himself that the following visions, if they were indeed glimpses of the future, indicated the demigod would emerge unscathed. At least until that final scene out in the street... But visions or no visions, Iolaus had been worried and the sense of relief he felt at seeing his friend apparently unharmed was enough to render him speechless.
“I thought you were leaving,” Hercules greeted him with a grin.
“Yeah, yeah. I am,” the hunter replied. “I had to check the ropes and, uh...they’ll be OK.”
“Yeah, good, good.” Hercules’ grin got larger, for he knew very well that his friend had been concerned for him. “Does this mean you’ll stay for the wedding?”
“Wedding?” Joxer chimed in incredulously before Iolaus had a chance to answer. “Wedding? I don’t think so. Listen, you kids have a group hug, and then my partner and I are going to Thessala.”
“You and him?” Hercules asked in disbelief.
“No,” the hunter said vehemently. “He is completely deluded.”
“What is it? My masculine ability? My lightning-fast reflexes that you doubt?” Joxer pushed past them, a little put out that he had to prove himself. “OK, fine, fine. A brief demonstration.”
“Joxer, don’t bother.” But Iolaus’ protests died out as he had to quickly duck to avoid getting sliced by the hatchet that Joxer wrenched out of his pack.
“All right. OK. See that pole?”
“Forget it,” the hunter told him, but he was ignored.
“Watch.” Joxer hurled the hatchet, which hit the pole, but much higher than he had intended and cleanly severed the rope holding the cistern. With the main line cut, the rest of the ropes began to give, and once again the cistern began to fall. One of the flailing ropes wrapped around a little boy’s leg, dragging him right under the bulk of the cistern. Immediately Hercules ran and braced himself under the heavy object as Hemnor did his best to untangle the child.
“Oops,” Joxer said, turning to Iolaus. “Wait here, sidekick.”
He ran to help, but ran smack into the cistern, knocking himself out. It was a feat that really didn’t surprise the hunter much. He had remained where he was, certain that Hercules could handle things. But then he realized that his friend was struggling, and when his partner shot him a pleading glance, Iolaus flew to his side.
“Here, let me help,” he said as he tried to take some of the weight off of Hercules. More of the villagers came forward to support the cistern, and others grabbed onto the remaining ropes to hold it up. Finally Hemnor got the boy loose and pulled him to safety, and once they were clear the people were free to get out from under the cistern and did so rapidly.
Iolaus watched with mounting fear as Hercules crawled free but remained sitting on the ground, panting heavily and looking shocked.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked as he crouched down beside him on his knees, realizing that his friend hadn’t escaped Ares unscathed as he had previously thought. “You lifted that thing by yourself this morning.”
“My strength is gone,” Hercules explained, sounding surprised, as if he was having a hard time believing it himself.
“What?” the hunter demanded.
“Ares took it.”
“How?” Although Iolaus already knew how. He had seen it, plain as day. Ares had grabbed the demigod and sucked the strength right out of him.
“It was a decision of all the gods,” Hercules said bitterly.
“Even Zeus?” the hunter asked, unwilling to believe that the king of the gods would allow such a travesty. Hercules didn’t answer verbally, but the look of betrayal in his blue eyes was all the confirmation Iolaus needed. “Well, how long is this going to last?”
“From now on.”
“Why?” Iolaus asked desperately.
“Because I TRADED it!” Hercules burst out. “It’s for Serena.”
“For Serena?” the hunter repeated in horror. He felt weak himself and eased down to a sitting position on the ground, struggling to remain calm. “Hercules, how do you expect to go on helping people if you’ve given away your powers?”
“The same way you do.”
He meant it as a compliment, but the words chilled Iolaus to his soul. The way he did it was to fight the good fight and do the best he could, and when he got in over his head he relied on his half-god partner to bail him out.
“Hercules, how could you do this?” he cried, getting to his feet and following his friend, who had begun to walk away. “Can’t you see this is a trap? The gods are never going to let you live in peace, and without your strength you’re vulnerable to whatever they’re planning. If Ares agreed to allow this, you know he’s got something up his sleeve. He’ll find a way to use Serena to hurt you. What in Tartarus were you thinking?!”
