Ponos

By Aramis

"Justice breeds justice, hurt breeds hurt" - Apostolius, VI, 9

This story contains references to and quotations from the episode "Mercenary"

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

Hercules was smiling as he entered the village of Amfiklia because he knew Iolaus would be waiting there for him, even though he was one day ahead of their planned rendezvous date.

He had spent the night in Levadhia and an old friend had told him that Iolaus had passed through there three days before. "He was really keen to meet up with you," Volesus said. "All he could talk about was your proposed hunting trip and how much he was looking forward to it."

"I can imagine," Hercules said, smiling fondly as he pictured the voluble little blond brimming over with his usual enthusiasm for hunting. "He's been nagging at me for weeks to take a vacation, but there has just been one crisis after another lately. You should have heard all the threats and promises he was making. He got to the stage where it seemed he'd do anything to persuade me to take a break. Mind you, he deserved one. We've had a tough six months and I'm afraid I tend to forget he's only mortal. Gods, half the time I wonder if I'm going to keep up with the pace he sets."

"Well, he certainly was setting a fast one as he passed through here. I suggested he spend an extra day here because he'd told me how far ahead of schedule he was, but there was no way he would do that. He was hoping you'd be early too so that you could start the holiday straight away."

"Well, I just hope it will be a holiday. He'll probably be dragging me through dense bush and up sheer mountainsides, following animal tracks that are completely invisible to anyone other than him. Then he'll load me up with the carcasses of various animals and expect me to lug the lot back to civilization. He has been cheeky enough to inform me on other occasions that as far as hunting is concerned my main use is as packhorse. From my experience of his hunting trips, I'll probably need a vacation to recover from this one."

However, in spite of this litany of woes both he and Volesus knew how much he was looking forward to rejoining his partner.

Thus, he entered Amfiklia in a state of happy anticipation, but that mood lasted all of two minutes.

"Hercules! Thank the gods you're here!" an elderly man exclaimed as he hurried towards the demigod.

"Why? What's the problem, Nigretes?" Hercules asked, looking with concern at the village headman.

Nigretes looked awkward. "Iolaus," he said.

"What do you mean? Has something happened to him?" The demigod's heart was in his mouth.

"No, I'm afraid *he* is the problem."

"What on earth do you mean?" Hercules demanded.

"Look, Hercules, I know he's your friend but ... but ..." His voice trailed off as he wondered how to proceed. He was also on friendly terms with the demigod, but was not sure that that would weigh in the balance against the man that everyone knew was closest to the demigod. Hercules had a reputation for being scrupulously fair and just, but would he take sides against Iolaus, a man that rumour had said he had crossed into Hades' realm to save from death?

"Nigretes, please just tell me what he's done. I know he can cause trouble at times."

"Come into my house and I will tell you about it."

Hercules followed him in. He greeted Leuci, Nigretes' wife, and she immediately demanded to know, in no uncertain terms, what he was going to do about Iolaus.

That earned her a rebuke from her husband and an instruction to fetch food and drink for the demigod while he explained the situation.

"Iolaus arrived here three days ago," he said. "Many of us know him and so were pleased to see him, but that didn't last long. He booked into the tavern and took up residence at the bar with three men and began to drink heavily. The others weren't locals. I assume they were just passing through. I'm not quite sure what happened next, but it appears one of the strangers jostled a local man, accidentally or not I can't say. Anyway a fight broke out and a free-for-all developed. Iolaus took the side of the strangers and several locals are nursing bad cuts and abrasions from his attack.

"Some of the elders and I went into the tavern and tried to calm things down. I won't repeat what Iolaus said, but the gist of it was that if we didn't remove ourselves we'd be the next to suffer a beating. A couple of the elders protested and he flung them out into the street.

"Well after that things went from bad to worse. Iolaus and his friends continued to drink, all without paying I should add, and anyone who attempted to remonstrate with them received short shrift. When they weren't in the tavern they were wandering around the street picking fights, damaging property and insulting the women. Most people were scared to come out of their houses."

"And where are Iolaus and his 'friends' now?"

"I'm not certain. They wandered out of the town a couple of hours ago. Hopefully they've moved on."

"I have to say I find all this very hard to credit, Nigretes. Yes, Iolaus likes his drink and he certainly gets into enough fights, but what you describe just isn't him."

"That's what I would have thought. We all would have had we not seen it with our own eyes."

"If what you say is true, I will make sure that Iolaus not only apologizes for his behaviour, but that he makes good the damage he has done."

"I'm sorry, Hercules, but it might not be as simple as that. For your sake I'll try to get the others to agree to it, but some of the villagers are really furious about what has happened. They'll expect him to at least be beaten and then displayed in the pillory for twenty-four hours as a warning to others for what he is done. Actually, if it wasn't for the fact that he is your friend he would probably be handed over to the provincial authorities for a term of imprisonment."

"That bad?"

"Yes, I'm sorry, but ..."

"It's not your fault, Nigretes. I can accept that, from what you've told me, Iolaus deserves some punishment. I'll have a look around the village to see just what he's done and then I'll go after him."

Hercules walked off, hoping against hope that the elderly man was exaggerating, but unfortunately there were all too many people prepared to back up what the headman had said and the damage in the tavern alone was only too evident. The more he heard and saw the more furious the demigod became.

