Out Into The Daylight
By AramisThe main characters belong to MCA/Universal. The writer is not making any money from this.
PART ONE: DARK SECRETS
A sunbeam dancing on his face woke the hunter. He opened azure eyes and stretched luxuriously, looking lovingly at his bedmate. He rolled over and began to kiss that beloved face, with light, tickling, teasing kisses that gradually made their way around to an earlobe. Reaching this prize, he began to nibble and suck. Unable to ignore his lover's attentions any more, Hercules roused, opening sleep-blurred eyes. "Is it morning already?"
"Yes, but no need to get up or perhaps I should rephrase that to no need to get out of bed," Iolaus smiled, as his hands caressed their way down the demigod's body.
"And aren't you pleased that I am?" Iolaus snuggled as close as he could.
"I don't know. You're going to wear me out. You're older than I am, so how come you've got so much energy?"
"You?" Hercules couldn't suppress a chuckle. He reached out and pulled the hunter on top of him, his hands cupping Iolaus' buttocks.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Iolaus asked, busily kissing his way back around Hercules' neck to the vulnerable spot below the other ear.
Hercules gasped. He could feel himself growing hard against the hunter. He slowly slid one arm up the blond's back and across his shoulders, while wrapping the other around Iolaus' hips. He suddenly clutched Iolaus tightly to him and twisted over, so the hunter found himself pinned to the bed. "My turn!" Hercules grasped the hunter's wrists and held them fast above his head with one hand. The demigod then took over the teasing role: kissing, nipping, licking and tickling, while Iolaus writhed helplessly beneath him.
"Please, Herc ... "
"Did you want something?"
"You know! Please, Herc!"
"Yes, I am quite pleased with what I'm doing, thank you." He smiled to himself as he felt Iolaus raising his hips to press against him as he sought some relief for his tingling body. Releasing the hunter's wrists, he placed his hands on Iolaus' shoulders to keep him pinned and then deliberately moved back so he was straddling Iolaus' thighs, thus depriving the blond of the contact he was desperately seeking. "I think I'll go and get some breakfast now," he said, his eyes dancing as he watched for Iolaus' reaction to the tease.
Somehow, the hunter managed to force himself to meet like with like, " Okay, I'm starving."
Not to be outdone, Hercules immediately swung himself off his friend and stood up, his back to Iolaus, reaching for his clothes.
Iolaus was stunned. Surely Hercules hadn't been serious. Surely he wasn't going to actually leave. But there he was pulling on his shirt and trousers. Unfortunately, he could not see Hercules' smile, because the latter was deliberately facing away from him, as he wondered how long the hunter would be able to resist launching himself at him.
Even more unfortunately, at that moment, there was a knock at the door. Hercules headed for it, while Iolaus frantically burrowed back under the covers. Thus, the hunter missed seeing two forms fling themselves upon Hercules, but he did hear shrieks of feminine laughter. Bracing himself against the impact, Hercules managed to clasp a girl in each arm and swung them out into the corridor, while hugging both and kicking the door shut behind him.
"We just heard that you'd arrived in town last night and we had to come to see you," one said, happily.
"Aren't you pleased to see us again?" the second asked, observing his slightly flustered expression.
"Of course I am!"
"Where are they then?"
"Where are what?"
"Our 'happy to see you both again' kisses."
Smiling Hercules gave both a quick peck on the cheek. "That's not a *very* 'happy to see you' kiss," remonstrated number one.
"You can do better than that," complained number two.
Now grinning broadly the demigod obliged, providing each with a far more enthusiastic kiss on the lips.
"Now that's better," said number one, "but I'm sure there's still room for improvement. We'll have to work on it while you're here."
"Well, come on!" cried number two, pulling at his shirt.
"Come on where?"
"Breakfast. We're famished. We haven't had anything yet as we were in such a rush to get here to see you."
"Okay, just give me a moment to grab my boots." He turned back towards the room and realized they were going to follow him. He couldn't have that. It wasn't that they would see he had been sharing a bed with Iolaus that worried him as that was a common necessity in inns. What worried him was the state of that bed, which would suggest something more than sleeping had been going on. "You two go on down. I'll join you in a minute."
"Look, I'm sharing a room and ... "
Two faces fell. "We didn't realize you had a woman with you," number one said.
"No! Nothing like that. It's just a friend of mine. He's still in bed and I don't know if he'd welcome a room full of people at this hour."
"You should have said." Number one dropped her voice to a whisper, "We'll be real quiet."
"Yeah, real quiet," echoed her twin.
Hercules gave in. After all, he figured Iolaus had had enough time to cover himself or, even better, to dress while all this had been going on. He just hoped he'd made some effort to straighten the bed up.
In the event, the bed looked much better and Iolaus had the covers pulled over his face so only a few golden curls could be seen. He'd either gone back to sleep or was, as Hercules suspected, shamming. Either way he obviously wasn't ready for introductions, so Hercules said nothing to him. He pulled his boots on quickly and joined the twins, who were waiting in the doorway.
Meanwhile, under the covers, Iolaus was experiencing a range of emotions. He had been unable to hear any of the conversation in the corridor because the walls were thick and the door was a heavy one of oak. Had Hercules been really intending to just leave him and go down for breakfast? Iolaus has originally assumed it to be a jest, but now it appeared that Hercules had had a breakfast assignation. If that was the case, why had the demigod not mentioned it the previous night? The hunter felt confused and hurt. 'I suppose I might as well get up,' he decided, 'as Herc's obviously not coming back to me.'
He dressed slowly and descended the stairs, hoping to slip outside without being noticed, but Hercules spotted him. "Iolaus!" he called. The hunter pretended not to hear him and reached for the front door handle. "IOLAUS!" That was too loud to ignore. The hunter reluctantly turned back. "Iolaus, where are you off to? You haven't had any breakfast yet. Come and join us. I've got two ladies here I'd like you to meet."
Iolaus looked at the women for the first time and did a double take. They were absolutely stunning and, from a distance, identical. Each had long luxurious nut-brown curls to the waist, flawless skin and rosy lips. They were seated on either side of the demigod. "Iolaus, these are Graeci and Ledaea. They live just outside the town. Ladies, this is Iolaus, a friend of mine."
'"A" friend,' thought Iolaus, unhappily. 'Just one of many.' He looked at the women. From close-up they were, if anything, more gorgeous, but not identical. Graeci had emerald eyes and Ledaea brown. "I'm ... I'm pleased to meet you both," the hunter stammered. Once his words would have been true, but not now, certainly not when both were clutching tightly to *his* lover.
Both women smiled a greeting and immediately turned back to Hercules. "It's so wonderful to see you again, Hercules," Graeci enthused. "It must be four years since you were here."
"Yes, I remember you celebrated your sixteenth birthday while I was here."
"That's right. Didn't we have fun?"
"We certainly did."
"Father has told us to invite you to dinner tonight," said Ledaea, "and also to move to the castle for the duration of your stay here. He's really looking forward to seeing you again."
"That's very kind of him. I'm happy to accept the dinner invitation, but I'd better decline the second one because, as you know, I have Iolaus with me."
"Well, I suppose he could come too," said Ledaea, with no great enthusiasm.
Her sister, realizing that that sounded rather ungracious, said, "Of course he can. There's plenty of room."
"Then we'll be happy to accept," Hercules responded, taking Iolaus' agreement for granted.
"It's not necessary to ask me," Iolaus said. "I can stay here."
"It's no trouble at all. You are very welcome," Ledaea said. "After all, you are a friend of our guest of honor."
'And you want to make a favorable impression on him,' Iolaus thought bitterly.
Breakfast continued. Graeci, Ledaea and Hercules chatted about mutual acquaintances that meant nothing to the hunter. He sat there feeling unwanted and out of place as the others made no attempt to include him in the conversation. He watched enviously as both girls cuddled up to Hercules, who appeared to be enjoying the attention. Iolaus was *never* allowed to touch Hercules like that in public. Hercules had always insisted that they maintain a distance when with other people. Indeed, since they had become lovers, Hercules had been more particular about contact than before. Once he would not have thought twice about putting an arm around his friend's shoulders, but not now. Iolaus accepted this, but it hurt and it had never hurt as much as it did at this moment. 'I know he must be ashamed of me and what we do, but why does he have to do this in front of me?' he wondered.
He sighed inwardly. How he wished he had he courage to give Hercules an ultimatum: 'Admit our love or ... ' Or what? He couldn't think of a threat he could possibly use. He didn't feel sure enough of his position to risk it. If he said he'd leave the demigod, the latter might call his bluff and then where would he be? No, better a secret love than none at all.
Finally, breakfast was over. Iolaus had hardly eaten a thing. The girls had already planned Hercules' day for him in detail and he seemed happy to let them do so. They were intending to take him around to visit a number of mutual friends. When Hercules stood up, a twin latched onto each arm. They headed towards the door. Hercules glanced back over his shoulder at the hunter, who had remained seated. "Come on, Iolaus!"
"No, you go ahead, Herc. I don't know any of the people you're going to see. I'll just stay here. Maybe I'll go and do a bit of fishing."
Hercules would have tried to persuade his friend, but the twins were pulling him on, so he merely said, "I'll meet you back here at lunchtime then and we can move our gear to the castle." Then they were gone.
Iolaus remained sitting glumly at the table. The landlord appeared and started clearing the table around him. "Do you know the ladies who were here with my friend?" he asked.
The landlord stared at him as if he was mad. "Of course I do! Everybody around here does. Why do you ask?"
"They've invited my friend and me to stay at their home and I just wondered about them. My friend obviously knows them well, but I've never met them before today."
"Knows them well! I'll bet he does! And if their father has his way I'll bet he'll know them, or at least one of them, even better."
"What do you mean?"
"I'd have thought it was obvious. Look, Hercules has known the family for some years and when he was last here, four years or so ago, it was clear to anyone with eyes that both young ladies were besotted with him. Trouble was they were only just sixteen and he obviously felt they were too young for anything serious, but everyone could see that he liked them both *very* much. I suspect their father, Lord Demos, rather fancied the idea of a demigod as a son-in-law and grandsons with the blood of Zeus in their veins. People said he was virtually throwing his daughters at Hercules." He paused, suddenly worrying that he'd said too much. "You won't tell anyone I said this, will you?"
