The hydra loomed ever closer with its hiss like a wet campfire, and the hypnotic undulations of its neck drawing Iolaus in. It leaned over him as it rose further out of the water, casting its shadow across him blocking out the little light the cave even offered. He parried with his sword, thrusting just close enough to force the hydra away, knowing not to lop off a head, lest it grow two more as he wondered what else he could do. He felt alone and out of ideas. He was trapped, back to the cave wall with water on his right and simply blackness on his left. Who even knew if there was more than one of these things in here?
"I've killed a Hydra before," Iolaus muttered as he swung the heavy sword loosely, threateningly he hoped.
"Of course I had Hercules. And then there was the time with Lydia." He shivered, remembering how cold and wet he was after killing the pond serpent, and then having to immediately face the hydra. This wasn't much different. Except this time he was alone and the hydra was bigger and closer. He recoiled from its fetid breath even as he kept careful watch on its lidless eyes.
Iolaus feinted, pushing the sword toward the smooth scaled head but the Hydra evaded it and swung back towards him. In a flash he felt its gaping maw close over his throat and its tiny sharp teeth puncture his skin.
Hercules rolled over. Iolaus was restless again. The hunter was like this more nights than not lately. And although the demi god could go without sleep for longer than Iolaus, he was getting both exhausted and concerned by Iolaus' nightly tossing and calling out. He gave a firm nudge with his elbow to the blonde's ribs.
Iolaus opened his eyes, sat up quickly, startled.
"Same nightmare?" Hercules inquired.
Iolaus shook the sleep from his head and rubbed his gritty eyes. He felt as if he hadn't really rested in weeks. Every muscle ached, his brain was fuzzy and he couldn't seem to concentrate.
'Yeah! Oh boy!" He shook his head, letting the curls flop loosely against his face. "That makes it Hydra three, Iolaus nothing."
Hercules looked over, concern etched on his face. Iolaus had been experiencing nightmares ever since Serena's death, at first infrequently, but lately almost every night. And Hercules knew that although Iolaus might not say so, he still had issues with being dropped out of Hercules life so quickly, replaced by Serena. Hercules had realized his mistake, but too late to correct it. Iolaus had thrown up his protective guard, trying to cover his pain.
Hercules never meant for any of it to turn out this way, their falling out, the separation and finally their reconciliation. It had been hard on Iolaus, Hercules understood that. He still hurt too. And if he was honest, he hadn't slept well either. But his job was to support Iolaus now, as Iolaus had supported him thorough his time of sorrow.
"Maybe you need to slow down, get away for a while," Hercules suggested hesitantly, aware that Iolaus had taken their recent separation pretty hard.
Iolaus stared across at Hercules in amazement. "Wait, wait, wait a minute. You're telling me to take a vacation?"
Hercules back pedaled. "Why not? Everyone needs a break now and then."
Iolaus stared suspiciously across the last remnants of fire at Hercules. What was with him? "Yeah, but usually it's me telling you to"- - - Iolaus stopped and realized that maybe Hercules was really the one who needed a vacation. After all the demi-god hadn't had things easy lately. Besides a little hunting and fishing, a few ales and a nice bed, a pretty girl would do them both good.
"Hey Herc, I know the perfect spot! We are going to be treated like royalty!" Iolaus laughed. This could work!
Hercules looked questioningly back at Iolaus. "We? Nobody said we."
"Aw come on! It stands to reason. If I need a break so do you." Iolaus laughed, leaning forward. He didn't even try to keep the excitement out of his voice. "We are going to wallow in luxury!"
Princess Melissa had had a wonderful nights sleep, so refreshing. She'd eaten a tasty breakfast of roasted quail eggs over home baked multi grain bread with fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. Then she'd had her maid pick out her beautiful blue gown, the one with the trails of sheer fabric that danced as she walked. She had the girl place a lovely sapphire necklace around her very slender neck, and finally the maid had powdered her creamy white skin and put on some glowing highlights made from actual powdered gold. Princess Melissa was anticipating her usual fine day.
But now her father had summoned her to his throne and ruined her day, her life, everything with his stupid pronouncement. She couldn't hide her pout or stop the frown that was forming on her specially reddened lips, even though she knew that later down the road she would pay for this with a few fine lines and wrinkles.
"No, no, no, no, no, no!" she cried out frantically upset. "You can't use me like you were using a horse or cow or something!" she wailed.
Her father sighed and turned his eyes away, not wanting to see her throw yet another temper tantrum. "My dear, your marriage to Prince Gordius will ensure peace between our kingdoms." He tried to reason with her, but Melissa would hear nothing of it.
"Oh peace, war, who cares!" she declared passionately, her hands flapping and her blue dress swirling like a storm cloud around her. "This is my LIFE we're talking about!" At this, she rushed dramatically over to the throne and dropped to her father's knees. She tipped her face up to his and spoke softly, dramatically.
"Ever since I was a little girl I dreamed about the kind of man I'd marry. Oh, he'd be handsome and charming and all the other princesses would want him but he'd want me, and they'd be SO jealous, and - - -" Melissa broke into tears, making sure that her father could more than hear her unhappiness but see and feel it as well. That usually worked.
"Now you want to spoil all that!" she wept loudly.
The king shifted uncomfortably. He hated when Melissa acted out like this, always wanting her own way, and usually getting it, since her mother had died. She'd been so frail, needy, and her mother had only worsened it. And since his wife's death Melissa had not grown up to be the Princess he had hoped for, yet perhaps there a chance she would change still.
"What's going on?" an annoyed voice queried. "Melissa can be heard half way to Thrace!"
The king looked up, happy for the interruption. Alexa had slipped in silently, as was her way. Of the two daughters, the king favored Melissa (so much like her mother!) but felt a kinship with Alexa that was more like the bond a father would have with his son. Alexa was the one he conferred with when he needed an ear, Melissa when he wanted sympathy.
Alexa stood with her hands on her hips, looking slender and strong in her tight purple dress designed specifically to show off her figure, more sharp angles than curves like Melissa's.
Melissa turned her tear streaked face up to her sister, looking for support.
"Oh Alexa! Thank the Gods you're here!"
She stood, turning from her father and placed a hand delicately over her heart. "Father's trying to marry me off to that - - -Lathian!" She let a strangled sob escape her tight trembling lips as she slipped the other arm around Alexa, dragging her sister over to face their father with her.
The king sighed heavily, his eyes drooping in weariness, his brow heavily furrowed. His shoulders were stooped and for a moment Melissa thought she saw him actually close his eyes.
"My girls," he spoke softly but firmly. "My two beautiful daughters. I won't be with you much longer." The king tried to mask his sorrow, but it slipped out anyway, something not even royalty could hide. "Before I die I want our kingdom safe. And that means naming the man to marry Melissa, and to take over the throne." His eyes met his daughters' and neither could mistake the firmness there, the conviction.
"Ohhhhhh!" Melissa wailed out in frustration. She stomped her foot and whirled around, spinning the silken dress like a mist around her. But even in turning away she could feel the conviction of her father's words burning into her soul.
"Why not let Melissa rule? She is the rightful heir," Alexa spoke with quiet firmness as she met her fathers stare full on. She cocked her head, arched an eyebrow in challenge.
"Melissa rule my kingdom?" The King didn't try to hide his scorn. "This is a big job. Always making laws; commanding the army. He turned his eyes to Melissa then back to Alexa "I'm sorry but like it or not girls, this is a man's world.
Alexa could feel her blood boil. Even with her many discussions of military strategy and legal rights, her father still refused to recognize that she was just as capable as he was of running the kingdom. Perhaps more so now that he was growing so old and feeble. Melissa would only be a puppet anyway.
"We're talking about your sister," the King answered incredulously as he nodded over to Melissa who stood weeping, stomping her feet and wringing her hands.
Alexa had known what her father's response would be and was ready for it. She leaned forward, her face inches from his, challenging, not bothering to hide the fire in her eyes.
"A woman can be just as strong as a man!" She tried to keep her temper in check, but her father saw it, Alexa's flaw. She was smart and capable, but not cool headed. And her logic was skewed.
Melissa had been listening and could feel her hopes start to slip away. Alexa was getting no where. Their father was being more stubborn than usual. She took a deep breath. She would NOT have her day ruined. She would give it one last try, the act that always worked.
She dashed over and fell to her knees, her hands on her father's legs as she stared pitifully up into his face like a small child seeking forgiveness, wanting to melt her father's heart.
"Daddy, if I have to marry someone, why does it have to be a Lathian?" She cocked her head, her voice puzzled. "You once considered them our worst enemy."
The King sighed. Melissa always did need things spelled out to her. Well he'd do it once again, and clearly too.
"Once you're married, our two kingdoms will be united. Now, that means no more war; we can destroy our weapons."
Melissa felt a sinking in her stomach, knowing that she had lost. Her face crumbled as she screamed like the spoiled child she was.
"Ohhhhh! "I don't LOVE him!"
She dashed away from her father, stomping her feet and rushing for the door, thinking only of escaping from this nightmare. No handsome Prince to sweep her off her feet. No jealous Princesses. Only fat Gordy, whose stomach probably fell in waves over his belt and whose chin most likely wobbled like a turkeys wattle when he spoke.
Alexa watched her sister flee, mouth set tightly. If Gordius ruled she would be nothing more than the younger sister. No power, no rights. It couldn't happen.
"You don't even know him!" her father called after Melissa. "You were born into royalty, Melissa," he warned her departing back. "That means both privilege and sacrifice."
She stopped at the doorway, but kept her back to her father.
"You'll be in Lathia in the morning." The king's voice was firm and commanding.
Melissa stomped out as Alexa turned, shooting her father an angry glare and quickly followed her.
Melissa sat in her room, hair down and soft flowing nightgown on, her hair falling loose around her shoulders. She'd cried all afternoon, refusing supper. But her father hadn't changed his mind, hadn't even come up to apologize for upsetting her so. And now it was bedtime. In the morning she would be Mrs. Fat Gordius, future Queen of Lathia. She shuddered at the thought.
"My life is over," she moaned as Alexa brushed her long, lustrous brown hair.
"Maybe there's a way out?" Alexa suggested commiserating with the unfairness of the situation.
Melissa looked back at Alexa through the mirror. "Uh, Alexa, it's nice to dream, but tomorrow morning I'm going to be sacrificed on the altar of marriage to his royal fatness Prince Gordius - - -unless I'm not here." Her eyes glazed over and she looked as if she was far away.
Alexa raised an eyebrow, an idea forming.
"What do you mean? Run away?" she urged.
"Oh, who am I kidding?" Melissa threw her hands up in disgust, knowing she would do nothing. Her fate was sealed. She stood, turning to face her sister. "Who would dress me? Who would feed me? Who would do my hair?"
She threw her hands up in frustration. "It's no use. I'm going to sleep." She dismissed Alexa, like nothing more than a maid, no kiss, no thank you. "If I'm lucky I'll die in my sleep."
Melissa fell quickly asleep, tired from the hours of crying and not eating and fussing. She needed her beauty rest if she was going to be a bride. Well, at least she could make some Princes jealous. She dreamed of the trip to Lathia, and of the wonderful welcome she would receive and how Gordius would have actually lost weight and was, in her dreams, so very handsome and loving.
Melissa smiled as she turned over onto her side, slipping her sleep mask off. It was dark. She didn't need it. Suddenly she felt the bed groan and shift. Why, she wasn't heavy enough for that! A voice whispered tauntingly in her ear.
"Oh Princess - - -don't want to get married? Well this is your lucky day!"
She felt a hand slap down on her mouth as she opened her eyes in alarm. Above her was a bald man, with terrible teeth and foul breath. He grabbed her with one strong arm, hauling her off the bed, while another man, as rough looking as the first hauled her lower half.
Princess Melissa struggled but she was no match for the two strong men who held her tightly as they carried her away, through the softly festooned door of her royal chamber.
Hercules was uncomfortable. A mud bath was not his idea of a great start to a vacation. But Iolaus had insisted, and Hercules gave in. Hercules didn't particularly like the way the mud squished under his butt when he sat, how it oozed up around his legs and the sulfurous smell it gave off. And when Iolaus insisted that they smear it on their faces so they could experience the full benefit on their complexions he almost said no. But he didn't and now he was sitting in a pool of murky, smelly water, leaning against a rock wall with the most ridiculous bas relief he'd ever seen cut into it and wishing he could feel less like a hog and more like a demi-god.
"I thought you said we would wallow in luxury," he said tensely, opening one eye and glancing over at Iolaus.
He stared at Iolaus lounging, his shoulders barely above the water, head back and eyes closed looking as if he was enjoying every minute of his mud bath. Mud bath! What a name! How could mud be a bath?
Iolaus grinned. "I did." He answered simply and closed his eyes once again letting out a huge sigh of pleasure.
Hercules sat silently for a moment, trying to find some way to express his discomfort without sounding as if he was whining.
"So this must be wallowing," he ventured, and not getting any response continued. "So this must be what a pig feels like." He shifted uncomfortably and felt the soft mud shift and ooze beneath him, wondering exactly how long he would have to stay in here to avoid losing face with his friend.
On the rock ledge above the pool of muddy water, beautiful women in white short gowns leaned perilously close to the edge as they placed paper thin glasses of exotic looking drinks where the mud bathers could reach them. Hercules watched Iolaus chance a glance up as one of the women leaned over, her bosom waving in greeting. He saw a sly smile slip across his partner's lips.
Iolaus met his eyes and chuckled. Suddenly Hercules wondered if it was more than the mud which held the attraction for Iolaus. Okay, he could get used to this given the time.
Just as Hercules leaned back against the cool of the stone at his back, determined to make the best of the situation, the bas relief began to turn, until it too had its back to the wall.
The face of a plump middle-aged woman grinned over at him, her face as black as his and her hair hanging limp and muddy past her shoulders. Hercules' eyes opened wide as she spoke to him.
"It's very good for the skin you know. This is great, don't you think?" She looked Hercules right in the eye. "I'm Marjus from Century 1 Realty. Can we talk?"
Iolaus stared incredulously across at Hercules while the bigger man shot him a warning glare.
