The Ferryman looked up from polishing his boat to see Hades standing over him. The Lord of the Underworld didn't look terrifically pleased.
"Uh, cleanin' my boat?"
"You should be at the other end of the river by now -- Iolaus will be dead any minute."
"Iolaus?" Charon blinked. Didn't Hades know...?
"Yes, Iolaus, you moron. Hera just created a new Enforcer, and she just beat Hercules's little friend within an inch of his life. He ought to be crossing that last inch any second now, and you need to ferry him down here."
"Uh, boss--" Charon hesitated.
"What is it, Charon?"
"Well, I mean -- that is -- well, Iolaus ain't comin' down here. He's, y'know, one'a -- them."
"One of who?"
Oh, for Zeus's sake, Charon thought, he doesn't know. How did this loser wind up as Head of the Dead anyhow? "Y'know, those guys who don't die? Spend all'a their time hackin' each other's heads off and gettin' a big lightshow?"
The light dawned. "You mean Immortals?"
Charon panicked and waved his arms at Hades. "Shhhhhhhh! You wan' Zeus to hear? Y'know he hates 'at word when it ain't used in reference t'the gods!"
"Oh, please," Hades said with a dismissive gesture. "As if my dear brother ever paid any attention to me. It's not like it matters what we call them."
"It matters t'him," Charon said. Maybe Hades could afford to be dismissive of Zeus's thoughts, but the King of the Gods would think nothing of turning a mere ferryman into a cow or something. Charon hated cows.
"Zeus is worried that the Immortals will outlive us -- that some day we will be replaced by other gods or that the mortals who worship us will die out. I'm more sanguine. After all, no matter what happens, people will always die, so I'll have plenty to keep me busy. Even these so-called Immortals are locked in an eternal two-person struggle that results in one combatant dying. No, I know we have nothing to fear from these Immortals." Hades rubbed his chin. "Interesting that Iolaus should turn out to be one of them. It makes sense, though -- after all, he was a foundling."
Charon frowned. "Hang on a sec, ain't his old man down here?"
"That's what they both think. Iolaus's 'mother's' child died a few days after he was born. She found Iolaus as a baby and switched them." Hades smiled. "She never told anyone, either. Not even her husband."
"Yeah, well, in any case--"
"In any case, Charon, you will go and fetch Iolaus."
"But nothing," Hades said, holding up a hand. "You and I may know he's Immortal, but Iolaus doesn't -- and neither does Hercules. And if I know my nephew, he will not take this at all well. Hera already took his wife and children, he won't stand for her taking his best friend as well. He'll demand that I restore him to life, knowing that I'll do it because I owe him for giving me Persephone."
Charon frowned. He didn't get it. "I don't get it, boss. I mean, if he's gonna come back to life anyhow, you're not doing Hercules any kinda favor."
"No, I won't. But Hercules won't know that. He'll be in my debt. Which, frankly, will be a welcome change. I'm sick of owing people things."
Yeah, well, Charon thought, if you weren't such a wimpy little twerp, you wouldn't need people's help all the time. But he knew better than to say such things aloud, even if true. Hades couldn't turn him into a cow, but, of all the jobs in the underworld, Charon's was one of the more pleasant ones, and he didn't want to jeopardize it. The last thing he wanted was to be reassigned to maintaining the pits of fire in Tartarus or something...
Then Hades's ears pricked up. "Ah," he said, "Hercules is bellowing my name at an annoyingly loud volume. I'd say Iolaus has finally kicked the bucket. You go back to your boat, Charon -- I've got a cunning plan to hatch."
The deceased first Enforcer had been hounding Hades and Persephone for months -- but since she had no soul, Hades had no idea what to do with her. So he sent her off with Hercules to stop the second Enforcer, which served the dual purpose of giving Hercules some much-needed help and getting the first Enforcer out of Hades's hair.
Naturally, it all worked out. Hercules stopped the new Enforcer, which meant she wouldn't be giving Hades more work. The old Enforcer died saving Hercules's mother's life, thus earning her a place in the Elysian Fields, and getting her out of Hades's and Persephone's life. While waiting for Hercules to fulfill Hades's conditions, Iolaus made peace with the man he imagined to be his father, and Hades then sent said father to the Elysian Fields. Hades smiled at that; the seeming generosity of the gesture put him in good with Persephone, who thought the action "sweet," but in truth, sweetness had nothing to do with it. Having one of these Immortals owe him a favor could prove useful down the line.
Best of all, he'd alleviated his debt to his nephew Hercules.
Speaking of whom, Hades watched him pay his respects to his dead wife and children. Then he and Iolaus wandered off, in search of more adventure, as was their wont.
And just think, Hades thought with a smile, Iolaus has no idea what he really is....
"Ow!" A sudden headache pounded through Iolaus's skull out of nowhere. He put his hands to his temples, but the pain would not subside.
Then he heard a branch snap. Anyone else might not have noticed it, especially with this bizarre headache, but Iolaus had stayed alive this long by being fully aware of his surroundings. Someone was tracking him through the underbrush.
Whoever it was had talent to have gotten this close to Iolaus without him noticing. And the headache was subsiding, though it still lingered in the bridge of his nose. What caused it?
"You might as well come out," he said, "I know you're there." He kept his two-handed sword sheathed; he preferred to avoid a fight where possible.
A woman leapt out, brandishing a beautiful sword of a design Iolaus had only seen once before: when he travelled with the Argonauts. Jason had been given a sword of that make -- forged by a man named Elias over two hundred years ago. Jason had been told that his sword was the only one of Elias's left. Obviously that information was inaccurate.
The sword's carrier stood taller than Iolaus, with hair as black as tar, tied back in a ponytail. Her eyes matched her hair. She wore leather armor similar in design to that worn by Xena, though this woman's version had an elaborate crest on the stomach.
"I am Penelope," she said.
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Iolaus." And then he kept walking.
Penelope blocked his path. "I've challenged you," she said, as if that should mean something significant.
"Have you? Fine, I decline the challenge. Excuse me." And he walked past her.
She grabbed him by the shoulder. Iolaus then grabbed her wrist and flipped her over his head. She landed with a thud a couple of feet in front of him.
To her credit, she recovered almost instantly, and once again stood ready to fight him.
"Draw your sword, Iolaus, and fight me!"
"I don't have a quarrel with you."
"You cannot turn down a challenge!"
"Is it because I'm a woman that you won't fight me?"
Iolaus laughed at that. He thought of all the women warriors he'd known, from Lilith to Xena to Atalanta, not to mention the Amazons. "No, I won't fight you because I have absolutely no reason to, gender notwithstanding."
Then a change came over Penelope's face. "You don't know what you are, do you?"
"Look, Penelope, much as I'd love to stay and chat and figure out just what, exactly, it is you're talking about, I don't have time. I'm meeting a friend in Corinth, and--"
"How did you know I was there?"
Iolaus blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"You knew I was in the bush. How?"
"You stepped on a twig."
Penelope shook her head. "You knew before that. I saw you react to something -- a sudden headache."
Iolaus didn't like this at all. "How did you know that?"
"It's how we know another of our kind is near."
"What kind? What are you talking about?"
Penelope put her sword down. "You really don't know." She laughed -- it was, Iolaus thought, a rather pleasant laugh, like the sound of wind chimes. Now that she put her sword down, Iolaus focused on the fact that this tall woman was quite attractive. "I can't imagine how you didn't notice. Usually people can tell when they die."
Unbidden, memories of Hera's Enforcer tossing him around like a child's toy flooded Iolaus's mind. The bone-crunching agony of the impact with a tree, followed by the Enforcer slamming her heel into his spine. The sheer torture of trying to do something as simple as walk so he could find Hercules in time to warn him.
"Believe me, I remember it."
"And it didn't surprise you when you came back to life?"