“Iolaus, stop,” Hercules commanded. “You can yell at me all you want, but what’s done is done. I gave up my strength, and there’s no changing that. And I don’t regret it. Serena’s worth any sacrifice. We are going to be married, and if the gods try and interfere, we’ll deal with them. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a wedding to plan.”
“Should be some wild honeymoon,” Iolaus shouted after him, his anger getting the better of him. “You’re mortal now, remember? You can’t touch her without her turning into the Hind!”
Hercules paused, but he didn’t turn around and after a few heartbeats he kept walking. The hunter watched him go until the tears blurred his vision. He had done a lot of crazy things in the name of love, but nothing compared to what Hercules was doing. Sacrificing it all. What he did, what he believed, even who he was. Giving up everything, save his very life. Although that still remained to be seen.
Another vision had come to pass. Another landmark, taking them ever closer to that final destination. Iolaus shook his head violently to rid himself of the image. The sword... the blood... Hercules looking at him in shock before he fell to the ground... It was NOT possible. But they had gone way past the point of coincidence, and the hunter was getting scared. He could envision nothing that would ever make him take the life of his friend. But if these other visions had come true...
There was a way off the road. It was not a detour he wanted to take, but Iolaus realized it was the only way. He couldn’t take the chance of that final, awful vision becoming reality. Willingly, he knew he could never kill Hercules. But with Ares involved, anything was possible. And the hunter was not willing to risk his best friend’s life, no matter how farfetched his vision seemed.
Iolaus knew there was no point in telling Hercules about his visions. He would just brush his fears aside, saying that “we make our own destinies”. Certainly he would never consider his life in danger, especially not from his partner, and he definitely wouldn’t call off his wedding. Just like he refused to listen the time the hunter had been struck by lightening and could see into the future. Hercules didn’t believe he was in danger then, and Iolaus knew he wouldn’t believe it now. But the hunter was convinced. He didn’t know if it was a flashback to the lightening incident, an effect of the Hind’s poison, or some type of hereditary thing passed on to him from his seer great great great grandmother. But once more he had been given the gift of prophecy. Or the curse of it. And if he couldn’t talk Hercules out of marrying Serena, then there was only one thing left to do.
After all, Iolaus could hardly kill Hercules if he wasn’t there.
“Even more than I’ll miss you serving at my temple, I’ll miss this vision of you running free.”
The Hind turned and saw Ares leaning against a tree, watching her.
“This was my home,” she said wistfully, gazing at the forest around her.
“And now, a dreary hovel, living like a peasant,” Ares reminded her as he moved forward to face her. “A life worse than death.”
“Whatever my life with Hercules holds, I look forward to it,” Serena informed him, her chin jutting out defiantly.
“Go to him, then,” the god of war granted her. She turned to obey, but froze as he continued. “But you don’t leave here as the Hind. Oh, no, no, no, no. You’ll be mortal. You’ll experience sickness. You’ll grow old. And you will die. Like they say, ‘It’s a wonderful life.’”
“But I’m the last of my kind,” she protested. Surely she couldn’t be expected to give that up. She was the last of a line of mystical creatures. It would be one thing for her race to die out naturally, but she couldn’t forfeit her kind willingly.
“Your kind is extinct,” Ares snarled. Then he relaxed, cocking his head slightly as he studied her. “Unless you wish to reconsider?”
“No,” Serena answered firmly. She knew that to the god of war there was no greater threat than that of mortality. Hunger, cold, sickness, pain, death. But to her, it all paled in comparison to the love that she’d found with Hercules. He was worth any hardship. And to be able to live at his side, as his wife, well, that was worth any sacrifice. Even the termination of her kind. “If that’s what it takes, that’s what I’ll do.”
“True love,” Ares sighed. “How I despise it.”
Before Serena knew what was happening the god had hit her with a bolt of light. She felt herself changing, transforming into mortal woman, for what would be the last time. There was pain as her immortality was taken from her, and then it was over. She was a mortal. But at least she was free. Trying to hold back the tears, Serena turned from Ares and began walking through the forest toward the man that she loved. The god of war watched her, a look of regret in his dark eyes. It was a waste, but the necessary means to the end that he coveted. “Yes,” he murmured to himself. “I will miss you.”
