Another Chance

by Ceallach

This story is my attempt to answer what happened in the Alternate Universe between the episodes "Stranger In A Strange World" and "Stranger and Stranger". This story picks up shortly after the end of "Stranger In A Strange World" and ends just prior to the beginning of "Stranger and Stranger".

Warning: This story has some dark scenes and some people may find it depressing.

Iolaus slipped carefully away from the celebration that didn't really feel like a celebration to him. He should be happy… everything was going to be all right now. The Sovereign was gone, the rebels victorious. So why did he still feel so sad?

He cast one last look back at the party. Joxer was giving another speech. The rebel leader was good at making speeches. Heck, Joxer was good at a lot of things, Iolaus admitted silently. Including trying to make a foolish, cowardly court jester sound like a hero. Iolaus shook his head. He knew the truth; knew that it had not been him but the Iolaus from the alternate world who was the real hero. He'd just run away like he always did; too much of a coward to face his fears.

Another burst of merriment reached him, the joyous laughter jarring against his own feelings of sadness and depression. With a last sigh Iolaus headed for the one place he hoped he might find some peace, his room. The room that had been his for more years than he cared to remember. He shook his head to dispel the memories. That part of his life was over now and he wasn't going to think about it.

A fresh start, another chance for everyone. That was what Joxer had promised them all and Iolaus tried to make himself believe it. He remembered the things that the alternate version of Hercules had told him. He tried to make himself believe those as well. But the doubts always came back and with them his fears. What good was he in this new world the rebels would make? What could he contribute? No one would need his jokes and his pratfalls… Iolaus sighed. He was becoming more depressed by the moment.

Blowing out the single candle, he curled up on the pallet in the corner of his room, and stared at the darkness around him. How long he lay there before the blessed oblivion of sleep claimed him, he didn't know.


Someone was screaming.

The sound penetrated his sleep. Groggily he sat up and looked around. His first thought was that the Sovereign was up early this morning. Then he realized that it wasn't morning and the Sovereign was gone, trapped in that place between the two worlds. The sound of someone running reached him and he scrambled out of bed. As he listened, he realized the sounds were coming closer. Panicking, he looked for a place to hide. As the footsteps neared his door, he plastered himself to the wall beside it praying that whoever it was would ignore him.


Iolaus slumped to the floor in relief. He knew that voice.

"Iolaus! Where are you?" Joxer called again.

"I.. I'm h-here," he managed to force a reply out, trying to convince his heart to stop racing. He glanced up as the door opened and Joxer stuck his head around. His heart nearly stopped at the sight of the rebel leader. Joxer's clothing was splashed with blood. More blood dripped from the blade of the sword he carried.

"Come on!" Joxer stepped around the door and grabbed his arm, pulling him to his feet. "We've got to get out of here!"

"W-what?" Iolaus managed to stutter as he found himself pulled bodily from the room. Clearing his throat, he tried again. "W-what's happening?"

"The Empress," Joxer responded grimly.

"E-empress?" Iolaus watched as Joxer slowly approached the opening to another hallway. "Wha…" He bit back his question as Joxer waved for silence. He waited fearfully, his thoughts whirling, as Joxer carefully checked the corridor, then followed as quietly as he could when Joxer dashed across the opening.

As soon as they were safely across Joxer turned to him. "Iolaus, you know this place. I need you to find us a way out of here," the rebel leader spoke softly. "The Empress' army has attacked the palace. We don't have the forces or the weapons to withstand them here. We can't let ourselves be trapped. Do you understand?"

Fear nearly paralyzed him as the implications became clear. The Empress was out to take the Sovereign's place, and knowing her, she wouldn't mind a little revenge on the people who had destroyed the Sovereign as well, including him. This time he had no choice at all, he had to help the rebels or die with them. Swallowing hard, he forced himself to concentrate. A way out… they needed a way out… preferably one the Empress' army wouldn't think to check right away. "T-the d-d-dungeons," he finally spoke. Seeing the surprise in Joxer's face, he forced himself to continue, "T-there's a d-door… f-from the g-guards room… t-they used it to… to… take out… g-get rid of… " He saw understanding dawn in Joxer's eyes.

"This door leads outside the walls?" the rebel leader asked.

Iolaus nodded. "It did… it's how I tried…" he stopped himself, not wanting to admit it was the way he'd tried to escape before ending up in that alternate world. "I followed it once," he covered himself hastily. He breathed a sigh of relief as Joxer simply nodded absently, not really listening to what he was saying beyond the confirmation the rebel leader wanted.