The final straw came when a villager handed him Iolaus' knife, with a story of how the hunter had parted his hair with it when he dared to complain to him about the lewd comments the latter had made to his daughter. "He just threw it straight at me," the man recalled. "I thought I was a dead man, but the knife embedded itself in the wall just above my head."

"It's no excuse," the demigod said, "but if he'd intended to kill you he would have done so. He's an expert with that knife. I just can't understand why he didn't retrieve it though, as it's always meant a lot to him." It was the first knife that he and Iolaus had forged as boys and had always been one of the hunter's prized possessions.

"One of his drunken mates called out to him and I guess he got distracted," the man said.

Determined to find the hunter, Hercules dropped the knife into his bag and was just preparing to leave in search of him when a familiar voice called, "Hi, Herc!" and a broadly smiling hunter hurried towards him.

Iolaus was practically bouncing. He had had a very good day. It was not everyday a stranger offered free ale, and although he had not drunk a lot, it must have been strong stuff as he was feeling rather giggly. So, what with that and the prospect of a hunting trip with his best friend, he was practically bubbling with excitement.

The demigod stared at the little blond. He could not believe Iolaus' temerity in returning to the scene of his numerous crimes with an attitude apparently of sunny unconcern.

"I'm pleased you're early too," Iolaus enthused. "When can we start out?"

"We're not going anywhere, Iolaus," the demigod said grimly.

"N-Not going?" Iolaus' face fell. "Why not? Herc, you promised."

"So I did, but you've got a lot of work to do here."

"Work? Why?"

"I've promised you're going to make good all the damage you've caused."

"Damage? What damage? I've only just got here."

"Iolaus, you have been here three days."

"No, I haven't!" Iolaus protested. "I only left Levadhia this morning."

"Iolaus, stop lying!"

"I did! I was with Volesus. You ask him. He'll tell you."

"He did."

"Well, you know then. Stop kidding about, Herc. You had me worried for a moment. I thought you were serious."

"Iolaus, he told me you had been there, but you left three days ago."

"He's lying! I don't know why, but he *is*."

"And I suppose all the people here are also lying about you being here."

"Yes!" He saw Hercules' frown deepening. "Well, they *must* be because I've only just arrived."

"I think we had better go into the inn. I believe you have a room there ... not that you've paid for it."

"NO!" Iolaus was confused. Obviously Hercules and the villagers had all run mad and he wasn't going to go into the inn as that would be like admitting he did have a room there.

"Do as you're told!" Hercules snapped, advancing on him menacingly.

Iolaus started to back up. "No, I don't know what's wrong with everyone, but ..."

That was as far as he got. A large hand shot out and grabbed his vest jerking him forward. The hunter tried to wriggle out of the garment, but the other hand fixed on his right wrist like an iron clamp. Hercules then turned on his heel and dragged the blond after him.

Iolaus tried to dig his heels in, but could not halt his inexorable progress. Hercules' hand was locked so tightly around his wrist that it had almost stopped the flow of blood and Iolaus could feel his fingers growing numb. "Herc, please!" he protested, trying in vain to break the brutal grip.

Hercules pushed the door of the room open and pulled the hunter inside. Then he turned to face him. "Right, now let's have some honesty."

"I am telling the truth. I don't know what in Tartarus you're going on about, Hercules, but if it's some sort of a joke it's not bloody funny."

"Iolaus!" Hercules growled warningly, glaring at the little blond.

Most people would have retreated if a demigod had turned that look upon them, but the hunter stood his ground and waited to see what was coming next.

"Well?" Hercules demanded.

"Well what?" Iolaus retorted.

"I'm waiting for your explanation."

"For what? If you don't tell me what I'm supposed to have done what can I say?"

"Look, Iolaus, they say you were drunk. That doesn't excuse your behaviour, but I still want to hear your version."

"My version? I haven't got a damn version. I only just got here. It's taken me all day to walk from Levadhia."

"Iolaus, I've already told you that I know that's a lie. You left there three days ago."

"I didn't!"

"You did! Volesus had no reason to lie about it and everyone here can testify how long you were here."

"And just what have I supposedly been doing here?"

"You *must* remember some of what you've done."

"I don't because I WASN'T BLOODY WELL HERE!"

Hercules sighed in exasperation. He had expected shame not barefaced lies from his friend. "I'll tell you then. Not only did you and your three so-called friends get rolling drunk, you terrorized the villagers and caused considerable damage, particularly to the inn."

"No, I didn't!"

"And you are now going to apologize, make good that damage and, if necessary, you are going to submit to their planned punishment."

"NO, I'M NOT!"

"Yes, you are and shouting at me isn't going to change things."

Iolaus tried to swallow his anger. He didn't know what was going on, but surely Hercules could not take these liars' words against his. With an effort he lowered his voice and said, "Normally I would help people who have had their property wrecked, you *know* I would. However, since they are making up these stupid lies I'll be damned if I will and there's no way I'm going to apologize for something I didn't do."

"Iolaus, if you don't I'm going to have to punish you as well as letting them do so."

"Even if those villagers are telling the truth, and they're not, why the hell should you do anything to me? I haven't done anything to you."

"Apart from hurting me with your barefaced lies, you will have put me to a lot of work and expense by the time I've made good the damage you've caused." He looked at the hunter's pale face and affection led him to try yet again, "Look, Iolaus, they said you were drunk. I've told you time and again drink will get you into trouble and now it has. Why can't you just admit ..."

"I *haven't* been drinking!" the little blond insisted.

