Waves crashed over the railings sending water sliding across the deck. It had been washed clean long ago. The storm had no end. Thunder rumbled ominously from the churning clouds overhead. Lightning lit the sky. A lone figure stood on the deck, his hands gripped the wheel but didn’t steer the ship. His eyes didn’t see the sea before them. They were haunted eyes replaying the terrible past in front of him over and over, again and again, moment after moment when he had ignored his friend’s suggestions, advice, feelings, intuition and plowed on his determined path heedless of the possible outcome. Damn his overconfidence. Damn his self-righteousness. Damn himself. Why did he never listen? IF he had listened, Serena would be alive. He wouldn’t have married her and she would have lived. Time after time all the way back to the Golden Fleece. He didn’t listen then either. How different things could have been. He didn’t listen when Iolaus didn’t want to go to Sumeria but he went ahead and came without giving it a second thought, dragging ever loyal Iolaus after him. Even after the nightmare warning him of things to come, he didn’t stop.
Oh, the great Hercules is always right and what did it get him? Iolaus was dead and it was his fault because he didn’t listen. He had never appreciated Iolaus’s loyalty. Fool that he was, he just assumed that his partner would always be there and he always was there until he wasn’t. Until that fateful day that he sacrificed himself for Hercules’s need to always be right. The dagger flew through the air in his mind and as always struck it’s mark. Iolaus fell and it was his doing. No one to blame but himself. Hercules was lost, useless, a fool. If he couldn’t save his brother how could he hope to save anyone else? He wasn’t worth saving himself.
The demigod barely noticed when the water rose over his year. His strength had left him, when Iolaus had left him. There was nothing left, nowhere to run to or run from. He was through. He released the wheel and let go, waiting for the final release to come. He felt nothing. It didn’t matter anymore, nothing did.
“Yes, it does matter! Herc! What are you doing? Are you crazy? Swim! Come on, kick your feet! You can do it, buddy! You have to try. Come on, Herc, for me, kick your legs, swim for me!”
Hercules heard the voice in his mind and heeded the call. Anything for Iolaus. He obeyed without thinking. His body moved upward through the water, slowly, but it moved.
“Way to go Herc! Now just keep going, keep going, you’re doing it!” A new pathway opened as if by magic beside Iolaus. He knew without a doubt that this was the way to his friend. When Iolaus found himself on this strange wooded path, he had quickly figured out that whatever he thought about, that path would open before him. That’s how it worked, if he kept his thoughts on Hades, Ania and his boys, that’s where the path before him would lead but if his thoughts strayed to Hercules, then a second path would open before him and he would have to choose. Hercules’s voice sounded in his mind, “Can’t. Too tired.”
“Herc, I know you’re tired, but you can’t stop. You have to swim. I’m coming. I’ll help you buddy, but you have to swim. Swim, Herc, swim! I’m coming.” Decision made Iolaus began to sprint down the alternate path, away from Hades and his own underworld. Addressing his thoughts to no one in particular but the universe in general, Iolaus asked, “Help him, someone please help him. The world needs Hercules. It needs him. Please help him.”
What little strength Hercules had left was gone. He’d been swimming for an eternity. He was so exhausted that he could barely keep his head above water. A current caught him and carried him. He rolled to his back and allowed it to support him. His universe went black before the land was in sight but soft currents kept him moving in the right direction.
Bronagh pulled in his fishing line. He had hoped the storm would have brought the fish to the surface as rain sometimes did, but not today. It had been a terrible storm. Debris had been washing up for hours. A ship must have broken up out beyond the rocky point. Bronagh was a tall, strong man. He farmed when the weather and seasons permitted, hunted and fished when it didn’t. He wasn’t the richest man in the village but he and his family survived as did they all. Sometimes trading ships would come by and exchange their goods from the lands to the south and the east for woven woolen cloaks made by the village. They were known for their warm, waterproof cloaks. Bronagh wondered if perhaps it was a trading ship that had not made it through the night and he kept his eyes scanning for anything that might be of value floating in on the tide. Giving up on the fish, he wandered out further on the point to see what he could scavenge. Several large pieces of debris were caught in the rocks, perhaps the wood could be used to repair homes. Ships were made from the best woods, they had to survive the stormy sea.
Bronagh grasped the edge of a large piece of stern. The shape was distinctive. As he lifted it, a groan sounded from beneath it. Instead of dragging the wooden section, the villager heaved it over, flipping it into the sea. At his feet lay a man floating in the frigid water. How could he still be alive? To be thrown into the icy water was nearly instant death. The cold depths claimed all. By what miracle could he be alive? Grasping the unconscious man under the shoulders, Bronagh drug him up the beach clear of the incoming tide. He laid an ear on his chest. The man was breathing and a strong heart thudded beneath his breast still. He had to get help from the village. Quickly, he pulled off his heavy cloak and draped it over the stranger before leaving him to summon others more knowledgeable of such matters.
