A sequel to the series consisting of The Lure, The Centaurs and A Thief's Confession
DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to MCA/Universal and were used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended and no money was made.
It was a fine, warm autumn day, but Iolaus didn't appreciate it. All he was aware of was a dull ache of emptiness. There was no savour in life without the demigod beside him. He was so used to having that beloved presence alongside him that it was as if part of himself was missing. He was plodding aimlessly and unhappily along the isolated road with no destination in mind.
Iolaus had announced that he was going hunting as an excuse for leaving Autolycus. He knew that the suggestion was plausible and would not appeal to the city-loving thief, who would therefore not wish to join him. It was not that he had fallen out with Autolycus, but it was because he feared his presence was burdensome. He was aware that, in his depressed state, he hardly scintillating company. He also felt that, knowing that the thief was in love with him, it was unfair to inflict his longing for the demigod upon the latter. Finally, he was very conscious of the fact that Autolycus was paying their way. When he had rushed blindly out into the night, after his altercation with Hercules, he had abandoned what few items he possessed: his sword, knife, blanket and fishing-gear. He had no money with which to purchase food and no inclination to hunt for any.
In some respects, he had been reluctant to part from the thief. The latter had shown an honorable, caring and considerate side that Iolaus would never have imagined he possessed had it not been for the incident with the centaurs. Further, in the absence of Hercules, his presence did provide a certain degree of emotional comfort, although the thief had been scrupulous in his determination not to touch the hunter after the episode in Lord Thanatus' cell.
However, he had made the break and now he was alone. Of course he was perfectly capable of surviving by himself, but he'd always preferred company, specifically that of the demigod. He saw his loneliness as a sign of weakness. 'I shouldn't be so dependent on him,' he thought. 'I managed okay during that year I spent in the East. Sure I was a *bit* lonely, but I survived okay. I suppose that was because I was too busy learning new things to mope.' Unfortunately, that immediately brought to mind that exhilarating session in Hercules' barn when he had demonstrated these new fighting techniques to great effect by managing to throw the disbelieving demigod.
Indeed, just about everything the hunter thought of doing recalled his lover to mind and made him feel more depressed than ever. 'Damn! I *can't* go on like this. There must be something new I can do that Herc and I have never been involved in, but what?' he wondered miserably.
At that moment, he heard raised voices and the sound of a fight. He hurried on and rounded the next bend to find a man being set-upon by half a dozen bandits. Without hesitation, Iolaus rushed to his assistance.
The men were so intent upon their task that they didn't notice the hunter's approach. He launched himself onto the back of the nearest bandit and crashed his fists down onto the beefy neck. The man fell as if pole-axed.
Iolaus went down with him, but bounced lightly up as soon as his feet touched the ground, lashing out at the startled man alongside and catching him in the midriff. The man gagged and doubled over and Iolaus followed up with a blow to the chin.
By now the other four had realized they were under attack. One threw his arms around the blond in a crushing bear-hug, lifting him off the ground. Iolaus used him as a support to enable him to kick out with both legs, catching another of the bandits in the face and breaking his nose.
Surprised, the man holding him relaxed his grip slightly and received a sharp elbow jolt to the stomach. He gasped and allowed the blond to slip earthwards. Iolaus stomped his boot-heel down hard on the man's right instep. The man cried out in pain and lost his grip on Iolaus. The hunter gave a swinging heave, flinging his arms out sideways and thrusting his attacker's hands aside. He then whirled and gave the man an uppercut. The bandit was out for the count.
"Ow!" the hunter complained, shaking his skinned knuckles and then sucking at them, while glancing around to take stock of the situation.
Meanwhile, the bandits' victim had recovered himself and had been putting up a good show against the two remaining bandits, but at that moment he was knocked down again. "Damn," the blond muttered, still sucking his hand, as he closed on the two who were clearly about to put the boot in to their victim.
One of the men glimpsed him out of the corner of his eye and realized their danger. "Let's get out of here!" he yelled and both took to their heels, followed by two of the others. The remaining two bandits were still unconscious.
The hunter offered the man a hand to rise. The man accepted the assistance, thanking him, but continued to hold Iolaus' hand once upright. He stared at the blond, "Don't I know you?"
"My name's Iolaus."
"I was right!" The man's handsome face split into a broad grin. "I'm Accius. Remember me? When we were teenagers, I was in that group with you and Hercules doing military training."
The hunter smiled. He remembered all right. He'd had a tough time as most of the youths had not only been older than him, but also considerably larger and apt to bully. They'd soon learnt the error of their ways though as Iolaus was a formidable fighter, even at fifteen, and could always count on the demigod for assistance if too greatly outnumbered. Accius had been one of the few who had treated the blond well from the beginning. "It's good to see you again. What are you doing in these parts?"
"My youngest sister has just got married and I've been home for the wedding, but I'm heading back to Athens now."
"What are you working at these days?"
"I've come up in the world. I'm a professional charioteer now. I'm in Lord Juventas' stables."
"Wow, that's great!" Iolaus enthused. "I'll bet that's fun. I always wanted to try chariot-racing."
"Well, why don't you?"
