The Methos Chronicles


The Lives and Times of Methos, the World's Oldest Immortal, and the Lives He Touched in His Travels

Third Excerpt: "Cold Wind to Valhalla"


Being the Story of Reunions in Rome and Germany, an Attempt by the Lord of the Underworld to Collect on a Debt, and the Twilight of the Gods

by Keith R.A. DeCandido




Feel free to send feedback to the author.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Living in the Past
Chapter 2: We Used to Know
Chapter 3: Someday the Sun Won't Shine for You
Chapter 4: Rocks on the Road
Chapter 5: Nothing is Easy
Chapter 6: A Passion Play




CHAPTER 1: "Living in the Past"

Rome, 35 BCE

The sword came for him with remarkable speed -- it was all he could do parry in time, but he managed it.

Now, he thought, he'll swing around and go for the leg.

Sure enough, his opponent did so, and he parried that as well. Then, taking advantage of the surprise his opponent showed at this anticipation, he brought his foot in under the other's leg and tripped him up.

Within half a second, Iolaus knelt on Marcus Constantine's chest, his sword to Marcus's neck.

"How many times do I have to tell you, Marcus, never be surprised at your opponents' moves. If they do something unexpected, go on to the next move. Remember, you may be facing Immortals who have centuries of experience."

"You're right, of course, my friend," Marcus said. "I suppose that, after all these years, I had forgotten what it was like to lose."

Iolaus smiled as he rose and helped Marcus up. He understood the feeling. "Well, start remembering. Otherwise, you won't have a chance to enjoy your Immortality."

"Can't have that -- not when the gods have granted me a second chance."

Iolaus winced. The gods, he knew, had damn little to do with it. But he'd never convince Constantine of that.

Marcus continued, "I still can't believe you never told me. You said you knew all along?"

"From the moment I first saw you twenty years ago," Iolaus said as they proceeded to the sauna to relax after their workout.

"Why didn't you tell me then?"

Iolaus laughed. "Would you've believed me?"

Marcus also laughed. "Probably not. But then, we didn't believe most of what you said -- you were the crazy Greek the captain told us to listen to."

"And how many of you lived because of what I taught you?"

They arrived at the sauna and removed their tunics. "I'd say all the ones who actually listened."

Iolaus had been hired by Julius himself to train his armies in the ways of hand-to-hand combat in case they were disarmed in the course of battle. Most of them -- including Constantine -- thought it a waste of time. Marcus himself had said then, "If I lose my sword, I am no longer worthy to be a Roman soldier and may as well kill myself on the spot."

Someone always said that, and Iolaus always gave the same reply. "If you've lost your sword, what will you kill yourself with?"

Very few of those he trained took to the training at all. After all, the Roman Army had come this far without scuffling like barbarians. But some did -- and they lived to thank him for it.

Marcus Constantine was one he'd paid special attention to. He told Marcus that this was because he was Iolaus's best student -- which was true, in and of itself, but Iolaus also could tell that Marcus was destined to be an Immortal.

And so, six months earlier, when Iolaus got word of a battle on the Rhine -- wherein Captain Marcus Constantine had seemingly died, his troops had rallied to avenge his death, and then he had apparently risen from the dead to join his troops and lead them to victory -- he immediately went to his old pupil's side to confirm his suspicions.

Since then, Constantine had returned to Rome in triumph, given a promotion to general, and was now about to be reassigned to serve under Marc Antony in Egypt. Iolaus took advantage of that time to teach Marcus about his new life.

"So you leave for Egypt tomorrow?" Iolaus asked.

Marcus nodded. "It will be an honor to serve under Marc Antony. And I've heard many interesting stories about Egypt. It will be good to verify them."

"Well, good luck, and try to keep your head -- literally and figuratively. Egypt's status is a bit bizarre. I can't help but think that things are going to get worse there before they get better."

"I will, don't worry. Oh, there is one thing I wanted to do tonight. There's a man I met years ago that I promised to visit when I came back to Rome. With everything that's happened, I haven't had the chance to do so, but tonight I'd like to visit. He's a scribe, name of Antonius. He's also a winemaker, the best I've ever known. Would you like to join me?"

Iolaus considered. His only plans for the evening were to go to a tavern and get seriously drunk. He hadn't done that in months, having had the training of Constantine to keep him busy, but with Marcus departing tomorrow, he was quite sure that the depression would settle right in again, and he wanted to start beating it off with ale as soon as possible.

But an evening in the company of Marcus and this Antonius person -- not to mention good wine -- sounded much better. "I'd love to join you."

* * *


An hour later, they approached a small house on the outskirts of Rome. Marcus wore his uniform, of course -- he was a general now, it wouldn't do to walk the streets in anything but -- while Iolaus wore a simple tunic, broadcloth, and sandals. He hated Roman clothing, but he had no great desire to stand out in a crowd, either.

As soon as they reached the door, he felt it -- another Immortal.

Marcus seemed surprised. But that made sense -- he said it had been years since he saw this Antonius person, and Marcus wasn't Immortal then.

"I don't believe this," Marcus said, "are there Immortals everywhere?"

"No, but they do turn up in the oddest places."

Marcus knocked on the door. An African man opened it.

"Marcus Ilius Constantine and friend to see Antonius Marcellus Sejanus."

The slave bowed and went in. After a moment, he came back and said, "This way." He led them to a moderately sized anteroom. The slave announced them to a room that seemed empty to Iolaus, but he knew the Immortal was here -- probably behind one of the many potted plants that were festooned about the room, giving it an almost jungle-like feel.

The slave moved away at a gesture from behind one of the plants. Once the slave left the room, Iolaus had a clear view, and saw a man with short black hair and a distinctive nose walk out from behind the plant.

The last time he saw that face was outside of Thessaly several lifetimes ago. The hair was longer, then, and the face half-covered in blue facepaint.

"So," the murderer was saying, "you've discovered your destiny, Marcus. And you've brought a -- friend."

The Horseman's face fell as he laid eyes on Iolaus who, for his part, had unsheathed his god-forged broadsword. After his old sword had broken in a duel with a Syrian Immortal, Iolaus had called in an old favor to Hephaestus, the gods' weaponsmith, for a new one. It had served him in good stead. He'd been hoping to have the opportunity to use it against the Horsemen.

"I take it you two know each other," Marcus said, slowly.

"Oh, yes," Iolaus said in a hard voice. "I told you we'd meet again, 'Antonius'."

"You did, didn't you?" Methos replied with a smile.

"Iolaus, please, put your sword away. Antonius is my friend."

"Your 'friend' is a murderer whom I've waited a long time to meet again. Where are the other three killers?"

"I have absolutely no idea," Methos said. "All I know is that the time since I saw them last is almost the same as the time since I saw you last. I've changed since last we met, Iolaus. As have you, obviously."

"What do you mean?"

"The Iolaus of old would never have condemned a man so easily based on limited past experience."

Angrily Iolaus replied, "You don't know me at all!"

"I know you as well as you know me, and yet you felt worthy to judge me."

That brought Iolaus up short.

"Iolaus, please," Marcus said, "put your sword down. Surely we can discuss this like Romans, not fight like barbarians. Sit down, have a drink."

Iolaus stared at Methos for several seconds. Methos, for his part, gave Iolaus a maddeningly placid look in return.

Finally, he lowered his sword. "Marcus considers you a friend. Marcus is also my friend, and out of respect for that friendship, I won't challenge you. But I'll be damned if I'll drink with you."

And with that, Iolaus left the house of "Antonius Sejanus," promising himself that if he ever entered it again, he wouldn't leave without Methos's head.

His original plan of going to a tavern looked ever-more attractive.

* * *


Iolaus ordered his fifth ale. Or maybe it was his sixth. After three, one stopped counting. If it was good ale, one lost the facility for counting after two.

This was not good ale. But Iolaus didn't care.

When did it all go wrong? When did it get to the point that I'd be getting etiquette lessons from one of the Four Horsemen?

He looked around the tavern -- Roman architecture, filled with Roman patrons, drinking Roman ale served by a Roman bartender.

Rome. Everywhere he turned, he was reminded of Rome.

Of course, he was in Rome, which had a lot to do with it, but it was more than that.

Rome took everything from him.

Rome accomplished what decades' worth of warlords couldn't do: conquer Greece.

They conquered everything. And anything they hadn't conquered would come soon enough. They subjugated everything in their path, and their path seemed to be endless.

And how did Iolaus react to this? How did he respond to the actions of those who destroyed his homeland?

He helped them.

Did he fight against tyranny, as he and Hercules had done so many times before? No. He joined it. He helped the Roman soldiers who marched through Greece become better soldiers.

He and Hercules should've stopped it, like they stopped all the others.

But that couldn't happen, could it?

Iolaus received his latest ale and drank it all down in one gulp. Then he ordered another and drank it all down. Then he paused. It wasn't enough. He needed to drink enough so that he'd allow himself to think about Hercules. He wasn't there yet.

So he thought about everyone else. They were all mortal, so they were entitled to happy endings.

Salmoneus, who finally, at the age of sixty, found a scam that worked, and retired in luxury. He died surrounded by beautiful women and a pile of gold.

Xena, who sacrificed herself in order to imprison Ares in Thespin's Cave.

Gabrielle, who, after Xena's death, took her rightful place as Queen of the Amazons. She led them to an unprecedented age of prosperity, and was the first Amazon Queen to die in her bed.

He gulped down another ale.

Hercules.

Herc started to age rapidly at one point. They assumed it was due to his half-human heritage. But it also made it all the more obvious that Iolaus wasn't aging.

So, finally, Iolaus told him the truth.

Their friendship was never the same after that. Hercules couldn't believe that Iolaus would keep something so -- so crucial from him.

Eventually, Hercules -- now with more gray hair than brown -- and he drifted apart. Herc said he was going on some kind of quest. "It has to do with the gods," he'd said. "It doesn't concern you." It was the type of thing Hercules would never have said in the old days, but had said constantly after Iolaus revealed his Immortality.

He remembered his initial instinct to tell Hercules of his Immortality and Penelope talking him out of it.

Stupidest decision I ever made, he thought, and it cost me my best friend.

He continued on his own, trying to keep Greece from Roman incursion.

He failed.

And now he worked for the conquerors. For people who believed themselves superior to all others. He trained soldiers who called him "crazy Greek," meaning the second word as the greater insult than the first.

But what else could he do? All he knew was fighting. But he couldn't fight the Romans. No one could -- anyone who did was crushed. No, all he could do was go with the winner.

And he had the gall to judge Methos?

He ordered another ale.

END OF CHAPTER 1


CHAPTER 2: "We Used to Know"

A very hung over Iolaus went to see General Marcus Constantine off the next morning. He went straight from the tavern, where the owner -- who knew Iolaus quite well at this point -- had put him on a pallet in the back room after Iolaus passed out.

Iolaus was among many who came to see the general off -- Octavian himself had come, with all kinds of instructions on what to tell Marc Antony. Most of it, Iolaus was sure, consisted of things already in Marcus's written instructions, but Iolaus had learned that Octavian liked to remind people of things in person. If nothing else, you could tell what he thought was really important -- or at least what he wanted people to think was really important -- by what he repeated aloud in addition to the written instructions.

"Goodbye, old friend," Iolaus finally said as he shook Constantine's hand after Octavian had finished with him.

"Goodbye, my teacher. I'll try to do honor to your lessons." He hesitated, then added, "Could I beg a favor, Iolaus?"

"Of course."

"Talk to Antonius. He's not the man you knew, I'm sure of that. He's been a friend to me. It would pain me for two of my friends to be enemies."

Iolaus plastered a smile onto his face. "Well, I wouldn't want to cause you pain. I'll consider it."

"That's all I ask."

Then General Marcus Ilius Constantine sailed for Egypt to join Marc Antony. Iolaus wondered if he'd ever see him again.

He also wondered if he'd ever lose this headache.

He would, of course. No matter how drunk he got -- and he could get quite drunk when he put his mind to it, as he did the previous night -- the hangover never lasted that long. The joys of being an Immortal, all wounds healed.

All physical wounds, in any case.

It had been so long since he thought about his old life. No, that wasn't really true -- it had only been a long time since he thought about Hercules.

By the gods, I miss you, old friend. I wish you were here. Better yet, I wish I were wherever you are.

It was an hour's walk from the port to his home. He had been paid well by the Romans for his services, and he had enough to buy a good-sized house just outside the city.

When he arrived home, he felt the presence of another Immortal. Combined with the hangover, it was like someone drove a dagger through his skull.

Great. Just great.

Worried that he'd find "Antonius" inside, instead he found himself facing an unfamiliar person.

No, wait -- I know this guy.

"Struggling to remember me, Iolaus? It was in Thebes. We met on the street."

Iolaus finally placed him. "Cornelius, right?"

"Right. I had heard of you, y'know. But that was too public a place, and I was worried your big friend would interfere. Took me ages to find you again. Then I heard about a Greek named Iolaus who trained Roman soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. Had to be you, I thought. So I found out where you lived, and waited. Been waiting all night, in fact."

"Look," Iolaus said, "I'm really not in the mood for this."

"Pity." Cornelius unsheathed a curved blade of a type Iolaus hadn't seen since his time with the Argonauts. "I am in the mood."

"Can't we at least wait until I've slept for a day?" Iolaus asked while removing his shoulder cloth and unsheathing his sword.

"No," Cornelius said with a smile.

"Fine."

Iolaus was hampered by a hangover that could kill a regiment, a great desire for sleep, anger at seeing Methos again the previous night, frustration at the departure of his only real friend in Rome, and the fact that his opponent had an unfamiliar Eastern blade.

Thus hampered, it took him almost a full hour to defeat Cornelius.

By the time the Quickening was over, the hangover was gone, as was the fatigue. The frustration and anger remained.

