Disclaimer: The characters belong to MCA/Universal and were used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended and no money was made.
Background: This story takes place some months after the incidents recounted in the episode "The King of Thieves" and a few weeks after those in the writer's own story The Lure.
Iolaus was sitting in a tavern enjoying a quiet drink. He was dreamily contemplating the particularly attractive serving wench. Reality intervened when a hand clasped his shoulder and a voice hissed urgently, "I've been here with you all evening."
The hunter started at the touch and came abruptly out of his reverie to find Autolycus seated at his table. "Hell, I'd hoped I'd seen the last of you after Athens," he complained.
"And I'm happy to see you too, Iolaus," replied the self-styled King of Thieves.
"If I'm providing an alibi, I want to know what you've done," Iolaus said.
"I haven't done anything."
"Yeah, people are always obliged to establish alibis for themselves when they're living a law-abiding existence," Iolaus observed, sarcastically.
"Well, I haven't done anything yet, but I might need to and since you're here you can help."
"Thanks, but I think I'll just sit this one out."
"Hercules will help me. Is he around?"
"No, he's not. Just as well too as he doesn't seem to recognize that you're trouble."
"I never thought you'd be one to hold a grudge."
"I'm not holding *a* grudge, I'm holding two of them: one for all the trouble you got me into at King Menelaeus' court and one for Athens."
"Hercules wouldn't approve. He's always ready to forgive and forget."
"Maybe he is, but there's such a thing as being too nice. I came near to being killed on both occasions because of you."
"But you weren't! Where's your sense of adventure?"
"I started to lose it when that guillotine began to fall and I lost it completely when faced with Mandrocles."
"Aw, c'mon, Iolaus! Sure he bashed you around a bit, but you've had worse."
'No, I haven't,' Iolaus thought but, of course, Autolycus didn't know that Mandrocles had raped, as well as tortured, him. Only Hercules knew *that* and no-one else was *ever* going to know. Iolaus still had nightmares about the mass murderer. He decided to get away from that dangerous topic and so, against his better judgement, he said, "You still haven't told me what's going on."
"There are four men in town that I've had some contact with in the past and they're bad news."
"You should get on well with them then."
"Shut up and listen!"
"You really know how to win support, don't you?"
"I hope so. They're involved in some kind of ruse and I want to find out what it is."
"Why? Wouldn't it be a better idea to keep out of their way?"
"Yes but, if they're up to their usual tricks, it won't be something I can condone."
"What? Morality! From you!" the hunter exclaimed, incredulously. "No wonder you and Herc get on so well."
"That really got to you, didn't it?" the thief retorted. "You're jealous of anyone monopolizing your man."
Iolaus blushed hotly. He didn't know what to say. His sexual relationship with Hercules had not started until they had left Athens and then *very* discreetly. He had no idea how Autolycus knew of it.
The thief continued, "No need to look so surprised. I'm not stupid you know." He had seen Hercules' face when they had found Mandrocles beating the hunter. With a single punch, he had ensured no one else would ever fall victim to the mass murderer. For Hercules to kill was unusual enough, but he had then, uncharacteristically, shown absolutely no interest in any of the surviving victims, except for Iolaus. Not that Autolycus had objected to having to deal with the grateful women, but he could hardly credit the expression of possessive love on the demigod's face as he carefully gathered the hunter into his arms. The fact that the pair then had, or had since commenced, a sexual relationship was pure speculation on the thief's part. True or not, he knew he could use the suggestion to stir Iolaus and, from the latter's flustered expression, he'd obviously hit the nail on the head. However, he said none of this. 'Let him worry about what I know and how I know,' he thought. 'It'll serve him right for what he's said to me.'
"You're getting off the topic," Iolaus stammered, unable to bring himself to make a lying denial of his relationship with Hercules and desperate to change the subject. "Why don't you approve of these men?"
"They're kidnappers and slavers. They specialize in snatching children. If the parents can pay they get them back, otherwise the children are disposed of at a slave market. I think they are waiting for a ransom at the moment. I reckon they've got a child concealed in the bush outside town, but I can't find out where. I've heard you've got a *few* skills in tracking. Perhaps you could find out where." That 'few' was Autolycus all over. He could never resist needling Iolaus even when he wanted his help.
However, in this case, Iolaus was prepared to overlook the slight. Having been mistreated as a child, by his father, he could never abide cruelty to children. "Are you certain they're not just planning a kidnapping?"
"Yes, I've been watching them. They haven't been following anyone or asking questions as they would if they were planning a snatch. They seem to be just waiting for someone, probably the person bringing the ransom. Their only real activity is in the early evening. Two of them head off into the bush for about an hour. I suspect they're checking on their victim. I've tried to follow them, but I've lost them in the dark."
"But couldn't you just follow their tracks the next day?" asked the perplexed hunter. It seemed the logical thing to do. He always found it difficult to believe that the signs that were so clear to him were often invisible to others.
"No!" The tone was rather petulant. "And I don't suppose you can either."
"I imagine I can. Tomorrow morning you take me to where you lost them." He paused and then asked, "Why did you need me to provide an alibi tonight?"
"Oh, I had a third go at trying to follow them tonight, but I stepped on a blasted twig and they heard me and came after me. I ran and I don't think they'd have been close enough to have identified me, but they might have seen me duck in here, so I thought I'd better have an alibi just in case. As it turns out, they can't have seen me."
"Hopefully not. Where are you staying? I'll come and collect you tomorrow."
"Here, at the tavern. What about you?"
"Oh, I'm sleeping out. I prefer it. Anyway, I can't afford to both eat and sleep at inns. Usually I only stay in one if Herc's with me and he decides he wants some luxuries *and* comes up with the dinars."
"Why not sleep on the floor of my room tonight?" The thief still wondered if the men had seen him and figured that the blond would be some protection in the case of hostile visitors.
Iolaus realized that it was this, rather than any desire for his company, that had prompted the suggestion, but agreed.
