The soft sound of a closing door jolted Hercules into wakefulness and he started up in the chair, trying to blink the sleep from his eyes. The hand which had been curled so confidingly in his own slipped away, as the demigod looked frantically around, searching for the source of the sound. The room was empty, except for Iolaus and himself, and the light from the window indicated that it was late afternoon; he had been asleep for several hours.
He cursed his own weakness in falling asleep and leaving them wide open to attack. Why hadn't he remembered there were still a few people lurking in the courtyard who would like nothing better than to make Hercules pay for what he had done? The gift of freedom was theirs, but they saw it as a new, unfamiliar prison. Lost in a world that didn't know them anymore, and probably didn't care about them, they were on their own for the first time in years, and it terrified them.
His distress eased a bit, as he saw that the wounded, blond hunter was safe, peacefully sleeping. Hercules reached out, and carefully searched Iolaus' damaged neck for a pulse. He had already seen the rhythmic movement of Iolaus' chest, but he craved the reassurance which the feeling of that strong, steady beat under his fingers provided. He breathed a sigh of relief and sank back. He was wearier than he could remember ever having felt, but he would not sleep again; he needed to stand guard over Iolaus. He had already allowed more to happen to his beloved second self, than he would ever be able to forgive himself. Hercules knew it was now up to him to ensure that Iolaus' precious life was kept burning bright. He vowed never to place that life in such jeopardy again.
He rose, turning, when he heard the door behind him open. He stood unsteadily, placing himself protectively between Iolaus and whoever was entering.
"Felicita?" Surprise colored his voice.
"I'm sorry," she smiled, "Did I wake you?"
"I didn't realize that you'd returned." He breathed a sigh of relief and allowed himself to relax. "Have you seen Lin Ho?"
"No. I haven't seen him since I arrived a few hours ago. It looks as though he may have left."
"Left?" Hercules was startled. "I didn't think he would leave until he knew how Iolaus fared."
"He was very troubled about Iolaus' condition when we first brought you both in, but, before he sent me on to my village, he said he had done everything he could for Iolaus, and that it was now up to Iolaus, himself. Once he knew you were up and around, he probably felt that he would be intruding. Lin Ho is a very sensitive man, and it isn't hard to see how much you and Iolaus mean to each other."
Hercules looked over at his friend, and a troubled frown marred his features, slowly giving way to an angry scowl, as he thought of all that Iolaus had endured. Perhaps, that was another reason for Lin Ho's disappearance; would he have felt that his presence would have only served as a grim reminder to Iolaus of what he had suffered at Maxius' hands? He looked again at his friend's damaged body.
'Iolaus!!! If only you had taken that basket over the wall yourself! If only you hadn't looked back! If only you hadn't come back!'
Hercules brought his thoughts back to the present. "What are you doing here? Lin Ho said he sent you home."
"He did, but I was concerned about you, and Iolaus. You both were so badly hurt; I couldn't stay in my village, not knowing what had happened to you. Besides, I didn't know whether you would be able to find any food, or supplies. The scavengers had already nearly cleaned out the kitchen before I left. I brought food from the village. Since Lin Ho is gone, I'm glad that I returned. You're in no condition to be up yourself, let alone taking care of Iolaus," she stated, flatly.
"But it was dangerous for you to come here by yourself."
"I wasn't alone. Three men from my village were passing this way, and escorted me. They'll pick me up in a few weeks, on their way back."
Hercules' legs wobbled, and he practically fell back into the chair. "I'm afraid you're right, Felicita. I can use your help. I appreciate your coming back."
She smiled. "It's the least I can do, Hercules, for all that you've both done for me, and my son. I'm sorry for what you both have suffered because of me."
Hercules turned his eyes toward the hunter. It was true, they had both suffered. The blame, however, lay with himself, not with Felicita.
"Would you like something to eat? I've made some soup." There was a coaxing note in Felicita's voice.
"That sounds great, but Iolaus needs to be fed something first. He's lost so much weight since I last saw him." He shuddered, as his mind offered a grim explanation for the hunter's gaunt appearance. Facing such abuse, night after night, surely Iolaus had been barely able to stomach food, even the thought of food. Most likely, only his frail hope that his continued existence was buying life for Hercules had allowed him to eat enough to keep body and soul together.
Once again, Hercules gathered his scattered thoughts as he realized Felicita was speaking to him. "He's already eaten. I fed him some broth skimmed from the soup. He didn't take much, but I was at least able to get a little warmth down him."
"He was awake?" Hercules asked incredulously. He couldn't believe that Iolaus had been awake and he had not sensed it, not heard the sound of his voice.
"Yes. When I arrived he was just laying there, watching you."
"Why didn't you wake me?" Hercules asked.
"He wouldn't let me." She smiled, as she turned to leave the room, "I'll be right back with your soup."
Hercules gazed at Iolaus. Such damage to his body and soul, and yet, Iolaus' first concern was for Hercules, as always. The demigod felt the tears rising behind his eyes. How could he ever deserve the love and loyalty of this extraordinary man?
He reached out to squeeze Iolaus' shoulder, lightly. "Iolaus, what would I ever do without you?" he whispered. Just as the depths of his soul had echoed with Hercules' loving pleas, which had helped bring him through the pit of fire, so Iolaus heard these quiet words, and they warmed his fragile heart.
Hercules subsided into his chair, and sat watching his friend sleep, until Felicita returned to the room with a steaming bowl of soup and a platter of fragrant bread. The aroma made him realize just how hungry he was, and he devoured the savory food, ravenously. Felicita watched, smiling, as he finished, and washed down the repast with a tankard of sweet water.
"Hercules, you need to get into bed, and sleep, now. I'll watch over Iolaus."
"No, I ... I can't. I can't leave him alone right now. Felicita, we were separated for over a month. I never knew where he was, what was happening to him ..." he stopped short, his heart contracting as he realized that he now knew, only too well, what had been happening to Iolaus. Pain flared in his icy, blue eyes, and he reached out to place a protective hand on Iolaus' chest, "I just ... I have to be with him."
Felicita smiled sadly. She understood Hercules' pain, only too well. She had lived as a slave in this place long enough to know what went on. She knew Lin Ho, and how he served. When she had seen him step forward to help the two heroes, and watched the tender care which he had given Iolaus, it didn't take her long to realize where he had met the compact warrior. Felicita gazed down at Iolaus, with his halo of golden hair; the beauty of his face and form was striking, despite the ravages which he had suffered. She should have known, from the moment Hercules announced his intention to help find Gladius, that the blond one should stay away. She should have seen that Maxius would be unable to resist this one, once that evil man caught a glimpse of him. She should have ....
Felicita shook away the shroud of self-blame. What was done, was done; this was the time for healing. She looked back up toward Hercules.
"You don't have to leave the room." She pointed behind him.
He turned, noticing that another bed had been placed near the head of Iolaus', and looked a question at Felicita.
"My friends brought it in here before they left. I knew you wouldn't want to be far away from him."
He smiled his thanks at her thoughtfulness, but wavered, looking at Iolaus' sleeping face. Hercules was exhausted, and still in considerable pain, but he couldn't bring himself to rest when he knew that the hunter might awaken, and call out for him. Felicita saw his hesitation, and put her foot down.
"Hercules, he's still weak and will probably sleep most of the time. You need to rest, to regain your strength, so you can be there for him when he does need you. I promise to wake you if anything comes up."
Hercules reluctantly acknowledged the logic in her words. With one last glance at Iolaus, and a gentle touch to the blond head, he nodded, and gratefully sank down onto the extra bed. In a matter of minutes, his breathing was slow and steady.
Felicita sat down in the chair and took up Hercules' vigil. The demigod was wrapped in deep slumber, yet, still his sculpted features were deeply etched with lines of sorrow and pain. Felicita then fixed her gaze on Iolaus' pale face, and sighed with compassion. There would be a long road of recovery ahead for these fast friends; the physical damage was nothing, in comparison to the inner battlefield which they faced. But, she had faith that if anyone could overcome the aftermath of abuse, these two could. There was a bond between them more powerful than anything she had ever witnessed; indeed, the strength of their love seemed to emanate from them, even as they slept.
Hercules fought his way back to consciousness after a deep, nightmare-ridden sleep. The images from his dreams haunted him, even as he opened his eyes to see sunlight washing the room around him. He sat up abruptly, immediately swiveling his head to check on Iolaus.