"No, of course not."
"That's okay then. It's just that Lord Demos is a good ruler, but a hard man if anyone crosses him and he might feel I'd spoken out of turn."
"Thank you for telling me what you did. I promise it will go no further."
Iolaus went up to the room and threw himself down on the bed. He supposed he'd better actually go fishing as Hercules would be bound to ask about it, but he'd never felt less like doing what was normally a favorite pastime. All he could think of was what the landlord had said. From the beauty of the girls and from Hercules' reaction to them, it appeared that Lord Demos might soon be a happy man. Indeed, Hercules' only real problem would be deciding which of the daughters to select. Iolaus had always liked women and he could clearly see how very attractive the girls were. Once, when obtaining the demigod's sexual love had seemed impossible, he would have happily chased after them himself, but having experienced the former he now wanted no other and had foolishly dreamed that Hercules might feel the same way about him. Well that had obviously been a stupid hope. 'Damn it! I should have realized it couldn't last,' he thought. 'How could I expect to keep the love of someone like Hercules. I should have learnt my lesson over Xena. Why am I so stupid! I suppose I'm being selfish. If I really loved Hercules I should want what he wants for himself and should try to be happy for him, but I can't. It hurts so much.' He could feel tears welling in his eyes. 'Come on, Iolaus, pull yourself together,' he remonstrated. 'This isn't going to help. Let's go fishing.'
He sat, lost in upsetting thoughts, staring at the river. He tried to tell himself he was anticipating the worst before it happened, but he kept returning to the incident in their room that morning when Hercules had apparently been prepared to leave him in the bed and go off to breakfast as if their relationship meant nothing. Suddenly he glanced at the sun and realized midday had come and gone at least half an hour before. He picked up his unused fishing-tackle and headed back to the inn.
Hercules was sitting downstairs with their gear on the table in front of him. There were a number of other patrons there and so there was no chance for a private conversation. Iolaus had mixed feelings about that. He had wanted to talk things through with Hercules, but he had no idea how to start or what to say and so now, at least, he could put more thought into the words before he confronted the demigod. "Where did you get to? Have the fish been biting too well to leave?" asked Hercules, cheerfully.
"Actually I didn't catch any." He realized Hercules was looking expectantly at him. "What is it?"
"I was waiting for the 'One That Got Away' story."
"There isn't one."
"But there *always* is! Are you sure you're all right, Iolaus? You're not sick or anything?" the demigod queried, teasingly.
"I don't make my stories up," Iolaus protested. "You're not getting one because there isn't one."
Hercules broke into disbelieving laughter, unaware of how upset his friend was feeling. "Well, after that shock to my system I'm not sure how I can walk, but we'd better get going. The ladies are expecting us."
"Couldn't I stay here, Herc? I don't know the family and they really only invited me out of politeness to you."
"Don't be silly, Iolaus. They're expecting you. Anyway you'll get to know them soon enough, you've seen how friendly they are and Lord Demos is equally hospitable."
'To you maybe,' Iolaus thought, but he didn't say anything. He picked up his sword and carry-bag and reluctantly followed Hercules outside.
The castle was about two miles from the town. As they walked, Hercules talked enthusiastically about how he'd spent the morning and, at length, about how much he enjoyed the girls' company. "You should have come with us, Iolaus." He didn't seem to notice Iolaus' monosyllabic responses to his comments.
Their host was ready and waiting for them when they reached the castle. He expressed himself overjoyed to see the demigod again and said he hoped he could have an extended stay with them. He greeted Iolaus politely, but distantly.
The girls then showed them to their rooms. Iolaus was amazed when he saw the luxury of Hercules' room. He'd clearly been given the best room in the castle. He gazed with wonder at the huge four-poster bed and couldn't help picturing Hercules and himself in it. 'Some hope of that,' he thought, bitterly. He knew that there would have been no chance of that under normal circumstances anyway as Hercules preserved his distance rule when they stayed at private dwellings.
The afternoon was spent with the twins ostensibly giving Iolaus a tour of the castle and grounds. In actual fact, it simply gave them the opportunity to hang on Hercules' arms and to flirt with him. None of the three seemed to notice Iolaus was not showing much interest in anything and was hardly a part of the conversation at all.
He would have been surprised to learn that there was one person who was giving some thought to him: Lord Demos. The latter had not been pleased to hear that Hercules had a friend with him, especially the golden hunter. In spite of all Hercules' precautions, there were rumors about his relationship with Iolaus. These had started long before there was any actual sexual relationship. Some people, observing Iolaus' beauty and even possibly observing his love for Hercules shining in his eyes (for the hunter had loved the demigod and had desired a physical relationship for many years before what had seemed an impossible dream had become a reality) and also seeing the closeness of their friendship had long suspected the pair were lovers. Iolaus was aware of these rumors, as he'd had comments thrown at him over the years from men who were jealous of his friendship with Hercules or were just looking for ways to upset or insult the hunter. The usual taunts were along the lines that the only reason that a demigod could be interested in a little runt like Iolaus was that the latter was Hercules' whore. People did not usually dare to make such comments in Hercules' presence and he seemed oblivious of them or, at least, Iolaus hoped he was given his attitude towards any public display of affection.
Lord Demos had heard these rumors, but until now had not given credence to them. However, he was now not so sure. When his daughters had returned home to report that Hercules would indeed be joining them and that they'd had to invite his friend as well, he had sought more information about the latter from them. They had not been favorably impressed with the hunter and had said so. They were used to male adoration and had been very aware that not only was Iolaus not admiring and flattering them, he actually didn't seem pleased to be with them. "It was almost as if he resented Hercules being with us," Graeci had commented crossly. Warning bells rang in her father's head and he privately decided to observe this friend *very* closely as he did not want anything or anybody to upset the chances of one of his daughters with the demigod.
Lord Demos, confronted with Iolaus' golden beauty, was even more concerned. He had complacently assumed no-one could rival his daughters, but now had to hurriedly revise this opinion. He knew that Hercules had been married twice and he had known him for some years in which time Hercules had never, to Demos' knowledge, shown any interest in his own sex, so he believed the demigod was basically heterosexual. If there was a relationship between the two friends, he decided Iolaus had probably initiated it and had tempted Hercules to go against his natural inclinations. If this was the case, the source of the temptation would have to be removed.
He still tended to feel the rumors were wrong, but seeing the way Iolaus' eyes followed the demigod he knew that, if there was no relationship, it wasn't from lack of interest on that side. Indeed, he came to the conclusion that removing the hunter was probably the best thing to do even if the two were no more than friends as Iolaus, as jealous lover or as a jealous friend who hoped to be more or even just as jealous friend, could still play havoc with his daughters' chances.
It did not take Demos long to think of a solution to the problem. The captain of his personal bodyguard, Briseis, a tall, handsome man, was a homosexual. This had never worried Demos, as the man was efficient at his work, and now his proclivities could prove an asset. Demos knew the latter would not hesitate to obey any order he gave, especially such a congenial one as seducing Iolaus away from the demigod. Of course, if the blond failed to respond to Briseis' considerable charms some degree of coercion would be necessary, but he knew Briseis would actually enjoy that even more.
Indeed, the method was unimportant. As long as the demigod believed the hunter was a willing participant. If there had been a relationship, he hoped that once the demigod became aware that the hunter had a new interest, he would turn to one of his daughters without hesitation. On the other hand, if there had not, Hercules would become aware that he had a pervert for a friend and would hopefully turn to one of the girls if only to safeguard his reputation from any shadow of suspicion the incident might cast upon it.
Accordingly, he summoned Briseis and explained what was required. As he had anticipated, Briseis, who had already spotted the blond during the castle tour, was *very* pleased with the assignment. Since sighting the hunter, he had already spent time imagining the things he could do to Iolaus if he had his way and now he even had official aid and encouragement to help him achieve his desires.
"The only problem," Lord Demos continued, "is the time factor. You'll have to work *very* quickly in case Iolaus persuades Hercules to leave. Obviously Hercules won't do that for three or four days out of politeness, but after that they might go at any time so if you haven't been successful after four days we'll have to try another method. One way or another, Hercules must believe his friend is enamoured of you."
"Don't worry, my Lord, Argius and I will do all that's needed."
So at dinner that night, Iolaus found himself seated some distance from Hercules with two members of Demos' guard on either side of him. After a few moments, one turned to him and asked, "Enjoying your stay here?"
"I guess so."
"You don't look like you are."
"I don't really know anybody here."
"Well, I'm Briseis. I'm the Captain of the Bodyguard. This is my second in command and friend, Argius." He indicated the large, muscular man on Iolaus' left. Iolaus shook hands with both. "How do you come to be here if you don't know anyone?"
"Oh, I meant the local people. I'm here with my friend." He pointed towards Hercules. "He got invited as he's a friend of the family and, since I was traveling with him, they extended the invitation to me as well."
"You're with Hercules?"
"Have you known him long?"
"Since we were kids. It'd be over twenty-five years."
"I'll bet you've had some exciting adventures with him."
"How about sharing some stories with us," Argius suggested.
Well, Iolaus always enjoyed recounting stories and these two were he only people he'd met at the castle that had shown any interest in him, so he obliged and soon the three were chatting away like old friends. He had just finished a detailed description of a fight, when Argius said, "I expect you know some special fighting techniques."
"Yeah. Actually I know some unusual ones. I spent a year traveling in the East and I learned a number of tricks that few westerners know, especially ones that help a man my size throw around big guys like you two."
"Oh, *really*?" exclaimed Argius, in a disbelieving tone.
"I'd like to see that."
"I'll show you if you'd like."
"Okay, come on!"
"Now?" Iolaus looked at him in surprise.
"Sure! Come on! Meals here are fairly informal. Nobody will mind if we leave."
Iolaus glanced at Briseis for confirmation. "Yeah, he's right. If you'll just wait a moment, I have to speak to one of my men and then we can go." He stood up and moved to speak to a man a few seats down the table and was soon back. "Okay, let's go."