In the event, they passed a peaceful night. At least, Iolaus slept like a baby on the hard floor, while the thief lay in the soft bed, unable to sleep as he wondered apprehensively whether there would be vicious, nocturnal visitors. At one stage, he looked down at the hunter, illuminated by moonlight. It was hard to think of the incredibly moralistic demigod taking up with a male but, looking at the golden hunter, he could imagine how he had been tempted. Even he, devoted womanizer that he was, could feel a slight stirring in his loins as he looked at the tousled curls framing the beautiful face. 'It's lucky I'm *not* that way inclined,' he thought. 'Trying to steal a demigod's lover is probably not a healthy pursuit even for the King of Thieves.' He recalled the kiss he'd given Iolaus when in Athens and smiled as he recalled Iolaus' outraged reaction when the thief had finally released him and allowed him to come up for air. He'd enjoyed that even if the hunter had not but, he assured himself, tormenting Iolaus had been the pleasurable part of it not, of course, the kiss itself.
Iolaus woke at the crack of dawn. Autolycus was sound asleep, having finally dozed off a couple of hours earlier. The hunter shook him gently. Autolycus opened blurry eyes and muttered, "What the hell do you want? It's the middle of the bloody night. It's still pitch black outside."
"Rubbish! It's the best part of the day. It'll be light soon. I thought it would be best if we got away from the inn while it's still dark."
"Well you're wrong. It's too bloody early. I'm going back to sleep." He rolled over and turned his back to Iolaus.
"You can't stay in bed. It will be too uncomfortable now the bed's all wet," said Iolaus, smiling as he upended the nearby water pitcher over the thief.
"You bastard!" Autolycus shouted.
That elicited a shout of "Shut up in there!" from a man in the neighboring room.
Autolycus would normally have yelled right back, but he realized this was hardly the quiet, unobtrusive departure the pair should be making. "You'll be sorry for that later," he hissed at the hunter, who didn't have the grace to look even mildly apprehensive at the threat.
So a reluctant and very wet Autolycus dragged himself out of bed and dressed slowly. "What's for breakfast?"
"Nothing! The kitchen-staff won't be up yet. C'mon, hurry up."
"I must be stupid! I don't know how I could possibly have imagined you'd be useful. This isn't helping me at all! Up in the middle of the night, all wet and no damn food." He continued to grumble all the way to the woods.
He then watched in amazement as Iolaus set off following what were, in the thief's opinion, non-existent tracks. He expressed this opinion more than once and, when Iolaus tried to point out the signs he could see, chose to make negative remarks like "An animal probably crushed that grass" and "Wind will have snapped that twig".
About an hour later, Iolaus pointed to an old forester's shack. "That's it! That's where they've been visiting."
The two approached the building warily. The windows were boarded up and the door was secured from the outside. Iolaus lifted the wooden bar and cautiously pulled open the door.
The inside was dark and, for a moment, he couldn't see a thing. Gradually his eyes adjusted and he saw a boy of about six years lying beneath a large pile of animal skins. The child stared fearfully at him and tried to burrow further under.
Iolaus walked slowly towards him. "It's okay, boy, we're here to help you," he said, trying to reassure the frightened child. He reached out a gentle hand to the boy and the next moment was flat on his back as the child kicked out in panic. Flinging aside the remaining skins, the boy scrambled to his feet, revealing the reason for his kicking prowess. He was a young centaur and, as such, would have fetched his kidnappers a huge sum at any slave market.
Autolycus, who had followed the hunter from what he had hoped was a safe distance, entered the shack just in time to see Iolaus flung backwards. He stared at the scene wondering what to do next. The child was obviously terrified, but ready to try to defend himself against possible attackers, while Iolaus was writhing on the floor.
The kick had caught the hunter fair on the right kneecap. He didn't think it was broken, but hell it hurt. His eyes were watering and he felt sick and dizzy from the pain. It was already swelling and stiffening. Soon he wouldn't be able to bend it.
Through a mist of pain, he heard Autolycus speaking quietly to the boy, explaining that they had come to help him. Fortunately, the thief could be very persuasive when he chose and soon the boy was telling him his name was Issus and was stammering an apology to Iolaus.
He gritted his teeth and managed to reply, "Th-That's okay. I know it w-was an accident."
Autolycus knelt down beside the hunter. "What are we going to do now?" he asked. Autolycus had never had anything to do with centaurs, but he knew the boy was going to be a real problem. If he had been a human child, they could have taken him to the village and sought assistance there. He had no doubt that the villagers would have united in opposition to the kidnappers if they had tried to seize him again, but it was different with a centaur child. Many humans feared centaurs and Issus would not be welcomed and might well meet with hostility.
"W-We'll have t-to try to take him back to his family," the hunter said. Iolaus recognized the problem as clearly as Autolycus did, in fact more clearly as he had had dealings with centaurs and was aware that the mistrust, or perhaps more accurately hostility, went both ways. "C-Can you help me up, please?"
"You'd better let me have a look at your leg first."
"No! It's already s-swelling badly. If I lower my trousers, I'll never g-get them back over the knee. There's nothing you can do for it anyway. J-Just help me up." The thief dragged him to his feet, aware that he was wincing with pain. "Where does your family live, Issus?" Iolaus asked.
"In a camp near Velistinon."
That was going to be a problem in itself. It was more than fifteen miles from their present location. Normally that would have presented no difficulty and he would have covered it easily in five hours, but the present circumstances were not normal. 'How the hell can I get that far?' Iolaus wondered. However, all he said was "We'd better get going then." He turned to Autolycus and asked, "C-Could you cut me a staff please?"
That done, they set off. Issus was in high spirits and kept running ahead and then circling back. When he was out of earshot, Iolaus took the opportunity to speak to Autolycus. "If the bandits come after us, you must take the boy and run. Don't wait for me. I'll try to delay them. Also if my leg gives out, you'll need to go on without me. When you find the centaurs, you'll need to be very careful. Centaurs don't like or trust humans for good reasons. Be prepared for a hostile reaction. If necessary just leave the boy with them and run. If they catch you, tell them you're a friend of Hercules. It may help as he's got some friends among the centaurs."
The hunter was torn between urging the two to leave him and go on faster and his concern about Autolycus' ability to get the boy back to his parents. He had already seen evidence of the thief's tracking abilities, or lack thereof, and he wondered if Autolycus would be able to find his way across country to the centaurs' home. Having the boy with him meant he would have to avoid roads and villages where he could ask directions. Further, he was worried as to whether the thief could protect the boy in the event of trouble or would emerge safely from any encounter with the centaurs themselves. He didn't really like or trust the thief, but felt he should try to help him on this occasion since his motives were good and as he knew Hercules liked Autolycus and would expect Iolaus to look after him.
