As Hercules closed the door behind them, Serena danced on ahead, reveling in the beauty of the day.
“Oh, I’m so excited!” she exclaimed eagerly.
“Serena, we’re only going to the marketplace,” Hercules reminded her, smiling at her enthusiasm as he put an arm around her.
“I know,” she replied. “But I could never do this before. Not without fear of being touched and turning back into the Hind. This is such a great feeling of freedom.”
“I’m glad you’re happy,” Hercules told her sincerely. He’d been afraid the regret of giving up her immortality and sacrificing her kind would catch up with her once reality set in, but to his delight she continued to be content with her decision.
“Absolutely,” he vowed, for her happiness had become all that mattered to him.
“No regrets?” Serena asked quietly, wondering if he felt as good about his choice as she did with hers.
“Well....” Hercules teased her, earning him a light smack. They stopped walking and he turned to take her into his arms. “No. No regrets.” To prove his point, he leaned down, kissing her passionately.
“We could always go in later,” she pointed out, running her hands suggestively up his arms.
“Yeah, except Iolaus is waiting for us,” he reminded her. “And we stood him up yesterday.”
“But it is our honeymoon,” Serena whispered seductively.
She squealed as he swept her up in his arms and started retracing their steps back to the house.
“Wait,” she laughed, bringing him to a halt. “It would be rude. I mean, Iolaus did help with the house, and... ”
“Yeah,” Hercules sighed, feeling a little guilty. Hemnor had led them to an abandoned house outside of the village which he assured them was theirs for the taking. It had gone unclaimed for many years and had fallen in bad repair, but Iolaus had worked tirelessly alongside his friend and together they had made the house liveable in a matter of days. Hemnor, who had a certain decorative flair, had helped them with the inside, furnishing him with some of his best pottery to make the small cottage seem like a home. And several of the villagers had also contributed. Appreciative of the help that Hercules and Iolaus had given them over the course of the last month, and touched by the depth of the love between the admittedly odd couple that made them willing to sacrifice all for each other, the good people of Ceryneia had begun to come around. Gifts of linen and cookware were given as a peace offering, to amend their former persecution of the Hind and to suggest a fresh start for all of them.
Serena had been heartbreakingly touched. Hercules had assured her that she could find acceptance in the village, but it had seemed like too much to ever hope for. And yet there she was, living as one of them. Oh, she knew that their new home was only temporary. Her husband had ties in Thebes and Corinth, and if they were going to settle down somewhere it was logical that they would do it near his family. And she also knew that Hercules was not wild about living right under Ares’ nose, and that the forest held bad memories for him, and his best friend. But the forest was also the only home she’d ever known. And without even needing to say it, Hercules had known that she needed a little time to get used to mortal life and her new place within it. So he graciously had suggested they stay in Ceryneia for a little while, giving her time to adjust before he took her away from everything familiar. He didn’t tell her that was the reason, but Serena read it in his heart and she loved him all the more for it.
“We can come back early,” she told him, her soft voice heavy with promise as she stroked his cheek.
“I’ve created a monster,” Hercules grinned. He kissed her once more before dropping her gently back to the ground as he fought back his rising passion. “We’ll come back early.”
Laughing, Serena took his hand and together they set off for town. The short journey was uneventful, and they both tried their best to keep the fooling around to a minimum, with some success. When they arrived, the market was already bustling, and Serena’s eyes lit up as she took it all in. Hercules let her tug him along, giving her an indulgent grin. Most of the people around them found the act of going to the market a chore, but his wife was thriving in the experience she’d always wanted but could never have. The fact that so simple a thing could make her so happy was just one of the reasons Hercules loved her. Which was why a hard anger came over him when Nestor’s soldiers began trying their hardest to ruin it for her.
“Let’s just keep moving,” Serena urged, seeing her husband’s eyes go cold as the soldiers, who apparently had nothing else to do in their lives except hang around Ceryneia and cause trouble, began moving in with their derogatory comments.
“That’s one prime piece of venison,” one of them sneered loudly. He was still feeling cheated over the loss of his chance to take the Hind and claim her gold, and less so for his missed chance to take down the mighty demigod who had humiliated him and his companions time after time.
“Excuse me,” Hercules growled, turning to face them. He’d been willing to follow Serena’s lead and ignore them, but a line had been crossed. “That’s my wife you’re talking about.”
“Just ignore them, Hercules,” Serena pleaded. The taunts didn’t bother her nearly as much as they did him, and she just wanted to move on before things got out of control.
“Bet she’s nice to snuggle up to in the winter,” the soldier continued with a smirk. “All that soft deer fur.”
“Ah, fellas, look. I’m in a good mood today.” His voice was deceptively pleasant, but Hercules was glaring daggers at the men. “So, why don’t you just apologize, and we’ll go on our separate ways?”
“Now, why would we do that?” the soldier demanded. Hercules might not have been a demigod any longer, but they could still take pleasure in their revenge on him, even if he couldn’t put up much of a fight. “Especially since you lost your strength.”
“Yeah, well, at least I haven’t lost my manners,” Hercules informed him icily.
“Let’s just go find Iolaus,” Serena begged, pulling at his arm. But he shook her off and held up a warning finger.
“Serena, I can handle this myself,” he told her, sounding almost as if he were speaking to a naughty child. His gaze never wavered from the soldier before him, but the sharp sound of a steel blade being drawn rang in his ears and Serena’s cry alerted him to the attack from behind. He whirled around, punching the man hard before he ever had a chance to use the weapon. The soldiers watched their comrade crumple to the ground and glanced back at Hercules, who was shaking his hand painfully.
“What, have you got a rock for a head?” he muttered. Looking around the ring of men surrounding him, he gave a casual shrug and a chuckle. Of course, he does.”
Without warning, a staff hit him from behind. Hercules staggered from the blow, and before he could recover from the shock, another staff caught him in the head, sending him crashing into a stand of cauldrons. He lay for a moment, dazed, and feeling the pain coursing through him. As a demigod, he had felt pain. Sometimes a lot of it. But now he realized that it had been muted through his divinity. And his godly blood had quickly soothed his wounds and quieted strained and bruised muscles. As a mortal, he had lost that divine protection. His head throbbed more painfully than his worst hangover, and his back was burning, and neither showed any indication of receding. As he struggled to get up, the thought crossed his mind that Iolaus had felt like this during every fight they’d ever been in.
Rough hands grabbed his shoulder, yanking him out of the tangle of the former stand. Someone began to pummel him from behind with a cooking pot, and then the man holding him kicked him hard in the face. Hercules sagged, but he was held upright as the soldier wielding the staff came at him, using the weapon as a bat and his head as a ball as the surrounding villagers cringed in sympathy. The world was spinning around him and he fell to his knees, but after a moment he struggled back to his feet. With a grunt, he strained mightily, meaning to flip the men holding his arms to the ground like he’d done a hundred times before. But nothing happened, and he looked up in the sneering face of the soldier with a touch of fear as the man stood over him.
“How does if feel to be like the rest of us?” he taunted, striking Hercules hard in the gut with the head of his mace. He raised the lethal weapon up high, leering at the helpless man before him. “Now, which part of you shall I break first?”
Suddenly, Iolaus was there, launching himself off the shoulders of one of the soldiers to impact feet first with mace man, sending him flying into the dirt. He whirled around, already taking on the next man as his battered friend let out a breath of relief. Shaking his head to clear it, Hercules realized he needed to pull himself together. The pain was acute, but he had to put it out of his mind for now. His strength was gone. Where he used to pull his punches, he was now going to have to swing with all the force he was capable of. He no longer had the power to toss men about like they were rag dolls. It made things harder, but not impossible. After all, he had graduated with top honors from Cheiron’s Academy. And the centaur definitely had not allowed him to rely on his godly strength, but had pushed him mercilessly to develop his skills and his brain.
With a silent prayer of thanks to his old mentor, Hercules lifted up a foot and kicked the guy holding his right arm hard in the shins. When the soldier released him, he elbowed him hard in the nose and then swung around with his free arm to clip the guy on his left in the head, watching in satisfaction as he slammed into one of his companions on the way down. He knew it was going to take some time to learn how to readjust a lifetime of fighting skills to his new mortal form, as well as get used to the new, stronger sensation of pain. But Hercules always was a fast learner, and there was no time like the present.
Iolaus shook his head, wondering how many times he and Hercules were going to have to beat these guys before they learned their lesson. But as the hunter clasped his hands together and swung his arms, catching one of the creeps with a double fisted blow, he had to admit to himself he really didn’t mind teaching them all over again. And, there was always hope that maybe this time they’d learn. Unless they were so brain damaged from the previous fights they were incapable of rational thought. Realizing he was amusing himself to the point of distraction, Iolaus wiped the grin from his face and ran at two soldiers, hurling his body at them. Instinctively, they caught him, and the hunter kicked the one holding his legs and slammed an open palm into the face of the one holding his torso before rolling over them easily to jump onto the wooden table behind them. He grabbed them from behind, slamming their heads together, and while they were reeling he executed two rapid fire spin kicks that sent each of them collapsing to the ground. Glancing over to check on Serena, Iolaus saw her brain one of the soldier with a clay pot and he turned back to the fight, reassured that she could take care of herself.
Hercules caught his next attacker with a punch, and as the guy faltered, he pulled back and delivered a savage blow. In his previous form, he would have probably put his fist through the guy’s head, but in his mortal form it was still powerful enough that the soldier went cross eyed. He began to sink, and Hercules couldn’t resist helping him find the ground. The next soldier he caught with a kick, and while he was doubled over Hercules leap frogged over him, kicking back and catching him in the butt. The man staggered forward, bowling over two of his friends in the process, but Hercules missed the added bonus as he was already doling out a left and a right to the next foe. Another hard punch sent the soldier flipping over into the dirt, and Hercules turned to find the three men behind him straightening themselves out. A second kick to the rear sent the man bowling back into his friends once more. Taking his cue from Iolaus, Hercules clasped his hands and knocked out the two men standing with double fisted blows. Then he raised his clenched fists high in the air and brought them down as hard as he could on the back of the man still bent over in front of him.
A man with a mace attacked next. Hercules ducked a high swing and jumped to avoid the following low one. He kept dodging the wild swings and sneaking in to land punches until the soldier had begun to see stars. Then Hercules started whaling on him in earnest, finishing up with a hard punch that sent him spinning in circles to crash into the big mouth who had started all the trouble. He still had his mace, but Hercules never gave him a chance to use it. Grabbing him by the shoulders, he snapped his neck forward and caught the man with a brutal head butt, which he immediately realized had been a massive mistake as pain seared through his already abused skull. But fortunately, he was able to shake it off before his adversary did, and Hercules dragged the man over to where Serena was watching with frightened eyes.
“Now,” Hercules panted, giving the soldier in his grasp a firm shake. “About that apology.”
“Sorry,” the man muttered as his eyes rolled back into his head and he slipped bonelessly to the ground.
Hercules nodded his satisfaction, but when he looked at Serena he saw the fear and worry in her eyes, and hot anger welled up inside him. She didn’t trust him, now that he no longer had his strength. Didn’t think he could handle himself anymore. She, and Iolaus, both of them. The anger turned to rage as the hunter came up behind him, holding out a hand, expecting a congratulatory slap, but the gesture made Hercules’ fists clench. He didn’t need to be protected. He didn’t need their help. He didn’t need anyone running to his rescue. But obviously, they thought he did, and this realization snapped something inside of him.
“Are you all...?”
“I said I could take care of this myself,” Hercules snarled, interrupting his wife.
“But...” Serena trailed off, confused over his sudden, unexplained burst of temper.
Hercules turned, giving his partner a fierce glare before he stomped off across the market.
“You’re welcome,” Iolaus snapped, dropping his outstretched hand. “We were just trying...”
“When I say I don’t need any help, I don’t need any help!” Hercules shouted, turning back to his wife. “Unless you two don’t think I’m up to this anymore!”
“I thought, maybe... ” Serena turned to Iolaus helplessly.
“I’ve never seen him like that,” the hunter told her, just as bewildered as she was. “Herc, wait up!” he called as they both chased after him.
“Ah!” Hercules roared as they came up behind him, turning on them in fury. “Don’t you EVER, EVER, doubt me again! I might not have all my strength, but I’m not some helpless, impotent old man who can’t fight his own battles!”
“What is wrong with you?!” Serena demanded, growing a little angry herself over the way she was being irrationally treated by the one man she thought would never raise his voice to her.
“Nothing!” he screamed, looming over the both of them, and appearing as if he was fighting the urge to hit them both. “Nothing has changed!”
Unseen to the mortal eyes, Strife grinned delightedly from his vantage point nearby. Ares would be pleased. But it was best not to overdue it, so he vanished, taking the rage he’d inflicted on Hercules with him. As soon as he was gone, Hercules stumbled slightly, putting a hand to his head as he was overcome with a momentary dizziness. Iolaus noticed and dared to approach, laying a hand on his friend’s arm.
“Hercules, are you all right?”
He glanced at his partner, then looked at Serena. She was deeply upset, her brown eyes full of confusion, hurt, anger... and even a little fear. Hercules felt sick, remembering what he had said, but not knowing what had possessed him to say it. And it made him feel lower than dirt to realize he had frightened the woman he had vowed to protect. His wife had been afraid of him.
“I’m...” He swallowed hard, not knowing how to even begin to apologize for the one thing in his life he vowed never to do. “I don’t know what got into me.”
“I was worried about you,” Serena told him, close to tears as she reached up to caress his cheek.
“I know,” he whispered raggedly, overcome with shame and guilt.