""I remember you were an exceptionally skilled horseman, Iolaus. Why not try the chariots? It's a great sport, good money and lots of perks." He smiled and winked. "The ladies love charioteers."
"It would be different driving a team though. I've only driven the odd two-horse wagon. Do you think I'd be able to handle a chariot?"
"Easily! Look, you're small and so relatively light weight. That's an advantage. You've also got the muscle needed to control the team. You should be ideal for the sport."
"Could I really try it?"
"Yeah, sure. You come home to Athens with me. I'll arrange it. If you're any good, Lord Juventas is always looking for good drivers. I'm sure he'd take you on."
Athens held mixed memories for Iolaus. Whenever he heard the name Mandrocles' face appeared before him, sending a shudder of fear and revulsion through him, but he *was* dead. It had also been the place where he and Hercules had discovered their mutual love. That was dead too. However,chariot-racing *had* always appealed and, at least, the prospect gave him a sense of purpose.
"Thank you, I'd like to go with you."
The journey took about four days and was uneventful. Accius asked after the demigod and Iolaus merely said that they had parted company. He didn't go into details and tried to imply the split had been amicable, but Accius sensed the undercurrent of upset and was tactful enough to change the subject.
When they were nearing the city, Iolaus said, "Accius, could you please not tell anyone about my association with Hercules. I'd like people to see me as me, not just as a friend of his."
Accius noted the word 'a', which suggested just one of many. Some serious rift had obviously occurred in what, he would have sworn, was an unbreakable friendship. Why it was even said that Hercules had crossed into Hades' realm to insist that his beloved friend be restored to life. Accius privately considered this to be a mere story, but felt it was a true indication of the strength of that friendship.
He considered it to be unfortunate for the pair if the friendship had ended, but knew it was his good fortune in that the blond was now looking for something new. He suspected Iolaus had the potential to be both a great driver and, with his golden beauty, an excellent crowd-puller as well. He could foresee rich rewards for himself from Juventas if all worked out as he hoped.
Accius took him straight to Juventas' stables and introduced him to Leucones, the man in charge. "This is Iolaus, an old friend of mine. He's never driven a chariot, but he's an excellent horseman and I thought he might prove a useful addition to our team."
The big man looked down at the blood. "A bit small to hold a team I'd have thought," he opined dismissively.
"I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't know he was capable of it."
"All right, give him a go. You'd better take charge of his training. I'll have a look at him in a couple of weeks and, if he's okay, I'll square things with Lord Juventas." He turned to go and then hesitated and said, "Could I see you privately for a moment Accius."
"Of course. Will you wait here, Iolaus?"
The two moved out of earshot. "You'd better keep a bit of an eye on him, Accius. The addition of a pretty, little thing like that to the stables could cause some trouble amongst the men. If he causes any problems along those lines, he'll have to go."
"Oh, that should be okay. I don't think he's got any interests in that direction."
"Maybe so, but some of the men have, to say nothing of our noble employer. So just be alert for trouble and don't let it develop."
First thing the next morning, Accius took Iolaus out onto Juventas' private race-track. quot;This is a bit rougher than the city track, but the distances are the same. We don't have the staggered starting gates, but we do try to set our practice races off as though we had, but you'll see that when we get underway. Come over and have a look at one of the chariots."
With his skills in smithing, the chariot construction was of considerable interest to Iolaus. The body was a framework of bent rods and a bar joining the end of the upturned draft pole with the front of the chariot breast. "You'll see the breastwork on this one is wicker, but some of them use leather strapping. You won't find many using metal-plating, like the war chariots, for racing because we try to keep the weight down," Accius explained. "All use the four-spoked wheel attached to a fixed hind axle."
"And four horses are used?"
"Usually. In some parts of the country they race two horses as well, but it's four here. Only the central pair are actually yoked."
"The horses would have to be very well trained, wouldn't they?"
"They are bred on the plains in the centre and north of the country and have been broken-in by professional horse-breakers. They are ungelded though and so are quite spirited. You need to be careful around them as they are apt to bite. Actually they are often muzzled."
"They do sound like nice, friendly animals."
"Well, I've heard that in some parts of the country they are actually having mule races too. Perhaps that's more your style," Accius said grinning.
"No, thanks! They're not really racing mules are they?"
"Yes, both two and four beast teams, but I can't say the idea appeals to me."
"You said that the track is the same length as the town one. How long is it?"
"Our one here is nine miles. You do twelve circuits around the two posts."
"Is that the same at all hippodromes?"
"No, at Olympia the track's longer. You go round the milestones twelve times there. Anyway, that's enough theory to start with. I'll take you on a few circuits." He turned back towards the stables where some of the men were hitching his team.
Accius climbed on board. "Now the real skill of chariot driving is in the balance," he explained. "Sure you need a firm hand on the reins to control a team of four stallions, but the chariot is likely to tip unless you're using your weight properly. You come up with me and I'll show you." Iolaus joined him.
He took the horses in a steady trot up and around the turning post. Even at that low speed, Iolaus could feel the chariot skidding outwards. He started to lean in automatically to compensate.
"No!" Accius ordered. "You stay still. I'll do the balancing for the first few circuits. If we both try you may overcompensate and we'll be over."
