Where There's a Will...

By Aramis

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

"Now there's a scene I could look at all day," Hercules said, smiling broadly, as he entered the room. Iolaus was standing beside a tub towelling himself dry. He had recognized the demigod's tread and so had not bothered to cover himself when he heard the door start to open.

Keeping his back to his lover, he pulled the towel back and forth across his shoulders while asking, "What happened to you? I couldn't wait any longer or the water would have got cold."

"I'm sorry, my love, someone arrived and I got talking to him," the demigod apologized, while feasting his eyes on the creamy buttocks, glistening enticingly with water drops.

"Oh, someone that's more important to you than I am?"

Hercules' grinned. He knew Iolaus was pouting by the tone of voice even though the blond was keeping his back towards him. He watched as the hunter slowly worked the towel down his back pulling it from side-to-side. "Come here, my love."

"I'm busy." The tone was so petulant that Hercules nearly laughed out loud. Poor Iolaus always looked so cute when he sulked that the demigod found it very hard to take him seriously. He reached for a spare towel, stepped quietly forward and, in one quick movement, flung it around Iolaus' upper body, trapping his arms and yanking the hunter back against him.

Iolaus tried to pull away, but the demigod held him firmly to him and gradually edged back to the bed. He then sat down dragging the blond onto his lap.

He drew the towel tightly around Iolaus and held it secure with one large hand. "We can't have you getting cold, Iolaus," he murmured, as he leant forward to nibble at Iolaus' sensitive neck.

Iolaus squirmed and tried to pull away. "That tickles," he complained.

"It's meant to. Stay still, Iolaus," the demigod whispered, moving his free hand to lightly caress the hunter's penis to ensure it was going to be impossible for him to obey the instruction, in the unlikely event that the disobedient hunter had any intention of doing so. He moved his hand down and teased at Iolaus' balls, while his mouth feasted on the blond's neck.

With a major effort, Iolaus tried to pretend an indifference to the maddeningly light caresses. "And what did that ever-so-important man want?" he demanded.

"I've forgotten."


"I'm sorry, my love, but it's impossible to think of anything but you when you're coming on to me like this," the demigod teased.

"I'm not!"

"You mean that enticing pose you were holding when I entered the room wasn't meant for my benefit?"

"What pose? I was *just* drying myself."

"It seemed to be a major operation."

"I was just being thorough."

"And now I'm about to return the compliment and do something thoroughly in return." His mouth moved to the sensitive place where Iolaus' neck joined his shoulder, while his hand began a rhythmic stroking of the blond's penis, noticing the tip was already beginning to weep. At least part of Iolaus was obviously enjoying what he was doing.

Iolaus gasped and writhed, but managed to voice an insincere protest, "Aw, Herc, I've just got nice and clean."

"Yes, my love, you smell good enough to eat." He bit lightly at the side of Iolaus' neck. "Delicious."

As much as he was enjoying administering the tender torture to his lover, he was starting to feel rather uncomfortable as the blond twisted on his knee. Part of his anatomy was protesting at the obstructing leathers. He suddenly stood up clutching Iolaus in his arms and holding him suspended. Then he spun around, dropped his precious burden face down on the bed and dived on top of him before the blond could scramble up.

This initiated a whole stream of muffled protests. "Ouch! Herc, you're too heavy! You're squashing me! Get off! Ah, no!" The latter came as Hercules' raised himself slightly and curled his fingers into Iolaus' ribs.

"Now that's a happier sound," the demigod observed as Iolaus began to giggle hysterically. However, he soon took pity on his writhing lover. "There are other sounds I like as well." He moved one hand to grasp the nape of Iolaus' neck and pin him in position, while he reached for the jar of oil by the bed.

The hunter gasped. That hold made his whole being tingle, implying as it did that the demigod was now taking firm control of the situation and would brook no more delays or complaints. Gods how the hunter loved him in that mode in the bedroom although, perversely, under other circumstances how rebellious it made him.

A short period of preparation and then Hercules was in and giving the hunter the thorough treatment he had promised. Iolaus was soon screaming in ecstatic appreciation of the intense pleasure/pain. When the demigod's large hand closed over his penis the whole sensation was too much and he came hard on the first stroke. He then lay in a swirling dark mist of sensation, punctuated by brightly coloured pinpoints of light, while Hercules sated himself on his body.

When Hercules climaxed and withdrew scant moments later, Iolaus automatically curled in to his embrace and both fell into an exhausted sleep.

So it was not until the following day that Iolaus learnt the significance of the visitor that Hercules had had. Eubius had brought a message that had the two leaving for the kingdom of King Ophiogenes.

Two days of uneventful travelling saw them arrive safely at Voulgara.

Hercules was normally pleased to see his old friend King Ophiogenes, but not under the current circumstances. The elderly and kindly ruler had summoned the demigod because he was dying and he wanted to ensure that his final wishes were carried out.

"Hercules, my friend, I have a great favour to ask of you. My younger son, Pirus, has been living across the Mediterranean for more than three years now. The last time I heard from him he was at Alexandria."

"I did not know he was away from home."

"Yes. As you may remember, he and his brother, Cynicus, never got on and their disputes had reached such a peak Pirus decided to leave."

"I'm sorry to hear it."

"I have to confess it nearly broke my heart. I know one should not favour one son above another, but Pirus had always been my favourite. Perhaps he and Cynicus would have been better friends if I'd made more effort to hide my preferences, but it's too late now."

"It's never too late to seek a reconciliation."

"It is now. My time is short and it was only my authority that kept them from each other's throats. I fear what will happen once I am gone, but that is in the hands of the gods. I cannot do anything about it."

"You said in your letter you had a task for me."

"Yes. Cynicus, as the elder, is my heir and will inherit this kingdom, but there are lands and jewels that came from their mother that I wish Pirus to have. I do not trust Cynicus to even notify his brother of my death let alone hand over the deeds or jewels. This is where, I hope, you will consent to help me."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Dinias, my trusted steward, retired from his office last year, but has continued to serve me. He has Pirus' inheritance concealed at his property three miles east of the city. I would like you to collect the jewels and deeds from him and take them to your brother, Iphicles, for safe keeping and then go to Arabia and locate Pirus. Tell him I am dying and would like to see him to give him my blessing if possible. If his affairs do not allow his return at this time, tell him where he may obtain his property when he returns to Greece."

"I will be happy to do this for you, Ophiogenes."

"Tell him to beware of his brother when he returns, whether I am alive or dead, because, during my illness, Cynicus has taken over a lot of my duties and many, including my son himself, see him as king already."

"I will warn him and will accompany him if he will permit it."

"Thank you. You will need to watch your own back as well. Cynicus will be wondering about my sending for you and, if he suspects your mission, may try to stop you."

"Others have tried."

"I know and it is your fighting skills as well as your honesty and reliability that have led me to ask this favour of you." He fumbled under the bed-clothes and produced a sturdy canvas bag. "Here, take this. It will cover the expenses of your journey."

The demigod opened it to find it full of gold coins. "This is far too much," he protested.

"Not for the service you are doing for me. Besides the journey will be expensive. You will need to travel by ship and then buy or hire horses. Also, you will not be known in a foreign land and may need to buy information as my son may not be easy to locate. Gold is an international language and will help you and Iolaus." He paused and then added, "I presume Iolaus will be going with you?"

"Of course, I'd like to see me manage to stop him going anywhere if I was going."

"How is he?"

"As troublesome as ever."

The old man smiled reminiscently. "I remember his last visit here. All the ladies of the court seemed to be chasing after him. He seemed to enjoy it all greatly, and I know I was highly amused by the whole performance, but not one managed to catch him. There were some very unhappy women here when he left."

"Well, that's the *one* area where his behaviour has actually improved. He's not quite such a flirt as he was," Hercules said, deciding not to explain how their relationship had changed since their last visit.

"Isn't he? I'm at the end of my time so I've given up speaking diplomatically. You know, I always thought none of them had a chance. I always thought you had his heart."

Hercules was flabbergasted. 'I wonder how many others knew us better than we knew ourselves?' he wondered. He hoped that the old king was alone in his perspicacity and was uncertain how to respond to the comment. He had thought that their love was secret, feeling that his reputation would not be enhanced if his proclivities were known. Further, he had assumed, quite erroneously, that Iolaus concurred with his decision to hide their love.

Ophiogenes observed his flushed face and smiled inwardly at the confirmation of his suspicions, but decided to let the demigod off the hook. "Where is Iolaus anyway?" he inquired.

"He's down in the great hall. Since you'd not mentioned him in your letter, we thought it best if he waited there."

"I hope he isn't offended. I just assumed the two of you would be together as always. I would like to say my farewells to him as well. The servant that showed you up should be outside the door. Would you tell him to fetch Iolaus please?"

"Of course."

Meanwhile, the golden hunter had been sitting in the great hall feeling rather out of place. One or two of the servants passing through the hall remembered him from their last visit some five years before, and greeted him in passing, but most people ignored him.

Then a couple of guards approached him. "Iolaus?"


"King Cynicus would like to speak to you.'

"*King* Cynicus? But I understood his father is not yet dead."

"He's as good as dead. The physicians give him a few weeks at most. King Cynicus is ruling the kingdom and he wants to see you *now*.

"Where is the *Regent*?"

"The *King* has told us to conduct you to him. Be warned, he would not welcome the title you have just so rudely used."

Iolaus reluctantly rose and followed the pair. They conducted him to Cynicus' private chambers. To his surprise, Cynicus smiled at him and regally offered his hand, while waving the guards out. "Well, it must be five years since we last met, Iolaus."

"Yes, Your Highness." Cynicus' eyes narrowed slightly at the term. 'Your Majesty' was how he was now styling himself, since he no longer saw himself as a mere prince.

"I wondered at your presence."

"How so?"

"I believe my father sent for you and Hercules."

"He sent for Hercules and I accompanied him."


"I don't know. He didn't say. He said he was dying so I suppose he might have just wanted to say farewell to Herc."

"That seems highly unlikely to me. Tell me the real reason!" This was clearly an order.

"I've told you all I know."

"I'll bet! I don't like liars. I suppose all Hercules' acquaintances send for him on their deathbeds to say goodbye," he commented sarcastically.


"Iolaus, I'm king now and I expect ..."

"Not yet."

"I beg your pardon?" Cynicus was stunned at the blond's temerity.

"I said, not yet."

"Perhaps you don't understand your situation."

"Oh, I'm not the one confused about his situation."

*That* was it. Cynicus backhanded him across the face, splitting his lip.

Iolaus didn't know how he managed to stop himself responding in kind. Recently, Hercules had had occasion to take him to task about his quick temper and his tendency to get into fights with small, if any, justification. In the course of the lecture, the demigod had said that he didn't know anyone else who seemed to land himself in trouble so frequently and for so little reason. Hercules had suggested that the hunter should try to think before he acted, although he added that he doubted Iolaus possessed that much self-control.

"I do think!" the blond had protested. "I just do it very quickly and then I bash the troublemakers," he added grinning.

Unfortunately, the demigod had not appreciated his attempt at levity and had continued to reprimand him.

Iolaus had been nettled by all this and had resolved to show Hercules just how wrong he was. This was the first occasion he'd had to demonstrate his self-control and, although he recognized that, in the interests of self-preservation, it was a sensible thing to do, he found it incredibly difficult to restrain himself. His knuckles fair itched to smash the prince's sneering face.

"*That* still doesn't change the situation," he commented provocatively. 'I hope Herc appreciates this,' he thought. 'It's nowhere near as satisfying as bashing him would have been regardless of the consequences that might have had.'

At that moment, proceedings were interrupted by a knock on the door. Cynicus called, "Yes?"

"A messenger from ... from the ... um ... from the ...*old* king," the guard, stammered awkwardly, wondering how to put things without offending Cynicus. "He desires to see Iolaus."

Cynicus hesitated, debating whether to use this as his final showdown with his father, but thought better of it. He was still not certain enough that all the guards would obey him, especially as there was a demigod at his father's side. He turned to the hunter and said, imperiously, "You may go." He then added, in a voice dripping with venom, "If you value your life you'd better make your visit to *my* kingdom short."

Iolaus went out biting his tongue to stop the unruly organ making a rude retort. How he wished he could have rattled Cynicus' teeth for him, although there had been some pleasure in watching him have to climb down in the face of the message from his father. As he walked he dabbed at his cut lip, hoping it would not be too obvious.

To his surprise, Hercules opened the door of the king's room in answer to his knock and then stepped out into the passage leaving him alone with the elderly ruler. "Your Majesty," he said.

"Welcome, Iolaus," Ophiogenes said. "Iolaus, Hercules has agreed to undertake what may be a dangerous mission for me. He will give you the details. I hope you will assist him in carrying it out. However, whether you do or not, I would like to thank you for your past services to my kingdom."

"There's no need."

"Yes, there is. Far too few people spend their lives helping others in the way that you do. I admire you greatly, Iolaus. I know Hercules could not achieve all that he does without your help and love. It takes a special mortal to keep pace with a demigod and he's very fortunate to have you by his side."

Iolaus blushed hotly. However much he might complain at times about people not recognizing his contribution to Hercules' feats, such effusive praise actually embarrassed him and he didn't know what to say.

The old king continued, "Take care of Hercules, Iolaus, he needs you as much as you need him."

"I don't know that that's ..." he started doubtfully, but the king interrupted him.

"Don't argue with royalty, Iolaus," Ophiogenes said, smiling gently. "You'd better go and join him. He'll be waiting."

Thus, a few minutes later they were on their way to Dinias' home, with the demigod outlining their mission as they walked.

Hercules had noticed Iolaus' split lip as the latter had entered Ophiogenes' chamber, but said nothing until he had finished explaining what the king had asked of them. Then he put out a gentle finger and touched it lightly. "What's this, Iolaus? Surely you didn't manage to get into a fight in the short time we were apart. That would be fast work even for you."

"No, of course not!" Iolaus exclaimed indignantly.

"Well, how do you explain this then?"

"Cynicus hit me."


"I said ..."

"I heard what you said. What did you do to provoke him?"

"That's not fair! Why do you always assume I'm in the wrong whenever anything happens, Hercules?" After his efforts at self-control, the suggestion was particularly annoying.

The use of his full name rather than the usual affectionate diminutive was not lost on the demigod, especially when accompanied by the icy glare Iolaus was giving him. "Experience! I know you." Hercules spoke half in jest, but the hunter didn't take it that way.

"You know everything, don't you? At least, you bloody well think you do. I don't know why you bother associating with me. It might damage your goodie-good reputation." He stopped abruptly and changed direction.

"Now where are you going?"

"Wherever you're not"

The demigod grabbed the hunter's vest and started to drag him back. "I'm sorry, Iolaus, don't be ..."

As he was turned, Iolaus caught sight of a flash of colour. Instead of resisting the demigod's pull, the hunter launched himself towards his friend, shoving him aside. "Watch out, Herc, it's an ambush!" he shouted.

The arrow that had been meant for Hercules' breast parted the blond's unruly curls and buried itself deeply in a tree trunk.

The two swung into action. One man closed on Iolaus, aiming a clumsy blow at his head. The hunter flung up his left arm to block this, while sinking his right fist into the man's midriff. As his attacker gagged and doubled over, Iolaus brought a knee up into his face. Before the man had hit the ground, the hunter was already turning to seek his next opponent. He felt a jolt of shock run through him as, in the very short time he had been occupied, the demigod had, uncharacteristically, caused absolute mayhem.

Furious at the close call Iolaus had had, Hercules had launched himself at their attackers without bothering to hold back his strength. In moments, all were either unconscious or in flight, except for one quaking man cowering against a tree.

Determined to find out what was behind the attack, the hunter flung himself upon the remaining bandit and sat on the latter's chest and holding his hunting knife menacingly to his throat.

When questioned, the hapless man confirmed their suspicions that Cynicus had sent them after the pair to find out what his father had said and what was in the bag he had given to the demigod. Tying him up, although they doubted he would have the guts to follow them alone, the two continued on their journey.

The excitement of the conflict had removed the tension between them. Iolaus thought of the arrow heading for Hercules' chest and recalled the king's words to him. He couldn't have lived with himself if something had happened to the demigod while they were at outs with each other. He slipped a hand into one of Hercules' and clasped it tightly, ignoring the fact that Hercules did not approve of displays of affection outside the bedroom.

Like thoughts were running through the demigod's head. The arrow had come all too close to Iolaus. He gently turned the hunter to face him, bent down and kissed his lips. "I'm sorry, my love, I shouldn't have teased you."

Iolaus let go of Hercules' hand and slid his own under the demigod's shirt and up his broad back melting against him.

For a few moments, they clung mindlessly to each other.

Surprisingly enough, it was the hunter who broke the embrace. "We'd better get moving," he said somewhat shakily, "you're too big a target to stand around like this."

"*Too* big!" exclaimed the demigod incredulously. "I'll have you know I'm just *exactly* the size a person should be."

"What? Why would anyone want to be the size of a large bear?" the hunter retorted, mischief sparkling in his azure eyes.

"So they can give pesky, little things like you bear-hugs. Come here!"

"You'll have to catch me first," the hunter giggled, as he darted off down the path.

He was fast, but eventually the longer strides of the demigod made the difference and he was swung off his feet and embraced in a bone-crushing hug.

"OW! Be careful! Those are the only ribs I've got," he complained.

"I'd better check that they're okay then," Hercules' responded, letting go with one hand while effortlessly continuing to hold the hunter suspended with the other.

"Ah! No! Don't!" Iolaus cried, twisting desperately, as the hand curled in to tickle him. However, he was hopelessly trapped and was forced to endure several long minutes of the teasing torture, before the demigod flipped him over one shoulder and continued on their journey as though carrying his friend like a sack of spuds was the most natural thing in the world.

To Iolaus' amazement, the demigod even seized the opportunity to squeeze his arse through the tight black leather and to run a teasing hand between his legs. It was most out of character for Hercules to risk being seen caressing the blond in a potentially public place.

