Hercules paused on the hillside overlooking the village on the edge of the Mycenaean plains and frowned in puzzled confusion. The message had said he was needed urgently and he’d been running all night to get there as quickly as he could, but he could see no signs of trouble. People were working in the fields, and there was steady foot and wagon traffic in and out of the town gates. He could see no visible evidence of military activity indicating any hostilities, nor did he detect the presence of unwanted mercenaries or bandits. Biting his lip, he wondered if the trouble was more discreet - perhaps someone was being accused unjustly and their life was at risk.
Briefly, he gazed to the west, hoping his message had reached Iolaus. They’d been supposed to meet in Cyllabos - Iolaus was keen to have Hercules meet his grandmother, Leandra, and he’d been looking forward to a visit with her. He hated to cut Iolaus’ own visit short but, now, with possible grave trouble brewing in the village below, he hoped his partner would soon be on his way to join him here.
Once again, his gaze raked the countryside, seeking clues to the reason he’d been asked to come at all possible speed. Shrugging, telling himself he’d know soon enough, he carried on, loping swiftly down the gentle slope to the valley below.
The square in the center of the village was a hive of bustling activity. Most of the area around the gates and walls of the village, surrounding the open square near the raised fountain - the communal water supply - was taken up by merchants, craftsmen, and farmers in booths and behind tables or beside wagons, selling their wares, produce and fresh meat. Villagers with shopping baskets over their arms paused here and there to dicker, or to visit with one another and exchange the gossip of the day, while children played lively games of tag or hide and seek, laughing gaily as they dashed around.
Off to one side, a group of a dozen or so men and women, ranging in age from adolescence to middle age, were industriously dabbing paint on linen canvases perched on rickety, home-made easels in a two rows facing the steps leading to the fountain next to the village palisades. Salmoneus, richly garbed in deep blue and burgundy robes, with a jaunty blue artist’s cap on his head, was gesturing broadly. Pitching his voice loud enough to be heard over the tumult of the market, slightly flushed with self-importance given his vital leadership and entrepreneurial role in the proceedings, he was cheerfully haranguing the group into some semblance of order as he strolled along the rows.
“You all look terrific,” he encouraged them, with the astute understanding that compliments would be sure to capture their attention. And then, once they were all focused on him, he went on with his instructions. “Now everybody should be two arms-lengths apart - two arms-lengths apart,” he called again insistently as he physically, moved a bearded youth and his easel further from the side of an attractive young woman. “Yeah, uh huh. Better?” Waving toward the canvases on the easels and the paints and brushes, he explained for perhaps the tenth time, “The object is to create objects of individual artistic expression. Copying is strictly forbidden,” he insisted with a meaningful glance at the bearded youth.
The truth was, he was filling time with chatter, as he anxiously cast glances over his shoulder toward the gate. But his expression lightened and a broad smile wreathed his face when he saw Hercules come through the gate. Hastening to greet the demigod, he announced with no little relief, “Ahh, here comes the guest of honor now.”
Moving swiftly through the crowded market area, dodging around shoppers and giggling children, Hercules waved. As soon as he was close enough to be heard without shouting, he called, “Salmoneus, I got your message. It sounded urgent.”
Genially, shaking Hercules’ hand, he nodded vigorously. Turning, holding his arms wide and with a nod toward his small gathering of aspiring geniuses, Sal replied fulsomely, “What could be more urgent than the burning fires of creative inspiration?” When Hercules gave him a narrow look of incomprehension, he elaborated more prosaically as they ambled toward the assembled artists. “King Armon wants a new centerpiece for his museum. In exchange, he’ll give a fortune to the war orphans’ fund - minus my small finder’s fee, of course.”
Rolling his eyes, the demigod crossed his arms and asked with a severe tone, “Uh, how small?”
“Fifty dinars,” Salmoneus told him and, when Hercules gaped at him and seemed to be about to protest, he hastily continued, “A pittance! Financial remuneration is not always on my mind,” he said with noble hauteur, and an expression that suggested he was hurt that Hercules might think otherwise. Gesturing toward the clustered artists, he added with heavy, even soulful sincerity, “If we can serve these artisans, put them on the map -- and serve charity at the same time - it’s all worth it! Right? Well, right?”
“And after they’re on the map,” Hercules challenged, evidently vastly unimpressed with Sal’s ardently selfless sincerity, “what’s your cut?”
“Uh,” the inveterate entrepreneur hesitated, bit his lip, shuffled his feet and looked away but couldn’t bring himself to be less than honest in response to a direct question, “seventy-five percent.”
“Yep,” Hercules snorted and shook his head, his expression stern.
“And well earned!” Salmoneus insisted as they drew close to the group, not giving Hercules time to elaborate on his evident views on the matter. “If it weren’t for me, these guys would be painting cows and pastures the rest of their anonymous lives.” Spotting the youth again edging closer to the pretty young woman to study her canvas, Sal admonished, “I said, no copying, Xerox!” Abruptly, he ripped off the parchment sheet the bearded youth was using in lieu of canvas, only to find the same, exact designs replicated on the next sheet. He tore off another, and then another, and then threw up his hands as he looked over his shoulder at Hercules. Shaking his head, he sighed with exasperation. Hercules just didn’t understand how much effort and skill went into helping these country bumpkins achieve some semblance of greatness. It wasn’t easy, that was for sure. Not easy at all. He earned every last dinar by the sweat of his brow - not to mention the fact that a labourer is worthy of his hire, and he certainly contributed inspiration, guidance and solid marketing knowledge to the venture.
Feeling slightly exasperated himself, Hercules was still trying to find out why he’d been summoned so urgently. Trailing after Salmoneus, he tried to get some clarification. “Okay, I get it; this is for art and charity. So, you want me to be a judge, right?”
“Uh, that, and I want you to pose,” Sal revealed quickly. Then, with an expansive gesture and rich tones, he exclaimed, “You, my friend, are gonna be a work of art.”
His eyes widening with surprise, Hercules gaped at his friend. Vigorously shaking his head, he stammered insistently, ““I, uh … I don’t think so.”
Sidling closer, appearing astonished by Hercules’ reaction, Sal inveigled, “I did mention charity? The home for poor war orphans?”
Sighing, his shoulders sagging in defeat, Hercules nodded dispiritedly. Resignedly, knowing he was beat, he agreed. “Fine.”
Smiling brightly, nodding encouragingly, Sal said matter-of-factly, “They’d like you to take off your shirt. Uh, it’s more, um, expressionistic - more Herculean!”
Resignation gave way to shock, and once again Hercules gaped at Sal. “Are you kidding?” he exclaimed, his pitch rising. Looking around, as if seeking some way to escape, he stuttered, “Th-there’s - there’s a draft in here. I can’t -”
“A draft?” Sal echoed, and shook his head. Rubbing his ear as if he couldn’t believe what he’d heard, he challenged, “You are Hercules, aren’t you?” When Herc refused to meet his gaze, he gestured widely, his tone sarcastic as he prodded, “Yo, I can’t help; there’s a draft!”
Irritated, feeling cornered, reluctantly loosening his vest, Hercules growled, “Fine, fine, fine.”
“Just a thought,” Salmoneus continued with the air of a man striking while the iron was hot, “Why stop with the shirt? You know? They say the purest form of artistic expression is the nude human figure.”
Hercules snorted. “Huh, forget it,” he snapped and began to tuck the ends of his vest back into his belt.
“Think of those orphans!” Sal compelled, haranguing him. “You’re talking about a draft! They’re sleeping under a roof that doesn’t even exist! Huh?!” When guilt stole over Hercules’ features, he went on encouragingly, “Come on! Be a sport! Be a hero! Take off your clothes!”
“Do I at least get a curtain to change behind?” Hercules asked dolefully.
“Shy, Hercules?” a feminine voice taunted teasingly.
Both Salmoneus and Hercules turned at the intervention and their faces lit up with pleasure to see Atalanta standing nearby, her arm loosely linked with the arm of a cheerful, if somewhat insipid, young man. Calling out in welcome, Hercules closed the space between them. “Hey!” he laughed happily, “Look who’s here?!” Opening his arms, he gave her a warm hug.
“Oh, Atalanta!” Salmoneus exclaimed in delight, though his expression was bemused as he took in her softly curled hair and the very decorous blouse and long skirts she was wearing.
“Hi!” she greeted them both, charmingly, and then stepped back to stand close to her suitor.
Shaking his head, still looking askance as her, Sal observed wonderingly, “I hardly recognized you … with your thighs covered!”
Disconcerted, she blinked at the comment. Hercules uncomfortably cleared his throat to get Sal’s attention and tilted his head toward the boyfriend. “Oh,” Sal mumbled.
Evidently deciding to ignore the comment, even pretend it hadn’t been made, Alalanta effusively did the introductions. “Hercules, Salmoneus, meet Curteus.”
Astonished, Curteus turned to her. “You know Hercules? How?” he asked in wonder. “You said you were such a homebody.”
“Homebody?!” Salmoneus exclaimed, smiles once again wreathing his face. “Kid, you should’ve seen her at the first Olympics. She took -”
But his words gave way to a strangled gasp when Atalanta stepped closer and unobtrusively slammed her fist into his solar plexus. Spinning back to her escort, she hastily covered the sudden silence by obfuscating, “Well, yes. Just watching was exciting.” Then, desperate to distract him, she waved at a booth across the square. “Curteus, would you like some punch?”
Indulgently, he nodded and patted her arm. “Wait here with your friends,” he offered generously. “I’ll get it.”
“Atalanta!” Sal gasped when he could finally breathe again, sounding strangled and sporting a wounded expression, feeling wholly undeserving of the unexpected assault. He coughed to get his breath and, rubbing his sore gut, said aggrievedly, “You look more like a school-marm than a … a female powerhouse, rippling with sensuous -”
“Curteus likes the soft look,” she interjected swiftly, anxiously, with another glance over her shoulder at her boyfriend. “Guess it’s easier to imagine me baking cookies than slaving over a hot forge?” she went on, returning her attention to them as she gestured toward her garments and looked at them hopefully.
“Baking?” Hercules echoed with a wide smile. Moving closer to sling an arm around her shoulders, he continued enthusiastically, “Well, if you can throw a meal together as well as you throw a javelin, I’m coming over for dinner.”
“That was then; this is now,” she replied flatly with a determined expression.
“Hmm?” Hercules murmured in surprise as he stepped away to stand beside Salmoneus. Both men studied her with concern, clearly not understanding.
“Look, I’ve spent my whole life being competitive in a man’s world - at work, in sports,” she expounded, though she kept her voice low. Troubled, discouraged, she went on, “And what do I have to show for it?”
Giving her appreciative looks, smiles flitting over their lips, their brows arching, they both began suggestively, “Well ….”
“Well, no social life, that’s what,” she interjected bitterly. “Guys just think of me as one of the guys. So that’s why I decided to change my look.” Sighing, looking a little lost and sorrowful, she murmured dejectedly, “They’re not interested in the real me.”
“If you think that, then you’ve been meeting,” he began soberly, only to have Sal join in as they both said with heartfelt and appreciative meaning, “the wrong guys.”
“Yeah,” Sal added for good measure.
Flushing with embarrassment, feeling awkward, she turned away and cast her gaze across the market square.
Curteus was just paying for two clay goblets of wine. Loitering around the wine shop, two exceptionally unkempt and unshaven men, garbed in filthy leathers and ratty furs gossiped with a similarly unattractive woman. Jerking a thumb over a shoulder, one sneered, “Boring.”
His compatriot, Swillus, agreed with a sniff. “Artists, schmartists.” But, looking across at the gathering of artists, his gazed narrowed and he peered closely. His lip curled and he snorted contemptuously. Poking at his brother and sister, he drew their attention and pointed as he drawled contemptuously, “Hey, get a load of muscle-lady in a dress. Who would’ve thunk it? A smithy … with a girlish streak.”
“Make that ‘freak,’” his very ugly sister snapped as she crossed her arms, disdain on her face.
