"What's she doing here?"
Alkippe heard the whispered comments as she walked into the inn. They were nothing new, so she ignored them. Spotting the innkeeper, she moved through the crowded room and cornered him. "I want a room for the night and a meal," she demanded.
The man's eyes widened and he stammered, "C-c-certainly, Amazon! R-r-right away!" He turned and scurried away to the kitchen shouting orders.
Certain that her meal would be brought to her quickly, Alkippe swept her gaze over the rest of the room. Most of the patrons she dismissed without a second thought. A man seated in one corner caught her attention. She studied him, quickly deciding to keep an eye on him. If there was going to be any trouble, he was the most likely person to cause it.
She spotted a vacant table near the hearth and made her way there. The table's position suited her. She had a direct view of all entrances to the building and her back was protected by the wall behind her. Sitting down, she automatically repositioned her sword for easy access. She had barely gotten settled when the innkeeper returned followed by a scrawny lad carrying her meal. The man stood back and directed the boy, then setting a cup in front of her he offered ale from the jug he was carrying. When she nodded her acceptance, he filled her cup and turned away.
"Wait a minute," she growled, grabbing him by the arm. "I'm also in need of some information."
"Ahhh... Certainly! A-Anything for a c-customer," the innkeeper replied nervously. "What is it you wish to know? All my knowledge is at your command. Just let me know what you want and I'll tell you. If I don't know the answer I will do my best..."
"ENOUGH!" Alkippe interrupted the babbling man. "I want to know if Hercules has passed this way lately." She glared at the innkeeper who fidgeted anxiously.
"H-Hercules? H-He hasn't been here in a long time." When she frowned at his answer he continued in a rush, "but his friend Iolaus was here! He only left yesterday!"
"Do you know where he was going?" Alkippe wasn't happy with his answer; the information he offered about this Iolaus was only important if the man could lead her to Hercules. "Well? I'm waiting!"
"Ahh, yes, well.. he did mention something about meeting up with Hercules in Petras" The innkeeper was shaking. He breathed a sigh of relief when she finally let him go.
Alkippe watched him scurry away with a satisfied smile on her face. She turned her attention back to her meal and contemplated the news he had given her. After many months of searching it looked as if she might finally be close to Hercules, if that coward of an innkeeper was to be believed. 'If this Iolaus really is a friend of Hercules, then he might be useful too... hmm, I wonder how close they truly are?'
A cup being set on the table across from her disturbed her reverie. Without glancing up, she knew that the man from the corner had finally decided to make his move. She continued to eat as he seated himself across from her. When she gave no sign that she noticed him, he finally spoke, "Well... and what's a pretty little thing like you doing all alone?" The man's tone, along with the leer he gave her, contrived to set her teeth on edge.
She looked up, glaring at him. "I was trying to eat this slop you call food. I need no company for that!"
Alkippe heard the sounds of benches being moved and knew that those nearest her had wisely decided to take their dinners and themselves somewhere else as quickly as they could. The man was frowning at her. He obviously hadn't liked her reply. Then he grinned as a thought occurred to him. "Hey, sweet thing, if you don't like what you're eating, I can remedy that! You just come with old Sol here and he'll fix you right up!"
'Gods!' Alkippe thought, 'this would never happen at home! No man would dare speak to an Amazon that way!' Grimly she put down the fork she was using and stood up.
Sol, thinking that she was taking him up on his offer, also stood and his grin got bigger. "That's right! You just come with Sol! He'll show you a good time!" He grabbed her arm to lead her outside.
That was the final straw as far as Alkippe was concerned. She moved quickly, twisting her arm to free herself. Taking advantage of Sol’s surprise she landed a blow with her fist that sent him sprawling in the middle of the floor. Before any of the shocked villagers could move, she had her sword out and ready.
Wiping the blood from his lip, Sol got to his feet. His expression no longer solicitous. "Now that's no way to treat someone who's just tryin' to be friendly!" he growled. "Guess I'll have to learn you some manners, girl!" When he saw the sword she held, he laughed. "You think just holdin a sword is gonna scare me, girl? I bet you don't even know how ta use it!" With those words Sol sprang at her, expecting an easy victory, but Alkippe was ready for him. A hard shove toppled the table directly in his path and spread the remains of her meal on the floor. Sol slipped in the food and ended up sprawled on the overturned table. Taking a quick step to one side, Alkippe slapped him on the rear with the flat of her blade.
Enraged, Sol scrambled up and charged her again. 'This man is pathetic!' Alkippe thought as she dodged his charge and gave him a shove with her boot as he passed. Alkippe continued to toy with him for several minutes. Sol was so enraged at what she was doing to him, he would immediately scramble back to his feet and charge her again.
Finally tiring of the game Alkippe spoke, "I'll give you one last chance man.... leave! Get out of this place and I won't kill you!" Sol's only reply was to draw his knife and charge again. Alkippe caught the knife thrust on her blade and with a quick flick of her wrist sent it sailing into the watching crowd. Completing the move brought the sword into position just in time for Sol to impale himself on the blade. Grimly Alkippe pulled the sword free of his body, using a booted foot to push him off. Sol collapsed on the floor, a shocked expression on his face as death claimed him.
Stepping up to the body, Alkippe casually wiped her sword on his clothing then sheathed it. She could hear nervous whispers from the watching villagers and the rustle of clothing as many tried to make themselves scarce. Turning back to her place by the fire, Alkippe found the innkeeper hovering at her elbow.
"What do YOU want, little man?" she growled. As the innkeeper started to stutter a response, she cut him off, "Never mind! Whatever it is can wait! Just show me to my room!"
"Y-y-y-yes c-c-certainly! R-right this w-way!" the man stuttered. Alkippe followed him up the stairs and down a short corridor. The innkeeper opened a door and nervously gestured for her to enter the room.
Alkippe barely glanced at the room before nodding her acceptance. She stepped through the door then turned back to the innkeeper who was still hovering. "Well... What is it, little man?"
"Ahh.. Uhmm," the innkeeper hesitated and Alkippe had had enough.
"Spit it out or leave! I don't care which, just make it quick!" she snarled. The innkeeper paled at her tone and decided to leave well enough alone. Shaking his head, he hurried back downstairs.
Alkippe moved to the single small window the room was graced with. The window looked out onto the courtyard at the side of the inn. On the other side of the yard were the stables. To her left was a wall with a gate that lead to the front of the inn and the street. To the right was an open field. This side of the building was smooth, a straight drop to the ground with nothing to hold on to. That made the room safer if she was planning to stay. She already knew that she couldn't risk that. So now the question was how to get out.
Turning away from the window, she took her first good look at the rest of the room. She grimaced at the sight, 'It's just as well I don't plan on staying, this place is terrible.'
Besides the bed, with its moth-eaten blanket, the only other piece of furniture was a rickety chair. "That innkeeper is a crook," she muttered to herself. "How dare he charge 2 dinars for a room like this." Alkippe was thoroughly disgusted. 'If I didn't need to find Hercules, I'd teach that dog a lesson.'
Sighing with exasperation, Alkippe returned to the window. A measuring glance told her that she could drop from the window without any problem, but she would be in clear sight of anyone who looked out on the courtyard. She leaned as far out as she dared and checked for watchers. When nothing stirred for several minutes, she forced the shutters open as far as they would go.
She was going to have to remove her weapons in order to squeeze through the window, she realized. It only took a moment to reduce the ratty blanket from the bed into strips. She quickly made a bundle of her sword and bow, then lowered them to the ground. Finally she squeezed through the window and held onto the window ledge with both hands. Bracing her feet against the wall, she listened briefly for any sound of discovery, then with a hard kick she flipped herself away from the wall. Twisting in the air, she landed on her feet. Again she paused to listen. Nothing. Laughing silently to herself, she snatched up her weapons and darted off across the field.
It didn’t take Alkippe long to pick up the road to Petras again and the knowledge that she was finally on Hercules trail soothed some of her earlier annoyance. She grinned to herself when she realized that she would soon be able to work out the rest of her frustration. When the three men stepped out to block her path she was ready for them.
"Leaving so soon?" one of them questioned.
"Maybe she didn't want to stick around and make our acquaintance... after what she did to poor Sol!" another growled.
"Come on, let's teach her what happens to a girl who doesn't know her place!" the third man yelled, as he drew his sword and charged her.
Alkippe grinned. Drawing her sword, she waited for the man to reach her. She blocked his clumsy thrust and stepped aside. By this time the other two had also drawn their swords and where rushing her. She sensed the man behind her stop and turn back. Alkippe waited for the right moment and then somersaulted over the two in front of her. The move surprised them and the first man who had charged her was impaled on his friend's blade.
'One down, two to go,' she thought gleefully as she met the charge of the third man. 'This one is allowing his rage to blind him.. he'll be an easy kill!' She blocked the slash he aimed at her and quickly sent his weapon spinning across the clearing. A sweep of her blade left him lying on the ground, struggling to breathe through a severed windpipe.
There was only one left now and he circled her cautiously. He had seen what she could do and he wasn't going to make the same mistakes. She could sense the rage in him but he was keeping it under control. Alkippe smiled in satisfaction. 'Now this one just might give me some exercise!' she thought, watching him stalk her.
He was circling, slowly getting closer. Alkippe knew that when he thought he was close enough to take her by surprise he would make his move. Her anticipation grew as she realized he was also trying to tempt her into making an attack of her own by seeming to periodically drop his guard. 'Better and better,' she smiled waiting him out.
Finally he attacked, a short slashing motion which quickly changed to a thrust as soon as he saw her start to respond. Alkippe had been expecting something like that and easily blocked the thrust. She saw the surprise on his face when his trick didn't work and laughed out loud. The laughter tipped the balance and she watched as his rage took over.
He attacked furiously, raining blow after blow in quick succession. Alkippe easily blocked them all, allowing the man to wear himself out. Finally he stepped back and she could see that he had once more mastered his anger. This time she didn't wait for him to regain his courage. Following up on her last block, she stepped forward and began to fight in earnest.
She saw surprise flash across his face at her attack, and she relished the fear that swiftly replaced it as he realized she had been toying with him. He quickly became desperate as her blows became impossible for him to block. At last he panicked and backing away, turned to run. Before he had taken more than a few paces, Alkippe's knife buried itself in his back. For a long moment Alkippe stood, enjoying the sight, then she sighed and regretfully went to retrieve her knife.
"Well done, Warrior!" The deep masculine voice startled her. Spinning around, she tried to pinpoint the speaker but the growing darkness hid him well. Then a slow clapping began and a hooded figure seemed to materialize at the side of the road.
"What do you want?" Alkippe growled.
"So... you are the Amazon who has been searching for Hercules.. Yes... I think you'll do quite nicely."
Alkippe bristled, "I don't do ANYTHING nicely!"
The stranger laughed at her reply. Careful not to alarm her, he reached up and drew back his hood. He was a handsome man with black hair and eyes. He had the build of a fighter and an air of confidence that told her he was good at it. "I believe we have... a mutual goal."
The stranger held up a token and Alkippe strained to make it out. It looked familiar but she was too far away to make out the details. "What would you know of my goals?" she asked suspiciously.
"Much!" he replied. She watched warily as he approached. When he was only a few feet away, she risked another glance at the token, gasping as she made out the symbol. Lowering her sword slightly she held out her hand. He handed her the token and she examined it carefully.
Alkippe's mind raced. "Where did you get this?" she hissed.
"It has always been mine," he answered.
The token was genuine and her instincts were telling her the stranger was too. Excitement rose as she realized the gods might have answered her prayers. She studied him for a moment longer, then sheathed her sword. Slowly she nodded, "Perhaps we do have something to discuss."
Iolaus was tired. He hadn't stopped all day in the hope that he could make Petras by nightfall. He was looking forward to seeing Hercules again, but he couldn't help wondering about the message Hercules had sent. Herc hadn't said much, just asked Iolaus to meet him in Petras in four days. Now Iolaus was wondering what the problem could be. The countryside seemed peaceful and quiet, the few people he had met unafraid. He'd heard no stories of monsters or warlords and the people seemed prosperous. Iolaus had been looking forward to a bit of adventure, now he just hoped he wouldn’t die of boredom.
His stomach growled reminding him it had been a long time since breakfast. Iolaus grimaced at the memory of that breakfast. It had barely been edible. He hoped that the inn in Petras had better food. Then he giggled and spoke to himself, "If Herc was here, he’d say that anything was better than my cooking!"
Iolaus’ reverie was disturbed by shouting. Curious, he picked up his pace and soon rounded a bend in the road. The sight before him brought a grin to his face. Two young boys stood there nose to nose. Neither one noticed his arrival, they were too involved in their own dispute. He could see that the argument was escalating and would soon become a brawl.
Placing his hands on his hips, Iolaus tried to look stern. He cleared his throat to catch their attention. Both boys stopped in mid shout and looked at him in surprise. "Just what is going on here?" Iolaus asked. When he got no answer from either boy he forced a frown on his face and said, "Well….?"
"It’s all his fault!" "He started it!" The two spoke at once then glared at each other.
Iolaus stifled a smile. Folding his arms he asked again, "I don’t care who started it, I want to know what this is about." When both boys only shuffled their feet and looked at the ground, he sighed "Hmmm, maybe we should just go find your folks?" At this both boys looked up with panic on their faces.
The taller boy stepped forward. "Please don’t do that!"
Iolaus frowned at him. "Then I guess you better answer my question."
For a moment both boys were silent, then the first one spoke again, "I told Darius his mother was from Atraeca and that makes him an Atraecan too."
"Am not!" Darius exclaimed glaring.
As Darius started to charge the first boy Iolaus stepped forward, grabbing the two by the shoulders. "Hey! None of that now!" With both boys glaring at each other again he continued, "What’s the matter with being from Atraeca?"
There was silence for a moment, then Darius answered, "Everyone knows that people from Atraeca are thieves and liars! Markus is lying about my mother!"
Iolaus was puzzled. Atraeca and Petras had always been friends. Once they had even joined their armies to drive off a marauding warlord. What could have happened between the two kingdoms that would cause two boys to think that being called an Atraecan was the lowest of insults? Frowning he asked, "Have either of you ever met anyone from Atraeca?" Both boys reluctantly shook their heads. "So how do you know that all Atraecans are thieves then?"
Markus burst out, "My father said he heard it from Kilos who was told by Triana who…" He trailed off as Iolaus started laughing.
Seeing the boy glaring at him Iolaus quickly stifled his laughter. "So you don’t actually know anyone who’s met a real Atraecan? All you’ve heard is stories passed from other people?" At Markus reluctant nod he continued, "What if people in Atraeca are saying that all Petrans are liars and thieves?"
"We are not!!" both boys exclaimed together.
Iolaus nodded. "Yes, but they don’t know that. They’ve only heard stories passed on by others, so what else are they to believe?"
Iolaus watched the two as they thought about what he’d said. "I guess they’d believe the stories," Darius said unhappily, "but they shouldn’t! Cause they aren’t true!"
Markus chimed in, "And I guess we shouldn’t have believed the stories either."
Iolaus smiled. "I guess you shouldn’t have."
Markus squared his shoulders and turned to Darius. "I’m sorry, Darius. Still friends?" He stuck out his hand.
Darius hesitated a moment, then smiled and took it. "Me too, Markus! Friends forever!"
Laughing Markus shouted, "Come on" and the two boys took off running.
Iolaus laughed as the two raced off and started walking towards Petras with a feeling of satisfaction. A feeling that was quickly extinguished by thoughts of the rumors currently running through Petras. ‘I wonder if those rumors are part of the reason Herc wanted me to meet him here?’ Iolaus quickened his pace, anxious now to reach Petras and find Hercules. He hoped Herc would be there waiting for him.
Iolaus was feeling increasingly uncomfortable as he threaded his way through the crowded square. Everywhere he went people were giving him hostile, suspicious looks. The few times he’d asked directions, the answers had been short and rude. All his instincts were screaming there was something terribly wrong here. He sighed in relief when he spotted the inn Hercules had named.
The common room was quiet and dim after the bustle of the street and Iolaus paused for a moment to let his eyes adjust. He spotted the innkeeper behind the bar. The man was carefully wiping mugs and studiously ignoring him. Making his way over Iolaus smiled, "I need a room for the night and a meal."
"We’re full," the innkeeper replied gruffly without looking up from his task.
"What?" Iolaus looked around the nearly empty room in shock. "There’s hardly anyone here!"
"I said, we’re full!" The innkeeper was now glaring at him.
With the way everyone in town had been acting, Iolaus decided it might be better to sleep in the woods anyway. Staying in town, he might wake up with a knife at his throat. Sighing he looked back at the innkeeper. "All right, so what about just a meal?" Grumbling, the man finally agreed to sell him a meal and Iolaus wandered over to a table in the corner to wait.
He was beginning to wonder if he would ever get anything to eat when the innkeeper finally returned and slammed a bowl of stew in front of him. Iolaus jumped as some of the hot liquid splattered him. "Ouch! Hey, wait a minute!" he called after the hurriedly retreating innkeeper.
"You got a problem?" The man growled.
"Uh, no. Just a question." Iolaus spoke quickly before the man could turn away again. "I’m looking for a friend who’s supposed to meet me here."
"Strangers aren’t welcome here!" the innkeeper interrupted.
Iolaus muttered under his breath, "Yeah I can see that." Then louder to the innkeeper, "His name is Hercules. Maybe you’ve heard of him?"
Iolaus heard the others in the room whispering but kept his attention on the innkeeper. At Hercules’ name the hostility in the man’s face had lessened somewhat. He finally unbent enough to tell Iolaus, "He ain’t been here. I’ll tell him you was looking for him… IF he shows up." With those final words, the innkeeper hurried off leaving Iolaus with his meal and a lot of questions.
Iolaus absently took a bite of stew still puzzling over the strange actions of the townspeople. When the taste finally penetrated his distraction he reached hastily for some ale to wash it away then realized the innkeeper hadn’t brought any. With a grimace he grabbed his flask instead hoping that plain water would at least help. Belatedly he realized that his flask only contained a couple of mouthfuls. He remembered deciding not to fill it at the well in the square since he was sure he could get ale with his meal. He was about to brave the innkeeper again when a mug was placed in front of him and someone began pouring ale into it. Barely waiting until it was full, Iolaus grabbed the mug and drank. He set the now empty mug down with a sigh of relief.
A soft, feminine laugh caught his attention and he looked up to find a pretty girl holding the pitcher of ale. "Would you like more?" she asked softly.
"Uh.. yes.. p-please," he stammered.
With a smile she refilled his mug. "You must really be hungry to try to eat Kilos’ stew."
Iolaus glanced at the food in question and pushed it away with a grimace. "Well, I am hungry, but not THAT hungry!" Iolaus sat enjoying the sound of her laughter and admiring her.
Her hair was light brown and fell in waves down her back. Her soft gray eyes were sparkling with laughter as she smiled at him sympathetically. "I’m afraid that’s the best this inn has to offer since Kilos got rid of the cook."
"What’s your name?" he asked, quickly adding, "I’m Iolaus."
"Illea," she answered.
"So, Illea, why’d Kilos get rid of his cook?" Iolaus asked. Before she could answer a shout from another table called her away. Iolaus leaned back sipping his ale watching as she gracefully moved around the room serving the other patrons.
He sighed when she disappeared into the kitchen. A rumbling in his stomach reminded him of the uneaten stew and he wondered what he was going to do for food now. ‘I’m just not having any luck on this trip,’ he sighed to himself. ‘This makes two places in a row with lousy food and here I don’t even get a bed for the night.’ He wondered what was keeping Hercules. He was trying to come up with some answers when he heard a soft cry followed by a crash and jeering laughter. Iolaus looked up to see Illea on the floor. The pitcher she had been carrying was lying next to her in pieces with ale pooling around it. Iolaus stood to go to her but before he had taken a step the innkeeper was there.
Loudly berating her, Kilos reached down and grabbed Illea’s arm dragging her to her feet. "Stupid wench! That’s 10 dinars worth of good ale ruined!! Can’t you do anything right?" Ignoring her protests he continued, "You’re going to pay for every drop of that ale and the pitcher too! I’ll not be giving you another coin until it’s paid in full!!"
Illea gasped at the threat, "NO, please Kilos! You can’t! How will I live?"
Frowning, Iolaus started to speak but was interrupted by one of the men who had been laughing. "Now don’t you worry yourself bout that, Illea. We’ll take care of you, won’t we, Kalim?" Leering at her, the man pulled out a pouch. "We’ll pay your debt to old Kilos here. Then you can come with us and we’ll have ourselves a private party." Illea shrank away from the man as he reached for her.
"I don’t think so!" Iolaus said grimly as he grabbed the man’s wrist.
Startled the man snarled at him, "Stay out of this, stranger, if you know what’s good for you!"
"Not unless the lady asks me too," Iolaus replied. "Well, Illea? Do you want to go with these two?"
"No," she whispered.
Satisfied, Iolaus looked at the ruffian. "You heard the lady, she isn’t interested." Illea’s gasp was the only warning Iolaus had. Without a second thought he threw himself forward, rolling and coming back to his feet. Iolaus could see the dagger Kalim had thrown quivering in the post immediately behind where he had just been standing.
Kalim was on his feet cursing. "Get him, Malin!" he shouted as he charged Iolaus.
Iolaus lashed out with a quick kick that sent Kalim stumbling back towards the bar. He turned his attention back to Malin just in time to see the knife aimed at his belly. Hopping backwards, he barely managed to avoid the slash. Cautiously he waited for Malin’s next move. He didn’t have to wait long. As Malin lunged towards him, Iolaus stepped to the side and caught his wrist. An elbow in the stomach caused Malin to drop the knife and a fist to the jaw left him passed out on the floor. Iolaus senses warned him that someone was sneaking up behind him. He heard a large crash, which was quickly followed by a groan and a thud. He spun around to see Illea standing over Kalim who was unconscious on the floor. In her hands were the remnants of another pitcher.
Grinning at Illea he said, "Thanks! You’re pretty good with a pitcher!"
"Pretty good at breaking them you mean!" Kilos interrupted. "You owe me for that one too, Illea! You’re lucky there wasn’t any more damage or I’d hold you responsible for that too!!" Glaring at Illea he continued, "You stupid girl, you should have gone with those two and been grateful!"
"Hey, wait a minute!" Iolaus interrupted. "Illea doesn’t have to go with anyone, if she doesn’t want too!"
Kilos turned to glare at Iolaus. "Are you some kind of troublemaker? She already owed me money from some of her previous accidents! Now the stupid wench has passed up an opportunity to pay me back for some of it!" Kilos raised his hand to strike Illea who cowered away from him.
Grimly Iolaus caught the innkeepers arm, when the enraged man turned to him, he asked, "How much?"
Kilos gaped at him in shock as Iolaus repeated his question, "How much does she owe you?"
As the sense of Iolaus’ question sank in, Kilos’ eyes took on a crafty look. "Well, now… This little escapade today has cost me nearly 10 dinars." When Iolaus didn’t voice a protest at the amount, he continued, "Added to what she owed me before, I’d say it’s close to 30 dinars now!"
Iolaus winced at the amount but reached for his pouch. "No, Iolaus, I can’t let you do this," Illea protested, laying a hand on his arm.
"If it gets you free of him it’s worth it, Illea." He started counting out the coins to Kilos who watched greedily. Before he handed Kilos the money, he glanced around the room making sure there were witnesses. "I’m paying off Illea’s debt with this, right, Kilos? She won’t owe you anything else."
"Yes, yes, yes… her debt is paid in full!" Kilos agreed as he quickly snatched the money from Iolaus’ hand.
Grimacing at the man’s greed, Iolaus turned back to Illea, "You wont have to worry about Kilos or men like Kalim and Malin anymore, Illea."
He was surprised when she shyly dropped her eyes and asked, "How am I going to repay you, Iolaus?"
As he stared at her a blush spread across her cheeks. It finally dawned on him what she was expecting. "Ah… Uhmm…. You don’t have to repay me, Illea!" When she looked up startled, he continued, "Consider it a gift." He smiled encouragingly at her and she finally returned a tentative smile of her own. "There is one thing you can do for me though," Iolaus spoke without thinking. When he saw the look on her face he hurried to explain, "Tell me where I can find a decent meal and a place to stay?"
Illea stared at him for a moment and then nodded saying softly, "I’ll take you there." Iolaus grinned. Quickly snatching his flask from the table he gestured for her to lead the way.
Night was falling and fewer people were on the streets as Iolaus followed Illea through the town. As the walk became longer he saw fewer shops and inns. Puzzled, he asked, "Is it very much farther, Illea?"
"No, just a few more paces," she smiled at him as she lead the way down a narrow side street. Within a few moments she was opening the door to a small rundown cottage. Curious about what type of inn would be so small he followed her inside.
