Fortress Around Your Heart

"There have been rumors that the Horde might be coming back our way," Ephiny said, sipping on her wine. "One or two of our scouts have wandered along the far western borders, and theyíve seen them." She put the goblet down and massaged her left hand with her right one.

"Is that bothering you?" Gabrielle asked, gesturing to Ephinyís hand.

"No," the amazon queen replied, smiling. "It just gets numb once in a while, thatís all."

Gabrielle nodded. "So what are you going to do-- about the Horde?"

Ephiny shook her head. "I donít know. Every year it seems our tribe gets smaller. I sent a messenger to Tyldus, but heís so old now. I donít think the centaurs will come."

"If I may make a suggestion?" Gabrielle ventured.

"Please, do."

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I know itís been many years since I ruled the Amazons, but... youíre in Corinth, arenít you? Why not talk to Iphicles? Heíd be willing to help. Iím certain of that."

Ephiny brightened. "I will-- after the wedding."

"Mmm," Gabrielle agreed. "Good point. Heíll be busy beforehand anyway."

Lila strolled in, a long sack folded in two over her arm.

"Your turn!" she called out to her sister.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I think Xenaís doing this to me on purpose to get back at me for my wedding."

Ephiny laughed, and Lila smiled. "Itís not like you wouldnít deserve it," Ephiny chimed in. "You were a monster the whole week beforehand."

Gabrielle put on a lofty air. "I have no idea what you mean."

The women all burst into laughter.

Gabrielle sighed. "Yeah, I was pretty bad. But Xena-- well you saw her. You know."

Ephiny nodded. "I was certainly surprised to see how... enthusiastic... Xena is about this."

"Sheís not that bad," Lila said. "I think heís even more excited, myself."

Gabrielle smiled. "The guys usually are. We do the work; they do the pacing back and forth." More laughter erupted.

"I know," Ephiny said. "It was the same at Tassandraís wedding. I thought Autolycus would wear out the floor!"

Gabrielle turned to her sister and gestured to the sack. "So, howís it look?"

Lila managed a grin. "Itís really pretty. Youíll love yours-- Iím sure of it."

"Iíd better go," Gabrielle said. "Vidalis will have a fit if Iím too late."

Lila turned to Ephiny as her sister scampered out the door. "So, when is your fitting?"

Ephiny gave her a wicked smile. "Amazon Queens wear Amazon dresses to weddings. The privileges of rank."

Lila set the dress down and sat on the couch across from Ephiny. "Lucky."

Ephiny leaned forward conspiratorially. "Lila," she asked, her voice low.


"Tassandra told me that Autolycus told her that he heard that Hercules might not be coming. Could that be true?"

Lila shook her head no. "I havenít seen Hercules since Gabrielleís wedding, but I canít believe heíd miss this. He and Xena always seemed so close. And you know he and-- well, he didnít exactly introduce the two of them, you know, but..." Lila shrugged. "I donít think he has any issues with Xenaís choice in men."

Ephiny sat back, resting her chin on her good hand. "I wonder about that," she said, her eyes staring off out the window.

He placed another stone along the low wall, setting it down, and quickly dabbed some mortar along the crack, fixing the rock in place. He had been working on the extension to the stone wall since that morning, and as he stopped now for a second, he realized that he had added almost fifty feet to the length of this section-- usually at least two daysí work, and maybe three. Must have really had my mind elsewhere, he thought, wiping off the trowel and standing up. "That should be enough for today," he said to no one but himself, and he put the trowel down next to the container of mortar. There was no need to clean up; no one would disturb his tools. No one ever came after dark.

As he turned to make his way back toward the house, there was a flash of light and a whoosh of air behind him. Hercules paused for a second, and then he said over his shoulder, "Forget it, Aphrodite. Iím not going."

"Thatís funny," a basso voice answered him. "Neither am I."

"Ares," Hercules said, turning. "I thought I told you never to set foot on this farm again."

Ares crossed his arms. "You did. But I have a good reason for being here."

Hercules peered at him in the fading light. "Iím sure you think you do."

Ares held up a hand. "Much as it pains me to say this, brother, Iím not here for me. Iím here for you."

Hercules laughed, but the sound was bitter. "When have you ever done anything for me? Ever? Even once, in your entire miserable life?"