"Uh, actually we're on vacation," Iolaus stammered. Who'd have thought they weren't alone?
Marjus was not to be denied. "What's a vacation for, am I right?" she spoke quickly and wagged a finger at Hercules. "All work and no play? I don't think so. Are you ready for this?" She didn't give either man time to answer, but plowed ahead. "Are you listening? Two words. Time share - - -huh? Huh?" she leaned forward right into Hercules' face.
"Time share," Hercules intoned, thinking not of a vacation, but that he was sitting nude in a mud bath with a complete stranger next to him.
Marjus laughed, not at all uncomfortable by her nudity or proximity to a potential customer, and totally blind to Hercules discomfort.
"Yeah," she laughed. "I LOVE to help people. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Don't thank me now. Wait til you hear the details. Then you'll say, Marj who knew? I can't thank you enough, that's what you'll say. But I tell you, no need, no need. And why? Because I like to help people."
She droned on and on. Hercules stared in stunned realization over at Iolaus, knowing that this wasn't going to get better and the mud bath had just turned from merely uncomfortable to intolerable. He could see from his friends answering glance that they were in agreement.
Not a word was spoken, as the two men who knew each other so well both did the same thing and started sinking slowly under the surface of the muddy water, finally disappearing from view.
Marj stopped laughing, and looking around realized that she was alone.
Alexa strode purposefully through the great stone archway and into the courtyard, knowing from the tenor of the message she'd received that this could be the turning point for her. The leather of her boots slapped against the hard granite blocks that made up the floor of the courtyard. Her long azure dress blew against her thighs and the spiked necklace pressed into her throat as she sighted her father and headed in his direction.
"Father, you called for me?" She stared intently at his face, so tired and careworn, weaker now than she had ever seen it.
"This was found outside our gates," the King said, not even attempting to hide how upset he was. "It's from the Lathians." He passed Alexa a loosely rolled scroll, the ink smeared by his fingertips. "They have Melissa. They demand our immediate surrender or they will kill her."
Alexa raised an eyebrow, considering. A war - - - This was even better than she had even hoped.
"But Prince Gordius proposed the marriage," she spoke slowly, her eyes raising from the parchment and assessing her father.
The King shook his head. "They always were a treacherous lot. But taking Melissa"- - - his voice broke and he dropped his eyes so Alexa couldn't see the true depth of the pain there.
He needn't bother trying to hide it Alexa thought to herself, pushing the bitterness back down before it swallowed her instead of the other way around. Melissa was always the favorite even though she was soft, self centered and couldn't even brush her own hair for goddess's sake! Hardly the person to help rule a kingdom! But she needed to keep her head here. She watched coolly as her father lifted his head, regaining control over the useless emotions that only weakened him.
Alexa spoke firmly, needing to solidify her stand. "The Lathians want to force your position. That you agreed to the marriage shows you're eager for peace, she reasoned, pushing forward, her face close to her father's. "It says you're vulnerable. They think you'll surrender- - -to save HER."
Alexa saw her father considering her words. She had been his advisor where Melissa had been his Princess. Now was the moment she had always seen for herself.
"Father, you can't bow to their threats," she urged, pushing ever closer, staring up at the pain etched on his face. "You have to send the army to rescue her!" Alexa spoke firmly, convincingly as she tried to wrestle some power from her father.
But the King wasn't buying it. He may be old, but he knew what the ravages of war looked like, unlike his daughter. And he knew the guilt and sleeplessness and years of atonement it took just to come to terms enough to sleep through a night. There were other ways.
"No, no," he shook his head and met her eyes. "That will be the worst thing to do. They'll kill her on the first sight of our army. He stopped and thought for a second or two. War must be a last resort." He thought for a minute, and then added astutely, "This could be a plot from someone else, someone with something more to gain than peace and prosperity.
"No," he continued decisively. "We'll send a spy. If Gordius has kidnapped Melissa, we'll know soon enough."
Alexa set her jaw firmly. His stance was weak. She would have to take it upon herself to institute plan two.
Melissa was sleeping. The rocking of the boat was a like cradle pushed by a gentle hand and the creak of the wood was no more than a soft lullaby as the ship sailed across the aqua waves with its gaily decorated sails blowing in the soft breeze.
Melissa was curled up on her side, sleeping like a baby when the bald headed man who had taken her from her room the palace leaned carefully over her with an icy smile on his lips.
He placed his face almost on top of hers. "Oh Prin-cess, time to wake u-up," he sang sarcastically.
Melissa stirred, but kept her eyes closed. She usually slept as late as she wanted, unless of course there was some special social occasion. She didn't remember one though.
"Just a little - - -bit - - -longer." She snuggled in to the bunk.
"Aw," the goon half laughed. This was going to be fun. He reached for a tankard of water at her bedside and taking careful aim, heaved the water forcefully at Princess Melissa's face.
Melissa sat up with a scream, her eyes popping open as the water ran in rivulets down her face, her hair clinging damply to her forehead. Why she was wet and drippy and her beauty sleep had been rudely interrupted!
"Was that absolutely necessary?" she spoke angrily, her eyes focused intently on the bald man.
Her captor fought hard to keep a smirk off his face. "I'm so sorry," he answered sarcastically. "What can I do to make it up to you?"
The sarcasm was lost on Melissa however. Servants made mistakes too and Melissa knew that they sometimes needed a chance to redeem themselves. Well, she would give this man that.
"Well," she said thoughtfully, putting a finger to her lower lip. "Something to eat would be nice." Melissa was used to giving orders and this was no exception. "Oh, nothing fancy- - - Poached eggs, a little bacon. And one other thing," here's where her voice grew firm. Servants needed discipline too. "From me to you," she leaned forward and began yelling. "It's not very funny!"
Melissa leaned back, grumbling thoughtfully now. "It's those Lathians, isn't it? This is one of those stupid primitive wedding things. Kidnap the bride, humiliate her, make it impossible for her to get a decent night's sleep!" She slapped her hand angrily onto the rough bed. How was she to prepare for a wedding when she hadn't had nearly enough sleep? She would look simply dreadful.
The bald man sneered back down at her, enjoying his power over the demanding Princess. He raised a gnarled finger and pointed it in her face. "You wait until I get you to market, Princess. You'll never get a good nights sleep again."
"Market?" Now Melissa was truly confused. Maybe the Lathians wanted to show her how nice their village was, buy her something special. She would need a new gown for the wedding, and shoes and accessories too of course. "Excuse me," she turned to one of the women in the bunks beside her. "Uh, what does he mean, get to market?"
The light dawned. "Are we going shopping?"
Prince Gordius was anxious. Melissa should have been in Lathia hours ago. He'd sent escorts to the very edge of his kingdom to make her feel welcome and wanted, maids to attend to her needs, a carriage finely appointed, yet scouts had reported back that the future Queen was nowhere to be seen.
Prince Gordius had heard rumors that his bride to be slept late, that she took hours on hair and make up and dressing, that time meant nothing to her. He had heard that she was a very pampered princess. But he had accepted that. To marry Melissa meant peace for two kingdoms. He was royalty. He knew his obligations. If Princess Melissa didn't understand that this pact was far more important than their own simple feelings, well, Gordius didn't want to think about that. They could learn to love and accept one another.
The Prince's thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of his second in command.
"Prince Gordius, how are we today?"
Gordius turned around to greet his friend. "Same as every day," he answered with a sigh. "Fat."
He thought about Melissa. He'd been told she was beautiful, curvaceous. He knew what everyone said about him, behind his back at least. He always had. Even being tutored didn't shield him from the taunts of other children. Jealous of your position, his father had said, but Gordius knew they were right. Pleasingly plump, and nothing more than baby fat, his mother had said. But he wasn't a baby now, and he didn't think he looked exactly pleasing either.
"You're being too hard on yourself!" Acteon admonished with a dismissive wave of his hand. He saw the Prince glare over at him and knew that Gordius hated deception. "You're big, yes," he consoled. "But actually very handsome." Acteon reached for the wine vessel and poured two goblets full of the smoky red liquid.
Gordius turned away, resuming his pacing. "Yeah, well if I'm so handsome, then why isn't Princess Melissa here?" he wondered aloud.
Acteon positioned himself between Gordius and the two glasses. Swiftly reaching under his robe, he withdrew a capsule hidden under his sash, opened it and poured the contents into the glass closest to Gordius.
He spun back toward Acteon challengingly. "She doesn't want to be my wife. She doesn't want to have anything to do with me!"
"Oh you know how women are," Acteon cajoled. "She probably can't decide on what to wear." He handed the glass of tainted wine to Gordius.
Alexa would be proud of him, he thought to himself. Belladonna, a derivative of the common Jimson weed, a swift and sure death and he had thought of it himself. With both Melissa and Gordius out of the picture, he could wed Alexa, and rule their two kingdoms at her side. They could command all of Greece eventually. It was simply a matter of conquering the other kingdoms, and Alexa had the confidence, knowledge and weapons to do that.
Gordius took the cup and raised it to his lips. "Hmm, right," he answered figuring that Acteon knew far more about women than he did, that was for sure. He dropped the cup and stepped forward. Maybe there was another explanation. Maybe he was letting his insecurities get in the way of his logic.
"Or maybe something happened to her," he mused. She hadn't reached Lathia that was certain. "I mean the roads aren't safe any more, you know?" He shook his head; worry catching back up with him. "I'm telling you Acteon, I don't like it. It means trouble." He raised the cup once again to lips but hesitated.
Acteon saw the hesitation. Drat! "Enough worrying!" he consoled. Just drink the wine, he thought as he devised a new strategy. "It's time to celebrate! A toast to the unification of Lathia and Alcinia." He touched his glass to Prince Gordius' and raised it to his lips.
But Gordius was troubled. Something wasn't right. He could feel it. He may not be slim or muscular, but he was smart and intuitive. He put the cup down.
"No. I can't relax until Princess Melissa arrives safe and sound."
Gordius didn't even try to hide his anxiety. He turned on his heel and strode out. Melissa must be found.
Hercules was less than pleased with the way Iolaus' mud bath had turned out. Iolaus could hold his breath much longer than Hercules, and consequently had been able to move across the length of the mud pool slowly and carefully without disturbing the surface as they tried to escape Marjus. Hercules had ended up coming up for air. And Marjus was there waiting. He listened to her spiel, trying to feign interest as Iolaus slipped silently out of the far end of the mud bath and enjoyed a rinse and toweling from one of the serving maids.
Time spent with Marjus seemed endless, and Hercules fumed as Iolaus left, with a wave and presumably enjoyed grapes and wine and a very relaxing massage, while Hercules remained politely trapped in an underworld more torturous than even Hera could have imagined.
And now Iolaus walked along next to him, a bounce in his step as they passed though the huge gates that marked the entrance and exit of the town. "Ha! Wasn't that great?" Iolaus laughed as Hercules gritted his teeth. "Hey, is your skin all warm and tingly?"
"Uh, yeah," Hercules answered, deciding that this WAS Iolaus' vacation. Besides, if he'd listened to Iolaus and learned that Eastern technique that helped him hold his breath so long, he wouldn't have been stuck trying to escape from Marjus. Iolaus had insisted that Hercules might need to know it someday, and now Hercules realized that Iolaus was right.
"Why don't we head up the coast and do a little fishing?" Hercules suggested, knowing that was something that they both enjoyed.
Iolaus was dancing backward now, unable to restrain his good humor. "Yeah, fishing'd be good."
But Hercules had stopped listening. His interest had been caught by the haughty air of a voice that he couldn't quite place complaining not far ahead.
"Hold on," Hercules spoke quickly as he reached out for his friends shoulder to focus him and point him where they needed to be.
Iolaus spun around at the familiar touch, the firmness of the grip on his shoulder spoke of trouble. Hercules pointed as he saw the string of chained women being herded over the hill toward the town they were leaving. The slave driver whipped the air around the vocal captive, letting the hard snap of the tip slice through the air close to her face.
"Slavers!" Hercules sighed. "I'm afraid fishing's going to have to wait a bit Iolaus." Iolaus was already off running though.
"Careful with that!" the female voice admonished. "You could put an eye out with that thing!" She turned, pulling at he chains that bound her to the others and tipping the ones closest to her over, but paid no heed to their protests.
The slave driver stepped threateningly closer. As the other women drew away, fearful, Melissa pushed her face towards his defiantly, staring at him with a raised eyebrow.
"Oh, another word and you'll all get a taste of this!" The bald man threatened.
Melissa could feel that the other women were angry. She had no idea why she even had to walk with these simple commoners, let alone be chained to them. Another stupid Lathian prank was all she could figure. What they were even doing here was beyond her. This whole thing was wearing thin and now the others were angry with her too!
"Would you shut up?" the incredulous woman chained closest to her demanded.
Melissa turned, shocked! Why would anyone speak to her like that? She was only demanding the respect that she deserved. After all, she was royalty, no matter where she was or whatever situation she was in, no one could take her heritage away.
"Aw, me?" Princess Melissa was incredulous. She let a hand fly to her chest and rolled her eyes.
"I'm not the one cracking my whip, making threats like -a-big-shot!" She spun toward the guard, making sure he could understand that her sarcasm was for him. "Besides," she added with a flutter of her eyelashes, "I'm a princess; I don't have to put up with this!"
The slave driver had had enough of this spoiled soon to be slave. He didn't take orders from the meat. "Come on! Let's go!" he yelled as he jerked the chain that bound the women together.
But Melissa was used to getting her way. She would NOT be commanded. She stood still and solid. Well debacle had gone just about far enough.
"Excuse me, but are we through with this little joke? You know the part where everyone jumps out and yells out 'surprise'?" Melissa spoke condescendingly.
The slave driver had reached his limit. This one could go to market with a few cuts and bruises. She wouldn't fetch much with that attitude anyway. "Oh, am I gonna enjoy this" he muttered as he drew back his whip, raising it to strike at Melissa.
Hercules reached the man with the whip first, slipping silently behind him and as the goon moved to flick the leather at Melissa. He grabbed the tip of it, and began coiling it around his hand.
"Nice whip," Hercules called out. "Mind if I give it a spin?"
