Hell Hath No Fury...

By Aramis

This story is a continuation of the episode "Cast a Giant Shadow"

DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to MCA/Universal and were used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended and no money was made

An embarrassed Hercules, followed reluctantly by an interested Iolaus, emerged from Echidna's cave, leaving the Mother of All Monsters and her husband, the giant Typhon, in a heated embrace.

"Well, hopefully that's one problem successfully dealt with," the demigod observed. Getting no reply, he turned in time to see Iolaus slumping to his knees. The fight's adrenalin rush gone, the hunter's battered body was asserting its claim to attention and it had a good one.

Firstly, there had been the torture inflicted by Maceus and his band, including the breaking of Iolaus' right arm. Then there had been the long march under duress as he endeavored to lead the group away from Hercules. This had been followed by his escape and his exhausting run to try to warn his friend, during which he had been hit by one of Hera's lightning bolts. He had survived all that remarkably well, but then had come the punch from Typhon, when the hunter had been trying to argue Hercules' case for him. When they had set out for Echidna's lair, Iolaus had still been very groggy from that. Hercules had ordered him to stay behind, but arguing "It's just my turn to be a mess", Iolaus had persuaded Hercules to allow him to accompany him against the demigod's better judgement. If he had known just how bad Iolaus was feeling he would have said no, but Iolaus had put on a convincing show of recovery, even to the extent of kissing Breanna in front of all the villagers. He had managed to fight well against Maceus' men when battle was finally joined, but now he was out on his feet.

"Iolaus!" Hercules reached quickly for his friend, preventing him from falling further. He knelt down, lowering his friend to the ground as he did so.

"Sorry, Herc, I'm ... I'm just feeling a little ... a little dizzy ... I'll be ... I'll be okay in a minute."

Hercules stood up sweeping Iolaus into his arms as he did so. "P-Put me down, Herc. I'm ... I'm all right really."

"No, you're not, Iolaus," the demigod chided. "I shouldn't have let you come with me." Iolaus began to struggle against him. "Keep still! I'm carrying you and there's nothing you can do about it, so don't bother to try."

"But, Herc ..."

"No! Be quiet! You're going to lie still or I'll toss you over my shoulder and then you won't be so comfortable."

Iolaus subsided. He knew that, if it came to the point, he had no chance against Hercules' strength even when fighting fit and he knew he was anything but that. The world had taken on a blurred and tilting aspect and he was feeling sick. He allowed his head to loll on his friend's shoulder.

This acquiescence worried Hercules more than anything. Iolaus was neither quiet nor obedient by nature. For him to submit so tamely he must be feeling bad. He headed back towards Plynth as quickly as he could, while trying not to jolt his friend. He could feel the heat of Iolaus' body against his chest. 'Damn!' he thought. 'He's feverish. Why on earth did I give in and let him come with me? I should have been firmer.'

He entered Plynth to be met by a crowd of concerned and excited villagers. Pausing only to reassure them that Maceus and his band would bother them no more and, even more important, that Echidna was now happy and contented, he asked directions for the village healer.

The man himself was present and he told Hercules to follow him. However, they had only gone a few steps when Septus barred their way. "Where are you going?" he demanded. "I was expecting you'd come to me first with your news. I am the village headman after all." He was obviously stiff with annoyance at the perceived slight.

"I'm sorry, Septus," said Hercules, trying, as always, to keep the peace. "I need to get some help for Iolaus."

"Oh, him again." He dismissed Iolaus with a wave of the hand, in the same callous manner he had used when he had ordered "Forget your friend, Hercules" after Typhon's punch had felled the hunter. Then there had, perhaps, been some excuse because of the impending danger to the village, but now there was none.

Hercules felt his hackles rising. He couldn't like the self-centred and short-tempered man, but he forced himself to swallow an angry retort. After all, it looked like they might have to stay in the village for a bit and there was no point in arousing hostility. "I'll just get Iolaus settled and I'll be along to see you straight after that," he promised.

Septus looked like he was going to object, but he suppressed his intended comment and said, "I'll see you shortly then."

The demigod carried Iolaus into the healer's house and placed him on the bed. "You'd better go and see Septus," Achrados said. "He doesn't like to be kept waiting."

"I'd like to wait to see how Iolaus is."

"I'll come to you as soon as I've checked him over."

So a reluctant Hercules left his friend and headed to Septus' house.

To his surprise, Septus greeted him affably, ushering him inside as if their little contretemps had never happened. What was more, Breanna had obviously been busy in the kitchen and there was a delicious meal waiting. 'I guess I've judged him too harshly,' Hercules thought.

He noticed Breanna was looking expectantly at the door. He wondered who else was expected. "Where is Iolaus?" she asked.

"I thought your father would have told you, he's with the healer."

"Oh no! Has he been hurt again? How bad is he?"

"Breanna," Septus interrupted, "would you please start to dish the food."

"But, father, Iolaus ..."

"Breanna, where are your manners? Have you forgotten we have a guest?"

"I'm sorry, father."

Hercules felt he ought to say something to her. "I'm sure Iolaus will be all right. The healer has promised to come here as soon as he's checked Iolaus over. I think his collapse is just a combination of his earlier injuries and exhaustion."

"Thank you."

A few minutes later, the healer arrived to confirm the diagnosis. He reported that the hunter had regained consciousness and had been quite agitated when there was no sign of Hercules, but that he had been reassured and had settled down. He had a throbbing headache and his arm was obviously painful, but he had no new injuries. The healer did not feel the fever was of any real concern and had given him an herbal mixture to bring his temperature down. He had also given him a drink laced with poppy syrup and he was now sleeping soundly.

Thus reassured, Hercules was able to settle down and actually had quite a pleasant evening. Septus offered him a bed for as long as he chose to stay in the village and he gratefully accepted.

He looked in on Iolaus before turning in for the night. The blond was asleep and very hot, but the healer assured him the latter was nothing to worry about.

The next morning, Hercules woke early and went to check on his friend. A bleary-eyed Achrados answered the door and invited him in, apologizing, "I'm sorry, Hercules, I've given your friend some more poppy syrup, as he still has a headache, and he's sound asleep again." Hercules looked down at Iolaus' flushed face. He was still feverish.

"What sort of night did he have?"

The healer hesitated briefly and then said, "Fine." Actually, as the first dose of poppy had worn off in the early morning hours, the hunter had become very restless and had roused and wanted Hercules. However, when the healer had gone to fetch him, Septus had answered the door and had told the healer that Hercules needed his rest and was not to be disturbed. He had therefore used the poppy syrup to quieten the blond and had administered it again just before the demigod arrived.

The hunter was still in a drug-induced sleep later that morning when a man arrived seeking Hercules. There was a crisis in his village and Hercules was torn between his concern for Iolaus and the man's obvious need. The healer assured him he would take good care of the hunter and so, reluctantly, he agreed to go, anticipating he would be back in three or four days. In actual fact, the crisis was more difficult to deal with than expected and ten days or so were to pass before his return.

The healer kept Iolaus under for the rest of the day and that night and so it was a very light-headed and confused hunter that awoke the following day. He couldn't believe that Hercules would leave without speaking to him and took some convincing that all was well with the demigod because he could remember nothing of what had transpired since Typhon had hit him. At first, he was sure Hercules had gone to confront Echidna and Maceus without him. However, Achrados sent for Breanna, who confirmed his story.

Iolaus was still not happy about having been abandoned, but the beautiful Breanna was obviously overjoyed to have him there and so that was some compensation. She spent as much time as she could with him, carefully avoiding her father, as she knew he would forbid the visits.

Unfortunately, by the end of the third day, Iolaus was starting to have doubts about her visits as well. Normally it was he who chased the ladies (or at least the women engineered things so he believed this to be the case), but Breanna had shown right from their first meeting that she was very interested in him. That first night he remembered she had asked, "Is your friend much of a dancer, Hercules?" and he had been only too happy to oblige. Now things were different. Her attentions were too assiduous. One can only put up with one's pillow being fluffed so many times. Worse, she was already making odd comments that implied that she assumed he would not be leaving when he was well. She seemed to have days of activities planned and, he feared, a special occasion in mind.

He tried to let her down gently, but she was too besotted to take the hints he gave and so finally he realized he would need to be direct, even at the risk of hurting her feelings. So, on day four, against the advice of the healer, he decided to get up, even though he still felt well below par, as he knew he would be more at ease speaking to her if he was up and dressed.

He climbed out of bed and looked for his clothes. He could not find them anywhere, although he located his sword and knife. He wondered where the healer was. The door opened behind him and he turned expecting to see his host. However, it was Breanna. Blushing, he hurriedly grabbed the blanket off the bed and awkwardly wrapped it around him with his left hand, apologizing as he did so, "I'm sorry, Breanna, I thought it was Achrados."

"He was called away in the night to attend a difficult confinement on a distant farm. He asked me to tell you that he doubts he'll be back today. I'm going to look after you."

"I thought I'd get up today and I was just looking for my clothes."

"Oh, I've got them. They were in need of mending and cleaning. Anyway you shouldn't be up yet."

"I'd like them please, Breanna."

"What will you give me for them?" she asked flirtatiously.

"What do you want?" he asked, although he feared the answer.

"You suggest something." She moved seductively towards him. Iolaus moved backwards until his legs were up against the bed and then, as she still advanced, he had no choice but to sit down. She took that as an invitation and in a moment was sitting next to him.

He immediately started to get up, but she clutched at his blanket to hold him back. "Let go, Breanna!" he protested.

"What's wrong?"

"This is!"

"What do you mean?"

"Look, Breanna, I've tried not to hurt you, but you must know that I ... that I will be leaving as soon as Hercules gets back."

"No! I want you to stay."

"I can't."

"But you want to."

"No, I don't." He had finally said it.

She stared at him, her eyes brimming. "Why did you dance with me then?"

Somewhat taken aback that such an innocent activity could be so misconstrued, he didn't know how best to answer that. "Dancing with someone doesn't mean anything. It's just fun."

"What about that kiss you gave me? Everybody saw that!"

As Iolaus had kissed her after Typhon had hit him, he couldn't actually remember doing it, but to save upsetting her further, he decided to pretend that he did. "Surely you don't think everyone who kisses you is serious."

"Nobody else ever has. Father would kill them."

"Well he didn't kill me."

"No, but that's probably because he thought your intentions were honorable, like I did."

'More like he needed Herc and me to protect the village,' Iolaus thought. He was very aware that Septus had not visited him once. Although that didn't worry him, as he rather disliked the irascible old man, he considered, 'It'd be a different story if I was Hercules.'

Breanna had turned her back on him. "I'm sorry, Breanna, I didn't think you'd take things so seriously."

"Not as sorry as you're going to be." In spite her disarmingly beautiful exterior, Breanna was not actually that unlike her father. Nothing got her back up like having her will thwarted and she would only accept her father's right to do that.

There was a ripping sound and she turned back towards him to display a torn bodice. She then moved quickly towards him and slashed his face with her nails. He stood up and, with difficulty, managed to grasp her hands with his left hand, thus losing his grip on the blanket. It fell to the floor and he let go of her hands as he tried to retrieve it. That was a mistake. She flung herself upon him and the two ended up on the floor, with Breanna on top of the hunter, pinning him down, while screaming for help.

The hunter cried out as well but, in his case, it was involuntary. Iolaus' injured arm was tightly strapped to his chest and Breanna had landed right on top of it. The world went black and he nearly passed out as her weight crushed the arm against him.

As luck would have it, Septus was passing the healer's residence at that moment and so was first on the scene. He went absolutely berserk. Shouting for assistance at the top of his voice, he dragged his daughter to her feet, totally forgetting his back problems. Then he stood over the prone hunter and deliberately put his boot into the blond's broken arm. Iolaus screamed in agony and fainted.

Several villagers poured in just after that, in time to see Septus kicking the unconscious hunter in the ribs. A couple of men moved to stop the furious, old man and it was all they could do to restrain him.

When he had calmed sufficiently to coherently explain what was going on, a few of the villagers, who were his particular cronies, expressed the opinion that he should have been left to do what damage he liked.

There were others who were not so quick to judge. Most were grateful for the service Iolaus and Hercules had performed for the village. Nobody had ever met the pair prior to this visit, but Iolaus' reputation did not lead people to assume him to be the sort to force himself on a woman.

However, he had certainly showed interest in Breanna. All had seen the public kiss before the pair left for Echidna's lair and a few had actually caught his comment when Hercules had said, "At least your lips are working" and he had replied "That's not all that's working." A lot could be read into that.

