A Task

by Ceallach

Part I

'Beautiful day,' Iolaus thought, as he made his way along a path through the woods. 'Wish I didn't have to leave Peratos though, that was some festival!' Grinning to himself, he let his mind drift backward over the past few days, remembering how much he had enjoyed himself.

Sighing, Iolaus shook his head, 'I shouldn't have waited so long to leave though, I'm going to be late meeting Herc. Ah, well, this shortcut they told me about should make up some of the time, and if I don't stop till late...'

The sounds of a fight echoing through the woods brought his attention back to the present. "What?? I thought this path was rarely used?"

Iolaus started running toward the sounds, one hand dropping automatically to the sword at his side. It didn't take long to reach the scene and what he saw caused him to stop in his tracks. In the clearing stood a young woman holding a staff and using it to defend against the four men attacking her. He grinned as she gave one attacker a good whack to the side of the head, sending him reeling backwards. 'She doesn't seem to need any help,' he thought admiringly, 'but I think I'll stick around till it's over. Just in case..' Grinning, he leaned back against a tree and prepared to enjoy the show.

He watched as the girl parried the sword of the man in front of her, then spun to trip another coming at her from the left. She was giving a good account of herself and he expected the bandits to quickly give up and seek easier prey.

One of the men spoke words he had never heard before. Puzzled, he listened as the girl replied. Still he couldn't understand. The first man called out and three more men appeared at the edge of the clearing.

Without further thought, Iolaus drew his sword and sprang at the new attackers, calling a warning to the girl.

The girl spun around at the strange call, and barely managed to block the sword descending on her. Her eyes widened at the sight of him charging her attackers. For a brief moment their eyes locked and something seemed to pass between them. Then the press of battle called her attention away.

Iolaus charged into the tallest of the attackers, using his momentum to shove the man into a second attacker. He turned to deal with the third and froze. This wasn't a Man he was facing!

He shook himself quickly and parried a blow. His mind was still in a daze. 'What, Who are these people... They look like gods!'

He heard the girl cry out in that strange language and spun towards her. Too late he saw the net that was flung at him. It enveloped him completely and seemed to cling with a life of it's own. He saw the girl racing towards him, and heard the first 'man' cry out for the third time.

The world spun dizzily and a great void seemed to be overtaking him.

Iolaus fought back with all his strength, struggling to free himself from the net.

As the void came rushing up to him, he felt a hand take hold of his. Someone was trying to pull him out and he held on as hard as he could. With a roar the forest, the girl, the strangers, the very world disappeared! For what seemed an eternity, the only things he could feel where the hand in his and the clinging net.

Finally the world came back, the loud roaring began to subside and he could once again hear.

"Leave him out of this!"

"You seem to care a great deal for this man, Ciaran. Perhaps with HIS life as the prize of success, you would be more agreeable."

"We've enough trouble with mortals already, Ellarion! We only need ONE to complete our task! Let's just be rid of the man!"

Iolaus fought back the dizziness and opened his eyes. The girl was standing over him protectively. Beyond her he could see the 'men' they had been fighting. He began trying to free himself from the clinging net, keeping a careful eye on the actions of the 'men'.

"NO! I won't let you harm him."

"You are in our place now, Ciaran, how will you stop us?" the second voice asked and looking Iolaus realized this was the one he had been fighting at the end.

"I will find a way! Or I will make you regret it for the rest of your days!"

The first voice spoke again and Iolaus recognized him as the leader who had shouted commands.

"Peace, Aodhan! It seems we are at an impasse. We will not allow you or the man to leave, Ciaran."

"IF I take on this 'task' of yours, Ellarion, will you let him go?"

"Of course, Ciaran, when the task is done."

"No, Ellarion, release him now and I will do what you ask."

Aodhan made to speak but Ellarion's raised hand stopped him.

"We must think on this Ciaran, until then it were best that you did not try to leave this place. You would find what is outside most......unpleasant."

Ciaran sighed as the group vanished. Turning to Iolaus she began to help him free himself.

"What is going on here?" Iolaus asked, sitting up.

"Oh, did you hear?"

"Some...there was something about a task and killing me. Which you wouldn't let them do. Thanks." Iolaus pulled the last of the net off and looked up.

Once again their eyes locked and he found himself drowning in a pool of blue. Time seemed to stand still as he gazed at her. She shook herself, breaking the contact between them. Straightening she offered him her hand to help him up.

He took it and tried to stand but the room began to spin and he found himself on his knees.

"I....think.....I.....had...better..stay..here for a while." Iolaus grinned shakily up at her.

Ciaran said nothing merely smiling. Iolaus took a moment to study her. Long, light brown hair left free, except for two small braids at either temple. Slender, graceful figure. And those incredible blue eyes set in a small pointed face.

Ciaran smiled ruefully, "Thank you for trying to help me. I'm sorry you had to get involved in this."

"It was my choice Ciaran. Where are we?"

"The otherworld..." she paused, "I'm sorry I don't even know your name!"

"Iolaus." he replied then, remembering, asked "Why can I understand you now and... wait a minute! 'Otherworld'...as in the Elysian Fields, Tartarus...THAT otherworld??? Are you saying we're DEAD!!!!"

"NO of course we're not dead! What are you talking about?" Ciaran asked with a puzzled frown.

"The Elysian Fields???" Iolaus tried again. When she simply shook her head, he continued "Tartarus??? You know...where we go after we die." Sudden comprehension blossomed on her face as she replied "Oh, you mean Tir-Nan-Og! Hardly!"

"Tir-Nan-Og?? This is crazy!!! First I can't understand a word you're saying, then we somehow end up here and I can understand you perfectly!" Iolaus shook his head trying to clear the confusion. For the first time he took a good look at his surroundings.

They were in a small room or perhaps a cave. The walls were rough and unfinished. There were no windows or doors, nor any way of entering or leaving that he could see. Light seemed to come from everywhere and yet there was no source.

He turned back to Ciaran, "Can you tell me what is going on?"

"I'm not sure, Iolaus" she said, "I'm no bard but I'll try."

"This is what my people call the otherworld. The home of the Sidhe. They control it and can make it anything they wish. It's magic. That may be why we can understand each other."

"Magic...I thought only the gods could work magic." Iolaus was a little skeptical of this claim of magic.

"Well.... some among my people claim the Sidhe ARE gods. I don't believe that."

Iolaus noticed a slight hesitation in her voice as she spoke the last words, wondering who she was trying to convince, him or herself. The whole thing was giving him a headache.

"Why don't you tell me about yourself while we look for a way out of here?"

Iolaus stood up and again felt the room begin to spin. Ciaran steadied him and the spell passed quickly. He moved to the walls and began to examine them. As Ciaran joined him, he grinned at her, "Well?"

"I'm a Celt, Iolaus," She paused, " from Eire."

"I'm sorry, Ciaran, I've never heard of it." Iolaus smiled at her, hoping he hadn't offended her. "So...how did you come to be a prisoner of these...what did you call them?"


"Right, a prisoner of these sidhe?"

Ciaran smiled ruefully, "Ahhh, a bit of foolishness on my part. I'd been warned to be wary of dealings with them....I thought I was immune to their spells... I was coming home from a ceili one night and heard the sound of music. When I found the source, I saw a group of sidhe having a party of their own. One of them saw me. He called me forth from my hiding place and invited me to join them. More fool I, for I did."

"And when you joined them, they took you prisoner?"

"No, not immediately. But it was a trap. They had need of a mortal to perform a task for them and had used their music as a lure."

"They couldn't hold me unless I ate their food or drank their wine, I knew better than to do so and only drank from my flask. But the sidhe don't tire, and time is ... different in their realms. They invited me to join their dance. Ohhh, it's a wondrous thing Iolaus, to see them dance! I could not resist."

Ciaran's eyes took on a distant look, and Iolaus wondered what she was seeing. He gently touched her shoulder to bring her back to the present. "Go on" he said softly.

Ciaran turned to him and smiled, still with that dreaming look in her eyes. For a moment Iolaus felt his heart stop, and then it began to race. Neither said anything, he cupped her check in his hand and leaned toward her. For a moment she swayed toward him, then her eyes refocused and she pulled away. A tension filled silence stretched between them.

"I'm sorry," both spoke at once. They paused then, "I didn't mean to interrupt.." "You wanted me to finish..." "I'm sorry" "You first" Laughter broke the momentary awkwardness.

"Finish your story, Ciaran, please?" Iolaus asked grinning.

"Yes, well...it's fairly simple from there. While I was dancing, they replaced the mead in my flask with some of their own. When the dance was finished, I took a drink... and they had me."

"But how did you end up in the forest near Peratos?"

"Do you mean the clearing? Is that where I was?" Iolaus nodded as Ciaran continued, "I didn't recognize anything. I thought perhaps too much time had passed while I was dancing. I almost expected to find death waiting for me as I stepped into it."

"What! Why would you expect that? It was only one night!"

"I told you, time is different here... A night spent here, can be a hundred years in our world, or a year here only an hour there. It depends on the will of the sidhe."

Iolaus could only shake his head at this... "That sounds impossible."

Ciaran looked amused and continued her story.

"When they saw me drink, they told me what they had done. Then offered me a bargain. They would free me in my own time and place if I would perform a small task for them. When I refused, their King, Ellarion, summoned guards to take me to quarters they had prepared for me. I managed to elude the guards long enough to find an opening into our world. They caught up with me there as I stepped out. The rest you know."

"So...What is this task?"

"I don't know. They wouldn't tell me until I agreed to their bargain. It could be anything, from finding the perfect rose to taking on the high king himself. The bards say it is always dangerous and sometimes deadly for a mortal to perform a task for the sidhe."

"And this is what you agreed to if they would free me? I can't let you do that!"

"You don't have a choice, Iolaus. The bargains already been offered, if the sidhe agree to it, it's done."

"Well I say it isn't! I won't let you do it! We can find some other way out of here!"

"No, Iolaus, there is no other way. The sidhe have made sure of that this time. Think! How long have we been looking?"

Iolaus stubbornly went on with the search. 'I'm not going to allow her to sacrifice herself! We haven't been looking that long! There has to be some way out of here!'

He felt Ciaran watching him, finally she rejoined the search. Iolaus' mind was racing with ideas, 'So they need a mortal to perform a dangerous task, well... it's not going to be Ciaran! I'll do it! I'll have a better chance of succeeding and then they can release us both!' With that thought he felt anticipation replace some of the anxiety.

Iolaus turned his attention back to Ciaran. 'Maybe when I finish we can..' Sudden dizziness interrupted the rest of his thought and he clung to the wall to keep from falling.

It passed quickly this time. He turned to find Ciaran scrambling to her feet. Following her gaze, he saw the people she called the sidhe.

"Well, have you decided?"

"Yes Ciaran, we will.."

"Wait a minute!" Iolaus interrupted, "I have a bargain for you. Free Ciaran and let me do this task for you instead."

"Iolaus, no!!! You don't know what you're doing!"

Ciaran started forward but Iolaus grabbed her before she could say anymore. Holding her tightly with a hand over her mouth to prevent her from speaking. He looked up to find the sidhe calmly watching, thinly veiled amusement in their faces.

"Well, Ellarion, this becomes more interesting. What does my oh-so wise brother say now?" Aodhan smirked.

After a sharp glance at his brother, Ellarion turned back to Iolaus.

Frowning he told Iolaus, "We cannot release her until the task is complete. She knows too much of us and might interfere. While you who know very little, would have less chance of succeeding."

"MMMMMMPHHHHHHH" Iolaus shifted his grip on Ciaran and started to reply when her elbow caught him in the ribs. For a moment his hold loosened. "Let me go! I won't agree to any of this!"

"This time Ciaran, you're the one who's not going to have any choice." Iolaus gasped as he made sure he had a better hold on her.