The man looked over his shoulder as he felt the tension on the leather, but before he could pull back Hercules had given the whip a quick pull, spinning the slaver and coiling him in his own weapon.
Princess Melissa watched in surprise, a wide smile spreading across her face.
"Melissa?" the demi-god answered, surprised to see her here.
The slave driver took advantage of Hercules' moment of distraction. "Get him!" he yelled to his men and as Hercules and Melissa stared at each other a wall of men advanced on Hercules.
Iolaus skidded to a stop at Hercules' side and gave his friend a nudge. "Uh, Herc, these guys are" - - -
Hercules heard the concern in Iolaus' voice and snapped back to the matter at hand. "I got em," he answered.
Iolaus nodded, watching the women cowering and crying, chained together as the men rushed past them. "Great! I'll get the women," he called out as Hercules readied himself for the onslaught.
Iolaus took the key from the fallen slave driver's belt and dashed over to the frightened women, inserting the key into the lock at the wrist of the first woman as Hercules began taking down the men.
To Hercules, this was a simple exercise. The men weren't organized or even that powerful. They were enslavers of women, who didn't fight back, and certainly not in shape enough to take on a demi-god. He used the whip in his hand to snag the first guy, and tossed him to the roof of a vegetable stand. The stand collapsed, leaving the man on his back in a pile of celery with an irate vendor over him. He kicked the next comer, sending back to the road in a cloud of dust. And as the following two advanced, Hercules readied the whip to use as a rope, tossing them as well far out of range.
Meanwhile Iolaus worked quickly, releasing the women one by one from the tight metal cuffs. The women were weeping as they called out heir thanks and gratitude, but Iolaus only nodded and continued with the task at hand, knowing that Hercules would take care to keep the men busy. Finally he came up on the brash one, with her long dark hair and regal bearing. She held her wrists out to him, pinkies extended, never even looking at him, just knowing he would unlock the cuffs while she kept her eyes on Hercules.
Hercules dusted his hands off as the last man crawled away, and turned toward Iolaus.
"Hercules!" Melissa called out in joy as she pushed past Iolaus, not even noticing the face of the man who released her and rushed over to Hercules instead, planting a grateful kiss on his cheek.
"Melissa?" Hercules didn't even try to hide the surprise in his voice. "What happened to you?" he questioned, wondering what a Princess would be doing in shackles and so far from home.
"Oh, I know, I'm a mess!" Melissa stared at the dirt on her gown and waved a hand dismissively. "You wouldn't BELIEVE the night I've had!"
"No, I didn't mean that," he tried to focus her. "How did you land in the hands of slave traders?"
"Oh, he kidnapped me right out of the palace. I thought it was a joke."
Hercules could see that she was puzzled, and he was as well. How had they gotten in without being stopped, especially as deeply as the Princess' chamber? He remembered the palace as being well guarded. Could this be an inside job?
"That wasn't a joke," Iolaus commented. "Those guys were serious." He glanced across at Hercules, shrugged as Melissa ignored him, instead scanning the bustling marketplace. He tossed the key over his shoulder.
"Something's very wrong here. There's more to this." Hercules met his blonde friend's eyes.
"There is?" Iolaus questioned, feeling the familiar sinking in his stomach that meant another vacation was going awry.
Melissa turned at the sound of Iolaus' voice, staring down at him assessingly. How dare he speak without being spoken to! And to interrupt a Princess while she was conversing, what nerve!
"And you would be?" she asked haughtily.
Hercules could see the righteous indignation rising on Iolaus' face, the hands that went to his hips and his posture stiffening like a bantam ready to go for it. He stepped in placatingly.
"Uh, Iolaus, this is Princess Melissa of Alcinia. I helped her father negotiate a peace treaty seven or eight years ago. He turned to Melissa.
Melissa turned her face away and held out her hand, wrist limp and fingers extended.
Iolaus stared incredulous at her offering. No way! He thought to himself. He took the slender hand and shook her fingers.
Melissa turned an icy stare on him, quickly removing her delicate hand from his calloused one. She turned away from him in distaste. "Pretty scrawny for a manservant," she addressed Hercules disdainfully as she wiped the distasteful touch of the small man off.
Iolaus stared open mouthed at first Melissa then Hercules.
Hercules moved to soothe them both. "Uh, Iolaus is my best friend," he offered and reached an arm over Iolaus' shoulders.
Melissa simply laughed as if this was just an extension of the joke she'd suffered all night. "Oh Hercules! Still taking in every stray dog that comes along?"
Iolaus wasn't about to take this disrespect from someone he'd so recently freed of manacles. "Excuse me?" He shot her an angry stare, leaning in aggressively.
Hercules moved to defuse the situation. He gripped Iolaus tight around the shoulders and pulling him back against himself. "Control," he whispered so only Iolaus could hear it.
Turning to Melissa he said, "Iolaus and I will take you home now and try to get to the bottom of this."
Hercules could feel Iolaus' shoulders sag. He looked across and saw the dismay on Iolaus' face.
"We will?" Iolaus didn't try to hide his disappointment with the spoiled vacation plans.
Melissa spun away, not bothering to thank either of them. "Wonderful!" she cooed. "You can get the carriage now, Iolfus."
"The name is Iolaus," he answered tightly, drawing a line to her demands. "And we don't have a carriage. He turned angrily to Hercules. Why was his friend putting up with this absurd behavior?
Hercules turned away from his friend. Scuffling his feet in the dust he spoke to Melissa as Iolaus stared at him dumbfounded. Melissa stared at him also, stunned.
"Uh, sorry. We don't have a carriage. Think you can manage on foot?"
Can she manage on foot Iolaus wondered angrily? What nonsense was that? He stood with his arms across his chest and shook his head. Did Hercules actually like this pampered princess?
"You mean walk?" Melissa queried sarcastically. She watched as Hercules didn't meet her eyes and Iolaus challenged her with his. "How quaint!" she responded reassessing the situation. "I've always wanted to commune with nature. Let's rough it." She turned away with a small knowing smile and stepped toward the nearest vendor.
"Stray dog?" Iolaus muttered as he watched her with disdain, not even trying to keep the frustration out of his voice.
Hercules held up a hand to stop Iolaus' inevitable questions." "I'll explain later," he warned.
Melissa strode on oblivious to the people around her. "Of course if we're on foot, I'll need a walking stick." Spying the first sturdy stick of appropriate size, she declared, "That will do nicely."
She grabbed the supporting pole and neatly ripped it from a vendor's stand.
"No, no!" Iolaus called out, seeing the sagging of the vendor's canopy, laden with ripe vegetables. "That's not a good idea!"
But Melissa didn't listen. She pulled the stout pole to herself and walked blithely away, leaving Iolaus lunging to stop her as the vegetables tumbled around him. Hearing the commotion, she turned.
Iolaus lay in the dust, celery in his hair and tomatoes staining his beloved vest. "Oh Iolfus!" she scolded. "You should be more careful, she spoke down to him like a disappointed mother.
"My beautiful vegetables!" the farmer cried out as he scrambled to save what he could.
Iolaus stood, shaking the remnants of a salad out of his hair, off his clothing. "This is going to be a very long trip," he groaned as Hercules grabbed his wrist to help him to his feet. He could feel his friend's frustration, but he hoped Iolaus could rise above Melissa's pettiness.
"Come on Iolaus," he consoled, letting Melissa lead as he reached for his best friend's arm comfortingly.
Iolaus liked women. He liked blondes and brunettes and red heads. He liked thin women and heavier women. Heck, he just liked women. But he didn't like Melissa. She was simply a spoiled child who had refused to grow up. He didn't like to be manipulated, or talked down to or treated like a private servant.
And to make matters worse, Hercules was waffling, walking beside Melissa and deferring to her, yet all the while shooting sympathetic glances ahead when he saw Iolaus turn around. The fact that Hercules hadn't stood up to Melissa stung Iolaus. He could have at least corrected the mispronunciation of his name. But instead he had tried to soothe Iolaus' anger with conciliatory words.
Hercules had tried to point out that this was all Melissa knew, that she was a product of her upbringing, but Iolaus wouldn't swallow that. Sure it was part of the whole picture, but not even a thank you for services rendered? How could she have spent her whole life so oblivious to the feelings of others?
Hercules had also tried reasoning that it would only take a day or so to get to Alcinia, then they'd go fishing, but Iolaus knew better than that as well. A woman like Melissa was trouble and didn't even know it. Alcinia was a day's journey with good travel, not dragging a pampered princess with a walking stick, a long gown and dressy shoes along.
So instead of walking where she could use her hurtful words like a cattle prod against him he trudged along at the front, checking the trail ahead for obstacles so the Princess wouldn't turn her ankle, or get taken by angry slave traders who might, gods forbid, decide that she would be a money maker, serving others. Hah!
Iolaus sighed. Hercules was a sucker for a pretty girl, he could never see any further than their lovely faces. If his friend wanted to deliver Melissa to Alcinia, Iolaus would do it. Iolaus would do anything for Hercules; the big guy knew that. But this escort service when they were supposed to be enjoying some quality time on vacation was pushing the limit. He elbowed his way through some brush, letting the rustling of the protesting leaves drown out the incessant complaining of Melissa's voice.
Suddenly he felt a tap at the heel of his boot; Melissa's walking stick. He cringed inwardly as he heard her scolding voice.
"Iolfus! Are you aware of the custom? Commoners behind royalty." She sniffed and turned her head up. "Three paces behind," she added dismissively.
Iolaus turned to Hercules incredulously as Melissa pushed past him, striding ahead. He shot Hercules a black look. He'd expected at least a LITTLE support, but he could see Hercules was struggling to balance the differing personalities.
"Thanks a lot," he muttered as he passed Hercules, taking up the rear now. Hercules simply had no idea how to handle women, and Iolaus wondered if they were the only creatures that Hercules really feared. Well, HE'D tame Melissa.
Iolaus could see that Melissa's rebuke bothered Hercules. He watched his friend step closer to her, listening uncomfortably as Iolaus' steps shuffled along right behind him.
"Um, Melissa," Hercules stammered, wanting to support Iolaus yet not set off the Princess who would someday be a queen.
She turned a raised eyebrow to him.
"You ought to be nicer to Iolaus. He's my friend and he's here to help us both."
Iolaus watched Melissa miss a step as the criticism of Hercules' words sunk in. She didn't answer.
Iolaus couldn't help but feel bad for Hercules, knowing the discomfort the demigod felt. Melissa's lack of an answer was satisfaction enough at this moment.
They walked on in silence, and Iolaus hoped that the songs of the birds and the rustling of the tree leaves would be the only things he'd be hearing until they reached Alcinia. Hercules unfortunately was less comfortable with silence and had other plans.
"So, your father thought he could solidify the peace with Lathia by marrying you to Prince Gordius?"
"Well, that was his plan," Melissa laughed, happy to be talking about herself again. "Until I got kidnapped of course."
"Who would want to kidnap YOU?" Iolaus asked, not bothering to hide the sarcasm he knew would be lost on the princess.
"I can't imagine," she dismissed the thought with a wave of her smooth and delicate hand. "Though I wouldn't put it past old Gordo."
"No, Gordius is a man of his word," Hercules mused, still concerned that the castle defenses had been breeched so easily and quickly.
"Well whoever it was, I'd like to thank him," Melissa prattled on. "He put a stop to this whole wedding thing.
Iolaus was bothered by the Princess' remarks. He'd heard nothing but good about Prince Gordius. He decided to question her royal highness.
"Why don't you want to marry Prince Gordius?"
"Well from what I hear he isn't exactly husband material," Melissa responded, not even deigning to look back at Iolaus.
"You mean you haven't even met him?" Iolaus asked shocked.
"I don't have to meet someone to know they're unappealing. I hear he's so fat he has to bathe in the castle moat! Imagine ME marrying someone like THAT!" Melissa covered her mouth and laughed softly to herself.
"No, he might be a nice guy," Iolaus shot back in disgust as he rolled his eyes.
Melissa spun around, facing Iolaus with her hands on her hips. "Excuse me! Is there a problem?"
"Well now that you mention it" - - - Iolaus leaned forward, getting right into Melissa's face.
Melissa leaned back, surprised at the impudence of this manservant, or what ever he was.
Hercules could see the inevitable conclusion and rushed between them. "Wait, wait! Hey, Hey, enough!" He placed his considerable bulk between the two, becoming a human barrier, his head spinning back and forth, judging when the two had sufficiently calmed down.
"Alright. We still have a considerable way to go, so I suggest we - - -should just - - -TRY to get along." He turned to Iolaus, his eyes widened. "All right?"
"All right," Iolaus answered grudgingly. He turned to Melissa. "Uh, I'm sorry."
"Hmm." She wouldn't even look at Iolaus, staring instead at Hercules for vindication. "Well HE started it," was her tart, childish response.
Iolaus sighed as Melissa turned on her heel.
"OK!" he muttered as he bit back what he really wanted to say. Hercules clapped him on the back sympathetically.
"Half there buddy. Almost half there."
Alexa was upset and angry. Things were not going as planned. Her father was waffling, doing nothing more than waiting for word on Melissa's whereabouts. He needed to take action. A King should rule, not wait!
"Oh father!" She exclaimed in frustration.
Her Father sighed heavily, his shoulders stooped as he shook his head. "I'm as worried about Melissa as you are, my dear."
"It's more than that," Alexa fumed. How could her father be so obtuse?
The King turned his eyes on his rebellious daughter. She always wanted so much more than she was ready to handle. He remembered how as a child she'd insisted on having a wild young stallion as her own steed, and demanded to ride into battle with him. She was no more capable of handling the beast than she was of slaying a monster. But she'd tried, and been thrown, and broke her arm. To her credit she got right back up on the fractious steed, but Alexa didn't have the sense the Gods gave her and found her way rapidly back on the ground, with a broken wrist to match her arm.
She'd demanded the stallion be killed for its insolence and the King had intervened then, as he had done so many times following, to spare the poor horse by taking it as his own. It was the only way Alexa would be satisfied; the horse was proven only to accept a king on its back.