This, Iolaus thought, is getting very annoying. "Why should it? If you know that I died, you should know what happened next. And how do you know?" He remembered the sword, then asked, "Are you a friend of Jason's?" Jason was there when Iolaus died and was brought back by Hercules. If she had an Elias sword, she might know Jason. It was the only thing that made sense to Iolaus -- which made it unique among things in the last few minutes.
Suddenly, light seemed to dawn on Penelope's face. "Jason? Wait, you're that Iolaus? The one who travels with Hercules?"
The world tilted to the left again. "If you didn't know I was that Iolaus, how did you know I died?"
"Because you're one of us -- an Immortal."
Iolaus couldn't help it. He laughed. "An immortal? Penelope, the gods are immortal. I'm just a normal human being."
"Not anymore. Not since you died. How did you come back to life?"
Iolaus hesitated. He didn't see that it was any of her business, but he obviously would never get to the bottom of this otherwise. "Hercules made a deal with Hades. Hades owed him a favor, and Hercules called it in to save my life."
Penelope chuckled and sheathed her sword. "Your friend Hercules was suckered. All he had to do to bring you back to life was wait. Within an hour, you would have come back to life, your wounds healed."
"Is it?" She removed a dagger from an ankle holster. "Watch."
Penelope slashed her knife across her palm. The cut was deep -- blood gushed from it. Then, before Iolaus could react, the wound closed. The blood was still there, but no more poured forth. After another moment, there wasn't even a scar.
"How did you do that?"
"Like I said, I'm Immortal," she replied while cleaning the dagger. "And so are you."
"I -- I don't--"
The dagger clean, she turned her attention to wiping the blood off her hands. "Try it. Cut any part of you -- except your neck."
Penelope tossed him the dagger. Her sword remained sheathed. Iolaus wasn't sure about any of this, but he was also confident in his ability to defend himself if Penelope tried anything. And it's not like a cut on his hand was any big deal.
He did as Penelope had to her own hand. To Iolaus's astonishment, it healed -- a bit more slowly than Penelope's had, but it still healed.
Iolaus stared at his hands for several seconds after the wound closed. "How -- I mean -- it can't--"
"I know it seems miraculous. But it really isn't. I was born eighty years ago."
Iolaus looked at the face of a woman who looked to be at least a decade younger than Iolaus himself. "That's not possible."
"Neither is instantaneous healing of wounds," she said with a smile, "nor coming back from the dead."
"So you're saying I'll never get older -- and live forever?"
"Perhaps not forever, but for quite some time -- if you're lucky. And, no, you won't age."
Iolaus couldn't believe it. All his life, the one thing he truly feared was age: that he would no longer be able to do what he did best, and that he would just turn into a lecherous old fool good for nothing but making an ass of himself while pining for the days of his youth.
And now this woman was telling him it wouldn't happen.
It was too good to be true.
Penelope shrugged. "I'd say it was the will of the gods, but I've learned better. Immortals are as old as the gods -- possibly older. And I suspect we will outlive them."
"That's not possible."
Penelope smiled again. "Iolaus, if half the stories about you and Hercules are true, you should have seen enough to know that nothing is impossible."
Iolaus thought a moment -- remembering, in particular, the strange visions of the future he saw after being struck by lightning -- and conceded that the woman had a point.
Then something occurred to him. "You said I'd live a long time -- if I was lucky."
"Yes." Penelope bowed her head a moment, almost as if she didn't want to tell Iolaus something -- which struck him as odd, given her rather forthcoming behavior up until now. "I'm afraid that it isn't as simple as getting to live forever and not age. You have to watch your mortal friends and family grow old and die. You can never have children."
"Our kind are barren -- even before our first death. It is an unfortunate by-product of our Immortality."
Iolaus frowned. "There's something else."
"Yes. I challenged you when I first saw you because -- because that is what we do. We challenge each other to a fight to the death."
"I thought we couldn't die."
"There is one way our lives may end: by severing our heads from our bodies. That releases the power of the Quickening, which is then absorbed into the one who slays the other. In the end, there can be only one."
Iolaus sighed. He supposed it was inevitable that there'd be a catch. "And the end is when?"
"When there is only one left."
He rolled his eyes. "How circular."
"In any event, you must be prepared. I will be happy to train you."
Iolaus smiled. "That won't be necessary. I've spent my life fighting everything from soldiers to warlords to monsters to gods. I think I can handle this."
"Perhaps. But there are other rules -- things you must know."
Iolaus considered. "Think you can tell me these rules over the course of the next day or so?"
"Good," Iolaus said with a smile. "It's about a day's walk to Corinth from here. You can come with me and tell me all about the rules and regulations of being an immortal."
Penelope smiled. "I think I'd like that. But only on one condition -- when I'm done, I want to hear of your exploits. I want to see how many of the stories I've heard are true."
Iolaus laughed. "Fair enough."
Penelope went back into the undergrowth to retrieve the pack she had been carrying -- dropped when she thought herself about to engage in the ritual combat that would now be part of Iolaus's life. Then he continued walking toward Corinth, this time with a beautiful woman by his side. I could get used to this, he thought with a grin.
"Immortal," he said, shaking his head. "Hard to believe. I can't wait to tell Herc--"
"No!" Penelope cried, stopping in her tracks and grabbing Iolaus by the shoulder. "You must never tell Hercules about your Immortality."
"No one must know. Ours is a private war -- not for the eyes of outsiders."
Iolaus considered. "I can understand that, but Hercules is my best friend. I can't just lie to him about this."
"Why? He of all people--"
Penelope interrupted. "He of all people must not know. The gods despise us -- we do not fall under their purview."
Iolaus shook his head. "Herc has never been too concerned with what the gods think, Penelope."
"Perhaps -- but will Hercules be able to stand by while you engage in combat with a fellow Immortal? He has already petitioned once with the Lord of the Underworld to save your life -- this is a man who will stop at nothing to protect you, as you would stop at nothing to protect him. But he may not interfere. Our fight is not for him, nor for anyone else. I beg of you, keep this from him. You have no other choice."
Iolaus stared at Penelope for a long moment. Her black eyes were unreadable, but there was no mistaking her tone. For whatever reason, Hercules's noninterference in this entire immortal thing was critical to her.
Then he turned and kept walking. He couldn't make that promise, not yet. Maybe after she'd had time to explain the full details, he might agree. Until then, he would not willingly keep things from his best friend.
As the day wore on, Iolaus learned just how complicated this entire thing was. Duels could only be fought one on one with edged weapons. None may interfere, and if they do, the duel is postponed. Holy ground is a refuge.
"Wait," Iolaus said at this bit of information, "I thought you said the gods despise us. Why do they provide refuge?"
"I have no idea. But they do not provide it alone -- there may be no combat on holy ground of any kind, whether it is that of the Greeks, the Jews, or the barbarians to the north."
By nightfall, Penelope had explained the Rules and traditions of Immortals, and Iolaus realized that he indeed did have to keep this from Hercules, for the very reasons that Penelope had stated.
Now, as they set up camp for the night under the full moon, she told Iolaus of her first death.
"It was a terrible battle. We'd been invaded some weeks before, but the war hadn't yet touched our village. Then one morning, the soldiers came out of nowhere and just started destroying everything. Our own soldiers tried to fight, but they were horribly outnumbered and undersupplied. Obviously, the king had given up the fight -- probably, he had no choice. But all we thought then was that he had forsaken us." She shook her head. "So much blood. It was awful. I didn't know how to fight, then -- all I thought I had to look forward to in my life was marrying Nicias and sharing his farm and his life. And then--"
She hesitated. Iolaus, who had been trying to get a fire started, stopped and looked at her. He recognized the look on her face -- he'd seen it all too many times before from the survivors of like massacres.
