By Aramis

A Sequel to Out Into The Daylight. Set after "The Unchained Heart" and before "The Lost City"

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

It was early on a fine morning in May. Hercules rolled over and looked at Iolaus. The blond was lying on his side facing away from the demigod. All Hercules could see was a tousled mop of golden curls and an expanse of smooth skinned, muscular back. He ran a gentle hand down the hunter's backbone. At first there was no response but, when he reached the hunter's buttocks, the blond pulled away. "Are you still sulking?" Hercules asked.

"No! Anyway I'm allowed to sulk if I want to."

"I'd have thought you'd have got over it by now."

"Got over what? Being embarrassed in front of all those people in the bar or being forced?"

"What do you mean *forced*?" Hercules asked, indignantly. "Don't be ridiculous! I didn't force you."

"Yes, you did! I didn't want you last night."

"Your body said differently."

"Well, *it* might have, but *I* didn't want you and I *still* don't."

Hercules lay back and thought about what had happened. They'd been downstairs in the bar and Iolaus had been flirting with a very attractive serving wench. The more the hunter drank, the more outrageous he had become in his attentions and Acalle had given as good as she'd got. Exasperated beyond belief at this behavior, Hercules had done something that he'd come close to doing in the past, but had always managed to stop himself from doing. He made a very public and completely unambiguous claim to his 'property', designed to let Iolaus, Acalle and any other interested parties know that such behaviour was *not* going to be tolerated any more. He'd stalked over to the hunter, grabbed him, flung him over one shoulder, one hand between Iolaus' legs proprietarily grasping his buttocks, and had stormed upstairs.

Once in the room, he had flung a protesting hunter onto the bed and had landed on top of him, pinning him down and stopping his complaints with bruising kisses. Iolaus had tried to push him off, but he was too heavy. He had then sat up, straddling Iolaus' thighs, seized the blond's wrists in one hand and proceeded to undress him with the other. Iolaus had struggled and even sworn at him, but his exploring hand had caused Iolaus to harden and eventually to ejaculate. He then lay quiescent while Hercules took him.

The whole affair had been unsatisfactory, the demigod mused, but he'd never have said he'd forced the blond as far as the actual intercourse was concerned. The hunter took a different view. He considered he'd made it quite clear initially that he didn't want Hercules. Sure his treacherous penis had betrayed him, but Hercules should have seen that as involuntary. Anyway, after the initial treatment he'd received he had believed that any resistance was futile and might be met with force, so he'd decided to just endure the intercourse rather than responding with his usual enthusiasm.

The demigod did feel a bit guilty as he remembered the incident in the bar, but he had thought he had previously made it quite clear to Iolaus that his days of flirting with others were over and yet the blond had chosen to do so anyway. Iolaus *had* provoked him into taking action. By contrast, the hunter felt that he'd been having a pleasant conversation that in no way threatened his relationship with Hercules and the latter's reaction had been both ridiculous and humiliating.

The incident typified the problems they were having. Just over six weeks had passed since Hercules and Iolaus had left Lord Demos' castle and both were still adjusting to their new relationship. It had certainly not been all plain sailing.

Hercules always tended to see the world very much in black and white. Either something was right or it was not and, if it was wrong, it should be righted. Thus, having decided to abandon his policy of discretion, carried almost to the point of secrecy, he had tended to swing to the other extreme.

Iolaus ruefully reflected that, knowing the demigod's character as well as he did, he should have foreseen this, but he had not. At first, he had been taken aback by the extent to which Hercules was prepared to act on his new intention to be more open. Hercules calling him "my love" and embracing him in front of Demos and the rest of the castles' inhabitants had stunned him, but then had followed that desperate week in which the stubborn demigod had refused to resume their sexual relationship, insisting on waiting until the hunter was well. This had not only frustrated the hunter, it had also led him to fear that Hercules had actually decided to abandon this relationship. In this state of apprehension, he'd been caught completely off his guard when the demigod had openly booked a double bed at the inn and rushed upstairs with him. The lovemaking that followed had been just what the hunter had been longing for. Hercules had taken charge and had been firm and possessive, though not rough. Iolaus, in his joy at their renewed relationship, had let him dominate proceedings and do what he wanted.

Since then, the hunter had started to wonder whether he'd erred, both in wanting Hercules to acknowledge their relationship publicly and in allowing him to take the upper hand. There were definite drawbacks in the new situation.

The fact that the demigod could now intervene at will if the hunter was flirting was one of these. Flirtation came as naturally to the hunter as breathing. It was fun and didn't mean anything and he'd always been careful to select the time and place so that the object of his attention knew that it was just an enjoyable game. All involved had a good time and nobody got hurt or, at least, that was how the blond viewed things.

Unfortunately, there was one person who did not enjoy proceedings - Hercules. Given his previous insistence that their relationship was not to be open knowledge, none of the past public flirtation had been directed at him. Sure the hunter would tease him in the bedroom, but never when others were present. Hercules tended to disapprove of flirting, unless the pair involved had serious intentions towards each other, and he'd always tended to get slightly flustered when women made up to him. He didn't believe one should say or do what one didn't mean or didn't think was right. In the past, he had pointed out the error of Iolaus' ways in this regard, in private after the event, but hadn't actually been able to do much at the time it actually occurred for fear of giving away their relationship. Now there was no such restriction.

The first time it happened, Iolaus had been surprised, but not annoyed. He'd actually enjoyed the knowledge that Hercules was jealous enough to intervene. He'd been wandering around a street market. He always enjoyed the bustle of markets and the opportunity to chat and joke with the vendors. He rarely had any money to spend, but he was used to that and, anyway, if the seller was a woman, he could often charm free samples. He would ramble happily around the stalls, his shining mop of blond curls making him conspicuous amongst the generally drab apparel of the crowd, joining in the banter that passed between vendors and customers.

On that occasion, a buxom woman, perhaps some five years his senior, had called, "Hello, Blondie, what about some nice cakes?"

He'd immediately headed over to her. "Sorry, they look delicious, but I can't afford any today."

The conversation had developed from there and soon he was sitting beside her munching free cakes and chatting away as if he'd known her for years. Suddenly, a large hand had descended on his shoulder and he'd felt himself being lifted to his feet. "There you are, my love, I've been looking for you."

"H-Herc!" he spluttered, almost choking on a piece of cake, "I've just been talking to Afrania. I didn't know you wanted me for anything."

"Well, I do. Come on!"

He took the hunter's arm firmly and began to lead him off. Iolaus knew that grip. Any attempt to pull free would have been unsuccessfully embarrassing so he didn't attempt it. He twisted his head back to look at Afrania, who was smiling in amusement, and mouthed "Sorry" at her.

Okay, that first occasion had been kind of flattering and the woman involved had taken it well, but incidents since, and particularly the latest one, with Acalle, had not been so acceptable.

Iolaus had tried to discuss the problem with the demigod on several occasions, but the latter seemed impervious to his concerns, brushing them aside. He blithely assumed that the hunter should be happy with their new more public relationship. He'd wanted more openness and less secrecy. He'd got it. Ergo, he should be pleased. *If* he was not, then he should think about his own behaviour that had provoked the reaction he didn't like. After all, acknowledgement of a relationship should be a two-way thing. Flirting with others undermined and was a denial of a relationship in the demigod's eyes. Iolaus had responded that this attitude showed a lack of trust, but Hercules insisted real fidelity could not include such transgressions.

One thing that really annoyed the hunter was that Hercules seemed to assume that he was only complaining out of perverseness and did not seem to understand that the issue was important to him. Time and again, he'd retreat to his 'You should be pleased because you got what you wanted' theme and make statements like 'Stop being difficult'. 'Be sensible', 'Be reasonable' and other annoying comments that trivialized Iolaus' real concerns.

So, nothing was resolved and things just got tenser between the pair and, unfortunately, it was not the only source of friction. For, although Hercules was bad enough if there was a woman involved, he had proven to be particularly touchy if there were other men around the hunter, regardless of whether their intentions were aggressive or amorous.

He was very concerned lest the blond get involved in fights. Iolaus had been very close to death after his injury at Demos' castle and the demigod was very anxious that he should not get hurt again. On his part, Iolaus felt that he had fully recovered from the shoulder wound and wanted to go back to his old way of life. Unlike the demigod who only fought when he had to, the hunter enjoyed the odd scrap. They "got the blood flowing" in his opinion.

The demigod did not agree and he was particularly displeased if it appeared to him that the hunter was the initiator of the conflict. The trouble was he didn't seem to understand that the aggressor was not always the one who threw the first punch and that it was sometimes necessary for a small man to seize the initiative and hit hard and fast to avoid being creamed.

He certainly didn't comprehend how being little and pretty made one a natural target. Such qualities always called out Hercules' protective instincts. He didn't seem to understand that, for some other men, such qualities were an invitation to molest or bully. No man would ever dare to pinch the demigod's backside as he brushed past him in a crowded tavern. No stranger would ever lean close to Hercules and whisper, "How much?" or would sit back making lewd remarks about the demigod's supposed sexual proclivities. No, he didn't know the provocation the hunter was subjected to at times.

Further, it was not in his nature to ignore an insult. Hercules could happily do so, secure in the knowledge that his reputation was sufficient to allow him the luxury and that no one would think it was from cowardice. It was very different for the hunter.

As a result of his intensified concern for his friend's well-being, the demigod stuck like glue to the hunter whenever possible, both to deter would-be aggressors and to stop the hunter stirring up trouble. Iolaus was beginning to feel stifled.

And, if Hercules' protective instincts weren't annoying enough, his jealousy was far worse. If the male involved had 'friendly' intentions towards the hunter, he would go ballistic.

Iolaus normally enjoyed their all too infrequent times of recreation, but with the new restrictions on his freedom, it had got to the stage where Iolaus was hoping for an emergency to arise: fire, plague, warlords, anything to give the demigod an alternative interest. Indeed, after the previous night's incident, he was on the verge of walking out on the demigod, something he desperately did not want to do, but felt might be necessary if Hercules was ever going to be made to take his complaints seriously.

This then was the stage they had reached that fine May morning.

Iolaus spent the day debating with himself about leaving. He loved Hercules more than anyone else in the world and knew that love was fully returned, but he felt he couldn't go on with things as they were. However, he couldn't decide whether to take such a drastic step.

To his relief, later that day, help arrived from an unexpected quarter. A message arrived from Hercules' brother, Iphicles, to ask for his assistance in dealing with some marauders who were causing problems for his kingdom of Corinth. It seemed quite ironic that Iphicles should be the one to come, albeit unwittingly, to his assistance because he had never liked Iolaus.

As a boy, he'd seen the little blond as usurping the place he felt he should have had in his brother's heart and had always been as nasty as he could to Iolaus. His attitude had served to further alienate him from Hercules and he blamed Iolaus for that and so things had grown in a vicious spiral. As adults, Iphicles and Hercules had been largely reconciled. This had come after the resolution of the incident where Iphicles had adopted Hercules' identity in his bid to marry Rena, step-daughter of the warlord Gorgus, and especially since Iphicles had successfully taken over the rule of Jason's kingdom and had become certain of his own abilities. However, although Iolaus had helped with both, he knew Iphicles still did not like him and saw him as the only barrier between him and Hercules.

So, as the messenger rode off on his return journey to Iphicles, Iolaus turned to Hercules and said, "Where do you want to meet me, Herc?"

"You're coming with me," the demigod answered, in his no-nonsense voice.

"Look, Herc, Iphicles never mentioned me. He's never liked me. It's better if I don't go as he'll just get stirred up." In truth, he also felt putting a bit of distance between himself and the demigod might help them both review their priorities, without him having to take the drastic step of walking out.

"No, Iolaus, you're coming with me. I'm not letting you out of my sight after what Briseis and the others did to you, I'd spend my time worrying about you."

Iolaus bit back a retort. He forced himself to remember that Hercules' motives were good, but he felt smothered and hated having his ability to look after himself questioned. "But, Herc ... " he started.

"No! I've made my decision."

"What about what I think?"

"Iolaus, don't make difficulties, you know you haven't got over that incident either."

That *was* true. On several occasions during the past month, Iolaus had had nightmares about Briseis and the other men and had woken shaking and crying. Then he'd been only too glad to crawl into the demigod's sheltering arms and be soothed back to sleep. Besides a voice inside him whispered, 'Think how you'd feel if you didn't go and something happened to Hercules.' So he reluctantly nodded his agreement. They decided they would set out for Corinth early the next day.

That evening, Iolaus managed to evade the demigod and was sitting in a tavern having a quiet drink when he was approached by Tertius, a rather attractive, middle-aged man. He made his interest obvious, buying Iolaus drinks, flattering him and taking every opportunity to touch him while they talked.

Iolaus was well practiced in rejecting such advances in a tactful, friendly manner, so that usually the man involved would not be upset or affronted. Often he was sufficiently successful at this that he could still spend a pleasant evening in the man's company even though the latter understood there would be no sex at the end of it. In this case, he made it clear to Tertius early on that he was traveling with his lover.

Some hours passed and Tertius kept plying Iolaus with drinks, in the apparent hope that a drunken hunter might change his mind. Iolaus became quite tipsy. Tertius had just thrown his arm around Iolaus' shoulders when the demigod had arrived and ordered the hunter out. The blond resented the peremptory command and refused. 'Didn't Herc learn anything from last night he wondered?' He went to stand up to argue with Hercules and was hit with a wave of intense dizziness. He staggered and grasped the chair. As he did so, he caught Tertius' eye and the guilt there was plain to see. "Have you put ..." the hunter started.

"Yes, I'm sorry. It's just a sleeping potion. It won't hurt you. I'm sorry," Tertius babbled, getting hurriedly to his feet.

Iolaus could feel Hercules' anger. It was so intense it radiated from him. Somehow, he managed to keep himself between the demigod and Tertius. "You'd better go," he said. Tertius needed no second urging.

Hercules wrapped a supporting arm around the blond and Iolaus slumped dizzily against him. The demigod helped his unresisting lover back to their room, undressed him and put him to bed, without comment.

Iolaus awoke the next day with a pounding head. Hercules was not present so he correctly assumed that the demigod was downstairs eating breakfast. The thought of food brought on a rush of nausea. He staggered up, leaned out the window and was sick, vaguely hoping nobody would be unlucky enough to be passing beneath. He did not feel up to the walk ahead, which would take a minimum of three days, but knew Hercules would be unsympathetic and so forced himself to dress.

A few minutes later, Hercules entered the room. "Are you ready to go?"

"Of course."

Hercules was silent until they'd got well clear of the town. Iolaus was beginning to hope that maybe he'd decided the hunter had suffered enough and was going to forego the lecture, but that was not the case.

Iolaus was thinking about the previous evening. He could remember Hercules leading him outside, but nothing from that point on. Just then, Hercules broke into his thoughts. "I hope you're thinking about how stupid you were last night." He then proceeded with one of his lectures. This was the last thing Iolaus needed, but his hangover was so ferocious he couldn't even raise a retort and just had to endure it. He knew that he'd made a misjudgment and had had a lucky escape. He *didn't* need Hercules to tell him that.

At intervals through the morning, the demigod returned to the subject. Although he knew that Hercules only scolded because he loved him and worried about him, Iolaus was heartily tired of it. 'I wish something would happen to shut him up. Anything! A bandit attack, a tornado, anything!' he thought, desperately.

Around midday, they came to a narrow ravine. They were about half a mile through it when an earthquake struck, triggering off a minor rock-fall. Hercules grasped Iolaus, flung him to the ground and threw himself protectively on top of him. The weight of the demigod landing on him drove the breath from Iolaus' body and he was momentarily unable to speak.

