The early afternoon sun oozed lazily through the open doorway, the molten flow holding glittering dust motes in heavenly stasis. Suddenly, the constellations erupted into whirlwind movement as the looming mass of a golden figure filled the doorway and paused--then moved inside, bringing a maelstrom of dusty turbulence in his wake.
As the sun flowed back to fill the emptied space, the man peered around with light-filled eyes until his sight darkened, and he could make out the rough shapes of crudely hewn oak tables and benches. They were all occupied by men busy doing nothing much, their tired gestures interrupted by slow sips of cheap watered wine or green beer. All except for one table.
In a dim corner, a lump of a man hunched over a wooden mug in solitary splendor. The newcomer gazed doubtfully at the grimy bundle of cracked, dirt-spotted gray leather and greasy brown hair, then, shrugging with decision, he wove his way through benches and bodies until he stood before the unprepossessing occupant of the corner table.
"You mind sharing your table?" the newcomer asked politely.
Bleary gray eyes, long ago diluted by cheap wine and cheaper beer squinted at piercing eyes of sky blue.
"Nah. Take a seat." The voice hardly slurred the words, though the speaker was clearly drunk.
"Thanks," the tall newcomer said with a faint smile, then sat straight on a battle-scarred stool, after sweeping off the crumbs.
The drunk went back to a morose study of his mug while his table companion caught the eye of a menial, who quickly served him with two jugs, one filled with wine and another with cool water from the well. While he poured himself a mug of water faintly flavored with a hint of wine, a wooden platter of cold roast kid and day old bread was also placed on the table. As he ate, the newcomer noticed his table companion darting thirsty eyes at his wine. Shaking his dark-blond head sadly, he lifted the jug suggestively, looking inquiringly at the other man.
"Wouldn't mind a drop." The drunk licked lips misshapen by large, crusty sores. He watched the wine filling his mug with shining, greedy eyes, then, muttering thanks, he drunk deep and wiped his mouth on a filthy, ragged sleeve.
"You're looking for her, ain't you?"
"Her?" The blue eyes sharpened, but the voice was politely indifferent.
"Yeah, her: the warrior princess." There was a wealth of pain and contempt in the rusty voice. Then, smirking at the other man he muttered, "Another fool who thinks he can make his name and fortune if he follows her."
"She has quite a reputation," the tall man observed ambiguously.
"Ha. You don't know the half of it. I could tell you things...." The drunk peered suggestively into his mug and the other man promptly refilled it. After another large mouthful, he suddenly said, "My name's Telegonus. Used to be a good warrior, a good soldier."
"Were you?" The disapproving blue eyes were faintly misted with soft pity.
"Yeah, I was. Until she got her claws into me. Blinded me with her body and her empty promises, then sucked me dry until there was nothing left. Kept me around for her amusement." He winked lewdly, "She has--interesting tastes."
"Has she?" the other man murmured quietly.
"Taught me a lot, she did." The filthy chuckle was strangled by a wrenching, liquid cough. The other man watched impassively as the hacking subsided, then poured some wine and water into Telegonus' mug, who observed disapprovingly the dilution of his drink but swigged it down, nonetheless.
"She's got a new toy now. A little blond who's going to get her the mighty Hercules," he mumbled morosely.
"Hercules?" The blue eyes gleamed with interest.
"Yeah. Seems this little guy's his friend." Telegonus drew closer to the other man, who stopped breathing as the fetid smell of rotting teeth and stale wine wafted into his face.
"She's coiling herself around him, turning him against Hercules. Plans to set them against each other, then kill the demigod while he's defending himself from his friend." He sat back and the other man drew a surreptitious breath. "Then, she'll kill the blondie--or maybe hand him over to the troops for some fun. She's got a quirky sense of humor," he commented with another wink.
"You make her sound like a monster," his table companion observed gently, but his voice had an edge to it.
"That's because she is; a vicious, treacherous, blood-thirsty monster." He leaned forward, stopping the other man's breath again. "Hates her own sex, you know. Loves to see her men rape the women, young and old, after battle. Promises that they'll be spared if a village surrenders, then, afterwards, tells them it's part of the price. Can't trust her word. But you'll find out yourself if you join her army. Another fool," he muttered slumping back.