They walked for two hours or, more precisely Autolycus walked, Issus gamboled and Iolaus hobbled. The hunter's knee was giving him hell. Autolycus kept glancing surreptitiously at him wondering how long he could keep going and what on earth he should do when Iolaus could go no further.
They stopped by a small stream and Autolycus refilled their water-bottles. Iolaus remained standing, leaning against a tree for support, as he feared he wouldn't be able to get up again if he sat down. "When we g-get near a village," he gasped, "you'd better go in and buy some food for Issus." He thrust a few dinars at the thief. "It's all I've got," he apologized. "I usually hunt for food."
The thief took it, feeling somewhat guilty as the amount was small change compared to what he usually had and spent freely.
They carried on. After another couple of hours, Autolycus noticed that the hunter had started to glance around more frequently. "What is it?"
"I think someone's watching us."
"Where? I can't see anyone."
"I can't either, but I can feel their eyes on us."
"You must be imagining things," said Autolycus, dismissively.
Soon after that they came to quite a wide area of grassland. The grass was thigh-high and Iolaus was making very heavy going of it as his both his injured leg and his staff kept catching. Finally, he stumbled and fell awkwardly, crying out in pain. "We'd better stop and let you rest that leg," Autolycus said.
"N-No! We've got to cover as much ground as we can before the kidnappers discover the boy's gone. If they get horses, they'll be up with us in no time. There's a village a couple of miles on and I can rest while you go in and get some food." As he spoke, he struggled trying to get up. His face was bone-white and sweat was streaming down his body. He looked, and was, absolutely exhausted.
Autolycus decided it was time he did something before the hunter drove himself into the dirt. He moved in quickly and snatched the branch Iolaus had been using as a crutch. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" the hunter protested.
"Iolaus, you have to rest and you're going to do so. You'll collapse completely if you don't take a break."
"Damn you, Autolycus, haven't you listened to anything I've said?"
"Yes, but you can't go on like this. Look, I'll go on to the village and get some food and some medicine to help with that inflammation and then come back for you. I can be there and back by the time you make it to the village."
"Yeah, but I'd still have that ground to cover. If you want to go ahead, do so, but let me continue at my own pace."
"Iolaus, you're still going to have to rest at some point, so it might as well be here. And it will be! No more arguments!"
"Hell, you're starting to sound like Herc again. Why does everyone try to boss me around?"
"Because you're too stubborn to know what's good for you," the thief retorted. He turned to Issus, who had been listening, wide-eyed, to the exchange. "Issus, I'm relying on you to keep an eye on Iolaus. He has to rest. Don't let him talk you into getting him anything he can use as a crutch. Just ignore him if he asks. It's for his own good. Okay?"
Iolaus tried again. "Autolycus, you can't leave us *here*. There's no real cover. We're too exposed."
"It's a perfect place. You're too far from any trees to get yourself a replacement staff, so you'll have to stay put."
"What if I promise not to follow you?"
"No, I don't trust you."
"You're a fine one to talk about trust! What's a thief's word worth?" asked Iolaus, angrily. "I always keep mine."
Stung, Autolycus retorted, "Well, on this occasion you'll have to anyway." Hell, Iolaus was annoying. Couldn't the blond see he was just trying to act in his interests? With that, the thief stalked off.
More by luck than anything else, he successfully located the village. He purchased food and then asked directions to the local healer. He acquired a herbal concoction from him that smelled nauseating, but which the man claimed was very efficacious in reducing inflammation. That done, he retraced his steps, feeling satisfied that he'd made the right decisions for them all.
This comfortable feeling of complacency was soon to vanish. He had been fairly certain that he knew where he had left the pair, but as he approached there was no sign of the boy. He didn't expect to see the hunter lying in the grass until he was much closer, but Issus should have been visible. Perhaps he was lying down as well. Worried, he quickened his pace.
It was soon clear, even to Autolycus that there had been a number of horses there trampling the grass. 'The bandits must have caught them,' he thought, 'but why would they take Iolaus?' He reluctantly peered around, expecting to see a body, while mentally kicking himself for ignoring Iolaus' comments about lack of cover. He still felt leaving the hunter had been the only option, but to abandon him out in the open had been a dreadful mistake. What was more, he *had* known it wasn't a great idea at the time and part of the reason for his decision had been simply to annoy the hunter in revenge for his comments.
As Autolycus had surmised, the bandits had not been close enough to either identify him or to see him enter the tavern. However, they had been alerted to the fact that someone had seen them and that that person was obviously spying on them or he would not have run. They assumed the spy had probably been sent by the centaurs to try to snatch the boy back and thus avoid the steep ransom and the likely possibility that the child would not be returned after the payment had been made. Accordingly, they decided to check on the boy in the morning, instead of waiting for the evening, and to post a guard upon him just in case, although they assumed their enemy hadn't found him yet.
Their leader, Halmus, and Orasus arrived at the shack to find the boy gone. They had not anticipated their opponents' early morning start and Iolaus' tracking skills. Both were furious. They looked around and located the three sets of tracks. Normally, Iolaus would have made some effort to cover these but, under the circumstances, he hadn't been able to do so. "We're not going to let that prize slip away from us," Halmus declared, "and I want to teach the bastards that have taken him a permanent lesson. We'd better head back and get the others and some horses. We'll soon overtake them."
In the event, things went more slowly than they'd anticipated. Since it was a small village, few people had horses and those they had were not up to much. They could only get two elderly nags and so were forced to ride double.
They finally spotted Issus not long after the thief had parted from the pair. "There's the brat!" Praesos exclaimed, pointing.
Iolaus saw them at the same time. He ordered Issus to run towards the village, but the boy replied, "I told Autolycus I'd look after you."
"You can't! Just go! Try to find Autolycus."
But the boy hesitated and then it was too late. The men were off the horses and had them surrounded. Orasus held his sword to the child's throat. Halmus had drawn his sword, as he alighted, ready to dispatch Iolaus. He raised it and then stopped at the sight of his intended victim. A face of incredible beauty was looking boldly up at him. Blond curls shone in the sunlight and brilliant blue eyes flashed defiance. Iolaus might be on the ground, but he had drawn his own sword and was waiting calmly for Halmus' attack. A skilled bushman, Halmus had recognized that one of the men they were following had an injured leg and was using a staff. Obviously his leg had given out and the other had either abandoned him or, more likely since the boy was still here, had gone in search of a horse for him.