Unnoticed by Iolaus, the man Briseis had approached hurried up the room to whisper to Lord Demos. The latter immediately turned to Hercules, who was seated on his far side. Hercules had been speaking to Ledaea and so had not observed the messenger. "Looks like your friend's off somewhere. I hope he knows what he's doing."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Iolaus," Demos said, gesturing down the hall at the departing three, "is off somewhere."
"It was actually the second part of your statement that I was wondering about."
Lord Demos hesitated and seemed reluctant to speak. Then he said, "I'm sure it's nothing to worry about."
"Now you *have* got me worried," Hercules observed.
"It's just that he's headed off with two of my bodyguard who both happen to have ... to have ... er ... *different* tastes."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, let's put it this way, they wouldn't be hurrying out of here with a woman." He watched closely for the demigod's reaction.
Hercules wasn't quite sure how to respond. He carefully schooled his features. "I'm sure Iolaus will be okay," he commented, keeping his voice carefully casual. Fortunately, at that moment, Graeci laughed at some jest her neighbour had made and her tinkling laugh cut across what might otherwise have been an awkward silence. With inward relief, Hercules changed the subject. "Your daughters are more beautiful than ever. You must be very proud of them."
"I certainly am. They will grace their husbands' homes."
"Husbands? Are they already promised?"
"Oh, no! I'm going to allow them an element of choice but, as you can imagine, they've no lack of suitors." 'That should put the pressure on a bit if he's got any ideas in that direction,' Demos thought.
Hercules continued to hold up his end of the conversation, but his thoughts kept returning to Iolaus. 'There must be a reasonable explanation for him leaving with those two,' he told himself, but there was a niggling doubt. The hunter had been behaving oddly all day. He'd been far too quiet and withdrawn. Normally he was anything but. 'I hope he's not mad about this morning. He must realize I couldn't have done anything about unexpected visitors,' he mused. 'Surely he wouldn't go off with someone else for such a trivial reason.'
Meanwhile, Briseis and Argius had taken Iolaus to a nearby room and he was demonstrating some eastern fighting techniques. He'd thrown off his vest and soon his satin skin was glistening with a light sweat as he fended both off in turn. Both men were looking hungrily at that beautiful body and were enjoying the touch of it as they fought. They had made a prior pact to make no direct sexual overtures that night, unless in response to any Iolaus might make, in case of panicking the blond for Demos had warned he was not completely certain of the hunter's interest in such matters. However, both were having trouble keeping to the agreement.
Finally, they tried a coordinated attack and Iolaus stepped back onto a loose mat and fell. Then the two were on top of him, pinning him with the weight of their bodies. "Okay, we win," Briseis laughed. "We can now do what we like with the victim." He patted Iolaus' codpiece meaningfully, but then immediately stood up with no further assault. Argius followed his lead. The latter then reached down and grasped the hunter's wrist pulling him to his feet. He slapped Iolaus playfully on the backside. "Our victory! A triumph of western fighting methods!" he cried, grinning broadly.
Both were watching to see if Iolaus would respond to the touches. The hunter had been aware of these, but they'd been so fast and had been made in such a lighthearted way he wasn't sure if there was any intent in them, so he chose to ignore them. "You wouldn't have got me if it hadn't been for that damned mat," he commented.
This was met with howls of friendly denial and an invitation from Briseis to join him in a drink in his quarters, where he hoped the relaxing effects of alcohol would give him an opportunity to take those touches a little further. However, the blond felt he'd better go back to the main hall as, "Herc, will probably lecture me for being an ungracious guest if I don't."
"We've both got the day off tomorrow and we're going hunting. Would you like to join us? We'll teach you a few things about hunting like we did about fighting," said Briseis.
Hunting! Iolaus couldn't resist that, especially when there was an element of challenge in the invitation. "Fine, but I don't think you'll be able to teach me much about hunting."
"You'll be surprised," Argius responded.
Iolaus returned to the hall, but found himself isolated. No-one seemed to want to talk to him. He was not to know that Briseis and Argius had made their interest clear and so others hesitated to approach him for fear of offending them. He looked around for Hercules and saw that he was still happily talking to Demos and others that he obviously knew. Iolaus had hoped to catch his eye as he wanted to speak to him, but it was clear that the demigod was either unaware of his return or was ignoring him. He hoped it was the former, but feared it was the latter. So, after sitting watching for about twenty minutes, he retired to his room and was soon asleep.
An hour or so later, Hercules headed for his own room. He had hoped to speak to Iolaus, but there was no light showing and so he assumed the latter was still off somewhere with his new friends.
Iolaus was up early the next morning ready for the hunting expedition. To his surprise, there was a skinny, plain-looking youth of about sixteen years waiting for him when he emerged from his room. "Excuse me," the boy said.
"Hello, what do you want?"
"My name is Azides. I heard there was a hunting party going out and I wondered if I could come. I'd carry *all* your gear for you? I wouldn't get in the way, I promise."
"You're welcome to come along, but I think I can manage my bow and hunting-knife."
"Can I *really*? I love hunting, but usually nobody wants my company."
"Well, I'll be pleased to have it. Have you done much hunting?"
'Which probably translates as "not much".' Iolaus thought. However, since the boy was so keen, he was happy to have him with him. He knew only too well what it had felt like when, on the few occasions his father was at home, Skuros had made it clear his company wasn't required. "Come on then. We'd better join Briseis and Argius."
"Are they the only other ones going?"
"Only ones that I know of."
"Perhaps I'd better stay here then."
"They don't like me much."
"That doesn't matter, you're with me."
They met the other two in the courtyard. "Where do you think you're going?" Briseis demanded, when he saw Azides.
"I invited him," Iolaus said. "I hope you don't mind."
Briseis did, but felt he couldn't say so under the circumstances. The presence of the boy was obviously going to hinder any opportunities that might arise in his pursuit of Iolaus.
The hunt did not go well. Iolaus was soon aware that neither Briseis or Argius was particularly skilled at tracking and Azides, for all his good intentions, was clumsy and made too much noise in moving through the bush. Iolaus spent much of the time talking to Azides about hunting and explaining what he was doing when tracking. The other two were most annoyed at the boy for monopolizing the hunter's time and so reducing their contact with him.
After a few hours, Iolaus spotted a stag with a good pair of antlers. He glided towards it, Briseis at his side, and was just about to loose an arrow when Azides sneezed loudly. The deer darted away and the chance of a clean shot was gone.
Briseis was furious. He slapped the boy across the face and would have hit him again if Iolaus hadn't pushed between them. "Leave him alone!" For a moment, Iolaus expected to feel the next blow, but Briseis managed to stop himself lashing out. Iolaus could almost feel the anger seething inside Briseis. He really didn't like the man much.
They decided it was time to pack it in and head back to the castle. It was a long, hot tramp. A mile or so from the castle, they came to the river. Argius suggested a swim. Azides declined, but the other three stripped and plunged in. Soon Argius ducked his friend and this developed into a free-for-all. Iolaus soon found the pair united against him. Again, he was aware of wandering hands, but again the caresses were ambiguous and so it would have been difficult, and possibly unjust, to complain. However, even though he did not respond, the other two felt his acceptance of the minor assaults without complaint, suggested he was not opposed to their plans.
When they reached the castle, Iolaus found that the family and Hercules had ridden out to visit mutual friends for the evening. He politely declined an invitation to join Briseis and Argius for a drinking session, inadvertently thwarting their plans once more, and retired to his room. Hercules was very late back and so the pair missed each other again.
The next two days followed a similar pattern. Demos and his daughters monopolized Hercules' time and Briseis and Argius, who to Iolaus' surprise seemed to have as much free time as they wanted, monopolized the hunter's. As a result, the two friends had no contact and only caught fleeting glimpses of each other. Neither was happy about this, but it was difficult to counter without discourtesy to such incredibly attentive hosts. However, each had the nagging fear that his lover was happy with this state of affairs.
Early on the evening of the fourth day, Hercules actually found himself alone and decided to take the opportunity to approach the hunter. He went to Iolaus' room. He knocked and Iolaus expected it would be one or both of his two constant visitors. Hercules did not miss the look of surprise on his face when he saw his caller.
"Can I come in?"
"Of course you can."
Hercules got straight down to business. "Iolaus, what's wrong? Why are you avoiding me?"
"I'm not. I'd have said it was the other way around."
"I've tried to see you on several occasions, but you've been away with your new friends."
The last part was said in a rather bitter tone and Iolaus reacted to it. "*My* new friends! What about all the time you've spent with Demos and his daughters? Am I supposed to sit in your room and wait until you've got time for me?"
"You know I don't expect that."
"I know what you expect."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"That I make myself available when there's nobody else around and make myself scarce when there is."
"Iolaus, you know that's not true."
"No, I don't! When have you ever acknowledged our relationship in public." Having, finally voiced the issue that had upset him for some months, Iolaus found himself starting to shake and knew tears were near. He continued with some difficulty, "I just ... I just wish you weren't so a-ashamed of me and w-what we do."
Hearing the catch in his friend's voice, Hercules tried to reassure him, "Iolaus, you know I love you."
"I s-suppose I do, but I-I wonder at times. I think ... I think you'd like to go back to how we were before ... before I told you how I feel about you." He felt his eyes brimming and tried to will the tears not to fall, but one escaped and he could feel it running slowly down his cheek. The demigod reached out a gentle finger and halted its progress.
"Iolaus, please don't cry."
"I'm *not* going to cry." He turned away quickly so his friend couldn't see the stream of tears starting to flood his cheeks. "You'd better get going. They'll be expecting you to escort the ladies in to dinner. I'll see you later." His words gave the demigod a cue to leave, but inwardly his heart begged, 'Please say you won't go, Herc. Please say you'll stay with me. I *need* you to stay. Please say you'll tell them you're staying with me.'
Unfortunately, Hercules took the words at their face value. "You're right, I do have to go, but we'll talk about this later." 'Although I don't know what the hell I'm going to say,' he thought. The trouble was he had what he considered good reasons for his public attitude. Firstly, there was his family to consider. Alcmene was always urging him to remarry and had dropped hints about how nice it would be to have grandchildren. He knew Jason and Iphicles were strongly opposed to same sex relationships and would have difficulty accepting it. Indeed, the latter had made one or two comments about his close friendship with Iolaus giving people the *wrong* idea about them, which made his views quite clear. There was no point in upsetting his family needlessly and, worse, possibly turning them against Iolaus. Secondly, he didn't feel such a relationship fitted his public image and might make people react differently to him and perhaps feel uncomfortable and so less willing to approach him for help. Unfortunately, in all this, how Iolaus felt had been pushed aside. Hercules had just taken it for granted that Iolaus would concur with his opinions on the subject.