Unlike Joxer, Iolaus preferred to travel light. So gathering up his few belongings from his room at the inn should have only taken him a moment, but he was stretching the simple task out as long as he could. Hercules was downstairs, waiting for him. The hunter knew that he was confused, and hurt. He couldn’t understand why Iolaus was refusing to stand beside him when he’d never failed to before. And Hercules kept looking at him, like he was waiting for him to break down and reconsider. But that wasn’t going to happen. The hunter’s mind was made up. He had to leave, before any more of his visions came true. For he vowed he was not about to take the life of his best friend.
Even if he had to abandon him forever to do it.
Finally, he could stall no longer. It was time to go. Get the goodbye over with. At least Hercules didn’t know what he knew. That it would be their last one. Taking a deep breath and steeling himself, Iolaus grabbed his sword and trotted downstairs. The inn was quiet and empty, save for Hercules who was leaning up against one of the stone pillars.
“So, you’re leaving?” he asked, still not quite believing it.
“How can you miss me if I don’t go away?” Iolaus tried to joke as he moved to stand before his partner. It was an effort to keep his tone light, for his heart was breaking.
“Then you haven’t changed your mind about the wedding?” Hercules asked sadly.
“I can’t,” the hunter told him, losing some of his carefully built control. He wished he could tell his friend that he was leaving for him. That his moving on to Thessala could be the very thing that would save Hercules’ life. Iolaus knew he didn’t understand. And he could see how much his leaving was hurting his friend. But it was nothing compared to the agony the hunter was feeling. It was tearing him apart to have to walk away, especially as if he didn’t care. As if he didn’t love Hercules enough to stand beside him. But more than anything, their relationship was built on trust. Hercules may not have understood, but good friend that he was, he respected Iolaus enough to let him go without an argument.
“Well,” Hercules hedged, trying to think of how to say goodbye to a lifetime of friendship. It was hardly the first time they’d gone their separate ways, but things were different this time. Even though he’d insisted to his partner that nothing was changing by adding Serena into his life, it was obvious that things were. “We had some wild times together.”
“We’re wild guys,” the hunter agreed.
“We made a good team,” Hercules said simply. But the heartfelt look in his blue eyes as he gazed down at his best friend stated all that his words did not. “Yeah,” Iolaus whispered, his own cerulean eyes reciprocating those sentiments and then some. “We were.”
They remained like that for several moments, until Hercules shook himself slightly and held out his hand. Iolaus took it as they exchanged a warrior shake, and then it was over. Turning, the hunter headed for the door.
“Promise you’ll visit,” Hercules called after him. “Little Iolaus will want to know his namesake.”
Iolaus turned, illuminated in a shaft of afternoon sunlight that was streaming in through the window. He gave his friend a brilliant grin, even as the tears began to well in his eyes. It filled his heart to know that Hercules wanted to name his firstborn son after him. But it shattered his heart to know that he would never get to see the little guy.
“Yeah,” he lied, “I will.”
And then he hurried out of the inn before he broke down completely.
Hercules leaned back against the pillar, already missing his partner. He didn’t understand why Iolaus felt so compelled to leave him, and it did hurt him that the man who’d been his best friend since childhood couldn’t stay one more day for his wedding. But he had let him go, hadn’t pressed him on his flimsy excuses. For if the hunter had been right and Ares was still plotting against him, at least this way Iolaus would be away from the line of fire. For once, someone he loved would be spared.
Iolaus had tried to sneak out of town, but Joxer had caught him. The man was utterly clueless until you wanted him to be, and then he somehow grew wise to every trick. He was like a parasite, and once he glommed on there was no getting rid of him. Normally the hunter would have been tickled that someone was actually idolizing him over Hercules, but with the current state of affairs he was not in the mood to deal with a new “partner”. He tried to be polite, but Joxer was not taking ‘no’ for an answer and was dogging him with relentless persistence.
“Come on, Iolaus,” he whined.
“Look, I’m going to say this slowly,” Iolaus told him firmly as he strode briskly down the road that led to Thessala. “There never was a partnership. It’s all in your mind, what little there is of it.”
