A Golden Opportunity
A sequel to the series consisting of The Lure, The Centaurs, A Thief's Confession, The Charioteer and Reconciliation?
DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to MCA/Universal and were used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended and no money was made.
"Hercules!" a familiar voice called.
The demigod spun around, smiling in recognition at the self-styled King of Thieves. "Autolycus, it's good to see you. What brings you here?"
"I've been worrying about Iolaus. Did you find him?"
"Yes, he's at his home."
Autolycus looked at the demigod. Something in his tone was not right. "Is he okay?"
"Yes, he hasn't been well, but he's fine now."
"Iolaus has been ill?"
"Yeah, he had some badly infected cuts, including one from a boar's tusk."
"So he obviously went hunting as he said."
"What do you mean 'eventually'?"
"He went to Athens first."
"What??? But he *hates* Athens!" Autolycus exclaimed in surprise.
"And he certainly doesn't like it any more now."
"Why? What happened?"
"I'd rather not say, Autolycus. I don't know any details anyway. You'd better ask Iolaus. He'll probably talk to *you*" There was a definite note of bitterness in the last statement.
"Hercules, what's wrong? Aren't you reconciled with him?"
"No and it seems I'm *never* going to be."
"That bad? But you love Iolaus and I *know* he loves you."
"Yes. Ridiculous isn't it? I've tried talking to him, but I've got nowhere. In fact, you're lucky you caught me because I've given up and I'm planning to set off on my travels again in a couple of hours' time. I can't mope around here any longer getting under my mother's feet and staving off questions from her that I can't answer."
"Hercules, please tell me if I'm out of line, but would you like me to speak to him. I'd like to help if I can."
"You can try if you want. Things can't get any worse." He paused and then said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it to sound like that. If you can help him, I'll be grateful."
"*Help* him? Look, Hercules, I think you'd better give me a few more details about what's wrong so I don't go putting my foot in it."
"I suppose so," the demigod conceded reluctantly, "but it doesn't feel right discussing him behind his back even with a good friend to us both like you. I think ... well, I know, he still hasn't forgiven me for some of the things I said in Preveza. He did tell me he thought he deserved the punch I gave him because he hit me first. I can't agree with that. I don't think I'll ever forgive myself for hitting him. Be that as it may, it's the accusations I made that are still hurting him. I've tried to explain that I just said things to wound him and that I knew in my heart they were not true, but he doesn't seem to be convinced."
"And that's basically the problem, is it?"
"Not entirely. While he was in Athens some man attacked him. He hasn't told me the details of why he was there and how he came into contact with the man. He's just clammed up, but it seems to have brought back all his memories of Mandrocles. He's been having his nightmares again."
"How do you know?"
"That's the silly thing. He let me sleep with him the first two nights after we met up. Indeed, he actually asked if I would as he said he was lonely. He said he didn't want sex, he just wanted to be cuddled. He awoke with the dreams a couple of times during both nights. However, I was happier because I thought sleeping with him was a start and we'd eventually get back to our old relationship, but on the third night he asked me to go home. *That* was it. He wouldn't discuss things. That was nearly three weeks ago and we've made no progress."
"And you didn't try to go further than he wanted?"
"No. I wanted to, of course, but I was being careful not to upset him again."
"Well, I'll go and see if he'll talk to me. Will you wait to hear how I get on?"
"No, I've promised some assistance to some villagers at Lambic and they're expecting me. I really should have left two days ago. I can't see you're going to have any luck and I just feel I'd like to be busy. Besides, I've tried, but I've got to the end of my tether. Any move is going to have to be up to him now."
So Autolycus set off for the hunter's ramshackle home. He knocked and heard Iolaus call, "Please go away, Herc, I don't want visitors."
The door swung open and the small, scruffy blond stood there, looking more unkempt than ever. Autolycus opened his arms and Iolaus walked into them. He clung tightly to the thief and, to the latter's horror, began to weep. Autolycus stroked his silky hair and leant down to bury his face in it. "Come on, Iolaus," he murmured, "Let's go inside."
The untidy house lacked a couch of any description, so he led Iolaus to the bed and sat down beside him, an arm wrapped around his shoulders. "What kind of a greeting was that?" he teased gently. "I hoped you might be pleased to see me."
"I *am* pleased. I *have* missed you, Autolycus."
The thief looked at the blond. He was pale and drawn and looked as if he'd lost weight. "You don't look so well, Iolaus. Are you feeling okay?"
"Y-Yes, I'm fine."
"You don't look it."
"I *was* a bit sick. I got an infected hand. A boar slashed me with its tusk. I must be slowing down in my old age."
"Sounds like it. Did you spend much time hunting after you left me? Where did you go?"
"Oh ... Ah ... various places."
"So you just went hunting and then came home?"
"Ah ... Yeah." There was now a telltale flush in the pallid cheeks.
"Iolaus, don't ever take up my profession."
"You blush when you lie."
"When I lie? What do you mean 'When I lie'? I *did* go hunting!"
"I've no doubt you did, but rumour has it not at once."
"Rumour? Have you been talking to Hercules?"
"Yes and he's very worried about you. Since he's leaving today, he asked me to look in on you."
The hunter's face fell. "*Leaving*? Where's he going? He didn't say *anything* about leaving to me," he babbled, clearly slowing his agitation and dismay.
"Did you give him a chance?"
Iolaus lowered his head so his mop of tangled, golden curls hid his face and muttered, "No."
"Or a reason to stay?"
"No ... Look, Autolycus, it isn't *all* my fault."
"No!" This was in a tone of vehement self-justification. Then, more quietly and sadly, "I thought you might be on my side."
"There are no sides as far as I'm concerned. Have you tried to sort out the problem?"
"N-No." There was a catch in his voice.
"I couldn't ... I didn't know ... I didn't know where to start. I've made such a mess of things."
"Hercules still loves you, you know."
"Yes, but he would ... he would expect ..." His voice trailed off.
"What would he expect?"
"Sex." His voice was a mere whisper.
"But he said he hasn't mentioned it."
"Gods! Is there any bloody thing he hasn't told you?"
"Calm down, Iolaus. He's tried to tell me as little as possible. I didn't like to talk about you behind your back, but he *is* worried and so am I looking at you."
"I'm all right! I don't want people to worry about me. I don't want people to think about me at all. I just want to be left alone." He was now getting very agitated and upset.
"Why? You've always liked company."
"People don't want *my* company. They look at me for what they can get! They just see someone little to bully or someone ... pretty ... to ... to molest. Even someone to use against Hercules."
"What do you mean 'use against Hercules'?"
"Oh, there was something he didn't tell you then," the hunter said sarcastically. "Some bandits tried to hold me to ransom after I came home. They thought Hercules would be prepared to pay for my return. I escaped, so we'll never know if he would have done so."
"You *are* upset, aren't you? Hercules would have given anything to save you and you know it."
"Of course you do! Iolaus, you've got to stop feeling sorry for yourself and talk to people. We can't help you if you don't."
"I *am* talking to you," the hunter protested.
"There's talking and there's talking."
"You know what I mean."
"Is ... Is Herc really leaving?" Iolaus asked tentatively, trying to change the subject away from one he wished to avoid and back to one of real concern.
"Yes, but he won't have gone yet, so if you hurry you can catch him."
"No, I can't ... There's ... There's no point. I can't ..."
"You can't what?" Autolycus asked.
"Nothing. It doesn't matter."
"Iolaus, it clearly *does* matter. Tell me if you can't tell him."
"No. Please, Autolycus, just leave it, I don't want to talk about it." He was almost pleading. "I don't even want to think about it yet. It's too ... too ... recent." The last word hung in the air. It was clearly not the word he meant, but it was one he had suddenly seized upon to avoid explanation.
Autolycus decided to let the topic drop for time being. Having based his profession in a large part on his skills at reading people, if only to find the most effective way to dupe them, he was fully aware any attempt to continue the discussion was likely to be counter-productive. "Okay, let's talk about something else. What's there to do in the local town?"
"Nothing much. You could go to the local tavern."
"What do you mean *I* could go? You're my host and I expect entertainment."
"I'm sorry, Autolycus, I haven't got any money at the moment."
"That doesn't matter. I'll pay and you can put me up here for the night in return."
"That's not necessary, you're welcome to stay here."
"Yes, it *is* necessary. I like company when I drink and since you're all that's offering I guess I'll have to put up with you."
"Since you put it so nicely, I suppose I'll have to go. Anyway, knowing you, you probably couldn't find your way to the town without me there to guide you and you'd certainly get lost coming back in the dark ... Mind you, that mightn't be a bad thing."
Autolycus smiled inwardly. That cheeky retort was more like the old Iolaus. "Well, there's gratitude for you! Here I am offering you an evening of scintillating company and ..."
"Is someone else going to be joining us then?"
"Hopefully, then at least there'll be someone worth chatting to."
They continued to argue companionably all the way to the town.
They had a pleasant time at the tavern. A number of the locals greeted Iolaus in a friendly manner, but their "Long time no see" types of comment, made it clear to the thief that the hunter had not only been trying to avoid the demigod, but had been leading a reclusive existence since his return home. This was so out of character for the gregarious hunter that it was a further testimony to his upset state of mind.
Still the evening passed enjoyably enough and Iolaus was clearly making an effort to be sociable, although Autolycus noticed he showed an incredible interest in what others had been doing lately and tried to keep off the topic of his own activities. However, the only time that he was clearly discomforted was when someone asked where Hercules was and another chipped in that he'd seen the demigod setting off on his travels that day and inquired why the hunter hadn't gone with him. "Oh ... ah ... well, you see ... I-I have a guest," he finished hurriedly as inspiration struck. "Well, I suppose you *could* call this object a guest *if* you stretch your imagination to the limit," he added with a grin, gesturing at Autolycus.
"More like I'm honouring his home with my presence *if* you could call that shack a home," Autolycus responded. "Still not many homes have built in air-conditioning and a lovely view of the stars through the roof."
"Haven't you heard of 5-star accommodation? I thought you went in for luxurious living."
And so the evening passed. All but Autolycus would have seen very little, if any, difference in Iolaus' behaviour to normal, aside from the fact that he didn't bring Hercules into every second sentence, and they would probably have seen that as out of some consideration for his visitor.
When they finally got home, Iolaus insisted Autolycus have the bed. "Sleeping on the floor won't worry me, but a soft thing like you wouldn't get a wink of sleep," he commented.
Autolycus bit back a retort as he knew it was only too true. He liked his creature comforts and didn't want the hunter to renege on the offer.
The first few hours passed peacefully enough, but then a piercing scream cut through the quiet night. Autolycus was on his feet, clutching his sword, before he'd even woken up. Heart pounding, he gazed wildly around. All was still. Then the hunter cried out and he realized that the blond was in the grip of one of his nightmares. He knelt down beside the thrashing form and placed a gentle hand on the blond's shoulder. "Iolaus, wake up."
The next moment he was flat on his back as Iolaus lashed out. He had seen the blow coming, but hadn't been able to avoid it completely and lost his balance and fell. Then he realized Iolaus was getting up and intending to follow up the punch. "Iolaus! It's Autolycus!" he said loudly, as he scrambled to his feet, preparing to fend him off. He reached out and clasped the blond's forearms.
Iolaus stopped. "Autolycus?"
"Yes or the remains of him."
"Are you all right? Did I hurt you? I'm sorry, I thought ... I thought you were ..."
"Who did you think I was?"
"Nobody. I-I don't remember." His eyes were brimming with unshed tears.
"What do you mean 'kind of'? Were you dreaming about him again?"
"He w-was th-there too." There was a sob in his voice and he tried to blink back the threatening tears.
"Too? Who else was in it?"
"The nightmares had stopped. I thought I'd got over it, but then ... but then ... it bloody happened again." Two of the tears escaped and rolled down his cheeks.
Autolycus, was still holding his arms and could feel him shaking with reaction. He pulled Iolaus gently to him and then on to the bed. He wrapped a comforting arm around the hunter's shoulders. "Do you want to tell me about it, Iolaus?"
"No ... N-Not really."
"I think you should."
"Not yet. Please, I'm trying to ... to forget it."
"Okay, but I think talking it over would help with that."
"I'll try to go back to sleep now. I'm sorry I disturbed you."
He started to get up, but Autolycus tightened his grip. "Come to bed with me, Iolaus."
"No!" The note of panic was unmistakable.
"I just mean to sleep. You've slept in my arms before, after we escaped the centaur village, and you slept better. Look, Iolaus, you know you can trust me, don't you?"
"I suppose so."
They climbed into the narrow bed and Autolycus settled the blond's head on his shoulder. "Comfortable?"
"Yes ... Thank you."
The hunter was soon asleep, snuggling against Autolycus. The thief lay awake for some time wondering anew at Iolaus' effect upon him. He had never felt so protective towards anyone. He'd never been so prepared to consider another before himself. He mentally shook his head at his own stupidity. How could he allow himself to be so besotted with a scruffy, little blond, who didn't love him and who, under normal circumstances, gave him nothing but cheek?
The next day, he was awoken as the hunter climbed carefully out of bed, trying not to disturb him. He didn't let on that he had roused and watched the naked blond through lowered lashes. His eyes were riveted on the creamy globes of that perfect arse. The hunter gathered up his clothes and a spear and headed outside.
Autolycus jumped out of bed and looked out. As he had expected, the blond was heading for the river. He could see his beautiful body glowing in the sunlight. 'I shouldn't,' he thought, but he dressed quickly and followed anyway.
Iolaus was already in the water when he arrived. The thief watched him splashing around. Then he stood up in the thigh-deep water, his back to Autolycus and began to soap himself. Water was streaming down his glistening body. The sight was so breathtaking, Autolycus found himself getting aroused. He decided he'd better head back to the house.
At that moment, Iolaus sensed his presence and swung around. "Autolycus?"
"What are you doing up at this hour?"
'Bad choice of words,' Autolycus thought. 'I hope it's not *that* obvious.' "I'm not one to lie in bed," he said.
He knew what response that would get. The hunter laughed and commented, "Not usually much after midday anyway."
"What's for breakfast?" Autolycus asked, deciding to seek a safer topic.
"Fish, at least, it will be once I've caught some. You can come and watch if you like."
'More bad choices of words,' the thief thought. 'Perhaps he should have said "watch and come" and I certainly do "like".' However, he said, "I suppose I could provided it doesn't take too long. I can't think of anything more boring than watching you ... fish."