He gradually increased the speed on each lap. Iolaus found it very difficult to stay still and trust Accius to balance them. The sensation was rather like being on the Argo in a rough sea. He hoped his stomach would not betray him as it did on the boat.
After a few laps, Accius relinquished both the reins and the job of balancing the chariot to the hunter, who found neither task to be as simple as they had appeared when Accius performed them. Indeed, on the first two bends, he over-corrected and they would have tipped if Accius hadn't moved quickly to adjust the balance. However, he was soon feeling reasonably comfortable with the driving.
He must have shown a little too much confidence because, after they'd handed the team over to the stable-boys, Accius felt obliged to issue Iolaus with some warnings. "Of course, it was pretty easy out there today. In an actual race you'd have up to forty chariots racing so you can't just select your best line through the corner, you have to take what's open to you. You might be the best driver on the track, but that doesn't stop some idiot from running in to you or one of the opposing team 'accidentally' lashing you or your animals with his whip. Sure that's illegal, but it's hard to prove it was deliberate or even who was responsible. You probably won't know who it was as the dust gets incredible and it's hard to see a thing at times."
"Are there lots of accidents?"
"Hell, yes. Often the major factor in getting in the top three placings is being skillful enough or lucky enough to be one of the few to actually complete the race."
"I suppose there would be quite a few injuries."
"There certainly are. There're plenty of deaths too. Mind you, it's the risks that bring the crowds and the owners pay well because of them. When you fall, and I do say *when* not *if* as it happens to all of us, just get yourself off the track. There are men employed to sort out the mess you leave behind and, if you're injured or even just shaken up, you could easily get hit by someone's team."
A month had passed. Even the critical Leucones was impressed by Iolaus' prowess. He seemed to have a natural flair for the sport and word was already spreading that Juventas had a potential champion charioteer in his stables. He had not yet met his employer, but the latter had taken him on on the recommendation of the stable-master.
Iolaus had found it to be a strange month. He had greatly enjoyed learning to drive a chariot. The dangers in the sport appealed to his reckless nature and it was satisfying to know that he had found something he could excel at. It was exhilarating to travel at such speed knowing that success or disaster depended on his skills and judgement.
However, off the track his high spirits deserted him. He would have loved to be able to discuss the day's events with the demigod, to tease and be teased, and to laugh about the minor problems that had been successfully overcome. It just wasn't the same doing this with other people, so he was quiet and withdrawn, speaking when spoken to, but rarely initiating conversation. He knew he wasn't good company, but he couldn't bring himself to be sociable.
Privately, Leucones was pleased about this. It appeared that his fears that the pretty, little blond might prove an unwelcome distraction and a source of conflict among the men had been unfounded. He was not to know that there had been trouble.
A couple of the men had made tentative approaches to the hunter, but had not repeated these when he had rebuffed them politely, but firmly. However, Boetus, a very large and singularly unattractive man, who worked as the stable's smith, had had his eye on the blond from day one, and had been biding his time.
About three weeks into his training, Iolaus had had his first spill. Another chariot had hit the side of his one, causing it to lose a wheel. Two more chariots had then collided with them. In the resulting tangle, the blond had been flung to the ground, landing with a bone-jarring thud that drove the breath from his body.
Mindful of Accius' warnings, Iolaus had acted largely instinctively. Dazed, his head spinning and his vision blurred, he had staggered up and somehow found his way off the track. Disorientated, he had headed into the smithy and promptly fainted. In the confusion outside, nobody had even noticed his departure.
As luck would have it, the only man in the smithy was Boetus, who couldn't believe his good fortune. He scooped the blond up and carried him into the tackle-room, putting the latch across. Dropping him on the table, he quickly stripped him and began to run exploring hands over the beautiful body. Rolling the hunter onto his stomach, he stroked the creamy globes of his arse and inserted a couple of fingers into his anus.
It was at that point, that Iolaus had stirred and then abruptly froze with shock as he became aware of the busy fingers. "What the hell ..." he started, as he tried to pull away.
A large hand descended in a stinging slap to his buttocks and Boetus growled, "Just lie still, Blondie, I don't want to have to hurt you."
"No! Damn you, leave me alone!" He began to struggle. Boetus withdrew the offending fingers and grabbed his shoulders to try to hold him still.
Just then there was the noise of someone pulling at the door and then Festus shouted, "Are you in there, Boetus? Leucones has sent us to get some replacement gear."
"Yeah, one moment." He turned to Iolaus and hissed, "Get dressed and don't say a word to anyone or I'll tell Leucones you've been selling your favours amongst the men here. My mates will back me up and Leucones will kick you out. He doesn't approve of that sort of thing."
"Hurry up, Boetus! What, or should I say *who*, are you doing in there?" Veientes called.
"What's the rush?" Boetus shouted back as Iolaus hurriedly dressed. He opened the door and the two newcomers exchanged looks of considerable surprise when they saw the hunter. They had heard that the blond had rejected overtures from others. "Well, I can see now why you were reluctant to let us in," Festus sniggered. "If I'd been you we'd still be outside."