He turned his attention back to Ellarion, "Then what do you suggest? I won't allow her to take on this task by herself."

He glared at Aodhan who was now grinning broadly.

"Hmmmm...Perhaps...If we sent you both...."

"NO! Ellarion! How do we know they will complete the task if we release them both?"

"Silence Aodhan, it is my decision to make."

Iolaus grimaced as Ciaran managed to kick him in the shin. "What are you suggesting Ellarion?"

Ellarion starred at him for a long moment. "Sending either of you alone, the risk of failure is greater. However, you both have knowledge and skills which might allow you to succeed if you worked together.... but Aodhan has a point. What would bind you to this task if we allowed both of you to go?"

Ciaran had stopped struggling and he could feel her tension as he replied "My word, Ellarion. Let us go and we will complete this 'task' for you."

Open skepticism showed on the faces of the sidhe.

"Mortals have made such promises before and broken them at a whim" Aodhan sneered "We would need more than that!"

"Perhaps a spell then..." A woman's voice spoke from the shadows at the rear of the group. She stepped forward and continued, "we could place a spell on them to bind them to this..."

Iolaus was stunned by her beauty, and stared mesmerized. She was as beautiful as any goddess he had ever seen!

"It would seem Aoibheil, that you have already cast a spell upon the mortal!"

Iolaus vaguely heard Aodhan's mocking laughter, all of his attention was riveted to Aoibheil. His hold on Ciaran slackened and she took advantage of the moment.

Sudden sharp pain in his hand, broke the trance. He winced and shifted his hand away from Ciaran's teeth. Ciaran had bitten hard but made no other move to escape his hold.

Ellarion smiled, "Yes, Aoibheil, use a spell to bind them to this task. If either fails or strays from it, they will both find themselves returned here...to be your playthings forever."

"Hey! Wait a minute!" Iolaus protested. "You can't ....."

"We only offer two choices, mortal..." Ellarion interrupted "Refuse the task, and we will keep you here to entertain us...... or accept and we will bind you both to this. With death or imprisonment here as the price of failure. Choose quickly, my patience is wearing thin!"

Iolaus could tell Ellarion was serious, they weren't going to be given any other options. He removed his hand from Ciaran's mouth and asked "Well?"

She turned her head to look up at him for a moment, then looked back at Ellarion. "There is not much to choose, Ellarion. Stay as prisoners here or go and take the chance of being returned as prisoners if we fail.... What if we succeed Ellarion? Will you have another task for us? What guarantee do we have from you, if we are successful?"

"We have already told you we would free you both, Ciaran. What more do you want?"

"More than your word alone, Ellarion. Let Aoibheil make that a part of the binding as well!"

"You are wiser than you seem, Ciaran...very well... your freedom, if you succeed, will be part of the binding. Now choose!"

Ciaran turned to Iolaus, her eyes questioning. Slowly he nodded, and she turned back to the sidhe.

"Very well, Ellarion, under those conditions we will take on your task."

"And we will keep our word to you, should you succeed, you will both be returned to where you were found. As King here, I swear by the goddess Danu, that this will be part of the binding placed on you."

Ciaran nodded and Ellarion gestured for Aoibheil to proceed.

Aoibheil advanced and Iolaus found himself watching her in fascination. Ciaran squirmed in his arms and he looked at her. She was staring at him with a worried look in her eyes. He smiled to reassure her and loosened his hold to allow her to move away if she wished. She gazed at him for a few more moments, then leaned back against him and turned her attention back to Aoibheil.

Both listened as Aoibheil spoke the words of binding.

"In Danu's name, I bind you to the completion of this task and to each other." Iolaus stiffened and was about to protest those last words, when Ciaran poked him. He glanced at her and she shook her head, frowning.

Aoibheil was continuing "Let your lives be bound together and your fates be one. Failure of one is failure of both. Success of one is success of both. Fail and you will return here, bound to this place and to us. Succeed and you will be returned to your homes, free of all bindings and ties."

Aoibheil placed a hand on each of their heads and finished, "In Danu's name, I place this binding on you!"

Iolaus felt a chill run through him from her hand at these words. Ciaran shivered in his arms and he automatically pulled her closer.

"It is done my lord," Aoibheil turned back to Ellarion. "They are now bound."

Ellarion bowed to her, "My gratitude Aoibheil, well done!"

Aodhan was frowning.

"What now Ellarion? Are you going to tell us what we have to do?" Iolaus asked.

Ellarion stared at him for a moment then made a gesture. Before Iolaus could blink, everything disappeared and he found himself back in the void. It only lasted a moment, and he felt Ciaran clinging to him as everything slowly stopped spinning. Looking up, he saw they were back in the same clearing where this strange adventure had begun. It didn't look as if any time had passed here at all. At their feet was Ciaran's staff which she had dropped when he grabbed her.

Of all the sidhe, only Ellarion had accompanied them.

Ellarion held out a medallion, "This will allow you to understand any language, Ciaran. With it anyone you speak to will understand you. I can give you nothing more in the way of material aid."

Ciaran took it and placed it around her neck. "Now what?"

"You must seek out a mortal man called 'Draegus,' and retrieve an object he has stolen from us."

"What!" Iolaus exclaimed, "You mean all of this has been over a theft! Why don't you just get it back yourselves!?!"

"If it had been that simple, Iolaus, we would have. Because of what he stole we cannot!"

Ciaran looked puzzled, "What could he possibly steal from you, that you could not retrieve yourselves?"

"One of the Four Keys, Ciaran."

Ciaran gasped in shock and Iolaus glanced at her. She seemed to be upset by this news.

"What are you talking about? Why is a key so important?"

"There are Four Keys to the otherworld, Iolaus." Ellarion explained soberly, "These Keys hold the power to unlock our lands and allow us to travel freely to and from your world. There are many kingdoms in our realm and one Key is kept by each of four different kings. Every one hundred years of your time, all the kings gather before the High-King, at that time the Four Keys are brought together to renew their power. The High-King will then choose four new kings to guard the Keys until the next gathering. No king has ever failed to protect the Key they have been given. Now the High-King has sent word that the next gathering will be in two of your weeks."

"So... you don't want to be embarrassed in front of this High-King, is that it?"

"If it were only that simple, Iolaus. A Key in the hands of a mortal is a very dangerous thing. There are creatures that dwell in our realms that you could not imagine in your deepest nightmare. A mortal possessing a Key could free these creatures. If he meant to work evil, he might even be able to control them with it."

"Why didn't you tell us this in the first place?" Iolaus demanded angrily, "Why go through all this business of 'binding' us?"

"We could not take the chance that the mortal we chose would not try to keep the Key for himself!"

"I still don't understand why you could not reclaim it yourself, Ellarion."

"Without the Key, the ways between the otherworld and the world of mortals becomes harder to travel, Iolaus, even for us."

Iolaus shuddered remembering.

"We are spending most of our magic and strength trying to slow the deterioration of these passages. Any of us who attempted a journey in your world would take the risk of remaining there forever."

"There's more to it than that, isn't there, Ellarion?" Ciaran demanded, "The bards have told stories of your problems with iron."

Ellarion nodded reluctantly, frowning at her. "That is true, Ciaran, though we do not wish it to be widely known."

Ciaran continued with her thought, "So...a journey would be difficult for you and if you were trapped here...."

"We would likely die. Do you understand now why we needed a mortal to do this for us?"

Both Ciaran and Iolaus nodded. Iolaus picked up his sword from where it had fallen during the fight.

"Come on Ciaran. We better get going. If we hurry, I think we can make Therantos before sunset tomorrow. We'll find my friend Hercules there, he'll help with this."


Startled Iolaus looked at Ellarion, "What?"

"You will NOT tell anyone about this! We will not allow it!" Ellarion continued grimly, "If you speak of your task to anyone, it will be considered the same as failure!"

"Hey, wait a minute, how are we supposed to complete this task if we can't talk to anyone about it!" Iolaus frowned, "Are you trying to make us fail?"

"We've got to be able to talk to people about this, Ellarion. How else will we find this Draegus?" Ciaran stumbled a bit over the unfamiliar name.

"You may question others, but you may not tell the true reasons for your questions. Nor will you be able to tell anyone what has happened here."

"Fine. And will you be telling us exactly how to complete the rest of this task?" Iolaus was becoming angry. He heard Ciaran gasp as he spoke and shot her a quick look. For some reason she was staring at him in amazement. Shaking his head in bafflement, he looked back at Ellarion, "Well...!"

Ellarion stood there frowning at him for a long moment, "No, you must use your own talents to finish this..."

"Good," Iolaus interrupted, "then let's get going!"

Iolaus set off on the path toward Therantos. He heard Ciaran pick up her staff and follow.

"Wait! I can tell you the area Draegus was last known to be."

Iolaus paused and looked back frowning. "Where?"

"In a province called Radonus. Do you know where that is?" Iolaus nodded curtly. He grabbed Ciaran by the arm and resumed walking.

"If you are successful in your task, return here to this clearing and call for me."

He felt Ciaran slow and start to turn, "Come on Ciaran, we've got a lot of ground to cover before nightfall."

He tugged on her arm, for a moment she resisted, then she followed him. They had only taken a few paces when Iolaus felt a dizziness that was becoming all too familiar. He glanced back and the clearing was empty. The only evidence left that anything had occurred was the girl walking beside him. "Ciaran, I..."

At his first words, she glared at him and jerked her arm from his grasp. She picked up her pace till she was slightly ahead of him. He could tell by the stiffness in her posture that she was mad at him.

With a sigh, Iolaus followed her.

Part II

"What now!" Iolaus thought, as he hurried to overtake Ciaran. As he caught up he tried to catch her eye. She wouldn't look at him.

"Ciaran, talk to me. What's the matter?" She ignored him. "Ciaran..." He reached out to touch her arm, and barely managed to duck her wild swing. "Hey! What was that for?"

"Don't you DARE grab me again!" Ciaran stopped, staff held ready. "Wait a minute! I wasn't grabbing you! I just wanted you to talk to me." Iolaus watched her warily.

Ciaran shouted "NOT grabbing me! NOT grabbing me! Why YOU....YOU..." Words seemed to fail her.

Furious, she lashed out with her staff again. This time Iolaus was ready for her. Grabbing the staff in mid swing, he gave a jerk and pulled it from her hands. Ciaran stumbled forward and he reached out to keep her from falling. Snarling, she lunged at him, hands crooked into claws. He caught one wrist, but she managed to leave two bloody scratches on his check before he could catch her other wrist. "Ouch!" Holding her wrists he tried to talk to her, "Ciaran, stop. Will you please tell me what's the matter?"

She ignored his words, continuing to attack him however she could. Iolaus found himself holding on to a wild woman. He didn't want to hurt her, but she was making that difficult. He shifted slightly just as she lunged forward throwing him off balance. His foot landed on her staff which rolled and they both tumbled to the ground. Ciaran landed on top of him. He quickly rolled to pin her. Panting, he raised up slightly. "STOP THIS CIARAN! THERE'S NO REASON FOR US TO FIGHT EACH OTHER!" She just glared at him and continued to struggle. "Remember what Ellarion said, we have to work together! Remember!" At those words some of the fury in her eyes receded.

Iolaus felt some of the tension leave her body and she stopped struggling. "Will you talk to me now?"

"Let me up!" Ciaran growled.

"Not until you calm down and tell me what the problem is." Iolaus stared at her. As the realization of their positions penetrated he felt a familiar reaction. He saw her expression change as the same thing dawned on her. The fury was gone from her eyes, replaced by confusion. He leaned down to kiss her, but she turned her head to avoid him. In a quiet voice she asked, "Please let me up." He gazed at her for a moment before responding, "Will you promise to talk to me and not attack me?" She wouldn't look at him, but she nodded slowly. "All right." Carefully watching her, he rolled away.