"Nicias died in my arms. I screamed, begging the gods to bring him back, to take me instead." She smiled a wry smile. "I got half of what I asked for. The next thing I knew, I felt a sharp pain in my back, and I saw a sword point sticking out of my belly. I never saw the face of the soldier who killed me -- not that I would've seen his face in any case, they all wore armor -- but that always bothered me for some reason.
"In any case, I woke up the next day. The village had been razed to the ground -- a few fires were still going. No one else was left alive. What confused me was that I was. I thought for sure I had died, but there wasn't a mark on me. First I thought the gods had smiled on me -- then I wondered how it was a blessing to survive when everyone around me was dead.
"I wandered for days -- until, like you, I came across another Immortal. His name was Carion, and he promised to teach me how to fight."
Iolaus finally got the fire started. Penelope's face, he thought, looked even more beautiful in the flickering firelight, especially with the sadder expression she'd had since discussing her first death. "I take it he did teach you?" he prompted.
"Mhm. For months, we trained. He even gave me this sword -- said there were only five left in the world, and he had four of them."
Iolaus smiled. "I've seen the fifth -- Jason has it. That's why I thought you two might know each other."
"In any event, after a year, we both thought I was ready. Except we turned out to be 'ready' for different things. I wanted to seek out the king who had invaded our land and ordered the destruction of our village and take my revenge on him. Carion wanted my head."
"What? But if he was your instructor--"
Penelope smiled. "There can be only one, remember? But for Carion, it wasn't any good to take a head unless he won in a proper duel. So he didn't challenge me until he thought I was good enough. What's worse was that I learned that he was the general who commanded the troops that massacred my village. He convinced his king to use my village as the 'example' because he knew there was a nascent Immortal there."
"You can tell?"
Penelope nodded. "Some of our kind can sense when a mortal is destined to become one of us."
"So he went to all that trouble just to duel you in a fair fight?"
"Yes. And I won, but--" She bit her lip.
Iolaus figured it out. "You couldn't kill him."
"I'd never killed anyone before -- all I knew of killing was my own death, and I found I couldn't wish that on anyone, not even him. And he was my teacher. So I let him live." She exhaled slowly. "I've regretted that decision ever since."
The next morning, as they broke camp and prepared to move on, Iolaus was slammed with another headache. "Ow!" he cried, again putting his hands to his temples.
A large man came up the road and drew his sword. With a start, Iolaus realized that his sword was another forged by Elias.
The man started: "I chal-- By the gods! You!"
Iolaus turned to Penelope -- who had her own sword drawn. "That's him, isn't it?"
Penelope ignored the question, her dark eyes focused on the man coming down the road. "Carion."
"Penelope. It's been a long time. Found a new playmate, have you? Think this time you can finish what you started?"
"With great pleasure." She finally took her eyes off him and turned to Iolaus. "Remember, Iolaus, this fight is between us -- you must not interfere!"
"You mustn't!" Penelope spoke with greater force than she had in all Iolaus's short acquaintance with her.
"A-all right," he said. "But do me one favor."
She gazed at him inquisitively.
He smiled. "Don't lose. I've still got a couple of stories left to tell you."
She returned the smile. "Fair enough."
Then she advanced on Carion. The two held their swords in a defensive position and circled each other on the road.
"I've waited fifty years for this, my dear," Carion said. "I'm going to enjoy taking your head."
"You couldn't take me when I was a novice, Carion, what makes you think you can do it now?"
"Watch and learn."
Then Carion lunged. Penelope parried effortlessly.
What followed was the most amazing sight Iolaus had ever seen. He'd seen swordfights in his time, but nothing at this level. These two could give Xena a run for her money.
Parry. Thrust. Slash. Duck. It was less like watching a battle than watching a dance. For almost an hour, it continued, neither side showing any signs of giving in. Truly two masters were fighting here -- Iolaus felt privileged to be allowed to view it.
Then, for the second time in two days, Penelope made the same mistake: she stepped on a twig. Her ankled twisted slightly, and she lost her balance for just a moment.
But a moment was all Carion needed.
With one swipe of his Elias-forged sword, Carion beheaded Penelope. As Iolaus watched, helpless, Penelope's head, with her obsidian eyes and lustrous hair, flew through the air and into the woods, while her body fell, lifeless, to the ground.
And then Iolaus saw something he thought he would never forget as long as he lived, even if he did live forever.
First a mist seemed to rise from the stump where Penelope's head once sat. The mist rose and descended upon Carion.
Then came the lightning. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, and it all struck Carion. The Immortal screamed as the lightning flashed, setting several of the surrounding trees alight.
Iolaus stayed rooted to the spot. He'd been hit by lightning once before; he was in no rush to repeat the experience.
Penelope had told him of the Quickening, but none of her descriptions prepared him for this.
An eternity later, it ended. Carion had dropped his sword and collapsed to his knees somewhere during the event.
Then he stood up and looked at Iolaus. "For fifty years, I waited for this. She beat me, did she tell you that? I trained her, I taught her everything she knew, and she beat me. It was the most humiliating moment of my life. And then, the final indignity, she spared me. Didn't deem me worthy of being killed. Well, I finally got my revenge."
"It wasn't that she didn't think you were worthy of being killed," Iolaus said after a moment.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You heard me," Iolaus said angrily. "She spared you because she'd never killed anyone before. She didn't kill you because -- even though you betrayed her -- she still saw you as her teacher, her mentor, and couldn't bring herself to take your head. She told me that she later regretted that choice. Now I see why."
Carion chuckled. "You believe what you want, little man. I was there -- you weren't. However, I'm in a good mood and I see no reason to argue the point. I'll just be on my way."
Iolaus unsheathed his broadsword. "Not yet, you won't. Pick up your sword."
Carion stared at Iolaus. "There's no need for this, boy. I've no fight with you."
"Well, I've got one with you. Pick up your sword."
Carion still stood staring at Iolaus, not moving. "You don't even know me. I don't understand why you feel this urge to challenge me. You'll only lose."
Iolaus almost laughed. Carion was a good swordsman, true, but Iolaus had faced creatures that would send the bravest of warriors cowering under their beds and lived to tell the tale. At the very least, he could hold his own against a petty moron like this. "Pick. Up. Your. Sword."
Carion finally hefted his weapon. "You're sure about this?"
"Let me put it in words you can understand, Carion: there can be only one."
When it came right down to it, Iolaus preferred hand-to-hand combat to swordfighting. It was why he tended to lose his sword within thirty seconds of the start of a fight -- he generally didn't need it. But in a one-on-one duel, he was willing to match his sword skill against anyone.
Carion was no easy target -- it was the most difficult duel Iolaus had had since he posed as his cousin Orestes and was "king for a day." There, he'd been hampered by an unfamiliar blade -- a thin, one-handed sword that was much lighter than Iolaus was accustomed to -- and still he was victorious. Here, he worked at no such disadvantage.
Still and all, the duel was hard. Midday came and went, and still they fought. But Iolaus would not give in. He'd been turned to stone, and he came back. He'd fought alongside his fellow Argonauts under Jason's command against some of the most vicious foes imaginable, and he came back. He'd been mortally wounded when he helped Hercules, Xena, and Gabrielle unchain Prometheus, and he came back. He'd faced giants, centaurs, dragons, and the mother of all monsters, and he came back. Hera's Enforcer killed him, and he came back. He would not lose now. He could not.
And then, before he knew it, Carion overstepped a lunge, Iolaus leapt over him, whirled around, and took his head.
Penelope's descriptions of a Quickening did not prepare him for seeing one.
Seeing one did not prepare him for experiencing one.
Icefire struck him with painpleasure. He exploded and reformed, screamed in agony and howled with ecstasy. Images passed before him, unfamiliar landscapes, strange people, new emotions.
It went on forever. It ended too quickly.
And it didn't bring Penelope back. Nothing would. So much for immortality.