"Let's go," Joxer stated grimly. Motioning Iolaus to stay close, he carefully threaded his way through the maze of corridors. Occasionally, he would ask Iolaus which direction to take and the former jester would point the way but mostly Iolaus stayed silent, simply following as closely as he dared.

By the time they reached the doors to the dungeon, a dozen more rebels had joined them. The small group, except for Iolaus, was battered and blood splattered, some were wounded. Occasionally, the sounds of fighting and screams would reach them, but the rebels ignored them; intent on escape.

Iolaus breathed a sigh of relief when the door to the dungeons came into view. They were nearly there, nearly safe. He watched as Joxer slipped silently up to the door and placed his ear against it. He nearly forgot to breathe, straining to hear along with the rebel leader, waiting to find out if this slender hope for escape was in vain. He bit his lip and tried to be as still as possible as the rebel leader slowly eased the door open a crack. What if it were a trick? What if someone was waiting for them? His thoughts ran circles in his mind, each one blacker than the last. They weren't going to make it. He jumped and opened his eyes as someone touched his arm. He hadn't even realized he'd closed them, he thought as he blinked dazedly at the scene.

"Iolaus, come on!" The rebel leader's urgent summons finally shook him from his trance. He swallowed hard then forced himself to slip through the partially open door. Once all of them were through, Joxer slipped inside and quietly closed the door behind him. "Let's see if we can get this thing blocked," he told one of the others. "Iolaus, find that way out! You two, go with him and make sure it's clear." The brisk orders sent people scrambling. One of the two men Joxer had detailed to go with Iolaus handed him a torch.

Iolaus took a deep breath to steady himself. With a last glance at the small group, he led the way to the guard's room. Forcing himself to concentrate, he peered into the flickering shadows beyond trying to remember the exact location. It took him a moment, but at last he spotted the iron bound door, half hidden in deeper shadow. "There." He pointed it out to the two rebels with him and watched as they cautiously approached it. He'd made a mistake, he knew it. The door would be locked and they would be trapped. Sitting ducks for the Empress' soldiers.

He heaved a sigh of relief as one of the men slowly opened the door. The man stuck his head in, then looked back at them and nodded. The second man smiled grimly and turned back towards the rest of the rebels. A few moments later, they were all clustered around the door. "It looks clear," the first man told Joxer as the rebel leader joined them. "Stinks though."

Joxer nodded acknowledgment, then turned to Iolaus. "Where does this come out?"

Iolaus gulped. "In the charnel pits," he answered hesitantly. "Just outside the south wall."

A couple of the men paled and swallowed hard but Joxer simply nodded. "Once we're clear of the walls," he told them. "Split up. I want you all to make your way to the our stronghold. By yourselves if you can; no more than three in any group. If you see any of the others, tell them what's happened and give them the orders for rendezvous." The rebel leader paused, his gaze sweeping over the gathered men. "We beat the Sovereign, we can beat the Empress."

Joxer's words were meant as encouragement but Iolaus felt his knees would give way at the idea of fighting the Empress. They didn't know. It had been a fluke, a twist of fate that had given them the ability to topple the Sovereign. Without that, they wouldn't stand a chance against the Empress. He swallowed hard. How could he tell them? Would they even believe him? Why should they, he was nothing more than the cowardly jester the Sovereign had kept around for amusement.

"Iolaus." He looked up as Joxer called his name. "You're with me, Iolaus. Stay close." The rebel leader waited for his nod of agreement before turning back to the rest. "Ok, let's get out of here. We've got a lot of work to do." One by one, the small group silently slipped through the door, Joxer and Iolaus the last to leave.

Iolaus tried not to breathe too deeply as they skirted the edge of the pit. He also tried not to look down. Concentrating on Joxer's back was far better than thinking about what they were doing or why they were doing it. He was dimly aware of other shapes in the darkness, other voices whispering, cursing but none of it was clear. He tried to keep himself from jumping at the slightest noise. Finally they reached the end of the pits and Iolaus didn't have to concentrate quite so hard.

"All right." Joxer's voice was barely a whisper. "You all know what to do. Good luck!"

Muted whispers came from the shadowed figures around them as they vanished into the deeper gloom of the walls. At last, only Joxer remained with him. Iolaus wished he could see the expression on the rebel's face as the man turned to him. "It's just us, now, Iolaus."

Iolaus nodded, then realized that if he couldn't see Joxer clearly, then it was unlikely that the man could see him. "Wha…," he cleared his throat nervously and tried again. "What now?"

He heard Joxer sigh. "Now we get away. Get somewhere safe and begin to make plans." There was a pause, then Joxer continued, "Iolaus, we're going to need you. You're important. That's why I wanted you with me. If we get separated, if we're attacked, find a place to hide and wait. I promise I'll come back for you." Without waiting for a reply, Joxer began to skirt the palace, carefully keeping to the shadows. Feeling worse than ever, Iolaus silently followed him.