Gods, what a mess, he thought, looking around the house, which -- between the swordfight and the Quickening -- now looked like an earthquake had struck. He couldn't bear to remain here. Iolaus didn't own any slaves -- he refused, despite numerous exhortations to do so -- and the person he hired to come in and clean the place wasn't due in until tomorrow. He had to get out.

He went to the sparring room, but found no one there who was interested in a workout of any sort. Then a slave came by and said that Octavian wished to see him immediately.

"Immediately" was a relative term when one was Octavian, of course. Iolaus waited a good two and a half hours before Octavian actually saw him.

"Ah, Iolaus, good to see you!" he said with his characteristic enthusiasm when Iolaus finally was let in to see him. "I'm sorry we didn't get to talk this morning. Affairs of state, you know how it is."

"Of course," Iolaus said neutrally.

"In any case, I wanted to talk to you about expanding your duties a bit. I know it's been difficult for you."

"Oh, not at all."

"Now now, no need to prevaricate with me, Iolaus. You've had a difficult time of it. Although, you've got to admit, the idea does seem an odd one -- to a youth, I mean. Roman soldiers fighting with their hands -- ridiculous! You know how the young are, they already know everything. Never listen to their elders."

Iolaus, who was considerably older than any mortal in Rome, found he had nothing to say to that, so merely laughed along with Octavian.

"But still, this is a slow time for you. No one comes to you on their own, I know, and it'll be several months before the new recruits arrive. So I was wondering how best to occupy your time."

"That really isn't necessary--" Iolaus started.

"Nonsense! You're quite important to us, you know. Julius thought very highly of you, and so do I."

Iolaus highly doubted those last four words, but let it go. Octavian's manner and words were those of one who meant what he said, but Iolaus knew better. Politicians were the same in Rome as they were in Greece -- they lied easily and effortlessly. Iolaus -- whose life, since becoming Immortal, had in a sense become one big lie -- had gotten quite good at recognizing falsehoods.

"We have games coming up, and I wish you to train the participants. There's been too much play-acting -- false punches and using goat's blood to fake injury. We can't have that sort of thing happening, so I want you to make sure that the battles are real."

Iolaus felt nauseous. Roman games were nothing like the sporting affairs that Hercules, Salmoneus, and Atalanta had pioneered ages ago. They were vicious and cruel and base -- perfect entertainment for a people who had unleashed their viciousness and base cruelty on the rest of the world.

So why did he say, "I'll be happy to"?

"Good." He patted Iolaus on the back and repeated, "Good! That is most excellent. Well, I'm glad we had this time to chat. And just think, in a few months, you'll have a new set of recruits to deal with." Octavian chuckled. "That ought to put the spring in your step, eh?"

Iolaus returned the chuckle as best he could.

"Excellent," Octavian said. "Well, report to the coliseum tomorrow. Thallus can show you where everything is and answer any questions you might have."

"I'll try not to disappoint you."

"Oh, you couldn't, you couldn't!" Octavian laughed. "You know, it's quite remarkable, but I don't think you've aged a day since Julius first hired you."

Iolaus demurred. "Don't be silly."

"No, no, I'd swear it, you haven't aged a day. Quite remarkable. But then, you're a warrior. I was young when all I had to be was a warrior." And suddenly Octavian's face grew sad -- a pronounced change, partly for its contrast to his previous happy look, primarily because it was a much more genuine expression. "That's the sort of thing that keeps you young. Affairs of state will age you. Oftentimes I wish Marc Antony had stayed here and I went to Egypt." Then the happy look returned. "But never mind. I look forward to hearing of your progress with the games participants."

Iolaus said his goodbyes and left as fast as he politely could.

It was still midday. He could go to the tavern again -- the need to get colossally drunk had once again come upon him -- but he didn't want another hangover come morning. He remembered the shambles that Cornelius's Quickening had made of his home, so that option was out as well.

The next thing he knew, he found himself approaching the house of the man going under the name Antonius Sejanus.

You swore you wouldn't enter there again without taking his head, Iolaus reminded himself.

Yeah, well, himself reminded Iolaus, remember when that Roman general captured you? You swore you'd die before you helped a Roman do anything other than die. For that matter, on several occasions, you promised Hercules that nothing would ever destroy your friendship with him. Face it, your track record for keeping promises stinks.

He felt Methos's presence as he approached. Good. It would've been embarrassing to come all this way and have him not be home.

The same slave answered the door. Once again, he was led into the sitting room. This time, Methos lay on a couch, in the traditional Roman style of resting on his stomach.

"Returned so soon? Come to take my head now that Marcus is gone?"

"I promised I wouldn't do that, and I meant it." He hesitated. "I was wondering if that offer of a drink was still available."

"You promised you would never share a drink with me, Greek," Methos said harshly. "If you'll break the one promise, why shouldn't I expect you to break the other?"

Methos was obviously trying to provoke him, but Iolaus was too tired to take the bait. "Because Marcus asked me to come back and talk to you -- as a personal favor to him. In twenty years, Marcus has never asked me for a favor, so when he did, I took it seriously." That was, in fact, a lie; Marcus had asked for dozens of favors, but Iolaus wanted Methos to be convinced.

For his part, the older Immortal considered it, then finally said, "Very well."

Iolaus took the couch opposite Methos, also lying on his stomach. In Latin, Methos ordered his slave to bring a carafe of wine and two cups, and only then did Iolaus realize that Methos had spoken to him in Greek when he entered. Iolaus had not used his native tongue in far too long, and hadn't realized how much he missed it until given the opportunity to speak it again.

Minutes later, the slave arrived with the wine. Iolaus sipped his, then blinked in delighted surprise. "That's excellent! I haven't had wine this good since--" He considered. "Actually, I haven't had wine this good ever."

"I've had some time to hone my skills. Still, I'm more of an ale-drinker myself. So," he said, shifting position on the couch, "what really brought you here? It had to be more than a favor to Marcus."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because I know hate. And I know it isn't something so easily set aside, even for friendship."

Iolaus took a sip of wine rather than reply. Then he stared into the cup, hoping it might provide him with an answer. Finally, he said, "I needed to talk to someone who'd understand."

"There are other Immortals in Rome."

"Maybe, but I don't know them -- or they're dead -- or they're Marcus, and he's on his way to Egypt. Besides, he's only been Immortal for six months."

"So you came to me."

"Well, it's kind of appropriate -- you're a reminder of the past. I've been thinking about the past a lot lately. How much I miss it."

"I envy you, y'know," Methos said after Iolaus's pause went on for several seconds.

Iolaus couldn't imagine anyone envying him just at the moment. "Why's that?"

"You have a past that's pleasant to recall." He hesitated, then said, "If you don't mind my asking -- do you know what happened to Xena and Gabrielle?"

Iolaus frowned, then remembered that Xena had said that she encountered the Horsemen. "Xena sacrificed herself to stop Ares. He was on the brink of achieving incredible power -- thanks to the Romans, really. The amount of warfare increased tremendously once they started conquering everything, and that just increased Ares's power. But Xena was able to imprison him in a cave -- but it cost her."

"Somehow that doesn't surprise me. What about Gabrielle?"

Iolaus couldn't believe the tone in Methos's voice. When discussing Xena, his voice carried a certain respect -- as it should be, she commanded more respect than any twelve mortals -- but for Gabrielle, his voice had a certain fondness. He would never have credited Methos as being capable of such a tone.

"After Xena died, she became Queen of the Amazons. She did remarkable things with them. She was the first Amazon to die in her bed rather than in battle." Iolaus sighed, then continued, "Unfortunately, her age of prosperity died with her. Half a dozen factions sprung up, and they erupted into civil war -- the people were decimated. Then the Romans came and wiped what was left of them out."

"She never left Greece, then?"

"No, why?"

"The last time I saw Gabrielle was right before I left for Alexandria. She told me that she always wanted to see the library there. I was hoping she'd have gotten the chance." He smiled. Again, Iolaus was surprised -- the smile was warm and friendly. "In fact, I mainly visited it because she asked me to on her behalf. I fell in love with the place. It's funny, I'd always fancied myself something of a scholar, but that was mainly by comparison to the other three. I was the only one who could read, and I did so as much as I could -- but I didn't know the true meaning of a quest for knowledge until I saw that library. I'd always wanted a chance to thank her for that." Methos sipped his wine, then went on: "Still, I'm glad she died in her bed. She wasn't meant to be a warrior, really."

"No, she wasn't," Iolaus said, remembering Gabrielle nursing him when he lay dying of a wound that wouldn't heal until Prometheus was unbound. He hadn't known of his impending Immortality then. Gabrielle told him stories and comforted him -- it helped him to hold on as his life slipped away from him.

When the silence lingered uncomfortably, Iolaus spoke again. "I was there when she died. I had long since left Greece, since people were starting to notice my not aging. But when I got word that she was dying, I went back. I had to. All her other old friends were dead, and I thought someone should be there for her. So I went. It was a trick and a half, convincing the Amazons to let a man in to see their queen, but I convinced them to tell Gabrielle my name, and she allowed me to see her."

"What did you tell her when she saw you still young?" Methos asked.

Iolaus shrugged. "The truth. There didn't seem to be any point in lying to her. She looked so -- so fragile. Her hair had gone all white, her face was drawn and coarse like parchment -- the only way you could tell it was Gabrielle were the eyes. Those same brown eyes, still questioning, still probing, still -- still loving." Iolaus took a sip of wine. Damn, but you're getting melancholy. He hadn't thought about this in so long.

"The last thing she said to me," he continued after a moment, "was that she wished I'd told her sooner. 'It would've made a great story,' she said. Then she fell asleep. She died the next morning." He sighed again, and refilled his now-empty cup. "That was the end, really."

Methos frowned. "The end of what?"

Iolaus shrugged. "Everything. Hercules had gone off on some quest or other, and everyone else died. I drifted for I don't know how long -- eventually, I wound up working for Julius."

"Is that why you came to see me? To find out why you're drifting?"

"Not really. I mean, it obviously comes with the territory when you're Immortal, it's just-- Well, I have to know if it's always this miserable."

Methos actually laughed at that. "You're miserable." His tone was almost derogatory.

Iolaus exploded. "Yes, dammit, I'm miserable!" He composed himself quickly, then went on in a calmer voice: "Forty years ago, I would rather have died than help Rome. Now I'm one of them. I spent a lifetime fighting conquerors, and now I aid the worst conquerors of all."

"There are much worse things than Rome, Iolaus. Rome, at least, is civilized."

"Greece was civilized. Rome is just a bunch of pillagers. They may dress fancier, but they're no better than any other warlord, come to plunder, take what they can, and enslave everyone else."

"Perhaps. But believe me when I tell you that you're safer living in Rome than anywhere else right now. And the same cannot be said of the homes of other warlords."

"Safety isn't everything," Iolaus muttered into his cup.

"I beg to differ. The main reason I left Egypt and came to Rome was because I could see how things were going -- it was fairly obvious that, sooner or later, Egypt would be part of Rome. It hasn't happened yet, but it will. So I left while the getting was good. And I had absolutely no regrets about leaving."

Iolaus was amazed. "You're kidding. What about what you just said about the library, about--"

"It was all true. But I knew that things were changing, so I left." Methos poured himself some more wine, then said, "Your problem is that you're still clinging to Iolaus, protector of innocents, friend of Hercules. That person is long dead. You need to stop being him and become Iolaus, Greek trainer of Roman troops in barbarous physical combat."

"And trainer of slaves in the games."

"I beg your pardon?"

Iolaus sipped down the rest of his wine, and poured some more. He seemed to be a good two cups ahead of Methos. "Octavian asked me this morning to work with the slaves in the games -- show them how to fight properly, make the games more entertaining. And I agreed."

"So what's the problem?"

"It's not me! None of this is me!"

"It isn't you because you refuse to let your old life die. Are you familiar with the Celts?"

Iolaus shook his head. His wandering days -- both in his youth and after he left Greece -- tended to take him east rather than north.

"They believe in creatures who live on the periphery -- never seen except out of the corner of the eye. Sometimes they disguise themselves as people and walk among them. We're like those creatures, except we always have that disguise. We pretend to be something to maintain the illusion that we're like mortals, but that isn't us. We live in that same periphery, and the more we live, the stronger we grow."

"Until we die."

"Well, eventually." Methos propped himself up on his elbows. "If you don't want to continue doing what you're doing, don't. But don't think you can re-create your days as the defender of Greece, fighting by Hercules's side. That lifetime is over, and you can't get it back, anymore than I can--" He stopped himself short. "In any event, you can't get it back."

Iolaus wondered what Methos was referring to, but did not pry. Then the slave came in to light the torches, as it grew dark.

"Maybe you're right," Iolaus said, and then gulped down the rest of his wine. "I should go."

"I don't think that's a good idea. I know my wine, and I've been watching you gulp it down. I doubt you'll be able to find your house."

Iolaus remembered what shape his house was in. "I don't want to go there anyhow. I met another Immortal there this morning -- took his head. The place is a mess."

"Stay here in my guest room for the night."

Iolaus regarded the man for whom he'd carried so much hatred for so long. "You have changed."

"Not really," Methos said with a sardonic smile. "I've just outgrown my youth. After a couple thousand years, you might, too."

For the first time that night, Iolaus returned one of Methos's smiles. "Maybe."

"Or maybe I'll take your head while you sleep," Methos added as he got up. "Come, Caspian will have prepared dinner by now."

Iolaus blinked. "Caspian?"

Methos nodded. "I have three slaves, and I renamed them all Kronos, Caspian, and Silas. A bit childish, really -- perhaps I haven't completely outgrown my youth after all."

Iolaus chuckled.

Suddenly, a huge thunderclap filled the room. Light came from nowhere and shone brightly upon the center of the room.

The gods are at work here, was Iolaus's first thought. This sort of thing always happened whenever the gods wanted to make an entrance.

A grizzled old man materialized in the center of the room. It took Iolaus several seconds to recognize the man as Hades -- or Pluto, as the Romans had taken to calling him.

