With a wild yell, the thug rushed Hercules, feeling confident behind the massive table he was using as both a shield and a battering ram. The demigod met his onslaught with a hard kick, driving him back a few feet and sending the companions behind him crashing to the ground. Undaunted, the man tried again, only to have Hercules kick him back once more before landing a hard right to his jaw and plucking the table effortlessly out of his hands while sending him sailing through the room.
Across the tavern, Iolaus was taking cover behind the sturdy wooden counter, out of reach of the rest of the group of ruffians. In their ire, they began hurling projectiles at him, and the hunter eagerly reciprocated, having a vast supply of fruit and crockery at his disposal and finding that his aim was much better than theirs.
Another man foolishly charged the demigod, but Hercules merely wielded the table like a bat, cracking the goon so hard that he broke through the stone wall and tumbled out into the street in a painful heap. Slamming the table onto the floor and pinning a guy down in the process, the demigod leapt on top of it as two more men came at him with long handled mallets. He dodged their swings before disarming them and clunking each one on the head with their own weapons. Tossing the mallets aside, he caught both of them with one kick. One of them hit the ground, but the other went flying out of the building through the wall, taking a few more stone blocks with him and knocking down his companion who had just managed to struggle to his feet.
Tired of the games and wanting in on the action, Iolaus began clambering over the counter, but he found himself assisted by one of the men. He administered a savage head butt, but to his dismay the thick skulled creep shook it off and tossed him across the room to his waiting friends. One of them backhanded him hard enough to spin him around, then grabbed him tightly from behind and held him as his friend approached. But the hunter surprised them, rearing back and kicking out at his opponent, sending him staggering back into a support beam.
Hercules grabbed his next foe and flipped himself over his shoulders, using his momentum to then conversely flip the guy over his head. As they both landed on the ground, the demigod picked him up and heaved, sending him crashing into a rack of shelves across the room.
Iolaus kicked out at the next man who approached, hard enough to turn him around but not so hard as to send him out of range. Locking his legs around the goon’s neck, the hunter managed to wriggle out of the iron grasp that was holding him from behind and perch himself securely on the thug’s shoulders. Without even looking, Iolaus swung his arm out behind him, taking out the guy who had been restraining him. Then he bent backwards and gracefully dropped to the floor, shimming between the legs of his foe before rolling over on his back and kicking the sap hard in the groin. Before he even hit the floor, the hunter had sprung back up to his feet, ready for more.
Hercules met the next attacker with a powerful roundhouse kick, sending the brute crashing into a small stand piled with bread and bowls of fruit and herbs. Idly, he realized that the interior of the tavern was pretty well demolished and he was running out of places to store his fallen foes, so when Iolaus called out his name, telling him to catch and sending the last man standing staggering toward him, the demigod merely hoisted him in the air above his head, intending to toss him down to the floor at his feet.
“No!” the man cried out in fear. “Don’t! I’m one of the good guys!”
“You are?” Hercules asked in confusion.
“I’m Hemnor. Of Ceryneia? I’ve come to ask your help.”
“Oh.” The demigod gently eased the man to the ground, realizing that in his battle lust he’d acted without thinking. Far from being a ragged bandit, the man was dressed in a nice robe, his long brown curls clean and well kept, his beard neatly trimmed, and he sported several silver rings that boasted of taste and a touch of status. He was obviously a merchant or a tradesman, and on a second look, his gentle and passive demeanor proved he was definitely not a threat to anyone.
“Thanks,” Hemnor sighed in relief, giving the demigod an appreciative pat on the arm for believing him.
“Don’t mention it,” Hercules told him. Iolaus turned away, bouncing slightly, still energized from the fight. He was surveying the battle scene with satisfaction and appeared to be disinterested in the conversation, but the demigod knew he was listening. “So, what can we do for you?”
“Stop a senseless, tragic death,” Hemnor declared solemnly, but with passion. “My village lives in terror, in fear of a monster that lives in the forest.”
“A monster?” the demigod echoed. Iolaus’ attention was immediately piqued and he whirled around to join them.
“Yeah, we do monsters,” the hunter said confidently, but then he hesitated as a thought struck him. “Wait. It’s not slimy, though, is it?”
“No...” Hemnor paused as Iolaus’ words sunk in and he shot the hunter a questioning look before turning back to plead with Hercules. “No, it’s not slimy. It’s... it’s kind of, a doe.”
“A deer?” Iolaus demanded.
“A female deer?” Hercules clarified.
Hemnor nodded, and the partners shot each other an identical look. It was going to be one of THOSE adventures.
It didn’t take long for the two heroes to agree to accompany Hemnor back to Ceryneia, for they seldom refused anyone that came seeking their help. Hercules promised assistance, but first he wanted to stay and help the tavern owner rebuild his wall and clean up the mess he had made, even though the other guys had started it. But Hemnor was in a hurry and offered the tavern owner a few coins to cover the damage, so once Hercules and Iolaus made sure the group of troublemakers was safely in the hands of the local law, the threesome set out on their journey.
“What was that fight all about, anyway?” Hemnor wanted to know.
“Bad manners,” Iolaus replied nonchalantly from his place in the lead. “Those guys wanted the landlord to give them their food AND the day’s receipts.” He glanced behind him and gave his partner, bringing up the rear, a sly grin. “Although it probably would have been easier on the poor guy to just hand over the money. Save him the trouble of rebuilding.”
“What was I supposed to do?” Hercules demanded defensively. “Just let those thugs get away with robbing the guy? Leave them free to rob more innocent people, and maybe hurt someone? You know, I don’t....” The demigod trailed off as the hunter glanced back at him again and he caught the mischievous look on his face, realizing he had let himself be baited. “Besides,” he continued with a haughty sniff. “It was the principle of the thing.”
“You actually looked like you were having a good time,” Hemnor commented to Iolaus, a bit warily. He wasn’t sure what was going on between the two, but he didn’t think it particularly wise to needle someone with the size and strength that the mighty Hercules possessed. Especially when he was stuck between them.
“Yeah,” the hunter agreed with a casual shrug. After years of battling monsters and facing down the gods, a little thing like a tavern brawl was like a stroll through Alcmene’s garden. “So?”
“Tell us about your monster,” Hercules urged, chuckling a bit over his friends’ incorrigibility.
“Yeah, your killer deer,” Iolaus added with a touch of sarcasm.
“Well, it’s not exactly a deer,” Hemnor explained, deciding that the byplay between them had been friendly, and probably typical. “She’s part woman.”
“Well, there you go,” the hunter declared with conviction, only half-joking. “That explains it.”
“Wait,” the demigod said as he came to a halt. His two companions followed suit. “Half-woman, half-deer? Golden horns and hooves?” As Hemnor nodded in the affirmative, Hercules turned to his partner. “He’s talking about the last Golden Hind.”
“Yeah, and without your help, she’ll soon be gone, too.” Hemnor grew serious, and his earnest sincerity plainly came through. “I want to save her, but I don’t know what to do. The people in my village are all terrified of her. They think she’s a threat, but the only humans she’s ever killed have been men that have gone into the forest after her. But my neighbors were scared enough to petition Prince Nestor to come with soldiers and trackers.”
“Nestor,” the demigod groaned as his friend heaved a weary sigh.
“You’ve heard of him?” Hemnor asked.
“I had some trouble with his brother,” Hercules responded vaguely.
“His LATE brother,” Iolaus emphasized.
“Well, then you know what I’m up against,” Hemnor said. “The Hind has never had to fight such odds. She doesn’t stand a chance.”
The demigod exchanged a long look with his friend, both of them remembering that long ago day when a Golden Hind had saved Iolaus’ life. And each man felt that he owed to Helene to protect the last of her kind.
“We’ll see,” Hercules murmured, his tone clearly indicating that the Hind’s chances had just tripled.
“Strangers are here, in our sacred forest. They’ve come for me.”
“They won’t risk offending the god of war,” Ares predicted, running a finger lovingly along the cold steel blade of the dagger in his hands. “You’re mine, and they know it.” He glanced up at her, fixing his intense dark eyes on the creature. “I’ll protect you if you need it,” he offered as an afterthought.
“I have no fear, great Ares. I am what you’ve made me.”
“Yes.” A seductive smile twitched at his lips and his gaze grew even more intense as his eyes roamed over her figure. “Yes, I do good work. When Zeus slew the other Hinds, I stood against him and made him spare your life. You’ve always made me glad I did that.”
“What would you have me do about the strangers?”
“They’re only mortals,” the god of war told her with a shrug. “They’re of no consequence.” A predatory gleam began to shine from his eyes and his smile deepened. “But, my brother, Hercules, is also coming. Now, with him we may have some fun.”
The last Golden Hind bowed before Ares and took her leave as his laughter started to echo throughout the temple.
“Ares, champion of arms, sovereign of battle,” Nestor cried out, raising his arms in supplication as the female servants milling about ignored him. “Give me a sign. Grant me the blood of the Golden Hind.” A noise behind him made him spin around, and he took in the figure that had materialized in the temple. “Ares?”
“You know, for someone in your line of work, you’ve got to know better.” The pale godling stepped forward, a scowl of annoyance twisting his countenance. “Strife! Ring a bell?”
“Nephew of Ares.” The prince acknowledged the introduction, but he did not sound impressed.
“Yeah, well, you’re not as thick as you look,” Strife granted as he strolled past the mortal. “But, then, maybe you are.” He placed his hands on his hips as he pretended to mull over the prince’s request. “You want my uncle, the god of war, to let you turn his prize Hind into jerky!” Turning back around, the godling began shouting to emphasize his point. “Hello! Are you in there, Prince Nestor?!”
“It’s said the blood of a Hind can kill a god!” Nestor exclaimed, undaunted. “Well, I want it to take the head of Hercules.”
Strife paced around the mortal, sizing him up. Royals tended to be trouble, as their egos often got the better of their brains. Pompous and spoiled, used to demanding and getting what they wanted, often forgetting their place before the gods. But while this man definitely had a regal air about him, he also did not appear to be just another fat cat throwing his weight around. He was dressed in a leather tunic, fancy but functional for battle, and his long mane of hair that was obviously some sort of status symbol was gathered in a topknot and secured into a long braid so as not to get in the way. The long, jagged scar running down his face also told the story of a man who had the chops to back up his tough talk, rather than hiding behind his army, and it was a safe bet that the two blades at his waist were not merely for decoration. Nestor had vowed to kill Hercules, and Strife believed that he had the conviction to follow through. Deciding the mortal would be of use after all, the godling gave him a round of applause.
“That is definitely on time!” he giggled as he approached the throne. After a quick look around to make sure they were alone, he eased himself into the chair and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “My uncle, Ares, has got a thing for the Hind. But, you whack Hercules, he’ll cut you some slack.”
“So, it’s ok if I kill the Hind?” Nestor clarified, wanting to make sure he was understanding. “That’s what you’re saying? And your uncle will approve?”
“I’ll just say this,” the godling conceded. “If you’re going to be in the mix, be in it to win it.” The grin faded from his face and Strife leaned forward, all traces of posturing gone as he fixed a deadly serious gaze with his ice blue eyes on the mortal before him. “You take the deer, we’ll deliver Herc’s head.”