"Welcome back, Hercules," Felicita smiled at him from the chair, "How are you feeling?"
"Better. That was a nice nap. Iolaus looks a little better, already, don't you think? His color is better." Hercules studied Iolaus critically. The hunter's pale cheeks were showing the slightest flush of pink, and his breathing seemed steady.
"Yes, he has improved, slightly. Would you like something to eat?" There was a mischievous twinkle in Felicita's eyes.
Hercules considered both the question and the twinkle.
"Ravenous! I feel as though I haven't eaten for a week. Do you have any more of that soup?"
"No, but I do have some wonderful stew. And, it hasn't been a week; it's just been three days."
"Three ..." Hercules looked down at himself, and blushed. His clothing was gone, and his skin was clean. His wounds bore fresh dressings, and the bedding was fresh, as well. Felicita must have been tending to him as though he were a babe. From the look of Iolaus' clean skin and shining hair, it was apparent that she'd done the same for the hunter.
"Felicita. You should have awakened me; it's too much for you to be expected to nurse both of us, alone."
"Nonsense. You needed the sleep." She laid his neatly folded pants and cleaned tunic at the foot of his bed, and dumped his boots beside them, "I'll fetch some stew." She tactfully left the room, and Hercules immediately got out of bed, dressing hurriedly.
The rest had indeed done him good; the sleep, combined with the power of his divine blood, had given strength back to his body, and clarity to his mind. He peeked under the dressings, and saw that even his worst wounds were almost completely healed.
He sank down on the side of Iolaus' bed, gently brushing the golden hair away from the hunter's forehead. If only he could somehow transfer some of that divine blood to Iolaus, to speed his friend's recovery. He knew that it would be weeks before Iolaus regained his strength of limb. As for Iolaus' heart ... Hercules would, in fact, joyfully give every drop of his blood, if it could wash the hunter's pain away.
Felicita returned, with a laden tray, as Hercules reached out, cupping his fingers protectively on Iolaus' chest, as if sheltering the fragile beat of life which he found there.
"Was he awake much during the time I slept?" Although Hercules was speaking to Felicita, his eyes never left the hunter's face.
"Not much. He woke only a few times, and only remained awake long enough to take a little food, and water. The first time he woke and didn't see you he was horribly alarmed. I lifted him a little and, once he could see you sleeping, he finally relaxed and ate and then fell back to sleep. Whenever he woke, he always checked to make sure that you were still there."
"That's the way it's always been. He's always thought about me first, and put himself last." Then he spoke almost as if to himself, "And, he's always trusted me. How could he ever do so again, after what I've let him go through? But he will. That terrifies me more than anything the gods could ever throw at us."
Felicita saw his pain, and tried to change the subject. "He asked about Lin Ho; he was disappointed that he had left."
"I wish he had stayed, too. Incredible, that one man, and one woman, could devastate so many lives." He shook his head.
Felicita could only nod agreement as she thought of the husband she had lost, and the life that they had been forced to endure for so many years.
"Come on, Hercules. Have some stew." She served the demigod, and watched as he began to eat, then she sat at Iolaus' side, gently stroking his limp hand.
Over the next week, they both watched, as Iolaus gradually crept back to life. His daily gains in health were slight, but were rejoiced over by both of his care givers.
Felicita helped Hercules keep his mind off the slow progress by getting him to tell her stories about the adventures which the two friends had shared. Hercules didn't have Iolaus' flare for story telling, though, and his heart ached as he pictured himself, sitting in a tavern, relaxing and listening as his laughing friend spun tales of their latest battle, making them both appear larger than life.
Hercules also related several funny incidents from his and Iolaus' youthful escapades. Felicita's plan had the desired affect, for remembering some of their adventures brought a hint of a smile to Hercules' eyes, and coaxed the occasional laugh from him, as well. Iolaus was awake for very short periods of time during a couple of these stories. Because of his injured throat, he was not allowed to speak, and found himself at the mercy of the demigod's rather tame version of the events under discussion. He rolled his eyes at some of the more blatant missed opportunities for embroidery, and Hercules laughed, unsteadily.
One afternoon, as Hercules finished dressing Iolaus' wounds, he noted that their medical supplies were running low, and would have to be replenished. Felicita was busy in the other room, and Hercules decided that the time had come for him to test out his legs; he had not ventured far from this room since Lin Ho had led him to it, so long ago. He asked Felicita for directions to the healer's quarters, and set off.
He strode down the corridor, the soreness in his stiff legs gradually loosening as his muscles began to warm from the exercise. It felt good to be moving again, to feel the blood quickening in his veins, his chest expanding as he drew in great lungfuls of air. He lit a torch and started down the wing to the healer's rooms, then his steps slowed, and the hairs on the back of his neck rose. A whisper of sound, like a faraway cry, teased at the fringes of his hearing.
"Iolaus?" He turned toward the sound, knowing that it could not be Iolaus' voice which he heard, knowing that he had just left the golden warrior sleeping in their snug room, below. It came again, more thought than sound, redolent with ... what? Disbelief. Panic. Pain.
He was facing a set of massive double doors, which stood slightly ajar. He passed through them on reluctant feet, drawn by a black premonition. His sense of Iolaus' presence was so strong that he could almost see his friend's form flickering before him; a graceful shadow, just beyond his reach.
He lifted his torch against the darkness beyond the doors, and it caught and fractured, one torch becoming dozens of torches, reflected back to him in shattered streams of fragmented light. Through the mad dazzle, he spotted a torch in a sconce, and lit it, then another, and another, moving about the chamber, bringing light to each corner. As he did so, he saw the mirrors which had transformed the torch light into such a torturous blaze. Mirrors everywhere he looked.
The room which they reflected was overwhelmingly luxurious. Priceless, glowing tapestries adorned the stone walls, and Hercules' footsteps were muffled by the thick, soft rugs which covered the floor. A massive bathing tub stood in one corner of the room. One wall above it held shelves which were crowded with cloths, candles, and an assortment of jars and flasks; thick, wax candles dotted the tub's wide rim. A huge mirror winked balefully from the other wall, reflecting the cold, filmy water which filled the tub.
A huge bed crouched on a slightly raised dais in the center of the room, dominating the lush surroundings. The rich, silken bedding was rumpled, as though its occupant had just risen. His stomach twisting with nausea, Hercules took an unwilling step toward the sight, and his foot knocked against something on the floor.
It was an open trunk, its contents disarranged by a feverish, searching hand. He knelt, and lifted the huddle of fabric which he found within. Tunics, trousers, shirts, sandals, and boots. A sickening variety of garments, left to crumble into dust; the fading, accusatory ghosts of the men who once wore them. A glint drew his eye to the side of the trunk. There, caught on one of the hinges, hung a cold glimmer of mossy green, suspended from a well-worn thong.
Hercules freed the amulet with a shaking hand, warming the frigid stone within his wide palm.
He rose after a moment, tucking Iolaus' amulet safely into the pouch at his belt, and mounted the dais, kneeling to gather up the soft pile of fabric which lay beside the bed. It was the thinnest, finest silk he had ever seen, pure white, shot with glittering, golden threads. Peering at the soft stuff, he realized that he held a sleeveless vest, and tight-waisted, flowing pants. He closed his eyes for a moment, but, the clothing still hung from his grasp when he opened them once again. Clothing designed to reveal, rather than conceal; to expose, rather than protect.
The torchlight blazed in the golden threads, as Hercules' mind skittered deliriously around the memory of Lin Ho's words: 'Menas Maxius called him his 'golden treasure'.'
The delicate fabric was ripped.
Iolaus. Iolaus had torn these despised trappings from his body, then rummaged through the chest for his own, well-worn garments.
Hercules stood, with the spider web of silk still clutched in one hand, and stared down at the bed. His free hand reached down of its own volition, lifting a satiny cuff which dangled from a chain at one corner. It was surprisingly heavy; with a shudder, he realized that iron lay within the satin. A wide, metal ring thrust through the soft fabric on one side, mating it to the chain. The foul thing dropped from his nerveless fingers, to thud quietly on the soft carpet. A long table stood at the head of the bed, littered with candles, and flasks. He dipped his fingers into an open jar, and found a thick salve within.
"No." A prayer of a whisper, a plea to the merciless gods. Please. Make this not be real.