But Hades was a god. Gods didn't age this rapidly -- if, indeed, they aged at all. What had happened?

"Iolaus, is that you?" creaked the elderly god of the dead in Latin.

"I'm here," Iolaus responded in the same language, then continued in Greek: "Hades, what happened?"

"Long story," Hades said, clambering to an upright position with Iolaus's assistance. "I've come to call in a debt."

Iolaus frowned. "What?"

"A long time ago, I sent your father to the Elysian Fields. I've come to collect on that debt." He fixed Iolaus with rheumy eyes. "I need you to kill Hercules."

END OF CHAPTER 2


CHAPTER 3: "Someday the Sun Won't Shine for You"

"You want me to what?"

Hades seemed to find Iolaus's outburst amusing, and started laughing -- which led to a coughing fit.

Once that subsided, Hades said, "Kill Hercules. I'm afraid he's gone quite mad."

"Even if I believed that, why on Earth should I help you? The gods've always been content to do their own dirty work."

"And if we could, we would. But we cannot, so we must turn to you. Uh, do you mind?" Hades held out his hand.

After a moment, Iolaus took the hint and helped the elderly deity to his feet. Then he asked, "What, exactly, are you talking about?"

Before he could answer, Methos finally spoke in Latin. "Iolaus, may I speak to you a moment?"

"Of course, Antonius," Iolaus replied, taking the hint from Methos's use of Latin that he wanted his own identity kept secret.

"'Antonius'?" Hades said with a papery laugh, following the others' lead and reverting to Latin. "Is that what you call yourself now? Oh yes," he added at Methos's surprised look, "I know who you are, Death of the Horsemen. I must confess, I always thought that a presumptious name for you to take."

"Fine," Methos said, "I'll say it aloud, then. Iolaus owes you nothing. He has neither a father nor a mother. We none of us do."

Iolaus felt as if the ground tilted to his left. "What?"

Methos turned to Iolaus. "Didn't you know? Immortals are not of woman born. We're foundlings, all of us."

"You're kidding."

"No, I'm not."

"But-- But, I had parents. Dad left us to go fight some more, and mother--"

"They weren't your parents," Methos said.

It was impossible. How could Mom and Dad not be -- well, not be Mom and Dad? Not to mention his grandmother, trapped in that lost city... "I don't believe you."

Hades said in Greek, "Are you going to believe this murderer, Iolaus? Have you fallen so far that you believe him over me?"

Iolaus laughed. "Oh, you've been a great friend to me, Hades, no doubt about it," he said, his voice laced with sarcasm. "Methos is wrong, though -- those were my parents. Even if I believe that they didn't sire me, it doesn't matter. They raised me, and that's what counts. But he's right about something else -- I don't owe you a damn thing, Hades. You lied, to me and to Hercules, about my 'death' during that mess with the Enforcer. I shouldn't have been on the other side. To my mind, that eradicates any debt I may owe you for my father. In any case, no debt would be strong enough to get me to kill Hercules. Besides, I don't even know where he is."

"Germany, as it happens," Hades said. "As I said, he's gone quite mad -- and you're the only one who can stop him."

"Explain yourself."

Hades paused a moment to collect himself. "The gods -- as you can guess from my own state -- have weakened of late. Fully half the Pantheon is dead -- i-including Persephone." Hades's voice broke.

Iolaus winced. "I'm sorry. Persephone was a lovely woman." Her kindness was really the only fond memory Iolaus carried from his abortive stay on the other side.

"Not at the end, she wasn't," Hades snapped. "Her hair -- her beautiful hair all fell out. She'd gone deaf, her eyes failed, and she started mumbling to herself."

"All common symptoms of aging," Methos said, perhaps a little cruelly.

"And how would you know that?" Hades hissed. "You, who prance about in eternal youth!"

"That's enough, both of you!" Iolaus yelled. "What happened to Hercules?"

Again the papery laugh. "Ironically, my nephew's half-human heritage for once served him in good stead. His rate of age was much slower than the rest of ours. We can only assume it was due to his being only half divine, so the debilitating effects that we all suffered were only halved in him. But he has gone completely mad. He now rules a small province of Germany -- with an iron fist."

Iolaus exploded. "So why do you suddenly care? None of you ever gave a damn about anything he did before! All you did was stand idly by while Hera and Ares wiped out everything he ever cared about!"

"Hercules turned his back on us, not the other way around, he--" Hades suddenly went into another coughing fit. When it subsided, he went on: "But that doesn't matter. What does matter is that we lack the power to stop him from his madness. So, since you owed me a debt, I thought I'd try to collect. It was our last hope."

"Hope for what? What do you care if he's decided to set himself up as the ruler of some German province?"

"It is -- unseemly."

Iolaus laughed. He remembered his conversation with Octavian that morning -- throughout most of which, Octavian lied through his teeth. Hades didn't even have Octavian's talent for covering those lies.

Methos also laughed. "Come on, Hades, tell us the whole truth. He has something of yours, doesn't he?"

Hades looked like the bottom fell out of his face. He whispered, "How did you know?"

"I didn't," Methos said with a self-satisfied grin. "I guessed. You just confirmed it for me."

The elderly Lord of the Underworld frowned, then seemed to think for a moment. "I will tell you, but these words are for your ears only, Iolaus," he said with a significant look at Methos.

Methos laughed. "You're in my house, old man. Is this how the gods accept hospitality? I will come and go as I see fit. If anyone shall depart, it'll be you."

"Are you threatening me, Horseman?" Hades tried to sound intimidating, and failed utterly.

"It hardly seems necessary, given the state you're in. You have all the authority of a wood tick."

Hades started to reply, but Iolaus cut him off. "Enough! Hades, if you want my help, you have to tell me -- tell both of us -- the whole truth."

With that, Hades seemed to crumple inside. Sighing, he sat down on one of the couches. "Very well," he said in a small voice. "Hercules has the golden apples."

Iolaus didn't see the significance of this piece of information. "So what? All they can do is give mortals immortality. The gods don't need them."

"Once, that may have been true, but as you are well aware, times have changed." Hades sighed. "You know, of course, about the power of the gods. What you do not know and must now understand is the source of that power."

"And that is?" Iolaus prompted when the answer was not immediately forthcoming.

"Worship. As long as the Greeks continued to believe in us, we remained strong. When Greece fell, so too did we fall. We tried to simply adapt to new worshippers, but that proved -- difficult."

Iolaus frowned. "Difficult in what way?"

Hades fixed Iolaus with a gaze that almost frightened the Immortal. "The gods ruled Greece. Rome rules the gods. Oh, they pretend to worship us, but no race so thoroughly convinced of its own superiority can ever truly bend its knee to a higher power. They use us to explain things, and they make sacrifices to us, but they do not treat us as we deserve."

Methos smiled. "Deserve? If you're so deserving, O mighty lord of the underworld, then why did this mistreatment so decimate you?"

"If I knew the answer to that, Horseman, I would not be in this decrepit state you see me in now." He turned back to Iolaus. "Only Ares -- or Mars, as they call him -- grew stronger with Rome's ascendance -- until Xena imprisoned him. The rest of us grew older and weaker. Our only hope of survival is to retrieve the apples."

"Which Hercules has?" Iolaus asked.

Hades nodded.

"Well, I'm very sorry for your troubles, but you'll have to get your fruit back some other way. I won't fight Hercules for you."

"Oh, you won't have to fight him," Hades said. "All we ask is that you poison him."

Iolaus couldn't help but laugh. "You have got to be kidding."

"All right," Methos said in Latin, "that's enough. I didn't invite you into my home, Pluto, and I see no reason to allow you to stay. Kindly leave, or I will have you thrown out by my slaves."

Ignoring Methos, Hades stood up and approached Iolaus. The Lord of the Underworld always carried around a faint odor of decay that befitted his station, but belied his robust appearance. Standing this close, Iolaus noticed the odor had intensified, and the physical form had, in a sense, caught up to it.

"I'm begging you, Iolaus, you must help us -- without the apples we will all die!"

Iolaus got up and walked away from Hades, as much to avoid the smell as anything. He thought about the boy he met when he himself was a teen thief in Corinth -- a man whose strength and compassion awed him. He thought about that same boy sponsoring Iolaus to the Academy. He thought about a mortal lifetime's worth of comradeship and friendship -- a friendship as deep and close as any that ever existed. He thought about battles and loves and hardships and joys.

He thought about a man who bullied the Lord of the Underworld into saving his life. He thought about a man who was so hurt by decades of lies that he had to end the friendship.

Iolaus turned back to Hades. "I'll make you a deal. You tell me where to find Hercules, and I'll go talk to him."

"We tried that," Hades said, exasperated. "He wouldn't even speak to us."

Laughing, Iolaus said, "Of course he wouldn't -- why should he? When the gods weren't ignoring him or killing people close to him or attacking him, they were begging him to help with some screwup of theirs. What possible reason would he have to talk to you?"

"And you think he will talk to you? You, who betrayed him?"

Iolaus winced. "I never betrayed him."

"You betrayed his trust. You lied to him for years about your Immortality, when you could've--"

"That's enough!" Iolaus yelled, unsheathing his sword and putting it to Hades's neck. "See this blade? Hepheastus forged it. Sort of a thank-you gift for bringing him and Aphrodite together. I'm willing to bet that, in the shape you're in, it could even hurt you."

Hades laughed his papery laugh again. "The truth hurts, doesn't it, Iolaus?"

"I've made you my offer, Hades. Tell me where Hercules is, and I'll go talk to him." He lowered the sword and shrugged. "Or don't tell me, and die of old age. It makes no difference to me."

"Doesn't it?"

"It's been hundreds of years since I last saw Hercules. Seeing him now won't matter much one way or the other."

Iolaus hoped the lie was convincing. The fact was that every instinct screamed out for him to get down on his knees and beg Hades for Hercules's location, to cry out that he'd do anything to see his friend again. But he would never give the gods the satisfaction of begging them for anything.

Slumping his shoulders, Hades sighed, then went into yet another coughing fit. When he was done, he looked up at Iolaus, who returned the gaze unblinking.

"Very well," the elderly god said in a small voice. He produced a map, seemingly from nowhere -- the gods always were good at parlor tricks, Iolaus thought -- and handed it to the Greek Immortal. "The route is indicated here. It should take you approximately one week on horseback. When your business is concluded and you have departed the city, I will contact you again."

Methos spoke, startling Iolaus, who had temporarily forgotten "Antonius" was present, despite being in his house. "So, Hercules has found a way to keep the gods out of his domain?"

Iolaus blinked. It hadn't even occurred to him -- if the gods could barge into Methos's home, then why couldn't they do the same for Hercules's? Unless, as the older Immortal deduced, his old friend had found a way to ward them off.

Hades once again ignored Methos, and said to Iolaus, "We wish you luck. You are the last hope of what is left of the gods."

And with that, the god of the dead disappeared in a flash of light.

Iolaus sighed. "But no pressure..."

There was a long, awkward silence before Methos finally said, "Well, that was quite an evening's entertainment, wasn't it?"

"I need to go," Iolaus said, getting up and moving toward the door.

"Don't be foolish. It's almost midnight, and you're still drunk."

Iolaus looked at Methos, then turned his senses inward. Oddly enough, his fellow Immortal was wrong. He felt not a trace of inebriation. "Trust me, Methos, I'm fine. I've had several hundred years to perfect my awareness of when I am and am not drunk. And whatever just happened here has drained it out of me. Besides," he got up and headed toward the door, "I've got a lot of work to do--"

"--none of which will get done tonight. I repeat, Iolaus, it's almost midnight. What, exactly, do you hope to accomplish before sunup?"

Iolaus paused. He had forgotten that it was night, despite the torches. Time had lost meaning. After all, he'd found Hercules. Nothing else seemed to matter anymore.

"Look," Methos said, "the offer of the guest room still holds. Why don't you sleep here tonight, and you can figure out your game plan in the morning."

Iolaus sat back down again. "I don't need to figure out a game plan. Tomorrow I'll make arrangements to sell the house -- they'll have to clean it up first, but that won't be a problem -- then get my hands on a horse and some provisions. I'll have to talk to Octavian, too, tell him I'm resigning. He won't be happy, but--"

"Wait a minute, resigning?"

Iolaus looked over at Methos, who gazed upon him like he had two heads. "Yes, resigning."

"You're going to leave Rome alltogether? Permanently?"

"Look, I was thinking about it anyhow. Octavian noticed yesterday that I hadn't gotten any older since Julius first hired me. You know as well as I do that that's the first sign that it's time to head out and go somewhere else."

"And that's why you're quitting?" Methos reached for a decanter and poured two more glasses of wine.

"Yeah," Iolaus said, accepting the glass that Methos offered him.

"Now let's try some truth."

Iolaus sputtered his wine in mid-sip. "Excuse me?"

"C'mon, Iolaus, it's written all over your face. The minute Hades said he knew where Hercules was, you were ready to leave that moment."

"That's ridiculous," Iolaus said, taking a sip of wine, knowing full well that Methos was right.

"You really believe that you can ride up to Germany, meet up with Hercules, and it'll be just like the good old days, don't you? You can forget about all the unpleasant things that've happened over the past few centuries, and the pair of you can roam the countryside righting wrongs and fighting the good fight as if nothing has happened."

Iolaus took another sip of his wine, then smiled ruefully. "It'd be nice, wouldn't it? But no, I'm not expecting that. I freely admit that I wish for it, but I'm not expecting it. No, too much time has passed. But no matter what happens in Germany, there's simply no way I can continue doing what I'm doing now. It's like I told you before, it isn't me."

"And like I told you before, you have to make it you. That's what we do."

Iolaus sighed. "Maybe. But right now, I have to go to Germany." He set the wine glass down. "In all the centuries I've been alive, there hasn't been anyone -- not family, not friends, no one -- who has meant more to me than Hercules. We've been through life and death together, and we have a bond that transcends love, family, or honor. And the last time we saw each other-- Well, let's just say that we didn't part on a happy note. Now maybe you can't understand that, but I have to go see him."