"Is her camp far from here?" The tall man's face was curiously hard and expressionless, but his voice retained its patient politeness.
The human wreck gazed blearily at the handsome stranger and mumbled with cloudy concentration, "Haven't you heard what I've said? She's poison. Take it from me. She'll have you doing things you never thought or dreamt of doing, evil things. You'll lose your self-respect, your pride, your soul. And she'll laugh as she destroys you." Telegonus placed a lightly trembling paw on the powerful forearm of his table companion. " You're a clean-looking, fair kind of guy. Like I was before I met that evil witch. Well, take a good look, 'cos this is what you'll be when she's finished with you; that's if you're not dead."
"Thanks for your concern, but I can look after myself." His table companion gently disengaged his arm. "So, where is her camp?"
Telegonus wearily shook his head and sighed heavily before replying, "Don't say I didn't warn you. It's two leagues west of here, by the ruins of a stone bridge outside town." He gazed at the other man and added with drunken solemnity, "Good luck: because she'll love you. Goes for your type, she does." He frowned suddenly. "But she'll want to dress you differently. Likes her men in dark leather and studs." He looked disparagingly at the stranger's light tan suede shirt.
Suppressing a smile at the implied criticism of his clothing, the tall man stood up. "Thanks for your help--and your warnings. I'll keep them in mind when I meet her."
Telegonus waved a heavy arm, sending a flood of malodorous air towards the stranger, whose nose twitched in response. "I only wish you'd listen. You should go in the opposite direction and not look back. Mark my words, she'll change your life forever."
"We'll see," was the dry reply. Smiling faintly, the stranger moved swiftly through the torpid crowd, and fractured the peace of the sunlit doorway with his swift passage.
Telegonus watched him leave, then grabbed the platter and wolfed down the food left uneaten by the stranger. Ignoring the water, he wrapped grimy fingers round the wine jug and drunk thirstily, catching the last red drops of the upturned jug with a pale, furry tongue. Then he sat back, belching contentedly and rubbing absent-mindedly at a flea-bite.
More people wondered in, but there was nowhere to sit except at the corner table, and no one was keen to share with the unsavory, rank wretch squatting there. Finally, the Innkeeper nodded to a couple of toughs lounging by the kitchen entrance, and approached the table with its sole occupant. "What can I get you--sir?" he remarked derisively.
The dozing ex-warrior jerked awake and gazed owlishly at the men standing purposefully in front of him. "Wha...er nothing. 'M fine."
"If you're not having anything, you'll have to move. We need the table for paying customers." The Innkeeper had put up with the drunk because he was able to cadge drinks from some of the customers, but now he needed the space for those who could pay, unlike this wreck.
There was a short, noisy disagreement, a couple of overturned benches and the loss of two earthen jugs. Then, Telegonus found himself dumped out unceremoniously onto the dusty, wheel-rutted road. "And don't come back, we don't want your disorderly type of good-for-nothing in this establishment," was the parting comment from the irate inn-keeper.
Scraping himself off the bone-dry, rust colored dirt, Telegonus shook a trembling fist at the inn-keeper's dismissive back. Swearing like the soldier he had been, he lurched off into the nearby woods glowing greenly by the river; it was now no more than a trickle of murmuring water, for it was mid-summer and the rains had long since fallen and become clouds again.
He lumbered unsteadily into the thicker growth, but tripping on a bony tree-root, he rolled drunkenly down the slope leading to the stony river bed. Lying in a loose sprawl of arms and legs, he started laughing quietly at first, then louder and more joyfully as his chest begun to bulge and swell until the mottled skin split apart with a wet, tearing sound, high jets of blood spurting out of the ruptured heart that spilled out as the ribs parted company with the sternum. He looked liked an overripe pomegranate, shining seeds of liver, kidneys, and long ribbons of intestinal coils pushing out of the torso and slithering over the river smooth stones. Blood pooled, thick and dark, in the hollows between boulders and pebbles.
The laughter continued though the face was also splitting, bone splinters and teeth scattering like grass seeds, for another head and body was emerging from the dying chrysalis. This new-formed creature was a dark beauty, eyes black and shiny as polished jet, full, perfect mouth and pretty white teeth. Instead of wings, powerful, well muscled limbs and gold-velvet skin, now adorned with red streaks and globs of flesh, emerged from the shattered carapace. He stood tall and proud among the wreck of his former self, a magnificent creation, a god.