A flicker from above caught Hercules' eyes, and he looked up, to find his own eyes staring sickly back at him from the ceiling, trapped within the massive mirror which was suspended above the bed. He looked around the room, and saw his image repeated endlessly; most of the mirrors were angled to reflect the bed. The entire, opulent room was an elaborate setting, fashioned to display a precious, plundered jewel.
He began to tremble, as his mind continued to unravel the endless horror of his surroundings, feeling Iolaus' presence like a wounded specter at his elbow. 'Look, Hercules. See me. Help me. Understand me.'
He didn't wonder that Iolaus' voice had led him here. The valiant hunter had died in this room. His innocence sacrificed to the brutal appetites of a murderous, jaded despot. His honest heart torn from him, slowly suffocated by endless humiliation and agony. A rage beyond reason, an empathic agony beyond endurance, ripped through Hercules' soul, as he stood in the elegant cesspool which had been both Iolaus' prison, and his bloody bier. The anger and suffering coiled within the trembling demigod, finding a home just behind his breaking heart. An inhuman howl of fury tore through him, glancing off of the tapestries, the mirrors, the candles and bedding, to hang in the perfumed air like a thundercloud of vengeance. Mindlessly, he shredded the soft, silken clothing between his powerful hands, and it drifted from his grasp, to rest like a ghostly stain on the bed.
Hercules surged forward, upending the massive bed, and hurling it across the room, where it shattered a clump of mirrors before falling in ruins. The table was next; its scented burden of salves and oils, candles and wine went flying, followed by the table itself, which splintered upon impact with the far wall. He launched himself from the platform, wrenching a heavy, wrought iron sconce off of the wall. Using it as a club, he destroyed the shelves behind the bathing tub, crushing their contents. Splintered pieces of the wooden tub itself flew about him, as he hammered it repeatedly. Water bled from gaping holes, running in a scented stream to flood the expensive rubble which littered the floor.
All of those mirrors, offering endless, pitiless reflections of horror for Iolaus each time he entered this vile den. Hercules dropped his club, which was twisted beyond usefulness, and tore another sconce from the wall, carelessly dropping the torch which it held to quench itself, sputtering, on the flooded rug. One by one, taking extra care with the one above the ruined tub, he destroyed each of the hated mirrors, his rage feeding on the splintering sounds. An endless stream of maddened screams burned his throat, a roaring accompaniment to the crashing tinkle of breaking glass. At last, the son of Zeus stood, silent, amidst a shimmering expanse of fractured light. It seemed a mockery, to be blinded by this blazing brightness, here, where no true light could ever shine.
One mirror remained unbroken. The hateful mirror above the dais, which had once reflected the bed below.
With all of his power, Hercules threw the twisted sconce skyward; it hit dead center, the force of its flight embedding the iron in the ceiling from which the mirror hung. He danced back as the mirror shattered, and bits of glass rained to the floor, undying crystalline tears, shed in memory of Iolaus' suffering.
Wildly, his thoughts red with rage, he wished that he could have Maxius in this room for ten minutes. Just ten minutes, to make that miserable monster pay for what he had done to the man who Hercules loved more than life. The man who had been violated so brutally in this despicable room.
Completely exhausted, Hercules sank to his knees, sobbing harshly, unmindful of the glass which powdered the thick leather of his pants. He could not begin to fathom the horror which Iolaus had faced. Hercules had destroyed the room, but he could do nothing to change what had taken place within it. Even the sight of the ruin surrounding him offered no true satisfaction; no wrong had been righted. Only his rage had been satisfied, here.
Stiffly, with streaming eyes, he rose. Taking each lit torch in turn, he threw them into the filthy puddle of water which covered the floor, plunging the room into darkness once again. For eternity. He pulled the doors closed behind him, and jammed the lock, finishing off by breaking the heavy handles. The only way anyone would ever get into that room now was by using an ax to break down the massive, wooden doors.
Still shaking with rage and reaction, he continued to the healer's and stuffed the remainder of the medicines and supplies in a large leather pouch, carrying it away with him. He would not come back this way, past that room, again.
By the time he returned to Iolaus' bedside, he was fairly calm. Felicita saw the traces of tears on his face, as well as myriad new cuts and scratches on his hands and arms. Knowing quite well that Hercules' journey would have taken him past Maxius' 'playroom', she made a shrewd guess at what might have occurred, and left the demigod alone with his sleeping companion.
Hercules knelt on the floor, next to Iolaus' bed. He leaned forward, resting his flushed face lightly against the hunter's broad brow, his thick, honey-brown hair surrounding them like a sweet curtain. Foul visions of what Iolaus had endured clung to Hercules like a reeking shroud. His hand, resting on Iolaus' arm, felt the satin of the hunter's skin, and he imagined the sweaty glide of Maxius' hand over that beloved flesh. He buried his fingers in the soft, golden mass of Iolaus' hair, and he could see Maxius' filthy hands knotting in that silken weight, pulling Iolaus' head painfully back. The twisted despot was reaching from his grave, to taint Hercules' thoughts, and poison his soul.
In a shaking whisper, he told the sleeping hunter he had been to that 'hated room'. Unexpectedly, he felt Iolaus stirring, and heard a soft, ragged voice.
"You ... you went to that room?"
Hercules lifted his head to meet the clouded, blue eyes. When Iolaus saw the truth darkening the demigod's gaze, he turned away, but not before Hercules saw the shame and humiliation burning in Iolaus' eyes.
'Why did I say that aloud?' In his agony, he had simply sought to unburden his aching soul. Now, he cursed himself, imagining how Iolaus must feel to know that his friend had seen the room where he had been forced to endure such torment.
"Not intentionally, Iolaus. I went up to get more supplies from the healer's quarters. There was a ... I don't know, a force, a presence, that drew me into the room. I felt as though you were there. Iolaus," he took one of Iolaus' hands between both of his, "I finished it."
"Finished...?" Iolaus' quiet voice broke, as he slowly turned back toward his friend.
"No one will ever use that room again."
Iolaus gazed at him for a silent moment, as if trying to comprehend Hercules' words, then simply nodded. Sleep soon overtook the hunter again, and Hercules couldn't tell whether his words had helped relieve his friend's mind.
The days passed, and there was no further mention of the room.
At the end of the week, Felicita's friends returned for her. Hercules had decided that Iolaus would heal faster once he was safely away from this haunted place, and he and Iolaus joined Felicita's group in leaving Maxius' stronghold.
Hercules had his own destination in mind. It was a place of peaceful seclusion that he and Iolaus had found many years before, and he hoped it had remained hidden and unspoiled. It was tucked safely away from prying eyes and careless questions, a place for the two of them to be together, to start putting the shattered pieces of their lives back together again. He had constructed a stretcher on which he could drag Iolaus, and had filled the leather pouch with all the medical supplies and a few extras they would need for the journey. Their ultimate destination would supply all of their other needs.
The small group started off on their journey at dawn. Initially, Hercules had feared that some of the stragglers from the arena might follow, but the stronghold was nearly deserted. Those few that were left, fearful of Hercules, had milled around, waiting. Once Hercules left, it took little time before they moved into the buildings. So, though Hercules kept a cautious watch, there was no sign of anyone following them, and he relaxed his vigilance with a sigh of relief.
Hercules accompanied the others for almost two days before he and Iolaus split from the group. He thanked Felicita for caring for them, and for helping him through the difficult days just passed. He apologized again for not having been able to save Gladius, but she stopped his words.
"Hercules. You and Iolaus saved my life, and that of my son, and you gifted us with freedom. Gladius would have been thankful, as I am. Both of you will always be welcome in my village." She looked down at the weak, blond warrior, finding that he was listening to her words. She bent close, and lightly kissed his cheek, "Thank you for everything. Be well, Iolaus." He smiled and nodded slightly in response. Felicita rose, and turned once again to Hercules.
"Take good care of him, and of yourself, son of Zeus." She kissed Hercules on the cheek also, smiling and waving as she and her escorts headed toward their village.
Hercules waved after her, then knelt beside Iolaus to make sure he was comfortable, and warm. Hercules' heart grew lighter, as he saw the relief in Iolaus' eyes when he finally realized they were alone together, out in the open, and away from that hated place. Hercules took up the poles of the stretcher and continued their journey. It would take three more days to reach the valley. He managed to find smooth paths off the main track, and fixed branches to the bottom of the stretcher, which would sweep out any tracks, ensuring that they wouldn't be followed. He wanted no one finding them, friend or foe, wanted no demands on his time or strength. Hercules, the demigod, the liberator of the people, was out of the rescue business at the moment. Iolaus would receive his undivided attention.