He smiled as he looked at the blond. The day was turning out well after all. "Well, two prizes! Our investment's grown."
Misunderstanding, Praesos asked, "Shall I kill him?"
"Certainly not! A pretty, little thing like that will bring us a good return at the slave market. There are always wealthy, old men looking for such as he." He turned back to the blond. "Okay, pretty boy, put the sword down. We don't want to hurt you."
Iolaus ignored him and kept his guard up. However, they moved in from all sides and it was only a short time before a blow knocked his sword from his grasp. "Get him up!"
Azonax and Praesos each grabbed an arm and dragged the struggling hunter to his feet, holding him upright. Halmus ran his hand down Iolaus chest and stomach to his trousers. "Yes, *very* nice. I just hope I can resist the urge to have you myself. A tasty piece like you almost tempts me to forgo the profit I can make on you." He grinned lasciviously and squeezed the hunter's crotch, while the other men sniggered.
"Why don't we have a bit of fun with him?" Orasus suggested. "He'd still fetch the same price."
"True, but we might become too attached to our little playmate and not want to part with him." Halmus laughed heartily at his own joke. It was the last time he ever did that. The laugh ended in a strange gurgle as a thrown knife took him through the throat. The others turned in shock to see a group of six centaurs bearing down upon them. Iolaus had been correct in his feeling that they were under observation. A scouting centaur had spotted Autolycus and him with the boy and had hastened to summon some others.
The other three bandits broke and ran. Iolaus, deprived of his support, slumped back to the ground.
Four of the centaurs took off in pursuit of the bandits, while the other two galloped up to Issus. "Come on, Issus," one said, "I'll take you home. Your mother's been so worried."
"But what about Iolaus?" The boy gestured towards him.
"Don't worry about him. I'll *look after* him," the other said. The boy took the words at their face value, but the hunter did not. He shivered at the look of hatred in the centaur's eyes. However, Issus galloped happily homeward certain that his friend would now be cared for.
Soon after that, the other four centaurs returned. Two had hooves covered with blood and the other two had bloody swords, reflecting the methods by which they had disposed of the bandits. They milled around the fallen hunter. "Right you little bastard, it's your turn. You're going to regret the day you decided to take one of our children."
"I didn't! I was trying to help him!" Iolaus protested.
"Shut up! We're not interested in your lies." The centaur reached down and grasped Iolaus by the vest, lifting him with one hand. He held him suspended and backhanded him across the face with his free hand. Blood began to trickle from the hunter's nose.
Another blow split his lip and jolted his head back. "Not another word from you. You'll wish you'd never seen a centaur by the time we kill you."
"What are you going to do, Calerus?" another asked.
"Well, it occurs to me that we probably killed those others rather too quickly. They should have had harder deaths for what they did. Also, Issus' father would probably appreciate the chance to punish one of his son's kidnappers himself. So I reckon we should take this one back to the camp with us." As he spoke, he suddenly released his hold on the hunter. Iolaus fell heavily, jarring his knee was and unable to choke back a cry of pain.
"I-I can't. My leg's injured. Issus kicked ... " He bit back the words, but it was too late.
"The boy tried to fight you off, did he?"
"No! It was an accident!"
"Oh, yeah, I can imagine. Get up!"
"I can't! Couldn't you see those men were holding me? I was trying to help the boy."
"I didn't see a thing."
" Wait a moment, Calerus," another said, "there might be something in what he says because when I spotted them earlier ... " He had intended to say only Iolaus and one other man had been with the boy, but Calerus interrupted.
"Shut up, Macritus, you should know better than to listen to a human."
"But ... "
"I said shut up." He turned to Iolaus. "Get up or I'll trample you."
It was no idle threat. Iolaus rolled onto his front and managed get his good knee beneath him, but couldn't get up. He expected to feel hooves crashing down upon him at any moment. Finally, he turned awkwardly and said, "I can't do it, so do what you want. You're determined to kill me even though you know I'm innocent."
"Innocent, be damned," Calerus snarled, as he moved forward.
"No!" The scout intervened. "It's not your right! Save him for Issus' father to deal with."
A couple of the others spoke up in his support, so the decision was made. They tied Iolaus head down, over one of the bandits' horses. "You'd better blindfold him," one said. "You know we don't want anyone learning the location of the camp."
"Okay, but it doesn't really matter since he'll not be leaving it again," Calerus said.
The blindfold upset the hunter more than anything. He hated not being able to see. It made him feel so helpless, so vulnerable.
They moved off at speed. The head down position combined with the jolting motion soon had the hunter feeling nauseous. 'There's a lot to be said for not eating breakfast,' he reflected wryly. 'I'd have lost it by now.'
Unaware of all this, Autolycus continued with his search of the area. First, he came across the bandit who'd been knifed in the throat and then the two bandits who had been dispatched by swords. 'How the hell did Iolaus manage all this?' he wondered. Soon after that he found the one who'd been trampled and the dinar dropped. The centaurs had been there.
He continued to search, but could find no sign of Iolaus. He was sure the blond would have waited for him or, at least, left a message for him had he been free to do so. Then he spotted Iolaus' sword. He correctly surmised that the centaurs had taken the hunter with them and he feared it was not to help him with his injury.
He had to decide what to do next. 'If I had any sense, I'd get the hell out of here,' the thief thought. 'Iolaus is a warrior. He can sort out his own problems.'
His normally conveniently quiescent conscience spoke up for once and took issue with his well-developed sense of self-preservation. 'Iolaus would never abandon you, even though you haven't exactly treated him well in the past.'
'True, but what can I do against centaurs?' he asked.
'More than Iolaus can at present with that leg injury,' said his conscience sternly. 'Anyway, who will help him if you don't?'
'Hercules might turn up. He's part god. He probably knows when Iolaus needs help.'
'Speaking of Hercules,' his conscience observed, 'what would he expect you to do?'
Hercules! There was the rub. For some reason, he valued the demigod's opinion of him. He was so used to people mistrusting his motives and, he had to admit, such suspicion was usually fully justified, that the demigod's open, trusting, friendliness had taken him completely by surprise. He'd tried to tell himself that this was a measure of the demigod's gullibility, but he found himself treasuring Hercules' good opinion of him and not wanting to undermine it.
No, he couldn't abandon the little blond, not when the latter meant so much to the demigod and, in truth, for the hunter's own sake as well.
