By AramisThe characters belong to MCA/Universal (but if they ever get tired of Iolaus they can give him to me). Not surprisingly, the writer is not making any money from this.
Hercules and Iolaus were on their way to Athens. They had received an urgent request from a group for help from help from a leading group of citizens, but did not know the nature of the problem.
They were about four hours walk from their destination when Autolycus hailed them. Hercules smiled a greeting, but Iolaus glowered. "What the hell do you want?" he snarled.
"Iolaus, is that any way to greet a man who surrendered himself to the authorities to save your life?" the amused thief demanded.
"I wouldn't have needed saving if it hadn't been for you and you wouldn't have given yourself up if Hercules hadn't forced you to do so," the hunter retorted.
"Well if you hadn't interfered in my business in the first place none of it would have happened."
"Yeah, and you would have been dogs' meat," Iolaus pointed out.
"Come on, you two, stop squabbling," remonstrated Hercules. He knew both sides of the story. He was aware that Autolycus could easily have abandoned him to battle with the serpent and not gone to the court of King Menelaeus, but he was also aware that Iolaus had had to survive ordeals of near-drowning, pressing and imprisonment with an enraged boar and Autolycus knew nothing about this. However, during his time in Autolycus' company, he had developed an affection for the rogue and so he said, "We're on our way to Athens. Would you like to join us?"
Autolycus' first impulse was to decline, as he felt that the demigod's well-known moral rectitude would cramp his style but, looking at the resentment on Iolaus' face, he could not resist replying, "I'd be delighted." He always enjoyed a bit of mischief-making and, by his standards, the score was even and he didn't owe Iolaus anything. He would enjoy tormenting the blond warrior.
Iolaus turned his back on the two of them and stalked off down the road. Damn Herc, he thought, why does he always have to be so nice to people? Can't he see this guy is nothing but trouble?
Hercules and Autolycus enjoyed each other's company and for them the next few hours passed swiftly. The normally talkative Iolaus maintained a stony silence and only answered in monosyllables when addressed. Autolycus deliberately went out of his way to speak nicely to him and to present a relaxed and friendly front to his surliness. Hercules accepted the surface appearance of this, but Iolaus knew that it was an act designed to annoy him more than hostility would. He was also aware that the guileless Hercules saw him as being the unreasonable one of the pair. However, knowing these things did not enable him to counter them.
They reached Athens and located the address they had been given. News of their arrival quickly circulated amongst the men who had sent for them and soon a group of about ten of Athen's leading citizens had joined them. They proceeded to relate a horrifying tale. Fifteen women had been murdered in Athens during the previous month and another five were unaccounted for. The bodies had been found on the streets. All had been tortured before having their throats cut. Eleven of those who were dead were hetairai, but the other four were ordinary citizens, who just happened, for various reasons, to be alone on the streets at night. All efforts to find the man responsible had failed. It was as if the murderer was psychic, as well as psychotic, and knew their every plan. In desperation, the group had decided to ask Hercules for help.
The newcomers and the Athenians discussed the measures taken thus far and pondered on what could be done. Autolycus' devious mind came up with an idea; an idea that appealed to his sense of humour. It was a way of dealing with the problem, but also getting at Iolaus. "We need to set a trap for the murderer. What we need is someone to act as a decoy," he stated. Having sown the seed he waited eagerly for it to take root.
Novatus agreed, but added, as Autolycus had anticipated someone would, "The trouble is I would hate to ask any woman to risk herself in case something went wrong."
Odite concurred, but added, as Autolycus had hoped, "Does it have to be a woman?"
"Of course it does!" Novatus responded.
"Not necessarily. Remember it will be dark. We could get a man to dress as a hetaira."
Autolycus, who had been waiting for this suggestion as he wanted it to come from someone else, said, "He's got a good point there and I suggest there's only one of us here who could pull it off." He looked pointedly at Iolaus and the others followed his gaze.
"Oh no! Not me!" the hunter responded, taking a step backwards.
"Yes, you! You're the logical choice. You're the right height, the rest of us are far too tall. You're clean-shaven and I'm sure those of us with facial adornments would prefer not to have to sacrifice them if it can be avoided. You're not too old. Finally, with a mop of curls like you've got, you could probably get away without a wig."
"He's right, Iolaus," Hercules observed, unable to avoid grinning at his friend's look of panic.
"No, I couldn't! I couldn't convince anyone."
"Of course you could," Hercules pointed out 'helpfully'. "You should be an expert on how women act as you spend enough time watching them and chasing after them."