A quick glance told him that this was someone’s home and he immediately knew who it had to belong to. "Uhh.. I, uhm, thought you were going to.. uh.. show me another.. ahh.. inn?"
Illea turned to him and smiled, "You said you wanted a decent meal and a place to spend the night." When he nodded nervously, she continued, "I owe you so much, Iolaus, at least let me fix you a meal and give you a place to stay for the night."
"Well, uh, maybe just the meal," Iolaus hesitantly agreed. "You don’t have to go to all this trouble, really."
"It’s the least I can do, Iolaus. Just let me get a fire going and then I’ll start the meal." Illea picked up a small bundle of wood and started laying a fire as she spoke.
"Here, let me do that!" Iolaus offered, glad to find something to help with. He heard her moving around on the other side of the room but forced himself to concentrate on the fire.
"I’ll be right back. I need to get some water from the well." She slipped out the door before he could respond. Iolaus finished building the fire then stood up surveying the room. The place was tiny. Only a single room but it was clean and neat. Here and there he could see clumsy attempts at repairs.
His scrutiny was interrupted by Illea’s return from the well. She smiled at him and gestured to the lone chair. "Sit and rest, Iolaus. You must be tired from your journey."
"Can’t I help you with anything?" he asked.
"No, this won’t take long." She paused as a thought occurred to her, "I’m afraid I’m not used to having company. I forgot to ask if you would like something to drink!" When he started to protest that water would be fine, she shushed him and opened a small wooden trunk. "Ahhh, I thought I still had this." She turned to him smiling triumphantly and held up a flask of wine.
"You don’t need to do this, Illea!" Iolaus tried to protest again, "You were saving that for something important, weren’t you?"
He caught a glimpse of sadness on her face before she quickly turned away. "Maybe I was saving it for you."
She kept her back to him to discourage further conversation. Retrieving two cups from another box she set them on the worktable in front of her. Iolaus couldn’t see what she was doing and briefly wondered why she was taking so long to pour the wine. A moment later he forgot everything else as she offered him the cup of wine. As she turned back to her table he asked, "Aren’t you going to have any?"
She looked around, glancing first at his un-tasted wine and then smiling at him. "I will in a moment. I want to get your meal started first." She paused, "Go ahead and drink, Iolaus, this wont take long. I promise."
"If you’re sure." He took a small sip to placate her.
She was true to her word and quickly set a small pot to cook over the fire. Iolaus doubted there was any meat in it but anything would be better than what he’d been served at the inn. She sat on the small bench across from him. Iolaus was curious about her and tried to draw her out. She deftly avoided revealing much about herself, instead turning the tables on him. Before he knew it, he was telling her about Hercules and their adventures together.
The time passed quickly. He hadn’t realized how much until she checked the pot and announced that it was finished. He was leaning forward to help her lift the pot from the fire when the room suddenly whirled.
When the room finally settled again he found himself back in his chair with Illea staring at him in concern. "I’m all right," he hastily assured her. "Just a little too much wine on an empty stomach!"
"You’re sure?" she asked, worry still evident in her tone.
"Yes," he smiled, "but no more wine for me until I’ve eaten." He could tell she wasn’t completely reassured but she didn’t say anything else as she fetched a bowl and spoon. She quickly filled the bowl with stew and handed it to him. The aroma made his mouth water. He took a bite and was pleased to find that it tasted even better than it smelled. He smiled at Illea. "This is wonderful!" She returned his smile with relief and some of the anxiety in her expression disappeared.
Iolaus quickly finished what she had given him. She took the bowl from him and filled it again. He started to eat more slowly this time, then realized that she wasn’t joining him. "Aren’t you going to have any?" he asked.
"I’m not hungry right now," Illea replied evasively.
Before she could stop him, he leaned forward and tilted the pot to see the contents. "You didn’t keep anything for yourself!" he exclaimed holding the bowl out to her.
"No, please eat," she said pushing it back towards him. "I don’t need very much, besides I ate at the inn earlier." He tried to argue with her but she was adamant. Finally he gave in promising himself that he would go hunting and bring her some meat to replace the food he was eating.
With his hunger assuaged, Iolaus was content to watch as she busied herself cleaning up. As she finished he shook himself awake realizing it was time for him to leave. He tried to stand. The next thing he knew, Illea was supporting him and guiding him towards the bed in the corner. He tried to protest but his attempt to stand on his own resulted in another dizzy spell that nearly caused him to pass out. He was grateful when they reached the bed and he could sit down. He opened his eyes briefly and quickly shut them again, groaning. He felt Illea’s hands pushing him down and lay back without protest. He vaguely felt her remove his boots and cover him with a blanket before he passed out.
Iolaus awoke with a pounding head. Sitting up he rubbed his temples and tried to remember where he was. The small room seemed familiar but the pain in his head was interfering with his ability to concentrate. A few moments of fumbling produced his boots and he managed to get them on without passing out. Groaning, he sat there for a moment trying to decide if getting up would be worth it. Then he remembered that Herc was supposed to be waiting for him and forced himself to move. He managed to find the door but the flood of sunlight when he opened it sent a shaft of pain through his head and he had to hold on to the door just to keep himself upright.
After a while the pain lessened and he was able to stand on his own. ‘That must have been some wine,’ Iolaus thought, ‘if only one glass can produce a hangover like this.’ Pleased with himself for remembering the wine, Iolaus started off down the narrow street. "Now if I can only remember the way back to the inn," he muttered under his breath. Reaching the end of the street he paused and tried to figure out which way to go next.
A tug on his vest caught his attention and he looked down to see the two boys he’d met outside of town yesterday. "Hello," Iolaus grinned at them. "Not fighting again I hope?"
"No." The taller boy, Markus, grinned back at him.
"Glad to hear it." Iolaus smiled and turned his attention back to studying the street. Another tug brought his attention back to the boys. "Something I can do for you?"
"Who are you looking for?" Markus asked curiously.
"I’m not looking for anyone right now. I’m trying to remember how to get back to the inn," Iolaus told him.
"Why would you want to do that?" Darius asked.
Grinning, Iolaus looked at the two boys. "Do you always ask so many questions?" Both boys nodded.
Markus grinned back at Iolaus. "We can show you how to get to the inn. Come on! It’s this way!" The two boys took off down the street. Iolaus hesitated, then started after them, hoping that the pounding in his head wouldn’t get any worse.
Iolaus had just realized he had lost sight of the boys in the crowd, when he felt another tug on his vest. "You’re not very good at following, are you?" Darius asked frowning. Iolaus started to laugh then sobered quickly as pain shot through his head.
"What’s the matter, mister?" Markus asked with concern.
"Oh, my head aches that’s all. Nothing serious," Iolaus quickly reassured them. "And my name is Iolaus," he continued with a smile. Both boys grinned and Darius grabbed his hand to lead him to the inn.
Iolaus breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted the inn. It would be good to be out of the bright sun for a while. He really hoped that Herc would be waiting for him this time. His hopes were shattered when he entered the inn, there was no sign of Hercules anywhere. Kilos glanced up and frowned as he came in. "Back again, huh?"
Iolaus sighed at his tone and replied, "I’m still waiting for my friend to join me."
"Ah, yes! That’s right! You’re a friend of the mighty Hercules and he’s going to be coming to my humble inn!" Kilos sneered.
Before Iolaus could comment, an awestruck Darius asked, "You know Hercules?"
Grinning, Iolaus looked down at Darius, "Yea, I’m his best friend." He was surprised to see a look of disappointment appear on the boy’s face at this.
Before he could ask what was wrong, Marcus grabbed Darius by the arm and pulled him away saying, "Come on, we’re going to be late!" Iolaus called his thanks after the retreating pair. With a sigh he turned back to the surly innkeeper.
Kilos was frowning suspiciously at him. ‘What is with these people?’ Iolaus wondered to himself. Shaking his head, he headed for the table he had occupied yesterday. He started to ask for a meal, but quickly stopped himself and asked for some ale instead. As Kilos grudgingly brought him ale, Iolaus tried to figure out what was going on in Petras. ‘What could have happened here?’ Lost in his thoughts Iolaus didn’t pay much attention to anyone else in the room. He was startled when a familiar voice greeted him, "Hello, Iolaus. Did you find a place to stay last night?"
Puzzled, he looked up to see if Illea was teasing him. "You know I did, Illea."
"Now how would I know a thing like that," she asked curiously.
Iolaus looked at her questioningly. "You don’t remember feeding me dinner? I wanted to thank you for it and for taking care of me last night."
Iolaus was shocked when she dumped the pitcher of ale over his head. "Wh.. What was that for?"
"How dare you say such things!!" Illea cried and then took off into the kitchen.
"Illea, wait!" Wiping the ale from his eyes Iolaus hastened to follow her but was stopped by Kilos blocking his path. Before he could say anything, Kilos and another man had grabbed him by back of his vest and where hauling him towards the door.
"That’s enough from you! I knew you were a troublemaker! You go wait for your friend somewhere else and stay out of my inn!!" Kilos shouted as he shoved Iolaus out the door and then slammed it shut.
Iolaus stared in shock at the closed door, wondering what he had done. The sound of familiar laughter made him groan. "It’s about time you showed up!"
Hercules looked down at his friend and couldn’t help laughing. Iolaus was soaking wet and staring at the door of the inn with the most perplexed look on his face. "Bad day?" he asked, reaching down to help Iolaus to his feet.
"You could say that," Iolaus replied grimacing.
"So when did you decide to use ale to bathe with?" Hercules asked, trying very hard not to smile.
"I didn’t!" Iolaus was indignant. "She dumped a pitcher on me."
"I should have known," Hercules muttered under his breath.
"What?" Iolaus was getting a bit peevish.
"Nothing," Hercules replied. "Come on, lets go get you cleaned up!" Clapping a hand on Iolaus’ shoulder Hercules started for the door to the inn.
"Uhh. Herc, I think we better find somewhere else."
Surprised by Iolaus’ reluctance, Herc sighed. "Maybe you better tell me what’s going on." He paused eyeing Iolaus, "there’s a small lake just outside of town, you can clean up there."
"You gave him the potion?" Alkippe was startled by Ares’ sudden appearance.
"Yes," she replied, determined not to let him know he’d surprised her, "and I’ve made sure that he will receive more doses as we discussed."
"Good, good.. the more he consumes, the more I will have him in my power," Ares gloated.
"And what about Hercules?" Alkippe interrupted impatiently, "when do I get my revenge?"
"Soon, my dear Amazon, soon… His suffering has already begun though he isn’t aware of it yet."
"I want to see him suffer as he has caused me to suffer and then I want him to die," Alkippe hissed, unsatisfied with Ares’ answer.
"That’s what I like about you, my dear," Ares laughed and then sobered. "Don’t worry, Alkippe, Hercules will suffer and you will be there to see it, I promise."
The walk back to the lake had taken a bit longer than Hercules had thought it would. The mid-afternoon sun was now blazing down out of a cloudless sky, pleased that he'd managed to find a shady spot under a large tree. A very comfortable spot to relax amid the rocky, unforgiving terrain around the lake. With a sigh, he settled himself against the wide trunk and allowed his eyes to close as he waited.
Nearby he could hear Iolaus splashing about trying to get the smell of ale off himself and his clothes. He chuckled quietly remembering the sight of Iolaus with ale dripping into his eyes and a stupefied expression on his face. His friend had told him the sorry tale on the way and he could only wonder at Iolaus’ luck. Hearing Iolaus returning, Hercules opened his eyes then burst out laughing.
Iolaus was carrying his boots, his waterlogged vest thrown over one arm. Out of consideration for his bare feet, he was trying to be careful where he stepped. This task was made harder by the fact that he had washed his pants and then decided to wear them without waiting for them to dry. The soaking wet leather was obviously uncomfortable and Iolaus kept twitching as he walked.
Hercules roared when Iolaus, annoyed at the way the leather was chaffing, tried to adjust his pants in mid stride and forgot to watch where he stepped. Iolaus howled in pain when his foot landed on a sharp rock and started hopping about on one foot. All the hopping about was making the situation with his pants worse. Hercules couldn’t tell which was bothering Iolaus more, the pants or his foot.
Finally Iolaus made it to the grassy area where Hercules was sitting. Glaring at Hercules, who was still shaking with helpless mirth, he threw his boots and vest down. "I’m glad you’re enjoying the show, Hercules!"
Grinning up at his scowling friend, Hercules tried to get his laughter under control. "I’m sorry, Iolaus. I wasn’t expecting your performance… What do you call that dance of yours, anyway?" Hercules met Iolaus gaze, willing his friend to see the fun and forget his annoyance. Finally, Iolaus sighed and collapsed on the grass beside him.
Herc’s laughter faded quickly as Iolaus put his chin in his hand and started disconsolately picking at the grass. "What’s wrong, Iolaus?" he asked in concern.
Heaving another sigh, Iolaus looked up. "I don’t understand it, Herc. What did I do?" Herc could read the depths of his friend's confusion and sadness in the clear blue eyes that met his. Shaking his head, Hercules wished that he had better words of comfort to offer.
"You say this girl dumped a pitcher of ale on you when you thanked her for the meal she’d given you the night before?" he asked trying to get a clearer picture of what had happened.
"Yeah… I swear, Herc, I only thanked her.." Iolaus shook his head.
Hercules thought of all the strange occurrences he had seen on his own visit to Atraeca and the journey to Petras. Most of Iolaus’ story matched what he’d seen. The once friendly outgoing people of this region had become sullen and hostile, suspicious of strangers and quick to take offense. Every instinct was telling him that something was wrong, but he couldn’t quite figure out the source. "I don’t think it was you, Iolaus.. I saw the same type of thing in Atraeca.. People were taking offense over the slightest thing. Letting their tempers get out of control." Hercules sighed. "Something is really wrong in this region."
"So what are we going to do about it, Herc?" Iolaus questioned him.
He frowned slightly as he considered their options. "Well, I’d thought about talking to people in Petras, but…" Hercules glanced at the position of the sun and did some quick calculations, "it would be late by the time we made it back to town. We might as well make camp here and get an early start in the morning." Hercules glanced at his best friend and couldn’t resist teasing him a bit, "besides, we don’t have a place to stay in Petras, since you’ve managed to get us kicked out of the only decent inn."
"Whaaa.. I did not.. it was…" Iolaus sputtered indignantly. Hercules laughed as Iolaus fell for his goad, his heart lifting when his friend's laughter joined his a moment later.
"I owe you for that one Herc," Iolaus teasingly threatened him, then sobering a bit added, "I’ll go see if I can find something for dinner." Grabbing his boots Iolaus quickly pulled them on and stood. Mischief shone in his eyes as he taunted, "If you think you can get a fire going by the time I get back, I’ll even cook it for you." Serenely ignoring Hercules’ protest that he would do the cooking Iolaus headed into the surrounding forest.
Hercules sighed as he watched Iolaus quickly disappear, deeply glad of his presence here. It was so good to be able to relax again. He hadn’t realized how much the suspicions and hostility of the people here had been bothering him.
The conversation had come full circle over dinner, with Hercules filling Iolaus in on all that had happened to him since their last meeting. "So that’s why you asked me to meet you in Petras?" Iolaus asked as he idly poked at the dying remnants of their fire. "You think one of the gods could be stirring up trouble again?"
"I don’t know, Iolaus.. These two kingdoms are nearly ready to go to war with each other and neither side can say over what. If that isn’t the work of the gods……" Hercules let the words trail off, wondering if Iolaus would come to the same conclusion he had.
"Ares," Iolaus stated with grim certainty. "It has to be Ares.. who else would stand to gain from starting a war? But why?"
Hercules sighed. "Why do the gods do anything, Iolaus? I’m sure Ares has his reasons."
"Don’t worry, Herc, now that I’m here Ares wont stand a chance." Herc laughed at the boast, watching as Iolaus saluted him with his flask before taking another drink. "Are you sure you don’t want any of this ale, Herc?"
"No thanks, I’ll stick to plain water." Hercules grimaced and then smiled ruefully at his friend.
Iolaus returned his smile. "You don’t know what you’re missing, Herc."
"I’ll remind you of that when you’re complaining about your head in the morning!" Hercules laughed.
The laughter quickly gave way to concern when Iolaus only laughed half-heartedly at the joke. "Is something wrong, Iolaus?"
"No…" Iolaus shook himself out of his thoughts and smiled at Hercules. "No, everything’s fine, Herc."
Hercules could tell that it wasn’t. Something was troubling Iolaus. ‘My friend,’ Hercules thought with a shake of his head, ‘you are the world’s worst liar.’ Still, he wouldn’t press Iolaus about it. He knew Iolaus would come to him eventually. He always did.
"So, Herc.. what are we going to do about this mess?"
Hercules set aside his worries for his friend and turned his attention back to the problem at hand. "If Ares is involved, then there must be more to this than just getting the two sides arguing. I’m betting that he has an army hidden somewhere near here. He’s just waiting for the right time to attack," he finished grimly.
Iolaus listened thoughtfully and then nodded agreement. "Yeah.. with the two shides fightin’ he could bring in his army an take over ‘fore they knew what was happening."
Hercules looked at Iolaus in surprise at the slurring in his voice, he hadn’t thought that Iolaus had consumed that much ale. As he watched, Iolaus took another drink and continued, "So what we need ish to fine where he’sh keeping thish army." Iolaus didn’t seem to notice Hercules' concern as he followed his train of thought. "As ‘spishous as folks round here are, that should be easy. We jus’ have’t ta ask ‘bout shtrangers."
As Iolaus took another drink from the flask, Hercules couldn’t take it any longer. "Don’t you think you’ve had enough of that, Iolaus?"
"Whaa?" Iolaus stared at him surprise. "Whash the matter? I haven had all tha’ mush…" Holding up the flask he shook it. "Shee.. still got’s lots lef’."
Gently, Hercules took the flask away and re-corked it. "Then that must be some strong ale, my friend, since you are plastered."
Iolaus straightened up indignantly. "Am not.. would take more than thish lil’ bit!"
"Right, sure, Iolaus.. whatever you say.." Hercules tried to pacify his friend. "Why don’t we both try to get some sleep now? ok? We’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
"Oh yesh.. got’s to catsh a god t’morrow." Iolaus giggled as he lay down.
With a sigh, Hercules returned to his own bedroll, concern for his friend foremost in his thoughts. Something had happened to the hunter and he believed Iolaus needed to talk about it. He decided that he was going to get to the bottom of it in the morning when Iolaus was more coherent.
Despite his concerns Hercules had begun to drift off when a sudden giggle from Iolaus roused him. "Hey, Herc? Ya member tha’ time with Aferdite?"
Hercules was puzzled. "Of course I do, Iolaus, why?"
"Oh nushin’ really.. wuz jush thinkin’ how funny it wash…" Iolaus’ voice became fainter as sleep started to claim him.
"Funny.. in what way, Iolaus?" Hercules wondered where Iolaus was going with this line of thought.
"Ohh.. tha’ girl who kep’ fall’n for ya ever time.. ya wash holdin’ tha’ apple… she really.. had ya… runnin’…."
"WHAT?" Hercules sat up, starring at his friend. "What are you talking about, Iolaus? You were the one she was chasing." He waited impatiently for Iolaus to respond. "Iolaus?… Iolaus?" The only response he got was a long loud snore.
With a frustrated sigh Hercules lay back down, his thoughts whirling in confusion. He knew Iolaus remembered quite well what had happened with Aphrodite and that blasted apple. The incident had made Iolaus very wary of any dealings with her for a long time. So why had he brought it up now? And why had he gotten their roles reversed? Hercules worried at those questions for a long time but couldn’t find a rational explanation. Finally he convinced himself that the whole thing had been caused by the amount of ale Iolaus had consumed. Relieved to have at least one mystery solved to his satisfaction, Hercules relaxed and soon drifted off to sleep.
Hercules was fighting for his life. He’d tried every trick he knew but nothing had worked. His opponent was too good. Still, he couldn’t give up! He had to reach Iolaus and this man was the last obstacle between himself and the door. He was sure Iolaus was just beyond. A hard kick shoved him back into a wall, the wind momentarily knocked out of him. His head ringing, he barely managed to get out of the way of the next blow. The man’s sword struck sparks from the wall where it hit, but the move had given Hercules a clear shot at the door and he took it.
As he grabbed the ring, he could swear he heard Iolaus screaming on the other side. He knew he only had a few seconds before his opponent caught up with him. Grasping the ring with both hands he pulled on the door using all his massive strength. Moments passed… Straining, Herc tried with everything in him to open the door and it slowly began to move. Then his time ran out.
Panting, he desperately threw himself out of the way of the blow. He almost made it clear, only taking a small cut on his left arm. Slowly Hercules backed away, trying to regain some strength. His despair mounted when he saw that the door was once more closed and the man was again between them. The man began to circle him, and Hercules sensed that this would be their final confrontation. Only one of them would walk away.
Gathering his remaining strength Hercules readied himself for the attack he knew was coming. As the man rushed him, Hercules stepped to the side. His plan was to catch the man with a blow to the head as he passed, but exhaustion was taking it’s own toll and he misjudged the timing. His fist passed harmlessly just in front of the man’s face and the man began to turn to face him. Desperately trying to gain some advantage, Hercules grabbed the man’s hood and pulled. He hoped he could dislodge it enough that his opponent would be blinded. Time slowed to a crawl as the hood came away in his hand and his opponent stood revealed. Shock held him still as Iolaus knocked him to the floor and moved in for the final blow.
"Iolaus?" Hercules whispered in disbelief as he watched his best friend raise his sword. Iolaus’ face was a twisted mask of rage and hatred, his eyes gleaming with elation at what he was about to do. "Goodbye, Hercules!" Iolaus snarled as he brought the sword down in a killing blow.
"IOLAUS! NOOOOOO!" Hercules screamed as he bolted upright, one hand held out as if to ward off the blow. Still held in the remnants of the dream, he was vaguely aware of Iolaus thrashing about close by, frantically calling his name. He sat there shivering, his mind relentlessly replaying those final moments.
Hands on his shoulders shaking him and the desperation in the voice calling his name finally brought him all the way back. The early morning sun shone directly in his face and he realized it had only been a dream. As his eyes refocused he met Iolaus' concerned gaze. Managing a shaky smile, he tried to reassure his worried friend. "It’s alright, Iolaus, it was just a nightmare." He could tell his friend wasn’t entirely convinced as Iolaus opened his mouth to say something and shook his head. Whatever Iolaus was about to say was replaced by a moan as the result of his indulgence the previous evening made itself known. Hercules couldn’t help the relieved chuckle that escaped him at his friend's plight. In a way he was grateful. He wasn’t ready to talk about the nightmare with Iolaus and the hangover would keep his friend preoccupied for a while.
Iolaus glared at him through the pain. "It’s not that funny, Herc!" he whispered hoarsely. "You wake me up screaming, so that I think we’re under attack… Now you sit here and laugh at me… I swear, Herc!"
Iolaus grimaced and covered his ears as Herc began laughing in earnest. "Iolaus, you’re the only man I know who can babble with a hangover!"
"Oh sure, right.. fine.. go ahead and laugh!" Iolaus glared at him. "But could you please be a bit quieter about it?" With one final glare Iolaus climbed to his feet and shakily made his way down towards the lake.
Hercules shook his head, his laughter fading as the memory of his nightmare returned. He didn’t understand it at all, why would he dream that Iolaus would kill him? The nightmare images had seemed so real.. the feelings had been so intense. He had known that Iolaus was trapped behind that door. He’d heard him calling out for help, and yet, the man he’d been fighting was Iolaus as well. It didn’t make sense!
"Hercules, get a grip! Of course it doesn’t make sense! It’s a dream!" Hercules scolded himself. "It was probably caused by going to sleep worrying over Iolaus. Add in all the other stuff that’s going on around here and you’ve got all the ingredients for a nightmare." His head knew that this was all it was, but his gut was still insisting it had been real. "Enough.. make yourself useful!" Annoyed with himself for letting a nightmare get to him, Hercules decided to find something for breakfast. "Maybe Iolaus will feel like telling me what was bothering him yesterday." A loud yelp drew his attention. He grinned when he saw Iolaus had reached the lake and dunked his head in the icy water. With a last smile at his friend he went looking for breakfast.
His foray after food hadn’t been extremely successful but it had helped to clear the last shadows of the nightmare from his mind and Hercules was feeling much more cheerful as he returned to camp. Iolaus was lying on his bedroll, one arm flung across his eyes and an expression of pain on his face. He looked thoroughly miserable. With a grimace of sympathy Hercules moved to the fire and quickly built it up again. The one small bird he’d managed to find would cook quickly and once they got moving Iolaus should start to feel better.
"Can’t you build a quiet fire?" Iolaus moaned.