Further, although Breanna's reputation was spotless, as her father had always guarded her well, her partiality for the hunter had been both marked and remarked upon.

There was certainly evidence of a struggle as seen by Breanna's torn clothing and the blond's scratched face.

So this larger group of villagers stood aside both out of indecision and a fear of attracting Septus' wrath. Had the healer been present he might have spoken up for Iolaus, because he had observed the girl's interest in Iolaus and the hunter's failure to respond, but of course he was away.

Thus, no one voiced a protest when Septus and his cronies took charge of Iolaus and the headman announced that he intended to punish him with a beating. After all, if he was guilty a beating was a relatively minor punishment and, if he were not, at least he would survive relatively unscathed.

Most of the villagers wandered off about their business, leaving Septus and his friends to deal with Iolaus. Septus and the others carried the hunter to the village meeting house and waited for him to revive.

After some minutes, the blond stirred and groaned. His arm was aching fiercely and for some reason his ribs had decided to join in.

"Awake at last, are you?" Septus said. "You're going to be sorry you ever even thought about touching my daughter."

"Wh-What?" Iolaus still wasn't really with it. Septus sounded like he was at the end of a long tunnel. Iolaus' vision was blurry and he couldn't see the old man very well, but the carping voice was unmistakable.

He heard him say, "Unstrap his arm, Timodemus. Ursinus, would you toss a rope over that rafter?" Then he felt someone tugging roughly at his bandages. He gave a gasp of pain.

He heard a man laugh harshly and then comment, "If you think that hurts, you won't like what's coming."

"Tie his wrists." That was Septus again.

"Why are you ..." Iolaus started, trying to make some sense of what was going on, but someone backhanded him across the mouth, splitting his lip.

A rough voice ordered him to be quiet. He winced as his injured arm was jolted as his wrists were tied in front of him.

"Okay, get him up." He was seized and hauled to his feet. Dizzy and feeling sick, he immediately started to slump, but was held upright by his persecutors. Then he felt his arms being hauled upwards.

Finally, he was suspended by the wrists, his toes barely scraping the ground. He bit his already bloody lip, trying to suppress a cry of agony, as white-hot pain lanced through his broken arm and battered ribs. All the healer's work to set his arm was undone as the barely knitting bones moved out of position.

Then Septus laid into him with a whip, marring his creamy skin with bloody cuts and weals. Mercifully, Iolaus' fragile hold on consciousness was lost after the first half dozen lashes, but that did not stop the vindictive old man. It was only the fact that he had a further punishment in mind that led him to stop after a score of strokes. A punishment that would not only be a fitting revenge, but would also give Septus some financial recompense provided the goods were not too damaged.

So, somewhat to the others' surprise, he announced that that was enough. He told them to put the tightly bound hunter into his wagon as he intended to dump him some distance from the village and that would hopefully be the last they would see of the little blond. He ordered Ursinius to gather up Iolaus' clothes and weapons and to toss them in as well.

Once he had Iolaus in the wagon, he threw an old blanket over him before setting off. He had heard there were slavers in a neighbouring town and such men would pay well for a good-looking, muscular man.

The rough jolting of the wagon aroused the hunter some five miles in to the journey. He felt dreadful and couldn't suppress some groans of pain. His head was swimming and a wave of nausea washed over him. In moments, his breakfast was lying on the hard boards of the wagon tray and he was feebly trying to roll onto his side to reduce the pain of the injuries to his back and buttocks.

The sound of his retching attracted Septus' attention and he realized that the hunter was conscious once more. He stopped the wagon and climbed stiffly back into the tray. He did not want the blond shouting out and perhaps calling attention to his plight. He shoved a wad of rag into Iolaus' mouth and then gagged him. It was fortunate that the hunter had already completely emptied his stomach or he'd probably have choked. As it was he struggled for breath and soon passed out again.

Three hours later, Septus had reached his goal. A townsman directed him to a tavern that the slavers were using as their temporary base. In minutes, he was leading four rough looking men to his wagon and throwing back the cover to reveal his prisoner.

And reveal was the word because he had not bothered to dress Iolaus. Slaves were not sold in leather. "Well, I have to say I approve of the way you've displayed your merchandise," Trasullus said, leering at the sight.

Pyrois, a tall dark-haired man leaned forward eagerly. "Look at that colour!" he exclaimed, his eyes drawn by the golden thatch between the hunter's legs. "It's incredible!"

"What's wrong with him?" the more practical Libon demanded. "If he's too badly knocked around he won't fetch much."

"He's got an injured arm and I had to give him a few strokes of the whip. That's all."

"What about those." He indicated Iolaus' side.

"Nothing. Just a few bruises."

Libon ran an exploratory hand down Iolaus' side. "Plus a couple of broken ribs, I'd say."

"See! Nothing much! You have to keep slaves in line, you know."

"So he is already a slave, is he?" Libon asked in some surprise. "Let's see his papers."

"I'm sorry, I've misplaced them. You'll have to take my word for it. It shouldn't matter to you anyway."

"It increases the risk if one is selling a free man as well you know so I can't pay as much. If he's a trouble-maker his value is less too," Libon argued.

"I wasn't born yesterday," Septus scoffed, "I know some buyers will pay for a spirited slave and enjoy breaking them. Now what are you offering?"

They began to haggle. By the time a bargain was struck, Iolaus was stirring again. "Hey, Libon," Cabeles said, "the merchandise is waking up."

Iolaus blinked, trying to clear his vision, and peered around. His eyes fell upon Septus. "What in Tartarus are you doing?"

"Passing you on to new owners. Hopefully they'll have more success in training you than I have."

Iolaus was aghast. "You've got no right to sell a free ..." he started and then flinched as Septus went to hit him across the face.

However, Libon seized the older man's wrist before he could connect. "Don't damage my property," he warned. "You don't own him now."

"And he never did," Iolaus protested. "Herc won't let you get away with this, Septus."

"He won't know anything about it. I'm the only one who knows about this little transaction and I certainly won't be telling." With that, he climbed back into his wagon and departed.

Libon opened the bag containing Iolaus' things and smiled. He had been right. The leather gear and weapons clearly belonged to a warrior, not a slave. He anticipated a good profit on this one. Men would pay well for such beauty and spirit.


The next few days were very hard for the hunter. He spent most of the time tied hand and foot in the back of a wagon as it bumped and lurched its way over rough country roads. His captors treated his back with salve, as they wanted him to look as good as possible for the auction block, so that began to heal up, but his arm and ribs did not take kindly to the rough motion of the wagon. They hurt so much that for much of the time he was feeling extremely ill and unable to keep much food down.

As he lay there, his mind wandered confusedly over the recent events. He began to wonder if the story he had been told to account for the demigod's absence, was indeed just a story. Had something happened to Hercules? Although he had the feeling that Septus, even before the supposed attack on his daughter, would have had pleasure in imparting bad news, perhaps the healer had stood firm against this.

Of course, if the story was true, then eventually Hercules would return to the village and would be told about the hunter's 'crime'. How would the demigod react? Usually, he could count on Hercules' unwavering support, but would this still hold good? After all, he had never suspected that Breanna was not the sweet, innocent girl she appeared and he doubted that the demigod had either. Further, Septus would no doubt play the outraged father for all he was worth. 'Play'? No, that *wasn't* the word. Septus had clearly had no doubt about his guilt. And so, to some extent, Iolaus could not condemn his behaviour. Perhaps, in the face of all this, the demigod would feel he was well rid of the hunter and not try to find him.

Then, even if Hercules did decide to look for him to hear his version of events, how would he know where to start? During the wagon journey, Septus had informed him that no one else knew of his intention to sell the hunter and that everyone believed he was merely dumping him some distance from the village. Further, he had gone a roundabout route so nobody even knew the genuine direction, let alone the final destination.

No, Hercules would never find him *even" if he bothered to look.

He lay there going over and over these distressing thoughts, his situation seeming more hopeless all the time.

Unfortunately, that was not the worst aspect of his predicament. His state of undress was most humiliating, especially as Pyrois took every opportunity to handle him. Libon was more concerned about his profits than Pyrois' sexual gratification and so had forbidden him to do more, but the man was waiting his opportunity and the little blond was very aware of the man's intentions.

Finally, on the fifth afternoon, when Libon and some of the others had gone after more merchandise, leaving him and a couple of his cronies to guard the wagon, Pyrois seized his opportunity, and they dragged the hunter against a wagon wheel, tying him to face it. Terrified, it was all Iolaus could do not to break down and beg, but he knew that would just add to Pyrois' enjoyment, so he forced himself to keep quiet.

By this time, several more slaves had been added to the wagon. Most just watched in silent horror or relief that someone else was the victim of the abuse. However, it was too much for one middle-aged woman who fought down her revulsion and offered herself in Iolaus' place.

That caused Pyrois lots of amusement. "*You* haven't got what I want," he sneered. "I always say there's nothing like a virgin. Anyway, pretty boy had better get used to it. His buyer will expect it. I can't see he's much use for anything else. I'm just breaking him in as it were." He proceeded to sate himself on his victim's helpless body and, try as he might, the hunter could not suppress his screams. His only good fortune was that the other two bandits, out of fear of their leader, declined to take a turn as well.

In the event, this was the only opportunity Pyrois had to enjoy himself in this manner, but Iolaus had the constant threat of another such assault hanging over him and Pyrois enjoyed pawing him and whispering threats whenever he got the chance. The fact that the little blond visibly flinched every time Pyrois reached for him merely encouraged the man, who clearly found considerable pleasure in thus tormenting him.

Unfortunately, Iolaus had no idea that had a word of the assault reached Libon's ear Pyrois would have been in quite some danger, as his leader reacted adversely to having his orders ignored. However, unaware of this, Iolaus made no complaint. Indeed, he was so ashamed by what had happened that he withdrew into himself and, in his misery, could not even bear to speak to the woman who had tried to help him.

For two days, he lay in the tray of the wagon, neither speaking nor eating. He had never felt so worthless or, in spite of the other people nearby, so alone. He longed for the demigod and yet hated the thought of his friend seeing him like this. Then, in his distressed state, he imagined Hercules telling him he had had deserved what had happened to him because of his attack on Breanna. As he sunk further into his depression, he began to wonder again if Hercules really was all right. What if the demigod had been killed by Echidna or by Maceus and his men and the villagers had been keeping the truth from him since he was ill?

His confused thoughts swirled round and round and he felt worse and worse. He got only snatches of sleep, soon waking shaking and sobbing from nightmares. In one recurring dream Pyrois attacked him repeatedly and Hercules stood calmly watching and told him it served him right for attacking Breanna. However, an even more distressing one had him standing bound before Maceus, who was breaking his arm again, while the frantic hunter, helpless to intervene, watched Echidna killing the demigod.

Finally, they reached the town where the market was to be held. The hunter was dumped unceremoniously into a smal, damp cell and left. Without the wagon's rough movement and mercifully alone at last, he lay on the bare stone floor and finally slept.

The following morning, he was shaken roughly awake. Feeling dizzy and hot, he had tried to push his assailants away but to no avail.

Pyrois and a couple of the other slavers dragged him from the cell and to a nearby room where a bath was awaiting, as his captors hoped shining, golden curls would draw attention from his pallor.

Laughing at his obvious distress, they forcibly washed him, Pyrois taking the opportunity to finger-fuck him viciously while saying how he could expect much more from any new owner and that it was all good training for him. The other two thought that was a great joke and were happy to hold his victim still for him and to make similar comments.

Then he was returned to his cell to await the auction. They did not offer him food and he would have refused it anyway as, feeling as he did, he would probably have lost it. He sank down in a corner and wept brokenly.

The slavers returned a couple of hours later. To his relief, they dressed him in a short, white tunic before leading him, hands manacled before him and ankles hobbled, out onto the block. He had feared they were going to exhibit him naked. In truth, their aim was rather to conceal the remaining marks from the lash and the bandage around his ribs, than from any desire to spare his blushes as soon became apparent.

Offering no resistance, he stumbled awkwardly up the steps onto the auctioneer's block. All he wanted was for it to be over. He stood there swaying slightly and just concentrating on staying on his feet. He could hear the buzz of the watching crowd, but his eyes were too unfocused to see faces even had he tried.

"Citizens," the auctioneer intoned, "this slave will be of particular interest. Spirited, well-muscled, pretty and with innumerable other assets. Then, to Iolaus' shame, the auctioneer used the end of his short whip to raise his tunic and expose him to the gleeful crowd. His face burned as he heard the lascivious comments and he lowered his head, trying to hide his face beneath his mop of curls.