“You’re gonna be sorry!” Joxer warned him. “What are ya hangin’ out with that loser for, anyway?! I mean, hey! Hercules doesn’t even have his power anymore!”
The hunter stopped as rage overtook him and he spun around to grab the taller man by the front of his tunic, yanking him down so that they were eye to eye.
“Never, EVER, speak of Hercules like that in my presence,” he said forcefully. “He is ten times the man you will ever be.”
“Ok,” Joxer relented quietly, the posturing scared out of him. When Iolaus let him go and continued walking, some of his courage returned. “Well, great! Now he’s your best buddy, again. I wish you’d make up your mind.”
As his words sunk in, the hunter’s steps slowed and faltered as something jogged in his brain. What was he doing? Hercules WAS his “best buddy”. And Iolaus was abandoning him when he needed him by his side. The hunter closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. He still had a bad feeling about everything that was happening, but he couldn’t let fear cloud his judgment. His visions had been coming true, but it was that last one he’d been running from. But how could it possibly come true? There was nothing in the world that could ever make him take the life of his best friend. His intentions for leaving had been good, but that didn’t make it any less wrong. Whatever Hercules was about to face, Iolaus couldn’t let him do it alone. Leaving Joxer standing in the middle of the road, he turned and took off running back to Ceryneia, praying that he wasn’t too late.
Hercules waited nervously, fidgeting with the cuffs of his silk shirt as he waited for Serena, slightly afraid that she had changed her mind. But as the sun began to set, drenching the quaint hillside and the lake below with a golden glow, his bride appeared. She was wearing a simple gown and the necklace he had given her, with a crown of flowers adorning her head and she had never looked more beautiful. Hercules’ heart swelled with love, but a touch of sadness marred the happy occasion. They were alone, and almost unconsciously he glanced to the empty place at his side where his best man should have been.
“I’m afraid the trees will have to be our witness,” he murmured.
Serena looked around at the forest that she had called home, then looked back at him with a smile and a small shrug.
Hercules took her hands, gazing down into her deep brown eyes, scarcely believing she was moments away from becoming his wife.
“Yes, I am,” she replied confidently.
“We ask the force...”
Hercules didn’t mind the interruption, for he was overjoyed to see Iolaus sprinting up the hill toward them.
“What is the rush?” the hunter panted when he reached them.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Hercules told him, grabbing his hand and sporting a huge grin, almost as if he’d known his partner ultimately couldn’t stay away.
“So am I,” Serena added, for even though he hadn’t said much, she could tell just how badly Hercules had wanted his friend there and how much it had meant to him.
“Oh, I couldn’t miss it,” Iolaus assured them, glancing back and forth between them. “This is...Well, it’s the most important moment in your life. That makes it the most important moment in my life. Anyway, you can’t get married without a best man.”
Hercules laughed, throwing an arm around his shoulders and drawing him to his side for a hug. When he let go, Iolaus turned to Serena, but she solved his dilemma for him as she reached out and touched his arm. Immediately, the hunter understood. Ares had offered her the same deal as Hercules, and she had taken it. No longer was she the Golden Hind. With new respect for her conviction and love for his friend, Iolaus leaned in and kissed her cheek.
“Shall we begin again?” Serena asked, turning back to Hercules.
“Yes,” he agreed. “We ask the force that created the sun, the earth, the seas, and the skies...”
“To bless this union,” she continued. “Make us one. Inseparate. Always.”
“Always,” Hercules repeated. “And everything is going to be ok.”
As they shared their first kiss as man and wife, Iolaus was a little surprised to realize that he was sincerely glad for them. The way they looked at each other, with so much love and happiness, was enough to make him think that just maybe all his fears were unfounded and that it just could work out for them. After all, if anyone could pull off the impossible, it was Hercules. Although, the hunter speculated with a huge grin, Ares had just become the least of Hercules’ problems. For Iolaus knew that there was going to be pure Tartarus to pay when Alcmene found out her son had gone and had a wedding without her. And it was the one time where he had absolutely no intentions of standing by his partner’s side. For his mother’s wrath, Hercules was on his own.
Hercules’ strength was not harmed during the production of this motion picture. In fact, Ares is storing it in a cryogenic freezer bag deep in the Olympian Meat Locker
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