Then, "Okay, Herc, you can let me up now," came a muffled voice. However, there was no response. "C'mon, Herc, get off me!" There was still no reaction.

Iolaus realized that his friend was unconscious. He began to struggle to extricate himself from the dead-weight. This was especially difficult because he had not escaped entirely unscathed in spite of Hercules' best efforts. The little finger of his right hand and the one next to it had both been hit by a rock and were broken, while the rest of the hand was badly bruised. He gradually eased himself out from under Hercules, wincing as sharp rocks cut into him.

Hercules remained unmoving. Blood was flowing from a wound on the side of his head. Iolaus got Hercules' spare shirt from his bag and used it to bandage the wound. Not having the luxury of spare clothing himself, he used a piece of the ruined shirt to bind his hand. While he did this, he kept talking to Hercules to try to rouse him, but to no avail.

Another minor quake rocked the canyon and a few more rocks dislodged, fortunately missing the pair. Iolaus was aware that more aftershocks could follow. He would have to move Hercules and that would be difficult as Hercules weighed considerably more than the hunter did and the latter's hand was in a bad state.

He got down on his hands and knees and took hold of Hercules' left arm, pulling it across his shoulders. Then he forced his way under the demigod's body until it was finally across him. It took him several attempts before he managed to stagger up and his knees were badly bruised from the sharp stones before he succeeded. He stood swaying, gulping air and trying to steady himself. "It's now or never, Iolaus," he muttered to himself as he staggered off. He knew he couldn't afford to put his burden down before he cleared the ravine as he would not be able to lift his friend again.

He headed back the way they had come. Sweat poured down his face and body. His legs were shaking with strain and his right hand was giving him hell as he grasped Hercules' legs. What really concerned him was the way the world was spinning and growing darker. He was moving, almost blindly, on willpower alone.

When he finally emerged from the ravine, he had another problem. He couldn't lower his friend. This finally resolved itself as his legs gave out and he fell, losing consciousness as he hit the ground.

He didn't know how long he'd been out of it, but the day was well advanced when he awoke. At first he was confused as to where he was and panicked at the crushing weight across his shoulders, but then he remembered. "Herc?" he appealed. "Herc, can you hear me?" There was still no response. Iolaus struggled free and wondered what to do next. He felt absolutely shattered. Every muscle in his body, including several that he didn't know he possessed, seemed to be aching and his hand was screaming for attention.

He reluctantly decided that the first thing he would have to do was to go back into the ravine to retrieve their gear. It was only a mile there and back, but he'd never known such a long mile. As he walked he cursed himself for his earlier wish. 'If only Herc is all right, he can scold me all day and I won't mind a bit,' he thought and then added honestly, 'Well, not much anyway.'

When he returned, he gave Hercules some water from his flask and then wrapped him in his blanket as best he could. Then he gathered fern fronds to use as a mattress, put his own blanket on these and rolled Hercules onto it. His fears grew as his friend continued to lie pale and motionless. He managed to get some more water into him.

The next task was to gather firewood and make a fire. While he worked, he worried about what to do next. They were some miles from the nearest village and there was no way that Iolaus could carry Hercules that far. He decided that the best bet would be to rig up a litter, but that would have to wait until morning as night was falling.

He was very hungry and dusk was a good time to hunt, but he felt he couldn't go far from Hercules. He knew there was nothing in his pack. He rummaged in Hercules' bag and found a quarter of a loaf of bread. He looked at this and at his friend. What if he ate it and then Hercules regained consciousness and was hungry. He reluctantly rewrapped it and ordered his stomach to be quiet.

The night grew chilly. Iolaus kept the fire going as long as he could, but his wood supply was very limited. Finally, it gave out and he sat shivering, clutching his throbbing hand and worrying about his friend.

He touched Hercules and found that he was cold. Without hesitation, he pulled off his vest and laid it on the blanket over Hercules' chest. He then lay down against Hercules, on the side away from the fire's embers, hoping that they would generate some body heat between them.

The next morning, he was stiff and sore. He'd had only snatches of sleep and felt that he'd had none. There was still no movement from his friend. Iolaus forced himself to his feet and down to a nearby stream to refill the water flasks. He managed to get more water into Hercules. He then began to construct a litter, using the blankets, branches and vines. He had considerable difficulty getting the latter as he had to climb one-handed and then balance without support while he used his left hand to hold his hunting knife to cut the vine free. On a couple of occasions, it was only luck that saved him from a fall as he balanced precariously, high above the ground. The second of these near falls happened when another earthquake caused the tree he was in to suddenly sway violently.

More than two hours had passed before the litter was finished. He rolled Hercules onto it and covered his chest with his vest. Then the next problem arose. He tried to lift the end of the litter, but couldn't do it because he couldn't close his hand. He took off his belt and lashed his right wrist to the litter. This was very uncomfortable, but at least it made lifting and pulling possible.

He set off. After a couple of hours his wrist was raw and bleeding, but he kept going. Fortunately the track was fairly smooth, but it was still very heavy going. Another twenty minutes on and he stumbled and fell to his knees. He knelt, head down and heart thumping, gasping painfully for breath. Finally he forced himself up, but his head was swimming and he nearly went straight back down.

'What the hell am I going to do?' he wondered, despairingly. 'It must be another ten miles to the nearest village and I'm not going to make it like this. I can't leave Herc and go for help. He's in this position because he protected me and I'm too bloody useless to help him.'

He knew he'd have to take a break so he freed his aching wrist, gave his friend some more water and then sat down to rest.

No sooner had he done so when he heard the sounds of a group of people approaching. He was in a quandary. His first impulse was to get the litter off the path and into the bushes until he could ascertain the identity of those approaching. However, to do that, he would have to rebind his wrist to it and he certainly didn't want to be caught in that position if those approaching turned out to be hostile. Accordingly, he rose and stood, hand on sword hilt, waiting.

A few moments later, four men and a woman appeared. All were young and all were shabbily dressed. "What have we got here?" one of the men exclaimed.

A large, dark-haired man pushed to the front of the group and said, "Okay, runt, let's have any money you're carrying."

"You want money from *me*?" Iolaus queried incredulously. "You couldn't have picked anyone less likely to have any."

"Come on, stop mucking about and hand it over."

"Don't you listen? Do I look like I've got any? Here, see for yourself." He tossed his bag towards the man.

Another snatched it up. "It's empty."

"Turn out your pockets," the dark-haired man ordered.

"I don't have any of those either."

"Any what?"


"Well, we might as well have your sword and hunting knife. Hand them over!"

"*No!*" There was no way he was going to do that. He needed his weapons to defend his friend and, hopefully, to eventually trade for medical help for him.

"Come on, Blondie. You'll find yourself in the same position as your friend if you're not cooperative."

The big man advanced confidently, holding out his hand. Iolaus silently cursed himself because he had not transferred his sword to the right-hand side of his body. It was going to be difficult to draw with his left hand and he wasn't going to be able to get it out of the scabbard quickly enough. Accordingly, he pulled out his hunting knife instead and waited.

Two of the other men had swords and they now pulled these and ranged themselves beside the big man who appeared to be the group's leader. "You're not going to stop us with that toothpick, runt," one of them commented.

Iolaus didn't need to be told that. Unfortunately, he also knew that he had to hold his ground because he couldn't let them get between him and Hercules. Normally he would have ventured such odds with little concern, but with his right hand out of action, his body tired and aching and, above all, with the need to protect Hercules, he didn't like his chances at all.

To complicate matters, it was at that moment that Hercules chose to rouse. "Iolaus?"

Iolaus heard the voice with a mixture of relief and fear. It was the first real sign of life that Hercules had shown since the accident but, as things were going, the demigod might only have woken in time to watch Iolaus die and then probably to be dispatched himself. He desperately wanted to turn to his friend, but he couldn't afford to do so as he needed to keep his full attention on his opponents. "I'm here, Herc."

"What's happened? Where are we?"

"I'll explain later. Just lie still. I'm a bit busy at present."


"Please, Hercules, just wait!" The men were spreading out to encircle the pair and Iolaus was trying to watch all sides. In his preoccupation, he had used his friend's full name.

The men showed no reaction, but the woman queried, "Hercules?"

Concentrating on her companions, Iolaus was aware of her, but did not respond.

"It is Hercules!" she cried, answering her own question. "Nilus, did you hear? You must stop!"


"Didn't you hear who it is? You can't hurt Hercules! He's always helping people like us."

"I'm not going to hurt him. It's Blondie I'm going to hurt."

"*No!*" She pushed past him to stand before him and Iolaus. "Please don't hurt him, Nilas. About ten years ago, Hercules saved my village when we were being persecuted by a warlord."

"I told you, Melina, it's the blond I'm going to hurt, not him. Now get out of the way!"

She swung around to Iolaus. "Please give him your weapons. He won't hurt you if you do, I promise."

Iolaus didn't believe that even though the woman appeared to do so. In any case, his need for the weapons remained. He shook his head. "Sorry, I need them too. They're all I've got to sell to buy medical help for my friend."

"Be sensible. You won't be able to help him if you're dead. Please hand them over." She moved towards him and unsighted him. Nilus seized the opportunity and darted forward. Melina flung herself protectively in front of Iolaus or, at least, that was what she had intended, but Nilus shoved her hard in the back and she stumbled into the hunter. He was so busy trying to ensure that she didn't get impaled on his knife that he was forced to fling his left arm out to the side. Seconds later, he felt hands grabbing his arm from behind and twisting until he was compelled to drop the weapon. Then he was surrounded by all four men, with Melina still clinging to his chest.

"Get away from him, Melina," Nilus ordered. "Quickly, or I'll have Theon break that arm he's holding." She moved aside. Nilus stepped forward and drove a vicious fist into Iolaus' stomach. The hunter gagged and doubled over in pain. "You have to learn that I expect to be obeyed," Nilus sneered. He turned to one of the other men. "Tie him up, Syretes." The latter tied the hunter's wrists behind him. He winced as the ropes cut cruelly into his skinned wrist.

The group then considered the situation. "There must be some way we can turn this to our advantage," Nilus said.

Syretes suggested, "Why don't we sell them. Slavers are always willing to pay well for good merchandise and the blond's very pretty."

Nilas agreed," Yeah, that's probably the best thing to do with him. I don't know about Hercules though. He's not in great condition and I don't think we could get away with selling Zeus' son. I wouldn't like to have the King of the Gods mad at me."

"What about offering him to Hera?" Theon, a squat, muscular man, asked. "From all accounts she'd be happy to get her hands on her stepson."

"I'm still wary about that. Mortals never seem to do well out of deals with the gods and that still wouldn't deal with my first concern." He paused and then said, "Let's take them both with us for the moment. We can sell the runt and give some more thought to what we do with Hercules on the way."

Iolaus had been listening intently to the discussion. He was quite relieved when he heard the plan that the men had hit upon. At least, Hercules was safe for the moment and he'd have time to figure out how to save them both.

Their decision made, the group started off, with the aim of finding a town with a reasonable-sized slave market. Two of the men carried the litter. Hercules had lapsed into unconsciousness again. After a couple of miles, both had got tired of this and were insisting the other two take a turn. Nilus, as leader of the band, was not prepared to do this and so Iolaus was untied and ordered to take an end again. The wrist-bindings were still hanging from the pole and so he was able to secure his aching wrist again.

Unfortunately, he was too exhausted to travel at the pace that suited the group and this infuriated his captors, who saw it as deliberate obstruction. Nilus hit him several times to try to hurry him and, at last, he fell to his knees. Nilus then struck him across the mouth splitting his lip. He then ordered Iolaus to get up or worse would follow. The others were all watching, the men in eager anticipation and Melina with tears in her eyes.

All were so preoccupied that they didn't notice a group of six mercenaries approaching from behind them. The first they knew of it was when a rough voice exclaimed, "Hell, that's Iolaus!"

The bandits whirled grabbing for weapons, but they were no match for the newcomers. The fight lasted no more than ten minutes and when it was over three of the bandits were dead, Theon was unconscious and Melina was being held by a mercenary. One of the latter had suffered a minor cut to his arm, but that was all.

Iolaus was still on his knees, vaguely fumbling with the knots that tied his wrist to the litter. "Here, let me do that," Medon said, reaching for them. Iolaus looked blankly at him. "Iolaus, don't you remember me? It's Medon."

"Medon?" Iolaus shook his head to try to clear his vision.

"Malis and Lircaeus are with me and three others that I don't think you've met," said Medon, as he cut the hunter's wrist free. He helped the hunter to sit down and then gave him some water.

"Thank you." He started to twist around to check on Hercules, swayed and nearly toppled sideways, but Medon put out a hand to steady him.

"Hang on, Iolaus. You'd better stay still for a minute."

"I need to check on Hercules."

"Hercules?" Medon had ignored the still form covered by the blanket, assuming it to be one of the gang. "I'll check him." He turned to the demigod. "He's unconscious. What happened?"

Iolaus explained, concluding, "I'm trying to get him to a town that's got a healer."

"Trikkala is probably your best bet. That's another ten miles or so, but we can help you that far as it's on our route. We're heading down to Levadhia. We're between jobs and there's a warlord down there recruiting. We'll have to keep moving fairly fast though as we've got a long way to go. Do you think you're up to it?" he asked, looking doubtfully at the hunter.

"I'll be okay. I *have* to be."

So ten minutes later, they were on the road. They had left Melina with the surviving bandit. Iolaus had explained how she had tried to help him and so the mercenaries left her unscathed.

Iolaus didn't really know how he made it to the Trikkala. For much of the time, he walked beside the litter one hand on it to keep his direction, as he was feeling somewhat dizzy with exhaustion and was not seeing too clearly. A couple of times, he fell, but struggled up and forced himself on.

Finally they were on the outskirts of the town. Medon stopped a passerby and asked for directions to the healer. "I-I can't go th-there yet," Iolaus gasped. "I have to find a t-trader to sell something. I haven't got any money."

"None at all?" asked Malis.


"Look, Iolaus, we're all fairly broke too, but it *is* Hercules so we can probably scrape up enough to pay for his initial treatment. After that you're on your own," said Medon.

They were as good as their word. Soon Hercules was installed at Antiphanes' house and the healer was busy tending to him. Medon and the others had paid for the demigod to stay a couple of nights in the healer's care. A grateful hunter bade the mercenaries farewell and then headed back into the bush to rest as the healer had made it clear that short visits were okay, but that he wasn't running a hotel.

Exhausted, he slept for hours. He woke in the early hours of the morning. He wanted go to see how Hercules was, but knew the touchy healer would not welcome him at that hour. He had some water and choked down some bread and cheese Malis had given him. He didn't feel like eating. He'd gone past that, but he knew he had to be okay for Hercules. He just wished his hand would stop its vicious throbbing. Finally, he drifted back into a fitful sleep.

The sun was up when he awoke again. He went to the healer's to inquire after Hercules. To his relief, Antiphanes said the demigod had recovered consciousness briefly and was sleeping peacefully, with the help of a herbal concoction. He expressed the view that Hercules should be okay in a few days. Iolaus would have liked to have asked the healer to treat his hand, but felt it was a relatively minor thing compared to Hercules' injury and that any money he managed to raise should go for the latter's treatment. Antiphanes was not the sort of dedicated healer who would help without payment.

The hunter thanked the healer and went off in search of a trader. The first two showed no interest. The former said he already had too many weapons in stock and the second considered Iolaus' sword and knife virtually worthless. Both showed mild interest in the amulet, but again were not offering much. Iolaus was loath to part with it, but it looked like it would have to go. 'I shouldn't really value it anyway,' he told himself. 'It is the only thing I've got from my father, but he never cared for me and so, if it goes to help the one person that does love me, it shouldn't matter.'