This time it was Methos's turn to thoughtfully sip his wine. "Actually, I do understand, in a way. And I understand something else, too -- have you considered what you might find?"

"What do you mean?"

"Hades said that he's gone mad. And ruling a small province doesn't strike me as typical behavior for Hercules. Now admittedly, Hades might've been lying, but--"

"But there is a definite possibility that Herc has gone nuts. I know." Iolaus grabbed his wine again, started to take a sip, changed his mind, put it down, then started pacing. "One time, ages ago, when Herc and I were still travelling together, I encountered something -- odd."

"As I recall, the pair of you made a career out of encoutering odd things," Methos said with a smile.

Iolaus chuckled. "Well, yeah, but this was odd even by our standards. There was this weird lightning storm, and a vortex -- and then I wound up in another world that was similar to this one, but with a lot of changes. The people were the same, but their roles were different. Hercules was a despot, and he was poisoning the gods for his own benefit. Ares was the god of love, Xena was Herc's sultry love slave, and I -- I was Herc's court jester."

Methos sputtered a laugh at that last line that he had obviously tried and failed to hold in. Iolaus couldn't help but smile, either, but it was fleeting.

"The idea was pretty amusing, right up until my counterpart and I switched places. I was not," he said with conviction, "cut out to be a court jester, which became patently obvious inside five minutes. But it turned out that the other Iolaus had been conscripted by a resistance movement to get close enough to Hercules to kill him."

"And did you?"

Iolaus shook his head. "I couldn't. Not just because it was Herc, but just stabbing someone in the back like that in cold blood -- I couldn't do it. I still don't think I could."

Methos sighed. "It's amazing you've lived this long."

"Well, it worked out for the best. If I had killed him, I would've also killed my Hercules. And the other one wound up getting trapped in the vortex when he tried to follow me through back to this world. But the point is that I've seen a despotic Hercules."

"And, from what you've told me, you won't be able to handle it properly, but will instead run away."

Iolaus turned on Methos. "No, that's not what'll happen," he snapped. "I've changed a lot since then."

"Have you?"

"Yes, dammit, I have! I used to think I knew what a tyrant was. I used to think those petty warlords that pranced around Greece were true tyrants, but I know better now. I've seen tyranny up close -- hell, I'm part of it. Just being this close to it has made me despise myself to a degree that I wouldn't have believed possible. So if Hercules truly has lost it, if he has gone over the edge--" he sighed "--I'll know what to do. I owe him that much, and more."

"What about the golden apples?"

Iolaus rolled his eyes. "Please. I didn't care much about the affairs of the gods when they were actually relevant to the grand scheme of things. I don't want to see them die, but I'm not going to give them the ticket to absolute power again, either."

"Risky."

"I'll cross that bridge when I get to--" he interrupted himself with a yawn. Suddenly, with that yawn, the effects of the alcohol started to make themselves known again. His entire body felt heavier.

Methos obviously noticed this. "I'll have Kronos make up your room."

Iolaus nodded. "Thanks, Methos."

"Not a problem. My house is your house."

END OF CHAPTER 3


CHAPTER 4: "Rocks on the Road"

Methos awoke the next morning to find that Iolaus had already left. According to Silas, the Greek had awakened at dawn and asked the slave to give Methos his thanks for his hospitality and a promise that he would visit one last time before he left for Germany.

Methos was glad for that. He had come to a decision in the night, and knowing precisely when Iolaus left Rome was the only thing to make that possible.

It was three days before Iolaus returned to the house of Antonius Sejanus. Methos had expected only two days, which gave the former Horseman more than enough time to finish the transcription he'd been commissioned to do and to leave detailed instructions on the latest batch of wine for Kronos, Silas, and Caspian.

"I just wanted to say goodbye and thanks, Antonius," Iolaus said in Latin. "I needed someone to talk to rather desperately after Marcus left -- I'm glad it was you. And I'm glad I was wrong about you."

"Oh, you weren't at all wrong about me," Methos said, "and there's no need to say goodbye. I'm going with you."

The whole thing, Methos decided, was worth it just to see the look on Iolaus's face when Methos said that.

"Excuse me?"

"I'm going with you to Germany to see Hercules."

"Antonius--" Iolaus shook his head, then continued in Greek, "Methos, that's ridiculous. Why?"

"Do you mind the company?"

"Not really, but--"

"Then what's the problem?"

Iolaus actually seemed to squirm. Methos had to admit that he was enjoying this more than he thought.

"Well-- We're not exactly friends. In fact, a week ago, I would've counted you among the few people I wanted to kill on sight."

"That's very comforting," Methos said dryly. "In fact, I've been considering leaving Rome for some time. Not permanently, just a trip somewhere. However, I hadn't really decided on a destination, so I'd been dithering. You've given me one."

"Did it occur to you that I might want to travel alone?"

"It did, and I rejected the idea. You're a social animal, Iolaus. You don't function well alone. Look at you, you've been alone for centuries, and you're miserable."

Iolaus folded his arms. "All you've done is tell me why I should let you come along. That doesn't explain why you want to come along with me."

"I'm sorry, I thought I already told you."

"You gave me an answer, but I don't believe it any more than you believed it when I told you I'd been thinking of leaving Rome because Octavian was noticing my not aging."

Methos couldn't help but laugh at that. He filed Iolaus's observation away for future reference -- the Greek wasn't nearly as self-delusional as he seemed.

Smiling his most disarming smile, Methos said, "Don't you trust me, Iolaus? Believe me, I'm not going to wait until we're on a deserted road and then take your head. If I wanted that, I had plenty of opportunities three nights ago. If I wanted you dead, you'd know."

"Yes, I would've known after you tried to attack me and I killed you," Iolaus said matter-of-factly.

Methos sighed, and he berated himself. You forget, old-timer, he defeated Caspian after Caspian disarmed him. And that was centuries ago. Threats aren't going to mean much to him.

"Look, do you not want me to come with you?" Methos asked, finally.

Iolaus stared at the older Immortal for a very long time. For a moment, Methos thought Iolaus might actually refuse to let him come along, in which case, Methos needed to seriously re-evaluate his ability to read people.

That proved unnecessary as, predictably, Iolaus relaxed and smiled. "All right, fine. To answer your first question -- no, I don't trust you, not for a minute. But a wise man told me once, 'Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.' I haven't figured out which one you are yet, but either way, keeping you nearby is probably safer."

"Good," Methos said. "I take it all your affairs are in order? I've done so with mine."

Iolaus nodded. "It took longer than I'd thought -- mainly it was Octavian carrying on and refusing to let me leave. He had to give in eventually, though. And, to be honest, I think he was grateful, but he had to make a show of wanting me to stay. And there's a senator who's interested in my house, so that's taken care of. If I never see Rome again, it won't be a problem."

"What if you do come back?"

"That'll never happen. Or if it does, it won't be until everyone -- or at least every mortal I know here -- is dead and I can start over."

Methos shrugged. At least he had the sense to make a clean break. "Then let's be off."

* * *


The trip was actually quite enjoyable. As Methos had figured, Iolaus was a born storyteller, and enjoyed an audience. He regaled Methos with stories of his youth, including his time as a thief -- Methos was surprised to find out about this skeleton in the Greek's closet, and wondered what other tidbits would surface over the next few days -- and had worked his way up to his time at the Academy with Hercules when they passed by an inn. The sun had started to set and Methos was tired and hungry. The provisions Iolaus had brought along were meagre, and sufficed as emergency food, but it seemed foolish to use those when there was a perfectly good inn at hand -- especially since the latter leg of the trip would be made in comparative wilderness.

When he said as much to Iolaus, the latter scoffed. "C'mon, there's still a couple of hours of daylight left. We can make good time."

"Have you looked at the map? In a couple of hours we'll be in the middle of nowhere."

"So we make camp. What's the big deal? C'mon, Methos, I know you know how to camp out."

The pair had been conversing in Latin, but Methos switched to Greek to say, "First of all, it's Antonius. Methos was Death of the Horsemen, and I'd just as soon not advertise that fact to the world at large. Secondly, yes, I do know how to camp out, and that's precisely why I prefer a bed and a hot meal."

Iolaus grinned that maddening grin of his and said in Latin, "Where's your sense of adventure, Antonius?"

"I don't like adventures. They're nasty, disturbing, and uncomfortable, and they tend to make you late for dinner. Adventures are a great way to die, and I intend to live for a very long time."

Rolling his eyes, Iolaus said, "Fine, we'll stay here and lose valuable time."

Methos maneuvered his horse toward the inn, pulling the pack horse along with him. "As you so succinctly pointed out to Pluto, you haven't seen Hercules for centuries. A few hours won't matter that much."

That struck a nerve. Iolaus was quiet the rest of the way to the inn. They stabled the horses in a barn constructed for that purpose adjacent to the inn, then went inside.

As soon as they entered, they felt the presence of another Immortal. "Oh, great," Methos muttered.

"You were the one who insisted we stop here," Iolaus said with a grin as they stepped up to a table near the door, presently unoccupied.

"All right, all right, there's no need to rub it in."

The other Immortal was a large African man, presently standing behind a Roman gentleman. The latter seemed to notice his slave's discomfiture, and asked the African a question in what Methos assumed to be the slave's native tongue. It sounded like one of the West African languages, though Methos couldn't place the dialect. It had been several hundred years since he'd been in that region, and he'd had trouble with the language then. The only word he could make out was the one for "two," which the slave used while pointing at Iolaus and Methos.

The Roman got up and approached the pair with a very large, very insincere smile on his face. "Greetings, my friends. My name is Theophilus. And you are?"

"Tired and hungry," Methos said before Iolaus had the chance to do something stupid like accept a challenge. "Are you the innkeeper?"

"Er, no, I--" Theophilus stammered, not expecting that question.

"Then we have nothing to say to each other."

Theophilus recovered and put the smile back on. "Come now, sirs, I know what it means when my slave gets that look on his face. You got it on yours, as well. You two and he are of the same kind. All we need do is set the time and place for the duel."

Methos's mind raced. This mortal obviously seemed to be -- what? The manager for this African Immortal? The idea was absurd, and dangerous. Mortals had no business knowing about, nor being involved in the Game. Even when Methos had, out of necessity, told Xena about his Immortality, he left out the details regarding the Game -- it was complicated enough without getting mortals involved in it.

Drawing himself up to full height and putting a look of supreme aristocratic offense on his face, Methos said, "Sir, how dare you! I am a citizen of Rome! My companion is a native of Greece, home to the greatest intellects in all the world! To even imply that that -- thing you own is of the same kind as us is the gravest of insults. I shall have to insist that you apologize to us both, and be on your way."

"I'd listen to him if I were you," Iolaus said calmly.

A beefy man with a very un-Roman mustache appeared behind the table. "Is there some kind of problem I can help you with?"

"No problem at all," Iolaus said. "We were just having a brief conversation with this gentleman -- Theophilus, was it? -- who was recommending your chef's food. Was it the mutton you said was best?"

"We don't serve mutton," the beefy man -- presumably the innkeeper -- said.

Theophilus, now frowning, said, "It was the lamb I recommended, good sir. Now if you will excuse me, I will leave you to your business. I'm sure we'll speak again." With that, the Roman returned to his table and started talking to the slave.

Methos muttered, "I doubt that very much." As he turned to the innkeeper, he noticed a look of disappointment on the slave's face.

The innkeeper didn't look thrilled, either. "We have no rooms tonight."

"Really?" Iolaus said, placing a coin on the table.

Completely failing to hide his great pleasure at the amount the coin was worth, the innkeeper said, "I just remembered one person who left this afternoon. I'm afraid the pair of you will have to share."

"We'll manage," Iolaus said dryly.

Methos added, "We have a pack horse in the stable. If someone could take the items on it to our rooms, we'd be grateful."

"Consider it done. Uhm, I'll need your names, sirs." He smiled. "Records need to be kept after all."

"Of course they do," Iolaus muttered. "Yet another grand Roman contribution to the civilized world."

"Antonius Sejanus of Rome," Methos said, declining to point out that Greeks kept records long before Romulus and Remus ever founded Rome.

"Iolaus of Greece."

The innkeeper unrolled a scroll that had plenty of writing on it and added their names to it. "Thank you, sirs. Your room is the last one at the end of the hall at the top of the stairs. Will you be following the gentleman's recommendation of the lamb?"

"Uh, yes, I think so," Methos said. Iolaus simply nodded.

"Excellent. Just find yourself a table, sirs, and I'll have the chef bring you a couple of bowls."

The pair of them went into the common area, to find that no tables were unoccupied. One table, however, had three seats, two of which were free. Unfortunately, Theophilus sat in that third seat.

"Please," the Roman said, his smile back on, "come and join me, sirs. I insist."

"Wonderful," Methos muttered.

"Hey, you were the one who insisted on staying at an inn," Iolaus repeated. "I would've been perfectly content to keep going and make camp, but you insisted." Before Methos could reply to that, Iolaus smiled and said, "Thank you ever so much for the invitation, Theophilus, we'd be honored to join you, wouldn't we, Antonius?"

He's enjoying this entirely too much, Methos thought with an internal sigh, then surrendered gracefully, plastered a smile on his face, and sat.

"Yes, Iolaus, we'd be very honored."

"Iolaus," Theophilus said, looking thoughtful. "That's not a Roman name."

"Greek. I was born in Corinth."

"Ah, of course. So, have you reconsidered my proposal?"

Once again, Methos jumped in before Iolaus could speak. "I'm afraid I'm still waiting for your apology."

"Look, it's just the three of us here."

"Funny," Iolaus said, "I count four." He spoke in a tone that Methos was coming to recognize as his seems-friendly-but-there's-a-threat-underlying-it voice.