"Anyway the local hetairai are quite stirred up over what's been happening, so I'm sure they'll be prepared to give you some advice," laughed Anaxis. Indeed, the whole group seemed to be getting a good deal of amusement out of Iolaus' reaction in spite of the agreed seriousness of the problem.
Pania, a large middle-aged woman, was in favour of any measures to catch the murderer as she had lost three girls from her house and the others were reluctant to venture forth alone. She surveyed the embarrassed Iolaus with interest and commented, "You've made a good choice, he's very pretty. I'm sure I could find him work any day. I've got plenty of gentleman clients who would adore him and, if he doesn't like dressing-up, most would prefer him as a male anyway."
Iolaus blushed and tried to back out of the room, but his sniggering friends closed ranks behind him and stopped any exit.
"That blush is just beautiful," Pania continued. "Many of my clients are most attracted to apparent innocence." She reached out and stroked his cheek. Autolycus couldn't suppress a chuckle.
That did it! Iolaus turned and tried to push his 'friends' aside, but to no avail. "Come on, Iolaus," Hercules encouraged, "I know we shouldn't be teasing you. Remember at least fifteen women have died already. It's vital that this man be caught."
"Yeah, I know it is, Herc, but surely someone else could do this."
However, all the others concerned were determined that he would do it. It was arranged that he would stay at the whorehouse to be prepared for his role and would then use it as his base. He would be taken out by a couple of the women for the first two nights, but would then be expected to go out on his own. Hercules and the others would take turns at acting as clients to give him practice at the role and also to give an air of authenticity in case he was being observed by the murderer. At midnight, one of the men, in the guise of a client, would escort him back to the whorehouse as it appeared that all the women had, as far as could be ascertained, disappeared before that time. Another of the men would keep watch, from hiding, at all times.
The first job was to train Iolaus for the role and to disguise him suitably. Pania enlisted the aid of two of the older whores for this task. She had put aside a room for Iolaus and informed him that during his time with them, he was to be kept there apart from the rest of the inmates of the house because the fewer who knew what was going on the better. The girls, as she called them, were to be told that the locked room contained a new girl from the country, who had been sold to the house and who was reluctant to accept her new life. The room had obviously been used for such purposes before as it was windowless and had a solidly barred door. It made the hunter feel quite claustrophobic.
He had been escorted to the room by Pania, Hercules and the others. Once he was inside, the door had been closed and locked behind him. He sat there full of apprehension, cursing the other men, in particular Autolycus, who he recognised as the guiding hand behind his plight.
Half an hour later, Pania an her two selected assistants entered the room. "These are Lucretia and Cadra," she stated. "They will be helping you." 'Helping' was not the word the hunter would have chosen. Pania left them to it, carefully locking the door behind her.
So a protesting and embarrassed Iolaus embarked on an intensive series of lessons in such useful subjects as how to swing one's hips seductively while walking. If that wasn't bad enough, they also set to work to alter his appearance. They painted his face with white lead, plastered kohl around his eyes and darkened his lashes. His lip were carmined and a beauty spot was affixed to his right cheek. A Minoan corset was used to narrow his waist, while a carefully padded dress was the final indignity.
Pania came in to view the finished product. "I can't do this. I must look ridiculous," Iolaus protested.
"Rubbish!" she retorted. "You look beautiful. I'm tempted to go back on the deal and keep you. I could make a fortune out of you. Look!" She handed him a mirror.
Iolaus stared in horrified wonder at himself. She was right. The make-up was a bit over the top for daylight, but he would have given himself a second glance at night and possibly more than that....No, it didn't bear thinking about.
"You'll go out with these two for a couple of nights so you can observe and practise their techniques," Pania stated, thoroughly enjoying his discomfort.
He was not to know that Hercules was actually having some misgivings as well. Although Hercules had enjoyed teasing Iolaus about the plan, he had felt some twinges of guilt since and had not liked the idea of his friend being locked in. He also felt, on reflection, that not enough consideration had been given to the fact that Iolaus was to risk himself against a brutal murderer when they press-ganged him into the role. He hoped Iolaus was coping okay and found it hard to resist going to check on him. Accordingly, when the men planned the next stage of the operation, he insisted he be the first to approach Iolaus.