Curteus was edging by them when they crowded closer, snickering meanly. “Careful your sweetie don’t crush you when you snuggle,” Swillus cautioned sarcastically.
Shaking his head, not wanting to start any trouble but feeling he ought to say something to stand up for his lady-love, Curteus complained, “What do you boys got against Atalanta, anyhow?”
“What do you mean, ‘boys’?” Swillus’ sister growled menacingly as she crowded closer, baring her broken and blackened teeth.
Ignoring her, Swillus’ red-headed brother explained angrily, “We had the only smithy business going till she came along.”
“Yeah, with her bleeding heart,” the sister scoffed, “free plowshares for the poor.”
“Free plowshares?” the redhead grated in disgust. “What’s she thinking?”
Curteus just wanted to return to Atalanta’s side. These big, smelly, argumentative brutes, the woman included, made him uncomfortable, and had nothing to do with him. He didn’t notice that their interest in him, their crowding of him, had been noted by Hercules, who was studying them with a perturbed frown. He started across the square - Salmoneus didn’t look pleased and Atalanta, realizing there might be a problem developing, followed the demigod.
Oblivious to the fact that help was on the way, Curteus tried to elbow his way past the malodorous and ill-tempered bullies - a tricky task with brimming goblets of wine. “Excuse me,” he said, hoping they would.
But he wasn’t that lucky.
Swillus exclaimed, “Thirsty? Well, we’ll fix that.” With vicious laughter, he and the redhead grabbed Curteus and shook him, causing him to lose his grip on the goblets. And then they hauled him toward the trough where animals watered and heaved him into it. He landed with a large splash, coming up spluttering as Swillus dusted off his hands and called nastily, “Yeah, cool off.”
“Curteus,” Atalanta exclaimed as she dropped to her knees beside the trough and cradled his head in her hands. “What happened?”
“Sissy-boy slipped,” the redhead drawled and laughed disparagingly.
Moving to stand between the bullies and Atalanta and her friend, Hercules lifted his hands and suggested peacefully, “Uh, why don’t you guys just back off, okay?”
Swillus snarled aggressively, “Why? Another defender of the helpless maiden? You don’t wanna mess with me and my clan.”
Approaching the group, Sal laughed. “Only three against one?” Shaking his head, he counseled sagely, “You really don’t wanna mess with him.”
Swillus’ sister goaded, “Who says there’s only three of us?”
Hercules and Salmoneus stiffened and looked around warily - and saw nearly twenty smelly, greasy, ugly, and roughly garbed big men come out of the crowd to pace toward them in a tightening circle. Sal sighed and then hastened to safety. “Don’t get bruised,” he called over his shoulder.
“Thanks.” Hercules huffed at the cautionary instruction and shook his head. Moving into the center of the square to get a little room to maneuver, he watched the clan of goons draw closer.
“Finally, a little action!” one of the men called. “He don’t look so tough!” a woman yelled encouragingly.
“You know,” Hercules observed dryly as he studied the miscreants, “I …I can see the, uh, family resemblance.”
Someone called out eagerly, “Let’s get him!”
Hercules rolled his eyes and then resolutely stepped forward to meet the two louts that were charging ahead of the rest. Before they got close enough to tackle him, he’s rabbit-punched one, and delivered a sweeping left cross at the other, laying them both out cold. Shifting his stance, he backhanded another and kicked out at a fourth, knocking them both senseless. With a shriek, a woman leaped onto his back, just as several of the men were closing in on him from all directions. Leaning slightly forward, his hands gripping the woman’s wrists, he began to whirl. She would have flown off if he’d not been holding onto her - her body stretched out parallel to the ground and, helpless to stop what was happening, her feet and legs careened into the men and as she sped past them, catching their heads and knocking them flying.
Still crouched by the trough, comforting her consort, Atalanta watched Hercules lay waste to his attackers. Since he seemed to be more than holding his own, she felt no impetus to intervene. But then she saw Swillus’ sister grab a knife from her belt and prowl around the edge of the melee, looking for a chance to stab the hero in the back. Her eyes narrowed and she stiffened as her gaze darted back to the demigod, to see if he’d noticed the new threat.
Hercules let go his grip on the woman’s wrists and she flew back; hitting the ground hard, she rolled and didn’t come back up. But there were still several of the clan left standing; though they hadn’t retreated, their attack had faltered. “Go, get in there,” Swillus urged them angrily, disgusted by their hesitation. Goaded by his contempt, two more sprang forward. Hercules grabbed them and banged their heads together. Distracted by the other men still circling him, looking for an opportunity, he didn’t notice Swillus’ sister creeping closer.
Her mouth set in a grim line, Atalanta abandoned her pretense of being a helpless maiden and rose swiftly to join in the action. Quickly, she crossed the distance and snarling, “Not so fast, sister,” she grabbed the woman’s wrist and twisted to disarm her, and then she slugged her hard.
Outraged, a man behind her grabbed the neckline of her dress and ribbed downward, tearing it from her body, revealing her skintight black leather bodice and shorts. Caught by the fire of battle, she didn’t hear Salmoneus’ appreciative exclamation as her magnificent body was revealed; she’d scarcely noticed that her demure garb had been stripped away and she was oblivious to the goggling expression on Curteus’ face. Wheeling on her attacker, she kicked him in the crotch and when he doubled over, she brought up her knee, smashing his face. Before he’d hit the ground, she’d already turned away, looking for her next opponent. “Come on,” she challenged a man prowling toward her, her arms out, her fingers curling to draw him closer. As soon as he was within reach, she launched herself into a flying double kick, landing lithely and balanced when he staggered back and went down.
Avidly watching, Sal exclaimed happily, “Now, that’s what I call a work of art!”
For the next few, action-charged moments, she and Hercules fought with style and grace, neither of them even breaking a sweat, as they battered, pounded, kicked and overcame all opponents. One large man, certain he could bring her down, leapt into the air to grab her, but she merely ducked and his momentum carried him over and past, his dive taking him headfirst into the hard earth. Straightening with a wide grin, unaware of her boyfriend’s stricken expression, she watched Hercules make short work of the last two men attacking him.
Swillus, still standing and utterly disgusted with his cohorts, was berating his cousin, one of the first Atalanta had knocked down. “Come on. Get up, you no-good-for-nothing lunk,” he ordered as he dragged the still bleary man to his feet. Overhearing him, Hercules and Atalanta exchanged a sardonic look and then they each grabbed a pail of paint as they ran across the square. “You let a woman do that to you -”
Unceremoniously, they overturned their pails over Swillus and the other guy, dousing them both with yellow and red paint, and covering their heads with the buckets. “Hey! Who turned out the sun?!” Swillus cried out as he and his cousin staggered dizzily away.
Hercules and Atalanta laughed as their gaze swept the square, ensuring there were no more adversaries to contend with, and saw that all of the goons were down for the count.
Smiling broadly with brimming exuberance, Atalanta and Hercules exchanged a triumphant high five, slapping their palms together as she called out, “Good job!”
Hercules again glanced around the square and nodded, but he said ruefully, “I’m, uh, sorry you got swept up into that.”
“Don’t be,” she assured him warmly as they ambled across the hard-packed earth toward the water trough and the unfortunate Curteus. “I haven’t had so much fun in a long time.”
“Atalanta?” her boyfriend said uncertainly, looking her up and down as he wiped water streaming from his hair off his face. Altogether, he looked quite miserable in his soaking wet clothing.
Hastening toward him, she said with sincere gratitude, “Curteus, thanks so much for sticking up for me.” And she was immensely grateful and very touched, for she’d not had the experience of having many men stick up for her.
But Curteus seemed oblivious to her words or, indeed, the power he held for her happiness. Nervously, seeming almost timid, he observed, “I never realized you’re so … so ….”
When his voice trailed off, Hercules helpfully supplied, “Surprising?”
“Athletic?” Sal added cheerfully, as he came to stand beside the demigod, his admiration for Atalanta very clear in his voice and eyes.
“So … m-m-muscular,” he finally stammered anxiously. Backing away, he muttered uncomfortably, “I, uh, I … I gotta go.” And with that, he turned on his heel and ran off between the market stalls toward an alley that led further into the village.
“Wait!” Atalanta called desperately, taking a few steps in his wake. Her expression, the pain in her eyes, revealed how devastating had been his words and his abrupt flight from her. All the joy and confidence she’d exuded only moments before had vanished.
“Forget him,” Sal urged kindly, as he caught her arm to keep her from running off after a man who so clearly didn’t deserve her. “The kid doesn’t appreciate your womanly, wonderful, golden gorgeousness,” he added for good measure, his open admiration underscoring every word, “like I do.”
“He just wasn’t the right one for you,” Hercules consoled as he lightly took her arm.
“Oh, and who is?” she demanded hotly. Tears glistened her eyes but she blinked fiercely, determined not to break down. Behind her, in response to her question, Sal thrust his hand into the air, eagerly volunteering to do all he could to make her happy. But she didn’t notice, didn’t hear his mumbled attempts to get her attention. She was too focused on Hercules, who looked taken aback by her angry question. Pulling away abruptly from his grip on her arm, she barely kept her voice from breaking as she railed, “Not you, huh, Hercules.” He bit his lip and looked as if he wished he could reassure her but, unable to find words, he remained mute. “I know. Don’t say it,” she said with a bitter sigh as she turned away. “We’ll always be friends.”
Distraught, feeling like a fool, she raced away from them … and didn’t see that Salmoneus still had his hand up, or hear his stammered, “Uhhhmm!” as he sorrowfully watched her run out of the market square.
Hercules frowned with concern and sighed.
Very close to tears of hurt, humiliation and angry frustration, Atalanta stalked out of the village and along the tree-shadowed path that led to the rutted lane up a slight incline to the barn and her forge. Stomping inside, she headed straight to her shrine to Hephaestus, a striking black statue she’d created herself.
Slumping down in front of the god’s effigy, she leaned one arm on the base and struggled to regain control of her emotions. “Shoot!” she muttered and then looked up at the face of her god. Wry vulnerability filled her eyes and her voice rang with self-contempt as she said, “Well, I did it again, Hephaestus. Stuck my big foot in my mouth and humiliated myself in front of the world … and Hercules.”
She scrubbed her hands over her face, as if that would help rub away the painful memory. And then, finding no comfort in silence or in her thoughts, she stood and turned to her forge. Disconsolately, she told herself, “I always feel better when I’m working.”
With an intent, purposeful expression, Salmoneus studied the items on the well-stocked table of food that King Armon had so graciously provided to nourish the starving artists. Well, he had to concede, perhaps they weren’t exactly starving but, from what he’d seen so far, he seriously doubted they were supporting themselves with their art. Hmm, there were rounds of delectable cheeses and both sticks and loafs of bread, plump, oily olives, apples and plums and even exotic oranges. A goodly variety of sticky, sweet desserts, all no doubt delectable, also beckoned. He was reaching for a honeycake when he remembered his mission and reluctantly went back to considering what would be both utilitarian and artistic. “Ahh,” he murmured to himself, his gaze alighting on the overflowing fine porcelain bowls of deep red and pearly green grapes. He debated the colour choices for a moment and decided the deep red, nearly purple grapes lent that touch of the royal blood that would be such appropriate garb for the son of the King of the Gods. Ah, yes, they would do very nicely indeed.
Gently, he picked up the bunch of plump grapes, so as not to squash any of them, and carefully transported them to the nearby hedge. A few heavy grapes responded to the dictates of gravity and fell off the vine, but he caught them and hastily stuffed them into his mouth. “Mmm,” he sighed as he savoured the sharp, sweet meat of the juicy fruit.
“Well?” Hercules’ impatient and disembodied voice demanded from the hedge.
“Coming right up,” Sal assured him as he crossed the last few feet.
“It’s about time,” the demigod sighed with a distinctively long-suffering tone.
“Here you go,” he said cheerily, holding the clump of grapes out and then carefully placing them in the large hand that appeared through a narrow break in the greenery.
“Thank you,” Hercules replied sardonically, though there was a hint of gratitude there as well.
