Reflections

Story and Illustrations by Regina

Note: Regina is not yet online but feedback is graciously accepted and forwarded by Ceryndip.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly;

Who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." - Theodore Roosevelt

CHAPTER 1

The little girl huddled beneath the crawlspace, shaking with terror. Her mother shoved her into it, warning her not to utter a word no matter what happened. She clung to her favorite doll and pressed herself further back into the cramped hideout, just as the door to the cottage slammed inward.

The impact tore the door partway off of its hinges. A giant silhouette of a man filled the opening as sunlight glinted off of the metal studding his leather raiment. He strode purposely towards the frightened woman, overturning the table she sought refuge behind. She snatched up a large carving knife she'd been using when warning came of the raid. The brute grabbed her wrist and twisted the blade easily from her hand. He ignored her cries of pain as he dragged her into the next room, flinging her onto the bed.

The child peered through the sliver of an opening, frozen by the agonized screams of her mother, as the man forced himself on her. Soon the woman's pitiful cries were abruptly silenced. The girl covered her ears, tears silently coursing down her cheeks. Through the crack, she saw the man emerge from the room, panting and sweating from his efforts, fastening the front of his trousers. His unshaven cheeks were scratched and bleeding. He ran a hand over his bald, tatooed head, then wiped his bloody face.

"Damn bitch!" he uttered, then moved to a water basin. He splashed water on his cheeks, cursed, then dabbed at the abrasions with a cloth. In disgust, he threw down the cloth then helped himself to some of the partially prepared food, stuffing a handful into his mouth. The rest he shoved into a sack hanging from his belt. He search around for other valuables, but finding none, picked up an oil lamp. With a perverse laugh, he flung it to the floor, Shattering the glass enclosure. He pivoted on his heel and exited. The hot oil ignited immediately and flames began to chase the spreading oil. Soon the flames caught on the wooden structure, burning quickly on the new fuel. Choking smoke filled the room in thick billows.

The new danger broke the child's paralysis and she scurried from her tiny refuge. She leapt over flames licking at her bare feet and stumbled into the room she shared with her mother.

"Mama?" she called out hesitantly. The woman lay sprawled across the bed, her clothing torn, revealing her comely breasts and shapely legs. The youngster climbed up to her side and looked into her blankly staring eyes and battered face.

"Mama!" she whispered more desperately, shaking her mother's shoulder. When there was no response, the girl curled close to her side and wept softly. In no time, the fire and smoke made her cough and her eyes sting. Reluctantly she pulled away, kissing the woman's cheek. She had the presense of mind to collect her only treasure, her doll, and crept to the window. The shouting and pounding of hooves had long since diminished while she lay by her mother's side. The only sound she now heard was the occasional wailing of untended beasts and the crackling of flames devouring the tiny village. She hoisted herself to the sill, dropped to the ground and ran into the woods as night began to fall.

The two men settled beside a cozy camp fire, as the last of the daylight gradually faded into the purple shade of night.

The smaller of the two, his tousled blond hair catching the warm glow of the flames, plopped himself on a flat rock and tossed a pair of plump rabbits at his partner's feet.

"There ya go, Herc. Just as I promised, one for each of us. I caught 'em,so you can cook 'em. Boy, am I starved!" Iolaus grinned hugely, smacking his lips and rubbing his hands together.

Hercules, a full head taller than his companion, chuckled with amusement.

"Iolaus, if I let you, you'd eat both of these and still want more. Where do you put it?" he said accusingly. Iolaus raised his pale brows.

"Well, you know, Herc, when you've gone hungry for a long time, you learn to appreciate even the simplest of meals." he replied, while removing the skins from each of the rabbits. Hercules shook his head and laughed.

"Iolaus, you haven't gone hungry since you gave up stealing and running with that group of wild kids in Thebes. And my poor mother was never sure if you had enough to eat, whenever you came to visit. Sometimes I'd thought you'd eat us out of house and home." he commented. Iolaus mulled over that for a few moments.

"I never heard her complain. She's always been good to me, that's true. I sure do miss her cooking when we're on the road. At least I didn't need to stoke those furnaces you and Iphicles called bodies. I'm just little, innocent me." Iolaus retorted.

"Innocent?! Hah! You could eat for the both of us!" Herc countered.

"Now that's not true, Herc!" Iolaus complained, pretending to be hurt by such a suggestion.

"Could too." Hercules shot back.

"Could not!" Iolaus disagreed.

"Could." said Herc, raising his brows.

"Not!" Iolaus protested, then relented. "Okay, so maybe I could." He stuck out his lower lip in a pout, then burst out giggling. "Amazing, isn't it, considering the way you cook."

Hercules slapped him on the arm and pointed a finger at him.

"Don't start." he warned, but Iolaus was savoring the moment, shaking with laughter. Hercules shook his head and placed the spitted rabbits over the fire.

"Speaking of appetites, it's a wonder you had time for the company of women, since you were always stuffing your face." Hercules teased with a grin.

Iolaus grimaced. "Oh, man, low blow!" he groaned. "At least I had my charming personality to fall back on." Hercules snorted and said,

"Can I throw up now?" It was Iolaus' turn to rap him on the arm.

"Sure, so long as you do it away from dinner." Then they both dissolved into another round of laughter. They relaxed in each other's company, Hercules tending the meat while Iolaus used his knife to cut up some tubers he'd found near his snares.

He arranged them on some raised stones so that they'd brown from the heat of the fire. He paused a moment, eyeing his friend thoughtfully.

"You know, Herc, I can't remember how long it's been since we had the chance to cozy up in some pretty girl's arms. I guess we've been so busy rescuing people in harm's way, that we've really had little time for the simple niceties for ourselves. Do you ever think about that? I mean- you know- since you-and Serena?" he asked gently.

Hercules stopped turning the spit and glanced up into his best friend's blue eyes. There was warmth and compassion in them, as well as a touch of worry. Iolaus was foreyer trying to help him find someone to love, first when Deianaira and the Children were taken by Hera, then when Serena was killed. Herc pondered the question as he resumed rotating the rabbits. He wanted to say 'No-'I haven't', but admitted to himself that he'd often thought about the subject, not just concerning himself, but for Iolaus as well. The little hunter hadn't seriously been able to find a mate since he lost Ania many years ago, although he'd come close on several occasions. However, at those times, either the women deceived him into believing they loved him or they wanted him to give up his identity to be what they wanted him to be. For as long as he'd known Iolaus, Hercules knew and understood that Iolaus fiercely guarded his need to be himself.

Often his accomplishments went unnoticed by people, in favor of the demigod's reputation. They didn't know that Herc would have preferred that the praise and fuss be directed at Iolaus instead of himself, but being the son of Zeus didn't always make it easy for him to escape their gratitude. Iolaus took it in stride, even encouraged it most of the time, when he felt in a teasing mood, but on rare occasions his pain shone in his eyes when he thought no one was looking.

Herc sighed in response to Iolaus' question. He couldn't lie to this dear friend, who probably knew him better than he knew himself.

"Sometimes." he said with a shrug. He glanced at the tubers. "Better keep an eye on those tubers or you'll burn them."

Iolaus looked down. The sides nearest to the flames were beginning to char and smoke.

"Oh! Yeah-right! Damn!" Iolaus muttered. He quickly rearranged the vegetables so that the raw sides now faced the fire.

Hercules chuckled at his friend's antics. Iolaus always managed to cheer him up, whether he intended to or not. It was only one of the many facets of Iolaus' personality that he admired and appreciated. Iolaus' ability to laugh at himself just endeared him more to Hercules. Hercules couldn't imagine what it would be like if his friend ever left him.

Satisfied that the tubers were safe for the moment, Iolaus regained his seat on the rock. Not losing a beat, he picked up the conversation where he'd left off.

"Just imagine, Herc, a beautiful woman walking out of the woods to -", he fell silent, his brow furrowing and his mouth falling open.

"To what?" Hercules replied, testing the rabbits to determine their tenderness. He glanced at Iolaus' expression. "Don't tell me, she just arrived in answer to your dreams?"

"Actually, she's a bit too young for either of us." Iolaus uttered distractedly and rose. Hercules studied his face more closely. His partner's eyes were focused on something behind his shoulder. Iolaus stepped around the fire and moved to the edge of the woods.

"What is it?" Herc asked and turned to see for himself what had captured the other's attention. Iolaus squatted down in front of a little girl, whose face and clothing bore indications of a difficult trek through the thick foliage of the forest. Her red, curly hair was in disarray and dirty streaks and scratches marked her dainty face, arms and bare legs. In her thin arms, she hugged a ragged doll. Iolaus looked her up and down, noticing her shoeless feet, raw with burns and cuts.

He cupped her cheek with his hand. "Hello" he said kindly, "What is a pretty little lady like you doing alone in these woods? Are you lost?"

The child just stared at him, saying nothing. The hunter could see that the child was exhausted. Her dress was torn in several places and a strong odor of smoke clung to her. Iolaus immediately became alarmed, but kept his voice calm so as not to upset her.

"Is it okay if my friend and I fix up those cuts on your feet?" he tried again softly. The girl studied his face for a moment, then nodded slowly. Iolaus picked her up and carried her over to the rock he'd just vacated.

"Herc, would you please get some water ready? Our little princess here could use some cleaning up. Move the rabbits to the side, they're done. Are you hungry, sweetheart?"

The youngster nodded again, her pale green eyes remaining on his face. Hercules shifted the rabbits as directed, then rose to his feet. The girl's gaze followed his movement and she huddled closer to Iolaus, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck.

Iolaus parted her arm and smiled. "Hey, it's okay. He won't hurt you. That's my friend, Hercules and I'm Iolaus. Can you tell us your name?" he reassured her. She looked at Hercules again. The tall warrior smiled and waved. She sucked on her lower lip, nodded and sat back on the rock. She appeared to be only six or seven years of'age.

"Kara." she said in a small voice. Iolaus reached over and brushed a strand of hair from her cheek and grinned.

"Now that is a very pretty name, don't you think, Herc?" he declared. Hercules spread his hands in agreement.

"Absolutely." he said brightly, then turned to Iolaus.

"Uh, any ideas what I'm going to use for the water? We have no pots or pans."

Iolaus paused, undecided. "Oh" he uttered. "Right. I'm sure you'll think of something-" Then he flashed Herc one of his innocent grins. Hercules sighed and shook his head, then headed for the nearby stream. Iolaus giggled and resumed his attention to his charge. She was eyeing the dripping rabbits hungrily. Iolaus wondered when was the last time the child had eaten.

"Would you like to eat now?" he asked. She shrugged shyly.

"Mama said it is not nice to beg. They're yours." she stated politely. Iolaus' heart melted. He took her hands in his.

"No, no, it's okay for you to have some. You see, you didn't beg, I offered. Now be careful, the pieces are very hot." he answered with a wink. She smiled shyly. He cut off a couple of small pieces with his knife and handed some to her on a large leaf.