When he recovered from the Quickening, he buried both bodies, leaving each of their swords as markers -- dug deeply to discourage bandits. Then he moved on.
"What took you so long?" Hercules asked with his usual huge smile.
Iolaus wanted to say, "Herc, remember when the Enforcer killed me? Well, it turns out you didn't need Hades's help to get me back."
Iolaus wanted to say, "Hate to tell you this, Herc, but you're not the only undying person in this partnership."
Iolaus wanted to say, "Herc, if ever in the future I wander off and fight a duel for no compellingly good reason, do me a favor and don't ask why, okay?"
Iolaus wanted to say any number of things.
What he did say was, "You have got to do something about that sister of yours."
Hercules sighed. "What did Aphrodite do this time?"
They all laughed, and then Iolaus told them of Aphrodite and Hephaestus and the lost village. And when it was finished, Jason said, "I do love a story with a happy ending."
Iolaus thought of black eyes and matching hair. He thought of a woman who lost everything and everyone, and yet found a way to go on, to live a life that had the potential to go on forever -- a woman who died an anonymous death on a remote part of the road to Corinth at the hand of a man she hated.
"Yeah," he said quietly, "happy endings are good."
They made a stopover in Thessaly on their way to visit General Chremylus, an old friend along whose side they'd fought years previous. Just as they were preparing to leave, a young man ran screaming into the village.
"The Horsemen! The Horsemen! They're coming!"
Hercules stepped in front of the man, who, to Herc's surprise, collided with the demigod's large form and fell to the ground. Hercules helped him up, saying, "You should watch where you're going, my friend."
"Don't you understand, it's the Horsemen!"
"Who or what are the Horsemen?"
Iolaus said, "Wait a minute, you mean the riders from the north? Led by a person named Kronos?"
"Yes, them! They're riding this way to destroy us!"
Hercules looked at his friend. "Do you know what he's talking about?"
"Sort of. My father told me about the Horsemen when I was a boy -- he first encountered them when he was a boy. There were four of them." He searched his memory for the tale that had so frightened him as a youth. "Kronos was the leader. The others were named Methuselah, Santoras, and Caspian. I think." The memories wouldn't come into focus. "Something like that, anyhow. They ravaged the countryside seventy-five years ago."
"This can't be the same four people."
"Probably not, but they could have taken the name. From what my father said, these four guys were fierce. Picture Xena in the old days, multiplied by four."
The look on Hercules's face showed that he had pictured it, and didn't like what he saw.
"We'd better get ready." He turned to the young man. "Where were they coming from?"
"The north. They'll be here by sunrise!"
"Then we don't have much time to prepare," Hercules said.
"You're crazy!" the young man cried. "We have to flee!"
"To where? If we don't make a stand, they'll keep coming."
Iolaus nodded. "Herc is right. If these guys are even half as good as the stories said, we'll be in for the fight of our lives."
Hercules smiled. "It may not be that bad. Remember, this can't possibly be the same four people. Nobody lives that long, and-- Iolaus?"
Iolaus had felt the color drain from his face, and obviously Hercules noticed it, too, based on the look of concern his friend now gave him.
"It's nothing," Iolaus lied. "C'mon, let's go find out who's running the militia in this town."
And then pray that the gods are smiling on us, Iolaus added to himself. Because if the Horsemen are Immortals, there may not be any hope.
Caspian paced restlessly. "We should attack now," he muttered to himself.
"That would kill the horses," Silas pointed out. They'd ridden hard for days, and it was starting to take its toll on their mounts. "We may be Immortal, but they aren't."
Caspian stopped pacing, and leaned in close to Silas. "So what? If the horses die, they die. We'll just get new ones."
Before Silas could respond, the voice of Kronos rang out from behind him: "That would be wasteful, brother."
Caspian straightened and faced their leader, who had just exited his tent, Methos behind him. "I didn't realize we were concerned with what we wasted. Certainly doesn't apply to the women."
"Enough, brother," Kronos said in the tone Silas recognized as a warning.
"We ride at dawn?" Silas asked.
"Yes," Kronos replied. "And then Thessaly will fall before the Horsemen."
"As if," Caspian added, "that meant anything. Why, exactly, are we wasting our time with this pathetic village, O wise and brilliant strategist?"
Methos smiled. "Simple, really. What's the shortest distance between two points?"
Caspian looked as confused by the question as Silas felt. The former asked, "Is this a trick question, brother?"
"No, it's a simple one. If you want to get from one point to the next, what's the easiest way to do so?" After a moment, when no one replied, Methos answered his own question: "Move in a straight line."
Caspian shook his head. Silas laughed and said, "You've been reading scrolls again, eh, brother?"
"Someone has to," Methos said, looking straight at Caspian.
"Still," Silas continued, "Caspian is right. This village won't be much of a challenge."
"I wasn't aware that we were looking for a challenge," Methos said. "Had I known that, I would've planned differently."
"You know that isn't the case, brother," Kronos said, laughing. "It has been too long since the Horsemen have made their presence known in Greece."
Methos went on: "All we've done the past few months is attack a few villages and encampments. As far as the Greeks are concerned, it's just the usual raiding that goes on in barbarian lands. By attacking Thessaly, we let them know that we're coming for them. Then the stories start again -- the fear, the terror. And then -- then we strike."
Silas laughed. "I like it, brother!"
Methos smiled. "I had a feeling you would."
Kronos stuck out his hand. "Come dawn, Thessaly will be naught but a memory."
Silas laughed once again, got up, and grabbed Kronos's arm just below the elbow. "We will ride through Greece and leave nothing in our path but death!"
Methos said nothing as he placed his arm over Kronos's hand so that Kronos could grip it in a like manner to how Silas gripped Kronos's. That only left Caspian to complete the square.
Caspian had regarded all of this silently -- and, Silas thought, suspiciously. But he finally slipped his arm under Methos's hand and grabbed Silas's arm. "Come dawn," he said, "we ride."
Hercules approached. "Are you okay, Iolaus?"
"Hmm? Oh, yeah, I'm fine, Herc, just -- y'know, nervous. Listen, maybe I should scout ahead, see if -- well, y'know, they've moved."
"Iolaus, it's night," Hercules pointed out in the tone that he used to use with his three-year-old. "If they advance, we'll see their torches. They'll probably come at dawn, you know that."
Iolaus sighed. "Yeah, you're right -- I'm just--" What do I tell him? he thought. Well, you see, Herc, I want to scout ahead because I think the Horsemen might be the same guys my father talked about. You see, they might be Immortal, and the only way for me to be sure is to get near them and see if they give me a headache -- you see I'm Immortal, too, and we can feel each others' presence.
Sure. He'll buy that.
Then he remembered something a wise man once said to him years ago when he travelled just prior to hooking up with the Argonauts: "The best lie consists of the truth -- just not all of the truth."
And so he said, "I'm a little worried about these Horsemen. My father was never much of a storyteller -- in fact, he stank at it. My mother used to joke that his bedtime stories put people right to sleep. But the stories he told me about the Horsemen were very -- well, vivid. And Dad didn't go for hyperbole -- that's why he made such a lousy storyteller, to be honest. If these guys are following in their footsteps..."
Hercules patted his friend on the shoulder. "Hey, don't worry. It's only four men. We've faced much worse in our time."
Iolaus smiled, comforted by his friend's words. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it. Listen, I want to check the catapaults -- are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine," Iolaus said reassuringly. "Really. You go check the catapaults."
Still looking concerned, Hercules said, "All right." Then he went off.
After an hour or so, light started to show through the horizon to the east. About a quarter of an hour after that, Iolaus heard a very familiar sound.
Hercules was back standing next to him. They turned to each other and said in perfect unison, "Horses."
They nodded to each other and moved to take their positions. They had not verbally planned anything -- they didn't need to. They had worked and fought together so long that they almost thought as one.