"I thought you were out on the track," Veientes said to Iolaus, looking somewhat mystified.
"Yes, he was in that crash," Boetus replied, smoothly, "and he came in here to sit down for a moment."
"I'll bet he won't repeat that mistake in a hurry," Festus laughed. "Knowing you, he won't want to sit down anywhere for quite some time."
As the three fell about laughing, Iolaus left quickly. He didn't tell anybody what had happened as he believed Leucones might well react in the manner Boetus had suggested and he did want to continue with the chariot racing.
That night he lay in his bed and wept quietly to himself. Sheltered by the darkness, he did not attempt to restrain his feelings, but let his tears flow freely until his sobs had exhausted themselves. However, it wasn't Boetus who filled his thoughts, it was the demigod. Just when he'd been starting to think he was getting his emotions under some control, the upsetting incident with Boetus had opened the floodgates again.
He found himself going over and over that fateful night in Preveza. 'I shouldn't have hit him. I shouldn't have hit him.' The refrain kept repeating itself. He had almost convinced himself that absolutely everything that had happened had been his fault.
Unfortunately, beneath the sunny exterior that he normally presented to the world, was a soul that still bore the scars of his father's brutal taunts. Nothing he had done had ever been good enough in his father's eyes. He was always at fault, a useless little runt who would never be a warrior. The fact that he had become one of the greatest warriors Greece had ever known, had failed to negate the effects of the abuse. It was all too easy to accept that, if there was a serious point at issue between him and the demigod, which fortunately rarely happened, that he would be the one who turned out to be in the wrong. Okay, it might take some time for him to admit it to the demigod, but not to himself.
However, this time he couldn't just apologize and make all well. He could deal with the fact that Hercules had hurt him physically, but the pain of the demigod's angry and unjust comments about the hunter's morals and loyalty was far more intense. Even though he accepted that the woman's performance had given Hercules cause to believe that his accusations were true, he thought his lover should have taken his word that they were not. However, even if he somehow pushed that hurt aside and managed to swallow his pride and go back, he didn't think Hercules would want him.
He emerged from that night of anguish, emotionally exhausted and more withdrawn than ever from the men around him.
A week had passed since then. Iolaus had started venturing into the city in the evenings to avoid the knowing sniggers and snide remarks from Festus and Veientes.
Since he had been officially employed as a charioteer, he now had some money and so he wandered into a tavern intent on having a quiet drink.
He hadn't been there long when he became aware that he was under close scrutiny from a group at a nearby table. He kept his head down and tried to ignore the comments that were clearly being directed towards him.
Finally, two of the group rose and walked across to his table. "Well, what do we have here?" one sneered.
"It's that pretty, little blond Juventas has added to his stables," the other replied, "and we all know what his *position* will be there, don't we?"
The others burst into gales of laughter at the comment. A third got up and approached Iolaus. "Is that right, Blondie?" he asked, clutching the hunter's left arm. "Why not come and join us instead? We could certainly *use* you at Lord Thraces' stables."
Iolaus stood up and tried unsuccessfully to shrug the hand off, but the man tightened his grip, his fingers digging cruelly into Iolaus' biceps. The hunter made as if to pull away, but then flung himself at his assailant catching him unawares. The man lost his grip on Iolaus and staggered back as the hunter's shoulder hit him. Iolaus punched him between the eyes. Then he leapt lightly over the man's body and whirled to face the group.
The spring in his cat-like movement showed his honed strength and agility, but his four opponents only saw a man smaller than themselves, who had somehow managed to fell their friend with a very lucky punch. They never anticipated that the pretty, little blond would actually go on the offensive.
They moved confidently forward, laughing as they did so at the sport to come. To their amazement, instead of retreating, the blond danced nimbly forward and landed a couple of punishing blows to the kidneys of the nearest man, who collapsed gasping. He then moved back to give himself more space, crouched slightly and launched himself feet first at the three still standing, catching one in the throat and causing him to stagger back into the other two.
Iolaus hit the floor and somersaulted back to his feet. Unfortunately, his eyes were on the three in front of him and he didn't notice a man behind him rising to join the fray. One of those he was watching swung a rather wild hay-maker at him. Iolaus ducked, lightning swift, and, eluding his guard, rammed home two savage blows to the midriff that staggered the man. The latter took another uncontrolled swing and Iolaus dodged aside, inadvertently partially escaping a savage rabbit-killer aimed at his neck by his new, and as yet unseen, opponent. The blow, which if true would have laid him out, thudded instead into the muscle between his collarbone and the point of his shoulder, forcing a cry of pain from his lips and temporarily paralysing his right arm. Iolaus reeled, pain searing his whole side. He turned desperately to try to fend off this new attacker.
The big man snarled and grasped the hunter's forearms, shaking the blond's slight figure from side to side. The man was formidably strong. At a distance, Iolaus could have held his own, but he couldn't break the man's grip. The man yanked him towards him, hooked a leg behind his thighs and pushed him back over it, retaining his punishing hold on Iolaus' arms and lowering him to the ground. He went down with the hunter, twisting his other leg across his stomach to get him into a scissors hold.