The auctioneer was not having that. The man poked the tip of the whip under Iolaus' chin to force his head up. Somehow, the hunter gathered reserves he did not know he possessed and glared at him, his eyes flashing blue fire. However, the reaction pleased the man. "There, citizens," he proclaimed, "a warrior's spirit in a golden body! What more could you want!"

At that moment, a passing woman glanced towards the platform. Hating the institution of slavery as she did, but equally aware that she could do nothing about it, Gabrielle always tried to avoid the slave markets. Accordingly, the bard was hurrying across the square to join Xena in a tavern on the other side, face deliberately averted, when she had heard the man's comment. The words 'warrior' and 'golden' seemed to hang ominously in the air. Involuntarily, she glanced up and a gasp of horror escaped her lips.

She ran into the inn and frantically looked around for Xena.

The Warrior Princess was in the corner of the bar, more than half-cut. She was not in the best of tempers as their current quest had proven time-consuming and frustrating with lead after lead coming to naught. This had led to some tension between her and the bard, especially as Ogulnia, one of the Amazons with whom they had been working, had seemed far too friendly with Gabrielle for Xena's liking. The damned woman was most attractive and overly attentive and Gabrielle seemed to do nothing to discourage her, dismissing Xena's complaints as groundless and arguing that she had every right to befriend whomsoever she chose.

So Xena was just in the mood to argue with the bard, but Gabrielle seized her arm and literally pulled Xena out after her. "Quickly, Xena! It's Iolaus!"

"Where's Iolaus?" demanded the bemused Warrior Princess, her annoyance temporarily disappearing in the face of this unexpected development.

"Look!" The bard pointed towards the platform.

There was a minor tussle going on. Iolaus had clearly tried to vacate the stage and a couple of the slave-master's men were now clinging to his arms, to the amusement of the crowd.

"Right. If that little entertainment's over, I'll try again," the auctioneer said. "What am I bid?"

Xena pushed her way imperiously through the crowd. A whisper began as people recognized the famed and feared Warrior Princess. "I'm taking him. I'm paying one dinar and that's top!"

The auctioneer was apparently one of the few people present who were in ignorance of her identity, because he laughed and continued as if she hadn't spoken, "Let's hear the first bid. Do I hear fifty dinars?"

Xena's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I said I'm paying one dinar and I don't think you'll find anyone else is bidding."

"I'm not selling at that price."

"Oh, yes you are," Xena purred menacingly, "if you want to continue in business. It would be a shame if your health suddenly took a turn for the worst and you were unable to continue to work."

At that moment, one of the men holding Iolaus leant across and urgently whispered something to the man. His face went white, as he realized to whom he had been speaking. "Y-Yes, of course. You're right! One dinar w-will be fine."

"Shut up! Get those shackles off him and get his gear *quickly*!" She walked forward, the crowd parting before her, and leapt nimbly on to the stage.

"Come on, Iolaus," she said in an undertone, protectively wrapping a firm arm around his shoulders and not noticing his attempt to shy away.

"Y-You know him?" the auctioneer asked in trepidation.

'Might as well give him a good fright,' she thought. "Of course, I do! He's been my lover for years," she replied, in a voice only the trembling slave-master and his assistants could hear. Then she raised her voice and said, "I suggest you make your way out of this town as soon as possible. I feel I'm about to take a strong exception to your presence here."

With that, she snatched the bag containing Iolaus' possessions and the ownership parchment from the underling, who was nervously proffering it, and ushered Iolaus away. "C'mon, Iolaus, Gabrielle and I are staying in the tavern just across the square."

Gabrielle hurried up to them and fell into step alongside, greeting Iolaus and starting to ask what had happened all in one breath.

The hunter was in no state to respond. He had managed to make a brief show of resistance on the block, but that had used the last of his reserves. Exhausted, both mentally and physically, he was all but out on his feet and would have fallen had the Warrior Princess not wrapped one strong arm about him as she steered him towards the inn.

Xena was aware that Iolaus was leaning rather heavily against her, so she quickly interrupted the flood of questions. "Give him a few minutes, Gabrielle."

"I-It's okay, I-I ..." Iolaus started and began to slump.

Xena dropped the parchment and bag. "Grab those, Gabrielle!" she ordered as she took his weight, holding him against her so he could not fall. She heard him suck in his breath with pain.

"Th-Thank you, I'm all right. I-I'm j-just a bit ... a bit diz- ..." he faltered and promptly fainted.

Xena swept him into her arms in one easy motion and strode on, her face stormy as she thought about the slavers. 'I should have decked the bastards,' she thought angrily. 'I will if they're still there once I've seen to Iolaus.'

She carried him up to their room and placed him on the bed. Then she ran her hands over him checking his injuries. His body was hot with fever. Aside from that he had a couple of broken ribs, odd cuts and bruises, faint scratches down one cheek, his back, buttocks and thighs showed the fading marks of a beating and then there was the arm. Unaware of Pyrois' assault, she thought that was the real problem, as it was clearly not only badly broken, but also appeared to be setting wrongly.

She raised him slightly and Gabrielle forced some water between his lips. "Gabrielle, he's going to need a healer. Could you go and fetch one?"

Gabrielle disappeared and a short time later Iolaus stirred and groaned and his eyes fluttered open. "Xena, you are here! I th-thought ... I feared I'd dreamt it."

He tried to struggle up, but Xena put her hand on his chest and firmly pushed him back down. "Lie still, Iolaus! Gabrielle's gone for a healer."

Unwilling to be touched by anyone, Iolaus tried to push her hand away. "I'm okay, I ..."

Interpreting this reaction as just the hunter's usual response when ill or injured, Xena pushed back and scolded, "You are *not* okay, Iolaus. I'm not only aware of your injuries, I know what a bad patient you are. Hercules has told me of some of your exploits in that regard. Now I warn you *I* am not as tolerant as he is. I expect you to do exactly as I tell you. Is that clear?"

"But ..." he started to protest.

"Is that clear?" she repeated relentlessly.

He looked like he was going to dispute her authority. She waited for it. Seeing the dangerous look in her eyes, somehow he forced himself to bite back the comment in the interests of self-preservation. "That's better," she said approvingly. "Now perhaps you can tell me what happened to you."

He paled and licked his lips nervously. He did not really know where to start. He wondered if she'd believe him about Breanna. Nobody seemed to have done in her village. After all, he had been found stark naked lying on the floor with an hysterical, young woman on top of him. Her clothes had been ripped, his face was scratched and she was shouting for help. It *was* rather unbelievable that she had been the aggressor.

He wished his bloody arm was not aching so fiercely. It never seemed to stop and it was hard to think. Mind you, he really didn't want to think. He was desperate to blot out what the Pyrois had done to him. To deny that such a monstrous thing could have happened.

Xena watched the display of confused emotions flitting across his pale face. She tried another tack. "Where is Hercules?"

"I don't know. He just ... he took off. They told me it was ...that it was some emergency, but ... but he c-could ... he should have ... I woke up and ... and he'd gone... and there was nobody who ..."

"Iolaus, are you telling me you were already injured when Hercules left you?" That did not sound like the demigod, although if there had been an emergency of some kind he would have been torn.

He nodded and turned his face into the pillow. She could see his shoulders shaking. The thought of the demigod was more than he could bear. He might be dead and, even if he was alive he might believe that Iolaus ... No, it was too much! The overwrought hunter began to sob.

Xena stared at him in bemusement. She was never good with tears and for the life of her she could not understand the normally resilient hunter's loss of control. He was hurt, but not *that* badly, and surely he did not need the demigod to hold his hand when things went wrong. He was falling in her estimation.


Meanwhile Hercules was entering Plynth and was looking forward to seeing Iolaus again. The little blond had been constantly on his mind. Apart from worrying about Iolaus' health, he was all too well aware that it did not seem right to be without his feisty friend. Although he often told Iolaus to stop babbling, he missed the light-hearted banter and the comradeship the little blond provided. The world might be quieter, but it was a much duller place without the hunter and his enthusiastic suggestions about where they could go next. Somehow he always knew where and when every festival was, as well as all the details about the nearest and/or best hunting and fishing spots, no matter what part of the country they were in. It would be great to see him again. It seemed more like a month than ten days.

To his surprise, he found the villagers considerably less friendly than they had previously been. Most seemed to be very busy, and when he spoke to them, they greeted him, but then excused themselves because they had things to do. In truth, most were very worried about how the demigod would react when he learnt his friend had been beaten and then expelled from the village.

Puzzled, he was about to head for the healer's home, but decided he had better call in on Septus first to avoid upsetting the old man.

"Hello, Septus," he greeted. "How's Iolaus?"

"I'm sorry, Hercules, I have some bad news for you."

Hercules' heart stood still. "What's happened to him? The healer said he'd be okay. I should have stayed. I ..."

Septus interrupted. "Nothing like that. He is fit and well as far as I know, but he's not here anymore."

"But why? Did he decide to follow me? I'd have seen him for sure. I kept to the main tracks. Why did he decide to leave?"

"I'm sorry to have to say that I was forced to order him to leave."

"What? Why?" Hercules demanded incredulously.

"There's no easy way to put this, Hercules. He assaulted my daughter."

"No! Iolaus wouldn't. He's not ..."

"I saw it with my own eyes, Hercules. I heard a scream from Achrados' home. I rushed in and there was my daughter, her clothes torn to shreds, lying on the floor with Iolaus clutching her. She was struggling and crying. I have to admit I saw red. I pulled him off her and ordered him to get out of the village or I wouldn't be responsible for my actions. That was the last I saw of him."

Hercules was absolutely dumbfounded. "But that's not ... that's not the way Iolaus treats women. I-I can't ..."

"If you doubt me perhaps you'd better hear it from my daughter," Septus replied coldly, very much upon his dignity. "Breanna! Come in here for a moment please."

"What is it, father?" Breanna asked as she entered. Then she saw Hercules and her face went pale.

"It's all right, daughter, he's alone."

"Th-Thank goodness. F-For a moment I thought ... I thought Iolaus might have returned."

"No need to worry about that, Breanna. He won't be back if he knows what's good for him. Now I know you don't like to talk about what he did, but I want you to tell Hercules."

So Brenna repeated her story. In fact, contrary to what her father had just said about her reluctance to talk about what had happened, she had had lots of practice in relating this to various concerned villagers, enjoying both their sympathy and being the centre of interest. By now she had the story down pat, complete with artistic little sniffs and stifled sobs. Indeed, she had almost convinced herself that it was all true, almost but not quite.

However, her performance was good enough to shake the demigod to the core. All his certainty did not actually crumble, but it was no longer rock solid and he found doubts creeping in. Perhaps Iolaus' fever had been worse than he had known and he had done this dreadful thing while out of his head. *That* might explain it. "Was he still sick?" he ventured.

Breanna immediately undercut that hope by saying, in a halting, tear-filled tone, "He was s-so much b-better that he had been wanting to get out of b-bed, but I had been telling him he should wait until the healer said that would be all right. Y-You see Achrados had been called away to another p-patient and he'd ... he'd asked m-me to ... look after Iolaus, but I ... but I ..." She broke off with a heart-wrenching sob.

Septus wrapped his arms awkwardly around her, clearly ill at ease in the face of his daughter's apparent distress and also unaccustomed to making public displays of affection. "I'd better take you to your room, Breanna," he said.

As they moved towards the door, he turned back and said, "Nobody holds you to blame for this unfortunate state of affairs, Hercules, but I think everybody will be more at ease if you leave here as soon as possible."

Hercules was so shaken by what he had just seen and heard that, for a few moments, he was unable to move, unable to even think coherently. Finally, he managed to make his way from the house. He was walking with his head down, trying to marshal his troubled thoughts, when a hand plucked at his sleeve and a voice said, "Hercules."

He raised his head to see Achrados. "Hercules, I think we need to talk. Can you come to my house?"

The demigod nodded and followed.

Once they were inside, Achrados said frankly, "I don't know what to make of events. I can only speak at second or third hand about what happened here that day, but I have some doubts about whether I've heard the whole story."

"What do you mean?"

"Your friend didn't strike me as the type to attack a woman and from what I'd seen of the pair of them she looked more likely to attack him."

"Huh?"

"Breanna was in and out of here each day, supposedly helping with his nursing, but actually getting in my way. She seemed quite besotted with him, but from what I saw he wasn't giving her any encouragement. Indeed, the only person he wanted was you. He took a lot of convincing that you hadn't just abandoned him and taken off after Echidna and the bandits by yourself."