After Hercules had left, Iolaus lay on the bed weeping. He felt so confused. Here was Hercules telling him he loved him and yet he still wouldn't put his lover first in public. Here he was going to join two women, who appeared to have marriage on their minds, when surely he could see Iolaus needed him right now.
Meanwhile, Demos and Briseis were conferring. The latter had had to admit he'd made no real progress. That being so, they decided to go for approach "B"
Half an hour or so after the demigod's departure, there was another knock on the door. Iolaus' heart leapt. 'Hercules!' Unfortunately, it was a couple of members of the bodyguard, Lichas and Numicus, coming to remind him that he had promised to show Briseis and Argius some more Eastern fighting techniques and to tell him the latter were in a different room to the previous occasion. He nearly sent his excuses, but then decided he might as well go as Hercules was likely to be away for some hours.
The two guided him to the new room, in an isolated part of the castle, and stood back while he knocked. Briseis called to him to enter. As he did so his escort followed him in blocking the doorway. Iolaus stepped in and froze. The room was tiny and unsuitable for fighting. It was fully furnished and was dominated by a large bed. He took an involuntary step forward as his escort crowded after him, Lichas reaching back to pull the door closed.
"Well, come on, Iolaus, what are you waiting for?" asked Briseis, who was seated on the bed.
"What are ... "
"We thought we'd have a different kind of workout. One that we'd all enjoy more."
"But ... "
"You know you like this sort of thing and, now your lover's lost interest in you, you might as well take it from us."
"What do you mean?"
"Hercules has abandoned you, hasn't he? He's going to marry one of Lord Demos' daughters so he doesn't want you any more, does he?"
It was difficult to respond. If he said Hercules hadn't abandoned him, he would be admitting he was the latter's lover and Hercules still hadn't given him permission to do that. In any case, he wasn't sure that the second statement wasn't true. "What Hercules does is his business. It doesn't mean I want sex with you."
"Be realistic! It's not really a question of what you want is it? We're going to have you either way and it'll be easier on you if you cooperate. Anyway, you know you want it." Briseis stood up and started towards him.
Iolaus backed towards the door. The two guards behind him each grabbed one of his arms. He flipped his body over using them as a pivot, catching them unawares. He broke free and dived for the door-handle. A hand shot out and grasped his vest, but he slipped out of it, shoving the door open as he did so. However, the four men were upon him. He fought frantically, but the four were trained warriors and the narrow corridor gave him little room in which to manoeuvre. Nevertheless, by the time he was wrestled to the floor all of his opponents looked the worse for wear. However, what he couldn't understand was that none of them punched him back. He didn't realize they were taking care not to mark him. Eventually, he was spread-eagled on the floor with a man pinning each limb.
Argius, who was kneeling on one of the hunter's arms, produced a rag impregnated with some chemical and held it over Iolaus' mouth and nose until he lost consciousness. They carried him back into the room and dropped him on the bed. Argius immediately began to strip the hunter, but Briseis intervened, "You can finish what you're doing, but he's not to be touched yet."
"Don't worry, you'll have your turn. We took all that care not to mark him and I don't want you getting a bit carried away and doing so now. After Hercules has seen him you can be rougher, but not until then."
"When will that be?"
"Not until about midday tomorrow."
"Why have we grabbed him so early then?"
"Hopefully Hercules will think he's spent the night with me. If they are lovers that should put him in an angry and jealous frame of mind and he'll be more receptive to our little tableau."
"What happens until then?"
"We need to keep Iolaus here out of sight. I don't want to restrain him in case he marks his wrists by struggling so we'll keep him drugged. We're going to have to monitor him and make sure we put him back under if he starts to rouse. Nearer to the time, we'll have to be careful with the dose as I want there to be some sign of movement when Hercules sees us, but I don't want him conscious enough to object."
Later that night, Hercules went to the hunter's room for the promised discussion. To his considerable surprise, Iolaus was not there. Hercules wondered where he could be. During the evening, he had suffered pangs of guilt as he kept picturing the hunter's tear-stained face. 'I should have stayed with him and talked it through. I shouldn't have left him when he was so upset,' was the thought that had haunted him. Because his own mind had been so much on this, he had expected the hunter's would be as well. He'd noted that the blond had not joined the company for dinner and had pictured him waiting forlornly in the room. To find that Iolaus had gone off somewhere was very surprising. However, Hercules was not angry. Actually, if the truth was known, he was quite relieved. For all that he hated to hurt his lover, he had still not changed his mind about the desirability of discretion carried to the point of secrecy. At least now he could feel he had made the effort to turn up to discuss the issue and if Iolaus couldn't be bothered to do the same, well that was his lookout. 'He can't have been as concerned about the situation as he made out,' was the comforting thought.
However, he decided to be fair he'd wait for half an hour in case his friend turned up. Housekeeping was not one of Iolaus' strong points and so the bed was, as usual, unmade. Hercules tidied it up and then lay down upon it to wait. Thirty minutes or so later, he retired to his room feeling at least he had kept to their appointment.
When he awoke, early the next day, he decided he ought to call in on Iolaus, if only to indicate to him that he had fulfilled his part of the agreement to meet. He knocked and, receiving no reply, decided to go in anyway . Not only was Iolaus not present, the bed had clearly not been slept in as it was still tidy. Hercules was suspicious and a little angry, but still hoped there might be a reasonable explanation for this. After all, there had been more than a few occasions in the past when a drunken hunter had gone to sleep lying over a table.
But he was still *not* happy. Demos' Plan "B" was going well.
When he joined Demos for breakfast, the latter told Hercules he intended to go hunting with a small party that afternoon and suggested the demigod and Iolaus join him. This pleased Hercules as he'd been aware that his host had not shown the interest in and hospitality to his second guest that he had shown to Hercules. He felt that an awareness of this comparative neglect was part of the reason for the hunter's dissatisfaction with their relationship. Perhaps he felt as Hercules' acknowledged lover he would get more attention from others.
Hercules accepted the invitation and had tried to locate the hunter to inform him of it. However, no-one seemed to have seen Iolaus. Finally, Numicus had approached him and queried, "Did I hear you asking about your friend?"
"Yes. Have you seen him?"
"No, but I know where he is. Follow me and I'll show you the way."
He took Hercules by a slightly roundabout route, while Lichas rushed directly to Briseis to say Hercules was on his way.
Briseis was already naked. He lay down on the bed alongside Iolaus and pulled the blond to him. With Argius' help he positioned the hunter so the latter was lying on his side, his back to the door. Briseis wrapped his arms around the hunter. One hand cupping his buttocks and the other caressing his back. Iolaus was semi-conscious and was moving against him, moaning softly. Having checked the tableau from the door, the other two men then retired to the next room.
Upon reaching the door, Numicus did not knock, but opened it quickly and quietly, exposing the occupants to view. As the door opened, Briseis captured Iolaus' mouth in a kiss effectively silencing him. From where Hercules stood, it appeared that Iolaus and Briseis were locked in a loving embrace. Hurt and embarrassed, Hercules backed hurriedly away and then turned and walked swiftly down the passage. Numicus silently pushed the door shut after him.
Iolaus was barely conscious. He hadn't heard the door behind him open quietly and Hercules gasp with shock.
Hercules wandered blindly down the passage. He could hardly credit what he had seen. It had only been the previous evening that the hunter had been in tears because he would not acknowledge their relationship in public. He had promised to talk it over, but perhaps Iolaus had sensed his reluctance to change his position on this. Surely that wouldn't have been enough to drive him into another man's arms? How could Iolaus betray him so?
He joined Demos for the hunt, although his heart wasn't in it, saying Iolaus had made other plans. Demos observed his air of abstraction and the look of hurt in the demigod's eyes. Yes, he'd been right to take action.
Once Hercules had gone, Briseis and Argius no longer needed to keep Iolaus drugged. Indeed, they wanted him fully aware to add to their enjoyment of what they were going to do to him. Accordingly, as soon as Hercules had gone Briseis started to shake the hunter to try to rouse him. Another half hour or more had passed before he was awake enough for their purposes and, by that time, any patience they had was long gone.
Eventually, feeling sick and light-headed, he opened azure eyes and blinked to try to clear the haze. Before he could even focus properly, he heard Briseis' voice. "You'd better be worth the wait we've had, Blondie."
For a few moments, he was confused, but then he remembered with horrible clarity where he was. He felt hands grasping his shoulders and raised his own to fend off the blurred figure. His wrists were caught and pinned above his head. "Which way up do you want him?"
"On his stomach first I think."
Iolaus began to struggle desperately. He heard Briseis say, "Come on, you two, lend a hand here if you want a piece of him." 'Hell, how many of the bastards are there?' he wondered.
He sank his teeth into a hand. The man yelped in pain and Iolaus tensed in anticipation of a blow. "No! Don't hit him there! I still don't want his face marked. Elsewhere doesn't matter so much now."
His vision cleared, but the four were still too much for him. They flipped him over. Argius held his wrists, twisting his arms painfully up his back, while Lichas and Numicus held his legs apart. Briseis gagged him and then slammed into him without preliminaries. He screamed in pain, but the sound was effectively muffled by the gag. A nightmare of agony and humiliation followed as the four took turns at him.
PART TWO: DARKEST BEFORE THE DAWN
It was midway through the evening before they finally released their victim. They ordered him to dress and simply pushed him out into the dark passage as though nothing had happened, as though he was of so little account he could do nothing but accept what they'd done to him.
Iolaus' reeled against the wall. He felt absolutely devastated. He was grateful for the dark as it enabled him to limp his way to his room without being observed. Once there, he flung himself down on the bed and wept the tears of pain and anger that he had somehow suppressed during the seemingly endless assaults. All he wanted was Hercules. All he wanted was to be in Hercules' arms, in that loving embrace where he could sob out the pain and humiliation he had suffered.