"Nah, it won't take long. I'm good at this." He picked up the spear and started upriver.
"Hey, what about your clothes?"
"They'll be okay there. I don't want to have to carry them. I'll grab them on the way back."
'Gods,' Autolycus thought, his eyes gazing lustfully on the creamy buttocks of the blond, 'I always imagined fishing to be boring, I never considered it to be a spectator sport. What I must have missed out on over the years.'
Fortunately, for Autolycus' heart rate and other interested parts, the hunter was as good as his word and soon emerged from the river with the second of two large fish. He dropped it on the bank by the other wriggling fish. "Grab one and we'll head back."
"Grab one?" queried the thief, looking at the fish with distaste and some trepidation. "Aren't you going to kill them first?"
"You shouldn't have distracted me. I left my knife back with my clothes so we'll have to take them to it."
Autolycus reached out and gingerly grasped a tail. The slippery fish wriggled frantically and was soon out of his grip.
"Not like *that*. Don't you know *anything*? Put a thumb and forefinger in his eye-sockets."
"What??? You're having me on. There's no way I'm doing that."
"It's quite safe. It's an old hunter's trick. Watch! See, he can't bite you like that and you can get a decent grip on him."
"I don't care. It's a horrible idea. The old hunters' can keep their tricks. Think how the fish feels."
"I suppose you'll want me to release him next or maybe you want him for a pet. I bet he's really cuddly. Just your type."
It was on the tip of the thief's tongue to retort, 'Then you've put yourself in his category because you know how much I want you,' but somehow he restrained himself. "I'm *not* carrying a live fish. Give me the spear. I'll finish them off."
"Spear yourself through the foot more like. I will go and get my knife and then you'll be happy." He headed off.
Autolycus stood looking at the fish. The only good thing about the episode was that he definitely didn't feel aroused anymore. Slightly queasy yes, aroused no.
The two happily squabbled their way through the next three days. To Autolycus' pleasure and frustration, the blond automatically climbed into bed with him, snuggled down trustingly and immediately fell asleep each night.
However, in spite of this and although he definitely looked happier than he had when Autolycus arrived, he had said no more about what was upsetting his relationship with Hercules. The thief had made several attempts to get him to talk about it, but gave up when it became clear that the topic was just distressing him further. Making Iolaus unhappy was the last thing Autolycus wanted to do. He wanted to bury his face in that silken mane of hair, to kiss those delicious lips, to run teasing fingers down those ticklish ribs, to ... No! He wasn't going to think about *that*. He couldn't afford to do so. Sleeping with the blond was becoming a torture and yet he couldn't resist even that tantalizingly limited contact with Iolaus. 'Half a loaf is better than no bread,' he told himself and then silently cursed himself for resorting to yet another old cliche.
On the morning of the fourth day, he announced that he'd better be moving on. He was aware that he hadn't made the progress he had hoped for in dealing with Hercules and Iolaus' problem but, at least, he seemed to be leaving the blond in a happier state of mind.
However, that feeling of mild complacency, was immediately destroyed as Iolaus took the news badly. "Leaving? You can't ... I mean couldn't you stay just a *bit* longer. Please, couldn't you?" His voice was distraught and he was virtually begging.
"I've got people I've promised to meet. I can't let them down."
"What about me?"
"What about you?"
"I don't want you to go yet."
"I feel ... I feel safe when you're here."
*That* nearly floored the thief. He was very aware of his protective feelings towards the blond, but didn't expect that the hunter had either sensed these or felt a need for them. 'Yeah, great,' he thought, 'here I am wishing I could steal his heart and he sees me as a kind of security guard. I *must* really be losing my touch.' "Why don't you feel safe? What's frightening you, Iolaus?" he asked.
"N-Nothing really. I didn't mean ... I don't know why I said that. It's just that ..." Then his face brightened as the thought hit him, "Can I go with you? I promise I'll make sure all the fish I catch for us are real dead before I let you see them. Please, I won't get in the way. I'll do whatever you tell me."
'Gods what a temptation that last assurance is,' the thief mused. 'The trouble is it's never crossed his mind just what I might tell him to do. Come here and sit on my lap, Iolaus. Now I want you to remove those leather ... No, I can't! This being trusted is a damned burden.' Pushing aside, with difficulty, the enticing visions of just what he could tell the blond to do that were crowding into his mind, he said, "Iolaus, I've got to meet up with a gang of men that I'm working with out of necessity at present. I don't think they'd welcome an additional person to our little group. They'd not want to cut you in on the gold we're after."
"Gold? *That* wouldn't matter! I'm not interested in gold and I wouldn't want to steal anyway."
"Iolaus, they'd not believe you weren't after a share and, I think, they could turn pretty nasty if they thought I was planning some sort of doublecross. Anyway we're not going to steal, we're tracking a lost treasure."
"If they're dangerous, you might need me to help you. I can fight you know. Also I'm quite good at tracking things."
"It's not that sort of tracking. Anyway, how come you tell me in one breath that you need me here to make you feel safe and in virtually the next one offer to protect me?"
"It's not that sort of 'safe'."
"I'm sorry, Iolaus, I don't know what you're talking about."
"Well, can I go with you? Please! I've got nothing to stay here for n-." He nearly added "now Herc's gone", but managed to bite back the words.
Autolycus knew exactly what he'd been about to say but, seeing the look of near desperation on the beautiful face, gave in and said, "All right, I'll probably regret this, but you can come on one condition."
"Great!" He flashed a devastating smile at the thief that seared the latter's heart with its intensity.
"I said, 'On one condition'."
"Okay, what is it."
"That you promise that, sometime during the journey, you will tell me honestly and in detail what is upsetting you."
Iolaus' face fell. "But..." he began.
"Sorry, those are the terms. Now what are you going to do?"
Iolaus hesitated, but then said "Okay, but I get to choose when I tell you."
"Fine, as long as you do tell me."
"I promise. Thank you for letting me join you."
They set off and soon Iolaus' spirits seemed higher. Just the act of undertaking the journey made him feel happier because it gave him a purpose and he'd always hated inactivity. By the end of the trip, he was almost back to his old self, giving cheek to the thief at every opportunity. Three days had passed without major incident when they finally neared the rendezvous point.
So far, Iolaus had not provided the information that Autolycus wanted and so he, in turn, had decided not to give the hunter further details about the job in hand. In any case, Autolycus had been giving a lot of thought to the latter topic and had decided that the less Iolaus knew the safer he probably was considering the nature of their 'allies'.
They set up camp in the early evening about a mile from the cabin where Autolycus was to meet Britones and his gang of six men. "I'm going to meet those men I told you about. I think you'd better wait here. I'll have to decide when, indeed *if*, I tell them about you. I'll just play it by ear and see how things go."
"Where are you meeting them?"
"At a cabin about a mile west of here. I shouldn't be more than an hour."
As it turned out the meeting was longer than anticipated. Britones and Autolycus, watched by three of the men, poured over maps and discussed all the scraps of information they'd gathered and still couldn't agree on the location. Finally, Autolycus said, "Let's call it a night and look these over again tomorrow. We've all had a long day of travelling. After a night's rest, we'll be fresher and might spot something we've missed."
Just then there was a bit of a commotion outside. All dropped their hands to their sword hilts and waited. A voice called, "It's okay, Britones, we've caught someone. We're bringing him in."
The door opened. "Look what we found snooping around outside," a voice announced. Three men entered the room, propelling a fourth ahead of them. Two were holding Iolaus' arms spread-eagled, while Fulvius, a large, muscular man, had his left arm tightly around Iolaus' neck, holding him against his body. His right hand held a knife pressed into the blond's throat. A thin trickle of blood was running down Iolaus' neck.
"Who the hell is this?" Britones demanded of no one in particular.
'Now there'll be trouble,' Autolycus thought in exasperation. He'd not got around to mentioning the blond to the bandits. "It's just Iolaus. He's with me," Autolycus said.
"Since when? I've never known you to work with a partner. What's he doing lurking around outside anyway? How do we know we can trust him?"
"Because I say so."
"Look, we last met only a month ago and he wasn't with you then. How long has he been with you?"
"I've known him for a couple of years."
"Oh, yeah? How well? We only want people with us that we can trust. He could be spying for our enemies for all we know."
Some of the others were clearly uneasy about the presence of a stranger and Britones' questions were adding to their doubts. Autolycus was all too well aware of the danger Iolaus was in. He made a quick decision and only hoped Iolaus would play along with it or they could both be in deep trouble. "Okay, if you *must* know, he won't betray us because he's my lover."
"Your *lover*," Alesus exclaimed in amazement, "but you were always one for the ladies."
"True, but then I saw him. That golden beauty was too much for me. I couldn't resist. I mean *look* at him." He reached out and ran a caressing hand through the blond curls. "Have you ever seen anything prettier?" he appealed.
"Nope," Gaurus, an ugly behemoth of a man, agreed, "and if you're in a sharing mood I'd ..."
"No way, he's all mine. Now I'd thank you to let him go." Fulvius looked at
Britones, who nodded his assent. He lowered his knife and released the headlock. "Come here, my love," Autolycus said, opening his arms. Iolaus hesitated. "Iolaus! It's all right. They won't hurt you. Come here."
Iolaus scurried over to him and Autolycus pulled him to him and kissed him, gently at first and then more forcibly, bending him backwards, as he felt all eyes upon them. The King of Thieves' mind was working overtime. How could he make Iolaus appear as harmless as possible? Well, once started into a lie, it was safest to continue with it and his unplanned words "They won't hurt you" suggested a course to follow. He let the blond up for air, but kept an arm around him. "I don't usually let him travel with me because he's a bit simp- ... I mean, he's not really fast thinking enough for my profession, but another man in his village was starting to force his attentions upon him so I gave in. Anyway, as long as you look beautiful, you don't need to use your head for anything else do you, my love? I do the thinking for both of us."
To his relief, the quick-witted hunter immediately adopted a particularly vacant expression and said, "Why did they try to hurt me, Autolycus? I didn't hurt them?"
"They didn't know who you were. Why did you follow me, Iolaus? I told you to wait at our campsite."
"But I got lonely by myself and there might have been wild animals or things. I heard noises. Besides it was bedtime and I wanted you." He flung his arms around the thief's waist and hugged him tightly, a besotted look on his face.
Autolycus felt himself blushing, something very rare for him. 'And I told him he didn't lie well enough for my profession,' he thought ruefully. The men all sniggered.
"How come you didn't mention him to us?" Britones queried.
"I meant to but, we got so involved in the maps, I forgot all about him."
"You forgot *me*?" a dreadfully forlorn little voice asked.
'Don't overdo it, Iolaus,' Autolycus admonished mentally. "I'm sorry, my love, I'd never *really* forget you."
"Where did you leave him?" Britones asked.
"Oh, we're camped by a creek a mile or so east of here. Speaking of which, we'd better get back there. I hope you banked up the fire before coming to look for me, my love."
"I think we'd better all stick together. You go and get your gear and come back here."
"If it's all right with you we'd prefer a little privacy," the thief commented.
"You can survive without doing *that* tonight and, if you find you can't, well none of us are prudes. We'd enjoy watching. Some would probably join in."
"No, we'll see you tomorrow."
"Autolycus, I think we need a better understanding. After sharing my information with you I don't want you out of our sight. So you go with Fluvius and Tigranes and get your gear. I'll look after your pretty, little friend in the meantime. He'll be okay."
Autolycus glanced at Iolaus and saw an expression near to panic cross his face. "Don't leave me here, Autolycus," he appealed, in character, but meaning it.
"You'll be all right, Iolaus," Britones said. "Your friend will hurry back to you and nobody will hurt you. We can have a nice chat while he's away. Okay?"
Iolaus fought down his rising panic. "Okay," he echoed, looking apprehensive.
Autolycus kissed him gently. "I'll be as quick as I can, my love."
After he had gone, Britone began to quiz the hunter about his past and his relationship with Autolycus. Fortunately, the persona the latter had created for Iolaus was not a difficult one to maintain. Every community had its village idiot because of in-breeding and Iolaus had met plenty of people he could base his character on. "I love Autolycus," he repeatedly assured Britones, "some people tease me, but he's always nice to me."
"I could be nice to you too," Gaurus said, reaching for the blond and pulling him against him.
Iolaus began to struggle against him. "Let go! Autolycus says I shouldn't let anybody touch me ... just him."
"We don't have to tell him."
"He'll know! He knows *everything*. He's real clever."
"I'm clever too." He forced his lips down onto Iolaus' in a bruising kiss, trying to force his mouth open. Iolaus clenched his teeth and pushed against his assailant's chest. His terror was rising. Much more of this and he'd blow his cover by decking the man.
Britones did not know this, but he could see the fear in the little blond's face. "That's enough, Gaurus, we don't want to fall out with Autolycus. We might need him yet."
Gaucus reluctantly released his grip on Iolaus. The blond pulled away and then sank to his knees in front of the fire, shaking with reaction. The tear that ran down his cheek was not the result of good acting. 'Gods, why do men have to treat me like this? Why can't they leave me alone?' he wondered distractedly, thinking of Juventas and Mandrocles.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and flinched. "I'm not going to hurt you, Iolaus," Britones said, "and Gaucus is sorry he frightened you, aren't you, Gaurus? I said, *aren't you*, Gaurus?"
"Oh ...Yeah ...Sorry."
"Come on, stand up." Britones drew him to his feet and held him against him, running a hand down his back and patting his buttocks. Iolaus was aware his naive character would probably see this as just a comforting cuddle, so he forced himself to say, "Thank you."
"We won't tell Autolycus that Gaurus was a bit silly, will we? It'll just be our secret, won't it?" He gave another 'friendly' squeeze of the hunter's arse for emphasis.
"Okay, I like secrets," Iolaus agreed, wriggling free as unobtrusively as he could.
No further incident occurred, but Autolycus was aware of a bit of tension in the air when he returned. Iolaus flung himself into his arms and held onto him tightly. "Have you missed me?" the thief inquired.
The blond nodded vigorously.
"Never mind, we'll go to bed now and I can give you a good cuddle and make up for it." And to the disappointment of several pairs of eyes that *was* all he gave the pretty, little blond.
The next day found Autolycus and Britones again pouring over maps and arguing the toss. Eventually, they took a break and Autolycus joined Iolaus sitting on a fallen tree not far from the cabin, but far enough so that their discussion couldn't be heard by the others.
