The Warrior and the King

by DreamCatcher

Hercules was ensconced on a long flat rock overlooking a large lake. His fishing line lay slack in his hand and he was lost in his own thoughts, when he suddenly became aware of someone standing a short distance behind him. Born from years of experience, he quickly assessed the situation, realizing there was no immediate danger. As he let the awareness wash over him, he felt the familiar, comfortable presence. Then paused. "Iolaus?" he said quietly. There was a moment of hesitation and he turned his head.

Standing a few feet behind him, just watching, was the familiar small blond form. There was an amused look on his face.

Hercules turned back to his line. "You're late. I was beginning to get worried."

The blond smiled and started down toward the rock and sat down.

"Sorry, Hercules. I was detained along the way."

"Blonde, brunette, or redhead?" Hercules asked casually, without taking his eyes from the line.

There was a short silence. "Well, I guess you could say, blond," he said with a giggle.

The giggle soon had Hercules laughing, although he realized at the same time, he wasn't quite sure what he was laughing at. He wasn't even sure he wanted to know. But the familiar giggle was always infectious.

"How did the rest of the repairs go?" Hercules asked when they had both sobered down.

"Fine. A few of the neighbors dropped by after you left." He paused. "So, how was your Mother doing? I wasn't sure you'd be here yet," the blond asked.

"She was feeling much better by the time I arrived. She was disappointed you weren't along, as were the others. I told them Aelus had asked for our help with some repair on his house and that I came when the messenger brought word of her not feeling well. I told her we'd both make it the next time. Everyone sends their greetings."

"Great."

"Aren't you going to get your fishing line?" quizzed Hercules. "I figured you'd have your line in the water by now."

"Maybe later. I'm a little tired right now. It's been a long day."

Hercules finally turned toward the blond and regarded him for a moment, then with a quick nod, Hercules started pulling his line back in. "Why don't we go back up to the camp. I've got enough fish for dinner and the fire should be ready."

"Sounds good." The blond rose.

Hercules stood up and reeled in another line that held his fish.

"Looks like a good day's catch?"

"Yeah, it was. Glad you suggested this place."

"Ahh, yeah. It's--it's always been reliable," the blond quickly added.

"Mmmm." Hercules murmured as they walked together back to the camp.

After depositing his line and the fish on the ground, he swiftly turned and grabbed the man next to him by the purple vest and held him aloft.

There was a look of coolness in the eyes that stared directly at the frightened blue eyes above him. "Alright, whoever you are, Iolaus never mentioned this fishing spot. I did. Where is he and why are you wearing his clothes?" He then raised his voice slightly louder. "And whoever is out there in the trees, you might as well come on out."

He suddenly heard noise from the area of the trees.

"Herc, wait! Don't hurt him. It's alright."

Hercules turned swiftly at the voice and did a double take. "Iolaus?"

Three men emerged from behind a stand of trees. Two were garbed in the uniform of soldiers. However, the familiar voice came from a blond-headed man dressed in very unfamiliar clothes.

Iolaus was clad in black pants, a white shirt with flowing sleeves with lacing at the cuffs and throat, and over it lay a light brocaded vest of deepest purple, with golden threads running through it. A gold circlet sat gracefully on his smoothed back hair. Hercules stood with his mouth slightly open, gazing at the sight.

With a laugh and mirthful blue eyes, Iolaus strode forward. "Ummm, Herc. You might want to put King Orestes down."

Hercules was still in mild shock and it took a moment to register what Iolaus said. He turned his head back and looked once again at this man dressed in the familiar dark blue leather pants and purple vest, that he still held aloft. He carefully lowered him to the ground.

"Herc, I'd like you meet my cousin, Orestes, king of Attica."

After a moment Hercules found his voice. "I'm happy to finally meet you, your Majesty. I'm sorry about what just happened and I'll apologize more profusely after I kill Iolaus."

Iolaus saw the look in Hercules' eyes and quickly backed off behind the two soldiers.

"Now, Herc ..." laughed Iolaus. "It was just a joke."

"A joke, huh?"

As Hercules quickly advanced, the two soldiers readily parted and Iolaus found himself being lifted aloft over Hercules' head.

"How funny do you think being tossed in the lake will be, Iolaus?"

"Herc, no. I said it was just a joke. Herc, you wouldn't," Iolaus sputtered, as Hercules took a couple of steps towards the lake. "The clothes, remember the clothes. They aren't mine, you know. Besides, it really was pretty funny. You should have seen your face. Herc! Herc, come on ..."

"Not quite as funny, now, huh, Iolaus." He said as he slowly lowered his friend back to the ground.

"You never did have much of a sense of humor," quipped Iolaus as he straightened and dusted off his clothes.

"Oh, I don't know, I have you for a partner, don't I?"

Iolaus grumbled something under his breath as Hercules laughed. Then Iolaus turned wounded eyes towards the two soldiers. "And thanks, guys, for all your protection." He looked over at Orestes. "I certainly hope they keep you safer than this, Cousin."

"I think they showed rather good judgment, myself," chuckled Hercules. "Good to have you back," he said and finally clapped Iolaus on the back.

"Thanks. It's good to be back, Herc. I can't believe the luck in running into Orestes though. I've wanted the two of you to meet for a long time."

"And I've wanted to meet him." He turned to Orestes. I" am sorry, your Majesty. I hope I didn't hurt you."

Orestes had stood silently watching the bantering between the two friends. He could see the genuine care between the two men and he was pleased. For just that split moment before Iolaus had called out, he had had a chance to see what might have happened to anyone that would threaten his cousin. Hercules was a good friend.

"No, not at all, Hercules, smiled the king, and no need for further apology, there was no harm done. I guess Iolaus and I rather asked for it. And, please, call me Orestes."

"Thank you, Orestes," smiled Hercules and took the hand the small blond king offered.

Iolaus then continued with the introductions of the other two men. "Herc, I'd like you also to meet Hector, he is the General of Orestes' army and his advisor."

"And my 'keeper' at times, right?" laughed Orestes.

"Maybe in times past, Sire, but not any longer," smiled Hector, as he took Hercules' arm in a warrior's shake.