"Well, only three who matter. I'm afraid that my slave doesn't speak Latin -- nor Greek, if it comes to that -- so his presence is irrelevant. The point is, there's no one to overhear us, and we can speak freely of the fact that all of you -- you two, and my slave -- are Immortals and that the rules of your little Game require a duel to the death."

Methos laughed. "Immortals? My dear Theophilus, do we look like gods to you? We are simply men who are travelling together and have stopped at an inn. I'm sure your slave has told you some very amusing tales that probably sound very convincing to a fellow mongrel, but we are civilized men."

Theophilus chuckled. "Look, I know you need to keep up a pretense for most people, but I know all about this Game of yours. I find it fascinating. Constant dueling to the death, and in the end, there can be only one. Quite amazing. I don't know why you don't make it public. Think of the money to be made! I mean, no one will think twice about attending something as dull as the games after they've seen a Quickening for the first time."

"You don't happen to have a Greek ancestor named Salmoneus, do you?" Iolaus asked.

"I'm sorry?"

"Never mind."

This entire thing was making Methos nervous. "Listen, Theophilus, this all sounds rather fantasical. You should consider writing a play. But I'm afraid it has nothing to do with us."

After that, the lamb arrived. It was stringy and overcooked. Perfect ending to a perfect evening, Methos thought sourly. I'd've been better off with the provisions in the pack horse. He didn't dare say as much to Iolaus, though -- he'd had enough teasing from his travelling companion for one day.

Iolaus steered the conversation to other subjects, mostly giving Theophilus a chance to talk of his time in Africa, where he found his slave (Methos noticed that, if the African had a name, Theophilus never bothered to provide it).

Then he mentioned his destination: "We're heading north to Germany. I've heard tell that there's a man ruling a small province up there -- claims to be the son of Jupiter, if you can believe that. But I've heard from a very reliable source that this fellow claiming to be Hercules is, in truth, one of you Immortal types."

Iolaus, luckily, was in the middle of chewing a piece of lamb when Theophilus made this pronouncement, and so didn't react overtly, for which Methos was immensely grateful. Having long since given up on his own lamb, Methos was able to say, "There you go again, Theophilus. We are not 'types.'"

"Deny it all you want, but my slave knows when your kind are near. He told me you two were Immortals, and he's never lied to me before."

"Well," Iolaus said, standing up, "we appreciate the company, but I'm sure our room is ready, and we're quite tired after travelling all day, so we'll be off. Thanks ever so much for letting us share your table."

"Oh, but won't you stay?" Theophilus sounded disappointed. "I understand they have a lute player who's quite good. He should be going on at any minute."

"No thank you," Methos said, also standing.

"Well, I'm sure I'll see you in the morning, then. Good night."

The pair returned the sentiment, then headed upstairs. Sure enough, the room at the end of the hall was empty, save for their belongings, arranged neatly on the floor.

"It is quite remarkable what a little coin can accomplish, isn't it?" Iolaus said with a smile. "So," he added, smile falling from his face, "what do we do about Theophilus?"

"What is there to do?" Methos asked. "We'll leave in the morning, and that will be that."

"And when he realizes that we're heading the same way? Anyhow, why did you go to such lengths to deny that we're Immortals?"

"Sometimes it is necessary to explain to mortals that we exist, I'll grant you that. But it is completely unnecessary for anyone to know about the Game."

"It's a little late for that with Theophilus. Besides, he obviously respects our secrets. I mean, he could've gone public with it, but he hasn't. And if we do wind up on the road together, he's going to insist that we duel his slave. And once we get away from this town and into a more deserted area..."

Methos sighed. "I realize that, but-- Well, if that happens, we'll deal with it, but better there than in the middle of a crowded inn."

* * *


The next morning, they continued on their way -- declining the offer of runny eggs for breakfast -- without encountering Theophilus or his Immortal slave.

By noontime -- when they were well beyond the confines of the town that held the inn and mostly alone on a small mountain road -- they felt the presence of another Immortal. Methos presumed it was Theophilus's slave, and was proven correct a moment later. He turned around to see that they had no pack horse; the slave had a large pack mounted to his back and he rode a huge horse that could obviously handle the added weight without slowing down overmuch, so they were able to make better time than Iolaus and Methos.

"Greetings, sirs," Theophilus said as he and the slave maneuvered their horses alongside Methos's and Iolaus's. "It would seem we have been thrown together once again. Have you reconsidered my proposal?"

"No," Iolaus said, "but you should reconsider your destination."

"And why is that?"

Iolaus sighed. "Because it is also our destination. You see, I know this man who claims to be Hercules, and he is many things, but he is not Immortal."

Theophilus laughed. "So you no longer deny your nature?"

"Now that we're not in the middle of a crowded inn where any idiot can overhear us, no, we no longer deny it," Iolaus said. Methos smiled.

Nodding in seeming understanding, Theophilus said, "Very well. But you say you know this Hercules?"

"For some time. In fact, it's been many years since I saw him last, which is why Antonius and I are going to see him. But he is not one of us. You have my word on that."

"Your word," Theophilus said, nodding again. Then he suddenly burst out laughing. "You must think me an utter fool! You're trying to convince me not to go so you can claim this Hercules's Quickening for yourselves! Well, I'm afraid I'm not that stupid."

Methos resisted the obvious comment, and said, "You may believe what you wish, Theophilus, but Hercules is not one of us."

The slave made a comment, then.

To Methos's utter astonishment, Iolaus responded to the slave in his own tongue.

Theophilus then got into the act, and the three of them started conversing in the African language.

At one point, the slave looked at Methos, chuckled, then said something else to Iolaus.

The slave then dismounted smoothly, without discommoding the pack. He then let the pack fall to the ground, and pulled out a very long, curved sword.

Smiling, Iolaus also dismounted, unsheathing his own Hephaestus-forged sword.

"You mind filling me in, Iolaus?" Methos asked a trifle snidely.

"Our friend over there -- whose name, by the way, is M'buto -- said he was tired of all these games, and wanted to fight one of us here and now. I asked him which of us he preferred to duel, and he looked at you, decided you would be too easy to defeat, and said he'd face me." Iolaus smiled ruefully. "Sorry, but you did ask."

Methos blinked. "Why should that bother me?" Methos had spent millennia trying to look harmless. He was glad that it worked.

Before he could ask Iolaus anything else, the Greek stepped away and held out his sword. The slave -- what was his name? M'buto? -- said something, Iolaus replied, and then they began fighting.

M'buto was very good. He used his tremendous size to good advantage: his arms being as long as most normal people were tall, and with a long sword, he was able to keep his distance and use his reach to best effect.

As good as he was, though, Iolaus was better. Anyone else wouldn't have even thought of trying to get in within M'buto's reach, much less be able to accomplish putting that thought to action. But Iolaus -- as Methos had known since the deceptively short man and his demigod friend had singlehandedly given the Four Horsemen their worst defeat -- wasn't just anyone.

M'buto lunged. Iolaus ducked under the lunge and converted that duck into a roll that brought him to the African's feet in a crouch. He paused for less than half a second, and then struck with a chopping motion on a point just below the right knee. M'buto cried out in pain, and his right leg buckled. As the slave moved downward, Iolaus smashed M'buto in the jaw with the heel of his hand, knocking the African backward.

Crumpled in a heap on the ground and obviously in great pain, it was the work of a moment for Iolaus to cut off his head.

The Quickening was fairly intense, but not unusual, as these things went. Afterward, Methos turned to look at Theophilus--

--who looked like he had just watched someone murder his entire family. It was a look Methos was all too familiar with.

"By the gods," he muttered. "It only took him a few minutes."

Somewhat out of breath from the Quickening, Iolaus said, "That's -- how it works -- sometimes, Theophilus."

"You don't understand -- he's the best there is! He's had fifty duels in the past year, and no one's given him so much as a scratch! Well, all right, there was that one Syrian who nicked him in the shoulder, but aside from that, no one! But -- but you defeated him in no time at all!"

Iolaus put his hand on the stunned Roman's shoulder. "Something you need to remember, Theophilus -- there's always someone better than the best."

"On the other hand, there are also some things you should forget," Methos put in. "Such as everything about Immortals. The Game is not safe for mortals, Theophilus."

Iolaus chuckled. "For that matter, it isn't too terribly safe for Immortals, either."

"You would do well to move into some other line of work and forget you ever encountered an Immortal African named M'buto. Do we understand each other?"

Theophilus nodded, still stunned.

"One last thing," Iolaus said. "You said you had a source that indicated that Hercules was Immortal. Who was that?"

"Hm? Oh, uhm -- a merchant we encountered in Capri. An Immortal, also -- he had heard it from another Immortal, who was travelling north to duel this Hercules fellow. Apparently he's made no secret of it." Theophilus never took his eyes off his slave's headless corpse. "Gods above," he muttered.

* * *


Leaving Theophilus behind to dispose of his slave's body, Methos and Iolaus moved on. "Why didn't you tell me you knew the slave's language?" Methos asked.

Iolaus grinned. "You never asked. I spent some time in Morocco fifty years ago, and I picked up on the language then."

Methos filed that fact away for future use as well.

* * *


At Methos's request, they stayed in a small inn at the foot of the Dolomite Mountains two nights later, on the theory that it was their last chance for a real bed before they reached Hercules's kingdom. Iolaus objected, given what happened the last time they stayed at an inn -- the last two nights had been spent between towns and so they made camp -- but Methos insisted.

While having dinner -- a chicken dish that was infinitely more palatable than the lamb at the prior inn -- the innkeeper asked where they were headed.

After they told him, the innkeeper -- a skinny old man with a shock of white hair and a perpetual smile -- said, "Another one. Or two, I guess. You're about, what, the fifteenth person -- or fifteenth and sixteenth people, I guess -- who've been headed up there. You'd think there was, what, something other than savages up there. I mean, truly, why would anyone want to go up there?"

"We're visiting someone," Iolaus said. "The ruler of that province is an old friend."

The innkeeper chuckled. "Well, that's better than most of the other folks. Most'a them just said, what, they were headin' up for 'personal reasons,' or somethin' like that. Crazy. And all kindsa different folks, too. Folks from, what, Syria, Africa, Gaul, Rome, Greece -- most of the time only the army wants to go up there, and only them 'cause they're told. More chicken?"

* * *


"What do you think?" Iolaus asked that night in their room.

"I think that those rumors Theophilus heard are pretty widespread."

Iolaus sighed. "Either Hercules is trying to lure Immortals up there--"

"--or an Immortal is using his name to lure Immortals up there." Methos thought about it for a moment. "Doesn't make much sense either way, does it?"

"Well," Iolaus said with a smile, "not everyone goes to the same lengths you do to avoid swordfights."

Methos ignored the jibe and said, "We'll find out for sure in a couple of days."

END OF CHAPTER 4


CHAPTER 5: "Nothing is Easy"

Exactly one week after they left Rome, Methos and Iolaus arrived at a walled city nestled in the valley of one of the Dolomite mountains. They would have arrived a day sooner but for a lengthy rainstorm that kept them in a tent for twenty hours.

They dismounted and walked their horses around the wall to find an entrance, which turned out to be a massive set of double doors, in front of which stood ten guards. They all wore armor that seemed loosely based on the Roman style, though neither as well kept nor as ornate as that of a Roman soldier, and carried cheap-looking longswords. They all stood at attention, which, Methos thought, had to get tiresome.

"Overdoing the security a bit, don't you think?" Methos said dryly.

"A tad, yeah."

As they approached, one of the guards moved forward. "What business do you have here?" he barked -- in Latin, Methos noticed, albeit with a German accent. The guard stared straight ahead, not actually looking at either Immortal.

"We're here to see Hercules. My name is Iolaus -- I'm an old friend of his."

"No one is scheduled to see his majesty today."

Iolaus blinked. "Excuse me?"

"His majesty keeps a very particular schedule. There is no one on that schedule today. Furthermore, I am familiar with the schedule for the next three days, and there is no one named 'Iolaus' on it. Therefore, you obviously have no real business with his majesty. I must therefore ask you to leave this area within three minutes."

Out of curiosity as much as anything, Methos asked, "What if we don't leave within three minutes?"

The guard had spoken in a military tone all along, but this time a sing-songy lilt was added -- obviously he was quoting something. "Those who do not follow the instructions of the city guard as stated by the city guard and/or enumerated in the city code are guilty of disobeying the city law."

When no more information was forthcoming, Methos asked, "And what happens to those who disobey the city law?"

"They are sentenced to death, sentence to be carried out immediately by the members of the city guard present."

Is it my imagination, Methos thought, or did he seem to enjoy stretching out that last bit? But no, the guard just stared straight ahead in that tiresome military manner that guards were so fond of.

"So, let me get this straight," Iolaus said. "If we don't leave within three minutes--"

"Closer to two now," Methos said helpfully.

Iolaus glared at his companion for a moment, then continued: "--then the ten of you will kill us?"

"That is correct, sir."

"No trial, no chance to defend ourselves?"

"Not in this case, sir. The violation is obvious, and it would be pointless to waste the magistrate's valuable time."

Iolaus turned to Methos and said in Greek, "I'm starting to think that Hades was right. This doesn't sound at all like Hercules."

"The thought occurs," Methos replied in the same language, "that it might not actually be Hercules. You mentioned that his brother once claimed to be Hercules and set himself up as a king somewhere, right?"

Iolaus nodded. It was one of the many stories Iolaus had shared with Methos during their week of travel. "Still, Hades wouldn't ha--"

"You now have one minute, sirs," the guard said, and this time Methos was sure he heard a note of glee in the guard's voice.

Probably the first interesting thing that's happened to him in weeks, Methos thought sourly.

"There's nothing we can say that would convince you to let us in?" Iolaus asked.

"I'm afraid there isn't, sir," the guard said, unsheathing his sword. Behind him, the other nine guards took notice of this action. They lost their at-attention gait and moved toward the pair of them, unsheathing their own swords.

Were he by himself, Methos would have gotten on his horse and rode quickly away as soon as the guard laid out the details. But this was Iolaus's trip, so Methos would defer to his judgment.