He entered the third trader's premises. The man had his back to him as he fussed with some trinkets in a chest. "Excuse me," Iolaus said, "I wondered if you'd be interested in buying some things."

"Not really," the man muttered without turning, "The way things are going I can't afford more stock."

"Couldn't you just have a look," Iolaus almost pleaded. The man turned reluctantly around. "Salmoneus!"

"Huh? Do I know you?"

"It's Iolaus."

"Oh, I remember, the little, blond guy that tags around after Hercules." That was said with a touch of asperity.

They had originally met when Salmoneus had been accompanying Hercules and Xena, who were pursuing Darphus and Ares' dog, Graegus. Iolaus had heard about the trouble Darphus was causing and had set out to help Hercules. Unfortunately, not only had Iolaus jumped on Salmoneus while the latter was hunting quail for their evening meal, he had further annoyed Salmoneus by pretending not to know Hercules and making the former look silly when he introduced them. Then, to cap it off, Hercules had introduced him to Salmoneus as ''my best friend". This was a position Hercules' self-appointed "official biographer" coveted for himself. He hadn't really forgiven the blond for all this and had made a point of leaving him out of Hercules' celebrity biography, apparently not even recalling his name.

Ignoring the comment, Iolaus put his sword, knife and amulet on the counter and asked, "Salmoneus, would you be interested in buying any of these things?"

"Well, I could be, but they're not worth much."

"Please, Salmoneus, I need the money for Herc."

The biographer was suddenly all ears. "For Hercules? Why didn't you say so at the start? Where is he?"

So the hunter told the story. Salmoneus was full of excitement. Here was a great chance to further ingratiate himself with *his* friend Hercules and, no doubt, while the latter was recuperating he'd like someone to talk to and that would supply more material for the celebrity biography that was going to eventually make Salmoneus rich and famous. He fairly snatched the items from Iolaus. "I'll take these. In return I'll pay all Hercules' expenses while he's with the healer and then he can come and recuperate here with me. I must go and see him at once. You mind the shop!" He pushed past a bemused Iolaus and was off.

Iolaus sagged against the counter. He was weak with relief. He managed to get around behind the counter and sank into a chair. Salmoneus might be a real pest and did not like him, but the hunter knew the salesman adored rubbing shoulders with a demigod and would see that Hercules had the best.

Now, at last, he could give some thought to his own situation. That wasn't quite so rosy. Here he was in a town that, apart from Salmoneus, was full of strangers, with no money and with a hand that was going to make it difficult to find any work. Normally, he could have hunted for food, but the hand wasn't going to help there either and neither would the loss of his knife. 'The main thing is that Herc will be okay,' he told himself.

Over an hour passed before Salmoneus reappeared. Fortunately, he'd had no customers in that time as Iolaus had no idea of the prices of the items or even what some of the items were supposed to be. He had no doubt that Salmoneus would have wonderful, far-fetched stories to go with each piece. Salmoneus was smiling broadly when he entered the shop. "Hercules woke up while I was there," he said. "He was ever so pleased to see me and was very grateful to me for looking after him."

Iolaus winced at that, but forbore to argue. "Did he ask where I was?"

"I don't think so. No, wait a bit, he did mention you. I told him you were wandering around the town entertaining yourself."

Iolaus swallowed his anger and said, "I'd better go and see him."

"There's no point. The healer said he should rest and has given him another sleeping potion. He'll be asleep for some hours." Iolaus could have sworn he heard a satisfied note in the comment.

He decided he'd better go and see if there was any work available. He tried the smithy first as, at least, he knew how to do that. However, the large smith only laughed at him. "A pretty, little thing like you wouldn't be able to do this job! Anyway, how do you think you'd manage with one hand?" He wrapped one massive arm around the blond and pulled him to him, holding his good arm. "If you're prepared to work on your back that's another thing. I'm sure I could accommodate you then, but whether a little thing like you could accommodate me would be the real issue." He laughed uproariously at his own joke, while Iolaus tried to pull away without success. The man fondled the hunter's codpiece and then released him, giving him a swift slap on the backside. "Now go away, you're distracting me from my work. Come back tonight if you'd like to take up my offer."

Iolaus was furious, but could do nothing about it. He left the forge quickly and began a round of the various shops, but it was hopeless. Most didn't need anyone and those who could have had some work wanted a worker with two hands.

Finally, he slumped down on the ground outside Salmoneus' shop. Hungry, tired and in pain from his injured hand, he didn't know what to do next. He knew he couldn't stay in the village, but he couldn't leave Hercules either. He sat and thought about the problem for a while and then he had an idea. Maybe he could talk Salmoneus into providing a horse and cart and helping him take Hercules to Iphicles' court as soon as he could be safely moved. He didn't like Antiphanes much. He felt the man's primary concern was money rather than his patients' welfare. Hercules' brother had his own healer and could afford the best of care for Hercules. Also, hopefully, Alcmene would be there to take charge of her son. Further, he was getting rather concerned about his hand and knew he could rely upon her to help him with it. He just had to be careful how he broached the matter with Salmoneus. The salesman/author was overjoyed at having Hercules to himself, but could he be made to see even more advantages in the scheme?

Accordingly, when he saw Salmoneus come out of his shop en route to visit Hercules again, he intercepted him. "Could I talk to you for a minute, Salmoneus?"

"What? Are you still hanging around? What do you want now? Can't it wait? I'm in a bit of a hurry. I have to go and see *my* friend, Hercules."

"It'll only take a moment. It concerns Herc."

"Quickly then!"

"I thought it might be a good idea if we were to take Hercules to his brother Iphicles' court. It's only a couple of days' journey from here."

"Sorry, I don't think he should be moved."

"But, Salmoneus, if he was there he'd get better care. Iphicles has his own physician and Hercules' mother will probably be there."

"The local man here is reasonably skilled."

"Yes, but still not as good. It wouldn't cost you anything for his care there and I'm sure King Iphicles and Hercules' mother would be very pleased to meet you and very grateful for what you've done for Hercules." 'That should hook him if nothing else does,' Iolaus thought.

He could see the salesman turning it over in his devious little mind. Here was a chance to hobnob with royalty, to meet Alcmene and get material from her for the biography and to live well at others' expense while doing so. "Yes, you may be right for once. I'll see Antiphanes about when Hercules will be fit to travel."

As it turned out, he found the healer was only too ready to part with his patient. He had received a request to attend the first confinement of the wife of a wealthy man and the promised payment made him anxious to be off. He dosed the demigod with poppy syrup and gave Salmoneous more to use on the journey. So, to Iolaus' surprise, Salmoneous returned from the healer's to say they could set out at once.

The journey took a couple of days and was uneventful apart from three more small earthquakes. 'I hope these aren't building up to something big,' the hunter thought, but he didn't suggest it as Salmoneous seemed spooked enough by the minor shakes.

Thanks to the drug, Hercules slept most of the way. Fortunately, Salmoneous was happy to drive and Iolaus was able to spend most of the journey sitting in the tray of the cart with the demigod.

Upon arrival, they had Hercules conveyed straight to Iphicles' physician, Pyretus, and explained the situation to him. The latter was an efficient healer and a man who cared about his patients. Once he'd got Hercules comfortably settled, he turned to Iolaus. "What about you?"


"Come on, you're obviously not well either."

"I've got a couple of broken fingers from the rock fall."

"Let's see them." Iolaus extended his hand, wincing as Pyretus unwrapped and examined them. "Who treated these?"

"I did."

"Well, I'm sorry, Iolaus, they're a bit of a mess. They're not setting in the right position. If you want to get full use of that hand back I'm going to have to break them again and set them properly."

The hunter paled at the news, although it wasn't unexpected. "Okay," he said, reluctantly, but I'd better go and see Iphicles first as we came straight here. Come on, Salmoneous, I'll introduce you."

Having inquired about Iphicles' whereabouts from a servant, they went to a small reception room in the royal couple's private quarters. Both Iphicles and his wife, Rena, were there. The latter was pleasant enough, but the king looked particularly displeased to see Iolaus. Iphicles had already heard about their arrival and immediately demanded to know what had happened to Hercules. Iolaus explained, introducing Salmoneous during the course of the story.

When he had finished, Salmoneous proudly told the royal couple about the celebrity biography he was writing. He then turned to Iphicles and said, "With your gracious permission, I would be honored to be able to include a section on you as Hercules' brother."

Iphicles smiled and nodded his agreement and then said, to his wife, "Rena, could you see that Salmoneous has some refreshments and perhaps you could show him around." The two went out. He then turned to the hunter. "*You* stay here with me." It was an order. Iolaus wondered apprehensively what was to come as the king was obviously angry.

Iphicles closed the door and wasted no time in getting down to business. "I hear you've finally got what you've been after all these years," he said nastily.

"What do you mean?"

"News travels fast, especially scandal. I've heard all about how you've been disporting yourself in public. It seems you've been all over my brother like a rash, with no concern for his reputation or his family's feeling."

Taken aback by the verbal attack, Iolaus wasn't sure what to say. "It wasn't ... I haven't ..."

Iphicles interrupted, "You're not going to try to pretend my oh-so-moral brother initiated your disgusting association, are you?"

"It's not disgusting!" Iolaus protested.

"That's your opinion. Anyway, you're not going to deny you started it, are you?"

"I s-suppose I did." That was true. He had been the one to broach the subject and the demigod had at first been very dubious about the idea.

"I thought as much! You've been angling for it for years, haven't you. You're nothing but a bloody little catamite."

"If you mean I've loved your brother for years you're right, but my relationship with Herc is private and I don't want to discuss it with you."

"Oh, yeah, very private! From all accounts you've been flaunting it in public. It's been very embarrassing for us all. What do you think about it, Jason?" Iolaus had been so upset that he hadn't even noticed Alcmene's husband entering the room.

"About what?"

"About this little bastard seducing Hercules! How on earth will mother feel when she hears about it?"

"I'd hate to think. I'm just glad she's away from court at present. I'd always suspected this, but she wouldn't have a bar of it. She said her son would *never* do such a thing. She was always so proud of his reputation and was always hoping he'd marry again and there would be more grandchildren. She'll be devastated at the news."

Iolaus listened to this tirade in horror. He was chalk-white and was starting to feel sick. Alcmene! He'd never really thought about how she'd react. He'd known Iphicles would be hostile and he wasn't surprised by Jason's disapproval, but he'd always had such a close and loving relationship with Hercules' mother. When he'd been a child, she had been so kind to him. She had been such a contrast to his critical and violent father. Her opinion of him mattered a great deal to him and it seemed he'd destroyed any regard she had for him or, at least, that would be lost when the pair before him informed her what he had done. He turned blindly away.

Before he could take a step, Iphicles shot out a hand, his fingers digging deeply into the hunter's arm. "You forget yourself, Iolaus. You don't just walk out on royalty. I'm in charge here and you'll stay until you're dismissed." That was a measure of Iphicles' perverseness. He would have been happy to see the last of the hunter but, since the latter wanted to leave, he wasn't going to allow it.

Iolaus stopped and stared at him bleakly. Normally his cheeky tongue would have not been able to resist a retort at that moment, even if it landed him in more trouble, but what Iphicles had said about Alcmene had shaken him to the core.

"I don't suppose you've given any thought to who you've got traveling with you," Iphicles observed.

"Who? Salmoneous?"

"Yes. It is a laudable plan to write a book about my brother *and* his family, but how will future generations regard him if Salmoneous puts in anything about his relationship with you."

"You don't have to worry about that. I don't rate a mention," Iolaus said bitterly.

"That Salmoneous has obviously got a lot more sense than I gave him credit for *if* that's true."

"I just told you so. Don't you ever listen?" the hunter asked heatedly.

"Shut up! I've had enough of your insolence," Iphicles snapped. "You keep silent until I tell you to speak."

"No! You made me stay so you can bloody well put up with my opinions." Iolaus was past speaking with any degree of circumspection.

"Guards!" Iphicles shouted. Four men hastened into the room with drawn swords. "Put some manacles on him and take him to the tower room. See that he stays there."

Iolaus wished he had his sword or dagger, but both now belonged to Salmoneous. He crouched slightly and then launched himself feet first at the nearest guard. His feet slammed into the man's chest knocking him over onto his back. The hunter landed lightly straddling the guard's body and then threw himself towards the door, only to find the doorway filled by a couple of extra guards. He cannoned into them, hoping to push them aside. One faltered, but the other flung his beefy arms around the hunter, imprisoning him against his body. That halted Iolaus' momentum and gave the other guards a chance to catch hold of him. His arms were yanked behind him and manacled. Then he was dragged from the room.

He didn't hear Jason turn to Iphicles and ask, "Do you think that was a good idea? What will Hercules say when he finds out?"

"I'm in charge here now, Jason, and I'd appreciate it if you'd remember that."

Iolaus was hustled up a long spiraling staircase and shoved into a small, dim room. The door was securely locked behind him. The only light came from a tiny, barred window, far too small to allow exit. The sole piece of furniture was a narrow bed.

He sat down on the bed and tried to decide what to do. If he could get out, and that was problematical, what should he do? He desperately wanted to see Hercules, but what could he say to him? How would the demigod feel when he heard what Iphicles and Jason had said about Alcmene? He didn't want Hercules to be in a position of having to decide between his mother and his lover. Also, Alcmene certainly did not deserve the upset this would all cause. Perhaps he should just leave? But if he did that, he was sure Hercules would be very distressed and would be stubborn enough to keep searching until he found him and would then demand an explanation anyway. He didn't know what to do for the best. In any case, he might not have any choice.

Hours dragged past. He spent some time trying to free himself from the manacles, but only succeeded in making his right wrist, which had been skinned by the litter, bleed again and his injured hand throb worse than ever. 'I suppose the healer will think I'm too scared to let him break it again and that's why I haven't returned,' he thought wryly.

No one came near him. He heard the guard outside his room change, but that was the only sign that there was anyone else in the castle. Eventually he drifted off into an uneasy sleep, lying on his stomach because of the manacles.

About midnight, he awoke with a start as he heard a voice ordering the guards to move away from the door. It opened to reveal Iphicles, carrying a branch of candles.

Iphicles was very drunk. He had imprisoned Iolaus out of anger and had immediately felt a sense of guilt and apprehension, which had not been helped by Jason questioning his actions. As king, he could, in theory, do whatever he wanted in his territory. In practice, there were some checks on his authority. He knew it would be virtually impossible to convince his mother that he'd acted for the best and absolutely impossible to convince Hercules. Unfortunately, he valued their good opinions of him. He also feared his brother's strength and his connection with the gods. The third check was his conscience and it was very difficult to silence.

In an effort to forget his worries, he had joined two of his guards in a drinking binge. The two had only been at his court a very short time, but he enjoyed their company and they had rapidly become his friends. Both knew all about Iolaus and Hercules' sexual relationship and deplored it as he did. Indeed, they had been the ones to bring it to his notice. As he got progressively drunker, they told him more of the scandalous goings on. Some of those stories were *hot*. Iphicles had felt his body reacting to them. He had finally left his friends, fully intending to go to bed, but instead found himself climbing the stairs to the room where Iolaus was being held.

He pushed the door closed and placed the candlestick on the floor. Iolaus rolled on to his side and lay watching him warily. He could smell the alcohol on him.

"I thought I might as well see what my brother finds so fascinating," he slurred.