At last, they reached the edge of the valley. With a smile, Hercules gratefully followed the paths which led him to the spot which he and his beloved friend had discovered years earlier, and found it to be as secluded as he had remembered.
Stately trees shaded the clearing from the mid-day sun. It was tucked away, opening to a shimmering, crystal clear lake. Twin waterfalls crashed majestically into the lake, opposite the clearing. The grass was green and lush from the early spring rains and the air was perfumed by the grand profusion of flowers which flourished around the clearing. The surrounding bushes and trees were heavy with a variety of edible berries and fruits, and medicinal herbs and roots grew in abundance. Hercules viewed the lush surroundings gratefully; it was the perfect place to camp, as he had been hoping it would be.
As he had done compulsively during the journey, Hercules moved back and checked on Iolaus, then set off to construct a large lean-to out of branches and boughs from nearby trees and bushes, bringing in armloads of sweet-smelling leaves to serve as a soft cushion under the blankets. When he finished, he threw a large piece of heavy cloth that he had salvaged from the stronghold over the top. It would keep the sun, the cold and the wind out, and would provide a snug shelter for his friend's recovery. Iolaus awakened as Hercules gathered him up tenderly, and carried him into the fragrant sick-room. He flashed a faint, approving smile, and squeezed the demigod's hand gently before drifting back into dreams. Hercules fancied that he could already see a new serenity in Iolaus as he slept; he knew that the hunter would heal faster, here.
Indeed, away from the visual reminders of his torment, Iolaus began to grow stronger almost immediately. Hercules, knowing his friend's impatience, was afraid that Iolaus would try getting up long before he was able to do so, and watched over him closely. Although Iolaus stayed awake for increasingly long stretches of time, and seemed to be gaining strength, he was content to rest. Soon, though, Iolaus insisted upon taking care of some of his own immediate needs. Hercules was strangely reluctant to relinquish any part of his attendance upon the hunter, but recognized that it was time, and tried to simply be grateful for Iolaus' continuing recovery.
Soon, small problems began to surface. The first morning that Iolaus was up on his own, Hercules set off to find more firewood, and returned to find Iolaus out in the lake, bathing. Iolaus had just turned, and was heading back to shore, when he looked up and saw Hercules. He stopped in the middle of the lake, in water up to his waist. Their eyes met and Hercules saw the embarrassment coloring Iolaus' gaze, before the flustered hunter dropped his eyes.
Hercules quickly dropped the firewood, and headed back into the woods to hunt, trying to fathom what had just happened. He and Iolaus had been together since they were boys; there had never been any shyness, or embarassment between them. In fact, he had just spent weeks caring for Iolaus' every need. With his thoughts in a confusing whirl, Hercules tried to push the problem aside, and focused his mind on securing their dinner.
As he returned to camp, game in hand, Hercules forced himself to admit that things were not back to normal, though he had tried to convince himself that they were. How could he have believed that Iolaus, who had lived through such horror, could possibly erase all that had happened, even though the hunter seemed to be trying to do just that? Hercules had gone along with the charade, because he wanted, so desperately, for it to be true. He had to face the truth; a part of Iolaus' life had changed, dramatically, and irrevocably.
When he reached camp, Iolaus had built up the fire. He looked up as Hercules returned, and still seemingly a little embarrassed by the encounter, he quickly looked away. Neither said anything more about what had happened; Hercules put the rabbits down and Iolaus started to clean them, while Hercules busied himself around the camp.
Iolaus gradually recovered himself, and the afternoon passed quietly. Hercules' search for their dinner went smoothly, and he returned to the camp quickly. As he started to push through the bushes, he was startled to see that Iolaus was back in the lake, bathing once more. To avoid repeating his earlier mistake, he backed out of the bushes and found a spot in which to wait. About forty minutes later, he heard Iolaus moving about in the camp, and headed in. Iolaus was fully clothed, and was stirring up the fire. They once again worked in silence to prepare the meal.
A pattern formed over the next few days. Hercules would check carefully before approaching camp, when he returned from hunting. Several times, he found Iolaus in the water, bathing. Hercules had been puzzling over the problem, and his heart shrank within him as the cause finally became clear to him. He understood, only too well, what Iolaus was trying to do, and he knew that there wasn't enough water in the entire lake to ease Iolaus' mind.
Hercules began to notice other disquieting behavior, as well. He had not allowed Iolaus to do much talking when they first arrived, because his throat was still raw, but as Iolaus improved, and was up and about, he began to withdraw on his own. He returned brief answers to Hercules' questions, but never initiated conversation, and would retire to bed shortly after they had eaten. Hercules knew that this lethargy consisted of more than simple weariness.
Hercules, also, battled a constant exhaustion, which seemed to stem from his very soul. The burden of guilt which he carried was overwhelming him, and each time he saw Iolaus trying to scrub away the past, or sat across the fire from his uncharacteristically silent friend, the black weight grew heavier. He focused all of his efforts on tending to Iolaus; hunting for him, gathering food and medicinal herbs, trying to draw him out with strained attempts at banter.
Iolaus took baths that couldn't cleanse him. Hercules' ministrations to the hunter couldn't cleanse the demigod's soul. One was drowning in shame... the other in guilt.
Iolaus eventually began to speak of leaving. He had improved remarkably during the past few weeks, and his physical injuries were nearly completely healed; only a few small scars at the base of his strong throat, and ringing his left arm, remained. The deadly emotional wounds, however, were open, and festering.
Neither of the companions had been able to bring himself to say what needed to be said in order to start the healing process. The few attempts had ended with Iolaus either changing the subject, or becoming so upset that Hercules found himself fearfully avoiding the subject altogether. He told himself that Iolaus just needed more time.
In the middle of the seventh week of their retreat, they packed up, and headed out. Both men were reluctant to leave, but knew that it was time to head back into the world, and let friends and family know that they were still among the living. After all, they had been away for almost four months. They made it back to the main road, but Hercules called an early halt to their daily journeys; though Iolaus had the willingness to continue, his body was not yet strong enough to endure hard marches.
On the third day, as they traversed a tree lined road, a dozen bandits jumped into the path before them, brandishing swords and clubs. The two warriors stopped, exchanging a look of exasperated disbelief. Under normal circumstances, they would have laughed this off, and handled the situation with expert dispatch. Now, however, Hercules wasn't sure whether Iolaus was up to a fight yet, and he kicked himself for not sticking to side paths.
The leader of the bandits contemptuously surveyed the two men before him, then looked back at his seasoned comrades with an evil laugh. "Well, this shouldn't take too long, now, should it?"
"Is there something we can do for you?" Hercules was still hoping that he could avoid a fight.
The leader of the bandits sized Hercules up speculatively, then slowly did the same to Iolaus. "Yeah. First, we want all of your money, then you're going to come along with us."
"And exactly where would we be going if we went with you?" Hercules asked, with a wry grin. Iolaus regarded him with amusement.
"To an auction block. You're a big, healthy boy; we'll be able to unload you with no problem. There are plenty of mines, in the area, and galley owners." Then he let his eyes wander over Hercules' small, blonde companion, once again. "Ah, but you, pretty one," he purred, "you will fetch an even bigger price, I'm sure." He turned slightly to his comrades, "I know of at least a few rich men who would pay handsomely for a taste of this one."
Hercules felt Iolaus stiffen.
"No." Iolaus' soft whisper rang with terror, and his look of amusement faded. With all of the rage that the golden hunter had tried to bury, he screamed, "No, never again!", attacking the leader of the bandits with a vengeance born of his blistering hatred for the man who was now beyond his fury.
As Iolaus attacked, Hercules concentrated his attention on the others. He pulled no punches, determined to ensure that Iolaus wouldn't be overpowered during this first, crucial fight. Checking on Iolaus' position, he saw the hunter fighting with unprecedented fury, and the livid hatred glittering in Iolaus' narrowed eyes frightened the demigod. Hercules finally grabbed one of the men who had come after him, swinging him by the arms, using him to knock the others out. Within moments, the road was littered with unconscious bandits.
Hercules turned; Iolaus' hands were around the throat of the bandit leader. He shouted, but Iolaus was oblivious to anything except the man before him. The demigod crossed behind Iolaus and encircled him with his arms. He grabbed Iolaus' wrists, managing to pry his hands loose, and the bandit leader immediately collapsed.