Hercules wandered drunkenly up to his nervous friend and put an arm around his shoulders. "C'mon, Iolaus," he muttered, "we have to make this look realistic in case anyone's watching." Iolaus stepped back and held out a hand. Hercules pulled out a pouch and fumbled for a few coins. He then pulled Iolaus to him and gestured towards the alley. He held Iolaus tightly against him as he guided him into the darkness.
Once out of sight of prying eyes, he felt Iolaus relax. "Damn it, Herc, I can't do this."
"Yes, you can. Just keep thinking of the women who have died and the others who are at risk from this maniac. He has to be stopped."
"There has to be another way."
"No one's come up with one yet." He didn't like to admit that the others were so into this scheme they'd lost interest in alternatives.
"How long to they expect me to do this for."
Hercules had to admit they hadn't considered that.
"If it's more than a few days I'm giving up."
Half an hour later, Hercules emerged and wandered off. Iolaus appeared a few minutes later and reluctantly resumed his original position on the street.
Some minutes later, Odite arrived and approached Iolaus. He seemed to be as nervous as the hunter and this time the latter had to make the approach. Somehow he forced himself to go up to Odite and to gradually wrap his arms around him. To his surprise, Odite began to get into his part and embraced him in turn. As before, the two retreated into the alley.
At midnight one of the other men arrived and the performance was repeated, but this client was obviously a better payer as the two of them headed for the greater comforts of the whorehouse. The guard shadowed them the whole way.
"It's all very well for you, but I have to keep going out there," he complained. "You might enjoy kissing people with moustaches, but I now know that I don't."
"All in a good cause," Autolycus laughed, "and I can assure you the ladies love moustaches."
Iolaus retreated into a grumpy silence.
Some time later, Iolaus returned to the street, but received no further approaches until midnight when Anaxis arrived to escort him to the whorehouse.
Iolaus turned away, reluctant to speak as he didn't trust his voice. The youth persisted. "Come on, how much? Look at me when I'm talking to you." He grabbed Iolaus by the shoulder and swung him to face him.
"I'm waiting for someone," Iolaus ventured.
"Never knew a whore to turn away customers," another of the youths commented. "Come on, darling, let's have some fun. We've got money." He reached for Iolaus, who pushed his hands away.
Fortunately, on this occasion, the guard turned out to be Hercules. He appeared stating, "Leave the lady alone, boys, she's with me." They turned ready to dispute this and, although the size of the demigod gave them pause, drink gave them the courage to attack. A frustrated hunter was forced to watch as his friend easily defeated them. He would have liked the chance to take out his feelings on the three, but knew he had to keep in character and, in any case, was hardly dressed for ease of fighting.
The three staggered off, two of them supporting the third. Hercules moved to Iolaus and whispered, "C'mon, show your gratitude, Iolaus." He was expecting a hug but, misunderstanding, Iolaus snaked his arms up around Hercules' neck, pulled his head down and kissed him full on the lips, thinking, If I can kiss Autolycus, surely I can do this. Hercules' lips were sweet and a surprised Iolaus did not find it at all distasteful. In fact, somewhat the opposite. The two drew apart breathing heavily and more than somewhat disconcerted. This time it was Iolaus who led his friend into the alley, where each sat lost in his own thoughts.
When they emerged, Hercules commented that his spell on watch would be over soon and one of the others would be taking over.
The rest of the evening passed without incident, until a shape materialised out of the darkness. "I've come to collect you, Iolaus," the man breathed.
Iolaus recognised Mandrocles, a large and unattractive man, aged somewhere in his fifties, and running to fat. He had not contributed much to the discussions and Iolaus was a bit surprised to find that he was taking an active part in the ruse. He was also surprised as he usually had a fairly good sense of time and could have sworn that midnight was still about half an hour off.
Mandrocles put an arm around Iolaus' shoulders as the others had. Iolaus found this even more unpleasant than on the previous occasions as Mandrocles was sweating profusely, in spite of the chilliness of the evening. I suppose he's as nervous as I am, he thought, trying not to let his repugnance show.
"This way," Mandrocles whispered, as Iolaus went to follow the route of the previous evenings.
"We decided it's more natural to vary the route." This seemed reasonable and so Iolaus did not object when he was taken into another alley.
About half-way down the alley, Mandrocles suddenly stopped. "Did you hear that?" he asked.
"Look!" He pointed at something on the ground ahead. Iolaus turned to see what it was and was struck down by a heavy blow to the back of the head. He fell unconscious to the ground.
"Where is he?"