“Let’s hope they enhance the artistic symmetry and flow,” Sal waxed brightly as he waited for the unexpectedly terribly bashful demigod to emerge into view. Who knew Hercules would be such a prude about nudity? he thought as he waited, tapping his toe. He certainly didn’t get it from his father’s side of the family. From what even I know of the gods, nothing ever seems to cause them any sense of shame.
Just then, Hercules emerged from the hedge and Sal couldn’t help but gasp, “Ah, yes!” as he ogled the absolutely perfect body with just enough chest and body hair to underscore the innate and inescapable masculinity of those incredible muscles. Briefly, he thought how he wished he could look like that. But, alas, that was not to be and he had an art contest to run. He was very pleased with his idea about the grapes. Their colour brought out the creamy porcelain of the demigod’s body, and their ripe, deep red, lush, gem-like globules were both regal and symbolic of the family jewels they hid. Waving at Hercules to follow him, he felt great pride and no little satisfaction at his brilliance in having arranged for such a perfect model for the competition.
Behind him, his back to the wall, walking gingerly across the pebbled earth on bare feet and feeling more vulnerable than he ever had in his life, Hercules followed along the path and up the marble steps to stand in front of the fountain. Looking everywhere but at the artists, he tried to ignore their gasps and breathy exclamations: “Inspiration.” “Look at that!” “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Vastly pleased, Salmoneus stood in front of the artists and called, ““Confidence! Confidence! Right. Okay now! Interpret what you feel. Interpret what you see …” But he was momentarily distracted by Xerox and wondered irritably if that man ever saw anything original. “Hmm?” he murmured, but then quickly recollected himself and carried on with his instructions. “Each result should be different. After this, you’re all gonna be famous, huh?”
“Salmoneus,” Hercules cut in abruptly, fearing the man might never stop talking, and he wanted this ridiculous situation over as quickly as possible.
“Yeah,” he replied, whirling about and giving the ‘model’ a questioning look.
“You’re slowing them down.”
“Ah, right,” Sal acknowledged with a vigorous nod. Studying his model, he struck a pose and instructed, “Now! Hercules … a little flex!”
Distinctly unamused and completely disinclined to take instruction on his pose, Hercules gave him a withering look and warned flatly, “You’re pushing it.”
The heat built in the barn from the sun outside and the flames of the forge. Sweat glistened on Atalanta’s bronzed skin as she hammered and hammered, and then cooled the piece in a water barrel, creating a hissing cloud of steam, and then thrust it into the firepit to heat again, while she hammered on another piece of metal. For a long while, she worked blindly, not even aware of what she was creating. But, as the hours passed, the pieces took shape and form.
And in the village, Hercules stood exposed under the hot sun, hour after endless hour, and he wondered what could possibly take the artists so long. Most were painting but, nearby, a sculpture was taking form from a massive block of stone. Quizzically, he thought the form did not, in the least, resemble him. In the back, a man was hammering on a tall block of stone, chipping some form out of the whole and the demigod idly wondered if that would look like him. He rather hoped that none of the works would resemble him, so that there would be no lasting evidence of this excruciatingly humiliating day. He was hot and conscious of the sweat beading on his face and trickling down his body, making him itch, but he couldn’t do more than scratch one calf with the toe of the opposite foot; and he was sorely afraid the grapes would soon shrivel or begin to drop off the vine. From time to time, Salmoneus offered him a cup of water and, as much as he wanted to accept, he shook his head. He didn’t dare let go of the fruit.
With nothing to do but stand there, he let his thoughts roam, wishing he could escape so easily. He thought about Atalanta and felt badly about her unhappiness. He knew she was infatuated with him and had been for some time, but he didn’t know what to do about it and he didn’t want to hurt her. Sighing, he thought the best thing would be to leave town as soon as possible. And, guiltily, he thought about Iolaus. His partner would have received the message by now and would be racing to meet him, expecting trouble. Again, he sighed, wishing he hadn’t cut his friend’s visit with Leandra short; wished, as well, that he’d never received the call to come here and was there in Cyllabos himself, as he really wanted to meet Iolaus’ grandmother. Disgruntled by the turn of events, his lips thinned and he rolled his eyes at the thought of what Iolaus would say about his current predicament.
Iolaus would never let him live this down.
He sighed again, heavily.
Iolaus had set himself a grueling pace under the hot sun, racing up the mountain as if it were nothing but a level field. Sweat glistened on his skin but his pace never faltered, not even when he passed the turnoff to the path that led to Hephaestus’ forge inside the quiescent volcano, though he did spare a few thoughts about how he’d met his grandmother. A grin twitched on his lips when he recalled how Hephaestus and Aphrodite had stopped him, at right about this place on the narrow track, and he hoped they were still happy together. With gods and goddesses, you never knew how long a passing romance would last. But, for Heph’s sake, knowing how much he loved, had always loved, Aphrodite, Iolaus hoped that this match would last for eons.
As if his thoughts conjured the reality, Hephaestus abruptly appeared on the path, blocking his way forward and he stumbled to a stop. “Heph!” he exclaimed as he swiped the sweat from his brow. “I’m sorry. I can’t stop for a visit. Herc might need my help.”
“He might, indeed,” the God of the Forge returned dolefully. Glancing around, as if to ensure they were alone, he leaned forward to say with low, not quite whispered, urgency, “I’m afraid Aphrodite has done something to please me without fully realizing the possible consequences.”
“Oh, great,” Iolaus groaned. “What’s she done now?”
Sighing, Hephaestus told him, “Atalanta created a bronze likeness to Hercules - you know she’s infatuated with him, right? Well, anyway, ‘Dite brought the statue to life. She, um, thought that would make Atalanta, and me, happy.”
“But … but, Hephaestus, you know, better than anyone, that’s wrong - and all the problems that can happen!” Iolaus replied, sounding aghast. “You told her, right? Told her to reverse the spell or whatever?”
Heph glanced away and shifted nervously. Shrugging, he shook his head. Giving Iolaus a sideways look, he asked, “In my place, would you tell her? Because she’d want to know all of it … I, I’d have to tell her about … and she’d think, well, she’d think I was an idiot, but she’d also take it as a criticism. That she wasn’t doing her job right. She’d be hurt. I don’t want to hurt her.”
Iolaus was about to protest, but the words died on his lips. He studied the god who was better than most of them, and who had been so lonely for so very long. Sighing, his lips thinning, he shook his head. “No, I guess in your place, I wouldn’t tell her, either,” he allowed. But he frowned with worry. “This thing she’s created - how dangerous could it be?”
“It’s as strong, or maybe even stronger, than Hercules because he’s made of metal, not flesh and bone,” Heph told him. “He’s child-like, and wants to do his best - but he’s easily misled.” Heph grimaced and then revealed unhappily, “Discord has gotten involved. She’s … she’s trying to create trouble for Hercules.”
Gaping at him angrily, Iolaus snapped, “Wonderful. Can’t you at least get her to back off?”
“Without letting ‘Dite find out everything?”
For a long moment, Iolaus seethed silently at the capriciousness - and ultimate selfishness - of the gods. But anger wouldn’t solve the problem. “Okay,” he finally retorted. “How do we stop this metal wannabe-demigod?”
“Fire,” Hephaestus grimly told him. “He must be consumed by fire.”
Iolaus winced at the image, but nodded briskly. “Fire, got it. Anything else I should know?”
“No, no, that’s everything,” Heph replied as he stepped aside. “Good luck.”
Snorting a humourless laugh, Iolaus nodded as he resettled his pack, and took off again, running full out in his race to Hercules’ side.
The sun was setting but the air still held the heat of the day. Outside of Atalanta’s barn, concealed behind a broken-down wagon, Swillus’ ugly siblings were crouched to spy on the competition.
“All that racket,” the redheaded brother observed. “What do you think she’s built?”
“If she’s smart,” his hag of a sister retorted, chuckling coldly, “her coffin.”
Inside the barn, oblivious to their presence, Atalanta worked on, polishing the steel and smoothing each piece with loving diligence. When they were finished to her satisfaction, she assembled her creation, and then stood back to admire her handiwork. “So, what do you think, Hephaestus? Good job, huh? I always knew I had an artistic flair,” she said, talking to the god as she often did when alone in her forge, as she gazed at the life-sized metal sculpture of Hercules. But her bravado cracked and her shoulders sagged. “Well, if I can’t have Hercules, I guess this is the next best thing. Forged of fire and bronze. No blood in his veins. It can’t disappoint me. It can’t hurt me. It can’t make me cry. The perfect man,” she murmured with sad bitterness. “Maybe it’s my destiny to be a living, breathing sculpture of muscle and flesh,” she continued, the ache of loneliness in her voice, “apart from everyone … alone forever.”
Fighting back tears, unable to face what she’d built out of despair, she ran out of the barn.
As soon as she was inside her cottage, Swillus’ sister and brother stole into the barn, very curious to see what she’d been working on all day. But they hadn’t expected anything like the statue. Stopping dead, they stared at it. “Oh, so, that’s what she’s been up to … building her very own boyfriend!” the hag crowed and then laughed nastily. “Here,” she went on, when she saw the two pitchforks leaning against the wall. She grabbed them and held one out to her brother. “When she gets back, we’re gonna stick them muscles of hers and see if they burst.”
“Well, I don’t know,” the ugly and none too bright redhead replied uncertainly. “Swillus said let’s wait till Hercules leaves town!”
“Well, Swillus ain’t here, is he?” she retorted, well used to bullying her younger brother. “Now, get ready!” she commanded, brooking no argument.
But, just then, though they couldn’t see her, Aphrodite appeared in the barn. “Oh, wow!” she exclaimed admiringly. “Herkie, she sure has it bad for you, doesn’t she. Poor girl.” ‘Dite shook her head. Atalanta was one of her husband’s favorite mortals, so she’d like to do something nice for her. Besides, she was the Goddess of Love, after all - it was her job to fix broken hearts. She couldn’t do much about how Hercules felt but maybe she could give Atalanta her heart’s desire anyway. Grinning like an imp, immensely pleased with her idea, Aphrodite cast a flare of brilliant energy at the statue.
The two would-be attackers crouched in the shadows couldn’t see the goddess, but they could see the energy that burst out of nowhere to swirl around the metal sculpture - and they gaped as the blinding flash of light faded. The steel statue was no more; in its place stood a very confused looking Hercules.
Screaming in terror, they pelted out of the barn and back to town.
Hearing their screams, Atalanta burst out of her cottage and ran to the barn to see what was happening. Dashing inside, she stopped dead when she saw the demigod standing in front of her.
“Hercules?” she gasped as she looked from the man to the spot where the statue had been. Her eyes widened in disbelief and then tracked back to the demigod.
“Hercules?” he repeated, uncertainly.
“Is this a joke? Hephaestus, is this your doing?” she called out, at first angry. But then, well, now she did have her very own Hercules. “I asked for the perfect man,” she mused, stepping closer. “I guess I got him. Well, maybe not exactly what I expected.” Raking her fingers through her hair, she tried to take it all in. “Oh boy, this is wild. You sure look like the real one.”
But her Hercules only gave her a puzzled look and turned around, curiously inspecting the barn. He heard the horse snicker and, bemused, he wandered into the stall. When he came out, he had long stalks of hay in his mouth and he was trying to munch on them, but they fell away. Puzzled, he looked down at the earthen floor and then shrugged.
They were both startled by a man calling from outside, ““Atalanta, you here? I got some horses for you to shoe.”
“I gotta go,” Atalanta told him, somewhat anxiously. “Just stay put,” she ordered and held up her hands. “Stay.”
“Stay,” her Hercules echoed and blinked at her. Hoping he understood, she turned and ran out of the barn.