"Thank you." she replied and went to work on her portion. She accepted a second helping when Iolaus indicated the meat, then consumed a few pieces of tubers with equal vigor. Iolaus pondered worriedly on the circumstances that led to the child being here in the first place. Though mild burns and smokey clothing seemed the worst the girl endured, Iolaus could only guess as to the cause for her being near a fire. What concerned him more was the absence of shoes on her feet, leading him to believe that she left in a hurry. He and Herc would do their best to find her home and family.

Hercules returned with a hollowed out log that contained a fair amount of water. He sat it beside Iolaus, who rummaged in his pack for a cloth. Iolaus proceeded to wipe the dirt off of Kara's face and arms. Then he examined her abused feet. With a gentle touch, he cleansed the burns and scratches, wishing he'd something more to bandage them. Hercules nudged his arm. "Here" he stated, "My mother used this all the time for burns and cuts." He handed over a pasty mixture he'd put together, while Iolaus tended the girl. Iolaus slathered it on the wounds all the while watching the child's reaction. Kara bravely endured his ministrations silently. When that task was completed, Iolaus draped his blanket around the girl's shoulders. Kara yawned hugely and rubbed her eyes. The two men exchanged amused but knowing glances, both having been fathers to little ones.

Kara tugged on Iolaus' hand. "May I go to sleep now?'I'm tired." she asked plaintively. The men both nodded.

"Of course, you may. We can talk in the morning, sweetie.

"You keep the blanket around you now. It's supposed to get a bit cool tonight." Iolaus answered.

"Will you stay with me?" she asked meekly. Iolaus glanced at Hercules. Both men felt a sense of pity and growing affection for this lost child.

"Sure honey, we'll both be here. You rest now, okay?" Hercules replied. Iolaus nodded in agreement. Kara laid down and snuggled in the blanket, then promptly pulled it aside.

"Where is my baby doll?" she cried. Iolaus searched around his seat and spotted the doll next to the rock. He dusted it off and handed it to Kara. She hugged it close and drew the blanket over the both of them.

"Mama will protect you." she murmurred to the doll and soon fell fast asleep. The companions finished what remained of their meal in silence. Iolaus kept stealing glances at the sleeping youngster. He tossed the bone he'd been sucking on into the fire and leveled his gaze at Hercules.

"Herc," he said in a low voice, "We've got to find out what happened to Kara. A kid just doesn't end up wandering in the woods at night for no reason. Maybe something happened to her family or worse, her village. Her injuries seem consistant with that theory." Hercules also stared at the child.

"It seems that way, doesn't it?" he agreed. "I think we should check out the nearest village, to see if anyone knows her, first thing in the morning. Did she say anything to you while I was gone? She seems to have taken to you."

"No, she didn't. All she wanted to do was eat. Poor kid was starving!" Iolaus answered tiredly. Hercules grinned a bit.

"Well, that explains the attachment." he teased. Iolaus shot him a sour look.

"Hah, hah, hah, very funny, Herc. Laugh all you want. I am going to sleep." he retorted, laying down on his side near the girl. "Maybe you can explain why she's afraid of you, huh?"

Hercules opened his mouth to reply, but hesitated, having no answer for that. "Good question." he muttered to himself and settled down beside the fire. Another puzzle to figure out on the morrow, he mused and closed his eyes. Across from him, he thought he heard Iolaus giggle.

CHAPTER 2

The burnt-out village came into view a couple of hours after they set out the next morning. Kara rode piggy-back on Iolaus' back, mainly because he did not want her walking on her injured feet. Hercules carried the rest of their belongings. They paused on a rise, overlooking the tiny valley.

"Looks deserted." Iolaus commented. He glanced back at the child. She pressed herself closer to him, a fearful look in her eyes.

"Kara, is this your home?" he asked softly. She shook her head yes. Iolaus shot Hercules a measured glance.

"Let's take a look." Herc declared with a sigh. Iolaus shifted Kara higher on his back and adjusted his sword belt for easier access. They approached the village more cautiously, eyes and ears alert for signs of life.

When they reached the center of the tiny community, the full extent of the damage glared back at them. Several of the buildings still smoldered, the timbers collapsed beneath the thatched rooves. The men searched carefully for survivors, but only found several bodies scattered about. They had not wanted to expose Kara to the gruesome sights, but some of it couldn't be helped. She appeared to be the only survivor of this carnage.

Iolaus set Kara down and took her hand. She rotated her body slowly and pointed at a small cottage at the end of the street.

"Mama" she stated in a small voice. Iolaus loosed-her hand and gave it over to Hercules. Kara did not resist and watched as Iolaus moved to that location-

The hunter paused at the entrance, Or what was left of it. The smell of death mingled with the smoke and burnt wood. He stepped inside and waited for his eyes to adjust before proceeding. He'stepped over an overturned table and under several timbers that dangled from above. A lamp lay broken on the floor, the obvious source of the fire. He crept to the next room with deliberate slowness. The decayed odor was stronger- here and he had to cover his nose and mouth to keep from gagging.

Across the bed sprawled a woman's body, blackened by the heat. As he forced himself to move closer, Iolaus could see the long, red tresses of the woman's hair dangling over the edge.

The obscene position of her arms and legs told the story of her fate. He felt that he could cry right then, for the little one who must have witnessed this outrage. Out of respect for her dignity, Iolaus drew a worn, slightly burned blanket over the corpse, to be buried later.

No longer able to stomach the stench, he retreated to the outdoors for some fresh air. Hercules didn't need to ask what was in there. Iolaus' clenched jaw and pale visage spoke clearly of his find. When he again took Kara's hands in his, Iolaus schooled his face to be calm.

"Kara, did you see the people who did these things to your village and your house?" he asked quietly. Kara shook her head in the negative. Iolaus tried again. "Did you see a man come into your house?"

"Iolaus" Hercules interrupted, but the hunter gestured that he wait a moment. Iolaus turned his attention back to Kara.

"I know it is hard for you to talk about it, honey, but we need to know some things. Did that man hurt your mama? We want to find him so he won't hurt anyone again. Do you understand?"

Kara snuggled her doll tightly to her chest and let her eyes roam around the destroyed town.

"Yes." she uttered simply and began to cry softly. Iolaus pulled her into an embrace and tenderly stroked her hair. When her tears subsided, she raised her head from his shoulder. The warrior wiped away some of her tears.

"Mama- made- me hide." Kara continued. "Bad men come-and take stuff."

"The Man who came to your house, do you remember what he looked like?" Iolaus coaxed. Kara sucked on her finger for a few moments, then pointed at Hercules.

"He was big, like him. He had brown clothes with shiny things on them. He didn't have any hair, just blue pictures on his head. He made my mama cry."

"Okay, Kara, that will help us." Iolaus sighed, stroking her cheek in comfort. He again took her hand. He gazed questioningly at the demigod's face. "Sound like anyone we should know?"

Hercules shook his head. "Doesn't ring any bells, but I'm sure we'll find out soon enough. Let's get out of here."

Iolaus nodded, lifted Kara again in his arms and they left the village behind them. They stopped once to rest and eat some fruit they'd found along the way. Not long afterward, they found another, larger village than the last. The people they encountered were wary but polite. Perhaps they were not aware of the fate of their nearest neighbors, Hercules thought.

The trio made their way to a well, where Iolaus settled Kara on the rim. Hercules drew the bucket up and each took turns drinking their fill.

"Herc, I think we should find whoever is in charge and see what care we can get for Kara. No one seems to be worried or aware of what's happened back there." Iolaus said.

"I couldn't agree with you more." the big man agreed. "Let's see if we can find the magistrate." They walked to the nearest building, a tavern/inn and entered the cool interior. Hercules approached the owner, who greeted him with a pleasant smile.

"What can I do for you folks?" he chirped.

"A meal for three, please, and some information if you can." Hercules replied. "Some stew if you have it."

"Stew we can do, my friend. Something to drink?" the owner asked.

"Ale for my friend and I. Milk for the child." Herc added.

"Coming right up. There's a table by the window. I'll bring it there. I'm Malakos, at your service." he stated.

"Thank you." Hercules said, placing two coins on the counter. He signalled Iolaus and they made their way to the designated location, casually perusing the interior of its patrons. Satisfied that the few seated men appeared to be locals, the threesome settled in their seats, Kara between the two warriors. In a few moments, the innkeeper brought their food and drinks, then straddled the remaining chair.

"You asked for information. I'll help if I can." he offered. Iolaus sampled the stew and nodded.

"This is good." he complimented, around a mouthful of food.

"Thank you. Only the best for my customers." Malakos beamed with pride. His eyes fell on Kara. "Cute little thing, ain't she? Your daughter?" he directed his attention towards Iolaus. Iolaus looked up.

"Uh, no. We've been taking care of her. Her village, the one north of here, was burned out by some raiders. We're trying to find out if she has other family to take care of her. Do you have a magistrate? We think he ought to be told. Your village could be next. We want to warn everyone."

"Burned out? By raiders?" the innkeeper's eyes widened with genuine concern. "I didn't know."

"She has injuries we'd like to see get treated as well.

"Is there a healer here who can check her out?" Hercules added. The innkeeper nodded.

"We have a magistrate, but no healer per say. However, my lady wife is knowledgeable of such things. Four kids, you know. Always getting into scrapes. Maybe even has some clothes that'll fit the youngster there."

"That'll be great." Iolaus piped up. "A bath will help her too. Have you lodging?"

Malakos shook his head in the affirmative. "I'll see to your rooms and talk to my wife. Please, enjoy your meal." He rose and hurried to the back room.

Hercules dug into his stew and agreed that it was indeed tasty. Kara had been eating hers throughout the conversation and scraped the bowl clean. In a little while, the innkeeper hurried back with his wife. She was an attractive woman whose gray hairs numbered more than her light brown ones. She had light gray eyes that spoke of wisdom and experience. She smiled at the two men, then at Kara. Upon looking at the child, her gaze became more intense, then she gasped.

"Why Malakos, that's Brianna's girl. Kara, isn't it?" she asked, touching the youngster's cheek. Kara nodded. Iolaus glanced from one to the other. He directed his question at the woman.

"You know her family? Does she have any relatives other than her mother?" he asked hopefully. The woman considered his query.

"No, I don't think so. I grew up with Brianna. Her husband passed on only a year ago. Fell off of a ladder fixing his roof. "Both of them had no siblings. What happened to Brianna?" Iolaus shot Hercules a pleading look. The demigod faced the innkeeper's wife and was about to speak, when Kara interrupted.

"My mama wouldn't wake up. I ran away when the man knocked over the lamp. She went to live with the gods. That's where my Daddy is, right Iolaus?" The blond hunter managed a gentle smile.

"That's right, honey. They are together now." he said.

"Will I be able to go there, too? I miss them." Her eyes again filled with tears. Iolaus didn't know how to answer her, his blue eyes reflecting his helplessness. Malakos spoke up.

"Lania, why don't you take Kara and see if she might fit in some of those clothes Chloe is just about out of?" Lania took his cue and turned back to the girl.

"What do you think, Kara? Would you like to have a new dress? I can help you get cleaned up real pretty and we can tend to your sore feet. I'll reintroduce you to the other children and you can all play together." She held out her hand.

Kara slid out of her chair and gingerly walked around the table. She slipped her hand into Lania's and spoke to Iolaus.