Hercules looked confused. "But he was with me when I fought with them."

"I know, but he couldn't remember anything about what happened after the giant hit him. He was so worried that something had happened to you and that we were trying to keep it from him. I'm still not certain whether he ever became convinced we were telling the truth. However, he was definitely on the mend and so, when I got called away to another patient, I thought it would be okay to leave him, especially as Breanna was bound to keep a close eye on him. Of course, by the time I got back it was all over and he had gone."

"You said you had doubts about what happened," Hercules prompted. "Are you the only one?"

"No, I know a few other villagers have too, but no one wants to risk offending Septus or being wrong and therefore unjust to Breanna."

"You don't think there was any chance that he was out of his head when it happened?"

"No, no chance at all. As I've said he was well on the mend."

"And who saw what happened?"

"It seems the girl screamed and her father ran in and attacked Iolaus. When others entered, she was standing there clutching her torn dress and crying and Iolaus was lying naked on the floor with Septus kicking him. His face was scratched so it appeared she had put up a fight."

"She seems a nice girl. Is there any reason to doubt her story?"

"Not really. She's always been a well-behaved girl. Mind you, with a father with a temper like Septus has, she wouldn't dare to be anything else. However, it still appeared it was she, rather than your friend, who had ideas about a relationship. I even wondered if he got tired of her attentions and decided to frighten her off and things got out of hand."

"However, it could just be that he finally found himself alone with her and decided to take advantage of the situation," Hercules said. As much as he hated to consider that it did seem to be emerging as the most likely possibility.

"Yes, he may have assumed she was sexually experienced and then when she attempted to resist, tried to persuade her otherwise."

"Well, I guess I'll have to find Iolaus and hear his version. Do you have any idea which way he went?"

"North I think, but only Septus would be able to tell you that."

"Why only him?"

"Iolaus, didn't exactly leave of his own free will. After Septus had punished ..."

"What?"

"Didn't you know he gave Iolaus a whipping?"

"No, he only told me he had ordered Iolaus to leave. I suppose I should have guessed he wouldn't let Iolaus go unscathed, and *if*, which I find hard to believe, he is guilty of attacking the girl, he deserved to be punished. However, Septus said nothing about it to me."

"Apparently, he beat Iolaus until he was unconscious and then had him put in a wagon. He announced that he was going to dump him some distance from the village."

"And no one else accompanied him."

"No."

A sudden horrifying thought flashed into the demigod's mind. "You don't think that that was just a cover, do you? He wouldn't have taken Iolaus away to kill him, would he?"

The healer sighed. "I don't know," he admitted. "He's got a nasty temper on him at the best of times and, under the circumstances, any man might decide to take the law into his own hands."

"But the girl wasn't actually violated, was she?"

"No. If she had been, he could have killed Iolaus and no man would have held it against him."

So the demigod approached Septus again. Under pressure, the latter admitted that he had beaten iolaus, but stuck resolutely to the rest of his story. He insisted he had dumped Iolaus by the side of the road about five miles north of the village, but there was something in his manner that made Hercules feel he was not speaking the truth.

However, having no other lead, he decided to strike out in that direction first to see what he could learn.


Meanwhile, Thersander, the healer that Gabrielle had fetched, was examining Iolaus, under the impatient eyes of the Warrior Princess. She was annoyed at both the time the examination was taking and at the hunter's behaviour. The blond had protested that he was fine and did not need a healer when the man had arrived and now seemed to be trying to sink through the mattress. He was cringing away from the Thersander's touch and giving only muttered monosyllabic responses to the man's questions. Hercules had certainly not exaggerated when he had said Iolaus was a difficult patient and Xena was getting fed up with the whole performance.

There was no way that they could know that, after the assault during the journey, Iolaus was frightened of being touched by anyone, especially an unknown male.

Finally, the healer turned to her.

"Well?" she demanded imperiously.

"Could you raise him a bit so I can bind his ribs please? There are two broken."

"Certainly. Gabrielle, you take his other side."

Iolaus winced in pain as they lifted him. He squeezed his eyes shut and sucked in his breath.

However, there was worse to come as, as soon as they had lowered him, the healer said, "That arm is setting wrongly. If I leave it like that he'll be left with only partial mobility in the arm and most likely some permanent pain."

"Can you break it and reset it?" Xena inquired.

"No!" Iolaus gasped, but both ignored him.

"Yes, I can, but it's risky. With luck it will be successful, but there is a chance he'll end up with the arm in an even worse state than it is now."

"What would you advise?"

"If it was me, I hope I'd have the guts to take the risk, but it's up to him."

Iolaus had been through too much. Pyrois' attack, in particular, had shattered his self-esteem and confidence. He was afraid, afraid of more pain that might not solve the problem anyway and might even make it worse. "No, leave it. I don't want you to try."

"If you're sure ..." the healer started.

Xena intervened. "Excuse me, *I* want you to do it." As she spoke, she hoped like hell that she was making the right decision.

"But if he doesn't want me to, I can't."

"Oh, yes, you can." She handed him a parchment. "See! He's my property and I want you to do it."

"He's a slave?" the dealer asked, incredulously. "He doesn't look or speak like one."

"Yes, he is. A somewhat spoilt body slave you might say, but *my* property nonetheless. Now how do you want to do this?"

"Xena, no! Pl-Please, I can't ... I d-don't want him to," Iolaus protested frantically.

The Warrior Princess' patience snapped. "Shut up! You're mine and I want it done. I don't want a half-crippled slave." She turned back to the healer. "Do you want him tied down?"

"That would be best."

"Gabrielle, there's some rope in my carry-bag. Could you get it please?"

"Xena, do you think you should?" the bard asked anxiously, as she saw the fear in Iolaus' eyes.

"It's the only thing to do," Xena responded. She had made the decision and, as far as she was concerned, there was no going back.

In the event, in spite of Iolaus' injuries and weakness, it took the combined efforts of all three to secure his legs and other arm.

"It's going to need a fair bit of force," Xena observed, looking at the rather scrawny healer. "I'll do it if you tell me where to hold the arm."

"Thank you. I'll just give him a drink of poppy syrup first though. It might help with the pain."

Iolaus wanted to refuse it, but he knew that Xena would just order the healer to proceed anyway so he swallowed the potion. The Warrior Princess then gave him one of his belts to bite on.

She took a firm hold as instructed and broke the arm. Iolaus screamed in pain and fainted, while Gabrielle went green and sat down hurriedly.

Once the healer had finished resetting and binding the limb to the hunter's chest, Xena asked, "How long before you can tell if it has been a success?"

"There should be some improvement within a few days. Hopefully, it will be less painful, but it will be some weeks before it will be clear whether he will get full mobility back. Keep his arm bound as I've left it. Make sure he does not try to use the arm at all. I'll leave you some herbs that should help with his pain. He seems to have a bit of a fever and they should help with that too."

"Thank you."

The busy healer bustled off.

The Warrior Princess was suddenly very aware of hunger, but Gabrielle was not ready to eat after what she had just observed. "You go and get some food, Xena. I don't think I could eat anything. I'll keep an eye on Iolaus. I think someone should be here when he wakes up." She settled down beside the bed to wait.

Xena could not really dispute that, but she wanted to. She had become aware, at the time they had joined Hercules and Iolaus on the quest to free Prometheus, that the bard was a little too much interested in the little hunter. She had felt a twinge of jealous unease then, even though her relationship with Gabrielle had not been sexual at that time, and she was aware of a similar feeling now. Surely, Iolaus was not going to prove a rival for Gabrielle's affections. She'd had more than enough of that recently from that damned Amazon, Ogulnia.

She had never told Gabrielle the details of her first association with Iolaus, although Gabrielle knew that there had been something between them. She would always feel guilty over what she had done, even though Iolaus had stated that he had no hard feelings. Even more to the point, she was certain that Gabrielle would not approve of her behaviour and would feel sorry for the hunter if she knew how the Warrior Princess had used him.

Her lover could be very stubborn and outspoken when the mood took her and she would say things to the Warrior Princess that no other would dare if she disapproved of her behaviour. No, she would have been bound to take Iolaus' part had she known the pair at the time Xena had tried to use him as a pawn in her plans to kill the demigod.

Now here was Iolaus palely beautiful, and even more dangerous, hurt and clearly distressed. If nothing else, the softhearted bard would be bound to want to mollycoddle him. 'I'll have to make it clear to her that we've got no time to waste,' she thought, suddenly glad that their current quest was so urgent.


Hercules had travelled only a couple of miles from the village when he observed a rather rundown house. He knocked and asked the old lady if she had seen either Iolaus or Septus.

"Septus! That self-important, old bastard! Do you know he had the nerve to accuse me of being a witch? He ordered me out of the village a couple of years back because of it. I wish I was! He'd suffer for it, I can tell you."

"But have you seen him in the last few days?"

"Yes, I saw him a week or so back. He was heading this way in his wagon and I saw him coming. I hurried outside, thinking of a few choice curses to hurl at him as he passed. Perhaps he's actually scared of me because suddenly he pulled the horse to a halt and, instead of coming past, he turned down that really rough track a hundred yards or so back."

"Where does it lead to?"

"It joins up with the road that heads east from the village. What was he up to? No good I'll be bound!"

"You may be right. Thank you for your help."

"There's no need to thank me. I just hope something bad will happen to Septus from this. Good luck, Son of Zeus!"

"How do you know me?"

"Very little happens in this area without my knowledge. Take care and ...."

"And?"

"Watch out for slavers."

"What do ..." Hercules started, but she was already closing her door.


Xena organized a truckle bed for the hunter and then liberally dosed him with poppy syrup in spite of his mumbled protests. "He needs a good night's sleep and so do we," she said by way of explanation.

However, it soon became apparent that sleep was the last thing on her mind, as she immediately began a detailed exploration of the bard's body. "Xena, we can't! Not with Iolaus in here," Gabrielle protested.

"He won't know a thing about it," the Warrior Princess assured her. Actually, she considered that it would be a good thing if the hunter knew how the land lay so he would be forewarned not to try to poach Xena's property. However, she was not silly enough to say that to the bard.

With some misgivings, Gabrielle accepted Xena's statement and, in the event both enjoyed themselves, while Iolaus lay silently in his drugged sleep.

However, about four hours later, the drug began to wear off and the hunter began to toss and turn in nightmare. "No! I-I didn't! I didn't touch her! Maceus, don't! I don't know where ... where he is ... Herc, I need ... No! Don't!"

Odd words and ragged phrases poured out in a confused jumble. Various names were mentioned: Echidna, Septus, Typhon, Hercules and Maceus among others, most meaning nothing to either listener. Iolaus was crying and hitting out at imaginary enemies.

Xena had soon had more than enough. She flung the bedcovers back. "Where's that bloody medicine?"

"Xena, be careful how much you give him," Gabrielle warned.

"I'll give him whatever it takes to shut him up," the Warrior Princess retorted, trying to force Iolaus' mouth open.

He struggled and she found herself unable to hold him still and medicate him simultaneously. She swore, placed the medicine down and called to Gabrielle to assist her.

At first the bard refused, but upon hearing that the alternative was Iolaus being tied down again, reluctantly moved to administer the potion, while the Warrior Princess held him still. 'At least, I won't give him as much as she would have,' Gabrielle thought.

The medicine was fast acting and soon the little blond was sleeping soundly and the rest of the night passed without incident.


Sunshine poured into the room and Gabrielle stirred and reached out a languid arm for her lover. The other side of the bed was empty. That did not surprise the bard as Xena was frequently out and about before her.

She rolled over and climbed quietly out of bed to check on the hunter. At least he was quiet now after his restlessness during the night.

Her heart missed a beat as she looked down on the beautiful face, framed by the golden curls. In her mind she could hear her mother's voice. "Too pretty to be a boy," she would have said. "All those curls are wasted on a male." A practical, down-to-earth woman, she had never looked at the world with the eyes of the bard. To Gabrielle he was just perfect. She loved to feast her eyes upon him and she admired that brave and selfless spirit that she had seen on the quest to free Prometheus. It upset her to see both his injuries and his distress and she longed to be able to help him. She reached out a gentle hand to stroke his curls.

At that moment, the door swung open and the Warrior Princess strode into the room and announced, "We're going to have to get moving." She had not missed Gabrielle's hand on Iolaus' hair and that had made her even more brusque than usual.

"But, Xena, Iolaus needs to rest," Gabrielle protested.

"Sorry, Gabrielle, we've wasted too much time already. People are depending upon us and I've just been talking to a man who may have seen the girl, just outside of Erimanthos."