A crowd had formed around the stranger by the time the elder druid and his apprentice arrived. It was a small village and news always travelled at the speed of lightning. The gathered villagers parted to make way for them. With the younger man’s help, the elderly Orec knelt beside the unconscious man. He laid a hand on his cheek and felt for a pulse at his neck. “His heart is steady. He requires warmth and rest.” He glanced up at this young apprentice and could not read his face. “Mabon? What is the matter?”
The blond teen looked shaken, “I know this man, Master. He’s the man from my vision.”
Orec’s eyebrow raised in surprise. He looked back down at the face of the man. “This is the man from the south who will save us, if he can save himself first?” Mabon nodded as the crowd gasped and murmured amongst themselves. “He has his work cut out for him then,” Orec observed. “And so do you, young one. You will care for this man?”
Mabon nodded, “Yes, Master. I know what to do.” The young druid rose from the ground and assisted his mentor to rise. He motioned to Bronagh and another strong man to help him. They picked up the stranger between them and the group moved from the beach.
A woman in dark leather armor approached as they entered the village. The trio bowed their heads to her in the deference and respect that was due to one of their goddesses. She ignored their bows and looked down at the stranger they carried. “So, this is our great hero?” She asked glancing at Mabon but not waiting for a reply, “Doesn’t look like much of a hero, does he? Doesn’t look like he could save a kitten, let alone the whole land. If this is our hero, we’d better hope it’s a small battle or he’s not going to last long.” She turned without another word transformed into a black bird and flew away.
Iolaus moved down the path with all the speed he could muster. He was a worried spirit. Hercules needed him. Another path opened to the side ahead of him. The familiar face of Gilgamesh stepped onto the path blocking his way.
“Iolaus, where are you going? You’re putting us all in danger.”
“I have to see him. He needs me.” Iolaus slowed to stop before the former king.
“You no longer exist in the same world. You are dead. He’s not. You can’t help Hercules any more.”
“I have to. Ever since we were kids, I’ve been there to pick him up, to help him.”
Gilgamesh shook his head, “No, you are gone, Iolaus. He has to find his own way now. And every minute you delay in reaching your own underworld gives Dahak more time to try and claim your body. While you are in limbo, he still has an opportunity which endangers us all, living and dead. Dahak cannot be allowed to claim physical form.”
“I understand that but I have to do this. I have to go to Hercules. I won’t give up my body. I won’t. Trust me.”
Gilgamesh moved out of the way, “Be careful, Iolaus, be careful.”
The hunter stepped around the king, “I have to go.”
Consciousness returned slowly to the demigod. He became aware of warmth around him, a soft mattress beneath him. He heard someone moving about the room, tending the fire. He opened his eyes. There was a thatch roof above him. The room was small, a single room dwelling but clean and warm, if somewhat disorderly. Possessions, tools, papers scattered around the room. A young man sat on the hearth regarding him serenely.
“Where am I?” Hercules was surprised by the hoarse sound of his own voice.
“Eire.” Mabon observed the stranger a moment, “Does that help you?”
Hercules shook his head.
“So, you’re lost then,” the druid commented.
Hercules nodded his agreement.
“Lost in more than just map skills, I think,” Mabon commented.
Hercules didn’t reply and the druid continued, “You have the look of a man who’s heart has lost it’s way.” Again, no reply. “Well, let’s start simply then, my name is Mabon and I’ve been assigned to help you. You are?”
Mabon nodded in greeting. He lifted the pot from the fire and poured a cup full of the dark liquid. Hercules pushed himself to a sitting position and accepted the sweet smelling cup. Hercules waited for the familiar ‘You’re Hercules?’ but it never came. “You’ve not heard of me?” he asked.
“Should I have?” Mabon asked.
Hercules shook his head, “No, I suppose not.”
Mabon perched on the edge of the bed. “How did you come to be here?”
Hercules sipped the liquid letting it warm him from within but knowing there was a part of him that would never thaw completely. Why should he trust this stranger? This boy-man with his blond, curly hair and earnest face, Mabon sat patiently waiting for him. Maybe he needed to trust someone and did it really matter? Hercules began speaking, “My best friend, my brother, was killed. It was my fault. I didn’t listen to his feelings, his warnings. I should have listened. I thought I was right. I always do but this time I wasn’t and he had to pay the price for my arrogance, my stupidity. My fault. I went to get him back from the underworld. I’ve done it before but this time I couldn’t. This time he’s really gone.” Hercules fell silent.
“So, you set sail bound for where?” Mabon prompted.
“No where, anywhere, not there.”
“You ran?” the druid asked.
“Maybe,” Hercules admitted. They both fell silent for a time. The demigod trying not to think and the druid trying to figure out how to proceed. How to help this man fulfill his destiny. Mabon had experienced visions ever since he could remember. These visions had never failed to come to pass. He knew this man would help them but only if he could conquer his own demons. The druid’s visions had shown two different futures, one where the demigod was successful in helping them turn back the coming attack and one in which he was not. Mabon had to help this man somehow. Now that he knew what demons they were fighting, he could begin to help Hercules help himself. But there was a deeper darkness underlying all this. Mabon could feel it. He needed more information.