There were many other incidences as well; the time he found her heady with ale, wearing his armor and readying for battle against only the gods knew who, and the time she had taken off in his chariot, disappearing for several days while search parties frantically checked the far corners of the kingdom without finding her. He never did find out where she had gone, but she came home looking smug and self satisfied.
Alexa had proven over and over that she was no more mature than her sister, no matter what she wanted to believe, and infact perhaps more dangerous. The King turned to his younger daughter, tired of contending with her. He may be sick, but he wasn't senile.
Alexa leaned toward her father, the fire gleaming in her eyes, her voice urgent and heated. "I was thinking about you, the way you looked leading our army into battle. So proud, so strong, you were unstoppable!" She stared intently into her father's eyes trying to read what was beneath the tired surface. "Those were the good days, Father!"
The king shook his head sadly. So impulsive, this child of his! She idealized and rationalized the horrors of war, seeing only the glory.
"No, no." he answered. He bit back the sudden pain that gripped him. He had to get it across to her, the agony of war, the way it followed you even you thought it was over. The pain that never left; the sleepless nights; the blank eyes of the dead accusing and demanding retribution that would carry the fighting to greater intensity. Alexa's ideal was glorified, and it was wrong.
"I was a foolish man," he locked his eyes onto hers. "I built the world's most awesome weapon- - -the fist of Tolus- - -and I used it without care. I'm thankful that the kingdom survived those times. But Alexa, I pray that the good days are yet to come." He coughed spasmodically, his ribs heaving and his face growing ashen as he leaned on his stick for support.
The king felt Alexa's arm loop around his shoulder, and he looked across into her eyes, seeing not pity, but blankness there, like the eyes of those that had died by the Fist of Tolus. Perhaps he had caused this too, he thought.
"It's time I put you to bed father." Her words broke into his thoughts.
"I suppose you're right." He answered, feeling the weakness in his body, the heaviness in his wobbly legs. He leaned heavily into his cane as Alexa turned him back to his castle.
Iolaus watched from his place at the rear as Melissa swatted mosquitoes and jumped away from every bug that had the misfortune of crossing her path. She tried to walk on the trail of rocks and rough spots in heels too high to be practical. Now they were coming to lower land, and in places, the trail had become boggy. Melissa's shoes had been sucked into the mud and she sloshed as she walked.
Hercules was leading as the princess trailed back slightly behind him. Iolaus noted with a small amount of guilty pleasure that Herc was carelessly letting a few of the tree branches slap back, causing Melissa to slow or try to avoid the sting of the small willowy branches across her tender skin. Iolaus would have helped her, but he'd been ordered to stay three paces behind.
"Oh is that a bug?" Melissa screeched as she slapped frantically at her arm. "Look at the SIZE of that thing!" she wailed. "Are we in a swamp or something? I've never seen so many creepy crawly things in all my life!"
"You wanted to commune with nature," Iolaus commented dryly as he kept his distance.
"Well that was before," she whined. "I didn't know that nature was so- - -natural."
Iolaus rolled his eyes, then watched as Melissa, too busy talking to pay attention to the path, stepped into a deep puddle. The mud oozed up to her ankle and Iolaus saw her head turning, her eyes wide.
"Ooh, I'm sinking!" she screeched, her voice high pitched and tight. "Quicksand!"
Iolaus looked past her, disgusted, and met Hercules eyes. He heard the heavy sigh that Hercules had tried to bite back, and knew that Melissa was getting under his skin as well.
Hercules stepped forward, extending a hand to Melissa. "You're fine," he spoke tightly as he hauled her out of the puddle. "It's just a little mud."
Melissa didn't see it that way. She started to whimper and tossed down her tent pole. "This is horrid!" she wept. "Can't we at least find some pretty scenery to look at?"
"We don't have time for that," Hercules chided gently. "Your father will be worried and so will Prince Gordius."
Iolaus stared at Melissa, wondering if Gordius would be able to put up with her for a life time and feeling bad for the poor Prince."
"One of them could do something foolish," he warned.
"Like what?" Melissa whined accusingly.
"Like start a war," Hercules answered, staring across at Iolaus, hoping he finally understood the reason for accompanying Melissa safely home.
Iolaus crossed his arms on his chest. He had been thinking that something foolish would be more along the lines of actually wanting the princess back, but he could see the seriousness on Hercules face.
"A war!" Melissa gasped. "Fought over me?" She smiled and placed a hand across her chest as if to still the flutter of her heart. "How romantic!"
"You can't be serious," Iolaus almost shouted, stunned at her selfishness.
"Why not?" she retorted petulantly. "Paris and Menalaus fought over Helen of Troy!"
Iolaus could see that even the usually staid Hercules was angry. He lips were tight and eyes flashed as he tried to remain calm in spite of his true feelings. "And thousands of innocent lives were lost for no good reason."
Melissa is another no good reason, Iolaus found himself thinking as he saw her scowl at Hercules. He watched defiance start to fade as the words sunk in, and actually found himself feeling a little as her face crumbled. She was, after all a woman, and a beautiful one at that.
"Oohhh! Why doesn't anything exciting like that happen to me?" she started to wail.
Iolaus shook his head incredulously. He'd almost been sucked in, but again she was only thinking of herself.
He stepped forward and pushed his small frame aggressively toward her. "You are the most self centered inconsiderate, thoughtless woman I've ever met!" he yelled in her face.
Melissa stood opened mouth and stunned. She stared at Iolaus but addressed Hercules.
"Are you going to let him SPEAK to me like that?"
Iolaus spun around facing Hercules now, his face displaying the full range of his anger. "Herc, are you going to straighten her out or am I?"
Hercules shrugged, stepping up to stand at Iolaus' side. "He's got a point."
Iolaus stood his ground, thankful for the solidarity that Hercules had displayed finally. He watched as the fire left Melissa's eyes and her shoulders sagged.
"Oh!" was all she could manage, taken aback.
"Right!" Iolaus shot.
Hercules was concerned. He couldn't have Melissa running off on her own, though he doubted that she had the fortitude to do it. However it was never prudent to make enemies of someone who would be a queen. He had found that Queens were far more difficult to deal with than Kings were, or even spoiled Princesses. He kept his eyes on Melissa but reached a hand to Iolaus' shoulder, giving it a grip of union.
"But now's not the time or place to make it. Let's keep moving."
He let go of Iolaus' shoulder and strode away, leaving Melissa and Iolaus staring at each other like two kids facing off in a school yard. Both so sure they were right, neither willing to risk the teacher's wrath.
Melissa turned away first. "Well, I'll have you know I'm very considerate!" she rattled on. "I never go to a castle empty handed! I always say nice things to visiting dignitaries, no matter how stupid or ugly they are! And I'm nice to animals. Well, most animals. There was that time with Alexa's cat, but it wasn't my fault!" She walked away and Iolaus saw her back heaving with the great gulping of someone trying to fight back tears of hysteria.
"Don't get sucked in again!" he warned himself as he felt the familiar kindness towards weeping women coming over him again.
Alexa gazed down on her father as he rested so frailly on his royal bed, sinking into the feathered mattress. She absently fluffed one of the many large pillows that surrounded him, used for propping his painfully thin body comfortably on those days when he was simply too weak to even get out of bed.
This wasn't the handsome father who dandled her on his knees or taught her how to use a sword better than any warrior! This wasn't the great king who invented a fearsome arsenal of weapons and used them liberally. In front of her was simply a man, grown weak and tired from the years of peace and the ravages of old age. Kingdoms shouldn't be ruled by the old and staid, she thought, but by the young and vital.
Her father's eyes were closed. She leaned over him and saw the soft rise and fall of the brittle, bony chest. "Oh father!" she sighed. "I didn't want it to come to this!" She felt her father's thin hand rise up over hers, its paper thin skin barely covering the skeletal feel of it. His eyes were closed and his breathing labored. '
Alexa spoke quietly, not wanting to wake him. It would be easier to attend to business if he never knew what was to happen. "Everything our kingdom stands for is about to be destroyed, yet you can do nothing! I know what you want father, I know it's up to me to make it happen."
Alexa stared down at the man in the bed, royalty by blood, but no longer by spirit. Alcinia needed a powerful ruler to take it into these new times. Alexa had known for years that it must be her.
She took the pillow she had been fluffing and pulling her hand away from her fathers, pressed the suffocating weight against his face, enveloping all of it, not wanting to see his face as it turned to red, then blue, then waxen as all that had movement and breath in him slipped to Elysium.
Suddenly her father fought. For a moment she felt confused as the long fingers reached up, scratching at the pillow. But he had no strength and Alexa nearly lost hers. The kingdom must come first, she reminded herself as she closed the great iron gates around her heart and let the last shreds of kindness flee from her tainted soul. She felt the fingers reach up, scratching at her shoulder and imagined them as nothing more that the claws of her hunting bird alighting there, and soon enough they dropped away, as if the bird had taken flight high above the green world, carried away by the warmth of a summer updraft. Alexa's cold soul was the only living presence in the royal bedchamber.
Alexa sat quietly on the bed next to the corpse, removing the pillow and placing his hands in comfortable repose. He must look natural. Finally, she looked down at her father and saw him no longer struggling. His weakness was gone, and she alone was left to rule.
"Lieutenant!" she called as she stood erect and lifted her chin, waiting to make the royal pronouncement.
The door to the bedchamber opened quickly as the lieutenant heard the command in her voice. "You called, Princess Alexa?" he asked.
"The King is dead," Alexa answered nonchalantly. She kept her eyes fixed on his, saw them drop to the still form of her father then rise back to hers. "In my sister's absence, I have no choice but to claim the throne as Queen of Alcinia." She held his eyes challengingly. The first moments of her royal heritage were upon her. She would not take then weeping, as Melissa would have, for it was she that had the true heart of a Queen.
"Yes Your Majesty!" The lieutenant fell to a knee and dropped his head, recognizing her authority. "Of course Your Majesty!"
Alexa raised an eyebrow. A whole army was hers to command. This simple lieutenant at her feet on bent knee was only the first of many who would bow before her.
"Notify MY ministers. The Lathians have brought a dark day upon us. I am declaring war. It was the King's wish." She stopped, savoring the moment where she would change the destiny of her people, the moment that would cause her to go down in Alcinian history. Yes, her time was here.
She smiled and her eyes looked not at the soldier in front of her, but farther away. "Prepare the fist of Tolus- - -my father's ultimate weapon. It will be the instrument of our revenge."
Iolaus stared ahead at the small pond that lay across their path back to Alcinia. It was edged with brambles and thorns and leafy wooded plants that made circling the perimeter both difficult and painful. The quickest way would be through the pond to the path on the other side. But the Princess would have to get her royal feet wet. He crossed his arms as Melissa came to a screeching halt with a sharp catch of her breath.
"Well, what do we do now?" she whimpered, staring stunned at the pond.
"We wade across," Hercules answered simply. Iolaus bit back a laugh as he watched a horrified look pass across Melissa's face.
Melissa tried to recover her composure, but the muddy water wasn't a pleasant sight. "Aw, well is it safe?"
"Yeah, yeah," Iolaus answered her. "Herc you really should go in first, you know. Just to make sure it's safe." He shot a half grin at his buddy, knowing how safe it really was. They'd crossed the same pond earlier the same day, enjoying the coolness. Iolaus knew the footing below was safe, not soft and the depth was no more than his waist.
Hercules tried to ignore Iolaus' mirth, but in truth Melissa was beginning to get on his nerves too. She wouldn't be happy until she was ensconced in her castle, with her maids, her cook and her servants. And Hercules would be glad to deliver her there. This was only a small obstacle. But they had to get the princess across.
"Fine," he answered. He stepped in and took a few steps, reaching almost the half way point. "See, it's not that deep." The water reached the top of his thighs. He felt his foot slip down. "There's a hole right her, so you better watch out for that." The water rose above his codpiece as he reached the center. "See, its okay."
Melissa stared horrified as she watched the muddy water swirl around Hercules. This just wouldn't do. A Princess didn't wallow. But the manservant, Iolfus, looked sturdy enough.
"Carry me!" she commanded as she stared into Iolaus stunned face.
"What!?" he sputtered, staring incredulously at her and then shifting his gaze to Hercules.
"I said, "Carry me," she repeated.
Iolaus watched Hercules shrug his shoulders and give him a "whatever it takes" look followed by an encouraging nod.
Iolaus rolled his eyes, but inside he could feel a burn rising. He wasn't a slave he was a man. And he would have gladly given her a lift if she'd only asked, not demanded. He was a gentleman, chivalrous and giving, but Melissa wasn't his idea of a lady.
"Come on!" he saw Hercules mouth and he frowned back, but stepped forward, lowering himself so Melissa could sit astride his shoulders. She smiled victoriously, and Iolaus set his mouth in straight line of determination.
"Lower!" Melissa commanded, and Iolaus fell down to a knee, sinking in the mud at the rim of the pond. "That's good," She commented as she carefully lifted her already dirtied sleeping gown and slung a slender leg around his shoulder as if he was no more than a pack animal.
Iolaus felt her shift as she balanced on his shoulder. "Okay," she declared. "You may carry me."
Iolaus took a deep cleansing breath, as he'd learned in the East. Throughout all his travels he'd noticed that having a title or being a member of a royal family carried with it certain privileges. Certainly he would have granted Melissa the respect her title deserved, had she at least shown common courtesy.
Melissa shifted on his shoulders and clutched at his hair as if it were a horse's mane. She pulled and tugged as she wobbled, unbalanced, making little attempt to ease the crossing for Iolaus. She reached tentacle like fingers of one hand across his face latching them against his eyes and obscuring his vision.
"Slow down!" she wailed. "This isn't a race!" Iolaus felt the fingernails of her other hand rake hard against his forehead as she mashed his hair down, pressing that over his eyes as well. "I knew I shouldn't have listened to you," she wailed. "There must be a bridge around here!"
"Would you just keep still?" Iolaus commanded, his voice tight, as he tried to keep his own balance on the muddy rocky bottom of the pond. He took a hesitant step and felt his foot sink down, the water rising above his codpiece and soaking the hem of Princess Melissa's dress.
"OH! OH!" she screamed and clamped one hand over his mouth.