"Iolaus, I can smell alcohol on you even now and your vest is damp with it."

"Yeah, but that's different."

"How is it different?"

"I met an old man just outside town. He was sitting by the road having a drink. He offered me some and I had one with him. *One* little drink that's all."

"Iolaus, you reek of alcohol."

"The old guy was a bit tipsy. He managed to spill the first mug on me."

"Iolaus, I can't remember anyone sitting by the road offering strangers alcohol during any of our journeys. It seems rather an odd thing doesn't it that that should happen when you've just been accused of being blind drunk."

"Well, it *did* happen. You go and ask the old man. He was only about ten minutes walk out of town. He's probably still there."

"I might, but I don't think I need to. I can prove you've been here. Give me your knife." He held out his hand.

"Huh? Why?"

"Just give it to me."

"If I must." He reached for it and pulled it from its sheath. Even as he did so he realized it didn't feel right. "It-It's not m-my knife," he stammered, staring down at it. Sure it was a similar weight and size, but it was definitely not the one that he and Hercules had forged as boys.

"No, but this is." Hercules bent down and picked up his carry-bag and opened it to reveal the knife.

"How did you get it?"

"The villager you threw it at gave it to me."

"I didn't throw it at anybody. I didn't even realize it had gone. Someone must have switched knives on me."

"Yeah, someone who just happened to look and dress exactly like you," Hercules observed sarcastically.

"Herc, this is all a pack of lies. Can't you see that? Surely you know me better than this," Iolaus appealed.

"I'm sorry, Iolaus, that won't work. I know you often get into fights when you've been drinking, and since I wasn't here to stop you, it seems you got carried away. Be reasonable. If you apologize and help me repair the damage perhaps they might forgo beating you. Now, I want you to come with me and do that."

"I'm never going to admit to something I didn't do, so you can just get stuf ..."

"IOLAUS!" The demigod grasped him by the vest and shook him hard.

"Let me go, you bastard!" Even as the word left his mouth he tried to bite it back, knowing how sensitive the demigod was about that particular expression. "Herc, I'm sorry, I didn't mean ..." he started, but Hercules did not hear him.

A red mist of intense anger seemed to fog Hercules' mind. "ENOUGH!" the demigod roared. He started to unbuckle his belt. "Drop your pants," he ordered.

Iolaus stared at him, open-mouthed, unable to credit the instruction. "Wh-What?" he faltered, certain he must have misheard. Hercules' expression though was anything but reassuring. His face was stony and around his mouth a rim of white betokened his grim fury.

"Hurry up! A few strokes of my belt might sober you into realizing what the villagers have got in store for you if you don't start to co-operate."

"Y-You'd hit me?" Iolaus asked incredulously, the blood draining from his face.

"If it's the only way to bring you to your senses, yes, I would. Now drop your pants."

The hunter reflected ruefully on all the years that he had longed for Hercules to order him to strip, but not like this. "No! Damn you, Herc, this isn't fair!"

As he spoke, he dived for the door, but Hercules grabbed him around the waist and swung him back into the room, dropping him on his back on the bed. "Do as you're told!"

"No!" He twisted and rolled across the bed and onto the floor, but the demigod dived after him.

A furious struggle ensued, with a desperate Iolaus punching and kicking Somehow, Hercules managed to stop himself retaliating until the hunter sank his teeth into his forearm. At that, the demigod cursed, pulled his arm away and slapped Iolaus across the face, splitting his lip.

Stunned, the blond stopped his struggles and in that moment of respite, the demigod managed to grab his wrists and to secure them to the headboard with one of the hunter's own belts. Then he dragged the blond's pants down, flipped him onto his stomach and laid the belt across his buttocks.

A dozen strokes later, Iolaus' creamy arse was bruised and bleeding. The belt descended again and he could no longer stifle a cry of pain.

The cry penetrated the mist of fury and Hercules lowered the strap and looked appalled at the results of his anger. How could he have hit his best friend?

"Iolaus, I didn't ... I didn't ..." he started, but at that moment there was a knock on the door. "Who is it?"

"It's Nigretes. I'm sorry, Hercules, we've come to collect Iolaus. He's to be imprisoned over night and he'll be whipped tomorrow."

"I'll bring him out." He turned back to the hunter and released him.

Iolaus climbed awkwardly off the bed and pulled his leathers up wincing as he did so. He kept his head down and did not say a word. In truth, his biggest fear was that he might disgrace himself by weeping. Sure he had suffered far worse beatings from his father, but none had hurt like the one he had just endured. How could the one person that he loved and trusted unconditionally, and who he had thought loved him too, have treated him so? He felt like his heart had been ripped from his breast and crushed. It did not matter what the villagers did to him now. They could not hurt him more than the demigod had.

He limped to the door and joined the small group of villagers waiting there.

Hercules sat dejectedly in his room wondering why in Tartarus it was so hard to do the right thing. He could not help but recall a similar experience he had had with the mercenary Derk, who had assassinated a public official. Through their time on the island, combating both pirates and sand sharks, he had developed a gradual grudging respect and liking for the man. He had then had to watch Derk's reunion with his loving wife and had met his children. In spite of all that, in the name of justice, he had still taken Derk to the magistrate, Marcus. To his horror, Marcus immediately condemned him to death, announcing he had been tried and found guilty in absentia, and dismissing the demigod's protests. He could vividly recall the words spoken:

Marcus: This is Spartan law. You do believe in the law don't you?