"Are you going to stay here?" He leaned close and kissed her on her cheek.

"We'll all be staying here tonight. Now you go with Lania and wash up. We'll see you later." he stated lighly. She kissed his face in return and started to follow the woman, but turned and went to Hercules, doing likewise. Then she clutched her doll and together with Lania, they exited the common room.

Malakos studied the two warriors closely. "What really happened to her mother?" he wanted to know. Iolaus toyed with his stew, then let the spoon fall into the bowl.

"Whoever burned her village, raped and killed her mother. We think she may have seen it all. We're going to try and find the bastards who did this." he said, his controlled anger barely showing itself.in his tone.

"How did you fellas end up with her?" the older man asked.

"She showed up in our camp last night, hungry, dirty and afraid. It wasn't until this morning we found out about her home.

"Those persons that we found were all dead. We didn't bury the bodies because we didn't want to subject Kara to any more horrors." Hercules explained. Malakos shook his head sadly.

"There's been talk of some raiders up north, but we haven't seen or heard of anymore until you came. Poor child. No family to care or love her. I guess the wife and I could look after her until some relatives might be located." Iolaus sat up straighter.

"You'd do that for her? You've your own children to manage, although she's been an angel and well behaved while with us." he indicated. Malakos clapped him on the arm.

"It's easy to see that you lads have enough to keep you busy without worrying about a youngster. Besides, if I know Lania, she'll probably be askin' me to keep the little tyke. Brianna was her friend and we don't mind. One more mouth to feed won't make that much difference, - that is, if you don't mind."

The two warriors exchanged glances and nodded.

"It would solve that dilemma for us, knowing she's in good hands, until we determine who and why." Hercules replied, placing a grateful hand on the innkeeper's shoulder. "If you need us for anything, I'm Hercules and this is Iolaus."

They exchanged hand shakes, Malakos now impressed to know who his guests were. He grinned again.

"I'll keep that in mind. Well, your rooms are at the top of the stairs, at the end of the hall. I'll tell Lania so the child isn't worried about your whereabouts."

"Thanks" Iolaus answered for both of them. Malakos rose and went to tend to his other clientele. Herc and Iolaus collected their things and retired to their rooms. Before they parted, Hercules touched his friend's shoulder, his own blue eyes full of concern for Iolaus' troubled expression.

"You sure you're going to be okay with this? I think it's the best thing for her, Iolaus." he appealed to his partner. Iolaus sighed.

"I know, Herc. I was just thinking how much I'd like to get my hands on the ones responsible for making her an orphan." the hunter stated with conviction. Hercules agreed.

"Amen." he replied and clapped Iolaus on the back.

CHAPTER 3

The next morning found Hercules and Iolaus up early, They were busy eating breakfast when Lania brought Kara to see them.

The child was wearing a clean dress and soft slippers over her bandaged feet. Her red hair fell in curly ringlets about her cherubic face. Lania had cleaned up most of the scratches as best as she could, but some were still visible. Iolaus and Hercules gaped in surprise.

"Iolaus, who is this stunning lady before us?" Herc exclaimed. Playing along with the game, Iolaus replied,

"I don't know, Herc. She's very pretty!"

"It's me,Kara!" she squealed delightedly. "See my new clothes?"

"Oh, my, it must be Princess Kara, yes?" Iolaus teased.

Kara giggled. "I'm not a princess." Hercules leaned on his elbows, carefully looking her up and down.

"Are you sure? What do you think, Iolaus?" he asked.

"Has to be, Hercules. Definitely our little Kara." Iolaus agreed, then reached out and lifted her to his knee.

"It is me!" she stated again, "and I got to play with Chloe an' Lela an' Cartos an' Tenakas!" Iolaus gave her one of his bright grins.

"Do you like playing with the other children?" he asked, careful not to reveal that they would be leaving soon. Kara nodded enthusiastically.

"Yes, they have lotsa toys and a big bed," Now the hard question.

"Kara, would you like to stay here with Malakos and Lania and the other kids? They will be like your new family. You'll be able to play and go to school and have plenty of nice clothes."

Kara's cheerful demeanor dimmed somewhat. "Are you going away? I don't want you to go!" She started to cry and hugged him tightly. Iolaus' expression revealed his desire not to leave, but he knew what had to be done. He reciprocated the hug then gently stood her away from him.

"Kara, love, Hercules and I have to continue with our work and it can be very dangerous. We want to be sure that you are safe and don't get hurt. Malakos and Lania will take good care of you, for us, I promise. We'll come to visit you whenever we are in the area. Do you understand?"

Although more tears welled' in her green eyes, Kara nodded Iolaus hugged her once more and set her down. She went to Hercules and threw her arms around his neck also. Hercules pulled a coin from his belt pouch and folded it into her tiny hand.

"You keep this and Lania will get something special for you with it, okay?" he instructed. Kara perked up at the prize and kissed his cheek, She displayed the coin for Lania to see. "Yes, honey, we'll get Whatever you wish. Now come along. "You can help me pick some flowers for the table. Chloe and Lela are going too,Would you like that?" Lania deftly intervened, seeing the pain the separation was causing the two men.

Kara turned and waved goodbye. The demigod and the hunter waved back and watched as they left the inn. Iolaus bit his lower lip, a pang of sadness constricting his chest. Hercules ran a hand across his face, no less affected.

"That tears it, Herc!" Iolaus muttered vehemently. "This guy and his cronies have got to be stopped before they hurt any- one else again."

"You are right. Maybe if we stay here for a while, we can use the village as a starting point to conduct our search. Perhaps news of their whereabouts will filter back to us and we..."

Before he could finish his thought, a young man ran into the inn and interrupted Hercules.

"Hercules, we need your help! We've been repairing the water tower, but the legs are slipping. We're afraid the water will be lost to us if it collapses. Could you help us to shore it up? We've a few strong men to lend a hand."

"Uh, sure. I'll be happy to help. Tell the others I'll be along shortly." he answered and turned back to Iolaus. "Care to tag along?" Iolaus shook his head.

"You'll manage just fine. Go ahead. I'm going to see if I can pick up a trail those ruffians may have left. No time better to start than now. Besides, you're better at the brawny stuff. Me, I'll stick with the tracking stuff until you're finished." he replied, settling back to his drink. Hercules gave him a half-grin.

"You wouldn't be trying to get out of some work, now, are you?" he drawled sarcastically.

"Who me?" Iolaus countered innocently and took a sip of his ale. Herc slapped him on the back, nearly causing Iolaus to choke on the liquid.

"Right" the big man commented with a chuckle and followed the villager out to the end of town.

Iolaus rolled his eyes in comic disgust once he'd regained his breath. He downed the last of his drink, then set out for the next town. He followed the old wagon road heading southwest. He was barely on the road an hour or so when he spotted several people slowly making their way towards him. As they drew closer, he observed two or three wagons being drawn with a handful plodding alongside.

When they were finally upon him, he could tell that they all appeared exhausted. A couple lay wounded in the wagons.

"What happened?" he questioned the nearest man. The man wiped a sleeve across his brow.

"Our village was attacked last night. We barely managed to escape with our lives. The bastards took whatever they could get their grubby hands on and burned the rest. Fortunately, we heard of their previous deeds and set watches out to warn us. We even hid our wagons and families in some nearby hill country. Two of the men stayed behind to see if they could identify the intruders. They saw the leader gloating with his men over our misfortune. Unfortunately, they were caught as they tried to return and were beaten. When they didn't come back right away, we sent others to find them. The villians were gone but the men were lucky to be found alive. However, they need medical attention."

"Show me." Iolaus offered and the man led him to one of the wagons. A makeshift canopy had been erected to provide shade over the two injured men. Iolaus could see the nasty cuts and bruises marring their faces and the exposed parts of their bodies. He leaned close to one of them.

"Do you know who these men are who did this to you?" he asked. The older of the two victims shook his head. Through a hoarse voice he replied,

"We don't know them. There were at least seven or eight of them. The leader- who had a bald, tattooed head- ordered the others to torture us. They said - that they would kill anyone who opposed them and we better let everyone know that. Then they took off towards the northeast."

Iolaus patted his arm in sympathy. He signalled the first man who'd related the story. "Take them and the others on to Kiros, about an hour from here. They don't have a healer but a couple of the women are proficient enough to care for their wounds.

"Also, Hercules is there. Make sure you relate to him all that you've told me and send him after me. My name is Iolaus.

"He'll know what to do." Iolaus concluded. The refugee nodded and gave him his hand in thanks, before resuming his journey with family and friends. Iolaus watched them go solemnly, then set out again with a renewed earnest to pursue his mission.

He continued on in the direction the refugees had pointed out, hoping to locate a trail. He shook his head grimly. Only a handful of men, yet they've still caused enough trouble, grief and damage. Iolaus wracked his brain, trying to pull some memory of anyone he and Hercules may have heard of, who recently was known for this type of behavior. Aside from Xena, who'd mended her ways, he could think of no one at present. He supposed it was some up and coming warlord or group trying to make a name for themselves.

Whatever the case, Iolaus wanted to see them brought to justice. Little Kara's plight had touched him and Hercules profoundly, he admitted to himself. No child should have to witness such brutality. He firmly prayed the trauma would not mar the girl's innocent perspective on life. Iolaus paused beside a burbling stream and knelt to splash water on his heated face. He sipped some of the cool liquid and mused at the water, as it glided over some flat rocks.

One moment, he was viewing the reflection of the blue sky on the surface; the next moment, a face appeared, blocking the view.

Iolaus whirled and began to rise as a huge,gauntleted fist collided with his cheek. The metal studs gouged the flesh, blood instantly springing to the surface. Iolaus was slammed back down, following a second blow.

He shook his head, trying to clear his vision. The brute standing over him chuckled evilly and spoke to his companions.

"Well, looky here, boys! It's the runt himself, all by his lonesome. Where's your bodyguard now, mouse? Take him!" he mocked. Several pairs of rough hands pinned him in place. Iolaus' eyes widened in sudden recognition,before the speaker's fist connected a third time, sending Iolaus into the black depths of unconsciousness.

Hercules stepped back, surveying the base of the water tower with a scrutinous eye. The new brace securing the leg appeared to be holding up to the task. He'd worked with the villagers to reinforce the structure for the last several hours and sighed with relief when the job came to an end. With a few shakes and pushes on the framework, he declared the tower secure. The other men cheered their success and thanked him profusely. They all wanted him to join them for some much deserved refreshment. Hercules gladly accepted, freshening himself by splashing water over his sweat-soaked body and hair. He pulled his tunic back over his head and trudged back with the men to Malakos' inn. Upon entering, he noticed several unfamilair faces resting about the room. Two men were being treated by Lania and another woman. Curious, Herc strolled over and asked after their welfare. A man spoke up, gesturing about him.

"Our village was raided by a group of men and burned. We'd heard about them earlier and hid our families. When they came, they took everything and attacked these men. They threatened to harm or kill anyone not complying to their wishes." he explained.

"How did you know to come here?" Hercules asked, assessing the faces of the newcomers. The one who spoke first answered for all of his friends.