"Let go of me!" Iolaus shouted in terror, fighting wildly to break the grip which held him captive.
Hercules, afraid that he might hurt Iolaus during the hunter's violent struggles to break free, released him. Iolaus blindly turned sideways, slamming Hercules in the ribs with a stout elbow, then lacing his hands together to use them as a club.
But Hercules quickly recovered, and grabbed Iolaus' wrists once more, stopping the blow before it connected.
"Iolaus! Iolaus, it's me!"
Iolaus froze, horrified. In his incensed state, he had not realized who had grabbed him; he had just struck out, wildly.
"Hercules! Hercules, I'm sorry. I, ... I didn't know it was you. Are you all right?" Iolaus was frantic.
Hercules released his hands. "Take it easy. I'm fine. How about you?"
Iolaus was breathing heavily. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. I just ..."
"It's all right, Iolaus." He reached out to touch Iolaus' shoulder, but, fearful of what might happen, he backed off. Iolaus noticed his hesitation, and his eyes darkened.
Hercules knelt to check the leader of the bandits, and saw that he would survive. None of the bandits were damaged beyond repair, but they might think twice about stopping an unarmed man in the future. He turned back to Iolaus, catching himself once again before reaching out toward his friend, troubled by the strange expression on the smaller man's face.
Iolaus regarded Hercules for a silent moment, then turned away.
"Come on; let's get out of here." Iolaus threw the words over his shoulder.
He started down the road at a rapid pace. Perplexed, Hercules watched as his friend drew further away from him, then reached down, grabbed the pack and headed after him. After a short time, Iolaus began to slow down; Hercules could see the fatigue written in every line of Iolaus' body. The emotional and physical exertion of the brief battle had completely drained the hunter.
Hercules immediately suggested that they stop, and his concern redoubled as Iolaus answered with a curt nod. They turned off the road, and worked their way into a small clearing set near a clear lake. Hercules easily persuaded an unresisting Iolaus to sit and rest, as the demigod set up camp. Hercules headed out for firewood, returning quickly. Iolaus had not moved, and remained motionless as Hercules built a dancing fire.
Hercules wished there was a way he could take away the pain he saw creasing his beloved friend's averted face, but he knew he could not. Troubled, but unable to find the words to bring comfort to Iolaus, he headed into the forest to hunt. Iolaus was in the lake, bathing, when Hercules returned. As he had done in the past, he stayed out of sight until he knew Iolaus was safely back in camp.
Once their silent meal was finished, Iolaus sat staring into the fire. Hercules watched the light flickering over his weary face for a few minutes, then suddenly remembered something which had slipped his mind over the past several weeks. He reached into the pouch at his belt, then rose, to kneel before Iolaus.
"Iolaus. I have something for you."
Iolaus met his eyes questioningly, and saw the amulet in Hercules' hand. However, he made no attempt to take it from the demigod.
"I'm sorry I forgot about it for so long ..." Hercules started.
"It doesn't matter." Iolaus interrupted him, "Thanks." He reached out and accepted it, hesitantly, but made no attempt to place it around his neck. He sat, holding it awkwardly, staring straight ahead into the flames.
Hercules was immediately alarmed. "Aren't you going to put it back on? Is your neck still bothering you?"
Iolaus raised his hand and regarded the amulet.
"Sure. Why not?" His cold laugh was devoid of humor, as he threw the cord carelessly around his neck. "I might as well wear it," he shrugged, "he never thought much of me, anyhow."
Iolaus reached for his blankets, and settled by the fire for the night. Hercules followed suit on the other side of the flickering flames, although it took him over an hour to finally push his fear for Iolaus far enough back to fall into a restless sleep.
A few hours later, Hercules was awakened by the sounds of Iolaus' screams. He was on his feet at Iolaus' side before he was even fully conscious.
"No! No, don't touch me!" Iolaus' voice was redolent with loathing, "I'll die before I let you touch me!"
Before Hercules could reach down, Iolaus shot up into a sitting position, sweat shining on his frantic face, and streaming down his trembling body. Hercules wanted nothing more than to reach out to the hunter and pull him close, telling him that he was safe, reassuring him that no one would ever hurt him again. Fear held him back; he didn't want his touch to set Iolaus off again.
He gingerly pulled the blanket around Iolaus, although he knew his friend's shivering wasn't from the cold, then he rose to fetch the water bag and knelt, offering it to Iolaus. After Iolaus drank, he handed the bag back to Hercules, who poured some water over the soft cloth he'd pulled from the bag, and reached over, intending to wipe his face, and neck. Before he did, however, he remembered Iolaus' terrified cries, and handed the cloth to the hunter, instead. Iolaus slowly reached for it, watching his friend turn away. The shadow haunting Iolaus' eyes grew, as he studied the demigod's averted face. When Hercules finally met the hunter's eyes, the desolation he found in that fractured, blue gaze almost made him lose his resolve and reach out for Iolaus. Almost.
Flustered, Hercules asked, "Do you think you can go back to sleep again?"
Iolaus simply handed the cloth back to Hercules, then slid back down, huddling under his blanket. He closed his eyes without responding to the demigod's question.
Hercules sat on his blankets for a long while, his heart aching. He had promised himself that he would take care of Iolaus, and he was failing miserably. He wasn't even sure he understood what was happening. How could he? He had never gone through what Iolaus had. How could he possibly know everything that his beloved friend was feeling? He had read some of it on Iolaus' face, seen it in his eyes, but he felt helpless at the magnitude of the damage. If he got Iolaus back to Corinth, perhaps Hercules' family would know what to do. Yet, would Iolaus even want anyone else to know what had happened to him? Hercules didn't think so. He finally lay down, and dropped into an exhausted, but restless sleep, his questions unanswered.
Midmorning found Iolaus still sleeping. Hercules was reluctant to awaken him, feeling that Iolaus needed rest more than they needed to travel. When Iolaus finally rose, the strange lethargy which had occasionally plagued him since his ordeal was very much in evidence, and the sight tore at Hercules' soul. Iolaus had always been like a golden bolt of pure energy; he was rarely still. At times, Hercules had almost believed that marvelous energy level to be a gift from the gods, granted to Iolaus in order to enable him to keep up with the demigod's strength and endurance. It tore at him to see his friend now, devoid of his customary vivacity.
They remained at the new camp site for several days, mainly because Iolaus simply didn't seem interested in moving. He was up for short times to take care of his personal needs, and resumed his constant bathing when Hercules was away, but he always returned to the shelter of sleep soon afterward. His appetite suffered; he was barely eating, and he was dogged by nightmares. Hercules could see that it took all of Iolaus' energy just to drag himself through the most basic tasks of daily life. His face was drawn, and he moved his thin body with an awkwardness which was sharply at odds with his former quick grace. His eyes were darkened, and suspiciously bright, as though an ocean of tears lurked behind the long, lowered lids.
After nearly a week, Hercules finally approached Iolaus about heading out, and Iolaus reluctantly gave in. Hercules was afraid to let this continue any longer, and he hoped that getting back on the road would bring a spark of life back to Iolaus. He had to do something, and traveling would have to be better than standing by helplessly, watching as his beloved friend faded away. Hercules knew that everything Iolaus had suffered, continued to suffer, lay at his door. He hadn't listened when Iolaus had tried to make him leave the stronghold, tried to make him understand that theirs was a fool's errand. He had made a fatal error, and Iolaus was paying the bitter price.
They set out the next day, and by early afternoon they reached a well-populated village. Hercules smiled to himself when he realized that a festival was in full swing. Iolaus loved festivals; perhaps this would turn out to be just what he needed. Iolaus, however, was less than enthusiastic about the idea, and Hercules found himself almost dragging the reluctant hunter along. Whatever else, the demigod decided, they needed a hot meal that they had not caught themselves, and, if they were lucky, they could sleep in actual beds.
They made slow progress through the crowded market place. The deep, blue sky could scarcely be glimpsed through the riotously colorful ceiling of banners and flags which flew from every building and hung from every stall. Mouth-watering fragrances of fresh bread and sweat pastries permeated the air, along with the tempting scent of roasting meat. Gleeful hawkers sang the praises of their wares, their shouts mingling with the rowdy voices of the happy crowds. Children were running in and out between the fairgoers, laughing and playing.