"He's gone back to the whorehouse. He left about thirty minutes ago. I intercepted him when I saw him walking off. He said he was feeling cold and had had enough for the night. I tried to persuade him to wait, but he refused. You know, it wouldn't surprise me if he's thinking of giving up on this as he seems very unhappy about it. I thought I'd better wait here and tell you what's been going on."
"Thank you. I'll see you tomorrow. We'll need to discuss this with the others. We don't want him pulling out at this stage."
A short time later, Mandrocles entered the room. "Good, you're awake at last. I hoped I hadn't hit you too hard." He looked at the bright blood matting the hunter's golden curls and ran his tongue across his lips. He reached out and removed the gag. "You don't need this now. Nobody can hear you from here."
"What the hell are you playing at?"
"Oh, I'm not playing I'm deadly serious."
"What do you mean?"
"You mean you still haven't figured it out? I'm the one you've been waiting for."
"You're the killer?"
"Of course," Mandrocles smirked.
"You won't get away with it. What about the guard?"
"You still don't understand do you? I was the guard, not the client. I was your lookout and I picked you up half an hour before your escort was due to arrive. I've since been back and told him that you were cold and packed it in early. Nobody will look for you until at least tomorrow night."
Iolaus felt his blood run cold. A knot of fear started to form in his stomach. "Why are you taking this risk? Why didn't you just wait until we gave up on the scheme?"
"I've outwitted everyone so far. I just couldn't resist doing it again. I'm too clever for them You can't imagine how I've enjoyed listening to their schemes over the past weeks and acting to thwart them."
"Since you were the last person with me, you'll be suspect now."
"No. I won't. Obviously something happened to you when you were returning to the whorehouse alone. Perhaps you met the murderer or some potential clients who wouldn't take no for an answer. You might even have decided you'd had enough and cleared out. Maybe something happened to you in the whorehouse itself. I must suggest that at the next meeting. According to Autolycus and Novatus, the madam saw great potential in you. They thought it was a great joke. I'm sure I can stir up sufficient distrust to break up the unnatural alliance of madam and our citizens' group." He was positively gloating over his cleverness.
"Now let's get down to business. You can't imagine how much fun I've had with my ladies. It's so nice to be able to exactly what I like. You're so pretty. I'm going to enjoy introducing you to my little games. So far I've only tried these on women as I was a bit concerned about resistance if I tried to pick up a male. Of course, most of my ladies have entered my premises willingly. It's only when they're here that they seem to want to leave and I don't like that." His voice hardened ominously on the last phrase.
As he spoke, he ran his hand up Iolaus' dress and squeezed his thigh. "Yes, I find the thought of you very appealing." Iolaus felt a cold shudder pass through him.
Mandrocles grasped the neck of the dress and ripped it down the back to the waist. He removed the corset and then stroked his pudgy fingers down Iolaus' back. "You've got beautiful, smooth skin," he commented. "It's almost a pity to mar it, but I must have my fun."
He produced a small, knotted whip and proceeded to lay it across the hunter's shoulders. Iolaus bit his lip, but made no sound even when he felt blood beginning to trickle down his back. He decided that a stoical response would disappoint his tormenter. This proved to be true, but was a bad decision.
Aware that Iolaus was determined to try to restrict his pleasure, Mandrocles stopped. He reached for Iolaus' skirt and pulled it up around his waist. He then concentrated his punishment upon Iolaus' buttocks and thighs. Humiliated, Iolaus buried his face in the pillow and lay as still as possible. He could hear Mandrocles breathing heavily. "You don't like this much do you?" his tormentor whispered, enjoying his discomfort. "Perhaps you'll like my next game more." He glanced towards the fire.
He spent the next few minutes, torturing the hunter with the heated poker. Most of the burns were shallow, although painful, but he inflicted a couple nasty ones on Iolaus' shoulders. Iolaus could not suppress some gasps of pain.
This excited Mandrocles even further. Suddenly he dropped the poker and ran a finger along the cleft in the blond's buttocks. The hunter tensed, his mind full of terrified apprehension. Surely Mandrocles wasn't going to...but he was. Without warning, he thrust two fingers into Iolaus' anus. Iolaus cried out. "Ah, I've got your attention at last, haven't I?" Mandrocles purred.
"Damn you! Leave me alone!"
"Not a chance, Iolaus. I don't usually include intercourse in my little games and I've never had it with a man before, but you're too deliciously tight for me to resist." He withdrew his fingers and began to remove his clothing.