"We met a little fellow along the way. Said his name was Iolaus. He told us to come here and warn everyone. He also said we would find Hercules here and he would know what to do. He specifically mentioned that Hercules should follow him and they would deal with the problem."

"I'm Hercules. Iolaus is my friend. He was right to send you here. The citizens here will be glad to help you in any way possible and see to you needs." Hercules replied. Numerous heads nodded in agreement. Hercules gestured to Malakos, who immediately stepped to his side.

"What is it, Hercules?

"Gather everyone together, have the men bring whatever they can use for weapons and make sure the women and children go somewhere you know will be safe. This band of hoodlums seems to be terrorizing the villages from here to Colchis. I wouldn't begin to believe that they will bypass yours. I would like to speak to the magistrate. The stories told by these refugees parallels that of Kara's and it sounds as if the same men are involved.

"By sending them here, Iolaus was warning me that he's on to a trail and might need my help. Anyone with the least amount of fighting skills will be useful instructing the rest. It would also help if some of them will take turns keeping watch. Those men plan on doing something soon and will be looking for an opportunity to catch you off guard."

Malakos nodded and went immediately to the men already in the inn. A clatter of feet running through the doorway caught the demigod's attention. A young boy around ten or so, hurried over to him.

"Hercules! There's a man outside on a horse, who says he wants to talk to you. He said to tell you to hurry !" the boy said breathlessly, tugging on his arm.

"Stay here." Hercules ordered and stepped out into the sunlight. The warrior sat upon a dark brown steed, his brown leather armor dotted with metal studs. Hercules moved cautiously closer.

"The boy said you wished to speak to me." he steed levelly.

The rider loosened a bundle from his saddle and let it tumble to the ground in a heap. He laughed raucously.

"Gamides sends his regards. You're next!" he sneered. Before Hercules could respond, the man dug his heels in his mount's sides, wheeled and galloped off. Hercules hurried to the bundle, realizing with dread, that it was a man.

The blond hair, now matted with blood, revealed his identity, as did his clothing. Hercules'throat tightened convulsively as he rolled Iolaus over onto his back. Behind Herc, several of the townsfolk had witnessed the exchange and gasped at the sight of the stricken man's bloody counteneance.

Iolaus' face was swollen and bruised, with blood trickling from a corner of his mouth. The exposed parts of his arms and torso were scraped raw and bled also. A length of rope was tied around his neck in the fashion of a noose. One of the hunter's hands was caught beneath the rope, as if to prevent himself from being strangled by the device. It sickened Hercules by the sight of that alone, to guess what fate had befallen his friend. The rider, possibly the very one who delivered the grim message, was guilty of looping the rope around Iolaus' throat and dragging him behind his horse. 0nly Iolaus' quick thinking saved hinself from sustaining a broken neck.

Hercules snapped the rope, a desperate anger seething to the fore. Thinking Iolaus was dead, he was surprised when his partner let out a rough gasp. The little man did not open his eyes and his breathing was pained and labored. Hercules carefully prodded his body in search of broken bones and discovered several fractured ribs. At his touch, Iolaus flinched, crying out in agony.

Hercules lightly brushed Iolaus' pale hair away from his forehead. "Sorry, buddy." he whispered with emotion, then gently cradled the other in his secure grip. Another pained whimper escaped Iolaus' lips, as Hercules turned and walked with the utmost care into the inn.

Malakos was just setting down a tray of food for some of the newcomers, when Hercules strode in. He recognized the wounded man in his arms and was immediately at Hercules' side. He gestured towards the stairs.

"Take him up to his room. I'll get Lania." he directed. Hercules nodded silently and proceeded up the steps. In what seemed like no time at all, Lania flew into the room, as Herc sat Iolaus upright on the edge of the bed. Lania moved to the opposite side from Hercules.

"Let's remove his clothing so I can get at those injuries. What in the name of the gods did they do to him?!" she wondered with empathy. Together they slipped off the worn, tattered vest. Hercules then eased him to a reclining position and removed both his boots and leather trousers. Malakos entered the room with water, soap and cloths for cleaning and bandaging. Lania immediately went to work, deftly washing each wound and stitching those that required such attention. Hercules helped by wrapping them with the bandages.

The hardest part was treating the broken ribs. Hercules again set his friend upright while Lania carefully wound strips of linen around Iolaus' torso. By the time that task was completed, Iolaus was shivering and pale. Hercules again lay him back down. Lania pointed to a chest in the corner.

In there, Hercules, you'll find several blankets. Please bring one here. We need to keep him warm now. The shock from his ordeal is starting to set in."

Hercules complied with her request and went to the chest. He handed Lania the blanket, which she spread over Iolaus' battered form. The son of Zeus pulled a stool closer to the bed and lowered himself upon it. Lania stood next to him, placing a hand on his shoulder.

"You didn't answer my question." she coaxed quietly. Herc's brooding gaze remained on his friend's face, but he drew in a slow breath and let it out in a sigh.

"It is a cruel form of torture, whereas a man is dragged behind a horse in full gallop. The body bounces around like a child's ball, striking whatever rocks, roots, branches, etcetera, that may be strewn about or protruding from the ground. Their intent was to torture him, until he died from the injuries. Maybe they thought he was already dead when they dumped him on the ground in front of me."

Hercules' voice caught in his throat. His fist clenched in a tight ball. He flexed his hand, then combed his fingers through his long locks, regaining his composure. He sighed and rested the hand on his knee. Lania squeezed his shoulder in compassion.

"Gamides" he muttered aloud, "Why do I know that name?"

"Thebes." the raspy whisper came from Iolaus' lips. The little man shuddered beneath the blanket. Lania knelt beside the bed and exchanged a glance with Hercules. The demigod bent closer.

"What about Thebes?" he asked, searching his memory for the connection. Iolaus strained to speak again.

"The...my...old gang. Thieves...r'member? He hasn't... forgotten..." he managed before losing consciousness altogether.

Hercules took Iolaus' hand in his. "Iolaus?" he said urgently, but Iolaus remained still. Herc set the hand upon the bed and straightened up. He puzzled over Iolaus' remark for only a brief moment, when a flash of insight recalled the face that matched the name; a youth with dark hair, a few years older than both him and Iolaus while they were barely in their teens. The boy had an arrogant demeanor about him and cowled the other members of the group. All, that is, except Iolaus. Lania touched his arm, bringing him out of his musings.

"Do you know this man he's talking about, Hercules?" she asked with concern. Herc shook his head yes, his jaw tightening at the recollection.

"It goes back to the time we were just kids. Iolaus was having difficulties with his family and ran away from home. He'd gotten mixed up with this wild bunch of boys who taught him all the tricks on how to steal things. Being the smallest and the youngest of the group didn't help him either. Often, the bigger kids made him do the dirty work, but Iolaus didn't mind. At the time he just wanted to be accepted by someone. Fortunately, he never hurt anyone. It was around that time that we again chanced to meet."

Hercules paused, his attention drawn to Iolaus' starkly marked face. Lania noted his expression as he tenderly adjusted the blanket more comfortably over Iolaus' shoulders.

"I sense a story here. You care a great deal for him, don't you?" the woman commented quietly. Hercules spared her an affirmative nod,

"It's a pretty long one." he replied. Lania rose and placed a hand on his arm.

"You haven't eaten since breakfast. I'll get us something to eat and perhaps you can enlighten me on how you two became such close friends. What do you say?" she offered.

Hercules smiled and nodded. Lania collected the soiled cloths and basin water and departed from the room. In the meantime, Hercules monitored Iolaus' progress. The hunter still breathed with some effort, but thankfully, Herc thought, he was alive. As for the story of Gamides, that was one that would soon be closed, he vowed.

CHAPTER 4

After checking on her other patients, Lania returned to find Hercules staring out the window. He moved towards her and held the door open as she entered with a tray. He politely relieved her of it and set it on a nearby table.

"Thank you," Lania said gratefully. Hercules shook his head. "I'm the one who should be thanking you, for all you've done for Iolaus, Kara and me. I'm keeping you from your family." he replied.

"Not to worry, Hercules. Malakos has assembled the men as you requested and they are already going through their defensive drills. Many of them are retired soldiers, so their skills need only be sharpened again. Now eat. How's our patient?"

Hercules glanced at Iolaus. "He seems to be resting easier, but it's obvious he's in a lot of pain. And I've myself to blame."

"How do you figure that? you were helping the men fix the water tower when he was beaten," Lania pointed out. Herc shook his head from side to side.

"Gamides hurt Iolaus several times, long before today. I could have done something about it then, but I didn't. Who knows how many countless people have suffered since then, because I let him get away."

"Maybe you should start from the beginning and tell me what happened before. It might help in what can be done now," Lania encouraged. Hercules sighed and indicated that they seat themselves.

While they ate, Hercules began to relate his story. "As I said before, Iolaus and I were only teenagers. We'd known each other briefly as children, but my family moved to Thebes.

"We had lost touch for a couple of years. Iolaus' family came later. It didn't take him long for his rebellious nature to find an outlet. He joined this group led by Gamides, the kinda fellow who was tough and always getting into trouble. A couple of times, I'd seen them in action, stealing things in the marketplace. The day I met up again with Iolaus, I'd gone to town to get some supplies for my mother. She'd given me a small pouch of dinars. I was talking with a man who sold fruit when I felt the slightest of tugs on my belt. He was off and running before I realized he'd stolen the pouch. I lost sight of him in the crowd and wondered how I was going to tell my mother of the loss."

Here Hercules chuckled at the memory. Lania smiled and indicated to him to continue.

"He was good and he was quick, but I made up my mind that I wasn't going back home until I'd gotten the money back. So I decided to go looking for him. One thing that made it easy to locate him was his bright, light-colored hair. The others in the group were darker-haired. For hours I searched the marketplace.

"When I spotted him again, he was targeting the very fruit stand where he'd confiscated my money. So then it became my turn to play the sneak. He'd already secreted a pair of apples and an orange. He was bold enough to try for another but I grabbed his arm.

"If you'd seen the utter look of panic on his face, you'd say it was priceless. He'd thought the authorities had finally gotten him. When I got a better look at him, I realized that I knew him ..."

... The curly-haired boy stared up at him in fear. Hercules stared back at him, surprise registering on his countenance.

"Iolaus?" he said,"Is that you?" The blond-haired youth eyed him warily, then grinned wide.

"Hercules?!" he squeaked,"Hey, what a surprise! Ha, ha, what are you doing here?"

"I live here, don't you remember? I could ask the same of you. Why are you stealing that fruit?" Herc replied. Iolaus shushed him with a finger to his lips and shoved him behind a pole.

"He'll hear you!" When he was sure they were out of earshot, Iolaus straightened his tunic. The first orange fell to the ground. Hercules stared at him.

"You didn't answer my questions." he prompted patiently. Iolaus shrugged. "I live here,too. Moved here last year. "I was hungry. Besides, he won't miss a few pieces of fruit." was the response. Hercules eyed him thoughtfully. He noticed that Iolaus hadn't grown all that much and he was kind of thin.

"Yes he will, Iolaus. If everyone helped themselves to his fruit the way you just did, he'd never make a profit, much less a living," Herc corrected. Iolaus managed to look contrite.