"What's going on, Autolycus?" Iolaus asked.
"I suppose I might as well tell you now that you've got involved. We've got a big job underway. You see we've been gathering up rumours about a place known as "The Lost City" and trying to work out its location. There's supposed to be a fortune in gold buried there."
"There is! A huge pile of gold bars *and* the gold mine they came from."
"Where on earth did you hear about it?"
"Oh, I've been there. I saw them."
"I-I said I saw them," Iolaus repeated, somewhat stunned by the thief's vehement reaction.
"Do you mean to say you *know* the location of the city?"
"And you never thought of getting the gold yourself?"
"I didn't need it and anyway ..."
Autolycus stared in amazement at the unkempt and habitually broke figure before him. He thought of the blond's ramshackle home and meagre possessions. "You didn't need it?" he queried in astonished tones.
"No, there's nothing I really need. I've got a good sword and knife and ..."
Autolycus couldn't stand it. He interrupted, "Then why didn't you tell *me*?
"I-I never thought about it. I didn't *even* tell Herc about it."
"Well, I suppose if you couldn't be bothered telling *even* Hercules about it, there'd be no way you'd tell a vague associate like me," Autolycus observed sarcastically. He and the gang had devoted a lot of time to this project and now it appeared to have been time wasted. Even more annoying was the fact that he didn't like or trust the men he was working with and there was no need to have allied with them at all. He could have had it all for himself.
Iolaus flinched at the venom in his voice. "I-I'm sorry. I never g-gave it a th-thought," he stammered. "I didn't have a very pleasant time there and I just wanted to forget the place."
Autolycus immediately felt a twinge of guilt. How did Iolaus always succeed in making his conscience active? Normally it was obediently and conveniently quiescent. "No, *I'm* sorry, Iolaus. There was no reason why you should have told me," he said but, with his usual eye to the main chance, he continued, "but could you tell me about it now please?"
"Yes, okay. You see there was this woman ..."
"Isn't there always?" Autolycus asked, feeling a sharp twinge of jealousy.
"No! Well, not now. Anyway it wasn't like that. Moria was a reporter for some newspaper and she was *annoying*. She wouldn't take no for an answer."
"Oh, really? And yet it wasn't *like that*?"
"No, I don't mean that. She had this stupid theory about "visitors" from other continents and even from beyond the stars and was trying to find evidence for her muck-rag paper, "The Star-Globus". I was looking for my cousin, Regina, and some other village girls that had disappeared and she tagged along because she reckoned these "visitors" had taken them. She just went on and on and on and ..."
"Okay! Okay! I get the picture. What's she got to do with anything anyway?"
"She wouldn't shut up. It was all bloody "visitors" or interminable questions about things, so I blew my stack and that still didn't stop her. I took off into a ruined temple I'd spotted and she followed me. Anyway in there we found stacks of gold bars and lots of delicious food. So we had a great meal and ..."
"Iolaus! I don't *care* about the food! It's the gold that interests me."
"Well we cared about it. We were starving."
"IOLAUS!" That was too loud. He saw a couple of the men glance in their direction. He immediately wrapped a arm around the blond's shoulders. "They're watching us," he whispered and then leant in and began to nuzzle and kiss Iolaus' neck, reasoning that the bandits might close in to listen to a possibly treasonous conversation but would keep their distance if it appeared that all that was going on was a bit of petting. The blond flung his head back, throat deliciously taut, while Autolycus kissed his way around to an earlobe and then nibbled at the earring. "Keep talking," he ordered in an undertone.
"Then the floor gave way and we found ourselves in this underground city. The people were mining gold. There was this real evil creep in charge who claimed to be called Kamaros, but who turned out to be Carcass, the Butcher Of Thessaly, and he'd used drugs and mind-control techniques to get all these people under his control. He had them serving him and worshipping a kid called Lorel, who was supposed to be a goddess, but she was just another one of his victims. All these people had given up any interest in their worldly goods and, naturally enough, Kamaros had these. I'll tell you how powerful he was, he even had Salmoneous in his thrall."
"What??? Salmoneous had lost interest in worldly goods?" exclaimed the thief in amazement, leaving off his nibbling in his surprise.
"Yeah. Powerful, eh? Anyway I realized that people were being fed drugs so I avoided eating the food laced with lotus leaf and worked on persuading others to stop."
"And did they?"
"It was a real uphill battle. My cousin, Regina, was there and Moria managed to get through to her and Lorel's sister Aurora, but nobody else would listen. I thought if I exposed Lorel, as just an ordinary girl, it would help, but Kamaros and his men caught me and then ... and then ..." He paused as the terrifying memories of his time in Kamaros' re-education room came flooding back.
"And then what?" Autolycus began to kiss his way around the blond's chest, sucking at the small brown nipples.
"He tried to take over my mind. He hit me in the neck with a dart that had a drug on it. Oh, he assured me it wouldn't kill me, but it would aid in my "re-education" as he called it. Brain-washing I'd call it. When I came round he had me strapped to this chair and he made me keep looking at this big wheel that was spinning. There was an incredibly bright light filtering through the wheel. It made my eyes hurt to look at it and I felt really sick and dizzy. One of his bully boys told me that, when it revolved at the right rate, it could produce a trance-like state, making the mind extremely malleable and that Kameros was a master of mind-manipulation. If I tried to shut my eyes they forced me to open them. They just kept talking, trying to wear me down."
Autolycus realized that the blond's face was reflecting the horror of his memories, rather than the pleasures of his attentions. He interrupted, whispering urgently, "Speaking of 'down', I'm just going to lower you to the ground, Iolaus. We *have* to put on a convincing act of affection for our interested audience." As he spoke, he lifted the blond into his arms, dropped a gentle kiss onto his lips and then bent his knees and gradually lowered him until he was seated against the log. Then he knelt between the hunter's spread thighs, effectively blocking his face from view, and continued to kiss and caress him. "Carry on with the story," he instructed.
Normally the hunter might have objected to being bossed around, but he was so engrossed in the recalling of the horrible experience, that he had never previously imparted to anyone, that he just continued. "I was a real mess. I was soaked with sweat and my eyes were watering. I was *so* tired. They wouldn't let me sleep. I thought Kamaros was going to win. It was touch-and-go. If it hadn't been for some mind-control techniques I learnt when travelling in the east, I would have been finished. Eventually, I pretended he had won and they released me. When I got a chance, I attacked him. I disposed of his bodyguard and then we had a big sword fight. *That* was a close thing too as he was no slouch with a sword. When he saw that the game was up he destroyed the city. He'd got the whole place rigged so he could cause it to collapse in upon itself and, he hoped, kill everyone, but I managed to get the people out. I don't think I've ever been so relieved to get out of anywhere. I *even* hugged Salmoneous."
"Well, what happened next?"
"Nothing. People headed back to their home villages and I just walked away. I never wanted to see the place again. That's why I never told Herc about it. I just wanted to forget it. It's such a ... such a frightening thing to nearly lose control over your will to another person."
"But you know how to get back to the city?" His hands were now inside Iolaus' vest caressing his shoulders and back.
"Of course I do! I'm good at directions and places. Not like old Herc. He could get lost in ..." He trailed off.
Autolycus seized the opening, while mentally kicking himself for being such a fool as to work on his rival's behalf. 'Why do I have to like Hercules so much?' he wondered. 'It would be much better if I didn't like him because I could then be ruthless in my pursuit of Iolaus.' He did a double-take at the thought. 'My pursuit of Iolaus? What pursuit? I'm not supposed to be pursuing him.' However, he said, "Iolaus, why won't you go back to him? You love him. Admit it! You think about him all the time."
"I know I do." Autolycus winced inwardly at the confirmation, while the hunter continued, "It's not that I don't love him."
"I don't want to talk about it. Do you want me to take you to the 'Lost City?" he asked, anxious to redirect the conversation.
"Yes, but I'm not sure I want you to take our 'friends'. I don't really trust them."
"Why were you working with them then?"
"In my profession you have to make some allowances. You have to take what help you can get."
"Well you might need them yet. There'll be quite a bit of rubble to be cleared away and I don't fancy doing the job all by myself."
"You wouldn't be by yourself. I'd be there."
"Yeah, telling me where to dig and where to pile the stones I remove. I don't see you as a manual worker with soft hands like you've got."
"My craft requires that they be well cared for. My hands are delicate instruments."
"Yeah, I know. I can feel them. There's no point in trying to slide them down the back of my trousers, as you're trying to do, because my belts are too tight and anyway our observers can't see what you're doing so it would be a wasted gesture."
'Gesture?' the thief thought, in some amazement at the blond's apparent obtuseness, 'If he only knew how much I want to get my hands and other parts into that delightful area.' However, he contented himself with retorting, "They'll have a fair idea though. Would you prefer me to put them down the front instead?"
"No!" Iolaus said hurriedly, blushing hotly.
"If there's as much gold as rumour has it I might be able to retire. Then the state of my hands won't matter and people, interested in sharing my wealth, will be lining up to let me fondle them. Not that it will do them much good as I won't be parting with it."
"Unless someone has been there before us there *was* a whole heap of gold bars. There should be plenty for all of you provided we can get at them."
Autolycus doubted that. He knew that, for some men, and he suspected he might be amongst them, there could never be *enough* gold. Anyway, he was certain that his idea of 'plenty' was not the same as the blond's.
Suddenly, he became aware of suspicious eyes upon them. There'd been too much talk and too little action between them and Iolaus had not been taking an active part in the petting. Worse, he hadn't even bothered to pretend to be enjoying it. Actually, in spite of his desire for information, the thief had been somewhat piqued by the hunter's ability to go on telling the story without missing a beat despite what the thief had been doing. An urge to make the blond react, both for the audience's benefit and for his personal pride overwhelmed Autolycus, but what could he do?
'Okay,' he told himself, 'I need to make him appear to be happy with what I'm doing.' He recalled their time in Lord Thanatus' cell in Preveza and smiled to himself. While caressing the hunter he had discovered him to be deliciously ticklish. He hadn't done anything about it then, but now he'd put that knowledge to good use.
He took hold of Iolaus' shoulders and pulled him away from the log and then turned him sideways and pushed him down onto his back. The blond had got used to his manipulations and made no protest, even when the thief straddled his thighs. He lay quiescent, watching Autolycus though lowered lids as the thief pushed his vest off his shoulders. However, that all changed when Autolycus ran exploring fingers down his ribs. "No! Don't!" he protested, giggling and bucking his hips. He tried to push the thief's hands away, but Autolycus persisted. A lot of the laughter was anticipatory only because the thief was finding it hard to break through Iolaus' desperate defence.
Then a shadow fell over the pair. "Let me give you a hand," a voice said. "I noticed he wasn't being very cooperative for you earlier. He deserves a bit of a lesson." With that, Gaurus captured the blond's hands and pulled them above the curly head to pin them there.
Autolycus was in a cleft stick. He feared upsetting the hunter after all his efforts to help him back to his old sunny self, but he also knew they had to keep up their act for self-preservation. Besides there was *still* that desire to get a reaction from the blond. He reached for Iolaus' ribs, ignoring Iolaus' pleas to stop.
In a very short time, the blond was virtually hysterical and his laughter and protests had disturbed those inside the cabin. They emerged to see what was occurring and Autolycus decided the interruption was a good excuse to stop. "That'll do it," he said, climbing off the hunter. "C'mon," he appealed to Gaurus, "let him go." The bandit complied very reluctantly and his excitement was clearly outlined.
Iolaus scrambled to his knees and moved against the log, leaning his head against it. Autolycus could see his shoulders shaking. He put a hand on one. "Leave me alone," Iolaus muttered, shrugging off the hand.
"C'mon, my love, I'm sorry, but you deserved it."
"No, I didn't!"
"Don't argue, my love. Everyone will think you're being silly." He wrapped his arms around the hunter and pulled him back against him. "Look, *everybody* has come out to see what you were making such a fuss about."
Iolaus heeded the warning and glanced behind him. Then he twisted around and buried his face into Autolycus' chest, muttering, "It wasn't fair."
The thief could feel the dampness of his tears and guilt rushed over him, but he still felt he'd taken the right action under the circumstances. However, he stroked the tangled golden curls and crooned an apology.
Seeing the show was apparently over, the onlookers dispersed. Once the last one had moved away, Autolycus said, in a matter of fact voice designed to snap Iolaus out of what the thief saw as a rather extreme reaction, "Okay, they've gone now, you can stop the act."
Iolaus pulled away from him and glared. "It wasn't an act," he protested.
"Sorry, but you hadn't been reacting to my caresses and they were starting to get suspicious of our talk. I didn't expected Gaurus was going to join in. We didn't hurt you, did we?"
"N-No, it was just ... just ... being held down. It reminded me ... I was scared ..."
"Reminded you of what? You did promise to tell me about it, remember?"
"I *will*, but not yet. I'm n-not ready. You said I could choose when."
"Yes, I did and I meant it. Anyway, back to the matter at hand. I want you to look at the map Britones and I have got and show me the city's location."
"But how can I do that without him getting suspicious? He'll wonder what's going on if I'm right."
"Yeah, let me think," Autolycus said, his devious brain ticking over rapidly. "I know! Make a game of it and then you point out a place two inches west of the location. After I know where it is, I'll make a convincing case for the genuine spot. I'll twist our evidence to fit it if needs be. Now come with me and I'll show you the map. You ask me what it is. You won't have seen one before and won't understand it anyway, okay?"
The two walked back towards the cabin. "Can I see the map again, Britones?" Autolycus requested. "I've just had a thought about it."
"Here." He passed it over.
"What's that thing, Autolycus?" Iolaus asked.
"What's it for?"
"It shows where places are." He pointed to a cross. "This is where you are."
Iolaus giggled. "No, I'm not! I'm over here. You're being silly, Autolycus."
Britones raised his eyebrows in exasperation. The blond might look delicious, but was it worth putting up with his inane comments in return for the occasional fuck. He really didn't know how a clever person like Autolycus could put up with his babbling. However, he seemed to be full of patience. The tickling incident was the only occasion when he'd lost his cool at all with the little blond.
"See these two marks, my love?" the thief asked.
The mop of tangled curls nodded.
"This one shows where I think the place we are trying to find is and the other mark is where Britones thinks it is."
"Can I guess too? Let me!" He poked a grubby finger about three inches away from Autolycus' chosen spot. "Go on!"