“I’ve never seen you get so angry over...” Iolaus trailed off, for he HAD seen it. Oh, not in reality. For in all the long years they’d known each other, he’d seen Hercules plenty mad. Sometimes even in a terrifying rage, like when Hera had murdered his family. But it still wasn’t like this. Pure, blind, encompassing fury, without even a reason. But he had seen it, in his visions. And it had happened just like he had dreamed it. Another one had come true. And the hunter’s heart sank about as low as it could go.
“I’m sorry,” Hercules said, meaning it with all his soul although he knew it would not make up for his behavior. Iolaus didn’t answer, but Serena stood on tiptoe to kiss him with trembling lips.
“Ah, sweetheart. It’s OK,” she tried to reassure him. But her forced smile didn’t quite make it to her eyes.
Strife found his uncle reminiscing on an old battleground. The war had long since been fought, but the evidence lingered on. Armor and forgotten weapons littered the peaceful field, along with overturned wagons, and the skeletal corpses of fallen men that nobody had ever come to claim. Ares had been lost in the memories, but as his nephew appeared he turned his attentions back to the current war that was brewing.
“I got old Hercules coming and going,” Strife reported, falling into step beside him.
“Good,” the god of war told him, indeed pleased. “Next step is to get him going, going, gone.”
“No sweat,” the godling promised him. “I haven’t even hit him in dreamland yet.” He pranced ahead, planting himself in his uncle’s path and halting him, wanting to make sure he had his attention. “Um, just... about payment?”
“Don’t worry,” Ares assured him. “You’ll be amply rewarded.”
“I just mean... if I could just get a hint,” Strife persisted, not sure his idea of reward was the same as his uncle’s. “I mean, I certainly don’t expect to get into your category, but, maybe, if I was, you know...” He realized he was babbling, and probably pushing his luck, but the matter was of utmost importance to him. All his life he’d been considered a joke by the Olympians, and he wanted nothing more than to be a real god, with real power. He knew he had to prove himself worthy, but it was impossible when he was never given a chance. Strife was almost prepared to beg, but then he reigned in his desperation, for he knew Ares wouldn’t be above taking advantage of it. “A title,” he continued, trying to lighten his argument with levity. “If I was, say, god of skirmishes.” He traced his hand out in front of him, as if he could read the name written out before him. Strife laughed, but Ares merely glared at him. “That was a joke,” he explained to his uncle. “Dig?”
Ares pretended to laugh, but then the glare was back, his dark eyes smoldering.
“Dig Hercules’ grave,” he insisted. “And learn how to talk so I can understand you.” The god continued on through the meadow, ignoring his nephew as his head lolled in dramatic frustration. “You’ve got to learn to relax more, Strife. Savor the moments of existence. Example. This is the site of one of my greatest triumphs.” Ares’ voice grew louder as his passion rose. “The battle of Torrence. Ten thousand corpses littered the battleground. The stench was... invigorating.”
Strife rolled his eyes as his uncle threw out his arms, trying to recapture the scent of death that had once permeated the now quiet field.
“So, who was the great general responsible for this... aroma?” he asked, obviously not sharing the god’s enthusiasm.
“No general,” Ares answered, pacing back toward him. “It was a warrior.” He leaned in, whispering in his nephew’s ear. “Xena.” Striding forward, the god drew his sword, gesturing emphatically as he relived the victory. “She led her army through the opponent’s infantry like flies. Limbs were scattered everywhere.” Ares stopped, his voice trembling slightly with reverence. “It was beautiful.”
Strife moved forward, stopping behind his uncle and resting his chin on his shoulder.
“You miss her, don’t you? It’s a shame she decided to change sides.”
“I wouldn’t give up on her just yet,” Ares warned him, glancing over at him and surprisingly allowing the gesture of familiarity and the sincere support that was behind it. “Death’s perfume can be very... addictive. Now, let’s just see how my game plan unfolds. When the time is right, I’ll need you to help me nudge Xena in this direction. And this time, she won’t refuse me.”
They had gone to the inn and shared a meal, and Hercules’ uncharacteristic outburst was soon forgiven and forgotten. It was a lighthearted dinner, with plenty of laughing and teasing, along with enough expressions of love from the newlyweds to make Iolaus feel like he was a third wheel in their newfound bliss. Not that he really minded all that much. Hercules, being the noble gentleman that he was, had a lot of repressed tension to work out. And they had been using their honeymoon to full advantage, making up for lost time and then some. Iolaus knew better than anyone that his friend was entitled, but it also gave him a valid excuse to slip away.
“Hercules, you need your privacy,” he announced, daring his friend to argue. “I’m going to go fishing for a few days. Or at least until your honeymoon’s over.”
“You’re going to be gone that long, are you?” Hercules murmured, lost in his wife’s eyes as she giggled.
“Well, you’re not planning a six month honeymoon, are you?”
“Mmm, we were thinking more in terms of forever.” Serena laughed again, and tore her gaze from her husband long enough to glance at the hunter. Somehow, he didn’t quite think she was joking.
“OK,” Iolaus said, since everything had apparently been decided and accepted. He crammed the last morsel of food in his mouth and rose from the table. “Well, I’m going to get an early start tomorrow.”
“Well, why don’t you stop by for breakfast?” Hercules offered. “I mean, it’s on the way.”
“I’m leaving at dawn,” the hunter reminded him.
“That’s all right,” Serena assured him. “We’ll be up. Come as early as you like.” When he just sighed, she fixed a stern gaze on him. “Iolaus!”
“OK,” he agreed, seeing no way around it. “But only for a quick visit, all right?” He slapped his friend on the shoulder and headed upstairs to his room, much preferring to bunk at the tavern and leave the insatiable honeymooners to their privacy.
“I want to remind all of you to come to our town meeting tomorrow night,” the village elder announced to the gathering crowd. “We’ll be discussing the formal dedication of our new water cistern to Hercules.”
None of them could see Strife lounging in their masses, and the godling grinned as he pointed his finger at the man closest to him, filling his head with heated arguments.
“Just a minute!” the man cried out, leaping up on the platform next to the elder. “Don’t you realize the trouble you’ll be bringing on yourself by doing something like that?”
“But, Hercules is a friend of ours,” the elder protested. “He helped us build that cistern.”
“And what has he done for you lately?” the man pointed out. “Married a creature! And it’s half-human, half-animal! The gods can’t be pleased with that!”
“Hercules isn’t hurting anyone. And nothing bad has happened to any of us yet.”
“Oh? What happened in the marketplace today?” the man reminded them. “Think that’s the last incident like that we’ll see? Every young punk from here to Hellespont will be showing up to challenge Hercules. To test his strength!”
“What do you suggest we do?” the elder asked, a bit sarcastically.
“Go to him,” the man encouraged him. “Tell him to leave. Take our town back before it’s too late!”
The rest of the gathered villagers were nodding in agreement, which gave the elder pause. He had served as their leader for many years, demonstrating boundless wisdom and fairness during that time. It was not his nature to be swayed or bribed by the individual, but he did have a responsibility to his people.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said finally. “Tomorrow, at the town meeting, we’ll discuss the matter. And if the majority are in agreement, then I’ll talk to Hercules and ask him to move on.”
It wasn’t quite the reaction that Strife had hoped for, but he tried to be patient, as Ares had instructed. He would be at that town meeting, and he’d make sure the vote was on his side. And then, everything would fall into place.
“You know,” Serena began as she lay in her husband’s arms, shivering a little as his fingers traced up and down her skin. “If you want to go fishing with Iolaus, I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”
“Maybe we should all go,” Hercules suggested, knowing full well that his partner would hate it.
“You know what Iolaus says about ‘three’s a crowd’,” Serena reminded him, also knowing that the hunter would not appreciate the intrusion.
“So is two as far as fishing and Iolaus is concerned,” Hercules chuckled, calling to mind how mad his friend would get when he refused to play by the rules and caught the fish with his bare hands. “He’ll have a better time by himself.”
“I just don’t want you to change your lifestyle because of me,” she said quietly. “I know how you help people, the adventures you go on. I don’t want to upset that.”
“You won’t,” he assured her, loving her for her understanding. “It’s just a matter of balancing what I do out there, and what I do at home. With my family.”
“Family?” Serena asked, unable to hold back a smile at the thought.
“Oh, yeah,” Hercules agreed, unable to think of anything that would delight him more than a child.
“I love you so much,” she told him fiercely.
“Well,” he grinned, easing out from under her. “You’re pretty and smart.” Hercules kissed his wife with passion, preparing to fully enjoy another night of their never ending honeymoon.
In the still of the night, a cloaked figure spun across the yard. He was invisible to the mortal eye, but even if he wasn’t it would have been virtually impossible to pick him out of the inky darkness. And while the world slumbered quietly, Strife leapt and danced his way up to the house, twirling theatrically as he sang out to the sleeping world.
“Hey, Cousin Morpheus, throw Herc a dream. Shake up a wild one; make him yell and scream. Shake up a wild one; make him yell and scream.”
The godling appeared at the window, looking in at the peaceful couple, a demented grin splitting his pasty face as Hercules began to toss and moan.
“Don’t you EVER, EVER doubt me again! I might not have all my strength, but I’m not some helpless, impotent old man who can’t fight his own battles!”
“What is wrong with you?!”
“Nothing! Nothing has changed!”
“If nothing’s changed, then how come you let that soldier back there almost brain you?!”
“I can take care of myself!” Hercules roared in anger.
“And me?!” Serena demanded, just as angry. “Can you take care of me like you did your first family?!”
“Don’t talk about them!” he shouted.
They paced around each other like predators, glaring hot hatred that was almost tangible.
“I gave up everything for you!” Serena cried hysterically. “I was the last of my kind! And now.. And now, I can’t protect myself ! And you, you gave up your strength. You can’t protect me! How am I supposed to feel?!”
“I am WARNING you!” he screamed.
“Oh, go ahead, hit me. Hit me! Oh, show me what a strong man you are!”
She was in his face, taunting him, challenging him... daring him. Fury overcame him, and with an animal growl Hercules pulled back his fist and let it fly.
Hercules awoke with a gasp. As he realized it had all been just a terrible nightmare, he sat up with a sigh, wiping the sweat from his face with hands that still trembled. It had been so real. So vividly real. And the intensity of it scared him. For a brief moment, he wondered if he could be losing his mind. And then a pounding sound caused him to nearly jump out of his skin.
“I guess we overslept,” Serena murmured as she stretched languidly before sliding out of bed and slipping a robe on over her gown. “Well, what are you waiting for?” she chided her husband as the knock came again. “Go let Iolaus in.”
Hercules rose, pulling on his pants before he went and opened the door for his friend.
“I knew it was too early,” the hunter greeted them with a small grin as he entered and immediately realized he’d woken them.
“It’s not,” Serena assured him. “And don’t even think about leaving here without breakfast. We’re not about to send you off into the woods without one last good meal.”
Iolaus laughed and began pulling supplies out of his pack. Serena had never had to cook before, and she had been excited over the learning process. Hercules had been helping her, and she had proven to have a knack for it so far. But the hunter was eager to hit the road and he was also hungry, so anticipating that he was going to catch his friends unprepared, he had taken care of breakfast for them while he was buying the rest of the supplies he’d need. Hercules started a fire while Iolaus brought in water, and within minutes they were sitting down to the meal.
True to his word, the hunter’s visit was a quick one. He didn’t linger when they had finished eating, but packed up his gear and said his goodbyes. Serena hugged him warmly and kissed him, and Hercules walked him outside to the road.
“Are you ok, Herc?” Iolaus asked him, thinking his friend looked a little wan and had been quiet through the meal.
“Fine,” he replied. “I just didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“I’ll bet,” the hunter grinned wickedly, jumping to the natural, if erroneous conclusion.
“Don’t stay away too long,” Hercules told him somberly. For reasons he didn’t understand, he was starting to feel unnerved at the thought of Iolaus being gone.
Their warrior shake quickly turned into a hug, and then Iolaus set off down the road, stopping to turn and wave once before he went around the bend and out of sight.
Fishing wasn’t really on the hunter’s mind. But it was an innocent enough reason to leave that it didn’t warrant any suspicion. Hercules had accepted it without question, believing that his friend really did just want to give the lovesick newlyweds a few days of privacy. But in truth, Iolaus had just needed to get away. Too much had happened too fast, and he just needed to distance himself from it all to try and process it and get a little perspective. So he took a few days, traveling aimlessly, no real destination as he enjoyed the beauty of the land and the peace of the forest and tried to let it all soothe the ache in his soul.
But late at night, as he sat next to his lonely campfire, a resigned sadness tended to come over Iolaus. Hercules and Serena were married. And although his friend had insisted nothing would change, the hunter knew that it would. Of course it would. Their partnership had become a threesome. Even if Serena stayed at home, Hercules’ mind would be back with her. The days of them adventuring carefree through the land were over. Once more, Hercules had the pull of familial obligations. And while Iolaus would never begrudge him happiness or love, he had to admit a small part of him was jealous. Knowing that things were never going to be the same again and feeling that loss. Missing the way that it used to be, and wondering what sort of place he held in Hercules’ new life. He hated thinking that way, believing it to be selfish. But he couldn’t help himself, for it was apparent that Hercules had no problem casting him aside when Serena had come along.
He couldn’t admit it to Hercules, but he couldn’t deny it to himself. Iolaus was hurt that his friend could just pass him over without even a second thought. Hiding the truth about Serena from him at first, not even telling him that he had proposed to her! And once the truth had come out, Hercules had just dismissed all his concerns as unimportant and expected him to be the best man at his wedding like nothing had happened.
