"Absolutely not!" The magistrate glowered at Hercules as if he had just proposed serving the local children to Echidna as a midnight snack. "The man is a criminal and he'll spend the night in a cell with the rest of his ruffians."
"You can't do that!" Iolaus protested. "Put him in a cell with Thanatos and he'll be dead by morning!"
The magistrate was singularly unimpressed by this argument. "And your point is?"
Iolaus glowered across the expanse of the desk that separated them, a scant second away from launching himself over the highly polished surface at the bureaucrat's throat. Before he could act upon his rage, a strong hand caught the back of his purple leather vest and physically reined him in.
"Malias," said Hercules in his most reasonable tone, ignoring Iolaus's indignant yelp at being manhandled, "Zeno isn't like Thanatos."
"They're both crime lords. I -- and the law -- see no difference," came the imperious reply.
"In that, maybe not," admitted Hercules as Iolaus sputtered ineffectively at his side, "but even you have to admit that Zeno is no murderer."
"He may be a crime lord," blurted out Iolaus, struggling like a wolf on a leash against the iron grip that held him in place, "but he's an honorable one. The rackets he ran didn't take innocent lives! He drew the line at murder."
"As if I should listen to the likes of *you*," sniffed the magistrate. "You're one of them!"
"Zeno's an old man, Malias. And he nearly drowned today," said Hercules, taking another tact."I don't think the provincial governor will be very pleased to find him dead of pneumonia before he can come to trial. Do you?"
Malias scowled. That, of course, was something altogether different. It was one thing for Malias to flaunt his magisterial authority within the confines of his domain -- but Zeno's criminal empire had penetrated far beyond the little town in which he had his base of operations. He was a criminal of the province, and Governor Antonias was not exactly renown for his compassion for the local bureaucrats when they impugned his own authority.
"You may have a point," Malias admitted grudgingly. "Are you willing to accept full responsibility for this `proposal' of yours?"
"Absolutely," said Hercules.
"Very well, then," he sighed. "I accept. As you pointed it out, it is only one night of inconvenience."
Or considerably less, if I have anything to say about it, Iolaus thought, already formulating a plan for the crime lord's escape. He hadn't saved Zeno from drowning in a swamp just to turn him over to the lingering death of confinement in a prison mining camp.
Cold, tired, and excruciatingly bored, the guardsman paced the street in front of the tavern door and grumbled.
"`Earn a little extra pay,' he says. `It's a cushy assignment,' he says." The guard blew onto his chilled fingers and then tucked them under his armpits in a quest for warmth. "Last time I let that scrappy little weasel Malias talk me into overtime at a tavern after it's closed!" He turned on his heel and grudgingly paced back toward the other corner of the building. "Shoulda asked for the dinars up front before -- OOF!!"
"Nighty night," Iolaus said cheerfully as he caught the falling, and very unconscious, guardsman before he could hit the ground. He quickly dragged the man around the corner and off the street into the narrow alley between buildings. "That was too easy," he sighed as he concealed his burden behind a refuse pile.
Ensuring that no one was in sight, Iolaus slipped back out onto the street. He had little fear of discovery. At this late hour, all good little townspeople were deeply asleep while the less honest ones were probably too drunk to care. Picking the antiquated iron lock on the tavern door was ridiculously simple and took less than two breaths to accomplish. Iolaus was almost disappointed.
Inside the tavern's common room, all was still. Both patrons and owners alike had been ordered off the premises until morning when their honorary -- and sole -- guest would be remanded to the custody of the provincial authorities. Although there was no sign of movement on the lower level, Iolaus had no doubt there'd be a second guard upstairs outside Zeno's room. Keeping to the shadows, a thief's closest companion, he crossed the room and reached the narrow wooden stairs without making the slightest sound. With exaggerated care, he crept upward one riser at a time, listening all the while for any movement from the corridor above. His patience was soon rewarded with a sigh and a creak of leather that pinpointed exactly where the guard was standing.