Indeed, the whole thing was such a turn-on for the hunter he found it very difficult to put any sincerity into his usual complaints about being carried. He was, however, somewhat relieved when the demigod consented to putting him down as they neared Dinias' cottage.

The elderly man was pleased to see them, remembering them well from their previous visits to King Ophiogenes, although saddened that the King was nearing death. He had the jewels and papers safely buried, but it was only a few minutes work to disinter them.

The two then set off for Corinth to deliver the items into Iphicles' safe keeping. They deliberately chose a roundabout route, that added half a day to what would normally have been a four day journey, but which was likely to fool any would be followers, especially with the wily hunter taking care to obscure their trail at intervals.

The journey passed without incident, apart from a continuation of Hercules' uncharacteristically open and flirtatious behaviour and Iolaus' joyously enthusiastic response to this. Neither could recall ever enjoying a journey so much.

Although nobody had actually seen their flirtations there had been one or two close calls and the hunter was starting to hope that maybe Hercules was actually considering acknowledging their relationship in public. Perhaps the demigod was not really ashamed of loving him as he had always feared he was.

Unfortunately, the demigod had no intention of changing his position on the issue of secrecy and was simply enjoying the minor 'risk' in what they were doing. It was certainly giving an added spice to their evening lovemaking. 'If the whole trip's like this we'll both be worn out by the end of it,' Hercules reflected. He did feel a tinge of guilt at being so happy considering the circumstances that had led to the journey in the first place, but shrugged it aside.

Fortunately, neither could see into the future. The idyllic travelling conditions were not going to last. Perhaps their wholehearted enjoyment of these had tempted fate.

Iphicles was delighted to see them and offered them the use of one of the kingdom's ships to transport them across the Mediterranean to Egypt. Further, he suggested they take one that he had berthed at Isthmia.

By embarking from there, instead of from Corinth, they avoided having to go up the Gulf of Korinthos and thus their journey would be considerably shorter. They could travel straight down the Saronic Gulf, into the Mirtoan Sea, through the Sea of Crete and out into the Mediterranean via the Kasos Strait.

They enjoyed Iphicles' lavish hospitality overnight and arose early to travel the five miles to Isthmia.

Unfortunately, they found there had been a most unseasonable weather change overnight. It was degrees cooler and rain was threatening, but they did not want to delay and decided to leave in spite of the conditions.

To Iolaus' pleasure, Iphicles provided horses, telling them to leave these at stables he owned at Isthmia.

The hunter was a far superior horseman to the demigod, who had never felt at home on horseback. Iolaus always enjoyed being better than Hercules at anything because he was so used to people ignoring his contribution to the pair's partnership, while pouring praise on Hercules for whatever the two had just done for them. As a result, he had a tendency to show off when the occasion allowed him to demonstrate his special abilities.

Under normal circumstances, he rarely got the opportunity to demonstrate his equestrian skills because horses were too expensive for him to hire and because Hercules, an indifferent horseman, did not enjoy riding. Indeed, once the latter had jokingly suggested to Xena they should swap partners, as Gabrielle was not a keen rider either. Xena had made it quite clear that there was no way Iolaus was getting anywhere near Argo as he'd probably break both his and the horse's necks showing off and she valued Argo too much for that. Iolaus had pouted at the implication that it didn't matter about his neck, but wasn't quite game to give the Warrior Princess the cheek he would have given the demigod for such a comment.

However, the ride was uneventful, apart from the hunter taking his mount over a number of obstacles that the demigod insisted on riding around. On several occasions, the demigod found himself closing his eyes rather than watch what he regarded as the reckless blond's somewhat foolhardy antics. Of course, the saucy Iolaus could not resist making numerous comments about his friend's lack of fortitude, not to say chicken-heartedness.

However, once they reached Isthmia, it was the blond's turn to feel discomfort.

Iolaus shuddered as he gazed at the unusually choppy sea and stormy sky. His stomach was already churning in anticipation. It had taken him a good week to get his sea legs on the Argo and he had frankly believed he would be dead before that happened and even, in his extremity, to wish that was the case. He had, admittedly become a better sailor since that first voyage, but a short, sharp chop like the present one was guaranteed to upset anyone even mildly susceptible to mal de mer. "I wish I was Aphrodite," he opined wistfully.

Hercules did a double take. "You're certainly beautiful enough, my love, but I'm *very* glad you're not. What brought on this sudden ... um ... desire?"

*Desire* was the word. The demigod had been immediately assailed with a vision of Iolaus clad in his the Goddess of Love's diaphanous pink draperies. 'I wonder what she does with her old outfits?' he mused. 'I must ask her. I'm sure she'd be happy to let Iolaus have one. Probably *too* happy,' he considered, very aware how Aphrodite's hands were apt to roam over areas of Sweet-cheeks, as she had dubbed the hunter, that the demigod considered to be *his* prerogative. 'Still now that the idea's occurred I *must* ask. There'll be no need for those frilly undergarments though. I suspect Iolaus will raise enough fuss without those and I *know* I'll enjoy the view better.'

"What are you thinking about?" Iolaus demanded suspiciously, observing the lascivious look on his lover's face.

"Oh, nothing much, my love." *That* was true, there wasn't much to those garments. "Anyway you haven't answered my question."

"Well, you know how she can just transport herself to wherever she wants just by thinking about it. It would save the sea voyage."

"But all the gods can do that, Iolaus, so why Aphrodite?"

"I suppose it's because she's one of the few of your relatives who seems to be on our side. She's always nice to me."

"Too nice!" The words were out before Hercules could stop them.

"You're jealous!" Iolaus exclaimed, smiling with pleasure. Then, deliberately misunderstanding, he added, "She *is* so much prettier than you are and I suppose it's only natural that a person with mouse-brown hair would be jealous of a person with beautiful blonde curls."

"I am *not* jealous of my sister's looks or hair!" Hercules insisted, falling straight into the trap the wily hunter had laid for him.

"What are you jealous of then?" asked the hunter innocently, peeking cheekily up at the demigod through lowered lashes.

"That does it! I'm definitely going to ask her," Hercules announced.

"Ask her? Ask her what? What are you talking about, Herc?" asked a mystified Iolaus.

"Never you mind, my love, I've just thought of a nice surprise for you."

"If it's so *nice*, why do I have a sudden feeling of disquiet?" Iolaus asked.

"That's just because you're already anticipating just how terribly sea-sick you're going to be in a few minutes time," the demigod replied, deftly redirecting Iolaus' thoughts back to their original channel, and feeling that he was getting some of his own back for the impudent comments Iolaus had made during their ride.

Iolaus glared at him and Hercules could swear his complexion was already growing green. "I'm not going to be sick this time," he announced. "I didn't eat breakfast this morning and I'm *not* going to eat *anything* so I can't be sick."

"Interesting theory," the demigod rejoined, "but you won't manage it. I know you and food. I'll have some nice bread and dripping ready for you when you get too hungry," he added 'kindly'. He smiled as he observed the hunter gulping uneasily and turning greener than ever.

Then a twinge of remorse hit him. He remembered just how worried he'd been on the Argo, especially when a sailor suggested it would be kinder to chuck the suffering and exhausted hunter overboard to end his misery. 'Still this voyage should only take about five days so he'll be okay,' he thought. "I'm only teasing, my love, I'm sure you'll be better this time," he said, adding, silently, 'I hope so anyway.' "C'mon, let's get it over with."

"I hate your choice of words, Hercules," Iolaus protested, as he reluctantly allowed his friend to steer him up the gangplank.

"Let's get our gear stashed below."

"I'm not doing that either."


"Going below."

"Iolaus, you *can't* spend the whole voyage on deck."

"Can't I? You just watch me."

Hercules sighed. He knew he was going to have to just that. Normally it would have been a pleasant prospect to sit observing that golden beauty, but the prospect of having to spend five days and nights on a deck, in probably wet conditions, ensuring that a seasick hunter was not washed overboard was not appealing. Still it was better than going below and spending all his time worrying about the said hunter on deck. "We'd better see if we can get a bit of spare canvas for a cover then," he said resignedly.

The voyage proved to be every bit as unpleasant as Hercules feared. Iolaus was sick within half an hour of sailing and was soon, with nothing left in his stomach, reduced to painful dry retching. The demigod sat, holding Iolaus' shaking body against him, rubbing his back, stroking his hair and offering quickly rejected water and herbal drinks.

Three days had passed before the storm abated, the sea calmed and the sun beat down with the usual strong intensity of summer. Hercules could rarely recall such a feeling of relief. There had been several occasions during the previous days when it had been on the tip of his tongue to order the ship to turn back as he held his shivering and exhausted lover in his arms.

Another three days had gone before they finally reached Alexandria. By that stage, Iolaus had improved to the extent of consuming, with numerous complaints, the various herbal concoctions that the demigod forced upon him.

Indeed, he was almost back to normal and had started babbling endlessly about what the fishing might be like where they were and had even frightened the demigod by climbing the mast on several occasions in the vain hope of spotting their destination.

However, finally landfall was made. The pair booked into an inn and began their inquiries as to Pirus' whereabouts. To their surprise they found several Greek speakers in the city and they had some success in their quest almost immediately. A personable young man of wealth, Pirus had spent freely and thus had attracted the attention of numerous locals, who had been eager to benefit from his presence. Unfortunately, all who had any idea of his movements agreed that he had gone further inland and nobody was completely sure of his proposed destination. Indeed, the general consensus seemed to be that he was just travelling because of his interest in seeing new things and had no specific goal in mind.

Cairo seemed to be the most frequently named place, so the pair elected to head there next. That town was another hundred miles inland and so they hired horses. The ride was long, dusty and hot. Both were surprised at just how much hotter the land was than Greece and, even though they had both taken the precaution, at the demigod's insistence, of buying a thobe and gutra like the locals wore, they still found the heat a trial.

The hunter attempted to argue that he'd be cooler with fewer clothes, but Hercules insisted that he keep wearing the local outfits. With his fair skin, the demigod was sure he would be a mass of sunburn in minutes. The hunter reluctantly complied with Hercules' orders, but not without a string of complaints.

By contrast with the days, the nights were chilly and gave Iolaus an excuse, not that he needed one, for snuggling up to the demigod and for making further comments to express his dissatisfaction with the country. It was not the place for one who loved lush green forests, hunting and fishing.

A further source of dissension was the hunter's desire to ride fast and the demigod's unaccountable preference, as Iolaus saw it, for arriving in one piece. The blond would spur his mount ahead and then end up waiting for his friend, bored and vociferous in his complaints about the pace.

The wildlife was distinctly unappealing as well. On the second night, the hunter had awoken with the horrible feeling of something crawling up his arm. He froze and peered down. The moonlight showed a large arachnid, purposefully climbing. Iolaus gave a loud cry and leapt to his feet, shaking the creature from him.

By the time Hercules had collected his scattered wits, the blond had impaled a large scorpion, more than eight inches in length, with his hunting knife. "You made all that fuss over *that*?" he asked, sarcastically. "I thought we must have been under attack by at least a score of men."

"You wait until one walks on you," the blond retorted. "They'll hear you scream back in Alexandria."

"No way. I'm no sook."

"And you think I am? I must say I'm so gratified by your concern," the hunter said. "They sting, you kn ..."

The demigod interrupted, his heart in his mouth, "What? Iolaus, did it sting you? Why didn't you tell me? Let me see!" As he spoke, he tried to grab hold of the blond.

"You aren't really interested, are you?" Iolaus asked, backing away and deliberately putting his hands behind him.

"Iolaus! Show me!"

"Well, it ... it didn't actually sting me," the blond confessed, feeling a slight tinge of guilt at leading the demigod on. "But it *could* have," he added quickly, in self-defence.

Hercules was so relieved and so angry that he didn't know whether to kiss the hunter or to shake him. "Iolaus," he scolded, "that creature may not have hurt you, but if we finish this journey without me wringing your neck you can count yourself lucky. Now, come here!"

"Why?" the blond questioned, apprehensively.

"Because I told you to." He snaked out an arm and pulled the hunter to him and then held him tightly against his chest. "I hope you realize you just took years off my life."

"You should be pleased then," Iolaus muttered against his chest.


"Getting rejuvenated," the hunter said cheekily and giggled as he added, "You were starting to look somewhat middle ... OW!"

A large hand had just connected stingingly with his arse and Hercules felt obliged to repeat the action several times to emphasize his disapproval of such ill-advised levity.

"Ow! Remember we've still got quite a distance to ride tomorrow," the hunter complained, trying to pull away.

"True! I should have thought of this earlier. Maybe it'll make you curb your neck or nothing riding style."

Iolaus would have protested further, but the demigod suddenly sat down, pulling him with him and announced he was going back to sleep. He then lay back continuing to clutch the hunter to him with one arm, while pulling a blanket over them both. "Not one more word, Iolaus," he warned, in his best no nonsense voice, "or your backside will be too sore for you to even sit a horse."

In the interests of self-preservation, the blond reluctantly subsided.

Not surprisingly, both were very glad when they finally reached Cairo.

They checked into an inn and began to seek information as to Pirus' whereabouts.

At first, they made little progress. Few of the locals could speak Greek and many seemed distrustful of foreigners and so it was difficult to ask questions. Both were, however, objects of interest and speculation and were uncomfortably aware that dozens of eyes followed their every movement. Iolaus' golden curls attracted particular attention.

Soon, their presence had been reported to the authorities and a messenger approached them to say that the local emir, Fahid, requested the honour of their presence. The man's voice made it clear that this was really an order and, seeing no reason to stir up trouble and hoping that someone at the court might be able to provide the information they were seeking, Hercules graciously accepted the invitation.

Upon arrival at his home, they were ushered into their host's presence. A large, repulsively fat man, Fahid lounged on a throne at one end of a large room. He welcomed them affably, via a self-important interpreter, his wide smile revealing blackened stumps of teeth. He then asked Hercules about their journey and Hercules gave a condensed version of their mission. The emir assured the demigod he would have his servants seek out the information he required and invited him to remain in the palace as his guest in the meantime.

Iolaus was conscious of the fact that he was being ignored. 'Even when people have never heard of Hercules they still see him as the person of importance and I might as well be invisible,' he reflected, with a tinge of bitterness. 'Just once I'd like to have some one pay more attention to me.' At that moment, the emir's eyes met his and Iolaus felt a shiver run through him at the lascivious look in them. The man immediately shuttered his eyes and turned back to the demigod. 'Gods, why couldn't I have been happy with my anonymity?' the hunter asked himself. 'I definitely didn't like the look in that repulsive creature's eye. I hope Herc doesn't want to stay here long.'

He heard the interpreter informing Hercules that servants were preparing a room for them and asking if they would like to bath.

Bath! That was one of Iolaus' favourite words. He pushed aside his disturbing thoughts, hoping he had imagined the look.

The huge, sunken bath was nothing short of luxurious: warm, scented water, sweet-smelling soaps and oils and large, fluffy towels. Iolaus was in his element. He loved baths at any time, but after the rigours of the sea voyage and dusty ride he was more than ready to immerse himself. In moments, he had stripped and was in.

At that moment, four attractive slave girls entered to offer their services in disrobing and washing the guests. A blushing Hercules was glad he had not yet started to undress and hurriedly declined the offer.

By contrast, the hunter would have been only too glad to accept. "What did you go and do that for?" he grumbled. "You know how I love to have my back washed."

"Don't worry, my love, I'm not intending to let you out of that bath until I'm satisfied every inch of you is clean," the demigod assured him.

The blond's face lit up with one of his blazing smiles as he urged, "Hurry up then, I can't wait all day and it's *every* inch mind."

The demigod quickly joined him and began to soap him thoroughly, delighting in the way his soapy hands slid over the beautiful, ivory body. Iolaus lay back with his eyes closed and luxuriated, limbs splayed wantonly. Occasionally, he made noises that were almost like purrs of encouragement and he smiled voluptuously at all the attention.

Hercules found himself growing hard as he feasted his eyes on Iolaus' incredible golden beauty. It was at times like this that he wondered how he had been so slow to take the blond as his lover. How had he spent so many years oblivious of the charms of his enticing lover? With typical self-effacement, he could hardly believe that someone as gorgeous as Iolaus could want him and, indeed, once the issue was broached, admit to having lusted after the demigod for years. "My love," he breathed into Iolaus' ear.

"Huh? What?" Iolaus came to with a start, having gone into a pleasant trance-like under the rhythmic stroking.

"I think we'd better get out, my love," the demigod murmured.


"Either that or I'll have to take you here and you know I nearly drowned you last time I did that in a bath this big."

"It's hard to scream with your mouth shut you know. Anyway, you shouldn't have given such a hard thrust at that moment and then I wouldn't have submerged," the hunter complained.

"Iolaus, we both know your mouth is usually open talking or eating or often both."

"Are you saying I have messy eating habits? Get out! I'll show you how tidy I am."

Hercules climbed out and then reached out a hand to pull Iolaus from the bath. The latter landed on his knees in front of the demigod and proceeded to demonstrate just how skilled his mouth was. Hercules' knees were like jellies by the time he had ejaculated and the blond had shown how careful he was that no drop escaped. "There! See!" he announced triumphantly.

"My turn." The demigod knelt down and gently guided the hunter onto his hands and knees, gazing lustfully at the creamy globes thus presented for his enjoyment. Selecting a suitable bath oil, Hercules used it to coat his penis and fingers and then inserted a couple of fingers into his lover to prepare him.

Then he withdrew his fingers and thrust in to the hunter. Iolaus pushed back while exhorting him to thrust harder. Soon he had a rhythm established that had the blond screaming his pleasure.

They both found it necessary to bath again before they dressed and headed out to join their host and various other members of his court. They had barely entered the room when the chief interpreter drew the demigod to one side and said, in an undertone, "My master would like your catamite."

"What?" Hercules exclaimed, bemused.

The man gestured at Iolaus. "Your catamite."