Looking up, he realized that his charge had fallen back to sleep. It was what he needed most. First, they had to restore his body, then they could work on the rest. Mabon carefully picked up the cup from Hercules’s hands and pulled the blanket higher to keep him warm.
The druid returned to the fireside and sat on the hearth. With a deep cleansing breath, he cast his spirit into the world between. He would need assistance to help Hercules and this was where he would find that assistance and the information he needed.
Mabon found Iolaus to be a pleasant companion and they had traveled a good distance together. Hercules friend had readily accepted a guide in his new surroundings. Mabon warned him of the dangers of being too trusting in a land where nothing was as it seemed. They had spoken of many things but Iolaus’ tale was disturbing. It was allowing Mabon to put the problem in terms he could understand. “Compassion is the source of Hercules’s great strength. With the loss of his compassion, he ability to care for others, his divine gifts have left him.”
“You mean he’s lost his strength? How could my dying cause that?” This was far worse than Iolaus had imagined.
“Your presence kept him safe, allowed him a secure position to reach out from. He could risk helping others because he knew you would always be there to pick him to if he failed. You where there to keep him strong. Without you, he has lost his ability to reach out to others. In his grief, he cannot reach his gifts.”
“And now that I’m gone, he can’t take the risk anymore?” At the druid’s nod, Iolaus continued, “I have to talk to him, Mabon. He’ll be able to see me. He can see spirits.”
“No, he can’t, not anymore. He’s lost all of his gifts,” Mabon said.
“You have to help me, there has to be a way.” Iolaus was beginning to feel desperate.
Mabon nodded, “There is a place in my world where the realms of the living and the dead merge. you would be able to speak with Hercules there. You must reconnect with him.”
“Take me there.”
“I can help him see through his despair,” Mabon said, “but it will be up to you to help him find his hope and compassion again. I will bring him when he’s ready.”
Iolaus agreed, thinking, “I made the deal with Hades to help a woman I loved be with the man she loved. I didn’t realize what it would do to Hercules if it ever happened.”
“You sacrificed yourself in compassion, An honorable act. Hercules chooses his friends wisely. Iolaus, there is something else that concerns me. There is an aura of darkness about you and Hercules. You have been touched by a great evil. I have sensed this evil in my own land. It’s influence grows in the world.”
“We were trying to stop that evil from gaining a physical form. It’s called Dahak and it wanted a body. I stopped him from taking that body by distracting him. Now, he’s after my body but I’m not giving it up.” Iolaus was determined.
“Dahak, I know this name. It is one of the names of the great darkness. This is worse than I thought.”
“What do you know?” Iolaus asked.
“In the beginning of all beginnings, there was good and there was evil. One can not exist without the other, they define each other. For there to be good in the world, there must be evil. It cannot be destroyed but it can be defeated, dispersed back into the universe. You and Hercules had great power in the bond of friendship that you share. Together, you have a chance, but Hercules must be ready.”
“That’s all we need,” Iolaus assured him, “A chance. Let me talk to Hercules. I can help him.”
“My people are counting on it, Iolaus. We need him.”
Mabon was both encouraged and concerned by his charge’s behavior. He had gotten Hercules to eat a light breakfast but the man ate without caring. He barely noticed the food at all. He ate because the food was set in front of him. Hercules had woken in the late morning. It was now early afternoon perhaps some sun would help to revive his sullen charge. Mabon suggested a walk. Hercules agreed with a shrug of his shoulders. He had no reason not to walk so they walked.
The young druid steered them toward the village. The ground was damp from the morning’s rain. Puddles dotted the street. A group of children ran squealing from puddle to puddle. The sun shown now and the clouds had dispersed. His neighbors across the street were again repairing the thatch on their roof. A man led several horses past them toward the open area ahead. Hercules assumed this was the village center.
“Mabon!” shouted another young man about Mabon’s age. As he approached they could see he was carrying a pack.
“Alynal!” Mabon replied. “Where’re you off to now?”
“I’m off on yet another mission for your master. At least this time it’s just to the next village. Last time had me crossing the length and breadth of the whole island. I’d best be off. I’ll see you when I get back. Good luck to you with this one,” he gave a wave toward Hercules and then he was gone.
Mabon turned to Hercules, “My friend, Alynal, he’s the local messenger. He runs fast.”
Hercules nodded, “Why did he wish you luck about me?”
Mabon took curiosity for a good sign. “When you were found washed up on the beach, I recognized you from a vision I had.” He glanced up at Hercules to see if he was following him. Hercules nodded that he should continue. “My vision told of a man from the south. Greece is to our south, yes?” Again the larger man nodded but remained silent. “This man will save the village from an attack but only if he can find himself first.”
Hercules remained silent for a distance. Mabon allowed him time to think and enjoyed the sounds of the village as they continued on toward the village center.