"And this is Linus, Hector's second in command," added Iolaus.

"Linus," Hercules said as they clasped arms.

"I'm happy to meet you, Hercules," stated Linus.

"Well, come on. The fish have been caught and are ready to prepare." Hercules squeezed Iolaus' shoulder. "You know the rules, my friend, I caught 'em, you clean and cook 'em."

Iolaus nodded and moved toward Orestes. "Trust me, this is a better arrangement."

"Hey ..." Hercules reached out to punch Iolaus in the arm, but Iolaus danced out of the line of fire.

"Cousin, I'd like to learn. Would you show me?" Orestes requested.

"Sure, I'd be happy to. Come on."

Hercules stood back and smiled at the sight, as the two small blonds happily headed toward the campfire and sat down in front of it for Orestes' first lesson on cooking over a campfire. He shook his head, amazed at how identical in appearance the two were. Iolaus had, of course, told him about standing in for Orestes at the coronation and reigning until they had been able to rescue the real king, so he knew there was a resemblance. However, Iolaus had merely told him the two looked a "little bit" alike, but this was uncanny.

He had almost forgotten the two other men standing near him, until Hector spoke to him.

"Hercules, we need to retrieve the horses, but is there anything else we can do?"

"Hmmm." He suddenly was brought back from his thoughts. "Oh, sorry. "

"It takes a little getting use to, doesn't it," laughed Hector as he followed Hercules' gaze.

"Yeah. It does." He smiled once more and turned toward the two soldiers. "It looks like it could cool down quite a bit this evening. We should probably get some more firewood before it gets dark."

The three men headed into the forest after letting Iolaus and Orestes know where they were going.

As the two soldiers retrieved their horses, tethered at a distance so the blond twins could pull off their prank, Hercules started to gather some firewood. As the three met up and headed back, Hercules finally spoke up.

"How did you happen to meet up with Iolaus?"

Hector smiled. "Purely by accident. King Orestes had gone to look over some horses he had heard about. He had been able to conclude the business earlier than we thought. We met Iolaus at the Delphi crossroads. Since you were so close by, he asked us to come back with him. He wanted you two to meet and he offered to teach Orestes how to fish. We weren't due back to Attica for another few days and Orestes was anxious to meet you also."

"I've been looking forward to meeting him too. Iolaus mentioned they looked alike, but ..."

"But not how much?"

"No. However, knowing Iolaus as well as I do, he was probably already planning today's little surprise long ago."

"Their uncanny resemblance took us by surprise too, when we first saw Iolaus," added Linus.

"I can imagine," acknowledged Hercules.

"Orestes took to him immediately. Actually they both seem to hit if off right from the start. That was even before ..." Hector stopped not wanting to be disloyal to his king.

"I understand. Iolaus told me all about it."

Hector nodded.

"I wish I had been able to see Iolaus during that time."

"He was a good king, Hercules. I've seen many rulers in my time. There have been few as capable as Iolaus."

Linus nodded. "It was an honor to serve under him."

"Thanks, that's good to hear. I've always known how extraordinary Iolaus is, but it's good to hear it confirmed by others. I'm afraid at times, he gets left in the shadows when we're together."

"I wish he could have had gotten some public recognition for all he did, but it might have created problems. Running a kingdom is a very fragile thing at times. But I'm pleased to say that Orestes picked up right where Iolaus left off. Like Iolaus, he's been a wise and caring ruler."

"We've heard much about Attica. Iolaus has been quite pleased with the news we get on occasion. I know he wishes he could go there more often, but ..." Hercules trailed off, realizing he had said more than he had planned.

There was a knowing look between the three.

As the three arrived back in camp, they smelled the appetizing odor of fish, spitted and roasting over the fire. And as the sun waned, the group sat down to eat. Bread and cheese had been added to the meal, a contribution >from the royal party.

"You did well your first time, Orestes. You learn very fast," complemented Iolaus.

"Very good, Sire," added Hector.

With their mouths full, Hercules and Linus merely nodded.

Orestes smiled broadly. Before taking another bite of his fish, he looked over at Hercules sitting next to him. "Hercules, I'm curious. How did you know I wasn't Iolaus? What gave me away?"

"Well, I pretty much knew from the moment you stood behind me."

Orestes stopped eating. "Even before you saw me?"

Hercules nodded.

"How? How could you have ...?"

"Iolaus and I have known each other for a long time. Since boyhood." He looked at Iolaus, who was sitting on the other side of Orestes. "We've been through a lot together over the years. It's developed a strong bond between us. I'm not sure I can fully explain it. There's just a sense about each other. A feeling."

"A feeling?" Orestes tilted his head.

Hercules and Iolaus shared a confirming smile. Hercules turned back toward Orestes. "Yes. I'm sorry, I can't explain it. It's just there. It seems to be especially strong when we go into battle. We just know where the other is. What the other is thinking. What the other will do. It's like we're two bodies, one mind. Just a ... a sense."

"Interesting!" nodded Orestes looking into the fire.

"When you appeared behind me, I felt a familiar, comfortable presence, and, yet there was just something not quite right. I wasn't positive at first. However, when you came and sat down, I knew for sure that you weren't Iolaus. First of all by the scar."

"Scar? I don't have any scars."

"But Iolaus does. On the right side of his forehead. I put it there myself when we were kids." Hercules shuddered at the memory dredged up from long ago.

They all looked to Iolaus, who absentmindedly reached up and touched the scar. He smiled consolingly at Hercules when he saw the shudder and picked up the thread. "We had carved out some swords from wood and were pretending to be warriors. We started 'sword fighting' and I zigged when I should have zagged. Scared us both pretty bad when I started bleeding all over the place. I was even more scared when Hercules' mother came at me with a needle, saying I needed stitches."

Orestes had seen the shudder as well. Once again he was happy to know that this cousin, who he had grown to care greatly about, had such a concerned friend. He wondered if he had had such a friend when he was growing up, if maybe life would have been different for him. He sighed.

Orestes turned to his cousin. "Iolaus, you promised us you would tell us some of your adventures with Hercules. How about one of those now?"