"Iolaus? What for?"

The interpreter looked at him as if he was dense. "For his harem."

"But ..."

"He is older than the males my master usually favours, but that golden hair and beautiful pale body attract him. He has also seen how skilled he is in serving you."

"What? When?" Hercules was aghast.

"He watched you after your bath."

Hercules blushed fiery red. "He watched us?"

"I have said."

Iolaus had been idly watching this exchange and, seeing Hercules' rapid colour change, approached them to find out what the interesting discussion could be about. "What's going on, Herc?"

"This ... er ... gentleman tells me his master is interested in you."

"Well, I'm an interesting sort of person."

"Iolaus, he's ..."

The interpreter interrupted. He was clearly a higher sort of servant and did not feel the bargain to be struck should be discussed with underlings, even if the servant in question was the topic of discussion. Ignoring the blond to the extent of turning his back on him and drawing the demigod aside, much to Iolaus' chagrin, he said, "My master is prepared to pay well."

"Pay?" Iolaus echoed, looking mystified. "What's he on about?"

"He would exchange three female slaves and six goats."

"That's certainly a tempting offer," Hercules responded, fighting against laughter that might upset his host.

"Hercules!" Iolaus appealed, clutching at the demigod's shirt. "What the hell is he talking about?"

"His master finds you very attractive, my love. He's just offered me three slave girls and six goats in exchange for you."

"That horrible, fat, old ..."

"Shsh, Iolaus, we want to get out of here with whole skins if possible."

"Say 'no' quickly then."

Hercules turned back to the interpreter. "Please thank your master for his offer, but Iolaus is my friend not my servant."

"He will not believe that. He saw him debase himself before you and afterwards you used him."

"Nevertheless, it is true. I would do the same for him."

The man looked disbelieving. "You would let your catamite use you?"

"He's not my catamite, he's my lover." He felt a thrill run through him as he realized that he had actually said the words to someone. It was odd how pleasant the possessive expression "my lover" sounded, but he pushed the stray thought aside.

"My master is not accustomed to having his wishes thwarted. He will be displeased." He paused and then smiled, as a new idea occurred to him. "I understand! You wish to bargain. You hope he will offer more. I will speak to him again."

"Fine, you do that," Hercules smiled, as the man bustled off.

Iolaus was too concerned about the offer to give conscious thought to the demigod's admission. Later, much later, he would remember it and savour it and hope it was a portent of the future, but for now he grabbed Hercules' arm and steered him outside. "What in Tartarus do you think you're playing at?"

"Well, the goats *were* a very attractive offer."

"Hercules!" There was a dangerous edge to Iolaus' voice.

"Well, think about it from my point of view. They wouldn't pick fights with people, flirt with the ladies or dispute my decisions. They'd be less trouble all round."

Iolaus looked outraged. "And what about me?"

"Oh, you'd be well cared for. No work, lots of delicious food, plenty of attractive female company and a wealthy old man to dote over you and spoil you. In fact, there's only one aspect of the deal that might not appeal to you."

"And that is?"

"I imagine they'd cut you."

"What do you mean *cut* me?"

"Just a precaution. Men such as our gracious host have lots of wives and they want to ensure that any children these ladies may have are theirs, so they would probably castrate you."

"Castrate me?" Iolaus' voice rose two octaves in shock.

"There you're getting in to the spirit of things already," said Hercules, grinning broadly at his lover's reaction.

"Hercules, that isn't bloody funny."

Somehow, Hercules managed to resist responding with one of his dreadful puns. "Okay, I know it's not, Iolaus, but you need to calm down. We're considerably outnumbered here and we don't want to antagonize our host if we can avoid it."

"Great! You and he can be best buddies. It doesn't matter about me."

"Of course it does, my love. Even if he increases his offer by two more goats I won't take it ... Although three might be too much temptation."

"If he gets me it will be over your dead body," Iolaus threatened.

Just then another servant appeared to inform them that the evening meal was about to be served and so they returned inside.

There were many tempting dishes, but Iolaus' appetite was diminished by the awareness that the emir's eyes kept returning to him, with a hunger in them that made him feel like he was the main course. However, to his relief, no further offers were made to Hercules.

Finally, they retired to their room. The door had barely shut behind them when Iolaus announced it was time to leave, indeed more than time. Hercules had quite some difficulty in persuading him it was better to wait a couple of hours until most people would be asleep. He had rarely seen the blond more on edge. It was on the tip of his tongue to make some teasing observations but, watching the hunter prowling restlessly back and forth, he decided it was better not to add to his agitation and hence possibly provoke him into taking precipitate action.

He noticed there was a drink and glasses left for them on a side table. He poured two glasses. "Here." He handed one to the hunter, who went to take a sip, hesitated, sniffed and then whirled around and knocked the drink out of the startled demigod's hand. "What in Tartarus ..." the latter began.

"It's drugged, Herc. I could smell it. I want to get out of here *now*."

"All right, lead the way."

With their Arab robes stuffed in their carry-bags, the two moved silently through the dark palace. Iolaus eased the door into the main courtyard open. There were a couple of guards outside the door, but they were not expecting attack from within the palace and were standing idly chatting. They never knew what hit them. Iolaus' man fell to a rabbit chop to the neck, while Hercules' victim suddenly felt his air-supply cut off by a large hand.

"The stables are this way," Iolaus whispered.

Hercules followed, glad that he had a partner who could always be counted on to remember such details and who had an almost uncanny sense of direction.

The stables were unguarded, but they knew there would be guards on duty at the gate in the outer wall so they donned their Arab robes before leading their mounts out of the stables.

Iolaus then held the horses while the demigod moved forward. He spoke quietly to get the men's attention and held out a roll of parchment. He knew they were unlikely to understand his words, but hoped they would move together to see what was on the scroll so he could take both guards out quickly. He intended to bash their heads together. He moved fast and seized one man, but the other jumped back and started to shout.

The first cry had barely left his lips when the hunter's feet hit him in the teeth. The blond landed lightly and rushed back to the horses, which had fortunately remained where they were standing when he had dropped the reins.

Meanwhile, Hercules had knocked his man out.

The two mounted hurriedly and Iolaus led the way out of the palace courtyard. To their relief there were no sounds of pursuit. Apparently the guard's brief shout had gone unnoticed.

They rode for about five miles and then the hunter called a halt.

"Where to now?" Hercules asked.

"I reckon we should head for El Harra. At least two of those merchants in Cairo mentioned it as a likely possibility."

"How do we get there?"

"Don't you know? Didn't you look carefully at those maps we saw in Alexandria?"

"I looked at them, but I can't remember details like that."

"You're hopeless, Herc," Iolaus giggled. "If I wasn't around you'd get lost in Corinth."




"I don't suppose you even know which direction is southwest."

"Of course, I do! It's this way," Hercules announced, urging his mount into the lead, with a show of confidence he did not feel.

Iolaus was not fooled. "Good guess, Herc!" he teased.

"It wasn't a guess," the demigod lied.

"Well, whatever it was, it was wrong. You're leading us south."

"I knew that! I was just testing you," Hercules retorted. He swung his horse to what would have to be southwest.

Iolaus went into absolute peals of laughter, which degenerated into a coughing fit when he caught his breath trying to stifle the noise. Hercules thumped him on the back none too gently while demanding to know what was so funny.

"Y-You were ... You were right th-the f-first time," he spluttered, holding his aching sides. "I knew it w-was a g-guess and that pr-proves it. Oh, m-my stomach hurts. Don't make me laugh!" He began to giggle helplessly again.

Hercules could hardly believe it. Here they were in a foreign land, having made some dangerous enemies and likely to be pursued, and the irrepressible Iolaus was kidding around as if they were safely in Iphicles' castle in Corinth. He opened his mouth to say as much, but the blond's mirth was contagious and he found himself laughing as well. Some minutes passed before either was in any state to proceed.

They rode on for a couple of hours and Iolaus then suggested they get some rest. Both were tired and fell asleep in moments.

The next day saw them riding further southwest, although the demigod had decided, on principle, that it couldn't possibly be southwest even though the sun's position was a dead giveaway.

The terrain was uninteresting, the sun was too hot and the hours simply dragged past.

Two similarly uneventful days followed that one and the hunter got *very* bored.

On the fourth day, the landscape became slightly more rugged, but no more inspiring. The territory they were riding through now was undulating rather than dead flat. The vegetation was sparse and the ground sandy or stony, with odd rock outcrops. The sun was not yet high and so the temperature was not too oppressive.

"Let's race, Herc!" Iolaus urged, anxious to find some entertainment.

"No, there's no need to tire the horses."

"You know I'll win."

"We are *not* going to race, Iolaus, so nobody will win."

"Chicken!" Iolaus jeered.

"Look, Iolaus, we both know you'd win so there's no point." That was one of the demigod's more annoying traits from Iolaus' point of view. He could never understand how anyone could calmly accept defeat as inevitable and not care about it. He could never resist a challenge to prove he could do anything, no matter what the risks involved.

"You must be getting old, Herc. You're no fun," he complained.

"This isn't meant to be fun," the demigod admonished.

"But it *could* be."


The hunter picked up the pace, hoping that the demigod would follow his lead, but Hercules did not. As a result, the blond was soon some distance ahead. Inadvertently, this action created difficulties for some men lying in ambush for them.

Iolaus nearly rode straight into the trap. However, his keen eye caught a glimpse of sunlight reflected on metal. To the demigod's surprise, he suddenly reined his horse in hard, while shouting, "Ambush, Herc!"

Someone shouted what was clearly an order, in an unknown tongue, and arrows rained down upon the blond as he frantically struggled to turn his frightened mount.

The big roan reared, screaming as arrows pierced its neck and chest. Iolaus lurched as another embedded itself deeply in his side, almost knocking him from the horse. He cried out in pain, but continued to try to pull the horse round. Then it fell and Iolaus was lost to Hercules' sight.

Hercules had hauled rein instantly at Iolaus' warning, but now he urged his mount forward. He might not have been prepared to ride fast before, but when Iolaus was in danger all other considerations were thrown aside. With a roar of fury, the demigod charged directly at the attackers. This was not what the bandits had anticipated. They had expected the lone man to turn and run and his unexpected reaction had caught them off-guard.

In moments he was amongst them, swinging off his horse and into the attack in one swift movement. 'Iolaus is hurt. I've got to finish this quickly,' he thought, as he abandoned his usual policy of curbing his strength when dealing with mortals. Four of the attackers were dead in moments before the onslaught of this avenging fury and the other two had fled in complete panic.

The demigod then hastened to check on his lover. Iolaus was lying face down and deathly still, with one leg caught under the dying horse.

Hercules knew his first task had to be to dispatch the animal. He steeled himself. Although he knew the action would put the animal out of its misery, he found it difficult to kill it. Normally, the less squeamish hunter would have relieved him of such a task. He pulled the hunter's knife from its sheath and drove it home, wincing as he did so.

Then he knelt beside the blond and felt for the pulse in his neck. The hunter stirred, twisted his head around, opened bleary eyes and blinked at him. "You're on my damn leg again, Herc. Get off! You're too bloody heavy," he complained and promptly fainted again.

A wave of relief washed over Hercules. Iolaus might be rude to him, but he was alive and that was all that mattered. The demigod effortlessly lifted the horse's carcass off Iolaus and flung it aside.

He then examined Iolaus' injuries. The arrow had snapped when Iolaus hit the ground and there was only about an eighth of an inch of shaft protruding from the seeping wound. He quickly ran his hands down the leg that had been trapped under the horse. To his relief, it did not appear to be broken.

He turned his attention back to the arrow injury. Again he picked up Iolaus' hunting knife. He wiped the horse's blood off onto his shirt and then used a little of their precious water to clean it.

He was about to begin to remove the arrowhead when Iolaus stirred again. His eyes fluttered open and his lips moved, but no sound came.

"It's okay, Iolaus, the bandits have gone, but you've got an arrow in you. It's got to come out. I'll be as quick as I can, but its going to hurt."

The hunter nodded. "J-Just get on with it, H-Herc," he gasped.

Hercules climbed astride the blond, using his weight to pin him down. He knelt on Iolaus' wrists. The hunter tensed and closed his eyes, waiting fearfully for the new pain. Without saying a word, Hercules clenched a fist and hit him on the jaw to render him unconscious.

Unable to get a grip on the small piece of blood-slimed shaft protruding from Iolaus' side, he began to probe down the side of it with the knife. The arrow had gone deep. Iolaus jerked and moaned.

It was no good. He couldn't get any leverage. He had no choice but to enlarge the wound. Wincing and feeling very nauseous, he forced himself to cut into the hunter's flesh. After a seeming eternity, he got the tip of the blade beneath the barbed head and levered up, trying to ignore the fresh gashes he made around the entry hole. Finally, the head popped out and blood gushed from the wound.

Hercules reached for Iolaus' carry-bag and grabbed his blanket to tear into bandages. He wadded a piece, placed it over the wound and then tied the strips of cloth tightly over it to hold it in place. To his relief, the blood flow was stanched.

He held a water bottle to the hunter's lips and managed to get him to swallow a little. He then laid him down and began to take stock of their situation.

Things did not look rosy. His horse had departed the scene and he knew they were still a good distance from El Harra.

The sun was now beating down fiercely, the air shimmering in the heat. This was no place to be afoot and with only a limited water supply.

He went over to their attackers' bodies to see if they had any gear worth scavenging. He found a couple of half filled water bottles, but that was all. Looking at the men's ragged clothing he correctly surmised that they were bandits rather than the emir's men.

Returning to the hunter, he was surprised to find him stirring. "Wh-What did you do to me?" Iolaus asked, one hand roaming to the bandage.

Hercules gently pushed it away. "Nothing much. I just removed a small arrowhead. Leave the bandage alone. I don't want you mucking up my handiwork. Now you lie still and I'll give you some water."

He allowed the blond a few minutes rest and then reluctantly announced, "We're going to have to get moving, Iolaus. Do you think you can walk?"

"I'll t-try."

Hercules helped him to his feet. Iolaus gasped and staggered against him. The demigod clutched him to him. "Damn, my bloody leg's a bit sore. I *told* you not to sit on it." He wiped a shaking hand over his eyes, trying to clear away the annoying mist obscuring his vision. "Things seem a bit ... a bit ..."

"You'd better sit down again."

"No! J-Just give me a minute, Herc, I-I'll be all right."

"Sure?" asked the demigod, doubtfully.


A short time later, they set out, Iolaus leaning heavily on the demigod's arm as he hobbled awkwardly. Before they had gone far, his breathing was ragged and it was clear that his leg and side were giving him hell. Sweat stood out on his forehead and coursed down his pale face. He felt light-headed, his vision was blurred and, although it was not long since Hercules had given him a drink, he was incredibly thirsty. 'I've got to keep going,' he thought desperately. 'Herc will never leave me if I collapse and I can't let him die trying to save me.'

He limped painfully on, his boots scrapping through the dust and his body swaying. Moving automatically, instinctively, he was hardly aware of anything but pain and heat. Near the end of his endurance, he was determined to deny his weakness.

The demigod watched Iolaus' unsteady progress with anxious eyes, trying to support him as best he could, and fully aware that the stubborn hunter would keep going until he dropped rather than admit to infirmity.

Then Iolaus stumbled on a loose stone and would have fallen had it not been for the demigod's supporting arm. The jolt caused a stabbing pain in his injured side and, to his shame, he felt his eyes filling with tears.

"Rest for a moment, Iolaus," the demigod said.

"No! I have to keep going," he gritted, fearing that, if he stopped, he'd not be able to start again. He staggered on.

Hercules could not understand how his hunter was keeping moving. He could see his pallid face, streaming with sweat, and hear his laboured breathing.

Suddenly the hunter had a dreadful sensation of the ground rushing up to meet him. He started to pitch forward, but the demigod managed to clasp him and lower him slowly into a sitting position. He struggled to rise, but sank back. "I-I'm sorry, Herc. I d-don't seem able ... I c-can't get up. C-Could you give me a hand?"

"Iolaus, *please* take a break," the demigod pleaded.

"N-No! I don't n-need to. Pl-Please j-just a bit further."

Shaking his head, Hercules lifted his lover to his feet as gently as he could, trying to pretend he had not heard the hiss of pain from Iolaus' lips. The trouble was he knew Iolaus was right, they *had* to keep moving.

Somehow the hunter shuffled onwards, his injured leg dragging. He muttered curses about the Arab robe hindering his steps, but Hercules knew it would be fatal to let him discard the protective clothing and expose his fair skin to the full intensity of the late morning sun.

His whole body seemed to ache. His reserves of stamina were rapidly dwindling and he was teetering on the brink of collapse. How he wanted to sink to the ground. Why not lie down and stop the torture? "No, I've got to think of Herc," he muttered to himself.

"What was that, Iolaus?" the demigod asked.

He feared he knew what the reaction would be, but he had to try while he could still think reasonably clearly. "H-Herc, you sh-should leave me. You c-could get to the next village. E-Even *you* c-could find it," he added, with a touch of his usual cheek. "You c-could g-get horses and come b-back for me I'd be all right."

"I'll never leave you, my love."

"But ..."


"P-Please, Herc, you *have* to." He was begging now.

"No, my love. Iolaus, we are going to have another break now." He stopped and lowered the blond to the ground as gently as he could. Then he held a water bottle to his friend's parched lips. "Drink this."

Iolaus' throat was so dry that swallowing was painful. Although his head was spinning, he kept an eye on the demigod and was aware that the latter had not had a drink. "Wh-What about you?" he asked, gesturing vaguely towards the bottle.

"I don't need one yet, Iolaus," the demigod said, his rasping voice giving the lie to his assertion.

Hercules helped him up once more and they moved slowly on.

Iolaus' side felt like it was on fire. He sucked in his breath as pain lanced through him. Then, in the midst of his agony, Iolaus suddenly felt an insane desire to giggle. His thoughts were starting to wander. He knew he was on the verge of fever taking over as infection started to build up in the arrow-wound. Still he forced himself on.