He looked down at a large pool of blood and hunkered down, waving a graceful hand over it. Images began to form, tinged red but clearly defined. He looked at the tall man he had talked to in his former incarnation. He was arguing with a dark, long-haired woman and a smaller blond man who suddenly lunged at the taller man, and they started to fight.
"That's it, go for him, Blondie." The dark god absent-mindedly licked a bloody finger, then frowned as the images were scattered by viscous drops of blood dribbling from his sodden locks onto the puddle. Instantly, he was clean and dressed in black leathers, a wicked sword jutting from a hip-belt over his left thigh.
The images solidified again as the surface of the pooling blood smoothed out. The dark haired woman looked on unmoving at the two fighting men. The taller one was obviously reluctant to hurt the smaller warrior, evading his lunges but not returning them. Finally, the fighting petered out and the small, blond man looked down then turned towards the woman.
"He's going to attack you now!" the dark god murmured into the woman's mind, and she came to life, her sword arm stretching forward, driving the blade into the blond man's stomach.
"Yeah, that's my savage little bitch!" the dark god crowed, gazing with unconcealed triumph as the tall man surged forward in blind fury, wrenching the woman's sword arm from the shoulder and flinging the torn limb away , hitting the soldiers that were also horrified spectators to the little play.
Sending waves of blind rage into the crazed man, the dark god watched as he tore the woman to pieces, throwing the bits about with wild disregard, and scattering the frightened spectators, who began to run away from the monstrously strong and obviously demented man who was reducing the dark woman to a pile of bloody trash.
"Thought you could betray me, didn't you, my treacherous bitch? Well, the man who you would have spread your legs for so eagerly just put a stop to you." Hot anger and pained contempt filled the beautiful face. "Tactless, and tacky, to betray me with my mongrel brother. You would have let him fuck you but spurned me, though I would have given you everything, my godhood even." He shook his head in furious disgust, both at her and himself. " I must have been crazy. Can't explain it otherwise. Well, I'm making damn sure it never happens. You'll never betray me now, you bitch."
He watched the tall man slowly calm down then turn and crouch by the body of the smaller man. Picking him up gently, he cradled the dying body in his arms, obviously weeping and shaking with sobs. After observing this for a short while, the dark god stood up. "Time for my entrance." He reduced to gray ash the remains of his fleshy disguise, and disappeared in a cool flash of blue light.
Tears trickled down Hercules' cheeks as he watched Iolaus gasp laboriously while his life slipped away, struggling to whisper with the last of his strength, "'M sorry, Herc." Blind eyes gazed up into his friend's face before he fainted away.
"Gods' teeth, what happened here?" Ares appeared suddenly at Hercules' side, looking grim and strangely concerned.
Hercules gazed into his dark brother's face with swimming eyes. "Iolaus, he's...she killed him," he forced out in a strangled voice.
"You mean Xena? Shit! I knew she'd go too far. She was out of control, the mad bitch." He looked at the dying man. "If I take Blondie to Asclepius now he can probably save him," he suggested guardedly. "No promises, mind."
Hercules' face lit up, wild hope burning in his eyes. "Would you? Can you, Ares? I would be...I can't tell you how grateful--"
"Yeah, yeah, save it for after, when and if he's healed. Here, give him to me." Taking the dying man from Hercules' grasp, Ares looked into the vulnerable blue eyes of his brother as he disappeared from his sight, reappearing before the surprised God of Medicine. "Can you heal this mortal?" he asked abruptly.
Asclepius waved a exploratory hand over the unconscious body. " Yes, but you must lend me some of your energy. It's a war wound, and your power has more effect on him than mine," the gentle god murmured as he directed Ares to lay the body on the milky -white marble slab of an altar table.
"Show me what to do," demanded the God of War impatiently.
"Place your hands over mine," Asclepius softly instructed the fiery god. Immediately, he felt hot, fierce energy pouring through his hands into the wound on the mortal's stomach. The flesh boiled and surged, slowly repairing itself, while the power of war destroyed the noxious fluids already seeping into the rest of the body.
The human gasped out once and then began to breathe more steadily, gradually regaining consciousness. He opened blurry eyes that sharpened with recognition as they focused on the frowning face of the God of War. "Ares?" Iolaus whispered hoarsely.