Iolaus had spent his life standing beside his friend. When he should have known better. When it put him in danger. When it got him hurt. When it got him killed. But he had never failed to be there, out of the love he had for the man who was the brother of his heart, and out of his unwavering belief in all he stood for and fought against. Yet this time, he had declined. Hoping and praying that it would make Hercules think about what he was doing and jolt him into seeing the consequences of his actions. That the threat of walking away would cause the demigod to realize that if his best friend felt that strongly, that it would make him back away when nothing else in their long, colorful history had, then his decision to marry the last Golden Hind, acolyte of Ares, was at least worth some more consideration. But it didn’t. Hercules was willing to let him go without so much as an argument. Essentially choosing Serena, whom he had known for two weeks, over the man he’d been best friends with since childhood. Iolaus sighed, running a hand over his face wearily. He knew there was a lot more to it all than that, but still, there was some truth to it. And he couldn’t deny that it hurt.
It hurt that Hercules was so willing to just throw their partnership away. Again, not that he ever wanted to deny his friend happiness. But Hercules hadn’t even thought to talk to him about it. Ask him how he felt, or more importantly, reassure him that he would still have a place in his life. The romance had been a whirlwind one, and in fairness, Hercules had been busy dealing with suicidal soldiers and Ares. But Iolaus knew that if he had been the one getting married, he wouldn’t have neglected his partner’s feelings the same way.
Not that he ever could get married again. Hera had seen to that. Another point that Hercules hadn’t even bothered to consider. Iolaus certainly didn’t feel that his friend had to swear off marriage just because he was denied, but it would have been nice if Hercules could have shown a little sensitivity in the matter. The hunter didn’t think it was too much to ask.
Iolaus heaved another sigh as he stirred the flames of the fire with a stick, knowing he was going to have to come to terms with all of these feelings. He’d have to head back soon, for he had made a promise. To Hercules, a few days ago. But another one that his friend was not aware of, many years back when he’d returned from his travels in the East. He’d come to realize that Hercules was everything to him, and he had vowed to devote his life to his friend, even if he didn’t feel the same. A vow he remade after Hercules’ family had been taken and the demigod set off without him, wanting and needing to be alone. And a vow that he made once again, alone in the woods under the stars. Hercules was married to Serena, and their past life was dead. He could grieve for that, but it didn’t change the fact that Hercules was his life. So whatever direction his future took, Iolaus would be there, in whatever way Hercules wanted to let him in.
Sleep had not been coming easily for him. Too many thoughts and feelings and emotions had been swirling through his brain, driving away the peace that would lead to slumber. But last night had been a little better, he reflected as he packed up his camp. He’d managed a few hours of fitful rest, his mind eased slightly since he had made the decision to go back. For when he had said goodbye to Hercules, he hadn’t been sure he would return. His original plan had once again held promise as the vision of his raging friend had come true. One more. One more closer to that awful, final, sickening scene. Red blood spilling over Hercules’ fingers as he tried to staunch the wound that Iolaus himself had inflicted.
The hunter kicked dirt over the embers of his fire viciously. It didn’t matter if a hundred visions came true. That one was wrong. It was simply not going to happen. No matter how hurt or angry or spurned he felt, nothing could ever make him take the life of his best friend. Nothing!
But he didn’t feel any better as he got back onto the road and resumed walking. The bad feeling that had settled over him since he’d first woken up after getting shot with the Hind’s arrow was as strong as ever. He’d tried to ignore it, striving to convince himself he was wrong. After all, Hercules and Serena had gotten married and nothing explosive had happened. No spontaneous fires or booming thunder or lightning bolts streaming from the sky to strike them down. They were married, and couldn’t have been happier. Why not believe that the gods were content to leave them in peace?
Except Iolaus knew better. Hercules may have been happy to live in the bliss of denial, but the hunter wasn’t fooled. Hera was prone to fits of impulsive rage. But Ares was different. He prided himself on strategy and never did anything impulsively. The most patient of all the gods, he was able to wait and watch for an opportunity to present itself. And when it did, he struck with a cold, calculating, warlike ruthlessness. Iolaus was sure that if Ares had truly given up his most prized possession, then it was because he deemed it a necessary sacrifice to achieve a bigger goal. And the only thing worth giving up his edge over all the other gods was the satisfaction of killing Hercules, once and for all. The hunter kicked a stone in his path in angry frustration. There was a time when Hercules would have known this as well as he did. But now, he was too starry eyed to see the danger that was right in front of him. Because that’s what Serena was.
Iolaus sighed as he thought of her. She was so beautiful. And sweet, and funny, and she loved Hercules so much. But every time the hunter looked at her, all he could see was danger. A weapon that Ares would somehow use to destroy Hercules. The hunter wanted to like her. He wanted to love her, for Hercules’ sake. But he just couldn’t get past the barrier she presented. Serena had almost killed him, when he’d only been trying to help. She was an acolyte of Ares, who would gladly use her loyalty against Hercules. Though it wasn’t really her fault, she had caused Hercules to cast off his divinity, leaving him vulnerable to the whims of the gods, as well as the more ordinary, but no less dangerous, trappings that mortals faced day to day. And, she had taken his best friend away. The man that was his brother, his life, his heart, and his soul.
But Hercules was happy. Iolaus tried his best to remember that, for it was what was left after all the concerns and fears and “what ifs” were stripped away. Hercules was happily married, and the hunter could not begrudge him that. Which meant it was time to release all the negative energy weighing him down, so he could return to his friend and his new wife with an open heart, and give them both the support and love that they deserved.
He was in the valley of Mt. Nestus. Iolaus had only been to the area once before, but he remembered that the Strymon River ran south of the mountain. It was quiet and serene, and he knew it was just the sort of place he needed now. For he needed seclusion to recapture his inner peace, focus on the lessons that Yu-Lin had taught him so many years ago, and use his teachings to heal the wounds on his heart. Then, in the morning, he could start back to Ceryneia and reclaim his new place in Hercules’ life. Whatever it may have been.
The hunter started walking with more purpose, now that he had his destination. But as he turned the bend in the road, his brisk step came to a surprised halt. Gabrielle was there. The last time he had seen her, she had been so young and innocent, her uncertainty warring with her inner spunk. But a lot had changed in the time that had passed. She was still radiantly beautiful, but more mature and confident. Gone were the clothes of a simple village girl, replaced by a more form fitting, revealing, yet functional and unencumbersome outfit that was befitting a warrior. And Gabrielle had obviously listened to the advice he had given her when he encouraged her to try and fight at Xena’s side. Iolaus grinned broadly as she whirled the staff in her hands expertly, clunking the five bandits attacking her and sending them sailing left and right. Just like she had in his vision.
“You just made an enemy,” one of the thugs growled, shaking off the smarting blow as he got to his feet to hover before her menacingly.
“What a coincidence,” Iolaus whispered in his ear, having silently snuck up on him from behind. “So have you.” While it was obvious Gabrielle had learned how to handle herself, he didn’t think a little help would be unappreciated. And it wasn’t, judging from the smile she gave him when he popped up. The bandit turned to face the new threat behind him, and was sent reeling from a hard punch. Trying to see past the stars dancing before his eyes, he turned again, but his foe was gone. “No, over here,” came the voice in his ear again.
The brute spun around, and the hunter kicked out at him savagely, then caught him in a hard left that dropped him to the ground. Realizing they were outclassed, the rest of the bandits wisely began to flee as Iolaus turned with a happy grin, genuinely glad to Gabrielle again.
“Fancy meeting you here.” The hunter held out his arms as she ran toward him, flinging herself into his embrace. “Hey, I should get this greeting every time I turn up.” But then Iolaus paused, realizing something was wrong. She was clinging to him for dear life, and he could feel her trembling against his chest. “Gabrielle, what is it?” He pulled her back slightly to look into her face, feeling himself go cold as he saw the utter heartbreak in her eyes. “Where’s Xena?”
In answer, she turned and pointed behind her. Iolaus took in the litter that was hooked up to Argo, bearing what was left of the warrior princess.
“How?” he managed to get out, his voice thick with grief.
“It happened in Cirra,” Gabrielle told him. She had thought she was all cried out, but fresh tears welled in her eyes anew. “Some crazy followers of the Lord of the Moon were trying to sacrifice everyone. A little girl got in the way of a trap. Xena saved her.... she just couldn’t save herself. I brought her to the healer at Mt. Nestus, but there was nothing he could do.”
“I can’t believe it,” the hunter murmured hoarsely as he moved to the ornate coffin, resting his hands on it lightly as he tried to come to grips with the unbelievable.
“She’s gone,” Gabrielle said bitterly, turning away from him. “She just left me.” She turned back, her eyes beseeching him for answers. “How could she do that? She just left. I really want to hate her for it.”
“No,” Iolaus told her softly, but firmly. “No you don’t.”
“But, I miss her,” Gabrielle whispered. The hunter reached out, pulling her into a tight hug. They clung to each other in shared pain. While Iolaus’ heart ached over the death of Xena, he also could sympathize with getting “left” by the one you loved. No words could be of comfort, he knew, so he just held her and let her draw what she could from his strength. After a moment, she had collected herself and drew back to look at him, although she was grateful for the arm he kept around her. “There’s so many things that I wish I could tell her. Why didn’t I when I had the chance?”
“We always think we have plenty of time,” he answered sagely. “We know people are going to leave us, but we never face up to it.” The hunter inclined his head, touching his forehead to hers. “What would you have told her?”
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, but then she raised her eyes to his, a smile cutting through the sorrow as she recalled the amazing life, short as it was, that she had led at Xena’s side.
“I would have told her how empty my life was before she came. And all the lessons I learned. And that I love her.”
Iolaus reached out, wiping a stray tear from her cheek and caressing her skin gently.
“Gabrielle, you just told her,” he pointed out. “But more importantly, you didn’t have to. She already knew.”
They hugged again, finding solace in the warmth of each other’s embrace. Finally Gabrielle stepped back, her spirits lifted out of the dark pits of despair slightly and she gave him another smile of gratitude.
“I have to take Xena to Amphipolis. She wants to be buried next to her brother.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Iolaus offered. “The road can be dangerous and... you shouldn’t be alone right now.”
“I appreciate that, more than you know,” Gabrielle told him sincerely. “But I think I need to be alone for a little while.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, searching her face for the truth.
“I’m going to be ok,” she assured him. “Don’t worry.”
“Then promise me something. Hercules and I have been staying in Ceryneia and we’ll be there for awhile. After you take Xena home, if you need a friend to talk to, promise me that you’ll come to us. Or at least send word, so I know you’re all right.”
“I promise,” she vowed, touched by his concern.
Iolaus looked away, taking a deep breath and fighting back the sob he could feel rising in his chest.
“I guess I better get back to Hercules, before the word of mouth does.”
He turned back to her, giving her hand a squeeze as he leaned in and kissed her cheek.
“Thank you,” Gabrielle whispered.
They exchanged one long, lingering look, and then Iolaus turned and headed back down the road the way he’d come, off to deliver the tragic news to his friend while Gabrielle struggled on with the physical burden that was dwarfed by the magnitude of the emotional one.
Things changed. It was a fact of life Iolaus had been forced to learn over and over again. Sometimes they changed for the better, sometimes for the worse. But nothing ever stayed the same. He had learned to accept it, and most of the time he was able to roll with the punches that life dealt. But this time, he wasn’t sure he could.
Hercules was no longer a demigod. He was a mortal, with a wife, and the way they were going, most likely a family would quickly follow. And Xena was dead. Iolaus had definitely experienced the ups and the downs in his rocky relationship with the warrior princess, going from love to hate to grudging acceptance to respect... and finally, friendship. And his heart did grieve for the untimely end of the fierce, proud, beautiful, remarkable woman. It was most definitely the end of an era. But the start of a new one was not something that excited the hunter, for he couldn’t see his place in it. He was still the same, so where did that leave him in a world where everything had changed?
The journey back to Ceryneia was a bleak one, to say the least. Iolaus walked with purpose, but his heart was heavy and his soul was still troubled. But he had no time to deal with his feelings, made all the more conflicted by the new sorrow that burdened him. He didn’t want Hercules to hear about Xena from anyone but him. And his encounter with Gabrielle had given him a new sense of urgency. He couldn’t even bear to think about what he would do if he lost his best friend. But it was time to face up to the inevitable, especially now that Hercules was mortal. And if the unthinkable were to happen, Iolaus knew he’d never forgive himself if he missed the chance to tell Hercules how empty his life was without him. And all the lessons he’d learned over the years. And how much he loved him.
He had been gone for five days before he’d run into Gabrielle. The return trip, since it wasn’t as aimless, was shorter in duration. Iolaus made camp on the third night when dusk began to fall, but he found that he couldn’t sleep. That was not surprising, as he hadn’t really had a good night’s sleep in weeks. But as he lay awake with all the conflicting thoughts swirling in his mind, he felt a strange compulsion come over him. According to his calculations, he figured he’d reach Ceryneia by mid-afternoon on the following day. But for reasons he didn’t understand, he began feeling like that wasn’t soon enough. The sense that Hercules needed him began to pull and tug at him, driving all else from his mind. Sighing, the hunter rose from his bedroll and began packing up his camp. The full moon gave him enough light to travel by, and since he obviously wasn’t going to get any rest, he decided he might as well continue on his journey. So he set off down the silent road in the peaceful night, ignoring the little voice in his head that was warning him that one more vision had come to pass. Which left only one unfulfilled.
The elder was confused. He had lived his whole life in Ceryneia, and he knew his people to be good people. So he couldn’t understand why so many of them had started inexplicably baying for Hercules’ blood. The former demigod had been a friend to them, helping around the village and protecting them all from Nestor’s soldiers. True, the fact that he had given up his strength and married the Golden Hind wasn’t without concern, but it was hardly enough to outweigh all the good the man had done, both for their town and for all of Greece. He could see no reason to persecute a man who seemingly only wanted to live in peace with his new wife. But, the elder had a responsibility to his people. And if the majority demanded it, then he had no choice but to comply with their vote.