Somehow, Iolaus limped on for another hour and then with a muttered, "Sorry, Herc," he collapsed.

The demigod knelt down and forced some water between Iolaus' dry lips, but there was no response. Despairingly, he gathered the hunter into his arms and plodded on.

The hours dragged slowly past. His tongue swollen and thick in his mouth, Hercules was finally forced to start drinking their precious water supply because he knew that if he collapsed, something he feared might be all too likely, both were doomed.

The sun was finally sinking and the demigod had still not reached the village. He wondered if he'd got off course and missed it. The hunter would never let him live that down, but he knew he'd welcome the teasing because it would mean Iolaus was all right.

He was so exhausted that he was unaware that they had company and suddenly found himself surrounded by a group of about ten heavily armed men. All were brandishing swords or spears.

The leader rapped out an order, but Hercules could not understand him. The man tried another language. No luck. On his third attempt he said, in Greek, albeit with a dreadful accent, "Put him down."

Hercules reluctantly complied. He hated letting go of his precious burden, but if it came to a fight he didn't want the blond in his arms.

"Stand back!" He obeyed and the man moved forward and removed the gutra covering the hunter's hair. At the sight of the golden curls, he laughed triumphantly and made some comment to his men. This caused much excited nodding and laughter.

The leader signalled to a couple of his men and they moved to grab Iolaus. Hercules realized his friend was about to be tossed over a horse and he stepped forward in protest. That was the last he knew. A sword hilt collided with the back of his head and he sank into oblivion.

When he regained consciousness, it was dark. He was disorientated and lay quietly for a few moments endeavouring to collect his scattered wits. His head was aching dully, but his hard skull had taken no major injury from the vicious blow. He reached out an inquiring hand and realized he was inside a tent. Turning his head to the side, he could see the flickering of a campfire through the flaps.

He wondered where the hunter was. Being tied over a horse would have done his injured side no good at all. "Iolaus?" he asked tentatively. There was no reply.

However, the guard outside his tent must have heard him because there were voices and then the leader of the group pushed his way into the tent. "Ah, you are awake at last."

"Where is my friend? What have you done with him?" He could not keep the worry out of his voice.

"He is in another tent. I prefer to keep prisoners apart. It causes less trouble."

"I need to see him. He was hurt."

"Don't worry, he is alive."

"Why have you captured us?"

"Emir Fahid is very interested in your little friend. He has offered a large reward for him. I am hoping he will pay for you as well."

"No! Please you *can't* take Iolaus to him."

"For money I can do anything."

"I have money."

"No, *I* now have your gold. An unexpected bonus!" He smiled broadly, showing rotting teeth.

"Not that gold," Hercules argued desperately. "I can get more gold for you."

"From where?"

"My brother, King Iphicles."

"And where does he live?"

"In Greece, but ..."

"Too far. Too long to wait. The Lord Fahid pays well and I will have his gratitude and that is no small thing."

"But ..." Hercules started, only to falter as he heard Iolaus scream, "Herc! Help me!"

He was on his feet in an instant. "I have to go to him."

"No! Stay where you are!"

"No!" He ignored the man, striding past him and then shoving the startled guards aside heedless of their weapons, unaware that their leader had signalled to them to let him past, and rushed to the tent where Iolaus was being kept prisoner.

He pushed his way in and then stopped abruptly as he realized one of Iolaus' guards had heard his approach and was holding a knife to the blond's throat.

To his horror, Iolaus was lying on his back with his wrists secured to a peg driven into the ground above his head. His trousers were off his hips and his codpiece was open. A dirty rag had obviously been shoved in his mouth to stifle his cries and another used to secure it. The blond's colour was poor and he was struggling desperately to breathe through the obstruction.

"He's suffocating!" Hercules exclaimed.

Their captor barked an order and the man holding the knife removed the gag.

The hunter began to cough and gasp. Hercules fell to his knees, dragged the peg from the ground and gathered him into his arms, patting and stroking his back. Iolaus' eyes were watering from his coughing fit, there was new blood on his bandage and his pallor was ghastly, but, when he could speak, his first words were typical. "Are ... Are you all right, H-Herc?"

"I'm fine, Iolaus. You're the one we need to worry about." He placed a gentle hand on Iolaus' forehead. He was burning with fever.

"I-I'm okay, Herc," he lied, unsuccessfully, looking at the demigod through pain-glazed eyes.

The leader said something else to his men and then turned to the demigod. "I have told them to be more careful. There is no need for the gag. No one can hear him out here."

Aghast, Hercules realized the implication of the man's words. It was clearly okay to assault the prisoner as long as he wasn't killed. He made a quick decision and hoped Iolaus wouldn't dispute his words. "You do realize why the emir wants us, don't you?"

"It's no business of mine. All I know is he has offered a substantial reward."

"Well, you'd better make it your business. I thought his beauty might have made it clear. He's the emir's favourite catamite. The emir won't be very pleased if Iolaus is returned to him with a story about being assaulted by your men."

"What is he doing running off then?"

"The emir's decided to have him castrated as he's been showing a bit too much interest in the ladies. Naturally, Iolaus wasn't too keen on the idea and he took off. I followed him as I was scared he'd run into worse trouble by himself."

The man hesitated, thinking over what was said. The exotic, golden beauty of their prisoner, the large size of the reward and the emir's well-known proclivities made the story all too likely. Convinced, he nodded to the demigod and then turned to his men. The terror on their faces as he spoke made it clear that he was accurately recounting Hercules' words.

When he had finished, he turned back to the demigod and said, "They will not touch him again."

"I want to stay with him. His wound needs to be redressed and he's ill."

To his surprise, the man acquiesced. Clearly the news about why the emir was interested in Iolaus had shaken him. He barked what was obviously an order and one of the men went out and returned with a water-skin. He also carried some rags, apparently all that was available to rebind the wound.

Hercules' carefully removed the old bandage, wincing as it stuck to the wound. He poured some of the water over it and patted it dry. Then he put a pad of cloth on it and bound it in place.

Iolaus' face was chalk white and his breathing ragged as he fought to suppress any moans of pain for fear of upsetting the demigod further.

"Okay, my love?" Hercules murmured.

"Fine, j-just a bit c-cold, that's all," Iolaus whispered, shivering.

Cold? Running a temperature like that? "It's all right, Iolaus, you snuggle up against me. We'll get you warmed up." He lay down and gently drew the blond against him. He felt a small hand steal trustingly into his and the soft curls sank onto his shoulder' as their owner fell into a fitful sleep.

In his concern, he watched the hunter closely, while simultaneously wondering about his best course of action. Had he been alone he would have simply fought his way out, but this would be dangerous carrying Iolaus. However, letting the men take them back to the emir was not an option either. An immediate execution would probably be his lot and then Iolaus would be in that man's hands, injured, ill and alone, facing an unthinkable future.

If only the blond had been able to walk. He scanned Iolaus' face trying to will him to open his eyes. He brushed the golden curls, obscuring the beautiful face, back with his free hand. As he did so, his eyes fell on a mark on the hunter's neck, previously hidden by the blond mop. He'd made the raised bruise himself, kissing nibbling and sucking his ecstatically writhing hunter on the last occasion they had made love.

The sight of the mark, combined with Iolaus' earlier comment about being cold, gave him an idea. "Iolaus," he whispered, shaking his friend's shoulder gently, "can you hear me?"

There was no response. The demigod shook him a little harder. He roused. "Huh?"

"Iolaus, I'm going to do something to you and it might hurt a bit, but you've got to keep still so our guards don't realize what I'm doing. Okay?"

"Mmm, whatever ... 'M so sleepy, Herc."

Hercules gently eased his arm out from under Iolaus' head and laid him down. He then rolled on to his side facing the hunter, his broad back to their captors, effectively screening Iolaus from their view. He was still concerned that the blond might cry out so he whispered, "I'm going to give you something to bite on, my love," and stuffed a piece of the leftover rag into Iolaus' mouth.

The blond automatically started to raise his hands to remove it, but the demigod seized his wrists and pushed them above the tousled head. "Keep still, my love," he implored. Then he lowered his head and started to suck and bite at the blond's armpit. He felt the blond tense at the pain. "You have to keep still, Iolaus," he ordered.

He continued his attentions until he drew blood and them moved away an inch or so and repeated the operation. Finally, he did it a third time.

Only then did he look at the hunter's face. Tears of pain were running down Iolaus' cheeks. 'Gods, this had better work,' Hercules thought. "That's all, my love," he whispered, removing the rag and brushing the hunter's lips with his own. "Now, Iolaus, I'm going to try to fool the guards. You just keep quiet and let me handle things."

"Hurts ... Why did you ..."

"Ssh! Trust me."

Hercules tensed his muscles and then leapt to his feet with a strangled cry, pushing the blond away from him with his foot.

The two guards were on their feet in an instant, brandishing their scimitars. Hercules staggered towards them, madly waving his hands in Iolaus' direction.

They hesitated, clearly bemused by his behaviour. Moments later, their leader pushed his way into the tent, his voice loudly questioning. All they could do was indicate the shaking demigod.

"What's wrong?"

"It's Iolaus!"

"What about him? Is he worse?"

"He was ... He was tossing about and he flung his arms above his head and I saw *them*."

"What? What did you see?"

"Plague sores! Under his arm! They're horrible. And I've touched him! Oh, gods, I've touched him."

The bandit chief wasn't easily frightened. "Are you sure?"

"Yes! No! I don't know!" the big man babbled. "There were a couple of people with plague in a little village we passed through. We got out of there quickly and didn't go near them, but I don't know. You look."

The bandit gave an order and one of the guards flung back the tent flaps to let more moonlight in. The headman then gingerly approached the little blond.

Iolaus had lowered his arms and had slipped his left hand up to clutch at his right armpit. "Raise your arms!" the man commanded.

"Hurts," the hunter protested.

"Raise them!"

Hercules held his breath, surely Iolaus wasn't going to make difficulties. The bandit turned to the guards and gave an instruction, gesturing at Iolaus as he did so. Both men stood stock-still. They didn't know what Hercules had said, but the implication that there was something wrong with the blond was clear. Neither was going near him.

The bandit snarled some abuse at them and moved forward himself. Hercules realized with horror that the bandit was drawing his sword. "What are you going to do?"

"I need to lift his arm to see and I'm not going to touch him."

"Iolaus, put your hands above your head *now*," Hercules ordered in his best no-nonsense voice. To his relief, The blond responded automatically.

The bandit inched forward.

Hercules saw Iolaus starting to move his arms down again. "Iolaus! Keep still!" he snapped.

The hunter's face was running with sweat and tears. "P-Please, Herc, it hurts."

"Just do as you're told!" the demigod ordered harshly, desperate to keep the sword away from Iolaus.

As he spoke, he moved forward as well. To his relief, the bites looked ghastly in the moonlight and remarkably like buboes just beginning to swell.

He all but bumped into the bandit leader, who had stopped suddenly, unwilling to get too near. The man sniffed the air. "Could you smell anything when you were close to him?"

"There was an odd sweet smell about him," Hercules answered, innocently. "I'd never noticed it before."

That was it. The bandit leader turned abruptly and hastened out into the fresh air, shouting for his men. The few words he flung at them had them hurrying to break camp. Hercules retreated and stood in front of the entrance to Iolaus' tent.

"What about me?" he appealed to the bandit leader. "Don't leave me here with him. Take me with you."

"No way! You've touched him. Keep the tent."

They galloped off. Hercules breathed a heart-felt sigh of relief and headed in to check on Iolaus.

"Iolaus, it's okay, they've gone," he said, reassuringly as he sank to his knees beside the blond.

"I-I'm sorry, Herc."

"What do you mean, Iolaus?"

"I-I don't ... I don't know what I did to ... to make you angry with me. I'm sorry."

"I'm not mad with you, Iolaus," the demigod said, bemused.

"B-But you ... you hurt me and you sh-shouted so I must've done s-something."

Hercules reached for his lover intending to cuddle him, but the blond flinched away. "Please, Iolaus, I had to do it to fool the bandits."

"Who?" he asked, clearly confused.

The demigod realized that Iolaus wasn't really with it. He gently pulled the blond to him and cradled him against his chest, stroking the tangled, sweat-damp curls. "I love you, Iolaus. You know I love you, don't you?"

"Yes, but ..."

"Just go back to sleep, my love, I'll explain tomorrow. Please."

To his relief, the blond nodded, snuggled in against his chest and drifted off to sleep almost immediately.

Hercules spent a somewhat disturbed night. Iolaus was restless, tossing and turning and occasionally crying out. The hunter's skin was burning, and the demigod knew he was rapidly becoming dehydrated from sweating and blood-loss, but they didn't have enough water to give him what he needed. All the demigod could do was hold him and caress him, while whispering words of comfort and love.

Finally, the new day dawned. Hercules was now faced with another dilemma. He had absolutely no idea where they were. He correctly surmised that the band had been taking them back to Cairo, but he did not know how far they had travelled.

He knew he had to get medical help for Iolaus as soon as possible, but did not know where the nearest village might lie. He desperately tried to picture the maps they had seen in Alexandria. The trouble was, knowing the hunter's skills, he had paid little attention to these and had relied on Iolaus committing them to memory.

The one thing he could recall was that there were definitely more villages in the east towards the Gulf of Suez. He decided to strike out in a northeasterly direction. He knew that he would have to cover as much ground as possible before the real heat of the day.

He wandered outside to see whether their captors had abandoned anything of use. To his great surprise, he found a nearly full water-skin. For a desert-dweller to abandon such an item, he must indeed have been in a panic to leave. Unfortunately, there was nothing else of use.

He returned to the tent. Iolaus' gear was still all there as none of the men had wished to take it for fear that it carried infection. With some difficulty, he dressed the semi-conscious hunter in his Arab robes that his attackers had thrown aside the night before. He then forced a little of their precious water between the blond's lips.

He gathered Iolaus into his arms and then bent his head and kissed his lover gently. "We've got to get moving now, Iolaus," he whispered, but there was no response.

The journey that followed was an absolute nightmare for the demigod. The heat, exhaustion and lack of food and water were starting to take their toll on him. If Iolaus' life had not depended on his perseverance, he might well have given in but, with his beloved hunter helpless in his arms, he plodded on.

He lost all sense of time and place. He had no idea whether he was still going in the right direction. All he knew was that he was *not* going to stop until he had got Iolaus to a place of safety.

For much of the time, the hunter lay quiescent, his head flopping on the demigod's shoulder, but periodically he whimpered piteously and Hercules could feel his body shaking. It tore his heart to see his friend suffering. He felt so useless.

It was by pure good luck that, after some hours of relentless torture, he staggered into the town of Beni Mazar and it was further good fortune that the town possessed an able healer, Murshid, who could actually speak Greek.

Then the old adage that things come in threes was proven correct because Murshid also knew Pirus' location. He was at Abu Qurqas about thirty miles south. However, by this stage, the demigod's only interest was in Iolaus.

He carried the blond into the healer's home and laid him on a bed.

The healer immediately reopened the wound in Iolaus' side and kept it open for some hours, draining away the infection and bathing it frequently. Finally he applied a drawing poultice.

Because Iolaus' left knee was badly swollen, he gave the blond frequent drinks of a herbal concoction designed to reduce inflammation. Looking at the state of the limb, Hercules wondered that his friend had been able to walk at all, let alone cover the miles he had.

"You'd better check the sores under his right arm," Hercules said, guiltily remembering how Iolaus had complained about the pain.

The healer paled and took an involuntary step back. "Sores? What are they like?" he demanded, a slight tremor in his voice.

Hercules realized what the man was thinking. "It's okay, they're bites not plague sores," he said reassuringly.

"Bites?" Murshid looked suspicious. "That's odd. Are you sure?"

"Very." He blushed and hesitated and then admitted, "I made them."

"What?" The healer was staring at him as if he were mad.

Hercules quickly explained the trick he had played on the bandits.

"Well, I'd best check then. Human bites can be quite infectious." He raised Iolaus' arm.

Hercules winced. Two of marks did look rather inflamed.

"I'd better put some salve on these. The medicine he's taking for his other injuries will help them."

"I didn't realize I'd ..." Hercules started, his distress clear.

"Don't worry, he'll be fine and, from what you've said about the circumstances, it was an inspired idea. How did you come to think of it?"

Hercules blushed, wondering how to answer. "Ah ... um ... He had a love bite on his neck and I spotted it."

"*And* put it there," the healer said, shrewdly. He had observed the demigod's eyes as he looked at the little blond and Hercules' embarrassed hesitation had confirmed his suspicion.

Hercules lowered his eyes and blushed redder than ever.

"Look, it doesn't worry me whether you are lovers or not, but if you're going to spend time caring for him it will be easier if you can talk and act frankly in my presence."

"Yes, you're right. He is the most important person in my life. I've never loved anybody like I love him." He'd said it again and once more he wondered at just how pleasant the admission was, although he was also comfortably aware that his words to the interpreter and the doctor were safe enough as neither were likely to ever pass them on to others.

Further, as it turned out, it was just as well he had been driven to make that admission because several desperate hours followed when Hercules despaired of his friend's life and, during that time, he frequently felt the need to speak to the hunter of his love for him.

Iolaus was burning with fever. His skin was so hot that it was as if the fever was consuming him. He tossed restlessly, groaning and incoherent. The demigod sponged him repeatedly to try to bring his temperature down and constantly whispered words of encouragement and endearment to him. His soothing voice seemed to penetrate the hunter's fevered brain because he always quieted when Hercules was attending him.

However, the fever had been building steadily and it was clear that the crisis point in his illness must come soon. As the heat increased, so did the hallucinations. Broken words and phrases spilled from his lips. He asked repeatedly for Hercules.