At that moment, a cry went up "It's Juventas' men!" Fighting broke out throughout the tavern. Iolaus felt his opponent's grip loosen and then the man was on his feet readying himself to meet the attack, and giving Iolaus a boot in the ribs for good measure. Iolaus crawled under a nearby table to catch his breath, rubbing his shoulder and rotating his arm gently to get it moving again.
The actual fight was short as the newcomers heavily outnumbered Lord Thraces' men so, when Iolaus emerged, it was virtually all over. Accius helped him up. "My turn," he grinned. Then, seeing Iolaus' rubbing his shoulder, he asked, "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, fine. Just a few bruises. How did you come to be here?"
"One of our team has a nephew that works here. He anticipated problems, when he was serving at their table and heard them talking about you, and slipped out to get us."
"Those men said something about being from Lord Thraces' stable."
"That's right! They're some of our opposition. They've no doubt heard of your prowess and saw a chance to remove an opponent."
"Why would they do that?" Iolaus asked. "Are the prizes so tempting?"
"Actually no," Accius said. "Some of the competitions used to have rich prizes, such as richly embroidered fabrics and tripods, but now they're very simple. For example, the Pythian Games at Delphi awards a wreath of laurel and at Olympia it's a wreath of wild olive. What's more the victor's crown goes to the owner not the driver."
"Well, if that's the case, why did they attack me?"
"They must have heard about the potential you're showing, Iolaus. Chariot racing is a prestige thing, Iolaus. The chariot race is always a real rich man's event. It's a show of wealth and success brings enormous social prestige. Have you ever heard of Alcibiades?"
The hunter nodded vaguely. "The name's kind of familiar."
"He's a wealthy Athenian. In one Olympics he actually put up seven teams. No other private citizen or even one of the kings has ever managed to match that. He won, needless-to-say. His drivers were skilled and could work together to shut others out. Alcibiades' prestige, as owner, was incredible."
"Even so attacking the opposition off the track seems rather extreme."
"Well, it is and they could be penalised for it by the magistrates, but we'd have to prove that was the motive rather than just drunken fun. The trouble is you're not a known driver and they'd probably say the fight was caused by something else. There's really nothing we can do. Just don't wander around by yourself in future."
The competitors in the various events were required to spend time training in the local gymnasium. Iolaus enjoyed the workouts and had attended several sessions. As was usual, those who were exercising did so naked.
Iolaus had just finished one morning and was heading for the baths when Amyrus intercepted him. "Juventas wants to see you. He's waiting in one of the anterooms. Follow me."
"Wait a minute, I'll just get dressed."
"No time for that, he wants to see you now. Come on."
Iolaus followed reluctantly. He would have preferred to be dressed for his first meeting with the stable-owner.
Amyrus knocked on the door and receiving a command to enter opened it, ushered Iolaus inside and closed it behind him, staying outside.
"Come on in," a rather imperious voice ordered. Iolaus stepped into the middle of the small room and then stopped uncertain what to do next as the man had offered no greeting.
The man facing Iolaus was middle-aged, powerfully built and a good head taller than the hunter. He strode confidently forward, and circled the blond, looking Iolaus up and down and the latter felt himself flushing under the close scrutiny. Finally, positioning himself between Iolaus and the door. Juventas spoke. "I've been hearing excellent reports about your progress with the chariots. It seems your fated to be one of my top drivers so I thought it was time I made your acquaintance."
Iolaus turned towards him. He wasn't quite sure how to respond, but the man had complimented him so he said, "Thank you," and waited to see what was coming next.
"Yes, just by looking at you, I can understand why you're such a good driver, light weight but well-muscled." He stroked a hand across the blond's chest to emphasize his words.
Iolaus felt uneasy. He stepped back automatically and waited apprehensively for what was coming next.
"It's a pity the chariot-racing is the only event in which the athletes compete clothed."
Iolaus felt he ought to say something so he said, "Why?"
"No, I meant why is it a pity?"
"Fishing for compliments, are you?" Juventas asked, smiling lasciviously and moving even closer. He reached out and stroked the hunter's curls.
"N-No," Iolaus stammered, edging surreptitiously backwards, "I-I've n-never been involved in racing before so I wondered."
"Well, as you probably know chariot-racing is a matter of prestige. Winning is most important, but so is show. Being able to turn out teams of prize horses is important and to have a driver that the crowds like is an added bonus. I think," his voice was soft as velvet, "that the audience will like you very much indeed. So it's a great pity they don't get to enjoy seeing all of your considerable assets." He lowered his eyes meaningfully.
Iolaus' was now blushing hotly. He swallowed and nervously licked his lips. Juventas just raised his eyes in time to see this and the sight made him smile lustfully. However, he was no fool. He wasn't going to rush things. "Well, I'll have to be going now, Iolaus. I'm a busy man and my various business concerns cannot be neglected, but I *did* want to meet you and to personally welcome you to my stables. I'm sure we're going to have a long and lucrative association. A skilled charioteer can do very well for himself." With that he turned and walked out.