"Not unless you want to eat your breakfast raw." Hercules laughed. Iolaus grimaced and rolled over, putting his back to Hercules, mumbling something about what Herc could do with his breakfast. Hercules grinned. "Well, I can see that you’re going to be good company this morning." When his continued teasing only elicited a grunt from his friend, he decided to take pity on him and let Iolaus sleep for a while longer. He settled back to watch the bird cook and try to plan their next moves.
‘Maybe we should start with that girl Iolaus mentioned.. What was her name?’ Hercules thought back over the story Iolaus had told, trying to remember if he had mentioned the girls’ name. ‘Oh.. yeah.. Illea. That was it.’ Hercules shot a concerned glance at his friend. ‘There has to be more there than Iolaus said. Something had to have happened to cause him to drink himself to sleep.’ Hercules sighed. ‘Why is it that everything always happens at once?’ he asked himself.
Lost in his thoughts Hercules forgot to pay attention to the food he was cooking until a shaky laugh roused him. Startled, he glanced at the fire. With a muffled oath he grabbed for the stick holding the now flaming bird. Pulling it from the fire he quickly doused the flames and then turned to frown at Iolaus. "You could have done something instead of just laugh!" he told him pointedly.
"But, Herc," Iolaus protested, still laughing weakly, "I thought you wanted it that way… after all.. YOU can cook."
Hercules just shook his head at this reminder of something he constantly teased Iolaus about. "Well, at least it’s cooked the way you like it," he teased.
Iolaus laughed, only a slight wince betraying any sign of the headache he’d had earlier. Hercules was relieved to see that the extra rest had done his friend some good. Using his knife, Hercules cut a portion of the overcooked bird and offered it to Iolaus. At the sight Iolaus turned pale and a look of nausea passed over his face. "Uh.. no thanks.. I think I’ll wait till later." Iolaus, looking faintly queasy as he watched Hercules eat, asked, "So have you given any thought to how we’re supposed to find out what’s going on?"
"I’ve had a couple of ideas," Hercules answered. "If Ares is behind this, then he’s got to have an army somewhere nearby."
"Yea!" Iolaus interrupted enthusiastically, "So all we have to do is ask around about strangers.."
"Whoa, hold on, Iolaus.. Have you forgotten that we are strangers too?" Hercules reminded him. "We may not get a lot of cooperation from these people."
"But.." Iolaus spluttered.
"But what, Iolaus?"
"You’re Hercules!" Iolaus exclaimed.
Hercules shook his head, laughing. "Somehow I don’t think that’s going to matter to these people, Iolaus, especially if Ares is behind all of this."
"Oh, yea.. I hadn’t thought of that," Iolaus ruefully agreed. He was silent for a moment, thinking. "Well, if Ares has an army around here… he’s got to have a place to hide it… maybe an abandoned fortress or something? We could ask about that."
"Good idea," Hercules agreed. "I also want to talk to that girl you met."
"Illea?" Iolaus was surprised. "Why do you need to talk to her?"
"I want to find out why she reacted the way she did." Hercules stood and started putting out the fire, trying hard to keep a straight face he added, "Besides, don’t you want to know why that ‘famous’ charm of yours didn’t work on her?" Hercules ducked away laughing as Iolaus threw a handful of dirt at him, and continued to tease his friend. "I see your charm isn’t the only thing you need to practice! The fire’s over there, Iolaus!"
"Comedian," Iolaus muttered with a grin as he finished dousing the fire and stood up.
Gathering their belongings the two friends headed back down the road to Petras. Bantering with the ease of long association the two were enjoying being together again. Neither noticed the figure that emerged from the trees and watched them walk away. The woman remained motionless for a long time, thinking deeply. Finally, flicking a strand of long black hair out of her face, she smiled and vanished back into the forest.
"So where to first?" Iolaus asked as he scanned the busy market place.
"Illea works at the inn right?" Hercules asked.
"Yeah, so?" Iolaus prodded trying to figure out what Herc was thinking.
"So that would be the best place to look for her, don’t you think?" Hercules answered as he set off in the direction of the inn.
‘There he goes again, giving me another strange look.’ Iolaus was beginning to get a bit annoyed with those glances. Hercules had been doing that whenever they talked about what was going on and Iolaus couldn’t figure out why. Those looks were always followed by a strange comment. Almost as if Herc hadn’t quite understood what he’d said. Now here he was doing it again.
"Hey, Herc! Wait up!" Iolaus hurried after his friend. "I’m not sure going back to the inn is a good idea!"
"I thought we’d agreed, Iolaus," Hercules gave him a puzzled look. "Don’t you want to know what happened?"
"Sure I do, Herc, but, well.." Iolaus hesitated, trying to find words to express the uneasiness he felt at the idea of returning to the inn. "I just don’t think going back there is a good idea." He could see by the look of impatience on his friend’s face that Hercules wanted a better explanation, Iolaus wished he had a one to give. How could he explain something that he didn’t really understand himself?
"Iolaus," Hercules began, trying hard to be patient. "Would you please make up your mind? Do you want to talk to Illea or don’t you?"
The remnants of this morning’s headache combined with a reluctance he couldn’t explain were making Iolaus peevish. This comment from Herc was the last straw and he snapped. "I just don’t think it’s a good idea to go back to the inn right now, ok?" Not waiting for a reply, he turned on his heels and headed in the opposite direction.
Iolaus didn’t know whether to be relieved or even more upset when he realized that Hercules wasn’t following him. 'Great, just great!' he muttered.
Hercules watched with a sinking feeling as Iolaus stalked off into the crowd. He couldn’t believe what had just happened between them. ‘What is wrong with him?’ he wondered. ‘I’ve never known him to be so touchy about things.’
Too many things had been odd this morning for Hercules to ignore. Iolaus had made strange comments off and on all through their trip into town and he had been getting progressively more irritable. Now this outburst. It wasn’t like him to back away from anything, in fact, Iolaus was more likely to go charging in without stopping to think.
The images from his nightmare flashed through his mind again and he shook his head uneasily. ‘Why does that keep coming back?’ Hercules was used to relying on his instincts and right now they were screaming at him. Something bad was going on here and somehow Iolaus was deeply involved.
One quick glance around the tavern told Iolaus why Hercules had set their meeting for the inn instead. The tavern was dingy and dirty but it suited his mood. It was also the type of place where a person could find out anything that they wanted to know, for a price. A price he probably couldn’t meet, Iolaus acknowledged ruefully as he threaded his way to the counter, but there was always possibility he might overhear something useful.
Iolaus swept his glance around the crowded tavern while he waited for his drink. These men were the dregs of society: cutthroats, thieves and mercenaries. They were just the types of scum that Ares liked to use. If anyone knew of an army forming in the area these men would, it was their business.
A loud thump brought his attention back to the tavern keeper. Iolaus glanced at the mug on the counter and then tossed the man a dinar before turning back to his contemplation of the room. Raising the mug to his lips, he realized that every man in the room was covertly watching him and he hesitated a moment before taking a sip. One taste told him what they were waiting for and he decided to act appropriately.
Hacking and spitting, he turned on the tavern keeper with a scowl. "You call this watered-down swill ale?" he demanded loudly. "I don't pay good money for crap like this!! Now get me a real drink, before I take my money back…. out of your hide!" Iolaus was pleased to see his little performance was obviously what they had been expecting as the room relaxed and the conversation levels returned to normal.
Another mug was quickly placed before him and Iolaus glared at the shaking man before sniffing the mug and then finally taking a drink. With a curt nod of satisfaction, he headed for an empty table in the corner. He decided to keep up the act for a while longer. Maybe it would buy him some information, especially if they took him for an out of work mercenary like themselves.
Reaching the empty table, he chose a seat that faced the rest of the room, then slouched down in it. He scowled at a nearby thug who was staring openly at him, then ostentatiously resettled his sword. The thug coolly met his gaze for a few moments, then with a nod turned his attention away. Iolaus breathed a silent sigh of relief. He didn't really want to get involved in a tavern brawl right now.
As Iolaus sat there sipping his ale, he strained to catch the conversations of those nearest him. His concentration wasn't paying off. He caught snatches of boasts of prior glory and plans for great deeds. Disgusted but not ready to give up, he nursed his ale and brooded over the scene with Hercules. The more he thought about it, the more concerned he became. Something was definitely wrong.
The sudden cessation of noise told him another stranger had entered the inn and he looked up to see who it was. He was half afraid, half hoping it would be Herc and he didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed when he realized the man was a stranger. Iolaus started to dismiss him as just another mercenary when the man moved further into the room. There was an air of confidence about this man that said professional, but more than that, it said he was good at it. He was definitely a cut above the rest of the men in this room and Iolaus wondered what he was doing here.
The man paused a few feet into the room and surveyed the gathering. Most of the men looked quickly away, but here and there a braver or more foolhardy man would try to return his stare. That contest would last only a moment or two before, like wolves acknowledging a stronger wolf, they too would avert their gaze. Of all the men there only one had managed to meet the stranger's gaze for more than a few moments but even he eventually looked away. Then it was Iolaus' turn. He felt the weight of the man's gaze resting on him, daring him to a contest of wills. With deliberate casualness, Iolaus looked up. As their eyes locked Iolaus felt a chill run down his spine and understood what it was that had caused the others to look away. Death was staring back at him.
'Death follows this man and he welcomes it,' Iolaus thought in amazement. 'Well, I've met death before.' He'd not only met death, he'd been dead. 'If it weren't for Hercules,' he thought, 'I wouldn't be here now.' He knew what death held for him. He no longer feared it and that gave him the strength to meet what he saw in this stranger's eyes without fear. This time it was the stranger who looked away.
The test of wills had taken mere moments, though it had felt like centuries and Iolaus kept an eye on the man as he crossed the room. For a moment Iolaus thought he was going to stop at his table, but after a slight hesitation the man moved on to the group of mercenaries next to him. He spoke a few quiet words that Iolaus was unable to catch. In response the same man who had stared at Iolaus earlier invited the stranger to join them.
Iolaus summoned one of the serving girls and ordered another ale. Then watched as she stopped at the stranger's table on her way to the bar. Iolaus realized that the first mercenary was frowning at him and he tilted his head in the comely brunette's direction and smiled. A knowing grin bloomed on the mercenary's face and he winked at Iolaus before he turned back to the conversation at his table.
Iolaus sighed in relief. He had a good idea that this new man knew something about what was going on and he didn't want to arouse any suspicions when he finally had a chance to learn something. He deliberately turned his gaze back to the girl while straining to catch their conversation. The stranger was talking at length and he had their full attention but he was deliberately keeping his voice pitched so that it wouldn't carry beyond the small group.
His patience was rewarded when one of the men, who'd had too much to drink, spoke a bit too loudly. "…. Ares has to do with…" His companions quickly shushed him glancing around nervously. The mention of Ares made Iolaus certain that the stranger was one of his men, perhaps even one of Ares' commanders and he struggled to catch every word he could. The drunk obliged him by parroting parts of the conversation. "….. Lord Bruiach's army……….. gathering at the old ruins…….. Craestus pass….." The man was constantly being quieted by his companions and was beginning to show signs of irritation because of it. The more they tried to quiet him, the louder he got.
Now Iolaus was able to get more than just a few words at a time. Iolaus blessed the drunken man silently, that was just the information he had been hoping to hear. He had just decided that it was probably a good time to leave, when the drunk's next words nearly made him gasp out loud. "….. kill Hercules? ….. crazy…."
The loud admonishments of his companions caused the drunk to glare at them and say loudly, "It would take an army to kill him and he wants the seven of us to do it? It's crazy I tell you!!" A curt word and an icy glare from the stranger caused him to finally fall silent as the man began to speak again. Iolaus was desperately trying to think of an excuse to get closer to the group, when the drunken man once again helped him out. Laughing loudly, the man exclaimed, "A special weapon? Oh that's a good one! Send him off to Atraeca and then ambush him with it.. yeah.. that's a great plan!!!" He continued to laugh, not noticing the glares of the other men.
Finally one of them grabbed him by the sleeve, "Will you shut up, you stupid lout! The only work for miles and you're going to blow it for us!!"
"And you are a fool if you are thinking of taking this man up on his offer, Creodus!" The drunk pulled angrily away and stood up. Glaring at the rest of the table, he continued, "I always knew Creodus was a few mugs shy of a pitcher, but I thought the rest of you had more sense!"
Shouting Creodus launched himself at the drunken man and the two of them went down in a tangle of arms and legs. The other men quickly moved in to try to separate the two, while the stranger, whose words had started it, watched with interest. The men weren't having much luck and Iolaus had to jump quickly out of the way as the two combatants crashed on top of his table.
Iolaus knew that he wasn't going to get any more information here and decided to take advantage of the brawl to leave. He slowly worked his way to the door, sometimes pushing his way through the crowd of spectators who were urging the two fighters on. Once outside he leaned against the wall and breathed a sigh of relief.
"Herc!" He suddenly straightened. "I've got to warn him." He quickly took off in search of his friend.
Frustration. Iolaus was becoming all too familiar with it on this trip. It wasn't bad enough that all these strange things had been happening in Petras and Atraeca, then Hercules had to start behaving strangely, now Iolaus couldn't find him anywhere. He'd even reluctantly checked the inn, all to no avail. Iolaus perched himself on the rim of the fountain and kept an eye on the crowd while he tried to think of another place he could look. The drunken man's words kept repeating in his mind. Over and over the words 'kill Hercules' played themselves until Iolaus thought he would go insane. He had to find and warn his friend before Ares was able to put his plan into action. Fear that he was already too late was growing.
"Think Iolaus!" he muttered. "He has to be here somewhere!" Sure he is, a little voice whispered in his mind, and when you tell him all about the ambush he is going to rush straight into it. "No, no, no," Iolaus tried to deny what the voice was telling him, but the denial lacked conviction. That was exactly what Hercules would do, he finally admitted with reluctance. Herc would head straight into that trap hoping to get more information. And you don't even know what this special weapon is! The little voice whispered again. It could be something that really will kill him! Iolaus blanched at the thought of Herc being killed then tried to reassure himself with the thought that Hercules was half-god. Not even Hercules himself knows if he is immortal, Iolaus, the voice murmured. Maybe it would be better not to tell him about it at all. Iolaus frowned thinking this through. 'If I don't tell Herc about it he could end up walking into it without knowing which would be even worse!' You could check it out first, the voice suggested smoothly. Then you would know if you really needed to warn him. 'Hmmmm, if I check it out I'll know whether or not Herc needs to worry about it,' Iolaus pondered the thought, 'but how do I get away from him for that long? It's a two-day trip to Atraeca. He'll want to come with me and I can't lie to him.'
Iolaus groaned and buried his head in his hands, this whole knotty problem was bringing back the morning's headache. 'Gods, I need to think clearly! Ares wants Herc to go to Atraeca, so he will make sure that Hercules finds some reason to go sooner or later. I can't let that happen so I need to go in his place. But how? And how do I keep him from wanting to accompany me?' The Craestus Pass and Ares' camp, the whispering voice reminded him. "Of course!" Iolaus exclaimed startling the nearby shoppers who quickly moved away. Iolaus never noticed them for as the crowd parted around him he spotted Hercules entering the town square.
"Herc! Hey, Herc!" Iolaus shouted as he leapt to his feet and started forward towards his friend. Hercules smiled and headed in his direction.
"Iolaus, I've been looking all over for you!" "Where have you been, Herc? I've been looking everywhere!" The two spoke at once, then broke out laughing as they realized they had each been going in circles looking for the other.
"I was worried about you, Iolaus, where did you go?" Hercules asked.
"I found a tavern, Herc," Iolaus began, "and I found out where Ares' camp is!" Iolaus wondered why Herc frowned when he mentioned the tavern but brushed the thought aside. It probably wasn't important. Right now he had to convince Herc to scout the camp without him.
"Where?" The urgency in Hercules' voice helped Iolaus pull his thoughts together. Leading Hercules over to the side of the square he quickly filled him in on the meeting in the tavern. He skipped the part about the trap and tried to gloss over the omission, praying Hercules wouldn't notice.
"Whoa, Iolaus, slow down," Hercules laughed. "I don't need a blow by blow account!" He sobered then continued, "Now why don't we go check out this camp?" Dropping his hand to Iolaus shoulder Hercules gave it a squeeze and turned to begin the trip.
"Uh, Herc," Iolaus hesitated trying to think of a good excuse for staying behind. "I, uhm, can't go." As Hercules stared at him in surprise he stumbled through a feeble excuse, "I.. uh.. well.. there's.. uh.. something I need to do."
"What is it, Iolaus?" Hercules was clearly puzzled. "I'll come with you."
"NO," Iolaus exclaimed in agitation, then seeing the look on Herc's face, "It's.. uh.. something I need to do… alone."
"Then I'll wait for you." Hercules was trying to be reasonable.
"Well, uhmmm, I really, uh, don't know how long it will take, Herc," Iolaus was finding it increasingly hard to meet Hercules eyes. "It, uh, might be, uhmm, better if you.. went on without me."
"WHAT?" Iolaus jumped slightly, startled by Hercules' reaction even though he had been half expecting it. "Alright, Iolaus, enough of this! Tell me what is going on?" Hercules demanded impatiently. "I've known something was bothering you since I got here, now you are going to tell me what it is!"
"Nothing is wrong, Herc! Really!" Iolaus tried to convince his friend. One glance at Hercules' face told him he wasn't succeeding. "Look, there is something I need to do alone ok? I promise I'll tell you about it afterwards." He forced himself to meet Hercules gaze hoping his friend would let it go at that. "Look, Herc, someone has to check out that camp as soon as possible. We need information and I just can't go with you ok?"
Iolaus watched as conflicting emotions chased themselves across Hercules face while he listened to what Iolaus was saying. He saw Herc open his mouth to reply but whatever his friend was going to say was lost in the stab of pain that washed through him. Iolaus swayed dizzily and moaned. It felt as if someone had just driven a knife into his head and was busily carving up his brain.
When the attack passed he found himself seated under a nearby tree with Hercules hovering over him. Concern was plainly written on the demi-god's face. "You're ill," he stated flatly, "and you didn't want to tell me, right? That's why you can't come with me to scout the camp." Iolaus wearily leaned his head back against the tree and closed his eyes. The extreme pain was gone but it had left behind a deep throbbing and he was having trouble concentrating. "I am not going anywhere until I know you're going to be alright, Iolaus!"
"No!" Iolaus forced his eyes open. "Herc you have to go! Don't you see? The people here need you to protect them from Ares and you can't do that if you don't know what his plan is!!"
"Iolaus, you collapsed a moment ago," Hercules argued. "What if Ares sends someone after you and you have one of these attacks? I can't leave you to face that alone!"
"Herc, I'm not ill!" Iolaus protested. "I just got some bad ale at that tavern ok? I'll be fine in no time!" Seeing the stubborn expression on Hercules face Iolaus forced himself to stand. He knew what he needed do and knew too that it would be the hardest thing he had ever done, he just hoped that Hercules would be able to forgive him for it eventually.
Taking a deep breath, Iolaus stepped unsteadily away from the tree. As Hercules reached out to support him again, Iolaus spun away from him, feigning anger. "I DON'T NEED A NURSEMAID!" he shouted. "Or a babysitter!!!" The look of stunned pain on Hercules face nearly made him change his mind and tell the truth, but that little voice whispered a reminder in the back of his head, This is for his own protection… He'll thank you for it later…. "Just go, Hercules," Iolaus burst out. "I'll be just fine without you around." Without waiting for Hercules response, he headed out on the road to Atraeca.
"Alright Iolaus, if that's the way you want it," Hercules spoke to his friend's back as he walked away, "but this isn't over between us." Why, why, why, the question kept repeating in his mind. Iolaus had been irritable and moody ever since they had met up. It hadn't been very noticeable at first and he had put it down to the incident at the inn, but now he was wondering if the problem went deeper. And those headaches.. They weren't normal. Iolaus didn't usually drink much, a mug or two now and then, but it seemed he was constantly drinking now. Hercules wondered if his friend was using the ale to deaden the pain of the headaches. Right now there was only one thing he could do, get this mess with Ares settled as fast as possible. Then he could concentrate on Iolaus.
He hadn't had much luck finding any information this morning, partially, he admitted to himself, because he had spent too much time worrying about Iolaus. He had learned something about the countryside and had a good idea of where to look for Ares' camp. Just beyond the pass there was a small valley. It had natural protections that would be easy to fortify and defend, plus an unlimited supply of fresh water. It was an ideal site for an army. Hercules wondered how good their commander was. He had never heard anything about this Bruiach before now. If the man were really smart he would have sentries posted to watch for travelers through the pass.
'Well, one thing at a time,' he thought, 'first I have to get there.'
Hercules had walked all day and hadn't encountered a single soul, which he found very strange. This should have been the main road to Thrace and as such, very well traveled. The road showed the signs of heavy usage in the past and it still looked to be well taken care of, but no one was using it. All of which only served to convince him that he was on the right track.
The sun had dropped below the mountains and night was slowly drawing its cover over the world when Hercules decided to camp for the night. He had only taken a few paces into the trees when a voice stopped him.
"Don't come any closer!"
He searched the gloom for a sign of the speaker, wondering if he had found the first of the sentries. A slight rustle in the bushes to his right caused him to spin quickly to face the man, or rather… boy. 'He has to be around sixteen or seventeen,' Hercules thought in amazement. As the young man came closer Hercules realized that he was also inexperienced and nervous. Several times he had let his arrow waver from its target as he came out of hiding.
"Easy there, I don't mean you any harm," he tried to reassure the nervous young man. "I was just looking for a place to camp for the night, nothing more."
"Sure you were!" the boy retorted. "I know where your camp is and you can just spend the night there! And while you're at it, tell your commander that the next soldier he sends after me isn't going to come back!" He drew back the bow, prepared to shoot.
"Wait a minute!" Hercules exclaimed. Raising his hands to show they were empty, he continued, "I'm not a soldier! I'm just a traveler on my way to Thrace." As nervous as this kid was, Hercules wasn't about to tell him that he had been looking for that very army. "My name's Hercules, what's yours?"
"Her… Hercules?" the boy stuttered in disbelief, "You're Hercules?!?!?"
Hercules groaned silently, 'why doesn't anyone ever believe me?' Looking at the boy, "That's what I said, but you haven't told me your name."
"Oh.. uh.. I'm Talus. Nice to meet you, Hercules!" Talus fumbled with his bow, nearly dropping it as he tried to free a hand.
Restraining a smile Hercules helped the young man settle everything, "It's nice to meet you, Talus. Can I ask what you are doing out here?" As the young man immediately started to babble on Hercules held up a hand. "Why don't we make camp and get settled and then you can tell me your story?"
"Sure, Hercules… right this way. I already have a camp back here."
Talus quickly led him to a small cave hidden by thick bushes and nearly indistinguishable in the darkness. Holding back the brush, Talus proudly invited Hercules inside. Hercules stopped in astonishment a few feet from the entrance. His startled glanced surveyed the interior. It was obvious that Talus had been living here for quite some time. The room was neat and tidy and a lot had been done to make it extremely livable. In one corner a fire was burning with something cooking in a pot over it, while a natural chimney carried the smoke away.
Turning to Talus, who was grinning at his reaction, he said, "Very impressive! Did you do all this yourself?"
"Yep!" Talus moved a woven brush screen from the wall and placed it in front of the entry. "Though I did have a bit of help from Ilea. She brings me stuff sometimes, in exchange for the game that I hunt for her."
"You know Ilea?" Hercules questioned. Maybe he could finally get some information about Iolaus!
Talus finished with the screen and turned back to Hercules, "Yes, she was here this morning in fact. Do you know her too? I don't remember her ever mentioning knowing you."
"So that's why I couldn't find her," Hercules murmured. Then louder to Talus, "No, I don't know her but she helped a friend of mine and I wanted to thank her."
Talus grinned and motioned to Hercules to a seat near the fire, "That's Ilea. She is always trying to help everyone, but it's gotten so hard for her in Petras now that I'm afraid she will leave." Talus stirred the stew and checked to see if it was done.
"You mean because of what is going on in Petras?" Hercules inquired, wanting to know more about this woman.
"Well that and there was an incident with a man at the inn yesterday." Talus sighed.
"An incident?" Herc prodded hoping the boy would say more.
"Yeah.. I guess she thought he was different from the others or something. She wouldn't say much about it.. just that he turned out to be like all the rest."
"Oh." Disappointed Hercules decided to leave that subject. The boy seemed to know something of the soldiers in this area. "Talus, earlier you thought I had been sent after you by someone, want to tell me about it?"
"Oh yeah, sorry about that," Talus looked a bit sheepish as he replied a bit defensively. "It was getting dark you know."
"It's ok, Talus," Hercules reassured him. "You see, I'm looking for an army that is supposed to be camped near here."
"You gonna get rid of them, Hercules?"
"That's the plan ,Talus." Hercules grinned at the boys' expression.
"All by yourself?!?!" Talus squeaked. "WOW, then I guess the stories about you must be true!!"