She quickly sat up and turned away from him. Sitting up beside her, he lightly touched her shoulder. He pulled back quickly as she jerked away. "Are you going to tell me what's wrong? What were you so mad about?"

"I am not your property! I will never be the property of any man!" Ciaran's eyes still held traces of the wild look she had worn before as she glared at him.

Iolaus studied her. "No...I never thought you were. What gave you that idea?"

"You did! First you assume that I need help and get involved in MY fight and then you prevent me from dealing with the situation! When it's settled to YOUR satisfaction you start giving me orders and hauling me around!" Ciaran glared at him, her eyes challenging him to deny it.

There was something more going on than she was telling him. All his instincts were warning him to be cautious as he replied, "You saved my life Ciaran. I couldn't let you put yours at risk." Some of the anger in her eyes was replaced by confusion. Obviously, this was not the reaction she had expected. Iolaus took this as a good sign and continued, "I'm sorry for dragging you away like that."

Ciaran's face wore a look of total bewilderment. "Why?"

"Why what?" When she didn't answer he continued, "Why am I apologizing?" She nodded. "Well, you were right. I lost my temper with Ellarion and took it out on you. I shouldn't have."

She stared at him in silence for a moment, various emotions chasing one another across her face too quickly for him to read. Then she curled up in a ball, her face hidden by her hair, arms wrapped tightly around her drawn up legs. Iolaus watched for a moment in disbelief as she trembled. Then, cautiously, he lightly touched her shoulder. She startled at his touch, but he didn't remove his hand. The expression on her face was hauntingly familiar to him. He'd seen it before. In the faces of men and women who had survived a terrible ordeal.

He carefully moved closer and gently drew her into his arms. For a moment she stiffened and he loosened his hold. "It's all right Ciaran. I won't hurt you," he whispered. He felt another shudder race through her as she finally lost control.

For a long time, he simply held her, murmuring comforting words. At last she was still. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No." Ciaran sighed and leaned back to look at him. Iolaus gently wiped the traces of tears from her checks. "When you're ready then." Her blue eyes studied him for a long moment, then she reached up to touch the scratches on his face. They stung a little and he flinched. "Did I do that?" He nodded. "I'm sorry!" He grinned at her, "I'll live." She attempted a smile of her own at his sally, then sighed, "I suppose we should be going." "Yes, it's a long way to Radonus and we don't have a lot of time." "And we've wasted enough of it here, right?" This time the smile was stronger and he grinned at her, "You said it, not me!" She laughed as he got to his feet and offered her a hand up. She took it and pulled herself up.

"Thank you, Iolaus," she whispered as she leaned and kissed him on the cheek. She turned away to pick up her staff, leaving him gaping in surprise. "Uh.. anytime."

"Well...Which way do we go?" Ciaran was watching him curiously and he quickly shook himself out of his daze and started off, "This way."

They traveled for a long time in silence broken only by comments about directions. Iolaus watched Ciaran as much as he could, trying not to be too obvious. He wondered what had happened to her. He ached to have her back in his arms.

Finally, to distract himself, he started telling her about Herc.

"I wish Ellarion had let me tell Herc about this."

"Why Iolaus? What difference would it make?"

"What difference...?" Iolaus was shocked "He's Hercules!" He couldn't believe it when she simply stared at him. "Surely you've heard of him? Hercules, the son of Zeus?"

"Sorry, Iolaus," Ciaran shook her head, "I've never heard of either of them. Was Zeus a great warrior?"

"Zeus....a Warrior?," Iolaus stared in disbelief, "He's the ruler of the Gods!"

Ciaran shrugged, "If you say so."

"You really mean you don't know????"

Ciaran started laughing.

"What's so funny?"

Still laughing, she replied, "I'm sorry. It's just your expression! You looked like you swallowed a live fish!"

He stared at her for a moment longer then slowly started to grin sheepishly, "Yea, well, I've never met anyone who didn't know who Zeus was." He thought about her question for a moment, the idea tickled him. "I'll have to remember to tell Herc about this. Zeus...a famous warrior." He laughed.

"So, why don't you tell me about this friend of yours? How does he manage to get away with claiming to be the son of a god?" Ciaran asked smiling.

"Because he really is! Let me tell you the story."

Iolaus told her the story of Alcemene and Zeus. One tale led to another as the afternoon passed.

The day was beginning to wane when the path finally intercepted the main road to Therantos.

Ciaran paused and looked at Iolaus. "Which way now?"

Iolaus glanced at the thickening shadows, "Why don't we camp here for the night? There's still enough light, I could get some dinner for us."

"Hm, I think I'll take you up on that. I'll build the fire if you cook!" Ciaran grinned at him.

"Hey! I'm doing the hunting!" "So?" "So you get to do the cooking!" "Is that right?" "Yep!"

Grinning, Iolaus tossed his bag at Ciaran and set off into the forest. He laughed as he heard her call after him, "I'll have the fire waiting for you to cook on!"

Iolaus was still thinking of his companion an hour later as he returned to their campsite with the promised dinner. He could see the firelight now and knew he was almost there. 'She ought to be impressed with this!,' he thought glancing at the two rabbits on the string. 'I've got enough for tomorrow as well!'

As he stepped in to the small clearing, he glanced around for Ciaran. There was no sign of her or their possessions, only the small fire and the stack of wood beside it showed that anyone had ever been there. Puzzled, Iolaus called for her, "Ciaran?" He waited for an answer, beginning to get worried as the moments passed with no answer.

Iolaus stepped back into the shadows of the trees and dropped the rabbits. Hand on his sword, he had only taken a step when he caught a hint of movement from the corner of his eye. Instinctively he leapt further into the shadows, rolling and coming back to his feet with his sword out and ready. Looking back he could see an arrow still quivering in the tree he had been standing in front of. 'Great! Just what I needed! Ciaran is missing and now somebody's shooting at me! Iolaus, this has not been your day!' Moving cautiously, Iolaus crept toward the spot where the arrow came from. He sensed more than felt the attacker who rushed him.

The rush bowled them both over and they struggled silently for a moment, then his attacker froze. "You!" came a harsh whisper. "Iolaus, what are you doing here?!?" "Ciaran?" "Yes! Why have you been lurking around the camp, Iolaus?" "I wasn't! I just got back and found the camp empty and then someone took a shot at me from over here!" "Then there is someone else here! I thought....never mind." "What?" "Nothing. We need to find out if whoever it is is still here. Where did that arrow come from?" Iolaus watched her for a moment wondering what she had been about to say. Ciaran studiously ignored him and after a moment he lead the way.

They spent several frustrating minutes searching but could find no trace of the bowman.

"Come on Ciaran, whoever it was, he's not here anymore. I want to take a look at that arrow, maybe it will tell us something." Iolaus paused, then grinned, "Besides, you've still got to cook dinner!"

"Well, unless you can pull food out of thin air, it looks like I'll have the easy part!" Ciaran retorted as she followed him back to the camp.

"Are you doubting my skill as a hunter? I'll have you know I was taught by the best!" Iolaus feigned indignation.

"I can see that! You've brought so much back with you! What are we going to do with it all?"

Iolaus grinned at this sally and reaching the tree, bent down and picked up the rabbits. "Is this what you had in mind?" He held up the string, laughing at the surprise on her face. "Do you believe me now?"

"All right! I give in! I'll cook this time, but next time I hunt and you cook!" A gleam of firelight reflecting off the arrow caught her eye and she sobered, "Is that...?"

"Yes. Here," He handed her the rabbits and began to remove the arrow. Ciaran stepped closer to watch. Working carefully, Iolaus freed the arrow and took it to the fire to examine. Ciaran quickly built the fire up.

"Well, I don't recognize it." Iolaus shook his head in puzzlement. At his words Ciaran turned from the fire, her eyes dropping to the arrow, and gasped. "What is it?," Iolaus asked, "Do you know something about it?"

Ciaran drew in a breath and reached for the arrow, "I'm not sure..." Turning it over in her hands she examined it closely. "Well?" Iolaus asked. She looked up at him and the worry was plain in her eyes, "It belongs to the Sidhe, Iolaus." "The Sidhe?" Iolaus was shocked, "Why would one of them be shooting at me? We're going after their blasted key for them!" "I don't know, Iolaus. Unless......" Ciaran stared at the fire for a long moment. "What?" "Well, you've got to understand, most of what I know about them is from the stories the bards tell. I've never really had dealings with them before this."

Iolaus sighed, "Okay, just tell me everything you can remember. Maybe something will help us make sense of this." Then he grinned, "And don't think I've forgotten about dinner either! You can talk while you cook!" Ciaran stared at him for a moment then burst out laughing. She pulled one of the rabbits from the string and tossed it at him saying, "I never said I was going to clean the things! Here, you can listen and clean at the same time!" "Cleaning's part of cooking! But since I am hungry, I'll clean one this time!"

They shared a companionable silence as they began to prepare the rabbits for cooking. Finally Ciaran spoke, "Do you remember Ellarion telling us the Sidhe have many kingdoms, Iolaus?" "Yes." "Well, that's what the bards have always said. According to them these kingdoms don't always get along. They don't go to war as often as humans but it has been known to happen." "So you think it might be one of the other kings?" "Possibly. Ellarion never did explain how a human was able to steal one of the keys." Iolaus thought about this for a minute, "So someone doesn't want us to succeed, and that person is a sidhe." "I think so, Iolaus. I don't know of any other way for that arrow to be here." Iolaus nodded grimly, "We need to start watching our backs."

Ciaran sighed. "How far is it to this place we're going?"

"You mean Radonus?"


Iolaus thought for a moment, "Well, if we push ourselves we should be able to reach the area in two days. Then we have to locate Draegus." Iolaus studied Ciaran, watching as she set the rabbits to roast on sticks over the fire. 'She doesn't look all that strong,' he thought, 'I wonder how she's going to hold up? Maybe it would be a good thing if she can't keep up. Then I could leave her somewhere safe until this is over.'

Ciaran glanced up from the fire and frowned, "What's the matter Iolaus?" "Nothing, why?" "You were frowning ." Thinking quickly, Iolaus replied, "Just trying to figure out exactly where Draegus might be."

Iolaus continued to watch Ciaran as she moved around the small clearing. Gradually his thoughts drifted away from the current situation to a more pleasant and personal problem. He was extremely attracted to Ciaran, and he thought she was attracted to him. But every time he tried to get close she turned away. All afternoon he'd been noticing little things about her. The way her eyes sparkled when he made her laugh, the way the sunlight would bring out fiery-gold glints in her hair. Gods, her hair, he wanted to smell the sweetness of it, to feel her body against his again. Iolaus shifted uncomfortably, wishing there was a cold river or lake nearby.

"Iolaus!" Ciaran's voice startled him out of his thoughts. "Yes?" She was staring at him in puzzlement, "I've been trying to get your attention for the last five minutes! Is something wrong?" "Uh.. No.. I was just.. er.. thinking about what.. we.. uhm.. need to.. uhm.. do." Iolaus stammered quickly, trying to bring his thoughts under control. "What did you need?"

"I was trying to tell you that dinner's ready." She offered him one of the sticks she'd used to cook the rabbit. "Oh. Thanks," he smiled and took it, "it smells good." Ciaran smiled and turned to her own dinner.

They ate in silence, each wrapped up in their own thoughts. Finally Ciaran sighed and he glanced at her. She set down the remains of her meal. "Ready to get some sleep?" Iolaus asked. "Not really, I think I'll take the first watch. I need to think." Iolaus started to object, then seeing the look on her face, thought better of it. "Sounds good to me, I could do with some sleep." He reached out to snag his carry sack, rummaging for something to wrap the left over food in. As he brought out a length of linen, she handed him the remains of their meal. He wrapped it quickly and stuffed it into the sack.