Dawn found the two men far from the Sovereign's palace. Iolaus leaned against a tree, trying to rest as much as possible while Joxer scanned the open field in front of them. He didn't know how much longer he could go on, the terror of being caught had allowed him to continue far longer than he'd thought he could but now he was reaching the end. He closed his eyes, trying to gather his remaining strength.

"Iolaus." He opened his eyes to find Joxer staring at him in concern. Then the rebel leader smiled encouragingly. "I know you're not used to this, Iolaus, but it's not far now. I promise. Soon we'll be safe."

"Safe," Iolaus whispered. He pushed himself away from the tree and followed Joxer across the clearing. Had he ever really known what it was to be safe? he wondered.

If he had, it had been a very long time ago. Long before the Sovereign, long before even his Hercules. He wondered what it felt like to really be safe. He wondered if he would ever know.

Doggedly he pushed the thoughts from his mind, he didn't have time for that. Right now he needed to concentrate on following Joxer. One more step, Iolaus, he told himself. It's not that hard, just one more step. Lost in a haze of exhaustion and depression, he didn't realize Joxer had stopped until he ran into him. Blinking, he tried to get his fuzzy brain to work. "Wha?"

Joxer turned and clasped his shoulder. "We're here, Iolaus! We made it." The rebel leader gestured towards a brush covered hillside. Iolaus shook his head, he couldn't see anything. He turned a questioning glance on Joxer and the man laughed. "It's hidden, of course!" Joxer led the way towards a gnarled tree, Iolaus following. Iolaus found himself envying the ease with which the rebel leader slipped through the heavy brush. Every leaf and twig seemed determined to thwart his own progress and he felt like a boar crashing through the brush.

"Joxer! Joxer made it!" Iolaus looked up from freeing himself from another piece of greenery in time to see people emerging from a shadowy cleft. They surrounded the rebel leader, voicing their welcome, their happiness to see Joxer. Iolaus sighed. No one had ever been glad to see him.

"Enough, enough!" Joxer's voice cut through the noise. "We've got a lot of work to do! Everyone inside where it's safe." The babble faded as people began to make their way back into the cave. Iolaus wondered what he should do. It was obvious they hadn't even noticed him. Heaving a sigh, he followed them into the dark.

As he carefully felt his way down the dark passage, he wondered how the rebels managed without light. The passage curved sharply and he found himself greeted by warm torchlight. Joxer stood just inside the entrance to a large cavern; beyond, Iolaus could see a couple of small fires ringed with pallets. How long he stood and stared he didn't know. Exhaustion was finally claiming its due. He was barely aware of hands guiding him to a pallet, covering him with a blanket before oblivion descended.

The sound of a voice, quietly calling his name, roused Iolaus from his dark refuge. Slowly, reluctantly, he opened his eyes. It hadn't been a dream. The knowledge settled over him like a heavy shroud and he closed his eyes, wanting to seek the oblivion of sleep again.

"I know you're still tired, Iolaus, but you need to wake up and eat something." Joxer's voice once more intruded. Groaning, he reluctantly pulled himself away from the welcoming darkness. He couldn't let Joxer down. Joxer believed he was important; Joxer needed him. He opened his eyes and looked up to find the rebel leader squatting beside him, two bowls carefully balanced in his hands.

"Are you awake?" Joxer asked, smiling sympathetically.

"I think so," Iolaus replied as he set up and stretched. He returned a tentative smile of his own as the rebel leader passed him a bowl. "Thanks." He watched for a moment as Joxer settled himself and began to eat, then tentatively took a bit from his own dish. "Ugh, what is this stuff?"

Joxer looked up and swallowed. "Rabbit stew. Something wrong?"

"Uh, no. Guess I'm just not used to it," Iolaus replied. "Uh, interesting flavor." He forced himself to take another bite.

"What's the matter? Our food not good enough for you, jester?" a harsh voice demanded. "Like the stuff at the palace better?"

Iolaus jumped, startled and nearly spilled his stew. "N-n-no, I didn't m-mean…"

"That's enough, Castor," Joxer interrupted.

The big man glared at Iolaus. "What do we need him for anyway? He's no use… He can't fight. Heck, he'd probably faint like a girl if you waved a sword at him."

Joxer slowly stood up, then grabbed a handful of the man's shirt. "I said, that is enough! Iolaus has proved his worth to me, to all of us! Many of us wouldn't have made it out of the palace last night if it weren't for him."