Nestor didn’t trust him, but his desire for the Hind was great, and his desire to avenge his brother’s death by killing Hercules was all consuming. So he nodded at Strife’s proposal and left the temple, instructing his men to start preparations.
He had hired the best hunters and trappers he could find to compliment his own army of soldiers, and together they worked to devise all manner of lethal devices. The prince supervised their work, nodding in satisfaction over the cleverness, and the brutality, of some of the weaponry. When things were nearly ready, he gathered a band of men and announced his intention to go after their quarry.
“When we flush the Hind, we’ll drive it this way,” he informed the trapper he was leaving in charge. “I want this whole area to be one big death trap.”
“We get through here,” the man promised him, raising up a tree trunk littered with spikes, “not even the birds in the trees will be safe.”
“Just remember,” Nestor cautioned him. “We take the Hind’s blood. The gold’s not what we’re after. That’ll come later.”
For any of the prince’s men, the pace would have been grueling. But for the two seasoned warriors, racing through the forest for over an hour had barely left them winded. Speed was crucial, for it was their only chance to stay ahead of Nestor and find the Hind before he did. So when they did finally come to a stop, it was not to take a breather.
“See it?” Hercules asked as he came to a simultaneous halt with his partner.
“Yeah,” Iolaus snorted, a little insulted that the demigod even had to ask.
Hercules looked around and found a good sturdy tree branch. Picking it up, he tossed it onto the path before them. Immediately a net closed securely around the branch and lifted it up into the trees. The trap had been well concealed, and no untrained eye ever would have been wise to the danger. But it had been obvious to the heroes, and the hunter scoffed at the craftsmanship.
They continued on their way, at a slower trot this time since it was a safe bet that the net wasn’t the only trap the prince had set. Behind them, the sounds of banging and crashing and shouting was audible, and it steadily began to grow louder.
“Listen,” Hercules said quietly. “Nestor’s still out there, beating the bushes.”
“Means he hasn’t gotten the Hind,” Iolaus reasoned.
“Not yet,” the demigod cautioned. “Although I don’t know how he thinks he’s going to catch her with all that noise.”
“He’s not trying to catch her,” the hunter told him knowingly. “He’s trying to drive her into an ambush.” He was silent for a moment, considering the situation. “You think she’ll be able to avoid his traps?”
“I’m sure she didn’t survive this long by being careless,” Hercules speculated.
“Do you think it’s Helene?”
The demigod stopped and looked at his partner, meeting his concerned gaze. When they’d first heard the story that Zeus had condemned the race of magical creatures to death, they had both been horrified. Golden Hinds were shy and peaceful. They craved solitude and avoided mortals, wanting nothing more than to be left alone. But the gods feared them, for they had the means to bring the whole pantheon of immortals to an end. Even if the Hinds, already desperately rare as a species, did not desire such a purpose, it didn’t mean there weren’t other unscrupulous beings that wouldn’t hesitate to take their blood to launch the ultimate takeover. It was too much of a danger, and Zeus decided he could not risk himself or his family. While Hercules could understand that the gods were vulnerable, he could not condone his father’s actions. The threat of the potential weapon was great, and it’s unleashing could have dire consequences for all of Greece. But that still didn’t justify the extinction of innocent life, or the termination of an entire race of creatures. Well, all of them save for one.
“I don’t know.” He sighed, looking off into the trees. There had been rumors that one of the Hinds had managed to escape with her life, and he was glad to know it was true. Like his friend, he hoped it was the gentle Helene, but in the end it didn’t matter. “Even if it’s not, we still need to help her.”
“Yeah, I know,” Iolaus agreed, a bit sadly. “But I wouldn’t even be alive now if it wasn’t for her. I was just thinking...”
He didn’t finish, but he didn’t need to, for Hercules knew what he was thinking. It was the same thing he’d been thinking, and he reached out and put a hand on his friend’s arm, squeezing it gently. A shout sounded out behind them, closer than ever, and the demigod looked up with a frown.
“We’ve got to move faster.”
“You know, we’re going to cover more ground if we split up,” the hunter suggested.
Iolaus turned to dash off, forgetting to look before he leapt. His mind on memories of the past and the need to find the Hind, he failed to see the trap before him until he had already stumbled upon the trip wire. He caught himself in the nick of time, freezing in place and feeling relief wash through him when nothing happened. But that relief was short lived as he glanced down and realized he had activated the trap. Going forward was out of the question, but if he tried to back up, the release of tension from the trip wire would equally seal his fate. No doubt about it, he was in deep.
Hercules was quite familiar with the deceptively mild exclamation, and he was not happy to hear it, for it meant trouble with a capital T. Immediately assessing the situation, the demigod moved cautiously around his friend to try and get a better look at the fiendish device.
“Don’t move,” he ordered.
“You kidding?” Iolaus chortled nervously, his voice rising an octave. He definitely should have been insulted this time, over such pointless instruction. But he had other things to worry about.
“Interesting,” Hercules murmured as he studied the dual crossbows.
“There’s another one,” the demigod told him, his eyes sweeping over the mechanism. “And they’re tied together. I disarm one, the other one shoots whether you move or not.”
“Oh, good,” the hunter said, swallowing hard. “What do we do now?”
“Give me a minute,” Hercules said distractedly as he crouched beside one of the triggers for a closer look.
“Sure,” Iolaus agreed, rolling his eyes slightly. “Take your time.”
Without warning, the demigod sprang from the ground and executed a stunning vertical leap up into the canopy. When he returned to earth, he brought a thick tree branch with him. Straining with the effort of bending an entire tree in half, he shot his partner a pointed look when he didn’t move.
“Grab it and hold on,” he ordered through clenched teeth. The hunter’s face fell as he reluctantly reached out for the branch, but he quickly jerked his hands away as if it had been made of fire.
“Isn’t there a better way?” he pleaded.
“Just grab it,” Hercules snarled at him.
With a sad resignation, Iolaus took the branch gingerly in his hands.
“I hope you know what you’re...”
All hope vanished with a panicked yell as the demigod released the tree and it sprang back up into it’s lofty position, taking the hunter with it. Both arrows immediately released, slicing through the spot where Iolaus had stood only a fraction of a second earlier. But before Hercules could congratulate himself on a successful plan, the hunter came crashing back down in a heap at his feet.
“You were supposed to hold on,” the demigod reminded him as he pulled him up.
“Yeah,” Iolaus grimaced, leaning against a tree and flexing his throbbing shoulder experimentally. He had more than a sneaking suspicion that his partner was trying to punish him for his bout of carelessness. “That was the plan, wasn’t it?”
“You still want to split up?” Hercules asked, teasing him.
“No,” the hunter insisted belligerently, but he pushed away from the tree and took off down the path anyway, his attention focused solely on looking for more trip wires.
“I’ll meet you back here!” the demigod called out after him, before turning and sprinting off in the opposite direction.
The magnificent Golden Hind came to the conclusion that the strangers in her forest were not going to give up the hunt for her and go away. At least not without a little persuasion. So she abruptly turned and changed her course. Instead of leading them in circles, she began leading them into confrontation. When she had lured a band of them into position, she moved forward and let herself be seen.
“There’s the Hind!” one of the soldiers cried out as he caught sight of her. “Sound the alarm!”
As another man raised a horn to his lips and blew, signaling to the others that their prey was in sight, his companions began to fall around him left and right with their weapons drawn. The Hind fired off her arrows with lightening speed and deadly accuracy, and as their numbers were cut in half, the remaining soldiers couldn’t retreat fast enough. As they fled in fear, the Hind watched them go with a small smile of satisfaction. She didn’t like killing, but Ares had taught her long ago that it was either her or them, and she didn’t have a choice if she wanted to survive.
Bristling with defeat, the soldiers pushed through the woods, eager to regroup and replenish their forces before going after the creature once more. As they came together on the main road that cut through the forest, they ran into a young boy who had been gathering firewood. He was shocked to find himself suddenly surrounded by bad tempered soldiers and he froze in terror as they passed by him. One of the men on horseback stopped before him, glaring down at the scared youth who was blocking his path.
“What’s the matter with you?” the soldier shouted at him. “Get out of the way!”
The boy turned and ran, leaving the road and dashing off among the trees. He didn’t know who the men were or what they were doing there, but they definitely weren’t friendly and he didn’t want to hang around to find out. Running as fast as he could go, he just wanted to put a little distance between them. But something snagged his foot and tripped him and he sprawled across the ground. A loud creaking noise sounded, and he rolled over on his back just in time to see a massive spike-filled tree bearing down on him.
A loud crashing got Hercules’ attention, and it didn’t take much imagination to realize that one of Nestor’s traps had been sprung. His first thought was Iolaus, but he quickly shrugged that off. After almost getting caught once, there was no way his partner would let it happen again. His second thought was of the Hind, and as he began moving in the direction of the noise, he could only hope it had been some unfortunate forest animal that had blundered into the device.
The fallen tree was easy enough to find, and at first it appeared to have missed the intended victim. But as the demigod got closer, his heart froze in horror as he saw the tiny figure buried underneath it, trapped by the weight of the wood and impaled on the deadly spikes.
“Oh, no,” he gasped as a sick feeling welled up inside him. The boy moaned softly, and Hercules wasn’t sure that it was a good thing he was still alive. He grabbed the tree and lifted it with a mighty heave. “Lie still,” he told the child. “Don’t move.” Tossing the tree away from them, the demigod crouched down beside the boy and gently took him in his arms. It was as he suspected. The child’s body was crushed, and the spikes had caused damage beyond repair. There was nothing he could do to help him, and rage boiled up inside of him at the senseless tragedy. “Nestor!” he screamed out into the woods, vowing to make the prince pay. “He’s only a boy!”
A soft sound made Hercules glance behind him, and he was stunned to find a beautiful woman hovering there among the trees.
“How badly is he hurt?” she asked quietly.
“He’s dying,” the demigod told her abruptly, tearing his gaze from her and focusing his attentions back on the child.
“Is he your son?”
“No,” he answered, hugging the boy tighter to him and rubbing his shoulder, offering what little comfort he could.
“But you grieve,” she pointed out, surprised. “You already mourn his passing.”
“He’s... he’s innocent,” Hercules spoke, his voice thick with sorrow and his eyes burning with tears. “He’s done nothing to deserve this.”
“I can help him,” the woman said hesitantly. “If you let me.”
The demigod turned to look at her, hope burning anew in his blue eyes.
She started forward, but stopped as he got to his feet. Realizing that she was nervous and wary and definitely not wanting to scare her off, Hercules slowly backed up, giving her plenty of room as she knelt down beside the boy. She held her hands out above him, and the demigod watched in fascination as a softly glowing light began to flow from her hands into the child. The light was absorbed into his body, sealing his wounds and healing his injuries until he was whole once more. But the effort obviously took something out of the woman and she began to swoon. Hercules was beside her in an instant, catching her before she could slump to the ground.
The boy opened his eyes and gasped in fear and confusion.
“Don’t be afraid,” the demigod told him, reaching out in an attempt to calm him. But the child scrambled to his feet and took off running back to the road, deciding he would take his chances with the soldiers. “You’re ok,” Hercules called after him. “It’s...” But he gave up. The boy was gone, and the limp form in his arms began to stir.