"Wh-What?" Iolaus couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Iphicles reached for him. "No! Leave me alone!" He kicked out at the king, catching him on the thigh. Iphicles staggered back. Iolaus squirmed into a sitting position against the wall. Iphicles came after him again. This time he was ready for the kick and, in spite of his drunkenness, managed to block it and grab hold of Iolaus' leg. He twisted it viciously while pulling the hunter towards him. The hunter screamed in pain as his broken fingers were crushed beneath him. The unexpected sound caused Iphicles to falter momentarily. Iolaus was now flat on his back. The king lunged forward onto the bed so he was kneeling between Iolaus' thighs. The hunter tried to struggle up. Iphicles flung out an arm striking him across the throat and he fell back choking and coughing as he caught his breath. Iphicles began to fumble with his codpiece, while the blond tried frantically to move away. "What about Alcmene?" Iolaus gasped. "I thought you were concerned about her opinion."

Iphicles hesitated. The words gradually penetrated the alcoholic haze surrounding him. Iolaus had hit on the one thing that would stop him. He froze and quickly withdrew his hand. He clutched the hunter's vest and climbed to his feet to his feet, dragging his victim with him. He then delivered a series of stinging backhanded slaps to Iolaus' face, before dropping him to the floor and storming out.

Iolaus was shaking with reaction. His nose was bleeding and his lip split. Some minutes passed before he managed to crawl back onto the bed. He turned his face into the mattress and sobbed. The attack had brought all his terrifying memories of his rape by Lord Demos' men vividly back. Normally these only surfaced in nightmares and he managed to suppress them at other times, but now he couldn't drag his mind away from them there was no Hercules to hold him and whisper reassurances.

The next day, a sobered Iphicles recalled the previous night's events with horror. How could he have sought sex with Iolaus? It just showed what a dangerous temptation the blond was. Well, *that* was it. The bloody little nuisance would have to definitely go now before he told anybody what Iphicles had tried to do and damaged his reputation.

He knew he could order Iolaus' immediate death as his orders would be obeyed, but people would talk and eventually Hercules and Alcmene would hear of it. For all he had said to Iolaus about how she would react when she heard about his seduction of Hercules, Iphicles wasn't really sure of this. He knew she'd always had a soft spot for the scruffy, little blond, even occasionally referring to him as her third son to Iphicles' chagrin. Also Hercules had always been her spoiled favorite. Would she really deny him anything he wanted even if what he wanted was a catamite? And if she might react badly, it was nothing compared to how the besotted demigod would respond. He'd go berserk. Above all, his inconvenient conscience told him what the blond had done did not warrant death.

No, it was better if people believed Iolaus had chosen to leave. That would avoid the gossip. But how could he be made to go? And how could he ensure Iolaus didn't return?

At that moment, there was a knock on the door. He nearly shouted that he didn't want to see anyone but, when the guard on duty identified his visitor as one of his drinking friends, he said he would see him. The man approached and said, "My lord, I've been thinking about your problem and I believe I have a solution." He proceeded to give details.

Iphicles felt a wave of relief. Iolaus would soon be gone and, if he attempted to tell these two what Iphicles had tried to do to him, they'd never believe a word of it. After all, both knew he deplored such things as much as they did.

Iolaus had spent a very rough night. He had hardly had a wink of sleep and felt mentally and physically shattered. He heard voices as the guard was changed. About ten minutes later, there was a heavy thud and then the sound of a key in the lock. He rose to his feet, wondering if it would be Iphicles again. It was much worse. "Hello, Blondie," a voice sneered, "Remember us?"

Remember them? They'd filled his nightmares for the past month. Briseis and Argius stood in the doorway smiling evilly at him. "Aren't you pleased to see us, Blondie?" Argius asked. "We've missed you. We couldn't wait to see you again."

"Wh-What are you doing here?" the hunter gasped, taking an involuntary step backwards.

The two walked menacingly into the room, pulling the door closed behind them. "Didn't you know we were here?" Briseis almost purred. "After you left us, Demos decided to dismiss us both from his service. As you can imagine, we were not very pleased to lose our positions and needed to get new employment. Of course, Hercules' letter of introduction was a great help with that."

Iolaus was momentarily nonplussed. "Hercules' letter?" But then he remembered Hercules writing a reference for Azides. He was horrified. "How did you get that? What have you done to him."

"Argius overheard someone saying that Hercules had provided the brat with a letter of introduction to King Iphicles' court. I figured I could make better use of it. So we followed him and took it."

"Is he all right? Did you hurt him?" Iolaus asked desperately.

"I took great pleasure in slitting the little bastard's throat for him," Argius said, smiling at the memory.

Iolaus closed his eyes. The room was swimming about him and he felt sick. The boy had been no more than sixteen and now he was dead because he'd dared to help the hunter.

"Something wrong, Blondie?" asked Briseis tauntingly. "You're looking a bit green."

"How could you kill him? He was only a kid. You'll be sorry for it. I'll see to it."

"No, you won't. By the time we've finished with you, you won't have a thought for what's happened to anyone else. You'll be too concerned for yourself. Anyway, let's get back to the story because I can see you're waiting avidly to hear what happened next. Well, Hercules' letter was even better than I'd hoped. It informed his brother that the bearer, who wasn't named so I didn't even have to use the brat's name, was trustworthy and reliable and asked that he find employment for him. I introduced my friend Argius and Iphicles welcomed us both. The timing was perfect. He'd just lost some key men fighting marauders. So we had jobs and, in no time at all, the king, seeing our worth, had extended the hand of friendship to us as well. It was so kind of Hercules to write that letter, it solved two problems in one go."

"What do you mean two problems?"

"You didn't imagine we were going to let you get away with losing us our jobs, did you? No, we were determined to make you pay for it and I figured you'd be bound to turn up at Hercules' brother's court eventually. We originally intended just to bide our time until you arrived, but fate was kind to us."

"In what way?"

"King Iphicles wanted to know how we had become friendly with his brother. He was interested to hear how we'd fought at his side. Anyway, your name came up and we were delighted to find that our king wasn't exactly a fan of yours. We were able to tell him all about events at Lord Demos' castle. We told him how Hercules had been on the verge of betrothal to one of Demos' daughters when you seduced him. He was horrified, but did say he'd long feared that you had designs on his brother. Then we told him how you'd been flaunting your new relationship with Hercules, ruining his reputation, and that he was too besotted to curb your behavior. As you can imagine, we thought up all manner of juicy details."

Iolaus had been listening in dismay to the tale. It certainly explained the particularly hostile reception he'd received. He'd heard more than enough, but Briseis continued, "Yes, the Fates smiled upon us all right because not only did you turn up here sooner than we'd dare hope, but your very protective boyfriend is out of action."

"Did Iphicles send you here?"

"Yes, our king wants to see the last of you."

"Has he told you to kill me?"

"Nah, he hasn't the stomach for that. I reckon he's scared of Hercules' reaction if it ever came to light. Being the good friends to him that we are, we suggested that we take you and dispose of you to some slavers we know. Anyone who's had any contact with you has been told you decided to leave as, now Hercules is in safe hands, you have an assignation to keep. They've been told not to mention the assignation part to Hercules, in case it upsets him, so some 'kind' soul is bound to do so. You don't need to worry though, we wouldn't really sell you. We enjoy our little playmate far too much to part with you. What Iphicles doesn't know won't hurt him."

He paused, waiting to see how the hunter would react but, when the latter said nothing, he continued, "You'll be interested to know we've thought of a great way of getting you out of the castle without anyone seeing you with us. We relieved the guard and are now officially guarding you ourselves so there's no one nearby. After taking over duty, we went and collected your transportation. You probably heard us putting it down. Get it in here, Argius."

To Iolaus' horror, Argius went out and returned dragging a coffin. "I'm *not* going in that," he protested.

"Of course, you are," Briseis said, smiling. "There was an elderly thief in a cell above here. He's just died of a sudden virulent fever and we're going to carry him out in this coffin. That's what people will think anyway. In actual fact, his death was a little more violent and we dismembered him and carried the bits out in a few sacks last night. People will give the coffin a wide berth when they hear the word 'fever'. You see we've been giving this all quite a bit of thought."

The idea of being enclosed in the coffin terrified the hunter. The mere thought made him feel claustrophobic. He shuddered as he watched Argius raise the lid and remove a rope, some rags and a hammer and nails from inside. "Okay, Blondie, it's all ready for you," Argius said. "Don't worry, we've made an air-hole in it, so you'll get *some* ventilation."

"No!" The hunter backed away from the pair, until he came up against the far wall. With manacled wrists, he knew his chances of getting past them were remote, especially as they had learnt a number of his fighting techniques when he was at Demos' castle and would know his likely moves. He tried to disable Argius with a sudden kick to the genitals, but the man was expecting such an action and jumped back to evade it. While the hunter was off balance, Briseis moved in fast and grabbed him round the neck, wrestling him to the ground.

Argius dived onto him as well and lay on top of him, pinning him with his superior weight. Iolaus struggled, but couldn't dislodge him. "The drug's in my pocket," Argius gasped, "Can you get it, Briseis?"

"Sure." He deftly reached for the bottle, opened it and poured some of the contents on to a rag. "I know you enjoyed this the last time we used it on you," he said, as he held the rag over the hunter's face. It was a potent mix and the blond was soon unconscious. "He should be out for three hours at least but, just in case of delays, we'd better tie his legs and gag him." That done, they lifted Iolaus into the coffin and Argius nailed the lid down. They carried the coffin out of the cell and shut the door. They then went and obtained the aid of two men to carry the coffin downstairs and outside to a wagon.

Iphicles had been giving the problem more thought. His friends had suggested the assignation story and he wanted to be sure that Hercules would believe it. He decided the ideal situation would be if Hercules heard about Iolaus' precipitate departure from someone he obviously liked and who had no previous association with the court. He hit upon the idea of using a mixture of flattery and self-interest to persuade Salmoneous to convince Hercules of this and so, late in the morning, he approached the salesman.

"Listen, Salmoneous, I know you're a very good friend of Hercules," Iphicles said.

"That's true, your majesty. I'd have said I was his *best* friend." He preened himself as he spoke.

"That's why I've come to you. I've got a problem."

"I'll be honored to help, your majesty."

"Please call me Iphicles. After all you're practically one of the family."

"Oh, thank you. How may I help you, your m...Iphicles."

"It's that little, blond friend of my brother."

"Oh, you mean whatsisname."


"That's it."

"He's got bored with Hercules being sick and has taken off somewhere. It seems he's got some sort of assignation arranged. Personally, I'm pleased he's gone. He's not really a suitable friend for a demigod to have. Why he's even been a thief when younger! Associating with someone like that can't help my brother's reputation, but you know how soft-hearted he is over waifs and strays. Anyway, I thought this would be a good opportunity to break the connection."

"I agree. What do you have in mind?"

"Well, according to the healer Hercules has been quite confused as a result of the head injury and the drugs he's been given. I thought you could tell him that you found the pair of them in the ravine where the accident happened and that it was you that was responsible for getting him safely all the way here and for the care that he received en route. If he says he remembers differently tell him he's been delirious must have been hallucinating. This way all his gratitude will be centered on you, which is probably where it should be anyway."

"That's true."

"I suggest you pretend to avoid the topic of Iolaus. Naturally, my brother will persist in trying to find out where he is. After a while, appear to give in and say that Iolaus seemed rather restless and disgruntled about something during the journey and that he took off soon after your arrival here. Say that all he said was "Tell Herc not to worry. I've got to see someone about something important." This way Hercules will be hurt, but he won't be worrying that something has happened to Iolaus and be trying to go to look for him instead of recuperating."

"Yes, I'll certainly do as you say." He bustled off to put the plan into effect.

After Salmoneous had left him, the demigod lay there trying to make sense of what he had heard. Surely the hunter wouldn't have just left him, but then where was he?

Salmoneous would have no reason to lie to him though. Further, Hercules had had to drag the information from him, as the normally garrulous salesman had been most reluctant to say anything.

He knew Iolaus had been unhappy on the morning of the accident and for some days before. He knew his jealousy and what the blond saw as his over-protective tendencies had caused this. He was also aware that the hunter had not wanted to go to Corinth with him and had not been enjoying the journey because of the lecture he was receiving en route.

However, as far as the idea of an assignation was concerned, that *couldn't* be. Hercules was only too aware of the hunter's inordinate love of flirtation. However, that was all it was, flirtation. He *had* to believe that.

No, he *was* certain that the blond loved him and, after the dreadful consequences of his disbelieving the hunter's word at Demos' court, he was determined he was going to give him the benefit of the doubt. No, Iolaus wouldn't just take off for an assignation even when the demigod was well and certainly not when he was sick.

Okay, but where was he? What had happened to him? And why would Salmoneous lie about it? What if Salmoneous was trying to keep bad news of another sort from him? Had Iolaus been hurt in that rockslide and not let on? Where in Tartarus was he?

Pyretus entered the sickroom and immediately observed Hercules' agitation and confusion. "What's wrong, Hercules? Are you feeling worse?"

"No, I'm just puzzled and worried by what Salmoneous has told me. I wanted to know where Iolaus is. He tried to avoid telling me anything and kept changing the subject. I had to drag it out of him and what he finally told me *can't* be right. I just can't understand it! Iolaus *wouldn't* just leave without seeing me."

The healer looked at him, compassion in his gaze. Then he said, "Hercules, I've served Jason and then your brother loyally."

"I'm sure you have."

"However, I believe very much in the work I do. I will always put a patient first."

"I'm very grateful for the care you've given me."

"Thank you, but I'm referring to another case." He paused and licked his lips, wondering how to continue.

"Go on."



"Iolaus is, or was, the other case."

"What on earth do you mean?"

"Iolaus has got an injured right hand from that rockslide. He's got a couple of broken fingers and they've had no real treatment and are setting wrong. After he brought you to me, he was going to see the king and was coming back here straight after that so I could break them again and reset them. He wasn't exactly thrilled by the idea, but he *was* coming back because he knew this was important if he's going to regain full use of his hand."

The demigod was stunned. "But Salmoneous said ... "

"I'm sorry to say this but, I think, he's lying to you. Further, the king has told me I am not to mention Iolaus to you under any circumstances in case the topic upsets you."

"That can't be! He must know I'd be more upset having no news of him."

"Well, perhaps he thought it for the best, but there's something odd going on."

"What do you mean?"

"Ask Salmoneous to show you what he's got in his pocket. It's that bit of greenstone Iolaus always wears. I saw him playing with it while he was sitting by your bed. What would he be doing with that?"

"Iolaus would never part with that! It belonged to his father and it's his most precious possession."

"There was another thing that was strange too."

"What do you mean?"

"I noticed, at the time he brought you in, that Iolaus was wearing a sheath and scabbard, but hadn't got any weapons in them. I wondered if Iphicles had a new rule about carrying weapons in the castle, but then I got busy with you and forgot to ask Iolaus."

"It seems very unlikely to me. Something *is* wrong. I'm certain of it."

"Maybe we're both being paranoid. Perhaps he just chickened out about getting his fingers broken and took off, but he didn't seem the type to me."

"He certainly isn't. No one's braver than Iolaus. He wouldn't just leave me either. Something's happened to him and I'm going to find out what." He started to get up.

"It's too soon for this, Hercules. You need to give yourself more time."

"Sorry, Pyretus, my lover is in some sort of trouble and I can't just lie here."

"It's true then?"

"What's true?"

"There's been a rumor that you and Iolaus are no longer just friends."

"Where did you hear that?"

"Oh, I've heard some mention of it from several sources over the last five weeks or so."