His decision made, he set off in pursuit of the centaurs.
When the centaurs reached the camp, Iolaus was untied from the horse and dropped to the ground. He raised his bound hands to try to push the blindfold up, but his captors were not having that. One of them grasped his wrists and yanked him to his feet, holding his arms above his head. These were then secured to a rope dangling from a branch, so he was at full stretch and could barely touch the ground. He tried to argue with them, but no one would listen. All he got was a cuff across his already bruised face and an order to be quiet. He heard them moving away.
He didn't know how long he'd been hanging there when they finally returned. Being blindfolded panicked him somewhat and upset his sense of time. His wrists and shoulders were aching fiercely as he tried to keep the weight off his injured leg. He heard a voice say, "There you are, Quintius, I told you we'd kept one of the bastards for you."
"Thank you. I'd have preferred to get my hands on all of them. This one will just have to take the others' punishment for them." As he spoke, he reached for the hunter's sword belt.
Feeling the hands, Iolaus tried to twist away. "No! Where's Issus? Ask him about ..."
"Shut up! The boy's with his mother. You won't see him again. Calerus, hold him still, will you?"
Arms wrapped around Iolaus' chest and stomach immobilizing him. Quintius unbuckled the belt. "Pull that vest up his back." The arms released him and dragged the vest up around his neck. Quintius put the belt around the hunter's neck to hold the vest there.
Quintius then took a whip and began to beat him. Iolaus had suspected what was about to happen when the vest was raised but, because of the blindfold, could see no movement and couldn't anticipate the first blow. It forced a short cry of pain from his lips. After that he managed to endure quietly for some time. However, soon his back was criss-crossed with bloody stripes and weals and he could no longer bite back his cries. The beating only ceased when the hunter finally fainted.
Night had fallen by the time the hunter roused. His wrists and shoulders were aching fiercely and his back was trying to emulate them. His injured knee wasn't as bad as it had been since it not been taking any weight. He tried to take some of the strain on his good leg but, since he could barely touch the ground with the toe of his boot, this proved impossible.
Just when he'd began to feel things couldn't get much worse, a voice spoke. "Remember me?" He recognized it as Calerus. Then a hand touched his cheek and moved down his body to tweak at a nipple. Another hand began to fumble with his belt. "I thought I might as well take the opportunity to have a little fun," Calerus continued.
Iolaus was terrified. He knew he was unlikely to survive the unspeakable thing that was about to happen and didn't know that he would want to do so given the nature of the injuries he would suffer. "No!" he whispered, his voice failing him. He felt light-headed and for once prayed for unconsciousness.
He tried to kick out at his assailant, but couldn't manage it. Calerus moved around behind him and slid the trousers off his hips.
At that moment, Quintius called, "Calerus, where are you? I need to see you. It's important."
"Damn! I'll have to go and see what he wants, but don't worry, I'll be back."
Iolaus could feel his heart pounding rapidly. His head was spinning and he was near to fainting. He had never felt such mind-numbing fear. Then, without warning, a hand clamped over his mouth. He experienced a moment of absolute panic. He tried desperately to pull away. A voice whispered urgently, "Keep still, Iolaus. It's me."
He could feel the thief sawing at the rope attached to the branch. It parted and Iolaus crumpled. Autolycus clutched Iolaus hurriedly against him to stop the fall. He then braced himself and swept Iolaus into his arms. He carried him as quickly as he could out of the camp.
Autolycus was full of apprehension. Normally, he was a master at cat-footing his way in and out of buildings and villages, but Iolaus was heavier than he'd anticipated. Worse, he was aware that the hunter was half-naked, his trousers around his knees. Centaurs had a reputation for being highly sexed. The jokes about this were legion and he feared the worst. When he'd observed the camp from a nearby hill, late that afternoon, he'd seen the hunter being beaten, but that was all.
Breathing heavily, he finally decided he had got far enough away from the camp to take a break. He gently lowered Iolaus to the ground. The blond immediately reached up and dragged the blindfold down, breathing a sigh of relief as he did so. The moon didn't afford much light, but at least he could now see something.
"Give me your wrists," the thief said in an undertone. He carefully cut them free. Iolaus awkwardly pulled at his trousers, but his wrists were aching as circulation returned and he sucked in his breath at the pain. "Here, let me," Autolycus said. He got Iolaus' trousers on him and then unbuckled the sword-belt from around his neck to free his vest. "Sorry, Iolaus," he said, "but we'll have to keep moving. Do you think you can walk at all?"
The thief put an arm around him to support him and they staggered off, skirting the hill that Autolycus had earlier used as a vantage point. Progress was slow, too slow. "Autolycus, have you ... have you got any idea where we're g-going?" Iolaus gasped, after a few minutes.
"No, I just thought we should try to put as much distance between us and them as we can."
"That's not ... not going to work. I-I'm too s-slow." His voice was pain-lanced.
"We've got no other choice."
"Yes, we have. We need to find s-somewhere to go to ground."
"Centaurs don't ?don't climb as well as humans. We sh-should go uphill."
"Iolaus, you're having enough trouble on the flat."
"Also," the hunter continued, as if the thief hadn't spoken, "we sh-should stay near their village."
"Did they hit you over the head as well?" Autolycus remarked, somewhat sarcastically and then felt guilty for making the comment.
"No, b-but they won't expect us to be so close."
Autolycus found himself saying, "I think I'd better sneak back and try to get that horse I saw in the camp." 'What the hell did I say that for?' he wondered. 'I don't want to go back.'
"Th-That's a thought, but you'd better not. You might get caught."
"What me? The King of Thieves? I'll have you know I can go any where I please and never get caught." His chosen persona made such posturing second nature, even when commonsense dictated otherwise.
"Oh, yeah, what about that incident with King Menelaus' soldiers?"
"Have you *still* not realized there was no need for you to get involved then. I was quite capable of eluding them. Anyway, wait here. I'll be back soon." As he spoke, he lowered Iolaus to the ground.
When he reached the village, he saw a bit of a stir seemed to be going on around what he had observed to be Quintius' tent. Several centaurs were clustered around it. This gave the thief the perfect opportunity to accomplish his task unseen. He was relieved to find the animal to be still saddled and bridled.
Thus, a few minutes later, he led the horse back to Iolaus. "Wonders will never cease. I never th-thought you'd do it," the blond said.