“Do you have a lot of visions?” Hercules asked. Before Mabon could reply, there was a shout from ahead. A horse had broken away from the herd. Something had spooked it and it was running straight for them. Hercules and Mabon stepped to the side of the road but the children behind them were oblivious to the danger. Mabon called a warning to them. Hercules knew he should help. He could stop the horse. He should stop it but he couldn’t move. He watched as the horse ran past him and on toward the now scattering children. A tiny girl fell in her haste to run, an older boy stopped to help her. They wouldn’t be able to get out of the way. They would be crushed beneath the hooves. Hercules’s indifference turned to horror.
A large black bird flew in front of the horse, startling it. It reared up on his hind legs and stopped where it was. The bird swooped around to the front of the horse and transformed into a woman. She spoke softly to the frightened animal as she approached it. She continued to pet it’s muzzle and speak to it until she could hand off the reins to the men running behind it.
She turned and strode toward Mabon and Hercules. She shoved Hercules, “Some hero. You step out of the way and allow the animal to run over innocent children when all you had to do was reach out. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Hercules remained silent. There was nothing he could say. He had no defense, he didn’t deserve one. She gave him another shove in disgust sending Hercules reeling backwards into the ditch with a muddy splash. “You’re a fool, for believing in this one, Mabon. He’s no hero.” A shower of dark sparks, the rustle of feathers and she was gone.
Mabon offered a hand to Hercules to help him up. Hercules simply sat on the ground for a long moment before replying, “Mabon, I don’t think I can help you.”
Mabon again offered his hand, “I believe that you can, Hercules, and you will.”
The day had turned warm. Hercules could feel the sun drying his clothes. Mabon had led him out of the village and into the green woods. They talked of other matters as the sounds of the village faded behind them. Eventually the conversation came back to where they had started.
“That woman,” Hercules asked. “Who is she? A goddess of yours?”
“Yes. Morrigan. She is Goddess of War and Childbirth among several other things.”
“And is the village about to go to war?”
“About to be attacked, I think,” Mabon corrected.
“Men from another land, they come by sea. They’ve come before but never in such numbers.”
“And you think I can stop this attack?” Hercules asked.
“I know you can, if you choose to.”
Hercules fell into silence, not believing he deserved the druid’s loyalty. Mabon knew his charge wasn’t ready to fight for them yet but there was no harm in letting him know what lie on the path ahead. Mabon left Hercules to his thoughts. Hercules had lost track of how far they had traveled. The young druid paused in a small clearing, “Would you like to sit?” He asked. Hercules shrugged and sank down on a fallen log.
Mabon chose to sit on the ground and lean against the log beside the demigod. “Hercules? Are you angry with your friend?” He wondered.
Hercules was shocked, “Of course not! How could I be angry?”
“Well, he did leave you. He let you down. He wasn’t fast enough to get out of the way of the dagger.”
Hercules rushed to correct the druid, “He sacrificed himself to save someone else, a woman he loved.”
“A woman he loved more than his brother?” Mabon asked. He knew he was baiting the larger man, leading him into a conversation he didn’t want to have but he had to. For his own good, he had to tread on this ground. Mabon followed his instincts and they told him this path felt right.
Hercules rose and stalked across the clearing, “You don’t understand. Saving people, that’s what we do. I would never ask Iolaus to do anything differently. He saves people without any powers, no special gifts.” Hercules clenched his fists at his sides. “That’s why he’s my hero. He was saving her. He was doing what I should have done. It should have been me, not him. Me.”
Hercules gathered all his strength and anger, for he was angry, angry at himself and at Iolaus for exactly what Mabon said. He smashed his fist into a tree trunk with everything he had and was shocked to discover that all the power of Hercules had barely made a dent. The tree was intact and unharmed. It should have been a splintered stump. Hercules stared at his hand. “My strength ... It’s gone completely. How? I felt weak after Iolaus died but I could still feel my strength inside. It was still there even though I couldn’t use it. How is it gone now? I’m the son of the King of the Gods. How could it just be gone?”
“The source of your great strength isn’t your father, Hercules. It’s your compassion for others, your need to help, that allows your divine gifts to be great. In losing your brother, you have lost your source of compassion. Iolaus was an inspiration to you. He took the same risks you did. He was a man of great compassion. In losing him, you have lost your own compassion and with it your gift of great strength. You must find a source of compassion within yourself now. You cannot rely on an outside source.” Mabon rose. “Come, it’s getting late and you have much to consider.”
Morrigan watched from the tree. Mabon knew she was there and sensed a dark force with her, tempting her. She would have to make her own decisions. Mabon hoped they were the right ones.
Morrigan knew Mabon could sense her. Many of the druids could. She doubted, however, that her dark, shadowy visitor knew this. He was arrogant and would not notice that some of the mortals in the land had gifts. He underestimated the druids but his offer to help her defeat the other gods was tempting. She thought she might be able to use him but once the deal was done, what would he get out of it? There had to be something in it for him or he wouldn’t offer. She sensed much ambition as well as arrogance in this Dahak creature.
“Look,” the shadow commented. “This mortal has no strength. How could this broken man be expected to save anyone. He can’t even save himself. He’s no hero.”