"Go on what?"
"Make a mark for me!"
"Britones won't want extra marks on his map, Iolaus." The blond stuck his lower lip out in a pout. Autolycus tapped it lightly with a finger. "Put that bird-perch away, my love." He turned to Britones and indicated a point two inches east of Iolaus' spot. "Britones I've been thinking it over and I've changed my mind about the location. I reckon *this* is the place." He then began to make his case and Britones was soon nodding his agreement.
Within the hour, the expedition was off, leading the four elderly mules that Britones had optimistically acquired. Six hours later, they were standing looking at the remains of the temple.
"Well, it's certainly been a large building of sorts, but there's not enough rubble for it to have been a city," Britones opined.
"You're right," Autolycus agreed and pretended to consider the matter for a few minutes. Then he said, "I wonder ..."
"It's just occurred to me. The city's been remarkably elusive. I wonder if ... maybe it might have been underground," he suggested tentatively.
"Who'd build a city underground?" Britones asked dismissively.
"I agree it would be unusual, but if it was based around a gold-mining operation as the rumour has it ..."
"I think you've got a point. Come on, men, we'll have a search through the ruins and see if we can find anything of interest."
Success was not long in coming. Tigranes found a ventilation shaft that looked promising and soon all were clearing rubble with some degree of enthusiasm. However, after an hour's backbreaking work they were all flagging a bit and it was clear that night was going to soon overtake them. "Why don't we lower Blondie down there?" Fulvius suggested. "He's much smaller than the rest of us. He can have a quick look around. We can carry on clearing stuff tomorrow, but it would be great if we had some evidence that we were at the right place."
"How about it, my love?" Autolycus asked. "Would you go down there and see what you can find?"
"It looks a bit dark down there," the blond said apprehensively.
"We can light you a torch to carry," Britones said.
"I suppose I could. You won't leave me there though, will you?"
"Of course not," Britones said, ruffling Iolaus' curls. "Autolycus will see to that."
"What do I have to look for?"
"Anything that people have owned. We want to see if people have been living down there."
So Iolaus was duly lowered down the shaft. It was a bit of a squeeze and, at one point, he panicked a bit about getting stuck, but he got through safely.
He found that there was more light down there than he had anticipated because there were quite a few smaller openings to the world above. The city was much more intact than he had anticipated. His last impressions of the place had been the crashing masonry, the clouds of dust and the screams of the occupants as they ran in panic.
There were plenty of items to select from. He decided to take a couple of ornate goblets. Then, smiling to himself as he anticipated the effect it would have, he picked up a chunky gold nugget about the size of a sparrow's egg. After that, he made his way back to the shaft. He put his foot into the loop tied in the end of the rope and then gave the rope a tug. "Autolycus!" he shouted. "I'm ready." He held on with his right arm and clutched his spoils with the left.
Those above were only too anxious to haul him up and, because of their haste, his left elbow got badly skinned against a sharp piece of protruding rock. "Ow! Look at what's happened," he complained, but nobody was interested. Britones and Autolycus had each snatched a goblet and were examining their prizes. "Very fine workmanship," Britones said. "This bodes well."
He handed his one to Tetricus to examine, and turned to the little blond, who was apparently engrossed in rubbing his elbow. "Was there a lot of things down there, Iolaus?"
"Yes, nice things. Look at this pretty stone I found." He tossed the nugget into the air. Britones' eyes shot out and so did his hand, grabbing the nugget in mid air. "Hey, that's mine!" Iolaus protested. "*I* found it. Give it back!"
Britones ignored him. "Look at this!" he exclaimed. Seven pairs of eyes gleamed as they saw what was in his hand. There'd be some willing workers on the morrow.
"Please can I have my nice stone back?" Iolaus asked. "There's lots of other ones. You can get your own ones tomorrow."
Britones grinned broadly and tossed it to him. Naturally Iolaus' new persona was a butterfingers and the 'stone' fell into the rubble precipitating a minor crisis until Autolycus located it again for him.
All were awake bright and early the next day and busily working. Around lunchtime they had cleared enough for ease of access. All except for Iolaus were too excited to eat. The blond followed them down the rope complaining bitterly about his hunger and asking why they couldn't eat first.
Everyone headed off in different directions and soon elated shouts were ringing through the ruins as new discoveries were made. For his part, Autolycus sought out the food preparation area and filled his money pouch with the lotus leaf mixture that Iolaus had told him about. He had a feeling it might prove useful.
Iolaus found himself making his way to the re-education room. He didn't want to go there and yet he had a compelling urge to check that the horrible room was really out of commission. He knew it was ridiculous, but he still felt Kamaros' lingering presence and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end as he looked at the chair in the centre of the room.
He nearly fainted when a voice said, "Hello, pretty one, I was looking for you."
He swung around and experienced a momentary feeling of relief when he recognized Gaurus rather than 'The Butcher of Thessaly'. That relief turned back to panic again when Gaurus advanced on him smiling lasciviously. "You could get lost down here all alone, Blondie. You come with me. I'll look after you." He had decided that Autolycus would be too concerned about gold of another sort to be giving a thought to his little catamite, with the entrancing golden curls.
"N-No! I'm all right. Autolycus will be here *soon*."
"No, he won't. I saw him heading off in a different direction. You be a good boy and come with me. He asked me to find you and take you to him." As he spoke, he advanced towards Iolaus holding out his hands. Iolaus backed away, but found himself up against the hated chair.
"No, don't touch me!"
"Don't be a silly boy," Gaurus said and then suddenly lunged at the hunter. Iolaus had been anticipating the move and he dived to one side. Gaucus twisted around, showing surprising agility for such a big man, and grabbed for him. A large hand caught the back of Iolaus' vest. He wriggled out of it and began to run with Gaurus in hot pursuit.
In his haste, he didn't think about his route and suddenly found himself at a dead end of an uncompleted tunnel. He whirled around and saw Gaurus was blocking the only exit. He had clearly realized he had the hunter trapped and was now strolling leisurely towards him. "It was kind of you to take your vest off for me, pretty one," he said softly, smirking nastily. Then his voice hardened and he snapped an order, "Get the rest of your clothes off *now*. Hurry up or I'll hurt you."
*That* was it. Iolaus lost it. The village idiot gave way to the warrior, albeit a frightened one. He braced himself against the stone wall and then launched himself feet first at the big man, with all the force he could muster. His feet smashed into Gaurus' throat. The bandit's neck snapped back with a sickening crack.
Iolaus slammed down onto the rough floor, crying out in pain as his right wrist smashed into a rock, protruding from the tunnel wall, en route.
The thief heard his cry. "Iolaus?"
"Autolycus? I'm in here," he called, scrambling to his feet.
Autolycus appeared carrying a lighted torch. "There you are! I've been searching ev-" He broke off as he spotted Gaurus' body. "What happened?"
"I killed him."
"What? What on earth did you do that for?"
"He t-tried to force himself on me. I g-guess I panicked and kicked him a bit hard. I-I broke his neck."
"Damn! This could be awkward," Autolycus muttered, as he considered how the death could be explained away. Then, belatedly, he noticed the blond was cradling his right wrist. "Has he hurt you?"
"I hit m-my wrist on a stone as I fell. I think it m-might be broken."
"Come out into this other room where the light's a bit better and let me have a look at it." He led the way out to the re-education room. "Now, let's see."
The blond extended his arm gingerly and the thief grasped it. "OW! Be careful. That *hurts*. You'll never make a good nurse."
"I will if she'll let me," Autolycus retorted grinning. He then sobered and said, "There's no doubt it's broken. I'll rip an arm off my shirt and bind it with that. I doubt if our 'friends' bother to carry bandages."
Having done that, he gazed around. "What did they use this room for?"
"You could call it a torture chamber. It was that bloody re-education room I told you about. See!" He pointed. "There's the remains of that damn wheel. It actually fell on me in the end. And this is the chair they had me strapped in." He shuddered at the memory. "I don't know why some people get ... get such pleasure out of hurting others."
He paused. Something felt different about the room. It was as if Kamaros' shade was no longer hovering there. Perhaps it was Autolycus' reassuring presence that had vanquished it. Unexpectedly, he said, "I think ... I think I might try to tell you that other story now."
"Yes. You see I dreaded this room, but coming in here doesn't seem so bad now. I think having you here with me and also telling you all about it yesterday might have helped lay the ghost. Perhaps telling you about Athens might help too."
"Herc told me you'd been there. I must say, I was surprised to hear it. I thought you hated the place."
"I did and even more now."
"Why did you go there then?"
"After I left you, I was feeling a bit lonely, but then I met up with Accius, who was a friend to Herc and me when we were teenagers. He is a charioteer in Athens and he invited me to have a go at it. I'd always fancied trying that I thought ... I hoped it might help get my mind off Herc because it was something we'd never been involved in."
"How did it go?"
"Great ... at first. I really enjoyed the racing. I was quite good at it too. For the first three weeks, things were fine. I was missing Herc, but it didn't hurt so much because I was busy and had things to occupy my mind, but ..."
"Things started to happen that I didn't like."
"I had an accident at practice and winded myself in a fall. I got off the track, but felt a bit dizzy so I went into the smithy to sit down for a minute. I must have fainted because the next thing I knew was this big bastard of a smith was finger fucking me. Fortunately, some men arrived to collect some gear and interrupted him because I don't think I could have fought him off. I was feeling a bit sick and he was a lot stronger than I am. He told me, if I said anything to anyone, he'd tell the stable-master I'd been selling my favours among the men and I'd get kicked out. He'd been working there for years and I didn't think anyone except for Accius would take my word before his."
"And this is what caused your upset?"
"Part of it. That night all I could think of was Hercules. I wanted him so much. All I could think of was how I ruined everything because of that stupid punch."
"Iolaus, Hercules thinks that you were quite within your rights to hit him under the circumstances."
"I know, but *I* don't think so and I just kept going over and over the incident in my mind."
"You said it was part of the cause of your upset, what else happened?" asked Autolycus. Having got the hunter talking at last, he didn't want him going off on a tangent of self-blame and clamming up again.
"Well, I c-could have ... could have lived with what the smith did, but things got ... worse."
"Tell me," Autolycus encouraged.
"The two men who'd interrupted him, guessed what had been going on and they kept making comments and I started going into the city at night to avoid them. I was in a tavern and some men made remarks about me. There might have been some rumours about what the smith did ... I don't know. I tried to leave, but one of them got hold of me and there was a fight. Some men from our stables arrived and helped me. Accius told me it was probably an attempt to remove an opposition team member. That put me off the sport a bit because it didn't seem right that people were so concerned to win they'd attack someone."
"From what I've heard, it's a win-at-all-costs kind of thing."
"It seems like it is. Maybe I'm naive, but I didn't ... I still didn't really understand that even after that incident."
"So you carried on with it?"
"Yes, I was still looking forward to being in some real races. Then a few days later, I met my ... employer for the first time." A goose walked over his grave at the thought of Juventas and he shivered involuntarily.
Autolycus observed the commingled distaste and fear on his face. "Am I right in assuming he's the real problem."
"Well, come on, Iolaus, you'd better finish the story. You'll feel better for having told someone, I promise." He wrapped a comforting arm around the blond.
Iolaus pulled away in an agitated manner, but continued with his tale. "He came to see me at the gym. I didn't realize that actually *seeing* me was his real purpose and that he'd deliberately chosen to come to the gym because ... because I'd be ... be naked." The hunter's cheeks were flushing bright red at the memory. He lowered his head so Autolycus couldn't see his face. The thief felt a twinge of conscience as he recalled feasting his eyes on Iolaus' body on the day of their fishing expedition, but he said nothing and waited for the blond to continue.
"He scared me even though he didn't do much. He was talking about my body and saying it was a pity charioteering is the only sport in which the athletes are clothed because ... because he thought the audience would like me. He only touched my hair and chest, but I ... I was ... I was scared of him. It was the way he looked at me like he wanted to ... wanted to ... All I wanted was Herc. I needed him there just ... just to *be* there. I never wanted to see Juventas again."
"But it didn't end there, did it?"
"No... Race day came around and *that* was as exciting as I'd hoped it would be. I even won a couple of races and got placed in others, but then ... then I blew it. In the final race our stables only needed a place to secure overall victory and I was winning, but I saw Accius had fallen and he was too dazed to get off the track so I stopped and pulled him onto my chariot. He might have been killed if I hadn't, but other people didn't see it like that."
Autolycus had been around and he knew the score. "I suppose they thought you'd deliberately thrown the race."
"Yeah, all our team was mad with me, but I *couldn't* have done anything else."
"No, I don't suppose *you* could."
"So you think I was wrong too."
"I didn't say *that*. I know you, Iolaus, you couldn't have lived with yourself if you'd left him there and he'd been maimed or killed."
"Others didn't ... didn't know me so well and there was no-one there to take my side. Juventas sent the smith and his two mates to get me. He didn't need to. I would have gone to explain and apologize to him because it was clear nobody agreed with what I'd done."
"Not even Accius?"
"I don't know, he'd been carted off for medical treatment so I never saw him again. Anyway Juventas was furious and he thought I'd been paid to throw the race and said he'd make me pay in turn. He had a horsewhip and he told the men to strip me. I tried to fight my way out, but they overpowered me. Juventas beat me until I was just about out of it. Then he dismissed the men and dragged me into a bedroom."
Autolycus anticipated the rape to follow and reached for him intending to cuddle him, but the blond waved him off. "No, I'd b-better finish. If I stop, I won't ... I might not be able to." He swallowed convulsively. "As you've g-guessed he ... he wanted to rape me, but ... but I was trying to fight him off and he was hitting me and-and my nose was bleeding badly and there was blood gushing everywhere from that and from the cuts from the whip. It was horrible. M-My hands were still tied and I couldn't stop him. Then he knocked me out and ... and I came around to find ... to find ..." He broke off and wiped his wet eyes with a hand.
"You don't have to tell me the rest," Autolycus said hurriedly, dismayed both by the story and the blond's distress.
However, Iolaus continued as though he hadn't heard him. Indeed, he had not. He was lost in the hideous memories of the assault. "He'd tied me to the bed and he was inside me. He was so rough. He tried to hurt me as much as he could. He just raped me again and again. I lost track of how many times and then he just left me tied there. I didn't know if he was coming back to assault me again or not. I knew he could just do whatever he wanted to me and nobody would know or care. I felt so alone. When Mandrocles attacked me there was always a good chance that Hercules would arrive to help me, but now there was ... nobody."