"Well, good night Ciaran. Wake me when you get tired." He smiled at her and settled back, wondering how he was ever going to get to sleep. "Good night, Iolaus. I will." He closed his eyes and tried to relax. His mind started to drift back over the events of the day, 'Herc is never going to believe this story...." was his last thought as sleep overtook him.

The next thing he knew, someone was shaking him. "Huh.. what.. Herc don't.. I'm trying to sleep." He mumbled. "Iolaus, wake up! It's Ciaran," she was laughing as he blearily opened his eyes and stared up at her. "Come on. I can't stay awake any longer." The day's events rapidly came back to him. He sat up and stretched, "Okay... I'm awake.." "Are you sure?" "Mm hmm." "All right then." Ciaran yawned and lay down near the fire. Iolaus watched as her breathing slowed and she drifted to sleep.

He got up and made a quick circle around the clearing. Nothing seemed to be amiss so he settled down on a boulder to keep watch. The night was still and the only sounds were those of animals. He soon found himself drifting back to sleep and quickly jerked himself awake. 'Iolaus, this is no time to fall asleep! Think about how you're going to get that key back!' he admonished himself. 'You don't even know what it looks like! You need to remember to ask Ciaran in the morning.' The thought of her stirred pleasant feelings and he let his mind drift.

He was almost asleep again, when a cry brought him alert. His hand went to his sword as he sprang up looking for the source of the sound. The cry came again and he realized then that it came from Ciaran. She was shifting restlessly and seemed to be deep in the throes of a nightmare. He knelt beside her and shook her gently. At his touch she screamed and sat up straight. Her eyes where wide open but she didn't see him. Whatever she saw was terrifying her. "Ciaran... wake up... you're dreaming! It's only a dream!" She shuddered and blinked. When she looked back at him, he could see she was awake again, but her eyes held horror. Without thinking he reached out to comfort her, "It's all right. It was only a dream." He drew her close and tried to soothe the nightmare away. "Shhh.. it wasn't real."

She lifted her head to look at him, "Yes... it was." He wondered if this was the same thing that had caused her to attack him. "Do you want to tell me about it?" He asked gently. She stared at him, fear battling with trust and something else. He waited patiently, certain that she would tell him this time. After a moment she bent her head and spoke in a low voice, "I... I.. can't... I don't know where to start.."

Iolaus took a deep breath, "Why don't you start at the beginning, Ciaran?" Slowly Ciaran nodded, "I come from a small village near the sea. Most of the people make their living from it. We were not warriors... Three, no, four nights ago a raiding party came." She shuddered at the memory, "Everyone was asleep...we didn't have any warning. They... they.. k-killed anyone who resisted too much. Even children."

Ciaran stopped and swallowed hard. He could see that she was having a hard time speaking of this. He drew her head down to his shoulder and stroked her hair, "Go on." After a moment she sighed and continued, "They herded everyone who was still alive into the town square... Then they began to separate them. The men and boys were shackled together and led off to their ships.... The raiders were congratulating each other on what fine slaves the men would make...." She paused and then forced herself to continue, "When they had finished securing the men, they turned to the women......." She closed her eyes, her whole body trembling.

Iolaus thought he knew what was coming and it stirred a deep rage within him. "Shhh... you don't need to tell me, I think I can guess what happened next. How did you escape?" Ciaran stiffened, "I didn't..... they never caught me... My father made me hide when he heard the commotion.. and.. I stayed there until the raiders left..." Her voice dropped to a whisper, "I saw... everything... and I did nothing to stop it! Not even... when they k-killed my own father!"

Iolaus was beginning to understand her actions, 'So that's why she was so ready to defend me and so mad when I interfered, she's blaming herself for what happened!' "Ciaran, it wasn't your fault! There wasn't anything you could have done to save them!" She starred at him, shame and grief warring with the need to believe his words. "If you had tried to help you would only have been captured or killed along with the rest. Believe it Ciaran! You couldn't have changed anything!" Iolaus returned her gaze, willing her to feel the truth of his words. Finally the need to believe won, and she collapsed sobbing.

Iolaus soothed her as she cried out the grief she had bottled inside. Gradually the crying subsided and she fell into an exhausted sleep. Gently Iolaus tried to lay her down so she would be more comfortable. Ciaran stirred, "No... please... don't leave me.." She reached out to him as he moved away. He paused and was caught by the pleading in her eyes, "All right," he sighed and laid down, taking her in his arms again. She curled up against him and was soon fast asleep.

'Iolaus, I don't know how you manage to get yourself in these situations!' he chided himself. He concentrated on what she had told him, trying to forget the feel of her against him.

Unnoticed, sleep stole up and claimed him.

The sound of birds singing woke him. For a moment he was disoriented, then everything came back to him and he looked at Ciaran still sleeping beside him. She looked so fragile and vulnerable lying there. 'She's been through so much,' he thought. He had learned so much about her, but he still wanted to know more.

Ciaran shifted, one arm reaching out to wrap around him, her head pillowed on his shoulder. Iolaus felt a natural reaction to her closeness. 'Iolaus, if you don't do something now, you're going to regret this!' he thought, 'Then again, you may regret it if you do!'

Ciaran stirred again and slowly opened her eyes. "Good morning, Ciaran." Iolaus watched as the memories of last night came back to her and she sat up quickly. "Good morning, Iolaus," she mumbled, not looking at him. "Ciaran? What's wrong?" Iolaus asked, concerned. "Nothing. Hadn't we better get going?" "We've got time." He sat up beside her. "Tell me what's bothering you." When she only shook her head, he continued, "Is it last night?" Then he grinned, "Are you mad at me for taking advantage of you?" "No! You didn't!" Shocked she finally faced him, then she smiled ruefully, "You're teasing me, aren't you?" As he nodded she searched his face the smile fading, "How can you stand to be near me?" "Very easily, Ciaran." "But..." He waited for her to finish, then prompted, "But?" "I'm a coward! How can you trust me!"

Iolaus sighed, "You're not a coward, Ciaran. You fought the Sidhe in the clearing didn't you?" When she nodded he continued, "And you were ready to take them on again to save me." "But what about the raiders, I didn't do anything then." "What difference could you have made Ciaran? One more slave for them to sell?" Ciaran slowly nodded and he could see that she had accepted his words for now. He knew until she truly forgave herself, she would be fighting this battle again. With a grin, he stood up and offered her his hand, "Shall we get on with it?" Slowly she smiled back, took his hand, and stood up. "Lead the way!"

Quickly gathering their gear, they buried the remains of the fire and then started out along the road.

Iolaus was worried. All his instincts were telling him they were being followed, but he hadn't been able to catch a glimpse of their pursuer. They had made good time on the road, but they would soon have to leave it and strike out across country, taking the most direct route to Radonus they could find. He tried to remember everything he could about the areas they would be crossing. None of it was reassuring. When they left the road they would be picking their way through the forest for a while. The forest ran right up to the base of the mountains and the nearest pass was narrow and treacherous. Lots of places to be ambushed, if they couldn't get rid of their follower before then.

Iolaus briefly considered following the roads all the way but quickly discarded that notion. 'If we stay on the road we'll have to go through Therantos. How could I explain this to Herc without being able to tell him anything!' He sighed in exasperation. He saw the quizzical look Ciaran gave him at the sound. Briefly he wondered how much he should tell her. He could see the point where they needed to turn off the road now, and he had to tell her something.

"What is it Iolaus?" Ciaran asked. "Oh.... just trying to make up my mind about which route to take Ciaran." "I thought we were going to use the quickest one?" "Oh, well, yeah... it's just...you see..." he mumbled. "All right, there's something you're not telling me Iolaus, what is it?" she interrupted. "Well, I didn't want to worry you..." "Iolaus! Tell me!" Iolaus stepped closer to her and whispered, "We're being followed." "Followed? How can you tell?" Ciaran glanced around quickly, "I don't see anyone." "You won't. Whoever they are, they're very good." Iolaus smiled at her skeptical expression. "Then how.." "How do I know, call it an old hunter's trick." he grinned.

Ciaran grinned back at him for a moment and then she sobered. "Do you think he might be the one from last night?" "It's possible," he admitted. She frowned, "So... we know there's someone following us, what does that have to do with which road we're taking?" "Well... the shortest route isn't exactly a road." "Then what is it?" "I guess you could say it's a trail, but that might be exaggerating. It's pretty wild and rough country." "Which means there's a lot of places for ambushes, huh?" When he nodded she continued, "So, how long would it take to travel there by the roads?" Iolaus did some quick calculating, "About a week, I think. Provided we don't have any trouble." He watched as she pondered the dilemma and quickly came to the same conclusion he had. "I guess we don't have a choice Iolaus," Ciaran sighed, "we don't have that kind of time to waste just getting there."

"I'm glad you said that, cause here's where we need to turn off." Iolaus pointed to a break in the trees with a faint trace of a trail leading into it. He watched as Ciaran glanced at it, then quickly scanning the area, took a firm grasp on her staff. "Ready?" he asked. "As ready as I'm ever going to be, Iolaus." She smiled and bowed mockingly, "Lead the way!"

Iolaus grinned at her, then moved warily onto the trail. Ciaran followed close on his heels. At first, they were both edgy, expecting to be attacked at any moment. As time passed the feeling of being followed diminished and Iolaus was able to relax a bit. He started picking up the pace, hoping to cross the mountains before nightfall.

The day had been long and hard, the climb up to the pass worse than he'd remembered. They were only half way through and the light was already beginning to fail. If the climb down was as bad, he didn't want to try it in the dark. He cast a glance at Ciaran. He could tell she was getting tired and both of them were scratched and bruised from the climb. 'Maybe we should just camp in the pass for the night. Finding some water wouldn't be a bad idea either.' Iolaus frowned, 'Ciaran's flask is empty and mine doesn't have much left in it. There used to be a small lake in this pass. It had a stream running out of it down the other side of the pass.'

He was trying to estimate how much farther it was to the lake when Ciaran's voice startled him out of his thoughts. "Iolaus?" He glanced at her , "What Ciaran?" "Oh, I was just wondering if you've thought about how we're going to get the key away from what's his name?" "Draegus? well we've got to find him first." Iolaus grinned. "Silly! I know that! I meant once we do find him." Ciaran swatted at him and he ducked away laughing. "Oh, you! You're terrible Iolaus!" She laughed. The laughter in her eyes caused another emotion to grip him and he drew in a deep breath to steady himself. "Iolaus? What is it?" She questioned as he stepped closer to her. "It's nice to hear you laugh again, Ciaran," he said softly. She looked down and smiled shyly.

Placing his hand beneath her chin, Iolaus gently tilted her face up. For a long moment he simply gazed at her, tracing her jaw with his thumb. Hesitantly, half afraid she would pull away again, he leaned towards her. Framing her face with his hands, he lightly brushed her lips with his. He felt a tremor run through her. He raised his head slightly and gazed at her. She looked at him and the invitation he read in her eyes caused his heart to race and a silly grin to appear on his face. She smiled shyly as he drew her into his arms and kissed her again. She responded eagerly to his kiss, wrapping her arms around him. He tightened his hold, pressing her firmly against him. He felt her hands beginning to caress his back .

"Ouch!," he broke off the kiss, "you didn't have to hit me on the head with your staff if you wanted me to stop!" Ciaran blushed and sheepishly apologized, "I'm sorry, Iolaus. I... forgot I was still holding it." He laughed softly and caressed her cheek. "Ah, well..." he grinned, "we should find a more comfortable place to camp before we continue this." "Very sure of yourself, aren't you?" Ciaran teased. He gave her a quick kiss and laughed, "Of course!" He took her hand and began to hurry along the trail. "Come on, Ciaran, there's a lake not very far from here. We can camp beside that." He heard her laugh as she hurried to keep up with him.