Iolaus sank down onto a bench, which was the only item of furniture in the room. He was aware that his heart was racing and his legs felt shaky. The man hadn't really done anything much, but the hunter felt flustered and a little frightened. Boetus was bad enough, but this man had an air about him that sent shivers up the hunter's spine. Unbidden an image of Hercules, so much an element in his personal feeling of safety and well-being, came into his mind. 'I wonder where he is? I don't suppose he's thinking of me, but I miss him so much." He blinked back an errant tear, shook his head in pained disapproval of his own weakness and turned to the door.
Race day finally arrived. Iolaus was full of excited tension. He was up early and dressed in the traditional clothing of a charioteer, a long, white chiton. Drivers from Juventas' stable were sistinguished by the blue trim on their garments.
The events were held at the Academy, a great sports centre to the north west of Athens. As at Olympia, all athletes were required to take an oath that they would compete fairly.
The starter drew lots to determine the position of the chariots in the starting gates. Iolaus' one was four back from the point of the vee on the right-hand side for the first race. The starting ropes were dropped and the chariots were released in a sequence, from the back to the front, designed to determine that they reached the starting position in line abreast.
Then the trumpet sounded and they were off. The noise was incredible. The whole stadium echoed with the clatter of wheels, the shouts of the drivers and the screams of the crowd. Accius had warned him about the dust, but Iolaus wasn't really prepared for the thick, choking cloud that rose to obscure vision and obstruct breathing.
The charioteers raced along in a tight bunch, using their whips without mercy as they sought to get clear of the melee, on the 600 yard straight, before the first of twenty-three turns. Iolaus, on Accius' advice, deliberately kept to the outside and swung very wide at the first corner. Three chariots came to grief there. Course workers were out as soon as possible, catching runaway teams and clearing what debris they could from the track, although there was little time for the latter.
By lap eight, four more had fallen and several had had lucky escapes. All were wet with foam from the horses' mouths and covered with a layer of dust. Then one of Thraces' men lost control of his horses and ploughed headlong into another chariot. Four more drivers came to grief in the resulting pile up.
That left only five drivers out of a starting line-up of eighteen: Accius and Iolaus for Juventas' stables, Bion for the red team belonging to Arethon, Bromus from Lord Thraces' green team and the white team's Licates.
Iolaus swerved his team wide and paused, watching the chaos and awaiting his opportunity. A gap opened and he was through and into second place behind Licates, the only one of Nysiades' team remaining, and the pre-race favourite.
Now the hunter abandoned his tactics of keeping back and wide to avoid trouble and began to demonstrate his skills. At every turn, he brought his left wheel right under the post, giving the outside horse its head, while he held the inside one on a tight rein. By lap ten, the two teams were neck and neck, with first one in the lead and then the other.
Finally, there was just one lap to run and white had the lead again. As he turned into it, Licates slackened the left rein just too soon. He hit the post, the hub of his wheel smashed across and he was thrown from his chariot in a tangle of reins. He was dragged along the ground for a few yards, but managed to kick free. His horses scattered all over the course. The crowd groaned in sympathy for the popular driver and then cheered as he clambered to his feet and ran for the sidelines.
With Licates out of it, Iolaus was able to cruise to an easy victory.
In later races, he managed another first, a second and a couple of thirds and many in the crowd were cheering for the golden-haired driver. By the final race of the day, Juventas' team only needed a place to clinch the victory, but their opponents were determined to cut them out. The racing had become quite dirty, with both riders and horses being lashed by their opponents and some deliberate ramming.
With two laps to go, Accius fell. Dazed, he remained kneeling in the middle of the track unable to heed his own advice to seek the sidelines. As Iolaus came around in the lead, on the final lap he observed his friend's plight. He knew there were several chariots following and that Accius was unlikely to escape further injury or even death. In a lightning decision, he wrenched his horses to a stop and leant down, dragging Accius onto the chariot.
He then drove on and came in fourth. Unfortunately, he was still the highest place-getter from his stables, which ended in second place over all.
The event over, the herald proclaimed Arethon of Kastoria, son of Odinus, the victorious owner. He approached the judges to receive his wreath, and then relatives, friends and admirers acclaimed him, tossing flowers over him and bearing him upon their shoulders.
Iolaus pulled his chariot to the side of the track and some of the men carried Accius off for treatment, while others took charge of the team. Nobody spoke to him, but the blond was acutely aware of the looks of condemnation that were being directed at him by the various members of Juventas' stables. Head down he headed towards the changing area.
The hunter was just leaving the dressing rooms, having donned his own clothing, when three of the men approached him.
"Iolaus, Lord Juventas wants to see you," Veientes said.
"I was just going to check on Accius."
"Now! We've been ordered to bring you to him at once."
Iolaus considered refusing, but knew he'd have to face the stable-owner sooner or later and so followed them. They took him to Juventas' private rooms and followed him in.
Juventas wasted no time. "Right, you little bastard, how much were you paid to throw that race?"
Iolaus was stunned. "Wh-What do you mean?"
"Exactly what I said! How much were you paid?"
"Nothing! I had to stop or Accius would have been trampled."
"And what would that have mattered?"
Iolaus could only stare at him.
"Accius knew the risks. All the charioteers do, apart from you it seems," he added sarcastically.
"But he could have been killed."