He stood up and headed out into the passage in the direction of his friend's room. He had just reached the door when Hercules emerged, carrying a lantern to light his way down to the hall. He started when he saw Iolaus and looked as if he was going to turn away. "Herc, c-could I speak to you please?"
"What is it, Iolaus?" The voice was harsh.
"Could we go into your room?"
"Look, Iolaus, the girls are waiting for me. Just say whatever you want to say and get it over with."
"I can't. Not here."
"Well it had better wait until later then. I'm in a hurry."
"Please, Herc." He grasped Hercules' arm.
"No!" Hercules shook him off. "Actually I'm not interested in any excuses you've got."
Excuses? Iolaus was mystified. "W-What do you mean, Herc?"
"Surely I don't have to spell it out," the demigod snapped.
"I don't understand ... "
"Iolaus, I saw you today with Briseis. Is that clear enough for you?" he added sarcastically.
The hunter was stunned. "You ... You *saw* me?"
"Why didn't ... Why didn't you help me?"
"Why didn't you help me?" Tears began to trickle down the hunter's bone-white face.
"Iolaus, stop play-acting! It's no good trying to kid me that you weren't a willing participant in what went on. I saw you just lying there letting him kiss and caress you."
"Herc, it *wasn't* like that, he forced ... "
"Yeah, it *looked* like it. You look in pretty good shape to me, not a cut or bruise in sight. You must have put up quite a fight," he added caustically.
"Herc, please don't ... "
"You know I was stupid enough to believe our relationship meant something to you. That it wasn't just sexual."
"It did! It *does*!"
"Not from where I'm standing."
Stung, Iolaus found himself blurting, "And I suppose you thought abandoning me for your breakfast assignation on our first day here doesn't count."
"I wondered when we'd come back to that. You went off with Briseis originally just to get at me for that, didn't you? Now, when you've had a little tiff with him, you think you can come crawling back and ... "
"No! Please, Herc, it *wasn't* like that."
"What then?" His voice was icy. "It was only last night you were here crawling around me trying to get me to acknowledge our relationship publicly. I said we would talk it over, but that wasn't good enough for you was it? No, you obviously decided to try to force my hand by throwing yourself at Briseis. Well, maybe he gave you a bit more than you wanted, but that's your hard luck. That's what happened, isn't it? Refute that if you can! Come on, let's hear your explanation?"
Iolaus stared at Hercules. It was like looking at a stranger and a hostile one at that. Hercules was shutting him out. He lowered his head. "It doesn't matter. You're not going to believe me anyway. You've already made up your mind."
"If that's all you've got to say, I'll go and join the ladies." He stalked off.
Iolaus stared mutely after him. He wanted to run after Hercules, to beg him to listen, but what was the point? Hercules obviously believed him to be a liar as well as a sexual cheat. The one person he had believed truly loved him didn't care enough to trust him or even to listen to him. The bitter anguish that flooded over him at this rejection exceeded even that engendered by the sexual assault.
'There's nothing to stay here for now. I might as well leave," he thought bleakly. He went to his room and picked up his sword and carry-bag. He slipped quietly down the stairs and out into the courtyard.
The portcullis was raised and the drawbridge was down because there were guests due to arrive, but the gate-house was manned. Three guards moved to intercept him. "Where are you off to at this time of night, Blondie?" one asked.
He tried to push past them, but one caught his arm. "We're talking to you."
"Let go or ... "
Iolaus tried unsuccessfully to shrug the hand off. "Let go!"
"When we're ready. Numicus here tells us you're free with your favors and we'd like a taste," Rhenus sneered.
"Damn you! Get out of my way!"
"Come on, Blondie, you know you love it." Rhenus began to pull him towards the gate-house door. Iolaus dropped his bag and smashed a fist into the man's face. The guard dropped like a stone. The hunter jumped over the body, whirled around, crouched slightly and launched himself feet first at the other two. Saronis took a boot fair in the middle of his face and fell, but the other twisted to one side and avoided the kick. Iolaus landed on the man he had kicked. He scrambled to his feet, only to have to fling himself backwards as Numicus swung his sword. He wasn't quite fast enough. The sword cut deeply into his right shoulder. He bit back a scream and clumsily dragged out his own weapon, transferring it quickly to his left hand.
He'd had enough. His opponent was one of the bastards who had raped him and he was going to die for it. Hardly bothering to keep his guard up, he advanced casually towards his enemy. Numicus was little more than a youth with a youth's cockiness, but this faltered as he looked into the hunter's eyes and saw his death reflected there. He began to back away. The hunter followed, his eyes locked on his opponent's face. Numicus backed up until he was against the outer wall of the castle. In desperation, he lunged at the hunter. At the last moment, Iolaus sidestepped and brought his blade up and into the Numicus' throat. The force of the thrust pushed the blade right through his neck. With a vicious twist, Iolaus withdrew the sword and dropped it to the ground.
It was only then that he became aware of the blood flooding down his chest. He raised his left hand to the wound. It was deep and needed urgent attention, but it would have to wait for any real care. He staggered back to his carry-bag, pulled out his blanket and used his hunting knife to quickly cut off a piece to wad the wound. He couldn't do more. He had to get out before anyone came as a wave of dizziness warned him he wasn't up to another fight. Clutching the pad in place, he moved swiftly across the drawbridge and off into the night.
Hercules spent a most unpleasant evening. His mind kept going over and over what had happened. Upsetting images of the hunter's pale, tear-stained face and disheveled hair kept intruding on his thoughts but, balanced against those, was the hateful vision of Iolaus' smooth, ivory body trembling under Briseis' caress.
Ledaea and Graeci kept up their usual flirtatious banter as best they could, but they found it hard-going as the demigod sat stony-faced and inattentive. He obviously had something on his mind and, since they knew nothing of their father's machinations on their behalf, they were both mystified, not to say miffed, at his failure to appreciate their sallies. He hadn't even complemented them on the new dresses they had had made especially for his benefit. At one point an exasperated Graeci suddenly asked bluntly, "What's on your mind?" and, to his horror, Hercules blurted, "Iolaus!" That had not been well received by either twin. How could Hercules ignore all their best lines and their gorgeous looks and think about the scruffy, little blond?
Relations became more and more strained as the evening progressed. Hercules was grateful when the hour finally arrived when he could excuse himself and retire to bed.
As he walked along the dark passage, he saw a figure standing in the shadows by his door. His first thought was that it was Iolaus, but he realized it was too tall. "Hercules?" it asked. The voice was little more than a whisper.
"My name is Azides. I need to speak to you. It's urgent! I don't want anyone to see me."
Once inside and a couple of lamps lit, he turned to the youth. "How can I help?"
"It's ... It's about Iolaus."
"Has he sent you to see me?"
"Please, will you promise not to say it was me who came here. Briseis would kill me if he knew."
"You see Iolaus was kind to me. He took me hunting and stopped Briseis hitting me. He didn't deserve what they did to him."
An icy hand clutched Hercules' heart. "What do you mean?"
"Lichas, he's one of the bodyguard, was laughing about it in the barracks tonight. He said ... He said ... "
"Go on," Hercules encouraged.
"Last night, he and one of the other guards had helped Briseis and Argius trick Iolaus into going to a part of the castle that's not used much. He said they'd been trying to seduce Iolaus and it hadn't worked so they decided to ... to force him. The four of them got him down and drugged him and then ... then ... he said they all ... It's not fair! They just do what they like to people because everyone is scared of Briseis."
Hercules had been listening in horror. Gods, Iolaus had been telling the truth. He'd come to him for help and he hadn't listened. Iolaus had needed him and he'd turned him away. "Do you know where Iolaus is now?"
"No and I'm really worried because he's hurt."
"You mean from the attack?"
"No. Not long after Lichas had finished telling us, Saronis, one of the guards from the gate-house came in. He had a broken nose and his face was all bloody. He told us he and two others spoke to Iolaus as he was leaving the castle and he attacked them for no reason. I don't believe that. He wouldn't do that. Two of them are battered and one's dead. We all rushed out to see the other two. The dead man was Numicus one of those Lichas said was in on the rape. Iolaus' sword was there all covered with blood and there was a trail of blood across the drawbridge. They're planning to go after him as soon as it gets light. I didn't know what to do so I came to you because he told me all about you and how you were his best friend."
"Thank you. Don't worry, I'll find him. I'll see he's okay. You'd better get back before someone misses you." The boy hurried off.
Hercules sat down heavily on the bed. He felt sunk under a weight of guilt. The boy had called him Iolaus' "best friend" and he didn't deserve that title. All he could see was Iolaus' desperate tear-stained face as he'd appealed to Hercules to listen to him. He wouldn't have turned anyone else away under those circumstances. He'd allowed his own feelings of hurt and jealousy to dictate his behavior and had ruthlessly pushed aside any feelings of compassion and love. However, now was not the time to waste on regrets. He had to find Iolaus quickly.
His local knowledge stood him in good stead. He hurried to the home of a villager, who owned a dog renowned for its skill in tracking. Nothus did not hesitate when he saw who had awoken him and quickly got the dog for him.
He took the dog back to the castle and found a piece of Iolaus' blanket in the courtyard. After that, the dog demonstrated its worth and it was only about half an hour before the dog located the hunter. Iolaus was lying facedown in some long grass, having fainted from blood-loss.
"Iolaus!" He knelt and gently rolled his friend onto his back. "Iolaus, can you hear me?"
"Herc?" His voice was a whisper.
"Thank the gods." He reached for the rough, blood-soaked bandage.
"Leave that alone!" Iolaus' voice was weak, but determined.
"I'm just going to look at your injury."
"No! Leave it! I don't want *you* to touch it."
"Iolaus, it needs attention."
"I know, but I don't want *you* to do anything."
"You've made it quite clear what ... what you th-think of me. Now just leave me alone."
"Iolaus, you've lost a hell of a lot of blood. If I don't help you, you might ... might ... "
"Might die? What do you care?"
"Damn you, Iolaus, just stop it! You *know* I care about you." He reached for the bandage again. Iolaus tried to push him away. A wave of fear went through the demigod when he realized just how feeble the hunter was.