“All right,” he announced, holding up his hands to quell the arguing that had divided the town for days. At first, it seemed like the vote had been split, but now only a few remained on Hercules’ side. “In accordance with the consensus, I’ll take a small party and go to Hercules first thing in the morning and tell him he’s got to move on.”
The meeting ended in a cheer and the villagers began to disperse, disappearing out into the night to return to their homes. Finally, only Strife was left with the sad eyed elder. Ignoring the man, the godling giggled as he patted himself on the back. He only had one more small chore, and then Ares would grant him the reward he so amply deserved. With eager determination, Strife vanished, off to pay one last visit to his much despised half-uncle.
“What is wrong with you?”
“What do you think is wrong with me?” Hercules snarled at his wife. “I gave up my strength for you. I used to be the strongest man in Greece, and now I’m nothing. How do you think that makes me feel?”
“And what about me?” Serena shouted back. “I sentenced my kind to extinction for you. Ares was right about you. I should have listened to him.”
“If he was so right, maybe you should go back to him!” Hercules yelled.
“Maybe I will,” she taunted him. “At least he’s still a god. With the POWER to protect me.”
Hercules screamed in rage, his wild gaze roaming over their cottage. He spied a knife lying on the table and grabbed it, holding it out to her.
“I am WARNING you...”
“Go ahead, do it,” she urged him, her eyes flashing cruelly as she sneered up at him. “Put us both out of our misery. Or don’t you have the strength?”
With an ear splitting howl, Hercules raised the knife high, only hesitating for a second before his arm snapped and the blade came plunging down...
Hercules jolted awake, his sweat slicked chest heaving and his heart pounding wildly in his ears. The dreams were getting worse. Although calling those abominations “dreams” wasn’t really a fair comparison. He sat up with a heavy sigh, although the residual fear of the nightmare didn’t diminish in the light of day. Something was wrong, and he was scared. Hercules sighed again, daring to hope that the new day might bring the arrival of Iolaus, if his friend had somehow managed to hear the prayer of need that he had secretly made to the wind the night before. For if he were going crazy, Iolaus was the only person he could trust to help him.
Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, Hercules went to push back the wet hair stuck to his face but halted as he got a look at his hands. Turning them over, he stared in confusion at the red stain covering them.
“Blood?” he whispered in horror, his worst nightmare suddenly becoming reality.
It was early, and Iolaus wasn’t sure if the newlyweds would be up yet. But nevertheless, he headed straight for their home as he entered Ceryneia. It wasn’t going to be a pleasant thing to wake up to, and he hated bringing their blissful honeymoon to an end, but Hercules needed to be told about Xena. Besides, it wasn’t that early. The villagers were already stirring, and Iolaus called out a ‘good morning’ to a small group of them as he passed, idly wondering what they were doing out that way. But as he neared his friend’s cottage, he froze as a tortured scream shattered the quiet morning.
“Herc?” the hunter called out, running for the house and bursting in through the door. And what he saw chilled him to the depths of his soul.
Hercules was in bed, holding the limp form of his wife in his arms and a bloody dagger in his hand.
“Hercules?” he managed to get out, alerting his friend to his presence.
Hercules glanced up at him, and back to Serena as he carefully eased her back onto the bed after he tossed the knife aside.
“A pillow,” he said roughly. “I need a pillow. She’s... She isn’t comfortable.”
Iolaus felt sick and it was all he could do to hold himself together. But he had to, for his friend’s blue eyes were dark with shock.
“Hercules,” he began gently, but his partner wasn’t listening, too intent on making his slain wife comfortable as he fluffed her pillows. “Hercules,” the hunter tried again, reaching out and touching his arm to get his attention. “She’s dead.”
“No,” Hercules spat, yanking his arm away. “She... ”
He trailed off, and the group of villagers that had been outside rushed into the house to investigate the commotion.
“Murderer!” one of them cried out.
“You killed her!” the elder gasped, realizing his people had been right as he saw the evidence of the brutality with his own eyes. And if he’d only acted sooner, maybe he could have prevented such a tragedy.
“No!” Hercules screamed, leaping out of the bed and launching himself at the villagers who cowered back at the sight of the enraged, naked man attacking them.
“Wait a minute!” Iolaus commanded him, getting between them and holding his friend back, something he never could have done if Hercules still had his godly strength. “Take it easy!”
“Get them out of here!” Hercules roared.
“He doesn’t know what he’s saying,” the hunter tried to placate him, realizing that his anger, however justified it may have been, was not helping dissuade the men of the impression they had immediately formed. But Hercules wasn’t listening, overcome by rage and grief.
“Go! Get them out!” His eyes pleaded with his friend, letting him know he was about to lose control. Understanding, Iolaus turned and began shoving at the villagers. They went willingly enough, unsettled by what they had seen and realizing that even without his strength, Hercules was still too formidable and that they needed reinforcements. When they were gone, the hunter turned back to his partner, but Hercules just stared at him, wild eyed and shaking with fury. “Go!”
Iolaus hesitated, not wanting to leave his friend. But he knew that he could be of no help until Hercules calmed down, so he dashed out of the door, slamming it behind him. The entire house shook as Hercules tore it apart from the inside, but the hunter didn’t care, leaning up against the trembling wall for support as the tears streamed down his face.
“Ah, the three Fates,” Ares intoned, making sure to show his reverence. And it was well earned, for not even the gods could influence the impartial, impassive keepers of destiny. Although the god of war was hoping to slip a little subtle manipulation by them unnoticed. The three woman, one young, one middle aged, and one old ignored him, busy at their tasks as he paced in their midst. “Clotho spins the thread of life. My dear Lachesis measures it. And my dearest Atropos cuts it.”
“That is Hercules’ life line,” the crone informed him, glancing at the bright golden thread he held before her. “Another god can’t kill him. And he’s protected by Zeus.”
“Oh, no more,” Ares assured her, turning his dark charms on full force. “He sinned against the gods. He’s killed a mortal in cold blood.”
Ares spun around, squinting as a brilliant light announced the arrival of his evidently annoyed father.
“What do you think you’re doing? Who gave you permission...?”
“This has already been dealt with,” Ares interrupted him. “The other gods have voted.”
“And I wasn’t informed?” the king of the gods demanded indignantly.
“You were unreachable,” Ares told him haughtily, then added under his breath, “off on one of your dalliances, I suspect.”
“I can’t believe my son killed anyone in cold blood,” Zeus said, glaring at the god of war and daring him to disagree. “At least, not that son.”
“He’s gone mad,” Ares stated, brushing off the intended insult. “See for yourself.”
With a wave of his hand, he opened a scrying window, focusing on the sight of Hercules raging about his cottage, throwing chairs against the wall, overturning a table, and putting his fists through some of the pottery that adorned the mantle.
“If he’s guilty, he’ll be punished, but not by you,” Zeus decided. It was nothing unusual for a god to kill a mortal in cold blood, and it was one of the things that tore at his heart. The king of the gods had a fondness for mortal life, something that some of the other gods definitely did not share, and a few of them even ridiculed. He had expressed his displeasure with Ares and Hera for their treatment of the lesser species, but he soon learned to hold his tongue when it became evident they delighted in torturing hapless mortals simply because they knew it would grieve him. Long ago he had ruled that any god taking a mortal life in cold blood could be made to answer for it if another god brought complaint. It had happened a few times, but mostly none of the other gods cared enough to go to the trouble. However, Zeus knew that Ares would now be happy to call on that old law that he had largely been responsible for creating, but the king of the gods was sure that Hercules had enough friends among the pantheon to get through a trial with his life. “Bring him in before the Olympians.”
“Shouldn’t he be tried among mortals, now that he is one, completely?” Ares suggested. He also knew Hercules had his share of friends and enemies among the gods, but he wasn’t willing to risk the votes of those that were impartial thus far. He’d worked too hard on this, and there was too much at stake. A mortal jury he could have Strife manipulate. If the outraged villagers didn’t lynch Hercules first.
“Then you better make sure he lives to see a fair trial,” Zeus threatened, as if he knew what his son was thinking. He fixed a hard glare on the god of war, then turned and began to take his leave.
“It’s out of my hands,” Ares called after him. “What if he refuses to give himself up? He’s your son, you know how stubborn he can be.”
But the king of the gods didn’t answer, his lack of acknowledgment response enough as he dared his son to defy him.
Finally, the tornado inside the cottage blew itself out. When everything went quiet, Iolaus dared to open the door and peek inside. The house was trashed, and Hercules was sitting on the floor amid the wreckage, but he was calmer, if only due to exhaustion. As the hunter approached, Hercules looked up at him with pleading eyes, silently begging him for help. Desperately wanting him to tell him that it was all just a bad dream and when he woke up, everything would be fine. It broke Iolaus’ heart, and at that moment he would have given his life to take that pain away from his best friend. But there was nothing he could do, except try and see his partner through it, and he started with first things first.
He brought in wood and started a fire, then hauled in water and started it heating. The hunter helped his friend wash the blood from his hands, his wife’s and his own that had been spilled as he had worked his rage out through his fists. When the water was boiling, Iolaus made tea and nagged his partner until he drank it. Then he got Hercules up and dressed as he saw the awareness coming back to him. The shock was wearing off, but that didn’t change the fact that Hercules was still shattered. It was bad enough that Deianeira and the kids had been taken. But now Serena was gone, too. The hunter couldn’t understand how the Fates could be so cruel to someone who had devoted his life to nothing but doing good. He tried to offer his friend comfort, but Hercules wasn’t ready for that yet, so Iolaus left him alone to say goodbye to Serena and started down the road to the village.
He hated to leave his friend, but the hunter knew the village elder and his companions had seen the same thing he had seen. And he had to admit, it didn’t look good for Hercules. He had to find out what the townspeople were planning to do about it. But he never got that far. On the way he ran into Hemnor, who had been coming to warn them. Thanking the man for his help, Iolaus turned and ran back to the cottage, letting himself in to find Hercules removing the necklace from his dead wife’s throat before covering her with a sheet. The hunter decided to give him a minute as Hercules sat down next to her, tracing his fingers along the outline of her arm. Then he abruptly rose and started heading for the door.
“What are you going to do?” Iolaus demanded, not liking the look in his friend’s eyes.
“I have to find the magistrate and tell him what happened,” Hercules informed him as he left the cottage. Iolaus glanced back at the lovely Serena, forever stilled in death, whispering a prayer to Hades to look after her before he followed his partner, pulling the door shut behind him.
“Herc, I don’t think this is such a good idea,” the hunter said as he trotted to catch up, wondering how he was ever going to make his friend see past his overdeveloped sense of justice. “I mean, I just talked to Hemnor, and he said that the town is forming a lynch mob.”
“A lynch mob?” Hercules repeated, surprised. “What, for me?”
“I know you didn’t kill her, but...”
“Maybe I did,” Hercules said slowly as he came to a halt.
“What?” Iolaus demanded, not sure he was hearing right. He didn’t kill her, of that the hunter was sure. After all the trouble with Ares, it was logical to at least suspect he had something to do with it. There wasn't a spell, or a poison, or any kind of curse in the world that would have made Hercules kill his wife. Someone had murdered Serena, and they were framing Hercules for it. And the only one with the power, the incentive, and the motivation to do such a thing was Ares. But Hercules didn’t seem to be as sure as his partner.
“I’m not sure what happened in there, you see,” he tried to explain, his voice ragged with emotion. “I’ve had these dreams. I mean, I keep...seeing myself...”
“There he is! There’s the murderer!”
Both men glanced down the road, taking in the sight of a mob of men from town, rapidly approaching and not looking too friendly as they brandished all manner of makeshift weapons.
“Listen, you better get out of here,” the hunter told his friend. “I’ll try and talk some sense into them.”
“I’m not going...”
“Herc, you’ve GOT to GO!” Iolaus shouted, desperate for his partner to listen to him for once. It was all very well for Hercules to want to do “the right thing”, but that mob wasn’t interested in justice. They were out for blood. And if Hercules was going to brush off his concerns and warnings like he usually did, then they were going to get it. But something in his friend’s sharp tone made Hercules hesitate, and after a moment he decided to put his trust in his partner and he took off sprinting down the road, away from the riled villagers. The hunter approached the group, holding out his hands as he tried to distract them. “Ok, let’s take it easy, fellas. Come on, let’s think about this for a second. I mean...”
“Out of the way, Shorty! You can’t spare the murderer!”
Iolaus was knocked to the ground and almost trampled as the men hastened after their target.
“Shorty?” he muttered to himself. “Again with the ‘Shorty’!”
But there was no time to worry about his own injured pride. Glancing around, he spied a horse wandering around the front yard of the cottage, set free to gaze while it’s owner struggled to fix a broken wagon wheel a little further down the road. There was also no time for explanations, bargaining, or begging, so the hunter ran and leapt upon the horse’s back, digging in his heels and urging it into a canter before the poor farmer on his way to market even realized what was happening.
The gentle mare was a work horse, but even though she was not built for speed she still possessed enough of it to outrun the angry mob. Iolaus guided her through the trees and they emerged from the woods in front of the villagers, the nag planting herself solidly across the narrow road and halting their path.
“You are obstructing justice!” the elder threatened him.
“Look, you can’t just hunt him down like some common criminal,” the hunter argued. “This is Hercules you’re going after.”
“I’m afraid he’s not the Hercules we knew,” the man pointed out somberly. “You saw with your own two eyes, just like we did!”