Iolaus struggled frantically against his bonds, but they held tight. He was in a state of panic. He would have abandoned his pride and begged, but he knew that would just excite Mandrocles more. He tried to relax, tried to detach his mind from what he couldn't prevent, but when Mandrocles slammed into him he was lost. With no lubrication and in his tense and frightened state, the pain was bad. The assault seemed to go on endlessly. When Mandrocles finally climaxed and withdrew, a shaking Iolaus turned his head to the side and was violently sick.
This reaction infuriated Mandrocles and he grabbed the whip and beat the hunter viciously before raping him a second time.
"I wonder who he's grabbed this time." It was a woman's voice.
The room was pitch black. Iolaus couldn't see a thing. He felt hands touching his hair and then feeling down for his shoulders to help him sit up.
"Are you all right?" another voice asked.
"I've... I've been better," he managed.
There was a gasp. The supporting hands let go immediately and he sank down.
"It's a man!" The voice was incredulous.
"It can't be," another said.
"Who are you?"
Iolaus hesitated, reluctant to give his name and then admitted, "Iolaus."
"What on earth are you doing here? Don't tell me the bastard's branching out."
"Who are you?" Iolaus asked. As he suspected the women were those reported as missing. He gave a brief explanation of his presence.
Although he endeavoured to speak normally, his voice betrayed his pain to his listeners. "How badly are you hurt? We can't do much, but we've got some water and we've been using bits of our skirts for bandages."
"You don't sound it."
"I'm p-probably no worse than any of you." He couldn't tell them that his worst injury was psychological. Sure his anus was sore and bleeding, but it was the shame he felt at what had been done to him that was searing his soul.
"Tell us," one of the women ordered. "Come on, we'll help if we can."
"If you've got enough water, I w-wouldn't mind some on my shoulders. The...the deepest burns are there."
"I suppose he's beaten you as well."
"Yeah," Iolaus responded, quickly adding, "but that's okay."
"I doubt it."
Another woman intervened to offer him a drink of water. "Thank you, b-but I can't take the container. He's got my hands sh-shackled."
"That's okay. I'll help you." He drank and then couldn't suppress a gasp as the first woman poured more water over his shoulders. He lay shivering on the cold, stone floor. The room had been cold enough before the water had been poured onto his burns, but now he felt freezing. He wondered about the condition of his companions. From what they'd said, they did, at least, have clothing and the three who had spoken sound okay.
A hand touched his shoulder and he winced and sucked in his breath as it came into contact with his worst burn. This must have been audible because she apologised, "Sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you, I was just wondering whether you were cold and you are. You're freezing. We all huddle together to keep warm. You'd better join us."
Iolaus hesitated and then said, "I'm not...I mean I haven't...I..."
"What are you trying to say?"
He tried again. It was hard to tell five strange women he was naked. "He took...took...
"And now you're embarrassed, right?"
"Well if you're going to be locked in with us for any length of time, it's going to get more embarrassing, so you'd better just try to forget it. In any case, all but one of us are hetairai, so it's not going to worry us. Now, are you going to be sensible?"
"Okay." He moved across the cell. Hands reached for him and he was drawn down into their midst. It was hard to get comfortable because of his shackles and he was tormented by thoughts of what had been done to him, but eventually he drifted off to sleep.
So about 1.30am, Odite's household was roused by Pania's loud, imperious knocking. A bleary-eyed Odite staggered to the door. "Who is it?"
"What on earth do you want at this hour?" he asked, as he opened the door.
"Is Hercules staying with you? I need to see both of you."
Given the hour, he hesitated, but she insisted, "It's important. I think something's happened to Iolaus."
"Come in. I'll fetch him."
Hercules had been roused by the knocking, although he had not risen in case the matter was of household concern only. "Hercules?"
"I'm awake, Odite."
"It's Pania. You'd better get up. Something's wrong."
Hercules felt an emotion that could only be described as a mixture of fear and panic. He dressed quickly and joined them. "What's happened?" he asked.
"Iolaus hasn't returned to the house. He's normally back just after midnight," Pania stated.
"Who was to escort him tonight?" Hercules asked.
"It was Novatus," Odite replied.
"Right, we'd better go and see if he's home. Do you know where he lives?"
"Yes, not far from here."
"Okay. We'll look into this, Pania. Thank you for coming to us. Perhaps it would be best if you returned home in case Iolaus shows up. We'll let you know if we find anything."
A few minutes later, Hercules and Odite were rousing Novatus. He told them that, according to Mandrocles, Iolaus had left as early as 11.30 and repeated Mandrocles' other comments.