Three feet down the corridor, the second local guardsman leaned with his back against the wall and yawned hugely. His eyelids were beginning to droop when a small sound suddenly clattered across the wooden floorboards. Frowning, he looked down at the tiny glass sphere that had rolled to a stop against his booted foot.
"What in Hades ...?" He turned to look in the direction the marble had originated from --
-- and became intimately acquainted with Iolaus' fist.
Like taking dinars from a baby, thought Iolaus as he lowered the second guard to the floor. He deftly liberated the key ring from the man's belt, critically sized up the door's lock, and correctly picked the proper key with a glance.
"Hang on, Zeno," he murmured as he unlocked the door. "Just a few more minutes and we'll be home free."
The lock yielded to the key without protest. Exultant, Iolaus opened the door to his friend's makeshift cell.
"Well, it's about time!" said Hercules cheerfully from within. He reclined comfortably on the room's narrow pallet, back propped against the stone wall and arms crossed casually across his broad chest. "I was expecting you an hour ago. What took you so long?"
"You!" was all the stunned Iolaus could manage.
"Me," agreed Hercules cooperatively.
Iolaus frantically glanced around the tiny room but found no other occupant. There was no sign of Zeno. Betrayed!
"Damn you!" He drew his sword and brought the point of its blade to within an inch of Hercules' unprotected breast. "Where's Zeno?"
"What have you done with him?" demanded Iolaus. "I swear, if you put him in a cell with those bastards ..."
"He's two doors down the hall and hopefully getting some much needed rest. You made enough noise getting up here to wake the dead."
"You couldn't possibly have heard me," scoffed Iolaus, and not without a touch of wounded pride. "I didn't make a sound!"
"Maybe I just know what to listen for," replied Hercules significantly. "Just like I knew you'd be coming to free Zeno."
"I'm beginning to think you know entirely too much about me for your own good," growled Iolaus.
"I only wish that still worked both ways."
It was not an answer Iolaus expected. There was a tangible sadness in the younger man's deep blue eyes that plucked at his soul like a harp string.
He really believes I'm this long lost friend of his, he thought as a turmoil of alien emotions stirred within his heart. Suddenly he felt strangely guilty and saddened that he could not be the friend this young hero imagined him to be.
No! I've got to keep my mind on the business at hand!
With a mental shake, Iolaus forced the roiling emotions back into darkness. "I'm not leaving without Zeno," he said in his most belligerent tone. "Don't try and stop me!"
"And if I do?" Hercules spared a significant look for the sword blade interposed between them. "You tried to kill me once today and couldn't. I don't think that's changed."
"I'll do what I have to do," said Iolaus with a tiny flick of the sword for emphasis. A sliver of pale moonlight from the room's small window glinted off the blade and drew his eye to its razor sharp length. It's point wavered so close to the flesh over Hercules' heart he imagined he could feel the pulse of its strong, steady beat run along the blade to his hand. A ghostly chill tickled Iolaus' spine.
He's right, he realized with confusion and alarm. I couldn't draw his blood any more than I could cut out my own heart. What in Hades is wrong with me?!
"It hasn't changed," he reluctantly admitted. "I won't kill you."
"Or can't." Iolaus suddenly drew back and angrily slammed the blade home into its sheath., "But no matter what you do, I'm taking Zeno with me."
"He won't go," Hercules warned.
"What do you mean, he won't go? Of course he'll go! No man willingly gives up his freedom!"
"Zeno will. He has a lot to answer for ... and it's his choice."
"He would rather die than confine himself to some hell hole in Tarsus!"
"Let's just say we had time for a long talk while we were waiting for you to `rescue' him," explained Hercules. "He's willing to take responsibility for his crimes. Just as you were."
"Me?" Iolaus stared at him without comprehension. "Are you insane?! I'd never sacrifice my freedom for a prison!"
Hercules leaned forward on the bed and fixed Iolaus with a steady gaze. "Not even for Cheiron's war crown?" he asked significantly. "You *do* remember Cheiron's war crown, don't you? About so big," he continued, making a circle with thumbs and forefingers touching, "The highest honor centaur warriors give a hero on the field of battle. Made of solid gold and silver."