The rest of the men began to comment, calling Greece’s champion a killer and insisting he had to be brought to justice. Iolaus looked them over sadly, realizing he was not going to be able to reason with them. Bloodlust burned from their eyes, most likely Ares’ doing, but it made them irrational to anything but going after Hercules’ head. As they began to filter past him, the hunter at least hoped he had managed to buy his friend enough time to get away.
Hercules had never been one to run from his problems. He hated what he was doing, hiding himself in the forest like a scared rabbit. No, he was a man of action. His wife had been murdered, and someone needed to answer for that. And if it turned out that he had done it, then he deserved whatever punishment the courts would see fit to give him. Restlessness overcame him, and he made up his mind to head back to the village. As the mob was combing the woods for him, he figured he’d be safer back in town anyway. He could find the magistrate, a wise and just man, and tell him what had happened. At least, he thought as he slipped between the trees, as much as he knew.
But as he arrived back in the village square, Hercules realized his error. The lynch mob may have been combing the woods, but he’d forgotten about Nestor’s soldiers. They had gleefully joined in the hunt, and were busy combing the town for him. He knew if they found him, the magistrate would never get to hear his side of the story.
“Psst! Hercules, over here.”
He turned to see an old man waving to him from a building that he had thought was empty. But then, in all his time in Ceryneia, he hadn’t spent much time actually in the village.
“Who are you?” he asked suspiciously.
“My name is Veklos,” the man told him. “You might not remember, but you once saved my life. You can hide in here.”
“I’ve never hid from anything before in my life,” Hercules declared vehemently. “I’m not about to start now.”
“Well, it was different then,” Veklos hedged. “You had... Look, those people are out for blood. Please, let me help you. Just until things settle down.”
Hercules paused, giving the old man an appraising look. He had kind eyes, and as the voices of the soldiers drifted over from the next lane, graphically describing what they were going to do to him when they caught him, he decided that maybe Veklos was right and he thanked the man as he ducked inside the offered haven.
Iolaus had pointed the horse back in the direction of the stranded farmer and sent her off with a light slap to the rump. He joined the mob on foot, much to their chagrin, in the hopes that he could keep them off of his friend’s trail. But as luck would have it, one of the men was a fairly decent tracker, and he soon picked up the signs that indicated that Hercules had gone back to the village. So with righteous determination, the unruly mob started back after him. The hunter pushed his way to the front of the pack, trying with all his might to appeal to the elder.
“You saw the argument he had with his wife. His anger!” one of the men shouted, fed up with Iolaus’ defenses.
“Hercules is not himself at the moment,” the hunter protested. “The gods could be behind this!”
“Ah, that’s my point!” the elder exclaimed. “Maybe they’ve driven him mad!”
“It doesn’t matter who’s responsible!” the belligerent man argued. “He’s become a danger to the community!”
“Ok, I am going with you,” Iolaus insisted. “He’ll listen to me. If I talk to him, I can maybe convince him to give himself up!”
He had no intention of convincing his friend to give himself up. The irony was that in reality, he was going to be hard pressed to convince his friend NOT to give himself up. But the hunter thought that if he joined the mob, he’d be able to somehow stop them from lynching Hercules. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
As they reached the village, Iolaus was disheartened to see Nestor’s soldiers turning the town upside down, but at least it meant they hadn’t found Hercules yet. He eased off from the crowd as they began to split up, realizing he couldn’t keep tabs on them all. Anticipating that his partner had gone to the magistrate, the hunter headed that direction but Hercules wasn’t there. Blowing out a breath of frustration, he began to pace around the marketplace, hoping that his friend had found somewhere safe to hide and would have the good sense to stay there until Iolaus could figure out what to do.
Hercules glanced around Veklos’ abode, not sure if it was a home or a shop. Maybe both. There was a kitchen and a table set with golden plates and goblets. No bed that he could see, but it was hard to tell what all might be lurking in the clutter. The domicile was full of rugs and silks and exotic masks and all manner of vases and pottery and amphoras, virtually overflowing with extravagance and wealth, which definitely seemed out of place in the small village of Ceryneia. Veklos had appeared to be a simple, humble old man. He didn’t look like a dealer or a trader, but then again, looks could be deceiving. Hercules was sure he didn’t look like a wife killer, either.
“You’re taking a big chance, helping me,” he told the man. “They think I’m a murderer.”
“I don’t know whether you are or not,” Veklos replied, a bit wearily. “I only know, once you helped me. I’d like to return the favor.”
A sudden pounding on the door startled both of them, and the old man quickly stashed Hercules in a shadowy alcove where he wouldn’t be seen as a voice commanded him to open up. Veklos opened the door, and one of the soldiers forced his way in.
“I’m looking for Hercules. Have you seen him?”
“He ran by earlier, and then headed back toward the woods,” the old man answered calmly. The soldier rounded the table, pushing at a tapestry on the wall with his sword to see what it concealed. When he came up empty, he cast his eyes over the room, thinking that it would take all day to go through the mess. He eyed up the old man, trying to decide if he was telling the truth in an attempt to save himself some work. Veklos gazed back at him evenly, and after several heartbeats the soldier finally turned and went out of the door. Latching the door securely, the old man went and peeked through the shutters, taking in the soldiers and the villagers who were still searching and vowing vengeance. He closed the shutters and latched them, too, then went to check on Hercules, finding the man slumped on the floor, running his fingers over the jeweled necklace in his hand.
“Why?” Hercules looked up at him, his eyes brimming with helpless, angry, outraged tears. “Why?”
“With grief like that, you couldn’t have killed her,” Veklos decided sympathetically.
Hercules paused, not sure why the strangers words made him feel better, but they did.
“Thank you,” he murmured as he got to his feet. “I should get going.”
“But you’re safe here,” the old man protested.
“I need to find out who killed my wife,” Hercules told him.
Veklos sighed, recognizing the steely determination in the younger man’s eyes, secretly glad to see his spirit wasn’t completely broken.
“Then go,” he said, knowing he couldn’t stop him but obliged to send him off with a warning. “But trust no one.”
Hercules tucked the necklace securely into the inner pocket of his shirt and gave the old man a small smile as he slipped out of the door.
“We must search the town again,” the elder announced to his flagging posse. “He can’t have gone far.”
They were tired, and nobody noticed Hercules stealing away from Veklos’ home. Nobody of mortal blood. But Strife was watching, and he giggled as he zapped the man closest to him, causing him to turn and see their fleeing prey.
“There he goes!” the man shouted, and the villagers all sprang to life, instantly giving chase as Strife literally vibrated with pleasure.
Hercules was hoping to outrun them, but Strife intervened once more, loving the fact that he was now invisible to the mortal eye of the former demigod as he rigged his path with a rope. Tripping over it, Hercules hit the ground hard and a group of men immediately pounced on him. He struggled to his feet, throwing them all off and fighting his way free. Finally realizing that he was running for his life, not his freedom, Hercules put on a burst of speed as he tried to get away. But as he leapt out of the narrow alley and rounded the corner into the marketplace, he fell victim to one of Nestor’s soldiers. The demigod ability to catch arrows out of the air was gone, and Hercules hit the ground with a painful yelp as the sharp tip slammed into his left shoulder. Getting to his knees, he snapped the shaft off as close to the skin as he could, desperately trying to fight back the sudden dizziness that came over him. Villagers and soldiers were moving in for the kill, and he was determined to at least make them work for it.
Jumping to his feet, he met the villager rushing him head on, grabbing the spear he wielded and yanking it out of his hands, sending the man flying in the process. Ignoring the agony that the movement caused to his wounded shoulder, he used the blunt end of the spear to start cold cocking everyone within his reach.
Iolaus heard the shouts and the commotion and came barreling through the village, hurtling over one of the market stands in his haste. Straining to see through the crowds, his heart sank and his anger rose as he saw his friend valiantly trying to fight off an entire town of crazed vigilantes.
“Damn him,” the hunter swore. Why could he ever just listen? It would have been such an easy matter to just stay hidden and wait for the storm to blow over, and they could have figured out what to do together. But no, Hercules always thought he was right. The maddening thing was, most of the time it was true. But this time he had been wrong, about a lot of things. And like always, he hadn’t taken Iolaus’ warnings seriously and he had walked himself right into the waiting hands of a frenzied mob out to kill him. But, like always, the hunter didn’t fail to stand beside him.
At least he tried. He became airborne, attempting to sail over the wall of soldiers to get to his partner. But several pairs of strong hands caught him and dragged him back down to earth. Iolaus watched as a soldier snuck up on his friend from behind, clubbing his knees and knocking him off his feet. A villager hit him while he was down, landing a savage blow to his back with a staff. The hunter called out his friend’s name and struggled fiercely, almost managing to break away. But more soldiers moved in to help hold him, and the villagers began turning on him, joining Nestor’s men as they started to beat him. Iolaus curled himself into a ball on the ground to try and deflect the worst of the blows, and he found himself taking comfort in the fact that at least if they killed him, it would prevent that final, terrible vision from coming true.
Hercules heard his friend’s voice, but as he was pulled to his feet he didn’t see the hunter anywhere. Then a mace slammed into his stomach and he sagged to his knees, trying to drag air into his lungs as his ribs protested painfully. The mace came again, crashing into his head and he dropped to the ground, feeling an agonizing throbbing in his skull as his eyes lost their focus. Someone yanked him up by the hair, and he could just barely make out a line of grinning faces gathering around him. As he struggled to stave off the encroaching blackness, Hercules realized he was about to die.
A loud, piercing cry echoed through the square, and a whirling chakram followed on it’s heels, slicing through the raised weapons like a knife through butter. The familiar sound was enough to bolster Hercules’ fading strength and he reached out, grabbing the soldier before him and heaving him up over his shoulder as he rose. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Xena, executing a series of flips as she deftly avoided the villagers and landed in the middle of the chaos, close to him. Reaching up and catching her chakram, the warrior princess smirked at the throngs of villagers, her eyes lighting up with anticipation.
“It’s Xena,” someone cried out in fear.
For Iolaus, there could have been no words more welcome. Expecting to see a ghost, he staggered out of the horde that had been pounding on him as they backed away from the new threat. But the woman that had appeared was very much alive, as those foolish enough to attack her were finding out. The hunter was more curious than surprised. After all, he himself had been dead before and he well knew returning to the land of the living wasn’t an impossibility. But there was no time for explanations, so he made his way to his partner’s side, catching sight of Gabrielle’s long blond hair as she came running to join the fray and just glad that Joxer didn’t appear to be with them.
The four of them formed a line, two sets of partners guarding each other’s backs. And as the first wave of soldiers advanced, they were immediately repelled. The villagers all retreated, immediately seeing that they were no match for the row of seasoned warriors. But the soldiers weren’t quite so wise and kept coming, trying a disorganized rush to throw their opponents off guard. It didn’t work.
Xena didn’t even bother to draw her sword, preferring instead to use her fists and elbows to hammer some sense into the misguided men. Iolaus was like a whirlwind, lashing out with hands and feet and venting all of his anger on the convenient targets. Gabrielle spun her staff with lightening speed, using it first to deflect blows, and then she went on the offensive, giving the thugs a pounding they wouldn’t soon forget. The soldiers were determined that they weren’t going to be beaten by an injured former demigod, Shorty, and two girls, and they kept coming. But as they fell, fewer and fewer began to get up again. Strife was watching the melee, and he soon realized that the ragtag band of heroes were going to emerge victorious. While he would have preferred to see them stomped into the dirt, the outcome was not important. The fact that Xena had come was. Ares would be most pleased that the final part of his plan was in motion. And nothing was going to stop him from seeing it through.
Hercules had been holding his own, but he couldn’t keep it up. He felt weak from blood loss from his shoulder wound, and his other injuries were beginning to overcome the adrenalin. Pain was weighing him down, and darkness began creeping into the corners of his vision. Struggling to stay conscious, he felt himself restrained and a hard boot heel connected with his chin, snapping his head back and sending him crashing to the ground. He lay there for several moments, tempted to give into oblivion. But somehow he managed to struggle back up to his feet. Operating on pure instinct, he attacked the last soldier before him, punching him hard in the face and ducking under his arm to get him again in the gut. Hercules grabbed him and tossed him aside, feeling the world closing in on him.
Iolaus was watching, and somehow he knew his partner was spent. He leapt to his side, unable to hold him up, so he fell with him, cushioning him as they hit the ground. Hercules moaned softly, and then his head rolled back as he lost the fight to stay conscious. Gabrielle and Xena moved protectively closer, but the battle was over. The soldiers that were still standing were slinking off in defeat, and the villagers were giving them all a wide berth.
Deciding that the hunter seemed at a loss, Xena took charge of the situation. She whistled for Argo, and the faithful horse obediently came to her and knelt down on her forelocks. Somehow, the three of them managed to get Hercules draped over the saddle. Iolaus climbed onto the horse’s back to help hold his unresponsive friend on, and they set off for a cave a few miles out of town. Being the true warrior that she was, Xena had scouted the area before they had moved in, in preparation for such a turn of events.
They got Hercules off Argo the same way they’d gotten him on and set him up as comfortably as they could, using their bedrolls and the saddle blanket to cushion him against his rock mattress. Xena skillfully removed the arrow from his shoulder with Gabrielle’s assistance as Iolaus took care of Argo, removing her saddle and bridle and giving her a quick rubdown before turning her loose to rest and graze. When he returned to the cave, the warrior princess was just finishing her assessment of his injuries, and the hunter was not encouraged by the grim line of her mouth.
“He’s in really bad shape,” he murmured, voicing her thoughts. “I’ve never seen him take a beating like this.”