The woman recovered quickly and bolted upright, but her fear seemed to vanish as abruptly as it had come. She relaxed back against the strong arm around her and reached out, taking the demigod’s free hand and caressing it between her own as she gazed up at him in wonder.
“Who are you?” Hercules murmured.
“I’m Serena,” she told him. “Who are you?”
He could see confusion in her face, as if something wasn’t adding up. She studied him intently for a moment, and then she appeared to have come to a decision.
“Why would the son of Zeus care for a mortal’s life?” Her question was softened by a sweet smile, her tone curious rather than accusatory.
“Don’t confuse me with my father,” Hercules warned her sternly. “That boy’s life is as important as any. It’s... ” He lost his train of thought as her hand cupped his cheek, her fingers tracing gently over his skin.
“You’re not the angry, warlike man I’ve always heard about.”
“I don’t know who you’ve been talking to.” The demigod had to chuckle in spite of himself. “I certainly don’t think of myself that way.”
“How do you think of yourself?” she wondered, taking his hand and putting it to her own face, leaning into his embrace.
“As a friend,” Hercules answered, not even really aware of what he was saying. Something was taking a strong hold over him and he felt uncharacteristically disconcerted. The woman in his arms was breathtakingly beautiful. Her brown eyes were like liquid pools, shining with kindness and gentleness and her soft, low voice sounded musical to his ears. The skin under his touch was softer than silk, and her small hand fit into his large one as if they were made to be together. And her smile was enough to melt his heart. But as she curled up against him, snuggling into his embrace, the demigod came to his senses. There was something definitely odd about this woman. Reluctantly, he pulled away and helped her to her feet, a bit flustered over the way he’d seemingly been instantly drawn to her.
“What you did for the boy was a miracle,” he proclaimed, both trying to cover up an awkward moment and find out more about the mysterious Serena.
“Oh,” she murmured, looking away, apparently flustered as well over the way she had behaved. “I have the gift of healing.”
“Oh.” Obviously he had figured that much out for himself, but he didn’t know what else to say.
“Please don’t tell anybody what you saw me do here today,” she asked, gazing at him earnestly.
“No, I mean, if...” Hercules found himself lost in her eyes once more, and he had to shake his head slightly to focus. “If that’s what you want.”
“People would come,” Serena explained. “More would be hurt. It’s a dangerous place.”
“Your secret is safe,” the demigod promised her, seeing that she was truly worried. She read the sincerity in his blue eyes and smiled slightly in gratitude for his silence. Hercules smiled back, wondering where to go from there, but the shouting suddenly started up again, closer than before. He turned and took a few steps, assessing that Nestor’s men had found the trail and realizing he was going to be hard pressed to keep ahead of them. But as much as he wanted to protect the Hind, he realized he needed to get Serena to safety first.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he began, turning back to her. “This place is...” He looked around, seeing no trace of the beautiful woman. Dumbfounded, he just stretched his arms out hopelessly. “Where can I find you?” he shouted out, not wanting their first meeting to have also been their last. But the only sound that answered him was the clatter and ruckus of Nestor’s men.
For a few moments, Iolaus almost forgot about the Hind. After his narrow escape from the dual arrows of death, his primary focus became avoiding trip wires as he raced through the forest. But the incident quickly faded into memory. After all, it was just one more near miss to add to his vast collection, although he had a feeling Hercules wasn’t going to let him live it down any time soon.
As his concentration drifted back to the task at hand, he couldn’t help but see the irony in the situation. He was a hunter after all. But he’d also been the hunted enough times to have a good deal of empathy for the last Golden Hind. For Nestor and his band of thugs were definitely not about hunting for the sake of food, or even sport. It was an assassination mission, pure and simple. Barbarians willing to end the life of a mystical creature, the last of her kind, just for a little bit of gold and glory. The very notion of it disgusted Iolaus to the core, and he was motivated by a deep desire to find the Hind before the other goons did. Besides, it didn’t take a lot of imagination to reach the conclusion that Nestor’s ulterior motive was to avenge his brother’s death. Which meant he wanted the Hind’s blood to use against Hercules, and Iolaus was not about to let that happen. He picked up his pace, his desperation to find her growing as he heard Nestor and his men beating the bush off to the east. She didn’t leave much of a trail, but he found a few signs, some bruised leaves and a scuff mark on the ground that could have been made by a deer-like creature. He stopped, scanning the area carefully, and then he saw her.
It was just a fleeting glimpse through the trees, but there was no mistaking the gleaming horns poking through the mane of golden hair. He had found the last of the Hinds. It was an amazing sight, but he had no time to stop and revel in the magical creature moving through the forest before him. Not if he was going to save her life.
Taking up his rope, Iolaus crept closer, trying to get near enough to restrain her if she panicked before he got the chance to explain who he was and why he’d been chasing her. But when he burst through the bushes, she was gone. Too late, Iolaus realized she had also seen him and had led him right into a trap. He turned around and saw her with her bow drawn, ready to let him have it. Quickly, Iolaus tried to tell her that he was just there to help her, but the next thing he knew, an arrow was burying itself in his chest. The force of it propelled him backwards, slamming him hard into the ground.
The pain was instantly blinding. It seared out from the shaft that was deeply embedded in his flesh, but a more ominous pain was accompanying it, radiating out from the arrow’s tip and shooting through his body with frightening speed and intensity. Iolaus struggled weakly, realizing he was serious trouble. But the agony of the wound and the fast acting poison quickly overtook him and he collapsed in oblivion, the name of his best friend dying out in his throat before he could call for help.
Hercules stopped and listened carefully, with growing satisfaction. Nestor and his men had veered to the north, apparently following a wrong trail, and the sound of their ruckus was growing ever fainter. The demigod, however, was convinced he was on the right trail. Not that there was much to follow, for the Hind was a cautious creature who knew how to remain secretive and Hercules was not quite the tracker that Iolaus was. But he could hold his own, and he was sure that he was retracing the Hind’s very recent path.
Eventually, he found himself back at the place where he had parted ways with his partner and where they had agreed to meet up. He paused, wondering for a moment if he should stay put and wait for Iolaus to rejoin him, since it appeared that the Hind had continued on in the direction the hunter had gone. But then the demigod decided to keep following her trail. If Iolaus hadn’t found her yet, then they could join forces. Possibly surround her and cut her off long enough to hear them out. And then once she was safe...
Hercules sighed heavily as his thoughts drifted back to Serena. There was something strange about her, something that just didn’t fit. But there was also something wonderful about her. Something warm and comforting and familiar. Their meeting had been so brief, yet the demigod was worried for her safety, and deeply disturbed by thoughts of her coming to harm. His quest was to save the Hind, but surely he was just as obligated to make sure that this mysterious healer was safe as well. And then once everyone was out of danger, there would be time to talk, and to get to know each other. Something he found himself greatly looking forward to. For although he didn’t understand the compulsion that had come over him, he couldn’t deny that he was drawn to the lovely Serena. Regardless, he knew he had to find her, and that he simply couldn’t leave Ceryneia without seeing her again.
A rabbit suddenly darting across his path broke the demigod from his reverie. Automatically, his eyes followed the animal, and his heart suddenly froze as his gaze fell upon a coil of rope lying on the forest floor. There was nothing distinctive about it, but Hercules instinctively knew it was the one his partner had been carrying. He pushed his way through the bushes and found Iolaus lying on the ground, an arrow sticking out grotesquely from his chest.
Falling to his knees beside his friend, the demigod let out a quivering sigh of relief to see that he was still alive. But then the fear gripped him once more as he realized the gravity of the hunter’s condition. The wound itself was very serious, possibly deadly. But Iolaus was also feverish, confirming that the arrow had been coated with poison. His sheer, stubborn tenacity had kept him clinging to life so far, but it wouldn’t be enough to sustain him much longer. And if he stood any chance at all of making it, Hercules had to act fast. He would have preferred to get his friend to a healer, but there was no time. The poisoned arrow had to come out before any more of the toxin was absorbed.
The wound hadn’t bled much, which normally would have been a good thing but in this instance it had the demigod cursing. Heavy bleeding probably would have washed some of the poison out of the wound. Once the arrow was removed, Hercules suspected the injury would gush, but by now it was too late. He would just have to treat the wound as best he could and hope for a miracle.
The demigod quickly left his friend’s side just long enough to gather up enough herbs and moss to make a hasty poultice, then he returned and began his task. Wrapping his hands firmly around the shaft of the arrow, Hercules took a deep breath and gave it a hard, but steady, yank. Fortunately, the arrow came free on the first try, and the demigod hurriedly applied the poultice to the wound, hoping to both staunch the bleeding and draw out whatever poison remained.
The new agony of the arrow’s removal intruded upon the hunter’s blissful oblivion, and he began to stir as the pain led him back to consciousness with a tortured moan.
“It’s ok, Iolaus,” came a familiar voice in his ear. “I’m here. You’ll be all right.”
As he struggled to open his eyes and focus, the hunter saw his partner hovering over him, looking absolutely terrified. Obviously, Hercules had his doubts about the validity of his own words. Iolaus wanted to call him a liar and complain about being patronized yet again, for it was very much apparent to him that he had sustained a mortal wound along with a dose of something rather painfully toxic and he felt far from being all right. But he only managed to groan out one word.
“I know, buddy,” Hercules whispered, his eyes shining damply. He put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, squeezing it a bit too hard in his fear. “I’ve got some herbs that will help. Just stay with me, ok?”
Iolaus closed his eyes briefly, concentrating on breathing and trying to get a grip on the fiery agony coursing through his body. He managed to get himself under control and opened his eyes to gaze up at his friend.
“I found the Hind,” he murmured, with a hint of his cheeky grin.
“I think she found you,” the demigod retorted, grinning in spite of himself.
“I knew you’d find me,” Iolaus said softly. He could literally feel the poison flowing through him, destroying him. His limbs were numb, and as he experimentally moved his fingers he found he barely had the strength and the muscle control left to make a fist. And he was so cold. The hunter had been through a lot, but he wasn’t sure he was going to pull through this one. An arrow he could survive, and poison he could survive. Both at the same time was a little much to ask. And a small shiver of fear ran through him as he realized that he no longer even had the hope of reprieve. The deal he’d made with Hades to win back Orestes’ life had seen to that. But at least he was comforted by the fact that whatever his fate, he didn’t have to face it alone. Hercules was with him. And if anyone could get him out of trouble before he made that last, and very final, trip to the underworld, Hercules could.
The demigod gave his friend the hand that he was groping for, squeezing it slightly in reassurance as he glanced around the still woods, trying to decide what to do. Iolaus’ condition was beyond the aid of a mortal healer, which meant his best hope was with Serena. Her healing gift would surely save him. But dragging the hunter around the forest as he searched for her might only aggravate the poison and speed up it’s action. Leaving him was out of the question, for if Nestor and his men found him, there wouldn’t be anything left of Iolaus to heal. If he was going to hang on until Serena could help him, then he needed to stay quiet and rest. And the only safe place for him was back in the village. It would take time to get him there and then return for Serena, but there really was no other choice. Looking down at his partner, Hercules squeezed his hand again, realizing that the hardest part would be convincing his proud, stubborn friend.