The lake was smaller than he'd remembered but they managed to locate an excellent campsite not too far from it. The boulders that halfway enclosed it would reflect the heat of a fire keeping them warm in the cold night air and there was just enough screening to give them privacy.

"Uhmm, why don't you start a fire Iolaus? I, uh, need to fill my flask . I could fill yours too if you like?" Iolaus looked at Ciaran, surprised by the nervousness in her voice. "Sure, I can do that," he winked at her, "hurry back!" She smiled and took the flask he held out to her. Laying her staff down beside the rocks, she hurried away towards the lake. Iolaus sighed, hoping she wasn't having second thoughts, and began gathering materials for a fire.

Iolaus had gathered enough wood to last through the night and was waiting for Ciaran to return. The fire was blazing merrily and he had dug out the remains of the rabbit. Along with some fruit he'd managed to gather today there was enough for a nice supper for the two of them. He was getting a bit worried as he finished setting up the camp. Ciaran had been gone a while, much too long for simply filling a couple of flasks. Her staff caught his eye. The sight of it lying there made him decide to go look for her.

It wasn't easy following her trail in the dark, but he managed. Her route took him directly to the lake and he scanned the area looking for her. "Ciaran?" he called softly. A slight rustle of some bushes caused him to turn quickly, ready for anything. "Iolaus?" The voice was Ciaran's and he breathed a sigh of relief. "Are you all right, Ciaran? I was worried something had..." His voice trailed off as she stepped clear of the bushes. All he could do was stare. She had obviously decided to take a bath. He could see the moisture on her skin, and her shirt, which was all she was wearing, was clinging to her like a second skin. He had trouble concentrating on her words as she replied, "I'm sorry, I guess I should have said something."

"Uhm, uh, yea, well, I just wanted to let you know.. that, uhm, dinner is, uh, ready." he stuttered nervously. "Uhm, I guess I'll, uh, go back now. Y-you can, uhm, come back, uh, when your, uhm, ready." He turned quickly and had already taken a couple of steps when he felt her come up behind him. "Iolaus? Wait." She reached out and touched his arm and Iolaus halted. Not turning, he answered nervously, "Yes Ciaran?" She stepped in front of him and he lowered his eyes. He couldn't help taking a few quick glances at her as she stood there staring at him. He noticed that she was carrying the rest of her clothing draped over one arm. She still hadn't said anything and the silence was beginning to get to him.

Her hand cupping his face startled him and he finally met her gaze. She was frowning slightly as she asked, "Is something wrong?" "N-No, uhm, everything's, uhm just fine!" Her frown changed to a smile and she stepped closer to him. "Good" she whispered and kissed him softly. He responded instantly, taking her in his arms and crushing her against him.

She shifted slightly and the boots she still held poked him in the ribs. "Ouch," he broke off the kiss, laughing. She giggled as he picked her up and carried her back to camp. He quickened his pace when she began nibbling on his neck. As they entered the camp she tossed her clothes and boots into a pile. He gently set her down and resumed the interrupted kiss. The waiting dinner was quickly forgotten as they became lost in a private world of their own.

Part III

Urgent demands from his stomach woke Iolaus the next morning. For a moment he couldn't figure out why he hadn't eaten, then the memories of the past night returned. He had lain awake for a long time just holding Ciaran and watching her sleep. Now, with the memories floating through his mind, he realized that he cared deeply for her. Iolaus tried to remember the last time he had felt this way and remembered Ania. The memory brought with it the sadness he was accustomed to, but the loneliness was gone. That realization startled him and he quickly pushed the thought aside.

Sitting up, he looked for Ciaran, expecting to find her still sleeping near him. It took a moment for the knowledge to penetrate that she wasn't there. In fact, he couldn't see her anywhere. Alarm quickly chased everything else from his mind. He grabbed his clothing and began to dress hurriedly. 'She's got to be okay, Iolaus, you would have heard it if something had happened.' he tried to reassure himself. He had just finished putting on his boots and was reaching for his vest when a soft sound from the edge of the clearing sent him grabbing for his sword instead.

Another rustle caused him to tense and draw his sword. He was fully prepared to be attacked, and he stood there dumbfounded for a moment when Ciaran stepped into the clearing. "Iolaus??" she questioned when he simply stood there with his sword pointed at her. "Oh, uh, sorry... I thought...... never mind. Are you all right?"

"Sure Iolaus, why wouldn't I be?" "Well, we were being followed yesterday and then there's whoever shot that arrow at me..." Iolaus tried to explain as she frowned at him, "I was just worried, okay?" "I can take care of myself Iolaus," Ciaran smiled and mockingly scolded him. Laughing with relief, he kissed her and started to pull her closer. Grinning, Ciaran slipped free saying, "Careful, you'll smash breakfast!" At the mention of food Iolaus' stomach gave a loud growl, reminding him it had been a long time since the last meal. Ciaran burst out laughing, "I guess I'd better feed you before we get any closer to Draegus or your stomach might give us away!"

Laughing Iolaus lunged at Ciaran, "I'll get you for that one!" She swerved hastily, managing to avoid him, and quickly put a boulder between them. She was obviously expecting him to go around the boulder after her and was poised to take off in the opposite direction. Grinning, he took a couple of steps forward and then leaped to the top of the boulder. Jumping down, he managed to catch her as she recovered from her surprise and tried to take off again. "Gotch ya!" Ciaran twisted to face him. "Now that you've got me, what are you going to do with me?" she grinned. "Oh, I'm sure I can think of something," he whispered as he lowered his head to kiss her. GRRRUMBLE. The sound caused them both to burst out laughing. "Come on, we better get you fed before that gets any louder!" Ciaran grinned. Laughing Iolaus started back to the camp keeping one arm firmly around her shoulders.

The two of them made a quick meal of the left over rabbit and the berries that Ciaran had gathered that morning. Sighing, Iolaus looked at Ciaran, "I think we'd better get going if we want to be out of this pass before nightfall." Echoing his sigh Ciaran started gathering their things while Iolaus buried the remains of their fire.

The path down was worse than the one going up had been. They were nearly to the bottom when Iolaus felt the sensation of being watched return. It quickly grew stronger until he was sure they were walking into an ambush. A quick glance at Ciaran told him that she too was feeling something. She was gripping her staff tightly and her gaze kept skimming the rocks all around them. Meeting Iolaus' gaze she nodded. Iolaus felt a measure of relief that she was alert and ready for whatever was going to happen.

Iolaus quickened the pace hoping to find a better place to defend themselves than the narrow pass they were in. He wondered how soon the watchers would spring their trap. His silent question was soon answered. They had only taken a few more steps when they were confronted by three men who quickly blocked their path.

"Well, well, well... What have we here?" The biggest of the three stepped forward, a hand on his sword.

"Uh.. Hi Guys.. You're kinda blocking our path and we're really in a hurry." Iolaus heard Ciaran giggle as he tried to bluff their way past.

"Oh, I don't think so, do you Bendrick?" The second man leered at Ciaran, "Maybe if you pay our toll?" The other two laughed at this suggestion, and the first replied, "Right, all travelers through here got to pay Lord Draegus' toll!"

"Well, that's a bit of a problem then, since we don't have any money." Iolaus frowned and shifted closer to Ciaran.

"Then you do have a problem traveler!" Bendrick grinned wickedly, "Unless you got something we might want to take in trade...." He gestured toward Ciaran and the other two laughed. "Lord Draegus can always use a pretty new slave!"

"Uhm, sorry guys, afraid I can't do that!" Iolaus drew his sword in preparation for the fight.

"Iolaus?!?" Ciaran whispered. Without looking away from the men in front of him, he asked, "What?"

"Iolaus? I think you better look at this!"

"What is it?!?!" Iolaus impatiently glanced at Ciaran and then followed her gaze. "Uh, oh!"

A dozen more men had appeared from the rocks surrounding them. Iolaus quickly looked back at the leader who grinned at him. "You better give up while you still can, little man!" Bendrick sneered, "or we'll kill you and take the girl anyway!" Raucous laughter and catcalls from the other men followed his taunt. Iolaus tightened his grip on his sword, frowning and beginning to get angry.

Iolaus whispered to Ciaran, "Follow me and try to stay as close as possible." When Ciaran nodded acknowledgment he leaped toward Bendrick, hoping to take him by surprise. Dodging Iolaus' attack, Bendrick shouted, "Take them! Kill the runt but I want the girl alive!"

"Runt?!? Why you...!" Iolaus charged towards Bendrick again but was intercepted by the two men who had been standing with him. He kicked the first man and quickly blocked a sword thrust from the second. Following up with a hard blow from his fist that sent the second man reeling backwards. He then spun back to block the swing of the first man's sword. Feeling the presence of the second man at his back, he quickly rolled out of the way. Surprised by Iolaus' move, the second man ran his sword through the first man instead. Before he could recover Iolaus moved up behind him. Using the pommel of his sword, Iolaus delivered a hard blow to the back of the man's skull that left him unconscious.

He looked for Ciaran hoping that she was all right. A quick glance showed him that she was holding her own and he grinned as he saw her deliver a hard blow to the head of one ruffian. Two others lay nearby, one was unconscious. The other was moaning and holding himself in a place that made Iolaus wince at the thought of being hit there.

He tried to spot Bendrick but his attention was quickly claimed by three more attackers. Iolaus quickly dealt with the three leaving them moaning on the ground. The path out was momentarily clear and Iolaus was beginning to think they might be able to get away. Shouting to Ciaran to follow, he blocked a blow from another attacker and was preparing to send him to join his comrades when he heard a cry from Ciaran followed by a shout from Bendrick "HOLD! Drop the sword runt or the girl dies!"

Iolaus spun around to see Ciaran, her staff lying on the ground, being held by Bendrick. He froze when he saw the knife Bendrick held at her throat. Rage shook him as he saw the fear in Ciaran's eyes. His gripped his sword so tight that his knuckles turned white. Snarling, "Let her GO!" he started towards Bendrick. "Take one more step and I'll slit her throat!" Bendrick warned as he pressed the knife harder against Ciaran's throat. Ciaran winced and Iolaus saw a few drops of blood appear above the blade. He knew Bendrick was serious. Iolaus reluctantly dropped his sword.

Bendrick laughed and signaled two men who grabbed Iolaus' arms and forced them behind his back, tying his hands together. A third approached glaring at him, then delivered a hard blow to his stomach which doubled him over. Before he could straighten up, he felt another blow on the back of his head which sent him to his knees. He looked up just in time to see the boot which struck him in the head. More kicks followed that one. Iolaus heard Ciaran calling his name as he attempted to roll away from the blows. He tried to catch a glimpse of her but he was surrounded by mocking bandits all kicking at him. The pain was starting to overwhelm his senses. Struggling to remain conscious, he heard Bendrick shout, "ENOUGH! Dispose of him... we have what we were sent for!"

A second voice replied, "Leave him to me Bendrick.... I owe the little runt for what he did to Erian and the others! I'll make sure his death is extremely painful!" Iolaus frantically redoubled his efforts to free his hands, grateful that the men had stopped kicking him for the moment. He was startled when someone grabbed his hair and yanked his head up. Opening his eyes, he saw Bendrick leaning over him with a nasty grin on his face. "Take a last look at your pretty little girl, runt! By this time tomorrow, she'll be enjoying Lord Draegus' hospitality!" Iolaus glanced away from Bendrick and spotted Ciaran. She was being held by one man while a second roughly tied her hands behind her. She was staring at him with tears running down her face, ignoring the knife still pressed against her throat. They had gagged her to keep her quiet.