"I know, Herc, but it's kinda hard to get a decent meal when you live on the streets." he muttered.

"Why are you living on the streets? Where's your family?" Hercules countered.

"My family?" Iolaus snorted,"They don't care what happens to me. I left home so there's enough food on the table, what little there was, for my mother and sisters. My father is never home, off to war, fighting someone else's battles. I go back once in awhile, when I can get away from here, which isn't often. Then I hunt for deer or rabbit so there's meat. But I can't stay there when the old man's around. We just don't connect, you know what I mean?"

Hercules indeed knew what he meant. He seldom saw his own father, despite the fact that he was King of the gods. How he'd often dreamt of getting to know his father better. Herc placed a hand on the smaller youth's shoulder.

"Tell you what, you put back the fruit and come with me to my mother's place. She'll cook you a great meal -that is, if I get back the money for the food she sent me for." he said meaningfully.

Hercules raised a brow. Iolaus sighed and reached into his worn tunic, pulling out the small pouch. He plunked it into Herc's outstretched hand.

"Thank you." Hercules replied, then gestured towards the vendor. Iolaus sighed expansively and made a face.

"You know, he's not going to be so nice if I show up with his fruit. He'll probably call the authorities on me." he complained.

"I'll put in a good word for you." Herc stated with a grin. Iolaus looked skeptical, but followed him to the vendor.

With a meek expression, Iolaus turned over his booty.

The vendor, surprised to find that his product was even missing, scowled at the young thief. He addressed both boys.

"Thank you, Hercules, for seeing that my property was returned. As for you, young Iolaus, I don't know why you hang around with that bunch. They're a bad influence on you. If you are not careful, they'll bring you down and the authorities will lock you away permanently." he scolded, shaking his head. Iolaus said nothing. Hercules nudged his arm discreetly. Iolaus spared him a glance, then turned to the vendor.

"I'm sorry, Keldan." he murmurred. Keldan nodded then shooed the both of them off.

"See, now that wasn't so hard, was it?" Herc stated cheerfully, after they'd strolled to the edge of the crowded marketplace.

"No, I suppose not. However, I'm now out of anything for dinner." Iolaus lamented. He eyed his companion askance. "Did you really mean what you said about dinner at your place? Aren't you afraid I'll steal something?"

"Yes to your first question, the offer still stands if you want. And no, to the second one. My mother would notice in a heartbeat and she'd be sure to let you know it. We were friends once before. It's up to you if you think we can make a go at it again.

"Just come to our place outside of town. Mother would be happy to see you." he offered. Iolaus studied him with a measured glance. His stomach rumbled noisily. He rolled his eyes and scowled.

"You're on." Hercules heard him say. He laughed. Iolaus waved and darted off, but not before he magically produced an apple in his hand, flipped it in the air and flashed one of his mischevious grins ....

... "I still don't know how he managed to reclaim that apple, and he did manage to come to dinner. My mother liked him instantly, despite his background. He ate three helpings of food, which pleased my mother. It also made me realize that he wasn't lying when he said that he was hungry. Even his clothes were ill-fitting on him, but he never seemed to mind." Hercules concluded, an affectionate smile directed at his sleeping partner.

Lania smiled at the obvious bond between the two adventurers. She touched his forearm. Hercules shifted his gaze back to the kind Woman.

"So you're saying that he had a rough life as a child? "Why didn't his family care about him? And what of his relationship with this Gamides?" she asked. Hercules ran a hand through his hair.

"Iolaus' father treated him like he was useless, because he wasn't the big, strong kid he expected in a son. His father wanted him to be a soldier like himself, and when that wasn't the way because of Iolaus' small stature, Skouros demeaned and humiliated Iolaus in front of any- and everyone. Iolaus became rebellious and suffered the hurtful remarks. He finally ran away and started to steal. In a sort of lopsided way, Iolaus tried to gain his father's affection and attention. All it got him was a lifetime of physical and emotional abuse. He never went home after that. His father died while away on some campaign and Iolaus never saw him again. I didn't even know what he'd been through until a short time ago, when we tried to protect a child from his father's abuse. When that child died at his father's hand, Iolaus was so upset, he broke down and told me the truth of his own abuse.

"As for Gamides, Iolaus kind of latched onto him as a surrogate big brother. Gamides took advantage of Iolaus' feelings of rejection and used it to gain his trust. Later, it became a means of control over him. But never completely. Iolaus was fiercely independant. He somehow found time to visit me and always managed to wheedle a meal out of my mother. We even went fishing, something he taught me how to do. He also enjoyed hunting and could sneak up on a deer or a rabbit without making a sound. He'd certainly had enough practice, both in the woods and on the streets."

"Then there were times when I didn't see him for weeks at a time. Even my mother expressed interest in his welfare. I would be in town and would see this Gamides ordering his goons around. Sometimes they'd be ganging up on some unfortunate kid until the authorities came around: then they'd all take off in different directions. I didn't always notice whether Iolaus was with them on those occasions or not, but when we spoke later on about their behavior,- he seemed reluctant to talk about it. I could tell, however, that he didn't approve.

"There was a time I came upon him arguing with Gamides over the fact that Iolaus hadn't brought in enough for the day.

"Gamides smacked him in the face, but Iolaus didn't fight back or cry out. I guessed that he didn't want to lose face with the others. I was outraged that this bully hit my friend and I kind of lost it. I charged in like a mad man and tossed Gamides into a pile of manure. In my anger, I also mistakenly revealed my friendship with Iolaus.

..."What do you think you're doing to my friend?! He didn't deserve that!" Hercules yelled and turned to Iolaus. "Are you alright?"

Iolaus' face went white, except for the mark Gamides' palm planted there. He shot Hercules a desperate warning glance, which, unfortunately, was not lost on Gamides. Iolaus tried to cover up by pushing Hercules away from the scene.

"Go away, Hercules. This doesn't concern you. We're -uh- just talking business." he managed to relate in an indifferent tone of voice. Hercules was stunned by Iolaus' apparent defense of his assailant. Iolaus' expression took on a hard edge. "Go!" the little fellow ordered harshly, but his eyes pleaded urgently.

Gamides rose and shoved Hercules backwards. "You heard him. Take a hike, boy!"

Hercules balled his fists, wanting to shove both of them down the arrogant youth's throat, but one look at Iolaus' tensed body and lowered eyes, made him stay his hand. His own jaw clenched in controlled anger.

"This doesn't end here, Gamides." Herc challenged, before walking stiffly away. He could hear the others laughing at him.

He turned at the sound and noticed that Iolaus stood rooted in place. The blond boy raised his eyes to meet Hercules' and the youthful demigod saw the pained and haunted expression in them.

Gamides cuffed Iolaus on the back of the head. "Come on, runt, We've work to do." he barked. Anger flashed in Iolaus' eyes, but he kept his silence. Gamides grabbed him by the tunic collar and shoved him in the direction the rest of the group had taken.

Gamides shot Hercules a smug sneer and followed behind

Iolaus ....

... "I felt hurt and betrayed by Iolaus' response and lack of support. Being young and somewhat naive about the ways of street kids, I, at first, failed to realize that Iolaus was only trying to prevent a confrontation between Gamides and me, as well as protect his position in the group. Two or three weeks went by before I saw Iolaus again. I'd gone down to the lake where we'd fished and there he sat, fishing pole in hand, as if nothing had happened. I almost turned back, but he called out to me to wait ...

... "Herc, please wait. I want to apologize for what I did." Hercules stood his ground, his back facing the other. Iolaus tentatively moved around in front of him, his hands spread out at his sides. Hercules bristled.

"Iolaus, are you ashamed to be my friend? Because if you are, then we have nothing more to say to each other." A stricken look crossed the boy's face.

"No" Iolaus answered quietly, letting his hands fall to his thighs. "I didn't want anyone to get hurt." Hercules' eyes narrowed in a disbelieving stare.

"Did you think he could hurt me, Iolaus? Maybe you forgot that I'm stronger than he is!" Herc shot back.

"I know," Iolaus retorted in a droll tone. "How would I explain to those that care about you, why you had to beat the crap out of some stupid street bully? Do you think your mother would approve of you fighting over some senseless squabble?"

"She would if she knew my reasons for doing so meant protecting a friend from harm." Herc replied. Iolaus lowered his eyes.

"Okay, I deserved that." he murmurred,"but I wasn't ashamed of you. I was only trying to preserve for ourselves the fun stuff we've done together. It's not like that with Gamides and the other guys. Everything is strictly business. It's all I know, Hercules."

Herc tried to gauge the sincerity in Iolaus' words. The fear of rejection yet again lingered plainly on Iolaus' face and in his cerulean eyes. Herc glanced out over the sparkling lake.

"It doesn't have to be that way, Iolaus, but I can't make that choice for you." Hercules said softly, his gaze again finding Iolaus' mien. The young thief nodded, brushing back his unruly pale hair that blew wildly about his face. Hercules became aware of several bruises purpling Iolaus' cheek and brow, some of which looked to be recent additions to others that were fading.

"What happened to your face? Did Gamides give you those?" he wanted to know, feeling his anger rising slowly again.

Iolaus sighed. "Let it go, Herc. It's nothing. We just had a disagreement. Let's not argue over it. I can handle him." He ex plained, tentatively reaching out his hand to Hercules, friends?"

Hercules hesitated for only a second, then grasped the proffered hand firmly. "Friends." he repeated with conviction.

Iolaus' half-smile was both relieved and sad. He picked up his fishing pole and handed it to Hercules. "Keep that for me until I get back." he stated, "We'll meet back here tomorrow, okay?"

"Sure, but where are you going?" Herc inquired.

"To follow through with my decision and tie up some loose ends." the boy added vaguely and sauntered off with a slight spring to his step ....

CHAPTER 5

Hercules and Lania sipped their drinks. At one point, Iolaus stirred and Hercules helped him to drink some water, before the hunter drifted off to sleep again. The tall warrior rubbed his eyes, then wiped his palm across his face. For several long moments he concentrated his attention on the view out the window.

After seemingly coming to a decision only known to him, Hercules settled back into his seat at the table. Lania waited patiently for the end of his tale.

"What happened next? Am I right to assume that he went back to Gamides?" she asked. Hercules nodded.

"Yes, he did. However, I believe something significant had occurred on that trip back. I headed out to the lake the following day as we had planned. There is a bluff that overlooks the lake not far from where we met the day before. As I approached the area, I heard a commotion and several loud voices. I didn't want to reveal my presence yet until I was certain of their identity, so I hid behind a copse of trees to observe. Gamides and his gang were beating up on Iolaus. Not the rough and tumble stuff kids do at play, rather, real mean-spirited punching and kicking. Iolaus was trying vainly to defend himself. I could see that he was hurting and attempting to get to his feet. The other persisted in knocking him back down. At Gamides' commands, they picked him up by his arms and legs and were ridiculing him. It was the only time I'd ever heard Iolaus plead for his life ...

... "Stupid little runt! You made the mistake of robbing me of my prize catch! Don't think that I didn't know that you was sneakin' off to see that mama's boy, Hercules. He don't belong to our club. Now I haveta, punish you!" Gamides growled. Iolaus was shaking his head.