Speaking slowly as though dealing with a particularly stupid child, Juventas said, "It is not uncommon for only a couple of chariots to finish the race out of a field of forty. The drivers know that if they fall they get straight off the track or suffer the consequences."
"But ... But if they can be saved ..."
"They save themselves. Your duty is to win for your owner. I wanted that race and you've wilfully tossed it away. Now you're going to pay for it." He reached for a horsewhip on a nearby table. "Strip him!"
Iolaus felt the men behind reaching for him. Wrenching away from their grasping hands, Iolaus hurled himself at Juventas. His shoulder charge propelled the man backwards into the wall. Hitting this with a satisfying thump, he slumped to the floor.
The blond then swung to face the three who were between him and the door. This was not going to be easy. He was tired after the day's racing and all three were formidably muscular.
He feinted as though going left and then dived to the right, punching Festus in the solar plexus and doubling him over. He then tried to push between the groaning man and the smith, but to no avail.
Boetus reached out and grabbed Iolaus' vest, hauling him clean off his feet and pulling him in close to his gross body. Iolaus felt the huge knee starting to lift and twisted his body frantically so he took the blow on the outside of his left thigh instead of between the legs as Boetus had intended. His leg immediately went numb. He smashed a forearm across Boetus' throat. The man immediately gagged and dropped him.
Iolaus landed with a thump and his leg collapsed beneath him. He saw boots lifting to stomp his face. He rolled, bounding to one knee, but the numb leg failed him and he sprawled to one side. A boot caught him in the chest. Winded, he gasped in pain. Another boot slammed at his face. He whipped his head aside, merely losing some skin off one cheek.
He rolled away and, spotting the doorway, tried to dive for it. Festus slammed a boot down between his shoulder blades, knocking him flat, and then dived on top of him. Veientes followed suit. The two wrestled him onto his back and held him while Boetus bound his wrists in front of him. They then dragged him to his feet.
Boetus threw a rope over a rafter and they secured Iolaus' wrists to it. Smiling nastily, the big man then pulled on the rope until the hunter was at full stretch. Then the other two helped him tie it off. Veientes dragged his vest up around his neck and then unbuckled his belts and slid his trousers off his hips.
By now, Juventas was back on his feet. He unfurled the whip and laid it across the hunter's back and beat him until his back and buttocks were crisscrossed with bloody lines and he was barely conscious. He then turned to his men. "I will, of course, be handing him over to the magistrates, tomorrow, to be dealt with. They take cases of bribery very seriously. I'll summon you when I am ready to take him there. You may go." As he spoke, he passed some money to them. They departed sniggering as they pictured what Juventas would do next. His tastes were well known.
He then reached up and cut the blond down and dragged him into another room, bundling him onto a bed. "That's better," he said. "We won't be disturbed here. You didn't seem too enthusiastic about my touching you that day at the gymnasium. Well that's too bad because I'm going to have my fun now." As he spoke, he seized the rope, that dangled from the piece binding the hunter's wrists, and dragged it towards the bed head.
The hunter roused and screamed, "No!" as he twisted frantically sideways. The sudden movement jerked the rope from Juventas' hands and Iolaus' momentum carried him over the edge of the bed onto the floor. He scrambled up and leant dizzily against the wall.
Furious, Juventas stormed around the bed and reached for him. Iolaus hit out awkwardly with his bound hands, catching him in the chest. Juventas swore and moved in again fast, slamming the blond into the wall and staining it with the blood from his suffering back. The stable owner grabbed the dangling rope with one hand and Iolaus' hair with the other and flung him across the bed.
Iolaus twisted onto his side and kicked out clumsily at him. The kick caught his attacker on the thigh, but had no real force behind it. Juventas easily fended off a second kick, closing in and backhanding the hunter across the face. Iolaus sank back gasping as blood gushed from his nose and ran down his chin and neck.
Juventas seized his chance and manhandled him fully onto the bed. He reached for the rope once more with the intention of securing it. Iolaus pulled back against him and so he delivered a couple more vicious back-handers and the blond's world went black. Then he tied the dangling rope end to the bed head, flipped his victim onto his stomach and used more rope to stretch the unresisting hunter's legs wide and secure them to the bed end.
Iolaus regained consciousness with the horrified realization that his attacker was already inside him. Juventas liked it rough. He had forced his way between Iolaus' thighs and was fucking him relentlessly. He took the blond several times revelling in the pain and humiliation he caused.
It was like being with Mandrocles all over again but, unlike that occasion, there was no hope that the demigod might arrive to halt proceedings. With a sinking heart, Iolaus knew he was just going to have to endure whatever the man chose to do to him. The only consolation was that, at least, the act itself was no longer shockingly alien to him as it had been on the occasion of the mass murderer's attack.
After it was finally over, and Juventas had left him still tied tightly, an ashen faced hunter lay weeping and longing hopelessly for Hercules' comforting arms.
The next morning, Iolaus was released and permitted to dress, while Boetus and company stood guard over him, entertaining themselves with lewd speculations as to what Juventas had done to him, and his hands were then tightly bound behind him.
They hustled the blond into the city centre to appear before three of the magistrates, Juventas having sent a message to them about the problem.