Laughing Bendrick released him and stood up turning away. Furious, Iolaus twisted around and gave Bendrick a hard kick to the back of the knees that sent him sprawling. Shouting the others charged Iolaus, kicking at him. "HOLD!" At Bendrick's shout most of the men moved back but two reached down and dragged Iolaus to his feet. As Iolaus looked up he could see Bendrick coming toward him, beyond him Ciaran was struggling to get free of the men who held her. Bendrick quickly reclaimed his attention with a hard blow to his stomach. Gasping, he glared at Bendrick as the men holding him forced him upright again.

"I'd enjoy killing you slowly, runt!", Bendrick growled, "but Lord Draegus is anxious for the lady's company!" Gesturing to the two men holding him, he continued, "you two stay with Derius and make sure he's dead before you leave." Grinning he looked back at Iolaus, then drew back his fist. The blow to his jaw sent Iolaus reeling and the last thing he heard was Bendrick's laughter.

Iolaus groaned, then gasped when pain answered his attempt to move. Opening his eyes, he slowly levered himself up. As he raised his hand to touch his face, he noticed the rope dangling from his wrist. Staring at it, he remembered the fight and the men who had been ordered to kill him. He scrambled to his feet looking for them. He quickly spotted three bodies lying a few feet away. As he approached he could see arrows protruding from them. 'Who did this?' Iolaus wondered. Kneeling next to the first body he carefully examined the arrow. 'I don't understand this. This arrow has the same markings as the one that was shot at me.'

Iolaus searched the area for more signs of this mysterious archer. All he found was Ciaran's staff. Holding it he remembered the last glimpse he'd had of her. Anger numbed the pain as he turned, ready to start the hunt. He started to follow the trail the men had left but another figure blocked his path. The person confronting him wore a gray cloak with the hood drawn up to hide his face. Iolaus automatically reached for his sword but his scabbard was empty. Frowning, he brought Ciaran's staff up. "Who are you? What do you want?" The waiting figure never stirred. As time passed with no answer, Iolaus grew impatient. He was aware that he had been unconscious for a long time and the bandits now had a good lead. At last he couldn't wait any longer and started forward fully prepared to forcibly remove the stranger from his path.

As he neared the stranger stepped aside without a word. Iolaus cautiously began to edge past him but was stopped by a hand grabbing his shoulder. He spun quickly, knocking the stranger's hand away. When the stranger made no other move, Iolaus growled, "Look, it's been a very bad day! So either tell me what you want or get out of my way! I don't have any more time to waste!"

The sudden appearance of a knife in the stranger's hand startled Iolaus. He automatically took a quick step backwards to give himself more room. He was astonished when the stranger offered it to him. His amazement was complete when the stranger shook back his hood, revealing himself to be one of the sidhe. Finally the sidhe spoke, "You will have need of this, if you hope to free Ciaran."

"Who are you? How do you know what happened to Ciaran?" Iolaus asked suspiciously.

"Who I am is of no consequence to you." The sidhe responded arrogantly. Iolaus stared at him impatiently, wanting further information. His attention was caught by the quiver of arrows the sidhe was wearing. From what he could see, they had very familiar markings. "You! You're the one who shot at me back in the forest!!" As the sidhe slowly nodded, Iolaus continued, "And you killed these men here too, why? Why did you save me after trying to kill me?"

"I have my reasons mortal, that is all you need to know!" The sidhe dropped the knife at Iolaus' feet and started to leave, "You should be worrying about how you are going to rescue Ciaran!"

"Wait! If you're so concerned with Ciaran, why don't you help me?" Iolaus demanded.

The sidhe paused and looked back at Iolaus, "I already have mortal, but remember this! If you fail her, my next arrow will not 'save' your life!" With those final words, the sidhe moved forward a few more paces and vanished. Iolaus felt the dizziness he was coming to associate with the opening of a passage to the sidhe realm.

Sighing with frustration, Iolaus reached down and picked up the knife. Tucking it into his belt he examined the traces left by Bendrick and his men and started after them again. "Great, just great!" he muttered to himself, "Why do these things always happen to me?"

As the pass began to open up into forest, the tracks left by the Bendrick's men became clearer. It was obvious to Iolaus that they weren't expecting any trouble and were taking few precautions. The only thing that worried him was how old the traces were. They had several hours start on him and it would be getting dark soon. Iolaus hoped he could catch them before they got near Draegus' camp. It would be easier to free Ciaran from this band than from an entire army.

As he paused by a stream to drink, he saw a bush with ripe berries on it. The sight caused his stomach to rumble, reminding him of how long it had been since he had last eaten. As he quickly snatched berries from the bush, he remembered the morning and the laughter he and Ciaran had shared then. The memories were spoiled by the thought of where she was now and what she might be facing. Scowling Iolaus wiped his hands and resumed the chase, spurred on by the memory of Bendrick's threats.

Iolaus was weary but elated. He had traveled all night but the long hunt was beginning to paying off. The traces of Bendrick and his men were fresh, only a few minutes old. The knowledge gave him a new burst of energy. 'Okay Iolaus, you've caught up to them... so what now?' he asked himself, 'you really should come up with a plan!' With his only weapons being the knife and staff, he knew he couldn't take them all on at once without risking Ciaran. 'Maybe if I try to pick them off one at a time?.....hmmm....' Thinking and planning, Iolaus crept closer to band, hoping to spy stragglers. A slight movement in some nearby bushes alerted him just in time to prevent the watching sentry from crying an alarm.

Iolaus gleefully retrieved the unconscious sentry's sword. It wasn't as good as his own but it was another weapon. Iolaus knew he was going to need all the help he could get. The presence of the sentry meant that they had reached Draegus' camp and the odds against him had just gotten longer. With extreme caution, Iolaus started forward once again. He caught sight of Bendrick and his men just as they entered the camp. He tried to catch a glimpse of Ciaran, but a crowd of soldiers closed around the group before he managed to spot her. Frustrated, he kept a careful watch on the group. He needed to know where they were taking her.

Finally his watching was repaid. With a shouted command, Bendrick broke free of the group and gestured to one of the men to follow him. The man followed pulling a rope. As the soldier cleared the crowd, Iolaus could see that the other end of the rope was tied around Ciaran's neck. He growled softly when one of the others deliberately tripped her. The one holding the rope didn't even pause and Ciaran was dragged several paces before she managed to get back on her feet. Iolaus growled with anger at the sight. To distract himself, he studied the layout of the camp, trying to determine a way in. He quickly picked out a tent that he was sure belonged to Draegus. His suspicion was confirmed a moment later when Bendrick spoke to one of the guards and then entered the tent dragging Ciaran with him. Iolaus turned his attention to the rest of the camp.

Draegus had set his camp in a large meadow among the tumbled ruins of an old fortress. The fortress was mainly heaps of tumbled stones now, but those stones had been pushed into rough walls about waist high. They wouldn't give much protection, but they might slow or break a charge. They also defined the area of the camp. Between the walls and the forest was open meadow, with little or nothing in the way of cover. 'Why can't this ever be easy?' Iolaus asked himself with a sigh. His attention was caught by movement near Draegus' tent and he looked just in time to see Bendrick leaving alone. 'So... Draegus is going to keep her with him. That should make things simpler... I'm sure he doesn't let that key get very far from him either.' Iolaus thought with a bit of satisfaction, 'maybe things are starting to turn around. Yeah, right Iolaus! Don't get cocky! You've still got to get to the tent!'

Iolaus glanced beyond the tent without much hope of seeing anything helpful. Suddenly his gaze was caught by a darker shadow crossing the meadow on the opposite side of the camp. Intense scrutiny made him realize that this was caused by a shallow ravine. It seemed to line up with the small stream that entered the camp on this side. Iolaus tracked the shadow back to the walls of the camp and his elation rose when he realized that it was only a few feet from Draegus' tent! There was his way in! Of course he would still have to deal with the crude wall which was taller in that area but he'd deal with that when the time came.

Iolaus crouched at the edge of the forest taking a closer look at the shallow ravine that began a few feet from where he was. It was shallower than he had first thought but was still deep enough to use, if he crawled and kept low. He couldn't see any sentries on the wall, but after a few near misses in the forest he was well aware that there were watchers. He would have to cross several paces of open ground before the ravine began and he could only hope that he wasn't spotted. Taking a deep breath, he worked his way as close to the ravine as possible before sprinting quickly to it and diving in. Iolaus winced as his sore ribs were bruised again by the rocks lining the bottom. Ignoring the discomfort he held still, tensely listening for any sign that someone had seen him. As time passed without any sound, he relaxed slightly and began to work his way towards the camp every sense alert.

The crawl was long and hard. More than once he had had to disarm the traps that had been set to stop anyone from using the ravine as a way in. Finally he reached the wall and was elated to discover the ravine continued under it. This was more than he had hoped for! He carefully examined the space for signs of another trap. He didn't see anything and had started forward again when he spotted the trigger. It was rigged to remove a single stone from the wall. Iolaus guessed that when that stone was removed the rest of the wall would collapse into the ravine burying the one who had triggered it. Holding his breath, Iolaus gingerly cut the cord on the trigger, hoping that the wall would hold. He breathed a sigh of relief when nothing happened.

Once again Iolaus eased forward into the gap beneath the wall. It was a tight fit and he could only hope there were no more traps because he had no room to avoid them. He didn't realize he was holding his breath until he reached the other end safely. Panting he lay just within the tunnel and examined the area he would have to cross next.

The back of Draegus' tent was about fifteen paces away from him but there was nothing he could use as cover to cross it. He watched the soldiers moving about the camp and quickly realized that they all avoided the tent as much as possible. The two soldiers standing guard glared at anyone who came too close without a good reason but otherwise paid no attention to what was going on around them. Iolaus waited impatiently, watching for his chance. At last there came a time when no one was in the area and nobody seemed to be paying attention. Seizing the opportunity, Iolaus scrambled to his feet and dashed to the back of the tent as quietly as he could. Once there, he paused for a moment to catch his breath and listen for any sign his mad dash had been spotted. When everything remained quiet, he edged further behind the tent.

Concentrating, he tried to hear if anyone was in the tent. He couldn't hear anything over the rest of the sounds from the camp. Frustrated, Iolaus dropped to the ground and slowly lifted the bottom of the tent just enough to see inside.

At first glance the tent appeared to be empty, then he realized that it was divided in two by curtains. This area was apparently used for sleeping and storage. Iolaus grinned and raised the edge of the tent enough to slide underneath. Once inside, he stood up and cautiously approached the curtain dividing the tent. Listening intently he could hear muffled voices coming from the other half. A cautious peak showed him two men examining a map. He scanned the rest of the area looking for Ciaran but there was no sign of her. Iolaus felt a moment's panic when he thought they might have moved her somewhere else. Then a slight sound behind him caused him to jump and turn quickly.

There, on what he had taken for a pile of blankets and other supplies, lay Ciaran. She was still bound and gagged but the rough rope collar had been replaced by one of leather. A length of chain was attached to the collar and what was left of a stone pillar. She was sleeping but he could still see the marks of exhaustion and fear on her face. He quickly went to her and gently shook her awake. He felt her stiffen and then she opened her eyes. He watched her face as fear was quickly followed by confusion and then joy. Lifting her head, he untied the gag and helped her remove the wad of cloth they had stuffed in her mouth. When she started to try to speak, he quickly laid a finger across her lips and shook his head. When she nodded her understanding he smiled, then drew his knife. Helping her to sit up, he moved behind her to cut the ropes binding her wrists.

Rubbing her wrists, Ciaran started to turn to him. Iolaus shook his head and indicated that she should remain the way she was. He quickly examined the collar, looking for the easiest way of removing it. He grinned when he realized it was simply buckled on. With her hands tied there was no way Ciaran could have removed it so nothing fancier had been needed. He hissed in anger when he removed the collar and saw her throat. He remembered the scene he had witnessed when they brought her here and guessed that it was not the first time that had happened. Ciaran had turned to him when he hissed, the wonder in her eyes as she gently brushed back his hair made him smile. She just stared at him for a moment then in a barely audible whisper, "You're alive!" When he grinned at her and nodded, she threw herself in his arms holding him tightly. "I thought you were dead! We heard screams...." For a long moment he simply held her. A loud noise from the other side of the tent reminded them both that they weren't safe yet.