At Castor's outburst, Iolaus had felt the old familiar fear trying to overwhelm him, but as he listened to Joxer he found himself able to hold it off. Climbing to his feet, he faced the two men and cleared his throat to get their attention. "Castor is right, Joxer. I don't know how to fight. The whole idea scares me silly." He turned to Castor. "I don't know what help I can give, but I do want to help, any way I can." He was surprised to find that he really did mean what he said. He did want to help, he just didn't know how.

Joxer grinned. He let go of Castor and grasped Iolaus' shoulder. "And you will help us, Iolaus!" Seeing the skeptical look still plastered on the Castor's face, he continued, "Don't you see? Iolaus knows the palace better than any of us. He's going to give us the element of surprise we'll need to take out the Empress' guards."

The big man shook his head, doubt still evident in his tone. "If you say so, Joxer." He gave one last glare to Iolaus before turning away. "Just hope he don't betray us."

Shaking his head, Joxer sighed and retrieved his half finished meal. "Sit down and finish your meal," he told Iolaus. "And don't worry about Castor, he always was a pessimist." As Iolaus picked up his bowl, he continued, "I meant what I said. We really do need your help, Iolaus. We've got maps of the palace but…" The rebel leader shrugged, indicating the inadequacy of what they were working with. "We need to know about things like that door you led us out of and any other surprises we might find in there."

"I-I think the Sovereign had a secret passage from his room," Iolaus ventured timidly. "I don't really know where it goes, but…" He shrugged helplessly. Did the rebels expect him to be privy to the Sovereign's secrets? Not likely, he told himself, wryly. The Sovereign hadn't trusted anyone.

"We need to know stuff like that, sure," Joxer answered, motioning Iolaus to eat. "Even if you don't know where it goes, if we at least know it's there they can't surprise us by using it." Joxer set his empty bowl down. Leaning forward, he continued, "What we need most is the best map you can help us make. That place is a warren of hallways and corridors and the only one who knows where they all lead is you. A map will help those of us who haven't been in there or who have only seen parts of it."

Iolaus listened with growing confidence as Joxer continued to explain the rebels need and use for a map. Absorbed in listening to the rebel leader explain what he wanted, he absently ate his stew. I can do this, he thought in amazement. There is a use for me after all.

Iolaus stretched and tried to hold back a yawn. He'd never realized how tiring it could be to simply answer questions. As soon as they had finished their meal, Joxer had led him to a small cave off the main cavern. They had spent the rest of the day expanding the rebel's map of the palace. Translating his memories of the palace into a rough map had been harder than he'd expected but as he looked over what they had come up with, he felt a warm glow of achievement. Maybe he couldn't fight, but it seemed that he really could help the rebels. Maybe he really did have something important to contribute.

Aware of eyes on him, Iolaus looked up to find the rebel leader smiling at him. "I should have asked you to do this a long time ago." Joxer shook his head. "What's done is done, I guess. We have it now." Turning to the rest of the rebels that were gathered in the room, he told them to memorize as much of the layout as they could. "We don't have much time. We've got to strike back soon if we want to have any chance of overthrowing the Empress."

Iolaus stepped back as the others crowded around to look, wondering what he should do now. He stifled another yawn. He hadn't gotten much sleep and last night was beginning to catch up with him again. He felt a hand on his shoulder and opened his eyes to find Joxer in front of him. "Go find your pallet and rest for a while, Iolaus," Joxer told him. "You've earned it." With a last smile, Joxer turned back to the others.

Iolaus hesitated for a moment. Should he stay? He didn't know anything about strategy or how to plan a battle. He'd given them all the information he could think of but they might think of something else they needed to know. Another yawn decided him, they knew where he'd be, they could always find him if they had a question.

Loud voices and the sound of a disturbance roused Iolaus from sleep. Groggily he looked around for the source of the commotion. People were gathering by the entrance to the caves. For one long moment Iolaus froze in fear; had the Empress' troops found them already? It finally dawned on him, that the noise he was hearing wasn't panic or fear, but the same sort of happily chaotic din that had greeted his own arrival with Joxer. Or rather, Joxer's arrival with him in tow. Whoever had shown up, it was obviously someone these people knew and cared about. Curious now, Iolaus stood up and edged closer to the group, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.

"Makkis!" Iolaus turned to see Joxer making his way across the cavern, a large smile lighting his face. A tall, slender man worked his way out of the knot of people near the entrance and strode forward to embrace Joxer.

"By the gods, you made it!" Makkis exclaimed in delight. "When you told me you were going after that jester, I wasn't sure I'd ever see you again!"