"Throw him in the water. Maybe he'll learn his lesson!!" Gamides chuckled evilly.

"No!" Iolaus gasped, wriggling to try and free himself, "I can't -" he started to say. They swung him high over the side and released him. The last thing they heard him say was, "- swim!", before a loud splash followed. Up on the cliff, the group taunted him mercilessly. Iolaus could be heard desperately splashing in the deep wager, begging them to help him.

"Tough luck, sucker!" Gamides shouted down at him. Then he gestured to the others. "Let's go. They trotted off laughing.

Hercules bolted from the trees and raced to the cliff. Iolaus couldn't swim! he realized in a panic. No wonder he never went into the water either to swim or fish. Hercules could no longer hear the small fellow's cries for help. He lay on his stomach and peered out over the edge as far as he dared, but he could not see Iolaus anywhere.

Fear gripped his gut. *I've got to save him or he'll drown' was Herc's singleminded thought and he hastily pulled off his boots.

He dove into the crystal blue water, opening his eyes once he descended into its depths, searching frantically for his friend.

'Yes' Herc thought,'he's my friend. He's not a bad guy and now they've probably killed him:' Herc plowed deeper into the water, his powerful strokes carried him further down. He felt his chest tightening from lack of air. When he thought that he would never find the hapless boy, his hand brushed Iolaus' arm. Herc grabbed it firmly and kicked off from the bottom.

He broke the surface with a loud gasp, pulling Iolaus to the top of the water. Unsure if Iolaus was breathing, Hercules exercised his still developing strength to propel the both of them to the nearby shore. As soon as his feet touched the sand, he slid his hands beneath Iolaus' arms and dragged him up the bank. Iolaus' lips were blue and his face ashen. Remembering something he'd seen some fishermen do to a drowning man, Hercules began to press hard on Iolaus' back and letting off. He did this several times, forcing water to spill from Iolaus' mouth.

"Come on, Iolaus, don't give up!" he pleaded, "You can't die on me now. I won't let you!" Time seemed an eternity, but in reality, only a few moments passed. Herc's frantic ministrations finally paid off, causing Iolaus to gasp and start coughing. Color started to come back to the boy's complexion. Hercules lifted him up into a sitting position until his choking subsided and his breathing came more regularly. But Hercules knew he was not yet out of danger. Iolaus began to shiver violently, the shock of the beating and his near-death experience, finally catching up to his abused body ....

... "I took him to my mother's house, which was not very far from the lake. Mother nursed him back to health, but it took a couple of weeks before he had the strength to get around on his own without difficulty. He never told me why they beat him up, but he kept his promise and never went back to the gang. He later gave himself up to the magistrate. The offical gave him a choice of going to Cheiron's Academy to learn or go to jail. He chose the Academy, but it wasn't easy for him. The other students were already ahead of him in their grades, but credit is due him. "He persevered. I remember how happy he was when he passed his first test. He wasn't book smart at first, but our classmates liked him for his charm and sense of humor. Everyone rallied to help him study. They knew that if he failed he'd go to jail.

"They didn't want him to disgrace himself or Cheiron's Academy, so they stayed on him. Iolaus wasn't lazy, but he'd never had anyone give a damn if he succeeded until then. His own self confidence began to grow and it paid off. He taught us a thing or two from his knowledge of the streets, so we all passed by working together.

"As for Gamides and company, they disappeared. I think he had done some time in prison, but that was only hearsay that was never confirmed. I only wished that I'd gone to the authorities at the time, but Iolaus' welfare and safety took priority. He wouldn't be suffering now." Hercules concluded solemnly.

"And - I'll survive - this - too." Iolaus rasped weakly from the bed. "At least I - learned how - to swim from you and a few - other tricks besides." He managed a small grin,despite the puffy bruises on his face. A fit of coughing, however, changed it to a grimace and painful groans. He clutched his damaged ribs.

Hercules was instantly at his side. He offered Iolaus more water, which Iolaus swallowed gratefully. Herc smiled sympathetically.

"How long have you been awake?" he asked. Iolaus coughed again. He rubbed the raw mark around his neck.

"Long enough." he stated succinctly. "How'sa- guy to - rest with you - blathering on - about my life story? I want to know - when we're going after - Gamides?"

"Not we, Iolaus. ME. You are staying right where you are. "Those guys busted you up pretty badly this time. I was almost convinced that you were dead. You shouldn't scare me like that."

"Old hunter's - trick. Play possum. If - it's any comfort, Herc, you - weren't the only - one who was scared. I owe them one. We - can't let them - get away - with it this - time, Herc." Iolaus confessed, "My conscience won't let me forget."

"Forget what, Iolaus?"

Iolaus had closed his eyes, trying to regulate his breathing. The pain etched on his face, however, spoke of his inability to accomplish that aim. A different, more profound kind of pain was reflected in his eyes, when he found the force to open them once more.

"The day we - met at the - lake. I went back to our hide out and found the others sprawled about on the floor -drunk from having had wine and sound asleep. On the pallet in the corner, a girl barely older than me,lay tied and gagged. I - could see that she'd been crying. Her dress - was pushed up to her waist - and her undergarment was missing. It didn't take a - genius to figure what they'd been doing to her." Iolaus paused for more water. He stared into the cup remorsefully.

"Gamides hadn't even the decency to close up his pants. I felt sick that they'd do something so heartless. I truly felt sorry for the girl. I - cut her loose and - helped her to get away.

"Since I was the only one who had not participated in their - activity, it was not hard for Gamides to figure out that it was me who let the girl go. I tried to make it look as if I hadn't been there, but he - wasn't as drunk as I thought. When I saw Kara's mother - so - so violated, the image of that girl came rushing back."

"He waited until the next morning to take his revenge out on me. I even left early, in hopes of reaching you before he caught up to me. You know the rest."

"Is that the only reason they hurt you?" Herc asked quietly. Iolaus shook his head slowly. His blue eyes encompassed his friend.

"No." Iolaus admitted,"He hated you, Herc. He was jealous of my friendship with you. He liked to be the one in charge, to have all the control over us others. That I would dare to allow another to supplant this authority over me, was just too much for him. He never forgot the slight you handed him, when you shoved him into the manure. I think he was planning something nasty to do to you. However, you were a bit tougher to get to, so I made a more convenient target." A wry grin touched his lips.

Hercules took Iolaus' hand in both of his and squeezed it companionably. A pang of guilt constricted his chest.

"You'll never be his scapegoat again, Iolaus, so long as I have a say in the matter. No one else will be his victim either. He'll be made to atone for his crimes once and for all." Hercules stated with quiet certainty. He rose to his feet, releasing Iolaus" hand.

"Lania, go join your neighbors and get the women and children to the designated safe area. I've still a few instructions for the men. Iolaus, you're going with them and don't argue with me about it you are in no shape to fight, but believe me, I'll miss you at my back. Did Gamides happen to mention when and where his next plan of attack will be?"

Iolaus' expression was rebellious, but softened when he realized he'd already lost the battle. Every inch of his body felt as if it'd been stomped. A frown furrowed his brow.

"Tonight, I think, if I haven't lost a day sleeping. He definitely means to attack here, in this village," he answered in a tired voice. He levered himself up into a sitting position, then extended his hand to Hercules. "At least give me my clothes back, so I'm decent for the trip." Lania scooped the vest and trousers from the table, where she had been mending the tears while conversing with Hercules. Iolaus brightened and gratefully accepted her help in dressing.

Hercules and Lania then aided him to get on his feet. Iolaus swayed with dizziness and clung to Hercules for support.

Instead of allowing his friend to struggle with descending the stairs, Hercules conveyed Iolaus in his arms, despite the hunter's protests of embarassment. Herc set him down in a chair by a table, painfully aware of Iolaus' sharp intake of breath his injured ribs produced. Iolaus gallantly bore his suffering in silence. Hercules spared him a measured glance before directing his attention to the men assembled there. Malakos had located the magistrate and they sat patiently waiting for Hercules to speak.

"Gentlemen, tonight Gamides and his cohorts are planning to raid your village. Iolaus overheard their plans, while he was a prisoner there." He indicated his wounded friend.

"I thank you for heeding my advice in preparing yourselves, in the event that they indeed show up. I'm hoping that we won't have to fight them at all, but that may not be likely. Get your families to safety. Lania, here, knows where to take them. All of the injured as well. Some of you men escort them, until they are safely settled, then come back here. We've a few more surprises in store for the raiders. Any questions?"

The townsfolk and the newcomers glanced around at one another, then shook their heads.

"Okay, go then and be careful." Hercules concluded. As the men shuffled out, Hercules held back two of the younger men. He led them to Iolaus.

"Please help Iolaus to the hideout. Be careful of his fractured ribs." he requested. The men nodded and each took a position on either side of the smaller man. They fashioned a chair out of their arms and gently lifted Iolaus between them. Before they carried him out, Iolaus called to Hercules.

"Be careful, my friend. He'll stop at nothing, in his revenge." he warned. Sweat beaded his brow.

"Don't worry, I will." Herc assured him. The demigod turned to the rest of the men and waved his hand towards the door.

"Come with me. I've an idea for some surefire boobytraps for our guests." They followed eagerly, anticipating success.

Iolaus glanced over his shoulder at the retreating men. His escorts carried him for a short way from the village until they rounded a slight bend in the road. Once they were no longer in sight of the buildings, Iolaus signalled the men to set him down. He leaned heavily upon them, once he'd found his feet and paused momentarily until the screaming daggers in his torso settled to a more tolerable level. His face was pale and drawn.

"Are you alright?" one of them asked, concern touching his voice. Iolaus parted his arm, forcing a weak smile.

"Do you want the truth? Actually, I appreciate what you are doing for me, but the motion only makes the ribs hurt worse.

"I think I can walk on my own if you stay close." he answered in a strained tone.

"We didn't mean to cause you pain," the second man apologized. Iolaus gave him a kind look.

"It's not your fault I'm hurt. However, I'd like for the ones who did this to me, to experience justa fraction of the agony their actions have inflicted on me. Revenge is looking sweeter by the minute." he replied.

The two men exchanged troubled glances. Iolaus caught the look and smiled conpiratorily.

"Don't worry. I'm hardly in a position to go charging anywhere soon. I would appreciate it, though, if you would find me a bow and some arrows, once we get to the caves."

"What will you do with them? In your condition, you'd have difficulty drawing back on the string." the first reasoned.

Iolaus knew the man was right, but he also knew that only he and the other two wounded men would be available to defend their refuge. Of the three of them, Iolaus was the worst off. The women and children were all that were left to stand guard. Iolaus responded to the man with a confidence he didn't feel.

"You're right, of course, but let me worry about that. I'm not about to sit back and do nothing. Find some weapons for the other men, too, then get back to Hercules. He'll need all the help he can get. I know enough about these barbarians and what they are capable of inflicting on innocent people. I wouldn't put it past them to pull some wild stunt, just to confuse Hercules. Trust me, okay?"