"Oh, no!" came an exasperated, barely audible reply.

Iolaus' keen ears picked up the soft reply. "Excuse me, Herc, did you say something?" asked the bemused warrior.

"Who me? No, of course not."

"Sorry, my mistake."

Hercules shot him a wry smile.

Orestes and the two soldiers sat mesmerized by the tale of a battle with one of Hera's pet monsters. Iolaus, as he knew would happen, caught an occasional rolling of the eyes from the demigod. At one point, Iolaus smiled as he saw the lifting of an eyebrow from Hercules, which clearly said: 'are you sure we were at the same battle?'

Of course he never would admit it to the blond warrior, but for all Hercules' grousing about the stories Iolaus told, he really enjoyed hearing them. Although never quite sure how they were going to change from one telling to the next.

Iolaus had finally finished his story and they had been laughing at a story Linus had related, when all of a sudden, Iolaus' voice lowered.

"Herc?"

"I heard."

Before anyone could react, three arrows landed in the middle of the camp. All from a different location. The five men shot to their feet, turning around trying to find the sources. Hector and Linus had automatically reached for their swords.

A hard voice in the shadows of the tree called out. "Drop those swords. As you can see, I have several bowmen spread around. Their next target won't be the ground."

The small party scanned the area and realized there were at least a dozen or more men scattered in the shadows. The soldiers dropped their swords and the leader and two of his men drifted out.

"Much better. Now we can talk."

As they came into the light, the man next to the speaker pointed. "Tyrus, look! Like I said, there's two of 'em," he pointed to Iolaus and Orestes standing side-by-side. "Which is which?"

Tyrus looked from one to the other, briefly confused. He then pointed to Iolaus. "That one!"

Looking towards Iolaus, Hercules felt panic begin to rise in him. However, he calmly spoke up. "What is it you want?"

"What we want is 100,000 dinars."

"Well, I'm afraid you have the wrong man. I certainly don't have 100,000 dinars," answered Iolaus.

"Maybe not with you, but I would be willing to bet that your Queen would be willing to fork out that much to get her King back. What do you think?"

It suddenly dawned on the small party that since Iolaus and Orestes had not taken the time yet to change back into their own clothes, Tyrus had mistaken Iolaus for the king.

Tyrus looked straight at Iolaus. "One of my men spotted you on the road earlier today. We just knew we had to come and pay our respects and invite you to share some of our hospitality." He looked at his men and laughed.

With a slight bow, Tyrus continued. "Your Majesty, if you'll be so good as to accompany us. Your soldiers can take word back to the Queen."

Orestes raised his hand. "No, wait ..."

Iolaus placed a detaining hand on Orestes' arm. "It's alright, Cousin. They will do me no harm or they won't be able to collect anything." He paused a second. "Here, would you mind keeping this?"

He smilingly handed Orestes the gold circlet that had been in his hands. When he had reached up to touch the scar, he realized he was still wearing the circlet. He removed it, but had idly been turning it over and over in his hands as he told his story.

"Cousin ..." Orestes looked distraught.

"It'll be alright. I promise," smiled Iolaus.

"Sure, it'll be painless," declared Tyrus.

Iolaus turned toward Hector. "Hector, you will do as these men say."

Bowing slightly toward Iolaus, and without batting an eye, Hector quickly answered. "Yes, Sire. It shall be done."

Iolaus then turned and walked to where Tyrus stood. Tyrus gave a nod and the two men with him moved forward and began to bind Iolaus' hands. Tyrus looked over at Hector. "There is an abandoned castle about a day's ride north of here. Bring the dinars there. If you're not there in three days you can collect your king's body instead. Do you understand?"

Coldly Hector replied. "Understood. But if our king is harmed in any way, there won't be any place for you to spend those dinars. Do you understand?"

Tyrus startled, then quickly recovered. "Understood. We get the dinars, you get your king. In one piece. It's as simple as that."

Another one of the mercenaries had saddled Orestes' horse and brought it forward. Iolaus was roughly placed on it.

Hercules had stood silently watching in amazement as his friend had all of a sudden transformed before his eyes. He could almost see a regal bearing in the way Iolaus moved and in the way he spoke. At this moment, had he not known which man was which, he could certainly have believed that Iolaus was indeed the king.

However, as Iolaus was placed on the horse, Hercules' eyes narrowed and it was all he could do to keep from charging forward and taking on those that had threatened Iolaus. Only Iolaus, as he looked back at him, knew the warring going on within that frame. A silent exchange went between them. Iolaus let Hercules know he would be alright and asked him to keep his cousin safe. Hercules acknowledged his request and let Iolaus know he would be there for him as soon as he could. A semblance of a smile from both sealed the covenant.

"Three days," Tyrus said once again as they prepared to leave. "Don't be late."

The four stood there helplessly and watched the mercenaries lead Iolaus off.

When the sounds of hoofbeats died down, the men finally began to move.

"What do we do now?" asked Linus. "Go after them or get the ransom they requested?" He turned to King Orestes.

"I don't want to take any chances. Hector, I want you and Linus to return to Attica and arrange for it. Meet us on the small rise a mile from the castle in three days. If you ride hard, you can make it in plenty of time."

"Us?" asked the startled Hector. "Aren't you coming back with us?"

"No! I'm going after Iolaus."

Hercules had turned and started to gather his and Iolaus' stuff and had only vaguely paid attention to what was being said. His only goal was to head toward that castle and get Iolaus -- ransom or no ransom. When he heard Orestes' statement he straightened up quickly.

"Orestes, I think you should go back with Hector and Linus."

"No. Iolaus is in trouble. I'm not going back to some safe castle to sit and wait." He raised his hand to stop Hercules' protests. A"nd despite what you say, I know Iolaus is still in danger. He didn't abandon me when I was in trouble. I won't abandon him."

"No one would think that. It--it would just be safer for you back home. You have a responsibility to those in your kingdom."

"Right now I have a responsibility to my cousin," answered Orestes.

"I'm sure you know, I would never let anything happen to Iolaus," declared Hercules.