"And when you weren't waiting for me here, I thought we'd lost you as well," Joxer replied.

The tall man's smile faded and he sighed. "It was bad, Joxer, real bad." Makkis shook his head and then smiled again. "But you made it, that's the important thing. Did you get what you went after?"

Joxer shook his head, smiling ruefully. "Iolaus is a who, not a what, Makkis and without him a lot of us wouldn't be here right now. Come on." Gripping Makkis by one arm, Joxer led the man to where Iolaus stood watching. "Makkis, this is Iolaus; Iolaus, this is Makkis, my second in command."

Feeling rather nervous under the intense stare Makkis leveled at him, Iolaus managed to mumble a greeting and held out his hand. For a moment he was sure the man would refuse to accept it. "Iolaus, huh?" Slowly, Makkis reached out and shook Iolaus' hand. "Don't look like much, but I guess appearances can be deceiving."

The slow smile that lit Makkis' eyes as he spoke warmed Iolaus and he managed to return a shy smile of his own. "I guess."

The smile became a grin and the man clapped Iolaus on the shoulder. "Good man." Iolaus shrugged bashfully and watched as Makkis turned back to Joxer. "So what's our situation? Have you worked out a plan yet?" The two men walked off towards the smaller cave as Joxer began to bring his second up to date on the rebel's status.

For a long moment, Iolaus simply watched them walk away, basking in the approval he'd received from the stranger. With the exception of that alternate Hercules, he couldn't remember the last time someone had treated him the way Makkis had; with simple human decency. It had felt so good. Smiling to himself, he looked around, wondering what else he could do to help these people.

Iolaus spent the next couple of hours helping one of the few female rebels prepare supper. He did his best with the limited resources at hand to insure that their next meal would be much more palatable than the rabbit stew he'd had earlier. Alista had been impressed with his knowledge of cooking and the two of them had spent the time discussing various dishes and the best way to prepare them.

The warm feeling of acceptance had continued and with it his confidence had slowly begun to increase as well. Iolaus wondered at himself. Here he was in a rebel camp, a hunted outlaw, soon to be facing a battle to overthrow a tyrant, and yet he had never felt so content. He was still afraid but that fear was no longer overwhelming to him. Joxer believed in him, Makkis accepted him, such simple things but they made all the difference for him. Smiling at his thoughts, he slid the last of the vegetables into the pot and stirred it.

"Making yourself useful?"

Iolaus looked up to find Joxer smiling down at him. He shrugged and smiled sheepishly. "It's something I know how to do. Falafel taught me a little." He gave the stew another stir. "Besides, I like it."

Joxer grinned. "From the smell I think a lot of other folks are going to like it, as well."

Iolaus ducked his head at the praise, blushing slightly. "Uh, did you need me for something?" he asked, trying to change the subject.

"Nothing in particular," Joxer replied. "I thought Alista might know of something we could use to carry those maps of yours in. I want to take them with us but they're a bit awkward."

Iolaus looked at Alista, who was shaking her head. "Sorry, Joxer. We've got a few loose skins and bits of leather but nothing like a sack or a pouch."

Joxer sighed. "Oh well, it was just a thought."

Iolaus couldn't bear the look of disappointment on the rebel leaders face, and wondered if he might be able to help. "Do we have any strong thread or string? Something to sew with?" he asked thoughtfully.

Puzzled, Alista shrugged. "Sure. Plenty of that type of thing, why?"

"I just thought… well, I can sew a little… I thought I could, you know, see about making some kind of sack," he answered sheepishly.

Alista nodded. "It's worth a try. I'll get you the stuff and you can see what you can do with it." She stood up and headed for the area the rebels kept their supplies in.

"A man of many talents, that's what you are, Iolaus." Joxer smiled at him. "I knew I could count on you."

"Th-thanks," Iolaus replied nervously. "I just hope I don't let you down."

Joxer squeezed his shoulder. "You wont."

They both looked up as Alista dropped a bundle of leather at Iolaus' feet. "Here you go." She pulled a ball of leather lacing from a pocket and handed that to Iolaus as well. He spotted a leather needle sticking up from one side, and took the ball carefully. Alista grinned at him. "Don't know what you can make with that mess, but good luck."

Iolaus smiled shyly back. "Thanks."

"Well, I'll leave you to get started." Joxer smiled and then with a nodded to Alista, headed towards another group.

Iolaus looked down at the odds and ends of leather and skin at his feet. This wasn't going to be easy, he realized, but he was determined to do his best.