Hercules was mystified. For some reason the 'five weeks' struck him as significant, but he couldn't think why. Then he remembered Azides. He didn't think the boy would be a gossip, but he might have tried to establish himself in the court by impressing people with what he knew about the demigod. Even if he hadn't had this aim, people were always interested in news from other parts of the country and he'd probably had lots of questions tossed at him. "Was one of those you spoke to a lad, of about sixteen, called Azides?"

"Never heard of him."

That was strange. Newcomers were always a subject of remark and speculation. "That's odd. He was coming here. I gave him a letter of recommendation to show my brother."

"No, he definitely didn't arrive, but the other man you recommended did."

"Other man? What other man?"

"Briseis. Actually, come to think of it, he said a few things about Iolaus, which surprised me since he was supposedly a friend of yours. He had cut his hand and called in for a couple of stitches. He started to make a few nasty comments, but I said other people's sex lives were their business and I wasn't interested."

Hercules' mind was in a whirl. What on earth was Briseis doing there? He had obviously managed to get the letter from Azides. He dreaded to think how. "Was Briseis alone?"

"No, he had a friend called Argius with him. The king has employed them both and seems to have become very friendly with them."

Hercules was horrified. If those two had got their hands on Iolaus again he hated to think what they would do to him. "That's it! I *have* to get up." He clambered out of bed and reached for his clothes as he spoke.


Hercules hesitated, but decided he needed to confide in someone, so he said, "I know I can trust you not to speak of this to others. Those two men were the leaders of Lord Demos' guard. They and two others attacked and raped Iolaus. That's why we left Demos' castle. The boy I mentioned gave us some assistance and therefore couldn't remain there, so I wrote the letter for him. Obviously, Briseis has managed to obtain it somehow. If they're here anything could happen to Iolaus."

Pyretus looked shocked. "Okay, Hercules. As your doctor I have to advise you against getting up, but as your friend I understand. Just make sure you come back here if you feel ill."

"Thank you, I will."

He was barely out of sight of the sickroom when he had a sudden mental image of the hunter. He *knew* it was Iolaus. He couldn't see him clearly, but he could feel him labouring for breath and fear emanating from him. "Iolaus, keep calm, I'm coming to help you. Tell me where you are," he implored, but the image was gone. 'Lucky Pyretes didn't hear that,' he thought. 'He'd think I was cracking up and order me back to bed.' However, it had been so vivid he was certain he wasn't imagining things. 'What on earth can they have done to him to get him into a state like that,' he wondered, fearfully.

While Hercules had been talking to Pyretes, Iolaus had been regaining consciousness. Briseis and Argius had taken him to a disused house only about five miles from the castle. Since they had supposedly only been conveying the thief's corpse to the graveyard and organizing for its burial, they did not wish to be away from the castle for long and so they had merely unloaded the coffin and left it. As a result, the hunter was still in his wooden prison when he revived sometime later.

At first, he was totally disorientated. It was dark and stuffy and the latter, combined with the gag and after effects of the drug, made breathing difficult. His injured hand was crushed beneath him and the manacles were cutting cruelly into his back and wrists. He tried to roll over and found there was no room to move. Then it hit him. He was in the coffin! A wave of terror, such as he'd never experienced, flooded over him. His heart began to pound. He tried to kick the lid off, but he could hardly raise his legs, because of the ropes binding them and the cramped conditions. The more he panicked the harder it was to breathe and then he became more frightened. It was a vicious spiral.

Then, out of nowhere, came an image of Hercules. "Iolaus, keep calm, I'm coming to help you." He knew he must be hallucinating, but the image helped him regain some control. He gradually began to employ some of the mind control techniques he had learnt in the East. He forced himself to lie still and to breathe more shallowly. He remembered that Argius had said there was an air hole in the coffin. He reminded himself that the pair had not left him to die, but were coming back to have what they saw as 'fun' with him. Above all, he clung to his vision of Hercules, the one person he could always rely on in an often hostile world. The fear did not leave him but, at least, he had it under some control for the moment.

However, the fear kept creeping back over him, telling him he had been abandoned and that he would never get out. Each time he desperately pushed it back, aware that it was becoming harder and harder to suppress.

An hour or so had passed before he heard voices. He recognized them as belonging to Briseis and Argius, but he didn't care as long as they released him. He was drenched with sweat and tears and his whole body was trembling.

"Hello, Blondie, enjoying yourself in there?" Briseis mocked.

Iolaus was glad he was still gagged. He knew that otherwise he might have begged for release and that they would have reacted by leaving him there longer. He forced himself to keep absolutely still. This had the desired effect.

"Hell, I hope he hasn't suffocated!" Briseis exclaimed.

"He shouldn't have. I'll open it up." It seemed to take an age before Argius had the lid off. "There what did I tell you." He reached in and grasped Iolaus by the vest, pulling him into a sitting position.

Iolaus immediately sagged against the side of the coffin and started to retch and choke. "Get that gag off him!" Briseis ordered.

Argius obeyed and was only just in time. Iolaus had had little in his stomach and so what emerged was basically saliva and bile.

"Dear me," Briseis commented, "you don't look your usual pretty self, Blondie. Never mind, it's another part of your anatomy that interests us. Give me a hand to get him out of there, Argius."

They lifted him out and dropped him unceremoniously onto his stomach. He lay on the floor, shaking and coughing.

Meanwhile, Hercules had been interrogating everyone he met in the castle about Iolaus. No one had seen him that day and few had seen him when he arrived the day before. Several reported that they'd heard he had left the castle and a few repeated the assignation rumour. None of those he approached appeared to be lying or to have any reason for doing so. Time was passing and the demigod had become increasingly worried.

Finally, he spotted Salmoneous, out in the herb garden, talking to Rena. He headed straight out to confront him. "Good day, Hercules," Rena smiled. "It's nice to see you up and about. I trust you're feeling better."

"Yes, thank you. Look, Rena, I need to see Salmoneous about something. Would you excuse us please?"

"Of course, I was just about to go inside anyway. I'll see you later. Iphicles will be pleased to hear you're so much better."

As soon as she had gone, Hercules turned to Salmoneous and demanded, "Where is Iolaus!"

"Don't you remember, Hercules? I told you he left."

"I remember you *told* me that. Where is he?"

"I've got no idea."

Hercules tried another tack. "Salmoneous, I'd like you to turn out your pockets."

"My pockets! Why?"

"Just do it!" There was a dangerous edge to the demigod's voice. Salmoneous produced a few items. "Everything!" Watching closely, he observed the salesman's efforts to palm the amulet. He thrust out a hand. "Give that to me!"

"It's mine!"

"No, it's not, it belongs to Iolaus."

"Not any more. He gave it to me."

"Salmoneous, that's Iolaus' most treasured possession. In fact, it's his only treasured possession. He would never part with it."

"Well, he did!"


The salesman hesitated. He felt himself being forced into a corner. "He wanted something," he muttered.


"I don't know."

"Salmoneous, I've had enough of this. What did you give him for it?"

Salmoneous shuffled his feet and lowered his eyes, trying to think of something to say.

"Look, Salmoneous, Iolaus is in trouble. If anything happens to him I will personally make sure that *anyone* who was involved in any way suffers for it. I thought you were a friend of mine, but I'm starting to wonder."

"I am a friend. That's why I can't tell you anything."

"Salmoneous!" There was a unmistakable threat in the voice now.

"I promised your brother."

"Salmoneous, Iphicles has never liked Iolaus. If you've conspired with him to hurt my lover you'll both suffer for it."

"Your ... Your lover?"

"You heard me!"

"But he isn't ... He can't be ... You're not ... He isn't ... " Salmoneous stammered.

"He is! And be warned, he means far more to me than anyone else in the world. Now *tell* me!"

So Salmoneous explained what Iphicles had told him to say and why he'd told him to do so. Then he confessed how he came to have the amulet and, incidentally, Iolaus' knife and sword as well. "But I honestly don't know where he went and he might well have had an assignation for all I know."

"Okay, Salmoneous, I believe you. Now, I don't want you to tell anyone what you've told me, especially my brother."

The salesman eagerly agreed. He had absolutely no intention of letting on to Iphicles that he had betrayed his trust.

Next, Hercules approached the two men on gate duty. In answer to his inquiry, they said they'd come on watch at 7am.

"It's probably the men who kept the two watches ahead of you that I need to see, but could you answer a few questions for me please?"

"Of course." Both were obviously delighted to have the opportunity to talk to a demigod.

"Do you know my friend Iolaus?"

"Not personally, but we know him by sight."

"Have you seen him today?"

"No, I saw him arrive yesterday, but that's it," one said.

"There are two new men, Briseis and Argius, working here. Have you seen them at all today?"

"Yes, about 8am. They went out by wagon to deliver a corpse to the graveyard."

"A corpse?"

"Yes. A thief, that had been imprisoned here, died during the night."

"Why were those two taking the body out?"

"I don't know. Someone must have ordered it."

"Are they back?"

"They were. They were away for about three-quarters of an hour, but they rode out again about twenty minutes ago. I don't know where they were going."

The image of Iolaus struggling for breath came forcibly back into the demigod's mind. 'They wouldn't have ... Surely they wouldn't have ... killed him,' he thought. He thrust the thought ruthlessly aside. "Did you see the thief's corpse?"

"No, just the coffin. He died suddenly of fever, so we didn't go near it."

"I'm surprised they bothered to provide a coffin for a thief. Criminals would normally not even get a winding-sheet."

"Yeah, that is a bit odd, but perhaps it was because of the fear of infection."

Hercules was calmly carrying on this conversation, but inside he was in a panic. He felt a dreadful certainty that Iolaus had been in that coffin, but in what condition? Had they suffocated him before putting his body inside it or was he imprisoned there gasping for breath. A wave of nausea washed over him and he leant against the wall.

"Are you okay, Hercules?"

"Yeah, sure. I'm just not quite over my head injury. Look, I need to see Briseis about something urgently. Which way did they go?"


"Thank you."

Hercules was aware that he was not up to following the two men on foot and knew he couldn't afford the time, so he went in search of Salmoneous again. "Salmoneous, here's a chance to redeem yourself. I need you to take me somewhere in your wagon."


"Right now!"

Briseis pinned Iolaus' shoulders while Argius undid his belts and stripped him of trousers and boots. The restraint was hardly necessary. The blond was feeling so sick and his limbs were so cramped after more than four hours in the coffin, that he could hardly move, let alone put up any real resistance. Even when Argius started to finger fuck him viciously, it was easy enough for Briseis to hold him still.

Suddenly, they heard a low rumbling sound that grew steadily in volume. The building began to shake violently. Its timbers creaked ominously and wooden shingles began to fall from the roof. Argius and Briseis let go of Iolaus and jumped to their feet, only to go down again with the force of the earthquake. Pieces of roof collapsed in. A rafter smashed down on Argius' head, knocking him to the ground. Unable to stand, Briseis began to crawl towards his friend.

Confused and acting on instinct alone, somehow Iolaus scrambled across the floor towards a doorway, where the building would be structurally strongest. Shingles were falling around him, but miraculously he was untouched. 'Gods, it's like being on the bloody Argo again,' he thought, as the floor tilted beneath him. Finally, he reached his goal and huddled there, head down and eyes tightly closed, as he listened to the roof falling in.

Finally, the shaking stopped. Iolaus raised his head and looked around. Briseis was lying trapped under the main beam. "Help me!" Briseis appealed.

Iolaus braced himself against the door jamb and tried to push himself upright, but couldn't do it. He dragged himself slowly over to Briseis on his knees. "Get this off me!" the latter ordered.

"H-Have you g-got a key to the manacles?"

"No! Just get this bloody thing off me!"

He was aware that Briseis would not have helped him, but knew Hercules would have tried to aid the man. 'Hell, Herc, you've been a 'bad' influence on me,' the blond thought, as he put his shoulder against the beam, but he couldn't budge it. Just then there was another strong tremor. Briseis looked up and gave a strangled scream of pure terror. Iolaus realized the large stone chimney was teetering above them. He flung himself sideways just as it fell.

Clouds of dust and splinters of rock flew into the air. The bulk of the chimney landed squarely on top of Briseis, its weight carrying him straight through the floor and down into the cellar. As the room continued to rock, Iolaus was unable to stop himself from sliding after it into the hole. He fell about ten feet and landed in the debris, crying out in pain and losing consciousness.

Hercules and Salmoneous had gone straight to the stables and were soon on the road. A couple of miles on, they had a piece of good luck when they met a couple walking towards the castle. Not only had the pair seen the two riders on the road, but the man said that, on an earlier occasion, he'd seen the pair go to an abandoned house, about three miles further on and not far from the road. This seemed a good place to check.

They had gone another couple of miles when the first earthquake struck. The horse panicked and bolted. Luckily it ran in the right direction and the road was relatively straight and smooth so, somehow, the wagon stayed upright. Finally, the demigod managed to grab the reins from Salmoneous and ease the horse to a halt. Unfortunately, once stopped, the animal was most reluctant to continue and they were not really certain how much ground they had covered. "I just hope we haven't overshot the turn-off," Hercules said. "We'd better go on for another half-mile or so and then turn back if we don't see anything." They continued on with the demigod holding the reins.

Soon after that, Salmoneous pointed out a small track. They turned into it just as the second quake struck. Hercules managed to hold the horse steady until the shaking ceased. Then he climbed down. "I'll go on on foot. Tie the horse up and follow me."

He soon sighted the house and, tethered to a tree outside it, two horses. It was the place all right, but looking at the building's condition, with the roof caved in and some walls down, he feared what he would find inside. He clambered through what had once been an outside wall. "Iolaus! Iolaus! Are you here?" he shouted.

He moved to the doorway of the next room and peered in calling again. That room was a real mess as the chimney had smashed through the floor. Picking his way gingerly around the edge of the room, he spotted Argius' body. He began to lift the rafters and tiles from it and there he saw Iolaus' leather trousers and boots. 'What in Tartarus have the bastards done to him,' he wondered, fearfully, as he shouted his friend's name again.

The hunter stirred. At first, he thought he was dreaming, but the voice called again. "I'm ... I'm here, Herc," he gasped. His throat was so dry, his voice was a mere croak. He'd had nothing to drink since the last stop he and Salmoneous had made before Corinth and the air in the cellar was thick with dust. 'Damn he won't hear me,' he thought. He tried again, "Herc! Herc!" It seemed hopeless but, having found the clothing, the demigod was listening intently and heard the faint response.

"Iolaus!" The relief in the voice was tangible. He inched as close as he dared to the gaping hole. "Where are you exactly? I'm scared to come too close to the hole in case I send more stuff down into it."

"I-I'm right under it, Herc."

"Can you move away from it?"

"I don't ... I don't know ... I'm ... kind of ... kind of hurt a bit." Hercules' feeling of relief began to give way to worry again. Iolaus was always reluctant to admit to injuries and if he didn't think he could move something must be seriously wrong.

He looked around that room and the others trying to locate the normal entrance to the cellar, but could find nothing. Presumably it was under one of the fallen walls.

Hercules moved swiftly back the way he had come and shouted to Salmoneous to enter the house, something the salesman had been anxious to avoid seeing its condition. "Come on, Salmoneous, I'm going to need help," the demigod insisted. That was true. He was feeling very light-headed. Pyretus had been right when he had warned Hercules that he wasn't yet up to searching for Iolaus.

"Where is he?"

"In the cellar. Look, Salmoneous, I can't go near that hole in case I cause more of a collapse. I'm going to try to break through the floor over here and then I'll go down and try to pass him up to you." The insertion of the word 'try' was a reflection of how the demigod was feeling. "I'll have to prise the boards up because if I try to bash my way through the vibration may send more stuff down on Iolaus. See if you can find anything I can use, but be careful. I don't want you to end up in the cellar as well."