"How did you escape?"
"I didn't. After all that, the bastard still didn't think I'd been punished enough and, the next day, he took me to the magistrates. That was my only piece of luck. They turned out to be Odite, Novatus and Anaxis. You remember we met them on that other visit to Athens? Anyway, they took my word for what had happened and freed me. Juventas wasn't too pleased, I can tell you."
"What did they do to him?"
"Nothing. He was an important citizen and they probably thought most people would think he had a right to punish me under the circumstances."
"That's bloody unfair."
"They were nice to me though. Odite took me home overnight and he treated my back for me. I suppose I should have let him get a proper healer, but I didn't want other people to know. I didn't let him see the injuries below my waist so they didn't even get that treatment. I think he was suspicious about what Juventas had done to me, but wasn't game to ask and I wasn't telling anyone. I just wanted to get away from people and so I decided I would go hunting after all. Odite wanted me to stay longer, but I ... I just *couldn't*"
Autolycus reached for Iolaus again and this time the blond didn't pull away, but clung to him. They stood holding each other tightly for some minutes, both reluctant to break the contact. Autolycus thought about the incident when he had tickled the hunter. No wonder he'd been so upset at being forcibly held down with all this playing on his mind. He desperately wanted to comfort Iolaus, but knew they'd been there too long and soon the gang would be looking for them if they were not already doing so. "Iolaus, we're going to have to hide Gaurus' body and then rejoin the others. There's some other things I want to ask you, but we'll have to leave them until later, okay?"
"Now about your wrist. I think we'd better say a rock dislodged and fell on it. We can blame it for our length of absence. I'll say I was comforting you after I'd bound it up and one thing led to another. After our abstinence in their presence, it will seem natural and help support our pretence of being lovers." He hesitated as another idea occurred to him. "I know, let's dump some masonry on top of Gaurus. We can say he grabbed you and you pulled free and ran to escape him and he tripped into a pillar or something and caused the fall of stone that hit you both. That will cover both injuries and also explain why you were in particular need of comfort. If they notice you've been crying it will cover that too." He grinned in appreciation of his own cleverness.
Iolaus merely nodded. He was in no state to be an admiring audience. It was easier to stick with his adopted persona and let Autolycus do the thinking for both of them. Thinking brought such upsetting images to mind.
However, he did have one question. "Autolycus, have you got some of the lotus leaf mixture? I can smell it in here and I couldn't before."
"Yes, I thought I might find a use for it if our friends turn hostile."
As it turned out, the bandits took the explanation well. They'd all seen Gaurus make up to the little blond in the cabin, on the first evening, as well as his eager intervention to help Autolycus 'punish' the hunter, plus they knew his proclivities of old. No one had been particularly fond of him. His muscle had been useful on occasion, but that was all. Now all that his death meant to them was that there was one less person with whom they'd have to split any treasure they found.
Any thought they might have had of him vanished completely when an excited Fulvius located a stack of about eighty gold bars and then Tetricus and Etylus found the mine entrance and the former came to tell them that Etylus was investigating it. Provided they could get the gold out, without more of the structure collapsing in, they were made. Autolycus had invented the fall of masonry that had supposedly killed Gaurus, but it had turned out to have been an inspired explanation because three of the bandits had already had close calls with falling debris and so had readily accepted the explanation.
What was needed now was organization. At first, Britones suggested that he and Caelius should climb back to the surface and the others could load the bars into a bag for them to draw up with the rope. Unfortunately, the bars weighed over 20lbs each and this meant each load would have to be small, but the greatest problem was lack of trust.
Fulvius put the problem bluntly. "What's to stop you both getting all the bars up and then leaving us all stranded down here? With the ingots alone, you'd be right for life."
Autolycus had thought the same, but was pleased someone else had voiced his concern.
Then Etylus arrived, having finished investigating the mine Tetricus and he had found, with some bad news. The mine only went back about thirty feet and beyond that had been blocked with a massive fall of earth, stone and timbers. It would take a major operation, involving a considerable element of danger to try to reopen it. Manual labourers the men were not. In spite of their willingness to work on the relatively short-term job of clearing rubble to get into the city, the thought of weeks or months of back-breaking grind was not for them. Indeed, most of the group had originally left their home villages to avoid the hard toil of a peasant's existence in favour of an easier life of robbery.
So if the gold in the mine was to be lost to them, the heap of bars was even more important. Still they could all live well for quite some time on what was there.
Unable to agree on who should play what part in transporting the gold to the surface, they decided to carry the bars and place them in a heap below their entrance point in the meantime. This was a task in itself because the stack was at some distance and the ingots were heavy. However, with eight men working it didn't take long.
"Okay, what next?" Alesus asked.
"I suppose it's 'who do we trust?' time," said Britones.
They all looked at each other uneasily. "I think Iolaus should go up," Autolycus said. "I think we'll all agree he's not going to take off with the gold."
"He wouldn't be much help drawing bags up with one hand though," Caelius observed.
"Yeah, but he can yell out if there's any funny business up there," said Tetricus. "He wouldn't want Autolycus stuck down here."
"Okay, he can go," Britones conceded. "Who else?"
"Okay, I suggest either me or Alesus," Fulvius said. "You know we've been friends for years. Neither of us would double-cross the other. We've watched each other's backs too long for that."
"Okay, you go, Fulvius," Britones said.
After some dispute, Etylus was selected. Fulvius then shinned up the rope, followed by Etylus. The pair then had to pull Iolaus up because he couldn't climb with his wrist.
He then sat watching while the pair slowly pulled up four ingots at a time. Finally, Fulvius peered down and then commented, "There's only three loads to go." Those were the last words he ever spoke. Etylus sank his knife up to the hilt in his back in one swift motion and then dropped the rope down the shaft.
He then turned to Iolaus, who had risen to his feet. "Okay, Blondie, I'm sorry about this, but you're not going to be any help to me in carrying this gold and I don't want to share it with any one." As he spoke, he ripped his bloody knife from Fulvius' corpse.
Iolaus backed away. "Please don't hurt me," he begged. He kept his body slightly twisted so his attacker could not see he had a rock in his left hand. He suddenly turned around as if about to flee. Etylus darted at him and then the hunter swung back and heaved the rock, catching him in the chest.
Etylus cried out in mixed pain and surprise and staggered backwards. Before he could regain his balance, Iolaus was upon him, chopping his left hand viciously across his throat. He gagged and sank to his knees, but still clutched the knife. He slashed wildly at the hunter, who planted a boot into his face and laid him out.
Iolaus awkwardly fumbled with Etylus' belt and eventually managed to remove it and make some attempt to bind his hands. He wasn't particularly satisfied with the results, but hoped it would hold the man until he could get the others up.
He then ran over to the shaft. "Autolycus!" he called.
"What's happened, Iolaus?"
"Etylus stabbed Fulvius and then dropped the rope."
"Where is Etylus?"
"I hit him with a rock. He's unconscious, but he might wake up soon."
"Kill him!" Britones ordered.
He meant that he couldn't kill an unconscious man, but Britones thought he meant he'd never killed a man. "Yes, you can. Get the knife and slit his throat."
Iolaus retreated into his adopted persona, "N-No, I *can't*. Autolycus, I *need* you."
Autolycus was assessing the situation. He produced his line and grappling hook. "I'll try to get this up there," he said to Britones, "but it will be a bit tricky trying to throw it straight up." He then called to Iolaus, "Keep back, my love, I'm going to try to get my grappling hook up." However, ten attempts or so latter, he had to admit defeat.
Then he had another idea. "If I can stand on someone's shoulders, I might be high enough to reach the part where it starts to narrow. If I can get my shoulders and legs braced on either side I might be able to 'walk' my way up. It's worth a try anyway."
"How do we know you'll drop the rope for us?" Caelius demanded.
"You'll have to take my word for it. It's the only way I can see of getting out. Someone else can try if they like."
Nobody was offering, so the thief wrapped the rope around his waist and they helped him onto Britones' shoulders. The next move was awkward and he nearly fell but, with more luck than anything else, he was finally in position. He made his way up laboriously, in a series of pushes and heaves, while Iolaus peered anxiously down at him.
The last few feet were slippery and the thief was again in great danger of a fall, especially as he tried to heave his way over the top. Iolaus grabbed for him and, ignoring the searing agony in his wrist, somehow supported him long enough for him to get a proper hold and drag himself to safety. Both sank to the ground, Autolycus gasping with effort and the hunter clutching his wrist tightly against his chest. "Gods that hurts," he muttered, his eyes watering with the pain.
The thief sat up and put a comforting hand on each shoulder. "Thank you, my love," he said. The endearment had just slipped out, even though there was no audience to hear. He'd originally adopted it as part of the act, but it just seemed so right to use it. He knew it was an expression Hercules used when addressing the blond in private. He'd heard him use it when they were at the home of the centaur, Deric. The blond didn't seem to have noticed his inappropriate use of it.
'Anyway it's not really inappropriate,' he thought, looking down on the soft mop of curls and longing to run his fingers through them, 'because I *do* love him. I've thrown away my chances twice now,' he mused, as he recalled carrying the half-naked hunter from the centaurs' village and the incident in Thanatos' cell. 'Well, they say third time lucky and next time I'll seize the opportunity offering.' He smiled at the thought. 'He's told me he feels 'safe' with me. With those looks, he's not safe with anyone and it's time he realized that.'
"Iolaus, I'm going to start loading the mules now," he announced.
"I said I'm going to start loading the mules."
"B-But what about Britones and the others? You're not planning on leaving them down there are you?"
"Of course not. I'll toss the rope down to them just before we leave."
"But that's not fair! There's plenty of gold here for you all and they helped you get it."
"Iolaus, fairness doesn't have a part in my sort of business. You have to seize the opportunity when it offers. Anyway, they'd have done the same to us. They're ruthless men. In fact, they'd probably have left without dropping the rope."
"You don't know that," the hunter protested, "and, even if you're right, doing this makes you as bad as they are."
"Iolaus, be sensible. They'd have tried to cut us out of the deal eventually. This is a great chance to separate ourselves from them."
"And get all the gold for yourself."
"Well, yes, that is another advantage."
"I didn't think you ... I-I thought better of you than ... than this," Iolaus stammered.
"You've been with Hercules too long, Iolaus. We can't all live by his values. Grow up! This is the real world. Now, you promised you'd do what I told you if I let you come with me, so go and get one of the mules."
"No! You told me you weren't going to be stealing the gold and that was a lie. They're entitled to a share and you're stealing from them." He turned and walked away from the thief and stood with his back to him, wondering what to do. Had he alienated yet another friend? He could feel his eyes brimming. He'd been through so much emotional upset recently that tears just seemed to well up, no matter how hard he tried to suppress them, to his intense self-disgust.
Without consciously making a decision, Autolycus found himself walking over to the small figure. He wrapped his arms around Iolaus' shaking shoulders and held him against him, leaning forward to feel the softness of the blond's cheek against his own. "I'm sorry, Iolaus, I know you're right. I'll toss the rope down."
As he released his hold, Iolaus twisted around and flung his arms around him hugging him tightly. "Thank you, Autolycus." His eyes were shining through the unshed tears and his devastatingly beautiful smile of gratitude lit his whole face, making the thief's heart thud against his ribs.
The thief walked across and secured the rope before dropping an end down. All the time he was mentally berating himself. 'Well, Autolycus, I always had quite a high opinion of your mental powers, but I'm revising that. I've heard of people being 'madly in love' but I'd never realized that the statement was meant to be taken absolutely literally.'
To say that the bandits were surprised when the rope snaked down was to put it mildly. They had resigned themselves to the fact that Autolycus had pulled a fast one and they were stuck. Britones was the first to climb out and he said, "What was the hold up? We thought you'd double-crossed us."
"Never! The King of Thieves doesn't stoop to such petty behaviour. Iolaus hurt his wrist pulling me over the edge and he was also rather upset about everything that happened up here so I've been tending to him."
Britones glanced at the hunter, noticing his damp eyes and wondered again how the thief could tolerate the blond, who was apparently a real wimp as well as being half-witted. 'How did such a milksop manage to knock Etylus out?' he mused.
While he was thinking about this, Tetricus appeared and then glanced back down in response to a muffled shout. "Caelius wants us to pull him the rest of the way up," he reported.
"Why can't he climb like the rest of us?" Britones complained, as he joined Tetricus on the rope.
"He can't get any further. He didn't want to leave any of the bars behind so he's got some in his jacket and they've proven too much for him."
"Autolycus, give us a hand will you?"
However, the combined weight of one large bandit and 100lbs of gold was too much. They had him about seven feet from the top when Tetricus gasped, "The ropes breaking!"
"Pull!" Britones shouted frantically. But it was too late, the rope gave way and Caelius fell, the gold crushing his chest. Alesus had barely managed to fling himself out of the way.
Autolycus had to toss his own rope down to get the latter to safety.
While he was doing this, he heard a scream of pain and swung around to find Britones had knifed Etylus. "Serves the bastard right," the bandit leader commented, as he wiped the bloody blade on his trouser leg.
Autolycus shot an 'I told you so' look at the hunter, but made no comment.
They proceeded to load the mules. At this point a new problem arouse. They had managed to get 68 ingots to the surface and there was no way that four elderly mules were going to be able to carry over 1,300lbs of gold. "I reckon they can manage no more than 200lbs each," Alesus said. "What are we going to do with the other 28 bars?"
After some debate, they decided to drop them back into the shaft. "We can always come back for them some time," Britones said. "If we cover over the entrance we made, they should be safe enough."
"Where to now?" Alesus asked.
"Corinth," Britones replied. "It's the nearest city of any size and I want to start enjoying my share."
"Sounds fair enough to me," Autolycus said.
The first day's travel had gone smoothly enough although the pace was slow. They were now winding their way along a narrow mountain track on the second day, the mules roped together in a long line. The three bandits were leading and Autolycus and Iolaus were following the train of animals.
Autolycus strolled happily along thinking of the golden future ahead of him. Sixteen golden bars (for he was planning to claim Iolaus' share if the blond was serious about not wanting any) *and*, if he played his cards right, a golden hunter.
Iolaus asked innocently, "What are you thinking about with a smile like that?"
"Just about the fun I'm ... I mean we're going to have with the gold." He wrapped an arm around the blond's waist and pulled him against him. "Are you looking forward to it, my love?"