"Perhaps I should stay here with him," the bard ventured.

"No way, Gabrielle. I've put those slavers' backs up and I imagine they could be quite vindictive. They might try to snatch Iolaus back and I don't want you at risk. Besides we wouldn't even be involved in our current quest this were it not for your status as an Amazon so you've got responsibilities. No, you get him up and I'll go and saddle Argo."

"But Iolaus is in no shape for walking," Gabrielle protested, "and I assume you won't be giving up Argo for him."

"What? Iolaus on my Argo? Never! I'll hire a horse for him. If he can't ride alone, you'll have to go up with him and hold him on." She smiled at the thought. She was only too well aware that Gabrielle was uneasy with horses and hated to ride.

Gabrielle tried again. "Couldn't we wait a couple of days, Xena, if we do Iolaus will be in better shape for travelling."

"A young girl is at risk, Gabrielle. Have you forgotten? I thought nothing was more important to you than finding her. If we delay, we may lose track of her again."

"Yes, but ..."

"Look, we won't take Iolaus far. We're bound to find somewhere we can dump ... I mean leave him where he'll be okay." With that she strode off, ignoring Gabrielle's disapproving look.

She returned a few minutes later and was most displeased to find the hunter still abed. "I told you to get him up."

"I couldn't rouse him. The poppy dose was too high."

"You didn't try you mean," Xena retorted. She stalked over to the bed. "Get up, Iolaus, we've got to get moving," the Warrior Princess ordered, grasping his shoulder and shaking it impatiently.

"M-Moving?" Hazy blue eyes fluttered open and peered at her in confusion. "Where are ..."

"Just get up! I'm in a hurry here."

"A hurry?"

Xena was getting exasperated. "Just do as you're told!" she snapped.

"Xena, how can you speak to him like that? Can't you tell he's ill," Gabrielle protested.

"Tell he's ill? He'd better be ill! If he's kept me awake half the night for any other reason, I'll ..." However, well aware that the bard's hackles were rising she broke off and dragged the hunter into a sitting position. "Get dressed!" she instructed. However, as soon as she released him, he sagged and it was soon apparent that there was no way he could follow her instructions even if, as Gabrielle begged leave to doubt, he could understand them.

However, never one to have her will thwarted, Xena proceeded to snatch up his clothes and ordered Gabrielle to help her dress him.

Gabrielle reluctantly complied, realising that nothing was going to dissuade Xena and so it was better to help, as working together would make it easier on the hunter.

Then they supported the little blond between them as they made their way to the livery stable.

Gabrielle tried again. "Xena, what will Hercules think if ..."

"He'll think a child's welfare has to come first. Anyway, Iolaus will be safer with us rather than *alone* here." She deliberately stressed the word alone.

The bard sighed. She knew there was a strong element of truth in what the Warrior Princess was saying, but she could not help but feel that a day's rest for the hunter would not have made much difference to the task at hand.

Sure it was true that it had been she who had pushed Xena into their current quest, but balancing the possible fate of an unknown fourteen-year-old against the needs of Iolaus was so hard.

A couple of weeks before, a group of Amazons, previously unknown to Gabrielle, had approached the pair with a request for help. It seemed a young man had kidnapped a girl from their village and they had been trying to locate the pair for a week without success.

Xena had, as usual, been sceptical, asking whether they were certain that the girl had not gone willingly. The women had assured her that that would have been quite out of character, but the cynical Warrior Princess had remained unconvinced.

Gabrielle had, of course, been keen to assist and would have done so even had she not been an Amazon herself. She had persuaded Xena to lend a hand, and when the search had taken longer than anticipated, had talked a reluctant Xena into keeping on with it.

So now she could hardly complain when the Warrior Princess finally started showing a real interest in the search, especially as she knew Xena was right about the likelihood of the slavers seeking some revenge. Thus she watched unhappily as Xena hoisted Iolaus into the saddle and brusquely thrust the reins into his good hand.

For his part, the hunter immediately started to slump and Xena was forced to steady him. "You'll have to get up and hold him, Gabrielle," she said, "or I'll have to tie him on."

"Fine! No problem!" Gabrielle lied, glancing around for a mounting block.

Moments later, she was settled uncomfortably behind Iolaus, supporting him as best she could.

They set off, but it soon became apparent that, strong though she was, the bard was not going to be able to support the semi-conscious hunter for long, especially given that she had to control the horse as well. Reluctantly, Xena took him onto Argo and they rode on.

Xena did not like the possible danger this arrangement posed. If they were attacked, she would lose valuable time getting Iolaus to the ground. So now the Warrior Princess was even more determined to find somewhere to leave the little blond.

After a couple of hours, they finally neared a town. Xena decided to leave Gabrielle and Iolaus and to go in alone to seek word of the girl and hopefully to find someone willing to harbour Iolaus.

She could not believe her luck when she spotted the familiar green-clad figure of Autolycus. She smiled as she recalled some of the extravagant compliments the King of Thieves always paid her. He always tried so hard to impress her although, given his wily nature, she was not sure how much his apparent infatuation was an act. She always suspected that he liked the idea of her as a potential ally, in case his numerous crimes brought trouble crashing down upon him, rather than seriously expecting she would ever respond to his overtures. However, having said that, she also knew his excessive ego would never have allowed him to accept that there was a woman that he could not win over with his sweet-talking. She had to admit, to herself though *never* to him, that there was some basis for truth in that belief as she could not help liking the rogue.

Okay, here then was the answer to her problem. He might not have been most people's choice of nurse, but beggars could not be choosers. Not that the Warrior Princess intended to beg. Far from it! No, all she had to do was phrase her request properly. She smiled to herself as she worked out how best to broach the matter.

Accordingly she greeted Autolycus with unusual cordiality and invited him to join her in a drink at the tavern.

For his part, the thief was immediately suspicious of her motives. After some idle chit-chat, he asked bluntly, "What do you want, Xena?"

"I wondered if you might do me a favour."

Unlike the demigod, who would have responded "of course" without a moment's hesitation, Autolycus merely said guardedly, "I'm listening."

"I'm in the middle of some important business and my little, blond travelling companion is ill. Nothing infectious," she added hurriedly. "I wondered if you'd be prepared to do a spot of baby-sitting. I'll pay for a room here for you and leave money for food and drinks."

"I'd like to help, but ..."

Xena cut in at once, pretending not to have noticed his attempt to weasel out. "Thank you! I'm very grateful."

"I'm happy to be of service, but ..."

"Wait here! I'll be right back. This is so *kind* of you." She hurried over to the landlord to book a room, before Autolycus could voice any possible protest, and then headed out the door.

Autolycus debated taking off himself, but he did not want to antagonize Xena, and when he thought about it, he realised he might enjoy getting to know Gabrielle. After all, she was an attractive woman and might well respond to his charms. Further, the fact that Xena had only mentioned 'a' room suggested that she had no objection to that. 'The rumours about Xena and Gabrielle must be wrong,' he mused. Feeling a little happier, he poured himself another drink and began to weave a pleasant fantasy about himself and a more than willing Gabrielle.

Meanwhile, Xena was heading after Gabrielle and Iolaus, inwardly gloating at her own cleverness. Autolycus was going to get such a surprise when he saw the little blond was male, and if she played her cards right, he would not realise her deception until she was well on her way. Still having committed himself, she was certain that his pride would make him keep to the bargain rather than admit she had tricked him.

What she did not know was that Iolaus and the thief had already met and under very inauspicious circumstances. The hunter had come across the thief surrounded by a group of attackers and had gone to his aid, not realizing that Autolycus was the villain of the piece. The latter had then thrust his booty into the blond's arms and had left him to take the rap for his crimes. Iolaus had had to undergo three ordeals at King Menelaus' court and had only escaped execution when Hercules had managed to bring back the real culprit, who had subsequently escaped.

The little blond felt, quite rightly, that had Hercules not taken action the thief would have abandoned him to his fate. As a result, he had conceived a strong dislike for the thief, which had grown because Hercules had tried to convince him that there was good in Autolycus. Iolaus found it hard to accept that the demigod could give him frequent lectures for relatively minor misdemeanours, such as getting drunk and/or fighting, and yet speak well of a self-confessed and totally unrepentant thief. It was *not* fair!

Autolycus looked up from his day-dreaming to observe the Warrior Princess making her way towards him carrying 'Gabrielle' wrapped in a blanket. All he could see was the top of her curly head. He had thought she had straight locks, but perhaps she had been busy with the curling papers. He hoped she was not as ill as her motionless form suggested, as that was hardly going to be conducive to a bit of dalliance.

"You stay there and finish your drink. I'll just get my friend into bed," she said.

In no time at all, she was back. "I got a sleeping potion from a healer so my friend will sleep for at least four hours. I've left more of it upstairs," she said. "I'd better be off. Thanks for your help, I'm very grateful." She pulled him to her and gave him a smacking kiss that left him breathless. Then she signalled to the barmaid to bring him more ale, paid for it and hurried out.

The King of Thieves was left staring bemusedly after her. She had never shown him physical affection before. All his instincts were telling him that something did not ring true, but for the life of him he could not imagine what Xena was up to. 'She's in a hell of a hurry. Perhaps she's got an assignation that she doesn't want Gabrielle to know about,' he thought. 'Oh well, I'll just have to see what Gabrielle says when she wakes up.'

Three hours or so later, the thief decided he ought to go and check on his charge just in case Xena had overestimated the potion's potency. 'She'll probably be a bit confused waking up here,' he thought, 'so I should be there to reassure her.'

He eased open the door and slipped into the dim room. The figure in the bed was lying motionless, facedown.

Autolycus moved to the window and drew back the curtain. Sunlight flooded in, catching the curls of the patient and adding to their shining beauty. Fascinated the thief moved across the bed and gently stroked the soft, fluffy locks, twisting one curl around a finger. He could not recall when he had seen more beautiful hair. He was sure it had not been quite so enticing before. He had already decided she had curled it, but perhaps she had dyed it as well. He remembered it as being more of a strawberry blonde. Still, he had not paid that much attention when they had previously met, as he had been too busy trying to charm the raven-tressed Warrior Princess.

At that moment, 'Gabrielle' stirred restlessly, groaned and moved slightly. 'She can't breathe properly with her face buried in a pillow like that,' Autolycus thought. 'I'll just ease her over onto her side.'

He started to turn her gently onto her side, only to freeze in shock at the face revealed. "Iolaus!" he gasped aloud. "What in Tartarus is going on?" he demanded.

There was no reply.

Autolycus peeled back the covers to see Iolaus' torso and right arm were heavily bandaged. He lowered the hunter onto his back and stood staring at him in some perplexity.

'What on earth was Xena doing with the annoying, little blond?' he wondered. Well, whatever it was, she had successfully unloaded him or, at least, thought she had. After all, what was there to stop him just walking off and leaving Iolaus?

What was there? His damned conscience and soft heart, that's what. His conscience was usually very co-operative, but could assert itself at inconvenient moments, and his heart was well hidden, but there nonetheless. 'Admit it, Autolycus,' he thought, 'she's read you too damn well. She knew you'd weasel out of this job if you knew what it entailed, but you wouldn't walk away when you found out the truth.'

He glanced at the bedside table and spotted a rolled scroll. There was writing on the back of it: "If he gives you trouble, this document may help you deal with him, Thanks, Xena."

He hurriedly unrolled the scroll to find Iolaus was a slave in the possession of the bearer. A slave? He was more confused than ever. How in Hades had that overly protective demigod allowed this to happen, and if as was most likely he knew nothing of it, how would he react when he found out about it? He would go ballistic. And whom would he blame? The stupid dupe holding Blondie's ownership papers, that's who.

Autolycus had a healthy respect for the physical powers of the demigod and, he had to admit, quite a liking for him. Do-gooding was not in his line, but there was something about Hercules that commanded the thief's reluctant respect.

No, he blamed that whole debacle over King Menelaus' jewels on Iolaus, not Hercules. If the little guy had not been stupid enough to get himself captured the problem would not have arisen. Then to cap it off Iolaus had not even been grateful for the risk that the thief had taken in allowing Hercules to take him back to admit his guilt. Not only did he conveniently overlook the fact that this had not been exactly voluntary, he was also unaware of the ordeals Iolaus had had to face and so did not understand why the hunter was so hostile.

Now he was stuck with Blondie, he had to decide his best course of action. Clearly the person he needed to talk to was the demigod. Hopefully, by the act of seeking out Hercules, he could make it clear that he was an innocent party in whatever nefarious scheme the Warrior Princess was involved in. This was important, as people who knew him tended to assume he was bound to be guilty. It was amazing how a fine upstanding fellow like him should be the subject of such slanders, but there it was.