As they started to separate, though, a pounding pain shot through Iolaus's head. This time it was worse than before, more intense--
--four times as intense, he realized. Instinctively, he just knew that he felt four Immortals rather than one.
I was right, he thought. I wish I wasn't.
"Are you okay, Iolaus?" Hercules asked, concerned.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," Iolaus said with a dismissive wave. "Just a little spasm in my back. I hurt it last night when we were setting the catapault up. I'll be all right."
Iolaus rolled his eyes. "No, actually, I really feel miserable -- I think I'll go lie down while you face the invaders. Gimme a break, Herc."
Hercules chuckled. "Okay, okay." And then they moved into position.
This wasn't good. The raid hadn't even started yet, and already he was bored. It wasn't supposed to work like that, but Caspian couldn't bring himself to care about sacking so easy a target as Thessaly.
Maybe there'll be women. That would liven things up a bit. I haven't had a good rape in weeks, he thought wistfully.
Still, even if there were women, what was the point? If they were going to attack Greece, they should attack the heart of Greece, not these weak extremeties.
But Methos thought it important to strike terror in the Greeks. Caspian thought Methos was an idiot -- what better terror is there than to have a blade at one's throat? How better to strike fear than for someone to kill you -- and you don't stay dead? No, Caspian thought, Methos is a fool -- but that was hardly a new thought for Caspian. He only hadn't killed Methos because Kronos depended on dear brother "Death" -- if Caspian beheaded Methos without Kronos's permission, their leader's vengeance would be too terrible to contemplate.
Then he felt it. Another Immortal!
From his position in the rear behind Caspian, Silas said, "There's one of us in the town," thus utilizing his great talent for stating the blindingly obvious as if it were a revelation.
Kronos grinned from his position in front. "Then we shall add a Quickening to our bounty. Horsemen, forward!"
Howling with laughter, Caspian spurred on his horse and unsheathed his sword. He wasn't bored anymore. Another Immortal. He hadn't had a proper duel in years. This might actually be fun.
Then the large rock came out of nowhere and knocked Silas from his horse, killing him instantly.
Caspian didn't concern himself with that. Silas would recover. What did concern him were the four rocks that followed. Luckily, only one struck a target; unluckily, that one hit Caspian's horse.
The Horseman leapt off his mount as it fell to the ground, narrowly avoiding being crushed under the horse's weight.
Clambering to his feet, Caspian cried angrily to Methos, "It seems that someone knew we were coming!" But Methos did not hear, as he and Kronos had already gone forward into Thessaly.
"You kidding, we could smell you a mile off!" came a mocking voice from the trees.
Caspian looked up at the voice--
--and fell to the ground again as a body collided with his.
His opponent recovered more quickly than Caspian -- indeed, more quickly than Caspian would have believed possible. He was a short, blond-haired man who wore no armor, his only protection a two-handed sword. Under other circumstances, Caspian would have dismissed him as an idiot villager out to get himself killed, but two things convinced him otherwise. One was that the man moved like a seasoned warrior; he didn't wear armor because he didn't need it.
The second was that this was the Immortal.
"Ready to die, little man?"
"Not really," the Immortal said, and unsheathed his sword. "I'm Iolaus."
"Pleased to meet you," Iolaus said with a smile, and then attacked.
After a few minutes, Caspian was laughing with joy. At last, a proper challenge!
After a few more minutes, Caspian was wheezing. This Iolaus was as good a swordfighter as Caspian had ever faced. He might, Caspian thought, even be as good as Kronos. And Caspian himself was horribly out of practice in fighting a skilled foe, having only worthless peasants for opponents in recent times. For the first time in centuries, the Horseman considered the possibility that he might lose.
Iolaus was nowhere to be seen -- which meant that he was likely dealing with the other two Horsemen, leaving these two to Hercules. That suited the son of Zeus just fine.
"People of Thessaly!" the one with the black facepaint cried. "I am Kronos of the Four Horsemen! Surrender to us and spare yourselves needless suffering!"
Someone cried, "And if we don't?"
Kronos smiled a smile that reminded Hercules of Ares. "Then you will suffer before you are slaughtered!"
"I don't think so," Hercules said, and punctuated his feelings by throwing a barrel at Kronos.
To Hercules's astonishment, Kronos saw the barrel and -- while he couldn't avoid it -- managed to roll with the blow. He fell from his horse, but he recovered.
"So," Kronos said, brandishing a sword, "it seems this town has a defender. Show yourself!"
"Gladly," Hercules said, coming out into the open.
"Prepare to die, mortal fool!"
Kronos attacked. Hercules grabbed Kronos's swordarm in midswing and halted the downward swipe. "Sorry," he said, "neither." And then he tossed Kronos across the road.
He turned to the blue-faced one. "The name is Hercules. Thessaly is under my protection. If you know what's good for you, you'll leave now and never come back."
The still-mounted man smiled. But where his companion's smile was akin to Ares's, this one's was more like Zeus's -- and that frightened Hercules even more. "What a pity that I've never been known for doing what's good for me. So you're Hercules."
"It seems I owe you an apology, brother," came a voice from behind Hercules -- Kronos, obviously. "It seems the stories you heard about the son of Zeus playing defender to the downtrodden were true." Hercules turned to face Kronos, who continued: "I met your father once, boy, long ago. He was younger and stupider then -- much like you are now. He angered me -- I will be more than happy to return the favor for you."
"You can try," Hercules said, outwardly calm, but his head was swimming. Supposedly, Zeus's father was named Kronos. This -- this thug couldn't be the same man. Could he?
Then blue-face rode, not toward Hercules, but to one of the huts. Hercules started to give chase -- but Kronos took the offensive again. Hercules had to defend himself, leaving the villagers open to whatever blue-face had planned.
Kronos was a master swordsman, and Hercules had no sword to counter with -- luckily, he didn't need one. His strength and speed were far superior, and Kronos, for all his boasts about knowing Zeus, was only a man. Still, Hercules had a hard time landing any kind of blow.
This stalemate continued until Hercules heard a scream. He turned to see blue-face leaving the hut, still mounted, but dragging a young woman out. Angry, Hercules managed to gut-kick his opponent, and Kronos fell to the ground. Then Hercules grabbed Kronos by the leg, picked him up, and threw him at his companion as he threw the barrel before at Kronos.
It had the same effect, only more so for the blue-faced Horseman not seeing it coming.
Hercules followed his throw, made sure the woman was all right, urged her to get away, then faced his two opponents.
They both had gotten up and were now running to their mounts. They were impossibly fast, these two.
"You've won this round, boy," Kronos said, "but be warned -- you will hear from us again."
"For your sake, you'd better hope you're lying Kronos."
As the Horsemen rode off, cheers rose up from the village. Hercules looked around to see several Thessalians emerging from their hiding places to give praise to him.
Hercules looked around for the one face he wanted to see the most -- and didn't see it.
"Has anyone seen Iolaus?"
Muttered negative responses were all he got, until Marcus, one of the catapault operators, ran up to him. "Hercules! It's Iolaus -- he's facing one of the Horsemen!"
Marcus pointed right in the direction that Kronos and his blue-faced friend had run.
A fist of ice clenched Hercules's heart. Normally three against one odds would be in favor of the one, if it was Iolaus. But Kronos was as good as Iolaus -- maybe better. And, for all he knew, the same could be said of blue-face and whichever of the other two Iolaus now faced.
Without another word, he ran after his friend.
All the while, Iolaus kept an eye on the big man who'd been knocked from his horse. The catapault stone had broken the man's neck, but Iolaus knew that only to be temporary. The problem was, he had no idea how temporary -- Penelope had told him that Immortals all healed at different rates, depending on the wound and the person. The man could stay dead for hours, or he'd be up and walking around any second. And Iolaus couldn't count on someone from this crew following the one-on-one rule.