Hercules: I believe in justice.

Marcus: Mmmmmm. Justice. <laughs> [Starts to leave]

Hercules: Wait a minute!

Derk: Save your breath. The Spartans have their own kind of justice.

Hercules: But it's not right.

Derk: Neither was what I did.

But how did this apply in this case? For one thing, Derk had not denied his actions, whereas Iolaus refused to take responsibility for his. Further, Derk's life had been at stake, whereas Iolaus faced no more than a whipping and the humiliation of a few hours in the pillory. The villagers were not, as Nigretes had pointed out, exacting the full penalty for his misdeeds. Unlike Marcus, who had been hostile towards Derk, Nigretes and the others were trying their best to be fair to Iolaus, even though all knew he was guilty having seen him with their own eyes.


That night, Hercules sat in the tavern, head down staring unhappily at his tankard of ale. He had rarely felt so depressed. 'Why in Tartarus does Iolaus do these things?' he wondered. 'Why can't he grow-up and act more sensibly?'

He started as he felt a hand settle on his shoulder. "Hello, Hercules," a cheery voice said, "it looks like you could do with some company."

"Hello, Autolycus. I'm afraid I'm not much in the mood for socialising."

"Why? What's wrong? Has Blondie been causing trouble?" the self-styled King of Thieves asked. Actually, although he had only arrived in the village a few minutes earlier, he already knew the basic story. Believing that it was always best in his profession to keep his ear to the ground, so as to be able to take advantage of any opportunities that presented themselves, he was always quick to seek out the local gossip on arrival at any new place. In this case, people were only too happy to talk as the subject was on everyone's mind.

What Autolycus had heard had horrified him. He could believe that the contumacious hunter had caused trouble, but it was hard to credit that he had acted with an uncharacteristic viciousness. However, whatever he had done, Autolycus could not stand the thought of him being beaten.

Autolycus had always enjoyed teasing the hunter, but if the truth was known, which he thanked the gods it was not, this was really a protective device to conceal just how much the little blond attracted him. Now all he could see was Iolaus' beautiful, satin skin marred by the lashes of a whip.

He could not credit that the demigod was going to allow that to happen. Yet here he was, sitting morosely drinking, instead of doing something to help his friend.

Unsure how to broach the subject, Autolycus had decided to pretend ignorance of events and wait to hear what the demigod had to say about the situation, and hence his supposedly jocular question.

Hercules stared at him in amazement. "What makes you think that?"

"Professional secret." The thief preened as he spoke. "Anyway, I know how troublesome Blondie can be. Remember how he got me into trouble with Ares over turning Discord into a chicken and we ended up with those huge teeth and feet?"

Hercules recalled the incident only too well. He knew that Autolycus was certainly not blameless, but did not feel up to arguing the point and was in no mood to defend Iolaus, so he merely nodded.

"So what's going to happen?"

"The locals are going to give him a whipping."

"Are you going to let them?" Autolycus questioned aghast.

"Yes."

The monosyllabic reply nettled the thief. "Why? You *can't* just stand back and watch it happen."

"I don't know if I'll watch at all."

"That's not what I mean. Surely you're not going to let them beat him. I thought he was your best friend."

"That's the point."

"So you're going to help him then?"

"No, don't you understand, Autolycus? It's *because* he's my friend that I have to let this happen."

"Huh? Run that by me again."

"Auto, I base my life around helping people to get justice."

"So?"

"How can I ignore a crime just because someone close to me commits it? It undermines everything I believe in."

"But, Hercules ..."

"No, Auto, and this isn't the first time I've had to do this sort of thing. There was a man called Derk who ..."

Autolycus interrupted with, "But this is Iolaus."

"So it's all the more important that I stick to my principles, as people know he's my best friend."

"Will he still be after this?"

"Yes! ... I h-hope so. Damn it, Auto! It *isn't* easy! The thought of him ... of him..." He broke off suddenly. To his horror, he had found himself on the verge of telling the King of Thieves exactly how much the hunter meant to him. Sure Autolycus knew Iolaus was his best friend, but the demigod hoped he had never suspected that his love for Iolaus went much deeper than that. He had actually hoped to steel himself sufficiently during their hunting trip to tell Iolaus how he felt, but now that was not going to happen.

Realizing that Autolycus was looking at him rather oddly, he blurted, "He has brought this all on himself!"

"Are you sure of that?"

"No doubt! It was definitely him. We're both well known in this village. Anyway, one man even had Iolaus' knife that he threw at him."

"Iolaus missed?" Autolycus asked disbelievingly.

"He must have intended to do so. He's *not* a murderer, whatever else he is."

"And there's no way the villages are going to give up on the whipping?"

"No. If he'd been willing to apologise and help me make good the damage, maybe then, but he *won't* admit to anything. That's the hardest thing of all. I'd have staked my life on his honesty."

"So what's changed?"

"I don't know. I wish I did. I've tried to talk him around. Gods, I've even beat-" He broke off suddenly.

"You've what?" an appalled Autolycus demanded.

"Nothing."

"Hercules, you haven't beaten him yourself, have you?"

Hercules looked shamefaced. "I know I shouldn't have, but he got me so mad with his lies. Anyway, it was only a few strokes with his belt. He's had far worse from his father on many occasions."

"But you're not his father. Hercules, he loves and trusts you. How could you?"

"I didn't intend to. It just happened. Look, Auto, I feel guilty enough about that without you adding to it."