"Yes, I know." He paused for a moment. "Hercules, I realize I'm not as experienced a warrior or fighter as all of you, but I can take care of myself. And I care what happens to Iolaus. Besides, it was my fault that he was taken. It should have been me."

Hercules paled slightly as he heard that statement. How many times had he blamed himself for Iolaus being attacked because of him. He understood exactly how Orestes felt.

"Orestes, it was not your fault, and if you had spoken up, they might have taken both of you. Iolaus did this to keep you safe. He wouldn't be ..."

Orestes interrupted. "I refuse to be left. Now, if I'm not welcome along with you, Hercules, I will go on my own."

Hercules took one look at Orestes and began to laugh. The three men looked at him bewilderedly.

"I'm sorry, Orestes! It's just that I've seen that stubborn look on your face and that defiant stance of yours on too many occasions."

Orestes tilted his head questioningly.

"Iolaus." He stated flatly. "When I see that combination, I know I've lost the battle." Hercules paused. "I would be happy to have you with me, Orestes."

Orestes smiled. "Thank you, Hercules. I will try not to slow you down too much. Actually I may even be of some help to you. I know that castle inside out. Don't I, Hector?"

Hercules saw a small exchange between the two men.

"Yes, Majesty. What do you wish me to tell the Queen?"

"Do not lie to her, Hector, tell her everything!"

"Yes, Sire."

The two soldiers bowed and headed to saddle their horses. Just before they left, Hercules and Orestes spoke one last time to them.

Orestes smiled. "Ride fast, Hector, Linus. Please, tell Niobe not to worry."

"I'll try. Though I'm sure it will do little good."

Orestes nodded.

"Good luck, your Majesty. Hercules." added Linus.

Hector looked one last time toward his king, concern written all over his face. He leaned down and placed a hand on the small ruler's shoulder, assuming his old role of 'surrogate father.' "Orestes, please, be careful. We can't afford to lose our king."

"I will, Hector. Thanks."

Hercules smiled up at the General. "Don't worry, I promised Iolaus I would look after him. I won't let anything happen to either of them. You have my word."

Hector nodded and allowed a semblance of a smile. "Good luck to you then."

After the demigod and the small blond king watched the two men ride off, Hercules turned to Orestes. "I think we should try and get some sleep, before we head out."

"But shouldn't we ..."

"I'm as anxious as you are. But Iolaus will be safe for the present." He hoped he was telling the truth. "It's been a long day and we could use the rest. We'd only be stumbling around out there in the dark. We have some hard traveling to do, we'll make better time in the daylight."

"Alright, Hercules. I'll trust your judgment."

Both men lay down, but it took a while before either dropped off. After a restless night, the two arose just before dawn. They ate a quick meal and took off.

Hercules knew that Orestes might not be able to keep up with the brisk pace that he would have liked to have set, so he purposely set a slower, but steady one. Even so, they would still show up long before Hector would be able to get there and well before the deadline.

When they stopped several hours later to rest, it took Orestes a few moments to catch his breath. Hercules knew he must be tired, unaccustomed to the long march, but there had been no complaints. He was pleased that Orestes had done so well in keeping up.

Hercules smiled to himself. He really was a lot like Iolaus. Oh, Iolaus had been known to complain at times about different things, but it was usually out of boredom or to get a rise out of Hercules. Which most times it did, because he knew that was what Iolaus expected of him. Actually, if there really were any problems, Iolaus would usually not voice them immediately. Those were the times that worried Hercules the most.

Orestes suddenly noticed that Hercules was watching him and he became a little embarrassed.

"I hope I'm not holding you back too much, Hercules. I know you could probably move faster without me."

"You're doing fine. Don't worry. Iolaus often has to remind me to slow down."

"Thanks! I was afraid when I saw you watching me, you were wishing I had gone back to Attica."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to stare. Actually I was just thinking how much like Iolaus you really are."

"Thank you for the compliment, Hercules, but I'm not sure I could ever be like my cousin. He has been your partner and faced many dangers over the years. The most dangerous thing I've ever had to face was an argumentative council."

Hercules laughed. "Don't underestimate yourself. I've heard some wonderful things about Attica since you took over. Iolaus has beamed whenever we've heard about your accomplishments. Your peace treaty with your surrounding kingdoms was a wonderful idea."

"Thank you. It's been a dream since I first took over. I have to thank my wife for help with that. I knew what I wanted and a little bit about how to go about it, but she was able to input a lot. She is very beautiful and quite intelligent. I thank the gods each day for allowing her into my life."

Hercules saw a tender and loving look pass over his face, followed by a look of concern. "I hate to worry her now," he said almost to himself.

Hercules looked away for a moment. He knew Iolaus' feeling about this woman. Hercules didn't quite know what else to say, so he settled for getting them on their way again. After going a short distance in silence, Orestes looked over at the demigod.

"Hercules, it's alright. I know how much Iolaus cared about Niobe, and she for him."

"You knew?"

Orestes laughed Iolaus' familiar laugh. "I would have had to been completely blind not to."

"You don't seem upset?"

"I'm not. I was a bit envious at first, but I had no one to blame but myself. Niobe had expected a drunk, a womanizer, a useless and ineffective ruler. That's probably what she would have gotten if it hadn't been for all that happened."

Hercules smiled sympathetically.

"Quite frankly, facing death, was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I was very fortunate that I was given a second chance. With Niobe also." He paused. "She came into the marriage expecting nothing and encountered Iolaus. He surprised her completely as he showed a wise and compassionate heart with my people."

Hercules smiled at the phrase "my people," spoken only as a concerned and caring ruler would.

Orestes continued. "After Iolaus left, I tried the best I could to continue ruling the way he had begun. I had had a lot of time in that cell, when I was being poisoned, to realize what was important and what wasn't. After Iolaus left, Niobe watched me closely and it was a slow process, but eventually she began to trust me. I had already fallen completely and helplessly in love with her, but I couldn't push it. I'm not sure when I finally won her heart, but thank the gods I was able to." He smiled. "I know she will always care deeply about Iolaus, and he for her. I understand perfectly."

"I'm happy about that. Iolaus thinks a great deal of you."