Suddenly, Iolaus felt two more Immortals come into range -- he allowed himself to be distracted for only a second by the re-arrival of the other two Horsemen. But it was all Caspian required as, with one smooth motion, he disarmed Iolaus.
Caspian grinned a feral grin. Iolaus almost smiled, but kept a look of fear plastered to his face. He thought, Let him think I'm helpless. He'd taken on as many as ten armored soldiers in his time without benefit of a sword.
"Did this one give you a fight, Caspian?" one of the two new arrivals said.
Caspian shrugged. "He amused me for a little while."
Iolaus rolled his eyes. "Don't flatter yourself, Caspian."
"You think I flatter myself, little man?"
"I think you should know better than to think a fight is over before a head's been cut off."
And with that, Iolaus attacked, a brutal flail of arms and legs, catching Caspian -- who obviously thought the fight to be over once his opponent lost his sword -- completely off guard. Where normally Iolaus would hold a bit back when he fought hand to hand, he felt no such compunction now -- any blow, no matter how hard, would heal, after all. Caspian was left to purely defensive maneuvering, trying to block Iolaus's blows with his sword. Using techniques he'd learned years before, Iolaus blocked the pain of Caspian's sword piercing the flesh of his arm and continued his assault.
To Iolaus's surprise, his fellows stayed out of the fight. I guess even total bastards follow the rules, Iolaus thought with relief.
Just as Iolaus landed a kick to Caspian's stomach that sent the Horseman flying into a tree stump, he heard one of the other two say, "Quite an impressive fighter, isn't he, Methos? Not as strong as Hercules, but he more than makes up for it in speed and skill. And he doesn't have it as easy as his friend, not being a demigod and all."
"But he is an Immortal," Methos pointed out as Iolaus went to Caspian's body only to find that the impact broke the Horseman's neck. He was out of it for the time being.
"Indeed. Think what we could do with him at our side."
Iolaus whirled on the man who was obviously Kronos, the leader of the Horsemen. "If I live to be thousands of years old, I will never, under any circumstances, fight by your side."
"What a pity. You and your friend squander yourselves -- with your skill and his power, no one could defeat you! You could rule everything if you chose!"
Iolaus laughed. "No thanks. First of all, Hercules doesn't know about us, and I'd prefer to keep it that way. And secondly, I want my legacy to be something that would allow me to sleep at night. The only people here 'squandering' anything are you four."
Kronos returned the laugh, but it was a cruel one. As he unsheathed his sword, he said, "You are a fool if you believe that. And fools deserve only to die."
He rode forward, intending to chop Iolaus's head off from his mount. Iolaus waited until the last possible second, then ducked under the swipe, simultaneously trying to kick at Kronos's stirrups in the hopes of dislodging them. That didn't work, unfortunately.
Iolaus's headache intensified -- though, he noticed, each time it became less painful -- which meant that either Caspian or the large one was recovering.
Kronos had stopped and come around for another pass. Iolaus looked around for his sword -- and saw, to his annoyance, that Methos had positioned himself so his horse stood over Iolaus's fallen sword.
Then a huge log flew threw the air and collided with Kronos, knocking him from his mount.
"Iolaus! Are you all right?" came a familiar voice. Iolaus turned to see Hercules running into the clearing.
Iolaus didn't know whether to be relieved or annoyed. "Oh, I'm fine. Just showing these guys what it's like to face opponents who aren't helpless."
The big one now hefted a frighteningly large axe and said in a deep, resonating voice, "Doesn't matter -- you still bleed. And you can still die."
"Maybe," Hercules said in that modest-but-confident tone of his.
Finally, Methos spoke up. "You are welcome, of course, to fight us, son of Zeus. But I believe that your first concern has always been for the innocents of the world. You said you were Thessaly's protector -- I would think that would include keeping it from burning to the ground, no?"
Iolaus turned to look toward the town -- and saw a fire blazing.
"You have a choice," Methos continued. "Fight us, a battle you may or may not win, and Thessaly is razed. Or retreat and save them." Methos smiled. "But then, for the pair of you, that isn't really a choice, is it?"
Hercules shot Methos an angry look and said, "This isn't over. C'mon, Iolaus." And then he sprinted toward the town.
Iolaus hung back for a second. "We'll meet again, I promise you that."
Methos's smile widened. "I look forward to it."
And then Iolaus ran after Hercules.
It didn't take as long to put out the fire as it might have otherwise, thanks to Thessaly's unreliable water supply. The nearby river's current and size varied wildly from year to year, and so the townsfolk had taken advantage of a good year to stock up on water for the leaner years. That water was kept in a huge wooden vat. At first it was used as the source for the buckets, but once Hercules and Iolaus arrived, the former was able to lift the thing and dump it onto the fire before it had a chance to spread past the one hut.
It meant that Thessaly lost their backup water supply, but it beat losing Thessaly.
As things started settling back to normal, Hercules asked Iolaus, "You think we'll see those four again?"
"Maybe." And if I do, Iolaus thought, I swear I'll finish what I started.
"It was the strangest thing," a woman said.
"What was?" Iolaus asked.
"Well, we were hiding in the hut," the woman replied. "And then that man with the blue face came in and told us all that we had to leave, that our lives were in danger."
"He threatened you," Iolaus said.
"Well, that's the odd thing. He was -- well, polite about it. He even apologized for discommoding us. I'm afraid that I went all weak in the knees, though -- I couldn't move. So he guided me out after he threw something at the center of the hut."
Hercules frowned. "So he was dragging you out of the hut -- for your own safety?"
Hercules looked at Iolaus. "That doesn't make sense."
"No," Iolaus said. "No, it doesn't."
Silas stood angrily before him, fixing Kronos and Methos with a furious look. "We ran!" he snarled.
"We retreated," Methos corrected.
Kronos added, "We had no choice."
Caspian got to his feet. His neck still felt a bit sore. "That's ridiculous! If we just had a little bit longer--"
"We would have lost," Methos said. "Iolaus defeated you unarmed, Caspian. It's pure luck that you still have your head attached. And Hercules defeated Kronos and I without even working up a sweat."
"It was effortless," Kronos muttered. Caspian had never heard such a tone in their leader's voice -- he sounded baffled.
"Oh no," Methos said, "that's just it. It was an effort. He was making a great effort -- to hold back."
Kronos looked up. "What?"
"I watched him very carefully, brother. His strength is tremendous, far greater than a human's or an Immortal's, and he didn't use all of it. He was noticeably restraining himself -- because he didn't want to hurt us. Iolaus said he didn't know about Immortals, so he didn't know that any wounds he inflicted would heal. And still, we lost."
"So that's it?" Silas said. "We run?"
"Oh no," Kronos said, fury creeping into his voice. "Not quite. We simply adjust the plan. Methos, I want you to employ spies. I want to know every movement Hercules and his Immortal friend make."
"For what purpose?" Caspian asked.
"So we can avoid them -- for now."
Caspian exploded. "Are we old women now? Do we cower under our beds at the sight of a stronger foe?"
"No," Methos said with a calmness that only infuriated Caspian more. "We live. We grow stronger. Then we strike."
Kronos put a reassuring hand on Caspian's shoulder. "Rest assured, brother, we will meet those two again. But not until after at least half of Greece is behind us. For all their skill, there are only two of them. We can still go forth with our plans of conquest. We just have to avoid them -- until we're ready. Even they cannot defeat an army of thousands."
Caspian thought a moment. He pictured the four of them riding at the front of so large an army. He liked the image. He liked it a lot.
He laughed. So did Silas. In response, Kronos laughed as well.
Only Methos stayed silent.
He encountered two other Immortals, but neither of them were looking for a fight. One was a man he met in Thebes on a crowded street. They eyed each other warily and introduced each other (his name was Cornelius). Then he said, "Another time, perhaps," walked off, and Iolaus never saw him again.