Iolaus wasn't sure if she objected to his talking, or even having an idea of his own, but he knew one thing; he wasn't about to carry her with both his mouth and eyes covered. For that matter, she could just find her courage and brave the cool muddy water in her own. Iolaus let go of one of her legs and pried her hand off his mouth. He could feel her losing her balance yet again, but this time he didn't move to right her.
"Lady, I have two words to say to you; Get off my back!" He shrugged his shoulders and ducked his head, using his arms to give her a little push, tossing her unceremoniously into the pond.
Melissa screamed as she felt herself no longer supported, the cool of the water rising above her ankles and then she was airborne.
Iolaus listened as the scream stopped. The mud swirled as Princess Melissa slipped momentarily under the surface. Iolaus straightened with a sigh of relief and shook his cramping shoulders. The silence was brief but wonderful. He shot a self-satisfied grin over to a stunned Hercules.
"Should have done that long ago," he muttered striding past Hercules and leaving Melissa rising out of the pond like a water hydra, angry and wailing. The water rolled off his leather pants as he waded ashore.
"Melissa," he called out without even bothering to look backward. "You oughta be more careful."
Hercules stared first at Iolaus' departing figure, then back at Melissa, punching the water and screaming. He shook his head. She may be a princess, but he wasn't getting in the middle of a royal temper tantrum. He waded out of the water, close on Iolaus' heels. He wouldn't be forced to choose sides. His place was with Iolaus; the sooner Melissa understood the better.
"What took you so long," he muttered into Iolaus' ear, and the blonde smiled back.
The road to Lathia was wooded and lush, with small ponds and large heavily leafed trees. The underbrush was thick, a wonderful spot for rabbits and small animals to hide. Insects buzzed and birds fluttered above, chirping in the canopy of green. But today was different. Today the birds were silent and animals hid in their holes. The road rumbled with the feet of hundreds of men in heavy armor as they pushed the giant weapon, too large for the road, using the path for merely a guide as the huge wheels smashed the thickets and crushed the smaller trees, ripping branches from the taller and thicker ones. The ground shook and trembled and the ponds quivered as the army and weapon pushed through, destroying all life in its path.
"Halt!" Alexa commanded, knowing her lieutenant would echo her orders. She stood regally, dressed in her battle leathers, the skirt short to show off her muscled legs. She wore black gauntlets and boots to match and let her raven hair hang loose about her shoulders. A queen should lead her people, Alexa thought, and not from a throne either. She listened with satisfaction as the men obeyed the sharp command of her lieutenant and the woods fell to silence behind her.
"I want a fully armed exercise for the crew and weapon. Use the village ahead for a target." She let the tip of her tongue flick out and caress her lower lip. She was hungry to see what her power could actually do.
"Those are civilians, Queen Alexa," the lieutenant replied, unable to keep the shock and concern from his voice. He had visited here many times on his travels and the people had always been kind and welcoming. They were farmers and hunters, keeping to themselves. He couldn't understand her order. Did she simply not know them?
Alexa didn't even bother to look at him. She stood, her muscles taut with excitement, her breathing heavier. "We're going to kill every Lathian we see, civilian or soldier. We'll terrorize the heartland. It'll be a shock." She smiled coldly to herself.
"Prepare the weapon!" she ordered.
The lieutenant paled. She meant what she said. And she was going to brook no argument. He turned, raising a hand to signal his men to readiness and hoped that the gods could forgive him.
Alexa smiled as she surveyed the village in the distance. Behind her the men worked quickly and efficiently. The ropes creaked and the wood groaned as the firing arm was pulled back to launch position. The scrape of brakes being set and the hiss of the metal shrapnel being heated until it glowed and popped sang to her soul. This is what she was born to do; it was her right, her heritage.
She turned to her lieutenant, her eyes both icy and excited. "My father was a great warrior before Hercules forced him into a treaty with the Lathians. Peace between us will never be possible. We do now what my father should have done then." She fixed the lieutenant with a glare, her lips tight.
"And lieutenant, NEVER question my command again!"
He turned to the troops, his heart heavy. But he was a soldier, trained to take orders and follow then through. And she was his Queen.
"Prepare to fire!" he commanded and turned to face her again.
In the Lathian castle Gordius was anxious. Melissa hadn't arrived and he'd had no word from the Alcinians. Something was wrong. The King of Alcinia had been a man of his word, and the bride to be, well she probably looked at the wedding as just another event to shop for, at least that's what he'd heard. Peace was the plan, and he would do what ever it took, even if it meant going out to find Melissa himself. He tugged on his battle armor, straightening the shoulder pieces.
The door to his royal chamber flung open with a slam as Acteon entered hurriedly.
"You sent for me? Your Magesty- - -what are you doing?"
"I'm taking some men to search for Princess Melissa," he answered matter of factly, checking his appearance in the mirror. His battle armor must cover all the correct spots, the neck, the throat, the chest and belly. He would lead his men and ride as one of them.
"Is that such a good idea?" Acteon asked anxiously. "I mean, it could be dangerous. We don't know what the Alcinians might be up to" - - His voice trailed off.
"We don't actually know that they are up to anything," Gordius answered logically.
"No, no we don't," Acteon backpedaled. He stepped closer as Gordius turned to face his advisor. "But if they were it could be dangerous." He shook a finger warningly at the Prince, who waved it away.
"You worry for nothing. I trust King Tolus. Let's go." He turned on his heel and strode out
Hercules and Iolaus had heard the noise of the village being fired upon and rushed through the woods from the opposite direction with Melissa close on their heels. Iolaus knew that the cries and thumps, the cracking of wood and screams were an omen that their vacation was only going to get worse, and he suspected that the Princess was the causative factor, whether she knew it or not. The two men rounded a bend, moving quickly and Melissa scurried to keep up with them. She was quiet, introspective. That Hercules had sounded so angry with her was a shock, and that he'd strode forward to stand at his manservant's side instead of hers was simply shocking. But what she saw as she followed them into the clearing was heart stopping.
They burst into the clearing and saw the devastation of what was once a small village. The two men rounded a bend, moving quickly and Melissa scurried to keep up with them. She was quiet, introspective. That Hercules had sounded so angry with her was a shock, and that he'd gone forward to stand at his manservant's side instead of hers was simply shocking. But what she saw as she followed them into the clearing was heart stopping.
Homes were in shambles, the thatched roofs smoking and wooden beams cracked. People lay dead and bloodied in positions of flight, not a weapon in their hands. But for a few moaning wounded, this could have been a ghost town. And everywhere there were the metal pieces, red hot and still glowing, like giant arrow heads with smaller arrowheads imbedded in them. Larger than Hercules' hand, they stuck out of the wood, the animals and the people. The road was slick with blood and it was almost impossible to walk through the village without touching the dead.
Melissa gasped, and then covered he mouth to keep in her scream. Where once a village stood, now was simply a shambles. Roofs were caved in, cattle slaughtered with large spiked pieces of metal and all the villagers were dead. She let her eyes roam to one poor woman, keeled over a railing on the porch of her home, eyes open and flat as slate, skirt hiked up, legs dangling and one of those metal things sticking out of her chest. She turned slowly, taking in the sights, all dead, man and beast alike; and everywhere those metal things!
"I - - -I've never seen anything like this!" Iolaus gasped.
"I have," Hercules answered angrily. "From a weapon I'd hoped never to see again."
He turned to Melissa, who walked slowly and careful, her eyes glassy and a hand against her breast the other to her lips. In all her sheltered existence she'd never seen anything like this. Her life was the clean inside of the castle, its manicured grounds, and the deliberately orchestrated drives in a beautiful carriage. She never saw her meat before it was slaughtered, or the prisoners her father inevitable had. After all, every kingdom had its criminals.
This was awful! How could they be so still, so dirty, so soiled! Their bodies were in strange positions! The dead she'd seen rested peacefully. She remembered her mother, made up so beautifully in her pink gown and jewels, hands neatly folded and satin pillow beneath her head. And the maid that had fallen, well, she'd simply gone to her room and when she was allowed out other was nothing there. This was terrible! No one should have to see it. Why, she'd surely have nightmares!
Hercules' voice pulled her out of her reverie.
"Well, you've gotten your wish." He sounded angry. She looked at him blankly.
"Looks like a war has started."
Melissa stared at the dead woman again, feeling some of her childishness slipping away. This woman was no older than she was, yet taking care of a home, animals, and children most likely. She'd done nothing wrong, but had died because Melissa was not in Lathia marrying Gordius. Melissa suddenly felt smaller and maybe even less royal. She wondered how Helen of Troy felt after the war was over, so many dead and she had been returned to the husband she had left. Perhaps it was better to accept ones duty than try to live a dream that might not even be as great as you might think.
She stared across at Hercules, suddenly sober, feeling her childish joy quickly slipping away.
Hercules was in the lead, Iolaus at the rear as they raced through the wood away from the village. Who ever started this had to be stopped, and Melissa must be brought to safety. The trees slapped at Melissa as Hercules raced through the narrow path. She didn't even notice that her gown was stained and the hem hanging and torn. She simply wanted to get away from the terror of the village, find safety and think things through. Maybe her father was right. Maybe there was a bigger picture, one she'd never stopped to consider.
She almost crashed into Hercules and she felt Iolaus reach protectively for her as the demigod screeched to a halt when a clearing came up unexpectedly. She felt his strong arms prevent her from toppling hard against Hercules, righting her, pulling her behind himself as he placed his solid frame next to his friends. In the center of the clearing stood a battalion of soldiers
"Lathians!" a soldier yelled. "Kill them!"
Melissa was frantic. "Hercules! What is this?" She didn't try to hide her fear, accepted Iolaus' grab as he pushed her behind a large boulder. But she stood again when Hercules didn't answer right away.
The air filled with arrows, soaring like migrating birds high in the sky. But instead of continuing to a nice warm place far away, they landed with little poofs in the soft earth surrounding her feet and sullen thumps into the bark of the trees at her side.
It was Iolaus who answered her, pulling at her arm.
"It's a whole lot of guys shooting at us!"
"Cover!" Hercules yelled. "Over there! Come on!"
Melissa stood paralyzed with fear as an arrow raced straight for her chest and before she could even open her mouth Hercules had grabbed it out of the air, clutching it in his fist just inches from her heart.
Melissa screamed and turned, wrenching her arm from Iolaus' hand and fled wildly.
"Melissa!" Hercules yelled, trying to get the panicked Princess' attention.
Melissa froze like a doe when it sees the light of a campfire as the soldiers surrounded her.
"Hercules!" she screamed.
But it was Iolaus who grabbed her, pulling her away and towards where he knew there was shelter. Arrows rained down on them as the manservant's strong arms pulled her behind a boulder, holding her there against the breadth of his chest. She could feel his heart beating beneath the muscles, slower and more in control than her own fluttering rhythm. Melissa cowered. This wasn't happening to her. She was a princess. Didn't they know that? Perhaps she could imply order them to stop. It worked at the castle.
"This is ridiculous! Don't they know who I am?" she demanded.
"They don't care who you are!" Iolaus told her, pushing her head back down. "That's what war is! People tear stuff up!"
Hercules rushed to the boulders, checking on Melissa and clapping a hand on Iolaus' shoulder. Iolaus looked up into his eyes, knowing what his friend was thinking.
"I've got to stop this!" Hercules spoke in frustration.
Melissa felt panic rising. Hercules couldn't leave. She needed him! And the manservant would go with him! She had never felt so vulnerable. "Please don't leave me," she whispered softly.
Iolaus turned to her, not bothering to hide his surprise. The Princess had finally asked, not demanded, and with a please no less.
"Hey" he whispered, noticing the sudden silence. "They've stopped!"
Hercules cocked an ear to the battle field. "Listen!" He spoke in surprise. He turned to Melissa as he stood to leave. "Stay here,
She turned a pitiful look on him, letting her little girl eyes soak into him.
Hercules relented. She'd be safer with them anyway. "Okay. Come on."
Hercules and Iolaus raced swiftly through the forest with Melissa behind them, no longer seeming to care that Iolaus wasn't following three paces behind her. Iolaus knew they had to get the princess to safety if they wanted any hope at all of stopping this war before it escalated out of control. He turned to make sure she was staying close.
Ahead, Hercules stopped suddenly. Across the path lay two men, bleeding and unable to stand. Iolaus could see the shards of barbed metal piercing them as they lay moaning. Hercules was leaning over the closest one.
"It's okay," he soothed. "We're here to help." He turned and saw Melissa staring humbled and horrified at the men. As Iolaus tended to the second man, Hercules called out to the princess.
"Melissa!" He grabbed her hand as she gingerly approached. "Put your hand here." He indicated the bleeding wound on the man's thigh.
"What are you doing?" Melissa protested mildly, but she let Hercules place her hand, pressing it firmly to the wound, staunching it's bleeding.
"Apply pressure here," he instructed, watching as she turned her face up to muster another weak protest.
"Oh, but he's Lathian!" Her mouth turned down in a pout.
"Just do it!" Hercules declared, not bothering to hide his disgust.
"They're going to be your people, future Queen," Iolaus called out.
Melissa turned back to the man, watching him close his eyes in pain. "But I'm getting blood on me," she spoke softly and with less protest, then stared silently down at his ragged clothes, far more stained than her own.
"Be thankful it isn't yours!" Iolaus snapped, as his own war victim groaned and writhed, his right leg dangling uselessly at the wrong angle.
"Iolaus," Hercules interjected, knowing that Melissa stood to get a piece of his friends mind, and she could probably use it, but time was of the essence. "There's a temple. It's not far. It's neutral ground. We'll take them there."
"No, we can't take them with us! They'll slow us down," Melissa worried aloud, slipping back into Princess mode.
Iolaus lifted the man he'd tended, gently leaning him against his hip and tipping him so the injured leg didn't touch the ground. "If we leave them here, these men will die!" he retorted, making no attempt to hide his contempt for her selfish attitude.
"But we'll all die if we take them," Melissa whined, unable to make eye contact with any of the men. She stared woefully down at her filthy dress and wished she was home in her bed and this was simply a bad dream.