Full of confidence, Juventas strode into the room. "I've brought that man of mine that has taken bribes for you to deal with."
"Tell your men to bring him in," Anaxis ordered.
Iolaus was pushed into the room. Hair dishevelled, face bruised and marked with dried blood, limping and shabbily-clad, the small figure hardly seemed to warrant the ropes binding him or the three large men acting as his escort. Then he raised his head and azure eyes blazed defiance at Juventas.
"Iolaus!" Odite exclaimed, in stunned surprise.
"Gods, so it is!" Novatus said.
Indeed, all three recognized Iolaus from the occasion of his previous visit to Athens, when he and Hercules had been asked by a group of the leading citizens to assist in identifying the mass murderer who was preying upon women. The pair had departed almost immediately afterwards so few other citizens had had a chance to see or meet them.
Odite turned a wrathful face upon Juventas, "What the hell are you playing at bringing him here like this?"
Taken completely aback by this reaction, Juventas stammered, "Wh-What d-do you mean? The little bastard is one of my charioteers. He threw the race that would have given me victory yesterday. Of course, I brought him here to be punished."
"What really happened, Iolaus?" Odite asked.
"What do you mean *really* happened?" an affronted Juventas demanded. "I've told you what happened. You can't mean you'd take his word over mine?"
"I'd certainly consider doing so from what I know of him," Anaxis retorted.
"What?" Juventas was absolutely amazed. "I'm a citizen of considerable standing. He's nobody."
"Do you *really* not know who he is?" Novatus asked.
"No. One of my charioteers brought him to the stables a month or so ago. I've only met him once before today."
"That's Iolaus of Thebes, Hercules' friend and one of Greece's greatest warriors."
"What? This little runt? You're having me on!"
"I beg your pardon," Novatus said, his voice frosty. He was not accustomed to having his word doubted. He turned to Iolaus. "Could I hear your version of events please?"
"My friend, Accius, had fallen from his chariot. He was dazed and in the middle of the track. He'd have been trampled. I stopped and pulled him onto my chariot. I'm told one doesn't do these things, but I *couldn't* leave him there. It *was* my fault our stable lost, but nobody paid me to throw the race. I'd never have done that."
"My son was at the races," Anaxis said, "He told me about the rescue. He said he'd not seen anything like it. I, for one, think there should be more effort made to protect competitors, even if the crowd goes there for blood."
"I agree," Odite said, "and I propose that we dismiss this case, knowing what we do of the accused."
Both the other judges concurred and Juventas left in a huff, furious both that the blond was to escape further penalty and that he had not known who he had had in his stables. It would have been quite a plus for his prestige if he had been able to boast that he had Iolaus of Thebes on his team. It was only later that he began to worry whether he was likely to suffer from incurring the animosity of the demigod for his treatment of the blond. That fear was to give him a number of sleepless nights.
Odite moved to untie the hunter and was aware that the latter was swaying unsteadily. He wrapped a supporting arm around the blond's shoulders. "Come on, Iolaus, I'll take you to my place." He led the unresisting hunter out and to his home nearby.
He sent his servants scurrying for hot water and salve and bathed and treated Iolaus' face and lacerated back himself, remembering clearly that the hunter had rejected the services of a healer on that earlier occasion. Although he hadn't confided his fears to anybody, he had a strong, and accurate, suspicion as to why that had been the case then and, knowing Juventas' reputation, was virtually certain of the nature of the attack the blond had suffered on this occasion. However, he couldn't bring himself to ask directly. All he said was, "Are these all your injuries?"
"All that need treatment," the blond replied quickly.
Iolaus stayed at Odite's overnight. He spent a largely sleepless night, tormented by his injured back and by his thoughts of what had happened to him. He longed for Hercules and that dreadful refrain 'I shouldn't have hit him' came back to haunt him.
When he emerged, the next day, battered looking and heavy eyed, Odite immediately offered to send for the healer, but Iolaus refused. "I'm okay. I just want to get going."
"At least stay a couple of days longer, Iolaus, you're in no condition to go anywhere at the moment," Odite urged.
"Thanks for the offer, but I want to go. I'll be fine."
Trying to delay his departure, a worried, but also curious, Odite asked, "How come you've taken up chariot racing, Iolaus?"
"I met up with my friend Accius and he suggested it."
"What did Hercules think of the idea? Are we likely to see him on the track too?"
"No, I doubt it. Actually he doesn't even know I've been doing it."
"What do you propose to do now, Iolaus?" Odite asked. "I'd heard Juventas had an incredible new driver, but I didn't know it was you. With your racing skills, the other owners will be lining up to offer you work."
However, Iolaus had had enough of Athens and dubious values that placed victory in a race above a man's life. He had told Autolycus he was going hunting and he would do just that. "I'm going hunting," he replied, extending a hand in farewell.
Pausing only long enough to buy a new knife and a spear, he left Athens and headed for the bush.
Some of the chariot racing details may appear odd, but I have consulted a number of books to make it as authentic as possible. The eyewitness account of Sophokles was particularly useful.
E-mail the author c/o Nephele at [email protected]
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