"There was *never* any doubt. Come on." He reached down and grasped the Hunter's arm to pull him upright. He heard a stifled gasp of pain. "Sorry, Iolaus, it's going to be a bit awkward getting you onto the horse." In the end, he had to lift the hunter into his arms and push him across the horse's back. He then swung on behind him and managed, with considerable difficulty, to manoeuvre Iolaus into an upright position. The blond sagged back against him.
Unbeknownst to Iolaus and Autolycus, Macritus, the scout was responsible for the meeting in Quintius' tent. He had not been happy with what had gone on earlier, but had been too afraid of Calerus to intervene when Quintius was beating Iolaus. However, his conscience had been troubling him. He knew that there had been some kind of altercation going on between the bandits and Iolaus when they had found them. That could, of course, have just been a case of 'thieves' falling out, but he also knew that when he had first seen Iolaus and the boy there had been a different man with them. Further, the boy looked as if he was chatting freely with them. He certainly didn't seem at all intimidated. He had discussed this with Anartes, the centaur who had escorted the boy home. Anartes had told him that, as they had departed, the boy had asked "But what about Iolaus?" in a voice that suggested concern. He hadn't said anything else and had put all his energy into running home as fast as he could. As a result, he'd arrived exhausted and his mother had immediately put him to bed.
He was still not sure of anything but, when he had observed Calerus sneaking towards Iolaus and knowing Calerus' propensities, he had decided he *had* to take action just in case.
He had burst into Quintius' home and insisted urgently that Quintius should summon Calerus and awaken Issus. Quintius had hesitated over disturbing his son but, seeing Anartes' agitation, had shouted for Calerus. Autolycus had slipped into the camp and taken Iolaus as the centaur reluctantly went to respond to the summons.
Calerus had arrived at Quintius' home full of belligerence and had attempted to ridicule the scout and to argue him down. Other centaurs had heard the raised voices and had gathered to see what the commotion was. Those who'd been in the party that had found Issus all got involved in the dispute. Finally, Issus had been summoned and had told them Iolaus had been helping him. Calerus had argued that the hunter must have conned the boy and that he was probably trying to do the other bandits out of their share of the ransom. Therefore, Quintius had insisted that Issus tell the whole story of what had happened to him in detail so they could judge the likelihood of Calerus' theory. This had taken some time and had allowed Autolycus to steal the horse without difficulty.
Finally, almost all but Calerus were convinced that a dreadful mistake had been made. Led by Quintius they hastened to where they had left Iolaus, but he had vanished.
This had temporarily relieved Calerus as, if the man was gone, he could hardly say anything about what Calerus had intended to do to him. He knew the other centaurs would strongly disapprove of it if they knew. However, to his annoyance, Quintius said, "We must try to find him in the morning. I must try to right the wrong I've done him."
"Why bother? He's only a human. He wouldn't do the same for you," Calerus said.
"Yes, he would!" a shrill, young voice intervened.
"From what you've told us, I think you're right, my son," Quintius observed and the majority seemed to feel the same way.
Calerus and a couple of his hot-headed friends felt differently. Of course, Calerus' friends did not know what he had been going to do to Iolaus. All they knew was that their very dominant friend thought the boy had been fooled and so they should take action to punish and then kill the human. The three resolved to start their personal search at first light.
Meanwhile Iolaus and Autolycus rode on. The hunter's injuries were taking their toll and he was drifting in and out of consciousness. The thief was having some difficulty at times preventing him from falling. Further, Autolycus had only a very hazy idea of where he was going and he could only hope that he was still heading away from the camp.
After a couple of hours, he decided they'd have to stop, if only for a few minutes. Iolaus had sagged to the right and the thief wasn't sure how much longer his right arm could hold the weight against it. He pulled the horse to a halt and managed to push the hunter so he was flopped against its neck. He then swung down and eased the blond to the ground. Iolaus roused and muttered, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. We're just taking a break. Go back to sleep."
He tethered the horse and lay down beside Iolaus. 'I'll just have a short rest,' he thought and immediately fell sound asleep.
Sometime later, he awoke and sat up suddenly when Iolaus cried out. For a moment, he was completely disorientated, but then remembered where he was. Since they had stopped, the moon had come out from behind a cloud bank and he could see Iolaus clearly. The blond was tossing restlessly and talking in his sleep. "No! Don't touch me!"
Autolycus remembered he'd still not found out why the hunter had been half-naked when he'd rescued him. An icy hand clutched his heart. Surely a centaur hadn't assaulted him. He ought to check the blond's injuries, but how could he deal with *that*?
He reluctantly began to undo the hunter's belt and codpiece. Iolaus reacted violently to his touch. He screamed, "No, Mandrocles, don't! Not again!" and frantically tried to push the thief away.
Autolycus grabbed his flailing wrists. "It's okay, Iolaus, you're safe. He's dead."
Iolaus continued to struggle momentarily as the words penetrated. Then he sank back, tears rolling down his face, his breathing ragged. "I-I'm sorry, I had ... had the nightmare again, Herc," he whispered. "I didn't mean to wake you." He hugged his arms across himself to try to stop his trembling.
Autolycus was horrified. At last, he realized what had happened to the blond, in Athens, when his plot to catch the murderer had gone awry. No wonder, Iolaus hadn't been pleased to see him again.
"Please, Herc, c-could you hold me?" Iolaus asked. There was a catch in his voice.
Autolycus gently pulled him into his arms and held him against his chest, stroking his hair. His heart contracted as he felt Iolaus shaking in reaction to the nightmare. He whispered words of reassurance to the hunter, while inwardly cursing himself. Gradually Iolaus relaxed against him. The thief leaned forward and buried his face in the soft mop of hair. "I'm sorry, Iolaus," he whispered, although he doubted that the blond could hear him.
He wondered how long he'd been asleep. He knew he would have to rouse Iolaus soon and get him back on the horse. He still didn't know exactly what had been done to Iolaus by the centaurs and he certainly wasn't going to try to examine him again. However, he suddenly remembered he had the anti-inflammatory medicine for Iolaus' leg. He decided he'd better wake him and give him that and then try to get him on the horse again.
He shook Iolaus' shoulder gently. "Iolaus, it's time to wake up."
"What is it, Herc?"
The thief decided it was probably best to continue to pretend to be the demigod. "Iolaus, I want you to do something for me."
"Now? I'm too tired, Herc."