"Some of them," Hercules reluctantly admitted. "But they tend to get a bit exaggerated." He smiled to himself remembering how often Iolaus embellished stories.
"Oh yeah, sure, Hercules," Talus tried to act a bit nonchalant.
"So what can you tell me about the soldiers around here, Talus? And their commander?"
"Bruiach." Talus stated flatly, his face suddenly gaining in years. "That's his name, the commander. His army has been recruiting around here for a couple of months now. When they can't find people to join them, then they force them to volunteer."
"Sounds like a nice bunch," Hercules stated. "I take it they wanted you to volunteer?"
"Yeah.. They caught me out hunting and dragged me off to see their commander." The boy looked up at Hercules with fear in his eyes, "I've never seen anything like him, Hercules! He's shorter than I am and all of those soldiers live in fear of him. I saw him take on four of them. They all had weapons and he took them out before they could blink."
"Sounds like he's good with a sword," Hercules murmured.
"That's just it, Hercules, he didn't use any weapons! He did it with his bare hands! The only man I'd ever heard of who could do that was you!" Talus looked at Hercules, concern written all over his face. "You've got to be careful, Hercules. Please!"
"Don't worry, Talus," he tried to reassure the boy. "I don't plan on confronting this man right now." As Talus sighed in relief Hercules smiled and continued, "Can you describe him for me?"
"Sure! Like I said, he is shorter than me, I guess he'd come up to about your shoulder.. maybe a little higher." Talus paused picturing the man in his mind. "He has light gold hair.. kinda longish.. and it's a bit messy. Oh and blue eyes. He has blue eyes."
"Anything else?" The description sounded a bit too much like Iolaus for Hercules' comfort.
"Not that I can think of, Hercules." Hercules could see the frown of concentration on the boys' face and was about to ask another question when Talus spoke up, "I nearly forgot the medallion!"
"Yeah.. he has this medallion he wears all the time."
"Can you describe it?" Hercules asked reluctantly.
"Not really, Hercules, I was only close to him for a moment.. and well.. I was kinda concentrating on other things at the time."
"I suppose you were, Talus. Don't worry about it, it's not important," he reassured him.
The two of them were silent for a few minutes, each lost in their own thoughts. Talus checked the pot once more and then quietly got out two bowls and spoons. As he dished up the stew he asked, "Are you still going after them, Hercules?"
"Thanks, Talus," Hercules accepted a bowl. Taking a bite he looked up in surprise. "This is really good!"
"Thanks," Talus was a bit flustered at the praise and repeated his question, "Well, are you going after them?"
Hercules sighed, "Yes, Talus, I want to scout their camp in the morning."
"I can show you where it is, Hercules!" Talus eagerly offered.
"No," Hercules said sharply, "it's too dangerous, Talus."
"But.." Talus started to protest but stopped when Hercules raised his hand.
Sighing Hercules realized he was going to have to give the boy something to do, otherwise he was just stubborn enough to follow him. "Talus, I need someone to stay here and watch the road," Hercules improvised quickly.
"I get it! Watch your back, huh? Make sure no one sneaks up behind you, right?" Talus said eagerly. "I can do that!"
"Great, Talus! That will be a big help!" Hercules was grateful the boy had taken the suggestion so well. 'It will also keep you out of trouble, my young friend,' he thought to himself.
"Guess we better be getting to sleep then, huh, Hercules?" Talus suggested. "We'll want to be up early in the morning!"
"That's probably a good idea, Talus," Hercules agreed with a smile for the boys' eagerness. He watched as Talus, quickly and efficiently, got everything straightened up and put away then banked the fire for the night. It was obvious the boy was used to living on his own. As he lay down in the spot that Talus indicated he reminded himself to ask the boy some questions about that in the morning.
Hercules had tossed and turned for hours with memories of the days events playing over in his head. Finally he fell asleep, no closer to finding a solution. The dream began almost immediately.
Once again he was fighting in a dark chamber and he knew that Iolaus was trapped in the next room. Once again he was facing the same dark clad fighter, only this time the man wasn't wearing a hood. Iolaus stood there facing him. It was Iolaus' sword that drew his blood when he barely managed to get out of the way of a blow. But it wasn't Iolaus' eyes. At least not the eyes of his friend! What shown in the eyes of this Iolaus was pure evil. Hatred and rage lashed out at him from them. And yet.. he could hear his friend calling to him, pleading for help! It didn't make sense! Hercules found himself dodging another blow from Iolaus. Each blow seemed to get a little faster, a little harder to get away from. And this time he didn't have a weapon to fight back with. Then he spotted it, on the floor in the corner, the sword he had used in the last dream. Seizing the first opportunity he dove for the sword. He almost managed to get his hand on it, but Iolaus was faster. Once again Hercules watched as his friend prepared to kill him!
Hercules sat up gasping. This dream had shaken him worse than the last one. He was covered in sweat and shaking from head to toe. He felt as if he really had been fighting. He glanced over to where Talus lay, hoping he hadn't disturbed the boy. In the dim light from the fire he could just make out the still form and he sighed with relief. He wasn't ready to talk about these dreams with anyone yet. With another sigh he turned over on his side, hoping the dreams wouldn't return. He never saw Talus' eyes open or the cruel smile that crossed his face.
Morning came all too soon for Hercules as he was awakened by the sounds of Talus bustling about. "Good morning, Hercules!" Talus called cheerfully when he saw that Hercules was awake.
"What's good about it," Hercules muttered to himself, then raising his voice, "Morning, Talus. Are you always so cheerful in the mornings?"
"Sure!" The young man assured him.
"I was afraid of that," Hercules muttered as he hauled himself up.
"What did you say, Hercules?" Talus asked curiously.
"Oh, I just said, uh, that it would be best to get going, Talus."
"Ok, Hercules," Talus agreed, "I'm ready!"
"Wait a minute, I thought we straightened this out last night..," Hercules protested. "You aren't coming with me!"
"I know that, Hercules, but I can show you a back way to the valley where they are camped," Talus explained. "They keep a close watch on the road and you'd never get there that way."
'Can't things be easy just once,' Hercules thought as he gazed at the eager face before him. "Alright, Talus, but only if you agree to turn back when I tell you! Deal?" Watching the young man's face fall, he added, "Besides, I'll still need someone to keep an eye out for anyone trying to sneak up behind me."
"Oh! Yeah! I'd forgotten about that!" Talus brightened considerably. "Well, come on, Hercules, what are we waiting for?"
Hercules could only shake his head in wonder as he followed the young man out of the cave.
It had taken them two hours to reach the start of the trail that Talus claimed came out in the valley and the young man hadn't stopped talking the entire time. Hercules was beginning to understand how the soldiers had captured him. Finally he couldn't take anymore. "Talus," he interrupted. "Do you talk like this when you're hunting?"
"Of course not, Hercules," Talus exclaimed indignantly. "That would scare off all the game!"
"Well, Talus, we're hunting right now," Herc explained, "only this time, we are hunting men and they are a lot more dangerous, understand?"
"Oh, yeah, I guess I do, Hercules," Talus said thoughtfully. "If we make too much noise they might hear us coming. Then they could set a trap or an ambush. We wouldn't want them to do that, cause then you wouldn't get the information you came for."
Exasperated, Hercules once again interrupted the flow of words, "Talus! Quiet!"
Startled the young man looked at him. "Oh, sorry, Hercules," he whispered. Hercules hoped that he had convinced Talus of the need for silence and that the boy could manage to keep quiet long enough to lead him to the area of the camp.
Three hours later, Talus was still managing to keep quiet and they were getting very close to the area that Talus said the camp was in. Hercules was getting worried though. The trees and brush were beginning to thin out and they had to cross more and more open spaces, places where they could easily be spotted. After the last such spot, Hercules had decided that he would leave Talus behind at the next one.
The next open space brought a bit more than a clearing. Hercules stared in dismay at the narrow path that twisted through the rock ahead. Turning to look at Talus he whispered, "This is where I have to leave you." He silenced Talus' protests before the young man could voice them. "I need you to stay here and keep anyone from coming in there after me, Talus." The boy brightened a bit at this, but Herc thought he could still detect a hint of disappointment. "I'm counting on you, Talus!" Hercules smiled encouragingly.
"Don't worry about a thing, Hercules!" Talus reassured him. "I'll be right here!"
Hoping the boy would be safe there; Hercules surveyed the rock-strewn area he would have to cross. 'Ah well, better get this over with,' he thought. Seeing no sign of movement he darted across the open area, dodging between boulders and quickly reaching the break in the wall. He had only gone a few feet into the passage when he found a rockslide had barred his way. "Oh, great." He surveyed the pile wondering if it was steady enough for him to climb. A slight scrapping sound and a small shower of pebbles were the only warnings he had before the rocks started pouring down on him.
Dazed and in pain, Hercules was vaguely aware of voices nearby. "You idiots! Bruiach wanted him alive! You were supposed to capture him!"
"Bruiach told us he wanted to be rid of Hercules! Now he is!!"
"What do you use for a brain, Malek? Bruiach wanted the pleasure of killing Hercules himself!" One of the voices sounded familiar but he couldn't quite place it.
"But, but, Talus! He didn't tell us that!" 'Talus?!?!?! Oh you fell for that one Herc, you really believed that kid.' Hercules berated himself for not asking Talus more questions.
"Where is he now, Kalek?"
"He's taken the rest of the army and gone to ambush the caravan that the king is sending to Atraeca."
"So I'm left with you idiots." Hercules heard footsteps coming closer, then felt the rocks covering him shift as someone kicked them. "We can't even take a souvenir back to prove to Bruiach that he's dead, thanks to this pile of rocks you've covered him in." Talus sounded thoroughly disgusted. "Come on, we need to reach the rendezvous point before Bruiach gets there. I'll let the six of you explain to Bruiach just why he is not going to have the pleasure of killing Hercules. If I were you I'd pray that Bruiach is in a good mood."
Hercules waited impatiently for the last traces of their voices to fade and the normal forest sounds to return before he began trying to free himself. It took a few minutes of squirming before he found the right spot to push on but once found it was only a matter of moments until he was free. Wincing and rubbing at stiff and sore muscles he climbed out of the pile of rocks and looked around. "Well, Herc, what next?" Suddenly a snippet of the men's conversation came back to him. "Atraeca! They were going to attack a caravan headed for Atraeca! Iolaus!!" Hercules started running, praying he could get there in time.
Hercules knew he needed to rest as he stumbled into Petras. He'd run all night, pushing himself to his limits. He decided to stop by the inn, Kilos was sure to know when the caravan had left. Maybe he would have some luck this time and be able to stop them. As soon as he saw the crowd gathered around the inn he knew he was already too late. Pushing his way through the excited villagers he finally spotted Kilos near the bar and made his way there. "What happened?" he demanded.
"Ambush! They ambushed the peace caravan and killed everyone!"
"Not everyone!" A voice called out from the back of the crowd. In the sudden hush the captain of the king’s guard pushed his way through the crowd, creating a path for the men who followed him. Several guards were supporting three wounded men with a man in the robes of a healer following them. The crowd quickly cleared a place for them and the healer set to work.
"Can they tell us what happened?" Hercules questioned the captain.
"They’ve already told some," the captain replied absently. "Apparently it was the work of a group of bandits we’ve been hearing about for the last few days. This is the first time that anyone has survived one of their ambushes." Hercules watched as the man smiled grimly, "Now we’ll finally have descriptions of them and we’ll have better luck catching the bastards.. and then…"
"We can describe them for you, Captain," one of the injured men spoke up, "and we want to be there when you go after them."
"You just worry about getting well," the captain told him. "Giving us a description is going to be help enough." Pulling up a chair the captain prepared to get the information he had been wanting for so long.
"Mind if I listen in?" Hercules sat down across the table from the two.
"What business is it of yours, stranger?" The captain replied suspiciously. "Unless you’re planning on warning them…"
"No, I want to help you stop what’s going on around here," Hercules answered. "Oh, and the name is Hercules."
"Hercules, huh?" The captain eyed him skeptically. "Guess you may be some help." Turning to the wounded man, he urged, "Go on tell us what we need to know." Taking a deep breath, the man began to tell his story.
Iolaus was worried. Nothing had gone right since he had gotten to Petras and the strange way Hercules had been behaving was only part of it. Iolaus had another pounding headache. They seemed to be coming more and more often and taking longer to go away. Iolaus tried to distract himself from the pain by concentrating on his relationship with Hercules, but that just seemed to make his headache worse. The more he thought about it, the more depressed he became. ‘Why has he been acting so strange towards me?’ He was so lost in his own feelings and pain that he wasn’t paying much attention to the road.
As he rounded the next bend, the sight that greeted him wasn’t pleasant. Raiders had attacked a small caravan. Bodies littered the ground and he could see two men working their way among them insuring that there would be no survivors. Three other men were surrounding a young woman, one holding a knife to her throat. As her frightened green eyes met his, he could read a silent plea for help. Iolaus felt an unfamiliar rage well up and before he realized what he was doing he had charged the three men holding the girl.
Sights and sounds became a blur for Iolaus, all of his concentration centered on the battle at hand. He was vaguely aware of the girl freeing herself from the man holding her and he dimly sensed when the other two men joined the fight. He didn’t remember drawing his sword, and was surprise to find himself blocking a thrust with it. He was puzzled by the distance he felt from the battle.. as if he wasn’t truly involved. His confusion quickly became alarm when he barely managed to keep himself from killing one of the attackers. Most unsettling of all was the feeling of joy that rose up in him at the sight of the man’s blood. Iolaus froze in shock as a feeling of regret welled up inside him when he realized the man would live. ‘What is WRONG with me?!?!’ The horrified thought echoed through his mind.
Iolaus was so wrapped up in his conflicting emotions that he didn’t realize one of the bandits had regained consciousness until it was almost too late. Only his body’s well honed reactions saved him, jerking him backwards out of range of the slash. As it was, the man still managed to open a nasty gash on his forehead. Pain made him dizzy and he was only vaguely aware of dealing with his attacker.
When his head finally cleared, he found himself alone with the girl. The remnants of the small caravan and its attackers were nowhere in sight. "Hold still, Iolaus, I’m almost finished." Iolaus winced but stayed perfectly still as the girl finished cleaning his wound.
He was puzzled and curious, and when she reached down to tear another strip from her skirt to act as a bandage, he began to question her. "How do you know my name?"
The girl paused and gave him a quizzical look, "You told me, don’t you remember?"
"No," Iolaus searched his memory in vain. "I’m sorry," he smiled ruefully, "I don’t even remember if you told me your name."
"It’s Alkippe." She was smiling at him, but her green eyes where clouded with worry. "I think you had better come home with me. That wound must be worse than I thought."
Iolaus shook his head, wincing as the morning’s headache began a dull throbbing again. "Thank you for the offer, Alkippe, but I really need to get to Atraeca."
"Then you have no excuse, Iolaus," she stated emphatically. "My home is just outside of the city." Straightening, she offered to help him up.
"Well, I can at least make sure you get home safely then." Smiling, Iolaus took her hand and quickly pulled himself to his feet. A little too quickly he realized as the world spun dizzily and he stumbled. Alkippe steadied him. As the world righted itself, Iolaus became aware of the warm feel of Alkippe’s body against him and the spicy scent of her raven hair. Jerking back he almost over-balanced himself again, but Alkippe managed to keep him upright.
Iolaus smiled ruefully. "Thanks for the help. I’ll be all right now," he said as he released his hold on her.
"Sure you will," she agreed. "As soon as I get you home and get a healer to see to that head of yours." She suited actions to words, turning so that she was beside him and placing an arm around his waist. Before he could utter a sound, she had grabbed his arm and placed it across her shoulders.
"This really isn’t necessary!" Iolaus protested reluctantly, enjoying the feel of her against him. She blithely ignored him and began to walk toward Atraeca. Forced to move with her or try to fight free of her, Iolaus gave in and started forward. Opening his mouth to voice another protest, he was silenced by a sharp glance. Sighing, Iolaus resigned himself to the situation, not entirely unhappy with it.
As they walked along, Iolaus had a chance to study Alkippe. She was a couple of inches taller than he and her willowy body belied her strength. Her raven black mane was held away from her eyes by a braided leather band around her forehead. The glittering emerald green eyes kept watch on the trail ahead. Periodically she would glance at him, once she caught him starring at her and the look in her eyes caused Iolaus to flush slightly in embarrassment. He looked away from her, but could still feel her gaze on him. Finally risking another quick glance he was surprised by a look of amusement on her face.
Feeling a bit uncomfortable, Iolaus cleared his throat and tried to break the spell by talking. "So, uh, Alkippe, where was the caravan headed?" Feeling her stiffen slightly at the question, Iolaus glanced at her and was shocked. Her face had become a smooth, unreadable mask, the eyes distant and almost cold. He shivered slightly at the sight of it.
His involuntary shiver seemed to reach her and she quickly shook her head, coming back from wherever she had been. Smiling sadly at him, she said, "I’m sorry, Iolaus, memories of the caravan are… not pleasant." She paused for a moment then went on, "But you deserve to know."
She paused again and Iolaus quietly waited, letting her take her time with the tale. Finally she drew a deep breath and began, "The caravan was headed for Atraeca. It was sent from Petras. King Emion sent it to King Doras as a gesture of goodwill. He hoped that it would help to mend the rift that is developing between the two countries."
Iolaus interrupted her as a thought occurred to him, "Wait a minute.. Didn’t you tell me you live just outside Atraeca? What were you doing with a caravan from Petras?"
Alkippe smiled sadly, "King Emion was kind enough to offer me a place in the caravan. He thought it would be safer for me than traveling alone." She smiled bitterly at the irony. "Instead it nearly caused my death."
"You’re safe now," Iolaus assured her, trying to ease some of the pain.
"Thanks to you, I am," she replied softly.
Iolaus started to ask her another question, but his earlier headache chose that moment to violently reassert itself. Iolaus moaned, doubling over and clutching his head as the pain stabbed through his skull. He was vaguely aware of Alkippe speaking but couldn’t make out what she was saying. His surroundings faded away in a haze of pain and he was grateful for the surcease offered by oblivion when it came.
"I saw ‘em!" an old man exclaimed, pushing his way to the front of the crowd. He had a bandage wrapped around his head and one arm was splinted and held in a sling. "Actin’ like lovers, they were. Her tendin’ to his wounds. Then the two of them huggin’ and goin’ off t’gether wi’ their arms ‘round each other! Celebratin’ their vict’ry, they was!! Prob’ly countin’ all the men they’d killed too!"
"You saw them together?" Hercules questioned. "After the battle? So you can describe them right?"
The old man nodded grimly, "Yes, suh, I seen ‘um. Seen ‘um plain as I see you now. An' I’m here to tell ye that t’other’s ‘scribed him well. Right gold’n devil he was.. wi’ that yellow hair flying n’ his sword flashin’. Killin’ folk right n’ left." The old man paused and drew a shaky breath as the memories played over in his mind. "They got’s ta pay for what they’s done!"
"Don’t worry," Hercules reassured him. "Whoever did this will pay for it. I’ll find them somehow and they will be brought to justice." At these words, the old man looked up and caught his eyes.
For a moment Hercules thought he saw a gleam of triumph, but the man’s next words caused him to forget everything else, "I know who done this thing.. or least wise I know who one of ‘em was!!" he hissed vindictively. "The man was here, in Kilos’ inn, not two days ago. Stirrin’ up trouble e’en then!"
"Metras!" The captain of the king’s guard pushed through the crowd and grabbed the old man by the shoulder. "You know who it was? Tell me!" he demanded impatiently.
"Hold on!" Hercules interrupted, grabbing the captain’s arm and forcing him to let go of the old man. "Give him a chance to speak." Turning back to the frightened man, Hercules quietly urged him to continue, "Go on. You were saying that this man was here, in Kilos’ inn, two days ago?"
"Yes, suh, Hercules," Metras continued, shooting a quick glance at the guard captain. "He was here all right. Started a fight wi’ a couple a the youngins over one o’ the servin’ wenches. Beat the tar out a them boys n’ then took off wi’ the girl." At these words a sullen murmur ran threw the gathered crowd. "One o’ my own youngin’s saw the girl next mornin’ n’ she weren’t lookin’ none too happy ‘bout the night, neither." Hercules could hear people in the crowd whispering to each other as the old man’s story continued. He had a feeling that some of them had either heard of this man or had enountered him themselves.
"So that was the last anyone saw of him?" Hercules prodded Metras to continue, "No suh.. Fellow came back t’ the inn that mornin’. Waltzed in, cocky as you please, kind a darin’ us to take ‘im on. Then, bold as brass, he calls Ilea o’r to him n’ starts tellin’ ev’rone there what all he done wi’ her the night before." An ugly rumble ran through the crowd at these words. Even though the sound made Hercules uneasy, he couldn’t bring himself to blame them for their anger. This man sounded like a true bastard and Hercules knew he would enjoy bringing him to justice. Metras’ next words simply confirmed that feeling as he said, "The fellow jus’ sat there grinnin at Ilea and enjoyin her shame. Then he starts in tellin’ her what he expects from her that night! I tell ya, 'twas enough ta make a man’s blood boil, t’ way he was treatin’ her!" The old man paused, rage and remembered helplessness clouding his face, then he smiled suddenly. "That Ilea, she’s got spunk, that girl. When he started in to tellin’ her ta be waitin fer ‘im, she lit into him. Plumb dumped a full pitcher a ale ov’r top o’ the man! Hehe! Yes suh, Ilea, she left ‘im sittin’ there sputterin’ in his own juices, she did!"
As the man’s story had continued, Hercules had begun to recognize some disturbing similarities to the tale Iolaus had told him. When Metras spoke of the girl dumping the pitcher of ale, he was positive he knew what the answer to his next question would be. Hardly daring to hope that he might be wrong, Hercules asked, "Do you know what the man’s name is?" He held his breath, waiting with growing dread for the answer he knew was coming.
"Yes, suh, I do. He called hisself Iolaus!"
The sound of Iolaus’ name felt like a blow to the stomach. Hercules turned away from the old man and blindly stumbled to a bench in the corner. His mind whirling with incoherent thoughts Hercules was only half-aware of someone standing over him. All he could do was sit there, numbly trying to deny what he had heard and asking an endless, agonizing, ‘Why? Why, Iolaus?’
The sound of a throat being cleared brought him back enough to see the mug of wine being forced into his hand, "Here, drink. You look like you could use this." A voice gruffly told him. Looking up he saw Kilos staring athim, concern written all over his face. Seeing that he finally had Hercules’ attention, he continued, "You just stay right there and drink that. I’ll clear all these folks outta here and then you and I will talk."
Hercules watched for a moment as Kilos marched over to the guard captain and pulled the man aside. A few words were all it took before the captain nodded. Turning to the crowd, the captain began to give orders for his squad to bring the survivors to the king’s palace. Under his urging the crowd quickly dispersed, some following him and his men to the palace, others racing off to spread the tale to anyone who hadn’t heard.
Kilos nodded in satisfaction as the room quickly cleared, then ducked behind the bar. When he came out a moment later, he was carrying a bottle of wine and a second cup. Marching over, he seated himself across from Hercules, filled his cup from the bottle and proceeded to drink it all in one gulp. "Ahhh," Kilos sighed. "After news like that, a man can use a good drink." He poured himself another cup and started to refill the one that Hercules was holding. When he realized that the cup had not been touched he frowned, "Drink up man! A bit of wine wont hurt you, n’ it will take the edge off whatever is botherin’ you."
Realizing that Kilos wasn’t going to leave him alone until he at least drank part of the wine in his cup, Hercules took a large swallow and Kilos beamed at him. "There now, you see, a bit of wine doesn’t hurt anything!" Refilling Hercules' cup he settled back, "Now, my friend, something about the attack on the caravan is troubling you. And I’m guessing it has something to do with that little fellow Metras was talking about." He paused, waiting for Hercules to comment. He sighed when Hercules remained silent and continued, "Seems to me, I remember that fellow claiming to be a friend of yours when he came here. Claimed he was supposed to be meeting you here." Again he paused, then, "Also seem to remember seeing you and him together yesterday too. Looked to me like the two of you were arguing." Kilos paused then tried one final goad, "Guess he was lying about being your friend. Guess the man is nothing but a liar."
"Iolaus is NOT a liar!" Hercules growled.
"Well, maybe you don’t know him as well as you think," Kilos reasoned.
"I know Iolaus as well as I know myself! We’ve been best friends since we were kids!" Hercules protested. Kilos said nothing, just stared at him. Hercules became increasingly uncomfortable under that stare as the silence lengthened. "What?" he finally demanded.
Kilos shook his head and stood up to leave. Pausing briefly he asked one final question, "If you know him that well, why do you believe Metras’ story?" With that Kilos turned to take care of the people who'd wandered in, leaving a stunned Hercules to sit staring after him.