“I know, I know,” Iolaus grumbled, effortlessly reading the demigod’s mind. He closed his eyes again, this time in mortification. “Let’s just get this over with.”
In a day that had been filled with surprises, Hercules was confronted with the biggest one of all. Shaking his head slightly in wonder, he gently gathered his unresisting friend in his strong arms and lifted him, cradling him securely against his chest as he started back toward town. Iolaus loathed being carried, for he found it humiliating and he hated feeling so helpless that he couldn’t even manage to walk under his own power. But under the circumstances, he was forced to grin and bear it. The poison was paralyzing him, and he couldn’t even sit up on his own so there was no point in pretending that he could walk back to the village. Besides, he knew as much as the demigod did that time was a factor. If Hercules was going to save his neck, the hunter knew he had to shut up and let his partner get him somewhere safe so that he could stop worrying and figure out how to do it. Ironically, he realized that the Hind had the power to heal him, but it seemed unlikely that she would be willing, since she was the one who had shot him in the first place.
“Hey, Herc?” he murmured, at least glad that Hercules didn’t know of the deal he’d made with Hades. The demigod was under enough pressure as it was without that hanging over his head as well.
“It wasn’t Helene.”
The demigod wasn’t sure how to respond, but he realized he didn’t need to, for Iolaus went limp in his arms as the darkness closed in on him once more.
“Oh, my,” Hemnor exclaimed as the demigod burst through the door, the body of his friend in his arms. He dropped the vase he’d been meticulously painting and hurried to meet them, escorting them across the room to his bed in the corner. “Here.” Hercules gently eased his partner down and had a seat on the edge of the bed next to him. “What happened?”
“He was shot by the Hind,” Hercules told him tightly. He hadn’t known where else to go, but he was fairly sure he could trust their new friend to look after Iolaus while he did what he had to do.
“The Hind?” Hemnor repeated in disbelief.
“Yeah,” the demigod confirmed. “He’s got a fever. The arrow was dipped in poison.”
“This happened to the others, too,” Hemnor relayed as he fetched a small bowl of water. “But none of them made it back to town.”
“I dressed the wound with herbs as soon as I found him,” Hercules explained, briefly checking the poultice under the bandage he had fashioned from a strip of his shirt. “But it only helped for awhile.” For a few minutes, it had appeared that the herbs were taking effect as the hunter’s distress eased up slightly. But by the time they had reached the village, the poison had resumed ravaging him, undaunted, leaving Iolaus lost in delirium and twitching with chills and muscle spasms.
“Is there anything else we can do?” Hemnor asked as he wiped the hunter’s brow with a damp cloth. He didn’t have much hope, but Iolaus had already survived longer than any of the Hind’s other victims and there was always a possibility that the demigod would know of a cure beyond mortal grasp.
“Yes, there is,” Hercules declared firmly. A Golden Hind had once saved his friend’s life, and he was not about to let one take it now. Hating to leave, but knowing it was the only chance Iolaus had, he squeezed his partner’s hand tightly in his own and rose, sprinting toward the door. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“But wait!” Hemnor called out, halting him. “What’ll I do?”
“Like I said,” the demigod repeated impatiently. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He hadn’t told Iolaus about Serena, for there hadn’t been time for storytelling and he didn’t want to get his friend’s hopes up just in case he wasn’t able to find the healer in time. And he didn’t tell Hemnor about her for exactly the same reasons. Hercules paused in the doorway and pointed to Hemnor, his gaze like blue fire. “Take care of him.”
The man sighed, shaking his head as he turned back to his patient while Hercules dashed off. Iolaus was moaning slightly, shaking with convulsions as the heat radiated off him in waves.
“You’d better hurry,” Hemnor muttered.
“If I help Nestor kill Hercules and the other gods find out, all of Olympus will come down on my head.”
“Ah, so what?” Strife argued, throwing his head back in exasperation. “You’ve got the Golden Hind. Her blood can kill a god. Am I right?” He stared at his uncle, his voice rising as he drove his point home. “They can’t touch you. You’re large and in charge.”
“Why can’t you talk like a normal god?!” Ares spat in disgust.
“It’s like a generational thing, you know what I’m saying?” Strife said conspiratorially to the servant girl beside him.
“Usually, no,” the god of war supplied. He rose from his throne to pace restlessly around the temple. “I can’t use the Hind’s blood against the other gods.” Ares stopped behind the servant, trailing his fingers through her soft hair before tracing them down the satin skin of her arms. “They’d join forces, and I would wind up in a place far, far worse than Tartarus.” The girl gave him a smile full of promise as she moved off. “I have the ultimate weapon, and I can’t use it, not even against Hercules.” The god of war growled his frustration. “Being brilliant has a downside I never realized.”
“Let me help you, Uncle,” Strife bargained, his attention snapping back to the matter at hand now that the servant had taken her leave. “You know, I’ve got all this potential and nowhere to spend it.” Boldly, he dared to help himself to the god’s throne. “Let me mess up Hercules, once and for all.”
“I told you, I can’t be a party to that!” Ares roared, spinning around to face him and causing his nephew to shoot out of his seat like it had been spring loaded. “Now, what do you want from me?!”
“I want a place like this,” the godling whined. “I want the perks!”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to try and take your place,” Strife reassured him, not bothering to mask his sarcasm. “I mean, I appreciate the crumbs you brush my way. Ooh.” He quickly grew serious, making sure to use words even his uncle would understand. “I need more. I need a reputation. I need Hercules.”
“You are like a bothersome itch,” Ares chastised, but his nephew seemed to take it as a compliment. The god of war paused, the wheels beginning to turn in his head as a thought struck him. “But, maybe there is a way to get at Hercules through Nestor, without the other gods being any the wiser.” His devious laughter halted as Strife began to outbray him, and the godling obediently silenced with a shrug at the withering look he received. A little of his nephew went a long way, but Ares was sure it would all be worth it in the end when Hercules lay dead at his feet.
Hercules’ steps faltered as he entered the forest until his dead run became a full stop. For a moment, an uncharacteristic feeling of defeat washed over him, but he quickly shook it off. As long as Iolaus was still alive, there was still hope, and there was time. But none that he could afford to waste.
The demigod began walking again as he tried to think. He knew he couldn’t just run blindly through the vast woods and pray that he would get lucky. No, he needed a plan. A strategy. And he’d spent enough years hunting alongside the master that some of those old tricks had rubbed off. One of Iolaus’ primary rules had always been to know your prey. So with that in mind, Hercules took a deep breath and tried to focus on what little he knew about Serena.
She obviously knew the area very well, able to melt away into the trees without leaving a trail. That knowledge would come with experience. She must have spent a great deal of time in the forest. But why? It was a dangerous place, and a young woman from the village would have no reason to enter. Especially not frequently. The demigod decided it was a logical conclusion that she lived there.
Now armed with direction and purpose, Hercules began running at full speed, dodging the scrubby undergrowth as he headed north. He’d traversed half the forest earlier that day and had seen no sign of human inhabitancy, so he set his sights on the region he had not yet covered. It was a big risk, staking his friend’s life on a hunch, but it was all he had to go on. The demigod began calling out Serena’s name as he ran, thinking that she had found him before when he’d needed her, and just maybe she could do it again.
Hemnor couldn’t help feeling guilty. He had petitioned Hercules and Iolaus on the Hind’s behalf, thinking they could save her. And he wasn’t quite sure what had happened out in the woods, but things had obviously gone horribly wrong. He felt like he was partly responsible, for it was his fault Iolaus was there. The brave man had been trying to help, and was struck down by the one he’d come to save. Hemnor sighed, shaking his head as he turned to glance at the door, checking yet again for signs of Hercules’ approach. Iolaus was running out of time. He turned back to the suffering man, murmuring soft reassurances to him, although he suspected the hunter was too far gone to even hear him. So as he cleaned the terrible wound and changed the bandage, tossing away the poultice that had outlived whatever usefulness it may have had, he switched audiences, offering up a prayer to any god that might be listening to grant Hercules speed and success in his mission to save his friend.
As Hemnor suspected, Iolaus was lost to the conscious world. The fever and the poison had him in their deadly grasp, consuming him bit by bit. He was unaware of his surroundings, and unaware of his plight. The hunter felt the sickness and the pain, but he was distanced from it, not knowing what it meant or what to do about it, just that it was there. However, his subconscious mind was far from numbed. On the contrary, the poison had seemingly kicked it into overdrive.
Images and scenes began flashing before his eyes, just as they had after he’d been struck by lightening. The visions were a blurred jumble of confusion, glimpses of people, bits of words, hints of feelings. At first, nothing made much sense. But then through the chaos, things began to focus, and Iolaus started to see a series of events unfolding with crystal clarity.
Hercules taking a beautiful woman into his arms, kissing her with tender passion. That scene dissolved into one of Prince Nestor, running through the woods and blundering over a trip wire, triggering one of his own lethal traps. A rack of spikes sprang up, impaling him, killing him instantly. The image of Nestor’s lifeless body faded back to Hercules and the same woman. This time the demigod was on his knees in front of her, and while their conversation wasn’t audible, it appeared that Hercules was proposing. The romantic scene faded away and Ares appeared in front of Hercules, grabbing him as a brilliant white light surrounded them, causing the demigod to arc violently, falling to his knees, his face contorting in pain as the god laughed triumphantly. Then the scene changed again, revealing Gabrielle who was wielding a staff and giving a bunch of scruffy looking thugs the business end of it. Hercules reappeared once more, obviously enraged over something. He stormed down the street, ranting in fury, wild and out of control. The image changed, and this vision was the clearest of all. Iolaus saw himself on the street with Hercules and they began clashing swords. The hunter’s blade pierced his partner’s side, and his best friend crumpled to the ground in a lifeless heap. And then there was nothing but darkness, a barrier that was thick and black and stifling, and an abject, overwhelming feeling of helplessness that he couldn’t get past it to get to Hercules.
The shock of what he’d seen brought Iolaus back to consciousness. He wanted to scream at the horror of the image that refused to fade from his mind, but all he could manage was a soft moan from his frozen throat. The hunter was shaking with fever, and the pain was worse than ever, but he was paralyzed and all he could do was lie there as Hemnor did what he could to fight the fever. Lie there, feeling his body jerk in restless, spastic contractions, and dwell on the picture of taking Hercules’ life. As the minutes passed, Iolaus grew steadily weaker, until even the convulsions stopped. The pain also numbed considerably, but he still couldn’t move, or didn’t have the strength to, and his sole focus became pulling enough air into his lungs to keep himself alive. Although if the visions he had seen were truly visions of what would come to be, he wasn’t sure he wanted to hold on.
As he came bursting out of the woods, Hercules stopped short in surprise to see the large structure looming in the clearing before him.
“Ares,” he murmured, unaware that the god of war had a temple so close to Ceryneia. But before he could decide what impact that would have, if any, on his current situation, he caught sight of the woman he sought. She was strolling around the grounds, absently twirling a strand of her long hair around her finger, and looking very much at home. He could only stand and gape in shock, but she turned and saw him and immediately approached him with a smile of delight.