She nodded her agreement with the assessment. He was no hero but Mabon believed in him. What he saw, she didn’t yet see but she would give Mabon time.
“You should kill him now, while he’s weak.” Her companion was in a hurry, the power hungry always were. She considered her options as the pair left the glade heading back toward the village. The druids were wise, learned mortals. She valued their advice, she would not betray them or her land, not just yet. “No, his fate has yet to be determined. We have time yet,” she replied.
“Be careful, Goddess,” the shadow warned. “You may not have as much time as you think.”
The walk back to the village was silent. Both demigod and mortal were deep in thought. Mabon left Hercules as his hut. “I must go check in with my master.” Mabon hurried farther up the road and entered a similar dwelling.
Hercules reluctant to go inside alone sat on a bench he found outside the door. Across the road in a clearing men were using axes to clean the branches from small trees. Other men were working to sharpen one end. Obviously, they were working to set up defenses against a coming invader. Hercules wondered if some physical activity might improve his mood, help him to feel better. He didn’t like feeling this way. Iolaus wouldn’t approve of his brooding, he never did. Hercules walked over and offered to help. A tired man handed him an ax. Sharpening spikes was a familiar activity for the demigod. He had done it many times. A couple of mighty swings from Hercules and he would make short work of the pointed end.
The large man swung the ax and it barely made a dent in the trunk. Hercules took a firmer grip on the ax and swung again. Again the blade only bit marginally farther. It was really true, his strength was gone. He was no better than a mortal man. A chill passed through is body.
Mabon sipped his tea as he filled in his master on the stranger’s condition and what he had learned.
“You have done well, Mabon, but we don’t have much time. Already the enemy has set sail. They will be here soon. I fear we will be greatly out numbered and overwhelmed. Hercules is not ready. His strength comes from his compassion that is true. But it is his friend that supported him. The emotional ground has been taken from beneath his feet. Hercules is lost until he can reconnect with that part of himself, only then will he find the hero within again and be able to risk his soul in compassionate acts. You must help him find it and quickly.”
“Yes, Master. I have a plan to do just that.”
“Hercules will battle you. I know it will happen. He’s here to destroy all the Gods of Eire.”
Morrigan laughed, “Who? A man who can barely swing an ax? A man who steps aside when children are in danger? How can he hurt anyone, let alone the Gods?”
“You underestimate him, Goddess. He is the son of a God, a powerful God. You should destroy him now before he can regain his power and destroy you. Now while he and that boy are far from the village, where no one else will be hurt.”
“What do you care if anyone else is hurt?” Morrigan asked.
“I don’t, but you do.” Dahak pointed out and vanished leaving Morrigan to ponder who was telling the truth.
After a long climb up a steep rocky hill, Hercules and Mabon faced the entrance to a small cave. Mabon made himself comfortable on a boulder and prepared to meditate. After spending two day with him Hercules recognized the signs. “Aren’t you coming with me?” He asked.
“No, what you face in the cave, you must face without me.”
“What’s in the cave?” Hercules wondered, he’d met some nasty stuff in caves.
“The source of your power if you can find it and you must find it, Hercules, we need you. The world needs you. The world will fall into darkness if you cannot find what you need. We need a hero. We need Hercules.”
Hercules turned slowly toward the entrance. He was afraid. Afraid of what he might find. Afraid to stand alone. Afraid of being hurt. Afraid of weakness. Afraid of failure. Afraid. He turned back to druid already sitting with eyes closed in relaxed repose. “Mabon, what if I ...”
“Just open your heart, Hercules and you’ll find what you need to find.”
The cave was small, It opened into a single cavern just a few feet inside the passage. Iolaus couldn’t help smiling at the sight of his friend. “Can you really see me, Herc?” He asked. Hercules nodded but didn’t return the ready smile. He stepped toward his friend and they tried to clasp arms in the traditional warrior greeting but they passed through each other. There was nothing to hold on to. “Is it? Is it really you?” Hercules asked unsure of himself and what he was seeing.
Iolaus nodded and motioned to places near the fire. Hercules sat but the fire produced no warmth. He held out his hand and watched as it passed through the flames. He couldn’t feel them at all. It was as it they weren’t there. “Weird, huh?” Iolaus asked. “I guess the fire’s as ghostly as I am.” He settled himself next to his friend. “Yeah, Herc, it’s me. You’re a long way from home. How’d you get here?”
“I took Nebula’s ship and then I don’t know.” Suddenly Hercules woke up. “Iolaus! You’re supposed to be in the underworld with Hades. If you don’t -- “
Iolaus held up a hand, “I know. I know all about that. If I don’t go by the solstice, I won’t be able to get in and I’ll have to spend eternity out wandering around. I can’t go yet. Herc, I died and you fell apart. I can’t leave you. You need me. You always have.”
Hercules stared at the fire. “I know that’s how it’s been but that’s not right anymore. You deserve to be in the Elysian Fields with your family. You’ve done enough, too much maybe. It was my fault. I didn’t listen, brushed you off, wasn’t fast enough, if I’d been faster, listened more, my fault you died.”