He frowned but was then distracted by the clucking of a chicken. Intrigued, he searched around until he found the hen on her nest, behind a bale of hay. Getting down on his knees, he edged closer. The hen wasn’t pleased, and flapped her wings warningly, but Atalanta’s Hercules was too curious to withdraw. The hen gave up and flew off. Leaning forward, the handmade demigod spotted the oval things in the nest. Reaching forward, he picked one up and sniffed at it, and then shook it beside his ear, trying to figure out what it was. But, the thing didn’t do anything, so he cast it away. However, when it went splat on the ground and shattered, revealing a fascinating prize of bright yellow and filmy goo, he abandoned the nest to make a closer inspection. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, he touched the yellow stuff, and tried to pick it up. It foiled him, but he got some of it on his fingers and he lifted them to sniff and delicately lick at the strange stuff. While he played, he made clucking sounds to himself.
There was a sudden flash of light and Discord materialized in the barn. “Yolk for the yokel?” she taunted sarcastically. “How’s it taste? Yummy?”
“Yummy,” he agreed innocently and generously held out his hand, for her to taste it, too.
“No thanks,” she demurred with a grin. “I already had a hearty ambrosia breakfast.” Stepping closer, she said, “Gotta admit, ditzy ‘Dite does good work. You look like Hercules, all right.”
“Hercules?” he echoed with a puzzled frown as he pointed at her.
“No, you’re Hercules,” she corrected, pointing back at him. Then, laying her hand on her bodice, she continued, “I’m a goddess, Dummy. Discord’s the name. I got me some big family shoes to fill and I just know you’re gonna help me fill ‘em - just as soon as I unleash you on that big wide world, that is.”
Casually, she blasted open the backdoor to the barn, letting in a bright shaft of late afternoon light. “Go. Enjoy,” she encouraged, waving him to the door. He gazed at her uncertainly, but he got to his feet and ambled a bit awkwardly, like a child just finding his feet, to the doorway and peered out curiously. When he saw how beautiful it was outside, he turned and gave her a delighted smile full of wonder at the magic of it all. “Go on,” she urged him with a brightly reassuring and utterly false smile of her own. When he grinned happily and ambled out of sight, she murmured snidely, “Atta boy.”
With vast relief and unseemly alacrity, Hercules practically bounded off the stage when Salmoneus called a halt to the proceedings. Swiftly sidling back into the safe shadows of the thick hedge, he ditched the grapes and quickly donned his clothing. He paused, then, for just a moment, thinking fleetingly of simply making his escape so he wouldn’t have to go back and face all those people who’d been staring at his nude body for hours. But the thought of the orphans imposed itself on his good nature; resolutely squaring his shoulders, he left the shadows. Swallowing hard, determined to see it through, he strode back to the square.
When Salmoneus saw him, he called jubilantly, “All right, geniuses. It’s time for Hercules to pick a winner!”
Oh, right. He’d forgotten he had to judge the work; which meant scrutinizing at least a dozen representations of his body.
And probably offending everyone who wasn’t chosen as the winner.
Could this endlessly embarrassing day get any worse?
Nope, it was definitely a no-win situation and had been since he’d arrived early that morning. “I, I … I’m sure they’re all wonderful,” he stammered uncomfortably, looking around at all the hopeful artists, and wishing desperately that he could say they all won, “and choosing one won’t be easy.”
He winced when he heard one of the male artists say so hopefully, “I’ve waited for this moment all my life.” Damn. He just knew he was going to disappoint people, and they’d feel badly, their dreams ruined. He hated this. He really, really hated this.
Oblivious to his trepidations, Salmoneus led him to the first canvas and they studied the elaborate representation of the artist’s vision of him. Gaping at it, Hercules observed, “It’s an eye.”
“It’s the eye of Hercules,” Sal trumpeted. “It’s, it’s … it’s abstract. It’s … it sends chills down my spine,” he elaborated, stumbling and stammering as he sought adequate words to convey something positive about the huge eye. “Very incisive, Picassus.” The artist blushed and humbly bowed his head, but he smiled proudly.
“I got naked for an eye,” Hercules muttered, not sure whether to be aggrieved or grateful. At this rate, no one would have any lasting memorial to his nakedness and, hopefully, all recollection of the abysmal day would eventually just fade away. But … still. He’d gotten naked for an eye? Turning to a little girl standing beside him, he asked, “Uh, what … what do you think?”
“It’s not like what I draw at home,” she said sagely and with admirable tact, “but I’m sure it’s very good.”
With a brittle laugh at her observation, Sal interjected, “Moving on.”
Hercules peered at the next painting. It looked a bit more like something real and, marginally, sort of, like him, though he was sure he’d never smiled quite so mysteriously as that. And, well, the portrait looked a lot more like a pensive woman than a big, strong, demigod. Uncertainly, feeling well out of his depth, he said, “Forgive me, Davincium, but, uh, uh, it looks a little … feminine.”
“Don’t be so literal,” Sal jumped in before the artist could defend or explain his work. “These are artists. Everything is imaginative. Everything is completely original.” Hastily, he patted Davincium on the shoulder and moved along. “Next - Xerox.” But he frowned at the page, a black and white rendition of the same image that graced Davincium’s canvas. “Uh, not everything is completely original,” he muttered and raised his voice. “Moving on.”
They paused next beside the sculpture that Hercules had watched take shape. The figure of a man knelt one knee on the ground and doubled forward, with its face supported by a fist, and its arm supported on the bent knee. Though, for the life of him, Hercules couldn’t see any resemblance between it and him standing straight and tall on the stage, the sculptor, Rodanius, looked at it proudly. “I call it ‘The Ponderer,’” he announced.
“Yes, you would,” Sal murmured flatly, and then added with more enthusiasm, “I mean, what else could you call it? He …ponders.” Taking Hercules arm, he drew the demigod along. “Next, we have that fine young renderer of pop culture, Warholius.” For a long moment, they both stared at the four renditions of a face, presumably Hercules’ face though cast in a severe, martyred expression, in various odd colours. Blinking, Sal said weakly, “Words fail. Hercules, it’s gonna be a tough job, but you gotta pick a winner.”
Utterly dismayed, Hercules gaped at him. How was he supposed to pick a winner out of … well, out of all this effort? He looked at the artists who were looking so hopefully at him, and he wished for a miracle to save him.
“There he is! Hercules!” a bald man cried out urgently as he stormed through the gate. “We need your help. The mine caved in. Some of the men are trapped.”
“Salmoneus, this can wait,” Hercules immediately stated firmly, utterly ashamed to feel such relief when men were trapped, hurt and maybe dying. Shoving the art contest out of his mind, he said determinedly, “Let’s go.” The stranger whirled and they raced out of the village.
Behind him, worried about getting his contest over and done with, Sal cried, “No, it can’t! Hercu- Her-don’t … whoa,” he muttered. The demigod was gone and there was nothing he could do about it. And, really, a cave-in was important. Not like there was anyone dying here … well, not physically, he thought, glancing again at the artwork. Metaphorically, now that was another question. Bucking up, he told them, “We’re gonna have a slight delay.” They groaned, but he innocently held up his hands. There were some things that he just could not control.
Hurrying back into the barn as soon as she’d dealt with her customer, Atalanta was saying, “All right. We’re gonna have to set some ground rules. For one thing, hay is for horses, not … for ….” She stopped and looked around, but she was alone. “Hello? Hello,” she called, mystified. “Where’d he go?” But then she spotted the broken door. “Oh, great,” she groaned and dashed outside, hurrying to track him down, hopefully before anyone else saw him.
Hercules knelt at the edge of a small pond and peered curiously at his reflection in the water. Touching his face, and then his hair, he smiled uncertainly; but, at least, he now knew what he looked like. He stood and went back to the road. As he set off again on his exploration of the world, he noticed an odd-looking contraption on wheels, heavily loaded with barrels and listing to one side. Curious, he wandered closer.
An old man with wispy white hair knelt in the dirt, grunting and straining as he tried to move the massive wooden wheel of his wagon. But it was deeply stuck in a muddy rut. Muttering unhappily to himself, he sat back and wiped the sweat streaming from his brow. Looking up and around, he suddenly relaxed and beamed, as he called out joyfully, “Hercules! Ah! Thank the gods! I thought you were still back at the art fair. Anyway, I could use some help!”
“Help?” the newly created Hercules echoed with a perplexed frown.
“Yeah. All ya gotta do is … is grab,” he explained, a bit surprised that an explanation was necessary, as he pointed at the wheel, “and … and lift,” he went on, mimicking the action, “like this.”
Agreeably, Hercules nodded. “Okay, all right,” he said, and hunkered down beside the broken down wagon. He gripped the broad wheel and … heaved with all his strength. The wagon flew up, off the ground, rolling sideways and tossing the barrels high in the air. They landed with a mighty set of splashes in the nearby pond.
The old man gaped in dismay at the bobbing barrels and his overturned wagon, and then looked up at the tall demigod, who was brushing his hands together and looking immensely satisfied with himself, “I like helping. Bye.”
He carried on, walking jauntily along the rutted road, leaving the old man staring speechlessly behind him.
The bald stranger crouched at the mouth of the mine, calling a seemingly endless stream of encouragement and urgent orders to the men who were helping to evacuate the injured. “Hurry! There you go! Come on! Help him. Get him through. Quick! Come on!” Finally, it seemed as if everyone was out and, thankfully, no one appeared to have been too badly hurt.
“Is that everybody?” Hercules called from inside, his voice strained with the effort of holding up the rock mountain to keep it from caving in again and burying everyone before they could be evacuated.
“That’s the last of them!” the stranger called back.
Hercules nodded, took a breath, and then he ran as fast as he could to the entrance as the roof of the mine caved in with a thunderous roar. He barely made it, emerging with a gust of thick dust, just as the narrow corridor behind him completely disappeared.
“Thank you, Hercules,” the bald man said with rough, emotional sincerity. “We were lucky you were on hand to help.”
Embarrassed by the deeply heartfelt gratitude, having done no more than was necessary, Hercules shrugged. “Well, glad I could be here to … to help out,” he replied with a small smile. “Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he went on as he turned away, resigned dread creeping into his voice, “I’ve gotta go judge an … an art fair.”
The little girl with long, brunette braids, dressed in a light blue tunic, was thoughtfully studying the abstract painting of the eye. Tilting her head, she pursed her lips and then shrugged. Looking earnestly up at Salmoneus, she stated, “I just don’t see it.”
Sal rolled his eyes and profoundly wished the precocious munchkin’s mother would call her home for dinner. The day was waning and the artists were standing around restively, some muttering that they hadn’t planned for the contest to take all day. When he spotted the demigod, he gave a huge sigh of relief and, smiling broadly, opened his arms in welcome. “Ah, Hercules! Everything turn out okay at the cave-in? Of course, it did. Why ask? Let’s get on with this thing, huh?” He took Hercules’ arm to hasten him along, drawing him back to the cluster of artists and their work, chattering away all the while. “Artists are so temperamental. This way.”
When Hercules looked around curiously and then sat down at a work table to investigate the bowls of paint, and then industriously mixed two together, creating colourful swirls, Sal laughed nervously. “You okay?” he asked, unable to figure out why the hero was wasting time and - why he was tasting the paint. Very strange. Maybe he’d hit his head in the cave-in?
“It’s uh, pretty,” Hercules offered in explanation, as he continued to play with the paints.
“Yeah … pretty,” Sal responded uncertainly, with a quizzical expression. But, anxious to get the show on the road, he decided playtime was over and it was time to get back to business. Briskly, he asked, “Uh, Hercules? Which one of these works of art, these portraits of a hero,” he laughed again, “has touched your heart? Stolen your soul?”
The little girl, who had been watching Hercules closely, tugged on Sal’s tunic. “Excuse me. I don’t think that’s -”
Irritated, Sal wheeled on her and brusquely directed, “Honey, stop bothering the artists, huh? Go stand over there.” She stepped back, but not far enough in his opinion. “Way over there!” he gestured toward the wall of a building that fronted on the square. She moved another two paces back, and he waved again. “Keep going!” When, with a petulant pout, she finally stood against the wall, he praised, “Atta girl!” Forcing a laugh, wishing the darned art contest was over, already, he turned back to Hercules. But, unbeknownst to him or anyone other than Hercules, Discord had appeared and was sitting on the edge of the raised platform around the fountain that the hero had been standing on all day.