"Something must have happened to him on his way back to the house," Hercules said.
"Unless he's given up and taken off," Novatus commented. "Mandrocles did say he thought Iolaus was considering it."
"He wouldn't have done that," Hercules insisted. "He would have told me if he'd decided to give up on the plan."
"Maybe, but how could he?" Odite asked. "He hasn't been able to leave the house during the day."
"You forget that I was the guard earlier tonight. I had to intervene when he was approached by three drunken youths, so he had an opportunity to say something then." However, even as the words left his mouth, Hercules recalled the aftermath of the incident. It had been Iolaus who had initiated the kiss, but Hercules had an uneasy feeling that the latter had done so because he had misinterpretered Hercules' instruction to "show your gratitude". Hercules had been shaken by his own response to this and suspected that Iolaus had been as well. Perhaps this had made him too embarrassed to face the demigod. He certainly hadn't said anything while in the alley, but then neither had Hercules. I hope he doesn't think I'm angry about what happened, he thought. Surely he wouldn't be too ashamed to face me. The possibilities whirled through his head. Yes, he had to admit the incident could have led to Iolaus giving up on their scheme, especially given how unhappy he already was with it. However, that was only one possibility, though, considering the alternatives, it might be the one to hope for no matter what complications it offered for the future.
"Let's assume, for the moment, that he didn't walk out," Odite said, interrupting Hercules' thoughts. "We need to think about the other possibilities."
So Hercules talked about the three youths first of all. He felt that, especially after their bout with him, they would have been in no shape to overcome the hunter if they had been waiting for him to seek revenge. Unless they'd managed to take the hunter completely by surprise, and Hercules considered that to be unlikely, Iolaus should have been able to defeat them easily enough.
That left the chilling possibility that he had encountered the murderer or murderers. They had all tended to assume that it was the work of one man, especially as no helpful rumours had come to light and the more people involved in something the more chance that someone would let something slip. However, that wasn't necessarily the case and Iolaus, for all his fighting skills, might have been overpowered. Even if it was all the work of one man, he was obviously very cunning and might have been able to surprise the hunter.
If he had been captured, the question was what would happen next. Those who had been killed had not been murdered where their bodies were found. They had usually been missing for at least a couple of days and during that time had obviously been tortured. Given the difficulty of taking an unwilling victim through the streets of Athens, the women had obviously gone willingly or had been unconscious. That being the case, Iolaus had probably been taken to the man's hideout.
The next question was how would the man react when he discovered the sex of his victim? Would he kill Iolaus outright or would he decide to torture him as he had the women. Hercules didn't like to dwell on either possibility, so he returned to the previous issue. "I think the murderer's hideout must be somewhere near here since nobody has apparently seen either an unconscious or a dead woman being carried. There are too many people around the streets here for someone not to have noticed. Has there been any attempt to search the surrounding premises?"
"Yes, Mandrocles and Crito both live nearby and they undertook to do this since they know the people and the area, but neither found anything," answered Odite.
"Perhaps they missed something. The murderer is obviously very cunning and covers his tracks well."
"That's possible. Crito's okay, but Mandrocles is a bit of a self-important old fool. He could have been suckered by the man. What do you think we should do next?"
"I'm going to check out the various alleys between the street where Iolaus was and the whorehouse."
"We'll help," said Novatus.
" I'll go and wake up Autolycus to help as well. He might have some useful ideas of what else to do."
So Hercules went to the tavern where Autolycus was staying and roused a very resentful landlord to let him in. Autolycus was also not pleased to be disturbed, but listened carefully to what Hercules had to say. Then he said, "Well I guess that narrows the possibilities down somewhat, doesn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"It sounds like it's either Crito or Mandrocles?"
"How can you jump to that conclusion?"
"Well you know that members of the citizens' group reckoned that the murder was psychic as he seemed to know their every move, so it's likely he is actually one of the group. Then given that Crito and Mandrocles failed to find anything in an area of town where, it stands to reason, there must be something to be found, I reckon one of them is our man or at least knows who he is."
"I suppose it's possible."
"You should go and see them now. You could ask them to join the search and see if there's any places they try to avoid. While you've got them occupied, I'll slip in check their own homes."
"The murderer surely wouldn't operate from his own home."
"Why not? What could be more private and, if the murderer is one of our group, what would be least likely to be searched?"
Hercules had to admit there was something in what the thief said. "Which one shall we try first?"