Mind you, that was all very well, but Blondie did not look like he was going anywhere in a hurry. Indeed, he looked terrible. His face was almost as bleached as the pillow on which he lay. A faint sheen of sweat gleamed on his pale face and there were dark smudges beneath his eyes. He looked absolutely exhausted, wrung-out.

Autolycus put a hand on Iolaus' forehead. He was hot and clearly running a fever. What on earth had Xena been thinking of to drag him around with her in this condition?

Well, if he was proposing to move him, he had better see what he could do to get his temperature down. The thief picked up the washrag and dipped it into the water pitcher. Then he began to sponge Iolaus down.

He wiped the little blond's face first. As he did so, he was suddenly struck by its beauty. He had not paid much attention to Iolaus at Menelaus' court. In truth, the blond mop had largely hidden his face, as he had been tied in position awaiting the downward cut of the guillotine that, had it not been for the opportune arrival of Hercules and Autolycus, would have ended his life.

Suddenly Autolycus surprised himself with the thought that there before him was the most beautiful face he had ever seen. He tended to see himself as a connoisseur of female beauty, but had never paid much attention to any male's looks except, of course, his own, as he was inordinately proud of what he saw as his dark and dashing good looks. Yet here he was looking at a *male* and seeing beauty!

Of course, he assured himself, his interest was purely professional. The guy was just a warrior. What a waste! That face could have made a con man an absolute fortune.

He began to wipe Iolaus' chest and then moved down to his stomach. He began to roll the blankets back so they would not get damp. Then he did a double take as his eyes fell on the nest of golden curls at Iolaus' groin.

Mesmerized, he flicked a nervous tongue across his lips and reached out a shaky hand unable to resist touching the curls. They were surprisingly soft. To his horror, he felt his cock stir. 'Gods,' he thought appalled, withdrawing his hand rapidly, 'What in Tartarus am I doing?'

He hurriedly drew the cover up to Iolaus' waist again. Bed baths were clearly not a good option.

Thoroughly shaken by his shameful behaviour, he sat down heavily in a chair by the bed and tried to collect his scattered thoughts. He had never taken another person without consent, though at times he had done some bloody fast talking to ensure the lady was willing, and he had never, never, *never* even remotely considered a male as a bed partner. Yet here he was feeling up an unconscious male and one he did not even like. He just could not understand that sudden impulse to touch, to caress, to ...to ... Damn! He did *not* like the way that thought was going.

'Think, Autolycus!' he admonished himself. 'You're stepping on bloody dangerous ground here. You thought Blondie and Hercules might be, shall we say, *close* when you saw how agitated that demigod was when his little pet was in danger and touching a demigod's possession would be bad enough, but it appears Xena has some claim as well. Now *that* could spell disaster for you with a capital 'D' like in Death. I thought you had a better sense of self-preservation. In any case, you like women, remember? You remember women? Nice, soft, cuddly, rounded and loving things, not small, muscular, obnoxious, little creatures that would kill you as soon as look at you."

A groan intruded on his thoughts and he realized Iolaus was stirring. Then a look of panic crossed the beautiful face and the unfocused azure eyes flew open wide with fear, as their owner struggled to push himself into a sitting position.

Autolycus was on his feet in an instant. He put his hands on Iolaus' shoulders and pushed him back. "Lie down, Iolaus," he said.

Not recognizing the voice and seeing the outline of a man that, by height and colouring appeared to be Pyrois, Iolaus tried to push back and hit out awkwardly with a left jab. His fist connected with the thief's ribs with surprising force. "Ouch!" Autolycus complained, releasing the blond's shoulders. "What are you trying to do?"

Iolaus slumped back on the bed, but kept his left fist raised defensively. "Keep b-back! D-Don't touch me," he gasped, clearly exhausted by his effort.

"How can I help you if I don't touch you?"

"Help me?" The voice was weak, but derisive. "Help yourself, you mean."

"Iolaus, listen to me, I ..." the thief started, reaching out a hand.

Iolaus batted it away. "Don't! K-Keep away from me," he protested.

"Don't you remember me? I'm Autolycus," the thief said, bemused by the note of fear in the little blond's voice.

"Autolycus?" Iolaus looked even more confused.

"Yes, you remember we met at King Menelaus' court."

Iolaus shook his head trying to clear it. He felt a surge of relief in learning that the man hovering over him was not Pyrois, but if this was Autolycus was he any more to be trusted? "The bl-bloody thief?" he questioned.

"I prefer to think of myself as the man who nobly sacrificed himself to save you," Autolycus retorted.

"Huh? Wh-What sacrifice? Herc made ... made you ..." His voice trailed off. He was feeling sick and was not up to sustaining an argument. He gulped and covered his mouth with his left hand.

The thief noted the tell-tail greenish tinge to his skin and grabbed for the wash bowl in which the water pitcher sat. He pushed a hand under Iolaus' shoulders raising him slightly and ignoring his muffled protests. He was only just in time as Iolaus, with no food in his stomach, brought up a stream of bile.

He then collapsed back gasping. The thief reached for the washcloth preparing to wipe his face only to be forestalled by a feeble gasp of "No."

The little blond could not understand what was going on. Indeed, his last coherent memory was of Xena's decision that his arm be broken again in spite of his frantic protests to the contrary. After that he had been too dazed by pain and poppy to know what was going on. He had absolutely no idea how he came to be in thief's hands and the thought frankly terrified him. After his treatment over the last week or so at the hands of other men, he was not in a state to have confidence in anyone and here was a man who had nearly caused his death.

For his part, Autolycus could not understand how he could have inspired such fear and loathing when all he was doing was trying to help. He had conveniently forgotten his recent lascivious thoughts and felt mild outrage that his good intentions were being spurned so unreasonably, especially since he had not wanted to take on the babysitting role in the first place.

These feelings on both sides were not going to make things easy for either of them. In his semi-delirious state, Iolaus would not let the thief touch him, and fearing a drug, he was not going to drink anything that Autolycus wanted him to take.

For his part the King of Thieves spoke in a hectoring manner and tried to force Iolaus to co-operate with him, but to no avail.

Finally, in exasperation, Autolycus produced the slave document. "Look, Blondie, this paper says you belong to the holder and that's me. Now do as I say."

Terrified Iolaus shrunk away from him. In his confused mind Autolycus and Pyrois merged into one.

Taking his silence as surrender, Autolycus bent to pick up the bottle of medicine from the floor.

From somewhere Iolaus found a reserve of strength. He lunged forward and brought his left hand down on the thief's neck in a vicious rabbit-killer. Autolycus collapsed onto the floor unconscious.

Willing himself to keep upright, somehow Iolaus managed to pull on his leathers and boots. Abandoning his vest as too awkward to keep on over his bandaged arm, he staggered out of the room and down the stairs, clinging to the banister with his good hand.

Iolaus had no idea where he was going. All he wanted to do was get away before the thief regained consciousness. Aware that bushcraft was definitely not Autolycus' forte, he headed into the woods at the edge of the village.

He pushed his way blindly through the thick undergrowth, concerned only to put as much distance between himself and Autolycus or Pyrois or whoever that person might have been.

Finally, he stumbled over an unseen tree root and fell heavily. Pain shot through his abused arm as he landed on it and he fainted.


Slowly, Iolaus fought his way back to consciousness, only to find himself the subject of an argument. He lay still, eyes closed, feigning unconsciousness while endeavouring to ascertain what was going on. For a few minutes he could only gather odd words and phrases, but then the pair moved closer and one knelt right beside him and said, "But we can't leave him here, Helvia." That was a boy, speaking with the rough uncertain voice of puberty.

"We have to! We're having enough trouble evading Ogulnia and the others without having to look after him." That was definitely a girl's voice.

"No! I'm not leaving him. He needs help. Look at him! How can he defend himself against wild animals or anything?"

"That's his concern. Look, Caprus, if they catch us you're as good as dead."

"And he will probably die if we leave him. No, Helvia, you go on if you want, but I'm staying."

"Don't be ridiculous. He's just a stranger. Why should we risk ourselves for him?"

"Helvia, listen to me! You're going to be my wife and ..." His voice was becoming quite shrill and undermining his intention of appearing as a dominant male.

"Not necessarily."

"What?"

"If you want an obedient, subservient wife you should not have looked among the Amazons. No man will be my master." Her voice was scornful.

"But, Helvia, you said you loved me."

"Maybe I do, but that doesn't mean I want to end up as your servant. There'll be none of that husband and wife are one person and that person is the husband crap for me."

Feeling more alert than he had been, although in more pain, because the last poppy dose had worn off, Iolaus decided it was time to wake up. He did not want to cause a rift between the pair and he was very concerned about that reference to Amazons. He had vague recollections of Xena and Gabrielle arguing about some sort of quest and they had definitely mentioned Amazons. There had been some mention of a girl too, but he did not think a name had been mentioned. From what he had just heard, it appeared the young couple had eloped and the Warrior Princess and the bard were helping the Amazons search for them. He would not like to be the boy when their pursuers caught up with them, as there might well be a good reason then for his voice never to settle into manly tones.

He opened wary eyes to find two pairs of equally wary eyes regarding him. He knew the younger was female, but she had cut her hair short and was dressed as a boy. She looked no more than fourteen. When neither appeared to be about to speak, the hunter said, "I'm Iolaus."

The older of the pair, a handsome, flaxen-haired, stripling of about sixteen years, hesitated and then said, "I'm Caprus and this is Hel... this is Hellas."

"What are you two doing out here? Is your village nearby?"

"We don't come from around here. We're travellers," Caprus said.

"Wh-What about your parents?"

"Mine are dead and she ... I m-mean *he* hasn't got any. What happened to you?"

Iolaus hesitated, wondering what to say, and then answered, "I had a run in with some slavers."

"Slavers?" The boy glanced nervously around, That was all he needed. Since Helvia had talked him into running away with her there seemed to have been nothing but trouble.

"It was some distance back. I don't think they're near here."

"Perhaps we had better go back to the cave just in case," Helvia suggested.

Caprus nodded. He turned to Iolaus and asked, "Can you walk?"

Walk? That was the last thing he felt like doing, but he knew that they were all too vulnerable where they were. "I think so. Could you give me a hand up?"

In the event, it took the combined efforts of both to get him upright and he had to lean heavily on Caprus to stop himself from falling.

Fortunately the cave turned out to be only a few hundred yards away or he would not have made it. With relief he sank down onto the ground. He vaguely heard the youth offering him water, but was too far gone to respond, falling into an exhausted sleep.

Dusk was falling when the hunter awoke. Having had several hours of peaceful sleep, Iolaus was feeling better than he had in quite a while.

Caprus had been clearly watching him closely as he immediately offered him water and put a surprisingly strong arm around his shoulders to raise him to drink. Iolaus swallowed gratefully.

Then, aware of a movement, he glanced up to see the girl had risen to her feet. Pointedly ignoring the hunter, she stepped past him. "I'll go and see if I can get a rabbit. You get a cooking fire going," Helvia announced and was off before Caprus could try to gainsay her.

He glanced at Iolaus, his face flushing with embarrassment at being relegated to what he had always seen as a woman's role.

Iolaus recognised this and shrugged companionably, commenting, "Woman can be very difficult, can't they?"

"Women? But she's not ... I mean he's not ..."

"Caprus, I know Hellas is Helvia. I was conscious earlier than I let on," Iolaus admitted.

"Oh," Caprus said thoughtfully. The youth was clearly trying to recall what they had said. "Do you feel up to sitting or do you want me to lie you down?"

"I'd rather sit."

The youth eased a wincing Iolaus over against a boulder. "Can I ... would you mind if I-I asked you about something?" the boy questioned.

"S-Sure." He did not really feel up to a conversation, but the boy had helped him and clearly wanted advice.

"Did you hear us talking about eloping."

"Yes."

"What do you think I should do about it?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well ... um ... you see it wasn't ... it wasn't exactly my idea."

"I wondered about that."

"You see the village my parents and I live in is near the Amazon village and ..."

"I thought you said your parents were dead."

"Yeah, but they're not. I'm sorry, I just seem to be doing lots of lying lately."

"That's okay. What about the Amazons?"

"Well, I'd met Helvia a few times. I liked her, but she didn't seem to be interested in me except as someone to talk to. The Amazons don't mix much with others, but sometimes I used to meet Helvia when she was hunting. Anyway, one day, I came across her and she was crying and she wouldn't say what was wrong, but I said I'd help her and ... and she told me something awful."