Between keeping an eye on the stew and working on the carry-sack for the maps, the next few hours passed swiftly and pleasantly. A few of the rebels had wandered over at one point or another and talked to him for a few moments and he was beginning to feel more a part of the group. Sad commentary on your life, Iolaus, he thought ruefully, when the best thing that's ever happened to you is likely to get you killed. Still, at this moment he wouldn't trade it for a seat at a banquet prepared by Falafel. For a moment he thought of that alternate world he'd experienced so briefly; was this the way his alternate version felt? He shook his head and grinned. Strange to think there were two of him.

He put one last stitch in the row he was sewing and tied off the heavy thread. After cutting off the excess thread with the knife Alista had loaned him, he held it up and examined it. It was bigger than he'd meant to make it but he didn't think that would matter. He was a bit proud of the double straps he'd thought of; they would allow the person carrying it to still have their arms free, something that would be important to a fighter. It wasn't great to look at, the patchwork of the different leathers he'd cobbled together giving it a rather motley appearance and he could definitely think of a few improvements he'd like to make if he had the time but overall it would do.

A low murmuring drew his attention away from the sack. He looked up and spotted Joxer and Makkis making their way through the cavern. As they reached one end, Joxer jumped up on a low boulder and called for their attention. Curious, Iolaus joined the crowd that was quickly gathering around the rebel leaders.

Satisfied that he had everyone's attention, Joxer began to speak. "As you all know, the Empress has taken over the Sovereign's palace and plans to take his place as our ruler as well. Some have already lost their lives fighting her." A low rumble went through the crowd at these words but quickly quieted as Joxer continued, "and more may die if we attack her."

"Are you saying we should give up?" A voice from the crowd demanded.


"The Empress is just another tyrant !"

"We can't give up now!"

Joxer allowed the rebels a few moments, then once more motioned for silence. "I thought you would feel that way." The rebel leader smiled. "Makkis and I have been working on a plan that should give us the advantage we need to oust the Empress and take back what is ours, but we need to move quickly. We can't allow the Empress time to bring in more of her troops."

"So what's the plan?" Iolaus absently identified the speaker as Castor and wondered if Joxer would answer him.

Joxer smiled. "That's what this meeting is about, Castor. In order to make our plan work, we need volunteers. A small group will be going ahead. Their job is to sneak into the palace and open the gates for the rest of us."

Castor snorted. "Sounds like suicide to me. How are we supposed to get in? And how will we know where to go if we do get in? None of us know the palace that well."

Joxer's smile became a grin. "You're wrong, Castor. Someone here does know the palace that well and he's provided us with maps so that we will all know it." Joxer motioned for Iolaus to join him. "Iolaus knows the secrets of the palace and with his assistance we do too."

Iolaus blushed as the rebels cheered. He felt very uneasy being the center of such praise, especially when that praise wasn't entirely true. Still, there was one way he could be of help. "I-I'll go w-with them," he stuttered, turning to Joxer. "I-I'll v-v-volunteer."

"Brave man," Makkis commented with a smile.

"Yes he is," Joxer agreed. "But I can't take you up on your offer, Iolaus." As Iolaus started to protest he held up a hand. "No, I'm sorry, but it's too dangerous. The ones who go must be fighters and as brave as you are, we both know that you know nothing of fighting." The rebel leader saw the downcast look on Iolaus' face and tried to reassure him. "Don't worry, there will be plenty for you to do." Turning back to the group he once more asked for volunteers. "I'll be leading the group that goes in. We've pinpointed three separate entrances and I want a pair of men for each. So that means five volunteers. Makkis will be leading the rest of you in once we have the gates open."

To Iolaus' surprise, Castor was one of the first to step forward. More men quickly followed and soon the matter was settled. Once the decision was made, Joxer spoke again, "I want everyone to eat and then start getting ready. As soon as the sun starts to set, we'll be moving out." With those words, Joxer jumped down from the boulder. "Have you got that carry-sack done, Iolaus?" he asked as he lead the way to the fires where the meal was cooking.

Iolaus got the carry-sack and gave it to the rebel leader, then served them both from the stew he'd prepared while Joxer examined it. "Good work, Iolaus." Joxer told him approvingly as Iolaus showed him the dual straps. "And thanks for the stew." Iolaus watched as the rebel leader went off to find the men would accompany him and collect the maps. Whatever happened tonight, Iolaus knew he would be happy to be a part of it.

Iolaus ate quickly, then joined the rest in putting out the fires and gathering up gear. By the time the sentries reported that the sun was beginning to set, everything was ready. In small groups the rebels began to make their way to the rendezvous point near the palace.