"Crito would be my pick. He's been in on every discussion, but has been observing rather than participating."
Unfortunately, when they roused the latter's manservant, he told them Crito was staying with a friend about ten miles out of the city having gone there early the previous day. The two felt obliged to travel to the place to check because, if true, it would certainly provide Crito with a cast-iron alibi and if untrue would make his guilt likely.
Iolaus stood up. He was blushing hotly. He walked towards Mandrocles. "There, ladies, isn't he a pretty sight?" He grasped Iolaus' shoulders and swung him back to face the women. "I hope you appreciate my efforts in providing you with such a companion."
"I know it's only daybreak, but I've been thinking about the fun we had last night, Iolaus, and I couldn't wait to continue. Besides when they finally discover you're missing tonight, I'll no doubt get involved in the search for you and there'll be meetings and I'll be too busy to devout the time to you that I would like."
Iolaus' mind was racing. Now would be the best time to try something while the cell was unlocked. He was handicapped by his shackles, but hopefully the women would come to his aid. Unfortunately he hadn't anticipated such an early visit and hadn't discussed possible moves with them. He needed a bit of space in which to operate. Suddenly he flung himself sideways against Mandrocles and then darted towards the door. Caught off balance, Mandrocles stumbled and cursed, but recovered himself and started after Iolaus. The hunter whirled around, crouched slightly and launched himself at Mandrocles, catching him on the chin with a foot. Both crashed to the ground, Iolaus on top of his stunned opponent.
Rolling off Mandrocles, Iolaus appealed to the women for assistance. Three piled out of the cell to help, but the other two remained in the cell crouching in fear. A wrestling bout began. Mandrocles proved surprisingly strong and, freeing a hand, punched one of the women laying her out cold. The hunter didn't know what to do for the best. Shackled as he was, he could not give the two women much help. He flung himself back across Mandrocles and shouted, to the women in the cell, "One of you run for help!" Unfortunately neither moved, but one of those helping him did.
Once she had gone there was no holding Mandrocles. He flung Iolaus and the remaining woman violently aside. She struck her head against the wall and lost consciousness. Mandrocles lurched to his feet, grabbed the hunter by the hair, pulled him upright and began to hit him. "You'll pay for this, you little bastard," he shouted.
The woman seeking help reached the street door, but found it locked. All the windows were barred and she could find no way out. She flung herself desperately against the heavy door. Then she realized she could hear voices outside. "Open up!"
"I can't! It's locked! Please help us! He's going to kill us!"
"Stand well back." The door was meant to open outwards, but then the builder had never envisaged a frantic demigod seeking entrance. Hercules flung himself against it and it smashed in, jamb and all. Hercules rushed in, with Autolycus at his heels. Having verified Crito's absence as legitimate, they had raced back to Athens.
"Where are they?"
"In the cellars! This way!" At that moment, they heard screams. They three rushed downstairs. The two women were still in the cell, clinging together and screaming in fear. Two more lay unconscious on the floor. Iolaus was lying facedown, naked, bleeding and only semi-conscious, on the stone floor. Mandrocles, apparently in a demented fury, was thrashing him with the buckle end of his belt.
Hercules did not hesitate. He moved swiftly forward, caught the belt in full flight and turned on Mandrocles. Normally Hercules pulled his punches when dealing with humans but, in this case, he made no such concession. A single punch flattened Mandrocles' nose into his face and propelled him ten feet across the room to smash his skull to pieces against the wall.
Hercules didn't give him a second glance. He fell to his knees beside Iolaus. Autolycus watched in amazement as the demigod snapped the shackles from his friend's wrists as if they were twigs. Those same lethal hands then gently raised the hunter as though he was the most precious and fragile object in existence. He had no time to spare for anyone else. His whole world was centred on Iolaus. "See to the ladies please," was all he said to Autolycus, as he gathered his friend into his arms.
Well so that's how the land lies, Autolycus mused to himself. I'll have to be more circumspect when teasing Iolaus in the future, I don't want an irate demigod after me. Then he smiled to himself as he wondered whether the hunter was aware of his friend's feelings. From the way the hunter had reacted to the kiss Autolycus had given him, maybe that sort of thing was not for him. I'll definitely have to keep a close watch on this interesting situation, he decided.
Hercules carried Iolaus upstairs and put him on the bed. Autolycus emerged carrying a woman, while two of the others supported another. Hercules got some water and began to bathe blood from the hunter's face. He asked Autolycus to fetch Odite and Pania.