"Go on," the hunter prompted.

"She said there was this woman, Ogulnia, who had been saying things to her. She said she thought Helvia was pretty and suggested that she and Helvia should ... should ... " He broke off blushing hotly.

"And Helvia didn't like her?"

"No, she was scared of her."

"And she didn't tell her mother."

"Her mother's dead."

"What about telling one of the tribe's leaders?"

"That's the trouble. Ogulnia *is* one of the leaders."

"So what happened?"

"She asked me to run away with her. She said we should get married. I didn't know what to do, but I'd promised to help and I did like her."

"But not so much now?"

"Well, I still like her ... kind of, but I don't think we ... I think our ideas on things are too different. When I marry, I want a wife that ... um ... It's not that I want to control her, but I don't want to marry a warrior. I want to go back to my village and to farm and to have a family and ..."

Iolaus could feel himself drifting off again, but forced himself to concentrate. "But that doesn't sound like it would suit her."

"No, but I've promised to marry her and so ..."

"Of course, she might be having second thoughts too," Iolaus suggested.

"Do you think so?" Caprus asked hopefully.

"It's possible."

"How can I find out? What should I say to her? Do you think I should ..." Caprus broke off as he realised Iolaus was sagging. "I'm sorry, I'm tiring you. Let me help you lie down again."

The hunter's next conscious awareness was the feel of a gentle hand upon his shoulder and Caprus' voice saying, "Iolaus, the rabbit's cooked. Do you want some?"

He shook his head. All he wanted to do was sleep. Although a part of his weakness was lack of food, eating was too much effort.

The next time he opened his eyes it was morning. As before Caprus was beside him, but there was no sign of Helvia. Again the youth helped him drink.

"Wh-Where is Helvia?"

"Gone. She lit out this morning. I tried to talk her out of it, but she wouldn't listen. I told her I couldn't leave you and she said I was a wimp and took off."

Iolaus did not know what to say. He thought the headstrong girl too young to go by herself, but he felt she would just lead Caprus into danger.

"Maybe she'll come back when she calms down," Caprus opined.

"Maybe." However, he doubted it.

The day passed slowly. Caprus made a thin broth with the leftover rabbit and Iolaus forced some down to please him. He did not know what to do for the best. He felt the youth should go home, but doubted whether Caprus would leave him.

In truth, he was selfish enough to want the youth's company. After all he had been through, it was so relaxing to be with someone non-threatening, someone he could trust.

About midday, Caprus helped him to the mouth of the cave so he could lie in the warm sun. The youth stretched out beside him and fell asleep.

Only half an hour or so had passed when Iolaus became aware that they were not alone. He could not have said how he knew that, but all his hunter's senses were screaming a warning.

He gently shook the boy awake. "Caprus, someone's coming," Iolaus hissed urgently . "No, don't stand up. Crawl back into the cave. Go right to the back and keep quiet. Don't make a sound no matter what happens. When you get a chance head for your home village."

"But ..."

"Please just do it! It won't help if they catch us both."

The boy awkwardly and reluctantly complied.

Bracing his back against the cave wall, Iolaus forced himself painfully upright and stood swaying awkwardly. Once he had got his balance, he moved just outside of the cave ready to confront those approaching.

He waited until the first of the Amazons rose up from her place of concealment and moved towards him and then asked, "What do you want?"

"To talk."

Having no real alternative, he nodded his acquiescence.

Other women then emerged and he realized there were about ten of them, too many for him to defeat on a good day and this was *not* a good day.

Then one of the woman pushed Helvia forward, while saying, "So you were alone were you? Doesn't look like it to me."

"But he's not the ..." Helvia started and then faltered as she caught Iolaus' eye.

"I guess we're caught now, my love," he said, desperately willing her to go along with him.

For a moment, she glared at him and he thought all was lost, but then one of the Amazons, a tall brunette named Damasia, grinned lasciviously and asked, "How'd you find a tasty piece like him, girl? I would have been off like a shot with him myself."

"Not if I'd seen him first," another said, laughing.

Preening herself at the envy, Helvia replied, "You don't really think he'd pick either of you pair over me, do you?"

"SHUT UP!" the woman clutching Helvia's arm ordered. She was clearly the leader of the group from their instant silence. She pushed the girl aside and stormed up to the hunter. "You'll pay for this. A man your age shouldn't be chasing after children."

Guessing her identity, Iolaus heard his unruly tongue respond, "Neither should a woman like you."

Ogulnia's mouth dropped open at the sheer effrontery of the comment. "How dare you!" She backhanded him across the mouth while hissing, "I'll have the skin off your back for that, you little bastard." She gestured imperiously to the others. "Bring him. We'll take him back to the village. I want to take my time over this."

Iolaus' resistance could hardly have been glorified by the word 'token' as it had been all he could do to stay on his feet. His broken arm was dragged from its sling and his hands secured behind him. Then he was tossed onto a horse and the band set off.

A few minutes later, Caprus moved cautiously from his hiding place. He had been frankly terrified, but was wracked with guilt at letting Iolaus take the blame for what he had done. Iolaus had told him to go home and, at least, by following the Amazons he was heading in the right direction and, hopefully, might find some way to help him.

He had not gone far, when he spotted a tall, green-clad man, with a tattered purple vest hanging over one arm, approaching. "Hello," the man called. "I wonder if you can help me. I'm looking for a friend of mine. He's a little guy with a mop of blond curls."

Relieved to have found not only an adult to advise him, but an actual friend of Iolaus to boot, Caprus told all.

Autolycus' first reaction was to head the other way as fast as he could. He had felt that it was in the interest of his self-preservation to try to locate Iolaus rather than to have to admit to the Warrior Princess that he had failed her, but even she could surely not expect him to take on a whole Amazon tribe alone. However, when he looked into the boy's trusting eyes, he knew that he was going to have to act against his own best interests. Inwardly cursing himself for his soft heart, he gestured ahead and said, "Lead the way." All he could hope was that they would come across Xena en route or, even better, the demigod.

Swaying in the saddle, Iolaus had no such hopes. After all he had been through, he had just about given up. Normally the most resilient of men, he was almost at the end of his tether. The one thing that was keeping him going was thoughts of Caprus. He desperately wanted to get a chance to speak to Helvia to try to obtain her promise to keep up their pretence. The Amazon leader seemed a vindictive type and the boy would never be safe if she learnt of his existence.

He had been heartened, not long after they started riding, when one of the Amazons had observed, "He isn't very big, is he? I guess that's why our informants thought he was a boy at a distance."

Another agreed, and for once in his life, Iolaus blessed his lack of height. Now, if only the girl would continue to go along with the deception.

Meanwhile, on foot, the thief and the youth were dropping further and further behind. Caprus informed Autolycus that it was not too important since he knew the women's ultimate destination and because they could make up ground at night. Seeing that possible escape route snatched from him, the thief was none too pleased, but did not admit it. His luck had really taken a turn for the worst.

Late on the second day, however, things looked up. The pair heard hoof-beats behind them and took cover, only to see Xena and Gabrielle appear. The bard was actually riding. She had felt silly leading the second horse and Xena had insisted on more speed than she could have achieved on foot.

"Autolycus! What are you doing here?" the Warrior Princess demanded. "Where's Iolaus?"

"Who? Oh, you mean your 'little, blond travelling companion'," he said parroting her earlier words sarcastically.

She didn't even have the grace to blush. "Stop messing around, thief," she snapped. "I don't have time for this."

"And my time doesn't matter, I suppose," he retorted, irritation overriding commonsense.

"Stop it, both of you!" Gabrielle interrupted. "This isn't getting us anywhere. Autolycus, have you seen anything of a band of Amazons?"

"I've not had that displeasure, but it seems I'm going to," he replied unhelpfully.

"We're following them," Caprus put in.

The Warrior Princess stared at him, wondering why on earth the pair should be doing something so foolhardy, but she had her own priorities so she asked, "So you've seen them?"

"Yes."

"Did you notice whether they had a girl with them?"

"Yes, Helvia's back with them."

"Helvia? How do you know her name?" Xena questioned.

The youth looked embarrassed. "I-I ..." he stammered, his courage withering under the fierce gaze of the Warrior Princess, who looked to him as if she could well be an Amazon herself, in spite of the fact that she obviously knew his companion.

"He's the one the girl ran off with," Autolycus supplied.

"You?" Xena asked in disbelief.

"And you're following them?" Gabrielle put in. "You can't do that! They'll kill you if they catch you. Don't worry about Helvia. They won't hurt her," she added reassuringly.

"I hope you're right, but I have to follow them because they took Iolaus."

"WHAT???" The Warrior Princess could not believe her ears. Hercules had jokingly told her more than once that the hunter attracted trouble like a magnet, but it was still hard to credit that even he could have managed this. She had thought for a few joyous moments that their damned chasing around the countryside after the Amazon girl was over when she Caprus had said Helvia was back with the tribe. She had lots of things she would rather be doing with her time and she certainly did not want to see Ogulnia again or, more accurately, to have the latter see Gabrielle. Now Iolaus had quashed that hope. Somehow she managed to keep volatile temper in check and asked, in a dangerously quiet voice, "Why have they taken him?"

"He ... He made me hide. I-I didn't want to, but ... but he s-said there was no point in both of us getting caught. They think he was the one that ran off with Helvia. And he told Ogulnia that ... that ..." He trailed off too embarrassed to continue.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle had awkwardly dismounted. She passed her horse's reins to the King of Thieves and walked up to Caprus, wrapping a comforting arm around him. "Please tell us what was said."

Emboldened by her reassuring manner, Caprus briefly explained why Helvia had run off in the first place and then recounted Ogulnia's comment to Iolaus and his rejoinder.

"Hercules has told Iolaus more than once that his tongue will be the death of him," Xena observed sardonically. "However, in this case, I think Iolaus was justified, if ill-advised," she added. Inwardly, she was exulting having seen the shocked look on the bard's face when she had heard the truth about her new friend. "Well, we'd better get after them," she said, taking charge automatically. "Gabrielle, you come up behind me and the men can take your horse."

Men! Caprus fair glowed at the word and looked adoringly at the woman who had previously made him so uneasy. Perhaps all was not lost after all.

He felt even happier when, as they rode, Gabrielle actually introduced them both and he learnt that he was in most illustrious company. The ultimate though was to learn that Iolaus was the friend of *the* Hercules, Caprus' long-time hero. If only he would make an appearance, all would definitely be well.

The others certainly suspected he was likely to turn up, as they asked every traveller if he or she had seen anything of the demigod. Gabrielle and Autolycus hoped for the additional help in case things turned nasty, but the Warrior Princess had visions of passing the problem of Iolaus over to Hercules. Not that she did not like the idea of having a go at Ogulnia, but she really had had enough of Amazons for a while.

The Amazons and their captive finally reached their home village. Ogulnia was looking forward to punishing and then dispatching the hunter. She immediately ordered that he be tied to the whipping post in the centre of the village to await her pleasure.

However, she had reckoned without Helvia. As soon as she emerged from her hut, whip in hand, she was confronted by the girl, who placed herself in front of Iolaus. "I'm not going to let you do this," she said. She had not liked Iolaus when they had first met, but could appreciate what he was doing for Caprus and also wished to thwart the woman she despised. Previously she had felt she could not challenge her, but Iolaus' example had made her ashamed that she had run rather than standing and fighting.

"Get out of my way, Helvia," the woman ordered.

"No! This is your fault, not his. You should be there yourself."

"You've really let the man sweet-talk you, haven't you?" Ogulnia sneered. "I'll see if you're still so eager to listen to him when he's no longer so pretty."

"You're not going to touch him."

"You forget your place, girl. You're fortunate that you're so young and I can see you've been unduly swayed by an older man, or I would punish you as well."

"What mar my beauty that you're always going on about?"

Synnada, an older woman of high-caste intervened, "What are you saying, Helvia?"

"I didn't leave because of a man. I left because of *her*. I didn't want Caprus, I just wanted to get away from her."

Iolaus flinched. In her anger, Helvia had named the boy. He could only hope none of the others had picked up the slip, but Synnada had not missed it. "Who? I thought the prisoner was called Iolaus?"

Helvia bit her lip. "I-I meant to say Iolaus," she said unconvincingly.

"Are you sure?" another questioned. "I've seen you talking to a boy of that name that lives near here."