Joxer had told Iolaus that he wanted the former jester to stick with him, so Iolaus waited patiently near the mouth of the cave. Waiting wasn't really what he wanted to do. He wanted to get this over with before his own fears could overwhelm him. You can do this, Iolaus, he kept reminding himself. He heaved a sigh of relief when he spotted Joxer coming out of the cave. The rebel leader gestured for Iolaus to join him and they headed into the woods.

When they arrived at the meeting point, Iolaus was surprised to realize how close they had actually been to the palace. It had seemed to take much longer when they escaped the Empress' troops. Then it dawned on him, Joxer must have deliberately taken a roundabout route to confuse any possible pursuit. He wandered towards the edge of the woods they were hiding in and caught a glimpse of the palace through the trees. For a long moment, he simply stared at it. In the last rays of the setting sun, it didn't seem quite as overwhelming as he'd remembered. He spotted a figure moving on the wall near the gate and wondered if it was one of the Empress' guards. Silly, Iolaus, he chastised himself, who else would it be? With one last glance, he turned back to the rebels, automatically looking for Joxer. He wanted to know what the rebel leader wanted him to do so he could prepare himself.

He caught a glimpse of movement off to one side and spotted Joxer and Makkis heading deeper into the woods. He quickly followed after them, trying to be as quiet as possible. As he got close enough to over hear their conversation, he realized they were discussing plans for the attack. Iolaus decided to wait for a pause in the conversation before interrupting. As the two men finally came to a halt, Iolaus was surprised to see Castor waiting for them.

"All right, Castor," Makkis greeted the man. "I've brought Joxer. Now what was so important?"

"The others all agreed that I could speak for them," Castor stated. "Before we go in, we want to know if we can really trust what this jester told you." Seeing Joxer's frown, he added belligerently, "We aren't going to risk our lives on the word of the Sovereign's boot-licker. How do we know this ain't a trap? Maybe the Sovereign's just been hiding and this is a scheme to get us all."

As Joxer continued to stand silent, Makkis spoke up, "He has a point, Joxer. There was no body, nothing." He sighed. "I like the little guy, but to trust him…. I don't know."

Joxer sighed. "We really don't have much choice," he told them. "If we wait to find out the truth, the Empress' hold may be too strong and more lives will be lost. If we go now, we may be walking into a trap… but I don't think so. I really think the Sovereign is gone for good. That thing he fell into…" Joxer shivered slightly. As Castor started to interrupt, the rebel leader waved him to silence. "I know, it still could have been planned. Why do you think I've kept Iolaus close to me?" he asked. "That's why only six of us are sneaking in. If there is a trap, we'll be the ones to spring it and hopefully, we'll make it out alive. If we don't, then the rebellion has only lost six people instead of all of us."

Castor slowly nodded. "Makes sense, I guess. But why didn't you want the jester going in with us? Seems to me if he is a spy or a traitor that would be the best place for him."

"So that he can betray us to them? Or claim a reward after we're dead?" Joxer shook his head. "No, it's better that he stays with Makkis and the others."

"If it is a trick, you can be sure he won't live long enough to regret it," Makkis growled.

"Just make sure you find out as much as possible from him first, my friend." Joxer smiled grimly. "He's still the best source of information about that palace we've got."

"Oh, he'll talk, don't you worry, Joxer," Castor stated emphatically. "I've got a few friends that will make sure of that, if I don't come back."

Joxer clasped the man on the shoulder and then turned to Makkis. "We need to get back. It's time to get this show on the road," he said as he lead the other two back towards the others.

Iolaus sagged against the tree he'd hidden behind when he realized they were discussing him. He felt as if he'd been kicked in the gut. All this time he'd thought that Joxer liked him, trusted him, while the truth was the man had only been using him. The friendship had been a sham, a ruse to get the information the rebels needed. The warm feeling of belonging had vanished; in it's place was an aching emptiness that just might swallow him if he thought about it. The Sovereign had been right, he was a worthless little runt who couldn't even make people laugh. Despair ate at him. What was he going to do now?

Trying to blink back his tears, he pushed himself away from the tree and blindly headed back towards the others. He didn't know what else to do. If he left, they'd be sure he was a spy and would hunt him down. He knew his own skills well enough to know that it wouldn't take long them long and then he'd really be in trouble. At least by staying around, he prolonged his miserable life.

Iolaus realized he'd reached the area where the group was and halted just outside. He stood watching the others quietly talking and enjoying their last few moments of peace together. He had wanted to help these people, had wanted to fight with and for them. Now he just wanted to curl up somewhere and make the world go away. He bit his lip, trying to stifle a sob.

"Iolaus!" He looked up as someone called his name and spotted Joxer heading his way. "Where've you been, Iolaus?" Joxer asked when he got closer. "I was looking for you."