Iolaus got up and cautiously approached the curtain. He could hear a man's voice berating someone. As he drew back the curtain to peek, Ciaran's voice in his ear startled him. "That's Draegus," she whispered. "Do you know who the other man is?" he asked. Ciaran shook her head. Iolaus watched for a moment longer to be sure that Draegus wasn't about to come bursting into the room, then he drew back and motioned to Ciaran to move away from the curtain.

"Do you know where he keeps the key?" he asked without much hope. He could hardly believe it when Ciaran nodded an affirmative. His hope was quickly dashed when she whispered, "He keeps it in a pouch that he wears around his neck. He took great pleasure in showing me." Iolaus frowned trying to think of a way to get the key without making a commotion. Ciaran watched him for a moment and then started searching through the various piles in the room. Puzzled he asked, "What are you doing?" "Well, I was looking for something that might help us....also, I need a weapon of some kind." she answered with a sigh. Iolaus grinned. Going to the spot where she had been sleeping, he reached down and picked up her staff. "Will this do?" he asked. Ciaran looked at it in wonder, "It's my staff! You found it! Oh, thank you Iolaus!" She leaned forward and kissed him.

"My, my... what a touching scene!" The voice startled them both. They quickly brought up their weapons. Draegus stood just inside the curtain watching them with a sneer on his face. "It seems Bendrick lied to me. He swore you were dead little man!"

"Yeah? Well maybe I'm a lot harder to kill than Bendrick thought!" Iolaus replied.

"I hope so little man, that will make your death much slower and more enjoyable!" Draegus laughed and drew his sword. Calling for his guards, Draegus lunged forward thrusting his sword. Iolaus leapt backwards and managed to parry the blow. He heard the commotion from the other side of the curtain as the guards rushed in. Risking a glance at Ciaran, he spotted her trying to edge around behind Draegus. "Ciaran, the guards!" he shouted, hoping she would understand. Hoping that Ciaran would be able to handle the guards he turned all of his attention to the fight with Draegus. Draegus was good. Iolaus was forced to stay on the defensive and wait for an opening.

Iolaus was managing to parry the blows but each one forced him to take a small step backwards. All too soon he felt something behind him. A quick glance showed him a barrel and some boxes which gave him an idea. He waited for Draegus' next swing, ducking under it instead of parrying. As Draegus brought his sword back in a low sweep, Iolaus jumped. Twisting in the air he managed to land on the top of the barrel, then before the surprised man could react, Iolaus delivered a hard kick to his jaw. The blow sent Draegus sprawling on the floor, his sword flying from his grasp. Iolaus quickly jumped down and placed his sword at Draegus' throat.

A loud crack caused him to look up. He immediately spotted one of the guards lying face down near the entrance. Beyond the first guard he could see Ciaran fighting with the second one. Before he could say anything she delivered a hard blow to his head which knocked the man to his knees. She quickly followed up with another blow, leaving the guard unconscious on the floor. She looked up to find Iolaus grinning at her. Smiling, she started towards him.

Iolaus had started to speak when he suddenly felt a hand on his ankle. He looked down just as Draegus twisted around and pulled his foot up, shoving him off balance. Iolaus landed with a grunt and quickly scrambled to his feet. To his surprise Draegus had not retrieved his sword. Instead he had pulled a pouch from around his neck and emptied its contents into his hand. Grinning Draegus threw down the pouch and cradled a glowing crystal in both hands.

"NO!" Ciaran shouted and lunged towards Draegus. Before Iolaus could react he felt an unexpected wave of dizziness and had to steady himself against the barrel behind him. When it passed he saw Ciaran standing frozen. Behind her was the same sidhe woman who had placed the binding on them. She had lightly placed one hand on Ciaran's shoulder and was glaring at Draegus. "What do you think you are doing mortal? You do not have the strength to control what will answer your summons!"

Draegus answered her with his own arrogance, "I am tired of waiting on your promises, woman! We had a bargain but you have not lived up to your side of it! Therefore I shall take matters into my own hands! I shall summon a monster that will bring all of Radonus to its knees! But first, I will give it these two meddlers to feed on!"

"Fool! It will feed on you as well!" Aoibheil was disgusted with the man.

Iolaus' mind was racing, trying to come up with some way to take advantage of the argument between the two. He was staring at Ciaran when a flicker of movement from a corner of the tent caught his eye. He glanced toward the movement expecting to see more guards. To his surprise he saw the same sidhe who had saved his life in the pass. The sidhe had an arrow knocked pointed towards Aoibheil but was hesitating. Iolaus looked back toward the sidhe woman and realized why. Ciaran was directly in the path of the arrow. Iolaus turned back hoping he could get the sidhe's attention.

Iolaus had almost given up when the sidhe finally looked at him. Iolaus caught his gaze for a moment and then deliberately looked at the bow. When he looked up again, the sidhe had raised a questioning eyebrow. Iolaus smiled and then tilted his head slightly towards Ciaran hoping the sidhe would understand. For a long moment the sidhe stared at him, then he slowly nodded and smiled grimly. Relieved that he had gotten his message across, Iolaus turned his attention back to Draegus and Aoibheil.

The pair were still arguing fiercely, their voices getting louder and louder. Iolaus knew he would have to act soon, before they attracted the attention of the soldiers outside. Moving cautiously, he worked his way closer to Ciaran, being careful not to distract the two antagonists. It seemed like an eternity before he reached his goal. He was now only a few feet from Ciaran. Glancing back toward the sidhe, Iolaus saw him nod and raise his bow. Taking a deep breath, Iolaus waited a moment longer. He wanted to be certain that Draegus' and Aoibheil's attention was entirely focused on each other.

"Now!" Iolaus shouted as he charged forward. In two quick steps he reached Ciaran and tackled her. His momentum carried them both out of the way and broke Aoibheil's grip on her. Ciaran's cry of surprise was quickly followed by a second cry from Aoibheil. Iolaus glanced up from where he had landed. He saw Aoibheil lying on the floor, an arrow protruding from her chest.

Draegus' mad laughter caught his attention. Getting to his feet, Iolaus positioned himself in front of Ciaran. His eyes widened as he saw the area behind Draegus. A large area of the tent wall had vanished to be replaced by a slowly swirling black nothingness. The edges of the thing shifted and blurred and he thought he saw something large moving within it. Staring at the moving blackness made his head swim and forced Iolaus to look away. He turned his attention back to Draegus just in time to see an arrow pierce his hand.

Draegus screamed and dropped the brightly glowing crystal. He stared at his wounded hand for a moment. Ripping the arrow out of his hand with a snarl, he grabbed his sword from where it had fallen. He charged Iolaus growling, "I'm gonna kill you for that runt!" Iolaus felt a chill crawl up his spine at the sight of Draegus. The man's face was contorted with rage and pure madness shown from his eyes. As Iolaus desperately parried the first blow, he sensed Ciaran roll away and stand up. Iolaus hoped that Ciaran could find some way of dealing with the crystal, but he couldn't spare a moment to see what she was doing. As Draegus pressed him harder, Iolaus wondered what had happened to the sidhe archer.

As Iolaus continued to parry Draegus' blows he could see the madness growing in his eyes. The only sounds coming from him now were bestial snarls and growls. The madness seemed to be giving Draegus strength also, as each of his blows was harder than the one before. Iolaus knew he had to do something to finish this soon. The all night trek and the crawl across the meadow was beginning to catch up with him. His reactions were slowing and he could feel his strength ebbing. 'Come on Iolaus! Think of something! There's got to be....'

"IOLAUS! LOOK OUT!" Ciaran's cry interrupted his thought. He reacted instinctively, ducking and rolling to one side. As he came back to his feet Iolaus stared in shock. He hadn't realized how close they had gotten to the nothingness. A long scaly arm had reached out of the center of the blackness. The creature had grabbed Draegus, impaling him on wickedly long talons. Without thought Iolaus started forward, sword raised to strike at the creature. A hand gripping his shoulder stopped him and he turned to see the sidhe archer.

The sidhe spoke before Iolaus could voice his angry protest, "It is too late for him, Iolaus. He is already dead even though his body lives. You would only succeed in getting yourself killed as well if you try to help." Remembering the madness in Draegus' eyes, Iolaus reluctantly nodded. The sidhe let go of his shoulder and Iolaus turned back just in time to see the arm disappear with Draegus. Then he noticed something else. The edges of the area had stabilized and the swirling motion was nearly gone. With a worried frown, Iolaus looked at the sidhe who was moving toward Ciaran.

Iolaus hastily followed him. Ciaran was kneeling on the floor, her eyes closed, frowning in concentration. At their approach, she looked up and sighed, "It's no use, I can't do it."

"Do what?" Iolaus asked in surprise. For an answer she opened her hands and showed him the glowing crystal, "The portal is almost finished opening and I can't get it to close. We've got to find a way to close it before that thing is able to come through."

"Here give the Key to me. I can shut the portal down." Ciaran gasped in surprise and pulled back, protectively cradling the crystal to her. "It's all right Ciaran," Iolaus hastened to reassure her, "He helped us." The sidhe spoke quietly, "I promise to return it to you when I have finished Ciaran, but we must move quickly before the portal is fully opened."

Slowly Ciaran reached up and placed the crystal key in the sidhe's outstretched hand. The sidhe smiled at her then turned to face the portal. As they watched the swirling motion slowly began to increase in speed and the edges to lose their solidity.

Iolaus was becoming aware of another problem they were going to have to face soon. He frowned listening to the sounds of shouting growing louder. "Umm.. guys.. we better do something quick, we're going to have a lot of company soon!" The sidhe showed no reaction to this statement but Ciaran rose and came to stand beside him. He reached out and drew her against him, holding her close for a moment before they both turned their attention back to the portal.

The portal was beginning to shrink but so slowly that Iolaus wondered whether the sidhe would be able to close it before the soldiers arrived. Trying to judge how much time they had left, Iolaus silently willed the sidhe to hurry. He was startled when Ciaran suddenly stepped away from him. He watched in puzzlement as she approached the sidhe and laid her hands over the crystal he held in his hands. The sidhe glanced at her and she nodded. Then they both turned their attention back to the portal. As Iolaus followed their gaze he realized that somehow Ciaran was helping the sidhe. The swirling motion was increasing and the portal was contracting at a steadily faster rate.

Iolaus grinned as he watched the last of the portal disappear with a soft popping sound. He had started forward when angry shouting from nearby caused all three to turn. The soldiers had reached the tent and were demanding that Draegus come out and explain what was going on. "What are we going to do now?" Ciaran asked worriedly. "I guess we're going to have to fight our way out," Iolaus sighed, "I don't think we're going to be able to use the way I got in." Iolaus stepped through the curtain and surveyed the area, hoping for something they could use. A quick glance offered no hope of a solution, so he was surprised when Ciaran gasped. He started to ask her what she had found then realized she was holding his own sword in her hands. Smiling she held it out to him.

He took it from her and offered the one he was carrying. She shook her head, "I don't know how to use it Iolaus." "Well, take it anyway, just in case Ciaran. You may need it before we get out of here." He answered her grimly, pressing the sword into her hand. Turning to the entrance of the tent, Iolaus prepared to face the mob.

"Wait! There is no need to fight your way out of here!" the sidhe's words surprised Iolaus. "How else are we going to leave?" he asked sarcastically. The sidhe smiled tiredly, "If Ciaran will allow me the use of the key one more time, I can take us to a safe place where you may rest and recover." "You mean you want to open another portal and take us to your realm? No thanks, I'd rather fight my way out." Iolaus replied. The sidhe sighed, "No, though that would be easier, it is not safe right now. I meant to take you to another place in this world."