The men appeared skeptical, but nodded just the same. Despite his desire to make the journey on foot, Iolaus found that his multiple injuries protested against his gallant attempt. He conceded to the suggestion that he ride the rest of the way in the back of one of the wagons. He decided that conserving his energy now, would best serve him later if he was called on to fight.

Once in the caves, Iolaus posted himself close to the entrance. Lania roamed among the frightened women and children, calming and assuring them, that all would be fine. She offered suggestions on how to fashion makeshift weapons out of sticks and stones, giving them something with which to busy themselves, to ward away their fears. She checked on the wounded men, adjusting bandages or splints, before drifting back to Iolaus' side.

The last of the daylight shown in contrasting relief on his features. He sat with his eyes lightly shuttered, taking slow, measured breaths. His hands rested, palms up, on his crossed legs. His lips silently whispered a chant to himself. As she watched, his tense frame seemed to relax somewhat. Lania remained quiet, careful not to disturb his meditation. She'd heard of such techniques to ease the mind, but had never seen it practiced until now. She supposed the effect was similar to her singing to her children to quiet them, when they were just babies. She rose to move away, but he stirred and opened his eyes.

"Lania?" he called softly, "Don't go." Lania paused, knelt down beside him and offered him a water skin. Iolaus took a long sip and handed it back.

"Thank you." the hunter said.

"You're welcome. I didn't want to interfere while you medirated. Did it help you to feel better?" she asked politely. Iolaus combed his fingers through his hair.

"A little. An old Eastern mentor taught me how to do that. "He said if I can center myself, I could get in touch with my inner self and tap the healing senses. It is supposed to help me reach past the pain, but I'm not having too much success. The mind is too full of thinqs to think about." he explained, tapping his temple, a resigned grin crossing his lips. He shifted his gaze to the entranceway. His eyes were hooded with fatigue and concern. The bow and quiver of arrows lay nearby.

"Iolaus, you should be trying to rest. I promised Hercules I'd look after you. You're really in no condition to fight, depite the brave front you're putting up." she gently chastened him. Iolaus' gaze found hers again, then dropped to his hands. She placed her hand lightly upon his shoulder.

"You're quite fond of Hercules, aren't you?" she surmised. Iolaus inhaled slowly, then let it out shakily. His worry revealed itself on his visage and in the emotional waver of his voice. He swallowed with some difficulty.

"I owe him a great deal, for all the times he's saved my life and for the life I might otherwise have thrown foolishly away. Yes, I do care for him. He's the closest thing to a brother I'll ever have or know. I should be back in the village, fighting at his side." he lamented, his eyes again focusing on the outdoors.

"Perhaps." Lania agreed, "But we certainly need you here. If what you believe is true about Gamides' possible plans, then we are fortunate to have your warrior's skills at our disposal. Yes, Alcus and Pertikan told me about your intuitions and your intentions to fight. I worry about the risks you are imposing on yourself, but then, Hercules told me about your determination and courage. I won't deter you, but please be careful. Maybe your example will rally the others here." She brushed back a wayward strand of his wavy hair from his forehead. Her clear, gray eyes smiled warmly at him. Iolaus captured one of her slender hands in his and squeezed it in assurance. Leaving him to his own counsel, Lania rose and went back to her kin, as Iolaus resumed his vigil with renewed hope.

CHAPTER 6

As nightfall crept in, Hercules waited silently at a table near the entrance to the inn. He stirred his stew absently, his mind going over the jumble of details they'd prepared for the impending confrontation he was sure would come. With the help of the men, he'd constructed several platforms that could serve as perches for lookouts. Still others were set up to balance rocks or logs, that could be released in order to deter the attackers.

These measures were not solutions, Hercules surmised, but at least they gave the defenders a sense of hope. Many were well past their prime and a few were just starting out.

Hercules had no idea how many men Gamides commanded. The refugees had put their number at seven or eight. Iolaus had reported nearly twice that figure, while in their custody. Iolaus. Hercules thought of his friend. He hadn't wanted to send him off with the villgers, but the man didn't deserve any more chances at getting further injuries. His stalwart companion might have objected to being left out, but Hercules felt better with him guarding the the otherwise defenseless women, children and elderly. His keeping the men in the village had a twofold purpose. They would be needed to fight, if necessary and it would give them a sense of accomplishment if they did something for themselves. Hopefully, they would learn ways to defend themselves should danger come at another time when Hercules was not there to protect them.

He was shaken out of his musings when a young man hurried into the inn in search of him.

"They're coming." he announced quietly. "I saw them about half a mile off from my post." Hercules clapped him on the arm.

"Okay, get back to your station and report any thing new. "We'll alert the rest of the men." Herc declared. The fellow nodded and slipped back out. Hercules gestured to Malakos, who watched from behind his bar. The older man dipped his head once and busied himself as if nothing was about to happen. Hercules stole a peek out the window, then let himself out through the rear exit. Three men remained inside with Malakos, nursing drinks and playing a hand of cards. Malakos heard the distict whistles, mimicking a night bird and the return acknowledgements, as each participant signalled his readiness.

Soon, the sound of hoofbeats rumbled into town and slowed in front of the tavern. Shortly thereafter, the door swung open a bang. Four,brown leather-clad men ambled in. Playing the good host, Malakos forced a cheerful smile and asked pleasantly, "Welcome, gentlemen. Can I offer you a drink on. such a hot night?"

The tall warrior in the front approached the bar arrogantly and placed his palms on the surface. His grizzled face leaned close to the innkeeper's.

"Where is he?!" he barked in a no-nonsense tone. "I want Hercules!" To his credit, Malakos did not flinch. He shrugged his shoulders.

"Hercules is not here." he replied evenly. The man's face reddened with a growing rage and he swept several mugs and bottles from the countertop. They crashed to the floor in a clatter. He clutched Malakos' shirt front in his balled fist.

"Don't lie to me, old man! I know he's here. If you don't tell me the truth, maybe you'd like to see this shack burned to the ground, eh." He snapped his fingers at one of his companions, who touched a homemade torch to one of the wall sconces. The torch flared brightly in-the man's hand. An expectant leer split his face. Malakos' gaze flicked briefly towards the light, then back to the first man's face.

"You might find that that would not be a wise thing to do." Malakos stated, his brows lifting and a secret smile touching his lips.

"Really?" the bully sneered in return. Malakos nodded once and suddenly swung a huge meat mallet from behind the counter. The large head slammed down upon the man's exposed fingers with a sickening thump. The ruffian howled in pain, then dropped to the floor in an unconscious heap when the mallet connected with his forehead.

"Hello fellas!" came Hercules pleasant baritone, from behind the three remaining brutes. He reached out and caught the two nearest to him by their unkempt long hair and bashed their heads together. They joined the first on the floor. The man with the torch flung it at the demigod's face and tried to flee. Herc snatched the flaming shaft before it seared his skin, dropping it into a nearby bucket of water. It fizzled then extinguished itself in the liquid.

Hercules grabbed the man's belt, swung him around to face him, then popped him in the nose with a controlled punch. The would be arsonist's eyes crossed and he sank slowly down to join his buddies.

"Tie them up." Hercules ordered, dusting off his hands in triumph. He flashed Malakos a thumbs-up gesture. Malakos grinned and returned the sign. The three civilians at the table scrambled to help Malakos and dragged the trussed-up troublemakers to one side.

Malakos joined Hercules at the door. He waved a hand at the unconscious men. "That can't be all of them. What about the others?" he asked worriedly. Hercules grinned and nudged him to step outside. Four more raiders lay sprawled, their hands neatly secured behind their backs. Malakos could see that several of the booby traps had been tripped. The scattered logs and stones were testament to that fact. The prone men sported fresh bruises and bloody noses as a result. A couple of the villagers clung to the reins of their frightened mounts.

"You see, working together always yields fruitful results." Hercules spread his hands with another grin. As he spoke, he roughly pulled off the helmets from each of the prisoners. One of the refugees stepped forward with a torch and examined their faces closely.

"Hercules, the leader ain't here among them. I'll never forget that one," he declared. Hercules' grin faded as he, too, eyed them intently. It was true: Gamides was not among this group or the others in the tavern. One familiar face did stand out, however, and Hercules' dangerous scowl deepened. He recognized the rider who so callously dumped poor Iolaus on the ground in a heap.

He hauled the man to his feet. The fellow spit in his eye. Hercules backhanded him across the cheek, sending him reeling backwards, to fall on his behind. The man shook his head and whined.

"See, you idiots, Hercules ain't so perfect. He'd beat on a person, even when he is tied up and defenseless" he stated, trying to muster sympathy from the crowd. He wasn't getting any.

"Like you did Iolaus? Then you treated him to a brutal ride behind your horse, a rope tied around his neck. You didn't have the least bit of remorse for him. Why should I care about you? Where is Gamides?!" Hercules demanded

"Why should I tell you anything?" the man sneered, trying to sound tough.

"Why? Maybe I'll show you." Hercules reciprocated. He motioned to some of the villagers. "Tie him to the horses, one arm and leg per beast." The brute tried to jump to his feet.

"Hey! wait a minute! What are you doing?" he cried as he was dragged toward the horses. "You can't do this!" he screamed, fear coloring his tone.

"Then tell me where Gamides is! Now, or I'll let them tear each of you, limb from limb. I don't really care!" Hercules snarled, no longer playing games. The terrified man glanced at his companions. Their eyes were also wide with the realization that the big man's threat was no joke. One of them timidly called to Hercules. The son of Zeus whirled on him.

"Gamides knows about your little hideaway for the women and children. He - he sent us to distract you - long enough to take care of them."

Hercules' heart leapt to his throat. How could he have been so dense? Malakos gripped his arm.

"They have no one to protect them, Hercules," he said in a soft voice. Hercules patted his shoulder.

"Not if I can help it. Watch these men until I get back." He bolted for the caves. He heard steps following at a short distance behind him and glanced over his shoulder. One of the two men who escorted Iolaus, trailed in his wake. Hercules slowed when the man called his name, and waited for him to catch up.

"Hercules, wait, please!" he said breathlessly, pulling up alongside of the demigod.

"What is it, Alcus?"

"Something Iolaus said, when we took him to the caves." Alcus gasped. Hercules steadied him with a hand beneath his elbow.

"What did Iolaus say?" he asked. Alcus gulped in more air before continuing.

"He asked us to get him and the other injured men some weapons. He had a feeling that this Gamides might try to trick you somehow."

"Did you?" Herc questioned him, his fears heightened by this new revelation. Alcus nodded.

"A couple of knives was all I could find for the men. Iolaus wanted a bow and some arrows, so I gave him mine." he said.

Hercules stared in the direction of the caves. Two knives and a bow against how many? Hercules tugged on Alcus' arm and pointed.

"Come on!" he urged and took off running again. Alcus followed as best as he could in his wake.

"Iolaus" Lania said gently, touching his shoulder, Iolaus' eyes snapped open and he looked up into the woman's face, momentarily disoriented. He sat up with a grimace, as memory of where he was, came rushing back.

"I must have dozed off." he mumbled, embarassed.

"No doubt because you needed the sleep." Lania commented with a wry smile. She offered him a wedge of cheese and a chunk of bread, to go with the water skin. Iolaus nibbled on the food, taking only small bites. Swallowing was still an effort for him, so he sipped from the skin between bites.