"Someone has to try to talk sense to you."

Hercules sighed and said, "If it will make you happy, I'll go and see Iolaus again first thing in the morning and see if I can find out anything that can help him."

"Thank you."


Meanwhile the object of the discussion was lying in the cellar of one of the local's homes, as the small village had no actual cell. It was cold, clammy and claustrophobic. The hunter was sitting against one earthen wall, shivering and sobbing. Now that there was no one to observe him, he had finally given in to his upset.

He had been so looking forward to his reunion with the demigod and for the life of him could not understand how the one person he loved unconditionally could treat him so badly and for no reason. From the moment he had met the boy Hercules, he had handed his vulnerable heart into the demigod's keeping and had trusted him with his life and soul. Now he felt absolutely shattered at Hercules' betrayal of this trust.

He passed a largely sleepless night and was feeling wretched when morning came.

He heard a scrapping noise and knew the trapdoor was being raised. He expected it would be the villagers come for him, but to his surprise, Hercules swung down beside him.

The demigod's heart contracted as he looked at his friend. Iolaus looked dreadful. His face was bone white and his eyes were red. Hercules knew he had been weeping.

"Wh-What are you doing here?"

"Please, Iolaus, can't we talk? I *hate* what's happening here."

"Stop it then."

"Iolaus, you know I can't interfere with justice."

"But this *isn't* justice."

"Iolaus, I want to believe you, but you haven't given me anything to prove to me that it's wrong."

Iolaus looked Hercules straight in the eye and said, "You know, Herc, if you told me something and all the world said you were lying I'd still take your word. Why can't you believe me?"

"Iolaus, there's too much evidence against you. Look at the case. Volesus said you left Levadhia on the seventeenth and ..."

"That's right, I *did*."

"Well, what did you do before coming here then?"

"Nothing! I came straight here."

"But, Iolaus, it's only a day's walk," the demigod protested.

"Yeah, that's all," the hunter agreed.

"Iolaus, today is ..."

"The eighteenth and I got here late yesterday afternoon, the seventeenth."

"It's not the eighteenth. It's the twenty-first."

Iolaus' jaw dropped. "What??? It can't be!"

"It is. Iolaus, how could you drink so much you don't even know what day it is? Don't you realise how you can hurt yourself and others in such a disgraceful condition?"

"I *didn't*."

"Well, what other explanation can there possibly be?"

"I-I don't know, but ... but I *didn't*. I wouldn't act like that."

"Iolaus, if I had a dinar for every fight I've pulled you out of in taverns I'd be rich."

"Yeah, fights, but this wasn't ... what people are saying isn't ... Herc, I *don't* act like that, you *know* I don't."

"I thought you didn't, but it seems I was wrong."

"No, you *weren't*."

"Well, how can you explain those missing days then?"

Iolaus hung his head, hiding his face beneath the mop of disheveled golden curls. "I can't," he muttered.

Looking at him, Hercules had to fight an urge to gather him into his arms. The visit had been a mistake. It had solved nothing and had just hurt them both more. "I can't help you then," he gritted, blinking back threatening tears. Without another word he ascended the rope ladder.

As he walked swiftly away, his thoughts drifted back to his experiences with the mercenary, Derk. An arrow had cut the rope that was to have hanged the man and he had escaped. Hercules had intercepted him in the woods.

Derk: Don't you ever give up? I suppose you've come to take me back again.

Hercules: That was my arrow.

Derk: Why?

Hercules: What was happening to you - it wasn't justice.

It would be so easy for him to take the law into his own hands again. Indeed, his father's side of the family would all consider him a fool if he did not and he knew many of his friends would think the same. But the cases were not the same. Derk had been in a life or death situation and Iolaus was not. Further, Derk had repented and had agreed to leave his mercenary days behind him, whereas the hunter was still stubbornly denying his obvious guilt.

No, to free Iolaus would be to indulge himself and would only convince the little blond that Hercules would condone anything he wanted to do. The hunter had to take responsibility for what he had done and the price was not that heavy ... he hoped. He dared not dwell on what this would do to their friendship, but just hoped the shock of the punishment would be enough to return Iolaus to his senses and that he would forgive.

Half an hour or so later, the villagers brought Iolaus out to the whipping post. Iolaus looked around for Hercules and locked eyes with him. His beautiful blue eyes were reproachful and the demigod was forced to lower his gaze.

The men stripped the blond of his vest and secured his wrists to the post. Iolaus tensed and waited for the lash to fall. He was determined that he was not going to make a sound no matter how many strokes they gave him.

The headman nodded and the beating began. One ... Two ... Three ...

Hercules forced himself to watch the punishment, though his stomach lurched and he winced visibly at every stroke.

Autolycus could not bear to see the hunter scourged and so he watched the demigod instead, willing him to intervene but to no avail. He observed the demigod's tension, as evidenced by his bone-white face and tightly clenched fists, and could not understand how Hercules could keep such iron control when he was clearly so upset.

... Nineteen ... Twenty.

Nigretes raised a hand and it was over. Two men moved to cut Iolaus free.

The blond raised his head. He had bitten through his lip while stifling any cry and blood was running down his chin. "I didn't do anything," Iolaus gasped. "I didn't!"

The two men took him to the pillory and closed it over his head and wrists. For the next twenty-four hours, he would be displayed as a warning to anyone else considering offending in the village.