"I suppose so."
"You suppose so? What's wrong now."
"I just wish we weren't going to Corinth."
"Why? Are there any cities you do like? What have you got against Corinth?"
"Nothing really. I just thought ... I wondered if Herc will be there."
"And why would he be likely to be there of all places?"
"His brother Iphicles is the king there and he likes to visit him occasionally."
'Damn, I forgot that,' Autolycus thought. "Don't worry, Iolaus, if he's there we can just move on. You don't have to see him," he said.
"I'd *like* to see him to know that he's okay, but ... Gods I miss him, Autolycus! I'm sorry, that sounds as if I don't enjoy your company, but I don't mean it like that. I just wish ..." His voice trailed off wistfully.
'It appears that you haven't made the progress you'd hoped, Autolycus,' the thief mused mockingly to himself. 'Some of your 'gold' isn't as secure as you would like. Still there's time to rectify that. If I can find out what he's holding back, I might think of some way of using the information to my advantage.' So he suddenly said, "Iolaus, do you remember when you told me about Athens and I said I had more questions. Is it okay to ask you now?"
"I suppose so," Iolaus answered, somewhat reluctantly.
"When you were telling the story, you kept saying how you missed Hercules. Why did you treat him the way you did when you met up again? I'd have thought you'd have been overjoyed to see him again."
"I was ... kind of."
"I don't think you can be 'kind of' overjoyed."
"I *wanted* to see him, but I didn't think he'd want to see me. I kept thinking of the horrible things he said to me at Preveza. If that's what he thought of me, I didn't know how he could possibly want to see me. I went to see his mother because I needed help with a hand that got slashed by a boar and I was scared he'd arrive home and go on at me again. If I didn't meet him, I could hope that maybe he'd forgiven me for hitting him. It sounds stupid, I know, but I wasn't thinking too clearly."
"Okay, but when you did meet he apologized, didn't he?"
"Y-Yes, but the trouble was you know how kind he is and I wondered if he was just saying that he was wrong to try to make me feel better because he knew I was upset when Jason started on at me for not looking after Alcmene properly."
"And yet you let him sleep with you. You *asked* him to do so."
"*Just* sleeping. I just wanted someone to cuddle me, someone to be with me so I'd feel *safe*." Safe! There was that word that he'd used to Autolycus when he had been trying to persuade the thief to let him travel with him.
"And did you?"
"Yes. I had nightmares about Mandrocles and Juventas, but he woke me up and then he cuddled me. He was so kind to me."
The word "kind" made Autolycus winced inwardly. How could Iolaus, with all his golden beauty, feel it was kind of someone to take the trouble to cuddle him? "If he was so *kind*, why did you kick him out?"
"He frightened me."
"Hercules *frightened* you?" the thief exclaimed, in tones of stunned disbelief. "What on earth did he do?"
"You're going to think I'm really stupid."
"I've thought that for years, so nothing will have changed," Autolycus retorted, trying to lighten the situation.
"It's not funny," Iolaus protested.
"I'm sorry, Iolaus, you know I didn't mean it. You know I love you."
"Yes, but you don't ... you accept that I don't want ... Herc expects to have sex with me."
"But you enjoy having sex with him, don't you?"
"I do ... Well, I *did* but ... but after Juventas I don't know ... He hurt me so much, Autolycus. I was ... I was bleeding inside. He tore some muscle or something, I don't know. It doesn't hurt now so it m-might be okay, but I'm ... scared."
"Iolaus, Hercules said he didn't mention sex to you."
"And he didn't, but he had a hard-on in bed that second night. I don't think he knew I'd noticed, but I did and I was just so ... so ... frightened."
"Hercules wouldn't force himself on you, Iolaus."
"I know, but he'd be hoping I'd forgive him and then he'd expect sex and I didn't know how ... I didn't want to tell him how Juventas had hurt me. He might have made me go to a healer and I couldn't face a stranger knowing what had happened and examining me. So it was easier to say nothing and let Herc think it was just that I still hadn't forgiven him for Preveza."
"Even if it hurt him to think that?"
"I didn't know what else to do. Anyway it wasn't really a lie. I don't think I'll ever forget that night."
"Of course you will. I'll help you." With that he stopped, turned Iolaus to him and kissed him gently on the lips. "Don't you worry about anything. Everything will be fine." He released him quickly. "Come on, Iolaus, they're leaving us behind," he said, grasping the hunter's arm and hurrying him along without giving him a chance to dwell on the kiss, which could not possibly have been for the bandits benefit as all had their backs to the pair.
A short time later, disaster struck. The track narrowed dangerously and the leading animal put a foot too close to the edge. The ground crumbled and the animal tried to scramble to safety, unbalancing its load in the process. The weight dragged it over the edge.
Seeing what was about to happen, Iolaus pulled his knife and darted forward slashing down on the rope connecting mules two and three. Tetricus was attempting the same between the leading pair. Unfortunately, he wasn't as fast as the hunter and both leading animals fell over the cliff face. In his desire to save the gold, Tetricus snatched at a saddle-bag and his momentum carried him after the mules and down a sixty foot drop into the fast flowing river below.
"This expedition's brought nothing, but disaster," Alesus commented bitterly, as the subdued little group continued on.
Britones said nothing. He had noticed something about the incident that hadn't registered with Alesus. The timid, little blond had acted bravely and fast to save the remaining two mules. It seemed most out of character. Britones was no fool and the vague suspicion that there was more to Blondie than he had imagined, that had found a place in his mind when Iolaus knocked Etylus out, began to grow.
Eventually, they emerged from the mountains and began to travel across a bush covered plain. What passed as a road was in reasonable condition, but the exhausted animals were moving more slowly than ever.
Unbeknownst to the weary group, they were under observation. The small sized, but obviously very heavy loads had suggested gold to a local bandit leader and he and his gang were shadowing them while plotting an ambush.
The hunter, who was leading suddenly stopped and gazed around him. "Keep moving," Britones grumbled, "the animals don't need another rest yet. You treat them as if they were your bloody pets."
"Someone's watching us. I can feel it."
"Don't be ridiculous. There's nobody there. You're imagining things."
Knowing the hunter's skills, Autolycus dropped his hand to his sword hilt. "Britones, if Iolaus thinks ..." he started, but the outlaws, twigging that their prey had become aware of their presence threw caution to the wind and charged en masse.
To Britones' amazement, the little blond rushed forward to meet the attack, drawing his sword as he did so. Though forced to fight left-handed, he cut a swathe through the bandits, until one vicious thrust of his sword went right through his opponent and into a tree behind him. A tug failed to dislodge the weapon impaling the bandit and Iolaus could give no more time to it. He abandoned it and swung to face his next opponent bare-handed.
He closed, ducked under his opponent's guard, chopped the man across the throat with the side of his hand and danced nimbly back. The man gagged and his knees started to sag. Iolaus moved back in fast and smashed him on the chin, swearing as he skinned his knuckles.
Another man flung his arms around the blond, lifted him high above his head and flung him, moving forward with the intention of stomping him once he landed. Iolaus controlled his fall, rolled on his shoulders and flipped back to his feet. Caught completely off guard by the hunter's quick recovery, the man halted suddenly only to receive a hard punch into his midriff that doubled him over. Iolaus snapped a knee up into his face breaking his nose.
Britones was fighting a youth, who was taking wild swings with his sword, showing foolhardiness rather than bravery or skill. He backed away, fending the youth off and waiting for him to give him the opening he sought. Then, unexpectedly, he found himself up against one of the mules. As he faltered, the youth lunged at him. Britones dived to the side and the thrust went deep into the unfortunate animal. Recovering himself, Britones drove his sword into the boy's ribs.
Meanwhile, Alesus had gone down to an enemy blade and was gasping his last.
Autolycus dispatched one of their attackers with his sword only to have another slash down upon his blade and send it spinning from his hand. He evaded the man's sword, and closed with his attacker, but found himself up against a formidable opponent. The man managed to get hold of him and then to throw him. Autolycus struggled, trying to turn his body, attempting to land on his feet like a cat, but he didn't make it. He struck the ground hard and the breath blasted out of him.
The thief fought to get himself into an upright position. He had just managed to get his knees under him when he heard Iolaus shout, "Autolycus, look out! Behind you!" There was a bone-jarring crash against his skull and the world seemed to explode around him. He sank into oblivion.
Seeing the golden warrior advancing on them, the three bandits still on their feet decided to take what they could easily get and go. Driving the surviving mule ahead of them, they took off at speed. Iolaus started after them, but thought of Autolycus and turned back.
Britones was assessing the situation. After all their efforts, here they were down to ten ingots and one dead mule. Well, more accurately, here *he* was because he had no more intention of sharing the spoils now than he had had at any stage of the expedition. Okay, now he had to figure a way to carry the gold. He glanced across at the thief. Autolycus was sprawled on the ground unconscious. He was going to be no help. That left the little blond.
Blondie was obviously a lot tougher than he made out. Britones had been astounded by the fighting skills he had shown. He was clearly no simple villager. Britones smiled to himself. The two had obviously been planning a doublecross and Iolaus' stupidity had been an act to lull suspicions. He could understand and appreciate such deviousness. He could punish it as well if it was directed against him. He removed the thief's rope.
Britones stroked his blade across the thief's exposed throat and called out, "Iolaus! Come here!"
"What are you doing to Autolycus?" the blond asked.
"The game's over, Iolaus. You've lost. You can drop that character now. I saw you fight. You're a warrior, not a villager. I'd kill you now, but I've got a use for you. Take your vest off. Now get down on your stomach and put your hands behind you."
"Do it or I'll cut his throat!"
The hunter reluctantly complied and Britones tied his hands tightly together, causing him to wince in pain as the rope cut in to his broken wrist. "Okay, up on your knees!" Britones ordered. "Now, stay there and don't move."
Britones edged back to the dead mule, watching Iolaus as he did so. Then he unstrapped the pack from the animal and dragged it over to the hunter. "I don't suppose you'll manage the lot," he said regretfully. "You can try seven and I'll carry the other three." He pulled three ingots from the pack and then used the straps and the remains of Autolycus' rope to tie the pack onto Iolaus' back. "Right, get up!"
Iolaus tried, but the load, which only weighed a bit less than he did himself, kept pulling him backwards and unbalancing him. The ropes were already cutting into his shoulders and chest. "Stop wasting time," Britones ordered.
"I'm trying," the hunter protested.
"Not hard enough," Britones said, but he grasped one of Iolaus' shoulders and hauled him roughly to his feet. "Now wait there. I've got a little job to do before we go."
As Iolaus stood, somewhat unsteadily, watching, he moved around the bodies of the six bandits that had been abandoned by their so-called friends. Two were still alive so he slit their throats. "I don't like to leave any loose ends," he remarked conversationally to Iolaus.
He then moved back to Autolycus. Iolaus was horrified. "No, please, not Autolycus. You wouldn't be here now if he hadn't got you out of the Lost City."
"True. I couldn't understand it. I didn't think he'd be stupid enough to do that."
"But he *did*. Please leave him."
"I shouldn't ... but what the hell. He won't cause any trouble for me now I've got his little catamite. At least that does seem to have been the one part of your story that was true. You know I find you very pretty. Your stupidity was a real turn off for me but, now I know it was just an act, we can have some fun ourselves."
Iolaus' blood ran cold at these words. He stood frozen until he felt a shove that made him stumble. "Okay, on to Corinth," Britones announced.
More than an hour had passed before Autolycus struggled back to consciousness. His head was ringing and his vision blurred. As his sight gradually cleared, he looked around dreading what he might find. There was Alesus' body and a dead mule alongside him, its pack gone. There were the bodies of six of the attackers as well. Two of these had had their throats slit. 'Britones' post fight tidy-up,' Autolycus correctly surmised. Well, that implied their side had won, but then why was there no sign of Britones or the hunter.
He knew the blond would never have left him willingly, but couldn't understand why their attackers would have taken him with them. He felt it highly unlikely that Iolaus would have left him, to go after the bandits, when he was unconscious. The hunter would always put a man's welfare before gold.
As far as Britones was concerned, if their attackers had run off the other mule he could well imagine him going after them, but that still didn't explain Iolaus' disappearance.
Then he spotted the disreputable, leather vest. He picked it up and hooked it through his belt. He knew the blond was inordinately fond of the garment, which he would personally have disposed of years ago had he had the misfortune to own it, and so figured he'd better take it with him.
He began to look around hoping to determine which way they had all gone, but tracking had never been one of his skills and the ground had been much disturbed during the fight. Which way to go? He pulled out a dinar. 'Heads I go on towards Corinth, tails I turn back ... Heads it is.'
About half a mile on, he came to a ford. There were two sets of prints in the mud. Surprisingly the smaller footprints were pressing more deeply than the others. 'Must be a fat person,' he thought idly, as he hurried on.
Meanwhile, the hunter was making very heavy weather of the trek. For the first mile or so he'd been worrying about Autolycus, but after that he'd had trouble thinking about anything but his own aches and pains. A river of sweat was flowing down his body and mixing with the blood from where the ropes and straps were chafing deeply into his shoulders and chest. He was swaying with fatigue and all his muscles were aching. His breath was rasping painfully in his parched throat. His senses were reeling and he was moving automatically, with no conscious awareness of his surroundings. He didn't see the rut in the road that brought him to his knees.
He knelt there, head slumped forward on his chest. There was a roaring in his ears that effectively muffled Britones' order to him to get up. Britones seized a handful of his hair and pulled his head up. Then he backhanded Iolaus across the face splitting his lip. Even that blow hardly registered with the exhausted hunter.
Britones grabbed him by the right arm and tried to drag him upright. The angle was awkward and the blond cried out in pain as he felt a muscle pull in his shoulder. The bandit ignored this and continued to tug at him, but he was tired himself, although his load of three ingots was much lighter than that with which he had burdened the hunter, and he couldn't do it. He lost his grip on the sweat-slippery body and the blond went down flat. He lay on his belly, trapped under the relentless weight of the pack, gasping painfully in the dust.
Realizing that he was going to have to let Iolaus rest if he was going to get any more work out of him, Britones reluctantly, and with quite some difficulty, rolled him over so he was lying awkwardly against the pack.
They remained there for twenty minutes, but by then Britones was anxious to be on the move again. "Okay, Blondie, it's time to go," he announced, shaking him roughly by his injured shoulder.