Before Iolaus could voice his doubt, Ciaran handed the crystal to the sidhe and said, "Please take us there." Iolaus quickly reached for Ciaran to stop her. Even as his hand closed on her shoulder he felt the room spin dizzily and then they were enveloped in a void. He held on to Ciaran, closing his eyes and hoping they would reach their destination quickly. With a sudden wrench the world came back. Iolaus had just enough time to realize that the spot looked familiar before a different kind of blackness swept over him.

Iolaus sighed and stirred, wondering how long he had been asleep. He could hear someone moving quietly nearby. 'What a strange dream' he thought then opened his eyes to let Herc know he was awake. As he sat up, he couldn't believe how stiff and sore he was. "Oh, good, you're finally awake. I was beginning to worry." A soft voice spoke from nearby. Iolaus turned quickly and stared. 'It wasn't a dream then...' Ciaran sat close by, cooking a rabbit over a small fire. When she saw the expression on his face, she asked with concern, "Are you all right Iolaus?" She reached forward and laid a hand on his forehead. At her touch Iolaus smiled, "I'm fine Ciaran. Don't worry."

Ciaran studied him for a moment then teased, "I should have known the smell of food would wake you up!" Laughing Iolaus pulled her into his arms filled with relief that their task was accomplished and she was safe. For a long moment they simply held each other, then Ciaran pulled back with a sigh, "The food will burn if we're not careful. Besides Domhnull told me you needed to eat when you woke." He stared at her in puzzlement for a moment, "Who's Domhnull?" It was Ciaran's turn to frown, "I thought you knew? He's the one who helped us. I thought you had brought him with you."

Iolaus shook his head, "No. He saved me after the ambush, but he vanished without telling me his name. I didn't see him again till after Aoibheil showed up in Draegus' tent." He moved so he could place his arm around Ciaran while she tended the rabbit. They sat for a moment in silence, "I wonder why he helped us?" Iolaus mused. He didn't realized he'd spoken out loud until Ciaran answered, "He told me he owed my father a debt, Iolaus, and since he wasn't able to save him, that debt was now owed to me." She paused for a moment, then continued, "He also told me who was behind the attack on my village. And he promised to help me if I wished to free the others."

Iolaus was silent. For the first time he realized that their task was truly finished and the sidhe would soon return her to her home. Grief filled him at the thought that he might never see her again and he spoke impulsively, "Stay with me Ciaran. Don't go back. We..." She pressed her fingers to his lips silencing him. "I can't Iolaus. I want to more than anything, but I can't. There are people who need me there." He could see the longing in her eyes but he also saw determination there. "You helped me and healed me Iolaus. You've taught me so much... I can't stay here knowing..." She paused trying to find the words to explain but he understood. It was his turn to silence her, "Shhh, I understand."

She gazed at him silently. A tear spilled from her eye and he gently whipped it away. He gently drew her to him and kissed her. It was meant to be comforting but quickly became something more as passion flared between them.

Iolaus watched as Ciaran tried to rescue enough of the rabbit to give them a meal. The sight of her sitting there in only her shirt was stirring his hunger again. His stomach growled reminding him that there was another kind of hunger and it had been too long since he had eaten. With a sigh Iolaus sat up and pulled on his pants. As he sat down beside her Ciaran smiled at him and offered the meat that wasn't too badly burned. "Aren't you going to keep any for yourself?" he protested. With a laugh, she waved her knife at the rabbit, "There's more here, don't worry. And maybe later I can find that berry patch again." "What berry patch?" Iolaus asked startled.

"The one I found the first time we were here." she replied absently, concentrating on getting more edible meat off the rabbit. For the first time, Iolaus took a good look at where they were. He remembered thinking it looked vaguely familiar and now he realized that they were once again camped beside the lake in the pass. He wished that they didn't have to leave but knew they didn't have a choice. As if she was reading his mind Ciaran spoke softly, "Iolaus, we don't have to leave soon, do we?" The wistfulness in her expression made him reach for her as he replied, "No, we have several days to get back and the journey shouldn't take more than three from here. We could stay a day or two without any problems." "I'm glad," she smiled at him but pulled back when he tried to kiss her again. "You've really got to eat something, Iolaus." she scolded. Reaching for the meat she picked up a piece and fed it to him. Iolaus kissed her fingers as she started to pull her hand away. Never taking his eyes off of her, he reached for another piece. "I'm not the only one who needs food Ciaran," he said as he gently fed her the piece.

Time had passed too quickly for Iolaus. The two days they had spent by the mountain lake were over and now they were on their way back. Iolaus kept trying to think of a way to get her to stay but couldn't bring himself to argue with her reasons for leaving. The dilemma frustrated him and he was very quiet during the day. Ciaran too seemed to be lost in her own thoughts as they traveled. It was only at night that they turned to each other. But even then the knowledge that they would soon part was with them.

Iolaus tried to brighten things with stories of Hercules and their adventures together. Sometimes it even worked for a while. But then something would happen that would remind them how short their time was and the conversation would quickly die.

Iolaus held Ciaran in his arms watching her sleep. He knew this would be the last night they had together and he didn't want to waste a moment of these last few hours with her by sleeping. They had already made love many times on the way back but there had been a different quality to it tonight. Iolaus sighed softly. He knew what the difference had been and his heart ached at the thought of her leaving tomorrow.

Iolaus never knew when he fell asleep. He woke to find Ciaran gazing at him sadly. As she leaned down to kiss him, a thought occurred to him and he broke off the kiss in excitement. "Ciaran, I've figured it out! There's no need for us to part!" Iolaus was giddy with relief at his solution, "I'm coming with you!" "What?" Ciaran was astonished, "What are you talking about Iolaus?" "I am going back with you! I'll help you free your people and we can be together!" Iolaus grabbed his clothes and hurriedly began to dress. "Come on! Get dressed, we'll meet Ellarion, give him back his key and then he can send us to your home!"

Ciaran had gotten up and started getting dressed, but at these last words she stopped and stared at him. "Are you all right Iolaus?" Reaching out, she tried to feel if he had a fever, but he waved her hand away. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he gave her a quick hard kiss, then started off down the path, anxious to get everything over with. He paused impatiently when she called after him, "Iolaus, wait!! This is crazy!" Ciaran had managed to get one boot on and was carrying the other as she tried to keep up, "At least let me finish getting dressed before you take off again!" Iolaus laughed giddily and apologized. He held her bodice and staff while she finished putting her boots on then helped her into the bodice. As soon as she was done, he handed her staff back and was ready to take off.

Ciaran caught his arm, forcing him to halt. He smiled when he saw the worry on her face, "I'm all right Ciaran. Don't worry!" "You're serious aren't you?" Ciaran asked, "You really mean to come back with me?" Iolaus nodded solemnly, then leaned forward and gave her a brief kiss, "I don't want to lose you. If that means traveling to your home, then that's what I'll do." He grinned at the shocked expression on her face, then grabbed her hand, "Come on, let's go meet Ellarion and get this settled." For a brief moment she resisted, then gave in and followed him with a sigh.

Iolaus set a fast pace. He was anxious to get this over with. He babbled on about what they would do, asking questions about her home, but hardly pausing for the answer. He didn't pay much attention to her silence. Finally, just as the clearing came in sight, she stopped and pulled him up short. "Iolaus....." she hesitated. She wouldn't meet his eyes and there was a troubled look on her face. Concerned he tilted her face up, trying to make her look at him, "What's wrong Ciaran? We're almost there. Just a little more time and we'll be on our way to your land." At these last words, she finally met his gaze. The sorrow in her eyes shocked him as much as the words she spoke, "No, Iolaus, you can't come with me." "What? Of course I can! Ellarion won't be a problem once we return that key of his!" he tried to reassure her but she only shook her head. "It isn't that Iolaus. I... can't let you..." Puzzlement and fear replaced his earlier excitement, "What do you mean? I don't understand.. I want to go..." She quickly placed her hand over his mouth to silence him. Taking a deep breath, she tried again, "I can't let you come with me Iolaus. You belong here... with your friends and family. If you came with me you'd never see them again."

Her words ripped away the last of the haze of excitement from his mind. He knew that she spoke the truth, going with her would mean leaving everyone else behind without even the time to say goodbye. As if the thought had conjured them, mental pictures flashed through his mind. In quick succession, he saw Alcemene and Jason, then the rest of the argonauts. The memories of Hercules were longer and more varied. Then finally, a picture of his son as he had last seen him. The thought of not being able to see him even briefly tore at his heart.

Finally, he looked at Ciaran again. He felt he was being torn in two. She reached out and took him in her arms. They stood there for a long moment, each of them in anguish, but knowing they had no other choice. Finally, Ciaran pulled back. There was a tremor in her voice as she said, "Let's get this over with." Reluctantly Iolaus nodded and followed her into the clearing. She stopped in the middle and with one more glance at Iolaus called out, "Ellarion! We've returned!"

They only had a moment to wait before the now familiar feeling of dizziness hit them. It passed quickly and they turned to find Ellarion watching at them. Without a word, Ciaran took out the pouch Iolaus had made and withdrew the crystal. As she placed it in Ellarion's hand he smiled at them. "You have done as you promised, mortals. Now it is our turn to keep the bargain." He gestured for Ciaran to come to him, "We will return you to your home, Ciaran. There will be no more bindings on you." Ciaran glanced sadly at Iolaus, then started to step forward. "Wait" Iolaus cried, "Allow us a moment to say goodbye, Ellarion." Ellarion frowned for a moment then the smile returned and he nodded.

Iolaus drew Ciaran a short distance away. Gazing at her, he attempted to speak, but words failed him. Finally, he cupped her face in his hands and tenderly kissed her. When they finally broke apart, she was crying. She turned to go, then turned back to him. She held out the pouch to him. "No, you keep it, Ciaran. As something... to remember.. me with." Iolaus whispered. For a moment she hesitated then tucked the pouch away. She surprised Iolaus by calling to Ellarion, "Is this medallion mine, Ellarion?" Ellarion frowned, "Its power will soon fade Ciaran. It will be no more than a piece of stone then. If you wish to keep it, knowing this, than it is yours." "Thank you." She replied smiling.

Iolaus watched Ciaran, trying to figure out what she was doing. She turned back to him and reached up to remove the medallion. Before he could protest, she placed it around his neck and whispered, "Now you will have something to remember me." With those words, she went quickly to Ellarion's side leaving Iolaus stunned. Ellarion gestured for her to walk forward and Iolaus saw the portal open for her. As the portal begin to close behind her, he shook himself out of his daze and quickly called out, "Ciaran!! I love you!" She paused at his words. He could see the tears streaming down her face as she looked back at him. Just before the portal closed he saw her lips move and thought he heard the words, "I love you Iolaus." Then the portal closed and she was gone.

He didn't know how long he stood there staring after her before Ellarion broke his trance. "You are also free of all bindings Iolaus." Iolaus nodded without looking at him. "We owe you more than that. If you wish, we can return you to the day you met us. You would remember nothing of what has happened." Ellarion offered. "No!," Iolaus said sharply, then sighed, "No, I want to remember.... everything."

Iolaus turned away from the clearing, reluctantly resuming his interrupted journey. He paused as Ellarion spoke again. "Remember then, Iolaus. The sidhe owe you a debt. If you ever need us, you have only to call my name. One of us will answer you." Iolaus nodded acknowledgment and continued down the path. He paused briefly when the dizziness once more washed over him. His heart ached at the knowledge that his last link to Ciaran was gone. With a sigh, he walked on, knowing that Hercules was waiting for him.


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