Autolycus smiled as he realized what the blond meant. "Not that, I've got some medicine for you."
"Aw, Herc, you know I hate taking medicine," the hunter protested.
"Yes, but this tastes fine."
"I don't believe you. I want to go back to sleep."
"Later. Just take this for me now."
"All right." He lay back and opened his mouth obediently. Autolycus poured about a quarter of the phial in. The hunter began to gasp and splutter. "That's horrible stuff," he complained. His eyes opened wider. "Autolycus?" he questioned.
"I thought ... I thought ..."
"I'm going to get you to Hercules as soon as I can."
"Where ... Where are we?"
"I'm not sure, but we've got away from the centaurs and that's the main thing."
"Yes, don't you remember?"
The blond stared blankly at him for a moment. Then a look of fear flashed across his face. "One of them tried ... He was going to ... going to ... "
Autolycus pulled Iolaus back into his arms and held him tightly. "Don't think about it, Iolaus. He won't find us again."
Iolaus buried his face against the thief's chest and the latter could feel the dampness of tears that the hunter was trying hard to hide.
Autolycus was taken by surprise by a rush of unusual emotions that threatened to engulf him. He normally lived a very self-centered existence, in which how others felt was merely a factor in how easy it would be to fool or defraud them. Now he felt a strange protective tenderness towards the blond. He'd felt glimmerings of this in the past when involved with certain women, but nothing like this and, certainly, never directed at a male. 'It's only because he's little and he's hurt,' he assured himself. The satin skin and the soft mop of curls that he could feel against him had *nothing* whatever to do with it.
He was reluctant to relinquish his hold on the blond, but time was wasting. "Sorry, Iolaus, we've got to try to get you back on that horse."
This proved even more difficult than before and Autolycus was panting with the effort by the time he had the hunter in place.
The moon had retreated behind clouds again and the thick canopy of trees effectively blocked any light coming from the few stars that penetrated the cloud layer. Thus, the horse could only move at a snail's pace. Unfortunately, that failed to save it from putting a foot into a rabbit's burrow. It screamed and lunged forward. Iolaus was pitched onto its neck. Autolycus grabbed his vest, but couldn't hold him and both slid to the ground. Iolaus cried out as his sore leg was sandwiched between Autolycus and the ground.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I always shout out in joy when overweight thieves land on my leg," Iolaus gritted sarcastically.
"If you'd held onto the horse this wouldn't have happened," Autolycus retorted. He checked the horse's leg. Its injury wasn't serious enough to put it down, but it wouldn't be carrying them further. He unsaddled it and let it go.
Then he pulled Iolaus' right arm across his shoulders and hauled him to his feet. They hobbled on. It was hopeless. The thief couldn't see where they were going and Iolaus seemed to be virtually out on his feet and moving on will-power alone. "I don't even know what direction this is," Autolycus complained to himself.
"North," the hunter muttered unexpectedly.
"How can you tell?"
But there was no reply. The blond wasn't really with it. The thief found himself virtually carrying Iolaus on his hip and he was too heavy to do that for long. "And you had the hide to call me overweight! I'll have to suggest to Hercules that he cuts your rations. You're too damn heavy," the thief observed. The complete lack of response indicated just how far gone the blond was.
"Ókay, Iolaus, this is as far as we're going tonight," Autolycus said, lowering him to the ground. 'I'm not cut out for this heroic rescue business,' he thought.
He lay down beside the blond. The ground was rock hard. He didn't anticipate getting any real sleep. 'What the hell, one of us might as well be comfortable,' he thought and he pulled the hunter into his arms and settled the curly head on his shoulder. Hopefully, the blond might feel more secure, as well as more comfortable, and get some much needed rest. 'I'm really only doing this for practical reasons,' he assured himself. 'He's exhausted and needs to be rested if we're going to get anywhere tomorrow.' In spite of his expectations to the contrary, he immediately fell soundly asleep as well.
When he awoke the morning was well advanced. The first thing he saw was Iolaus' anxious face. "Are you okay?" The thief couldn't believe it. After all he'd been through, the little blond was still worrying about others.
Autolycus stretched painfully. His muscles felt like they had been tied in knots. "What time is it?"
"About ten, I'd say."
"That late? Why didn't you wake me?"
"You needed the rest."
Autolycus forced himself up. "I'd better cut you a staff."
That done, they moved off.
Iolaus was used to sleeping on the ground and so had not fared as badly as the thief, who opted for soft, feather mattresses whenever possible, but his knee was now so swollen it would not bend at all so progress was slow.
They finally emerged from the bush into an area of open grassland. Iolaus looked at it dubiously. Long grass would be hellish with his leg as it was and the lack of cover was a major worry, but Autolycus urged him on.
They had not gone far when they heard a shout of triumph. They turned to see Calerus and two other centaurs rapidly bearing down upon them.
The three wheeled around the pair, who stood back to back waiting for the attack. Autolycus clutched Iolaus' sword, while the latter had to rely on his staff.
One centaur swung his sword at Autolycus. He blocked the slashing stroke, the force of the blow jarring his arm. He successfully parried the next two strokes as well. He heard a sound behind him that could only be a sword hitting against the hunter's staff. 'I just hope he can stay on his feet,' he thought.
He jumped as a commanding voice shouted, "What's going on here?" He glanced in the direction of the voice and saw another centaur and a tall man racing towards them.
Calerus also looked. "Deric! What do you want?"
The older centaur ignored the question. "I asked what you were doing."
"You probably haven't heard, but a boy was kidnapped from our camp. He's safe now, but we're about to punish the bastards responsible."
"I heard about Issus. That still doesn't explain what you're trying to do to Iolaus."
"Iolaus? You know this human?"
"Yes and I know there's no way he'd hurt a child."
"It *was* him."
"You're sure about that are you? That's not what the message I had from Quintius when he asked me to help locate Iolaus."
"Quintius and the others have been fooled into believing it wasn't him, but it was."
The tall man stepped forward. "Why are you lying, Calerus? What's your real reason for wanting to kill him?" he asked.
"Who are you to dare to question me?"
"Yes. I have friends among the centaurs who will vouch for me."
"Maybe, but not for him!" As he spoke, he spun around and slashed his sword down at the blond. Autolycus saw the move coming. He threw Iolaus to the ground and flung himself across him. The stroke passed harmlessly above them. Thwarted, Calerus reared up intending to smash his hooves down upon them.