The other was a dishearteningly young member of a caravan of Jews that Iolaus saved from bandits on the road to Athens. The boy didn't seem to have any idea of what he was, nor any interest in learning. Iolaus feared for the boy's head, but there was little he could do.
Then Iolaus and Hercules got caught up in a rather tangled mess involving Ares's Golden Hind, the last of her kind. At one point, the Hind shot Iolaus with one of her arrows, mistaking him for an enemy. At first, Iolaus's primary worry was that he'd have to explain his quick healing to Hercules, but that turned out to be the least of it. Apparently, the supernatural arrows interfered with his Immortal healing to make the process agonizingly slow. Still and all, he did recover, and more quickly and thoroughly than the town's healer expected him to.
However, events took an odd turn while he recovered -- the Golden Hind could also transform into a human woman named Serena, and Hercules had gone and fallen in love with her. Iolaus had been dubious about their relationship from the start, more so when Hercules announced that they were getting married. After all, the Hind belonged to the god of war.
Predictably, the gods weren't thrilled with the idea, either. Over the years, Iolaus had more or less lost his respect for the gods. Zeus stood idly by while Hera slaughtered Hercules's family, and was hardly an ideal father. Hera had once sent her pet assassin to kill Iolaus before Hercules stopped her. Aphrodite had proven to be a flighty ditz, and Hades didn't exactly impress Iolaus at their first meeting. And Ares had been trying to kill Hercules for decades.
So, of course, they didn't exactly bless Hercules's union. He and Serena could only marry if Hercules renounced the divine half of his heritage and Serena also became fully human.
Just as predictably, they both agreed. Love will do that to you.
Iolaus's dubiousness flowered into full-blown apprehension when Hercules told him he no longer had his gods-given strength. "How will you help people?" Iolaus had asked.
"The same way you do," Hercules said, and it stung. Herc was right, of course -- Iolaus had done just fine without the benefit of great strength -- but Iolaus wasn't normal anymore, either. His wounds would heal. Hercules's wouldn't.
Then the worst blow of all: Hercules woke up one morning to find Serena murdered in the bed with him. Hercules was of course accused of the murder -- the strain of losing his demigodhood unhinged him, they said -- and he and Iolaus had to go on the run.
The pleasant surprise was the help from Xena and Gabrielle, who had heard of Hercules's plight from two gossips in a tavern. When a group of villagers attacked Hercules and Iolaus, the Warrior Princess and the Bard-turned-Amazon came to their aid, and the four of them made a phenomenal team.
Unfortunately, while Hercules had managed, after a while, to adjust his offensive fighting style to compensate for his reduced strength, he didn't do the same for his defense. He was badly wounded, and the four of them barely escaped to a cave.
Iolaus spent a lot of time moping after that. He felt so damned helpless! Here he was, forced to sit on his ass while his supposedly immortal best friend lay dying. The same friend who -- however unnecessarily -- had bullied Hades and risked his own life to bring Iolaus back from the dead. It wasn't fair.
Gabrielle had tried and failed to cheer him, and so she sent out Xena. She comforted him a bit, and also mentioned a risky plan.
Before she could elaborate on the plan, Iolaus shifted his weight on the rock on which he sat, then felt a sharp pain in his arm. "Ow!"
He'd cut his arm on a tree branch. Lovely.
Then Xena said the words Iolaus was praying she wouldn't say: "Let me take a look at that."
"It's fine, just a small cut."
"Let me be the judge of that," Xena said, grabbing Iolaus's arm--
--and watching as it healed.
"By the gods," she muttered.
Iolaus had to suppress a grin. The one thing about Xena that had remained consistent from the moment Iolaus first laid eyes on her years ago -- when she was still a vicious warlord, intending to seduce Iolaus to get to Hercules (and what a good job of that she did, he thought, still retaining bittersweet memories of sharing a heated bathtub with her) -- was that she was always completely in control. Until now, that is. It was almost worth being found out as an Immortal just to see the very uncharacteristic look of abject confusion on her face.
"You're one of them -- an Immortal, like the Horsemen."
Iolaus sat up straight. "You know about Immortals?" Then, after a beat: "You've met the Horsemen? When?"
"Two weeks ago. They attacked Pilos."
"And here I thought Herc and I scared them off after Thessaly."
Xena smiled. "Yes, Methos mentioned that. I'm afraid all it did was make them angry. Don't worry, though, you won't have to worry about them anymore."
Iolaus doubted that, somehow, but said only: "You talked to Methos? He's the worst of them."
"Not really. There's more to him than you might imagine. In any event, he's the one who told me about you undying, unaging people." She paused. "Does Hercules know?"
Iolaus shook his head. "And I'd just as soon keep it that way, especially now."
Xena nodded. "I understand. Don't worry, your secret's safe with me." And then she smiled. "Actually, this may make the plan go even smoother."
Sure enough, that drew Ares out. The whole thing had been a setup to lead to this moment. The two gossips in the tavern were, in fact, Ares and his nephew Strife. Ares promised to resurrect Hercules (he made no mention of Iolaus -- perhaps the god of war knew of his Immortal status, or perhaps, more likely, he didn't give any consideration to the sidekick; few ever did) in exchange for Xena going back to her warlike ways of old.
It was not the first time Ares had made the offer. It was not the first time Xena refused.
In the course of this, Strife admitted to killing Serena. Only then did Hercules and Iolaus rise from their "deaths." Hercules was given his strength back, and life continued as before.
Except that Serena was still dead.
After they gave Serena a proper funeral, Xena and Gabrielle prepared to move on.
"Thanks, both of you," Hercules said.
"It was my pleasure," Xena replied. "To be honest, it was the absolute least I could do."
For the second time in two days, Iolaus saw an uncharacteristic look on Xena's face: this time it was gratitude. Hercules had been the one primarily responsible for Xena's change of heart, and it was obvious that Xena could never fully repay that debt.
Then the Warrior Princess turned to Iolaus. "Gabrielle told me that you helped protect my -- my body when I'd died. I never did thank you for that."
Iolaus smiled. "Hey, what are friends for?"
Xena then gave him a significant look that, it seemed to Iolaus, said, Don't lose your head. Then she and Gabrielle left, Xena astride her horse Argo, Gabrielle walking alongside.
Hercules and Iolaus, meanwhile, moved on in the other direction. But where normally their little between-villages walks were fun times for the two of them to laugh and tell stories and just generally enjoy each other's company before the next crisis hit, this time Hercules was silent.
After two hours of silence, Iolaus couldn't stand it anymore. "You okay, Herc?"
"Not really. I'm not sure I can keep doing this, Iolaus. I mean, all I've done is cause suffering to the people I love most. I've made so many enemies that anyone who gets close to me becomes a target. Hera killed Deinara and the kids, Ares took Serena. Salmoneus, Xena, Jason, mother, you -- you've all become targets just because you're close to me. How many times can I let people like Echidna and Callisto and the rest use that against me?"
Iolaus frowned. He'd never heard Hercules talk like this -- not even after Deinara was killed. "Well, Herc, not to presume to speak for the others but -- well, we've all had plenty of opportunities to distance ourselves from you, and we haven't taken them. Give us a little credit, huh?"
"I know, but -- is it really worth the hurt? Sometimes I think it might just be easier to do what Iphicles did -- find some village, announce that I'm the son of Zeus, and set myself up as king. Spend the rest of my life having servants feed me grapes."
Iolaus didn't like this turn of conversation at all. Kronos's words came back to him: "With your skill and his power, no one could defeat you! You could rule everything if you chose!"
So Iolaus replied to Hercules much the same way he replied to the Horseman. "Maybe that would be easier. But would you be able to sleep at night?"
Hercules looked at Iolaus then, and the hollowness, the emptiness in his friend's eyes chilled him. "I haven't been able to sleep since I woke up next to Serena's corpse."