Salmoneous began to root around in the rubble and finally emerged, triumphantly brandishing Argius' hammer. Inserting the claws into a gap in the floorboards, Hercules then rolled the head back over a small piece of wood he had selected to use to lever on. Gradually the floorboard nails pulled free. Fortunately, the floor was composed of short lengths of timber and so, once one was removed, it was relatively easy to get others out. Once that was done, he leant back against the wall.

"Are you okay?"

Yeah, I'm just a bit dizzy. I'm still having a few after effects from that accident. I'll be fine in a minute."

"I suppose I could go down there," said Salmoneous, very dubiously.

"No!" Hercules all but snapped and then he apologized. "Sorry, Salmoneous, but it's Iolaus. I *have* to go down to him. Anyway, he's heavier than he looks. I doubt if you could lift him high enough to get him out."

He lowered himself cautiously down and picked his way across to the hunter. The blond was lying awkwardly on his back on top of a pile of stones and timber. "Iolaus, I'm here, my love," he said softly, reaching out to caress the hunter's cheek.

"Herc! Wh-What took you so long?" Iolaus gasped.

"I don't know why you have to get yourself into these predicaments. I'd have thought you'd have known better by now," Hercules joked, his eyes full of concern. "Where are you hurt?"

"S-Sort of generally."

"Okay, let's try that again. Where are you particularly injured?"

"I think ... I think my right arm's busted again. I landed on that side. Th-That hip hurts a bit and my leg."

"I'm sorry, Iolaus, I'm going to have to get you out of here before I can try to do anything for you. I'll have to pick you up."

"C-Could you free my hands first?"


"They're manacled. That's why I ... I couldn't ...Hell!" He broke off with a gasp of pain as Hercules tried to roll him over to get to them. The demigod winced at the sound, but got his friend onto his left side. He carefully grasped the chain and snapped it.

"OW! Gods that h-hurts, Herc," the hunter complained, as his right arm was released and flopped down on to the debris.

"I'm going to pick you up now. Are you ready?"

"No, but I'm not ... not going to be so j-just do it."

He sucked in his breath, trying to suppress his pain as Hercules lifted him into his arms and staggered through the rubble with him. "D-Don't you dare drop me. I don't trust you."

Iolaus was trying to make light of things, but he didn't know just how much of a danger that actually was as Hercules was assailed with another attack of giddiness. "Okay, Iolaus, I'm going to pass you up to Salmoneous."

"W-What? Who?"

"Salmoneous is helping me."

"Now I know I'll get dropped."

It *was* going to be difficult. Hercules was going to have to lift Iolaus above his head and Salmoneous would have to lean down and somehow pull the blond to safety or, at least hold him until Hercules could climb out to help. Hercules could see Salmoneous peering anxiously down. "Sal, I'm going to pass Iolaus up to you now. You'll have to try to grab his left arm because the other's broken. He's not going to be able to help you much."

"I'll try."

"If you can't lift him, just hold him till I get up to help."

He tried to adjust his grip on the blond so he could grasp his waist. In doing so he put his hand on Iolaus' upper thigh. "Ow! Don't touch me *there*." Hercules could feel the stickiness of blood.

"Sorry." Holding Iolaus by the waist he lifted him as high as he could, while Salmoneous lay flat and reached down for him.

"I've got his wrist!" Hercules felt a slight reduction in his burden and then Salmoneous yelled, "He's too heavy! I'll fall in! I'll have to let go!"

"No! Just hold him!" Hercules shouted frantically. He quickly shifted his grip on to Iolaus' thighs, ignoring the blond's cry of pain, and thrust him upwards. Now the hunter's upper body was onto the floor. "Don't let go, Sal! I'm coming up!" Hercules jumped up and grabbed a floorboard on the other side of the hole and swung his way up. Then he immediately flung out a hand and heaved Iolaus to safety.

All three collapsed, Hercules and Salmoneous panting with exertion and Iolaus unconscious. After a few moments, Hercules roused himself enough to check on Iolaus. The hunter was bleeding from numerous cuts and abrasions, particularly down the right side. His right hip was especially badly scrapped. Worse, there was a long, deep gash down the outside of his right thigh, where he had landed on a broken, sharp-edged stone from the chimney. This was bleeding steadily. Hercules gestured towards Argius. "Can you get his shirt off, Salmoneous, I'll have to use it to bind Iolaus' thigh."

As Salmoneous hastened to obey, Hercules gazed down at his beloved friend. He looked dreadful. His hair was limp with sweat and dust and his body similarly begrimed, as well as bruised and bleeding. Chains from the broken manacles still dangled from both wrists.

The broken arm particularly worried Hercules. He had never been completely satisfied that it had regained its full strength, after being broken by Maceus, brother of Demetrius, although the hunter had insisted it was fine, and now it was back to square one. Well, this time the demigod was determined it would be immobilized by being strapped to Iolaus' body. He wasn't going to have the hunter pulling it out of his sling and using it in fights, thus delaying the healing process, again. At least, the damaged hand would probably preclude the arm's premature use this time.

He shuddered as he looked at the hand, still dark with bruises and with two awkwardly bent fingers, and thought about the treatment that hand was still to have from Pyretus. Gods, how he hated to see Iolaus in pain!

"Here!" Hercules started as Salmoneous poked the shirt at him. He took it, tore it into strips and bandaged the hunter's leg tightly. Having that stitched would be another 'treat' in store for the blond.

It was obviously going to be difficult to pull Iolaus' tight leather trousers over the bandage, so he went over to Argius and removed his trousers. Normally, he would have hesitated over stripping a corpse, but Iolaus' need was greater and, after what Argius had done, he was indifferent as to what happened to his cadaver. The trousers were far too big for the blond, but better than nothing.

Then he tossed Iolaus' trousers and boots to Salmoneous to carry and scooped Iolaus into his arms. He debated inwardly about the wisdom of heading back to Corinth given that Iphicles was somehow involved in what had happened to Iolaus, but he knew Pyretus was a first-rate healer and he wanted to get help for Iolaus as quickly as possible.

They tied Briseis and Argius' steeds behind the wagon and set off. Salmoneous drove and Hercules sat in the tray of the wagon cradling Iolaus as best he could.

There was a lot of bustle going on around the castle. Some of the wooden outbuildings had fallen or had suffered considerable structural damage in the earthquakes. A considerable number of people were clearing debris or doing repairs. Because all were busily occupied, the arrival of Hercules and the others attracted relatively little attention. Leaving Salmoneous to see to the horses, Hercules carried Iolaus to the sickroom.

Pyretus took one look at the demigod's pale face and ordered him to lie down on the other bed. "I don't want to be half-way through treating Iolaus and have to stop to pick you up off the floor," he scolded, when Hercules tried to raise a token protest. In actual fact, the demigod found it quite a relief to be able to lie down at last.

The healer then turned to the hunter who, with very bad timing, immediately began to stir. Pyretus had to dose him with poppy juice to put him back out again. Then he stitched and bandaged Iolaus' leg, while his assistant gave Iolaus a bed-bath, applied salve to his various abrasions and put dressings on his wrists. The pair then set the broken arm and broke and reset the fingers.

Pyretus was reaching for a bandage for these when he noticed that the demigod had turned an odd green colour. He only just managed to thrust a bowl into Hercules' hands in time. "I'm sorry," Hercules gasped, after he had finished retching, "I hate it when he's hurt and resetting his fingers was ... that was ... was awful." He paused to get his breath, as another wave of nausea swept over him, and then said, "Can you immobilize that arm completely please. He'll try to use it otherwise."

"Don't worry, I think I've got his measure. I was already planning to bind it to his chest. I'll put the knots around the back and, hopefully, he won't be able to reach them."

"Thank you."

The next three days were rough for both the hunter and the demigod. With his god's blood, Hercules made one of his usual quick recoveries, but he was worried about his lover. Iolaus was not only in quite a lot of pain, he kept having nightmares about his time in the coffin. He would awaken from these screaming, shaking and drenched with sweat. Since Hercules had opted to remain in the sickroom with him, with Pyretus' full approval, he suffered through each one alongside his friend.

However, on the fourth day, Iolaus began to show definite signs of improvement in that he actually began to talk about getting up. He was still very pale, but had improved enough to be getting restless at the inactivity. However, he found both Hercules and Pyretus united in their determination that he should not do so.

By the sixth day, he was completely bored with being in bed and had begun to complain more vehemently. By midday, both the demigod and the healer were tired of hearing his complaints and sick of trying to reason with him and had got to the stage of ignoring him and talking to each other as if he was not present. *That* made him worse than ever. Finally, an exasperated Pyretus gave him a drink with a tasteless sleeping potion added to it.

Once this had done its work, Hercules decided it was finally time for him to take a break from the sickroom. He sought out Iphicles as he wanted to talk to him about what had happened. He found his brother to be very defensive and not giving much away. When he pressed the point, Iphicles admitted that he'd heard stories from Briseis and Argius about Hercules and the hunter and repeated some of these.

Hercules was shocked to hear the kind of things they had said. He learnt Iolaus had been portrayed as seducing him away from an intended marriage to one of Demos' daughters and then flaunting his relationship with the demigod in a very public and distasteful manner. When he questioned Iphicles' ready acceptance of these tales, his brother pointed out that the stories had seemed all the more believable because Briseis was obviously a friend of Hercules. After all, Hercules had apparently written a letter of recommendation for him to give to Iphicles.

Iphicles admitted that he'd spoken harshly to Iolaus saying how much he disapproved of what he had heard and that he believed Alcmene would be very upset by the news as well. He then said he had heard Iolaus had left and he supposed his words had been the cause of the blond's departure. He confessed that this had pleased him as he hoped the association between Hercules and Iolaus would be broken.

When Hercules raised the matter of Briseis and Argius, he denied all knowledge of their part in Iolaus' departure, but did say he thought it might have been Briseis who had told him Iolaus had left for an assignation of some kind. He claimed the only thing that had concerned him about Iolaus' departure was that Hercules might be upset by it and go after him before he was well enough to do so. That was the reason he'd enlisted Salmoneous' help.

All this fitted with what Salmoneous had told Hercules. It *was* plausible that Briseis and Argius had been acting independently, and the demigod hoped it was true as he preferred to believe the best about his brother's actions and intentions. He wasn't completely convinced, but decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Iphicles breathed an inward sigh of relief at Hercules' apparent acceptance of his story. Basically, he had decided that, with Briseis and Argius conveniently dead, his best bet was to try to bluff his way out. He knew that there was still the danger that Iolaus might say something but, given that he'd now had nearly a week to do so and had clearly said nothing, Iphicles had begun to hope that the blond might have opted to keep silent. Perhaps he felt that to speak would be to cause a major rift in Hercules' family. Anyway, although he had tried to assault Iolaus, he hoped the two guards might not have told the hunter that he had anything to do with their actions. As far as the attack was concerned, he could truthfully plead drunkenness and he could always claim the guards had been lying if they had said anything about him. He had even been wondering about suggesting to Iolaus that, if the hunter said nothing to Hercules about the attack, then he would not try to turn Alcmene against his relationship with Hercules and would leave her to make up her own mind. However, since Hercules had not left Iolaus' side until this time, he had not had the chance to see him alone.

The king was then pleased to leave the subject and to be able to give Hercules some good news.

As a result of this, Hercules entered the sickroom smiling broadly. "A messenger has just brought a letter from my mother. She'll be here in three days time. It must be four or five months since I saw her last."

To his surprize, instead of sharing his pleasure, Iolaus stared at him and his face lost what little colour it had. "Are you all right, my love?" Hercules asked in concern.

The blond merely nodded.

"You don't look so well. Come here." Hercules gently grasped the blond, raising him slightly, and bent down to kiss him, but he pulled away. This abrupt and unexpected reaction confused and hurt the demigod. "Iolaus, what's wrong?" he asked.

"I was thinking maybe ... I wondered if I should ..." He trailed off.

"Come on, Iolaus, what is it?"

The blond put his head down, so that all Hercules could see was a mass of unruly, golden curls, and mumbled, "Iphicles and Jason said ... They said ... I thought ... I don't ..."

"Iolaus, stop babbling!" He reached out a hand and forced Iolaus' chin up. "*Look* at me and tell me *what* is wrong."

"Your mother."

"My mother? What about her?"

"They said she'll be ... really upset by our relationship. I don't think ... I couldn't stand that, Herc. I'd never want to hurt her ... or you. I *should* leave."

"I don't know how mother will react, but I can guarantee you *will* hurt me if you do that. You listen to me, Iolaus, if *you* go, *I* go."

"B-But, Herc, you *can't* do that. Your mother will be looking forward to seeing you. I don't want to upset your relationship with her."

"Look, Iolaus, I don't know what she'll think about us, but I believe she'll give us a fair hearing. However, whatever she says, *you* come first in my life."

"But ..."

"Don't say another word. She has her life with Jason and doesn't need me, but I need you. Now, come here!" He reached out and gently, but firmly, grasped Iolaus' good arm and pulled him into an embrace, holding him against his chest. "We can stay or go, my love, it's up to you, but whatever you decide I'll be with you."

"I guess we're staying then," the hunter conceded, reluctantly.

"I want more than guesses, Iolaus. I need your promise because Iphicles has suggested to me that I join him and ride out to meet her. Rena, Jason and Salmoneous are going too. We thought that we could be waiting to surprise her at a Megara, which is, as you know, about a day's ride from here. I *must* be sure that you're going to be here when I get back or I won't go. Of course, if you'd feel happier with me here, I'll stay. After all your nightmares lately, I don't really know that I should leave you."

"Of course, you must go, Herc. I'll be fine. I promise I'll wait."

"Thank you, my love," Hercules said, leaning down to kiss him gently. "We're going to set out tomorrow just in case she's ahead of schedule. If she's not, we may have to wait a day for her, so that will be three days I'm away. Are you *sure* that you'll be okay that long?"

"Yes! You must have noticed that Pyretus is as bad as you are for hovering over me and telling me what to do. I'm sure he'll be watching my every move whether I want him to or not."

"I know. The more I see of that man the more I appreciate his sterling qualities," the demigod said, smiling at the look of exasperation on Iolaus' face.

The group set off the next morning and, as soon as they were out of sight, Iolaus decided it was time for him to get up. To his considerable surprise, Pyretus didn't oppose the suggestion, although he did say the hunter was not to leave the sickroom unassisted. He helped Iolaus into his trousers and boots and gave him his arm, while his assistant carried a chair out into the sun for him. Iolaus was surprised at just how weak he felt after a week of eating little and so was quite content to sink into the chair and sit watching the castle's inhabitants going about their business. Occasionally, someone stopped to chat to him and so he had quite a pleasant morning.

About 11.30, a rider came in on a blown horse and soon after that quite a number of the castles' men rode out. As they passed, Iolaus called out to ask what was going on and one shouted something about a large gang of raiders at a village. That was the only excitement.

At lunchtime, Pyretus turned up with some food and drink and suggested a return to the sickroom for a rest, but Iolaus insisted he was fine and so the healer left him.

Soon after that he recognised a woman, wandering across the courtyard, with a rather abstracted air about her. "Melina!" he called. She started and looked as if she might run. He tried again. "Melina!" She turned and came over to him. "Don't you remember me?" he asked.

"Of course, I do, but I didn't think you'd want to remember me," she replied.

"Why not?"

"After what my friends did to you."

"That wasn't your fault. You tried you best to help me and I appreciated it," he said, with a dazzling smile that made her heart skip a beat.

She smiled back, but her face fell when he asked, "What are you doing here?" Seeing her reaction, he continued, "What's wrong? Is there something I can do to help?"