“Whoa, Buddy. It was NOT your fault. It was my choice to jump in front of that dagger and mine alone. And I wouldn’t have you doing it for me either. You were right. I love Nebula and I wouldn’t have allowed anyone else to sacrifice themselves for her, not even my best friend. It was my choice and it between her and me. I do what I have to do and as for going to Sumeria in the first place. You were right about going. We needed to help those people. I was selfish in thinking that we should stay in Greece. There’s a whole world out here full of people who need our help. They need a hero, too. This Dahak thing, it’s bigger than Greece, way bigger. This is about the fate of the world, Herc. The world needs you.”
“I can’t, Iolaus. My strength is gone. I can’t help them. I can’t even help myself.”
“Oh Herc,” Iolaus sighed. “You are a mess, aren’t you?”
“I was an arrogant fool who thought he was always right. Well, I was wrong and you paid the price.”
“Herc, its me you should be angry with. I didn’t tell you about my deal with Hades. I know I should have but I was afraid you’d get all over protective on me and I didn’t want to fight with you about that. I had to be my own man and make my own choices about what battles I was going to fight and how I was going to fight them. Aren’t you a little mad at me? For not telling you?”
Hercules held up his hand with about a 1 inch gap between his finger and his thumb. “Iolaus, I trusted you not to get killed. I depend on you. I need you. You’re not supposed to die and not come back, not you. I’m having trouble finding fault with you about it but I guess I feel a little betrayed because I can’t go drag you back this time.”
Iolaus nodded, “I’m sorry, Herc, but I had to do what I had to do.”
“I understand that. You love Niobi and she loved her husband. So you made a deal with Hades to give her the man she really had come to love. A man whose a better king and a better husband because he knew you. You sacrifice for everyone else, you take care of everyone else. Iolaus, who takes care of you?”
“You do, Herc. No, don’t roll your eyes at me. Really, you let me fight at your side, you let me fight the good fight and that’s what I need. We fight the big fight, you and I, Herc. We fight the biggest fight there is, good versus evil. We are the good guys and we fight the bad guys. And there are bad guys all over the world and this Dahak, he’s the biggest and the baddest but you know what, Herc? He’s afraid of us. Of you and me together.”
Hercules finally raised his eyes to look at his friend, “But we’re not together. I can’t even touch you.”
“That’s the beauty of us, Herc. You don’t have to, even when we’re far apart - world’s apart, parallel dimension apart, we’re still together, still brothers. We’ve been together for so long, we’ve been through so much that we’re a part of each other souls. You carry me with you in spirit when I’m not there in the flesh, just like there’s a part of you that’s always with me and has been ever since I was a kid and hearing your voice in my head telling me to stop stealing things, it’s wrong. We’re brothers. We’re there for each other even when we can’t actually be there. Besides when we both get back to Greece, you can come see me whenever you want. I won’t be any farther than the underworld and you can forget the Fields, nice place to visit but oblivious is not how I plan to spend eternity. You’ll find me, I don’t know, helping out Hades somehow I guess. But you can bet I’ll still be fighting the good fight. Death isn’t going to keep me down. It had not stopped me yet and I’m not done now. You need me, you know I’m there for you no matter what. But before I can report for duty with Hades, we’ve got the greatest evil there is to stop or there might not be a home to go back to.”
“Just open your heart, Hercules and you’ll find what you need to find.”
“You’re right!”Hercules slammed his fist into the boulder next to him and pulverized it into dust with one hit. Hercules and Iolaus exchanged knowing smiles, “You’re right, Iolaus, I could never lose you.”
“Wow! You’re strong.” Iolaus grinned.
“Yeah, I am and about time, too.”
“You going to be okay now Herc?”
“I’m going to be fine, just as soon as you get on your way to see Hades. Until you check in, there’s a chance Dahak could still take your physical form.”
Iolaus nodded seriously, “And that’s putting everyone in danger. I got it, I’m going. But you kick evil’s ass for me. I owe him a few.”
“You know, if you need me, Herc. I’ll be there.”
The two heroes tried to embrace but as before, they passed through one another”
“Get out of here,” Hercules ordered.
“I’m going. I’m going,” Iolaus laughingly returned.
“Time is slipping away from you, Goddess. You must act now, kill him while you can.”
She wasn’t going to allow this little shadow to push her around, “I don’t think I like your deal. You are not offering me enough to make me betray my people.”
Somehow the shadow before her seemed to get darker, “Leadership as the sole surviving God is not enough for you?”
“Oh, it’s more than enough, but I don’t think that’s the deal you’re offering. I’ll be in charge all right, but only for as long as I do what you say and I’m stubborn enough to not want to do what anyone says. No deal, Shade. Now, get off my island.”
“I won’t be gone for long and your petty little villages won’t last long against my army when it arrives.”