Iolaus shifted uncomfortably under those intense blue eyes and found he could not meet their gaze.
For Hercules, who knew his friend -- his Iolaus -- as intimately as his own heart, it was a promising sign. He silently hoped that this would be one of the memories of Iolaus' youth that Fortune hadn't managed to fry. It was a tale that came from the days before Hercules joined Cheiron's academy; one the aging centaur had confided in the son of Zeus many long years after the Bards first began to sing of the heroic and legendary friendship of Hercules and Iolaus. Although the young Iolaus had been expected to pay full tuition like any other student, only he and Cheiron -- and later Hercules -- knew how the wild, golden haired street scoundrel of Thebes had been "inducted" into the most famous training academy for warriors.
"You were 12 when you tried to steal it," continued Hercules. "Remember?"
"I don't know who you've been talking to, but you heard wrong. I never stole the damned thing."
"Oh, that's right. You got caught, didn't you?" Hercules clucked his tongue in mock sympathy. "I hear it was quite an accomplishment, though. That you actually made it past all of the guards and the best students in the academy without being detected before Cheiron himself grabbed you."
Iolaus looked singularly unhappy at the memory. "I remember, okay? I remember! Satisfied?" he demanded. "And what's Cheiron's war crown got to do with me getting Zeno out of here, any way?"
"That depends," replied Hercules.
"What happened after Cheiron caught you?"
For a moment Iolaus was confused by the question, then suddenly the light of understanding dawned. In a moment's revelation he knew exactly where the conversation was going -- and what Hercules was driving at.
"At the very least, he could have had my hands cut off. At worse, he could have killed me on the spot. It was his right," said Iolaus as he remembered that fateful day that had changed the course of his life.
"But he didn't."
"No," said Iolaus softly. "He didn't. Dead I couldn't learn much of a lesson, could I? And without hands..." He shuddered at the very thought. "So he forced me to become a student."
"Why?" prompted Hercules.
"You know perfectly well why! Otherwise you wouldn't have brought the whole thing up!" His eyes narrowed. "That's your point about Zeno, isn't it? Rehabilitation."
"You tell me."
A heavy silence fell between them. Hercules waited patiently. Loss of memory or no, a man's soul did not change overnight. No matter what guise Iolaus took, be it thief or hunter or warrior, Hercules had absolute faith that deep inside he would always be the cock-sure boy he had grown up with, and the selflessly loyal friend he cherished above all others.
"You're not going to leave me alone til I answer you, are you?" Iolaus finally grumped.
"Nope," replied Hercules complacently. "Why did Cheiron make you a student of his academy?"
Resigned, Iolaus sighed. "He told me I had a lot to atone for, and that learning the path of an honorable warrior was the way to do it. That someday ... somehow ... I would make up for my past transgressions by helping people with the skills I'd learned." He snorted derisively. "Some help, huh? All that training and knowledge and I'm still not good for anything but picking a man's pocket. Cheiron probably would have been better off killing me for all the good his attempts at rehabilitation did."
"That's where you're wrong."
"I'll tell you what's wrong!," cried Iolaus in frustration. "Your faith in me is wrong! What do I have to say to get through to you? I'm a thief. An outlaw. I deserve to be chained up right next to Thanatos and his buddies. Don't you see?" he pleaded. "The Iolaus you keep looking for is someone I've never been or known!"
"But I know him. I've known him all my life." Hercules reached out and gently tapped his lost friend on the chest with a forefinger. "I've known you all my life. There's no one else I would rather have by my side in a fight ... or any better friend."
"You don't know how much I wish I could live up to that image," was his anguished reply. "But I am not that Iolaus!"
Hercules laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder and said, "Iolaus, I promise you -- if Fortune smiles tomorrow, you WILL be..."
Zeno slept peacefully throughout the writing of this story in spite of several attempts to misspell his name. The Goddess of Fortune remains conspicuously absent but a reliable source at the "Delphian Enquirer" reports she was last seen in the company of director James Cameron.
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