Autolycus turned to the demigod. "He's been punished enough. Don't let them do this," he begged.

"I have to." He turned away and headed towards the tavern.

Autolycus went to Nigretes, but the old man stood firm and would not consider forgoing that part of the penalty. "Can I treat his back then?"

"Tomorrow. Nobody must approach him before then as it is part of his punishment"

The day seemed interminable for hunter, demigod and thief alike.

Iolaus ' back was aching fiercely and he was desperate for a drink of water, having had nothing since the old man had shared his ale. However, above all, he suffered from his bitter thoughts about Hercules' betrayal. He knew the demigod's reasons, but he also knew had their situations been reversed he could never have stood by and let Hercules be condemned. 'I suppose I should just accept that I'm never going to be as important to him as he is to me,' he thought sadly. 'Anyway I guess that doesn't matter now as our friendship's over.'

Hercules sat in his room going over and over what had happened in his head. He was very distressed and also suffering pangs of guilt at having had to stand back and let Iolaus suffer. Yet he was still unable to see any other honourable course of action that he could have taken. 'He'll never forgive me for this,' he thought, 'and I guess I can't blame him.'

Autolycus spent the day wandering fruitlessly around the village, asking questions of anyone who was prepared to talk and trying to find some other explanation for what had happened that could prove the hunter's innocence. Even though the whipping had been administered, he hoped he could at least find some way to clear Iolaus' name and thus obtain his freedom from the pillory. However, all the villagers agreed that Iolaus was guilty, though some admitted they would never have credited it had they not witnessed events themselves.

Finally night fell. Autolycus waited until all lights were out and then cat-footed out of his room and glided silently through the inn and out into the street. Having been unable to go to Iolaus during the day, he now was determined to offer what comfort he could under cover of darkness.

He flitted swiftly and silently along the dark street.

Meanwhile, the hunter had at last fallen into a fitful doze. He jerked awake when a hand touched his face. "Evening, Iolaus," a voice sneered.

"Strife! What do you want?"

"Well, originally I thought I'd just stop by to wish you a pleasant evening after this most entertaining of days, but now I'm starting to have second thoughts. The position I find you in has some definite possibilities." As he spoke, he circled the hunter. "Yes, definite possibilities," he murmured, running a finger across the small of Iolaus' back, just above the waistband of his trousers.

Iolaus shuddered involuntarily. "Damn you, Strife. Leave me alone."

"But you smell so delicious. Sweat and blood! Such a heady combination and you're so delightfully vulnerable like this." He moved around to face the little blond once more. "Anyway, I thought you might be looking for a little affection after all that's happened. You know I'm always at your service," he added with lascivious emphasis.

Trying to divert his attention and hoping his voice sounded steady, Iolaus asked, "What do you know about what's been going on here? Did you cause all this?"

"Me? How could you ask such a thing?" the God of Mischief asked, in a far too innocent voice that was not meant to be convincing. "I wasn't here. No, Blondie, it was all *your* doing." With that he shimmered and transformed into a replica of the hunter. "See?" he gloated, using his own voice.

'See' was right, only Strife had a larger audience than he realized. A horrified Autolycus watching from the shadows was desperately trying to decide what to do.

His well-developed sense of self-preservation was shouting at him to go back to his room and to pretend that he had seen nothing. It never paid to meddle with the gods and he imagined Strife could be particularly vindictive to those who crossed him.

But Strife's current victim was Iolaus, the scruffy, little blond, who had unwittingly wormed his way into the thief's heart, in a way that countless women had never managed despite their best efforts. How could he leave the hunter?

Still debating his best course of action, he heard the godling say with sweet insincerity, "Of course, I never imagined my little games would cause you all these problems. You must let me make it up to you." As he spoke, he started to unbuckle the hunter's belts.

Iolaus swore at him and kicked out awkwardly, but Strife laughed and deftly evaded the boot. He waved a casual hand and Iolaus' belts dropped to the ground and his codpiece gaped open.

Retaining his assumed guise, he circled behind the hunter, wrapping one arm around his waist to hold him steady and inserting his other hand into Iolaus' fly to fondle him roughly.

Before Autolycus knew what he was doing, he found he had drawn his sword and stepped out to challenge the god. "Get away from him!" he ordered.

Strife started and looked up. "Why Autolycus," he murmured appreciatively, moving towards him.

"Y-You know me?" For all he preened himself about his fame among mortals, Autolycus did not relish coming to the notice of the gods.

"Of course I know of the King of Thieves," Strife purred, smiling beguilingly with Iolaus' beautiful face, "but I'd like to get to know him better."

The thief stood there almost mesmerized as 'Iolaus' glided towards him, his body swaying seductively. The sight was one that Autolycus had only dreamed of. 'It's Strife,' he told himself desperately. 'I mustn't let him near me.'

He tried to keep his guard up, but how wrong it felt to try to fend off the beautiful golden hunter. The thought flashed through his mind that this might be as close as he would ever get to the real thing. The tip of his sword started to lower.

"No! Auto! Run! Don't let him near you!" Iolaus warned urgently.

The sound of his voice helped snap the thief out of his trance-like state. He started backing up, though he knew that the God of Mischief could use his powers to stop him in an instant if he so chose.

However, Strife was enjoying himself too much for that. He continued to move towards the thief, his face aglow with a blazing smile of blatant invitation.