“Enough of these games, you’re all threats and smoke. If you’ve got something to bring on, then bring it on and let’s get this fight out in the open.” She was Goddess of War and at that moment, she felt like it.
“As you wish.”
Mabon had trouble keeping up with the demigod who had emerged from the cave. This man had a purposeful and long stride. The young druid was all too happy to have to jog to keep up with him. When they reached the village, Hercules again approached the men working on building a field of spikes on the shore. He picked up an axe from the ground without asking and with one mighty swing created a perfectly point on the end of the spear. “Now that’s how do you that.” He grinned. The other men stepped back out of the demigod’s way. “Don’t just stand there,” Hercules called, “Go get some more logs. We’ve got a village to fortify.”
Morrigan stood beside the elder druid as they watched the village men take to their work with new found purpose and inspiration.
“Well,” said Orec talking to the unseen presence beside him, “perhaps young Mabon has succeeded in finding us a hero after all.”
“Time will tell, old one, but I hope so. I do hope so,” she replied without bothering to materialize.
Iolaus jogged down the path unaware of another presence nearby. A presence that altered the path ahead away from its intended destination. It wouldn’t do to have the spirit arrive before the deadline has passed. No, that wasn’t in the plans at all...
Hercules stood back and surveyed their work. A ten foot wide row to spikes now stuck out from the beach, a row as long as the village itself. He turned to Bronagh, “That ought to hamper anyone trying to attack by sea.”
“Yes,” Bronagh replied, “but there aren’t enough of us to repel much of anything. We need more men.”
“Don’t you have neighbors? Other villages that would come to your aid? If they are coming my sea, you’ll be first to fall but surely the other villages in the area will be next.”
“It’s true but Morrigan does her job well. She’s kept the local villages warring with each other. I doubt they’d be willing to help even to save their own skins. They’d rather we be wiped out first.”
“But Alynal was carrying messages to a nearby village.”
Bronagh nodded, “For the druids. They talk to one another. Wait, are you suggesting we get the druids in each village to help persuade the other to unite for mutual protection?”
Hercules shrugged and clapped Bronagh on the back, “Sounds like a good plan to me. Let’s go talk to Orec and see what we can do.”
Before they could reach the old druid’s home, a disturbance further up the road caught their attention. Mabon had his arm around Alynal helping him toward town. The young messenger was gasping as though he’d been running full out for miles.
“Alynal! What is it?” Bronagh called as they drew near.
It was Mabon that replied for him, “The people in the next village have heard that a large ground force has already made land fall.”
Hercules and Bronagh exchanged a dark look, “They are going to hit us from both sides,” Hercules guessed.
A dark shower of sparks manifested beside Hercules, “That’ll be easy enough to check out.” The sparks became feathers but before she could fly away Hercules made a grab for a clawed foot and held on.
“Wait!” Hercules called. “We need to talk first.” The demigod turned to Bronagh, “You go see Orec. Mabon, look after Alynal.” Hercules gestured toward the edge of the village and waited for Morrigan to begin to walk before taking up position beside her.
“And just what what do you think gives you the right to order me about?” she asked.
“We’re both trying to save this village. We may have different reasons but we’re both on the same side for the moment.”
She nodded her agreement, “All right, so talk.”
“I think there’s a greater evil at work here and he likes to worm his way into a pantheon by pitting one god against the others. This set up is just his style. Have you seen him?” Hercules asked.
“And if I have?” she countered.
“Then, he’ll have men on the lookout for a large black bird and we don’t want to top them off yet, but they won’t be looking for us on foot.”
“Yes, us. I’m coming with you.”
Morrigan smiled but Hercules couldn’t tell if it was an evil smile or just a mischievous one. “Keeping an eye on me are you?” She asked.
“Yes,” the demigod replied, “that’s exactly what I intend to do.”
Hours and a long walk later, Hercules and Morrigan were still searching for ground forces.
“This would have been much faster if I were a bird,” Morrigan pointed out.
“Yes and must more likely that we’d tip our hand. As Goddess of War you should understand that.” He offered her his hand to help her over a rocky area but she refused.
“I do understand it but what if this is all some wild boar chase?”
“It’s not,” Hercules assured her.
“Oh, it isn’t. And how do you know that, Hero?”
“The smoke over the next hill.” Hercules pointed to the horizon.
As they continued climbing, Hercules remarked, “You know, if you hadn’t kept the local villages feuding with each other all this would be a lot easier.”
She shrugged, “I’m Goddess of War, it’s my job, Hero and I do it well.”
“Where I’m from, my brother is God of War.”
“Then, you should understand,” she replied.
Hercules shook his head, “I don’t think I’ll ever understand, but you two would get along well, you think alike.”
“Be careful. If we’re that alike, we might have to kill each other.”
“Shhhh,” Hercules motioned her down. They crouched on top of the hill and observed the movement in the valley below where hundreds of men were camped. “That certainly looks like more than a small advance scouting party.”
“Agreed,” she said, “this looks like the main force which means that all your spikes are on the wrong side of the village.”