"Meeting Iolaus was the best thing that ever happened to me."

"Well, we certainly have that in common," Hercules smiled.

Orestes sighed. "If I had had a good friend like you when I was growing up, maybe things might have been different. My father was rather a harsh and brisk man. I'm afraid he didn't ever have much time for his sons. I guess I found myself getting into trouble just to get his attention."

"Well, you aren't much different from Iolaus there."

"Really?"

"His father was a general, at war most of the time, either against an enemy on a battlefield or Iolaus at home. Iolaus got into a lot of trouble in his younger years. Most of it was just simply mischievous stuff, simply due to an overactive imagination and more energy than any one kid should possess." The two men laughed and then Hercules sobered. "But some of it, the more serious parts, I believe, was trying to get his father's attention. He never seemed to quite live up to what his father expected. It was a tough time for him."

"I guess we're more alike than I thought. But at least he had you."

"We were both born in Corinth and knew each other there. We even trained together in a military school and decided to be partners, 'fight back-to-back and die battlefield heros'." He laughed at the remembrance of that statement even now. "However, my family moved to Thebes shortly after that and we lost touch for a few years. Iolaus' family eventually moved to Thebes also. I think his mother was afraid of the crowd he hung around with in Corinth. He had gotten involved in a gang and started stealing. When we first met again, neither of us were very fond of each other. However, I pulled him out of a few scrapes and the friendship we had started years before, finally took hold again. We've been together ever since."

"Looks like we both had to change a bit."

"Both for the better." Hercules squeezed the shoulder of the small blond king and was rewarded with a golden smile similar to those he knew so well.

Before dusk they decided to stop for the night. They would reach the abandoned castle mid-afternoon the next day.

Hercules left Orestes, as he went out to hunt. When he returned with a large rabbit, he was pleased to see that Orestes had set up the camp and had started a fairly decent campfire.

"I hope you don't mind rabbit," Hercules smiled.

"Not at all, but I'm afraid your rule will have to be waived this time, Hercules."

"Rule?"

"One catches them, the other cleans and cooks them. I don't think one lesson qualifies me yet."

Hercules laughed. "That's okay."

However, Orestes did more than just watch. Hercules happily showed him how to prepare the rabbit. He seemed to enjoy learning. There was no ego in this man. If he had been all that he had indicated earlier, he certainly could no longer be called disinterested or uncaring now.

As they ate, Orestes asked many questions about Iolaus' earlier days. Hercules began to tell him stories of their younger years and about some of Iolaus' earlier escapades. He had Orestes laughing most of the time. The laugh, so identical to Iolaus', gave Hercules a warm and comforting feeling. It was almost like having the golden warrior there. But there was also an underlying worry for his partner.

As the laughter died down, Hercules remembered earlier words. "Orestes, you mentioned you knew this castle. How?"

Orestes smiled. "It belonged to Masius, a good friend of my father's. My brother and I accompanied him there many times. We use to play all over that place when we were young. It was abandoned when he died about twelve years ago. He never had any family and the property was given to my father, but he never did anything with it."

"Any idea where they might hold Iolaus?"

"There were some dungeon cells. My guess would be down there."

Hercules was quiet for a few minutes.

"Hercules, they will keep their word, won't they? I mean about releasing Iolaus unharmed."

"I don't know. I'm sure they'll keep him in good shape until they get their dinars. They're smart enough to know Hector isn't going to just hand over all that ransom without seeing his king."

"Hector will bring back a whole troop of soldiers when he comes."

"Yes!! That's the part that has me worried. I'm sure they will expect that and in order to leave the castle, they will have to take Iolaus with them. That's where the danger lies. When they are out in the open, they could kill Iolaus outright, or turn around and sell him to one of your enemies."

Orestes nodded. He had already arrived at the same conclusion.

Orestes heard a touch of discouragement in Hercules' voice, as he said. "I've seen that castle in the distance, a few years ago. It's open and exposed. No chance to even get close unseen."

"Hercules, what if you didn't have to get close to get in?" He smiled.

Hercules looked startled. "You know of another way?"

Orestes nodded. "A secret passage. Masius showed it to my brother and I once. The outside entrance is about a mile away, on the side of a small hillside. It goes underneath the mountain and straight into a connecting corridor not too far from the cells."

Hercules finally smiled broadly. "I take it you can still find the entrance?"

"Oh, yes! Remember when I mentioned to Hector about knowing that castle?"

Hercules nodded.

"Back in my youthful days, many times when I got angry at my father, I would end up 'running away' and going to that deserted castle. Usually with enough wine to get totally drunk. I use to pretend that I was the king. I was in charge. I made all the rules. Everyone had to answer to me." He laughed bitterly. "A deserted castle. That's about all I was capable of ruling back then." He paused and sighed. "Of course, Hector use to find me and take me home. But, if I wasn't too out of it and was still angry enough, I use to sneak down to that passageway and escape. He knew I had a secret entrance, but he never was able to find it. I don't think anyone else living knows of its existence."

"Great. Maybe we can have Iolaus out of there before Hector even arrives," Hercules smiled broadly.

"I think we can."

"Come on let's turn in. We have a lot of ground to cover tomorrow."

The pair took off before dawn and made great time until they came to a small pass. Unfortunately because of a rock slide through the canyon, they had to backtrack and go a different route. They lost a few hours of travel time and never arrived until just after dusk. Although the landmarks to find the secret passage were obvious to Orestes during the daytime, he was unsure of them in the dark and so it was decided to wait until the next morning.

As they settled down for one last evening, Orestes was blaming himself.

"I'm sorry about this, Hercules. It's just in the dark everything looks alike."

"That's alright. We still have time tomorrow before Hector arrives. Besides, it wasn't your fault. I have a feeling that rock slide was intentional."

"You think they knew we were tracking them."

"Possibly. If it was me, I wouldn't take a chance."

"Do you think Iolaus is alright?"

"If they haven't pushed him too far. Iolaus is not always the easiest person to handle when someone is taking him somewhere he doesn't want to go."

"But he knew you'd be coming after him?"