Ares spread his hands. "Never. And I would remember if I had. But thereís a first time for everything."

"Not for this, there isnít," Hercules said as he turned away from his brother.

Ares appeared in front of him. "This time, brother, I need you to listen to me."

"Iíve had enough of your lies, Ares. I donít want to hear anything you have to say."

"I know you donít," he said, smiling. "And I know thatís going to make what I have to tell you sound even more absurd."

Hercules and Ares stood face to face, glaring at one another. "Well?" Hercules asked at last.

Ares stroked his beard. "You have to go to Xenaís wedding."

Hercules scowled. "Not you too," he muttered. "Did Aphrodite put you up to this?"

Ares raised an eyebrow. "Like she could ever convince me to do anything."

Hercules shrugged. Okay, it was a stupid question.

"But it is her fault, in a way," Ares said, and he began to pace in a circle around Hercules. "Aphrodite, for some reason I canít begin to fathom, wants to make sure this wedding goes smoothly. So all of the gods made a pact that none of us would interfere with the wedding. To appease her." Ares stopped. "I agreed-- why not? Itís a good laugh."

The dark god continued, "Only trouble is, she got Zeus to listen to her. So now I really canít go to the wedding. Even though I want to. So you have to go for me. For us."

Hercules shook his head. "What are you talking about?" he asked his brother.

Ares considered him for a moment in the encroaching dusk. "You really donít get it, do you? Should I draw you a picture?"

"Ares..." Hercules growled.

"Okay, okay." Ares raised an eyebrow. He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again, shaking his head. "You have to go, Hercules. This will kill you if you donít." Ares resumed his pacing. "Normally Iíd say that was a good thing. Iíve been trying to do that for years. But this is not how you should end up-- a bitter old man, alone on his farm."

Hercules laughed. "Since when do you care about my well-being?"

Ares chuckled himself. "I donít, really. But seeing the son of Zeus sitting on his farm sulking like a child is pathetic."

Hercules raised a hand. "Iíve heard enough. Leave. I donít want to be part of any of your sick little games." He started to walk back toward the house.

"Dammit!" Ares bellowed, vanishing and reappearing directly in front of his brother. "This isnít about you. It isnít even about me."

Ares stepped forward and grabbed Hercules by the shirt. "Do you know how much it will hurt Xena if you donít show up?" He exhaled, and released his brother. "I donít give a damn about how you feel. But I care about Xena. I care how she feels."

Hercules laughed aloud. "No you donít. Youíve spent the last fifteen years trying to kill her after she left your service. Time after time you went after her, and--"

"No," Ares said, his voice strangely calm. "I never went after her and I never tried to kill her. Sure, I tried to make life hard on her. But all those years all I wanted from her was the one thing she wouldnít give me-- her heart." He looked down at the ground. "And now sheís never going to give that to me."

He looked up at his brother. "Youíre the only one in this life who feels pain? Youíre the only one who regrets what he didnít do?" Ares threw his hands wide. "Youíve got the whole rest of eternity to find another woman. But this is it for Xena. Sheís not like us. Sheís mortal. Sheíll die soon-- twenty, thirty years maybe. A long time to her, but the blink of an eye to us. Sheíll be gone before you know it."

"Sheís already gone," Hercules said quietly.

"Donít be stupid," Ares hissed. "Donít make her hate you. Donít cause her pain. Go."

Hercules frowned at his older brother, sifting through his words. "I donít know what bothers me more," Hercules said after a space. "That you make sense, or that you might actually care about someone other than yourself."

"Donít try to figure it all out now. Youíll miss the wedding." Ares gestured. "Go. Run. While you still have a chance to make it. It is tomorrow, after all. And Corinth isnít that close."

"If this turns out to be some kind of trick..." Hercules warned.

Ares raised an eyebrow. "Spare me the threats. Just go. Worry about me some other time."

Hercules nodded, his face still shadowed by doubt. He started to reach out toward Ares, his huge hand about to clasp his brother on the shoulder; but he stopped, and merely nodded, and took off like the wind, long legs carrying him over the grass faster than any horse ever could.

"Donít forget to tell her who sent you," Ares murmured as he watched his brother disappear into the night.

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