“I’ve been looking for you,” he told her hoarsely as she caressed his cheek. “I... just wish I hadn’t found you here.”
“Why not?” she asked innocently. “I serve in Ares’ temple.” Serena studied his face, not understanding why he looked so upset. “I’m not ashamed of it. He’s your brother.”
“He’s my half-brother,” Hercules snapped. “You must know how it is between us.”
“He’s told me,” she admitted, although she was starting to doubt that what he told her was true. The man before her was so kind and compassionate, and his soft blue eyes danced with humanity and warmth. It was impossible to relate him to the raging tyrant that Ares had always made him out to be. “I’m glad not everything I’ve heard about you is true.”
“You’re out of place here, Serena,” the demigod told her, halting her with a hand to her arm as she tried to walk away. “You’re gentle. You’re caring. You value life. Ares doesn’t.”
She pulled away from and moved off, turning her back to him as she felt tears welling up in her eyes. All she wanted was to feel his arms around her once more. To have him hold her in his tender embrace and give her the contact she’d so long desired. And to have him look at her with wonder in his eyes, letting her know that he was feeling what was also in her own heart. But instead he was angry with her, his eyes dark with disappointment. It was almost more than she could bear.
“You said you were looking for me,” she reminded him, a slight waver in her voice.
“My friend, Iolaus, has been hurt,” Hercules explained quickly. “He was shot by the Hind. We came here to help her. To save her from Nestor and his trappers.”
“She probably thought that he was a poacher after her gold,” Serena reasoned slowly. It was a fair assumption. Nobody ever came to the forest to HELP the Hind. “You say he’s hurt. He’s... he’s not dead?”
“No. He’s alive,” the demigod answered, almost not believing it himself. “Iolaus is strong and stubborn. He’s not going to give in without a fight. But he’s getting worse.”
“No one shot with the Hind’s arrow has ever survived.”
“That’s why he needs your gift,” Hercules concluded, coming up behind her and placing a hand on her arm. “You...you can save him.”
“I can’t help you,” Serena said sorrowfully as she turned to face him. “I can’t go into the village. My vow to Ares forbids it.”
Hercules was speechless for long moments, just staring at her as he tried to comprehend what she was telling him.
“Well,” he spoke finally, his voice quivering with outrage. “Does a good man die because of your vow to a bloodthirsty god? Or, was I that wrong about you?”
“No,” she insisted. “You weren’t wrong.” Serena turned from him once more. “But, I can’t do as you ask. I’m sorry.”
Feeling betrayal cutting him to the soul, Hercules turned and ran back into the woods as Serena dissolved into helpless tears.
Every moment that passed was agony for the demigod. For each moment brought Iolaus that much closer to death. Hercules knew that all was not lost, for he still had the Hind to fall back on. Her healing touch could certainly undo what she’d done. But only if he could convince her to help, and he couldn’t do that if he couldn’t find her. She’d been hunted all of her life, and she had survived due to her well honed skill and cunning. Detaining her was not a simple feat, not even for the son of Zeus. He had no doubt he would eventually catch up to her, but would it be in time to save his best friend? And he didn’t even want to think about what would happen if she refused him, like Serena had. His heart ached with the memory of it. But he pushed all that aside, determined to forget about her. He had to find the Hind. Iolaus’ life depended on it. The memory of the brother of his heart dying in his arms after warning him of Hera’s new Enforcer was still too recent and raw. Hercules vowed he would not let that happen again, no matter what it took. If he had to comb through every inch of the forest, he was going to find the Hind, and he was not going to take “no” for an answer.
Hercules felt her before he ever saw her. It was a perk of being half-god, the knack of sensing things around him. Especially things outside the natural order. He slowed his pace, looking around him cautiously. As usual, he didn’t know how he knew, but that tingle in his gut assured him she was close. And then he saw her, moving silently through the trees, the sun reflecting from her golden horns. The demigod took a few steps toward her, and she turned and saw him and promptly vanished.
“Wait,” he screamed as he tried to run after the fleet footed creature. “Wait! I’m not here to harm you.”
But she apparently didn’t believe him. The Hind outran him easily, without leaving him a clear trail to follow. Hercules stopped once it was obvious that she had lost him, repressing the urge to start tearing down the forest tree by tree.
The Hind knew she had left her pursuer behind, but she couldn’t help sparing a backward glance to make sure he wasn’t following. Satisfied she’d given him the slip, she faced forward and immediately realized her error.
“Get her! Now!”
At Nestor’s command, his men began to charge. The Hind was confident in her abilities, but she was greatly outnumbered and she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep such a large army at bay. In her fright, she began to cry out, but she also began fitting arrows to her bow. If she was going down, she was going down fighting.
One of the overenthusiastic hunters ripped a sword out of a soldier’s hand, determined to cut her down. The soldier tried to stop him, for Nestor had been clear in his desire to take her alive. But the hunter broke free and rushed at the Hind, a demented smile on his face.
“It’s time for venison!” he chortled.
“Try pork!” Hercules advised, having heard the Hind’s distress and easily following the shouting. He hit the brute hard and likewise creamed a second hunter who was foolhardy enough to attack. “The other white meat.”
Greatly missing the comforting presence of Iolaus at his back, Hercules met the oncoming onslaught of soldiers. He ducked the first one, a simple assist sending him sailing over his head. Blocking the sword thrust of the second, the demigod disarmed him easily and tossed him to the ground. He clotheslined the third and greeted the fourth with a brutal kick to the head. As more men rushed him, Hercules decided to stop getting fancy and just go with what worked best. He started handing out punches that stung with divine strength, but even that was taking too long. As every second counted, the demigod wanted to end the brawl as soon as possible, so he scooped up the last man he had knocked loopy and began swinging him around, using the momentum of the soldiers legs to beat down the rest of his friends, finally tossing his human shield down onto the pile of groaning bodies.
The Hind tried to use the cover of Hercules to make her escape, but Nestor saw her and was not about to let her get away.
“Get the beast!” he ordered. “Go after her! We’ll deal with Hercules later!”
“This is wrong, Nestor!” the demigod shouted, finding that the fight was indeed over as the remaining soldiers and hunters began pounding after the Hind. “Let her go!”
“Never!” the prince vowed as he climbed up into his ornate chariot. “We got the Hind once! We’ll get her again! When we do, you’re dead, Hercules! Hah!” The vehicle gave chase, followed by the rest of the army on horseback.
Hercules watched them go, impotent with frustration. But there was no other recourse but to give chase. He started after them, but quickly stopped. The feeling was upon him again, stronger than ever. She hadn’t run away. The Hind was still there, somewhere close. Turning, the demigod expected to see her, but a young woman emerged from hiding instead.
“Serena!” He was genuinely surprised to see her, but with her propensity for turning up unexpectedly, he knew he probably shouldn’t have been. “What are you doing here?”
“Watching,” she replied. “You saved her.”
“Yeah, of course, I did.” He wasn’t sure why it was so hard to believe. “I mean, that’s why I’m here. And, I was hoping she could help Iolaus.”
“Wait, don’t go,” Serena urged, grabbing his arm as he turned to leave. “You don’t need her. I’ll go with you.”
A tidal wave of relief washed over the demigod upon hearing her very welcome offer. But his “thank you” died away before he could voice it as he looked at her and saw the sheer terror in her face.
“It wasn’t your vow to Ares, was it?” he said gently. “You’re afraid to go into the village. That’s why you want your gift to be a secret.”
“OK, you’re right,” Serena admitted. “I’m afraid of people. They are dangerous to anyone that’s not exactly like them.”
She was truly scared, almost in tears, and Hercules immediately forgave her earlier hesitation. He wrapped a strong arm around her, pulling her protectively close to his side. Things were suddenly making sense, and he couldn’t believe he hadn’t figured it all out sooner.
“It will be dark by the time we get to the village,” he comforted her. “No one will see you. And even if they do, I promise, I’ll.. I’ll take care of you.”
Although she was still afraid, Serena believed him. She felt safe in his arms, so she willingly went with him, letting him lead her to the one place she vowed she’d never go.
Iolaus was so still, Hemnor had to feel for a pulse to make sure he was alive. The heartbeat was slow and faint, but it was still there. Shaking his head, Hemnor went back to bathing his face, since it was all he could do for the stricken man. He had long since given up hope that whatever Hercules was intending, it was going to be in time. Iolaus was severely weakened, ravaged by the poison and the fever, and it was all the hunter could do to drag each shallow breath into his lungs. His time had run out.
The door opened suddenly, and Hemnor jumped up excitedly as the demigod stepped into the room. “Hercules,” he exclaimed. “He’s still...” The man trailed off as a beautiful young woman stepped inside the door and hovered there nervously. He was confused, but he read the look that the demigod was giving him loud and clear. “I need to get some water,” he excused himself. “If you need me.”
“Not a word that she’s here.”
“Whatever you say, Hercules,” Hemnor agreed.
The demigod slapped him lightly on the shoulder as he went by in thanks for his discretion. Something was obviously about to happen, and privacy seemed to be a requirement. Hemnor’s curiosity was piqued, but he was a man of his word and he quietly slipped out the back entrance of his house and headed for the fountain in the village, willing to let them work their miracle in peace.
Once he was gone, Serena stepped forward and stood before Iolaus. He was more dead than alive, and she was amazed that he had lasted so long. Hercules hurried to the front door and pulled it shut as she positioned her hands above the hunter’s body, closing her eyes and concentrating. Once again, the demigod watched in fascination as the soft glow surged from her hands and enveloped his friend’s body, healing his wound and releasing him from the poison’s deadly embrace.
Iolaus awoke with a gasp, drawing in a huge lungful of air and finding that he was able to focus. A warm glow was surrounding him, and as he looked up, he saw her through the halo of light. It was the woman from his visions. Wondering if he was still hallucinating, the hunter reached out, touching her hand. She felt real, but her eyes flew open in fear and she cried out, backing away quickly as the healing light ceased. Struggling to sit up, and finding he was still very weak, the hunter managed to pick his head up enough to look behind him and see what was going on.
The Hind was standing there, in the middle of Hemnor’s house!
Fear shot through him, as his first thought was that she had come to finish him off, and Iolaus knew he couldn’t survive that agony again. He tried to call out for Hercules, but the darkness began to cloud his vision and he collapsed back down into the bed, feeling himself slipping away into oblivion once more.
Hercules was speechless, not knowing what to do. The Hind looked at him for long moments, then she silently turned and fled, bursting out of the back entrance that Hemnor had used. He wanted to go after her, but first he went to his friend, who had fallen disturbingly still. But to the demigod’s relief, Iolaus was relaxed, the lines of pain gone from his face. His breathing was deep and regular, and Hercules could feel the skin cooling beneath his hand. Quickly he checked the wound, finding that it was closed and healing well. Reassured that the hunter was all right for the moment, he rebandaged the wound and decided to leave his partner to rest.
As he prepared to follow the Hind, Hercules ran into Hemnor as he returned to his home.
“What is going on?”
“That’s what I’m about to find out,” the demigod told him. “Take care of Iolaus.”
As Hercules rushed off into the darkness, Hemnor went inside, shaking his head and good naturedly wondering if he should just make “taking care of Iolaus” his new career.