‘Why do you believe…’ The question kept repeating itself in Hercules’ mind and as hard as he tried to deny it, it wouldn’t go away. Finally he had to face it truthfully. Yes, there was a small part of him that doubted Iolaus, and that part was ready to believe that his friend could do what Metras had said.
‘After all,’ a little voice whispered to him, ‘Iolaus betrayed you once before… how do you know he won’t again? Remember your dream?’
‘NO! I will not believe that Iolaus would betray me!’ Hercules angrily denied the insidious little voice. ‘Someone is setting him up and I’m going to find out why!’
The newcomers quickly cleared a path for the scowling demi-god as he strode out of the inn and no one heard the ominous laughter that followed his departure.
Iolaus woke with a pounding headache to find himself manacled to a rough stone wall. The last thing he remembered was escorting a young woman named Alkippe to her home after he’d rescued her from an attack by some brigands. He had taken a light wound but it hadn’t seemed serious. They had been talking about the attack and then.. nothing. Iolaus tried to concentrate but another shaft of pain caused him to groan.
"It seems our ‘guest’ is awake, my lord," a woman's voice cut through his pain and confusion. Iolaus heard someone approaching. His head was pounding harder than ever but he forced himself to open his eyes. It took all of his concentration to focus on the figure in front of him.
"Ares," he hissed. "Hercules was right, you’re the one causing all of the problems here."
Ares’ laughed. "I’m surprised my dear brother figured it out so quickly, but it doesn’t matter, there is nothing he can do to stop me."
"Herc will find a way to stop you and I’ll help him." Iolaus was confident that Hercules would find him soon.
"Why would Hercules want help from the one who betrayed him?" Ares’ taunted.
"You’ll never get me to betray Hercules!" Iolaus ground out defiantly glaring at Ares.
The woman spoke again in a cold hard voice and this time Iolaus recognized it. "You already have, Iolaus," grinning at him in triumph, Alkippe gloated. "You were so easy to fool. You never guessed that it was I who was helping Ares. And now, thanks to your help, Hercules will be destroyed!" Iolaus stirred uneasily as her laughter rang out. "How Hercules must be suffering… knowing that his best friend lied to him, deceived him… and then betrayed him!" Alkippe’s eyes gleamed with an unholy joy as she continued, "Shall I tell you about it, Iolaus? Shall I tell you how the directions you gave Hercules led him into an ambush?"
At this Iolaus laughed defiantly, "It would take more than an ambush to stop Hercules! And he wouldn't believe I'd deliberately send him into one!" The room rang with Ares’ and Alkippe’s laughter. Iolaus felt the uneasiness in the pit of his stomach increase at their reaction.
"Foolish mortal, did you really believe I would allow you to learn something of my true plans so easily?" Ares moved in close to Iolaus. "Of course he'll believe! When my servant has described the leader of my army to perfection… fetch Bruiach here." Ares ordered one of the guards before turning back to Iolaus. "You have served me very well!"
"I will NEVER serve you, Ares!" Iolaus growled. "Herc will survive your ambush and when he finds me missing he’ll come after me."
"I’m sure he will," Ares agreed smugly, "but how will he feel when he learns that you arranged the ambush?"
"You’ll never convince Herc that I set him up!"
Ares laughed at Iolaus’ confidence. "I have no need to convince him, ‘you’ will do that for me."
"NEVER," Iolaus spat at Ares as he turned away toward the door. "Never is a very long time, Iolaus," Ares paused, "and I have all the time I need." As he spoke someone entered the room behind him. Turning Ares said, "Ahhh, Bruiach, it's time you meet the man you've been impersonating."
Iolaus stared in shock as Ares stepped aside. The man standing there was… himself. A perfect replica right down to the patches on the vest and the medallion that hung around his neck. Scowling the man turned to Ares, "He don't look like much, my lord Ares. Ya want I should get rid of him fer ya?"
"Actually Bruiach I have other plans for Iolaus… you however, well, we can't have Hercules finding two of him, now can we?" As the frightened man backed away stuttering protests, Ares raised his hand and a bolt of energy shot into him. Within moments there was nothing left but ashes. "Now that I have the real thing, he was no longer necessary," he stated with a wicked grin. With a final glance at Alkippe he faded away. "Take good care of him, my dear. I will return shortly."
"You are wrong, you know," Alkippe calmly stated. "You are already serving my lord Ares." She raised her eyebrows in mock surprise at his silent denial. "Oh, but it’s true. And soon even Hercules will know it."
"Hercules knows that I would never serve Ares." Iolaus stated confidently.
"Does he?" Alkippe asked slyly. "Will he still believe that when the caravan’s survivors reach Petras and begin to tell their tale?" Seeing the confusion in Iolaus’ eyes, Alkippe smiled nastily. "Oh yes, did you think that we would rely on an ambush? Ares knew it wouldn’t succeed, it was never intended too." With mounting horror, Iolaus listened as Alkippe explained their plans.
"The king of Petras sent a caravan to Atraeca in hopes of restoring the friendship between the two kingdoms. Too bad it never reached its destination. Poor little king.. he will never know how he played into our hands…" Alkippe laughed nastily. "The idea might have worked if it hadn’t been for you, Iolaus. Oh, don’t look so surprised, my friend, don’t you remember what you’ve done? I’m sure those guards will remember your attack very clearly." Immediately Iolaus mind flashed back to his first sight of Alkippe. "Ahhh.. good.. I see you DO remember. Yes, Iolaus, that was the caravan." Alkippe paused thoughtfully. "I’m sure those guards have made it to Petras by now and are telling everyone how you berated me for nearly getting myself captured and spoiling your plans."
"Whaa… I never said anything like that!" Iolaus protested.
"Oh but you did!" she assured him. Abruptly she changed the subject. "How is your head, Iolaus?"
"My head?" Iolaus was confused by the sudden change.
"Yes," Alkippe smiled. "You’ve been having such terrible headaches lately."
"How do you…"
"Know about those?" Alkippe laughed and turned to a nearby table. Iolaus watched warily as she poured water into a mug then brought it over to him. "Thirsty, Iolaus?" she asked in false solicitude as she held the mug up to his mouth. The odor rising from the mug raised his suspicions and he refused, turning his head away. "Now, now.. you really must take your ‘medicine’, Iolaus." Alkippe paused and looked at the mug with a frown. "I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with plain water this time… Ares doesn’t see any need to waste good ale."
"This time?" Iolaus repeated suspiciously, then a grim possibility occurred to him. "You’ve been poisoning me. That’s what’s been causing my headaches, but how?"
"How was the easy part," Alkippe shrugged. "I simply laced your flask." She moved back to the table, setting down the mug and holding up a vial. Alkippe lightly caressed the vial and then looked back at Iolaus. "It’s not poison, Iolaus. Oh no.. that would be too easy and Hercules wouldn’t suffer enough. No, this is much better. You see, Iolaus, the potion in this vial causes its victim to lie." Smiling Alkippe moved close. Removing the stopper from the vial she lightly caressed his jaw as she continued, "The beauty of it, Iolaus, is that its victim doesn’t even know he’s lying."
The odor of the potion was strong in his nostrils and Iolaus couldn’t stop the shiver of revulsion that shook him as she mimicked a lover’s caress. Alkippe laughed lightly, enjoying his reactions. "You still don’t understand, do you? You have been lying to your best friend for days now!" She sighed. "It’s been such a pleasure to watch Hercules. To see the pain he is going through… a pity it will all be over so soon now, but the end will be so exquisite!"
Iolaus was shaking with a confused range of emotions. Fear for Hercules battled with a helpless rage over how they were using him. "The two of you won’t win. Hercules will figure out what you’re doing and then it will be over."
"Will he?" Alkippe was amused. "Or will he believe the witness of his own eyes… when he sees you leading the attack against him?"
Iolaus laughed defiantly. "You’ll never force me to do that!"
"Poor dear, Iolaus," Alkippe sighed with false concern. "You really are very slow aren’t you?" Gently brushing his hair off of his forehead, she continued, "You see, you really wont have any choice. The effects of the potion are cumulative, and I’m afraid they become permanent after a while." With those words she grabbed Iolaus’ hair and savagely yanked his head back. With her free hand she motioned one of the guards forward, trading the vial for the mug of water she’d offered Iolaus earlier. In a cold, deadly voice she ordered him to drink.
Iolaus clenched his jaw and braced himself, refusing. Through half-closed eyes, he saw a feral grin spread over her face as she stepped back slightly and motioned again to the guard. Before Iolaus knew what was happening, the man drove a punch into his stomach, slamming him back against the rock wall and leaving him gasping for breathe. Alkippe moved with the speed of a striking snake, forcing his head back again and pouring the water into his mouth. Choking, Iolaus tried to spit it out but she relentlessly poured more in. Finally the mug was empty and she released him.
Panting, Iolaus slumped against the wall, trying to get his breath back. "Very good, my dear." The sound of Ares voice startled him and he opened his eyes to find the god of war once more before him.
"How many more doses will he require?" Alkippe questioned.
"Before it becomes permanent?" Ares studied Iolaus for a moment. "Two or three more should do it." Then seeing Alkippe’s frown, he continued, "ahhh.. I see.. You’re wondering about the other effects of the potion." Turning back, Ares captured Iolaus’ gaze with his own. Iolaus shivered as his awareness spun dizzily and he seemed to feel a cold slimy presence enter his mind.
With a satisfied smile, Ares reassured Alkippe, "This dose will be enough for our purposes right now." Ares smiled as her delighted laughter rang out.
"How soon until it takes full effect?" she asked impatiently.
"A few hours, have patience, my dear Alkippe."
"Effect?" Iolaus’ puzzled question interrupted their gloating.
"Oh yes.. didn’t Alkippe tell you.. I have discovered another useful side effect of this drug." Seeing the puzzlement still on Iolaus’ face Ares continued, "When a mortal consumes the potion, he becomes susceptible to, how shall I put this, ‘outside’ influences.." Ares laughed, enjoying the look of dawning horror in Iolaus. "Yes, I see you begin to understand. Soon, you will be mine to control. You have consumed enough of the drug now and this time my control over you will be total." Alkippe echoed Ares’ mocking laughter as they both enjoyed his horror and revulsion.
Iolaus’ mind whirled chaotically but one thought dominated all the others, he had to find a way to warn Herc. Taking all his weight on his wrists, Iolaus twisted and kicked out at Ares with both feet. It was a desperate gamble, but if he could get them to leave he might find a way to free himself. He didn’t even see the blow that slammed him back against the wall and pinned him there as the guards moved in. Iolaus grunted, but refused to utter a word as the guards beat him.
"HOLD!" At Ares’ command the guards moved back to their places leaving a battered Iolaus slumped against the wall.
Ares reached out and grasped Iolaus’ hair, forcing him to look up. Once again their eyes locked and Iolaus felt the intruder in his mind. He shuddered as Ares released him with a satisfied smile. "Soon you will no longer resist me, Iolaus, and when the effects of the potion become permanent you will be mine forever!" With those final words Ares gestured, he and Alkippe disappeared. Only a mocking echo of their laughter remaining to remind Iolaus of his fate.
It didn’t take Hercules long to find the site of the ambush. The caravan had been less than a day’s journey from Atraeca. Bodies had been left where they had fallen, the wagons and carts still smoldering. Everything matched with the survivor’s descriptions. Here and there the bodies of bandits attested to the fact that the caravan had fought back. Hercules searched the wreckage, searching for clues to the attackers and hoping he would find some sign of Iolaus. ‘Where are you, my friend?’ Hercules wondered. ‘Did you pass this way before the attack?’
The burned out carts could provide no clues so he turned instead to the bodies. Those of the guards and ambassadors provided none of the information he was seeking, but when he turned to the first of the bandits he found more than he had bargained for. As he turned the man over he caught sight of a crude medallion the man had been wearing. With a shaking hand he reached for it, he couldn’t believe what his eyes where telling him. There in his hand was a crude wooden copy of the very medallion that Iolaus wore. A quick check of the other bandits showed him that they too wore crude replicas. Try as he would to deny it, here was still more proof that the old man had been telling the truth, Iolaus was involved.
Memories of the encounter in the village square, of Iolaus telling him he couldn’t come with Hercules but unwilling to give a reason, played through Hercules mind. There had been something wrong that Iolaus hadn’t wanted to talk about then. He had put it down to Iolaus being ill and not wanting him to know. Iolaus was one of the worst liars Hercules had ever met, it seemed to go against his very nature, so how could he have hidden this from him. When had he changed? And what had caused it?
"Come on, Hercules! Get a grip!" he chastised himself. "You know Iolaus can’t be responsible for this! Someone has to be setting him up!" He glanced down at the medallion he carried. "And doing a very good job of it. It has to be Ares.. and he’s trying to make me believe that Iolaus has turned on me, but why?"
A muffled sound from some nearby bushes caught Hercules’ attention. "Whoever you are, come out of there!" Silence greeted his demand. Thinking it might be another survivor Hercules tried again, "It’s safe to come out now, the bandits are gone." Still not receiving an answer he tried once more, "I wont hurt you. My name is Hercules."
"Her.. Hercules?" The voice was faint and wavering but it was enough to allow Hercules to pinpoint the location of the speaker. Pushing through the thick brush he finally spotted him. An older man, he had been badly wounded and obviously dragged himself into the bushes to hide in case the bandits returned. In two strides Hercules was at his side. Gently he raised him up and helped him to turn over. Then he received another shock. "Metras?" he whispered, once again doubting what his eyes where telling him.
"Do I know you?" the old man whispered.
"No.." Hercules reassured him. "I just met someone who looks a lot like you today."
"Here." Hercules held Metras as a coughing fit shook him, then offered a drink of water from his flask.
"Thanks." Metras sounded a bit stronger. "You goin’ after them fellas what done this?"
"I plan on it," Hercules promised. "Is there anything you can tell me about them?"
"Not much," Metras answered, "but I’ll tell you what I can."
"I’m sure anything you tell me will help," Hercules assured him.
"Well suh, I’s the driver fer the lead wagon. Weren’t much to it mind ye, them hosses is smart.. just point ‘em in the d’rection you want ‘um to go and they’ll take ye there. Dang soljers should oughta ha’ listen to me an the other drivers when we telled ‘em sumthin was wrong. The hosses they got all spooked, started actin all skittery. Shyin’ at ghosts the soljers said, but we know’d different.." Metras paused glaring with remembered ire.
"I’m sure the soldiers will listen more closely in the future." Hercules tried to calm the old man.
"Hmmmph, well, that’s as maybe." Metras grunted, then continued, "Anyways, tweren’t long afore them bandits came out the bushes at us. Screechin’ and hollerin’ and killin’ evr’one in sight. I gots hit by an arrer early on, plum knocked me clean off my seat it did. Then the danged hosses near trampled me." Metras paused a look of shame on his face. "I aint no soljer, Herc'les. I’s jus’ an old carter what done got dragged into driven’ one o’ them carts for King Emion."
"It’s ok, Metras," Hercules reassured him. "There’s no shame in not fighting back when you don’t know how."
"Well, them bandits didn’t seem to be in no mind to take pris’ners, no suh. They was killen’ ever’thin’ that moved. So I’s thought to meself, Metras, you best be gett’n yourself to a hidey hole or you’s gonna be next. Managed to drag m’self this far. Wasn’t able to see much a wha’ was goin’ on but I sure did hear it. The guards had done managed to beat off most of them there bandits.. even caught they’selves one. Bit of a girl from what they said."
"A girl??" Hercules questioned in surprise. "I thought these bandits where lead by a man?"
"Don’t rightly know about that," Metras stated. "See afore the guards could make the girl tell ‘um an’thin’ this man done showed up. Ain't rightly sure what side he was on.. From ta sound I think he thought he was rescuein’ the girl. Fought like a demon he did too. Before them remaining guards knew what was what they was down an he and t’girl were headed off down the road."
"So Iolaus wasn’t leading them," Hercules whispered to himself, relief at the news foremost in his mind.
"You know that feller?" Metras questioned.
"Yes, I think it’s my friend Iolaus, I was afraid.. uh.. well, I was worried about him when I heard of the ambush." Hercules hesitated about telling the whole truth. "I knew he had been headed this way, I’m just glad to know he’s safe."
"Don’t know how safe he’s gonna be, young fella," Metras eyed him with concern. "That there girl was a bad ‘un."
"And now Iolaus is with her," Hercules finished the thought.
A spasm shook Metras body and he moaned. When it finally released him, he looked up at Hercules. "Don’ know how much longer I gots, boy, but there’s sumthin’ you all needs to know.." He gritted his teeth as pain lanced through him again, "That girl… she.."
"Yes?" Hercules prompted.
"She were.. a wearin’.. the symbol o’…" Metras body arched as a final spasm shook him.
"Who?" Herc asked desperately. "Who’s symbol was she wearing? Metras??"
Fighting the pain, Metras forced one final word, "Ares…." Then he collapsed in Hercules arms.
Gently Hercules lowered the old man to the ground and closed the sightless eyes. Fear and concern for Iolaus were warring with the grief he felt for this old man’s senseless death. "ARES!" he screamed at the uncaring forest surrounding him, "you will pay for this!! I swear it!!!"
Pain that was the first thing Iolaus knew as he woke. His arms felt dipped in fire, his ribs and stomach ached from blows, but worst of all was the pounding in his head. For a long time he couldn’t remember where he was, or what had happened to him. It took several minutes for him to concentrate enough to use the mind control techniques he had learned in the east. Even then the pain in his head was stilling nagging at his awareness but at least now he could think, and remember. And those memories filled him with fear, fear for himself, if what Ares and Alkippe had said was true, then he was fighting for his very soul, but mostly fear for Hercules. Ares’ plan would use him to destroy Hercules if he couldn’t find a way to stop him.
‘Got to concentrate, Iolaus,’ he encouraged himself. ‘One thing at a time. First you’ve got to get yourself out of here and then warn Hercules. After that..’ Iolaus didn’t want to finish the thought. He knew what he needed to do then. Get as far from Herc as possible and find a way to die before Ares could totally take control and use him against Hercules. Not a pleasant prospect either way. ‘So don’t think about it, Iolaus, worry about getting out of here and warning Herc, you can worry about.. what comes next.. later.’
Forcing himself to ignore the pain, he began to work on regaining the use of his hands. Little by little he felt the life returning to them. Finally he had enough of the feeling back and he examined the cuffs and chain holding them above his head. He could see the lock that closed them, but he would need something to pick it with. Something.. The sound of the cell door opening broke into his mental search.
"Ilea!" Iolaus couldn’t believe his eyes as he saw who had entered his cell.
Carrying a tray of food, which she carefully placed on the table before turning back to the guard. "There is no need for you to remain in here," she spoke quietly. "He is unable to harm me. Lord Ares has made sure of that."
The guard grunted his assent. "I’ll be right out side," he told her gruffly, "call when you want out." He closed the door as she nodded her assent and turned back to the table.
As soon as the guard was out of the room Iolaus spoke quietly, "Ilea, what are you doing here? Please, I need your help!"
"Help you?!?" Ilea finally looked at him, eyes blazing with hatred. "Why should I help you? You are the one who forced me to come here, Lord Bruiach!"
"But I’m not Bruiach!" Iolaus protested. "My name is Iolaus! Don’t you remember? I helped you at the inn."
"Whatever you say, my lord," Iolaus could hear the contempt in her voice.
"It’s true, you’ve got to believe me," Iolaus tried to persuade her to listen to him.
"Truth!" she replied scornfully. "What would you know of truth? You promised to leave my family alone if I came with you, but that was a lie! Ares told me how they died!" She turned and glared at him. "And he told me who was responsible for their deaths!"
"Ilea, please, you must believe me," Iolaus desperately tried to convince her. "I'm not Lord Bruiach." Seeing her skeptical expression he hurried to continue, "Ares made him look just like me. It's part of his plan to destroy Hercules."
"Hercules, huh?" Ilea picked up the mug from the tray and moved towards him. "Your stories get better and better, Lord Bruiach!"
"Please, Ilea, you have to believe me," Iolaus pleaded with her. "Ares found someone who looked just like me, or made him, I'm not sure which.. He set this whole thing up so everyone would believe I was Bruiach."
"You really believe what you're saying, don't you?" Ilea stared at him in wonder for a moment, then glanced down at the cup in her hand. Iolaus could see she was thinking and he held his breath waiting. Finally she glanced back up at him. "If what you say is true, then where is this other Bruiach?" she challenged.
Iolaus felt his heart sink at her question but answered with the truth. "Ares destroyed him after he captured me. He's going to force me to take his place unless you help me."
The skepticism was back in her eyes as she asked, "So what happened to the body then?"
"It's uh, over there." Iolaus tried to indicate the location with his head.
"Where?" Ilea questioned, her skepticism showing in her voice, "I don't see anything except a pile of dust."
"Well, uh, you see, that pile of dust is all that's left." Iolaus knew things where going down hill fast and he was quickly losing all credibility.
"This!" Ilea's voice was full of scorn as she stalked over to the pile. "What do you take me for? A fool? You expect me to believe that this," she kicked at the pile of dust, "is all that's left of Bruiach's body?" She jumped as her kick dislodged an object and it skittered across the floor.
"What is it?" Iolaus questioned as she slowly bent down and picked up the object. Slowly she held it up, her eyes glancing from it to the medallion that still hung around Iolaus neck. Iolaus couldn't believe his own eyes. The medallion she was holding looked identical to his own. He watched as she turned it over and examined the back.
Finally she looked up at him with a troubled expression, "This IS Bruiach's medallion, all his men wear crude copies of it." Iolaus didn't say anything as she slowly reached out and lifted his own medallion. Turning it over she examined the back frowning.
Finally as she held the two side by side he couldn't take the silence any longer. "What is it?"
As she looked up at him he saw the beginning of belief in her eyes and wondered what it was about the medallions that had convinced her. "I know this is the medallion Bruiach wore," she said slowly turning it over and showing him the back. There was Ares' symbol engraved in the stone.
"Do you believe me now?" Iolaus hardly dared to hope. Ilea turned away and walked over to the table without answering. "Ilea?"
She stared at the contents of the tray for several minutes before finally turning to face him. "I don't understand any of this," she drew in a shaky breath before continuing, "but I do believe you. I don't know what I can do to help though."
Iolaus nearly collapsed his relief was so great. "Do you have anything that I could use to pick these locks?" Iolaus was tempted to cross his fingers for luck as he waited for her answer.
"Like what?" Ilea looked at him blankly.
"Well, a small knife," Ilea just arched an eyebrow at him and waited for him to continue.
"Oh, yeah right." Iolaus said sheepishly. "Well, anything small and fairly straight would work. It has to be fairly stiff though. Metal would be best." He watched as Ilea turned thoughtfully to look at the nearly barren room. He'd already looked it over as well as he could from his position, but maybe she could see something he'd missed.
The room didn't present many possibilities; the walls were rough stone and the only other metal he could see were more sets of iron cuffs spaced around the walls. The only item not of stone or metal was the small wooden table that was in one corner and he didn't think Ilea had the strength to break it up into a small enough piece. The sound of her trying would also be likely to bring the guards running and that would just mean more trouble, for both of them. Iolaus tried to resign himself to the idea that Ilea was going to have to leave him there and try to find something elsewhere.
"Iolaus?" He was startled to see a triumphant expression on Ilea's face as she turned to him. "Will this do?" She held up a long iron nail that she had pried out of the table. It was slightly crooked but Iolaus couldn't help thinking it was the most perfect nail he had ever seen.
"That's perfect!" He grinned at her as she brought it to him. It took a bit of concentration for him to maneuver it properly but soon enough he was rewarded with a click and one of the cuffs opened. A few moments more and his other wrist was free. He couldn't stop grinning as he turned back to Ilea. "Now to get out of this place!"
"What about the guards? This room is locked and they have the only key." Ilea looked a little uncertain about what to do next.
"Weren't you supposed to call the guard when you where finished?" As she nodded Iolaus continued, "Ok, you do that."
"But the guard will see that you aren't chained up anymore!" Ilea protested.
"Don't worry! I've got an idea!" Iolaus assured her. "I'm going to be here behind the door, when the guard comes you pretend that you still see me chained there, ok?" Ilea eyed him doubtfully as he took up his position behind the door, but when he motioned her to call for the guard she took a deep breath and called out.
Iolaus' plan worked perfectly. The guard had glanced in through the door before unlocking it and demanded to know where he was. Ilea was brilliant as she tried to convince the guard that she saw him there still chained to the wall. Finally the guard had had to check for himself. He'd opened the door and stepped inside and Iolaus had jumped him. In moments the guard was unconscious on the floor and Iolaus had his sword. He grinned at Ilea in triumph then cautiously poked his head around the door to check for more guards. When he turned back he was surprised to see Ilea bundling up the food on the table.