*Someone was thrusting a red-hot poker into his side. He could smell his flesh burning. The heat was agonizing. He shouted for Hercules. Then his friend was there, but he wasn't helping. "There is no water, Iolaus!" he said. He was laughing. Then he leant forward and grabbed Iolaus' wrists. Iolaus struggled, but the demigod held him tightly and then sunk his teeth into Iolaus' armpit, sucking his blood. Blood splattered across his chest.*

"Hurts ... Hurts ... Herc! D-Don't! Pl-Please don't!" he begged, twisting desperately and trying to fend the demigod off.

"It's just some medicine, Iolaus. It will make you feel better. Murshid, if I hold him, can you try to get it into him. He knocked the spoonful I had and spilt it all over himself."

The demigod raised his lover, his arm around the hunter's shoulders, and Murshid put the medicine to his lips, gently prising his lips apart. The hunter swallowed and then gagged, but kept it down. Hercules lowered him again and he lay quietly for a short time, breathing quickly and shallowly, while the former watched his every move with increasing worry.

*Hercules was dead. He was alone in that tent apart from his friend's body. He was lying on his back and for some terrifying reason he couldn't move. A large shape loomed over him. He couldn't see properly, but he knew it was the Emir. Fahid reacted out his pudgy hands for him. Iolaus could feel them clutching him. He could smell the man's fetid breath.*

He screamed and hit out at his assailant.

Hercules clutched his lover's flailing arms. "It's all right, my love. I'm here. You're safe," he crooned.

"Don't let him touch me!"

"He's gone, Iolaus. I'm here. I've got you."

"Herc? B-But you're dead."

"No, you've been dreaming, Iolaus. It was just a bad dream. I'm here."

"So hot ..."

Another voice, an unknown one. "We'd better sponge him down again. You're tired. Let me do it. You go and rest."

"No, I *have* to be here."

Finally, the fever broke. A moist sheen appeared on the pallid skin and tears of relief ran unchecked down Hercules' cheeks. He stroked the hunter's face and found it was no longer burning. Iolaus' breathing was deeper and steadier, so different to that that had frightened the demigod.

Hercules started as he felt a touch on his arm. "You'd better rest now. He'll probably sleep for some hours. I'll watch over him and call you when he wakes."

"I'm all right."

"No, you're exhausted. He'll need you tomorrow and you won't be any shape to help him without rest."

"You're right. Thank you." Hercules reluctantly headed off to the spare room, lay down on the bed and feel asleep almost immediately, fully clad. He never moved when Murshid quietly entered the room and pulled a blanket over him.

Some hours later, Iolaus stirred. At first the hunter believed that he was dead. He seemed to be lying in a sea of darkness, black, impenetrable. However, he was also aware of pain and *that* couldn't be right. He knew he had not felt pain when in Hades' realm after the Fire Enforcer had beaten him to death. He supposed he could be in Tartarus itself, condemned to suffer for his sins, but then he'd been there as well and this wasn't it. No, he definitely wasn't in Tartarus, but it had been bloody hot enough for a while.

He gathered his resources and attempted to open his eyes, but his lids were heavy. When his gritty, burning eyes finally fluttered open everything was blurred and dizzily swirling. He rubbed an impatient hand across his eyes to try to clear them, but immediately regretted the action because it made them sorer than before. He closed his eyes tightly and then tried again. He blinked several times and the world gradually focussed. It was bright day. He was lying in a soft-bed. Such comfort seemed wrong, out of place. He did not recognize the room and could not recall how he had got there.

Then a flash of panic ran through him. He remembered the bandits. He recalled Hercules arguing with their leader and Emir Fahid had been mentioned. Surely, he wasn't back in the palace. He moved a frantically inquiring hand between his legs and breathed a sigh of relief. If he was back in Cairo at least the action Hercules had so jovially mentioned had not been taken ... yet.

He tried to sit up, but a sharp pain stabbed through his side. He cried out and sank back gasping, tears stinging his eyes.

A short, obese stranger hurried into the room. "So you're back with us," he observed, briskly. "How do you feel?"

"I-I've b-been better."

The man put a hand on the hunter's forehead. "Temperature's back to normal. I'd better check your injuries."

He went to pull back the covers, but Iolaus clutched them fearfully. He wasn't letting any unknown supposed healer near him. "Wh-Where's my friend?"

"He's resting. Now let me ..."

"No! I want ... Please I n-need to see him."

"Not yet. He needs some rest. He wouldn't leave you until your fever broke and he's exhausted. He carried you for miles to save you."

Iolaus was torn. The healer had accurately divined that the hunter's concern for his friend's well-being would mirror that of Hercules' for the little blond, and Iolaus could see the sense in the man's words, but he was scared too. Warring emotions fought their way across his face. Then he swallowed and asked, in some trepidation, "Are we ... Are we in C-Cairo?"

The man laughed. Hercules had told him their tale and so he now realized the reason for the fear he had seen in his patient's eyes. "He's strong, but I don't think even Hercules could have carried you that far. You're in Beni Mazar. Cairo is about eighty miles north of here."


"Yes. Look your friend told me what happened to you there and I can assure you I have no designs on your virtue ... if you actually have any," he added, smiling. "Now are you going to let me examine you, or not?"

Iolaus nodded and then bit his lip as the healer deftly removed the bandage. "Ah, it's looking a lot better," Murshid commented. "The infection has receded considerably and the wound now appears clean. However, there's no sense in taking unnecessary chances. I'll apply another poultice just to be on the safe side. I'll go and boil some water."

He bustled out and returned, far too soon as far as the hunter was concerned, with another very hot poultice."

"I don't think that's necessary," Iolaus said quickly, shuddering with anticipation.

"Well, I do and I'm in charge here."

"No, I d-don't need it." He put out a hand ready to fend Murshid off.

"Iolaus, Hercules is sleeping. Do I have to wake him up to hold you down while I do this?"

"No," he muttered, ashamed of himself.

"Right, let's get on with it then."

Murshid applied the poultice quickly. It was every bit as bad as the hunter had feared and he couldn't suppress a sharp yelp of pain. His hand rose of its own volition to try to push the poultice away, but somehow he managed to stop it. He clenched his fists, his knuckles showing white, deliberately digging his fingernails into his palms to provide a distracting source of pain on which to concentrate.

Hercules appeared at that moment. He had still been sound asleep, but somehow Iolaus' brief cry had roused him.

"Iolaus! Are you all right?" As he spoke, he leant over and planted a gentle kiss on a pallid cheek.

"F-Fine," he lied, "I-I'll be r-ready to g-get up soon." The tremor in his voice betrayed his very real exhaustion.

His face was almost as bleached as the pillow. His normally sparkling eyes were dulled from pain and tiredness and had black smudges beneath them. His hair was tangled, dirty and dark with sweat. To an outsider he would have looked terrible, but in the loving eyes of the demigod he was the most beautiful sight in the world.

However, in spite of Iolaus' expressed intentions, Murshid decreed he was certainly not to get up. He needed to lie still and keep his leg elevated to allow the swelling to recede.

Hercules listened to this sensible advice and shuddered inwardly. He knew his hunter. Making the contumacious blond do as instructed, even though the command was given with his best interests at heart, was not going to be the simple task the healer apparently believed.

In the event, the first couple of days were easier than the demigod had anticipated. A combination of pain and exhaustion, aided by a sleeping powder craftily concealed in his drinks, kept the hunter fairly quiet apart from when he had one of his distressing nightmares, which were a continuation of those he had had while delirious. These would leave him shaking and sobbing and desperate for Hercules' reassuring arms.

However, on the fourth day after their arrival at Beni Mazar, that Iolaus blithely announced, "I have to get up sometime so I might as well get up now."

"On the contrary, my love. You will get up when either Murshid or I give you permission and *not* until then," the demigod pronounced firmly.

"Aw, Herc, you fuss too much. I want ..."

"To lie still and take this medicine!" Hercules interrupted. "That knee is still badly swollen and it will just get worse again if you start putting weight on it."

"That medicine tastes horrible. I'm sure it's more likely to poison me than cure me. I'd have probably been better two or three days ago if I hadn't had it." His azure eyes were rebellious.

The comment annoyed the demigod greatly. "Iolaus, be quiet! You should be grateful. Remember Murshid is treating you without charge since those last bandits took our money."

"That's it then! I shouldn't be running up bills that I can't pay, especially for poisonous concoctions I don't need. One should only buy what one can pay for," he added virtuously and then smiled triumphantly at having presented what he was certain was an irrefutable case.

Hercules sighed with exasperation. This was so typical of Iolaus when recovering from an illness or injury. The better the hunter felt, the more bored he became with his enforced inactivity. Misery likes company and so he always ensured that those around him, most commonly the demigod, suffered as well. His strategy seemed to be one of attrition, to wear down his 'persecutors' by constant complaints until they let him up because they could stand no more of it.

It was no good trying to talk logically with him about the situation. He was full of excuses and verbal tricks and totally impervious to reason. As a result, Hercules was forced into repeatedly answering the constant "Why can't I"s with "Because I say so," in his best no-nonsense voice.

Six days had now passed and Iolaus' behaviour had rapidly deteriorated. He was absolutely determined to get up and had made several attempts to do so.

There were only three ways to stop him. One of his caregivers could have sat on guard in the sickroom, but Murshid vetoed that. He had other patients and he said, correctly, that the demigod needed a break from his tiresome charge. He suggested a sleeping draught although he preferred to employ such things only for more directly medicinal purposes.

However, Hercules, in a moment of intense exasperation after the hunter had crept out of bed only to fall over and take the bedside table down with him, smashing water pitcher and medicine bottle, and tearing his stitches out as he twisted to avoid the glass, employed a third method. He seized the hunter's right wrist and tied it securely to the bed-head.

The blond was normally a master at untying knots, but nobody could ever undo one that Hercules tied because of the force he could employ. So Iolaus was stuck and now had an additional reason for discontent. Unfortunately, he now had no audience. After stitching his wound again, Murshid and Hercules had smiled triumphantly at each other and then walked out leaving him with nobody to complain to.

Not long after that, Pirus arrived accompanied by a retinue of about a dozen men. Murshid had sent a message to him, via a merchant friend, that there were messengers from his father seeking him.

When Hercules explained the situation, he was anxious to set out for home at once. The demigod explained that, given the hostility of Cynicus, he would have preferred to see Pirus safely home, but that Iolaus was in no shape to sit a horse.

Pirus suggested they could use a horse-litter for him. It would slow the group's progress, but he was also concerned at the danger to which Hercules and Iolaus were exposed given Emir Fahid's offered reward. He felt it would be safer for them all to travel together if possible.

The demigod agreed, but had to say that the sticking point might be Iolaus. He explained how the little blond hated being treated as an invalid and might be humiliated by the idea of being carried in a litter.

"What say we get one set up and you bring him out to see it?" Pirus suggested. "He might surprise you if it means going home."

So, while Pirus' men got a litter arranged, Hercules went to see Murshid. The healer felt that, from a physical point of view, the hunter would be best to remain, but added that he'd rarely encountered a more difficult patient and so it might be best for everybody's sanity if he was allowed to travel.

Then Hercules then went to see the refractory patient. He was not surprised to find that Iolaus now had a skinned and bleeding right wrist. He had heard the horses and men and had been consumed with curiosity as to what was going on. Unable to untie the knots to free his wrist from the headboard, he had spent his time pulling and twisting, regardless of the pain, and getting more and more frustrated.

On seeing the demigod, the blond pouted and complained, "Look what you made me do."

"If you'd simply obeyed the healer's and my instructions it wouldn't have been necessary," Hercules pointed out, "and you shouldn't have been stupid enough to try to get loose."

"It's not ..."

"Fair!" Hercules' finished for him. "I think I know that refrain by heart now, Iolaus. Anyway, I have some news that will cheer you up. How would you like to start home tomorrow?"

"Home? But what about Pirus?"

"He's here." The demigod explained what had transpired.

Iolaus was very pleased at the prospect. "You'd better cut me loose then. Where are my clothes, Herc? I'll need to get up *now* to practice walking again."

"No, Iolaus, there's a condition on our leaving. I'll show you." As he spoke, he cut the blond free and then said, "Wrap the sheet around yourself."

"What? Why? I want my clothes."

"Iolaus, do you want to go home tomorrow?"

"Yes, but ..."

"Then do as you're told for once."

Very reluctant to allow himself to be coerced and yet very desirous of leaving, the hunter was in a dilemma. However, the wish to go home won out and he pulled the sheet around him, while wearing a face that clearly showed how put-upon he was.

Then the demigod swooped him into his arms, gave him a light kiss on the cheek and said, infuriatingly, "That's better, my love. See how much easier things are when you do what you're told."

The scowl he received in return was nothing short of thunderous.

He carried the blond outside and indicated the horse-litter. "There's your method of transportation, Iolaus."

Surprisingly, the hunter took the sight with good-humour rather than the expected immediate hostility. "You'll do anything to keep me in bed, won't you?" he joked. "However, I'm sure I'm well enough to ride."

"I don't think so, Iolaus, and I am *not* going to give you the opportunity to prove me right."

"Aw, Herc, you're doing your mother-hen act again. I'm fine."

"You are better than you were, my love, at least your health is improved although, unfortunately, I can't say the same about your behaviour. However, I am not going to risk you hurting yourself again."

"But, Herc ..."

"No, it's either the litter or we let Pirus and his men go on without us and we wait another week."

"But, I'm sure ..."

"No! You are *not* sure of anything. I've given you your only two options. Now choose between them please."

"I don't like either of them," Iolaus said stubbornly, thrusting out his lower lip in a pout.

"Then I'll choose for you."

"That's not fair!" the blond complained, returning to his old refrain.

"Please, Iolaus, I was so scared I was going to lose you. I *can't* go through that again." He was almost pleading.

Iolaus looked stricken. "I'm sorry, Herc. I should have thought about you. I'll do whatever you think best."

"The litter then."

"Yes, I *do* want to get going, Herc, it's so boring lying around here."

The first part of the journey was uneventful, but both the hunter and the demigod found it very trying because the former was bored again, and so tetchy and rebellious, and the latter was suffering the consequences of this.

Iolaus was full of reasons as to why he should be allowed to ride, but the demigod was firm. At first, he raised counter-arguments, but then the blond's repeated "Why can't I?" started to drive him to distraction and, quite out of patience, he gave up attempting to reason and had reverted to his "Because I say so."

Iolaus alternated after that between complaining and sulking until the demigod's fingers itched to shake him. If they'd been alone, he might have even answered the childish behaviour by putting the blond across his knee.

However, he was also concerned because he knew that Iolaus was sleeping badly. The closer they got to El Giza the worse his nightmares seemed to be and it had got to the stage where the hunter was afraid to sleep. The fact that he was greatly embarrassed because his screams had roused the camp on three or four occasions added to this. Unfortunately, Hercules could not bring himself to take the hunter comfortingly in his arms, as he had done in the healer's home, and Iolaus dared not ask because he feared rejection, both because of the demigod's reluctance to publicly acknowledge their relationship and as he knew Hercules was justly annoyed with him for his behaviour.

Finally they reached El Giza. Stopping there caused the demigod some concern because of its proximity to Cairo, but it was on the direct route and he knew Pirus was anxious to get home as he hoped to be able to see his father before the latter died. Anyway, they only anticipated spending a single night there so, provided Iolaus kept a low profile, no one should be aware of his presence.

The town was surprisingly busy and the handful of inns all had some guests. None could accommodate their whole party, so Hercules and Iolaus booked into one a few hundred yards from where Pirus and his retinue were staying. Hercules got his lover settled in their room and then collected some food and drink for him.

Since their relationship was under a bit of strain and he couldn't face another lot of grumbles, he opted to leave Iolaus to it and to have a snack in the bar. The food was surprisingly good and he enjoyed his meal.

After he had eaten he wandered outside. Even though it was late afternoon, the sun was still fierce so he didn't venture far. Indeed, he was standing just outside the tavern idly watching some members of a Bedouin tribe, when he felt a tug on his shirt. Leaning awkwardly on a staff, Iolaus had appeared at his side, tousled golden curls sparkling in the sunshine. "Wow! Look at those!" the blond enthused, gesturing toward the men's camels. His excited tone was in marked contrast to the moans, mutters and whines of the previous few days.

"I thought I told you to stay in our room and rest," Hercules remonstrated.

"I *couldn't* stay there. I looked out and saw those animals. I'll bet they can move. Herc, I've *got* to have a ride on one of those. Please, I'll be fine."

"No! You are going back inside."

"Aw, Herc, just a *little* ride. I won't go fast, I promise. Puleeeese."

"Iolaus, you're in no shape to climb ..."

"But I don't have to. They kneel down. I saw one."

"Are you sure you're not hallucinating again?"

"I bet you they do. If I'm right you'll let ..."

"No, I won't. I don't care if they walk on two legs, *you* are *not* getting on one," the demigod said firmly.

"But, Herc ..."

"No! And that's the end of the discussion, Iolaus. You aren't going anywhere except back to your bed."

"But ..."

"Iolaus, you are still not well and you've even wandered out here without your Arab clothing. At the least, you'll get badly sunburnt and I certainly don't want to have to scrape you up after you fall off a camel. Now get back inside!" he ordered.

As he spoke he tried to turn his friend, but the blond resisted, so he swung the protesting hunter into his arms and carried him, struggling and kicking, much to the interest and amusement of the other tavern patrons, back to their room. "Let go! I can walk," Iolaus protested.

"But not too well and it's *where* you're planning to walk that's my concern. We'll be moving on tomorrow and you need to rest." He sat down on the bed, still holding Iolaus so that the hunter ended up on his lap. Gripping Iolaus tightly so he could not move, Hercules continued, "Now, I want you to promise me that you'll do that."

Iolaus pouted and said nothing.

"Iolaus, I want to talk to Pirus about the next stage of our journey. If you won't promise, I can't leave you and I'll have to send for him to come here."

"All right, I will rest," the hunter conceded grumpily, wriggling off Hercules' knee, as the latter relaxed his hold, and adding an unheard "later" under his breath.