"Yes!! And that in itself would be one of the reasons. If he felt I would be in danger he might try to escape," he answered. "However, since Iolaus hasn't shown up, it probably means he wasn't able to free himself."

"But like you said earlier, Hector would want proof, he would still have to be in good shape, right?"

"Of course!" He smiled. "I'm sure he's fine. That's what I have to believe."

Orestes nodded and smiled back. "And I."

Hercules knew that Orestes was feeling the same thing he was at this point. Now that they were so close, the fear and concern for Iolaus was uppermost in both their minds. The journey here had kept them both occupied, but now tomorrow they would enter the secret passage and find Iolaus. Hercules had tried to keep optimistic, but laying here now, he began to worry about his friend's well being. If they had hurt Iolaus in any way, none of them would escape his wrath.

Noticing the restless turning of Orestes, Hercules knew he too was still feeling some concerns. So although they had settled for the night, neither got much sleep. At first light, Orestes easily found the entrance into the cave. He sprung a special latch, which no one would have found had they not known its location. At his touch, the rock entrance slid smoothly open.

The two men entered and dropped their packs just inside the entrance. Orestes found a torch from a nearby sconce. Hercules soon had the torch lit.

"Ready?" asked Hercules.

"Ready," answered Orestes. They started down the tunnel, but only got a few feet when suddenly Orestes grabbed the demigod's arm. "Wait a minute, Hercules."

Hercules watched as Orestes ran back toward his pack and started digging through it. He pulled out something that Hercules couldn't quite make out in the dim light. He watched as Orestes quickly stripped off the patchwork vest and lay it on the pack. Hercules saw him change into different clothing and came sprinting back. In the torchlight he recognized that Orestes had changed into a shirt somewhat similar to the one Iolaus was wearing, but covered with a vest of blue and gold.

"This might come in handy," he grinned.

"Great idea, Orestes." Hercules smiled.

The two men once again took off and after weaving through some narrow passageways, finally came to a dead end. With sure fingers, Orestes reached over and laid his fingers on a piece of rock, then looked up at Hercules. Hercules nodded. Orestes pressed the rock and the door sprung smoothly open. They quickly moved in and looked around, but the small passageway was completely quiet.

The two continued down the corridor that Orestes knew led to the cells.

Three of Tyrus' men walking through one of the corridors looked up as a familiar figure cut in from a cross-corridor a little ways ahead of them. The men looked at each other, drew their swords, and quickly closed the distance.

"Hey, you!"

The small blond figure spun around rather confused.

"How'd you get out of your cell?" asked one of the men.

"I'm not sure," came the quiet reply. "It just sort of opened."

"Yeah, well, sorry, your Majesty, but you'll have to go back," laughed another and gave the blond figure a shove.

"I thought that stuff was supposed to keep him out for awhile?" asked the first man.

"I don't know. It must have worn off earlier than Tyrus thought," shrugged the third.

As they escorted the small blond down the corridor, they never noticed a second figure moving a short distance behind them.

The four men came to a corridor and turned and stood before a heavy solid wooden door.

"I thought you said this was open?" asked the guard, as he tugged on it.

"It must have locked again when I shut it," shrugged the small blond.

The man grumbled as he removed a large key from his belt, put it in the lock and turned it. He opened the door and was the first into the cell. The first to also see a small blond figure curled up on the floor of the cell. He turned, "Hey, what is ..."

That was as far as he got, as Orestes slammed the door shut on him, causing him to stumble and fall. He then quickly rammed his elbow into the man behind him, doubling him over and causing the man to drop his sword. He turned and grabbed the man's arm and slammed him into the man next to him, sending them both reeling, directly into the arms of Hercules.

In the meantime, Orestes charged into the cell and was confronted by the first man, who had risen and was moving toward him, sword still in hand. Orestes backed up out of the cell and spotted a dropped sword and reached for it.

As Hercules finished up quickly with his two adversaries, he turned and caught the sword play between Orestes and his opponent. It became very obvious that Orestes knew what he was doing. Orestes quickly ended the session by striking the man with the hilt of the sword.

"Good work, Orestes."

"Thanks!"

"Check on Iolaus, while I take care of these three."

"Right!"

As Hercules dragged the unconscious men into the cell and dropped them in the far corner, Orestes quickly advanced to Iolaus' side and raised his cousin up into his arms.

"Iolaus!! Iolaus, can you hear me?"

Hercules quickly joined them and after a nervous look between demigod and king, Hercules put his hand up to Iolaus' neck and felt for a pulse. It was there, and, it was strong. Hercules nodded and both men breathed easier. Hercules did a quick cursory check for wounds, but thankfully found none.

"He doesn't appear to be hurt."

"I heard them saying something about Tyrus giving him something to keep him out until the meeting."

Hercules grabbed Iolaus by the shoulders and shook him lightly. "Iolaus! Iolaus! ... Come on, buddy. Time to wake up."

A soft moan came from Iolaus and his eyes slowly opened. It took a moment before he finally focused on Hercules in front of him. "Hi!" he said with a glazed look still showing from his eyes.

"Hi, yourself," Hercules smiled.

"Where've you been?"

"I thought you could use the rest," Hercules shot back at him.

Iolaus smiled wearily and then turned bleary eyes to see who was holding him and was able to make out Orestes' face.

"Orestes! What are you doing here?"

Orestes smiled. "I just thought it was my turn to rescue you from prison, Cousin."

Iolaus' head rolled back against Orestes' arm. "Cool!"

Hercules laughed. "Think you can stand?"

Iolaus turned back toward Hercules and gave him a crooked grin. "Sure, been doing it for years."

Hercules shook his head and shot a wry grin to Orestes. He rose and leaned down to grab Iolaus' arm, pulling him up. Orestes continued to support him on the other side.

"See, nothing to it," Iolaus said, as he slowly began to sink back down.

"Yeah, nothing to it," laughed Hercules, as he quickly caught him and lifted him up into his arms.

Orestes laughed.

Iolaus' still sleep-drugged eyes flickered back open and he looked over at Orestes and then to Hercules and vaguely assessed his situation. "Herc, why are you holding me?"