“We need more water and bandages,” Xena told her friend. “Hurry.”
“I’ll be right back,” Gabrielle assured them, handing the bowl of water to Iolaus as he moved to take her place next to the warrior princess.
“The bleeding’s stopped,” Xena relayed, checking the arrow wound. “His other shoulder is dislocated. And he may have fractured his skull. He should not be moved.”
“It’s a good thing you came along when you did,” the hunter told her, hating to think about how they would have fared if help hadn’t arrived. “But how did you? I mean, a few days ago...”
Iolaus waited for the rest of the story, but it became quickly apparent that there was no more coming. Sighing, he made a mental note to ask Gabrielle for the details when this whole mess was over.
“Well, your timing was perfect.”
“We were already on our way here,” she explained. “We wanted to come and let you know that contrary to the rumors, I wasn’t on my way to the Other Side. But then we ran into a pair of idiots talking about Hercules marrying the Golden Hind. I just got a really bad feeling, and we got here as fast as we could. Is it true? About him losing his powers?”
“Yeah,” Iolaus muttered. Xena had seen the danger and had come running. Why hadn’t Hercules been able to see it?
“He must love her very much,” she said quietly, wringing out a cloth in the bowl of water the hunter was gripping tightly and dabbing it along Hercules’ forehead.
“Did?” she questioned.
“Serena, his wife... She’s dead,” Iolaus told her. “And the townspeople think he did it.”
“Serena,” Hercules moaned in delirium. “It’s my fault.”
The words tore at the hunter’s heart. Overcome by emotion and the horrible thoughts running through his mind, he knew he had to leave before he broke down in front of Xena.
“I’ve got to go and help Gabrielle,” he choked out, setting the bowl on the ground as he got to his feet and rushed out of the cave.
Xena kept tending to the injured man, but her stoic facade cracked and her blue eyes widened in shock as he began to toss fitfully, unconsciously groaning out his confession.
“I’ve killed her.”
From the time he had first found Serena murdered up until the present, Iolaus had been flying around like a crazy man. Between battling soldiers, attempting to talk sense into rabid villagers, and trying to keep Hercules from losing it, he hadn’t had two seconds to himself to stop and think. But as Xena tended to his partner’s injuries while he caught some air, looking out over the peaceful lake that bordered the cave, the hunter couldn’t help thinking. About all that had happened, and about that final, horrible vision.
Gabrielle had been at the lake’s edge, filling a bucket with water, and she seemed startled to see him there when she turned around.
“Iolaus.” As she passed him, she reached out and squeezed his hand. “Are you ok?”
“Yeah,” he replied, but she could see past the weak grin to the torrent of emotions raging behind his eyes.
Gabrielle continued to the cave, but then she hesitated, deciding that Xena could wait another minute for the water. Iolaus had been such a comfort to her when she was lost to grief, and she wanted to do the same for him.
“Look, Iolaus,” she began reassuringly as she returned to him and placed a warm hand on his shoulder. “Hercules’ll be ok. Xena is...”
“It’s not that,” he cut her off.
“What is it?”
“Hercules thinks he may have killed Serena,” the hunter told her haltingly. “I saw Hercules with a... a bloody knife in his hand, over her body.”
Iolaus knew that Hercules didn’t murder his wife. But that didn’t mean that Hercules knew he didn’t do it. And the hunter also knew what his friend would be thinking. What he would want to do.
What Iolaus couldn’t let him do.
It was a relief for the warrior princess when Hercules regained consciousness and she saw that he was coherent and oriented and seemed to suffer no memory loss. He wasn’t out of the woods, but his alertness seemed to indicate that no serious, permanent injury had been done. Xena knew the best thing for him now was rest, but while he was awake and making sense, she decided to question him on the painful topic. For whatever he may have rambled in his sleep, she could never believe that Hercules, the best man she’d ever known, would ever be capable of the murder of someone he loved.
“I’m sorry about Serena,” she began gently as she sat beside him.
“She was the most beautiful woman,” Hercules told her sadly. “I didn’t think I could ever love anyone like that again.” He stopped as he realized he was speaking to a woman he had once professed to have feelings for. “I....”
“It’s all right,” Xena assured him, smiling slightly at his falter. “We’re long past the time when we could’ve been together.” Growing serious, she leaned closer, looking him deep in the eyes. “Tell me about what happened.”
“I’m not sure,” he replied, his gaze drifting down to the empty spot at his side as his thoughts went back to early that morning. “I... When I woke up, she was... she was lying next to me, and I....”
“She was murdered in bed right next to you and you didn’t wake up?” the warrior princess asked skeptically.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he agreed in frustration. “It wasn’t like any sleep I ever had. The dreams, I just...” “What do you mean? Like nightmares?”
“No, it was worse,” Hercules tried to explain. “It was violent. It was so violent. Just...” He paused as the light bulb went off. “Like they were from the gods.”
“Maybe they were,” Xena said thoughtfully.
“But why?” he demanded in anguish. “I gave them my strength. I gave them what they asked for.”
“And they’re always known for keeping their promises, right?” she pointed out sarcastically.
“This smells of Ares,” Hercules concluded bitterly. “It’s my fault. I never should have trusted him to keep his word. I need to find out what part Ares played in this, and what part I played.”
“You will,” Xena told him, physically halting his attempts to sit up. “But you aren’t in any shape to do it now. You need to get well first. You still have time to figure this out.”
“Yeah,” Hercules sighed, letting her ease him back down against the blankets. The small exertion had set the world spinning once again, and he closed his eyes, feeling his pain ease and the nausea recede as the warrior princess tapped into the pressure points that would cause him to relax and help him sleep.
Gabrielle entered the cave a few minutes later with the water, calling her friend’s name softly as she set the bucket down.
“What?” Xena looked up, seeing the troubled frown on the blond’s face. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s Iolaus,” Gabrielle replied, venting her worries to the one person who she believed could fix anything. “I’ve never seen him like this before. He’s... He’s confused, he’s torn.”
“I’ll go talk to him,” the warrior princess said, getting to her feet and shaking the object in her hands slightly before tossing it to her friend. “Keep an eye on him. That head injury still worries me.”
“What’s in this goatskin?” Gabrielle asked as she caught it.
“Hopefully something to save his life,” Xena called over her shoulder as she left the cave.
She found Iolaus sitting on a rock next to the lake, his shoulders slumped in defeat as he tossed pebbles into the still water, creating ripples that mirrored the ripples in his soul.
“I never did thank you for taking care of Gabrielle,” she began as she came up behind him. It was a good opener, but she was sincerely grateful that he had been there for her young friend when she’d needed him. “Thank you. She’s worried about you. She says you seem upset.”
“My best friend falls in love, breaks up our partnership, and his wife gets killed, and he’s not sure he didn’t do it. What’s to be upset about?” Iolaus asked angrily, hurling another pebble into the lake. “It happens every day.”
“Have you ever considered that the gods might be behind this? All of it?”
‘Well, duh,’ the hunter thought to himself, rolling his eyes. Sometimes he got the feeling that Xena never thought too highly of his intellect.
“Yes, of course,” he replied out loud, glancing at her over his shoulder. “So the gods are behind it, or are responsible for it. So what?”
“What are you saying?” the warrior princess demanded, moving to stand beside him as she searched his face.
“Look, I know Hercules,” the hunter told her. “His sense of justice, his sense of honor. If he thought there was a remote chance he killed Serena, he would turn himself in and spend the rest of his life rotting in prison.”
“Yes, he would,” she agreed. “And?”
“And be remembered throughout history, not as a fighter for justice, but as a...as a wife-killer,” Iolaus burst out. “And then everything he stood for, everything he fought for, goes down the river, along with his reputation. He doesn’t deserve that.”
“No, he doesn’t,” Xena said smoothly. “So what do you want to do about it?”
He wanted to reverse time and go back to the start of the whole mess. Then when Hemnor came asking for help, he’d drag Hercules off in the opposite direction by his ear.
“I don’t know,” the hunter sighed, rubbing a hand wearily over his face. “I’ve tried to think of...something.” He rapped his knuckles against his brain to convey his frustration before he looked up at her with his tortured blue eyes. “I’ve even considered confessing to Serena’s murder myself, to spare him the shame and humiliation of imprisonment.”
“He’d never let you do that.”
“I know,” Iolaus murmured. “Unless...”
“Unless, what?” Xena prompted.
“Unless I kill him first.”
He actually started thinking that maybe they didn’t have a say in their own destinies. That maybe certain things were just preordained to happen, and there was no getting away from it. No matter how hard he tried, the hunter couldn’t escape from that last, horrible vision. And if he were honest with himself, he really would rather see Hercules dead than see all he ever fought for forgotten in the blink of an eye. To see a once proud warrior, Greece’s greatest hero, reduced to a hated criminal. And to see all the people that he’d ever inspired betrayed and disillusioned as his dream for the world fell to dust. Iolaus knew that his partner would accept his sentence of imprisonment, and that he would slowly drive himself mad with guilt over the years. The regret and sorrow of it all would eat away at him, and it would eventually kill him. It really would be more merciful and compassionate to do it first, quickly and painlessly.
“You haven’t got the stomach for it,” Xena scoffed harshly. “He’s your best friend. You couldn’t do it.”
The hunter almost laughed out loud. Contrary to what she believed, his visions told a different story. The image again floated through his mind. His sword, plunging into Hercules’ side. The blood pooling over his fingers. His best friend, lying lifeless on the ground.
“And you could?” Iolaus challenged her.
“If I had to,” the warrior princess replied confidently. “If there was no other way.” She relented, seeing how torn up the hunter really was, and how the emotional stress of all that had happened was clouding his thinking, and some of the iciness left her as she continued. “I know you’re confused. But the gods are at work here. All I’m asking is that you hear me out, and then you can do whatever you think is right.”
Iolaus took a deep breath and nodded, realizing Xena was right. He was too close, too involved. She was more distanced, and more likely to come up with a plan based on strategy rather than motivated by emotion. So he listened, and as she talked, he began to dare to hope that they might actually have a chance at proving Hercules’ innocence and trapping the god involved and ending the long nightmare once and for all.
Hercules sat up in bed, a hot rage pulsing through him. It took over his thoughts, teasing him, tormenting him, like an agonizing itch that begged to be scratched. He brought his hands to his head, just wanting the maddening fury to stop. But there was only one way to silence it. Grasping the knife tightly in his hand, he raised his arm high above his wife, sleeping so peacefully beside him. With a maniacal yell, he plunged the blade downward....
With a strangled cry, he bolted up.
“Hercules, it’s all right,” Gabrielle tried to soothe him as she hurried to his side. “It’s all right. Just lie down. It’s ok.”
He slumped back against the blankets, trying to catch his breath, not even noticing her gentle hands for there could be no comfort. Not until he knew for sure.
“If I did it, I couldn’t live with myself,” he whispered.
Gabrielle looked at him helplessly, not even sure if he was speaking to her or making a vow to himself. She was at a loss over how to help him, so she offered the only thing she knew she could provide.
“I’ll get you some water, ok?”
Grabbing the bucket, she hurried out of the cave as Hercules sat back up. He took a quick inventory, finding that his head still ached, but it was bearable and his mind was definitely clearer. The shoulder wound was throbbing painfully, but he pulled himself to his feet, happy to find he could stand under his own power more or less steadily. His right arm still worked, he discovered, as he picked up Xena’s sword and hefted it experimentally. Overall he was still in pretty rocky shape, but he was sure he’d recovered enough strength to get him back to Ceryneia. And that was all he needed.
They spent some time haggling over details. What Iolaus called “fine-tuning” and Xena deemed “nit-picking”. But finally they were both satisfied with the plan and they headed back to the cave to check on Hercules and to run the idea past him. But as they stepped inside, they found it deserted.
“Hercules?” the hunter called out, confused as to where his partner could have gone in his state.
“Gabrielle, where’s Hercules?” Xena demanded as her friend came in behind them with her full bucket.
“I don’t know,” she replied, just as puzzled. “I just went to get some water.”
“I was afraid of this,” Iolaus groaned. “He’s going to turn himself in.”
“Xena,” Gabrielle called out as she found the empty scabbard. “He took your sword.”
“To fall on?” the warrior princess asked uncertainly.
“No, he wouldn’t do that,” the hunter declared. “But he might want to do the next best thing. Charge into overwhelming odds.”
“And die a warrior’s death,” Xena concluded. “We’ve got to stop him.”
As they rushed out of the cave, Ares closed the scrying window and turned to his nephew. “I’ve got to hand it to you, Strife. This has worked out better than I could ever have imagined.”
“It’s been fun,” the godling shrugged.
“Fun is good,” Ares agreed affably. “So is dead.” He pulled the golden thread tight in his fingers and plucked it, humming as he matched the tone it produced. In a matter of minutes, it would be cut, and Xena would be his once more. It was perfect, and flawless and nothing was going to stand in his way.
He hadn’t gotten far. The few minutes’ head start he’d had wasn’t enough to let him outrun the others. Not in his weakened state. Hercules knew that his friends were approaching, but he didn’t look behind him. He kept walking forward, looking straight ahead and gripping Xena’s sword tightly in his hands.
“Let me talk to him,” Iolaus told his companions. They nodded in agreement and hung back as the hunter approached his partner, taking two strides for every one of his to keep up.
“I’m doing the right thing, Iolaus,” Hercules announced. “Don’t try to stop me.”
“Herc, wait. Just listen to me for a minute,” the hunter implored as he bounded in front of his friend, hoping that this time, for once, his partner actually would.
“I’m done listening. Get out of my way.”
“I’m not going to let you sacrifice yourself to some lynch mob!” Iolaus told him defiantly.