"All right, calm down. I won't touch your shoulder, but I *will* take you to the village healer. He can look at it."
He swept Iolaus up into his arms. The blond started to push against him, but realized he could do nothing against Hercules' strength and gave up. Truth to tell, Iolaus felt so much better in Hercules' arms. His shoulder was aching badly and he was very weak from loss of blood, but lying in his erstwhile friend's arms was like reaching a safe haven after the hell he'd been through.
He allowed his head to flop back on Hercules' shoulder. For now, at least, he didn't have to think or act. He could just let go. He allowed himself to release his tenuous hold on consciousness.
Hercules felt him go limp. His blood went cold. Surely he hadn't been too late. He quickened his pace.
Dolichaon was sleeping soundly when the pair arrived, but he got up without complaint to see to the hunter. The wound he exposed when he removed the sodden blanket bandage was both jagged and deep. By contrast to its angry red, Iolaus' ivory skin looked paler than ever, dangerously so. "I'll have to clean this quickly and cauterize it. He's lost a worrying amount of blood by the look of him." The hunter never moved while this was done. 'At least, he wasn't aware of the cauterization,' Hercules thought. He'd had to watch his friend suffer that in the past and was sure he felt all the pain Iolaus had borne so stoically.
Dolichaon bandaged the shoulder firmly, immobilizing the hunter's right arm as well by binding it to his chest. "I don't want him to be able to use that arm at all. Now could you raise him slightly please?" Dolichaon requested. "I want to get a potion in to him that will help prevent infection setting in. I've also put some poppy syrup in it as we need to keep him as quiet and still as possible so he doesn't thrash around, if he becomes feverish, and break the stitches."
That done, Hercules suggested the healer go back to bed. "I'll watch over him. I'll wake you if necessary."
"You look like you need the rest more than I do."
"No, I *need* to look after him. His injury is largely my fault." He didn't explain further. He settled down on a chair beside the bed, his eyes never leaving his friend. "Iolaus," he whispered, "I'm so sorry. I should have listened to you. This is all my fault."
As the hours passed, he became aware that Iolaus was developing a slight fever. He sponged his face and held him gently when he started to move about. The hunter seemed to calm when Hercules held him, but if the contact was broken he began to move restlessly again. In the end, it was easiest to settle himself on the bed with Iolaus' head on his shoulder. 'And Dolichaon can think what he likes about us,' was Hercules last thought on the subject as he dozed off as well. Iolaus would have been amazed if he could have read that thought.
Nothing goes unreported in a small village and, not long after daybreak, the news that Hercules and his friend were at the healer's house was already common knowledge. Of course, Hercules had seen no need for secrecy. He knew Iolaus had been treated very badly at the castle, but had no idea that Lord Demos had any part in this and so anticipated a fair hearing for Iolaus from his friend.
By mid-morning, news of the pair's whereabouts had reached the castle and had been relayed to the guards, who had been conducting a fruitless search for the hunter since daybreak. Accordingly, a group arrived at Dolichaon's home to take charge of Iolaus.
Iolaus was asleep. Dolichaon had given him more drugs to quieten him as he'd become more restless as the night had progressed and, once Hercules had arisen for he day, had began to thrash around in the absence of the comforting arms.
Both Dolichaon and Hercules had opposed the order that Iolaus be handed over to be returned to the castle. Neither felt he should be moved. The guards were adamant. He'd killed one of their number and should stand trial before Lord Demos. It looked like the argument might escalate into conflict, when a boy came panting up seeking the healer. He had run from a distant farmlet to seek aid for his mother, who was very ill.
"I'm sorry, Hercules," Dolichaon said, "I'll have to go and I may be away some hours. I'm a bit worried that Iolaus' fever might build, so it would be as well to take him to the castle as Lord Demos has his own healer there. I've got a litter you can use. After the drugs I've given him he should be out for another three hours. If you carry him slowly and gently his stitches should be okay."
Iolaus was still wearing his leather trousers as Hercules had felt awkward about stripping him the previous night after his earlier insistence that he did not want Hercules to touch him. Hercules put his boots back on him and then gently lifted him on to the litter. The party slowly made their way to the castle once more.
On arrival at the castle, Hercules ignored the guards and carried the hunter carefully to the healer's quarters. He explained to the elderly physician what the village healer had done. He placed Iolaus on the bed, but decided not to attempt to remove his trousers or boots in case he woke him.
The old man made it clear that he did not want him hanging around getting in his way and, in any case, pointed out that the drugs Dolichaon had given the hunter should, hopefully, keep him asleep for some time. He suggested Hercules go and get some sleep himself. This advice was given more from a desire to get him out of the sickroom than from any concern for the demigod..
Iolaus was awake. He lay very still, keeping his eyes shut, trying to identify where he was from the sounds and smells around him. He felt feverish and very weak. He was aware that his right shoulder and arm were bandaged. His head was muzzy from the drugs Dolichaon had given him. Accordingly, knowing his vulnerable state, he hoped to determine his location before alerting possible watchers that he had recovered consciousness. He could smell herbs, but the only noise was someone occasionally moving across the room. He gave up and opened his eyes to find himself in an unfamiliar room. An elderly man was standing by the bed. "You're awake at last, are you?"
"W-Who are you?" he asked shakily.
"I'm Macherus. I'm Lord Demos' healer."
Iolaus was aghast. "I'm ... I'm back at the castle?"
"Yes, Hercules brought you to me earlier this morning."
Iolaus' mind was in a whirl. He had no recollection of his time at Dolichaon's house. It appeared to him that Hercules had taken him straight back to the castle and had handed him over to his enemies. 'How could he do this to me?' he wondered. "He must blame me for all that's happened.' He had a vivid, heart-wrenching memory of being in Hercules' arms and how good it had felt. 'I'm a bloody fool,' he thought. 'I still love him so much. I know he doesn't care about me any more, but I can't help wanting him.'
"Where is Hercules?"
"I advised him to get some sleep, as he looked worn out, and I told him you would probably not regain consciousness for some time so it was no use hanging around here getting in my way. He said he was going to see Lord Demos."
"How long ago was that?"
"About two hours so it looks like he must have taken my advice."
"W-Was he *really* going to wait with me?" Iolaus asked, hopefully.
"I don't know. I just thought he might have intended to do so. I don't like friends and relatives of patients hanging and getting in my way," said Macherus, effectively extinguishing the small flame of hope that had flared in Iolaus' breast.
Iolaus tried to raise himself to get a better look at his surroundings. Macherus reached out and gently, but firmly, pushed him back. "You must lie still. You've lost a lot of blood and I don't want you to start the wound bleeding again after all my work to close it."
Iolaus lay back. He tried to think of what to do next, but his brain didn't seem to be functioning very clearly. Staying at the castle was definitely not an option, but he knew he wasn't going to get far in his condition.
However, a short time later any freedom of choice was gone as the door burst open and Saronis and Rhenus entered. "What do you mean by coming in here without my leave?" Macherus demanded.
"Your leave?" Saronis laughed, " Lord Demos' personal guard goes where it likes, old man. We've come to relieve you of your charge. A prisoner belongs in the dungeons, not lounging around being waited on."
"Prisoner? What do you mean?"
"Surely you've heard that that little bastard killed Numicus in an unprovoked attack last night. You treated my injury so you must know about the incident."
"Yes, but Lord Demos' guest, Hercules, delivered him to me for treatment so I thought that ... "
"It doesn't matter what you thought, now you *know*." He turned to Iolaus, "Okay, runt, get up!"
The old healer tried again. "You can't move him. If his shoulder starts bleeding again he may die."
"What does it matter? Lord Demos is certain to sentence him to death anyway. Anyway, after what he did to me, I'm planning that he'll lose quite a bit more blood before he comes to trial. Now get out of the way!" As he spoke, he gave the old man a hard shove that caused him to stumble against a small table covered with his precious instruments and jars of medicines. All went flying. With a cry of horror, the old man knelt to try to salvage his treasures, forgetting his patient in the face of this disaster.
Iolaus had been listening to the exchange with apprehension. Under normal circumstances, the two men confronting him would have given him no difficulty at all, but, with a sinking heart, he knew he wasn't going to be able to resist them. He didn't have the strength to obey them either. But what did it really matter either way? He felt so alone, so confused and depressed that he'd just about given up. His body and spirit ached for rest.
They yanked him off the bed, but he couldn't stand unaided. The room seemed to be tilting around him and he fell back against the bed. His legs gave way and he sank to his knees. With a grunt of annoyance, Rhenus bent down, grasped the blond and flung him across his shoulder. Iolaus couldn't bring himself to even try to make a token resistance. Let them do what they liked, he didn't care any more.
They took him to the dungeons and into a cell. Once there, they removed the bandages that had bound his arm to his chest, so they could use the manacles on the cell wall. Because of the height of these, Iolaus could barely touch the ground. The pain from the strain on his wrists and shoulders was excruciating. His shoulder wound immediately began to seep as the stitches gradually parted.
"Unfortunately we're both on due to attend Lord Demos so we can't stay here to keep you company, but before we go we'll give you a taste of what we've got in store for you," Saronis said. With that he laid a whip across Iolaus' back. The force of the blow slammed Iolaus into the rough stone wall. He was unable to bite back a cry of pain as his shoulder wound opened further. Several other lashes followed before the two left him alone in the dark. He could feel the blood pulsing out of his shoulder wound and running down his chest. 'The way I'm bleeding, I'll probably cheat them of their fun,' he thought wryly, closing his eyes and submitting to the demands of pain and exhaustion.
Meanwhile, Hercules had been searching unsuccessfully for Lord Demos. He finally located Graeci and Ledaea, who informed him that their father had been called out on estate business and would return in an hour or so. The demigod would have gone after him, but the girls were vague as to his location. "Don't worry, we'll entertain you until he returns," Ledaea smiled, observing his distracted air.
"Anyway our father had you away hunting yesterday and so it's our turn to enjoy your company," Graeci added.
The girls tried their best, but he was as unresponsive to their flirtation as he had been the previous evening. "What's wrong, Hercules?" Graeci asked. "Have we upset you in some way?"
"Of course not, I'm just worried about ... " He trailed off remembering the ill-concealed hostility the twins had shown at the mention of the hunter the previous night.