An ashen faced hunter looked at him through confused and blurry eyes. He wasn't really sure who the man was and where they were supposedly going, but he did know his body seemed to have no intention of moving for him. Receiving a hurry up 'encouragement' in the form of Britones' boot in his ribs didn't help things either.
Britones ended up having to take four of the ingots out of the hunter's pack so he could drag him upright before reloading him. Iolaus' punished flesh protested like hell as the ropes and straps settled back into the bloody grooves they had previously cut. He staggered off legs moving slowly and painfully under the weight.
Autolycus, unhindered by gold ingots but bemoaning their absence, was closing rapidly upon them. He still assumed that, for reasons he could not begin to fathom, their attackers had taken Iolaus and Britones with them and he still had no idea whether he was heading in the right direction or not. However, by nature, he was both a gambler and an optimist and so, having put his trust in the turn of a coin he kept it there.
Twenty minutes later and Iolaus was on the ground again. This time he was completely out of it and so was oblivious of the thief's arrival some minutes after his collapse.
Britones was also caught unawares. He was in the act of trying to bury some of the bars, a difficult task with only a knife to dig with, having decided that the blond was clearly not going to make the distance.
Autolycus spotted Iolaus first. The hunter was lying on his stomach in the centre of the road, mule pack still strapped to his back and a gold ingot lying beside him. The thief's first impulse was to rush to his aid, but he hadn't been in his profession as long as he had without appreciating the need for cautious assessment of any situation. Accordingly, he slipped silently off the road and approached with stealth.
There was Britones, on his knees, busily digging. 'I should kill him now,' Autolycus thought, 'but Iolaus would complain if I did that. Even after what the bastard's done to him I know he won't hold with back-stabbing. I'm going to have to teach him to look at things more sensibly, but that had better wait until I've shown him some of my more intimate talents.' He knew now that he had finally given in completely to the temptation that was Iolaus.
Accordingly, he drew his sword and said, "Britones."
The bandit leader scrambled to his feet. "I knew I should have killed you back there. I shouldn't have listened to Blondie." As he spoke, he reached for his own sword.
It was soon clear to Britones that he had met his master. Autolycus was a far superior swordsman and parried every thrust with ease. Further, having carried some 60lbs of gold for some distance, his limbs were tired and he was not moving fast. However, he was determined not to yield. Finally, Autolycus feinted as though going to lunge for his right side and, at the last moment, twisted and brought his blade up into Britones' throat.
Autolycus stood panting and listening with relief to his dying gurgles. Then he hastened over to the hunter and cut him free from the pack, cursing as he saw the bloody lines marring his smooth chest and shoulders. "Iolaus, can you hear me?" he asked, brushing the sweat-damp curls from the hunter's eyes.
The blond stirred. "Thirsty," he muttered.
The thief started to open his water flask, when the blond moved slightly, trying to rotate his right shoulder, and groaned in pain. 'Damn,' thought Autolycus, 'I wish I had something stronger to give him.' It was then that he recalled his pouch of lotus leaf mixture, which he'd originally gathered with the thought that he might use it against his supposed allies if necessary. 'I'll give him some of that, it might help ease the pain.'
He took some and dropped it into the water and gave the flask a good shake. Then he raised the blond slightly and put it to his lips. Iolaus' swallowed and then tried to pull away. "Tastes odd," he complained.
However, the thief held his head steady and kept pouring, ignoring his splutters and vague struggles. "Keep still, Iolaus," he ordered, "this is good for you. It'll help with the pain."
It was then that the thought struck him. The opiate might help with something else as well. If he could get the hunter nice and relaxed, his seduction should progress more easily.
His seduction? 'Gods, I've got it bad,' he thought. 'There are ten bars of gold here for the taking and all I'm thinking of taking is a golden hunter.' He laughed mockingly at his own stupidity. 'I talk about teaching Iolaus about the real world and he manages to do this to me instead. Okay, realistically, what's my next move?'
He knew Corinth was still another five miles on and that there was no way he could carry both Iolaus and the gold that far. 'I'd better leave the gold, Iolaus might object if I buried him for safekeeping. Buried him? I know I want to bury something in him. Hell, even thinking isn't safe anymore.'
As quickly as he could, he completed Britones' gold hiding task. 'I wonder if he'd also chosen those golden curls ahead of ingots,' he mused. 'I wouldn't have said he'd be the type, but then before I met Iolaus I'd have been willing to bet any amount that I wasn't either.'
He wondered what to do with Britones' body. He had no desire to embark upon grave-digging with a sheath knife. He finally settled for dragging the corpse another twenty feet into the woods and breaking off a few branches to cover it.
He then returned to Iolaus to find him still lying where he had left him. He wondered if the lotus leaf had been a good idea. Actually, he was certain it was an inspired idea as far as the proposed seduction was concerned, but whether it was going to prove a problem now given that he had to get the blond on his feet and moving was the question.
He bent down and pulled Iolaus' left arm across his shoulders and wrapped his right arm around the blond and under his right arm. Then he hoisted Iolaus to his feet. "What are ..." Iolaus started.
"You've got to try to walk, Iolaus. I'll help you. It's not far to Corinth now," he added, in a reassuring lie. Five miles was going to be quite a distance under the circumstances. "Come on, you promised you'd do what I told you if I let you come on this trip with me. You're not going to break your word are you?"
"N-No." His weary body was aching for rest, but if Autolycus said he'd promised he'd better try. He plodded on, leaning heavily on the thief.
They'd gone about another mile when they had a piece of luck. A farm wagon transporting produce to the city came up behind them and Autolycus managed to cadge a ride for them. He explained that they were heading for the city, but had been set upon by bandits and the kindly farmer was only too pleased to help.
When he looked at Iolaus, the farmer was struck by a feeling of recognition, but he was certain he'd never met the little blond before. 'I guess I've just seen him around Corinth in the past,' he thought. He asked Autolycus if the pair had been to Corinth previously and the thief confirmed that they had so the farmer decided he must have noticed Iolaus then. A man of few words, he did not bother to comment that the blond looked familiar.
Autolycus settled the blond into the tray of the wagon and he was soon in a sleep close to unconsciousness, as the combined effects of the opiate and exhaustion overcame him.
He dropped them on the outskirts of town at Autolycus' request. Iolaus roused as the thief scooped him up. "Wh-What's happening? Where are we?"
"Ssh, it's okay, Iolaus, I've got you. We're in Corinth."
Reassured, the blond snuggled trustingly into the thief's chest.
Autoylcus immediately booked a room at a somewhat insalubrious tavern. He was only too aware of Iolaus' comment about Hercules' brother being the King of Corinth and so knew Iolaus would have been there with the demigod on several occasions. He wanted to ensure that he got Iolaus out of sight before anybody recognized him. Further, this type of tavern was advantageous in that the owners of such a joint were used to accommodating guests who did not want their business bruited abroad. Anything could happen in such dives and the owners would turn a blind eye as long as their palms were well greased.
Even the sight of a darkly handsome man walking in with a pretty, blond man unconscious in his arms and booking a room with a double bed was not a case for summoning the authorities, but only for some ribald speculation behind the bar.
Autolycus placed the hunter on the bed and then sent orders for salve, soap, hot water and some strong drink. Then he stripped Iolaus. The blond seemed oblivious of his actions. Once he muttered, "Herc?" which was a bit off-putting, but apart from that was silent.
Once he had the items he had requested, the thief mixed some of the lotus leaf into the ale and roused the hunter sufficiently so he could make him drink it. This time, when muttering complaints about the medicine, Iolaus said something about lotus leaf. "You can smell the stuff I've got in my pouch, Iolaus," the thief hurriedly assured him.
He then set to work to clean and treat the hunter's cuts and abrasions, applying the salve liberally. That done he began to wash him properly.
First, he gently wiped his face and dropped a feather-light kiss on one cheek before proceeding further. He watched closely, but there was no reaction, not even a flutter of the long eyelashes.
The tangled mop of golden curls, framing the too beautiful face that so enticed him, created an air of purity and innocence that disconcerted the thief. 'It's an illusion,' he told himself sternly, 'He's more experienced at this sort of thing than I am. He's slept with Hercules and probably plenty of other males and I'm the 'virgin' here. Once more isn't going to hurt him.'
He worked his way down Iolaus' body. The blond lay completely quiescent under the thief's ministrations, accepting his touch with total maddening trust. 'If he really doesn't want it, he *should* be more wary. How can he be so innocently trusting of *me*?'' Autolycus wondered. His guilt giving his thoughts a touch of anger, he added, 'He should have more sense.'
Conveniently disregarding the soporific effects of the lotus leaf that he had fed to the hunter, he had started twisting things in his mind to put the blame for his intentions on the blond.
'Anyway, I'm not taking anything he didn't offer,' he thought, in self-justification, recalling the incident in the cell at Preveza.
His hands moved the cloth slowly and gently down the satin smooth body. He neared the flaccid penis lying in its nest of incredibly golden curls. Iolaus was showing no arousal at all, no awareness that there was any sexual intent in what was being done to him. The thief hesitated momentarily. Then he bypassed that area.
Although he had a vague urge to caress the curls to see if they were really as soft as they appeared, it was not that part of the hunter that held his interest. He had no visions of playing what he saw as the submissive role in any sexual encounter.
Unable to resist any longer, he gently rolled the blond over on to his stomach.
Although he worked his way from the neck down the strongly muscled back, the whole time his eyes were riveted on the creamy globes that had filled his dreams since he had cupped them while carrying the half-naked hunter from the centaurs' village. Finally, unable to resist any longer, he dropped the washrag and ran a finger teasingly down the crevice between them.
*That* got a reaction. The hunter started at the intimacy. "Wh-What are you doing?" he asked drowsily, starting to turn over.
The thief put a hand in the small of his back to stop the movement and, in his silkiest voice, said, "Just relax, Iolaus, I'm not going to hurt you."
"It's okay, just lie still." He ran his hand down the soft flesh of Iolaus' inner thighs and started to ease his legs apart, climbing on to the bed as he did so.
"No, please ..."
"Iolaus, I'm hurt. I thought you trusted me. I'm going to help you. Let me show you all your fears are unfounded," the thief whispered. 'After what he told me, it's clear someone has to show him that the injuries Juventas caused were not permanent. This will reassure him that sex is an enjoyable activity,' he thought, attempting to justify his actions as altruistic.
"I don't want ..."
"Ssh, My love, it'll be fine. If it hurts at all I promise I'll stop, but it's *not* going to. Trust me." Even as he spoke, he suffered a momentary pang of fear. 'What if there *is* something wrong and I hurt him?' he wondered. However, his inherent optimism led him to push the thought aside.
"Please I don't ..."
"No more, my love, I'll go slowly. Just relax." He moved his hands up and began to gently massage Iolaus' back, carefully avoiding the injured shoulder. "There. This is nice isn't it? Nothing to worry about," he crooned.
Lotus leaf was known for its ability to produce a luxurious langour and that, combined with the gentle stroking motion and the intoxicating effects of the strong ale Autolycus had poured into him, was lulling the hunter. Iolaus wanted to object, but his mind was drifting fuzzily. Autolycus began to nuzzle the sensitive nape of his neck, sucking at his earlobes and running his fingers lightly down his neck.
He eased Iolaus onto his side and began to fondle his balls and penis. His hands were deft and sure and Iolaus could feel himself sinking into a voluptuous acceptance of the caresses, an acquiescence that yet had a shivering edge of distress. He knew he didn't want sex, not with anyone ... except ... maybe ... Hercules. Autolycus knew that too, so why was he doing this to him? And why didn't he seem able to resist?
In spite of his fears, the talented hands soon had him aroused. Then they moved away, carefully avoiding his attempts to push against them. Worse, they captured his own hands and held them behind him, away from his straining organ.
Desperate for some pressure, he rolled down onto his stomach and the thief seized the opportunity to put a leather-clad knee between his thighs. This knee wriggled forcing space for its partner.
The thief released his wrists and he raised himself slightly, trying to reach his left hand beneath him to clasp his own penis. Seeing the motion, Autolycus took a firm hold on each hip to 'assist'. At some stage, he must have undone his codpiece because Iolaus could feel his erection lying hot and hard against his buttocks.
The thief leant forward and breathed, "Do you want me inside you, Iolaus?" while marvelling at his own self-control, or was it love? he wondered vaguely, that was somehow stopping him from slamming into the hunter.
Desire flooded in upon Iolaus, swirling in his veins, heating his skin and settling with aching vulnerability in the lower part of his body. Gods he was scared, but how he wanted it. He nodded.
A well-oiled finger penetrated him with maddening slowness, followed by a second and then a third. "Ready?" the seductive voice purred.
"Yes!" He almost shouted in his need.
The fingers withdrew and the thief eased his way gently in, going slowly as promised, while wrecking havoc on himself as he resisted his own body's demands to behave more forcibly. Once fully sheathed, he stopped and whispered, "Okay? Do you want me to stop," while praying, 'Please, gods, don't let him ask me to because I don't think I can.'
"No! I n-need it, Auto. Please!"
The thief laughed exultantly and began to move, slowly and gently at first and then with increasing speed and force. The hunter began to scream with the pleasure/pain, while begging Autolycus to fuck him harder.
They climaxed together. *That* was the downer for Autolycus because the blond screamed "Hercules!" as he went over the edge.
Autolycus rolled off Iolaus and onto his back, pulling the blond on top of him and holding him tightly. He stroked the soft curls and murmured endearments into them. He could feel Iolaus' tears wet against his chest. "Did I hurt you?" he asked anxiously.
"N-No, I ... k-kind of enjoyed it, but ... but I'm just not sure why I let ... I didn't mean to ..."
"Don't think about it, Iolaus. The important thing is that you're all right." Then he took the coward's way out and said, "Now, I want you to have more of that medicine." 'Better that he dozes off than dwells upon it,' he reasoned. 'He'll get used to me.'
"Yes, I'll get it."
"But I don't want ..."
"Yes, you do. I'm looking after you. Remember you promised to do what I told you."
So the already bemused hunter swallowed yet another dose of strong ale and lotus leaf and fell into a drugged sleep, while the thief lay awake arguing with his conscience, which was behaving in an unusually disruptive manner.
'Well, I never thought I'd see the King of Thieves resorting to rape,' it observed.
'It wasn't rape, I didn't force him,' he insisted. 'He asked me to take him.'