"Melissa, we are helping these men," Hercules spoke firmly as he lifted the man Melissa had tended.
Melissa nodded, getting to her feet. No matter what the decision was she would stay with Hercules. He was the only hope she had of ever getting back to Alcinia alive.
The temple was cold and foreboding, and Melissa though the gray stone of its walls and absence of windows made it seem more like a prison than a place of worship. Not that she went to temples much. What did she need that her father couldn't provide? But it did look safe, and as she passed through the massive archway that marked the entrance and stared up at the steeple, like a pointing finger she had to admit that it did look sturdy.
She stepped inside and was enveloped in darkness, only the flicker of torches providing the dim light to find passage.
Hercules and Iolaus carried in their injured men as the priest came over to meet them. He watched as the two heroes carefully laid the injured on straw mats and assessed the bleeding, the fractured leg, triaged in his head.
"You're going to be alright," he assured them and then turned to Hercules. "By the gods, what's happening out there?"
"Ignorance and stupidity," Hercules answered with disgust.
Iolaus watched as Melissa walked gingerly down the steps of the temple, carefully avoiding the outstretched hand of a man, splayed across them as he cried for help. To her credit though, Iolaus noticed that though she didn't touch him she didn't back away either.
"You're welcome here," the priest continued. "There's not much I can do though, I'm not a healer."
"It's alright. You can help us." Hercules placed his injured man gently onto the floor and turned to Iolaus. "You and Melissa take the other side. Start with the ones that are hurt the worst.'
Iolaus nodded, but kept his eyes on Melissa, the unknown in this equation.
Melissa walked slowly and thoughtfully through the temple, gazing upon the faces of the moaning injured. Slowly she turned in a small circle, absorbing their suffering. She'd never seen anything like this before, and her stomach churned. But a Princess must always keep her composure. She felt a sense of responsibility. Her selfishness had played a role in this. And even though it wasn't she who had launched the weapon, it just as well might have been.
Iolaus watched, his azure eyes solemn, wondering if she would snap out of her stupor, come back into reality or simply melt down in hysterics.
"Give her a chance," Hercules whispered, as he watched Iolaus' assessing eyes move between Melissa and the injured.
Iolaus simply nodded. What choice did he have, really?
Hercules turned to the priest. "So, you've seen a lot of these things?" he asked as he held out the barbed shrapnel.
"Too many to count," the priest answered sadly.
Alexa strode through the devastated village with a tight smile on her face. Her eyes shone as she surveyed the scene. Powerful, was her only thought. Followed by how she was born to do this. She'd listened to her father's stories, studied the great battles, and befriended the royal generals. And it had come to fruition. She was as good as most of the Generals she'd studied, and in her mind, even better than some of them. She turned to her lieutenant, not bothering to hide her pride.
"The weapon worked better than I expected." She leaned over one of her victims and with a foot on his chest for leverage, wrenched a piece of bloody metal out of his chest. "Victory is mine."
The lieutenant didn't look quite so sure. His scout had returned from further ahead on the path with disturbing news.
"Your Highness, our spies found your sister. She's at a temple not far down the main road." He willed himself not to flinch as he waited for Alexa's barbed retort.
But Alexa didn't even look up. She simply grinned, her eyes focusing on the distance as she squinted against the glare of the sun off the metal shards littering the terrain.
"But - - -that's not possible."
The lieutenant remained silent and Alexa considered her options. A good General thought on her feet. "Is she alone?" she finally asked.
"She's with Hercules," he answered, happy to break the oppressive silence. "Shall I tell the troops to stand down?" he asked, happy to have an excuse to end this conflict. With Melissa found alive and well, there was no need for the fighting to continue. After all, this whole confrontation was all about Melissa, as he understood it.
"NO!" she roared as she spun around. These enlisted men were clueless! "We march ahead as planned," she hissed, then seeing the confusion on his face spoke softer, more concerned. She still needed him. He managed the troops.
"It was Hercules who forced my father into a treaty with the Lathians. His death will be part of my victory. We will march on this temple," she said firmly. "We will destroy everything in our path, including Hercules. Is that understood?"
"But what about Princess Melissa?" the lieutenant asked with concern in his voice.
Alexa turned away, afraid that her lack of joy at the discovery of her sister would be a too evident. She needed them to think this was logical, not simply her own desire. She wanted the respect of her men along with their obedience.
"If my sister dies, such is the price of war. Ready the weapon."
Hercules bent over one of the wounded men, wiping the blood from his eyes and talking quietly to him. Melissa watched, and then knelt next to him.
"You brought me here to teach me a lesson didn't you." She spoke softly as she wrapped her arms around herself as if that could provide the comfort she was missing. "The ravages of war, the beauty of peace, and now I'm supposed to go home and marry Gordius like everyone wants!"
Hercules heard the pain in her voice, the conflict, and was pleased that she even felt that much. He didn't even look at her as he answered. She needed to look inside herself, not into him for the answers.
"You can marry anyone you like. No matter what I say, one day you WILL be a Queen. And being here now may make you a better one."
"How?" she questioned hopelessly. "By making me feel stupid and helpless?"
Hercules turned now to look at her, and saw for the first time, genuine concern. "No Melissa. Look around you" he urged. "So when it's your turn to choose between making war and keeping the peace, you'll know what's at stake."
"I don't want that kind of responsibility," she whimpered, then caught herself. She had less to cry about than the men around her did. She took a deep breath and amended her statement. "I don't know the first thing about taking care of a kingdom."
"It starts one person at a time," Hercules answered simply as Melissa rose and walked slowly away.
Melissa surveyed the room. The injured were everywhere. Moans and cries echoed against the cold stone of the walls of the temple and Melissa was reminded of a night she waited at her bedroom window for her father to return from a hunt. The air was cool and damp, and the castle walls were moist. The soft rush of blowing leaves and the scent of spring grass wafted through the window. But it was the silence that was most striking. Then she heard the cry of the boar as her fathers arrow hit true.
It had sounded almost human, wailing high and low, the scuffle of its feet then silence. She remembered her horror at the realization that the boar, once alive, felt its pain and death coming upon it, alone in the darkness of the night. There was nothing she could do then, and in the nightmares that followed she wished she could save the boar, or at least help it to suffer less. Yes, that was a boar, an animal, and these were people, some of them her own, but did the suffering feel any different?
Melissa made a decision and moved forward to a young man leaning against one of the cool stone walls. His eyes were glassy, his breathing shallow and the blood covering his open vest made it clear that he wouldn't be saved. She knelt at his side, facing him and staring at his soft young face. So handsome.
"What can I do to help?" she asked and reached for his hand, remembering the hand of the man on the stairs that she had refused to take earlier.
The man smiled at her touch, and squeezed her hand. Then as Melissa watched, waiting to help, he died. Melissa wanted to fold over, to pound him or hug him or something. But there was nothing more she could do. She let the tears run freely down her cheeks, clutching his hand fiercely and bowing her head.
Hercules turned to Iolaus, speaking quietly. "I don't think war looks so romantic to her anymore."
Iolaus watched in fascination as Melissa placed the young man's hand gently at his side and closed his eyes. Her eyes were finally soft, and the stiff posture that had characterized her bearing from the very moment he'd first seen her was gone. She knelt now, head and back bowed and hair falling loosely over her shoulders and down across her chest as her lips moved slowly and softly in prayer and tears slipped silently down her cheeks.
Iolaus felt his heart soften at the sight.
Hercules clapped a big hand on his friend's shoulder. "Think you can handle the rest?" he asked with a nod toward the injured.
"Where are you going?" Iolaus asked, not taking his eyes off of Melissa.
"To find the weapon that did this," He answered.
Iolaus nodded silently, thinking that this was perhaps the defining moment, where Melissa would discover what it really took to rule a kingdom with wisdom.
Hercules ran quickly back to the village. The fist of Tolus was no small weapon, and he hadn't seen a trail leading away from the village. It must still be close by. He had to get there and stop the Alcinian General before things got even worse, had to let him know that Melissa was alive and well and this whole thing was a mistake.
His feet pounded the dirt path, leaving dusty clouds trailing behind him as the tree branches slapped at him. His sweat trickled down his filthy chest leaving dark rivulets on his exposed flesh.
Hercules was thinking about averting a war and not watching the path when he almost stumbled over a kneeling figure in royal garb and chain mail, tending to a wounded soldier who lay bent and twisted in the road. Next to him stood another, also wearing the colors of Lathia.
Hercules screeched to a halt as he saw that the man was Gordius, and the other was his second in command, Acteon.
"Hey I could use some help over here!" Gordius bellowed, not recognizing Hercules at first, but he did a double take as the demi-god came up fast on him.
"Hercules!" Gordius couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice. "Now what are you doing here?"
"Trying to keep some friends from going to war."
Gordius gazed up at Hercules, eyes grim and mouth tight. "I'm afraid you're already too late."
"Maybe not," Hercules answered, realizing that he had perhaps stumbled on the answer unwittingly. "I have Melissa."
"You do?" Gordius' voice sounded almost frantic. "Well what happened? Where is she?" He didn't try to hide his concern, or his relief that she had been found. He reached a hand out, grabbing Hercules arm, his grip tight and unrelenting, afraid to let go lest the answers to his questions dash away with the same speed that Hercules approached him.
"She's safe - - -in a temple near here."
Gordius still didn't let go of Hercules' arm. He stared up into the big man's eyes, his sincerity and genuine caring for Melissa evident in the intensity of his gaze. "When she didn't show up for the wedding I knew it meant trouble. But I never dreamed that Tolus would be the one to use weapons that he vowed to destroy!"
Acteon listened to the exchange and shifted nervously. This was not the way things were supposed to happen. Gordius and Melissa were hapless. She was a spoiled whiny princess and he was Prince who wanted peace more than expansion. How could the kingdom ever prosper if he was to ascend to the throne? He had no fight in him.
But Acteon and Alexa, now there was a coupling of power. This couldn't be happening. All the carefully laid plans for their future would were in jeopardy. He had to get to Alexa!
Hercules stared curiously at Acteon, his anxiety a silent signal that might be important, and then turned back to Gordius.
"It's not Tolus, I'm sure of that," he reassured the nervous Prince.
"Who else could it be?" Acteon interjected, a fine beading forming on his forehead.
Gordius turned, momentarily annoyed that he had been interrupted. He saw Hercules staring at Acteon, his eyebrows lifted and wondered if Hercules even knew who the man at his side was.
"Uh Hercules, this is my Prime Minister, Acteon," he explained in introduction.
Acteon didn't wait for a response. He could see the assessing stare and knew that the demigod would be more astute than Gordius.
"Hercules, we value your help," he interjected.
Hercules leaned back, staring across at the intense prime minister. Something wasn't right, but he couldn't put his finger on it.
"Iolaus and I aren't here to take sides," he warned. "Why don't you grab your man," he nodded at the wounded," and I'll show you to the temple."
Gordius reached for the wounded man, not caring that the blood was smearing his royal armor and staining his silken garments. He didn't call for his men to carry the injured; he simply stooped over and pulled the man toward him, cradling him gently. The Prince lifted steadily, easily bearing the heavy man up onto his strong shoulders. Hercules watched in appreciation. But as he turned back to lead the way he caught a movement from the corner of his eye,
Gordius forged forward, but Hercules turned just in time to see Acteon slipping silently off through the woods, forgoing the trail and heading in the direction of the Alcinian forces, and the Fist of Tolus. He set his lips grimly, knowing that this was only going to make things worse.
Alexa stood looking at a map, feeling impatient. She was a Queen now, and she expected that when she gave an order, it would be obeyed. She had the map memorized, every move planned, every contingency re-planned. Where was he? She rolled up the map, muscles tense and scanned the area down the road.
Was that a soft hurried step she heard? She inched forward, unafraid. Yes, it was more than the tree leaves in the wind, there was purpose in the noise.
Acteon burst into the clearing, his face grim, and he slowed as he reached her side.
She barely looked at him. "You're late," she chided.
He reached for her arm, rubbing it reassuringly, but his face said otherwise.
"Is Gordius dead?" she asked, not bothering to hide her cold disdain for the Lathian Prince.
Acteon moved behind Alexa, knowing she like that. He let his hands slide up to her shoulders and began massaging them. "No," he answered. "He's with your sister."
Alexa smiled and Acteon was taken aback.
"Gordius, Melissa and Hercules together?" She looked far away, unaware of Acteon hands or the cool breeze. "Good. Then they'll die together!"
Alexa strode toward the temple with Acteon at her side and a good portion of her army as well. The rest she left behind, to move the Fist of Tolus. The heavy weapon, while useful, moved too slowly, and Alexa was in rush. Melissa had to be dealt with.
Hercules had rushed away from the temple intent on protecting the people sheltered within it, and before he'd traveled very far, he heard the steady stepping of many feet. The Alcinian army was drawing near. He took cover behind a rock, hoping to catch the leader by surprise.
But it was he who was surprised when he saw the young woman who was leading the men to war.
"Alexa!" he called out, unable to hide his astonishment. "What do you think you're doing?
How could it be? He remembered her as an intense child, easily making her needs known, manipulating her doting father. She had always been the more demanding of the sisters, with a personality more aggressive and self assured than Melissa. And although he'd seen her as a little sister who'd craved the attention of her father, he never thought she'd actually assume control of the whole Alcinian army and use it for her own means. Sure she probably wanted her sister back, and sure she had always been impulsive, but this was extreme for a princess.
His astonishment grew as he watched her stand taller, her posture stiff and an eyebrow cocked. She looked regal and powerful, and she knew it.
""Have you come to meddle in my kingdom's business again?" she needled Hercules.
"Your Kingdom?" Hercules snorted. "What would King Tolus have to say about that?"
"The King is dead!" Alexa declared with a sneer as Acteon slipped quietly behind her. "Long live the Queen! Although I can't say the same about my sister." She crossed her arms over her chest and without turning addressed her men.
"Prepare to fire!"
Hercules could see that the Fist of Tolus had grudgingly wheeled into view, the men behind it sweating and panting. The men in front raced back to the weapon's catapult to load the shrapnel. He stared in astonishment at Alexa, so cool and calculating and Acteon, traitor that he was, cowering behind her.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked, hoping but not expecting that his words would hit home to her. "It doesn't make any sense. You know I'll stop you."