Iolaus took out his sword, which Methos expected.

Then he handed the sword to Methos, which caught the older Immortal completely off-guard.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" he asked.

"Just hold onto it for a moment." At Methos's confused look, Iolaus added, "It just gets in my way."

Apparently the three minutes were up then, for the guard's face twisted into a scream and he attacked Iolaus with the sword.

Or, at least, attacked the space where Iolaus had been standing.

Centuries earlier, Methos watched a duel between Iolaus and Caspian, one of Methos's fellow Horsemen. The youngest of the Horsemen, and probably the most vicious, Caspian was a very brutal, yet very skilled fighter.

Caspian had managed to disarm Iolaus, mainly due to Iolaus being distracted by the arrival of two more Immortals (Methos himself and Kronos, the Horsemen's leader). Caspian then made the mistake of thinking the duel to be over.

If anything, Iolaus was a better fighter without the sword. His hand-to-hand skills then were like nothing Methos had seen before or since. He took out Caspian in less than a minute.

Iolaus had had centuries to improve his fighting skills, and he'd made use of the time. A whirlwind of arms and legs, he took down the ten armed soldiers in two minutes' time. He allowed the guards' own lack of skill to work for him -- half of them took out the other half by missing Iolaus and striking their fellows. He found weak spots in the armor, or spots the armor didn't cover, and exploited them with carefully placed blows.

After two minutes, ten bodies lay on the ground. To Methos's amazement, only two of them were dead, and they had both been killed by fellow soldiers who missed Iolaus.

Shaking his head, Methos glanced upward -- and then sighed. Typically, this wasn't going to be as easy as it seemed.

"Iolaus, look up," he said.

The Greek followed Methos's gaze to the lookout tower on top of the wall. In it sat another guard, who was screaming something to someone on the other side of the wall from the two Immortals. Methos's German was a bit rusty, but he was pretty sure the lookout was saying, "They're out here! Quickly! They're a pair of demons!"

Oh, fine, Methos thought, Iolaus takes out ten people singlehanded, but we're both demons?

The double doors slowly opened, to the tune of four grunting guards.

Methos tossed Iolaus's sword back at its owner. "Here. I suspect you might need this."

"Thanks," Iolaus said with a sardonic smile, catching it unerringly at the hilt.

Then they felt the presence of an Immortal, just as what seemed to be an entire platoon of guards streamed through the double doors.

"Y'know," Methos said, unsheathing his own sword, "two weeks ago, it had been several years since I encountered an Immortal. Now, over the space of a fortnight, I've encountered four."

"Well, you said you came along on this trip because you wanted something different," Iolaus said.

"Good point."

Then someone cried, in German, "Halt at once!"

Miraculously, the guards all did halt as requested. A blond-haired man strode through the platoon, and all the guards stepped aside deferentially.

"What is going on here, Captain?" the man -- who was the Immortal they sensed -- asked one of the guards.

The captain responded crisply. "These men attacked members of the city guard and killed two of them! They must be executed for this effrontery immediately."

"Dolt! Imbecile! Did the guard attack first?"

Somewhat less crisply, the captain said, "I don't know, I--"

The blond turned his head up toward the lookout tower. "Well?"

The lookout stammered, "Th-they were told t-to leave, and they didn't. The -- the guard had no choice but t-to--"

"I am surrounded by fools! Can you not see that these are Roman emissaries? And you treat them like common criminals?"

The captain said, "My lord chamberlain, there were no Roman emissaries on the list."

Methos chose this moment to speak up. "Didn't our messenger tell you we were coming?" He hoped his German was sufficient for the purpose.

"We received no messenger," the lord chamberlain said -- in perfect Latin, Methos noted.

Taking the cue, he continued in that tongue. "We sent a man, Theophilus -- brown-haired man, had a large African slave with him. Didn't he arrive?"

"I'm afraid not. I must apologize for this, my friends. Please, do come in as my guest."

"My lord, a moment," the captain said in German.

"Yes?" the lord chamberlain said impatiently.

"The city code states that anyone who molests a member of the city guard must be put to death."

"I believe we can waive the city code in this instance, Captain, given the misunderstanding," the lord chamberlain said.

He had spoken in a tone that brooked no argument, as proven when the captain gave none. "Of course, my lord."

The lord chamberlain continued: "However, I believe we may follow the statute that says that any member of the guard who dies on duty will be buried with the highest honors. See to it -- it is even possible that his majesty will read the eulogy."

That seemed to placate the captain somewhat. "Thank you, my lord."

Switching back to Latin, the lord chamberlain approached the two Immortals. "I must apologize for this misunderstanding. My name is Karl, and I am--"

"The lord chamberlain, we heard," Iolaus said impatiently. Methos could see that he was fidgeting -- he obviously wanted to see Hercules immediately.

"If you two will come with me, I will see to your quarters."

"We don't need quarters," Iolaus said. "We came here to see Hercules."

"Of course you did," Karl said with a smile that reminded Methos of Theophilus. "But I'm afraid no one sees Hercules today. It is Thursday, you see. Thursday is his day to -- walk."

"Walk?"

Karl nodded. "You see, his majesty wakes up every Thursday at dawn and leaves the city walls to -- walk. All day, apparently. I have no idea where he goes or what he does, but he always returns at sunrise Friday morning. You may see him tomorrow, if that is why you have come here."

Methos watched Karl carefully as he walked the pair of them through the city. Around them, a prosperous-looking metropolis bustled. If Hercules was a madman, he was a madman with a prosperous kingdom. Methos did, however, notice that one white building was in terrible repair -- he noticed it mainly because it was unique. Most of the other buildings within the city walls were well maintained.

But Karl was an interesting puzzle. The lord chamberlain was obviously very unhappy with the fact that "his majesty" took these weekly walks. Indeed, his demeanor was that of a father who was unhappy with something his child had done, but could do nothing about it -- an odd manner for a subordinate to take.

Iolaus said, "Of course it's why we've come here."

"Yes, well, I'm glad you provided that messenger story."

"What makes you think it was a story?" Methos asked, all innocence.

"Come now -- you're Immortals. You're here for the same reason every other Immortal comes here -- you heard the rumors. Of course, the others usually just sneak over the wall."

"And then you take their heads," Iolaus said.

Karl shrugged. "I do not refuse a challenge."

"Well, you'll get no challenge today. I didn't come for your head or anyone else's. I'm here to see Hercules."

Karl laughed. "My good man, he's no Immortal, he's just--"

"I know what he is, dammit! Better than you -- better than anyone! He's the best friend I ever had, and I will not be kept from him a moment longer than I have to, is that undestood?"

"Are you threatening me?"

Methos chose that moment to put his sword -- which he hadn't sheathed -- to Karl's neck. Iolaus took advantage of Karl's surprise at this to pin the lord chamberlain's arms.

"Yes," Iolaus said, "we are."

"Who are you people?" Karl asked, now sounding frightened.

"My name is Antonius. My friend here is Iolaus. He came here to seek out his friend. Right now, you are standing between him and his friend. Personally, I don't think Hercules is 'taking a walk' at all. I think you made that up so you can put us up for the night and take our heads in our sleep."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"I don't think it's ridiculous. I think that you've been spreading these rumors about Hercules being an Immortal so that people will come to you -- thus keeping your nice job as a lord chamberlain while allowing you the chance to take people's heads."

Iolaus tightened his grip. "Is that true?"

"No!" Karl now sounded like he was in excruciating pain. Idly, Methos wondered where Iolaus learned that grip. It didn't look like any of the moves Methos had seen in the east -- but then, he hadn't been out that way in a while.

Karl continued: "Believe me, if I do find out who started those rumors, I will cut off his feet and feed them to him!"

Methos blinked. Caspian had done that to a Gallic chieftain the Horsemen were torturing once. Helluva time to think of that, old-timer, he thought, and banished the image.

"So you weren't using it as a way to seek out easy Quickenings?" Iolaus said, tightening his grip.

"Easy? Don't be absurd. If I wanted to seek out Quickenings, I'd seek them out. But I happen to like it here, and enjoy my work. I don't appreciate it being interrupted by idiot Immortals looking to take the head of the mighty Hercules. Now, if you would please let go of me, I do have things to do. I promise, the moment he returns in the morning, I will take you to see Hercules." Karl had been talking progressively faster, obviously in increasing pain.

Iolaus let go; Karl looked distinctly relieved as he rubbed his arms. Methos sheathed his sword.

"I'm holding you to that," Iolaus said in that matter-of-fact tone of his.

"You won't need to. It will be done. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to see to the funeral arrangements for the men you killed. If you need anything, ask for Wilhelm -- he'll provide you with anything you need."

* * *


Wilhelm had proven to be a kind young man who brought them food and drink and answered several questions. Yes, Hercules was a kind and benevolent ruler. Yes, Hercules apparently took these walks every Thursday. No, Wilhelm didn't know why. No, Wilhelm didn't get to see his majesty very often -- aside from Karl, no one did. People who wished to petition his majesty did so through the lord chamberlain. Yes, of course his majesty was sane -- how could anyone think otherwise? No, he hadn't heard of any golden apples.

"Interesting," Methos said after Wilhelm had taken away their dinner and the pair of them prepared to turn in. The room in which they had been placed was decent-sized, with a pair of actual beds, albeit straw ones. Probably the nicest quarters they have for guests, Methos mused.

"That's one word for it," Iolaus said as he sat on his bed and removed his boots. "What do you think of the lord chamberlain?"

"Don't you trust him?" Methos said evasively. He was curious what Iolaus thought, and didn't want the Greek's opinion to be influenced by Methos's.

"Not in the least. He was lying -- about what, I'm not sure, but he was lying."

Methos sighed. "I agree. I suspect he's telling the truth about not starting the rumors. He's obviously got a sweet deal going here -- why jeopardize it by risking losing your head regularly?"

Iolaus nodded. "Besides, it's not that far-fetched to think that a rumor like that could get started naturally. I mean, this city's being ruled by someone who's lived for hundreds of years -- to most Immortals that means one of their own. It's not until they get here that they realize that it's the lord chamberlain rather than the king."

"And having traipsed all this way through the Dolomites, they're not going to leave without some satisfaction, so Karl takes them to that white building with all the holes and fights them."

"Yeah, I'd noticed that building, too," Iolaus said with a smile, then regarded Methos with a more serious expression. "I want the truth, Methos," he said in Greek -- they'd been conversing in Latin up to that point. "Why did you come along?"

Sighing, Methos said, "I thought I answered this question back in Rome."

"No, you gave me an answer, but this time I want the truth. I think I deserve that much."

Methos laughed. "For what?"

"Oh, you could've taken M'buto, could you? How about those ten guards?"

"I was only in danger from them because of you."

"Which brings me back to the original question -- why did you come along? I can't believe that this is your idea of a fun vacation."

Methos lay back on his bed. "Does it matter?"

"It does to me. Two weeks ago, if someone had told me that Methos was in Rome, I would've sought you out and taken your head. The only reason I didn't was because of Marcus."

"And you wonder why I insist on going by the name Antonius."

Ignoring the jibe, Iolaus went on: "Now you've become my travelling companion. And dammit, I've enjoyed the company, which just makes it all the more confusing. Even accepting that you've changed -- and it's pretty obvious that you have, significantly -- that doesn't explain why you've decided to tag along on this trip."

Methos sighed loudly and stared at the wooden ceiling beams. He supposed this moment was going to come sooner or later.

"Ever since the Horsemen -- disbanded, I've basically been alone. Oh, I've met some people, kept some firm acquaintances going, but there no one I could call a friend. I thought that I would never again achieve the level of camaraderie that the Horsemen had." Before Iolaus could make the inevitable comment, Methos quickly added, "Whatever else you may think of us, the Horsemen were comrades. We had a bond, and it took a great deal to break it." Methos neglected to point out that he himself broke the bond -- that wasn't the point. "I thought that I understood friendship. But when Hades gave you an opportunity to find Hercules, I saw a light in your eyes that I had never seen before. And since then, I've seen you disrupt your entire life -- admittedly, not a major chore, but still -- take on an Immortal three times your size, fight ten soldiers, and generally make every effort to find your friend. To my mind, that was worth aiding."

"Do you really think that Herc and I are anything like you and those other three killers?"

Methos noted the phraseology -- Iolaus still thought of Methos as a killer. "I did at first. I'm starting to realize now how much of a sham that was. Toward the end there, I had gotten less tolerant of them, but at first, I thought that it was friendship." Well, maybe not with Caspian, he added to himself, but didn't voice it. He chuckled. "I suppose it's an attempt to find that kind of friendship by association. By helping you reunite with Hercules, I'm hoping that I might come to understand true friendship a little more."

Iolaus laughed. "You're how old?"

"About three thousand, give or take a century. Why?"

"And you're seeking out my advice about friendship?"

Methos returned the laugh. "We do find our teachers in the oddest places, don't we?"

"Mmm." Iolaus blew out the candle near his bed. Methos did the same for his.

"Good night, Iolaus."

A pause. Methos wondered at first if Iolaus had already fallen asleep, which seemed unlikely. Then, finally, a voice sounded from across the room:

"Good night, my friend."

* * *


The next morning, Karl came for them to bring them to Hercules. The king, appropriately, lived in a huge building that Methos thought was adequate to the term "palace" -- the largest structure in the city, and located at its epicentre.

Everyone on the street gave Karl a wide berth. Methos recognized the expressions on the people's faces. It was the same look that people had in a place that the Horsemen had subjugated.

The recognition was not a pleasant one.

As they approached, a man walked up to one of the guards at the palace entrance. They talked for a minute, then the guard grabbed the man and tossed him forcibly back out into the street.

Methos and Iolaus exchanged a glance. This isn't good.

That same guard bowed by Karl and let him and his guests in without question or comment.

They arrived at a large set of double doors that was a virtual twin of the set on the walls -- reduced by about twenty-five percent, by Methos's estimation. There were two guards at the doors, and one of these did actually speak to Karl.