“Hi-ya, metal-head,” she taunted with a broad smile.
“Hmm?” he muttered, more interested in sniffing and stirring all the bright colours than in her.
“And they call these monstrosities art?” she drawled disparagingly.
As Sal came to stand beside him, Hercules shrugged and said, “I kinda like ‘em all.”
“He likes them all! Hah!” Sal announced gaily and all the artists beamed, very pleased. “But, unfortunately, King Armon only wants one. Which one is it to be, Hercules?”
Sighing, not inclined to choose just one, really wanting to be left in peace to play with the paints, Hercules said with a long-suffering sigh, “They’re all so ….”
When his voice died away, Discord supplied, “Hideous?”
Not knowing what the word meant, but willing to go along with it, he nodded and repeated, “Hideous.”
Everyone reacted with stunned shock, and a female voice called out censoriously, “Hercules.”
But Discord wasn’t finished. “Those things don’t look like you. They’re ugly.” Hercules frowned and glanced sideways at the paintings around him. “They’re making fun of you.” His mouth thinned and he frowned uncomfortably. “They’re not your friends.” Sighing, his shoulders sagged. He really wanted people to like him and wasn’t sure why they didn’t. “They don’t even like you. They’re laughing at you.” He stiffened defensively. It wasn’t nice to laugh at other people. Not nice at all. “Destroy them,” she commanded. He looked over at her, frowning now, and pushed himself to his feet. “I said, destroy them!”
Scowling, he looked around and saw everyone staring at him, looking angry and upset. She was right, they didn’t like him. Had made those pictures to make fun of him. They were nasty, nasty people! With a roar, he overturned the worktable, scattering powdered and liquid paints everywhere, and then he reached for the nearest canvas and ripped it into shreds. Dimly, he was aware of Discord laughing as he stomped around and knocked over easels, ground paintings into the dirt with his heel, bashed off the head of a statue, punched his hand through a stone carving, broke another easel into twigs and growled at the nasty people who were so mean to him. Well, they were sorry now. Running and yelling and screaming, trying to get away from him. He’d teach them that being mean meant you get punished.
Aghast at the sudden violence and destruction, Sal wailed, “Hercules, what are you doing?!”
“They’re making fun of me!” he raged.
“Oh, no! No! No!” Sal protested, wringing his hands as he tried to stay out of the rampaging demigod’s way, but wanting so badly to stop him.
“Get out!” Hercules raged, waving threatening fists at the people still staring at him with wide-eyed astonishment and fear.
“Everybody’s a critic!” Sal whined aggrievedly as he mournfully watched the last of his artists scatter for cover or disappear into convenient alleyways.
Hercules, on his way back from the rescue at the cave-in, was striding swiftly along the curving lanes that led through the village, back to the square. Much as he didn’t want to judge the contest, he’d decided the sooner it was over with, the better. He pleasantly nodded or offered passing greetings to the villagers he encountered along the way, and tried very hard not to wonder if they’d been in the crowd that had stared at him while he was posing for the artists.
Atalanta’s Hercules angrily stalked away from the square and the people yelling and cursing behind him. Glowering as he stomped down the earthen lane, he irritably slapped at low-hanging banners and flags that fluttered in his face and muttered, “Making fun of me. I’ll show them.” He’d had such high hopes when he’d eagerly begun to investigate his world, and he really had liked all those stupid paintings. Under his anger, he felt wounded - why didn’t they like him? Why were they so mean to him? He hadn’t done anything wrong. Nasty, rotten, miserable people. Served them right to have all their stuff destroyed.
He swung around a corner and banged into Hercules, who was heading toward the square from the opposite direction. “Hey, watch it!” he shouted as he rubbed his shoulder and looked back at the man who’d side-swiped him.
“I’m sorry, I, uh, guess I wasn’t watching where I was going,” Hercules replied in genial apology as he also turned to look at the man he’d run into.
Shocked at what they were seeing, the two Herculeses gaped at one another.
His curiousity over-riding his hostility, Atalanta’s Hercules pointed and said bemusedly, “You look like me.”
Behind him, Atalanta emerged from the laneway and called with no little relief to have finally found him, “There you are. Now, why don’t you go with, uh ….” Her words faltered as she realized the real Hercules was also standing there, looking puzzled and none too happy. “Um, hi, fellas.”
Never having found the experience of encountering a double a positive one, Hercules scowled as he demanded brusquely, “Atalanta, who is he?”
While she floundered for a way to explain, her Hercules cheerfully volunteered, “She made me.”
She rolled her eyes, but hastily attempted to share the blame, explaining, “Then Hephaestus brought him to life.”
The demigod’s eyes narrowed and, remembering when Heph had made an ideal woman for himself only to learn she was very far from ideal, he shook his head. “I doubt Hephaestus had anything to do with this. Atalanta, this isn’t natural. Nothing good can come from this.” Annoyingly, his double had been mimicking his gestures and expressions and it was really getting on his nerves. “Will you please stop doing that?” he directed.
“Will you please not do that?” his doppelganger echoed and laughed, vastly amused by it all. It was fun to discover he had a twin, especially as he’d been feeling all alone and so different from everyone else.
Hercules huffed and steamed with annoyance, but before he could say anything more, Atalanta intervened. “Look, I didn’t ask for him.” When Hercules directed his scowl at her, she sighed and admitted with a flush of embarrassment, “Okay, well maybe I did, but … I didn’t realize and anyway, he’s here and, and I can’t send him back. So,” she continued lamely when Hercules’ annoyance didn’t seem to be abating, “I’m gonna have to just make the best of this - teach him things.”
“I want to learn,” her creation piped up eagerly. He did, very much, want to learn. The whole world was fascinating and confusing and beautiful and there was so much he didn’t know or understand, but he wished he did.
Ignoring him, Hercules snapped, “Oh, I’ll bet you do.” The continuing shouts of anger and fear from the market caught his attention and he looked down the lane - and saw the evidence of destruction. His lips thinned. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who had caused all the havoc. Glancing at his double, shaking his head, he cautioned, “You know, you may not be able to handle him. What happened back there?”
Shifting to look past him, she shrugged. “It looks like he threw a little tantrum,” and added defensively, “No one got hurt.”
“Yeah, not this time,” he slammed back, surprised and irritated that she wasn’t taking the problem more seriously. But no one knew his strength better than he did, and he knew all too well what damage and harm it could do, even by accident, let alone during a tantrum.
“I was just trying to have a little fun,” his double whined, his head bent as he scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt.
Just wanting the humiliating confrontation to be over, she promised, “I’ll keep a closer eye on him.” Taking her Hercules’ arm, she began to lead him back home. “You’re coming with me.”
“Bye,” the double called cheerfully, waggling his fingers like a little kid as he followed her docilely.
But Hercules couldn’t let it go. It was too dangerous. And wrong. It was so, so wrong. “Atalanta, this isn’t right,” he shouted after her, heavy censure in his tone.
Stung, she wheeled back to face him. She’d explained what happened, that she couldn’t change it - what more did he expect her to do? And, besides, what was the harm, after all? Ordering her Hercules to stay put, she strode back to the demigod. Feeling defensive, and not liking it, she said with barely contained irritation, “Hercules, please. I am a big girl. I finally found someone who accepts me for me. Maybe he’s not perfect - but neither am I. Can’t I just enjoy myself?”
His attention caught by the other Hercules, watching over her shoulder to see that he didn’t get into more trouble or wander away, he was distracted by the other’s antics - hiding in a recessed doorway and then bending low to peer out, as if he thought he could hide and not be seen, but insatiably curious about what was going on. Her Hercules certainly seemed harmless enough in those moments, more like a little kid than anything else. But he wasn’t a little kid and he could do a lot of damage. Hercules only heard half of what she said and was still formulating a reply when Salmoneus rushed up to join them, all in a lather.
“Oh, Hercules!” he complained bitterly, “Now, some of that stuff may have been a tad ostentatious. But don’t you think destroying everything was a little over-the-top?” When it was clear that he didn’t have the hero’s full attention, he looked to see what Hercules was staring at, and his mouth gaped wide in astonishment. “Hercules?” he gasped, and then looked up at the man in front of him, “Hercules?” Staggered, feeling more than a bit dizzy and wondering if he was suffering sunstroke or had eaten a bad olive, he looked back and forth at the two identical demigods. “Lerkuhoos?” he stammered in shock. “Herculoos?”
Glad of Sal’s intervention, Atalanta used his confusion to make good her escape. “Come on!” she ordered her Hercules, taking him by the arm and swiftly loping off along the alley, back toward home.
“Hercu?” Sal tried again and sighed. Blinking, he licked his lips and swallowed as he tried to make sense of the nonsensical. “There’re two of you, huh?!”
“I’ll explain later,” he replied flatly, seriously inclined to race off after Atalanta.
“I don’t think I have a later!” Sal protested, his voice rising as he grabbed hold of Hercules’ arm. Gesturing back toward the market square he wailed, “Those guys wanna lynch me!”
Glancing back at the angry crowd, Hercules heard a man furiously griping as he shoved another man away, “-stepping on my masterpiece!” Shaking his head, he muttered, “That’s if they don’t kill each other first.”
When Sal gave him a baleful look of entreaty, he sighed and nodded. Restoring order came first. He could deal with Atalanta and her version of him later.
“Work’s done,” Atalanta called as she stepped into her cottage. “Now, about that dinner I promised you.”
“I hope you like mushroom soup,” her Hercules called from the kitchen. When he started into the room, he banged his head on the low and lintel. “Ow,” he groaned - but was very careful not to drop the bowl or even spill a drop of the soup he was carrying in both hands.
“It’s my favorite,” she exclaimed with delight. “How’d you know?”
Unbeknownst to her, Discord was lurking in one corner, and the goddess prompted, “I make it my ….”
“I, I make it my, uh, business to know all about you, Atalanta,” he dutifully parroted, doing his best to remember everything Discord had told him and made him memorize. Not that he minded. He really did want to know all about Atalanta. And he wanted to take care of her. She created him and he owed everything to her.
And he thought she was beautiful.
“You’re more talented than I thought. I really wasn’t expecting this,” she replied, very touched and very pleased by his efforts. Turning away, she said, “I’d better get cleaned up.”
“You’re perfect….” Discord prompted.
“Oh, you’re, you’re … you’re perfect the way you are,” he stammered as quickly as he could. Gazing at her admiringly, he thought just how true those words were, and he smiled hesitantly. Setting the bowl on the table, he hurried to pull out her chair and waited hopefully for her to sit down.
“Am I dreaming?” she murmured, taking her place at the table and gazing at him fondly as she waved to the candle and flowers in the center of the table, and the careful place settings. “It’s barely been a day since you were born, and now this?”
“I’m a fast learner, with you to teach me,” Discord supplied as Hercules took his seat and began ladling out the soup, his face a picture of earnest concentration.
“I’m a fast learner with … with you to teach me,” he repeated shyly.
Atalanta beamed at him, and he smiled with relief. She picked up her spoon and tasted the soup, and then she smiled widely again, finding it perfect. Relieved, her Hercules picked up his own spoon.
Discord sauntered across the room to stand beside Atalanta, watching them as they ate. “What did I tell ya? Miss Lonely Hearts is eating this right up,” she gloated. “Now, pour the wine.” When he hastened to do as she said, almost splashing the wine over the rim of the goblet, she yelled, “Not so fast! Like we practiced.” He took a breath to steady himself and poured slowly with infinite care, and then, as he was handing a goblet to Atalanta, she urged, “Remember your line.”
“You read my mind,” Atalanta purred as she accepted the goblet from him.
Lifting his own, he stammered, “Uh, … a, a toast … to the light of my life.” Very nervous, he took a big gulp, swallowing half the wine in his goblet, and then looked at the goblet appreciatively. “This tastes good!” he exclaimed enthusiastically.
Sipping at hers, Atalanta observed, “Funny - you don’t drink. I mean, Hercules doesn’t drink.”