Meanwhile, the demigod, also unable to sleep, had decided to go to see whether Autolycus was experiencing a similarly sleepless night. He was resolved not to weaken and go to Iolaus, but he desperately needed to talk to someone. He padded quietly to the thief's room, only to find it empty.

He supposed he should have anticipated that because he knew how concerned Autolycus had been for the hunter. He only hoped he had not gone to free the little blond. All the demigod wanted was for Iolaus to complete his designated punishment so they could leave and he could start trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered friendship. He definitely did not want to find himself in the position of having to locate a fleeing hunter to return him to complete his sentence.

Hoping to forestall this, he hurried outside and moved quickly along the street. Then, to his annoyance, he saw that Autolycus had indeed freed Iolaus, but for the life of him he could not figure what was going on. The King of Thieves was backing away from the hunter, sword held protectively in front of him.

At that moment, he heard Iolaus' desperate appeal to Autolycus to run and realized that there was a second Iolaus in the pillory. A second Iolaus? The demigod stopped stock-still and stared in confusion.

"Don't you want me, Autolycus?" the first Iolaus asked, holding out his arms.

"No, get away from me!" Autolycus insisted backing up until he was up against the wall of a house and could go no further.

"It's me you want! Leave him alone, Strife!" Iolaus shouted.

'Strife? I should have known one of my relatives would be involved in this,' Hercules thought. "THAT'S ENOUGH!" he shouted.

The God of Mischief turned and smirked at him with Iolaus' face. "Why, Hercules, are you still mad at me? I have been punished you know."

"Stop it, Strife! I know you're not Iolaus. Why can't you stay out of my life?"

"It all comes back to you, doesn't it? You're being very self-centred as usual. I thought it was Blondie's life I was spicing up," Strife retorted, deliberately stirring up yet more trouble.

"You know very well that if you hurt him you hurt me."

"Do I? Oh dear, how sad."

Hercules' acute hearing made him aware of slight noises around the village. Clearly people had been woken. Perhaps something could be salvaged from the whole disaster. At least he could clear Iolaus' name. Accordingly he said, "So it was you impersonating Iolaus all along, was it?"

"You've got it! As dear, old Uncle Ares says, you're a tad slow, but you usually get there in the end."

Ignoring the provocative comment, the demigod asked, "How did you handle the time factor? I didn't think you had the power to interfere with time."

"Who needs power when you've got talent and brains? My little, old man act snagged Blondie and one of my little potions gave him days of refreshing sleep while I enjoyed myself as him. You should have seen how I gulled those stupid villagers! Proteus has got nothing on me," he boasted.

"Maybe, but now it's time to pay for your fun," Hercules announced, lunging for him.

Strife twisted aside, easily evading him. "No way! I'd like to stay and play, but I expect Uncle Ares will be waiting to hear about my latest exploit. I'm sure a visit from his favourite nephew will brighten the old fellow's day." He shimmered and vanished.

The villagers slowly began to emerge from their homes. Nigretes hurried to free Iolaus apologizing profusely, but the hunter was in no mood to be gracious.

He turned away from the headman, surreptitiously adjusting his clothing, and then stalked off down the street.

He would have preferred to leave directly, but knew it would be foolish to abandon his sword and carry-bag. Correctly anticipating these items would be in the demigod's room, he stormed along to the tavern, shouted for the landlord and demanded to be shown to the room.

Hercules and Autolycus locked gazes. "Go after him, Hercules!" Autolycus urged. "You can't let him leave like this and you'll never find him if he makes the woods."

The demigod obeyed, but feared the reception he was going to get. He reached the door of the room just as the hunter was about to leave. "Iolaus, please ..." he started, but the hunter cut him off.

"Get out of my way, Hercules. I've got nothing to say to you."

"Iolaus, we have to talk."

"I don't *have* to do anything. I've just spent the day being forced to do what you wanted and I've had enough. Now stand aside."

"No, Iolaus, we've got to talk."

"And what if I don't want to? Are you going to beat me again?"

"Of course not! I never meant that to happen. You just pushed me too far."

"So it was my fault was it? Strife was right! You're absolutely self-centred."

"Don't quote him to me!"

"Why not? Truth hurts, does it? You always want everything your way."

"That's not true."

"Oh, I'm being *unjust*, am I? And you know all about justice, don't you?" he commented sarcastically.

That shot went home. "I'm sorry," Hercules said, his voice barely above a whisper and he stood aside.

The little blond walked past him and out of the inn without a backward glance. He headed for the woods. He had no destination in mind, but just wanted to put as many miles between himself and the demigod as he could.

A watching Autolycus hurried to Hercules. "What happened?"

"I've lost him, Auto, he wouldn't listen."

The thief had never seen the demigod so distressed. The kind heart, that he always tried to deny he possessed, took control. "Hercules, wait here. Let me try talking to him." Without waiting for a response, he hurried after Iolaus, concerned lest the hunter get too far ahead and elude him.

In spite of Iolaus' emotional turmoil, he had not completely lost his hunting instincts and had gone barely half a mile when he realized he was being followed.

He stopped and listened. He knew it could not be Hercules. The big man would have been blundering noisily through the undergrowth in the dark. His pursuer was clearly adept at moving quietly or Iolaus would have picked up his presence much sooner. It had to be the King of Thieves.

"What do you want, Autolycus?" he demanded in exasperation.

"I want to talk to you about Hercules."

"I don't want to talk about him."

"I guess I'll just have to tag along until you change your mind then."