"Because you're still sleepy, my friend. Why don't you just close your eyes and go back to sleep. Everything's under control."

"Okay!" Obediently he closed his eyes and turned his head, snuggling in more closely to the warmth of Hercules' shoulder.

Hercules smiled down fondly at the sleeping figure. He then turned to Orestes. "Come on, we've got what we came for, let's get out of here."

Orestes nodded. As Hercules exited the cell, Orestes pulled the door closed and locked it, tucking the key into his belt. He then moved out in front to lead Hercules back out of the labyrinth.

Back at the outside entrance, they stopped for a moment to collect their things and then headed off to meet Hector at the pre-designated spot. Hector and Linus were already there waiting and had a moment of panic when they saw Hercules carrying one of the blonds. It was made worse, seeing both blonds were dressed in royal clothing.

As they approached, Orestes saw the concern in their eyes and moved out front. "Relax, Hector. Iolaus and I are both alright."

"Yes, thanks to Orestes," added Hercules as he knelt down and shifted Iolaus into a more comfortable position in his arms. "They gave Iolaus something to put him out. Probably the wisest thing for all their sakes. Iolaus doesn't take being a prisoner really well."

As the laughter subsided, Hector turned to Orestes. "Sire, our troops are over that knoll. We are prepared to go down and finish the job now that you are all safe. We also have the palace healer along, the Queen insisted. I thought it was best anyhow, since ..." Hector lowered his head. "Well, since ..."

"Since she insisted on coming along," Orestes finished.

"I'm afraid so," declared Linus. "We couldn't get her to stay."

"It's alright. I'm not completely surprised."

Orestes knelt down beside Hercules and they exchanged glances.

"Hercules?"

Hercules nodded. He rose and pulled Iolaus back into his embrace. As they walked down the knoll, Hercules and Orestes saw a small encampment. A large, enclosed coach stood nearby, surrounded by a full troop of soldiers. As they came into view, a man went towards the coach door and shortly thereafter it opened. A woman soon emerged and stood watching.

Hercules recognized Queen Niobe immediately from Iolaus' description. He now understood how Iolaus had so easily fallen in love with her. she was tall and slender, with long auburn hair. She was very beautiful and very regal. And also very pregnant.

As they got nearer, Orestes moved ahead of them and the couple embraced and kissed.

"Niobe, are you alright? You shouldn't have come," Orestes finally said.

"I'm fine, my love. I was too worried about you and Iolaus to stay back in Attica." She looked over at Iolaus' limp body in the arms of the big man, a touch of fear showing in her large brown eyes. "Is he alright?"

"Yes, they gave him something to keep him asleep. We think he'll be fine." He turned and looked toward his healer. "Anias, would you please look him over and make sure there are no other injuries."

"Yes, Sire. Come, we'll take him over to the coach. He'll be more comfortable there."

Hercules carried Iolaus over and placed him onto one of the wide seats of the coach and moved back out, making room for the healer. Hercules stood at the door watching until Orestes spoke to him.

"Hercules, I'd like to introduce you to my queen, Niobe."

Hercules bowed slightly. "Your Majesty, it's very nice to meet you."

"It's good to finally meet you, Hercules. Iolaus spoke of you before he left. But please, call me 'Niobe'," she smiled.

Hercules nodded.

Hector came up to Orestes just at that moment. "Sire, what are your wishes about those mercenaries, now that Iolaus is out of danger."

"I think their mercenary days should be over. If we just walk away and leave them, they'll try this again with someone else. The next ones might not be as lucky. Let's go and take care of them."

"No, Sire. We will take care of them."

"Hector ..."

"You've already done your part. Now it's our turn. I must insist."

Hercules watched as Niobe moved into Orestes' arm. The concern in her eyes was strong, but she remained silent.

Orestes looked solemnly at Hector for a few moments, turning it over in his mind. "Alright, Hector." Handing Hector the keys to the cells, he added, "But I'll show you a secret entrance. The one you could never find." He laughed. "It may help cut our losses by surprising them. I'd like to do this with as little bloodshed as possible."

"Agreed!" Hector smiled.

"I'll be back shortly, my dear. Will you see to our guests?"

"Of course." Niobe reached over and kissed her husband and watched him as he mounted and led the troops back over the knoll.

Anias came out of the coach. He faced Hercules and smiled. "Iolaus seems to be doing fine. He woke for a few minutes and confirmed that they had given him something they said was to make him sleep. I can find nothing else wrong with him. His heart beat is strong and he isn't in any pain. I believe most of the effects should wear off in a few hours. I'm sure they wanted him in some kind of a reasonable shape to be shown to Hector. However, it will probably take until tomorrow to get the potion completely out of his system. The only effects at present should be bouts of sleepiness."

Hercules nodded and released a sigh of relief. "Thank you."

"That's wonderful news, Anias," smiled Niobe. "Hercules, why don't you come over and join me in getting something to eat. I'd appreciate the company. I'm afraid I was too worried to eat much before."

Hercules looked into the coach at his friend's sleeping form. He hesitated a moment and looked back at the queen. He would have preferred to stay with Iolaus.

She seemed to read his thoughts. "Anias will watch over him. He'll let us know when he wakes. I'm sure you would like to be with him when he becomes aware of where he is and ..."

The doubt in Hercules' eyes faded. "I'd be honored."

She led the way and both were served a plate of food, as they sat on some small flat rocks.

"Are you sure you're comfortable?" asked Hercules.

"I'm fine, Hercules. Please don't be concerned."

Hercules nodded and started to eat. However, he found it a bit disconcerting to be around this woman that he knew Iolaus cared about. He wasn't sure what to say to her now that the introductions were over. However, she seemed to sense his discomfort and kept the conversation going, speaking of Attica and what was going on there. Showing a great pride in Orestes' leadership.

Finally Orestes and two personal guards came riding back in. He dismounted, came over and joined Hercules and his wife and was soon handed a plate of food. Niobe began to ask a few questions and Orestes launched into his adventure, from when he had first met Iolaus on the road, up to the rescue >from the dungeon.

A little over an hour later Anias came for Hercules to let him know that Iolaus was starting to stir. Orestes and Niobe wisely left Hercules on his own.