“Careful, don’t blow it,” Discord coaxed him. “I do a lot of things Hercules doesn’t do.”
Dutifully, he repeated, “I do a lot of things that Her- Hercules doesn’t do.”
Rolling her eyes, the goddess whined, “Hello. Can we pick up the pace, please?”
Immediately, nervously, he tried to recall from all the complicated things she told him to remember. “What … what’s your sign?”
“No, not that!” Discord exclaimed, making him jump, confusing him further. “Not yet!”
Atalanta blinked at him and lifted a querying brow. “I beg your pardon?”
“Be aggressive,” Discord told him, standing closer to urge him on. “That’s what she really wants.”
Aggressive? Okay, he remembered what to do. Standing, leaning close to Atalanta, he rasped, “Ready for dessert?” And then he grabbed her to nuzzle her throat before seeking her lips. But she confused him by struggling violently against him, so that he pulled back.
“Whoa! Slow down!” Atalanta bellowed at him.
“Come on,” he insisted, bending toward her again. “You know you want it.”
She violently pushed him away and jumped to her feet, and her voice was low and angry as she said, “What I want, I don’t hide. But this is just all happening too fast.”
“Oooh, such a tease,” Discord snorted disparagingly.
“This is weird. I don’t know who’s teaching you your moves,” Atalanta was saying, as he cringed before her, “but you’ve got a lot to learn about romance, my friend.”
“What?! Talk about mixed signals, the prude!” Discord exclaimed sarcastically.
“Hercules was right. This was a big mistake,” Atalanta told him firmly. Pointing at the door, she ordered, “Go back to the barn.” When he hesitated, confused and woefully sorry to have upset her, she yelled, “Go!”
Head down, feeling humiliated, he trudged out of the house and back to the barn. There, he dropped down to sit dolefully on the floor. “I hate the barn,” he whined, petulant and discouraged. He’d thought he was doing the right thing, but now she was angry and he didn’t even really know why.
“Spoiled sport,” Discord sniped, shaking her head, as she followed him inside. Trying to manipulate mortals was hard work. She’d rather just blast them, but she still hoped she could manipulate the big stupid lug into causing real trouble. Pretending to commiserate while he sat dejectedly on the filthy floor, breaking up pieces of straw, she purred, “She’s under a lot of pressure, poor thing. See … there are some bullies in town that wanna do a number on her.”
“What do you mean, ‘a number’?” he muttered, still inclined to sulk. Most of Discord’s advice just seemed to get him into trouble.
“Stomp her, mess her up - squash her like a bug,” she elaborated with pointed emphasis, even a bit of relish.
He stirred and cut her a sideways, worried glance. “They wanna hurt her? That’s not good.”
“No,” she agreed. “A real man would defend his lady’s honor.”
“How?” he muttered again. Tossing a handful of straw away, crossing his arms, he said aggrievedly, “Atalanta would be angry if I leave this stupid barn.”
Discord sighed and rolled her eyes. Crossing her arms, she asked disdainfully, “Ever hear of the expression, ‘Whipped’?”
Morosely, he shook his head; he didn’t understand her - there were so many things he didn’t understand - but, from the way she said it, he figured it wasn’t anything good. Sighing, he reminded himself that Discord was his friend, and was only trying to help him show Atalanta how much he loved her. Rising to his feet, he faced the goddess. “Tell me, who is trying to hurt her - and what I have to do I stop him.”
Dusk was falling fast and he still had a long way to go. Iolaus hadn’t stopped, not even to eat, but had munched on bread and cheese, and gulped water from the skin that hooked to his belt, as he ran up and over the mountain, across the narrow valley and onward, into the next set of hills between him and the small village on the edge of the Mycenaean Plain. With every step, he tried not to worry, for he knew worry did no good. But he couldn’t stop thinking about Herc coming up against something that was as powerful as he was but was also a whole lot less vulnerable to injury. And Herc … Herc would quickly come to realize that the thing was really only a child, so he’d be pulling his punches, trying to help and reason, to contain, rather than destroy.
Even if things went bad in a hurry, Hercules didn’t know that the only way to stop the thing was with fire. And how many fires were big enough to melt something the size of Hercules without also burning down a house?
On and on he ran, out of the valley and into the thick forest that covered the last set of hills, leaping over low growing shrubs and fallen trees, using the last bit of light to make his best time. But, as night fell, he had to slow down, no matter how urgent his mission. The overhead canopy of trees was too thick to let in much moonlight. But still he maintained a steady lope, moving as fast as could through the shadows.
“I tell ya,” his sister insisted, her voice shrill, “there’s another Hercules. He attacked us at her barn.”
Swillus snorted and tossed the bone he’d been chewing on into his crackling campfire. Darkness had fallen, shrouding the forest around them with deep shadows. Refuse was strewn carelessly around the indigent, noisome camp they all shared since being forced out of their business and home when all their customers had started going to Atalanta.
“Just as strong,” his red-headed brother insisted, sounding more than a little hysterical with fear, “only dumb as a stump.”
Rolling his eyes at the ridiculous story, Swillus sniped snidely, “Look who’s talking. Get outta here, you bums!”
Seething, his fists bunched at the insult, but unequal to his brother and resenting it, the red-head wanted to stand his ground. But he had to get away before his rage got the better of him. Grabbing his sister’s arm, he snarled, “Come on, let’s get outta here.”
Disgusted that Swillus would pay them no mind, she allowed him to pull her away. But she angrily called back over her shoulder, “You don’t believe us, fine. But it really happened.”
Left alone and in peace, Swillus took a swig of wine and shook his head at the pathetic idiocy of his siblings. Standing, he headed into the shadows to relieve himself, mumbling, “It’s a burden, having all the brains in the family.” But he’d scarcely gone beyond the circle of light cast by the fire when he nearly banged into Hercules. “Well, if it ain’t the big man hisself,” he acknowledged with drunken sarcasm.
“I’m here to defend my lady’s honor,” Hercules said darkly, his expression grim and resolute.
Laughing contemptuously, Swillus declaimed, “What a load of - !”
But his words were abruptly cut off when Hercules unceremoniously grabbed his head and twisted sharply, abruptly snapping his neck. Swillus, an expression of astonishment on his face, was dead before his body hit the ground.
Hercules was in the market square the next morning, helping Salmoneus to clean up the mess his double had wrought the day before. Painfully aware of the surly looks directed his way from people who believed he’d been the one who had been so destructive, he kept the truth to himself and had strictly told Sal to do the same. If these people knew the facts, they might panic, and who could blame them? The thought of something as strong as he was running amok was enough to frighten anyone. He’d just finished stacking the last bit of refuse when he heard a man call, “Make way!”
Curious, he turned to see what was going on, and saw someone leading a mule with a dead man slung over its back.
“What happened?” he asked the village magistrate, a small but sturdy white-haired man dressed in simple but elegant robes.
“It’s Swillus. Somebody snapped his neck like a twig,” he replied dryly, sounding unsurprised.
“Swillus?” Salmoneus echoed. “Sounds like that Neanderthal you and Atalanta fought.”
“He won’t be missed,” the magistrate assured them. “Probably one of his own kin did it. They’re always feudin’. We’ll get him.”
When the magistrate moved away to follow the mule and obtain more facts, if there were any, Hercules muttered to himself, “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Atalanta entered the barn and looked around, finally spotting her Hercules leaning against the wall near the stall. “There you are,” she called with an awkward smile. “Look, I’m, uh, sorry about last night.”
Moving to meet her, relieved to be forgiven he smiled, though he still wasn’t exactly sure what he’d done that had so upset her the evening before. “Well, that’s all right,” he allowed, eager to have the unhappy times behind them. “Tonight will be even better,” he promised, his voice low and husky with desire.
She looked up at him, her expression poignantly resolute. Reaching out to grip his arms, she urged gently, “Listen to me. I am a woman, and you are … you are a … a child. There can’t be anything between us. Do you understand?”
Scowling heavily, he shook his head. Why was she saying these things? Why didn’t she love him, the way he loved her? Why wasn’t he did ever good enough for her? “I defended your honor,” he growled and then shouted in frustration, “I saved you from that bully! You’re supposed to be happy!”
Startled, she demanded anxiously, “What are you talking about? What bully?”
“Don’t worry,” he crooned, reaching to tenderly cup her face. “I fixed him. He will never bother you again!”
Her eyes grew wide with realization as she gaped at him, and then she wrenched away from his touch, horrified by what she had created. “No,” she gasped, and turned to run from him.
He reached for her but she slipped away and was out of the barn. No? What did she mean, ‘no’? He’d done it for her. He did everything for her. Everything. But nothing was ever enough to please her. With a roar of wounded frustration, he erupted into a tantrum, tossing her tools around, smashing whatever he could lay his hands on, tossing her anvil against the wall ….
Hercules caught her as she raced from the barn, exclaiming “Atalanta! Are you all right?” as he looked past her toward the sounds of obvious destruction coming from inside the structure.
“He’s gone crazy,” she replied, and then grabbed his arm, holding him back when he started toward the barn. “No, don’t stop him! Let him get it out of his system. He’s not hurting anyone.”
Frowning down at her, he said bluntly, “Unfortunately, somebody already has been hurt.”
“I know,” she sighed sorrowfully. “I just found out about it.”
“You wait here,” he ordered, and then strode resolutely to the barn.
Entering, he called, “All right, pal, you and I need to have a little chat.” When only silence greeted him, he looked around quickly and then sagged in dismay when he spotted the sizable hole in the back wall. Once again, his double was on the loose. He was about to leave when several heavy sledge hammers and the anvil came flying at him. He ducked and dodged and then straightened, scowling when he saw Discord standing on the iron rim of Atalanta’s large fire pit, holding a pitchfork like a staff.
“Welcome to the party, Hercules. I’m afraid the guest of honor cut out early,” she drawled superciliously.
“Discord,” he grunted distastefully. “Now it’s all starting to make sense to me.”
Having ignored his order to stay put, Atalanta rushed inside and, hearing his words, stared around the empty barn. “Discord’s here?” The pitchfork came flying toward her, and would have killed her if Hercules had not grabbed it from the air. Her brows arched and she swallowed hard. “Guess so,” she allowed, her throat tight with a sense of dread.
Materializing so that Atalanta could see her, too, Discord crowed, “Too late. Your boy-toy flew the coop.”
“No!” Atalanta protested. “He can’t control his anger. He’s a menace to everyone.”
“That’s what she’s counting on,” Hercules informed her grimly. “I’ll be blamed for all the trouble he causes.”
Laughing coldly, Discord drawled, “I think our little tin soldier’s had enough time to start doing some damage.”
Furious, Atalanta launched herself at the goddess. Hercules yelled, “NO!” but it was too late. Discord hit her with a bolt of energy that blew her hard and fast high into the air and then she crashed down against the wall of the barn.
“Nice try,” Discord observed sarcastically with a mean grin. But when Hercules lunged toward her, she quickly added, “Bye for now,” and then vanished.
With an angry, worried scowl, Hercules dashed across the earthen floor to Atalanta, and was relieved to see her fall had been cushioned by large sacks of grain. Leaning down, he offered a hand and helped draw her to her feet. “Come on,” he urged, “we’ve gotta find him fast.”
The mob surged in through the gate, shoving and pushing Swillus’ brother and sister toward the gallows on the far side. “We’ve got them!” someone yelled triumphantly.
The red-head’s sister cried out desperately, “He didn’t do it! I tell ya! He didn’t kill our brother!”
Trembling with fear for his life when they draped a rope around his neck, her brother insisted, “It must have been that other Hercules! He’s just as strong and mean!”
The magistrate shook his head at the nonsense. “That’s ridiculous! You’re drunk! Like always!” And he nodded toward the hangman to put a noose around her neck, too.
“Send her to Tartarus!” someone in the crowd cried out, and the others roared their approval.