Iolaus sighed. He didn't want that. Further, he was aware that had Autolycus not turned up to distract Strife, he would have been assaulted, so he owed the thief something. "All right, say what you've come to say and then go."

"You're not being fair on Hercules. You know he was just trying to obey the law."

"You? Speaking for the law?" Iolaus exclaimed incredulously. "I don't know how a thief has the nerve to do that."

"I'm talking about Hercules, not me. People trust him to do what's right."

"Yeah, like I trusted him."

"Iolaus, he was devastated at having to let them punish you."

"What about how I felt?"

"I know you were hurt, but you should have seen his face when they were whipping you. He felt every blow. It was ripping him apart. It *couldn't* have hurt you more than it hurt him."

"Yes, it could. I'm not talking about being whipped. That wasn't pleasant, but I've had worse. What hurt me is that he didn't believe me."

"He wanted to. He talked to everyone in the village trying to find some way to prove your innocence. I know. I tried it too and they all told me he had spoken to them and how upset he was."

"I would have believed him if he'd been in my shoes without a moment's hesitation. I wouldn't have needed proof."

"That's because you know what a good person he is and you love him."

He half expected Iolaus to deny the second comment, but the hunter just nodded and said sadly, "But he doesn't love me."

"Of course he does! But he doesn't love blindly. He knows you're not perfect and loves you anyway."

"Yeah, well he's not perfect either, but he seems to think he is."

"I doubt that he's ever claimed that. Anyway, as far as what you were accused of is concerned, can you honestly say that you've never got drunk and caused trouble?"

"No, but ..."

"So it's not completely surprising that Hercules might think you had done so again?"

"I suppose not," Iolaus muttered grudgingly, "but it was just the odd fight, nothing like what Strife did."

"And how does Hercules usually react when you do get into fights?"

"He gets mad and lectures me."

"Nothing else?"

"He always comes to my aid," Iolaus admitted.

"Be specific."

"Do I have to?"

"Yes."

"Well, he gets me out of the fight and tends to my wounds and puts me to bed if necessary."

"So he does what he can to help?"

"Yes, but this time ..."

The King of Thieves interrupted firmly, "As usual, he did what he could. Anyway, what about what you're doing now?"

"Huh?"

"Where are you going?"

"Away from Herc."

"And that will make you happier, will it?"

"Yes! ... Maybe ... I don't know."

"Like Diogenianus says, 'Take care you don't run from the ashes and fall into the coals'." (1)

"Huh? What's he know about anything?"

"More than you think. He also wrote, 'Listen to what comes from the heart'. (2) You love Hercules or his disbelief could not have hurt you so much. And where do you think you can find anyone that loves you more than Hercules does?" As he said it, he had to suppress the urge to add 'apart from me'. "Well?"

Iolaus bit his lip. Autolycus was right. No one ever had or ever would mean more to him than Hercules did. Further, he knew there had never been anyone else who cared for him like the demigod, even though the sexual love he had long craved had not been forthcoming.

"Well?" the thief persisted.

"I don't know," he admitted.

"Will you come back with me and talk to him?"

The hunter nodded.

As they neared the village, he felt some apprehension about what was to come. "What should I say to him?" he asked the thief.

"Remember what Diogenianus said about listening to what comes from the heart?"

"Yes."

"Well, try speaking it too."

The hunter nodded. He tapped lightly on the door of Hercules' room.

The demigod heard the knock and moved dejectedly towards the door, fully anticipating that it would be Autolycus come to tell him that Iolaus was gone.

He opened the door and when he saw who it was on the threshold, his whole face lit up with joy.

Iolaus could not believe the infinite love he saw he the demigod's face. Then, to add to his amazement, he saw tears starting to slide down Hercules' cheeks. He raised a wondering hand to the demigod's damp face.

Hercules took that hand gently and pressed it to his lips. "I thought I'd lost you," he whispered.

Iolaus felt his own tears welling up. "You're not that lucky," he managed in an attempt to lighten the situation. He laughed a trifle unsteadily and smiled crookedly at the demigod.

Watching that beautifully sculpted mouth, Hercules found his heart was singing even as the tears sparkled on his lashes. The glow in his eyes became a positive flame. He opened his arms and the hunter melted into them, clinging tightly.

Hercules leaned down, burying his face in the mass of disheveled golden curls. His heart was thudding so violently he thought it was going to burst from his breast.

Iolaus raised his face and their lips met, tentatively at first and then with growing passion. Finally, the need to breathe forced them to part.

Iolaus whispered huskily, "I think we'd better go into the room, Herc. This is a trifle public for what I hope you're going to do to me."

The demigod leaned down, cupped his buttocks and lifted him into his arms. "Good idea, my love," he agreed, "though I'm so happy at the moment I don't really care who sees us."

As the door clicked shut behind them, Autolycus emerged from the shadows. 'What's wrong with you, Autolycus?' he mentally chided himself. 'For a man who prides himself on seizing the main chance, you really mucked up. You had the best chance you'll probably ever have with Blondie and you gave him back to Hercules on a plate.

'Mind you, I can't understand how anyone could prefer a mere demigod over the King of Thieves. I guess there's no justice in this world.'

The End

 

(1) Diogenianus, VI, 68. Equivalent to our saying 'Out of the frying pan, into the fire' (back)

(2) Ibid, II, 59 (back)

For anyone wondering about the title, the word "Ponos" means pain.

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

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