As Hercules climbed into the coach, Iolaus opened his eyes and wearily looked around.

Hercules smiled. "Hi! How are you doing, buddy?"

"I vaguely remember this conversation before."

Hercules laughed.

"Herc, where are we now?"

"You're inside the royal coach, a couple miles away from the abandoned castle."

"How did I get here?"

"Orestes and I brought you out of the cell."

Iolaus closed his eyes for a moment, trying to put things into focus. He opened them and smiled faintly. "Oh, yeah! I do remember. You wanted to know if I could stand or something."

"Yeah, something like that," Hercules smiled.

"Is Orestes okay?"

"He's fine. He just got back from leading Hector to a secret passage. It's how we got you out. Hector and his men are going after Tyrus and his mercenaries."

"Good. If they had gotten away with this, they probably would have tried it again."

"Exactly what your cousin said."

Iolaus smiled.

Hercules shook his head. "I can't believe how much alike you two are. Orestes sent Hector and Linus back for the ransom and insisted upon coming with me to rescue you. He did great. You can be proud of him, Iolaus. It was even his plan that got you out."

"He's a good man."

"That he is, my friend. By the way, I was kind of impressed with your performance as king."

"Pretty good, huh?" Iolaus said, trying to stifle a yawn.

"Yeah. After all these years, you still never cease to amaze me at times."

Iolaus grinned as he slowly tried to rise. Hercules helped him up into a sitting position.

"Okay?" Hercules looked at him still concerned.

"Okay!"

Hercules hesitated a moment. "Iolaus, there's something else I think you should know."

"What?"

"Niobe's here. She came back with Hector and the troops. She was worried about you and Orestes."

"Niobe's here?"

"And ..."

"And?" Iolaus questioned.

"Iolaus, she's ... pregnant."

"Oh!"

Hercules was silent, giving him time to adjust to the news.

Iolaus' voice was quiet as he spoke. "Well, that's as it should be, isn't it?" He smiled faintly.

Hercules paused. "Are you going to be alright?"

Iolaus was still for a few moments and then turned to Hercules with a smile. "Stop worrying about me. Of course, I am. They belong together. They always have. They just didn't know it before."

"I'm proud of you, Iolaus. I know how hard it must be."

Iolaus shrugged. "It wasn't like there was ever a chance for us, even if Orestes had not lived. We were from two different worlds. Neither of us would have survived in the other's."

"But it doesn't stop the pain," Hercules declared.

"No, but it does make it easier, knowing that Orestes loves her and she him, and that he has become the type of man she deserves." Iolaus smiled.

"Are you ready to go out and face it all then? "

"Ready as I'll ever be."

Hercules helped the still somewhat unsteady warrior out of the coach and walked slowly beside him.

"How are you doing, Cousin?" asked Orestes coming to meet him.

"Much better, thanks."

Orestes, with an arm around his shoulder, led him to the campfire. Iolaus hesitated a moment when he caught sight of Niobe. He felt Orestes squeeze his shoulder. A smile passed between them and Iolaus approached Niobe.

Niobe rose and reached out and hugged Iolaus. "I'm glad to see you again, Iolaus."

"It's good to see you also, Niobe. You're looking very well. Congratulations to you both." His smile was broad and honest.

"Thank you, Cousin." Orestes beamed.

Anias looked Iolaus over. "How are you feeling?"

"Still a little sleepy, but otherwise fine."

"You should be back to your old self by tomorrow."

Iolaus saw Hercules about to make a comment and with a wry look interjected. "Don't even go there."

The others laughed, as Hercules raised his hands innocently.

Shaking his head, Orestes handed Iolaus a plate of food. The golden warrior settled himself down comfortably next to Hercules and began to eat.

He looked over at his cousin as the king sat down next to his queen. "Orestes, everything is still a little fuzzy, but I vaguely remember you in that cell. Hercules said you came with him?"

"Yes, he was gracious enough to allow me to accompany him. I'm afraid he had to slow down a bit for me though."

Iolaus looked amused. "Oh, really? Well, count yourself lucky. He never slows down for me."

"You don't seem to have a problem keeping up," Hercules drolly remarked.

"Do I have a choice? If I hadn't learned, I'd be coming into town about the time the 'thank you' speeches started."

"Very funny," Hercules replied, but was delighted with the familiar bantering. He finally allowed himself to relax. Iolaus would be fine.

Iolaus inquired what had happened and Orestes was encouraged to repeat his story. Hercules filled in a few small details that Orestes' modesty had kept him from telling about himself.

Iolaus was quite impressed at all his cousin had accomplished. He turned at one point and saw a look of love and pride on Niobe's face as Orestes spoke. It warmed his heart.

"Great job, Orestes. I couldn't have done better myself," Iolaus remarked with pride of his own at his cousin's accomplishments.

"Thank you, Cousin," he said, well pleased at Iolaus' praise.

Shortly after that, Linus rode in and reported their successful capture of Tyrus and all his men. He reported that there had been no losses, only a few minor cuts and bruises and that Tyrus and his men were at this moment securely locked in the cells.

It was decided since it was so late, that the castle would be the perfect place to stay the evening. It was not exactly the castle in Attica, but it would be more comfortable and warmer than the open valley, especially for Niobe.

They rose to walk back to the coach to put Niobe in for the ride down. The blond cousins were in the middle, with Hercules to the right of Iolaus and Niobe to the left of Orestes.

"You know, your story was great, Cousin, but there was only one problem with it," stated Iolaus, with a twinkle of his blue eyes.

"Problem?" questioned Orestes.

"You've got to learn how to tell your story with a bit more flare," stated the golden warrior.

"How so, Cousin?" asked Orestes, with an amused smile.

Hercules and Niobe watched as the two blonds moved ahead. Iolaus put an arm around Orestes' shoulder. "For instance, when you mentioned about the ..." The words were lost to Hercules and Niobe as the two moved out of range. But their twin giggles soon floated back. Hercules and Niobe looked at each other and started to laugh and hurried to catch up to the warrior and the king.

~~ finis ~~

Go on to the next story in the challenge.


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