"I'm afraid his majesty isn't in, my lord. I've been on since dawn, and he hasn't arrived."

"You forget, it's Friday," Karl said. "He's probably been in there since before you came on."

"Possibly, my lord." The guard looked abashed -- and a bit frightened.

"Let us in," Karl said, and the two guards pulled the doors open.

Inside, Methos saw a man he hadn't seen for centuries, pacing.

Many things about Hercules hadn't changed since Methos met him in combat in the village of Thessaly many lifetimes ago. His shoulders were still wide as boulders, and they sat atop massive arms. Still immensely tall, still with a wide chest.

The first obvious physical change was the hair, which had gone from brown to paper-white. But it was more than that. Though the body was primarily the same, it moved differently. The younger version strode with a relaxed confidence, and carried himself with all the strength at his command, though he wasn't overt about it -- at least as non-overt as one so large could be.

Now, however, those broad shoulders were stooped, the steps smaller. The strength was there, but it was horribly subdued. Where the young Hercules commanded attention with his very presence, this older man would barely be noticed.

"Your majesty," Karl prompted.

"What do you want, Karl, can't you see--"

Hercules turned around, and saw who was standing behind his lord chamberlain.

Iolaus was actually grinning. "Hello, Hercules."

The king stared harshly at Iolaus for several seconds, then turned back to Karl. "I don't wish to see anyone today. Take these Romans back to their quarters. I'll see them tomorrow, and take care of any other business then as well."

Iolaus was no longer grinning. In fact, he looked exactly like someone had punched him hard in the stomach. "Herc, it's me, Iola--"

"I know who you are," Hercules snapped at Iolaus, then turned back to Karl. "I see no one today, understood?"

"Of course, your majesty. I do apologize for disturbing you."

Karl turned to leave. Methos moved to follow him.

Iolaus didn't budge.

"Hercules, it's me," Iolaus shouted.

"All I see is someone I used to know -- someone who showed up unannounced, without making any kind of arrangement. I'm a king -- I can't have people just walking in off the street. I will see you and your friend tomorrow. Now get out of my palace, or I'll have you thrown out."

With that, the demigod turned his back on his friend.

* * *


Iolaus didn't say a word the entire way back to their quarters. Wilhelm and two members of the guard escorted them this time, as Karl apparently had "matters of state" to attend to. Methos had questioned this -- Hercules had said he would take care of no business today -- but Karl simply shrugged it off. Methos added this to the theory he had been formulating about the political structure of this city.

Methos noticed that the two guards remained outside their door after Wilhelm had dropped them off. So now we're under arrest. Interesting.

The guards brought in food around noontime. Iolaus spent the entire time prior to that doing some kind of exercising ritual that involved lots of odd movements and heavy breathing. Methos recognized it as some kind of centering exercise, and he also knew that there was no point in talking to Iolaus as long as he was doing this.

When lunch arrived, Iolaus stopped and ate.

"So, you going to talk about this, or are you going to steam all day?"

"Nothing to talk about," Iolaus said tightly. "You were right, I was wrong. Well, c'mon, Methos, you've been dying to say it all day, so go ahead and say it!" He punctuated his cry by knocking his bowl off the table. Then, in a passable imitation of Methos, he quoted, "'Your problem is that you're still clinging to Iolaus, protector of innocents, friend of Hercules. That person is long dead.' And I didn't listen. We parted on bad terms, and I was just deluding myself into thinking that I could just pick up where things left off." Iolaus turned toward Methos. "That's really why you came along, isn't it, 'Antonius'? You wanted to watch me get my hopes up and then have them dashed. You get off on this sort of thing, don't you? Don't you?"

Calmly, Methos said, "Do you really believe that?" He had to remain calm, not give in to Iolaus's obvious provocation. Methos was fairly sure that Iolaus was simply venting his frustration, and yelling at Methos at least partly in the hope of starting a fight. Methos was also completely sure that, in a fight with Iolaus, Methos would lose, badly. But Iolaus didn't fight unless provoked, and remaining calm in the face of fury had certainly worked back when Marcus brought them together in Rome a week and a half earlier.

His guess was right. Iolaus just stared at Methos for a moment, then seemed to deflate, his anger burned to ashes. "No, not really. I just-- You were right. I was deluding myself."

"I never said you were deluding yourself."

Iolaus smiled. "Maybe not, but you thought it."

"Well, perhaps. Still, there's more to this than meets the eye. Hercules may have changed over the years, but this place doesn't -- feel right."

"I agree. However he might feel about me, I can't see Hercules agreeing to a death penalty for anything."

"If he even knows about it," Methos said, leaning forward. "I'm starting to suspect that our Immortal friend is the one who wields the true power in this city."

Iolaus bent over to pick up his bowl. "That does fit." He inspected its contents, what was left of them, then set the bowl aside. "If Hercules has a flaw, it's that he trusts people too easily." He smiled ruefully. "I oughtta know -- I used to have the same flaw."

Methos was glad to hear Iolaus say that -- it meant that the Immortal had learned something from his lengthy life...

"So the question is," Iolaus said, sitting back down on his bed, "what do we do next?"

Smiling, Methos said, "As it happens, I have a plan."

END OF CHAPTER 5


CHAPTER 6: "A Passion Play"

Kristoff figured the assignment would be easy. All he had to do was sneak into the guest quarters and kill the two men sleeping there. Their meals had been drugged, so they would be very much asleep. He was to kill them in whatever way he saw fit, but once they were dead, he was to cut their heads off.

Kristoff thought that last instruction to be unnecessarily gruesome, but for what he was getting paid -- not to mention who was paying him -- he didn't mind.

Working for the king -- he liked the sound of it. Not bad for an orphan with no prospects. Now he worked for King Hercules.

The guards that were assigned to the room were gone, just as the lord chamberlain had said when he gave Kristoff the king's instructions. His way was clear. Kristoff considered going in cautiously, then decided not to bother. They were drugged, after all.

The two men lay on their respective beds -- a tall man with black hair and a shorter man with blond hair, just as the lord chamberlain had said. Black Hair was closer, so Kristoff went for him first.

Black Hair's stomach rose and fell with the slow and steady rhythm of the drugged. Kristoff took out a dagger and ran it through Black Hair's heart. To Kristoff's surprise, Black Hair actually opened his eyes and gasped before dying -- Kristoff had thought for sure that he would sleep straight through it.

Kristoff turned around--

--to find Blond Hair's bed to be completely empty!

Panicking, Kristoff turned back around to see Black Hair still lying on the bed, dead, Kristoff's dagger in his heart. He moved to grab it.

Another hand clamped over the hilt of the dagger and yanked it from Black Hair's chest. Kristoff looked up to see Blond Hair -- wide awake! But that was impossible!

In heavily accented German, Blond Hair said, "I know what you're thinking. 'He should be drugged!' Well, he isn't. We noticed the drugged food right off." He indicated a table in the room's center with his head.

Kristoff spared the table a quick glance to see that it had two bowls on its surface, both mostly full of some kind of stew.

But if they didn't eat the food, why did Black Hair let me kill him?

Blond Hair started advancing on Kristoff. "Now then, who sent you to kill us?"

Kristoff backpedaled away from the man now holding Kristoff's dagger. In all his life he'd never been so scared. Blond Hair was obviously insane -- why else let his friend die? And Kristoff was trapped with him. He had a sword, with which he was going to cut the men's heads off, but he suspected that he wouldn't have time to draw it.

On the other hand, he had little choice. The guards were gone, so he had no backup. He drew his sword and lunged at Blond Hair.

In the time it took Kristoff to unsheathe his sword and make the lunge, a sword seemed to almost materialize in Blond Hair's left hand, which he used first to parry, then to disarm Kristoff in one fluid motion. Kristoff had never seen anyone move that fast in his life.

"I repeat," Blond Hair said, "who sent you?"

In a moment of inspiration, Kristoff lunged for the table with the drugged food. Blond Hair hadn't expected that, and the moment it took him to react to this gave Kristoff time to stuff as much of the stew as he could in his mouth.

Within seconds, blackness claimed him.

The last words he heard were some kind of profane utterance in a foreign tongue.

* * *


When Methos first drew breath and woke up in his bed, he was furious. He took quick stock of his surroundings, and found Iolaus sitting on his bed, and an unconscious, possibly dead figure lying facedown on the floor.

"About time you woke up," Iolaus said.

"Would you mind explaining yourself to me?"

An all-innocence grin plastered on his face, Iolaus asked, "Whatever do you mean?"

"This idiot came galumphing in here. I played possum. I was all set to deal with him, but then I noticed that you'd gotten out of your bed without the idiot noticing. 'Fine,' I thought to myself, 'Iolaus will take care of him, then.' And then next thing I know, I feel a blade penetrating my heart -- one of my least favorite sensations, by the way."

Iolaus grinned. "Wuss -- where's your sense of drama?"

Methos glared. "In my heart, which has now been punctured."

"Oh, quit whining. It led the idiot into a false sense of security and scared the crap out of him, since he thought I was insane enough to let my friend die."

"So what did he tell you?"

Iolaus's expression became a trifle more abashed. "Uh, well, nothing. He went for the drugged food and ate it rather than go through an interrogation."

Methos blinked. That was a good tactic. Perhaps the idiot wasn't such an idiot after all. Methos had made that judgment based on his un-subtle entrance. Then again, the idiot had probably been told that the victims were drugged, and so caution would be unnecessary. Except, of course, both Iolaus and Methos had noticed the drugged food the moment it had been brought in, so they were expecting something to happen during the night.

Gazing down at his chest, Methos sighed. "There are bloodstains on my tunic."

"Do you always complain this much? Listen, I think we're going to have to accelerate your plan. Sooner or later, they're bound to notice that we're not dead. You sure that Karl's behind this? He'd know that we wouldn't die."

"He might've instructed this lump to cut off our heads."

"He stabbed you in the heart, though."

Methos shrugged. "Perhaps he was to cut off our heads after he stabbed us. Or perhaps he was to signal Karl so he could come in and take our Quickenings. Unfortunately, thanks to your theatrics, we'll never know."

"He did have a sword with him. Maybe he was just supposed to cut our heads off and leave us. There's a thought -- if two Immortals are beheaded at the same time, and there are no other Immortals around, what happens to their Quickenings?"

"That, I'm afraid, is something we'll never know, since the only way one of us could be present for such a thing would be to be an observer, in which case we'd get the Quickening, or be one of the victims, and we'd hardly be in a position to know then, would we?"

"You always this cranky when you're stabbed?"

"Only when I'm not expecting it. C'mon, we'd better get going."

* * *


The plan had been simple: in the middle of the night, they would sneak into the palace and confront Hercules in private. No problems were anticipated, as both Methos and Iolaus between them had millennia of experience in that sort of thing, and the guards didn't strike either of them as being up to the task of dealing with anyone with that level of experience. Just in case that supposition was in error, they would separate -- each taking an opposite wall and climbing in, meeting at Hercules's bedchamber. If one of them got caught, the other would still make it.

The only change that the intruder's arrival necessitated was that they would no longer wait until the middle of the night, but went out immediately after the intrusion, which was shortly past midnight.

As Methos had suspected, only the front doors were guarded, and that by two young men whose swords remained sheathed and who played cards by torchlight. Just before they separated, Iolaus had made a disparaging remark about the apathy of the guards, but Methos pointed out that they were guards of a palace in the middle of a very remote walled city that had enjoyed peace and prosperity for decades. The guards' services were probably not in great demand. Iolaus's response was one that Methos had to admit he agreed with: "It's exactly under those circumstances that you should most be on your guard."

It was a lesson that Methos and Iolaus intended to teach these guards before the night was through.

Methos climbed the west wall. Whoever constructed the palace had been kind enough to make it a faceted structure, which made it much more aesthetically pleasing, but also more vulnerable to breaking and entering. On those occasions when Methos had been involved in the supervision of the construction of a building, he had always made sure the walls were smooth for precisely that reason.

But then, that was when he was with the Horsemen. Aesthetics were never a concern then.

Getting into a second-floor window proved easy, as did navigating through the palace, avoiding the sleepy-looking guards. Within minutes, he arrived at the door to Hercules's bedchamber, almost at exactly the same time as Iolaus did.

"Let's go," Iolaus said.

The room was surprisingly bare -- Methos had never known a king to not bother decorating his bedchamber before. A couple of tables, a few chairs, all of indistinct design, and a large bed. The only true extravagance was the massive red pillow.

Iolaus held up his hand and made as if he were pushing something. Stay here. Methos nodded and remained by the doorway while Iolaus approached the sleeping form of his oldest friend.

The Greek Immortal moved as silently as it was possible to move. Methos wasn't entirely sure that he himself would have noticed Iolaus's approach if he were where Hercules was now. But as soon as Iolaus was close enough, a hand leapt up from the sheets and struck at Iolaus.

Iolaus dodged the blow with ease, and whispered, "Herc, it's me, Iolaus!"

Hercules opened his eyes. "Couldn't wait till morning?"

"In all honesty? No."

The demigod sat up. "What is it you want from me, Iolaus?" The hostility in Hercules's voice took even Methos aback.

"I wanted to see you!" Iolaus yelled, the anguish in his voice proportional to his erstwhile friend's hostility. "I'm sorry if that takes time away from your busy schedule of ruling this city, but I wanted to see you -- to talk to you. To try to make amends."

"Little late for that, don't you think?"

Methos chose this moment to speak up. "There's something else."

"Who are you?" Hercules asked.

"My name is Antonius. Like Iolaus, I'm an Immortal -- as is your lord chamberlain."

Hercules sighed and got out of the bed. "If that's supposed to be some great revelation, I'm going to have to disappoint you. I know that Karl is--"

"--trying for your throne? He almost doesn't need it, since he's practically running your kingdom in any case."