The demigod had expected the Hind to be long gone, but surprisingly he found her waiting for him just beyond the tree line of the forest.
“I never meant to deceive you,” she began apologetically.
“I suspected the truth,” Hercules confessed. “You were afraid to come to the village because... ”
“Because a mortal’s touch causes me to change,” she finished for him. “And if the villagers saw me like this...” She trailed off, then looked back at him. “Your touch is different because your father is a god.”
“What made you take the risk?” Hercules asked. “To come here to help Iolaus?”
“I could feel your pain,” Serena said softly. “Your fear of losing him. It was in my power to help. That’s why I’m here.”
“Then will you come back?” the demigod pleaded. “Will you finish healing him?”
“He doesn’t need it,” she promised him. “The healing was almost complete when I stopped. And what little was left will continue through the night. He’ll be fine by morning.”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Hercules told her sincerely.
“It was the least I could do,” the Hind pointed out. “It was my fault he was hurt. I’m sorry, Hercules. I didn’t know why he was there. I thought he was another hunter, and I was just trying to protect myself.”
“I know that,” he assured her. “And I also know how much courage it took to come here and help him, whether or not you felt responsible.”
The Golden Hind began to transform, taking on the shape of a mortal woman. She came forward, brushing a hand along the demigod’s face.
“I’d do anything for you,” she vowed. Her moment of boldness vanished and she turned away shyly. “But what made you come here? You said you were here to protect me.”
“It was the truth,” Hercules answered. “That’s why Iolaus and I both came.” “I don’t understand,” Serena frowned. “Everyone thinks I’m a monster. Either that, or they think my gold will make them rich. But nobody ever comes here to protect me.”
“Not everyone thinks that way,” the demigod told her. “The man back in the villager, Hemnor, asked Iolaus and I to come here to help. He didn’t want to see you harmed.”
For so long, mortals had been her enemy. Not really by her choosing, but as a result of their own fear and greed. The fact that one might actually take action to protect her had never occurred to her, but the thought made her smile. And that was enough to make Hercules’ heart flutter. He stepped forward, putting his hands on her shoulders.
“We wanted to help,” he continued. “But we were also repaying a debt.”
“A debt?” Serena repeated, leaning back against his chest.
“A long time ago when we were just kids, Iolaus suffered an arrow wound. He would have died, but a Golden Hind named Helene saved his life. Just like you did tonight.”
“She wasn’t the one who shot him, was she?” Serena asked, thinking that Iolaus had to have the worst luck in the world.
“No, his uncle did that.”
Serena pushed away from him and turned around to look at him questioningly.
“Well, it wasn’t really his fault,” Hercules tried to explain. “He didn’t know it was Iolaus. He thought he was shooting a... It’s a long story.”
She laughed, not sure whether to believe him or not.
“Thank you,” he said suddenly.
“For giving him back to me.” The demigod looked away quickly, blinking hard. A shiver of fear ran through him as he remembered what a close call it had been. And not the first one. He doubted that Hades would have let Iolaus go this time, so soon after his last trip to the underworld. And he was beyond grateful that he hadn’t been forced to ask. “I don’t know what I’d ever do if I lost him for good.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied sincerely. “I was glad to help.”
He turned back to face her and they both fell silent, just drinking in the sight of each other in the pale moonlight.
“I should go,” Serena said finally.
She could think of many reasons, Ares in particular. Serena had pledged her loyalty to the god of war, and he had never kept the way he felt about his half-brother a secret. But she was convinced the stories he’d told her about Hercules being ruthless and cruel and lost to rage and madness were all lies. The man before her was kind and noble and honorable. He was gentle and caring and loving and the way he was looking at her made her suddenly want to cry. She turned away once more, but he took her hand.
“Stay,” he begged her. “Just for a little while.”
“And what can we do in a little while?” she teased him.
“Talk,” he replied, grinning broadly. “And then maybe I can convince you to stay a little while longer.”
“They’ve given up hunting me for the night,” Serena reminded him. “I’ll be perfectly safe until morning.”
“It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know,” Hercules murmured helplessly, capturing her free hand so that he was holding both of them. “All I know is, I don’t want to see you disappear on me again. Serena, you’re amazing. I want to spend some time with you and get to know you. The way I feel... Well, it’s the same feeling I had when I first met Deianeira.”
“Who is that?”
“My wife,” he replied.
“Not anymore,” Hercules told her sadly. “Hera killed her, along with our children.”
“I’m sorry,” Serena whispered. She leaned into him and he embraced her tightly. “I know how you feel.”
“Yeah, I guess you do.” The demigod held her, thinking of the pain she’d gone through knowing all of her kin had been slaughtered. Like his family, they were innocents, victims of the gods and their twisted senses of righteousness.
“It’s not easy being left behind, is it?” she asked.
“No, it’s not.”
She looked up at him, and he glanced down to meet her gaze. There was so much pain in him, and yet it hadn’t conquered him. He had beaten it back with joy and love and hope, and at that moment Serena fell helplessly in love.
“We couldn’t be more different, Hercules,” she said softly. “And yet, inside I think we’re really one and the same.”
The demigod smiled, running a hand through her hair as he considered her words. Both of them were stuck between two worlds, not really belonging to either one. Persecuted, not of their own faults but rather just for being who they were. Hunted out of fear or ignorance or spite. Forced to watch innocents pay the price for getting caught in the crossfire. And cursed to a life of loneliness, for who could ever understand what it was like to be an outcast, shunned for being different? Hercules hugged Serena to him more tightly, feeling some of that loneliness leave him for the first time in his life.
“I think you just might be right.”
They spent the night walking hand in hand through the forest, talking and laughing, telling each other tales of good times and bad. Hercules did most of the storytelling, as Serena was fascinated by the mortal life she’d spent her life avoiding and didn’t seem to think her own life was nearly as interesting. But the hours flew by and before they knew it, the first rays of dawn were upon them. They sat together and watched the sun come up, both of them hating for the magical night to end.
“I should be getting back,” Hercules announced regretfully. “I need to check on Iolaus.” He twined his fingers through Serena’s, giving her hand a soft squeeze. “But before I go, I have to ask you something. Last night I told you how I feel. But how do you feel?”
“I feel...” She paused, for there were no words to sum up the torrent of emotions flooding through her. “I feel like I’ve never felt before. I crave your touch.”
Hercules grinned, letting her know it was the answer he was hoping for.
“Ares would definitely not approve,” Serena added blithely.
“His approval isn’t something I worry about,” the demigod told her sarcastically.
“Why do you resent my allegiance to him?”
“I know him,” Hercules said with conviction. “And he’ll use your loyalty to his own ends. He’ll hurt you if it suits him.”
“He’s always protected me,” she protested.
“I think you can take care of yourself,” the demigod chuckled. “I’ve seen you. Besides... I’ll protect you.”
For a moment Serena was lost in the rapture of the idea. But then she took a breath and forced herself to face the reality.
“How? You can’t be with me all the time, and where would I live? I can’t live with people. Someone would touch me, eventually. I’m a freak of nature. This is where I live. And here, I belong to Ares.”
“No,” Hercules argued vehemently. “You don’t belong to anyone but yourself.” He sighed, calming as he gazed into her eyes. “You knew how I felt about losing Iolaus?”
She nodded. His love for his friend and the sheer horror he felt when confronted with losing him had been laid bare in his expressive blue eyes. And it still tore at her soul to know that she had caused it.
“Then you know how I would feel if I had to say goodbye to you,” the demigod concluded, meaning it with all his heart.
“I never thought you could feel the same way I do,” Serena whispered. “It only makes this more difficult.”
“I won’t leave you here,” he vowed. “I’ll talk to Ares.”
“No!” she exclaimed. “Please, don’t make things worse.”
Hercules looked at her, lost in the wonder of how he could know her less than a day and yet feel like he could never let her go. He reached out, cupping her chin in his hand.
“What are you doing to me?” he murmured in awe.
Iolaus had expected to see Charon leering at him when he opened his eyes, but he woke instead to the sounds of calling birds and the sun streaming in through the window. For a moment, he was disoriented, not knowing where he was or what had happened. But as he sat up and took in his surroundings, he recognized Hemnor’s house and began to remember bits and pieces of his ordeal. An ordeal that was obviously over, as he miraculously felt like a new man. He did wonder where Hercules was, as it seemed like his friend would have been there to greet him and make sure he was ok. But then the hunter realized that the demigod probably knew he’d be fine and went back out to look for the Hind, for she still needed their help to save her from Prince Nestor and his goon squad. He also realized that he had startled the Hind, and trying to sneak up on her with a noose in his hand probably hadn’t been the best way to convince her he was trying to help. All in all, he couldn’t really blame her for mistaking him for one of the men hunting her. He bore her no ill will, but even if he did, he still felt compelled to help her. For her death at the hands of Nestor could very well lead to the death of Hercules. So, with his rekindled unbridled energy, he was more than ready to get back in the game. But he quickly realized Hemnor did not share his enthusiasm as the man tried to thwart his attempts to rise. However, Iolaus wasn’t taking “no” for an answer, and slapped the well meaning man’s hands away from him to remove the bandage that was still around his chest.
“Look, I feel great!” the hunter assured him. “I feel FINE!”
“You were almost dead last night,” Hemnor protested. “You can’t be fine.”
Iolaus ignored him, hopping off the bed and grabbing his vest. He thought the fact that the lack of evidence of any sort of chest trauma would appease the man, but Hemnor didn’t seem to notice the arrow wound was gone and followed him across the room, nagging all the way.
“Here. Here. Sit down. Rest.”
“Hemnor,” the hunter began, as patiently as he could. “I don’t want to rest. I don’t want to lie down. What I want to do is...” Thoughts of dashing off to rejoin his partner in the Hind search fled from his mind as he spied the platter of food resting temptingly on the table. “Eat.”
“OK, so eat,” Hemnor told him in exasperation.
“Yeah.” Iolaus had a seat on the bench and helped himself to the warm bread.
“Just take it easy!”
“I will!” the hunter promised, around a mouthful of food.
“Maybe, you can talk some sense into him!” Hemnor griped as he headed for the door and met Hercules coming in. “He needs rest!”
The demigod grinned as the man left, knowing better than anyone that it would be easier to fight a hydra blindfolded with one hand tied behind his back than to convince Iolaus to take it easy. And a great weight was lifted off of his shoulders as he saw that there was apparently no need. The hunter, as Serena had promised, did look good as new without even so much as a scar to show for his healed injury.
“Well, you look better,” Hercules greeted his friend as he came in and leaned up against the wall across from the table, just enjoying the sight of his partner attacking his meal with relish. His tone was casual, but it couldn’t conceal the overwhelming relief he felt in seeing that his best friend had managed to cheat death once more.
“Yeah. I feel better,” Iolaus told him, reaching for a goblet of water. “I feel great!” He hesitated for a moment, still experiencing a lingering feeling of foreboding that penetrated through his burst of joy over waking up cured. “But, boy, those dreams were really weird.”