Alexa stared back at him defiantly. "I don't think so. This is something that not even you can stop Hercules.' She turned to her men, aware that Hercules might make an attempt to escape, but knowing that he'd picked the worst possible place to meet her. The rock wall and ledge would make good shelter, but certainly no escape. And Hercules had nothing else.
"Fire!" she called and the Fist of Tolus was released.
Hercules dashed behind the rocks to take cover, expecting she would aim the shrapnel toward him, but Alexa had other plans. The shrapnel hit the huge cliff of rock that towered above and around him, piercing every fault, pounding with relentless power into every crack until it collapsed in a pile of stones and boulders right on top of Hercules.
Hercules was buried in tons of solid stone, the rock dust rising from the pile that covered where he'd been crouched. Alexa looked on in approval, a small smile splitting her stern face.
"Yes!" she whispered, feeling omnipotent. "Sergeant, take some men and dig him out. If the rocks didn't kill him, finish the job." She turned her back coldly on the six men who stepped forward to do the task she requested.
"Yes sir," the sergeant responded, feeling sorry for Hercules and wondering if he would be the next to feel Alexa's wrath if he failed this task.
Alexa didn't even deign to look at him. She stared instead at the hand sticking out of the pile of rocks, wishing she had more time to savor this victory. But she had a mission to accomplish, and between the encounter with Hercules and the weapon slowing them down she was behind schedule.
"We'll take the main column ahead to the Temple," she ordered. "Put more men on the weapon, and tell them to move quickly!"
The temple was dark, the only light filtered in from the opening of the front doors and the flicker of the torches. Wounded men lay scattered on mats on the floor, the moaning softer as some received care and some simply slipped away into Hades' realm. Iolaus had kept busy mixing the antiseptic water for washing the wounds, boiling the herbs and filtering the water. He brought a basin of it now to the priest.
"Here," he said, looking first at the man receiving the care, then spinning around guardedly as he heard the door of the temple creak open. He wondered if it was Hercules returning. It seemed like he'd been gone forever, though actually less than an hour had gone by. Iolaus didn't even hear the priest's murmured thanks as he watched the powerfully built young man wearing royal garb and chain mail enter, supporting a wounded soldier. Gordius, he deducted.
The Priest saw too. "Melissa, over here," he called to the young lady busily bandaging a man in the depths of the temple.
Gordius heard the name and his head turned, searching the room to see who would respond. Even in the dim light, he could see that there was only one woman in the room. It had to be Melissa!
"She's very sweet," the priest observed.
Iolaus watched as Gordius approached her. The princess certainly had changed. No longer so pouty or demanding, her face had taken on a softness that was mirrored by her posture, less stiff and more relaxed, perhaps she finally knew who she was, Iolaus thought.
"Yeah," he answered wryly. "She's a regular Princess. He watched as Gordius approached Melissa softly, assessing the princess.
Gordius was behind Melissa as she tenderly bandaged the gaping wound on a soldier's arm. The woman before him seemed so humble, quietly going about performing the dirty work that royalty left to nurses or other servants. Could this possibly be his Melissa? He'd heard much about her, none of it overly flattering. Yet this woman standing demurely before him was nothing like the rumors. But then, how often were rumors actually true?
"So you're Princess Melissa of Alcinia?" he asked, curiosity apparent in his voice.
"Yeah," she answered quietly as she continued with her task.
Gordius stared at her mussed up hair, long and dark, at her tattered, dirty gown that still revealed a wonderful figure, the soft skin; but mostly what he saw was a woman at peace with herself.
She reached out her hand and Gordius saw that she needed another bandage. Quickly he reached over and handed her one. Melissa turned for the first time seeing him.
"Oh," was all she said as she saw the handsome stranger letting his gaze assess her. She turned her eyes down, back to the man in front of her, the one who needed her care right now.
"You're not quite what I expected," Gordius spoke, his voice soft and comforting.
"Yes," Melissa responded with a soft laugh and a cock of her head. "I guess I'm not what I expected either. Who are you?" she asked pleasantly.
"Prince Gordius," he answered simply.
"Oh!" Melissa gasped as he stopped her bandaging and turned to him. She stared up at his unexpectedly handsome and kind face, trying to regain the composure she felt slipping away at the mention of his name. "So what did you expect?" She offered him a sweet smile.
Gordius answered hesitantly, wondering why she made him tongue tied. "Um - - -I don't know." He threw up his hands and shrugged his shoulders, "Uh, big hair, make-up, too much perfume, like that." He smiled down at her, liking what he saw infinitely more than what he had been led to imagine.
Melissa laughed, her dark eyes twinkling up at him, her voice soft and melodic. Gordius thought he could listen to her all day.
"Yeah, well I guess I'm not that kind of princess."
"I hope not," Gordius responded fervently.
"You're not disappointed?" Melissa asked, knowing she was not a pretty sight. Certainly she didn't look royal or commanding. She looked no better than a well bred peasant did. But Prince Gordius didn't seem remotely disturbed. In fact, he seemed like a regular guy. He was handsome and seemed understanding. And he wasn't fat, but she wondered if that would even matter now. Gordius was NICE.
"No, I'm not," he answered sincerely, and his eyes locked on hers. For a moment there was no one in the room except for the two of them.
Melissa was first to break the spell. She laughed softly and took the hand he reached out to her, noting the gash he'd gotten during the fight.
"That hand of yours could use a bandage," she smiled knowingly up at him.
The sergeant surveyed the pile of rock. It was taller than the tallest of his men, and wider around than a peasant's hut. But with six men, all young and able bodied, they should be able to clear it fairly quickly. The stones weren't so large that they would require tools, two men could move the heavier ones, and with luck, most would tumble away when strategic areas were cleared.
But the left hand of Hercules hanging out of the side of the pile was a gruesome sight. The sergeant tried not to think of it, and infact simply wished it wasn't there. It was simply a reminder of how he was stuck between a rock and a hard place, just like Hercules. He couldn't disobey Queen Alexa's orders or it meant certain death. Yet to kill the demi-god, favorite son of Zeus, would bring the wrath of Olympia down on him.
He watched as the men started moving the rocks away to retrieve Hercules. They worked with swift efficiency and the sergeant called out his approval as the pile grew ever smaller. Now the heavier stones were lifted off the body and the men leaned into pull out the corpse.
But Hercules had other plans. He pulled himself out with surprising speed for a man who had only moments ago been buried in boulders. Assuming a fighting stance he stared into six astonished faces.
"You took long enough,' he commented.
The men looked at the stunned sergeant, knowing that the orders were to make sure Hercules was dead. The sergeant nodded, knowing his own fate was sealed.
Two men rushed Hercules, and in one swift move he grabbed them, picking them up and whacked them together head to head. They hung limply in his hands and he dropped them at the others' feet, challenging the next wave to come at him. But they didn't. Instead as a group they ran, heading back to the temple to warn Melissa.
Hercules grabbed a boulder, punched a hole in it and grabbed it, swinging it back for a mighty throw. They wouldn't get away. It would be he who surprised the evil Queen. He rolled the stone with force and in seconds it overtook the fleeing men, bowling them over as a group, leaving them laying unconscious near the face of the rock cliff.
Hercules looked toward the temple. Alexa would be there by now. He had to run. "No time to spare," he whispered as he willed his feet to go faster, legs to pump harder
Alexa burst through the doors of the temple, a striking figure in black leather, followed by Acteon in warrior's chain mail. The last light of day threw its feeble beams behind them, back lighting the metallic studs and glinting off the swords like phantom extensions of the blades. She stood savoring her imminent victory, staring across at the pitiful wounded, who would never live to return to their worthless lives, and even if they did, would never be the same. They were powerless, nothing more than palm branches being tossed across her path, to be trampled as she strode along her own destiny. Their moans softened as they cast their eyes on her, wondering if she was their savior.
Alexa scanned the darkness of the room, knowing she had the advantage of full sight, while the sudden light obsured the others' vision. Melissa would be here, but why wasn't she whining? Surely the spoiled brat should be crying about her soiled clothing and lack of accommodations. She might even be sniffling over the fact that although she wasn't getting married, she also wouldn't be the center of attention. She put a hand over her eyes, finally sighting Melissa standing next to Prince Gordius.
"Well, well, well, a honeymoon and a funeral the same day," she laughed sarcastically. "How convenient!"
Alexa savored the gasps of the crowd, the sudden silence of the wounded, and the gape mouthed stare of the Priest. But one man moved forwards defiantly, the lone person who didn't cower.
He turned to face her, indignation obvious, the light of the open door glinting off his blonde curls. "Wait!" he declared, "There's only wounded in here!"
How dare he issue her an order! Alexa arched an eyebrow. This one would make a worthy adversary. "That's not what I hear," she answered toying with him.
She watched with amusement as Melissa stepped forward, out of the shadow, hands on her hips in her usual bossy big sister posture. Alexa noted with amusement that there was a puzzled undertone in Melissa's voice, as if she had never seen this coming. She stepped down to meet her as Melissa moved to Iolaus' side.
"Melissa," Alexa put her face close to her sister's. "Our father is dead." She raised an eyebrow, cocked her head and assessed Melissa's soft face. She fought back a smile as Melissa gasped, her eyes starting to tear.
"He was killed by Gordius," she taunted. "Part of the plot he cooked up to take the throne of Alcinia!"
Alexa watched, a small smile slipping across her thin lips as Melissa let her arms drop loosely to her sides, the tears flowing freely and her body wracked with sobs. So weak! To cry for a feeble old man who would have died soon anyway! She rather enjoyed the way that Melissa looked so vulnerable. It would make it so much more fun to slaughter her, like a simple deer, frozen in the light of the torch, awaiting whatever would happen placidly, wide eyed.
But her thoughts were broken.
"That's a lie!" a strong voice resounded. Alexa turned her head she was met by the firm stare and steely posture of Prince Gordius.
Alexa watched in disgust as Melissa melted softly against Gordius. Ignoring the Prince, she addressed her sister. "Save your tears. You'll be with father soon."
Melissa looked at her sister in horror and Alexa kept a close eye on Gordius, as he stepped aggressively forward, placing himself ever closer to her.
"You'll never get away with this!" he hissed, his eyes fiery, his voice protective.
"I already have!" she answered back defiantly, then turning to her troops, "Destroy this place and everybody in it!"
Such a fine husband he would have made for the spoiled little cow. Too bad they wouldn't get to enjoy each other. He was no more than a gnat. She would put him in his place, and claim her rightful place as Queen without hindrance. She raised her sword.
But the blond stepped forward again, this time with a hand raised. And HER soldiers obeyed HIM!
"These men have no weapons! They're all wounded!"
Alexa stared across at him puzzled. Who was this man that he commanded not just her, but her army as well, and they obeyed him? He was a powerful usurper who would need to be dealt with immediately if she wanted to keep her troops respect.
"Who ARE you?" Alexa demanded of the blonde.
Melissa moved to his side, standing straight and answered proudly. "He's Iolfus, friend of Hercules."
Iolaus shook his head and shrugged, and Alexa could see the frustration flicker over his face as he corrected her. "Actually it's Iolaus."
Alexa smiled, thinking that she had already killed the stronger half of the duo. "Hercules won't be fighting anyone," she answered knowingly.
Iolaus bristled, leaning forward into Alexa. He kept his voice strong and steady and his eyes on Alexa's face, but couldn't keep the worry from his voice.
"Why? What have you done?"
"Lets just say I've got him covered," she sneered, waiting to see his reaction.
It was now that Acteon chose to show himself, slipping out of the shadow and into the light of the door. He faced Gordius, staring at him uncomfortably, but knowing that this had to be done.
Gordius let his jaw drop, then called out in both pain and surprise, "Acteon, have you betrayed me?"
Acteon simply shrugged. He knew this moment had been coming. "I saw it as a good career move.
Gordius stood stiff with surprise, Melissa wept like a frightened child, and the friend of Hercules stepped in front of the priest protectively.
Alexa was done with talk. She had shown her hand and felt its strength. Now was the time for action, when the three of them, Gordius, Melissa and Iolaus were reeling.
"Attack!" she screamed at her troops as she shoved Melissa hard, brandishing her sword and indicating Iolaus to her troops.
Iolaus was ready; he'd been in similar situations too many times. And in spite of Alexa's words, his bet was hedged on Hercules. He lashed out at the oncoming soldiers with both fists, catching two immediately and sending them sprawling. Jumping into a split kick he hurtled forward into the next two, and watched with satisfaction as they dropped flaccidly to the ground. He'd use the darkness and reletivly narrow confines to his advantage.
Alexa, meanwhile, focused on Melissa, noting that Gordius was trying desperately to fight his way free of her soldiers surrounding him. So much the better. Melissa was hers to deal with, as always. But this time she'd finish what she'd only dreamed of in the past. She advanced, with sword high, grabbing the stunned and grieving Melissa by the grimy hair and placing the sharpened edge of her sword on her sister's delicate white throat.
"Please Alexa!" Melissa squeaked. "How can you do this? Father would never want this!"
Alexa was tired of Melissa, of her excuses, of her self centered nature, he weakness and especially of her sheer stupidity when it came to anything but shopping and herself. She couldn't believe that even with a blade at her throat Melissa didn't see the truth.
"Our father should have been here by my side, not forging some useless treaty with the Lathians. He was weak and dying." She paused, feeling her strength grow, knowing that confession would shatter Melissa's brittle self esteem, based only on her rights as her father's daughter. "I had to help him along." She pressed the sword blade closer, feeling her sister's neck beneath it.
"YOU killed him!" Melissa declared, stunned, whimpering like a kitten about to be drowned in a sack, unable to control the tears that rolled unbidden down her cheeks.
Alexa was enjoying her sister's pain. All these years Melissa was shown the favoritism of the oldest, the chosen. Even though it was unwarranted. Even though she was no more Queen material than a prize winning sow.
"I think of it more as putting him out of his misery," she sneered. "You were supposed to be long gone too. I told the slave traders to find you something nice, comfortable, a harem maybe or a bordello."