This time, Hercules spoke, not with anger, but with an almost rueful and sad tone. "I know. I let this go too far as it is." The hostility came back. "But I'm dealing with it."

"You know about him?" Iolaus asked.

"Despite the fact that you managed to pull the wool over my eyes for decades, Iolaus, I'm not completely stupid. I let Karl do most of the managing of the kingdom for me -- before I knew it, he was doing everything, including trying for my throne by poisoning me."

Methos was surprised -- not so much that Karl was poisoning his employer, but that said employer was aware of it.

Hercules continued, "That's why I take those walks on Thursdays. There's a plant about half a day's walk from here. The leaf from it counteracts the poison. For now, Karl thinks he's winning. If I can hold out until Wilhelm's eighteenth birthday, everything should be fine. The guard is more loyal to Karl than me, but they're more loyal to Wilhelm than either of us."

"Wait a minute, you mean that boy that helps Karl out?" Methos asked.

Hercules nodded. "He's the rightful heir to the throne. I'm just serving as his regent. It was the last wish of his parents before they died when Wilhelm was an infant."

Suddenly things made more sense. From the beginning, Hercules deciding to become a monarch had seemed out of character to Methos, even an older Hercules. But one thing he would do, no matter what, is honor a deathbed promise.

"Now then, if you two are through, I'd like to get some sleep."

"You're not even going to give me a chance, are you?" Iolaus asked.

"Why should I?"

"I wasn't the one who walked away, Herc! I admit, I lied to you. I thought it was best. My teacher told me that I couldn't tell anyone that I was Immortal. At the time, I believed her. I know now that she was wrong, but it's too late to change that. But you were the one who broke up the partnership to go off on that quest, not me."

"Don't try to blame this on me, Iolaus," Hercules said, moving in close to Iolaus, looming over him -- the first gesture Methos had seen that looked like the demigod of old. "I trusted you with my life, with my sanity, with my honor -- with everything. And you--"

"And when did I ever let you down? Huh?" Iolaus interrupted. "Name one occasion when you couldn't depend on me. Yes, I didn't tell you that I'm Immortal -- and exactly what difference did it make? Was I ever not there for you? Did I ever betray that trust? Did I ever give you reason to think I was anything other than your best friend? Did I--"

Before the argument could continue, Methos -- and Iolaus, based on the way he cut off his own diatribe -- felt the presence of another Immortal.

In unison, Methos and Iolaus said, "Karl."

"He's here?" Hercules asked.

A voice came from the doorway: Karl, sword out. "Yes, I'm here. And I'm rather upset, 'your highness.' You see, my young charge here has been listening in, and he just told me what you told these two."

And now the other shoe drops, Methos thought. He expected Wilhelm to enter behind the Immortal, and he was not disappointed. After all, if Karl had any brains, he wouldn't have poisoned Hercules if he didn't already have Wilhelm taken care of one way or the other.

Neither Iolaus nor Hercules had considered this, apparently, since they both looked shocked at Wilhelm's entrance.

"Wilhelm?" Hercules asked. "How could you?"

"How could I?" Wilhelm asked. "You usurped a throne that is rightfully mine! And you continue to horde the apples!"

Methos blinked. He had forgotten all about the golden apples of immortality, even though they were, in essence, the real reason why they were here. He remembered when he first told Xena he was Immortal centuries earlier, and she thought that meant that Methos had eaten one of the apples. At the time, he had no idea what she was talking about. Later on, each had explained what the other truly meant.

"The throne is yours," Hercules said, "when you turn eighteen. That's the law. As for the apples--"

"You could've changed the law!" Wilhelm interrupted. "But you just wanted your palace and your women. Karl convinced me to take what was mine."

Hercules continued as if Wilhelm hadn't spoken. "As for the apples, they don't work."

Three voices chorused, "What!?"

The fourth, Karl's, said, "It doesn't matter! For years, I have ruled this city while you lazed about in this palace, only coming out for the occasional official function. It is far past time that the people knew the truth -- and the only way for that to happen, 'your highness,' is for you to die."

Iolaus turned to the youth. "You really think he'll let you rule, kid? If he doesn't want to play second fiddle to Herc, what makes you think he'll do it for you?"

Wilhelm refused to budge. "When Hercules is dead, the apples shall be mine -- then none can stop me!"

"The apples don't work!" Hercules shouted. "Don't you get it?"

"You're lying!" Wilhelm cried.

Hercules moved closer to the prince. "Wilhelm, I have never lied to you. When your parents were dying, I fed them both a piece of one of the apples. It didn't help -- they died anyhow. I don't know why, but they no longer grant immortality."

"Of course they don't," Iolaus said. The expression on his face was one of someone who just came to a realization. After a second, Methos came to one of his own, which he assumed matched Iolaus's.

"What do you mean?" Hercules asked.

"The reason we came here was because of Hades. He wanted me to come here and kill you, so the gods could take the apples back and use them to restore their former glory. He told us that the gods were only as strong as their worshippers -- that with the fall of Greece, the gods lost their power. That same power also gives the apples their properties -- and with the decline of the gods also comes the decline of the apples."

"Enough of this!" Karl cried, brandishing his sword. "Now, at long last, you die, Hercules."

"Better men than you have tried, Karl. Better women, too. And I'm still here."

And then Karl attacked.

Hercules had slowed down considerably, and had maybe three-quarters of the strength he had as a younger man. However, even those factors put him very far ahead of a normal person, as Karl soon learned.

At one point, Iolaus moved in to help, but Hercules cried, "No! He's mine!" Methos had expected that kind of idiotic gesture.

When Methos first encountered Hercules in Thessaly several lifetimes ago, he had taken on Methos and Kronos both, and wiped the floor with them. They avoided defeat only by retreating. Back then, Methos had observed Hercules's fighting style very carefully. Hercules always held back from using his full strength because he didn't want to cause permanent injury. At full strength, a blow from Hercules would kill a normal person.

But Karl was an Immortal -- fatal blows were not permanent. Unfortunately, Hercules did not take that into account. He still fought with his usual restraint. And Karl was armed.

Once, Hercules might not have had to fear naked steel. But once, the gods did not grow old and die.

Karl managed to duck under one of Hercules's swings and thrust his sword upward into the demigod's chest.

"No!" Iolaus cried.

Hercules looked stunned, and fell to the ground.

Karl lifted his sword to deliver a final blow.

It was parried by another sword.

"Are you challenging me, little man?" Karl asked.

"You're damn right."

Karl was good, Methos had to give him that. But Iolaus was a whirlwind. He had just seen his best friend cut down, and that added speed and strength and determination to someone who, even under normal circumstances, had those qualities in excess.

The duel lasted less than a minute.

As the Quickening rose from Karl's headless body to claim Iolaus, Methos went to Hercules's side. The wound was deep and wide and gushing blood -- Karl had twisted the sword before removing it, a trick Methos had pulled himself on many occasions. It made for a much bloodier wound that was harder to bandage.

"I-Iolaus?" Hercules croaked. Blood spurted from his mouth as he spoke.

"No, it's Antonius."

"Must -- talk--"

"Don't try to talk," Methos interrupted. "Iolaus will be along in a minute."

The background noise of the Quickening died down. Methos heard heavy breathing, then a cry of, "Herc!"

Within seconds, Iolaus knelt down on the other side of Hercules.

"Iolaus?"

"I'm here, Herc." Iolaus grasped Hercules's massive hand in his own.

Since first seeing the demigod, Methos had noticed how much older he looked, but only now did he really look old.

"Iolaus, I'm -- I'm sorry -- you were -- right, I -- I shouldn't have--"

"It doesn't matter."

"Yes -- it does. I -- should've -- taken you along -- on that quest." He laughed -- more of a bark, really -- and more blood spurted from his mouth. Methos wiped the blood away from his lips with his already-stained tunic. "Could've -- used your help."

Iolaus smiled. "You always did. Remember that time you got changed into a pig?"

Hercules laughed another bloody laugh. "No matter -- how hard I -- try to -- forget. Listen -- there are -- talismans -- on city walls -- keep out -- gods. Please -- take one of them -- down."

Methos frowned. He remembered small, ornate stones on the walls, but he had assumed them to be part of their decoration.

Iolaus looked at Methos. "Antonius, could you--?"

Understanding, Methos nodded.

* * *


Minutes later, one of the stones had been removed from the wall -- one in a part of the wall that faced an alley, since Methos didn't fancy having to explain to the guards why he was defacing their wall.

When he returned to the palace, he saw several elderly figures surrounding Hercules and Iolaus. He recognized one of them as Hades.

Then they disappeared in a flash of light.

Iolaus stood up, a look of unabashed, total sadness on his face. "He's gone."

"I'm sorry," Methos said. And he meant it.

He remembered Kronos's face as he sank into the tar pit, unwitting victim of Methos's trap. He remembered the first days of the Horsemen, when he thought that Kronos and Silas would be the greatest friends a human being could ever have. He remembered the realization that he despised himself and his friendships were shams.

Methos thought he knew death. He called himself "Death," once upon a time, thinking that he was the arbiter of life.

Until this day, he did not truly know grief. He had never seen this kind of sorrow up close before. The loss that Iolaus felt now was one that would never leave the Greek Immortal if he lived another two millennia.

Again, Methos felt the pangs of envy that he had articulated to Iolaus the previous night.

* * *


The rest of the night was difficult. Even guards as inept as the ones from this city had to notice what was happening sooner or later, and it would not do for them to find Methos and Iolaus standing over the dead bodies of the king and the lord chamberlain. Wilhelm had gone into a state of shock upon seeing the Quickening, which Methos had to hope he would eventually come out of, since he was the only person left who could rule the city -- but it also underlined the fact that the only witnesses to what happened who were coherent were the two outsiders who had been under guard only a few hours earlier.

The pair managed to escape with their horses, though it was a near thing -- Iolaus took a wound to his arm and Methos one to his leg, both of which healed in due course -- and they had to leave the pack horse behind.

Once they were far away from the city, Methos asked, "What happened while I was moving that stone?"

"Herc explained to me what those things were. Apparently Ares had created them -- Herc took charge of the things after Xena imprisoned him. If you put those stones in a circle, no god can penetrate it. The only one immune was Ares himself, and he isn't likely to try right now. Herc didn't want to be harassed by the gods anymore. But when he realized he was dying, he needed to see them. He explained about the apples, and made peace with them."

"We should all be so lucky."

Iolaus laughed a mirthless laugh. "Given the way we die, that isn't going to happen for any of us."

After a moment, Methos asked, "Did you make peace with him?"

Nodding, Iolaus said, "I finally did, yeah."

Another pause, then: "Did he really get transformed into a pig?"

* * *


By sunrise, they were well enough away from the city that they were willing to set up camp. Neither had truly slept, so they thought it would be best to catch a nap this morning.

As they did so, Methos asked, "So what will you do now?"

"Not sure," Iolaus said. "I was thinking of going east."

Methos, who had expected an answer like that and had spent most of the night of travel coming to a decision, said, "Think you'd mind some company?"

"You have a life in Rome, 'Antonius Sejanus.' Why would you want to give that up?"

"You also have a life in Rome, O trainer of Roman soldiers," Methos said with a small smile.

"Not anymore, I don't. I need something new. The first time I needed something new in my life was when I was a kid and had just finished at the Academy. I went east then, and I learned a lot. I think there's a good shot of history repeating itself."

"Maybe. But back then I'm sure you needed to be alone -- the young often do, to truly find themselves. I think now you'll find the journey more rewarding with a friend at your side."

Iolaus regarded the older Immortal for several minutes. "You sure about this? What about that batch of wine?"

Methos laughed. "The next city we come to, I'll send a messenger with instructions. The slaves can take care of it. And if they can't -- well, the world will go on without Antonius Sejanus's wine."

Iolaus continued to stare at Methos for several seconds. Methos waited patiently.

Finally, the Greek laughed and held out his hand. Methos smiled, and took it.

"Welcome aboard, partner."

END OF CHAPTER 6




THE END




Methos, Marcus Constantine, Caspian, Silas, Kronos, the Horsemen, Immortals, and anything else from Highlander: The Series are copyright © 1997, 1998 Davis/Panzer Productions. Iolaus, Xena, Gabrielle, Salmoneus, and these versions of Hercules, Hades, Persephone, Atalanta, Deinara, Ares, Jason & the Argonauts, the Amazons, and anything else from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and/or Xena: Warrior Princess are copyright © 1997, 1998 Renaissance Pictures, Inc. Julius Caesar, Octavian (later Augustus Caesar), and Marc Antony were real people and are copyright their own damn selves (though the portrayal of Octavian is based on Brian Blessed's interpretation of Augustus Caesar in I, Claudius, for what it's worth). This story and all orignal characters (Theophilus, M'buto, Cornelius, Karl, Wilhelm, Kristoff, the various innkeepers, slaves, and guards, etc.) are copyright © 1997, 1998 Keith R.A. DeCandido. Story title and chapter titles all derive from Jethro Tull songs, in case you were wondering.

This story takes place five years prior to the flashback in the Highlander episode "Pharaoh's Daughter" (which chronicled the tail end of Marcus Constantine's time serving in Egypt). Iolaus and Hercules's first encounter with the four Horsemen took place in "Protect and Survive"; Methos's encounter with Xena and Gabrielle, his forced disbanding of the Horsemen, and his departure for Alexandria, took place in "Red Right Hand" (his time in Alexandria will be chronicled in a future installment of "The Methos Chronicles"). Xena's sacrifice to imprison Ares is inferred from the Xena episode "The Xena Scrolls." Iolaus's trip to the underworld and reunion with his dead father (and Hades sending said father to the Elysian Fields) took place in the Hercules episode "Not Fade Away"; his being present for Gabrielle's death is chronicled in "Life and Death"; his trip to an alternate reality and meeting with a despotic Hercules occurred in the episode "Stranger in a Strange World"; and Hercules was transformed into a pig in "Porkules."

Other installments of "The Methos Chronicles":


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