However, his reference was clear. "Don't you *ever* stop thinking and talking about him?" Graeci asked, pouting. "Under the circumstances, I would have thought you'd have preferred to forget you'd ever known him."
"What on earth do you mean?"
"Well everybody's been talking about him." She lowered her voice and shivered deliciously at the thought of the scandal. "It's said that he's been *sleeping* with Briseis and with *any* of the other guards who are interested. Just think, sleeping with other men! What a *disgusting* thought!"
"And what about his attack on poor Numicus and the others?" Ledaea added. Her voice was sober, but her eyes were sparkling with malice.
"Please stop it both of you! You're wrong! You know nothing about Iolaus," Hercules protested.
"We know all we need to know. I didn't think you'd have anything to do with a person like that Hercules and," she added primly, "I'm very surprised you'd bring someone like that into our home."
"You should have more concern for your own reputation," Graeci commented. "People might think you're like him if ... "
"Stop it! If people thought I was like Iolaus, I wouldn't mind at all. I'd be proud to be likened to him. He's brave, honest, loyal ... "
Graeci interrupted, "You might *believe* that, but I overheard father saying ... " She trailed off, wondering if it was wise to admit eavesdropping on her parent.
"Well go on! What did he say?"
"I probably shouldn't repeat it."
"I can't remember his exact words, but he was saying to one of his friends that he thinks Iolaus has completely hoodwinked you as to his true nature. He said you're too trusting and you've taken him on face value."
"He's right," Hercules observed, with some bitterness, "I have been too trusting in *some* of my friendships, but *not* with Iolaus." There was no reaction. The sarcasm was lost on the two spoilt girls, who could not imagine for one moment that he could possibly be referring to their family. After all, they were only speaking out in the demigod's best interests, weren't they?
Hercules excused himself and retired to his room to think things over. The conversation he'd just had had shocked him. The twins had shown a side to their natures that he had not suspected to exist. 'Of course,' Hercules, always ready to see the good in others, thought, 'they're only young and they are parroting their elders and are trying to appear to know more than they do.' The trouble with that thought was that it implied others had obviously been making such comments, if not to them then in their presence. Even worse, if Graeci was to be believed, her father had accepted the rumors as true. What chance did that give Iolaus of getting a fair hearing over Numicus' death?
He lay back on the bed and closed his eyes as he mulled over all that had happened. Unfortunately, he had had little rest the previous night and so, in spite of all his worries, he fell asleep. An hour or more had passed when he awoke with a jolt. Iolaus! He had a dreadful feeling that the hunter was dying.
He rushed back to the sickroom. To his horror, the bed was empty. Macherus was busily tidying up a various items that had been tipped onto the floor. He was muttering to himself and didn't even turn around when the demigod entered. "What's happened? Where is Iolaus?"
"I don't know. I'm busy."
"*Where* is he?" There was a threatening undercurrent in Hercules' voice.
Macherus went on the defensive, protesting, "It wasn't my fault. I couldn't do anything. They wouldn't listen to me."
"What wasn't your fault? *Where* is Iolaus?"
"A couple of guards took him."
"They said he was dangerous and was to be locked up until Lord Demos has a chance to hear the case against him."
"Dangerous? But you saw the condition he was in."
"Yes, but they wouldn't listen to me. Anyway who am I to gainsay Lord Demos' orders?"
Hercules didn't know if the orders had been given by Demos or not. As far as he knew Demos had not returned to the castle unless he had done so when Hercules was sleeping. "Where did they take him?"
"The dungeons, I suppose. Now please, I'm busy. I have to sort out all the things that were knocked over."
There were two men guarding the stairs that descended to the dungeons. "I'm sorry, no unauthorized people are allowed past this point."
Hercules was going to brook no delay. "I'm going down there now, with or without permission. We can make this easy or hard. Choose quickly!"
One started to draw his sword. That was enough. The demigod grabbed one man in each hand and smashed their heads together. He stepped over them and bounded down the stairs.
It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the dark, the only illumination being a single candle flickering fitfully in a wall sconce. He called his friend's name, but got no reply. Then he heard a faint groan. He peered into a cell and could see a dark figure suspended in shackles against the far wall. He tried the cell door. It was locked. He wasn't going to waste time going back to seek the key on the guards. He grasped the door and ripped it off its hinges. He then grabbed the candle and hurried into the cell. He could see thin red lines criss-crossing Iolaus' back, but worse was to come. He pushed Iolaus as gently as he could against the wall and pinned him there with his body so he would not fall. Then he reached up and snapped the shackles as if they were mere twigs. He wrapped his arms around Iolaus to lower him. The hunter's body was wet and slippery and he realized his chest and stomach were covered with blood. He was alive, but his pulse was very faint.
Hercules felt a surge of blind panic. What should he do? He would have preferred to take Iolaus to Dolichaon, but the village was too far and there was no guarantee that the healer would have returned. Macherus was the hunter's only hope. He swept Iolaus into his arms and hastened for the sickroom, feeling his friend's blood soaking through his shirt. The greeting he received was not encouraging. "Why have you brought him back here?"
"He needs urgent attention. His stitches have broken."
"I can't treat him. I'll get into trouble."
"If you don't help him, he'll die and then you'll find out what trouble really is."
"I'll have to check with Lord Demos."
"There isn't time. I'll do what's needed myself. Just give me something to wad the wound while I heat a knife. I'll cauterize it and stitch it."
However, rather than see someone else usurp his position, the old man grumpily took over. To Hercules' relief, once underway, he worked surprisingly quickly and efficiently and soon had the wound closed and bandaged firmly. With Hercules' help, he forced a herbal concoction down the hunter's throat. "I've done all I can. He's so weak from blood loss he's probably going to die anyway, but you can't blame me for that, I've done my best," Macerus pronounced pessimistically, looking at the hunter's skin, which was so pale as to be almost translucent.
"He'll make it. I won't accept anything else. I won't let him die again." The old healer did a double-take at the last word, but said nothing.
Hercules sat by the bed watching each shallow breath, willing Iolaus to keep fighting. He bathed the blond's face, smoothed his tousled curls, held him gently but firmly when he tossed fretfully and constantly murmured words of endearment and encouragement to him. The words left no doubt as to their relationship, as Hercules poured out all his love for the hunter.
The demigod had no sense of the hours passing. His world had narrowed down to this one man who *must not* die. He concentrated his whole being on Iolaus. He was *not* going to let him go.
A message arrived from Lord Demos to say that he had returned. Hercules sent one back saying he could not leave Iolaus. He made no apology for this. He was determined that he was never going to leave *his* hunter again. Nobody was going to have an opportunity to hurt *his* lover ever again.
Iolaus was floating in a dark sea. He wanted so much to surrender to it, to let the tide drift him gently away, away from all his pain and anguish, away from a harsh and lonely world where the one person he loved no longer cared for him. The trouble was there was someone stopping him. He kept hearing a low and soothing voice. Its words were indistinct, but he knew it was forbidding him to go, telling him he *had* to stay. He felt the soft touch of the hands that went with the voice. Gentle, but firm and compelling, they were holding him back from the welcoming darkness. He managed to reach for one of the hands intending to push it away, but found himself grasping it tightly. Holding it made him feel safer. He heard the voice lift with joy in reaction to his touch. Now he could feel lips brushing his.
He tried to force his eyes open. He blinked several times. The room was blurred. He could recognize the shape bending over him as a person, but couldn't identify him.
Hercules watched the struggle, his heart contracting at the sight of the dull, unfocused eyes and the dark rings beneath them, which stood out in sharp contrast to the ashen face.
The hunter's lips moved as he tried to speak. "W-Where ... "
"It's all right, Iolaus."
Hercules! Iolaus flinched at the voice. "Where am I?"
"In the healer's room at the castle." Hercules had intended the words to be reassuring, but to Iolaus they were anything but.
"How did I get here?"
"I brought you."
"Herc, c-couldn't you have ... have just left me in the woods? Why did ... Why did you make me c-come back here?" he gasped brokenly. This was Iolaus with his defenses down. He sounded so weak, so completely defeated.
Hercules looked into Iolaus' eyes and saw the fear and anguish there. He knew he'd hurt him terribly by his earlier rejection and now realized that the hunter felt bringing him back to the castle was a further betrayal. "Iolaus, please listen ... " he started.
Iolaus interrupted. "Why couldn't you have left me?" His voice was so bleak, so weary, it wrung Hercules' heart and he felt tears forming in his eyes. "Why did you make me come back?"
A tear rolled down the hunter's cheek. Hercules put out a gentle hand to intercept it and Iolaus flinched away. "Please, Iolaus, I'm not going to hurt you. I'm trying to help you." The confused and doubting look on the blond's face cut the demigod to the quick. He didn't know what to say to start to make amends.
At that moment, Macherus bustled into the room and started. "He's awake?" he said, in an incredulous tone.
"Just," Hercules responded, undecided whether to be annoyed or grateful for the distraction. Had he known just how grateful he was going to be in a few moments he would have been amazed. Unwittingly, Macherus was about to confirm the demigod's love for the hunter.
"Well, that really surprises me, I didn't think he had a chance. I hope you'll now be able to go away and stop cluttering up my sickroom. It's bad enough when I have patients' relatives in here getting in my way, but having lovers moaning and sighing is the outside of enough.
"*Lovers?*" Iolaus gasped, his eyes now wide open.
"Yes! I can't say I approve of such goings on, especially in public. I'd have thought considerably more discretion would be advisable under the circumstances."
"How ... How does he know?" the hunter stammered. He was confused by Macherus' words, which implied that the demigod had not been his usual circumspect self. *That* couldn't be true. 'I must have misheard him,' he thought, very aware that his mind was still fuzzy. Suddenly, the thought struck him that he must have been delirious. He was horrified. "I-I'm sorry, Herc. Please forgive me. I didn't ... I didn't mean to say anything."
"It wasn't you," Hercules said, hastening to reassure him, "it was me."
The hunter could only stare at him.
"I was so worried about you, I couldn't help caressing you and talking to you about how much I love and need you. *Anything* to keep you with me. I was so scared you were going to leave me. So now he knows, just like Dolichaon does."