"Thank you. I won't be long." He stood up and then stooped to try to kiss Iolaus to show that he appreciated his agreement, but the latter turned his head away, apparently sulking.

He couldn't see the gleam of mischief in the beautiful azure eyes. The hunter knew his demigod. If Hercules thought Iolaus was upset he'd assume that it was because he had won the battle of wills and that Iolaus was actually going to obey him albeit reluctantly. In reality, he had no intention of doing any such thing.

He kept his eye on the window. As soon as the demigod was safely out of sight, Iolaus limped as rapidly as he could out of the inn and then stood gazing wide-eyed at the camels. He wondered how he was going to persuade one of the savage-looking men to let him have a ride. His honeyed-tongue would be of no use as they were unlikely to speak Greek and he had no money to offer them.

He edged nearer. To his surprise one of the men smiled at him and beckoned. That was all the invitation the hunter needed. He hobbled quickly across the street and joined them.

The camels were even taller than they had appeared from a distance, standing around seven feet high at the shoulder, with their humps rising well above that. Yes, Iolaus definitely wanted to ride one.

As he had feared, none of the Bedouins spoke Greek but, with a series of gestures, Iolaus managed to indicate what he wanted to do. This seemed to cause much amusement amongst the group.

The man who had beckoned ordered his camel to kneel, helped the hunter onto it and then climbed on behind him, arms around the hunter and holding the reins. Iolaus did feel a few misgivings as the beast lurched to its feet, but these were soon lost in the excitement of the moment. Hercules would be furious, but he'd worry about that later.

To his surprise, he realized that the other men were mounting as well and were following them.

The men had not believed their luck when Iolaus had approached them. They had spotted him when he had been having his dispute with the demigod and had recognized him as the one for whom the emir had posted a large reward. There was no doubt. The mop of golden curls was so distinctive. They had deliberately hung around outside the tavern while they tried to determine their next move. They had seen the departure of Iolaus' formidable-looking friend and had been debating whether it was worth the risk to try to snatch the prize in daylight while his protector was away. Iolaus' impulsive action had saved them the trouble.

Iolaus started to have doubts about his actions as they cleared the town. He turned awkwardly around and gestured back towards it, but the man shook his head and urged the camel to pick up speed. His narrowed eyes were no longer friendly.

The hunter tried again, but the man laughed and then said, "Emir Fahid."

Iolaus' blood ran cold. He glanced hurriedly down. He was a lot higher than on a horse and he knew he was in no shape for jumping, but he feared he might have no choice. However, if he did jump and actually managed to land safely, how was he going to get away from half a dozen, heavily armed men. Vegetation was so sparse that there was no cover offering.

Fortunately, unbeknownst to the hunter, his departure had not gone unremarked. One of Pirus' men observed him mounting the camel and riding out of town and had rushed inside to warn his master and Hercules. The group was now hurriedly seeking their own mounts to set off in pursuit.

Iolaus came to a decision. He was going to have to try to overpower his captor while managing to stay on the camel. He suddenly twisted violently, gasping in pain and exasperation as he felt his stitches parting yet again, and drove an elbow back into the man's throat.

The Arab was caught off-guard. He had been so entranced by his prize's beauty and golden curls and so distracted by the thought of the wealth that would be his when he delivered the blond to the emir and received his reward, that he had failed to notice the small figure's muscular physique and athletic grace. It had never occurred to him that such a pretty little thing might be dangerous. Now he realized that he had underestimated Iolaus.

Gagging, he nearly fell. He dropped the reins and clutched the hunter tightly to him, trapping his arms against his body. Iolaus jerked both arms sideways breaking the man's grip and swivelled around to confront him. It was awkward because their close proximity made it difficult to take a decent swing at him. He aimed a blow at the man's face with his left hand, but the Arab fended it off.

In doing so, he exposed his stomach and Iolaus drove his right elbow back again. The man started to overbalance. He clawed at the hunter and grasped Iolaus' right wrist. It seemed like he was going to fall and drag the hunter after him. Desperate, Iolaus twisted his wrist hard against the man's thumb and the latter lost his grip and fell.

Recovering himself with difficulty, Iolaus lunged for the reins.

Meanwhile, the other Arabs had been watching the struggle with a considerable amount of amusement. Iolaus' captor was a bully and a braggart and, although they had no wish to lose their share of the reward, they had been enjoying his difficulties. However, they had never anticipated that the little blond would be victorious and so had made no attempt to intervene.

Now they realized their error and began to close in. One man leant across and tried to seize the reins of Iolaus' beast. He received a boot in the arm that made him yelp with pain.

One man raised his spear, but another yelled to him to stop. The reward was offered only if the blond was delivered alive.

Iolaus managed to hook the foot of his good leg under the reins and thus retrieve them. He then wrenched hard, pulling the animal's head around. The action cannoned his camel into one an Arab was riding. The animal took exception to this and tried to bite his attacker.

Iolaus continued to pull his camel around, desperately trying to evade hands outstretched to pull him from his mount. He didn't like his chances. Five to one were long odds in his condition. Twisting to confront his opponent had done his injured side no good at all.

His animal lurched as another beast barged into it and then his head was yanked cruelly back as the rider grabbed him by the hair. The man was trying to unseat him and seemed likely to succeed. Iolaus raised a hand to try to break his grip, but couldn't manage it.

At the moment when all seemed lost, the man gave a ghastly scream and let go. One of Pirus' retinue had sent a crossbow bolt through his throat. Then another Arab fell, a spear deep in his back.

Realizing that they were under attack from a superior force, the remaining three fled.

At last, Iolaus managed to stop his camel. He sat shaking with reaction, uncertain what to do next as he had absolutely no idea what command to give to make the beast kneel.

Hercules dismounted and walked over to him. Iolaus looked down at him with some trepidation, wondering if he was about to be bawled out in front of everyone, but the demigod simply said, "C'mon" and held out strong arms and the hunter slid gratefully down into them.

To his chagrin, Hercules did not then lower him to the ground, but continued to hold him in his arms. "Didn't your mother ever warn you about accepting rides from strange men?" he asked, much to the amusement of Pirus and his retinue.

Iolaus flushed. This was worse than the anticipated public lecture. "Please, Herc, could you put me down?"

"No way, Iolaus." He turned to Pirus. "I told you no one attracts trouble like Iolaus and this is a perfect example of why I can't let him out of my sight for a minute. Looking after him is a full time job."

"Rather like being a mother," Pirus observed and all, but Iolaus, laughed.

"You've got it in one."

"Far be it from me to interfere in how you raise him, but if he were mine, which thank the gods he isn't, I think I'd apply a firm hand."

"Yes, and I know just the part of his anatomy that could most benefit from it." Hercules' replied.

Iolaus was positively squirming with embarrassment. He hated being discussed as if he were absent and the subject of the banter just made it worse. Added to this was his awareness that while the others, not knowing the true nature of his relationship with Hercules, were treating the suggestion as a joke, the demigod might well decide some corrective punishment was needed.

Hence, he was feeling very apprehensive by the time they arrived back at their inn.

The demigod set him down on his feet at the door of the tavern. Hercules then put an arm under his elbow and 'helped' him to their room at more speed than his stiff leg was comfortable with. The demigod then shut the door firmly behind them and swung to face Iolaus. "That would have to be one of the most idiotic things you've done out of a very extensive list of foolish actions," he commented.

"But, Herc, I only ..."

"If I had a dinar for every "But I only" that you've ever uttered I'd be as rich as Croesus," the demigod interrupted sternly.

"Aw, Herc, that's not fair. I just wanted ..."

"What about what *I* wanted? What about your promise to rest? You deliberately lied to me, Iolaus, and that's what angers me more than anything."

"I didn't lie! I *was* going to rest *after* I'd seen the camels," Iolaus protested.

"Iolaus, you know I gave you those instructions in your best interests," the demigod continued relentlessly.

"I'm not a kid, Herc, I can decide what my best interests are. You've been bossing me around for days and I'm sick and tired of it and I'm sick and tired of you."

As soon as he'd said it, he wanted to bite the words back, but it was too late. For a moment he thought Hercules was going to strike him, as anger glittered in the demigod's narrowed eyes and his hands clenched. However, although both hurt and angered by the ingratitude, Hercules simply turned on his heel and stormed out, shouting, "Look after your bloody self then because I'm tired of doing it!"

Iolaus slumped dejectedly down on the bed. He'd really done it this time. Why couldn't he have just accepted the demigod's rebuke in silence? He was well aware that he had deserved it. Now he'd alienated the person that meant most to him in the world.

Hot tears began to run down his face. He burrowed his face into the pillow to stifle the sound of his sobs, not that there was anyone to hear or care, and soaked it with hopeless tears until he fell into an exhausted sleep.

A couple of hours later, the nightmares returned.

*He was back in the tent and tied down again. Again, his assailant was the emir. That horrible fat body was on top of him, crushing him, smothering him. Hercules was there watching and offering the emir Iolaus' hunting knife. Fahid seized it and plunged it down. Blood gushed everywhere. Surprisingly, the sharp pain seemed to be in his side. *

Iolaus screamed in terror.

Someone bashed on the wall and yelled at him to be quiet.

The noise roused him and he awoke crying hysterically and automatically reached for the demigod, but he was alone. Hercules had obviously found somewhere else to sleep and the desertion was all the hunter's fault.

He wanted to go and find the demigod. He *needed* to do so. But he had no idea where he was and did not expect that Hercules would want to see him.

He hugged the pillow to his chest and wept bitterly. All he could think of was how badly he had behaved and how empty his life would be if he had really alienated Hercules.

The more he dwelt on the issue the more upset, confused and irrational he became. He forgot all the pleasure that he and Hercules had enjoyed in their lovemaking. All he could remember were their tiffs and his insecurities. Unwanted by his father in spite of all his efforts to please, he could never quite accept that someone could love him unconditionally.

The more he thought, the worse it got. Perhaps Hercules had never really loved him anyway. He'd certainly never been ready to acknowledge their sexual relationship in public, while Iolaus had been proud of having the demigod as his friend and lover and only hid the latter aspect of their relationship out of deference to Hercules' wishes.

He had initiated their sexual relationship. Hercules would *never* have done so. He probably wished he had refused Iolaus' advances.

How could someone like him expect a demigod to love him? A scruffy, little mortal wasn't in his league. How could he have been stupid enough to imagine differently?

Finally the new day dawned. Bleary-eyed from crying and from yet another night with little sleep, he eased his aching body out of bed. His knee was not back to square one, but had definitely deteriorated after the jolting it had received and the bandage around his side was stained with bright fresh blood. He ripped off the hem of his Arab robe and wrapped it over the existing bandage rather than daring to unwrap it. Anyway, if he didn't actually look he didn't absolutely know for sure that the stitches had parted.

He staggered across to the water pitcher and poured himself a glass. He wondered what to do next. Breakfast was out of the question. He had no money and didn't think he could keep it down anyway. He sat back down on the bed.

A few minutes later there was a knock on the door and Velinum, one of Pirus' men entered. "Lord Pirus said to tell you we're leaving in ten minutes. I've saddled a horse for you."

"Thank you, I'll be right out."

Saddled a horse! Well, he had made it clear that he hated the litter and wanted to ride so he was apparently to be given his own way. The trouble was, the way he was feeling, the thought of mounting the horse, let alone riding any distance, was daunting in the extreme. If it hadn't been for the proximity of Cairo and the dreaded emir, he might have told them he was going to stay in El Giza.

Wincing, he dragged the hated Arab robe over his own clothes and limped outside.

He glanced around for Hercules. The demigod was talking to Pirus and was studiously keeping his back to Iolaus.

He wondered how on earth he was going to mount, but Velinum approached him and gave him a leg up.

Riding was as difficult as the hunter had feared. His injured leg stuck out awkwardly and, unsupported, was soon aching badly.

Velinum rode alongside him on three or four occasions to check how he was doing but, in answer to his inquiries, Iolaus gritted, "Fine," and said no more, although he was swaying in the saddle.

After each check, Velinium then moved, as unobtrusively as possible, to report to the anxious Hercules. The stealth was unnecessary. The hunter's full attention was occupied with just staying on his horse.

"What's going on?" Voranus asked, as he and Lucagus observed Velinum going to and fro between the hunter and the demigod.

"Lovers' tiff!" Velinium quipped, grinning.

All three laughed. The idea of the highly moralistic demigod having a catamite was so unlikely.

By the time the party stopped for a lunch break, Iolaus was reeling in the saddle, but determined not to admit to weakness. He deliberately stopped about thirty feet away from the others.

Velinum appeared again and asked if he needed help. Reluctantly, Iolaus had to accept assistance to dismount.

As his feet touched the ground, he slumped against the horse and would have fallen had it not been for Velinum's steadying hand. The latter gently lowered him to a sitting position and then left him.

Unseen by the hunter, Velinum then went to report to the demigod.

"How is he?"

"Not too good. In fact, I think, he's near to collapsing, but he's not going to admit it."

"Yes, that's Iolaus all over."

"Perhaps if you had a word with him he'd ..."

"I doubt it! Anyway, after what he said to me yesterday, I'm inclined to let him stew in his own juice but I suppose I should check on him." He stood up and walked over to the hunter and stood looking down at the mop of curls.

Aware who was standing over him, the blond kept his head down.

"Iolaus," Hercules said quietly.

The hunter gave no indication that he had heard.

Hercules nearly walked off again, but couldn't do it. He knelt down beside Iolaus and put a gentle hand under his chin to raise it.

The blond looked dreadful. His face was grey and his eyes red and swollen. "Iolaus, why do you do these things?" the demigod asked, his concern clearly evident from his tone of voice.

Hearing the sympathy and affection where he'd expected another rebuke was too much for Iolaus. Over-wrought, tears welled up and began to trickle down his face. For the hunter to weep in such a public situation was unheard of and was a measure of the physical and mental strain he was under.

Hercules reached out and put his hands on Iolaus' shaking shoulders. It certainly could not be construed as a hug, but was a bold move for him, considering the proximity of others. Shielded from view by the demigod's body, Iolaus curled into himself and sobbed quietly.

Finally, Iolaus raised a tear-stained face, swallowed, and whispered, "I-I'm sorry, Herc, I sh-shouldn't have said what I did. I know you've been tr-trying to help me."

Hercules reached out and tousled Iolaus' already untidy hair. "You know sometimes I wonder what I see in an infuriating, little scruff like you," he murmured, cuffing the blond's cheek affectionately. "You'd probably be far better for a damn good spanking." He smiled inwardly as he noticed that Iolaus was now eyeing him somewhat apprehensively. "However, for some inexplicable reason I seem to be too besotted with you to discipline you properly."

Besotted? Iolaus couldn't believe his ears. "I-I th-thought you ... that you d-didn't want me anymore."

The suggestion was so preposterous that the demigod nearly laughed, but he could see that Iolaus was deadly serious. "Iolaus, *surely* you know I love you. *Nobody* could ever hold my heart like you do."

"Tr-Truly?" he asked falteringly, his disbelief clear.

"Iolaus, I don't know how you could ever doubt it."

That led to more tears, but Hercules thought that the matter was finally settled. However, he still did not understand just how insecure the little blond was. Given that the demigod was anxious that nobody else should know of the true nature of their relationship, Iolaus feared that the demigod's words of love were spoken simply to try to stop him embarrassing them both with further tears.

When Iolaus' sobs finally ceased, Hercules said, "We're going to have to decide what we do next. You're in no shape to ride to Alexandria and I don't like the idea of going back to El Giza. Perhaps we should tell the others to go on and camp here for a couple of days."

"Herc, I-I think maybe I should ..." He could go no further. His pride would not let him suggest the horse-litter.

The demigod knew exactly what Iolaus was trying to suggest. "Iolaus, I think you'd better go back in the litter for a while," he said, thus saving the hunter from having to admit to weakness.

Iolaus nodded. He hesitated and then, deciding to make a clean breast of things, said, "Herc, I think ... I've been bleeding again."

"What? Why didn't you say so earlier." As he spoke, he reached for Iolaus' robe to raise it. He noticed it was ragged along the bottom and soon discovered why.

He knew that it would have been impossible for the blond to tear off the hem and use it to add further layers to the old bandage on horseback.

"You *think*? Iolaus, not only did you *know* you've been bleeding, you must have been aware of it *before* we left El Giza."

"I suppose so."

"There's no *suppose* about it! Why didn't you tell me?"

"I c-couldn't. You d-didn't come near me."

"So it was my fault?"

"No," Iolaus hung his head. "It was mine. I could have told you, but ... but I didn't want to stay there. It was too close to Cairo."

"Yes, but you could have used the horse-litter."

"Herc, you kn-know me. You know I c-couldn't ... I couldn't ..."

"That damned pride! It'll be the death of you."

Iolaus nodded ruefully. "Probably," he admitted.

"Well, I guess I'd better put a few more stitches in you. Fortunately, Murshid gave me a needle and thread just in case you did something silly. He had you well summed up, Iolaus."

As a result of all this, a much subdued Iolaus spend the rest of the journey in the litter and managed to keep any complaints to himself.

Grateful for the improved attitude, Hercules rode alongside the litter trying to cheer him up. He knew Iolaus was feeling guilty for the way he had behaved and he wanted the hunter to know that he really had forgiven him. The trouble was he knew that, once Iolaus had finally admitted he had been in the wrong, he was always slow to forgive himself and tended not to accept that others were no longer mad with him. Unfortunately, because they were travelling in company, the demigod felt obliged to refrain from giving the caresses the hunter desperately needed to assure him of Hercules' love.

Three days later, they reached Alexandria.

One of Iphicles' ships was in the harbour. The captain was expecting the last of a cargo to be delivered to the wharves the next day and then intended to sail on the evening tide. Pirus and Hercules knew that, had they chosen to give the order, the ship would have sailed without the anticipated cargo, but felt one more day would not make that much difference and that they should try not to disrupt Iphicles' trade after his generous provision of transport.