"I think you've been lying to us, Helvia," Ogulnia said, seizing upon the opportunity to discredit the girl and thus undermine the accusation to which she was clearly building up. "It seems we can't trust a word you say. It appears you ran off with the boy and then traded him in on a man."

"Don't blame the girl for that," Damasia commented. "I'd have done the same." She clearly held no grudge for the girl's earlier impertinence.

Iolaus winced as he listened to this. Normally he would have basked in the woman's admiration, but after what he had been through over recent days he was starting to feel that if he ever saw another female it would be too soon.

Ogulnia had also no desire to listen to the statuesque Amazon. "Be quiet, Damasia!" she snapped. "The issue is serious. You should be ashamed to condone such behaviour."

"Why? Blondie's a much better bargain," Damasia retorted irrepressibly.

"The fact remains that both the boy and this runt cannot be allowed to live. I'll deal with this one and then we will hunt the brat down. I know where his family lives and we can start there." Her intentions for the boy's relatives was clear in her voice.

Iolaus protested, "No! Leave Caprus' family alone! They knew nothing about this."

"Too bad! They should have kept better control over the brat."

"You're hardly one to talk about how to look after children after what you've ...Ow!" He broke off suddenly as Ogulnia slashed the whip viciously across his exposed back.

Synnada protested, "Ogulnia, stop! I think we need to hear what he was about to say and we need to hear Helvia's side too."

"We've heard enough lies already today!"

"Speaking of hearing things," an authoritative voice intervened. All spun around to see the Warrior Princess striding arrogantly into their midst. "Just when were you intending to inform Gabrielle and I that the girl had been found or were you just going to let us continue searching indefinitely?"

Ogulnia was caught wrong-footed by the question. In her excitement at locating Helvia, she had totally forgotten her unwilling ally. "I-I sent a messenger to find you," she lied hurriedly, "but she must have missed you."

A small ripple of sound went around the Amazons. Lying to an enemy was fine, but Xena had been working with them. Ogulnia should have had the guts to admit her error.

"Oh, really?" Xena's voice radiated disbelief, but she did not bother to pursue the matter further, continuing instead, in a voice of deadly calm, "And may I ask just what you think you're doing damaging my property?"

"Your property?" Ogulnia asked mystified.

"My slave," Xena replied, gesturing imperiously at the hunter.

*That* caused another whisper of sound through the assembled Amazons. The day was becoming more than usually entertaining and many were enjoying Ogulnia's discomfort. They had not appreciated her tendency to assume an overall tribal leadership that was not yet hers or her habit of speaking down to tribal members of equal rank. It was pleasant to see her getting some of her own back.

"How can he be yours?" Ogulnia questioned, more from a desire to delay proceedings while she composed herself than from any real doubt about Xena's veracity. However, that was a mistake as she only succeeded in digging herself in deeper.

Xena pulled the slave papers from her belt and waved them airily in Ogulnia's direction. "Ownership papers! Read them if you must."

That did not endear the Warrior Princess any more to the hunter. His face burned with embarrassment at her announcement.

Ogulnia hastened to say, "No, I'll take your word for it. However, the fact remains your slave was involved in the abduction of the girl."

"My slave did not abduct her."

"No, but he was found with her."

"So?" There was a wealth of scorn in the single word.

"So he was involved in concealing the true culprit."

"And that's a death sentence, is it?"

"Of course!"

"Well, now that is interesting because I've been doing the same. Caprus! Show yourself!"

Caprus, followed by a frowning Gabrielle and a nervous Autolycus, stepped into view. He did not like seeing the boy endangered in this manner. He just hoped Xena knew what she was doing.

"Perhaps you'd like to deal with me first," Xena said silkily.

"What?"

"I've committed the same crime as my slave and I would not expect you to do me this discourtesy of putting him before me."

Ogulnia hesitated. She was a skilled fighter, but doubted her ability to defeat the famed Warrior Princess.

"Are you changing your mind about what should be done about this matter?" Xena asked. "Perhaps we should hear from all parties involved before a decision is reached." She looked around the assembled Amazons. "What do you think?" she asked the group.

A general murmur of assent was heard.

"Be silent!" Ogulnia snapped. "I make the decisions here."

Then an elderly woman, Gephyra, stepped forward. Thus far, she had merely played the part of silent observer. Although the tribe's titular leader, in recent months she had been somewhat pushed aside by Ogulnia. Knowing that she was aging and her days of fighting had passed, she had decided to see how her niece and likely successor would handle the mantle of leadership if she was to formally relinquish it. Until now she had been reasonably satisfied with Ogulnia's performance. Although she had felt that Ogulnia was rather too imperious in dealing with others, Gephyra believed that once she had established her authority she would temper this behaviour. However, now it seemed that she might have made a misjudgment about her niece's suitability as overall leader. Accordingly, she said, "We will hear them."

"But, Gephyra, I don't ..." Ogulnia started.

"We will hear them!" Her tone was quiet, but forceful.

Ogulnia looked around. To her surprise, the younger women, who she had been so certain would side with her if it ever came to a showdown with her aunt, were nodding or murmuring their agreement with Gephyra's pronouncement. Still, if it came to the crunch, she thought they would still back the rising star against yesterday's leader, so she said no more and allowed the talk to proceed.

Helvia told all and then Caprus nervously gave his version.

"It seems you bear much responsibility for what has happened, Ogulnia," Gephyra commented sternly.

"Surely you are not accepting the words of children over mine," Ogulnia exclaimed. "Can you not tell they are lying? Your judgement has gone! This shows your day has passed, old woman. The leadership is mine."

"No, Ogulnia, and after what you have done, it will never be yours," Gephyra said calmly.

In answer, Ogulnia drew her sword and advanced towards her aunt, but Xena moved between them. "I believe I have first call on you," she said.

Ogulnia swore and launched herself at Xena, raising her sword high and preparing to slash downwards in a killing blow. The Warrior Princess brought her own sword up and easily parried the attack. A brief fight followed, ending with Xena skewering Ogulnia through the throat.

The Warrior Princess turned to Gephyra, who nodded her acceptance of the justness of the act. She then ordered Iolaus' release and told Caprus he was free to go, but strongly advised the latter not to bring himself to her attention again or he would not find her so lenient.

Gabrielle and Autolycus hurried to a sagging Iolaus' side and helped him to the horses.

They escorted Caprus to his home village. Xena then announced that they would proceed to the nearest town and from there would seek news of the demigod.

Once they were established in Amtissa, Autolycus volunteered to go in search of Hercules. He reasoned that the sooner the demigod was located, the sooner he could return to the much safer life of robbery and fraud.

With that incentive, combined with his extensive network of contacts, he located Hercules within two days and dispatched a message to him.

A further three days saw the demigod hurrying into Amtissa and seeking directions to the inn. Since he had received Autolycus' message he had neither slept nor eaten in his haste to reach Iolaus.

Iolaus had spent much of the intervening period sleeping. Exhausted as he was in mind and body, that had been just what he had needed and he was feeling more like his old self than he had for days. However, he was still unwilling to say much about what had happened to him.

Gabrielle was worried as she knew that it must not only have been exceptionally traumatic, but he was still suffering the effects of it. Xena was simply pleased that he was recovering and was showing no interest in the bard.

He was sitting in his room when the door suddenly swung open to reveal the demigod. Iolaus' heart leapt. A wave of happiness engulfed him that temporarily pushed aside all his problems.

He climbed to his feet and started joyfully towards his friend only to come to an abrupt halt at Hercules' first words.

The demigod had been very worried about the hunter, but always had an unfortunate tendency to disguise his commingled relief and love with scolding. "What in Tartarus did you do in Plynth?" he demanded. "I'd have thought you would have had more sense than to make up to Breanna."

Iolaus stared at him. He did not need that. What he needed was those strong arms to be wrapped around him in one of the demigod's rare protective embraces. "I didn't attack her! I didn't!"

"And I don't think you did, but you clearly were responsible for whatever happened."

"That's not fair, Herc, I just ..."

"Just what? Led her on? Went a bit further than she was ready for? I just don't know what you can have been thinking of. Couldn't you recognize a respectable girl when you saw one?" The jealousy that he had always managed to repress each time Iolaus had found a new lover bubbled uncontrollably to the surface and found its expression in harsh words.

Stung Iolaus asked, "What would you know about it? The bitch obviously had you well fooled."

"Iolaus, she doesn't deserve that epithet. You should be ashamed to use such ..."

"It's a perfect description! Anyway, none of this is any of your bloody business. If you've just come to lecture me, you can take a running jump."

"I was worried about you," Hercules admitted, but it was too late. The damage had been done.

"Yeah, so it seems. So concerned that you judged me without asking my side of things. You're always so willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt ... everyone but me that is."

The demigod stared at him. He wanted to deny what Iolaus had just said, but he knew he had not asked his side. Lack of sleep, the stress of his search for Iolaus and his fiercely repressed love for the hunter had resulted in his complete mishandling of the situation. "I'm sorry, Iolaus, I ..." he started, reaching out a hand, but Iolaus flinched away, not seeing the stricken look in Hercules' eyes.

He had had enough. Everybody seemed to be against him, even Hercules, the one person who mattered to him above all. He pushed past the demigod, and eyes burring with tears, fumbled blindly for the door.

Hercules could not allow that. He reached out and pulled Iolaus away from it. "Let me go, Hercules!" the hunter protested, as he tried to twist free.

"No! Iolaus, I just made a big mistake, but letting you go would be a worse one. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say what I did. It just came out. I've been so worried."

"So you said," Iolaus responded sarcastically.

"I've been searching everywhere for you. I wouldn't have done that if I didn't love you."

"L-Love me?" Iolaus questioned disbelievingly, unable to credit that the words, that he had long despaired of ever hearing, had actually been spoken.

Hercules had not meant to say it. He had loved the hunter for years, but had never expected the womanizing little blond would welcome such a confession. Indeed, he had always feared it would sound a death-knell for their friendship. "Yes ... I'm sorry."

"Why are you sorry?" the hunter asked bemused. His heart singing and he could not understand what the demigod could possibly be sorry about.

"I know you'll be embarrassed to hear it, but I promise I won't ever mention it again. You don't need to worry. I've loved you for years, Iolaus, and you know I'd never ... I'd never ..."

"Never what?"

"Never try to force myself on you."

"I know *you* wouldn't," Iolaus said, recalling Pyrois' assault.

The demigod had been completely focussed on the hunter or he might have failed to pick up the slight emphasis on the word 'you'. "Iolaus, has someone hurt you?" he asked, trying to keep his voice steady as the horrible suspicion struck him.

Iolaus laughed sourly, "I'd have thought that was obvious from just looking at me, Herc. Just about everybody I've met lately, starting with Maceus, seems to have had a go at me."

"No, I don't mean that," the demigod said quietly, wondering if he had misinterpreted the hunter and desperately hoping that he had.

"I-I know what you meant. Yeah, *that* happened too. Septus sold me to some slavers and one of them ... um ... took a fancy to me."

Hercules looked stricken. "And here I am telling you that I love you. I'm sorry, Iolaus," he apologized, "I guess there was never going to be a good time to tell you that, but I could hardly have picked a worse."

"No, Herc, this is a good time. I've always loved you, but I don't think I've ever needed you as much as I have lately." He gave an awkward laugh and added, "And I guess I've had enough of women after the hard time they seem to have been giving me recently."

The demigod tentatively held out a hand to him. Iolaus took it and allowed himself to be drawn into an embrace.

He snuggled against Hercules, burying his face in his chest. Then to the demigod's consternation, he began to sob brokenly.

Hercules sat down, lifted Iolaus onto his knee and held him until he had cried himself out. Then the hunter told him all that had happened to him.

The demigod listened with increasing fury. Uncharacteristically, he was ready to tear apart everyone who had wronged the hunter in any way.

For once it was the hunter who spoke against revenge. "No, Herc, Ogulnia is dead and I guess if Xena hadn't made me have that healer work on my arm I might be partially crippled. The slavers could be anywhere by now. I don't like Septus, but he genuinely believed I had attacked his daughter and so I understand why he acted as he did. So that only leaves Breanna and what could we do to her?"

"Confront her as a liar."

"Yeah, but I've still got no proof and I'd really rather not have to see her again."

"What do you want to do then?"

"I'd like to go on a long hunting trip away from everybody." He smiled and added, "And you can come if you promise to carry all the game, and do all the cooking and ..."

"And?" the demigod prompted, relieved to see how happy Iolaus seemed at the prospect of the trip.

The little blond grinned. "Show me how much you love me ... lots of times."

The End

E-mail the author c/o Nephele at [email protected]

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