"What are you doing, Ilea?"
She looked at him in surprise. "You need food and drink Iolaus, you've been here a day without either." She held the mug out to him. "Here, you should drink this before we go."
"No," Iolaus instinctively jerked away from the mug remember what it contained before and how he'd ended up here. "I'm fine, Ilea, I'll get food and water once I'm out of this place."
As she started to protest he took the mug from her and dumped the contents on the floor, then grabbing her hand, he lead her out of the cell, closing the door behind him. Feeling more hopeful with every moment, he locked the guard in the room then tucked the key in his waistband.
"Why are you doing that?" Ilea asked anxiously. "Hadn't we better get going?"
"Sure," Iolaus looked around, "but which way is out? I don't even know where I am."
Ilea smiled bitterly. "Don't worry, I know my way around here now. This place is a maze of passages." Turning, she headed down one of the torch lit corridors. They hadn't gone far when she stopped and took an unlit torch from a supply of replacements. She motioned for him to stay quiet as she moved toward a narrow opening a few feet away. Iolaus followed her blindly, carefully feeling his way down the passage. They had gone past several turns when Ilea finally stopped and lit the torch she carried. "There, we're past any opening where people might see the light," she explained.
"Will these passages take us outside?" Iolaus wanted to know what he might be facing.
"I think so, I haven't explored all of them," Ilea explained nervously.
"Don't worry, I'm sure we'll find a way out," Iolaus hurried to reassure her.
Closing his eyes he concentrated on his surroundings, he could still feel the pounding of a headache but he managed to keep it locked away where it wouldn't interfere with what he needed to do. He silently blessed the old man who had been willing to take on a student from the 'uncivilized' west and had taught him those mind control techniques.
"What are you doing?" Ilea whispered thoroughly puzzled.
"Shhh, just a moment... ahhhh" Iolaus felt the faintest of breezes and turned his head until he could feel it brushing over his face. Opening his eyes, he found himself facing one of the deserted passages and turned to smile at Ilea. "This one leads to the outside. Come on."
"How do you know that?" she asked as she followed him.
"Oh, it's just an old hunter's trick." He grinned at her in elation as he started down the narrow passage.
Iolaus wanted to race forward but held himself back. Sometimes it felt like the passages were endless and they had been there forever, but he knew it couldn't have been very long at all. He wasn't sure how much time they had before his disappearance was discovered though and he preferred to be as far away as possible when that happened. They kept coming close to occupied areas and couldn't chance discovering by rushing. Several times they had had to douse their torch so it wouldn't be seen and once they had even had to cross a busy corridor. The little breeze that was his only clue to a way out proved illusive at times as well. Twice he thought he'd lost it and had had to concentrate for several minutes before he could find it and isolate the direction again.
He almost couldn't believe it when he realized that the passage was growing lighter. Gesturing to Ilea to douse the torch, he waited a moment for his eyes to adjust then began to creep forward. He grinned when he realized the light he was seeing was not the flickering light of a torch, but the bright steady light of the sun. He motioned for Ilea to join him and as he felt her presence, whispered, "We're almost out."
"Going somewhere?" Ares' voice floated tauntingly, mocking the freedom that appeared to be just within his reach. Slowly he turned to face a seething god of war. That Ares was furious he could tell without even looking, anger was radiating from him.
Instinctively Iolaus stepped in front of Ilea, pointing his borrowed sword at Ares. Never taking his eyes off of Ares, he whispered over his shoulder to Ilea, "Be ready to run when I tell you!" Warily he took a few steps away from Ilea, trying to draw Ares attention away from her so she would have a chance to get away.
Ares watched him with an amused smile. "Do you think that sword will do you any good against me?" Ares mocked him.
"Never know till I try!" Iolaus lunged forward, aiming a slashing blow at the god of war. At the same time he shouted for Ilea to run.
The next thing Iolaus knew, he was lying on his side up against one wall of the passage. His entire body was one aching bruise and the sound of two people laughing was ringing in his ears. Shaking his head to clear it he glanced up to find not Ares, but Ilea standing over him. "Ilea," Iolaus whispered in confusion, "Why didn't you run?"
"Why should she run?" Ares asked mockingly as he appeared beside her. "Her place is here, isn't it my dear... Alkippe?"
"Alkippe?" Iolaus repeated numbly. He watched in bewilderment as Ilea changed right before his eyes.
"Don't you like my little surprise, Iolaus?" she laughed at him. "Poor dear, he tried so hard to protect... me!"
"Why?" Stunned, Iolaus couldn't think. "Why did you help me?"
"Yes," Ares interrupted, "that is what I would like to know as well." Turning he glared at Alkippe. "What did you think you were doing?"
"I had a plan," Alkippe shrugged. "I was going to use Iolaus' gratitude to Ilea to get close to Hercules. It would have worked too, if you hadn't interfered." She glared at Ares.
"You little fool!" Ares snarled. "You almost ruined months of careful planning with your little stunt!"
"Little stunt!" Alkippe shouted in anger. "It was a better plan than yours! I would have gotten results!"
"Did you think that Iolaus would take any more of the potion from you?" Ares sneered at her. "He knows about that now and would be watching for it!"
Iolaus watched in amazement as the two of them became engrossed in their argument. They seemed to have forgotten all about him, so incensed were they. Iolaus realized this might be his only chance and slowly began to shift closer to the opening of the passage.
He had nearly reached the entrance when he heard the sound he had feared. "Look," Alkippe shouted. "He's getting away!" Iolaus leapt to his feet and started to dash for the opening.
He hadn't taken more than a few steps when he heard Ares shout, "Stop!" To his horror he found himself frozen, his body no longer responsive to his commands. Once again he could feel another presence within his mind, only this time it was stronger and he couldn't push it away. With mounting despair he found himself turning back to face Ares. "Your place is here now, Iolaus." Ares smiled, obviously enjoying his struggle.
Iolaus could see Alkippe grinning in delight. "It works!"
"You doubted me?" Ares replied smugly. "You must learn to have more patience, my dear. I promise you, it will be worth the wait." With one last glance at Iolaus, he turned and headed back down the passage into the castle. "Come, it is time to put the next phase into action."
Iolaus wanted to scream, curse, do anything but his body was no longer his to command and he found himself meekly following Ares and Alkippe back into the fortress.
Hercules had left Metras' body near one of the wagons. He wished he'd been able to give the old man a proper burial but he couldn't afford to take the time. He knew the guards would be along soon and they would deal with the bodies. For now, a nagging sense of dread was urging him to hurry. He feared that Iolaus was in deep trouble. Picking out the tracks of two people leaving the scene hadn't been easy for Hercules and he'd realized once again how much he relied on Iolaus' skill in that area.
The area closest to the battle site had been too torn up for him to find anything. Finally, he'd thought of Metras' words and decided to go a little way down the road toward Atraeca and check there. He'd had to go a good distance from the wagons before he was finally rewarded with a clear set of boot prints. "Iolaus, my hard-headed friend," Hercules grinned as he studied the marks. He gently traced the sign of a split in one of the heels, remembering how he had tried to get Iolaus to have the boot fixed. Iolaus had stubbornly insisted that they didn't have time and he would take care of it later. "You were afraid you'd miss out on some of the fun, weren't you?" Hercules spoke to his absent friend, shaking his head. "I was afraid it would slow us down, I never thought I'd be grateful for it now."
Hercules scanned the road, his gaze picking up more tracks further on. Of course, he couldn't be sure until he examined them, but his instincts told him they too belonged to Iolaus. Straightening, he followed as quickly as he could. Just as the old man had said, Hercules saw signs of another person accompanying Iolaus. It wasn't long before he came to a spot where the two had stopped for a while. His heart dropped when he spotted a discarded rag, soaked with blood. The tracks told him that Iolaus was the one who had remained seated, while the second person moved around. Now he had another fear, how badly had his friend been hurt?
He quickly searched the area hoping to find more clues. The tracks he found leading away did little to reassure him. Both sets were close together as if one person were helping the other. Grimly Hercules followed the trail further, relieved that they had at least remained on the road where he had more chance of finding their tracks. That relief soon proved to be premature.
The road had made several turns and Hercules was trying to calculate how far from Petras they where when he made a discovery that chilled his heart. The tracks he had been following were joined by a large number of other tracks and left the road. As he followed the trail into the forest he puzzled over what had happened. It took him a few moments to realize what it was that bothered him... there had been no sign of a struggle. Either Iolaus had gone willingly or he hadn't been able to resist.
Iolaus blinked, trying to adjust his eyes to the brilliant light streaming in through the windows of the room Ares and Alkippe had led him too. He was vaguely aware of others in the room rising at their entrance. As his eyes finally adjusted, he realized that these men were the commanders of Ares' army. He wasn't surprised when they all greeted him as Lord Bruiach, a few encounters with servants and guards in the halls on the way had told him that Ares had planned this well and his people believed they knew him. Iolaus knew he could use that to his advantage if he could break the hold Ares had over him, but so far he hadn't had any luck.
Iolaus found himself making his way through the room to take the seat at the head of the table; he even greeted some of the men by name. As soon as he had taken his seat the men began to give their reports. The things he was hearing disturbed and disgusted him. The recruitment practices that were being used among the locals to fill the ranks made him cringe. He was horrified to hear himself praising the man for his work. The meeting seemed to last forever, as Iolaus was forced to listen to the plans for further conquest. He comforted himself with the thought that he would at least be able to tell Herc all of their plans when he got free and stubbornly refused to admit to any other alternative.
'Finally,' Iolaus thought with relief as the last man sat down after giving his report, 'I don't know how much more of this I could stomach.' His relief was short-lived as he found himself standing. The words he heard himself speaking sent a chill through his spirit like nothing else, "Before we concluded this meeting, there is something I wish to tell you all. Something I will be announcing to the entire army later. You have all known and followed me as Bruiach but that is not my name. My real name is Iolaus."
Those words sent a buzz of whispers through the room. One of the men stood up and tentatively asked the question that was on all their minds, "Ahhh.. Lord Bruiach.. er.. I mean Lord Iolaus, forgive me but we, I, well sir, the only Iolaus I've ever heard of was a friend of Hercules."
"That would be me," Iolaus agreed.
"But Lord Iolaus.. you've.. well, you've told us you plan to kill Hercules.." another man interrupted.
"That is correct," Iolaus smiled at the confusion he read on their faces. "Nothing has changed gentlemen. My plans are still the same. We will rid the world of Hercules. I've worked a long time to set this up. Besides," he paused for a moment, studying them carefully. "Who better to accomplish that task than his best friend?" Iolaus felt the laughter that filled the room after that statement as knives stabbing and tearing at his soul. Despair was closing in on him and he clung desperately to a single hope. Hercules.
Hercules had followed the groups' trail away from the road to Atraecas for a while before he realized that he was actually following another road. It was small, barely wide enough for a cart and didn't look to get a lot of use, but it was definitely a road. He knew he had never heard of another village in the area and his hope rose that he might actually have found the way to Ares' stronghold. Though that thought also had its darker side. If this was the way to the stronghold, then Iolaus was in even deeper trouble than he had first thought.
The meeting had broken up with Iolaus telling his commanders to prepare their troops. For what he didn't say and really wasn't sure of. The hold Ares had over him didn't work both ways and Iolaus had no idea what Ares was going to have him do or say until it happened. One more frustration for him. If he could only know what Ares was planning he might have more luck. 'Who are you trying to kid, Iolaus?' he silently chided himself. 'This is the worst mess you've ever been in and you're going to need more than luck to get out of it!' For now all he could do was bide his time and try to be ready for anything.
The room was now empty save for Alkippe who was studying Ares speculatively. "Why did you have him announce he was Iolaus?" she demanded of the god. "That wasn't part of our plan!"
"It was part of my plan, my dear," Ares chose to ignore her challenging tone. "Just think of my dear brothers' reaction when he discovers that Lord Bruiach really is Iolaus."
Alkippe smiled nastily but continued her questioning undeterred, "He would have discovered that eventually. Why tell the men now? It will only confuse them!"
"Think my dear," Ares voice took on a note of warning. "The men must know before Hercules finds out. Their prior knowledge will make it so much more devastating for him."
Alkippe's expression showed she wasn't entirely happy with his explanation but before she could push things farther Ares changed the subject.
Iolaus could only watch as Ares moved to stand over him. "I wish you could feel Iolaus' torment," he told Alkippe. "It might give you more patience."
"Torment?" Alkippe's voice took on a nasty note.
"Yes." Ares studied Iolaus, then turned back to her with a sigh. "Too bad the potion doesn't work on those with immortal blood in their veins. I would have enjoyed having my do-gooder brother under my control."
"You said torment, Ares," Alkippe eyed Iolaus speculatively. "What did you mean?"
"It's simple," Ares explained impatiently. "He is aware of everything he is doing and saying though he has no control over any of it."
"Oh really?" Alkippe's eye's gleamed as she moved even closer to Iolaus.
"Ask him yourself!" Ares gestured at Iolaus and he once again found he could speak.
Ignoring Alkippe for the moment he snarled at Ares, "You won't get away with this Ares! Hercules will find a way to stop you!"
Ares and Alkippe laughed, their enjoyment of his situation obvious. "You see," Ares told Alkippe. "And his suffering will be even greater when he kills Hercules."
"You'll never get me to harm Herc!" Iolaus told him defiantly.
"Entertaining, isn't he?" Ares commented to Alkippe before turning back to Iolaus. "Oh, you will kill him," he assured Iolaus. "And don't think that my brother's vaunted strength will save him, I've already made sure that you will be more than a match for it!"
Ares' laughter sent chills through Iolaus as he once more found himself unable to speak. "Enough of this!" Ares turned to Alkippe who had been watching the entire scene gleefully. "It's time to put the next phase into action. You know what to do?" he asked the Amazon.
"Of course," Alkippe replied scornfully, then turned to Iolaus. "Right this way, Lord Iolaus, your army awaits!"
Once again Iolaus found himself compelled to follow Alkippe, Ares' mocking laughter ringing in his ears.
Hercules had been following the narrow road for sometime when he first thought he heard voices. Wondering if he had finally caught up to the group, he quickly left the road for the cover of the trees and cautiously made his way towards the sound. It took him a moment to realize that the voices were not coming from the road but rather slightly to one side. But that wasn't the biggest surprise awaiting him when he finally peered out at the group that seemed to be camped near a stream. Shocked, he realized that the voices he had heard belonged to women! 'Could they be the group I've been following?' he wondered, hope for Iolaus rising in him. A few moments study of the camp revealed no sign of his friend. Sighing, he decided there was only one way to find out if Iolaus had been here and so he stepped out of hiding. "Excuse me, I'm looking for a friend. Can you help me?"
He wasn't prepared for the reaction he received from the women. All of them dropped what they were doing, several grabbing makeshift weapons while others herded children away from him. "Wait a minute! Please!" he tried to reassure them. "I mean you no harm!"
Iolaus had followed Alkippe out of the fortress. Once there he had found the army drawn up, the men in ranks, obviously prepared for his orders. What those orders would be he had no clue, but he knew he wasn't going to like them. A moan caught his attention and when he looked he saw four men tied to frames. They had been whipped and then left to hang there and his stomach turned at the sight. One of the officers noticed the direction of his gaze. "Their punishment has been carried out exactly as you ordered, Lord Br..uh.. Iolaus."
Iolaus wished he had enough control over his body to be ill as he heard himself reply, "Good! Let them hang there till they rot! A lesson to anyone who doesn't follow my orders exactly!"
Iolaus strode away from the man and mounted the horse that was being held for him. Alkippe smiled at him as he turned to once more survey the gathered troops. "Some of you may have already heard this..." Iolaus tuned out the rest of the speech he was making, concentrating instead on finding a weak spot in the spell that was holding him. Knowing his time was getting short, he began to try every mind control technique he'd ever learned or even heard of. All to no avail it seemed. The harder he tried the less success he seemed to have. Finally he stopped, nearly exhausted and totally out of ideas. Despair hung over him like a dark cloud ready to swallow him up, but he stubbornly refused to give in. Somehow he knew that if he ever let it take him, he would be totally lost. His attention was caught and held by the orders he was issuing, ".. the troops! Those farmers will pay for their defiance!"
The despair seemed to settle further around him as he realized he had just ordered a raid on a group of innocent men and women. Even as he stubbornly fought it back a voice was softly whispering in the back of his mind, 'Give up, it's no use fighting it, you aren't strong enough.' Defying that voice he grimly turned back to trying to free himself though this time he kept a closer watch on what was going on around him. He was aware of the army moving behind him as he rode through the gates of the fortress.
It had taken Hercules a while to convince the women that he meant them no harm. Even after explaining who he was and why he was there they had remained guarded, though he no longer feared they would attack him. After hearing their story he couldn't blame them.
"So this Lord Bruiach is claiming your lands for his own?" At the women's nods he continued, "He's forced your sons into his service and threatened you if anyone tried to get help?" Once again they nodded confirmation and Hercules sighed. It was the same old story of every power hungry warlord he'd ever run across. The problem was how to deal with it this time. This time was different. Somehow, someway, Iolaus was involved.
"Mama! Mama!" The cry sent a jolt through the gathered women and one moved forward to meet the child running towards her.
"What is it? Are you alright?" the woman anxiously checked the boy for damage as the rest gathered around.
"Soldiers, Mama!" The boy was panting and could hardly catch his breath, but that one word sent a gasp of horror through the crowd.
Gently pushing his way through, Hercules crouched in front of the boy whose eyes widened at the sight of him. "Easy there, I'm a friend," he assured him. "I'm here to help." He smiled at the boy who had edged closer to his mother's skirt.
"This is Hercules, Aeson," the woman reassured the boy. Aeson's eyes grew even bigger at Hercules name and he slowly stepped out from behind his mother's skirt.
The boy couldn't have looked more different from his own son, but still Hercules had to fight the pain that came at hearing his name. "I had a little boy named Aeson, once," he told the child with a sad smile. "He was very brave. I bet you are too." At the youngsters' shy nod Hercules continued, "Will you tell me about the soldiers?"
The boy's eyes filled with tears and he looked up at his mother before softly telling Hercules, "The soldiers are attacking our house. They set it on fire.. an.. an... they hit my daddy and he felled down!" The boy burst into tears and hid his face in his mothers' skirt, clinging to her. Hercules patted him gently on the shoulder and then rose to look at the women.
Responding to the worry and fear on their faces he asked, "Which way to the village?"
"If you follow the road you'll come to it soon, it's not very far," one of the women volunteered. "But you're not going to take on Lord Bruiach all by yourself!"
"Don't worry," Hercules reassured her grimly, "I'll be fine.. I only hope I'm in time."
Telling the women to stay where they were, Hercules headed for the road and the village as fast as he could.
As he came over the third rise in the road he saw a tiny village, barely a half dozen huts, ahead of him. Nearly half of the structures where already engulfed in flames and there were bodies lying in the street. On another rise to the right of the village three riders sat watching the chaos. One was a woman, though dressed as an amazon he realized that she fit the description of the woman Iolaus had left with perfectly. The second rider he recognized immediately, Ares come to survey his handy work. But it was the sight of the third figure that left him reeling. "Iolaus," he whispered in disbelief. There before his eyes was the friend he had hunted for the past day. 'It can't be!' Hercules reassured himself. 'It's some trick of Ares. It has to be!'
A scream from the village drew his attention just as the woman noticed him and motioned to the two with her. Ignoring them for the moment, Hercules headed towards the village where Ares' soldiers were torching another hut. He arrived just in time to stop a soldier from killing one of the villagers, sending the soldier flying through the air to land in an unconscious heap well outside the village. He helped the stunned villager to his feet and then turned to deal with the rest of the soldiers, who had gathered in a knot before him. Grinning he watched as a couple separated themselves from the pack and started towards him.
A shouted order caused both the soldiers and Hercules to freeze. Hercules was aware of hoof beats pounding up the road behind him and he reluctantly forced himself to turn. That voice was so familiar, he'd heard it for years.. As he raised his eyes to the figure on horseback his worst nightmare came to life. The man sitting there was Iolaus, but an Iolaus he had never seen before.
Ignoring him for the moment Iolaus raised his voice and ordered the men to leave. When one of them started to protest he glared at him. "Hercules is mine! Remember your orders!" Iolaus growled.
Hercules was aware of the soldiers reluctantly pulling back, but his entire attention was focused on Iolaus. "Iolaus?" The word was barely more than a whisper but Iolaus heard it and turned to him. The hatred shining in his eyes struck Hercules like a blow.
"Hey, Herc!" Iolaus greeted him, cheerily. "Like my army?"
"Army?!?!" Hercules couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Iolaus, what's happened to you?"
"What happened?" Iolaus laughed. "I finally figured things out, Hercules!" The warm sunny grin Herc was used to seeing had been replaced by a cold evil smile. "Don't you like my little surprise?" Iolaus was smiling with satisfaction as he gazed at the destruction around them. "I've been planning this for a long time, Hercules," he continued. "So tell me, what do you think?"
"What do I think!?!? Iolaus! You know this is wrong!" Hercules tried to reason with his friend. "How can you do this?"
"How?" Iolaus shrugged, "It's easy, Herc.. much easier than standing in your shadow!"
"But, but why?" Hercules was still trying to understand what had happened to the man he thought he knew.
Iolaus' answer wasn't quite what he expected though. "I got tired, Herc."
"Yes, tired!" Iolaus glared at him angrily. "Tired of living in your shadow! Tired of standing there while everyone sung the praises of the mighty Hercules! Tired of being treated as a nobody, getting no respect. Tired of people asking 'Who?' when I said my name! Well, they are going to know it now!"
"You've always had my respect and my friendship, Iolaus," Hercules pleaded with him. "Doesn't that count for anything?"
"Your respect and friendship!" Iolaus laughed bitterly. "What has that ever gotten me? A bunch of gods for enemies.. a dead wife and child... Would they still be alive if I hadn't been with you, Herc? Tell me???"
Iolaus' words hit Hercules like blows, he knew there was a measure of truth in everything Iolaus said but still, "I never asked you..."
He tried to break through but Iolaus interrupted him coldly, "It's over, Hercules. I'm going my own way now." Iolaus paused and the look in his eyes sent a chill through Hercules. "Don't try to stop me, Hercules.. If you get in my way, I'll kill you!"
With those final words cutting through him, Hercules stood stunned as his friend prepared to ride away.
"What are you doing?" Alkippe demanded angrily as she watched Iolaus prepare to ride away. "You promised me that Iolaus would kill Hercules."
Ares spared her a glance of annoyance. "And so he shall, but when I am ready." Ares turned his attention back to the confrontation taking place below them. "My half-brother has much to answer for. A quick death is far too merciful."
"You promised me revenge on Hercules for what he did to the Amazons at Gargarencia," Alkippe seemed determined to press the issue.
"Ahhh yes, revenge… Delightful concept." Ares ignored her demand. "One I try to encourage." He leveled a dark glance at her, as he finished, "in the proper time and place."
Hercules watched, frozen with horror, as Iolaus gave orders for the soldiers to retreat and started to ride away without a backward glance.
"No!" Hercules cried out. "Iolaus, wait! We need to talk about this!" Without thinking he jumped forward, grasping Iolaus' arm. He realized immediately it was the wrong move to make as he barely ducked Iolaus' sword. "Iolaus, please, we've always been able to talk…" Hercules tried desperately to reason with his friend.
"You mean I've talked and you never bothered to listen," Iolaus growled angrily. "Well, Hercules, I'm through talking now."
As Iolaus once more made to leave, Hercules placed himself in front of his horse, grabbing the reins. "I'm listening now, Iolaus.. please.. whatever it is, we can work this out. It doesn't have to be this way.. not between us."
"You made your choice a long time ago, Hercules, live with the consequences," Iolaus retorted. "Now get out of my way!" Iolaus spurred his horse forward, attempting to force Hercules to let go.
Ducking another wild swing of Iolaus' sword, Hercules tried one last desperate measure. Praying he wouldn't hurt his friend, he reached out and pulled Iolaus from the saddle as the horse sprang forward. It wasn't the smartest move he'd ever made, he realized a moment later as the two of them tumbled to the ground but at least it kept Iolaus there where he'd have a chance to talk some sense into him.
Talking was the last thing Iolaus had on his mind, Hercules quickly discovered. 'What has happened to him?' he wondered as he ducked a swing and then leapt back out of the return path. 'This isn't the Iolaus I thought I knew.' One glimpse of the open hatred and fury on Iolaus' face convinced him that this time Iolaus wasn't going to walk away. With a sinking heart he realized he might be forced to harm his best friend in order to stop him.
Desperately scanning the area for something to use as a weapon, Hercules spotted a fallen sword and began to edge toward it. Taking a chance he waited until Iolaus was committed to his next stroke and then dove for the sword, hoping he could get his hands on it and get out of the way before Iolaus completed the move. He almost made it.