Alexa watched Melissa's mouth grew tight. She was not the sister Melissa thought she knew. Or maybe she wasn't the sister she'd been. Certainly Melissa had never been astute enough to look beyond herself and try to learn what lay below her younger sister's calm surface.
Iolaus wasn't oblivious to Melissa's plight. He could see from the corner of his eye that she was in danger, but the men just kept coming. He couldn't break away without risking a mortal injury. He could only hope that Gordius would be able to free himself. He'd realized right away that Alexa would have pegged Gordius as weak, pampered, but Iolaus had realized that nothing could be further from the truth. And it was Gordius that needed to save his bride, that part was essential. Melissa wouldn't die, Iolaus vowed. Even if it mean him taking the mortal blow to knock the sword from Alexa's hand. There MUST be peace for the two kingdoms.
Suddenly Iolaus's concerns were unwarranted, because just then the door was thrown open once more and standing in the light of their salvation stood Hercules.
"Hold It!" Hercules shouted, and for a second or two, all fighting stopped. Hercules stood silent for a moment, taking in the situation, assessing and planning.
"Sorry I'm late," he finally said, "things kind of piled up on me." He fixed his eyes on Alexa, and glared. "Alexa, you're not big on family, are you?"
How dare he speak that way to the Queen of Alcinia! Alexa felt her heart grow cold as her fist tightened around the hilt of her sword and her eyes locked onto Hercules'. This had to end now.
"Get him!" she commanded, her voice rising to a scream, but she had already lost control of the situation. Gordius had appeared at Melissa's side, sword drawn and trained on Alexa. She had to kill Melissa now and get to The Fist of Tolus.
She moved to pull her sister's head back, expose the pale delicate flesh of the weak one for the slaughter, but again Gordius prevented it. He was fast for a big man, and not as big as she had been lead to believe. And the look on his face showed he seemed to genuinely care about Melissa. Poor fool; he couldn't possibly know what he was getting into.
Gordius knocked her sword away with a force strong enough to leave her hand numb. Alexa was stunned. NO matter. Melissa would die when she was trapped by the weapon. And Gordius' chivalry would go unknown. She just had to get to it.
Alexa watched in disdain as Acteon moved toward Hercules, hoping the demigod would be distracted by the drama. But he'd figured wrong as usual Alexa realized.
"Don't even think about it!" Hercules growled as he put a hand out warningly.
Acteon was no fool. This man was as dangerous as the weapon, and definitely closer. He glanced nervously around wondering whether he had indeed chosen the right side. Discretion being the better part of valor, Acteon moved away from Hercules. There were smaller fish in this sea that would still need to be caught.
Meanwhile Alexa watched as the man who called himself Iolaus fought her soldiers unafraid. Even before Hercules reached his side he spun and kicked and punched with techniques that baffled her. He was commanding not only in voice and attitude, but in fighting skill as well, and Alexa thought it would be a shame for him to die. As magnificent as he was, his golden curls catching the dim light of the candles and muscles rippling, he was not lessened at all by the arrival of Hercules. It seemed to her that Hercules was instead fighting by Iolaus' side.
She watched as her men fell with sickening thuds, lying like puddles on the dark temple floor. The dust stirred up by the fighting gave a surreal feeling to the cramped space. She was aware of the priest scurrying with the wounded, as if to pack them away for later. And Melissa, cowering of course against the wall, but watching Gordius dispatch his share of her soldiers. She smelled the blood of the wounded and the sweat of the febrile, putting the whole experience together like a patchwork quilt. She was the one who had stitched this pattern together and she would be the one to bind the finishing touches.
As Gordius cleared the men around him and turned to her Alexa brandished the sword she had reclaimed. But not fast enough. Gordius had her disarmed with a single sweep of his blade. Alexa gasped as she realized that she had let herself grow weak for a single instant, and it had been used against her.
Alexa suddenly realized that Gordius actually cared about Melissa. Instead of running her through, he simply kicked her far away from her sister.
The action wasn't lost on Melissa, who understood that a future King could not afford such a sign of weakness, and that he done it for one reason only. Her.
"Gordius!" She cried out in relief, he eyes both pained and shining. She had been wrong about this man, as she had about so many other things. "Thank you!" she breathed as he reached protectively for her and she responded by clasping him in a hug.
Alexa pulled herself back up from the cool hard packed dirt floor and reevaluated her situation. She needed the weapon - - -now! She moved towards the door, reaching for Acteon's arm and spinning him her way.
"Keep them busy," she hissed. He could be sacrificed.
Acteon was taken aback. He didn't fight alone, that was never his role. "Me?" he questioned not sure he'd even heard right. He was a Prime Minister, a lawyer and not a fighter, and right now a man with out a leader. He tried to maintain a steady voice when his muscles felt weak. Alexa was leaving him behind to die! "Where are you going?" he asked, trying to keep the panic from his voice.
"For the weapon," she answered tersely as she dashed out the door.
Acteon drew his sword on the approaching Gordius.
Hercules saw Alexa's departure, knowing what she planned. "Iolaus!" he called. "I'm going for the weapon!"
"You betcha," Iolaus answered as Gordius stepped to his side and swept the sword ably out of Acteon's' hands.
Acteon stood barehanded before the Prince as Gordius brandished his sword. Behind the Prince he could see the blonde warrior, spinning and kicking, yelping with fierce cries and dispatching men to Morpheus' realm. There were only a handful of Alcinian fighters left standing, and with out a doubt, the friend of Hercules would make short work of them too.
"Your Majesty," he backpedaled. "I hope you understand. It wasn't personal."
"Understand this mister Prime Minister," Gordius thundered, not trying to hide his rage or his hurt. He let loose a giant punch, fueled by the anger of Acteon's betrayal and connected with the Prime Minister's chin, sending him flying away in a large arc, and landing in heap, unconscious against the cold stone of the wall.
Melissa rushed to Gordius' side, a small justified smile on her lips. She reached for Gordius hand, checking the knuckles for bleeding. She held onto his hand even though she saw that it was neither bruised nor bleeding, and as she stared up into his face and stroked his hand gently, she thought he was a brave and handsome man, and that she would be privileged to get to know him better.
Iolaus turned to watch as he assessed the damage that he'd inflicted on the Alcinians. No more men left standing, he realized with satisfaction, and Gordius was more than capable of protecting Melissa.
"Good," he muttered to himself, and turned to race outside knowing that he needed to be at Hercules' side.
Alexa dashed through the woods, tree branches slapping at her. She was tired, but the soft thud of Hercules' feet not far behind her prodded her on faster. How could such a perfect plan have failed so miserably? Sure there were scores of wounded and she had claimed one small village, but instead of being the first step to a victory that would bring all the surrounding kingdoms under her sole rule, it had become a small matter, a lost cause. And the debacle with Melissa actually escaping the slave traders, well that was one for the bards! It shouldn't have happened like this. This was all Hercules' fault!
Alexa burst off the path and into the clearing where the Fist of Tolus was stashed. The men of her army were standing anxiously, the sounds of the battle in the temple carrying up the hill to them.
"Hercules has attacked our men!" Alexa called out to rally her soldiers. "I'll get the weapon while you mount a counter attack!"
She positioned herself between the wheels of the huge weapon, standing with shoulders back and head held high, knowing how strong this made her look. And with the recent turn of events, she needed to appear powerful to the men.
"Yes my Queen!" the soldier in charge of the weapon snapped, knowing full well that there was no other answer to give if he wanted to live. He turned to the men who would fight at his side and saw that none of them were eager to fight Hercules.
They could hear the heavy thud of his running feet before they could see him, but when he rounded the bend into the clearing the men grew silent. Only the lieutenant spoke.
"There he is." The tone was ominous and the mood dark. But Alexa wouldn't be swayed.
"Get him!" she screamed as she spun back to activate the Fist of Tolus.
Hercules plunged through the wall of men and headed unimpeded toward the weapon, as Alexa stared at him stunned, and ran.
She was only steps in front of him, and her men kept coming at him, buying her precious time. She could hear the cries of the soldiers as Hercules showed no mercy, felt the shudder of the ground as the men fell like so many heavy statues and it only made her run faster.
This couldn't be happening! She had a plan. She wasn't a weary, impotent old man like her father. She was a warrior Queen, strong, powerful and feared. That night when her father had slaughtered the boar came unbidden to her mind. She remembered how eerie it was to hear what was happening, but not see it. She remembered how Melissa sucked in her breath and covered her ears horrified. And she remembered how proud of her father she was, and how jealous at the same time. She would have slaughtered the boar if he'd let her come. But He'd never believed she had that kind of courage and strength. Well today she'd show him, if he could see in what ever afterlife he was living now perhaps he would finally approve of her, perhaps even be proud.
Alexa had reached the Fist of Tolus and wasted no time in loading it with metal shards. No matter that they hadn't been heated. Less pain, same end result. She tossed in the bucket of metal and made ready the cord that tied it down, checking to see that it provided enough counterforce to allow a powerful release. She knew she had to do this both quickly and accurately.
Iolaus, Gordius and Melissa had arrived at the clearing not long after Hercules, but too late to stop what was happening. The three stopped when they saw Hercules hold up a warning hand. A quick glance at the small battalion of soldiers who lay on the ground reassured Iolaus that Hercules didn't at this moment need their help, and he nodded in response to the raised hand, reaching his arms out to stop Gordius and Melissa from interfering.
Hercules readied himself to intervene, his body poised catlike.
Alexa screamed as she watched him standing still and ready. His time was up.
"Now you die Hercules!" she screamed. She reached to release the binding that held back the weapon's arm, vengeance on her face, anger in her eyes. With one swift move, she loosed it.
But Hercules was faster. He ran, legs pumping and arms moving like pistons as he used all his demigod abilities, finally jumping with a leap more akin to flying and landed with such force on the arm of the catapult that he broke it off. The shards dropped harmlessly to the ground.
Gordius and Iolaus exchanged triumphant glances as Hercules, enraged, kicked the Fist of Tolus to pieces.
Alexa stood stunned. Her plan was gone. Her men were gone. Her weapon was destroyed. Melissa stepped up to her and Alexa focused on her sister.
Melissa punched Alexa with a powerful straight arm right in the face, dropping Alexa cold.
"Going somewhere little sister?" she asked with a satisfied smirk as Gordius turned an approving smile on her.
Iolaus slept soundly on the soft down mattress. The silken comforter and fluffy pillow were simply more insurance that neither light of day nor the noise of normal castle routine would cause him to awake. He didn't mind the hardness of the ground, the smell of the wet soil and decomposing leaves, the awakening misted with dew, or frost, depending on Demeter's mood, or the lullaby of the owl's hoot and the scuff of the deer's paw. But nights on the road were not conducive to good sleep, and Iolaus knew that he deserved not just a good night's sleep, but also a great one. And Hercules did too for that matter.
So when they'd been feted, dined and wined, danced and slept, and when Hercules was thoroughly finished with the attention, which Iolaus viewed as simply the vacation they had intended to take, they took their leave of Alcinia. The two heroes had seen little of Melissa or Gordius, who were both too busy with the new Queen's coronation and exchange of power. The peace treaty between the Alcinians and the Lathians had been once again secured. Hercules and Iolaus knew they were no longer needed in Alcinia.
Queen Melissa had received the message that they were going, and had rushed away from her duties to see them off. As they headed away from the castle she rushed out the door and down the steps. A queen must be appropriately thankful, she knew. And she had a lot to thank these two men for.
They heard the soft rushing of her shoes on the stairs and turned to see her. Iolaus was astounded. No longer a scraggly pup, Melissa looked beautiful in her royal gown and jewels. But more than that, she looked truly happy and at peace. Maybe there was something good about war. And Gordius seemed even more self assured and regal. They made a handsome couple, Iolaus thought.
Melissa reached the bottom and approached Hercules first. She slipped a hand in his and sent a dazzling smile to Iolaus.
"I didn't make things easy for you. I'm sorry. Gordius and I would like to thank you for everything you did. I just wish my father was here to share our happiness." Her eyes misted up and she blinked back the tears as Gordius slipped an arm protectively around her shoulders.
Hercules smiled gently back at her. She'd grown up to be a stunning woman, and on the way leaned to be compassionate as well. "I have the feeling that King Tolus is watching you from the Elysian Fields, and he is proud."
"So what's next," Iolaus teased, "unification of the two Kingdoms?" Iolaus watched as Gordius' eyes twinkled, knowing just what he was feeling right now. His heart knotted for a second as he thought of the last time he truly felt that way himself.
Gordius saw the moment of pain pass fleetingly and Iolaus was smiling again.
"We, uh, thought we should get to know each other first," he answered with a shy smile towards Melissa, who answered with one of her own.
"Things are progressing nicely," she interjected. "Thanks again Hercules, Iolaus." She kissed them both and Gordius gave each man a warrior's handshake.
Good byes over, the heroes turned to walk away. They'd just made it through the gate when Iolaus suddenly realized something.
"Hey Herc?" he said turning around to face his friend.
"Hmm?" Hercules grunted back.
"She remembered my name!"
"Oh she did, didn't she?" Hercules answered, clapping h is buddy on the back. "I was just starting to get used to Doofus."
"Hey, that's Iolfus!" Iolaus laughed.
"Ah, whatever." Hercules was glad to hear his friend laugh; it meant things were going back to normal, at least for now.
"Now this vacation," Iolaus continued as they strode along the path away from Alcinia. "You know what we should do?"
Hercules shot him a suspicious look. Iolaus was full of new ideas, most of them risky. As far as Hercules was concerned, they had enough risk in everyday life without tempting the fates further.
"We should try that new thing, you know, where you tie a rope around your ankles and dive off a cliff. That'll be great!"
Hercules shook his head. That was Iolaus in a nut shell, always ready for a new challenge. He laughed and slung his arm around Iolaus' shoulders.
"Are you sure your name isn't Doofus?" he teased, but squeezed Iolaus tighter before letting him go and watching him dance step backward down the path in front of him with the sinking feeling that unless Hera threw some more trouble their way he'd be dangling at the end of a rope before he knew it.
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