On the sidelines, Sal watched what was happening with growing alarm. Wringing his hands, he knew Hercules didn’t want the whole village to know about the metal imposter, but he couldn’t just stand there and allow innocent people, even these bullying troublemakers, be hung for a crime they hadn’t committed. “No! No! No!” he called, waving his hands for attention, and pushing himself through the thick crowd toward the magistrate. “Excuse me! Please! Please! Please! You’re making a terrible mistake!” he yelled desperately to be heard above the mob’s seething roar for blood. Finally, he made it to the magistrate and clutched his arm to get his attention. “They’re telling the truth!” he insisted, but hesitated when the magistrate turned disbelieving eyes upon him. Well, yes, right, the real Hercules wasn’t mean. “Well, at least part of it,” he tempered his assertion, and then clarified, “There is another Hercules!”
Astounded, the magistrate demanded, “How can that be?!”
Glancing around the crowd, feeling badly about having to reveal everything but not seeing any way out of it, Sal reluctantly told him, told them all, “Atalanta built a statue! Hephaestus brought it to life!” And then at the panicked rumble, he added hastily, “But, but, don’t worry, Hercules is handling it. Everything is under control.”
“A killer with the strength of Hercules!” a man in the crowd shouted. “We gotta get him!” With a loud rumble of agreement, the crowd began to surge back toward the gate. Someone asked loudly how they’d be able to tell the difference between the killer and the real Hercules.
“No! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” Sal yelled and pleaded, as he tried to grab hold of arms that just shrugged him off and pushed him out of the way. When he heard another voice yell that they had to get both of them, he exclaimed, “What?! What?! Don’t!”
As they hastened along a tree-shrouded lane, Atalanta guiltily berated herself. “I’m such an idiot! If he hurts anyone, it’s all my fault.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Hercules consoled her. “It’s Discord who’s to blame.”
“No,” she protested. “I don’t deserve to get let off the hook. I should’ve known this whole situation was trouble from the start.”
“There’s no way you could’ve known that,” he insisted.
“No, there wasn’t,” Iolaus huffed breathlessly, as he appeared from out of the forest. Puffing to catch his breath, he gave Hercules a half-wave and bent over, bracing his hands on his thighs, as he dragged in air.
Startled to see him, Atalanta exclaimed, “Iolaus! What are you doing here?”
“I sent him word that I was coming,” Hercules explained as he studied his friend. “The message from Sal said it was urgent and I thought that meant trouble, not an art fair.”
“Art fair?” Iolaus gasped as he straightened.
“Long story, I’ll tell you about it later,” Hercules replied, though he hoped he’d get away without sharing all the details.
“But now there really is trouble,” Atalanta jumped in. “I tried to pretend a lump of steel was a person, someone I could care about. And even worse, I tried to pretend I was somebody I’m not.”
“You wanted a friend, someone to talk to - someone to share things with,” Hercules returned gently. “There is nothing wrong with that, right?”
“Yeah. And I should’ve listened when a real friend tried to set me straight,” she insisted, determined to take the blame for what she’d inadvertently created.
“Nah, you were confused; it happens to all of us,” he insisted, looping a comforting arm around her shoulders.
“Even you?” she challenged uncertainly.
“Even me,” he assured her.
Iolaus had been watching the conversational ball bounce back and forth between them. “Besides,” he interjected quickly as soon as there was a break, “you couldn’t know that Aphrodite would bring your sculpture to life. That really isn’t your fault.”
“Aphrodite?” she exclaimed. “I thought it was Hephaestus!”
“Nah,” Iolaus explained, as he fell into step beside them. “Heph told me it was ‘Dite.” With a meaningful look at Hercules, he went on, “Hephaestus would never bring a statue to life, expecting it to behave like a normal mortal.”
Nodding soberly, Hercules murmured, “I didn’t think Hephaestus could be behind this.”
“But, if he knows about it, why doesn’t he do something to stop it?” she demanded.
“Well, that’s complicated,” Iolaus hedged with another glance at Hercules. “He, uh, he doesn’t want ‘Dite to feel bad.”
Hercules snorted and rubbed his mouth. “Well, under the circumstances, I guess I can understand that, sort of,” he allowed grudgingly. “So, it’s up to us to stop the, uh, machine. C’mon, let’s go!”
He and Atalanta broke into a run. With a resigned expression, ignoring his protesting muscles, Iolaus took off after them.
“A simple art festival. Helping war orphans. What could go wrong with that?” Salmoneus muttered woefully to himself as he wandered aimlessly around the square. “I guess I found out, didn’t I?”
Not really paying attention to where he was going, he had practically run head-on into Hercules before he stopped and looked up, his expression of welcoming relief quickly fading as he took in the hard, cold scowl. “Uh-oh. From the look on that face, you’re not the good one, are ya?” he observed and then, when the scowl deepened and the demigod took a threatening step toward him, he babbled anxiously, “Not that you’re not good!” Backing up as the false Hercules paced toward him, he gabbled, “Hey! What’s a few psychotic, homicidal tendencies among friends?!” When the demigod loomed threateningly over him, he laughed nervously. Swallowing hard, holding out his hands defensively, he said, “Speaking of friends, did you know, that I’m one of Hercules’ best friends? I mean, the real Hercules?”
“Are you saying I’m not real?!” the double growled menacingly.
“Hey! You look plenty real to me!” Salmoneus insisted and reached out to ping one, large muscled arm. “Nice tone! Atalanta sure didn’t skimp on the, the bronze when she made you!” Backing away, he again laughed almost hysterically. His gaze frantically jumped around the square, seeking help, but there was none to be had. Everyone had raced off in the mob, searching for - well, for this guy, right here. Who knew he’d come to the village looking for more trouble? Huh? But there he was, large as life, and stalking him. Oh, he was in such trouble! “Listen. I-I-I-I’ll, I’ll tell you what!” he exclaimed, desperately trying to buy time with the hope that help would soon arrive, “You come back to the art festival, and I’ll guarantee that you’ll win the grand prize. How do you like that, huh?”
“You talk too much,” Hercules growled furiously, as he advanced closer and closer, pressing Sal back against a post. “Shut up!”
Truly terrified now, Sal gasped, “Okay, I’m shutting up.” He made a zipping gesture across his lips but, with the huge, enraged demigod looming over him so threateningly, he was too scared to remain silent. “But if anything happens to me,” he warned, hopefully this Hercules would care, “Hercules is gonna find out, and, and you’re gonna be sorry, okay?” The false Hercules reached out and tightly grabbed him, and he squeaked, “I’m shutting up now.”
But it was too late. The ground fell away as he was lifted high over Hercules’ head. He screamed in abject fear, his arms and legs thrashing helplessly. When the mighty machine spun him until he was dizzy, he screamed again, certain he was about to die.
Having heard Salmoneus’ pitiful, shrill wails, Hercules, Atalanta and Iolaus dashed into the square.
“Put him down,” Hercules ordered sharply, even as Iolaus ranged off to the side, to come at the metal Hercules from another angle, should a fight be unavoidable.
“I was about to,” his double snarled furiously, flexing his arms, unsettling Sal even further.
“Don’t encourage him!” he yelled desperately, and then felt himself heaved into the air. Terrified nearly out of his wits, he screamed again as he plummeted toward the ground - and was astonished to find himself safe and sound when Atalanta caught him. “Ohh! Oh! Thank you!” he gushed, far too relieved to worry about the indignity of being caught by a girl.
His hands out, his voice deliberately pitched to be reasonable and calming, Hercules approached the angry double. “It doesn’t have to be this way. You’re confused,” he soothed. “Discord’s been steering you wrong.”
“Discord wouldn’t lie to me!” the poor replica protested fiercely. “She’s my friend!” Confused, angry, not knowing what to believe, he lifted his fist to pound Hercules, but his arm was caught and, with a surge of rage, he started to turn on whoever was holding him back, his other fist clenching and coming up fast.
“No!” Atalanta cried, even as Hercules caught his other arm, keeping him from striking out.
“Atalanta,” he gasped, appalled at how close he’d come to almost hurting her. Panting with emotion, he stammered, “I’m sorry. I … I would never hurt you.”
“But you almost did,” Hercules pointed out relentlessly, and then offered again, “Let us help you.”
“Listen to him,” Iolaus urged, his voice low and compelling. “We don’t want to hurt you.”
For a moment, the duplicate hesitated, confused and so tired. Help him? Could anybody really help him? But, just as he was about to surrender, the mob rushed in through the gate. “Kill him! Get him!” they yelled, but then ground to a stop, gaping at the two identical demigods. Someone called in confusion, “Which one’s the real Hercules?”
“Who cares?” Swillus’ sister screamed. “Get ‘em both!”
The mob surged forward again, bent on murder in the name of self-protection. While Atalanta’s Hercules immediately stepped in front of her, to protect her, Hercules and Iolaus spun away from them to face the crowd. Pacing toward them, Hercules yelled almost desperately, for he didn’t want to have hurt anyone, “No, stop!” Iolaus quickly stepped up beside him, poised for battle.
Atalanta, fearing the panicked, enraged mob would tear both her friends apart, screamed, “No! He’s Hercules!”
Her Hercules snapped his head around, scarcely able to believe that she’d save the other one, would throw him to the dogs. He loved her. Would give his life to defend her. Didn’t that mean anything to her? His lips curled in a snarl of enraged pain, and he turned to heft a massive wooden hitching rail over his head, and then he heaved it directly at Hercules and Iolaus.
Swillus’ brother shouted, “Look out!” as the crowd gasped and pressed back.
Warned by the shout, Iolaus and Hercules whirled around. Eyes widening at the massive missile bearing down on them, knowing only Hercules could stop it, Iolaus quickly hunkered down, and just in time. Hercules caught the brutally heavy post and stumbled backward, staggering to keep his balance.
Safe now from the attack, someone in the crowd rallied again, calling, “Come on! Everybody, stick together!” Iolaus immediately straightened and wheeled to face them.
“Stop!” Hercules ordered them, swinging around, forgetting he still held the long rail. Alert, half expecting Hercules’ move, Iolaus swiftly ducked as the post spun through the air, just missing his head, but others weren’t either so alert or so fast - and several were knocked down, some only winded, others out cold. Faced with by a demigod with a massive weapon in his hands, the mob again faltered, while Hercules guiltily looked at the people he’d knocked down, and hoped none were badly hurt.
Behind them, her Hercules grabbed Atalanta, startling her and drawing her attention back to him. “Hey!” she exclaimed and tried to pull away, but his grip only tightened until she winced.
“You’re coming with me!” he rasped hoarsely, fury in his eyes. Though she struggled, he hauled her off down an alley.
Alerted by the sounds of her struggle, Salmoneus turned and saw them disappear from sight. “He’s got Atalanta!” he yelled urgently to Hercules and Iolaus.
“Salmoneus!” Iolaus shouted as they raced past. “Take care of these people!”
“Stop! Stop, you’re hurting me!” Atalanta protested, still trying to pull away, as he dragged her swiftly along the tree-shrouded path where she and Hercules had been joined by Iolaus.
“Oh, I’m not even squeezing hard,” he snapped disparagingly, maintaining a rapid pace. “If he held you twice as tight, you’d like it.”
“I can’t help how I feel about him,” she retorted.
“I don’t get it!” he replied, looking down at her, a look of confused mystification and hurt on his face. “We’re exactly the same!”
“Only on the outside,” she contested fiercely. “On the inside you’re not even human. I should have seen it sooner.”
The hurt in his eyes gave way to jealous fury. “Yeah?” he taunted, as he jerked her arm hard, again ruthlessly hauling her home. “We’ll see how you feel about me when he’s not around anymore.”
She continued to drag her feet and struggle every step of the way, but he was too powerful for her to resist. “Stop fighting me!” he shouted at her, jerking her hard, nearly pulling her off her feet. They were almost home; the barn was just a little ways further. And then … then they could talk, and he could explain, and everything would be all right. “Come on!”
But when he got her in the barn, and let go of her arm, she tried to escape back through the door. Exasperated, he again caught her, calling, “Stop! Get over there!” as he determinedly pulled her away from the door.
Discord flashed into sight and cheered, “What a man. Welcome back. I’ve been keeping the home fires burning.”