Hercules actually had the sword in his hands when a kick from Iolaus sent it spinning away again. Cursing under his breath he desperately rolled away and barely avoided the slash of Iolaus' sword. Gaining his feet, he lunged for Iolaus. He knew if he could just get his hands on him, he could hold him until Iolaus calmed down.
Iolaus avoided him easily, with a speed and agility that Hercules had never seen in the hunter before. His surprise must have been reflected on his face, Hercules realized as he saw Iolaus grin.
"Whatsa' matter, Hercules," Iolaus taunted him. "Can't catch the little runt anymore? Hmmm?"
Hercules winced at the words. "Iolaus, you know I've never thought of you that way!" he protested.
"No?" Iolaus glared. "Why else were you constantly trying to leave me behind? Why did you take all the credit for the things we did together, huh, hero?" he sneered. "Well this time things are going to be different!"
Without giving Hercules a chance to respond, Iolaus rushed forward, blade swinging in an arc that would have been fatal if it managed to connect.
"Damn it, Iolaus!" Hercules swore as he once more dove out of the way. "You're not giving me a chance!"
"I've given you more chances than you ever deserved, Hercules," Iolaus growled. "Now I've found someone who will give me a chance!"
"Ares," Hercules stated flatly.
"Yes Ares," Iolaus confirmed. "He believes in me."
"I believe in you, Iolaus," Hercules stated quietly, trying to put as much emphasis on the words as possible.
For a long moment the two of them stood frozen. Hercules silently willing Iolaus to really listen to him and believe what he was saying. For just a second Hercules thought he glimpsed something in Iolaus' eyes besides the hatred and rage and he held on to a tremulous hope that he'd finally broken through to the hunter.
Then the rage and hate were back and Iolaus began attacking furiously. The speed and strength of his attacked shocked Hercules until it finally dawned on him, Ares had enhanced Iolaus' own natural skills in order to make him a match for the son of Zeus. Hercules' spirits sank as the grim reality sank in. Iolaus was deadly serious and in order to stop his friend he just might have to kill him.
Ares frowned as he watched the two combatants. This was taking far longer than he had expected. As the potion wore off, it was becoming harder and harder to control the mortal. For one moment he had actually been afraid the hunter would break free of his control. He had to end this soon.
Hercules had managed to avoid most of Iolaus' attacks, but a small cut on his left bicep spoke of the hunter's speed, skill and determination. Both men were moving slower now, their earlier speed gone as they exhausted themselves.
Hercules threw himself to the ground and rolled away as Iolaus' sword cut through the place he'd been standing. As he started to drag himself to his knees, he caught a glimpse of a sword near his hand. Without any clear thought of what he was going to do with it, Hercules grabbed it. A moment later he used it to block another stroke of the hunter's sword.
The two men seemed locked in that position. Hercules kneeling, sword raised over his head holding off Iolaus' blade, while the smaller man tried to force it down. Summoning his last reserves of strength, Hercules gave a mighty shove and sent Iolaus flying backwards. Quickly gaining his feet, he stood over the stunned hunter. His sword pointed at Iolaus' heart.
For a brief moment, Hercules simply gazed at him, then the memory of another time when they had been in this position inserted itself in his mind. He had refused to kill his friend then, and that act had broken through to Iolaus. Praying that history would repeat itself, he met the hunter's seething gaze.
"No," Hercules stated quietly. "No matter what you think has happened between us, you're still my friend." With those words he pitched the sword away. Turning around he began to walk away, all the while hoping that Iolaus would call him back.
He'd only taken a few steps when his back exploded in pain and a hard shove sent him tumbling to the ground. Groaning, he managed to get himself turned over and had started to get up when the tip of Iolaus' sword touched his collar bone.
"Fool," Iolaus hissed at him. "You should have killed me when you had the chance."
" I'd rather die than harm you," Hercules told him calmly. Raising his eyes to Iolaus he fully expected to see the same killing rage on his friend's face that he'd seen before.
Iolaus' face was contorted in a mask of unholy glee, but the expression in his eyes shocked Hercules. Conflicting emotions clash in the hunter's eyes as he slowly raises his sword for the killing blow. For a long moment, Iolaus stood poised over him, his body trembling from the conflict raging within him. Hercules drew in a sharp breath at the sight. "Iolaus?" The hunter's name was no more than a thread of sound he hardly dared utter.
Iolaus' gaze locked with his, and in those cerulean blue eyes Hercules saw the man he called his friend.
"Herc, help me…"
Stunned, unsure he'd truly heard the whispered plea, Hercules stared up at Iolaus. Before his eyes, the hunter's face changed. The pleading gaze filling once more with hatred. Shocked and confused, Hercules barely managed to roll out of the way as Iolaus finally struck. Climbing resolutely to his feet, he once more faced off with Iolaus. He was more determined than ever to get to the bottom of this.
Even as Iolaus lifted his sword and prepared to attack again, the two men were startled to hear the sound of approaching horses. Hercules spared a quick glance back down the road and saw a small band of riders bearing the King of Petras' ensign. Turning back to Iolaus he was surprised to find that his friend had once more caught his horse and was in the process of mounting.
Swearing, Hercules started towards him, only to be halted by the sound of someone screaming. His attention was caught by a man yelling frantically for help.
"Please, someone help! My son is trapped!! He'll burn!!" Racing up to Hercules, the man tugged frantically on Hercules' arm.
Torn between the need to stop Iolaus from leaving and the desire to help the child, Hercules hesitated. As he glanced once more at Iolaus, their eyes met again.
"Go on, be the hero," Iolaus sneered coldly at him. "Just remember, this isn't over between us!" Spurring his horse, he rode towards the hill where Ares and the woman waited.
"You can count on that, Iolaus," Hercules replied grimly, allowing himself to be led towards the burning buildings.
Iolaus listened wearily to the argument between Alkippe and Ares as they rode back towards the fortress and wondered vaguely why Ares didn't just blast the Amazon. He was certainly mad enough to do so. Iolaus could almost physically feel the rage emanating from the dark god.
"Iolaus was supposed to kill Hercules!"
Alkippe's screech sent a shiver through Iolaus, reminding him how close he had come to actually doing just that. The battle against Ares' control had taken nearly all his strength and in the end, he had lost. If it hadn't been for Hercules' swift reflexes, Iolaus knew his sword would now be covered in the blood of his best friend.
The sheer volume of Ares' roar caused Iolaus to flinch. The sight of the dark god's angry visage made Iolaus want to find some place to hide. In all his years of dealing with Ares, the hunter had never seen the god this angry without something ending up very messily dead.
"You will do as you are told!" Ares glared at Alkippe. "Hercules dies when I say and not a moment before!"
Alkippe started to protest but a warning glare from Ares finally seemed to convince her she had pushed the god as far was she could and she hastily bit back a retort.
A satisfied smirk on his face, Ares gave orders for Alkippe to take Iolaus back to the fortress and see to the men. Iolaus saw the flash of rebellion in her eyes, but she stifled it and only nodded in acceptance of the orders.
Ares' gloating laughter rang in Iolaus' head long after the god had disappeared.
Hercules wiped the sweat from his forehead and turned, surveying the damage the fires had caused. Three quarters of the tiny village had been reduced to nothing but ash and rubble despite their best efforts. Without help, the people of the village were facing a very hard winter. 'At least they're all alive,' he reminded himself. In some cases wounded, but at least alive. The boy, or rather young man, he had rescued from the fire had come out of that with nothing more than a broken leg from the fallen beam that had pined him down. He'd be up and hobbling about with the aid of crutches in a day or so.
His attention was captured by the captain of the King's guards asking for someone to explain what had happened. Wearily he made his way towards the small group that quickly gathered around the man, all of them trying to be heard at once.
Hercules had been impressed with the way the captain had his troops pitch in to help save the village, now his respect increased as he watched the man dealing with the overwrought villagers. Within moments the captain had them settled down and was listening intently to their stories.
The tale the villagers told was pretty much what Hercules had figured out for himself. The army had been hiding in the vicinity for several weeks now, preying on the isolated villages to keep itself fed. Using fear to keep them silent and compliant.
"Do you know anything of the man who leads them?" the captain asked.
Most of the villagers shook their heads indicating their ignorance, but one older man spoke up. "I seen 'im, Cap'n."
Nodding, the captain urged the man to continue.
"Well, suh, you see, I was up to them ol' ruins a time or two. Deliverin' the supplies like we'd been ordered. This once they's all lined up fer some kinda talk an' I seen 'im sittin' up there 'n fron' of 'em all on 'is big fancy 'orse."
"Did you hear his name? Can you describe him for me?"
"Reckin' I kin do thet, but this gen'leman 'ere kin' do it a might better, I'd say." The man nodded towards Hercules.
Surprised, the captain glanced at Hercules then turned back to the villager. "What makes you say that?"
"Cause 'e were fightin' 'im jus' afore you all rode in."
"So, you were fighting this man," the captain turned to question Hercules. "And you just let him get away?"
"Nahh, Cap'n, 'tweren't like that!" the man interrupted before Hercules could say a word. "'e were tryin' ta 'elp us. Why, iff'n 'tweren't fer 'im, young Dylonnus, 'ere, would'a burned ta death!" The rest of the villagers murmured agreement, several putting forth their own defense of Hercules.
The captain allowed them to carry on for a few moments before once more gesturing for silence. "All right, Miklos, is it? Why don't you join Hercules and I over here and we'll see what we can do to get these bandits to leave your town alone." Raising his voice he gestured to the rest of the people. "Why don't the rest of you see what you can salvage. My men will help you." Sensing a bit of reluctance, he added, "We'll let you know what's decided when we are finished."
Hercules allowed himself to be led to one side of the village square. No sooner were the three of them well apart from the others then Miklos turned to him. "You're Hercules??"
Hercules sighed, forcing himself to smile politely at the man. "Yes, I'm Hercules."
Before Miklos could say anymore, the captain broke in. "I remember you from the inn in Petras. You were very interested in the attack on the caravan and now I find you here, at the site of another attack. Mind explaining how that happened?"
"'Ehh, Cap'n, this 'ere's Hercules! O'course 'e'd be in'erested in w'ats goin' on 'round 'ere!" Miklos protested.
The captain didn't seem all that impressed, so before he could berate the man, Hercules started to explain. It didn't take him long to fill them in on his worry for his friend, and the trail that had led him to this point. When he finished, he turned to Miklos with a question of his own. "You said you'd seen the man I was fighting before. When was that?"
Miklos rubbed his chin as he tried to calculate the time. "Mmm, mus' be nigh on ta twen'y or so days 'go now," he stated. "Funny thin' though."
"What's that?" Hercules prompted, doing some calculations of his own as to the last time he'd seen Iolaus.
"Well, suh, tha' man.. 'e were callin' 'isself by a diff'rn' name then," Miklos explained.
"A different name?" the captain queried.
"Tha's right, Cap'n." Miklos nodded enthusiastically. "'e were callin' 'isself Bruiach up 'ntil this ver' day. Least wise, tha's what them soljers were callin' 'im 'fore now. T'day fer some reason they was callin' 'im, Yolas."
"Well that fits with what we were told about the attack on the caravan," the captain stated grimly. "It seems that this, Iolaus, has just decided to stop hiding behind another name."
"Now wait just a minute," Hercules interrupted. "I've known Iolaus for years. There is no way he would be mixed up in this voluntarily."
"But you, yourself, were fighting him, Hercules," the captain reminded him. "How can you expect us to believe otherwise? My men and I will be going after this Iolaus as soon as we've finished here. We can't allow this to continue."
"Look," Hercules sighed. "I know this seems strange, but up until 10 days ago, Iolaus was with me in Corinth. There is no way that Miklos could have seen him anywhere around here." Holding up a hand to silence Miklos' protest, he continued grimly, "I'm not saying that Miklos didn't see someone who looked like Iolaus, just that until today it wasn't Iolaus!"
The captain's face bore a look of sympathy and concern. "Hercules, you've said he was your friend and I'm guessing that he must mean a lot to you, but what you're suggesting is impossible!"
"Not if the gods are involved," Hercules told him grimly. "I saw Ares watching the attack earlier."
"Ares?" The captain blanched. Miklos was gaping like a stunned fish, fear filling his eyes at the news.
"Captain, your men are good, but there is no way they can take on the God of War and his army." Hercules pressed his advantage while the captain was still recovering from the shock. "Let me go ahead. Give me time to deal with Ares and discover what his plan is before you bring your men in."
The captain stared at him for a long moment, considering his options. "All right," he reluctantly agreed. "There's still a lot for us to do here." His expression hardened. "I can give you until morning. The rest of the King's troops will arrive by then."
Clasping the captain's arm, Hercules smiled and thanked him. Turning to Miklos, he placed his hand on the dazed man's shoulder. "Miklos, I need you to tell me as much as you can remember about these ruins."
Iolaus followed Alkippe back into the fortress. Despite his best efforts, he found himself responding to the greetings of the men, speaking an encouraging word or two and assuring them that all was going according to plan. He found himself wishing for enough control of his body to be sick.
Some of his true feelings must have been showing on his face, he realized as he caught a smug glance from Alkippe. The satisfaction in that gloating look spoke volumes of her enjoyment. He longed to be able to wipe that look from her face.
He welcomed their entry into the private quarters of the commander. At least here he didn't have to deal with all of the others. Still, it galled him, to find himself meekly obeying Alkippe's order to sit. Her mocking laughter followed her as she left him there, a prisoner in his own body.
Why don't you just give up, Iolaus? No one is going to help you. No one can help you, an insidious little voice whispered to him. Ares will win this time. 'NO' Iolaus rebuked the voice. 'I won't believe that! Hercules will help me!' But Hercules thinks you want him dead! You almost succeeded too! The voice called to mind all too vivid scenes from the recent past. Despair rose up to choke him as he recalled how close it had been. He knew Hercules had chosen not to fight him anymore. He didn't want to think what would have happened if that patrol hadn't arrived.
You would have fulfilled your destiny, Iolaus, the voice whispered. You would have become famous as the man who killed Hercules. Iolaus shuddered mentally at the idea and the voice almost seemed to laugh in his mind. 'YOU!' he thought angrily at the voice. 'It wont work anymore, Ares. I know what you're trying to do and you'll never break me.'
We'll see about that! Ares' triumphant laughter echoed in his mind.
Hercules hid in the thick cover at the edge of the clearing, studying the fortress as best he could from that distance. The ground cover between the edge of the forest and the fortress was sparse, just as the villagers had warned him. Sneaking in without being spotted was not going to be easy. Still, he was going to have to take that chance in order to get to Iolaus.
The villagers had been more help than he had dreamed they could be. Many of them remembered playing in the ruins as children and from those memories they had been able to draw rough sketches of the layout of the place. From those drawings, Hercules and the captain of the guard had made some rough guesses as to where the commanders quarters and the dungeons were likely to be.
With a bit of prodding, Miklos had been able to provide a rough layout for the encampment, as well as a general idea of the military setup, guard posts and such. But it had been Dylonnus who gave Hercules the information that there was a secret entrance to the place and told him how to find it.
Now Hercules studied the fortress, matching what he saw to the instructions he'd been given. Finally he spotted the rocky outcropping near the edge of the forest. With grim satisfaction, he cautiously began to make his way there.
Iolaus had no idea how long he sat in the room by himself but he was ready to scream with frustration by the time he heard the door opening behind him. It was almost a relief to be able to focus on something besides his own helplessness.
"I do hope you've been enjoying yourself, Iolaus," Alkippe purred as she moved around to study him. "What? No quick remark? Oh, don't tell me, you're disappointed that you didn't get to finish what you started, right?"
Iolaus glared at her, fighting the control that Ares still held over his body. He wasn't sure who was more surprised when he managed to speak. "Bitch," he growled, putting all of his hatred of her and the situation into that one word. He clamped down on a gasp as she backhanded him, turning his head back to glare at her once more.
"So, you still need to learn respect, Iolaus." Alkippe smiled at him, drawing her dagger from its sheath at her waist. "I do believe I will enjoy teaching it to you."
Iolaus drew in a sharp breath as she reached out and gently ran the dagger down the side of his face.
"Let's see, where shall we start? Hmm?" Alkippe was totally focused on the dagger in her hand, drawing it lightly over various points. "Perhaps the loss of an eye would make you more tractable?" she asked, the point of the dagger coming to rest just under Iolaus' right eye. "Or perhaps both eyes?"
For the first time Iolaus was grateful for the fact that he couldn't move. The Amazon was totally insane, there was no guessing what she would do. As her dagger moved to touch his other eye, Iolaus held his breath and tried to prepare himself for whatever was going to happen.
"Do you think not being able to see will help to teach you respect, Iolaus?" Alkippe's voice was calm, her manner off hand. She might have been asking him his favorite color for all the emotion in her voice. "No? Well, perhaps removing your insolent tongue would be the proper place to start."
Alkippe whirled around at the cry, her knife now pointing towards a glowering Ares. Iolaus had never been so glad to see the God of War in his life.
Minutes had begun to feel like hours as Hercules cautiously made his way deeper into the heart of the fortress. He was constantly having to hide from servants and soldiers, busy about the place. The only benefit from this was that he had learned exactly where to find Iolaus by listening to a couple of servants gossiping.
Listening carefully, he waited until there was no sound in any direction, then darted quickly to the first door in the hall. If the villagers and what he'd overheard from the servants was correct, this set of rooms belonged to Ares' commander. Taking a deep breath, he slowly opened the door and peered in.
To his immense disappointment, the room contained only a large table and a bunch of chairs. Maps and other rolls of parchment showed the room was probably used for planning campaigns. Hercules sighed and had started to close the door when he caught the faint sound of someone coming down the hallway. Quickly he slipped all the way inside and softly closed the door.
He decided he might as well see what he could learn of Ares plans while he was there. Keeping one ear open for any sounds, he made his way towards the map. He was halfway across the room, when the sound of a door opening caused him to race forward and hide behind the half drawn tapestries over the window.
Alkippe was shouting at Ares as she followed him into the conference room, Iolaus tagging along like an obedient dog in their wake.
"I've given you my orders and I expect them to be followed to the letter," Ares growled angrily. "I warn you, Alkippe, you are rapidly wearing out my patience!"
"And what of my patience??" Alkippe demanded. "I've done everything you've asked me to do for this ridiculous plan of yours! I'm the one who made sure Iolaus was given the potion! I'm the one who made sure he would get more of it! I'm the one who brought him here to you! And what have I gotten in return? Nothing!! You still haven't fulfilled your side of the bargain!!!" she ranted.
Ares' face had grown darker with rage with each word she uttered but Alkippe didn't seem to notice. Wrapped up in her own grievances, she paced in front of the god, oblivious to her own growing danger.
"I'm telling you for the last time, follow my orders and you will have your revenge!" Ares' voice was cold with menace. "Defy me and suffer the consequences!"
"Just tell me why?" Alkippe demanded. "Why haven't you killed Hercules? Why did you stop Iolaus from killing him?"
"I didn't stop Iolaus," Ares shouted, too angry to keep control over his tongue. "If you hadn't noticed, the potion was wearing off!" He struggled to bring himself back under control before continuing, "Iolaus nearly broke free of my control. We moved too soon, the effects had not yet become permanent."
Annoyed with himself for letting Alkippe get to him, Ares glared at her. "Now will you listen to me and follow my orders?" he asked, his voice silky with menace. "Or shall I find someone else to fulfill this plan?"
The meaning behind that question was clear to Alkippe and she brought herself under control with a visible effort. "If that was the problem, why didn't you just say so?" she stated, exasperation clear in her voice. "We have the solution right here."
Iolaus watched from his seat near the window as Alkippe went to a small table at one side of the room. As she turned around, his spirits sank when he saw she was holding the vial that contained the potion.
"Ready for more of your medicine, Iolaus?" Alkippe giggled as she advanced on Iolaus.
Hercules couldn't believe his luck. Iolaus was seated no more than a few strides away. Ares and the Amazon were so busy with their argument they weren't paying attention to anything else. The only thing he couldn't understand was why Iolaus wasn't taking advantage of the situation. That wasn't like the hunter. As he listened to their argument he began to get an idea. As Alkippe turned toward Iolaus with the vial in her hand, Hercules swore to himself that Iolaus wouldn't be forced to take it.
Iolaus finally had some hope. The potion was wearing off. It's effects were not yet permanent. He had a chance. Concentrating, gathering all of his remaining strength, Iolaus waited for the right moment. He knew he'd only have one chance. He watched as Alkippe slowly moved forward, her gaze locked on his face. He schooled his expression to one of fear mixed with defiance and prayed she wouldn't get suspicious.
She was four steps away. 'Wait, Iolaus.' He fought to keep himself calm.
"This wont hurt a bit, Iolaus." An insane giggle followed the statement.
Iolaus shuddered at the sound, every muscle in his body poised with the need to act.
Iolaus fought Ares' compulsion with every ounce of his being. One leg swept up and kicked out, knocking the vial from Alkippe's hand. His eyes followed its flight as the bottle arced towards the window. It seemed to take forever. Then the bottle clattered to the floor and rolled behind the tapestry and Iolaus felt his heart drop to his boots.
Screaming in fury, Alkippe lunged for Iolaus. Her nails raked across his check, barely missing his eye then she was gone, flung halfway across the room with a wave of Ares' hand. Snarling, she tried to lunge at Ares instead but his power held her pinned against the wall.
"Calm yourself," Ares ordered curtly. "I still have a use for Iolaus… in one piece."
"He attacked me!" Alkippe's eyes glittered dangerously. "He must pay for that!" she hissed.
Ares stared at her, his eyes narrowing. "As long as I have need of him, Iolaus stays in one piece," he told Alkippe, the menace in his voice making it quite clear that he would tolerate no more outbursts from her. "Tomorrow my army will destroy Hercules and Iolaus will give the orders." A cruel smile quirked his lips as he continued, "Once Hercules is dead, you may do what you wish with Iolaus."
"But the potion…" Alkippe interrupted. "It's wearing off! You're already losing control of him!"
"A minor annoyance," Ares assured her. "He simply requires more attention right now." Ares moved to stand over Iolaus. "Try to learn subtlety, my dear, you might find it useful," he told Alkippe. He held his open hand over the Iolaus' head and the hunter's body convulsed.
Iolaus locked his jaws on a scream he refused to give voice to. When the pain finally ceased he opened his eyes to find both Ares and Alkippe standing over him, wearing identical expressions of satisfaction.
"Enough for you, my dear?" Ares queried.
"For now," Alkippe stated flatly. "But don't think I'll forget your promise," she warned. "After tomorrow, Iolaus is mine."
"I don't think so." Hercules stepped out from behind the tapestry. He managed to keep his voice calm but inside he was shaking with rage. He longed to tear Ares' heart out and feed it to him for what he had done to Iolaus.
He held the vial of potion up where they could see it. "Lose something?" he asked, smiling coldly at the shock on their faces. "Your little scheme is over, Ares!" He clenched his fist around the vial, crushing it. The liquid dripping from his fingers before evaporating.
"NO!" Alkippe attacked Hercules in a frenzy.
Hercules quickly realized that he was facing a mad woman and that madness was feeding her strength and speed. Alkippe's blows were wild and relentless. He was using all his speed just to avoid them with no time to spare for whatever Ares might be up to.
Hercules managed to knock Alkippe's sword out of her hands, but the Amazon wasn't giving up. She attacked him with her bare hands, clawing at his face until he flung her violently away. She crashed into the table, the force of her landing causing it to collapse. Hercules watched her warily as she picked herself up from amid the scattered scrolls. With a bloodcurdling shriek, she launched herself at him. He almost didn't see the knife in her hand, barely managing to get out of her way in time to avoid it. Snarling, Alkippe circled him. Slashing with her knife, she tested his defenses. Forcing him farther and farther away from Iolaus and Ares.
Ares watched smugly as the Amazon drove Hercules closer to the window. "Perhaps you wont be necessary after all," he commented to Iolaus. Iolaus managed to turn his head enough to glare at the god before his eyes locked once more on the battle in front of him.
Iolaus held his breath as Alkippe backed Hercules up to the window. He tried to yell a warning to his friend but his tongue wouldn't obey him and his jaws remained tightly clenched. Soft laughter from close at hand told him that Ares was once more exerting his control over Iolaus' body. Glaring at the god, he redoubled his efforts to break free.
Hercules could feel the cool breeze from the window behind him. He dared a quick glance backward and tried to ease away from the dizzying drop. When he turned his attention back to Alkippe, he saw a wicked grin lighting her face and realized she had followed his thought. Howling a war cry, she charged him. At the last moment, Hercules ducked aside. As he spun around to face her again, he heard a gasp from behind him.
Alkippe had misjudged the momentum of her attack and the strength of the old stones. When her body impacted the stones, some of the old mortar crumbled and a few stones spilled away from the window carrying her with them.