Knowing that the hunter would prefer to put off boarding as long as possible, even though the sea was flat calm and bid fair to remain so, Hercules booked them into an inn.

At last they were alone. The hunter was on tenterhooks as to how Hercules would treat him. He sat down on the bed, hoping against hope that the demigod would join him.

To his joy, Hercules sat down beside him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Unfortunately, it was the gesture of a concerned friend, not a lover. "I'd like to go back down to the ship to see if there's anything I can do to assist preparations, Iolaus." Unfortunately, he did not say that he was anxious that nothing should delay the voyage because his dearest wish was to have his lover safe at home in Greece with him. The sole verbal evidence he gave of his concern was to ask, "Will you be okay alone here for a bit?"

Iolaus hesitated and then said, "Yes, I like this place more than El Giza. That was too close to Cairo for comfort."

"You won't try to go wandering off anywhere though, will you? You'll wait for me?"

"No, I promise, Herc, and I mean it this time. I won't budge from here for any reason until you come for me."

"Thank you, Iolaus."

He started to rise, but the hunter could not let him go without knowing his true attitude towards him. Tentatively, unsure how his friend would react, Iolaus reached up and drew Hercules' face down to kiss him. The tip of the blond's tongue flicked across the demigod's lips, pushing to open them and deepening the kiss. Meanwhile, emboldened by the fact that Hercules had not objected to the kiss, Iolaus' hands were deftly untucking the demigod's shirt and sneaking beneath it. "Iolaus, don't start this or I'll never get out of here," the demigod protested.

"Does that matter?" Iolaus asked, trying to hide his distress at the apparent rejection.

Unaware of Iolaus' interpretation of his desire to leave, Hercules ignored the question. "I think you should be resting." He stood up and reached out to lift Iolaus' legs onto the bed.

Iolaus reluctantly nodded his agreement. Even without Hercules' love, he still hoped for his friendship and really didn't want to be alone, not while still in Egypt. He wished he dared to ask Hercules remain with him, but if he didn't ask there was the chance the demigod might have agreed. To actually request him to remain was to risk refusal.

"I won't be long, Iolaus."

Half an hour or so after he had left, the hunter, who was lying dejectedly on the bed, heard a knock on the door. He sat up hurriedly and asked, hopefully, "Is that you, Herc?"

"It's Voranus and Lucagus," came the disappointing reply.

"Hang on a minute." He got up, limped to the door and raised the latch. "What do you want?"

"Lord Pirus and Hercules have changed their minds about sailing tomorrow and have decided to leave now. They told us to collect you," Voranus replied, entering the room and dropping a sack on the floor.

"Why? I thought they were waiting for the cargo?"

"I don't know. They didn't tell us. All we know is they're in a hurry. Hercules just ordered us to get you."

"But ... But why didn't Herc come for me himself?"

"You expect a demigod to chase around after the likes of you?" Lucagus scoffed. "All he said was to tell you to get a move on."

Something just didn't ring true. Hercules didn't just throw orders around, certainly not without explanation. Iolaus sat down on the bed. "Sorry, I prefer to wait for him," he said.

"Don't you understand? He hasn't got time to come after you himself."

"He told me not to leave here."

"Well, he's changed his mind. Now come on!"


Lucagus glanced at Voranus. The latter nodded. The pair moved towards Iolaus.

Seeing this, he staggered back to his feet again.

"Come on, Iolaus, don't make us hurt you," Lucagus said. "You're in no condition to fight with us."

Iolaus silently agreed and decided to play for time. "Herc didn't send you, did he?"

"No, but it seems someone else is anxious to see you."

"Who do you mean?"

"We were interested in what all that fuss was about with those Bedouin and we found out you're worth quite a bit of money. It would be nice to be able to return to Greece with well-lined pockets."

"If anything happens to me, Herc will see you never return at all."

"Nah, why should he suspect us? He'll just think you've taken off again."

Iolaus shuddered inwardly. He feared that was only too likely.

Voranus reached for his arm. If anything, he expected the little blond to pull away, but instead Iolaus reached forward and seized his wrist, twisting it hard. This forced Voranus' arm over and the hunter then grabbed his upper arm just above the elbow with his free hand.

His next move would have been to dislocate the arm but, of course, Lucagus was not standing idly by. He chopped viciously at Iolaus' throat. The hunter was forced to loose his hold on Voranus' upper arm to block the blow.

He tried to retain his grip on Voranus' wrist but, when Lucagus threw a punch at him, he had to let go to fend it off.

The trouble was both were big men, physically stronger than he was. Normally that wouldn't have mattered too much because he combined speed and agility with fighting techniques learnt in the east that could use a man's strength against him. However, his leg was still a hindrance and he was far from his normal strength after his illness. He really didn't like his chances.

He glanced across the room to his knife. That was his best bet. He made a sudden lunge for it, but was brought up suddenly as Voranus seized him by the hair and then clamped a hand down on his shoulder. He was dragged backwards and down onto the floor.

Then Lucagus moved in fast and kicked him in his injured side. He cried out in agony. Through a red mist, he was aware of Lucagus reaching for him. He hit out and felt the pain as his knuckles connected. Then the man backhanded him across the face.

Voranus grabbed his wrists to prevent any retaliation and the two then wrestled him onto his stomach and tied his hands tightly behind him. His mouth was forced open and a wad of cloth was shoved inside and then a gag tied over it.

"Lucky you thought to bring the outfits," Lucagus panted.

Voranus tipped out the sack to reveal three sets of Arab robes. One was the black robe of a woman with the heavy yashmak that would conceal the gag.

The azure eyes would be a giveaway, but hopefully nobody would look that closely.

They quickly dressed Iolaus, simply throwing the robe over his head and leaving the sleeves hanging, and then donned the other robes themselves. That done, they each clutched one of Iolaus' bound arms through the material and began to frog march him out. Voranus had a knife in his free hand, concealed under a long sleeve. He pressed this against the hunter's chest and hissed that he would use it if he made any fuss. If anybody asked, something that seemed unlikely given the low value that the locals placed on women, they had decided to say one man's wife had taken ill and they were helping her to a healer.

In any case, the house they had been told to take the hunter to was only half a mile away, so they should be there in no time.

They had not reckoned with the hunter's extreme fear of finding himself in the emir's hands. Knife or no knife, he wasn't going without a fight. As soon as they had pulled him upright, he had sagged in their grasp, pretending to be in worse shape than he was, forcing them to support his weight.

Once they were out in the street, he began to fling himself around, while still refusing to bear his own weight, thus making progress as slow as possible.

Meanwhile, Hercules and Velinum, had gone into the market to buy fresh fruit for the voyage. Velinium happened to glance in the direction of Iolaus and his captors. He pointed out the approaching trio and commented, "One thing I don't think I could ever get used to here is the way they treat their women. Look at those two brutes dragging that poor woman along and nobody is batting an eyelid."

"Well, *I'm* not going to stand here and do nothing."

As the demigod went to move towards them, Velinum put a restraining hand on his arm. "I don't like it either, but the law is on their side. A man can beat his wife to death if he likes, she's no more than a chattel."

The three drew level with their observers. At that moment, one of the men suddenly released his hold on the hapless woman and backhanded her viciously across the face. Surprisingly enough, she made no sound, but continued to struggle, kicking out, with surprising athleticism, at the man who had hit her.

To the pair's astonishment, the kick revealed that the woman was clad in leather boots and trousers beneath her robes. They had hardly had time to recover from that surprise when one of the kicks connected with her attacker's crotch and he doubled over swearing in fluent Greek.

The second man started to rain blows upon the woman and was so engrossed in this he was unaware of Hercules' approach until his right fist was seized in a crushing grip and permanently disabled.

To Velinium's horror, the demigod then tore the yashmak from the woman's face, an act sure to add to his crime of interfering in a man's disciplining of his wife.

Hercules himself could not have said at what point he had actually realized the true identity of the little black-clad figure, but he *knew* that it was Iolaus. He quickly removed the gag and then, conscious that the crowd was now clearly interested in proceedings and starting to develop a very hostile rumble, hurriedly dragged the robe over his partner's head.

The revelation that the woman was actually a male stunned the onlookers and halted any intention they had of attacking the two foreigners.

Hercules quickly untied the hunter's wrists. In his relief, Iolaus flung his arms convulsively around Hercules' neck, clinging to him as if he never intended to let go again. Aware of their public situation, Hercules did not return the hug, gently but firmly disentangling himself from the embrace.

Iolaus' heart fell at this further rejection, but he bit his lip and said nothing.

"I shall never let you out of my sight again," the demigod announced, only half in jest, as he quickly began to propel Iolaus away from the square.

*That* sounded slightly more hopeful and Iolaus forced himself to respond in kind. "Not ever?" Iolaus giggled tremulously. "That might pose a few problems."

"Not as many as you seem to cause when left alone for a single minute, Iolaus," the demigod retorted.

"I didn't cause ..." Iolaus started, but the demigod, aware of the many local eyes watching at them with interest, interrupted.

"Not now, Iolaus. I'm taking you to the ship. The sooner you're safely on board the better I'll feel. I'll send one of Pirus' men to collect our gear from the inn."

In a few minutes, they were on board.

"I'm not going to sleep on deck this time, Iolaus," the demigod said firmly. "The sea is very calm and the captain tells me he anticipates fair weather for the whole journey."

"Herc, can I ... Would you mind if I stayed in your cabin?" Iolaus asked, clearly by his tone, anticipating rejection. After all that had happened he desperately needed to stay near Hercules, his safe 'place'.

"Of course not. I was hoping you would. Iolaus, I told you I wasn't still annoyed with you."

"I-I know, but ... but I thought you m-might be, 'specially after what just happened."

Hercules shook his head in exasperation. Clearly actions would have to demonstrate his words' veracity. "C'mon!" He wrapped an arm around Iolaus' shoulders and led him below and into one of a couple of tiny private cabins reserved for more important travellers, everyone else sleeping in hammocks in a communal area.

He closed the door and then turned Iolaus to face him. Then the demigod's lips swooped down and ruthlessly claimed the hunter's. The fierce ardour of the kiss stunned the blond and banished all doubts. "You *really* do love me," Iolaus exclaimed, wonderingly, when his lover finally allowed him to take a breath.

For answer the demigod kissed him again until the hunter was quite dizzy with the intoxication of it.

Hercules then released him and, flinging himself down on the narrow bunk, held out his hands. "Iolaus."

The hunter took his hands and Hercules drew him down on top of him. He clutched the sturdy little body tightly to his chest with one strong arm, while running his free hand under Iolaus' vest.

Iolaus rested his head on his lover's chest listening to his steady heartbeat. "I've missed you, Herc," he whispered.

"Missed me? I wasn't aware I'd been away."

"You have kind of ..."

"Kind of what?"

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

"Yes, I guess I do, Iolaus. It doesn't seem the same sleeping at night without you there pinching the blankets and taking up three-quarters of the bed."

"I don't!"

"Yes, you do, my love, and if anyone should know I do."

"What about you rolling on top of me and squashing ..."

"Do you mean like this?"

In one swift move, he flipped them both over and Iolaus was trapped beneath him.

"Ow! Yes, like that."

At the cry, Hercules had hurriedly raised himself taking his weight on his hands and knees. "I'm sorry, Iolaus. I didn't mean to hurt you."

"You'd better kiss me better then."

"Where are you hurt?"

"Fairly generally. You start kissing and I'll tell you when I'm better."

Hercules grinned. "Funny, I thought that might be the case. I can see I'm going to be occupied for the entire voyage. You just lie back and relax, my love, and I'll take care of you." As he spoke he leant forward and dropped two gentle kisses on Iolaus' eyelids.

He then kissed his way down to the taut throat and lavished a good deal of attention on that area and around to the sensitive earlobes.

Iolaus lay back, with his eyes closed and revelled in the attention. What with the high sides of the bunk and the demigod hovering over him he felt completely enclosed, safe for the first time in days. It didn't really matter that their relationship was secret, the main thing was that Hercules still loved him.

The sea was calm throughout the voyage. The sailors chatted to the passengers and told them how ill Iolaus had been on the initial voyage. Even so, their fellow travellers were amazed that the little blond was such a poor sailor that he apparently had to keep to his bunk for most of the time. They were further surprised that the demigod was such an attentive nurse as to opt to spend most of his time caring for his friend.

Once Hercules would have been gratified to find such an innocent interpretation was being placed on their behaviour, but he was gradually coming to the realization that all his secrecy was doing was hurting Iolaus. He had finally managed to persuade Iolaus to talk about his feelings, a difficult thing to do as Iolaus was embarrassed by what he saw as his weakness. However, he had finally admitted to his insecurity and to his suspicion that Hercules was ashamed of loving him. As a consequence, the demigod was, at last, coming to realize the full extent of his partner's emotional vulnerability.

Finally, landfall was made. In truth, it was the first time Iolaus had not wanted a voyage to end. Hercules had been so assiduous in his attentions and so anxious to please Iolaus in their lovemaking.

His leg was much improved. The swelling had gone down and his slight limp was now more from habit than necessity. The wound in his side had finally closed properly.

Deciding that they would draw less attention if they split up, the party reorganized into three smaller groups to travel independently, on horseback, to Voulgara.

In spite of Iolaus' return to health, Hercules would have been happier if he had remained in Corinth, but there was no way that Iolaus was going to be left behind. So he and the hunter travelled with Pirus.

They reached Voulgara without incident, having been careful to avoid the main roads. Once there, they made brief contact with the other two groups and instructed them to conceal themselves in the woods and to remain there until sent for.

Discreet inquiries in the town provided some information. Cynicus had assumed the airs of kingship in no uncertain terms and looked like being one of the harshest rulers the kingdom had known. Any criticism of his policies or actions was punishable by death. However, the general consensus of opinion was that the old king was not yet dead as there had been no coronation and, given Cynicus' inordinate love of display, it was hardly likely that he would fail to make the most of such an occasion. What the truth was nobody knew for sure, so it seemed they would have to get into the castle and check for themselves.

Accordingly, the three men crouched in the bushes watching the castle. The drawbridge was down, but there were four men on guard duty instead of the usual two. Few people entered the castle and each one was closely scrutinized.

"We need to find a way in that won't attract that kind of attention. Any ideas?" Hercules asked.

"I'm afraid the castle is virtually impregnable. No attackers have ever got in," Pirus replied.

"How about getting out?" Iolaus asked.

Both looked at him as if he'd gone mad. "Iolaus, our problem is to get *in*. Once we get in we'll worry about getting out again," the demigod pointed out.

"No, I'm serious. Didn't you ever need to sneak out when you were a kid? I know I often felt the need."

"Iolaus, not everybody misbehaved like you did as a child," the demigod said.

"Come off it, Herc. You were a bit of a goodie-good, but I can remember even you sneaking out that time I wanted to go to that house people said was haunted."

"Only because you talked me into it and I was too worried about you to let you go alone."

"You were a mother-hen even then, but we're getting off the topic." He turned to Pirus, "What about you?"

"Yes, on a couple of occasions I sneaked out, but I don't think that will help us."

"Why not? What did you do?"

"Once I borrowed some clothes from a servant and went out with a group that were leaving, but that was on an ordinary sort of day and I think anybody trying to enter the castle at the moment will be examined closely."

"What about the other time?"

"That's no good either."

"Why not?"

"There's a drain that runs from the castle kitchens to the moat. I was stupid enough to accept a dare from my cousin to try to go through it. I made it, but I was scared stiff all the way that I'd get stuck and drown."

"Why can't we use that?"

"I just told you, it's too narrow. We'd never fit."

"You and Herc might not, as you're both rather large, but what about me?"

"Possibly. I don't know."

"How old were you when you went through it?"

"Fourteen or fifteen. You're no taller than I would have been at that age, but you'd be more solid."

"How did you get through? Did you crawl?"

"Yes, of course."

"Okay, if you could do it crawling, I should be able to do it on my back."

"Huh? What difference would that make?"

"A surprising amount actually. You see when you crawl, you take up quite a bit of extra height."

"Yes, I can see that, but at a couple of low points I was actually scrabbling on my stomach."

"I still think it's worth a try."

"Iolaus, it sounds too risky," the demigod intervened. "If you got stuck we couldn't get to you and I don't think you're physically up to something like this yet."

"Course I am, Herc. I'm *much* better. Anyway, can you offer a better solution?"

"I could try approaching the guard and hope to get someone still loyal to my father," Pirus suggested tentatively.

"And how likely would it be that Cynicus would allow anyone on the drawbridge that wasn't one of his men?" Iolaus asked.

"You're right, Iolaus," Pirus conceded.

"Well then, let's do it my way. I can tie a rope to my legs and if I can't get through you can pull me back out. If I manage to get through, I can lower the rope from the battlements for you two."

"How long is the drain?" Hercules asked.

"Probably about 150 feet or so."

Since there was no other solution offering, they went back into the town and purchased some rope. Hercules had to knot four ropes together to get the length required.

Waiting until such time as the kitchen scullions should have completed their tasks and retired for the night, they made their way back to the castle. There was some moonlight, but not enough to illuminate the drain, across the moat.

"I think this is about it," Pirus said.

"You *think*?" Iolaus asked. "Aren't you sure?"

"No, it's been ten years since I used it and after my experience the drain held little attraction for me."

"Yes, but still ..."

"Iolaus!" the demigod remonstrated. "Not everybody else is fascinated by directions, locations and ..."

"And some demigods can't even read maps," Iolaus finished cheekily. "Okay let's get on with it. That water looks cold. How deep is it?"

"About ten feet so you'll have to swim. It's always pretty filthy too so try not to swallow any."

"Great! Sounds like my kind of bath, I don't think."

"Iolaus, there's still time to change your mind," Hercules put in.

"Nah, I'll be fine, Herc. I'll see you both later."