As they waded through the crowds, Hercules could see Iolaus becoming increasingly uncomfortable. The crowds, pressing so closely around him, seemed to make him nervous. Hercules decided that he would get them to an inn, where they could be a bit removed from the hustle and bustle of the festivities.
Hercules also noticed, with a painful tightening in his throat, that several beautiful women had cast shy, admiring glances at Iolaus as they passed him, but the hunter refused to acknowledge them, keeping his eyes averted. One bold, young woman stopped before Iolaus, and reached out to run teasing fingertips down his chest, trying to get his attention. He cringed at her touch, and jumped backward as if he'd been burned. Immediately, Hercules reached over, removing her hand from Iolaus' skin with a gentle smile. She returned the smile, shrugged, and moved off. Hercules regarded his friend's downcast eyes.
"Come on, Iolaus. Let's get out of this crowd. There's an inn."
Iolaus followed closely as they entered the inn. Although the place was fairly crowded, they were able to get a table, and Hercules left Iolaus there, heading to the bar to order their food. He brought back two ales, and took a seat next to his friend.
The place was rang with the raucous voices of the revelers within, and they wouldn't have been able to talk much had Iolaus even been willing to do so, so they just sat, drinking. Hercules watched Iolaus as closely as possible without being obvious, and he saw that the blonde warrior still seemed nervous and uneasy. He began to wonder whether this had been such a good idea. However, a few moments later, the man behind the bar motioned to Hercules that their food was ready, and the demigod rose to retrieve it, hoping that things would seem different after they'd enjoyed a hot meal.
Hercules asked the innkeeper for two more ales, and turned back to check on Iolaus, just as a man approached the hunter. Iolaus was keeping his head down, trying to ignore the man. Hercules turned away, as the ales were set on the tray with the food, and was heading back to the table when he saw the man place his hand on Iolaus' arm. He spoke, and Iolaus looked up, with a terrified expression. The golden hunter shot up out of his chair, pushed the man out of his way, and came running towards Hercules, slamming into him, and knocking the tray out of his hands. Food and ale went flying. Hercules stood for a moment, unable to move, completely shocked by what had just happened.
"Iolaus!" he cried as his companion flew out the door. Before he was able to follow, the man who had approached Iolaus came up, and grabbed Hercules' arm.
"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset your friend. He looked ..., I just thought ...."
Hercules saw the truly apologetic look on the man's face, and realized what had happened. It was certainly not the first time that Iolaus, with his rare beauty, had been approached by an interested male. In the past, the hunter had taken such proposals in stride, and never given the incidents a second thought. In his current, fragile state, however, Iolaus was unable to handle even a simple overture. Hercules nodded, looking longingly toward the door, as the frantic man continued to explain.
Finally Hercules responded. "Look, it's all right. I need to find my friend," and pulled his arm free.
Taking a moment to reach the table and grab their things, Hercules ran out of the inn. Between the vendors and the fairgoers crowding the narrow streets, it was almost impossible to find anyone. However, Hercules' height was an advantage, and he caught a glimpse of blond hair and purple vest through the crowds. Hercules started forward, slowly making his way through the throngs. At several points, he saw Iolaus jerk wildly away from people that had reached out to touch him, or grab his arm. Hercules knew these were innocent gestures, part of the friendly festival spirit, but Iolaus, in his current state of mind, interpreted them as threats.
Then Iolaus disappeared completely. Hercules jumped onto a porch, and craned his neck, but couldn't see him anywhere in the crowd. He returned to the spot where he had last seen him, and spotted a small alley, to his left. He headed down the narrow, dark passage, and found that it led to a dead-end. There, squatting with his back against a high wall, was Iolaus. His arms were wrapped around his drawn up knees, his head was down, and he was rocking back and forth.
Hercules slowly approached and knelt down in front of his friend.
Iolaus jumped at the sound of his voice.
"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to startle you. Are you all right?" Hercules asked, gently.
"They know. They all know!" Iolaus looked up at Hercules, and the demigod could see that his friend was completely distraught; his eyes burned with shame, and humiliation.
"No one knows anything, Iolaus," Hercules said, reassuringly, "Come on, let's get out of here."
Hercules reached down, intending to take Iolaus by the shoulders, and help him to his feet. He remembered Iolaus' reactions to being touched, and caught himself, dropping his hands back to his sides. When Iolaus saw Hercules' hesitation, his pained blue eyes brimmed with betrayal, and the demigod realized that he'd cut Iolaus to the quick.
Hercules looked into the hunter's eyes, and what he saw terrified him. He was losing Iolaus again. He suddenly understood that from the moment Iolaus had chosen life, and regained consciousness, he had been Iolaus' only lifeline. Iolaus had been so badly hurt, both physically and emotionally, that not only had Iolaus been trusting him for his care and his safety, but for something even more important, his self-worth. Since the incident with the bandits on the road, Iolaus had been holding on by only a slender thread, and Hercules had been unknowingly unraveling that thread, strand by strand.
He reached back down, to take Iolaus' arm, but Iolaus jerked away before Hercules could touch him, and slowly stood on his own.
Iolaus glanced up, briefly, and Hercules could see that the pain in his eyes had been replaced by a blank stare. Hercules knew that he needed to get Iolaus out of this village, immediately. They needed to talk; the time for keeping quiet was long passed. Silence hadn't helped, it had only served to make matters worse.
"Iolaus? Let's get out of here, okay?"
Hercules headed out of the alley, with Iolaus following slowly behind, his eyes downcast. Hercules led him through the street, trying to shelter Iolaus as much as possible from the suffocating crowds. Finally, they were on the open road, again, free of the noisy confusion. They traveled in silence over the next hour, putting miles between themselves and the village. Hercules silently cursed himself each step of the way for having once again placed Iolaus in a situation which he was not ready to handle. Would he never stop hurting his beloved friend?
It was near dusk when they came to a place where Hercules felt they would be protected and isolated. It was a small clearing, which seemed to be far enough off the beaten track to offer the privacy they needed.
Iolaus sank down on a large, flat stone at the edge of the clearing. Hercules eyed him, uneasily.
"You relax, I'll find some firewood before it gets too dark. I'll be right back." He waited a moment for some sort of acknowledgment, but none came. "I'll be right back," he repeated, faintly.
He gathered up the wood as quickly as he could, and was fortunate enough to bag a rabbit, also. He guessed they would have to suffer with small game for a while longer. The food didn't matter, anyway. Getting things worked out with Iolaus was all that mattered now. When he reached the clearing, Iolaus was gone. Hercules dropped everything, an uneasy feeling coming over him.
"Iolaus? Iolaus, where are you? IOLAUS!" He listened, but heard nothing.
He bent, and saw tracks leading off to the right. He followed them feverishly, thankful that Iolaus hadn't tried to disguise them. The trail led up through a small pass, and cold panic flooded Hercules as he hurried, though he did his best to fight it. He was afraid to yell Iolaus' name; if Iolaus had come up here, for the reason Hercules feared ... he was afraid that he might push the distraught hunter into doing something irrevocable, before he could speak to him. He reached the top of a small outcropping of rocks, and saw Iolaus standing near a ledge looking over the sheer, high drop. Hercules approached cautiously, but stumbled on a loose rock, and Iolaus quickly swung around, his eyes echoing with emptiness.
"Don't come any closer, Hercules," said Iolaus flatly, moving closer to the edge.
"All right. Just, ... just don't move, please." Hercules remained about fifteen feet away, his hands raised in a gesture of surrender.
"Go back. I don't want you here."
"I'm not going back without you, Iolaus."
"I don't want to go back. I'm tired, Hercules. Let it end."
"Iolaus, please, not this way."
Iolaus looked into his friend's fearful face. Hercules' pleading voice sounded so much as it had when Iolaus had been facing the fire which had nearly consumed him. Back then, Iolaus had believed that he had a reason to live, someone who awaited his return. That was no longer true.
"There is no other way." Iolaus turned, and Hercules knew he was ready to jump.
Iolaus moved to the edge, and was just about to leap off when he heard rocks slipping, and Hercules screaming his name. He looked around quickly; Hercules had vanished. Panic gripped Iolaus' heart.
"Iolaus! Iolaus, help me," Hercules cried.
"Hercules! Where are you?"
"Here. Down here. My foot slipped. Help me!"