Iolaus averted his eyes. "I, uh, I had to, uhm, find a bush," he replied, blushing slightly at the lie.

Joxer laughed softly. "It's nothing to be ashamed of," the rebel leader said sympathetically. "Now that you're back, it's time for me to go. I want you to stick close to Makkis. He'll try to protect you as much as he can."

"Uh, sure," Iolaus agreed quietly. Why bother? My life isn't worth anything. He kept that thought to himself.

Joxer studied him, concerned. "Are you all right?"

"S-sure," Iolaus tried to reassure the man. "Just nerves, I guess."

Joxer smiled reassuringly. "You'll be fine, Iolaus. You'll be a hero when this is all over."

Yeah, right. Some hero, Iolaus thought, but he didn't say anything.

"I expect to see you at our victory celebration," the rebel leader called back to him as he moved towards the men waiting for him.

"Yeah, sure," Iolaus agreed weakly. Victory? Yeah, right. Not for him. For him the battle was already lost.

Iolaus sat huddled against the base of a tree. Fear was making its insidious presence felt but another emotion threatened to drown even that, despair. Between the two, Iolaus wondered how he was going to survive the next few hours. Did he even really want to? Wouldn't it just be better to let it go? A surge of fear went through him and he wondered at it. He wasn't afraid of pain, the gods knew he'd had enough of that in his life with the Sovereign. Was he afraid of dying? A bitter laugh forced its way out but he cut it off quickly before anyone could hear. You are in sad shape, he told himself. Nothing to live for but too afraid to die. He thought about the upcoming battle and wondered how he was going to get through it. Why bother worrying? It's not as if it really matters. Nothing will change even if you do survive. He wished the signal would come soon so he could just get it over with.

As if in answer to his wish, Iolaus heard Makkis shout. He looked up to see the rest of the rebels begin to charge from their hiding place. For a moment, he simply watched, not making the connection. "This is it, Iolaus." Makkis grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet. "Let's go!" Iolaus found himself running with the rest of the group. Charging towards the slowly opening palace gates.

Screams. That was his initial impression of the battle as he charged through the gate. How much of his life had been filled with screams, a small corner of his mind wondered as he stopped and stared at the chaos around him. Fear slammed into him as his mind finally registered what he was seeing. People fighting, people dying. Instinct finally kicked in and Iolaus found himself crouching behind the low wall of the well, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.

He watched in horror as Makkis charged a pair of guards and was brutally cut down. All around him men and women were falling. He spotted Joxer, wounded, but still holding off three guards. Castor lay on the ground at the rebel leaders' feet. Fear screamed at Iolaus; run, hide, get as far away from this as you can. He hesitated, afraid of drawing attention to himself if he moved. A shout caught his attention and he looked around to see a guard coming at him, sword raised to strike. Terrified, he tried to scramble away. He managed to get his feet under him. A few stumbling steps was all he managed before something tangled his feet and sent him sprawling. He looked up in horror at the guard; sure he was going to die.

As the guard's blade started to descend Iolaus closed his eyes, praying that it would be quick at least. He cringed, as he heard the sword strike. Suddenly it dawned on him that he hadn't felt anything. Amazed, he opened his eyes and looked up to see Alista standing over him. He gapped at her, stunned, as she parried another blow. "Iolaus!" she shouted. "Get out of here, find some place to hide."

Iolaus tried once more to scramble to his feet, unconsciously grabbing the bundle that had tripped him. As he stumbled away he glanced back, trying to see what was happening. Where should he go? He looked around desperately. There were too many guards between himself and the gate and with every passing moment, fewer and fewer rebels. He started to dodge around another pair of fighters locked in combat, when a hard shove from the rebel fighter sent the guard stumbling backwards into him. Iolaus tripped and found himself falling into the wall. He closed his eyes, sure the impact was going to hurt.

To his amazement, he found himself hitting the ground instead. Curiosity overcame his fear enough that he scrambled to his feet to look around. In front of him, where the wall should have been, was a hazy mist. Tentatively, Iolaus tried to touch it, snatching his hand back quickly when it sank into the mist. He examined his hand, it seemed to be fine. Looking up, he stared in shock, his battered emotions in turmoil as he tried to figure out where he was.

"Well, well, well, what have we here?" The deep voice was straight out of the worst of Iolaus' nightmares. Praying he was wrong, he turned around slowly.

The Sovereign stood before him, smirking. "If it isn't my old friend." Eyes coldly glaring, the Sovereign stalked forward and grabbed Iolaus by the arm. "Come to make me laugh, jester?"

Iolaus closed his eyes in despair. Not again.

©1997 by Ceallach

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