Hercules rushed to the window. He had not meant this to end with her death. To his shock, he spotted Alkippe dangling precariously from the stone work below. Even as he watched, more of the old stone shifted under her fingers.
"Here!" Hercules reached out for her. "Take my hand!"
Alkippe looked up. Hatred blazing in her eyes. "I would rather die!!" Alkippe smiled, then without breaking eye contact, she loosed her grip on the stones.
As she started to fall, Hercules lunged for her. His hand closed on empty air and he slumped against the wall, closing his eyes against the sight.
"Pity," Ares calm voice sounded beside him and he opened his eyes. "She had such potential. Too bad."
"ARES!!!" Hercules lunged for the god, slamming him against the wall. His hands clenched in the god's tunic. "You're finished here," he growled.
"Oh, not quite, brother!" Ares smiled smugly at him. "You seem to have forgotten something… Iolaus!"
"What?!" Hercules followed Ares' glance and watched Iolaus slowly stand and draw his sword. The hunter was pale beneath his tan, his expression fixed and eerily empty as he followed Ares' orders. Hercules glared at Ares. "Let him go!" he ordered the god.
"Now why would I want to do that?" Ares asked smugly before vanishing from Hercules' grasp to reappear behind Iolaus. He laughed wickedly as Hercules started towards him and Iolaus stepped between.
"Kill him, Iolaus!" Ares ordered.
Hercules watched in horror as the hunter took a few more steps towards him. "Fight him, Iolaus!" he urged. "I know you can do it!" His gaze locked with that of Iolaus.
"Do as you're told, Iolaus!" Ares snapped impatiently.
"NO!" Iolaus spun around to face Ares. "I don't follow your orders, Ares!"
"I told you to kill him!" Ares growled, his anger mounting.
Iolaus swayed as the god exerted his power. "Your hold over me is gone, Ares!" he stated grimly. Iolaus felt Hercules move up beside him.
"Give it up, Ares," Hercules grinned at the god. "The game is over and you lost!"
Ares glared angrily at the two for a long moment. "Perhaps not everything is lost," he growled. With a flick of his wrist he sent a bolt of power speeding towards Iolaus. "We will meet again, Hercules," he promised as he vanished.
With a cry, Hercules dove towards Iolaus, shoving the hunter out of the path of the blast. The two of them hit the floor hard as the bolt shattered the stonework behind where they'd been standing.
Shaking his head, Hercules picked himself up from the floor. Ares had put enough power in that blast to vaporize one or both of them and his head was ringing from the close brush. It took him a moment to realize that what he was hearing wasn't just in his head, there was an ominous creaking coming from the walls and ceiling. He glanced over at Iolaus. The sight of the hunter's still, white face sent him scrambling to Iolaus' side.
"Iolaus." The word was a bare whisper as Hercules gently turned the hunter over. "Come on, old buddy," he pleaded with the still form. "You can't quit now."
Iolaus stirred in Hercules' arms. The demigod felt relief sweep through him as the blue eyes opened. "Herc." Iolaus blinked, identifying him. "…is you."
Hercules grinned down at the hunter. "Yes, Iolaus, it's really me." A loud crack sounded overhead, reminding Hercules they were still in danger. "Come on, my friend," he told Iolaus. "We've got to get you out of here." Suiting actions to word, he gently lifted Iolaus off the floor and carried him towards the door. Blithely ignoring the hunter's protests, he hurried down the corridor, retracing his steps.
The sound of crumbling masonry was growing louder behind them. Hercules could feel the rumbling in the floor and it spurred him on. Dashing around a corner, he collided with someone running the other way. Stumbling back a step, he automatically glanced down at Iolaus. The hunter was once again unconscious.
Hercules looked up to find Talus, sword in hand, staring back at him. "So.. We meet again, Talus."
"But, but.. you're supposed to be dead!" the young man stuttered in amazement. "I saw.. you were buried.. No one could survive that!!"
"Sorry to disappoint you," Hercules replied sarcastically. "Now why don't you get out of the way, before we're all buried in this pile of rubble." He felt the floor shift under his feet and staggered slightly.
Talus' sword wavered as he looked wildly about. Then his gaze came to rest on Iolaus and his eyes hardened. "Bruiach!" His sword came up, baring Hercules' way. "What are you doing with him?" he demanded. "Put him down now!"
"Talus, you don't want to do this." Hercules sighed. "We've got to get out of here, before this whole place collapses!"
"And let you take my brother to be hanged, as well," Talus sneered. "No way! Whatever you've done to him, I'll take care of him."
"Your brother?" Hercules stared at the boy in amazement. "Talus, this isn't your brother. His name is Iolaus and he's my best friend."
"Yeah, sure." The disbelief was plain on Talus' face. "That's what Ares wanted you to think! He made my brother look just like your friend to fool you!"
A loud crash from behind him told Hercules he was rapidly running out of time. "Look, I don't have time to argue with you," he said grimly. Glaring at the boy, he started around him but Talus quickly moved to bar the way.
Before Hercules could react, the floor bucked violently, nearly sending him to his knees. Bits of stone and masonry were raining down around them constantly now, the pieces getting larger and larger. For the first time, Hercules could see the awareness of danger in Talus' face. Taking advantage of the boy's fear, he shoved him in front of him. "Find us the shortest route out of here!" he ordered. "We can settle this later!"
"Count on it!" Talus retorted before leading the way through the rapidly deteriorating building.
The two made a mad dash through the debris raining down around them. Hercules used his own body to shield Iolaus from as much as he could. By the time he spotted the exit he was covered in scratches and stone dust but Iolaus was still untouched and that was all that mattered to him.
The exit loomed like a promise of the Elysian Fields and Hercules put on a burst of speed, desperately trying to reach it. He was within a few strides of the door when he heard Talus cry out. Hercules turned, quickly spotting Talus. The boy had been unable to dodge a falling column and now lay trapped.
Hercules hesitated a moment, then with a quick glance at Iolaus, he hurried back to Talus. Gingerly setting the hunter down, he moved to the pillar. "When I lift this, you pull yourself out," he yelled to him.
"No!" The gasping cry made Hercules look at Talus in astonishment. As their gazes met, he saw that Talus knew it was too late. The boy smiled softly at him, then his gaze wandered to Iolaus. One hand reached out to gently touch the hunter's hair. "Tell Bruiach I'm sorry I was such a disappointment to him." Talus spoke quietly. "Tell him.. tell him, I wish I'd been a better.. brother.."
"No.. Hercules.. it's better.. this.. way," Talus interrupted. "Just.. make… sure.. he's.. ok.. please?"
Hercules nodded, silently promising.
"Go!" Talus ordered, turning his face away.
Hercules hesitated a moment more, then picked up Iolaus and quickly made his way outside. He was only a few feet from the door when he heard a roar. Turning around, he watched silently as the stones collapsed.
Iolaus slowly opened his eyes. For a long moment he stared at the ceiling above him, trying to piece together the fragments of his memory into something that would tell him how he came to be there. The smell of smoke was heavy in the room. Iolaus shifted, trying to identify the source then moaned as a stab of pain shot through his head. That pain seemed to wake others and Iolaus held himself as still as possible while every muscle in his body loudly announced its displeasure. At the sound of a door opening he opened his eyes again, careful not to shift too much and set off another wave of pain.
"Well, I thought you might be awake."
Gingerly, Iolaus turned his head to find an older man fussing over some vials on a table. "Who are you?" he asked. "Where am I?"
The old man smiled at him. "That's good, that's very good," he told Iolaus. "I was half expecting you to ask who you were." He finished what he was doing. Picking up a mug, he stepped to the bed.
"You still haven't answered my questions," Iolaus said, warily eyeing the mug. His memory was beginning to come back and he wasn't about to drink anything a stranger gave him right now.
"Stubborn, too, I see," the man exclaimed, his smile getting bigger. "My name is Astephos and I'm a healer with King Emion's army. Right now my job is to make sure you get better." Astrephos winked at Iolaus. "Or that rather large friend of yours will be very upset with me."
"Herc? Hercules is here?" Iolaus tried to get up but another wave of pain sent him crashing back down.
Astrephos frowned at him. "Stay right where you are, young man! You are in no condition to go anywhere!"
"I need to see Herc!" Iolaus struggled to gather the strength to stand.
"I expect you'll see him soon enough," the healer soothed. "But I must insist you allow him to rest. He hasn't left your side for the past three days. He is exhausted."
"Three days?" Iolaus whispered in disbelief.
Astrephos' expression became grave. "You've been extremely ill, Iolaus. I don't know what poison they were giving you, but it did a lot of damage."
"Wasn't a poison," Iolaus told him, the memories of Alkippe taunting him coming back. "It was some kind of potion that was supposed to make me lie to people." He shuddered as he remembered the other effects. "Ares had found a new use for it."
"A potion that makes someone lie? Very strange." Astrephos frowned in concentration. "I don't think I've I heard of that before."
Before Iolaus could say anything else, another stranger entered the room. "Heard of what before, Astrephos?"
"Ah, Captain Mulius," Astrephos exclaimed, smiling. "Come to check up on me?"
The captain returned Astrephos' smile. "No, your patient." His expression sobered. "How is he doing?"
"Iolaus is doing much better, Captain." Astrephos frowned at his patient. "And if he'll just take his medicine instead of staring at it, he'll continue to get better."
"What was wrong with him, Astrephos?" Mulius asked. Iolaus saw suspicion in the glance the captain shot at him. "And how soon will he be ready to travel to Petras?"
"Hey!" Iolaus interrupted. "Do you guys mind not talking about me as if I wasn't here?" The captain glared at him, but the hunter stubbornly met the man's gaze head on. He'd had enough of being ignored and talked about in these past few days. Now that he was once more in control of himself, he wasn't going to put up with it if he could help it.
Astrephos sighed and tried to ease the tension he felt building between the two men. "Iolaus was drugged, Captain. I don't recognize the specific potion used, but he says it was supposed to make him lie."
Iolaus expected the captain to react with as much disbelief as the healer had. To his amazement, the man actually seemed to accept the explanation. "I've heard of a potion like that," Mulius stated.
"You have?" the healer asked skeptically.
Mulius shrugged. "I always thought it was something of a myth, but it's a well known one in some parts of the Arcadian highlands. The potion supposedly comes from the blossom of a rare plant. The thing blooms for one moon once every hundred years or so." Seeing the disbelief on the healer's face, the captain smiled wryly. "I'm just repeating what I heard as a child, Astrephos. Surely you've heard some of the locals refer to a 'liar's moon' before."
"Yes, yes I have," Astrephos admitted slowly. "Still, it's hard to credit such peasant superstition."
"It's definitely not a superstition, Astrephos," Iolaus interrupted grimly. "It has another effect as well." He shuddered at the memories of being under Ares' control but forced himself to continue. "It opens a human's mind to the influence of the gods. They can literally take you over."
"Take you.. Oh!" Astrephos exclaimed. "I know of that! I've heard that some temples use it to let the gods speak through their priests."
Iolaus laughed weakly. "So Ares wasn't as smart as he thought he was!"
"Ares?" The captain exclaimed. "What does Ares have to do with this?"
Quickly Iolaus explained Ares' plan and how the god had used him to try to destroy Hercules. When he finished the captain sat silent for a long time, frowning in thought. Finally he looked up and met Iolaus' gaze. "Well, if what you say is true, this definitely changes things," he told Iolaus. "Hercules will back up your story?"
"Well, uh, I'm not sure," Iolaus replied hesitantly. "I don't really know how much he heard before he showed up."
"How much who heard?"
All three jumped, startled by the new voice. Hercules smiled to see his friend once more awake and aware.
"Herc!" Iolaus exclaimed happily. "It's good to see you! But what are you doing out of bed? Astrephos said you haven't been sleeping! You really should follow your healer's advice."
Hercules burst into laughter. "Now I know you're going to be fine, my friend. You're babbling again."
Astrephos snorted. "You're a fine one to talk, young man," he told Iolaus. "When you haven't yet touched the medicine I gave you."
Hercules tried to frown at Iolaus, but couldn't quite wipe the grin off his face. "Iolaus, drink your medicine."
"But, Herc," Iolaus faked a whine and glanced slyly at his friend under lowered eyelids.
"No buts," Hercules scolded the hunter. "You do as you're told!"
The captain and the healer had both watched the interaction between the two, now Astrephos stepped forward. "I'm prescribing more rest for Iolaus, starting as soon as he finishes his medicine." He glared at Iolaus, when the hunter opened his mouth to protest. "No more delays, young man! Drink it now."
As Hercules laughed at the hunter's expression, Astrephos turned on him. "And you," the healer glared at Hercules. "I thought I told you to get some rest?"
"I did!" the demi-god protested in surprise.
"Hmmph!" Astrephos snorted in disbelief. "Not enough, I'll wager." Exerting his authority, Astrephos began herding everyone out of the room. "Out! All of you out now! You can talk to Iolaus later!"
With a shrug and a 'who-can-argue-with-that' grin at Iolaus, Hercules allowed himself to be chivied from the room. His last view of the hunter was of Iolaus grimacing as he drank his medicine, the healer standing impatiently over him.
Relieved that his partner was going to be alright, Hercules turned to head back to his own bed and came face to face with the captain of the guards.
"Hercules, I'd like to speak with you a moment," the captain indicated a small table to one side of the room.
With a sigh, Hercules followed the man and took a seat at the table. "What can I do for you?"
The next time Iolaus awoke he found Hercules seated beside the bed.
"Ahhh, I knew the smell of food would wake you up," Hercules grinned at him, indicating the tray on the table.
"I'm always up for food, Herc, you know that." Iolaus grinned back. He sat up, wary of reawakening the pain he'd felt last time. He was pleasantly surprised to realize that he no longer felt anything more than a twinge or two. His stomach growled loudly as Hercules set the tray in his lap and he got a good whiff of the food. "Mmmm, smells great! Thanks!"
"I'm just glad to have the real you back, Iolaus," Hercules smiled at him. "Appetite and all."
"So," Iolaus began around a mouthful of food, "you going to fill me in on what's been happening around here? How did you find me? What's happened with Ares army? How come King Emion still has soldiers here? And where is here anyway?"
Hercules had started laughing halfway through his questions and Iolaus paused long enough to raise an eyebrow at him.
"Alright, alright." Hercules proceeded to fill Iolaus in on the events that led to his appearance in the castle. Skipping over the events that Iolaus himself had been witness to, he went on to tell of their escape and Talus' death. "Once we got out, I headed back here as fast as I could. You were in pretty bad shape, my friend."
Iolaus nodded. He knew better than Hercules just how close that battle had been. "So what happened after you got back here?"
"The rest of King Emion's army had just arrived," Hercules explained. "Astrephos was with them and took charge of you." Hercules hesitated and Iolaus could see the pain in his eyes as he continued, "I didn't want to leave you, but someone had to deal with what was left of Ares' army. The king has a good general, but with Ares involved, I didn't want to take any chances."
"Hey, it's ok, Herc," Iolaus hastened to reassure the demi-god. "I understand. The greater good and all that." The hunter smiled. "So you went off and trashed Ares' army, huh?"
Hercules laughed slightly. "Yeah, what was left of it anyway. Most of them had run off after the fortress collapsed. Once I was sure that Ares wouldn't be interfering, I headed back here and left the soldiers to take care of the rest."
"And you've been here ever since," Iolaus finished for him.
Hercules nodded. "Until Astrephos chased me out last night."
"Uhm, Herc." Iolaus was still puzzled about one thing. "If the bandits are all gone, how come Captain Mulius is still here?"
"Well, there is the possibility that some of Ares' men might still cause problems for the villagers here," Hercules temporized. He didn't want Iolaus to hear the full reason until he was stronger. "The captain and his men have also been helping the villagers to rebuild a bit."
Iolaus nodded. Those were both fine reasons, but the way the captain had been acting around him earlier, he knew there had to be something more. With a sigh, he put pushed what was left of his meal away and gazed soberly at his friend. "Ok, now tell me the rest of it."
"There's really nothing more to tell." Hercules tried to change the subject. "You should finish that, Iolaus," he said, indicating the tray.
"I'm full," Iolaus told him impatiently. "And stop trying to change the subject."
"I'm not!" Hercules protested.
"Yes, you are." Iolaus studied his friend. "It's because of Bruiach, isn't it? And the stuff that happened in Petras?" Hercules remained silent, but Iolaus knew that look. "Herc, you've got to tell me. I've got a right to know."
"It's all a big misunderstanding, Iolaus," Hercules assured him. "It'll be straightened out in no time, you'll see."
Iolaus sighed in exasperation. "What exactly is it? Come on, Herc, it's not as if they're going to throw me in jail." Hercules flinched at Iolaus' statement and suddenly all the pieces fell into place. Swallowing hard, Iolaus forced himself to stay calm. "That's it. That's what you didn't want to tell me."
"It'll be ok, Iolaus," Hercules tried to reassure him. "Once they know that Ares was behind everything I'm sure they'll understand."
"Yeah, sure, Herc." Iolaus managed to smile at the demigod. Feigning weariness, Iolaus stretched. "Could you take the tray away, Herc? I think I'd like to get some more sleep."
"Sure, Iolaus." Hercules picked up the tray and stood up. He hesitated, watching as the hunter settled himself in the bed. "I'll be right outside if you need anything."
"Thanks." Iolaus rolled over, putting his back to the demigod. Closing his eyes, he pretended to fall asleep, silently urging Hercules to leave. Finally he heard the soft click of the door closing. When he was sure his friend had left, he rolled back over. Opening his eyes, he stared sightlessly at the ceiling, sorting through the welter of emotions running through him. After a long time, he sighed. He'd reached his decision.
Iolaus drifted off to sleep, one last thought running through his mind. Hercules was not going to like what he was about to do.
Hercules cornered the captain over breakfast, trying once more to convince the man of Iolaus' innocence. He didn't think he was having much luck. Mulius seemed to be a fair man, but one who was stubbornly set on doing his duty as he saw it. Both men looked up in surprise when the door to the backroom opened and Iolaus appeared.
"Iolaus!" Hercules frowned at the hunter. "What are you doing out of bed?"
"I'm fine, Herc." Iolaus smiled, not quite meeting Hercules' gaze. "I can't stay in bed forever you know!" Turning to the captain, Iolaus took a deep breath and braced himself. "Captain, I'm ready to go back with you."
Mulius stared at him for a moment before nodding slowly. "I'll have the men get ready to leave." With a glance at the scowling demigod the captain left.
The door had barely closed behind the captain before Hercules exploded. "What do you think you are doing, Iolaus?"
Iolaus sighed and sat down at the table, absently fiddling with a crust of bread. "What's right, Herc. What I have to do." He looked up at his friend. "I know what I did, everything I said. How can I expect these people to simply forget about all of that and take my word that it was Ares' doing?"
"But it wasn't your fault!" Hercules protested. "You can't mean you want to go to prison for something you had no control over!"
Iolaus sighed. "No I don't. But if that's what happens, I guess I'll just have to live with it." He leaned forward, his gaze entreating Hercules' understanding. "I can't run away from this, Herc. If I do, Ares wins, don't you see?"
"But.." Hercules tried to think of something that might dissuade the hunter.
"It has to be this way, Hercules," Iolaus stated, determinedly. "I'm going back with the captain and I'll have my hearing before the king. Let him judge." Reaching out he grasped Hercules' arm. "It's justice, Herc. More than that, it's the right thing to do." Iolaus gazed earnestly at Hercules, trying to see if he'd finally convinced the demigod.
The sound of a throat being cleared caused both men to look up. Captain Mulius stood in the doorway looking slightly uncomfortable. Seeing he had their attention, he spoke, "Sorry to interrupt, but we're ready to leave, Iolaus."
Iolaus smiled and nodded. "I'm coming, Captain."
The captain backed out of the door, and Iolaus started to follow him.
"I'm coming with you, Iolaus."
Iolaus looked up and grinned at his friend. "I was hoping you'd say that."
Hercules smiled back and clasped the hunter's shoulder. "Let's go get this settled."
Iolaus leaned back against the cell wall and sighed. It seemed he'd been spending an awful lot of time in one prison or another lately and he was really getting tired of it. Now he was waiting to find out if he'd be spending a lot more time in a cell. He allowed his mind to drift back over the events of the day.
The trial had seemed to last forever. One person after another had come forward to tell stories of his or Bruiach's crimes. That part had gotten really confusing for everyone, he remembered. Finally it had been his turn. He'd told his story as simply as he could, knowing now was not the time for embellishments. Still, he was a good story teller, even if he did say so himself, and he'd heard a few gasps of astonishment and horror from the watching crowd.
When he'd finished, Hercules added his own details to the tale, then Herc had gone on to tell of their long friendship and how close they were. Hercules had also pointed out that some of the things Bruiach had done, Iolaus couldn't possibly be involved in. The two of them had been in Corinth at the time, visiting Hercules brother.
Astrephos had stepped forward to corroborate the fact that Iolaus had been suffering from the effects of some drug when Hercules brought the unconscious hunter to the village. Then to Iolaus' great surprise, Captain Mulius had stepped forward. He told the court the same story of the potion that he had told Astrephos and Iolaus. Mulius then went on to tell of Iolaus voluntarily accompanying him back to Petras for trial. Iolaus had squirmed a bit in embarrassment at the captains words of praise.
The entire time the king and his ministers had listened quietly to each speaker, never once giving any hint of how they felt. When Captain Mulius finished speaking, one of the ministers had whispered something to the king. The king had nodded solemnly and then given orders for Iolaus to be placed in a cell to await his decision. That had been hours ago.
Unable to contain his frustration, Iolaus jumped to his feet and began to pace the cell again. He'd made two complete circuits and was halfway through the third when the sound of keys in a lock announced the return of the guards.
"Buy you a drink?" Hercules grinned down at Iolaus. "I feel like celebrating!" He steered his friend towards the inn.
"Make it dinner and you've got yourself a deal!" Iolaus laughed. "The king's hospitality leaves a bit to be desired!"
"The way you eat, I'm not sure I have enough dinars with me!" Hercules teased, ducking a slap.
Laughing and joking, the two entered the inn. Iolaus' smile faded slightly as he saw Kilos making his way forward to greet them.
"Ahh, Hercules!" Kilos greeted the demigod effusively, then turned to Iolaus. "And this must be that friend you were so worried about." He smiled at the hunter.
"Uh, yeah," Iolaus answered warily. "I'm Iolaus."
"Yes, I remember," Kilos answered, his smile faded for a moment and then returned. "Come, come! I've saved the best seats in the house for you!" He led the pair over to a table placed closed to the fireplace and fairly private. As they seated themselves, he looked at Iolaus once more. "Strange thing, not long after you left, Ilea vanished as well." With those words he was off, promising to bring them drinks and a meal.
Iolaus looked at Hercules in puzzlement. Hercules shrugged. "Alkippe." The single word said everything and Iolaus nodded. Iolaus glanced around the room, a slow smile lighting his face as he realized that the suspicion and hostility Ares had engendered had also vanished. People were once more smiling and laughing and not one suspicious glance had come his way. The grin widened as he caught sight of two tousled heads making their way through the crowd.
"Who are you waving at, Iolaus?" Hercules asked, amused. "Not another girl, I hope."
"Nope, just a couple of friends," Iolaus replied, grinning, as the two boys came to a breathless halt by the table. "Hi, Darius, Markus."
"Hi, Iolaus!" the two chorused.
"Herc, I'd like you to meet Darius and Markus," Iolaus turned to the smiling demigod. "They were a big help to me the last time I was here." Turning back to the boys, he continued, "Guys, say hello to my friend Hercules."
"Hercules!?!?!" Markus squeaked.
"Oh, wow!!!" Darius was having a hard time saying anything and Iolaus had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the expression on the lad's face.
"Hello, Markus, Darius. I'm glad to meet you." Hercules managed to greet the two solemnly. "Thanks for helping Iolaus."
"Y-your welcome," Markus managed to stutter, while Darius just nodded, too awestruck to speak. "Uhm, we gotta go," Markus fidgeted, slowly backing away. "N-Nice to meet you, Hercules!" With those words he took off running, Darius close behind.
"I told you Iolaus knew Hercules!" Darius' voice drifted back to the two men and neither could contain their laughter any longer.
"Now that's more like it!" Kilos smiled at the two as he set mugs in front of them. "Hasn't been enough laughter around here lately. Glad to see the last of the long faces."
Hercules smiled as he raised the mug to drink.
Iolaus hesitated. "What's this?" he asked.
"Ah, I thought a bit of a celebration was called for," Kilos explained. "Drink up! For you two, the ale is on the house tonight!"
Hercules nearly choked on a mouthful of ale at the expression on Iolaus' face. His partner definitely looked a bit green, as Iolaus asked, "Uh, can I have some water instead?"
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