His two friends had been listening apprehensively to the exchange between him and Deric. They had belatedly realized that all was not necessarily as Calerus had portrayed it. Seeing Calerus' intention, one of them flung himself against him. The blow caught Calerus completely unawares. He was knocked sideways and almost fell.
When he recovered himself, he found Hercules standing protectively in front of the humans and Deric at his side. "You're all wrong!" he cried. He turned abruptly and galloped off.
Hercules bent over and grabbed Autolycus by the jerkin, lifting him to his feet. He was about to do the same to Iolaus when he observed the blond's pallor and facial bruising. "Iolaus, you're hurt!"
"Good guess, Herc," the hunter managed, trying to summon a grin.
"We'd better take him to my home," Deric said. He turned to the two young centaurs. "Go and tell Quintius we've found them and we'll be at my place," he ordered.
The demigod knelt down beside his friend. "Where are you hurt?" he asked, his voice showing his concern.
"You'd be better to ask where I'm not," Iolaus said but, seeing Hercules worried look, continued, "Just my leg really. It had a bit of a bump and my knee's swollen up." He winced as Hercules' put an arm around him to help him into a seated position. "My back's kind of sore too," he admitted. Hercules' gently raised Iolaus' vest and grimaced and closed his eyes when he saw the state it was in. Any injury to the blond always hurt him more than any wound to himself. It tore his heart to see the hunter in pain.
He scooped Iolaus into his arms. Iolaus opened his mouth to object, but realized it would be useless and so he snuggled in to his friend's chest instead. The demigod leant forward and dropped a light kiss into the tangled curls. Autolycus couldn't believe the sharp pang of jealousy he felt when he saw this. He heard Deric give a merry laugh, "You'll be happy now you've got your troublesome charge back, Hercules," he observed. Obviously the centaur was au fait with the relationship between the two.
The journey to Deric's home took about an hour. Autolycus would have offered to help carry Iolaus, but was deterred from making the suggestion by the look on the demigod's face. He had the same possessive expression he had worn in Athens. Nobody else was going to touch *his* hunter.
As they walked, the demigod explained to Autolycus that he'd called in to visit Deric, on his way to join Iolaus, and he'd ended up staying the night. That morning, he'd been about to leave when a messenger arrived from Quintius seeking Deric's help to locate "a small blond man, with a mop of golden curls". Alarm bells immediately went off in Hercules' head. He knew it would be Iolaus before his name was mentioned. He commented, "It's a source of never ending amazement to me what trouble Iolaus can get into if left alone for a single minute"
The hunter roused enough to mumble, "Aw, Herc, that's not true."
Hercules and Deric dissolved in fits of disbelieving laughter. "You're right, Iolaus, half a minute would be more accurate," the demigod gasped between chuckles. He leant forward and captured the blond's mouth in a gentle kiss to silence any further protest.
Four days had passed. Iolaus was still confined to bed, with his leg elevated, and had been forbidden to get up without permission. Hercules had forced him to swallow the rest of the medicine Autolycus had purchased and had managed to buy an even worse tasting brew to replace it. The hunter was *not* impressed, by these evidences of the demigod's care and concern and was full of complaints, which all ignored.
During the time, Quintius and Issus had visited so that the former could tender his apologies. He quizzed Autolycus re Calerus and, hearing what had happened, vowed to punish him if he should ever return to the village.
Autolycus was astounded to find his attraction to Iolaus growing with each passing day. This definitely did not fit with his own image of himself as a ladies' man and, he feared, might put him in some danger from the demigod. So he decided that it was more than time for him to take his leave. He went into Iolaus' room, sat down on the bed, and announced he'd come to say farewell.
"You can't go yet," the hunter protested. "If you go there'll be one less person to distract Herc and he'll be in here bossing me about more than ever."
"Sorry, Iolaus, I think it's time I went."
"Okay, if you think so. Thank you for looking after me. I don't think I'd be here for Herc to push around if it wasn't for you." He flashed one of his blinding smiles, as the thought hit him, and added, "See it's your fault so you really should stay and help me out."
The thief refused to be drawn and asked, "Iolaus, do you remember much about the time after we left the centaurs' camp?"
"Do you also remember something I did to you in Athens that you didn't like?"
"Well, I'm sorry but, since I'm leaving, I'm going to do it again." With that he leaned forward and captured the blond's lips. Iolaus' eyes were wide when the thief released him. "At least I meant it this time," Autolycus said quietly.
The blond looked stunned. He spoke hesitatingly, "When I asked you to cuddle me I thought ... I thought you were Hercules."
"I know you did." He smiled wryly at his own folly and commented, "It's funny, you know. Here I am wanting you and yet when I had you helpless in my arms with your trousers already down, all I did was help you to dress."
"Autolycus, if it helps, I'd like you to know that although I didn't think much of you in the past, I now know I was wrong."
"No, Iolaus, I think you had a very good grasp of my character. I'm afraid if you didn't have that exceptionally muscular friend, you'd need to be very wary of me."
Iolaus reached out and pulled the thief into a brief embrace and kissed him gently on the lips. "Don't worry," he whispered, "I'm not gullible enough to trust you as much as he does." His sweet smile removed any sting from the words.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything?" a voice commented, as the demigod in question entered the room.
"Autolycus is leaving us," Iolaus replied.
"So soon? I'd hoped you'd have been able to travel with us when we leave. It would have given me someone sensible to talk to for a change," Hercules said, enjoying Iolaus' look of outrage.
"Sorry, no, I've got places to go." As he spoke, he got up and moved towards the door. The demigod followed him. As they headed across the living room towards the front door, they heard a cheeky voice yell, "I still don't like moustaches!" As the speaker intended, the reference was not lost on either listener.
Once outside, Autolycus turned to the demigod and said, "I'd like to stay, Hercules, but there might be ... complications."
"Autolycus, I'm not blind. I know what you're feeling. He's easy to love. The gods know how besotted I am with him. You know, beside disposing of Mandrocles, this was the good thing to come out of Athens. I'll always associate you with our happiness."
"I don't think I'll ever adjust to your ability to look for the positive side in everything and everyone," the thief smiled, offering his hand.
As he walked off he smiled even more broadly as he heard the demigod shouting to Iolaus, as he entered the house, "Did I tell you I've decided to grow a moustache?"
E-mail the author c/o Nephele at [email protected]
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