"The village healer. I took you to his home first. I'm afraid you slept in my arms that night, so now he knows all about us as well."
"I'm so sorry, Herc," Iolaus apologized, in a tone of hopeless resignation, aware how upset Hercules would be at having their secret exposed.
"No, Iolaus, *you* have nothing to be sorry for. If people know of our relationship that's too bad. I'm not going to make an effort to hide it any more. I'm sorry I was stupid enough to try to do so in the first place. I am not ashamed of loving you."
"Herc, you don't have to do this."
"I *want* to."
Iolaus tried to raise himself so he could put his arms around Hercules, but the effort was too much. He fell back gasping, tears of weakness flooding his eyes.
"Iolaus, lie still, you might rip your stitches out again. Do you want something for the pain?"
Hercules smiled in relief. "*That* will definitely have to wait."
Three days had passed. Days in which Hercules' lived in the sickroom, nearly driving Macherus to distraction. Days full of explanations, tears, apologies and gentle caresses.
Iolaus was still dreadfully weak, but he was determined to leave the castle and would not be truly at his ease until he had done so.
In truth, Hercules was also uncomfortable. He still had no idea of the part Lord Demos had played in events and he was guiltily aware that he was hardly acting the part of grateful guest, but he could not bring himself to let Iolaus out of his sight and so, as Demos did not apparently choose to visit the sickroom, they had no direct contact.
However, now that he'd allowed the hunter to persuade him, against his better judgement and Macherus' professional opinion, that he was fit enough to leave, he felt it was time to meet Demos face-to-face.
Demos had been anticipating the meeting with some trepidation as he was not sure if Hercules suspected his complicity in events. From reports he had received from Macherus, he was aware that Hercules and the blond were as close as ever. Indeed, far from driving a wedge between the two, if Macherus was to be believed, all he had done was to lead the two to decide to abandon any public discretion in their relationship.
Obviously any hopes he had cherished about having a demigod as a son-in-law were long gone and he hoped to just get the farewells over as quickly and quietly as possible, avoiding any possible recriminations. Unfortunately, for this plan to work, he needed to have confided it to several other key players in the affair and he hadn't done so.
When Hercules and Iolaus approached him he was in the castle's hall, surrounded by his daughters and his attendants. Various rumors had been flying about and so many of the castle's occupants had gathered in silent anticipation to see what would happen. They were immediately rewarded with a juicy bit of scandal.
The hall was some distance from the healer's quarters and Iolaus, for all his claims to the contrary, was still feeling very fragile. The walk had really been too much for him and his head was spinning. Hercules heard the hunter softly gasp his name and spun around just in time to clutch the blond to him as he started to slump. He held Iolaus tightly against him. "Are you okay, Iolaus? You'd better sit down, my love," he said, as he helped Iolaus into a chair and embraced him briefly.
The words had slipped out without thought and, although spoken quietly, they rang through the silence of the hall. The listeners were riveted by this public acknowledgement and no-one was more stunned than Iolaus. Even though he knew Hercules had sworn off secrecy, he'd *never* anticipated this openness. The endearment was one he'd heard Hercules use when speaking to Deianeria, but he'd never used it, even in private, when addressing Iolaus.
Graeci gave a short, theatrical shriek of disgust, while Ledaea asked, "Father how could you invite people like *that* to our home?"
Saronis decided it was time to speak up as well. He had been very concerned that Lord Demos seemed to be meeting the pair merely to farewell them rather than to try and punish the hunter for the broken nose he had suffered. He had chosen to forget the cause of the fight. So now he called out, "My Lord, surely you are not going to let the vicious attack that Iolaus made on members of your guard go unpunished."
"Of course he's not! You're going to see he's punished, aren't you, father?" Graeci appealed.
"And he must answer for his unprovoked attack on Numicus that led to his death," Lichas added.
*That* was too much for Azides. He stood up, knees shaking and voice trembling. He pointed at Lichas and cried, "He's lying! That fight wasn't unprovoked. Lichas boasted in the barracks how he, Briseis, Argius and Numicus had raped Iolaus. Everyone there heard him, although they might not have the guts to say it."
"I have." A grizzled warrior stood up. He wasn't going to be put to shame by a mere boy. "I heard him."
That started a flood. Man after man rose to support Azides. Briseis, in particular, was not a popular man and so many chose to vent old grievances against him. Demos was being forced into a corner. "This is all news to me. I will have to look ... " He was about to say "into the allegations", although he had no intention of actually doing so as that would bring his own activities to light.
However, Briseis did not realize this. He could see himself being made the scapegoat for the whole affair and he wasn't about to accept that. "My Lord," he interrupted, "you know I was only carrying out your orders with regard to Iolaus!"
All eyes turned to Demos. Many felt no real surprise at the revelation as they knew how Demos and his Captain of the Bodyguard always worked hand-in-glove, but all were keen to see how the warlord would react.
Hercules was one of the few who had had no idea of the warlord's true nature. He was stunned speechless.
Demos rose abruptly and looked at him. "I think we might continue this discussion in private," he said.
Hercules could only nod agreement. He glanced at the ashen-faced hunter. "You go, Herc. I'll be okay," Iolaus said.
"No, I want you with me," Hercules said, and offered the hunter his arm.
They followed Demos to his private chambers. Once there, Demos, to his credit, did not attempt to prevaricate. "All I can say is that I acted from what I believed to be good intentions. I wanted you for one of my daughters. This had been a dream of mine for some years. I had heard rumors about you and your friend, but had not believed them. However, when I saw him, I feared there might be some basis to the stories. I saw Iolaus as a threat to my daughters' chances and decided to remove him as a possible rival to them. I hoped Briseis could simply seduce your friend away from you but, as you know, that didn't work and so we decided to try more drastic measures. However, there was no intention that he should actually get hurt."
"No intention? How does a pack rape fit into the picture then?" asked the demigod, heatedly.
"I thought Briseis might take advantage of the situation, but I didn't expect he'd invite others to join him." Unfortunately, he could resist adding, in a show of bravado, "Anyway Iolaus probably enjoyed it."
As soon as he'd said that he could have bitten out his tongue at the expression of murderous fury on Hercules' face. He had a feeling his last moments had come and, indeed, that was nearly the case. Hercules, grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off the ground. He could hardly breathe and he could feel the demigod's fingers tightening. His world was going black.
Iolaus looked on in shock. Hercules was going to kill in cold blood and for him. As much as he desired revenge on Demos and the others, he couldn't allow that. If Hercules took an action so abhorrent to his true nature, he might suffer from regret in the future. He grasped his friend's arm and begged, "Please, Herc, don't! He's not worth it. Forget him. I just want to leave."
For a few moments, it appeared as if his plea would go unheeded, but then the demigod suddenly released Demos. The latter fell, gasping, to the floor. A trembling Hercules turned to the hunter, who opened his arms and drew him into an embrace. "Thank you, Herc. Thank you, both for the thought and for not carrying it out," he whispered.
They left quietly, but not before Hercules had supplied Azides with a letter of introduction that would assure him of a welcome and a place at Iphicles' court.
The two traveled in easy stages over the course of the following week. Hercules was very loving and attentive and was concerned that the hunter should rest frequently and not overtax himself. Although they slept in each other's arms, the demigod made it clear that any further activity was going to wait until he was certain that Iolaus had recovered. The blond objected long and strenuously to what he considered an over-solicituous, ridiculous and, given how he was feeling, even inhumane ruling.
By the time they reached the tavern, Iolaus was getting quite desperate and was even wondering if Hercules had decided against resuming their old relationship. The demigod was also feeling the strain, but he was managing to successfully hide the fact from the hunter. He was determined that not only would they wait until Iolaus was well, but that all would be right for their first night and that included having comfortable surroundings and a proper bed.
As they entered the inn, a surprised hunter felt Hercules take his hand. The demigod then approached the landlord, who was serving at the bar, and openly asked for a room with a double bed, totally ignoring the looks and comments from other patrons of the tavern. He then swept the hunter into his arms and fairly charged upstairs with him. Caught completely off-guard, Iolaus was too stunned to make any of his usual complaints about being carried.
Before he could gather his wits, they were in the room and he found himself on his back on the bed with the demigod rapidly undressing him. The gentle and attentive traveling companion had been replaced by the eager and demanding lover. Soon the demigod's hands and lips were roaming teasingly over all of the hunter's body except for the parts that most desired them. Iolaus was getting desperate again. "Please, Herc," he implored, as he raised his hips trying to push against his lover.
"There's no hurry is there?" Hercules inquired sweetly, enjoying Iolaus' need.
"Yes, there damn well is!"
"Well, if we must," the demigod replied, pretending reluctance. "Over you go." He rolled Iolaus onto his stomach but, instead of the action the hunter was frantically craving, began to tantalize with his tongue once more.
He waited until Iolaus was desperate enough to start to take matters into his own hands. As the blond grasped his own cock, Hercules reached over and pushed his hands aside. "*My* prerogative," he stated firmly, as he began to pump the hunter. The latter exploded helplessly almost immediately.
"Thank you," Hercules said, as he used the cum to coat his own penis. Then, in contrast to his earlier behavior, he slammed into Iolaus and began to thrust hard. Iolaus screamed as he was engulfed in an ecstasy of commingled pain and pleasure. "Do you like this, my love? And this? And this?" Hercules asked, grinning broadly as he observed the shaking wreck he was making of his golden lover.
The hunter could only moan in response. He was beyond speech, beyond reason, consumed in a maelstrom of exquisite agony.
This was the demigod at his most possessive, asserting his claim to his lover. This was the demigod who would brook no opposition, who imposed his will on the object of his love and lust. This was the lover that the hunter, though independent to the point of perversity outside the bedroom, often secretly dreamed about. Occasionally it could be so comforting to be dominated by someone one trusted completely.
They climaxed simultaneously. Iolaus' world was black with tiny pin-points of colored light exploding around him. Hercules shouted and then collapsed back on the bed breathing heavily. He pulled Iolaus into his arms and gently kissed his lips.
Iolaus curled sleepily against the demigod and almost purred with happiness as he felt Hercules begin to stroke his golden curls. He was in a state of absolute contentment for Hercules was now *his* lover by both day and night.
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