'Oh, yes, and he was in his right mind when he asked you, was he?' queried the conscience sternly.
'Yes, the lotus leaf and the alcohol only helped relax him a bit, that's all. He wanted it.'
'He was frightened more like.'
'Initially, but he soon got over that. I did it for his good. He won't be afraid of having sex now.'
'And who's he going to have sex with? Are you still working for Hercules?'
'I ... um ... I suppose not.'
'What if he wants to go back to Hercules?'
'I'll let him.'
'Yes ... No ... That's a *bit* soon. He probably needs time to get used to me first.'
'Time for the lotus leaf to weave its spell of forgetfulness you mean?'
'No ... well ... maybe.'
'Or did you simply mean time for you to undermine Hercules in his affections?'
'As if I would if I could.'
'Yeah, as if.'
So early the following morning, a somewhat confused hunter was awoken with the words, "Medicine time!" and found himself coughing and spluttering, but being forced to swallow yet another dose of the horrible concoction.
The thief's immediate plans were not amatory however. A mere five miles from town was his little cache of ten gold bars and his aim was to hire a wagon and to collect these. He had decided it would be as well to leave the hunter at the tavern and didn't want him getting up and wandering off in his bemused state. It was far better for him to sleep soundly.
He figured he'd be back long before the blond awoke. What he didn't anticipate was that he would break the wagon axle in a rut soon after commencing his return journey so that, by the time he reached Corinth, Iolaus would be overdue for his next dose of lotus leaf.
Late that morning, the farmer, who had kindly provided Autolycus and Iolaus with the ride, was in the market place, having stayed in Corinth overnight, when he heard a bit of a stir and noticed a few people were looking and pointing at something. "What's going on?" he asked a nearby stallholder.
"Hercules is wandering around the market. He's staying with his brother, King Iphicles at present. Some of the ladies are getting all of a twitter trying to get his attention, but I don't think they're having much luck. Some men don't know when they're well off. The opportunities he wastes! If I was him ..."
But the farmer was no longer listening. He'd realized where he'd seen the little blond before, walking by the side of the demigod. He didn't know what was going on, but something *was* wrong.
As he had been driving away, the previous day, it had occurred to him that he should have told Autolycus the address of the nearest healer and he had turned back in time to see the thief carry the blond into the rundown tavern. He had debated following him, but didn't like to leave his loaded wagon on the street. 'Someone in there will be able to tell him,' he thought, and drove on, without sparing the pair a second thought.
Now he was most concerned. Why would Hercules' best friend be staying in such a dive when he could be at the castle with the demigod, receiving the best care available? There was something odd about the whole affair and he was not a man to stand idly by when he suspected something was amiss.
Accordingly, he approached the demigod and said, "Excuse me, Hercules, my name is Sisenes. Could I speak to you privately for a moment please?"
The demigod nodded and drew him aside. "How can I help?"
"I hope I'm not speaking out of turn, but yesterday I saw something that I thought you should know about. I was coming into town with my goods and I gave a ride to a pair of travellers, who claimed to have been set upon by bandits. I dropped them at a rather rundown inn on the edge of town."
"That was kind of you, but I expect the bandits will be long gone now so I don't suppose there's much I can do."
"It's not that. One of the men I helped looked familiar, but I couldn't place him. I've just realized he's that little friend of yours, Ionicus."
"That's okay. They weren't hurt were they?"
"Yes, your friend was unconscious, or near enough to it, and the man with him was supporting him. The thing is it's a rough area of town and I can't understand why the other man didn't take him to you at the castle."
"Perhaps he didn't realize I was in town. I only called here on the spur of the moment."
"But surely they'd go to the king for help whether you were here or not."
"Possibly. Tell me, what did the second man look like?"
"Tall. He had dark hair and a moustache."
"Ah, sounds like Autolycus. I don't think he's ever met my brother so that probably explains it. Look can you give me directions to this tavern? I'll go and check Iolaus is all right."
So a few minutes later, a surprised tavern-owner's humble establishment was graced by the arrival of an anxious demigod. All the way there, Hercules had been turning over possibilities in his mind. He hoped that the thief might have managed to find out what was upsetting Iolaus and that the pair had been looking for him to effect a reconciliation but, if so, why had they not approached the castle to see if Iphicles knew of his whereabouts? He knew Autolycus would never have hesitated to do such a thing whether he'd met Iphicles or not. He'd never have passed up an opportunity to stay in relative luxury, with servants to look after him. "I believe you have a couple of friends of mine staying here?"
"Possibly," the man hedged.
"A tall, dark man with a moustache and a little blond."
"I don't know if they're still here. I'd have to check."
"I don't ..."
"Tell me which room or I'll go up and look."
Reasoning that it's not a healthy practice to enrage a demigod, the man said, "Top of the stairs. Second on your left."
Hercules pounded up the stairs.
Meanwhile, Iolaus had woken again and was lying in bed trying to make sense of exactly where he was and what had been going on. Try as he could, he was unable to remember which town he was in, but he knew that Autolycus had been with him and that, for some reason, he'd allowed the thief to make love to him. The experience had a hazy, dreamlike quality, but his sore anus was testimony to the fact that imagination had nothing to do with it.
The discomfort was not distressing in itself. Indeed, it was actually reassuring because there was none of the tearing agony or bleeding that he had experienced as a result of Juventas' assault. However, he was *not* happy. He couldn't understand how he had been induced to betray his love for Hercules. He wished his mind wasn't so fuzzy. It was hard to think clearly. He wondered where Autolycus was. He felt oddly vulnerable lying in an unknown tavern in an unknown town and wanted badly someone to explain what was going on.
At that moment, Hercules burst into the room. Iolaus sat up hurriedly as the door crashed open and cried, "Hercules! You're here!" The joy in the hunter's voice was unmistakable and his smile was dazzling.
Hercules was across the room in an instant, flung his arms around the blond and hugged him until the hunter gasped something about wanting his ribs to survive the encounter. He released his crushing grip only to put his arms around the hunter's shoulders, more gently because he'd spotted the various injuries, and draw him in for a kiss, inserting his tongue between Iolaus' honeyed lips in delicate play.
He then drew back and gazed at that beloved face. The azure eyes looked somewhat unfocused, but he registered this fact only subconsciously as he reached out both hands to run them through the tumbled golden locks. The flush of colour across Iolaus' cheekbones was entrancing. To deepen it was irresistible.
He lowered his mouth again and his lips traced a moist and fiery path along the curve of Iolaus' neck and down to his collarbone, while the hunter whimpered with pleasure at the attentions. He moved on down and found a hard, brown nipple to suck at and tease, while his hands danced their way lightly over the broad back.
He removed his hands and eased the hunter back onto the pillows, pulling the covers from him and discovering to his delight that the hunter was naked. Moving the centre of his attentions, in a series of licks and nibbles, down to the belly button he inserted the tip of his tongue and rotated it.
Iolaus giggled, the sound sending a thrill of happiness through the demigod, and bucked his hips. "Stay still, my love," Hercules whispered. He continued to torment with his tongue, while snaking his left arm beneath his lover to hold his hips steady, and his right hand pushed its way between the hunter's legs to seek the small aperture he loved so much.
Firmly anchored in position, the blond had to content himself with running his hands through Hercules' wild mane of hair. Once two fingers had penetrated him his grip became so violent that the demigod was forced to release his hold on the blond's hips in order to retain some hair. Freed, the hunter began to writhe, pushing back urgently against his hand. "Herc," he gasped urgently, "I want you!"
"There's no lubrication, my love."
"Make some! Hurry!"
Hercules grasped the blond's hard penis and began to pump it rhythmically, while continuing to finger-fuck him. He ejaculated, crying Hercules' name and clutching convulsively to the demigod.
Without taking the time to undress, Hercules opened his fly and quickly coated his erection with Iolaus' seed, while the blond twisted onto his stomach and flung his legs wide. In moments, the demigod was buried deeply inside his ecstatic lover and was caught up in the maelstrom of Iolaus' passion. They had made love many times, but never like this. Never with this overwhelming sense of urgency, of frantic need to unite with each other.
When it was over, Iolaus lay back looking as satisfied as a cat full of cream. He gave a sigh of contentment, eyes closed, smiling happily. The demigod couldn't keep his eyes or hands off him and the hunter lay back luxuriating in the caresses. He curled contentedly against the demigod's side and felt Hercules smile softly against his hair.
The demigod whispered, "I love you, Iolaus."
"I love you too, Herc," the hunter replied, nuzzling happily into his neck.
But then the spell was broken as Hercules continued, "And no more secrets, my love. We must be open with each other."
Iolaus froze and his face turned ashen. How could he tell the demigod what he had let the thief do? And how could he explain why when he didn't really know why himself?
However, the demigod could only see the top of his head and so continued, "Why didn't you come up to the castle to look for me?"
"C-Castle? What castle?"
"Iphicles' castle of course."
"Are ... Are we in Corinth?"
"Of course." Puzzled, he pushed himself up on the pillows and then put a gentle hand under Iolaus' chin to raise it. "Are you sure you're all right, Iolaus?"
"Y-Yes ... The medicine j-just makes me a bit ... a bit fuzzy, b-but ... I'm okay."
"Iolaus, why are you taking medicine?"
"Autolycus said I had to. He's as g-good as you are at finding horrible tasting medicines and ... and making me take them."
"But what's wrong with you?"
"My wrist's b-broken and I've got a pulled sh-shoulder muscle and ... and just cuts and things."
"But why do you need medicine for those injuries?"
"Autolycus said I did."
"I'm starting to wonder just what he has been saying ... and doing. Where is this medicine?"
"Over there." He gestured towards a table across the room.
The demigod had been vaguely aware of an odd smell in the room, odd but familiar. He got up, ignoring Iolaus' muffled protests, and went across to sniff at the bottle and the pouch beside it. The strong alcohol was easily recognizable, but the granule-like substance eluded him. Then it struck him. Lotus leaf!
He walked quickly back to the bed. Iolaus had buried his face in the pillow fearing what was going to come next. Hercules ran a finger lightly across his shoulder blades. "Turn around and look at me please, my love?"
"Just do it please?" He looked deeply into the beautiful eyes that normally sparkled so enticingly at him. "Can you see me clearly, Iolaus?" he asked.
"Sort of. You're a bit blurry."
Hercules' own eyes hardened as his suspicion grew. "Were your eyes okay before you started taking the 'medicine', my love?"
"Yeah ... I think so ... it's hard to ... to remember exactly."
"Do you remember some things that happened further back?"
"Yes, I-I think so."
"Tell me about the man who hurt you in Athens." He snapped the question out suddenly.
"Juventas?" The hunter responded automatically.
'Ah, a name!' the demigod thought. "Yes, tell me about Juventas."
Gradually, he obtained a brief summary of events. Then he asked, "Why were you upset with me? What had I done?"
"I-I was scared about what ... about what you might do."
"Iolaus, I've told you how much I've regretted hitting you!" an appalled demigod exclaimed, guilt rushing in upon him again. "I've promised you I'll *never* do it again."
"I know," and, in a halting voice, he explained about his injuries and fears.
The demigod listened with strangely mixed feelings of compassion for what Iolaus had suffered, exasperation and regret that the hunter hadn't felt able to confide in him, and, above all, confusion. "Well, what's changed?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Today, you appeared as pleased to see me as I was to see you and you seemed very keen that we should make love. Not that I'm complaining," he added, hurriedly, "but what's changed?"
A flush rose in the hunter's pale cheeks. "Autolycus ... he ... um ... he convinced me it would be okay."
"I know he's a good talker, but how?" His expression was grim.
Iolaus swallowed convulsively. He'd never been a good liar and he didn't want to lie to Hercules, but how could he tell him? "Y-You won't be pleased."
"Iolaus, I'm so happy to have you back, nothing else really matters, but I want to know. I won't be angry." 'Not with you anyway,' he added silently.
"Not ... Not even if he ... if we ..."
"No, just tell me, my love, no more secrets please."
"I let him ... I don't know why I did. He didn't force me. I-I didn't ... want to, but ... but I couldn't seem to stop him. I know it sounds unbelievable, but I *couldn't*."
"*I* have a fairly good idea why, my love. Don't worry, I know it wasn't *your* fault."
"You're not going to hurt him, are you? After all, he did help."
"Us too though and I ... I sort of ... I kind of enjoyed it in a way ... at the time, so it *is* my fault too."
At that moment, the door swung wide and Autolycus staggered in, carrying a heavy bag, with a broad smile on his face. That vanished as he spied the demigod sitting beside Iolaus. However, showing considerable sang-froid, he lowered his burden and said, "Good morning, Hercules, or perhaps it should be good afternoon now, I hoped we'd find you."
"Oh, yes, that's why I brought Iolaus here."
"To this tavern?"
"No, to Corinth."
The demigod stood up and the King of Thieves took an involuntary step backwards, while tossing a quick glance over his shoulder to check that the door was still open in case he needed to make a hasty retreat. "Is there something amiss?" Autolycus inquired in his most innocent voice.
"Give it up, Autolycus," Iolaus appealed, "he knows." As he spoke, he scrambled somewhat unsteadily to his feet, and stood at Hercules' side, watching apprehensively and hoping that he wouldn't have to intervene between the two.
The only outward sign that the thief gave that there might be anything wrong was a quick, involuntary flick of his tongue across dry lips. The only thing that might serve him now was honesty, not his usual style, but he knew that the demigod was a great one for the truth. "I'm sorry, Hercules. I didn't plan this ... originally. But as things went along I couldn't resist the temptation. I thought I saw a golden opportunity to steal Iolaus' heart and I tried to do so but, though it pains me to confess it, I failed. All I ask is that you don't damage my face."
The demigod sighed at this evidence of vanity even in extremity. "It's okay, Autolycus. I can't say I like your methods, but I *loved* the final result." As he spoke, he ran a hand through Iolaus' soft, tousled curls. "Iolaus tells me you didn't force him into anything. I know we could debate how much real freedom of choice he had but, if he's willing to forgive you, I guess I'll have to as well."
"I suppose," Hercules continued, as he twisted a golden ringlet around his finger, "it should be a lesson to me to guard my gold more closely when the King of Thieves is around. Still," he added, casting a knowing look at the bag, "I guess we both ended up with the sort of gold we love most."
"It appears so," the thief agreed. The ambiguity in his words was silently recognized by all three.
E-mail the author care of Nephele at [email protected]
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