“Get out of my way!” Hercules repeated, his voice hard and cold.
“Look, Herc, I know what you’re going through...”
“No, you don’t!” The words exploded out of Hercules as emotion overtook him. “You don’t know what it’s like to wake up and find your wife dead beside you, and not know if you did it or not! But what do you care? You didn’t want me to marry her anyway. You’re probably glad she’s dead!” He glared at his friend, expecting a heated retort. But Iolaus remained silent, looking back at his partner evenly, understanding that he was speaking from anger and grief. And when he didn’t get anger back, the fight drained away from Hercules and he hung his head, stumbling over to slump against a large boulder on the side of the road.
“Hercules,” Iolaus said gently as he followed him. “Look at me.” When his friend didn’t respond, the hunter reached out a hand to rest on his shoulder. “Look at me.” Hercules raised his head, his eyes heavy with sorrow and guilt. “I am truly sorry Serena is dead. She saved my life, but even more than that, she made you happy. And for that, I’ll always love her. I know how much this is tearing you apart. But charging into a mob scene and getting yourself killed is not going to solve anything.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Hercules confessed, his voice breaking as his eyes filled with tears. “I don’t think I can take this.”
“The gods are at work here,” the hunter continued softly. “You know Ares is behind this. If you give up now, then he wins. Is that what you want?”
Hercules gave a small shake of the head.
“I know you’re hurting,” Iolaus comforted him. “But Xena has a plan. We’ll make Ares answer for what he’s done and clear your name once and for all.”
“But what if I did it?”
“You didn’t,” the hunter declared with conviction. “I know you better than you know yourself, Herc, and there’s nothing in the world that could’ve made you kill Serena, Ares or no Ares.”
Hercules took a deep breath, running a hand through his hair. His physical injuries were nothing compared to the pain in his heart. He was so full of grief and anger and frustration and despair, all raging within him and clouding his mind. All he could think about was ending the pain, once and for all. Releasing himself from agony, punishing himself at the same time, and sparing anyone else he loved from the curse of knowing him. He’d thought it was the right thing to do, but Iolaus just wouldn’t shut up and his words were starting to penetrate the fog of confusion in his brain.
“Come on, Herc,” the hunter coaxed. “Don’t give Ares the satisfaction. We can get you off the hook and give a heartless god a little payback. Please, just trust me.”
Hercules did trust him, implicitly and completely. And with a nod, he gave him that trust, willing to go along with the plan if Iolaus wanted him to. For he certainly couldn’t trust himself at that moment, so he willingly put himself in the hands of his best friend. He was lost, and he trusted Iolaus to guide him until he could find his way back.
“After we settle the score with Ares,” Iolaus promised him, taking a step forward and hugging him. “We’ll deal with the rest together. I’m not going to let you go through this alone.”
Hercules let out a long, shuddering sigh and held onto the hunter tightly, drawing in his strength and support as he realized that he wouldn’t be able to get through this without the man who was his rock. The brother of his choosing protected him while others were trying to break him, and he would be there to help him try to mend the pieces of his shattered heart. He knew, and was eternally grateful, that Iolaus would never quit on him, even when he wanted to quit on himself.
“Thanks, buddy,” he whispered in the hunter’s ear. As he let go, Hercules brushed the tears from his eyes and turned to the two women down the road, watching him with sympathy. He was also grateful for their loyal friendship, and he realized how misguided he had been. “So, what’s this about a plan?”
The foursome moved off into the woods, making a basic campsite as they outlined their strategy. Xena and Iolaus weren’t sure that Hercules was up for what they had in mind, but he argued that he could do it and in the end they decided they didn’t have time to wait, not if they were going to catch Ares off guard and make him show his hand. So after he had rested a little and the warrior princess checked his wounds, Hercules returned to the road and continued on his way to the village.
“Xena, he said something about not being able to live with himself. You don’t think he might still be planning....?”
“No,” Iolaus said firmly, having overheard Gabrielle’s soft concerns. As they had gone over their plan, he had been relieved to see some of the fire come back to Hercules’ eyes. He was ready to deal with Ares, and call him out once and for all. “No, he’ll stick with the plan.”
His vision told him so.
“He’s wounded! He must be holed up somewhere close.”
Hercules stepped forward, casting his eyes over the milling throngs of villagers and soldiers who were still after him. Well, it was time to be found.
“If you’re looking for me, here I am.”
The crowd all spun around, frozen for a moment in surprise that their quarry would appear so brazenly in the middle of the marketplace.
“I wouldn’t celebrate just yet,” Iolaus informed them as he popped out from behind a tree.
“You’ve got short memories,” Xena announced, also coming forward from her hiding spot, followed closely by Gabrielle. “Stay back unless you want more of what we gave you before.”
The soldiers hesitated, not sure they wanted another trouncing quite so soon. Hercules glanced over his shoulder, glaring at his friends, and then deliberately began to move forward.
“No, stop,” Iolaus begged him, rushing in front of him and barring his path, his sword already drawn in anticipation of battle.
“Out of my way, Iolaus,” he commanded. “I’m turning myself in.”
“I can’t let you do that, Hercules.”
“Get out of my way,” Hercules said vehemently.
“Look, you’re not listening to reason...”
“I’m warning you,” the larger man snarled. “Don’t try to stop me from doing the right thing.”
“The right thing is to go back with us till we find out who really killed Serena,” Iolaus argued.
“We know who killed her!” Hercules shouted. “Now, step aside!”
“Just put the sword down,” the hunter urged.
But with a growl, Hercules swung Xena’s sword, and Iolaus blocked it with his own. Their blades clashed fiercely a few more times, until Hercules managed to clip his partner’s boots, sending the hunter sprawling on his back across the ground. Looking up, he saw his best friend, sword raised high, preparing to plunge it down into his heart. Instinctively, Iolaus thrust his own blade, hearing a sickening pulpy squish. He withdrew it immediately as Hercules clasped a hand to his abdomen, bright red liquid flowing over his fingers. Shock and disbelief came over Hercules’ face as he looked down into the horrified face of his friend.
“You killed me,” he groaned out, before he collapsed into the dirt, lifeless and limp.
“No,” Iolaus cried out. “I... I didn’t mean...”
He didn’t have to fake his anguish. Hercules’ performance had been so good, the hunter had to fight back the compulsion to check and make sure it hadn’t been real and that the goatskin had been the only thing skewered. As he stared at the body of his best friend, seeing it exactly how it had been in his vision, Iolaus was hit by the irony. All the time he had spent running from the vision, so afraid he was going to kill his best friend. Yet in reality, that vision had actually been one of him saving Hercules’ life.
“No!” Xena screamed, running forward and grabbing her sword from the ground where the fallen man had dropped it. She ordered Iolaus to get up, crashing her blade with his as he leapt to his feet and tried to defend himself against her crazed attack. Gabrielle went to kneel beside Hercules, pulling his head and shoulders into her lap as she watched the fight with huge eyes.
Iolaus held his own for a few moments, but Xena was all over him, striking with a possessed fury. She finally maneuvered an opening where she could get in a shot to the face, and while he staggered from the blow, exposed, the warrior princess impaled him on her sword. Xena watched him impassively for a moment as he gurgled slightly in his death throes, then she grabbed him by the face and shoved him away in disgust, holding up her sword for all to see as he fell over dead on the ground.
“You wanna see some more blood?” she taunted the stunned crowd. “Bring it on.”
“Well done, Xena,” Ares called out, laughing softly as he emerged from the back of the crowd, Strife in tow.
“Ares,” she acknowledged, feigning surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“Let’s just say I have a vested interest in all of this,” he replied cryptically.
“You planned all of this,” Xena accused.
“One must keep amused,” the god of war said casually. He bit his lip, pretending to think things over as he glanced at the still form of his half-brother. “There is a way to bring him back. Come back to me, where you belong.”
“How’d you do it?” she demanded, ignoring his offer. “How did you get someone so noble and so strong to kill his own wife?”
“I think I’ll keep that my little secret,” Ares told her cunningly.
“I think you’re being a little too modest there, Uncle,” Strife piped up, eager to tout his own accomplishments to the world and missing the warning glare the god of war shot him. “It was easy, you know? A little Morpheus- induced sleep, and I just sort of slipped on by.”
“You killed her?” Xena questioned, wanting absolute clarification.
“Yeah, like I said it was easy,” Strife confirmed with a shrug.
“What does it matter who killed her?!” Ares shouted. “Hercules is dead. And you’re mine.”
“It matters to me!”
The crowd gasped as the formerly dead man got to his feet, fixing a deadly glare on the two Olympians who suddenly realized they’d been had.
“And to me!” Iolaus chimed in, also making a miraculous recovery as he sprang up from the ground.
“Goat skin worked,” Hercules muttered, removing the deflated sack from inside his shirt and tossing it on the ground as Xena grinned slyly. With a roar, he launched himself at Strife, tackling him as they both went crashing into a display of amphoras. He didn’t feel any pain, his injuries forgotten as the blind need for revenge blocked all else from his mind. Climbing on top of the godling, Hercules began throttling him, wanting to steal the life from him as he’d done to Serena.
Strife struggled, finally managing to heave Hercules off of him. He went flying across the marketplace and slammed into the ground, but got up immediately and ran back to the godling, knocking him down once again.
“Get up!” Hercules barked at him, punching him hard in rapid succession when Strife complied. A brutal kick to the midsection sent the godling to the ground, and an even more brutal kick to the head sent him back when he got to his feet. Strife crab walked across the dirt to cower at the feet of his uncle, looking up imploringly at the god of war.
“Help,” he begged piteously.
“Fight him, you pathetic little fool. You’re a god,” Ares reminded him in disgust. “Use your powers!”
Realizing that Hercules, who had whaled on him from the time he was just a young punk, no longer had his strength and was a mere mortal, Strife got to his feet with renewed purpose and met his advancing foe. He blocked the next swing and landed on of his own, sending Hercules sailing back through the market to land heavily on the ground.
“Yeah!” Strife cheered, feeling the power coursing through him, as well as the intense satisfaction that he was finally going to be able to beat his long time foe. He rushed toward the sprawled form and kicked him savagely. Grabbing his head, Strife slammed his face into the dirt, then picked him up as if he were a feather and heaved him back across the market. “Take a hike!”
“Even it up, Ares,” Xena commanded worriedly, glancing at the god of war. “Give Hercules back his strength.”
“No,” the god of war scoffed, as if it were the dumbest thing he’d ever heard of. “I’m enjoying this too much.”
Iolaus watched, growing frantic as Strife pummeled his partner before kicking him back across the marketplace. It took everything he had not to rush to his friend’s side, but he knew that this was something Hercules had to do on his own.
“You reneged on your deal, Ares,” the hunter reminded the god. “You said if he gave up his powers, he’d be happily married.”
“I lied,” Ares shrugged. “So what?” His plan had failed, but Strife was on his way to administering a beating fatal to a mortal, which he could get away with now that Hercules was no longer of the gods. Not quite as satisfying as having those two meddling warriors dead and Xena back in his folds, but it was still something. The god of war laughed his triumph.
“Ares, you heard them. Play fair.”
Strife had been jumping up and down on Hercules’ chest, but as the old man appeared, his maniacal giggling ceased and he stopped his assault, recognizing Veklos for who he really was. Iolaus started to move to his friend, but Xena’s hand on his shoulder stopped him.
Hercules groaned as he curled in on himself. His head throbbed in agony and his shoulder wound had been reopened, spilling fresh blood down his chest. No longer could he ignore his injuries, or the host of new ones that Strife had inflicted. But he couldn’t give up. He owed it to Serena to avenge her murder. Determinedly, he tried to get up, but it took all he had just to pull himself to his knees. A pair of hands swam into his vision, and he looked up, expecting to see Iolaus but startled at the sight of the old man. Hesitantly, Hercules reached out, realizing there was more going on than met the eye, and gingerly took Veklos’s hands.
A bright light engulfed them, and as the old man helped him up Hercules felt a flash of heat surging through him, chasing off the weakness and filling him with strength. His injuries immediately healed, and when the contact was broken, he found that his physical pain was gone and his body was pulsing with his old power. Hercules looked to Veklos, not surprised that Zeus had taken his place.
“Father,” he murmured. But the king of the gods did not speak, merely moving back to give his son room to do what he had to do. As Iolaus grinned from ear to ear, Hercules turned, his fierce blue eyes seeking out his wife’s killer. “Strife,” he called out in a singsong voice that held more than a hint of threat. “I’m back.”
His fury was no less than it had been when Strife was manipulating his mind, but this time it was controlled, and directed at the weasely little godling. Ducking under his wild swing, Hercules unleashed a punch with so much force behind it, Strife flew up into the air and crashed through the thatched roof of a barn several yards away. The demigod strode purposefully toward the structure, kicking the doors open as he entered. A yelp was heard, and then Strife exited. Through the wall. Ares grimaced, covering his face with his hands. It was bad enough that his nephew had blabbed out his plans and fallen right into Xena’s trap, but now he was getting his butt kicked from here to eternity. The god of war was highly disappointed, but he decided that the beating Strife was taking was probably punishment enough.
Hercules left the barn, through the second door Strife had made, and was a terrifying sight as he came after the godling again. Strife skittered across the ground, retreating until he got his hands on a heavy clay vase. He swung it at the demigod, but Hercules caught his arm, wrenching the vase free and tossing it aside as he tossed Strife to the ground. He held onto his arm and began slamming the godling into the ground. First on one side, then yanking him over his head to slam him into the other side. When he tired of that, he picked Strife up and held him over his head, spinning him in dizzying circles as the godling implored his uncle to help him and Iolaus leapt and cheered from the sidelines.