Iolaus found he could say nothing in response to that.
Silence reigned for another hour. When they reached the bottom of an incline, Iolaus scouted ahead to the top of the hill and up a tree atop it to see how far it was to the next town.
After doing so, he returned, saying, "I've got good news and bad news. The bad news is, it's at least another couple of days before we hit a town, and it's going to rain soon. The good news is that there's a farm just over the hill. If we're lucky, it's owned by a friendly person who can put us up for the night."
"I don't want to impose on anyone."
"Herc, it's gonna rain. Pretty hard, by the looks of it. I've been hit by lightning enough in my life, I'm not real eager to repeat the experience."
Hercules almost managed a smile at that. Almost. "All right, whatever. Let's go."
After twenty minutes, they arrived at the farm. It was fairly small, by farm standards -- only a few rows of crops. It looked tiny enough for one person to handle alone. Two structures stood next to the crops, one a hut, the other a stable. The latter was significantly larger than the former, and also looked terrible. Large chunks of both wall and roof were missing; Iolaus was amazed it still stood. Several horses sat tethered inside.
Then he felt it -- another Immortal. At this point, he no longer felt pain when another Immortal approached, and he was able to more or less mask it from prying eyes. (Not that Hercules was in any shape to notice just at the moment.)
A medium-sized man with short brown hair exited the hut and approached them. "Greetings!" he said, waving. "My name is Kokiadis. I-- By the gods!" he exclaimed suddenly. "You're Hercules, aren't you?"
Hercules frowned. "Do I know you?"
"Oh, no -- I mean, I doubt it. I used to be a clerk in the court at Athens. I saw you there years ago on several occasions. It's an honor to meet you, sir. I'd give you a proper warrior's salute, but I'm not carrying my sword at the moment."
"Th-that's okay," Hercules said, confsued. Iolaus just smiled -- that had obviously been for Iolaus's benefit. Kokiadis was not looking for a duel, which suited Iolaus just fine.
"We're just looking for a place to stay for the night," Iolaus said. "We can pay."
"That's not at all necessary. If he's Hercules, you must be Salmoneus."
Iolaus winced; Hercules actually cracked a real smile at that one. "Uh, no I'm Iolaus."
"Really? I assumed you'd be -- well, taller. My apologies."
"That's all right," Iolaus said tightly. Maybe he would take this guy's head...
"Actually, there is one way you can repay me -- as you can see, my stables have seen better days."
"I'd noticed that," Hercules commented.
"I could use some help fixing them. I'm afraid the crops haven't been very good the last couple of years, and there are limits as to what I can do by myself even in a good year, so I decided to go into business buying and selling horses. It's handy for people who have problems with their mounts out here where it's days to the nearest village. Kind of an emergency roadside service."
"Interesting idea," Hercules said.
"In any event, the stables were damaged in, ah, a freak lightning storm."
Iolaus fought to keep from laughing. As it was, he developed a sudden coughing fit.
"You okay, Iolaus?"
Recovering quickly, Iolaus said, "Oh yeah, I'm fine. Just swallowed funny, that's all."
Kokiadis was doing a very bad job of holding a grin back. "Well, that stable is my livelihood. If you could help me rebuild it, I'd be most grateful."
"Fine," Hercules said, "Whatever."
"You sure you'll be okay?" Iolaus asked.
Hercules smiled a smile that didn't quite make it to his eyes. "I have to try to sleep sometime." With that, he went to the spare room where Kokiadis had a couple of pallets.
After Hercules was gone, Iolaus looked at their host. "Freak lightning storm, huh?"
Kokiadis laughed. "Well, the last Immortal to visit me wasn't quite as friendly as you. And I wasn't sure if your friend knew about us."
"I figured. I can't imagine the gods like us too much -- stealing their thunder and all."
"Something like that." Iolaus took a sip of the home-brewed wine Kokiadis had provided. A trifle bitter, but tasty. "Thanks for putting us up."
"No problem. It's an honor. Hercules is a great man -- and so are you. Should've known you were one of us."
"Actually, I only became Immortal a couple of months ago."
"Really? Well, in that case, I'm doubly impressed." Kokiadis hesitated. "Listen, about Hercules -- is he okay? I never imagined him being this -- I dunno, listless."
Iolaus picked his words carefully. Obviously the news of Hercules's recent troubles didn't make it to this remote farm. "He's been through a lot lately."
Or, more accurately, Iolaus and Kokiadis occasionally helped Hercules rebuild the stable. The son of Zeus threw himself into the work with gusto, all through the days and nights, pausing only to eat and sleep. He hardly said a word that wasn't specifically related to the work. Iolaus was worried about him, but at least he was neither moping nor talking about servants feeding him grapes -- both steps in the right direction.
Each night his sleep was wracked with nightmares -- but each night, the nightmares were shorter.
When the stable was completely rebuilt, Hercules and Iolaus prepared to move on. "I can't thank you enough," Kokiadis said.
"No," Hercules said -- and this time his smile was genuine. "I should thank you. Your cooking is excellent, and so is your hospitality." He stuck out his hand for Kokiadis to shake.
The farmer accepted the gesture. "You're both welcome here any time you need a place to stay."
Iolaus said his goodbyes as well. He had enjoyed Kokiadis's company immensely -- once Iolaus got over the Salmoneus crack, anyhow. It's nice, he thought, to meet an Immortal who can just be a friend. Penelope might have become that, had she not died so soon after Iolaus met her. But after encountering the likes of Carion, Kronos, Methos, and Caspian, he had despaired of ever finding a friend among his kind again. Nice to be proven wrong.
"C'mon, Iolaus," Hercules said. "We've got work to do."
Iolaus blinked. "We do?"
"Absolutely. There are people who need our help, and we can't help them standing around here."
Iolaus laughed with relief. "Lead on, my friend, lead on."
This story takes place around the following episodes of Hercules: the Prelude is simultaneous with "Not Fade Away"; Chapter 1 takes place right after "Love Takes a Holiday"; Chapter 2 takes place just before "Prince Hercules"; the Epilogue takes place before, during, and after the episodes "Encounter," "When a Man Loves a Woman," and "Judgment Day." The story also takes place after the flashbacks in the Highlander episodes "Comes a Horseman" and "Revelation 6.8."
Hercules brought Hades and Persephone together (and earned Hades's reluctant gratitude) in the Hercules episode "The Other Side." The Enforcer first showed up in "The Enforcer." Iolaus's fear of growing old is inferred from the drug-induced nightmare he suffered in "Surprise"; he was struck by lightning in "Heedless Hearts"; he posed as his lookalike cousin Orestes, and fought with an unfamiliar blade, in "King for a Day"; he was turned to stone in "The Wrong Path"; his time with the Argonauts was first alluded to in "Once a Hero"; he was wounded while helping Hercules and Xena go after Prometheus in the Xena episode "Prometheus"; Xena was killed in "Destiny," and resurrected in "The Quest" (which is when Iolaus learned about all this). Iolaus will re-encounter the Immortal he met in Thebes in "Cold Wind to Valhalla". Hera had Hercules's family killed in the Hercules episode "The Wrong Path," and contracted Nemesis to kill Iolaus in "Pride Goes Before a Fall." Ares's desire to off Hercules has been a running theme of both Hercules and its spinoff Young Hercules. Xena seduced Iolaus to get to Hercules in "The Warrior Princess"; she encountered the Four Horsemen in "Red Right Hand"; her change from evil to good occurred in "The Gauntlet" and "Unchained Heart." Echidna and Callisto attacked Hercules through his family and friends in "The Mother of All Monsters" and "Surprise," respectively. Hercules's brother Iphicles pretended to be Hercules in "What's in a Name?"
Other installments of "The Methos Chronicles":
MAIN FANFIC PAGE | MARINA'S HOME PAGE | KEITH'S HOME PAGE