Iolaus swiftly flew to the edge of the rocks, and saw Hercules hanging loosely, his fingers imbedded in a small crevice. Iolaus anchored himself against an outcropping of rock, and put his hand out to his friend, praying that his diminished strength would be sufficient to lift the larger man. At one terrifying point, his grip began to slip, but he was able to grasp Hercules' gauntlet and finally pull him to safety.
"Are you all right?" Iolaus asked, shaking with reaction.
"Yes, thanks to you," Hercules nodded, "I think I twisted my ankle. Can you help me back to camp?"
"Let me look at it," Iolaus leaned over to check the ankle.
"No, no, just help me get down off of here before it swells; you can look at it down in camp."
"It'll just take a minute." Iolaus gently manipulated Hercules' ankle, quickly realizing that it was undamaged. He looked up at Hercules, "There's nothing wrong with your ankle. You didn't slip either, did you?"
He tried to rise, but Hercules grabbed him, and pinned his arms. Iolaus struggled angrily to free himself from Hercules' powerful grip, and after a few moments, Hercules felt Iolaus slipping away. If Iolaus got away he would kill himself; Hercules knew that there would be no second chance. He could think of only one way to keep Iolaus safe. He freed one arm, and before the hunter could react, struck him. Iolaus immediately collapsed in his friend's arms, unconscious. Hercules had tried to pull his punch as much as possible, but he was afraid that he may have hit Iolaus too hard. He quickly felt for a pulse and breathed a sigh of relief at the sensation of the strong, steady beat beneath his fingers. He gently gathered the hunter closer, and carried him back to the clearing.
Nearly an hour passed before Iolaus started to stir. He groaned quietly, then he sat up and looked over at Hercules.
"Are you all right?" Hercules asked, quietly.
"Other than an aching jaw and a few stars," Iolaus commented rubbing his bruised face.
Hercules laughed. "I'm sorry, but it was the only way to stop you from doing something foolish."
"Can I have some water, Hercules?"
Hercules rose and went to the other side of the campfire to retrieve the water bag. As he turned back, he froze.
"There's more than one way." Iolaus said quietly, holding the blade of his boot knife to his heart.
"I told you, there isn't any other way." Iolaus' sweet voice was eerily calm.
"Of course, there's a way. We can do it together. You and me. Just as we've always done." Hercules stared down at Iolaus' gaunt face, unable to bear the hopeless resignation which greeted him there.
"You and me!" Iolaus laughed mirthlessly, "There isn't a 'you and me' anymore."
"Maxius was right."
"Right about what?" Hercules questioned.
"I begged him to let me see you. He told me, over and over again, that you would hate me for what I did. You wouldn't be able to stand being around me, anymore; you wouldn't even want to look at me."
"Iolaus, he lied to you. You know that's not true."
"Isn't it?" Iolaus' face creased with agony, and his voice cracked, "Hercules, I've watched you. You can't bear to look me in the eyes. You can't stand to touch me."
"Iolaus ..." Hercules moved closer.
The steady hand holding the bright blade against his broken heart didn't waver, but Iolaus raised his other hand to stop Hercules.
"No, no, it's all right. I understand. I don't blame you; I know what you must think of me."
"No! No, you don't, or you wouldn't be thinking of ending your life like this."
"Hercules, I ..., I tried to wash away the ... but it's all there ..., I'm ... I'm ...." Hot tears began slipping down Iolaus' face.
Hercules knelt down a few feet away from Iolaus, his arms outstretched pleadingly.
"Iolaus, please. You're right, I was afraid to look in your eyes, or to touch you, but it had nothing to do with what happened to you. I haven't touched you because you've been so fearful of anyone touching you. I was afraid ..."
Iolaus laughed, speaking so softly that Hercules barely heard his words. "It's funny, your touch is the only one I did ...," his voice broke.
"I couldn't look you in the eyes, because I was afraid of what I would find there. Your hatred, and contempt for me. The blame, for my pigheadedness having caused you such suffering." Hercules' face was filled with anguish.
"Hercules, I've never blamed you for any of this," Iolaus whispered, incredulously.
"I don't know why not. It was my fault, all of it. I ignored your warnings, not just once, but several times. I led you there, I kept you there; I'll carry that guilt forever."
"It was my decision to follow you; I could have left at any time."
"Could you? Have you ever?" Hercules looked at him lovingly.
That look confused Iolaus. He had come to believe that Hercules only remained with him out of a sense of obligation, and pity. Maxius had done his work well. Not only had he used the unbreakable bond of love between his golden treasure and the son of Zeus to ensure the continued submissiveness of his tender prize, but he'd done his best to destroy that bond, by filling Iolaus with a sense of his own unworthiness. By controlling and possessing Iolaus, Maxius had, in a very real sense, controlled and possessed Hercules.
Iolaus couldn't bear the warmth in Hercules' eyes. It was like a specter from the past, reminding him of all that he had lost.
"It doesn't matter. It's, ... it's done. Now, I ... I just want to be free of it. Let me go, Hercules. This time, please, just let me go." Iolaus steeled himself, raising the blade, preparing to bring it down. Hercules knew he would never be able to reach Iolaus in time.
"All right, Iolaus. I'll let you go, but I go with you."
Iolaus stopped the knife in mid-air.
"I won't let you die alone this time, Iolaus. Charon will be taking both of us, or neither. The choice is yours."
Iolaus looked into his friend's eyes and read the truth. This was no idle threat; Hercules would do as he said. Defeated, Iolaus slowly dropped his arm.
"Those were Maxius' words, too." Iolaus laughed, bitterly.
An echo of that hated voice haunted Iolaus. "'The choice,'" (golden one), Iolaus' mind silently filled in, as he spoke the other words to the puzzled demigod, "is yours.' I told you; it was my decision, Hercules. My shame, my humiliation ..."
"NO! It was Maxius' shame and humiliation, and his alone. I saw the restraints, Iolaus."
Iolaus once again loosed a mirthless laugh. "You don't understand. He didn't have to use them."
He dropped his eyes; he couldn't bear to look at Hercules. Couldn't bear the thought of seeing the disgust and aversion on the demigod's face, when he heard Iolaus' tale.
"While I was recovering from the arrow wound in my back, I couldn't get anyone to tell me what had happened to you. I was going crazy with fear that you were dying someplace all alone, or that you were already dead. I thought, though, that I would know if you had died. I would ... feel it. I just had to believe you were still alive. That we would find each other again and ... and leave that place."
Hercules' heart ached; he had harbored the same fears, and had clung to the same, stubborn hope.
"The first night I was brought into ... into that room, they left me by myself. I couldn't understand why I was there and not back in a cell. I paced back and forth, trying to find a way out. But there wasn't any, except the doors I had been brought through. There were no windows, no locks."
Hercules tensed, grimly remembering the room.
"Suddenly, the doors flew open, and there stood Maxius with several of his guards. The doors were slammed shut again, and I was trapped in there with them. Maxius wasted no time in telling me what he wanted; it was written all over his face. His guards ripped off my vest and pinned me to the wall. I panicked, and fought them all off. But it didn't do any good since the doors were locked; and it didn't stop Maxius. In fact, it had the opposite ...."
Iolaus stopped and closed his eyes, his breath shallow, and rapid. He went on, his voice beginning to tremble, "I told him I'd rather die then let him touch me and he ... he laughed. He said that if I wanted a death, he would give me yours. He said you were in his deepest dungeon. That your death would be slow, and painful, and I would be there to watch it all. He said that he would make sure you knew you were dying because of me. Then, he told me if I would ... if I would ... give him ... what he wanted, he would guarantee your safety. He said he'd even release you, eventually. The choice was mine."
Hercules sat as if carved from granite, squeezing his eyelids closed in an effort to contain the torrent of tears which were threatening to spill.
"I knew he would never keep his promise to free you. It didn't matter. If it kept you alive, I knew you'd eventually find a way out. You'd be able to free yourself somehow." His voice became almost inaudible; the demigod hearing it as much with his heart, as with his ears, "You'd, ... you'd come for me."
Iolaus looked up hopefully. When he saw Hercules' closed eyes, he dropped his own bitter, blue gaze once again.
"I wasn't even sure you were still alive, but I, ... I couldn't take the chance. I guess it wasn't hard for Maxius to read me; he already knew what my answer would be."
Iolaus stopped for a moment, trying to gather the strength to continue.
"He cleared the room of the guards. Then, he ... The whole time, I blocked off my mind, and turned all my thoughts to you ... to us ... memories of our adventures, dreams of our escape. Those thoughts were all that kept me going. When ... when he left, I couldn't move. The pain ...." Iolaus began to shake violently.