"No, everything's fine."

"I'm not usually one to contradict a lady, but that's the unhappiest looking 'fine' I've seen."

"It's too late now anyway," she muttered.

"Too late for what?"

"To save the king and his family."

Iolaus felt his blood run cold. "What on earth do you mean?"

"I suppose I might as well tell you, but it's too late. I wish I'd known you were here, but I didn't know anyone here to tell and I was scared I'd be blamed and now it's too late."

"Melina, please calm down and *tell* me. Nobody will blame you. I won't let them. Please tell me."

"Do you remember Theon?"

"He was one of your friends, wasn't he?"

"Yes, he was the only one that survived. Well, after you left us, we carried on traveling and we met up with some real nasty types that he knew. A local warlord, Phylides of Levadhia, has had his eye on Iphicles' kingdom and has been sending bands of his men into it on softening-up raids."

"Ah, that explains it. Iphicles sent for Hercules to help him deal with some marauders that had been plaguing his kingdom, but I don't think he knew there was any bigger plot involved."

"Theon saw a chance to use his special skills to get well in with Phylides."

"What skills?"

"He's an expert with explosives. He offered to assassinate Iphicles and his immediate family. He was planning to set up explosive devices here, but was having some difficulty as the king's apartments are well guarded. Then he heard about the king's plans to ride out to meet his mother at Megara. He left last night to get his charges set up. There's only one substantial inn there so he knows where they'll be staying. I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn't listen."

"Do you know if he was planning to wait until Alcmene arrives?"

"Yes, he wanted to get all of Iphicles' family so there'd be no one left to seek revenge."

"Then there's still a chance that they can be warned in time. The only reason Iphicles and the others planned to leave today was in case Alcmene is ahead of schedule. It may be that she won't get there until tomorrow night. Let's go and see Iphicles' steward."

"No, I'm not seeing anyone else. I shouldn't have even told you. I don't want to get involved."

"Melina, you'll be all right, I promise you."

"No, people in authority don't believe people like me. I shouldn't have said anything." With that, she turned and ran.

Iolaus limped off in search of the steward.

Unfortunately, the man was in no mood to listen. He was very flustered at having to take action over the raid and was disinclined to believe a story about assassination and explosives, especially as the person who had provided the information had taken off. He took the view that it might be a trick to have more men leave the castle. What with Iphicles' escort and those dealing with the raid away, he was short-staffed and feared that an enemy might be plotting an attack on the castle itself. When he questioned Iolaus, as to who the woman was and how well he knew her, and heard how the two had met he was more convinced than ever that the whole story was part of some ruse. Further, he did not know Iolaus, having been employed by Iphicles since the hunter's last visit, and seeing his bandages and pale face even wondered if the blond had been hallucinating. As a result, he declined to send anyone to the king.

'Damn, I'll have to go myself,' the hunter thought. Normally that would not have worried him in the slightest and it would have been impossible to stop him if Hercules was in danger, but he had some reservations about going. Most importantly, he wasn't sure that he was physically up to the journey. It would be disastrous if he collapsed en route. However, he also wondered what Hercules would say if there was no sign of the supposed assassin. Melina had taken off and he had no proof to back up what he was about to do. He had promised Hercules that he would stay in Corinth and he feared the demigod might see the whole thing as an excuse for getting out of the sickroom. Well, that was too bad because he *had* to go. He couldn't take chances with Hercules' life even if it got him into trouble with the demigod.

He debated returning to the sickroom to fetch his sword and knife, which Salmoneous had decided to return to him, but knew that Pyretus would not let him leave if he realized his intent and would probably agree with the steward's interpretation of the situation. Therefore he went to the stables and asked for a horse.

The stableman was dubious about letting him take one but, fortunately, he remembered Hercules had mentioned bringing Briseis and Argius' horses back and so told him they were now his. So the man saddled Briseis' horse for him and gave him a leg up and he was off.

Iolaus was a skilled horseman, but the big roan was a powerful and spirited beast and had not been exercised since its master's death, so it was hard to control with one hand. Most of the time, he just had to give the animal its head and concentrate on just staying on its back. The jolting motion was playing hell with his broken arm and this didn't help matters at all. What really frightened him was that a couple of times he suddenly found he could not remember covering parts of the journey. He'd have been looking ahead anticipating the terrain to come and somehow find he'd passed an anticipated obstacle without being aware of doing so. He knew if he didn't concentrate, he'd not be prepared if the horse made a sudden swerve or decided to jump something and then he'd be off and if that happened, he'd never be able to catch the horse again, let alone manage to remount. However, this was proving difficult as he was feeling very tired and rather light-headed.

Somehow, he stayed with the horse and, at last, it began to tire and slowed to a more reasonable pace. He rode on. The hours dragged past and night began to fall. He was virtually asleep in the saddle. His sense of direction was excellent and he knew that, had he been well, he could have traveled through the night on foot, but he feared going on as he was. If he fell asleep he'd fall and, even if he didn't, he could well be knocked off the horse by an unseen branch. Reluctantly, he swung awkwardly down. A wave of dizziness hit him as he touched the ground and he sagged against the horse. Fortunately, the animal was also tired and did not try to pull away as he could not have stopped it. He recovered himself and tethered the beast. He debated about trying to go on on foot, but knew, if Alcmene had arrived he would not get there in time. The only hope was that she has stuck to her original schedule.

He lay down and tried to sleep, but even though he was exhausted he found himself lying there worrying about what might have happened and what might yet happen to Hercules. Sure he didn't want anything to happen to the others, but it was the demigod who filled his thoughts. When he finally did go to sleep, he had the dream about the coffin again. But this time it was even worse. Although he had the frightening feelings of claustrophobia and suffocation, he was outside the coffin. He knew he had to open it and knew Hercules would be inside it. He couldn't bear to look and yet he had to do so. He started to lift the lid, there was an explosion and he awoke screaming. After that sleep was impossible.

At first light, feeling absolutely shattered, the hunter untied the horse and led it until he found a fallen tree that he could use to help him mount. Somehow, he scrambled into the saddle and started off. The horse behaved quite differently to the previous day. Seemingly resentful over its lack of breakfast, it seemed determined to stop and eat anything that was vaguely edible. Iolaus felt like kicking it, but was scared that might set the temperamental beast off on one of its mad gallops.

Meanwhile, Hercules and the others were getting up and planning a lazy day. They proposed to stay within the village to be certain of being there when Alcmene arrived. They had engaged the cook at the inn to prepare a special evening meal.

Hercules was enjoying the others' company, but feeling oddly tense. His mind kept wandering to Iolaus. 'I hope he's okay and not having more of those nightmares,' he thought. 'Still, at least, I know he is getting better and *will* be waiting for me. I'm sure Pyretus will take good care of him. I wonder if he's given in and let him get up yet. If he hasn't, he'll be in for a rough day. He's probably never struck such an annoying patient.' He smiled fondly, thinking of all the ingenious excuses that the hunter could always find on such occasions as to why he should be allowed out of bed. How he wished the blond was with him. 'That's the trouble,' he thought. 'I'm tense because he's not here. I'm so use to hearing that cheeky, chattering voice making suggestions of all sorts of ways we can fill in the day, it seems unnaturally quiet without him.' He paused and reflected, 'Truth is, I never feel complete without him.'

Finally, Iolaus neared the village. He had been wondering what the best course of action would be and had decided a stealthy approach would be the best bet as that would keep his options open. He knew that Theon would have the explosive charges in position and was worried that if the assassin saw him arrive it might panic him into abandoning his wait for Alcmene and setting them off straight away. He doubted that it would be possible to clear the inn of its inhabitants without alerting Theon that people were aware of his presence and again encouraging him into precipitate action. Anyway, even if he did get everyone safely outside, he didn't know how powerful the explosion would be and feared that just clearing the inn itself might not prevent casualties in neighbouring buildings. There was even a danger in the fact that the man might just abandon his task and run because that would mean that he might just select another time and place when all were unsuspecting.

As a result, he tethered the horse about a quarter of a mile from the village and headed on on foot. Fortunately, he knew the village as Hercules and he had broken their journey there on previous occasions when en route to Corinth. He skirted the village and then approached the inn from the back. He slipped silently into the kitchen.

'I hope this is when my past transgressions pay dividends. I think I need an ally who knows who is using which room and can move around the inn, if necessary, without exciting suspicion,' he thought, as he observed a rather large, middle-aged woman busy at a table. He moved quietly up behind her, wrapped his left arm around her and, as she started with surprise and began to turn, kissed her cheek. "Hello, Myrtea."

"Iolaus! Trust you to sneak up and frighten the life out of me," she exclaimed. "What are you doing here? I wondered why you weren't with Hercules and he told me you were ill."

"Aw, that's just Herc exaggerating, I'm fine as you can see."

She looked at him dubiously. "Well, I'd never call a scruffy, little runt like you 'fine' at the best of times and, as it is, I'd have to say I've seen you looking better," she pronounced.

"You're full of compliments as usual I see. I could be quite hurt by that comment you know."

"What ? You? You've had far too many people perjure themselves by telling you you're beautiful for me to start. Anyway, what are you doing here? Hercules told me you were confined to bed and had promised to stay there."

"Would you really expect me to stay in Corinth when I could be here with you?"

"Of course not," she simpered and then, in a matter of fact voice, demanded, "Come on, what's the real reason?"

"You won't give me away, will you?"

"Maybe. It will depend what you tell me. I don't trust you."

"After all we've been through together?"

"Look, Blondie, sharing a bed on your infrequent visits here doesn't mean I trust you, it just means I must have been incredibly desperate in the past."

"And you're not desperate now?"

"Well, I might be, but there's been odd rumours that you've got a regular lover now."

"You don't want to believe every story you hear."

"Maybe not, but I *do* believe this one. The only thing that surprises me is that it took you both so long to get around to it."

"Yeah, I can hardly believe how stupid we both were."

"I agree with that description. Anyway, why are you here now?"

"I was missing Herc and I thought I'd come and surprise him."

"Missing him after one day? You have got it bad! I don't know he'll be too pleased to see you. He seemed relieved to think you were resting and doing as you were told for once."

"Oh, he'll make a token fuss, but he'll really be pleased to see me. You know I'm irresistible. How could he be mad at me?"

"Very easily. I know I have no trouble. How come you're in here cluttering up my kitchen? Are you too scared to approach him after having come all this way?"

"*Me*? Scared? Nah, I want to surprise him and I thought my dear friend, Myrtea, might help me get up to his room without anyone seeing me."

"I might have known you wanted me for something."

"Oh, I always *want* you, but Herc gets a bit touchy about such things these days. It's rather unreasonable of him."

"Unreasonable? How you can say that about him? Putting up with you would stretch anyone's patience. Anyway, I've got lots of work to do today, because the king has ordered a special meal today in honour of his mother's arrival, so I can't stand here chatting to you. If you want to go to his room, you'd better follow me."

"Could you just go ahead and check nobody's about?"

"If it means getting you out of my kitchen, I'm sure I can." She opened the door and peered out. "It's okay, nobody's around. Come on!"

They were almost up the flight of stairs, when Myrtea heard him gasp and swung around to see him clutching the banister and swaying precariously. Without hesitation, she reached back, grasped him and pulled him against her. She then virtually dragged him on to the landing and into the first unoccupied room. "Sit down," she ordered, thrusting him on to the bed. She then pushed him down on to his left side and lifted his legs onto the bed. "Don't move! I'll get some water."

She was back in no time, but found he was already trying to rise. She pushed him gently, but firmly, back down. "Drink this."

He obeyed and then managed a feeble grin and said, "I-I th-thought I told you Herc doesn't approve of this sort of thing and here you are th-throwing me into bed."

"I should have let you bounce your way down those stairs. It might have knocked some sense into you," she retorted. "I'd better go and find Hercules for you."

"*No!* I'll be okay in a minute."

"Iolaus, tell me what's really going on. If you don't, I *will* go and get him."

He hesitated, debating inwardly how much to say in case of panicking her, but deciding he'd better be honest as she knew him too well to be easily fooled. "Okay, Myrtea, there's a plot against the king. I think there's a man, called Theon, here who intends to try to assassinate him. I don't want anyone to know I'm here in case he hears something about it and it panics him into action."

"But couldn't I just take the king a note from you to warn him."

"It's not that simple. I didn't want to scare you, but the man has probably got this place rigged with explosives. You see he wants to kill the king's relatives as well. He's apparently an expert with explosives. We don't know where he's watching from and, if he sees any odd behaviour, it might frighten him into setting them off before Alcmene arrives."

"What are you going to do then?"

"I'm going to try to find the explosives. How many other people are staying here besides the royal family and their attendants?"

"There are five men. Three arrived singly and two together."

"Damn, I'd hoped there wouldn't be so many to check. I think he's working alone, but I'm not absolutely certain and, if he has an accomplice, they might have arrived separately. Can you show me which ones are their rooms please?"

"What are you going to do?"

"To be honest, I'm not sure. I suspect the man I want will be around the inn keeping watch for Alcmene's arrival. I'm hoping he won't actually be in his room as I want to check in case he has the explosives there. Of course, he probably them concealed somewhere already. I suspect he's probably intending to wait until all are gathered in the dining room."

"If you know him by sight, why don't you just grab him?"

"I may have to, but the trouble is, if he has an accomplice, we may be no further ahead."

"I tell you what, why don't I go to the various rooms. If anyone's there I can say I've had news that quite a large party of travelers are coming in a couple of days and I just want to check which rooms will be available."

That little ruse showed three out of the four rooms to be empty. The hunter checked these, but could see nothing in them that could be connected with explosives.

Suddenly, a thought hit him. "I've just had an idea! Does your cellar extend under the dining room?"


"I bet that's where the explosives will be. Where's the entrance?"

"There are two. One is off the kitchen and there's one from outside."

"Okay, I'll try the kitchen one."

"Iolaus, are you certain you should be doing this? Surely, you should let me tell Hercules."

"Please, Myrtea, I've already explained about that."

"All right, but it's against my better judgement."

They descended to the cellar. Myrtea lit a lantern. They had decided she should go ahead of the hunter and pretend to be collecting a bottle of wine if anyone was there. However, all was quiet. "This would be right under the dining room," Mytea whispered. As she spoke, she raised the lamp.

"No! Be careful!" Iolaus said, urgently, putting a hand on her arm to keep it down. "The explosives are here. I can smell the naphtha."

"What do you mean?"

"I think the explosive will be a mixture of the old recipe for Wild Fire: Sulphur, pitch, charcoal, incense and tow, combined with naphtha and with Blackpowder added so there is a blast rather than just fire." He took the lantern from her and raised it carefully. "There!" he pointed. "See those small wooden vessels tied to the floor joists? That's where the explosive will be. The long ropes hanging from them will be also soaked in naphtha to act as fuses. He'll have time to light them and then get out through the outside door."

"Okay, what do we do now?"

"I'm going to stay down here, out of sight, and wait for the assassin or assasssins."

"Iolaus, you're in no shape for fighting."

"Course I am. You know me, I'm always ready for a scrap. You'd better get back to the kitchen or the meal won't be ready on time. Now *that* would be a disaster."

"All right. I suppose so, but if we all get blown up and my dinner is spoiled, I'll never forgive you."

"Don't worry, I'd never endanger good food. Could you come down and let me know when Alcmene arrives, please?"

"If my cooking isn't at a critical stage, I'll think about it. Come here." She pulled him into her arms and kissed him. "Now, be careful."

"I'm always careful. You know me."

"Yes, that's why I know you talk a lot of rubbish. I'll see you later."