Handing his sword to the demigod, since it would be an encumbrance in the drain, he sat down and tied the rope around one ankle. He stood up. As he started forward, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned. "What is ..." he started, only to have the rest of his sentence muffled as Hercules' lips descended onto his.

"Take care, my love," the demigod whispered, clutching his lover tightly against him.

Pirus stared in amazement at the unprecedented scene, but made no comment. In any case, he could not have been more surprised than Iolaus was. "D-Don't worry, Herc," he stammered, stunned that the demigod had made a public display of his love.

He entered the water and crossed the moat in a few strokes. At first, all he could feel was stone, but he worked his way along and eventually located the drain hole. Most of this was above the water level of the moat, but there were a couple of inches of water in it.

Getting up and into it was going to be a problem as it was slippery with green slime and it was hard to get an initial hold. However, after a few attempts he managed to drag himself up and then in on his stomach, taking a fair amount of skin off the later on the rough stones. He then rolled awkwardly onto his back.

Pirus had been right when he said it was narrow and the hunter immediately began to experience some misgivings, but he was never one to give in.

Raising his arms, he pressed his fingertips against the tunnel's top and began to inch himself along. There were only four or five inches of space above his head.

The journey seemed to take forever. The drain had been badly designed and did not have sufficient fall so there was always water in it. Already saturated after his swim and now lying in the drain-water, Iolaus was soon shivering in spite of his exertions.

It was very claustrophobic. The walls seemed to be closing in threateningly upon him and there was no light either forward or back. He knew that a trapdoor in the kitchen covered the drain and he hoped desperately that nothing and certainly no person would be on top of that.

His long-suffering side was hurting again from the strain of dragging himself along and he had lost the skin off both elbows.

All in all he could think of lots of places he'd rather be. However, there was one pleasant thought and he kept returning to it and turning it over in his mind. A *public* kiss! Okay, not a *very* public since only Pirus was there to see it, but a public kiss nonetheless.

Maybe Hercules was considering acknowledging their relationship at last. After all, there had been other recent incidents that suggested this: that wonderful initial journey to Iphicles' castle, the openness in the healer's house and even those long sessions in the ship's cabin en route for Corinth. However, these were still not conclusive. Nobody had seen their antics en route to Corinth, Murshid was a foreigner living in a different country and did not seem the sort to speak about his patients to others and the daytime lovemaking had been interpreted as Hercules nursing a seasick friend.

Such cold reasoning made the rosy dream inspired by the kiss dissolve and he was back to the cold, wet and somewhat frightening reality of the drain.

Then he reached one of the extremely narrow spots Pirus had mentioned. At least, he hoped it was one of these because if there were any smaller he'd definitely not get through. Indeed, for a few heart-stopping moments he thought he had got himself stuck fast, but somehow he wriggled free, badly scraping his chest on the rough stone as he did so, and moved painfully on.

He was getting very tired. His fingers, arms and shoulders were all aching from the awkward position and from the strain of dragging his body.

Finally, after a seeming eternity, his groping hands found only air and he realized he was at the end of the drain. Slowly he pushed himself into a sitting position and then gave three firm tugs on the rope, which was the signal to release the end. Then he dragged the rope through. There was no room to coil it so he left it in a heap on the ground, got to his knees then and stretched up his arms to gradually ease the trapdoor open.

To his relief, the kitchen appeared to be deserted. He pushed the trapdoor right up and stood up. Once he had climbed out he untied the rope from his ankle and coiled it. The resulting coil was wet and quite heavy and cumbersome, but he dared not discard any lengths because he did not know how much he would need. He poked his head and right arm through the rope, taking the weight on his left shoulder and hoping he would have time to cast it off if it came to a fight.

He moved as swiftly as he could out into the courtyard. He knew there were three sets of stairs leading to the walkway along the wall. He chose those furthest from the drawbridge and began to skirt the base of the wall to reach them. Odd snatches of conversation reached him from the sentries above.

Gods that damned rope was heavy.

Waiting below in the darkness, Hercules could do nothing but worry about his lover. The hunter had been through so much recently and he hated the thought of him being exposed to yet more danger. The knowledge that he would be hard put to assist Iolaus if anything went wrong with the current scheme, made his guts twist with fear.

The hunter had told him many times that he would make a lousy ornament and actually enjoyed the risks he took. He argued that Hercules' mother-hen act, as Iolaus irreverently dubbed his concern, was stifling and that it was unrealistic for the demigod to be so protective of him, but Hercules could not help it. It was his nature to want to look after those he loved and he loved no one more than that obstreperous, scruffy little blond.

A few minutes after Iolaus' departure, Pirus' men had joined them and one of them now cut into the demigod's thoughts. "There he is!" he whispered, pointing at a shadowy figure up on the battlements.

The hunter secured the rope and then lowered it slowly.

The demigod entered the water and swam across to the rope and began to climb. In a short time, he was standing beside Iolaus and anxiously watching Pirus' ascent. The rest of the group followed without incident.

Pirus ordered his men to spread themselves unobtrusively around the courtyard. He hoped that he could visit his father and they could then all make their way out the way they had entered. If there was trouble, however, it would be necessary for his men to fight a rearguard action to cover their escape.

Pirus led the way into the central keep, followed by the demigod and the hunter.

Unfortunately, Ophiogenes' rooms were on the top storey of the large keep and they had several dark corridors and staircases to traverse. They were about to turn into a corridor when Iolaus grabbed Pirus to stop his progress.

"Someone's coming," the hunter hissed. "You two go on and I'll go and distract them if necessary."

Before Hercules could object, he darted back towards the noise.

"Do you think you should go after him, Hercules?" Pirus asked.

"Probably, but I'll see you to your father first."

The pair hurried on, listening anxiously for sounds of combat.

When they reached the King's rooms, they found two men on guard. The two raised their halberds. "Sorry, no unauthorized persons are permitted to enter," one said.

"Don't you recognize me?" Pirus asked.

"Yes, Your Highness, but King Cynicus said ..."

"Am I too late? Is my father already dead?"

The man gulped. "Well ... um ... no, Your Highness, but Lord Cynicus has ordered everyone to address him as king since he is acting as the regent."

"Not as far as I am concerned. Now, please step aside."

"Your Highness, it's more than our lives are worth ..."

"... to hinder us," the demigod finished.

The two guards looked nervously at each other, their faces reflecting their indecision.

The demigod was prepared to wait no longer. His one concern was to get this visit completed so he could go after Iolaus. He moved forward swiftly, seized them and knocked their heads together.

King Ophiogenes was lying unmoving in his bed. For a moment, they both feared that they had indeed come too late, but then his eyes fluttered open. "Who is it," he inquired, his voice feeble.

"Pirus and Hercules," his son answered.

"Pirus!" The note of joy was clear. "Come over here where I can see you. I feared I would never see you again."

The prince knelt to embrace his father, fighting back his tears as he looked at his shrunken form. It was clear that only his strong desire to see his beloved son had kept the king alive so long and the end would be soon.

Ophiogenes gave his son his blessing and thanked Hercules for his services. "And now you must both go before Cynicus learns of your presence," he urged. "He will harm you if he can."

However, both knew that they could not leave him to die with neither family nor friend at his side and so remained.

The old king did not speak again, but calmly slipped away a short time later.

Pirus' eyes welled with tears, but both knew that there was no time for grief. Pirus knelt and muttered a hurried prayer and then both hastened out.

All was quiet, but there was no sign of the hunter. The pair made their way quickly and quietly down to the bottom floor apparently unobserved. However, when Pirus stepped into the great hall he found himself confronted by his brother and a group of guards.

Hercules started forward, but was stopped in his tracks by Cynicus. "Stay back, Hercules," he ordered, "or I'll slit his throat." He then shouted for lights and several torches were lit giving the hall an eerie glow.

A man moved forward, slid Pirus' sword from its scabbard and tossed it aside. The guards then all moved to encircle the demigod.

"Well, Hercules, it was kind of you to make sure my brother got home safely," Cynicus sneered. "I'm sure I can find a small permanent place to lodge him. Once our father is dead we will be able to have a double funeral, which will be quite a saving."

"Cynicus," Hercules protested in horror, "you can't kill your own brother."

"Of course I can. I've been looking forward to this moment for years." He drew his sword and started forward, while Pirus started to back away.

Cynicus moved slowly forward. He was in no hurry and was intending to get as much pleasure out of the killing as he could. Pirus was backing alongside the long trestle-table, while his brother stalked after him.

Surrounded by sword-wielding guards, Hercules watched helplessly.

Then, to everyone's surprise, Cynicus gave a sharp cry and crashed to the floor and, even more amazingly, started to disappear under the table.

The guards surrounding the demigod all turned to watch and that gave him his chance. He seized one luckless man and, holding him by the shoulders, began to whirl him around, using him to flatten the other guardsmen.

Pirus snatched up his sword and joined the fray, while his handful of men rushed into the hall to offer what assistance they could.

Meanwhile, Cynicus gathered his wits and began to struggle and kick to try to pull free from his attacker. Iolaus was just as determined that he should not do so and hung on to his legs as tightly as he could.

After he had left Pirus and the demigod, the hunter had crept off to intercept the approaching men. Fortunately, there had been only two of them and they were happily chatting as they strolled along, oblivious of the invaders in the castle. They had no time to even cry out as the lithe figure suddenly flew feet first out of the shadows and gave them both a boot to the face.

Iolaus had dragged them into a side room and had then decided that, rather than rejoin his friends, he might be better to keep a watch out for other guards. All seemed quiet in the keep, so he thought he would check that all was well outside. He had slipped quietly downstairs and out into the courtyard or, at least, he had been about to step out into the bailey when he heard hushed voices and saw a group of men approaching.

One of Pirus' men had been apprehended and had betrayed his master in a futile hope of keeping his life. He had told Cynicus of Hercules' presence, but had omitted to mention Iolaus, deeming him unimportant beside the prince and the demigod.

Quickly stepping back into the hall, the hunter pulled the door quietly to and started to skitter across the room, intending to head back up the stairs to alert the others. However, hearing the door behind him open, he realized he did not have time to clear the hall and so had dived under the table.

He lay there listening to Cynicus giving low-voiced instructions to his men for the capture of his brother and Hercules and wondering what he should do. There were more than he could comfortably handle and he knew if he tried to take them and was captured he would be used to force his friends' surrender. So, although it went completely against the grain to do nothing, Iolaus decided to bide his time.

When Cynicus had been menacing his brother, Iolaus had been crawling along under the table willing him to get near enough for him to grab his ankles. He knew he would have to do this very quickly and smoothly so that Cynicus did not have the opportunity to stab his brother as he fell. He just hoped that Hercules would be able to take advantage of the diversion.

In the event, Cynicus was dangerously near the end of the table when he finally risked a grab.

Now he began to claw his way up Cynicus' body, anxious to knock him out so he could go to the demigod's assistance. However, this was difficult. Cynicus had recovered from his surprise and was fighting back and he was a much bigger and stronger man than the little blond. Iolaus needed space to employ his eastern fighting techniques and speed and agility counted for little when one was flat on one's stomach trying to subdue a frantically struggling opponent.

Iolaus managed to work his way up onto Cynicus' chest and aimed a punch at his chin, but the regent blocked the blow, taking it on his left forearm. As he did so, he flung his right arm across Iolaus' neck and squashed the hunter against him.

The hunter tried to pull free, but Cynicus locked his arm in position by grasping Iolaus' right shoulder in a crushing grip. Then he flung his other arm around the hapless hunter, squeezing him as hard as he could.

With the pressure on his chest and neck and with his face held against his opponent, Iolaus was finding breathing difficult and started to get dizzy. If Cynicus had just kept up the pressure, Iolaus might well have blacked out, but the regent was also impatient to extricate himself and join the fight. Accordingly, he suddenly relaxed his hold and twisted over so that the hunter ended up flat on his back beneath him.

Cynicus then let go of the blond and raised himself, dragging his dagger from its sheath and intending to stab Iolaus. Desperate, Iolaus jerked a knee up.

Although the blow lacked the force he intended, it had unexpected results. The regent realized what he intended and automatically tried to stand up to get out of the way. In doing so, he crashed against the tabletop and the movement dislodged the end trestle. It folded up, leaving the heavy tabletop dangerously unbalanced.

Realizing his danger, Cynicus started to twist and raised his hands ready to fend it off if necessary, while hoping the other trestles would stay upright and prevent complete collapse, but had no such luck. One after another the other trestles gave way and the top fell onto the two men.

Trapped under the weight of both Cynicus and the table top, Iolaus tried to wriggle free, but to no avail. He was hopelessly pinned. He wondered why the regent was so still and decided he must have been knocked unconscious. However, when he moved an arm to try to get purchase for another heave he became aware that something nasty and sticky was starting to pool on the floor.

The truth was revealed a few minutes later when a desperately worried demigod finally found a moment's respite in which to lift the table from the pair. Somehow the falling table had driven Cynicus' poniard into his own throat.

After all his efforts to usurp his father's place before the latter's death, he had died without learning that, for a few short minutes, he had actually been the King in truth.

Hercules immediately shouted out, in stentorian tones, "Cynicus is dead. Long live King Pirus," and that stopped everyone in their tracks.

Lacking a leader, Cynicus' men, many of who had followed him out of fear rather than loyalty, laid down their arms and threw themselves upon Pirus' mercy.

Seeing that Pirus had the situation well in hand, the demigod then turned back to help his friend. He put out a hand and pulled the hunter to his feet and then blanched at the blood on his chest and stomach.

Iolaus hurriedly assured him that most of it belonged to Cynicus. "I've only got a few minor scrapes and bruises. Nothing to worry about, Herc."

However, knowing that most of these would have been acquired as a result of his less than salubrious method of entry to the castle, King Pirus ordered a servant to take him to the castle healer so that his various abrasions could be treated.

Pirus and Hercules then set about ensuring that all the castle's inhabitants were cognizant of the new situation. Summoning all to the great hall, Pirus addressed them and promised that those who had served his brother would be pardoned provided they were prepared to swear allegiance to him.

Aware that this was in their best interests, all hastened to do so.

Pirus then personally escorted Hercules to a guestroom.

Meanwhile, Iolaus had bathed and the healer had carefully cleaned his minor injuries and applied an antiseptic salve.

The servant, who had conducted him to the healer, then led him upstairs to his room. As he was about to leave him, the hunter asked directions to Hercules' room and, as soon as the man had departed, hurried along to it.

Hercules' room was much larger and more richly furnished than the one he had been allocated. Iolaus looked longingly at the huge four-poster bed, with its red velvet hangings and immediately pictured them both in it. How he wished he could sleep there, but he knew that the demigod always insisted on separate rooms when they stayed in private dwellings.

"I'm glad that's all sorted out," Hercules announced. "I'm ready to go to bed for a week."

Iolaus blinked with surprise. He was feeling rather tired himself, but the demigod's energy was normally boundless. Had he been injured in the fight and not let on? "Are you okay, Herc?" he asked, his voice reflecting his concern.

"I said to bed, my love, I didn't say to sleep," the demigod replied, swooping the stunned hunter into his arms and tossing him across the room onto the bed. Iolaus landed flat on his back and then, before he could even voice a protest at this rather rough treatment, Hercules was beside him, and busily undressing him, while carelessly throwing his clothing onto the floor.

In moments, he was naked and the demigod's mouth and hands were combining forces to tease and torment him. He writhed and giggled helplessly as Hercules proceeded to deliberately seek out all of his most sensitive spots to nibble and tickle, while holding his wrists imprisoned in his left hand.

His mouth was busy with the hollow between Iolaus' neck and shoulder, while the fingers of his right hand lightly caressed the soft, white velvet of Iolaus' inner thighs, never quite reaching the area that was so desperate for a firmer touch, in spite of Iolaus' entreaties.

Suddenly there was a knock on the door. To Iolaus' shock and horror, the demigod called, "Come in," while rolling casually off the bed. The hunter frantically tried to get up to grab his clothes, but a firm hand on his chest held him down.

Pirus entered carrying a tray. Taking in the scene before him, he laughed, "You two didn't waste much time. I thought you'd probably both be hungry after all our exertions, but I was thinking of food."

"Thank you," Hercules replied, apparently completely unfazed by the interruption. "That looks delicious doesn't it, Iolaus?" he asked, aware that the hunter was trying to sink through the bedcovers in his acute embarrassment.

Iolaus scowled at him.

Pirus left grinning broadly.

"Something wrong, my love?" Hercules inquired innocently, looking down at the blushing hunter.

"It's all right for you, you've still got your clothes on," Iolaus complained. "Why didn't you let me get mine?"

"Get used to it, Iolaus. I don't intend for you to get dressed for quite some time unless ... unless ... " He sniggered as he recalled the idea that had occurred to him on the sea voyage to Egypt.

"Unless what?" Iolaus demanded suspiciously.

"Nothing, my love, I've just remembered I have to see Aphrodite about something. Now, where was I? Oh, yes! I was just going to investigate your deliciously ticklish ribs."

"No! Don't! I'll scream! People will hear me," the hunter warned, in a desperate attempt to stop the demigod.

"Sorry, that threat is not going to save you, I've decided I don't care anymore."

He then proceeded to demonstrate just how true this was until Iolaus was virtually hysterical. Finally, he relented and, while commenting provokingly, "You know there's a lot to be said for openness," he matched his actions to his words, reaching out to part the slender thighs and inserting a couple of fingers to prepare his lover.

"Gods, I think I've created a monster," Iolaus observed wryly.

"You haven't seen anything yet, my love," Hercules assured him, grinning broadly at the mingled look of apprehension and lust in his lover's beautiful azure eyes.

The End

Historical Note: Yes, I know horse-borne litters were not invented until the Middle Ages and that in Greek and Roman times they were carried by slaves. However, Xena uses a saddle and stirrups, which are definitely out of time period, so I've moved the requisite litter harness for horses back in time. Anyway, Iolaus was opposed to a horse-borne litter and would have kicked up even more fuss if slaves were meant to carry him. He's stroppy enough already without that.

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