Hercules looked up when Iolaus stopped speaking, and saw that his face was blank, and bloodless. The demigod grabbed a blanket, took the knife out of Iolaus' unresisting hand, and threw it to the other side of the campfire, then drew the blanket around the smaller man's trembling form. Then, Hercules did what he had wanted to do for weeks, he pulled the hunter into his embrace, holding him protectively against his heart. He cradled Iolaus tenderly, the profound silence broken only by the crackling of the fire and Iolaus' quiet weeping.
"It's all right, Iolaus. It's all right. Just rest, it's over." Hercules murmured the meaningless words of comfort into the hunter's silken hair.
His weeping stilled, and Iolaus spoke again, but made no move to break the contact with Hercules. "No, no, there's more."
"Iolaus, you don't have to say anything else. Just rest for now."
"No, you, ... you have to hear.... I have to get it all out. Even if Maxius was right, and you can't stand the sight of me anymore."
"No, Hercules, let me finish."
It was easier for Iolaus to curl into Hercules' embrace, than to face the revulsion which he knew must be swimming in the demigod's eyes. He was sure that, once his tale was finished, Hercules would never be able to stand the sight of him, again. He had to say it, though. There had never been any secrets between them, and even though Iolaus knew this revelation would end their friendship, he had to be honest with Hercules. He also needed to say the words, for his own sake. He had held them in, hoping that by ignoring the past, it would magically disappear. However, it was still there; his dreams reminded him of that fact, night after torturous night. He had been aching to tell Hercules, but his friend was already pulling away from him; how much worse would it be when he knew ...
Iolaus had tried not to believe Maxius' words, but when Hercules had begun to distance himself, he knew without a doubt that he was losing Hercules. That realization, more than anything else had driven him to the point of despair, which had left him ready to die in order to escape the pain. Without Hercules beside him, encouraging him, he felt that he lacked the strength to survive. Iolaus steeled himself, and continued.
"About four days before I saw you in the arena, I had been brought into the room. After Maxius ... after Maxius left, three of the guards came in. Usually I had time to myself to ... before they would come to take me back. This time they came in almost immediately. I ... I tried to struggle up, but their swords were at my throat. Two of the guards pinned me down. They started laughing, and said that they were tired of waiting around all the time while Maxius had all the ... all the fun. I tried to fight them off, but I wasn't ... I couldn't ...." Iolaus choked on a sob, "Maxius found out about it. The guards were put to death as a warning."
Iolaus had barely gotten the words out when Hercules' arms stiffened around him, and he heard Hercules' soft intake of breath.
"The next day, Lin Ho told me that he had overheard Maxius say he had killed you. I don't remember much of what happened after that. When I was finally able to function again, all I could do was think of how to make Maxius pay for your death. I made Lin Ho promise to help me avenge you. Then I came out to the arena and you were up there on that cross ...." The dam that had held from the first time he had been brought into the playroom gave way, and Iolaus was racked with violent sobs.
Hercules tightened his grip around the hunter, and rested his cheek against the blond head, stroking Iolaus' hair and rocking him gently.
"It's all right. Let it all out. Let everything out. It's going to be all right, I promise you." Hercules spoke softly, trying to soothe Iolaus.
It took every ounce of willpower which Hercules possessed to keep from flying into a rage. It would be fruitless, anyway; all of those responsible were long beyond his reach. Right now, his beloved friend needed him. Needed him to be calm, loving, and reassuring. Iolaus was having enough trouble hanging on to his own fragile emotions; he wouldn't be able to handle Hercules' outrage, also.
Hercules was thankful once more to Lin Ho, for his loving lies. He had probably realized, even as Hercules did, that after the guards' attack Iolaus had become damaged goods. Maxius' fascination with Iolaus would have been over. The cruelties, and pain he inflicted on his victim would have increased, or ... Hercules shuddered at the thought; Iolaus could have been turned over to the rest of the guards.
After a while, the sobs slowed, then stilled. Iolaus was exhausted, unable to move from his place in Hercules' arms, still afraid to see his face. In a soft, trembling voice he finally said, "I can understand if you, ... you don't want to be around me anymore, Hercules."
"I'm not going anywhere, Iolaus. I told you before, nothing you sacrificed out of love for me, will ever cause me to look on you differently. You gave of yourself out of your loving heart, as you've always done whenever you've seen me hurt or in need. I still love you, as I've always loved you." Hercules' own voice was shaking, and broke on his last words. He felt the new fragility of the body in his arms, and knew that he would pull the night sky down to serve as a blanket for Iolaus, if his friend wished it to be so.
Iolaus pulled away from Hercules, and ventured a look into his eyes. There was no blame. No look of disgust. No revulsion. Only unconditional love.
The first true smile Hercules had seen in months finally shone tentatively from Iolaus' beloved face. It was a pallid shadow of the bright, shining smile which Iolaus had sent blazing across the arena when he had caught sight of Hercules. A little time, a little healing, and the glory of his smile would put the sun to shame, once again.
Hercules placed warm hands on Iolaus' shoulders, and held tightly. "I want you to understand one thing, my friend. You did nothing wrong. The methods may have been different, but you were tortured, just as I was. You may not have worn physical restraints, but you were bound, just the same; bound by love, and fear. You were Maxius' victim; you never truly had a choice."
"You have absolutely nothing of which to be ashamed. You were not to blame for what was done to you."
Hercules watched a series of conflicting emotions dancing over Iolaus' face. A peaceful expression finally dawned through the shadows, and although he turned his eyes downward, he nodded. Then, he looked back up, and Hercules saw a glimmer of hope in the eyes that were almost a reflection of his own.
"I'll always be here for you. I wish I had listened to you, and prevented your suffering. I lost sight of one of the most important aspects of my life; you. Your friendship, and your love. Please, forgive me."
"You know I've never blamed you for any of this, but if you need to hear it; I forgive you. Now, I'm asking you to do the same for yourself. I'm making the same request of you that you did of me when I was unconscious, and fighting for my life."
Hercules looked at him questioningly.
"You said 'if you love me as I know you do, then choose hope, and life.' I'm asking you, Herc, 'if you love me as I know you do,' then please, choose forgiveness."
Hercules smiled into the glowing blue eyes that were once again brimming with life, and nodded his agreement to Iolaus' request. He pulled Iolaus back into his warm embrace, but Iolaus was completely exhausted, and he gradually grew heavier in Hercules' arms. The demigod laid him gently down, and pulled the blankets up around him; Iolaus was asleep almost immediately. Hercules brushed back a few strands of golden hair, then curled up beside him, drifting into dreams with a protective hand still resting on the hunter's shoulder.
They spent a few more days in the little clearing before attempting once more to head back to friends and family. They talked nearly endlessly, and Hercules finally told Iolaus of his own trials. They laughed together, and they wept. They reveled in one another's company. They knew that more problems would inevitably arise, but, they also knew that they would face those problems together.
"Boar stew? Aww; I was hoping for some gamey, stringy rabbit." Iolaus whined, and handed Hercules his empty tankard, "How about a refill?"
"Fine. Next time, you order."
"No. Next time, I hunt!" Iolaus grinned.
Hercules growled, and stumped off melodramatically to fetch some more ale. It was the first inn they had come across, and the aroma of the fresh bread and savory stew was almost enough to bring tears of joy to the eyes of the weary companions. He smiled to himself; gods, it was good to be alive.
While waiting for the ale, he turned idly toward Iolaus. As he watched, a man approached Iolaus, and almost the same scenario unfolded as had taken place at the other tavern. When the stranger reached out to touch Iolaus, Hercules saw his friend tense. The demigod was about to move to the table, when Iolaus turned toward him, and saw the look of concern in Hercules' eyes.
Iolaus' eyes beamed warm reassurance into Hercules' shadowed gaze, and the hunter smiled sweetly, then turned back to his admirer, handling the situation as he always had in the past, with easy humor, and grace. The man left without incident, and Hercules breathed a sigh of relief. As he came back and resumed his seat, placing the drinks on the table, he smiled over at Iolaus and squeezed his shoulder. It probably would have seemed a small achievement to most, but to the two friends it was a major victory, and they treated it as such. Another step had been taken toward regaining Iolaus' life. Another milestone passed, on the long road home.
They would get through this, together.
-- THE END --
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