"Take it easy, Blondie. You got skewered by your warrior lover, but I got to you in time. Teach you to be more careful who you fuck around with," he commented sardonically.
"Is she...?" He tried to sit up. "Hercules! she'll kill him. I've got to--" An irresistible force gently pushed him back down. "Relax, Blondie, my mongr--er, my brother killed her after she attacked you. He's fine, just worried about you."
Iolaus relaxed visibly and looked wonderingly at the dark god. " Thanks, Ares. But I don't understand why you helped me--us."
Ares shrugged. "Felt responsible for the damage that bitch was causing. I trained her to be a warlord, but she got too full of herself and wanted to take over the world, to kill the gods, starting with Hercules, and then be worshipped herself. I was going to take care of her when you got into the act, and then my little brother took her out, so I felt I owed you."
"Oh," was all Iolaus could manage. The idea of Ares taking responsibility for his actions and trying to repair the damage was so novel that he found nothing to say, except, "Well, thanks for saving my life. I'm truly grateful."
Ares waved a dismissive hand. "Think nothing of it. Just rest here until Asclepius is ready to release you and I'll come and get you. Meanwhile, I'd better tell Hercules that you're fine. He's probably going nuts worrying about you." With that he disappeared in his customary flash, leaving a bemused and grateful Iolaus contemplating the vagaries of life in general, and the unpredictability of gods in particular.
Hercules was leaning wearily against one of the wooden posts framing the gate into the camp, carefully averting bleak, worried eyes from the carnage in the courtyard within the wooden palisade. He was alone, all the soldiers had quietly gathered their belongings and slipped out while the going was good, and the madman seemed calm and quiet. They weren't keen to endure the same fate that their former leader had recently suffered.
As Ares flashed into sight, Hercules straightened and approached his brother, face gray with anxiety. "Is he--?"
"He's fine. He'll be right as rain in a couple of days. How about you?" Ares asked with rough sympathy.
Hercules had brightened like the sky after a storm, but at Ares' question the light died in his eyes and he looked down at his blood encrusted hands. "I--I killed her. I was like a beast, Ares. I don't know what came over me. Gods!"
Ares came forward and enveloped his stricken brother in a rough embrace. Hercules stiffened momentarily then collapsed into the comfort of his brother's arms. "It's OK, little bro' . You saw your friend being killed and lost it. Perfectly natural. It's not as if she didn't deserve it, anyway." Ares crooned reassuringly, rubbing his cheek on the silky soft hair of the head resting on his shoulder.
"I never thought myself capable of such--savagery." Hercules sighed heavily and mumbled into the silky softness of his brother's neck, "I've always accused you of being bloodthirsty and brutal, but I've behaved worse than you today. I'm sorry Ares for judging you, when I'm no better--worse, if anything."
Ares smiled sardonically. Trust Hercules to go overboard and see himself as the great villain now. Well, it played right into his hands. "Hush now. One single atrocity doesn't turn you into a monster. Cool it Herc, you're just tired and not thinking straight." Ares looked around. "Let me tidy up here and we'll get a drink; you need to relax."
"Thanks, Ares. I wasn't looking forward to picking up all the--the pieces. And thanks for saving Iolaus. I'm truly grateful." Hercules closed his eyes, unconsciously melting against Ares, who half closed his eyes in sensual appreciation. His little brother had a great body, and felt surprisingly good in his arms. He was definitely going to get to know him better, have a closer relationship, very close.
As he gathered the scattered remains of his former warrior princess with a thought and disposed of them by feeding the bloody chunks to his pet kites, he smiled sweetly as he considered how fortunate he had been to come across the Cronos stone during a bored exploration of old relics. Amazing what he had learnt in his travels to the future. His baby brother had killed Zeus. Xena had killed the gods, and he had gone crazy, or had a brainstorm and given up his godhood for love. Crap. Well, none of that would be happening now; though the idea of Hercules killing Zeus had appealed. His little brother had great potential. Definitely worth cultivating as a friend and ally, instead of an enemy.
Traveling unquestionably broadened one's mind and provided one with a great education. He would have to take more little trips in the future and see how much more he could learn.
Yes, traveling was proving to be really educational.