Hercules had no idea. The hunter well remembered the crazy visions he’d had. In fact, everything that had happened from the moment he’d been shot was a bit hazy, except for the dreams. They were still so real, so vivid. And thinking about them was giving him the creeps. He decided not to mention it, for he knew Hercules would just tell him it was an effect of the poison or a symptom of the fever. And he was convinced himself that that’s all it was. But, he couldn’t help wondering about the last one. The woman he’d envisioned with Hercules, standing over him, and the warm glow that took his pain away. Obviously, someone had healed him. Did that mean that she was real? He just had to ask his friend about her.
“You know, I had this vision of a beautiful woman.”
“And you sound like yourself again, too,” the demigod teased.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I’m serious.”
“Iolaus that vision saved your life,” Hercules explained. “Her name’s Serena.”
So, it hadn't been a dream. That part at least had been real. But all that other stuff had to have been something the fever cooked up, Iolaus rationalized. Hercules and the woman. Hercules getting married. Hercules and the sword... Well, the hunter didn't even want to think about that anymore. He decided to chalk it all up to a side effect from the Hind’s poison, affecting his mind and concocting those ridiculous scenarios. And to prove it to that nagging, instinctual voice deep inside, he announced his desire to meet Serena, to thank her for saving his life.
“Well...” Hercules hedged, and then he paused as something occurred to him. “You know what? That’s a great idea.” He’d been wondering how to tell his friend about what had happened since he was hurt. Walking in and blurting out ‘Hey, glad to see you’re alive and the girl who healed you is really the Hind that shot you, and by the way, she’s coming with us because I love her” probably wasn’t the most sensitive approach. And while he knew that his easy going partner wouldn’t hold any grudges against Serena once he knew her shooting him was an accident, the demigod still figured it wouldn’t hurt to let his buddy be charmed by her before breaking it to him. All of it. “The three of us should be together when I tell you. It will simplify everything.” He turned and started for the door. “I’ll work it out with Serena and we’ll meet you back here.”
“I’ll come with you,” Iolaus declared, taking a hunk of break for the road and preparing to follow.
“No. No, no. You should, uh, stay here,” the demigod told him, wanting to talk to Serena first before he sprung another mortal on her. Especially one that would most likely want to shake her hand, if not give her a hug. But leaving Iolaus behind was akin to trying to get him to take it easy. Hercules knew his only chance was to outrun him. He grabbed his friend by the shoulder and firmly escorted him back into the house. “You should rest and just... take a nap.”
“Yeah, but...” the hunter protested.
“I’ll be back,” Hercules promised, hoping that the surprise of getting the brush off would grant him enough of a head start to make it to the woods.
“Herc...” Iolaus called out, bewildered.
“I’ll be back!” the demigod tossed over his shoulder as he ducked out the door.
The hunter stood in the middle of the room, unable to comprehend his partner’s mysterious behavior. He tried to reason it out for a moment, then shrugged and headed for the door, intending to follow and see what was up for himself. Iolaus could read Hercules like a scroll, so he knew there was something going on that his friend wasn’t telling him about. But he also should have known that the demigod knew him just as well.
Busted, Iolaus turned to face his partner’s stern gaze in the window.
The Golden Hind slowed her trot until she came to a stop. Something was wrong. She could feel it, but her keen eyes could not detect any of the mortal traps that she was so adept at spotting. A bird rocketed out of a nearby tree with a cry of alarm, and before she could react a tangle of vines shot up from the ground and encircled her in a dome of thorns. She tried to break free, crying out as the razor sharp thorns scored her flesh. This was no mortal device, and there was only one who could have created it.
“Ares!” she screamed out as the light of understanding dawned. “Why have you betrayed me?! You captured me! For Nestor! Giving him my life to take the life of Hercules! How can you do this?!”
“You misunderstand,” the god of war explained as he materialized before her. “This is not to imprison, but to protect you. I mean, Nestor caught you once.”
“I let myself be distracted,” Serena argued. “It won’t happen again.”
“Think of this as a sanctuary,” Ares instructed. “A place to stop, and think, and consider. Your thoughts are turbulent, now. I fear the guile of Hercules has clouded your judgment.”
“He is a kind and gentle man,” she protested. “He cares for me. And I care for him, but that doesn’t tarnish my loyalty to you.”
“Still,” the god of war sighed. “Your human side has been led astray. I saw you take out that mortal runt, and I was most pleased. But then you let Hercules talk you into restoring his life. That did not make me happy, Serena.”
“Do you hate him so much?”
“Hate my brother?” Ares paused, letting a sob of emotion creep into his tone. “No. I have such... an affection for him. He’s always been jealous that I’m a true god and he is not.” The god of war leaned in, his dark features twisting menacingly. “But I would have you remember what you are. And that you’re mine.”
Hercules’ search was soon made easy when the loud cry of the Hind pierced the peace of the forest. He began to run, following the sound until he came upon the tangle of lethal vines that were encasing the mortal form of the Hind.
“Serena,” he gasped, shocked and horrified to see her trapped. Walking around the structure, he immediately reached the right conclusion. “Ares.” He spat the name out, shaking his head in disgust before meeting her gaze and reassuring her. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you out.”
“Careful,” Serena cautioned as he grabbed the vines, only to yank his hands away as the thorns pricked him. Realizing that the vines weren’t as heavily armored at the base, Hercules took hold of one where it sprouted from the ground and snapped it in half. He did the same with another, and held the two pieces aloft so she could slip out under them. After he dropped them, Serena fell into his embrace. “Thank you.”
“Something’s not right,” the demigod said suspiciously as he let her go to look around him. “That was too easy.”
“Too easy for you, maybe,” she retorted, running her hands subconsciously over her arms where she had healed herself from the thorny embrace of the vines. Hercules gazed at her for a minute, his eyes telling her how glad he was that she was all right. Then he took her hand and started walking. “Let’s go have a chat with my brother.”
“No, Hercules, wait,” she begged, pulling on his hand to stop him. “Look, Ares is upset about us. He means no harm. Try to look past the things he does, and understand why he does them.”
“I understand him, all too well,” the demigod declared harshly.
As they moved off into the woods, Ares reappeared and very carefully broke off a section of the vine. The large, lethal thorns in his hands glistened like rubies and he admired them with great respect for the power they wielded.
“Ooh, the blood of the Hind,” the god of war breathed lovingly. He looked up, glancing after the departing couple who were unaware of his presence, and he smiled almost benevolently at them. “Goodbye, Brother.”
Nestor spotted Ares and approached him. The humble attitude he’d assumed when he’d first sought the god’s favor was gone. Failure had made him bitter, and he resorted to the spoiled royal he was and launched into his whining diatribe without even asking for permission for an audience with the great god of war.
“I’ve mounted campaigns from Crete to Macedonia. Successful campaigns. I’ve sacked cities all over the place. I was the horror of Hellespont. I was brutal!”
“And you shall do more,” Ares told him in a bored tone. “The Hind was simply out of your league. After all, I taught her myself.”
“Yes,” Nestor agreed. “Yes, that’s a very good point. A point I made to one of my lieutenants only yesterday.”
“Which was...?” the god prompted, intending to put the mortal toad back into his place.
“Well, that in addition to your generous permission to take the Hind, what we need is your genius.”
“Ooh.” Ares said sarcastically. The fawning had come too little, too late.
“Your...your input.” Nestor added hopefully. But the god was not impressed. With a sigh, the prince realized what he wanted and knew he had to give it to him. “We need your help.”
“And you were right,” the god of war chucked. “It’s yours.” He held up the row of thorns he had procured. “Make arrows out of these thorns. They’re covered with the Hind’s blood. And they will kill Hercules.”
“As you say, great Ares.” Nestor took the weapon and bowed gratefully. His desire to kill Hercules was strong enough to overcome his distaste for groveling.
“And, I can even tell you where to find him,” Ares continued, knowing full well that his disgustingly heroic brother would be coming to defend the damsel in distress. “He’s going to go to my temple.”
“Even if Ares is responsible for all that’s happened,” Serena argued, “why would he do it?”
“Just to get to me,” Hercules replied. It made perfect sense to him, but he could see she wasn’t convinced. “It’s his military mind. Any means to an end. He’s counting on your loyalty. But he’s using you to draw me here, and to draw Nestor here.”
“Well, then, I guess that’s another debt of gratitude that I owe him,” she said hotly.
“Excuse me?” the demigod demanded, unable to see how she could be grateful to the god who was manipulating her.
But Serena turned to him, tears welling in her brown eyes as she reached out and gently traced her fingers along his cheek, struggling to get the words out past the lump in her throat.
“I have finally found someone who touches me.”
The tenseness left the demigod as he smiled and reached for her, cupping her face in his hands.
“So have I,” he murmured. “We are both on the outside of two worlds, not completely belonging to either one. And I BLAME Ares for bringing us together.”
He grinned and she smiled back, closing her eyes as he leaned forward.
The demigod paused, the moment broken as his friend’s voice rang out through the trees.
“Uh, that would be Iolaus,” he chuckled apologetically. He turned, spying a faint movement in the woods and waving and calling out his partner’s name to alert him to his location. “He’s been wanting to meet...” Hercules trailed off as he turned to find Serena had vanished. “You. Boy she’s fast.” He turned back around, greeting his friend and frankly a little surprised that it had taken him so long to catch up. “Hey.”
“I got tired of waiting,” Iolaus announced, his expression clearly conveying his annoyance at having been left behind in the first place. Especially in the company of someone who was still treating him like he had one foot in the grave.
“Ah,” the demigod nodded, his own expression acknowledging his partner’s annoyance as well as the realization that he would be paying for it later.
“Some, some,” Hercules answered vaguely. “Uh, how do you feel?
“Like a million dinars,” the hunter replied, well aware that his friend had been trying to change the subject and not about to let him get away with it. “What do you mean, ‘some’?”
“I mean, uh, I want to tell you something,” the demigod began reluctantly. “About the Hind.”
“Am I missing something here?” Iolaus demanded, taking in the conflict on his partner’s face. “We do still want to catch the Hind, don’t we?”
“It’s not quite that simple anymore,” Hercules hedged.
“You’re not forgetting what Nestor has in mind, are you?” the hunter questioned him somberly. “For the Hind, and for you?”
“Nestor’s not the problem.”
“Since when?” Iolaus scoffed.
“Ares is the real problem,” Hercules told him. “He thinks he has some claim of ownership on the Hind, and he’s just using her and Nestor to get to me.”
“Ares,” the hunter echoed, running a hand wearily over his brow. “Great!” The stream of visions flashed through his mind once more, and he saw Ares, head thrown back in laughter as Hercules writhed at his feet in pain. It was nonsense, it had to be. But Iolaus still would have felt a lot better had the god of war’s name not come up. With a sigh, he wondered if he should tell the demigod about his dreams. But then he noticed he was alone, as his partner was already striding off through the woods. “Hey, Herc,” he called out as he sprinted after him. “Wait! Where are you going?”
“To Ares’ temple,” the demigod told him, glancing down at him as the hunter reached his side. “It’s time we got a few things straightened out.”
“I don’t understand, Hercules,” Iolaus complained, using his friend’s full name to get his attention and to let him know he was getting really irritated with his lack of communication. “What’s Ares got to do with the Hind? Come on, what’s going on?!”
“Can I tell you later?” Hercules asked as Nestor’s soldiers started swinging down on them from the trees.