Both arrived a few moments later and took charge of the female victims. Pania looked at Iolaus and commented, "I've brought his clothes, but by the look of him you'd better just wrap him in a blanket and get him to a doctor."
"Can I take him to your home, Odite?"
"Of course. Send one of my servants to fetch a physician."
"I'm here, Iolaus. I'm just going to send for a doctor."
"You need one, Iolaus."
"No, I...I can't...I don't want...."
"Please, Herc, I don't...I don't want anyone to...to..."
"I can't..." Tears began to run down his cheeks.
Hercules wrapped his arms around his friend and held him close, stroking his golden curls.
"Calm down, Iolaus, it's all right now," he murmured soothingly.
"N-No, it's not." His body was shaking and his face was bone-white.
"Iolaus, tell me what's wrong. If you don't explain, I'll have to send for the doctor."
"I d-don't want anyone to know."
"To know what?"
"What he did to me." His voice was a whisper.
Hercules blood turned to ice. He'd seen the burns and the whip marks, but surely it wouldn't upset Iolaus if these were seen. He held Iolaus tighter. "Tell me."
"He'd tied me down...I c-couldn't s-stop him."
"Iolaus, please tell me. Only me, I promise."
"Herc, he...he..." He began to sob harder.
"Raped me." His voice was so low, Hercules could hardly distinguish the words.
The blood drained from Hercules' face. He felt faint. "No!" he gasped.
The hunter nodded. "I don't...don't want anyone to know."
"A doctor should examine you, Iolaus. A doctor wouldn't tell anyone."
"No! Please, you promised only you, Herc."
"Will you let me help you?"
Hercules laid him back on the bed and then called for a servant to fetch salve, hot water and bandages. He tended the cuts and burns on Iolaus' back first. He was aware that the hunter was wincing with pain, but was biting his lip and keeping quiet. Finally he lowered the blanket and uncovered Iolaus' buttocks and thighs. He felt the hunter tense and heard a stifled sob as Iolaus buried his face into the pillow. The marks from the beating were clear and obviously painful but, more horrifying, were the bruises and dried blood around the anus and inner thighs.
"Please don't touch me!" Iolaus' voice was muffled by the pillow.
"Just lie still, Iolaus. I'll be as quick as I can." He washed off the blood and applied the salve and then swiftly pulled the blanket up to Iolaus' waist. He then gently rolled the hunter over onto his back. His face was chalk-white and stained with tears and his eyes were tightly shut. "Iolaus, it's okay. I've finished." He reached out a hand and stroked his friend's face. "Please, Iolaus, look at me."
Hercules raised him into his arms and cuddled him. Iolaus kept his head down and made no response. Hercules cupped his friend's chin and raised it. Without conscious thought, he leaned down and put his face against the hunter' cheek, murmuring, "Please, Iolaus, can you forgive me?"
That sparked a reaction. Iolaus opened his eyes wide with shock. "Herc?"
"Can you forgive me?"
"For making you take part in the plan."
"It wasn't your fault, Herc. You c-couldn't have anticipated this."
"But I should never have put you at risk. You're too...too important to me."
An expression of relief passed over the hunter's face. "I thought you m-might be angry with me."
"Why would I be?"
"You know...You know when I kissed you before...y-you were so quiet and...and..." His voice trailed off.
"Iolaus, I'd never...never experienced anything like that kiss."
Misunderstanding again, Iolaus apologized, "I'm...I'm sorry, Herc. I th-thought you meant me to...to k-kiss you." He lowered his head to hide his distress.
"I'm not complaining, Iolaus. Anything but! I just couldn't believe how much I enjoyed it."
Iolaus voice was a mere whisper, "So did I." Hercules looked at Iolaus in wonder. He saw the golden curls, the gorgeous features and the satin skin, but most of all he saw the impossibly blue eyes gazing at him with what he realized was nervous longing. For all his beauty, the hunter was obviously terrified of rejection.
Then he said something he'd never imagined himself saying, had never consciously wanted to say, "I love you, Iolaus." As soon as the words were out, he realized he'd been meant to say them all of his life.
"I've always loved you, Herc, but I never...I never dared to dream that you'd...that you'd ...love me."
"Iolaus, loving you has been so much a natural part of who I am, I guess I've never really thought about it until now." Hercules reached out and gently, but firmly drew the hunter to him. "I don't know if it's possible, my love, but let's see if we can improve on that kiss." The joy with which the hunter responded showed they could.
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