Snarling at her like a trapped animal, enraged at what the spiteful goddess had done, Atalanta yelled, “When Hephaestus and Aphrodite find out how you ruined things, they’ll pound you senseless.”
“Unfortunately for you, poor, love-struck Heph is never gonna tell her. He’s off chasing after Aphrodite, and she’s so busy teasing him and pretending to run that she’s oblivious to everything that’s going on down here.” Spitefully, she punched a bolt of energy at the shrine, utterly destroying the effigy of the god.
But Atalanta’s Hercules no longer trusted Discord. All she’d done was mislead him and tell him to do bad things that got him into trouble, and he knew that now, even if he didn’t know how to fix everything. Moving protectively in front of Atalanta, he ordered, “Don’t you hurt her.”
“Relax, dim-wad, and pay attention,” she shot back contemptuously. “Hercules should be coming through that door right about … now!”
And, just then, Hercules and Iolaus barged through the barn door. He pushed Atalanta to safety when they charged at him and lashed out defensively, catching Iolaus with a sweeping backhand and sending him flying, and then grappling with Hercules. The two demigods slugged one another, shoved back and forth, wheeling and kicking, thrusting one another away and then diving at one another again. Their strength was evenly matched but - Hercules felt the blows more than did his metal look-alike. When the duplicate heaved him into the air, he crashed against the barn wall and then, stunned, he fell through a shelf, dropping to the hard-packed floor, various heavy pottery urns and metal implements falling around him.
To buy him time to catch his breath, Iolaus engaged Atalanta’s Hercules, rolling to knock him off his feet, and then spinning out of reach, bringing his boot up to kick the far stronger being in the head, and then spinning again, to kick him again while he staggered dizzily to his knees, knocking him down again.
“That’s it. Kick him when he’s down. Whoa. Not bad for a mortal,” Discord called nastily. But as the false Hercules stood and charged at Iolaus, she chimed, “It won’t happen twice.”
Iolaus ducked and darted, whipped around to kick out again, but this time, the metal demigod was ready, and he dodged out of range just in time. And then he lunged at Iolaus, grabbing and shaking him, before tossing him away like a rag doll. Atalanta was screaming at him, telling him to stop, as if this was all his fault, when he was only defending himself. They had attacked him!
Hercules pushed himself up and launched back into the fight. Again, he and his double exchanged brutal blows. Behind him, struggling to his knees, Iolaus yelled, “The fire, Herc! Push him into the fire!”
Atalanta’s Hercules heard the shout, and he felt fear for the first time. Desperately, he fought now for his life, but his fear made him awkward. Brute strength had been enough, so far, to match Hercules’ greater skills, learned over decades, but now he floundered. Hoping Atalanta would save him, would stop them from killing him, he glanced at her in piteous hope and, distracted, he failed to block the mighty punch into his gut that sent him sailing helplessly back through the air. He felt the heat and howled in despairing terror, and then the flames consumed him.
Panting, Hercules turned to give Iolaus a hand, levering him back onto his feet. “Thanks, buddy,” he murmured, nearly exhausted by the battle. And then he turned on Discord. “It’s over, Discord,” he said flatly, wishing he could eliminate her for good, too; but he couldn’t. “Go home.”
“Oh, fine. I was getting bored here, anyway,” she pouted petulantly. But meanness again sparked in her eyes, and her lip curled into a sneer. Lashing out at an overhead crossbeam with a bolt of blinding power, she shouted venomously, “Here’s a little something to remember me by.”
Pushing Iolaus to safety behind him, Hercules cried out, “Atalanta! Look out!”
But she’d been caught by the falling beam and crushed to the floor. More beams and part of the roof crashed in, littering the ground around her with large, heavy chunks of wood. And fire had erupted from the explosive blast of power, the flames quickly engulfing the bone-dry wooden building and feeding voraciously on the brittle straw and bales of hay. The horse, tied in his stall, screamed in terror and kicked his hooves frantically against the sturdy walls.
Hercules and Iolaus hastily began to clear a path to Atalanta, both scared that she might already be dead. Finally, they got close enough for Hercules to lift the massive beam off her body and for Iolaus to get close to feel her throat.
“She’s alive,” he said sharply, looking up at his friend. He was shifting to try to ease her out from under the beam when Discord’s laugh alerted them both, and they looked toward her, and then to the firepit.
“Now’s your chance!” she yelled jubilantly as the molten Hercules rose from the flames and climbed out of the pit. “Get them!”
Smoke swirled thickly in the air, and the flames danced on the roof as well as all around them. Hercules gaped at the metallic monster, but he was helpless - if he let go of the beam, Atalanta might be killed. When Iolaus scrambled out and away from Atalanta, he gasped, “Iolaus, no!” There was no way his friend could take on his counterpart and survive.
Ignoring him, Iolaus caught up the rake to use as a staff as he stood between the monster and his friends. When the molten Hercules paced close enough, he lashed out with it, hoping to knock off a leg, but the metal tines of the rake melted and the wooden handle erupted in flames, so he had to drop it and jump back.
“Iolaus! You can’t stop him! Get out of his way!” Hercules shouted over the shrill, hysterical shrieks of the terrified horse and the snapping and cracking of burning wood.
But Iolaus again ignored him. Though he stayed a step out of reach as the molten Hercules slowly strode forward, he urged, “Stop this! It’s madness! Don’t you know that? You’re … you can’t have Atalanta! I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t exist. Please … we’re just trying to help her.”
The molten statue continued to relentlessly pace forward, until Iolaus had been pushed back as far as he could go and still stay between his friends and this … this thing. “Please, we just want to help her,” he pleaded.
While Discord gloated, sure she was about to see both Hercules and his annoying sidekick go up in flames, Atalanta’s Hercules finally stopped his silent advance. “I know,” he said somberly, carefully reaching past Iolaus to grab hold of the beam Hercules was straining to keep from crushing Atalanta. Looking down at the warrior cringing away from his blistering heat but not retreating a step, he ordered, “Go, save the horse.” When Iolaus hesitated, he urged, “I’ve got the beam. I’ll hold it. You get the horse and Hercules can help Atalanta.”
Warily, Iolaus slipped out to the side but he didn’t turn away until Hercules let go the beam and bent to carefully pull Atalanta out of danger. Licking his lips, he wheeled to rescue the horse, drawing his knife to slice the braided leather rope holding the beast in the stall, and then, with a yell and waving arms, he got the horse pointed toward the door. The terrified animal raced outside just as Hercules stood with Atalanta in his arms. With a puzzled but grateful glance at his molten counterpart, he turned away and hurried through the smoke and flames.
Iolaus dashed from the back of the barn, skirting around burning bales and running through smaller flames cast up by the loose straw and hay on the earthen floor. The molten Hercules was still holding the heavy beam and was looking up at the flames consuming the roof. For a moment, Iolaus paused beside him. When the fiery statue looked down on him, he said with heartfelt sincerity. “Thank you.” Gesturing helplessly toward the door, he went on, “I’m … I’m sorry. I ….”
“Go,” the statue said somberly. “Go. Help him take care of her.” And, as Iolaus turned away, he said very softly, “Tell her … tell her I’m sorry. Tell her ... I really loved her.”
Iolaus looked back over his shoulder. Fighting the urge to cough against the thick smoke, his throat suddenly thick with sorrow for the poor creature, he nodded. “I will,” he promised. An enflamed beam crashed down from the ceiling. Ducking reflexively, he dashed outside.
“You idiot,” Discord snarled. “You could have killed them both! To think I wasted my time with you!”
Atalanta’s Hercules shifted his grip on the heavy beam, and then launched it like a missile toward her as he yelled with heartbroken grief, “You ruined everything!”
She disappeared in a spangle of light, leaving him alone. He glanced around at his flaming tomb and then, longingly, at the door, beyond which Atalanta lay. She was safe now. A molten tear slipped down his cheek as he stood forlornly alone, broken-hearted, and knowing he was doomed.
And then the roof crashed down upon him, engulfing him in flames.
Iolaus dropped to one knee beside Hercules, who was cradling Atalanta in his arms. “Is she okay?” he asked hopefully.
“I think so,” he replied, lightly touching her head. “Gonna have one heck of a headache, though.”
She moaned at his touch and blinked, squinting against the light. “Ow,” she complained with a grimace, and then looked around in panic. “What happened?” she demanded as she struggled to rise. “Is he really gone?”
“Easy,” Hercules soothed, helping her to sit up but restraining her from standing. “He’s gone. But he rose out of the fire to help us save you.”
“He what?” she gasped, looking toward the burning barn with an expression of loathing. “But he wanted to kill both of you! He was a monster!”
“No, no, he wasn’t a monster. Discord confused him, got him into trouble by using him,” Iolaus said quietly. “She twisted everything around, made him to do things he didn’t really know were wrong. All he did, he did because he, well, he loved you. More than anything in this world, he loved you.”
She studied Iolaus wordlessly for a long moment and then, her lip trembling, she covered her smoke-smudged face with her hands. Hercules held her while she wept for the poor, doomed creature that had only wanted to love her. Finally, her sobs subsided. She sniffed and swiped at her face. “It’s okay,” she murmured, pulling away from Hercules. “I’m okay now.”
He helped her to her feet and they all stood staring at the burning barn. She sniffed again and sadly shook her head. “You’re right,” she said sorrowfully, “he wasn’t a monster. He was a confused child, just doing his best.” Sighing, she looked at the sky. “And … and I guess I loved him, too. I won’t ever forget him, that’s for sure. I wish … I wish he could know that.”
Thinking about the water enforcer, Hercules slipped an arm around her shoulder. “You know, I think he might - whether or not he was mortal or not, the love he felt was real, and he sacrificed himself to save you. Wouldn’t be the first time that Hades let such a noble spirit into the Elysian Fields.” She looked up at him gratefully, and hugged him. And then he turned her toward the house. “C’mon,” he said gently. “Let’s get cleaned up.”
She looked at him and at Iolaus, and noticed for the first time that they, too, were smudged with ash and smoke, as well as bleeding from numerous gashes from the fight. Nodding, she led them to the house.
An hour or so later, the heroes were about to take their leave and head back into the village, when Salmoneus appeared around the curve in the lane, the earnest little girl from the art show trailing after him.
“Atalanta?!” he called, smiling with relief to see that they were all alright. Holding out a lovely blue garment, he offered, “A dress, to replace the one that got ripped to shreds during the fight.”
“Oh thanks, Salmoneus,” she said, as she took it with a smile and admired it. But then she handed it back to him. “But no thanks. I’ve learned my lesson. I like who I am - and I’m never gonna hide that again.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Hercules said as he patted her on the shoulder, and Iolaus grinned in approval.
Not missing a beat or an opportunity, Sal jumped in with his newest money making scheme, “In that case, would you pose for a Papyrus Pinup I was thinking about? I’m thinking of folding it three ways, putting it in the middle of a men’s ‘Gentlemen’s Quarterly’ scroll.”
Laughing, Iolaus dropped to one knee beside the little girl. “Well, hello there,” he greeted her warmly.
Shyly holding up a scroll, she confided, “I drew Hercules.”
“Did you?” he exclaimed with interest. “Could I take a look?” When she nodded, he took the scroll and unrolled it, giving a low whistle of approval. Smiling, he said to his friend, “Hey, Herc, take a look at this great portrait of you!”
Hercules took the scroll and smiled as he looked at the childish rendering of himself smiling and benign clouds floating over his head. Reflecting that this was the first piece that he’d seen that looked anything like him, he grinned approvingly at the little girl. Laying a gentle hand on her shoulder, he called, “Salmoneus! I think we found a winner for the art fair.”
Rising to stand beside him, Iolaus teased, “You posed for the artists, huh? You will tell me all about it, right?”
“Oh, yeah, sure I will,” Hercules assured him genially. “When we’re both old and gray.”
Laughing, Iolaus slapped him on the shoulder and then, with the little girl, they went to rescue Atalanta from Salmoneus’ persuasive sales pitch and to show them both the winning piece of art.
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