“Yeah,” the hunter agreed quickly, assuming a defensive stance and sporting an eager grin. He had energy to burn after waking up healed and a good fight seemed to be just the thing he needed.
Both warriors ducked simultaneously, sending the men that were rushing to attack them sailing over their heads. Hercules kicked the sword from the hand of the next soldier and tossed him over to Iolaus, who head butted him into oblivion. Another armed man took his place, and the demigod stopped his sword arm, using the momentum of his swing to flip him to the ground. He kept hold of the sword, using it to block the thrust of the next man, meeting his blade with his own. Hercules disarmed him and swung around to crash the hilt of the sword into the back of the man’s head as the hunter took out another of the unarmed soldiers before he even knew what hit him.
The men kept coming hard and fast, but the two warriors reacted with the skill of long experience. Hercules ducked his next attacker, feeling the displaced air of the sword passing harmlessly over his head as he spun around on the ground and used his own blade to trip the soldier. Iolaus greeted his new foe with a hard, open palmed blow to the gut. He shimmied between the man’s legs and popped up, kicking him hard in the posterior and then kicking out to strike the next soldier in the stomach without even missing a beat. He shoved him out of the way and met the soldier rushing him with a brutal spin kick to the head. Turning back around, he leapfrogged over his previous foe who was bent over in pain and kicked backwards, catching him in the face and sending him crashing to the ground.
Hercules had discarded the sword, which wasn’t really his choice of weapon, in favor of a long handled axe. The blade was dull, for it was made of stone, but overall it sufficed as a very effective club. With mighty swings, he sent soldiers flying left and right. When one tried to grab it away from him, he gave a great heave and used it to flip the man over his head. Foolishly, the soldier tried to snatch it away once more and learned the hard way you don’t take toys from demigods as he met the ground up close and personal. His friend didn’t appear to take in the lesson either, and also attempted to disarm him. Hercules absorbed the impact of the soldier, letting it carry him backwards as he rolled with it, taking the man with him. He ended up on top of the guy and yanked him up by his tunic to receive a hard left to the jaw, conveniently forgetting to pull his punches.
Iolaus was clearly in his element. In sneaking out from under Hemnor’s watchful eye, he had left his sword behind. It would have been nothing for him to disarm one of the soldiers, and with a blade in his hand he was formidable and dangerous. But he was enjoying the physicality of the fight. Yesterday he had been almost dead, and now he was relishing in the joy of being healthy and alive. So he ducked under the next soldier’s sword, deciding not to relieve him of it. Instead he kicked each of his foe’s knees in turn, before delivering a massive kick that sent the man’s head snapping backward and his body sailing back into the grass.
Reinforcements began to arrive, as a group of mounted soldiers began galloping out into the clearing. Hercules knocked one off his horse and leapt up into the saddle, using his taller vantage point to lash out at the man who rushed him on foot. He sent them packing before they got close enough to get to him, and managed to come out of the skirmish with another of the trusty stone axes, which he used to knock two more riders off their mounts.
A soldier came at Iolaus with a long staff, and while he whirled it impressively, the hunter easily grabbed the end of it and ripped it from his hands, sending him skidding across the grass in the process. Like his partner, he began using his newfound weapon to whack the incoming soldiers off their horses. Staff man was not happy and rushed him, intending to reclaim his property. Iolaus rammed him in the gut, then spun to clip another soldier coming to help, taking him out of action. He turned back to staff man, whirling the weapon over his shoulders even more impressively and sending the soldier crashing to the ground in a bruised heap.
While Hercules had never claimed to be a great horseman, he was enjoying his seat upon the calm war animal. With his long legs, he kicked out another soldier rushing toward him, knocking him backward. And when it looked like the man was attempting to rise, the demigod hurled his stone axe, catching the man in the chest and making him think twice about getting up. Deciding he’d had enough of a rest, Hercules rolled over the rump of the horse and landed gracefully on the ground, but he landed swinging, taking out another of the men.
Iolaus appeared beside him and immediately dropped into a crouch. Words weren’t necessary between two partners who had stood back to back in countless battles, for they could almost read each other’s minds. Hercules took the cue and rolled over his friend’s back, kicking a rushing soldier as he landed on the other side. He swung out, punching another, then leaned forward abruptly as the hunter springboarded off his back, taking out a soldier with a flying leap. Straightening back up, the demigod clotheslined the next two who dared to attack him, then spun around to ensure his partner was still safely at his back.
Nestor had been watching the battle unfold from a secure vantage point up on the hill. He raised his hand, stopping his men in the trees as they began drawing back their bows.
“Hold your arrows,” he commanded. “Hercules is mine.” His lieutenant handed him an arrow crafted from the thorns Ares had given him. “Keep the pressure on Hercules.”
Carefully, Nestor fitted the arrow into his crossbow and lined up his sights, focusing on the demigod. It didn’t matter where he hit him, for the poison would be lethal from the slightest of nicks. But in a matter of principle, the prince aimed for a clear shot of his target’s heart.
The two warriors were still valiantly fighting, lashing out with fist and foot against the seemingly never ending onslaught. Hercules caught his partner’s wrists and flipped him over his head, using the hunter’s momentum to take out yet another soldiers. Iolaus landed, and as the demigod helped him up they exchanged a glance. Each reassuring the other that he was ok, and both confirming that they were severely outnumbered, and no matter how well they were doing, they were going to soon be in trouble if something didn’t quickly turn the tide. They both turned, taking out a fresh wave of soldiers, kicking and punching for all they were worth.
Iolaus crouched again, giving Hercules a sturdy prop as he propelled himself off the hunter’s back. It was a useful trick, both in giving them extra force and speed and catching their foes off guard and disorienting them with a little flashy acrobatic display. But the demigod was employing the technique a little more frequently than usual, also finding that it assured him that his partner was still fighting and not hurt. The day before, Iolaus had very nearly been taken from him. And that made him nervous enough to want to keep his friend close to him, where he could watch out for him as much as possible. But the hunter had ideas of his own and took off, rolling himself across the ground and bowling several soldiers off their feet.
Hercules was distracted watching him, and was a little slower than he normally would have been. But his demigod instincts kicked in just in the nick of time, and he turned in time to catch the arrow just before it pierced his heart. He looked at it in disbelief for a moment, then looked up, tracing it’s path and seeing Nestor up on the hillside. The demigod gave the prince a hard glare, which he got back tenfold.
But the staring match was over as men started dropping from the trees.
“Prince Nestor! It’s the Hind!”
“The Hind is alive,” Nestor muttered in confusion as he followed his lieutenant’s pointing and spied the Hind across the clearing, fitting another arrow into her bow. “And HELPING Hercules.”
“Ares has deceived you!” the lieutenant exclaimed as another soldier fell at their feet.
Hercules brandished the point of the arrow at the next soldier who came after him, and the man stopped short of skewering himself.
“Nah! Go home,” the demigod ordered.
“Good plan, yeah,” the man said hastily, turning and running for the trees while he still could.
Rage boiled up in Nestor as his best laid plans went to ruin. Even with the great Ares’ help, he still managed to fail. His men were fleeing, the god of war had betrayed him, the Golden Hind was gunning for him, and worst of all, Hercules was still alive. The prince was furious, but he also knew it was time for a fast retreat if he wanted to live to fight another day.
“Save yourself, if you can,” he growled, shoving his lieutenant to the ground as he turned and fled.
“Nestor!” the demigod yelled, watching him go. He wasn’t about to let the prince escape without answering for his crimes, and he immediately gave chase. As their leader deserted them, the rest of the soldiers began to fall back, melting into the woods in a defeated retreat.
Iolaus punched out his last opponent, then whirled around as he was suddenly overcome with a sick feeling of dread. He saw his partner tearing up the hillside, bellowing Nestor’s name and immediately started to follow, running for all he was worth. The prince had a decent head start, but the two warriors pursued him with purpose, flying through the underbrush and hurtling fallen trees. Iolaus was more concerned with catching up to his friend, for he was worried about the dark feeling that had come over him. He pushed himself to move faster and he had almost caught up with his long legged partner when Hercules came to a sudden stop. The hunter halted at his side, taking in what had stopped him in his tracks.
Nestor was dead, hanging grotesquely from a rack of spikes, and the sight made Iolaus turn away in horror. He didn’t mourn the creep’s passing, and blundering into his own trap was fitting justice in the hunter’s eyes. But it was the exact scenario that he had dreamed, down to the last detail. Which made him wonder about the other visions he’d had. Did that mean they were real, too? Visions of events that were coming to pass?
They decided to leave the prince where he was, assuming his men would take care of the body. Wordlessly they began the long walk out of the forest, back to the village. Iolaus was burdened with his thoughts, but as he glanced as his partner, he saw the demigod giving him an odd look.
“I’m sorry,” Hercules said softly. “With everything that’s been going on, I haven’t had a chance...” He looked away, rubbing a hand uneasily over the back of his neck. “I’m glad you’re all right.”
“Scared you, huh?” the hunter asked, understanding that his near death experience had been excruciating for his partner.
“Yeah, you did,” the demigod confessed, turning toward him and pulling him into a tight hug. “So how about not doing it again, ok?”
Iolaus accepted the crushing grip and hugged Hercules back tightly, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to rid his mind of the horrible image of himself stabbing his best friend . That could just never happen. Which meant this thing with Nestor had simply been a weird coincidence, and nothing more.
He had to believe that, for the sake of his sanity.
“So,” Serena began, striving to sound casual. “You’ll be leaving soon.”
They’d been walking at the edge of the forest, overlooking the lush valley below. But at her words, Hercules stopped and leaned up against a bolder, also attempting to sound casual.
“No, not for awhile. Iolaus needs time...” He trailed off, chuckling slightly, not sure why he felt compelled to lie to try and hide his feelings. After all, he was a man, not an awkward teenager trying to talk to a girl for the first time. Although the gods knew Serena made him feel that way. Tongue tied and weak kneed and barely capable of forming complete sentences. “That’s not true.” He held out his hand, and she took it willingly. “You know as well as I do that Iolaus is fine.” The demigod pulled her closer, gazing into her deep brown eyes, feeling lost in them as he bared his soul to her. “I don’t want to leave you.” And leaning in, they shared their first, sweet kiss.
“You take my breath away,” Serena gasped when they parted.
“I barely know you,” Hercules whispered. “But, I know you so well.”
“Me, too,” she admitted, to his delight. “But with everything that separates us, can we be together?”
“We feel the same about each other,” the demigod told her. “That’s what’s important. Not the ways we’re different.”
Their lips met again, the love between them almost a tangible thing in the air. Enough to make the godling spying on them sick to his stomach
“He’s won,” Strife whined angrily. “My big chance... gone! I could have been a contender.”
Ares silenced him with a withering look. He hadn’t expected the Hind to fall for his brother, or vice versa. But the fact that they had opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
“Stop thinking short term,” he advised his impatient nephew as his revised plan began to take shape. “This is working out just right.”
The happy couple melted into each other, only aware of the rising passion between them and oblivious to the ominous laughter of the god of war as it rang through the quiet woods.
The Golden Hind was not harmed during the production of this motion picture. To order a Hind of your own, call 1-800-55-HIND.
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