As he sat waiting, Iolaus spent his time in a vain attempt to free his bandaged arm but, as Pyretus had intended, could not reach the knots. He really didn't know what use the arm could be, but he would have felt less vulnerable if it was available. 'Damn,' he thought, 'I should have asked Myrtea to do this for me but, knowing her, she would have said the bandages were for my own good and refused.'

A couple of hours passed. After all his exertions, Iolaus was hard put to stay awake. On a couple of occasions, he dozed and then awoke with a jolt.

At last, he heard Myrtea approaching. "Iolaus, Hercules' mother has just arrived," she whispered.

"Thank you. How long until dinner?"

"Another hour and a half."

"Damn, why can't they eat at a civilized hour? It's very boring sitting around doing nothing."

"You chose to be here. Anyway, I've brought you a snack. She passed him a bottle and some bread and meat."

"Thank you."

The food and drink revived him somewhat but, by the time another hour had dragged by, his lids were drooping again. It was becoming a real struggle to stay awake. Finally, he heard a small creaking noise. Adrenalin surged through him and he was instantly alert.

A shadowy figure glided into the cellar and then a lantern flared. Iolaus watched intently as Theon cat-footed his way towards the fuses. Then he cursed inwardly as he realized there was a second figure following in Theon's wake. He had hoped to be able to render the muscular Theon unconscious, in a surprise attack, and thus avoid a fight that he wasn't certain he could win. Obviously, this was not going to be possible.

He waited until the second man had passed him and then rose swiftly and silently and gave him a rabbit-killer to the back of the neck. The man crumpled to the ground, but Theon immediately spun around. Recognizing the hunter, he asked, incredulously, "What the hell are you doing here?"

Iolaus tried a bluff. "You might as well give up, Theon. Everyone knows about your plans. Melina warned us. We just let you carry on so we could trap any accomplices you had as well."

However, Theon wasn't so easily fooled. "Oh, yeah? How come you're here by yourself then?" As he spoke, he dropped the lantern and flung himself at the blond.

Distracted momentarily by the falling light, Iolaus' sidestep came too late and he was tossed flat on his back, with the assassin landing on top of him and crushing his arm into his chest. The hunter screamed in pain and nearly blacked out. He managed a short jab to Theon's nose with his left fist. Theon swore, raised himself onto his knees and grabbed for Iolaus' free arm to try to pin it. As he leant forward, Iolaus managed to bring a knee up between his legs. Unfortunately, he couldn't exert the force he had hoped for. Theon gave a brief cry of pain, but was able to backhand the hunter across the face, stunning him.

Theon clambered to his feet, picked up the lantern and moved towards the fuses. He was reaching for one, when Myrtea's scream split the air.

Fearful for the hunter, she had decided to check on him and had crept into the cellar only to find the assassin triumphant and in the act of igniting the explosives. Without hesitation, she launched her not inconsiderable bulk at him.

Those in the dining room were all chatting and laughing and had heard nothing of the fight between Iolaus and Theon, but the demigod, with hearing that was more acute than that of ordinary mortals, heard Myrtea's piercing scream. "Did you hear that?" he asked.

"Did I hear what?" Jason asked.

"It sounded like a woman screaming."

"You're imagining things, brother," Iphicles commented.

However, the demigod was not convinced and requested all be quiet for a few moments, while he listened intently.

Meanwhile, Theon was struggling with Myrtea. After some difficulty, he managed to flip her across his hip in a cross-buttocks throw and she crashed into some shelving, dislodging some bottles and falling heavily. He stood panting for a couple of moments and then pulled a knife and advanced towards her.

Iolaus had managed to regain his feet while this was going on. "Don't touch her!" he screamed frantically and flung himself towards Theon. The assassin swung back towards him. As he turned, Myrtea kicked him behind the knee and he lost his balance. Seizing the opportunity, Iolaus unleashed an uppercut to his chin. The haymaker rocked Theon's head back and the hunter ignored the pain of bruised knuckles and followed up with a blow to his throat. Theon fell as if poleaxed.

Hercules had heard Iolaus' shout and immediately recognized the voice. "That's Iolaus!" he gasped in disbelief. He turned to a serving wench and ordered, "Show me the entrance to the cellar. Quickly!"

He raced down the stairs and towards the light of the fallen lantern, with Jason and Iphicles in hot pursuit and the writer of the celebrity biography following, at what he hoped would be a safe distance. Iolaus was on his knees beside a larger figure soon revealed as Myrtea. A solid-looking man was lying unconscious and another man was endeavouring to crawl unobtrusively towards the outside entrance.

Without waiting for explanations, Hercules ordered, "Grab him, Jason," and bent to pick up the lantern.

"C-Careful with that, Herc," Iolaus gasped, "Th-There are explosives tied to the floor joists. Could you get Myrtea out of here please."

However, that redoubtable lady was already climbing to her feet. "I'm fine, Hercules. Our little trouble-making blond here is the one who needs the help."

"He may well do after I finish with him," Hercules said, bending down and scooping him gently into his arms. "Come on, Iolaus, I can't wait to hear what wonderfully creative excuse you've got for being here."

To his surprise, Iolaus made no protest at being carried, merely muttering, "I had to come here, Herc," and snuggling against him.

He carried the hunter upstairs to his room, while Jason and Iphicles handed Theon and his accomplice into the care of Iphicles' guard. Myrtea dispatched a servant to fetch the local healer and then followed Hercules and told him what had been going on, while he stripped the surprisingly docile hunter and put him into bed.

The healer soon arrived, but could find no serious new injuries. Apart from a few new bruises, the hunter's main problem was exhaustion after all his exertions. A relieved demigod decided to leave the hunter to get some needed sleep and to join those downstairs, who would be waiting to hear what was going on.

Iolaus was awake again when Hercules re-entered the room a couple of hours later. In spite of his fatigue, he had found sleep elusive and had kept dozing and waking as he wondered what was going on downstairs. He considered feigning sleep, but knew he'd have to face the demigod sooner or later and decided to get it over with. He couldn't help flinching slightly as he heard the demigod say, "I seem to remember you promised me something."

"I *had* to come here, Herc. Are you mad at me?" he asked, somewhat apprehensively.

"Mad at you? I can hardly be mad at you when you've saved my family and me." He watched the expression of relief flicker across the hunter's face and then continued. "Exasperated and worried, yes, but mad, no. Here I was fondly imagining that you had actually obeyed me for once and were safely abed back in Corinth, and all the time you were actually gallivanting around the countryside putting yourself in considerable danger." He paused and then added, "Perhaps I *ought* to be mad."

"No! Please don't be. I *am* sorry, Herc, but I *had* to do it and I *would* do the same again."

"I suppose it's really my fault. I should know, after all this time, that there's only one way to make you stay in bed and that's to join you. Move over!" As he spoke, he disrobed rapidly. Then he slipped between the sheets and pulled the hunter to him, settling the curly head upon his shoulder and hugging him gently. "Thank you, my love," he whispered, dropping a kiss into the soft tangle of golden hair.

Iolaus lay quietly for a few minutes, enjoying the closeness and then ventured, "Herc, d-did you tell ... W-What did your mother ..."

"Yes, I told her. Originally, I had been planning to wait until we got to Corinth before speaking to her, but I decided I'd better do it now since I would be sleeping with you here and I wanted to make sure she heard about it first from me. It gave her a bit of a shock and she was too honest not to say she wished it hadn't happened. She had so wanted me to remarry and have more children."

Iolaus tried to pull away from him, but the arm around his shoulders held him in place. "I'm sorry, Herc."

"Wait until I finish please, my love. She went on to say that she can understand why I love you and that, if I have to have a male lover, she'd rather it was you than anyone else because she has always loved you and regards you as part of the family. What's wrong now? I thought that would please you," he exclaimed, in perplexed tones, as he watched a tear sliding down Iolaus' cheek.

"I-I've hurt her and she *still* said that?"

"Yes, aren't you pleased about it?" With his black and white view of the world, the demigod could be so obtuse at times.

"Yes ... No ... Kind of."

"Well, that's nice and definite then."

"Aw, Herc, you know what I mean."

"Not really."

"I hate doing anything that upsets Alcmene because she's always been so kind to me. And now I've done this and she *still* says she loves me."

"What about it? You've caused heaps of trouble for me over the years and I still love you."

"Yeah, but you don't count."

"Thank you very much," the demigod said, feigning offence.

"But you know what I'm getting at, Herc."


"You're not surprised when people love you because you've always been loved. Your mother has always been there for you. Some of ... Some of us haven't had this and when someone tells us they love us it's ... it's hard to believe they could and even harder to believe they'll keep doing it after ... after ..."

"Iolaus, my mother wouldn't just say it if she didn't mean it."

"I know, that's what makes me feel so guilty about us."

"Iolaus, I'm probably the last person who should say this, but you can't live your life by other's hopes and expectations. Anyway, do you really think you'd feel happier if we were to part? I think that, realistically, that's the only alternative. I don't think it would be possible for us to go back to being just friends. I know I can't look at you without wanting you."

"No, I know we can't go back. It's all my fault. I messed everything up by wanting you to acknowledge our relationship in public."

"Are you trying to say that what my mother didn't know didn't hurt her? I'm sure she would have found out sooner or later and it was better that she heard it from me. Anyway, my secrecy was living a lie and implied I was ashamed of loving you. I realize that now. And look at all the trouble it caused for you at Demos' court. You talk about feeling guilty! If anyone feels guilty, it should be me for causing all that to happen to you."

"You mustn't ever think that. You couldn't possibly have envisaged what happened there, Herc. However, what you said about what your mother didn't know didn't hurt her, was only part of what I meant. I'm not sure how ... It's difficult to ..." He ran a nervous tongue over his lips wondering how best to proceed.

"Come on, Iolaus," the demigod encouraged, "just tell me, please."

"B-Before you got that message from Iphicles, I was going to ... I thought I might ... leave you."

"*What?* Why?" asked Hercules, his voice reflecting his shock and hurt.

" I-I didn't *want* to, Herc. You know I love you. I just hoped it would make you understand what I was feeling. I hoped it would only be for a short time."

"I still don't see ..."

"I'm sorry, Herc, but you talked a few moments ago about not living according to others' hopes and expectations. Well, I can't live with all the restrictions you've been putting on me. I know part of this is you trying to protect me, from others and from my more stupid actions, and I can live with *some* jealousy, it's way better than indifference, but you're stifling me. Fighting and flirting and taking risks are all part of me being me. I want my own life, Herc, but I also want you beside me as my lover. Is it asking too much to want both?"

"No, of course it isn't, Iolaus, although, on the same score, I suppose being over-protective with those I love is part of me. However, I *will* curb my jealousy and I will *try* not to be such a mother-hen."

"Thank you and I'll try not to do quite so many things that provoke those feelings in you. I do love you, you know."

"And I love you, Iolaus." He leant over and kissed the blond gently.

"Thank you, Herc. I think I might have to go to sleep now."

"Can I ask you one question first?"


"When Jason and I went to remove the explosives, we found the ends of the rope fuses were tied to the joists not the caskets. I suppose you were responsible for that?"

"Of course. You surely didn't think I would be stupid enough to leave them as they were so we'd all get blown up if, by some absolute fluke, Theon beat me, did you?"

"Not for a moment, my love."

"Good, now be quiet, I want to sleep." He snuggled as close to the demigod as he could and gave a sigh of contentment.

Having heard about Phylides' intentions from Myrtea, Iphicles was up early the next morning, anxious to set off for the castle. He was keen to check that the castle's defenses were all organized and to discuss the possibility of a pre-emptive strike with his captains.

Hercules was torn. With raiders around, he wanted to travel with his family to ensure that they got safely back to Corinth, but Iolaus was obviously still tired out and needed to remain. "You go, Herc," Iolaus urged. "I'll be fine. Myrtea will look after me. She's good at that. I'll join you in a couple of days or so."

It was a good test of the demigod's new resolution, as he was well aware of the way in which Myrtea had 'looked after' the hunter in the past, and both knew it. With a considerable effort of will, the demigod managed to say, "I hope she knows what a troublesome charge she's taking on."

Iolaus finally arrived back at Corinth five days later. He had tried to delay his return as long as possible to really check on Hercules' reformation, but after four days he could hold out no longer and Myrtea was heartily tired of his moping and his starting every second sentence with "Hercules ..." "You're driving us all mad," she proclaimed. "Go and join him before I find myself clouting you with something."

Hercules had been watching for him from the battlements since day two, seemingly oblivious of the amusement this devotion caused amongst certain of the castle's inhabitants. By the time, the hunter crossed the drawbridge, the demigod was down in the courtyard. The blond dismounted and was immediately swept into his arms, lifted high so his broken arm was safely out of the way, and enveloped in a rib-crushing bear-hug.

"Can I take it you're pleased to see me?" he managed.

"Nah, I greet everyone like this."

At that moment, Iolaus' eyes fell on a prisoner being escorted across the courtyard to the great hall. With a start, he recognized the mercenary. "Medon," he gasped.

"What?" The demigod's back was to the hall and he had seen nothing

Iolaus immediately began to wriggle out of the demigod's embrace. "Put me down please, Herc. I've got something I *have* to do. Please wait here for me." To Hercules' intense confusion, he then darted off towards the hall.

He burst inside and then skidded to an abrupt halt as he realized Iphicles was obviously in the throes of trying various prisoners. Not really sure what was best to do, and feeling whatever he did would probably be a breech of protocol, he walked boldly forward, genuflected perfunctorily before Iphicles, and said, "Iphicles, could I see you privately for a moment, please. It's important."

This was the first time the pair had met since the night of Iphicles' attempted assault on the hunter and so the latter was understandably somewhat apprehensive about what was to come. Once he would have angrily responded that the timing of the request was inappropriate and refused it, but the thought crossed his mind that Iolaus might then proceed to say something in public that they would both regret. Accordingly, he nodded his consent and rose. "Follow me."

He led the way to his private quarters. "What is it, Iolaus?"

"It's one of the men on trial, Medon, I want to plead for mercy for him."

The king looked, and was, thoroughly taken surprised. He had certainly not expected this. "The mercenary? But he's one of Phylides' men. He was captured spying on the castle."

"I don't know anything about that, but he and his men saved Hercules and me from a group of bandits when we were on our way here. They carried Herc to Trikkala and they gave me what money they could spare to pay for medical treatment for him. Can you please consider what he did for Hercules when sentencing him?"

"Iolaus, are you thinking of this as a quid pro quo for what I tried to do to you when I was *drunk*?" The emphasis on the last word was unmistakable.

The hunter was genuinely taken aback at the hint about blackmail. "No, of course not. I'd never do that, Iphicles. You must know I'll never tell anybody about that. It would only upset Herc, Rena and Alcmene. *This* is quite separate. I know you don't like me, Iphicles, but I'm asking for what he did for Herc."

Iphicles looked down. He felt thoroughly ashamed. "Iolaus, I'd like to apologize to you. I've been talking things over with my mother and she told me that she said to Hercules that she would rather he did not have a male lover but, if he had to have one, she was glad it was you. She is a wise woman and I have to confess I've come to agree with her on this issue." He held out a hand and Iolaus took it. "Now, as regards your request, Medon shall go free provided he will promise not to rejoin my enemies. Indeed, if he would like employment amongst my soldiers, he will be welcome to stay."

"Thank you."

The hunter returned to the courtyard, where a bemused Hercules was awaiting him. "Right, I'm back," the blond smiled, taking his hand.

"You're sure about that, are you?" the demigod queried, looking fondly down into the glowing face of his lover. He hadn't seen Iolaus looking so happy for weeks.

"Definitely, my love, I'm back for good."

The End

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

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