Tossing Strife to the ground, Hercules crouched down beside him and punched him in the face with every ounce of his newly returned power. It felt so good, he did it again. And probably would have kept doing it, but Ares finally decided that his nephew had had enough. A bolt of electricity hit Hercules, knocking him backwards. He sat up, glaring at Strife, who giggled insanely before he disappeared. “Ares!” the demigod shouted as he got to his feet. “This isn’t over!”
“No, it isn’t,” the god agreed sinisterly as he, too, disappeared. He had lost the battle, but the war was far from over. And it was a war he fully intended to win.
Hercules glanced around, wanting to make sure nobody else was going to give him any trouble. But he needn’t have worried, for all of the fight had gone out of the villagers and soldiers alike, especially once Strife had left and took all his manipulations with him. His friends were ready to congratulate him, but out of the corner of his eye, Hercules saw his father slipping through the crowd and he immediately started after him.
“Zeus!” he called out, following him as the god headed down the road leading out of town. “Zeus! Don’t you walk away from me.”
“You handled yourself well,” Zeus told him, stopping and turning to face his son.
“Is that all you have to say to me?” the demigod demanded.
“You have a strange way of showing gratitude,” the god reprimanded him.
“For what?” Hercules asked in disbelief.
“For saving you,” Zeus pointed out, thinking it was obvious. “For giving you back your powers!”
The demigod turned away, pacing slightly before he met his father’s gaze. As wonderful as it was to have his old strength back, it was a poor substitute for the ache in his heart.
“I would rather have Serena back,” he told him, a sob in his voice.
“Son, you know I can’t undo what the gods have done,” Zeus said offhandedly.
“I don’t want to hear about the other gods!” Hercules shouted. “I mean, this is twice, now, you’ve turned your back on me and my family.”
“It’s not that easy,” the god lectured sternly. “I have other responsibilities.”
“Since when have you been responsible for anything?” Hercules spat. “When?”
“What about the day in Gargarencia when I reversed time so you could have Iolaus back?” Zeus reminded him. “I seem to recall you saying that you owed me for that.”
“I will always be grateful for that,” the demigod acquiesced, calming slightly. “But he was killed because of Hera. My wife and children died because of Hera. And Serena was murdered because of Ares. How much longer is this going to go on? How much longer are you going to keep turning your back on me, and on those gods that you’re supposed to be keeping in line? Ares and Hera can just snuff out innocent life whenever they feel like it. Mortal life, that you claim to respect. How many more people are going to die on their whims? How many more people am I going to lose? They can just waltz into my life and destroy everything and everyone I love, and you just stand there and twiddle your thumbs and whine about your sorry ass rules tying up your hands. That’s bullshit!”
Zeus looked down into the angry eyes of his son, his face a neutral mask, his own eyes closed off.
“So,” he said finally. “I don’t even rate a thank you?”
“Thanks,” Hercules told him sarcastically. “But you’re wrong if you think that’s going to change anything between us.”
As the king of the gods watched his son stomp back down the road away from him, his impartiality faded away and his shoulders slumped sadly. He didn’t blame Hercules for feeling the way he did. And although it tore at Zeus’ heart to know his son hated him, that was just the way it had to be. For he loved Hercules, his most favored son, more than anything or anyone else. And he always had, from the moment his beautiful Alcmene brought him into the world. He had stayed away from the boy all through his youth, hoping to shield him from Hera. But the goddess had known, sensing his love for this child, although not even she knew how deeply it ran. And in accordance with her spiteful nature and insane jealousy, she had devoted her life to making his life miserable. Because she knew that it, in turn, would cause Zeus misery, even if he wouldn’t admit it.
Once Hercules was older and had proven himself as the champion of Greece, Zeus thought he was safe. He began to visit with his son, delighting in the tales of adventure, and later, delighting even more in the exquisite Deianeira and his three wonderful grandchildren. Until the day Hera struck her fateful blow, robbing them both of the family that they had loved. Zeus retreated, hoping once more that he could convince Hera of his indifference toward his son and direct her attentions elsewhere. But the goddess knew better, and Zeus became too ashamed to even face his son again.
There were rules. And if he was going to enforce them, he had to abide by them. Otherwise the other gods would feel no obligation to adhere to his policies. If he brought Deianeira and the children back to life, it would have given Ares and Hera free reign to break the rules designed to keep them tenuously under control. They would have thought nothing about circumventing the laws that protected Hercules from them. He had caught a lot of flack for the reversing time stunt he’d pulled in Gargarencia. The only thing that saved him was Artemis, testifying that she had demanded compensation for Hera’s involvement with her Amazons. It bought him a little leeway, but immortals had long memories and he knew he couldn’t afford to do it again, even though he would have loved nothing more than to be able to mend his son’s broken heart by giving him back his wife.
Zeus sighed, shaking his head slightly. He had known it was a mistake to give into Ares when he had petitioned him to spare one of the Hinds. Zeus had only decided to eliminate the creatures because Hera had tried to use Hind blood on Hercules when she had been masquerading as the god of war and possessing boys to carry out her lethal bidding. A fact that Ares was not happy about, and he, too, demanded compensation for Hera’s interference. So Zeus granted him custody of Serena, although it was against his better judgment. But he wanted to believe Ares’ motives were good, as he vowed, because Zeus loved him, too. If he’d only known how it would have all turned out, he would have taken Serena with the last of her kind. Compensating Ares was a far second to sparing Hercules such tragic heartbreak. But he had suffered it, and Zeus could not help him. That was hard to bear, but the king of the gods was comforted to know that Iolaus could, and would, help him through it.
As he headed back to Olympus, Zeus realized that Hercules may have had a valid point. He had turned his back on Ares, and look what had happened. It distinctly bothered him that Ares had been brash enough to even try to take Hercules’ strength, and more so that he was able to sway the other gods to his decision and no one had even bothered to try and track him down for his approval. Maybe it was time to start exerting his authority as king, reign in the renegades and keep the rest of the gods in line. It wasn’t going to be easy, but Zeus knew he had to step in now before the pantheon got irrevocably out of control. Yes, he needed to turn his focus back on Olympus, and reclaim his title as king of the gods, before he lost it for good..
Xena had retrieved Argo from where she’d left her just outside the marketplace, and the three warriors waited in the town square for Hercules to return as the villagers began carrying on with their business, the excitement over but not soon forgotten. The warrior princess could see that the hunter was still worried about his friend, so she decided to distract him while they waited.
“You give good scream.”
“Well,” Iolaus chuckled as he lifted up his vest. “Let me show you something.”
“Very nice,” Xena purred in a sultry voice, teasing him.
“You cut it pretty close,” the hunter pointed out, not taking her bait.
“Well, it had to look real,” Gabrielle said, in her friend’s defense.
“Another couple of centimeters, it would have been real,” Iolaus argued, sure she had cut it close on purpose.
“Yeah, well it wasn’t,” Xena replied, not giving him the apology he was looking for, knowing he wasn’t really upset.
“Hercules?” the hunter called out as the demigod strode right past them.
“Don’t ask,” Hercules told him brusquely.
Iolaus went after him, and the women followed, although they kept a respectful distance.
“Are you ok?” the hunter inquired softly.
“Stupid question,” Iolaus murmured. “Look, Herc, it isn’t much consolation, but at least you know you didn’t kill Serena.”
“I did kill her,” Hercules answered, stopping and facing his friend. “If I hadn’t fallen in love and married her, she’d be alive today.”
He started walking once more, and the hunter let him go, his fears realized. After Strife’s admission, nobody could fault Hercules for Serena’s death. But he was still blaming himself. Iolaus knew that in the demigod’s mind, he was thinking he as good as stabbed her. And the hunter also knew there was nothing he could say to help. Hercules would have to make peace with it himself.
The foursome returned to the cottage and collected Serena’s body, burying her out in the forest that she had loved, by the lake where she and Hercules had exchanged vows. As the sun slowly set and twilight descended, Xena sang a haunting funeral dirge, a lament for the slain woman and the lost love between her and her husband. When she was through, she nodded to Gabrielle and they moved off, with Iolaus trailing after them, leaving Hercules alone to say his goodbye.
The demigod arranged Serena’s necklace on top of her grave marker, and when he had it right he slammed his fist down on top of it, setting it permanently in the stone. Then he knelt down next to the grave, wondering how to say farewell to the woman he’d only known a short time, but would love throughout the ages.
“You weren’t long for this world, Serena,” he whispered to her. “At least not in your mortal form. But you made the most of your short life. You loved, and you were loved in return. That’s the highest place a mortal can aspire to. And for that, I am eternally grateful. I will miss you. And I’ll always love you. Forever.”
Ceryneia held too many painful memories, Iolaus decided. The best thing for Hercules was to get him away from the reminders for the night, so he chose to make camp in the woods outside of town. Xena and Gabrielle considered staying at the inn, but after a quick discussion they also decided to camp. The demigod may have been inconsolable, but they could at least provide Iolaus with moral support. However, they soon found out the hunter was in no mood to be comforted, either. He paced restlessly around the fire, warring over whether to go after his partner or respect his need to be alone and give him some space. But finally he came to the conclusion that Hercules had been gone too long and declared his intention of going after him, telling the women to keep the fire burning for them.
Iolaus found the demigod sitting down by the lake, and as he studied his friend’s silhouette in the moonlight he was struck by a sudden wave of sadness. They were as close as two people could possibly be, and he knew exactly what Hercules was feeling. Mourning Serena’s loss, suffering another betrayal by his father, and struggling with the guilt for ever having loved her in the first place. It made the hunter’s heart ache that there had to be yet another scar on a soul that had already seen a lifetime of sorrows. But he couldn’t help feeling like the whole tragedy could have been prevented.
If Hercules had only listened to him. But no, he hid his romance from him, along with Serena’s identity, just like he’d kept the truth from him about freeing Prometheus from the chains binding him being a suicide mission. Or when he’d snuck off on his own to find Hera’s Enforcer under the pretense of judging a pie eating contest. And he’d brushed off all the hunter’s worries and concerns, as one might swat away a bothersome insect. Just like he had when they were trying to free Gladius. Hercules hadn’t listened to him then, either, and they’d both been tortured as a result. And the frustration welled up inside Iolaus. He was tired of the demigod just always assuming he was right and that he knew best, because every now and then he wasn’t, and it caused pain and heartache for the both of them when Hercules couldn’t acknowledge that. But the hunter sighed, and forced his frustration back down. It was something they were going to have to talk about and work through, but now was not the time for an “I told you so”. Hercules needed his love and support, not a lecture.
Iolaus went down to the lake and sat beside his friend. They were silent for a long time, and finally the hunter elbowed his partner gently in the ribs.
“So which one of Ares’ temples do you want to hit first?”
Hercules smiled slightly in spite of himself.
“I’m not going to run this time, Iolaus,” he replied, understanding that his friend had been worried he would take off like he had after Deianeira and the kids had died. “After last time, I learned the best revenge against the gods is just to keep doing what I do. Wreck their plans, kill their monsters, and just try to keep as many people safe from them as I can.”
“You want to just dive right back into the game?” the hunter asked. While he was glad that the demigod wasn’t going to storm off on a quest for vengeance like he had before, he still felt that he should allow himself a little down time to mourn.
“What else do I have?”
“I know it doesn’t mean much to you now,” Iolaus said softly. “But you still have me.”
“No,” Hercules whispered, shaking his head. “That doesn’t mean much. It means everything.”
The hunter slipped an arm around his friend, declaring, “I’m not going anywhere.”
It was what the demigod needed to hear, the catalyst that broke through his carefully built barrier. In the arms of the brother of his heart, he was finally able to let himself mourn for all that he had lost, and more importantly, let himself be comforted. The gods had once again proven that everyone he loved was a target. He feared for Iolaus’ safety, especially after his stint with mortality had enlightened him to how delicate the mortal body really was and how much pain the hunter must have silently endured over the years. The only way to protect him was to distance himself, but Hercules knew that was not a possibility. Nothing short of death would ever roust Iolaus from his side, but at that moment, he was glad of it. For his best friend’s embrace was the only thing holding him together and he knew he’d never be able to find his way past his grief without his irrepressible, irreplaceable partner to show him the way.
When the demigod was ready, they rose and began heading back to the campsite, but Iolaus kept on hand on his partner’s back, a gesture Hercules found reassuring.
“I think we should go home,” the hunter suggested. “I know you’re anxious to go find a monster or two to start getting your revenge, but I think a break would do us both good. What do you say?”
Hercules wasn’t sure he wanted to go home and face the reminders of more people he loved that had been taken from him. But the more he thought about it, the more he decided his friend was right. He had always ended up back home when he needed to rest and heal, from emotional wounds as well as the physical. For his mother’s fragrant garden, warm home, and loving touch were the best balm for soothing an aching heart, and Iolaus knew it as well as he did.
“All right,” he agreed.
“Good,” the hunter said with real enthusiasm. “It’s been too long since I’ve had any of Alcmene’s cooking. Do you think we’d be able to talk Xena and Gabrielle into coming with us?”
“Shouldn’t be a hard sell. After all, it’s probably the last place Joxer would come looking for them.”
Iolaus grinned, slapping his partner lightly on the back. Hercules was going to be all right. It would take time, and he’d never forget. But he was strong, the power of the gods paling in comparison to the power of his heart. He wasn’t broken, and he still had hope. Hope that life could still be filled with laughter and love and happiness. And the hunter made a silent vow that he would find a way to help the demigod find peace and be happy again. Hercules was counting on him, and Iolaus wasn’t going to fail to stand beside him.
That was one thing he could predict, with or without the help of a mystical vision.
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