“Not necessarily, if they are planning on hitting us both ways, then Bronagh's right, we’re going to need a lot more men and a revised plan. Let’s get back.”
“We’ve heard back from all the druids in the other villages and they are all with us. We just have to tell them where and when,” Bronagh reported.
“Good,” Hercules leaned over the map, studying it and pointed at a large box canyon. “We need them here. Morrigan will fly low over their forces and get them to follow her. She’ll lead them into the canyon, then the men from two of the villages should be enough to close off the opening and disarm them. The other villages should come here and wait for the ships to arrive.”
Bronagh looked at Alynal, “Do you have all that?” He asked.
The young man nodded, “When do you want them in place?” he asked Hercules.
“Done, the messages will go out as soon as I can find enough boys to carry them. I’m not half bad with a sword, I’m staying.” At Hercules’ nod Alynal bowed out of the hut.
“One more thing Bronagh,” Hercules said. “Can you get Orec and Mabon to lead the women and children to a safe place.”
“You mean the women that will leave? Many will stay and fight with their husbands. Some of them are better with the sword than I am. But yes, the young ones and the very old will need to go. There are some caves in the nearby hills that should be safe enough until it’s over. I’ll start gathering them up.” Then, Bronagh, too, left the hut.
Hercules turned to the hearth where Morrigan had sat, invisible to all but the demigod during the meeting. “Does my plan meet with your approval?” he asked.
“It’s simple, but it should be effective.”
Hercules returned to Mabon’s hut. Orec had led the group of children and elderly into the hills just after sunset under cover of darkness. It took some talking but Hercules convinced Mabon to go with them. The young druid knew the hills well, even in darkness. Hercules didn’t want them left totally defenseless and he knew Mabon would take good care of them all.
Morrigan had laughed when Hercules commented on how few of the women were going into safety with their children. “Women are more capable in battle than men, Hercules. They can be far more ruthless in protecting their home and children and they can handle far more pain than a male.”
Hercules couldn’t argue with that. He’d been through childbirth three times with Deianeira and wouldn’t have wanted to be on the receiving end if her children were threatened. Maybe he could see how the Goddess of War could also be Goddess of Childbirth. What she said made a great deal of sense. Hercules had known his share of female warriors and some of them were definitely better with a sword than he was. He had no place to judge these people.
Hercules stretched out once again on Mabon’s bed intending only to rest for a time. It was rare for Hercules to sleep on the eve of battle but sleep he did.
This was the throne room in Sumeria again, but this time Hercules didn’t recognize anyone he was in the room with. They were all tall and fair people. And they were all fighting with one another. The demigod didn’t know who were the bad guys, if any of them were. Then one smaller, darker man stood up and pitched the dagger. Hercules tried to stop it but as always he was too late. The wretched dagger zinged home. It’s victim a statuesque man with long, straight blond hair. It wasn’t Iolaus.
Then, as usual, Hercules suddenly woke, gasping and holding his chest as though the dagger had struck him instead. He wiped the cold sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and scrubbed his eyes. He drug himself outside and sat on the bench in the cool night air and watched the final preparations for the battle, as he pondered what the meaning of this dream might be.
Just before dawn as Hercules and Bronagh positioned the men out of sight of the shore so the village would appear empty and abandoned. A black bird swooped from the sky. It turned from bird to woman as it touched the ground.
“It’s done. They are all disarmed and held. They won’t be causing us any further trouble today. But I fail to see the purpose. Why not just kill them and be done with them?”
Hercules tried not to let the corners of his mouth turn up and failed miserably, “Because as Goddess of War, you want to release them when this is all over, so they can come back and fight again another day.”
She narrowed her eyes at him but gave the possibilities a moment’s thought. Then, she slapped Hercules on the shoulder, “I like the way you think, Hero.”
“Thank you.” Hercules replied.
She peeked around the corner of the building, “So, are they coming?”
“Soon,” Bronagh replied. “They are looking us over now.”
The first ships ashore got more than they bargained for. They were overwhelmed almost immediately. The next few ships went down nearly as fast. By this time the Norse forces were figuring out that their ground troops weren’t in place as expected.
As the call to retreat was sounded, Hercules paused for a quick congratulatory handshake with Bronagh. Over the man’s shoulder Hercules saw a tall blond man in one of the ships. The image of the man killed in Hercules’ dream.
“Hercules? What is it?” Bronagh asked. “Is something wrong?”
“No, I’m fine. Tell Mabon thank you and I had to follow my heart.”
With that Hercules dove into the water and began swimming toward the enemy ships.
Mabon watched the battle from a nearby hilltop. He saw Hercules unobtrusively pull himself up and over the side of one of the Norse ships.
Morrigan flew to the side of the young druid and sat next to him, “What is he doing? Switching sides?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Mabon replied. “He is trying not to be seen. Stowing away. There is more at work here than any of us know.”
“Hercules was the hero in your dreams then?” she asked.
He nodded, “Yes, I’m sure of it. He has a much larger destiny that he must fulfill. We are only a single stop on his journey.”
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