"Any news yet? We should have heard something from Hercules by now. Something is not right. How long was I asleep?" he asked. Lania sat opposite him, drawing her legs up and wrapping her arms around her knees.

"No news for now. I would guess that you were asleep for about an hour or so," she answered. She folded her hands in her lap, watching him eat. "Do you really believe they might come here?"

Iolaus paused. "I'm no psychic, but my gut feeling tells me its possible. I spent enough time in Gamides' company to know his unpredictable behavior. I don't imagine that its changed all that much over the years. If anything, he's gotten worse. I'm not surprised that he's graduated to murder. He's always had a crazy, vicious 'streak."

Lania sighed and rubbed her arms nervously. Iolaus placed his hand over hers.

"I didn't mean to frighten you, but I thought you should know. How are the others holding up?" Iolaus asked, changing the subject.

"The children are napping and the women are just keeping an eye on them. The men are resting ,too, to conserve their strength. There must be something else we can do. Does this guy have a weakness we can use to our advantage?" Lania replied.

Iolaus cocked his head thoughtfully. Lania had a point. Everyone has a weakness. He dug into his memory, trying to recall anything that Gamides feared. A sudden flash of insight popped into his brain and made Iolaus grin. His eyes lit up with a wicked gleam.

"I think I know the answer. Please help me up," he declared with a mischevious chuckle. Lania put a shoulder under his arm and Iolaus levered himself to his feet. He stood there for a few moments until the feeling returned to his stiff legs.

He limped to the rear of the cave with Lania's help. The villagers looked up expectly. Iolaus directed them to take the oil in the lamps and spread it around the perimeter of the cave.

Though not understanding why, they nonetheless, did as they were told. He further instructed them to wake the children and laid out their plan of action.

When that was done, he and Lania resumed their place at the opening and kept watch into the night. Iolaus gingerly started unwrapping the linens around his torso. However, the awkward motion renewed the pain in his ribs. He inhaled sharply. Lamia reached over and stayed his hand.

"Why are you removing your bandages? You need them to keep those ribs from slipping and damaging your lungs."

"For one thing, they restrict my movement, and two, they make it harder to breathe." he explained. Lania noticed that his voice remained hoarse: a result of the pressure from the noose their enemies had tied around his neck. She fervantly hoped it hadn't damaged his throat, for she found his light, tenor voice a pleasure to the ear.

"Let me help, then. What will you do with these?" She offered, carefully taking over where he left off. Iolaus smiled mysteriously.

"You'll see." was all he hinted at.

"What if they don't come, Iolaus?"

"Then my performance will be for naught. Don't worry, he will come."

The evening crept on slowly, while they took turns keeping watch. Lania studied Iolaus as he focused his eyes on the distance.

One moment his body was in a semi-relaxed pose, the next, it went rigid and alert, as he strained to see into the darkness.

"What is it?" Lania whispered. Iolaus raised his finger to his lips, signaling her to be silent. He cupped his ear and listened in tently. His eyes slid sideways to meet hers and he nodded grimly, Hoofbeats could be heard faintly in the distance.

"Someone's coming," he whispered dramatically."Showtime."

"Suppose it's Hercules?" Lania reasoned. She scoured the darkness, then gazed nervously at him. Iolaus shook his head.

"Hercules doesn't ride horses," was his reply. He winked at her and tilted his head towards the rear of the cave. Lania nodded, helping him to his feet. Moving as fast as Iolaus' injuries would allow, they melted into the blackness of the cave.

Outside, the riders approached the vicinity of the caves. Six men, including Gamides, reined in their mounts and peered into the dark entrance. Gamides found that odd. If the women and children were hiding here, they would at least see some indication of lights from fires or smell food cooking. Gamides saw neither. He turned to one of the men.

"Stallus, I thought you said you heard that these weaklings were going to hide here. Plenty of activity goin' on, don't ya know," he stated sarcastically. The second man shook his head in puzzlement.

"I swear, Gamides, I heard some of them women talkin' about it. I can't explain this." he replied hesitantly. Gamides didn't like his answer and frowned.

"Dismount. We'll take a look in everyone of these caves if we have to, but be careful, providin' these are the right caves"

After tying the horses to nearby trees, the group drew short swords and crept forward into the black maw. Gamides took the lead, trying to distinguish shapes in the gloom. His men searched the area nearest to the opening, but found nothing. The sparse light that was quickly diminishing was useless to see further inside. Gamides growled under his breath. Something was wrong. Maybe Hercules deliberately made him believe that the people would be hiding here, when they were actually somewhere else. Well, he, Gamides, would find them and each of them would suffer, just like that runt, Iolaus. Gamides smiled. How the little guy squirmed when they tied the noose around his neck. That must have really pissed Hercules when they dumped his dead body at his feet.

Gamides was surprised to see that Iolaus had survived his little swim, so many years ago. No doubt Hercules had something to do with that. Well, they didn't need Iolaus anymore anyway. 'Serves him right for turning on us,' Gamides thought. He wanted Hercules next, then no one would interfere with their fun.

"There's nobody here, Gamides." Stallus reported, intruding on his musings. Gamides shook his head angrily. Idiots.

"They have to be here. Get a torch!" he ordered briskly. Before Stallus took two steps toward the doorway, a sheet of flames erupted in front of him, effectively blocking his departure. He stumbled backwards into his companions with a yelp. More flames geysered upward, forming a blazing ring around the six men.

"What the -!" Gamides started to say, his mouth gaping in confusion and fear. His sword snapped up as he crouched nervously.

"Gamides!" a raspy voice called to him. It seemed to echo from all around them. Gamides whirled at the sound. Silhouetted against the backdrop of flames, a figure rose to face him. It pointed a finger at him with one hand and clutched a bow in the other.

Ragged strips dangled from the figure's arms and shoulders. "Gamides!" It said again, more forcefully, "I've come for you!"

A cold fear gripped the bellies of all six men. Gamides raised his hand to shield his eyes from the brilliant light and rising heat. He squinted, trying to make out the individual's face.

"How -do you -know me?" he ventured. The male shape moved closer. To Gamides, it suddenly took on a familiarity. He took a step back, shaking his head in denial.

"It can't be! You're -"

"- dead?" The eerie voice finished. "No thanks to you, fool! I warned you that I'd return. It's time!" Iolaus snarled convincingly. Gamides backed up even farther, crowding the other men who were staring wide-eyed with terror. Iolaus glided closer, raising the bow and aiming it at Gamides' chest.

"You've harmed enough people in your lifetime, Gamides! Hades has decided that you must now pay for those crimes!"

Gamides shook his head, reaching out his hands beseechingly. "You've got it all wrong. I didn't do anything!" he screamed.

"Raping women and children, pillaging and murder are not just anything," Iolaus scolded. In the glare of the fires, his battered features scowled fiercely. He drew an arrow back tightly in the bow. His blue eyes flashed cold and deadly as he again took aim.

Several more figures rose from the seeming emptiness, wailing and reaching out hands as they moved toward the men.

"No, please! I'll change, I swear!" Gamides pleaded. Iolaus shook his head.

"No more time left for repentence. Hades awaits you. Prepare yourself!!" Iolaus rasped, baring his teeth.and loosening the arrow.

"No!!" Gamides screamed and fell to his knees.

Hercules and Alcus arrived at the caves, panting in their haste to get there. Darkness had completely set by now and the cave mouth appeared as a dark maw. They exchanged glances and started forward. In a sudden flash of light, the cave erupted in flames.

The sounds of people wailing and screaming reached their ears. Alcus clutched Hercules' arm.

"We're too late! They're killing them!" he lamented, close to tears. Hercules felt his own hopes sinking. He freed his arm from Alcus' death grip.

"Stay here!" he ordered and rushed forward. He crossed his arms over his face and leapt through the wall of fire. On the otherside he was caught up short by the bizarre scene before him. Five men cowered before a shadow of a figure bearing a bow and arrows.

A sixth person sprawled at his feet, clutching his chest.

To Hercules, it appeared as if he'd suddenly found himself in the bowels of Tartarus' darkest corners. At the sight of their leader struck down, the remaining five raiders stumbled over one another to be first to gain the cave's entrance. Despite the roaring flames, they bolted past the demigod and escaped into the night as through demons dogged their heels. Herc's eyes followed their retreat, then focused on the present tableau.

The tattered, flame-lit figure of Iolaus, stood stiffly over the prone man. An hysterical giggling shook his body. Laughter echoed from the various other individuals gathered around him.

Hercules studied his friend curiously, then bent over Gamides. The demigod rolled the man over on his back. An arrow stuck harmlessly in the feathered crest atop his helmet. Hercules touched his fingers to the man's neck. Although his face was blanched white, Gamides' pulse fluttered beneath Herc's fingertips. He looked up at Iolaus.

"Care to tell me what's going on?" he asked. Iolaus' uncontrollable laughter would not allow him to answer. He gripped his painful ribs, tears streaming down his cheeks. Lania moved to his side and guided him to a nearby boulder and made him sit.

She plucked the torn bandages from his arms and shoulders. She carefully brushed the dirt from his face, before turning her attention to Hercules and shrugging. A silly grin widened her lips.

Iolaus was coughing between bouts of giggling and slowly managed to gain control of his wits. He still clutched his sides tightly.

"Herc - you - you - should have - seen - his face! It - was - priceless! He thought - Hades sent -me to - carry him - away!" Iolaus babbled between gulps of air. Hercules raised his brows and glanced at Lania. She rested her hand on Iolaus' shoulder. She winked at Hercules.

"It really was quite a sight, Hercules. After all, it was Iolaus' ingenius idea. I'll leave the telling to him. However, before he awakens, you should get Gamides out of here. We don't want to spoil the affect our little show produced." She indicated meaningfully at the leader's unconscious form. "He passed out from fright."

"Uh, right." Hercules could barely manage. After he shot Iolaus one last glance, the big man hoisted Gamides to his shoulder and departed. Lania directed her attention to Iolaus, concern replacing her merriment.

"Are you alright?" she asked. Beneath Iolaus' cheery demeanor, she could see his obvious pain and exhaustion. He grimaced.

"No, but I don't want to lose this fine moment. You and the others did absolutely great. This worked out better than I could have anticipated. Thanks." Lania patted his arm.

"No, Iolaus. We are the ones who are grateful for your help. By capturing Gamides and his band, our village was saved.

"Let's get you and the others back home. We all need a good cleaning up." She brushed at her dirt-powdered dress and smiled. Iolaus laughed and leaned on her proffered arm for support. They exited the cave with the women and children following gleefully behind. At their rear, the oil fed fires now began to burn themselves low.

A reddish-gold flash of light materialized into the dark clad figure of the god of the underworld, Hades turned in a slow circle, studing the dying embers. He put a hand to his chin for a moment, then waved it outward. All at once, the flames rose in magestic towers. He nodded to himself.

"Clever touch. I like it. Gotta use that technique the next time I pass judgement on some ignorant warlord or such."

He put his hands on his hips, let the flames roar for a few more seconds, then extinguished them entirely, before disapperaing, leaving the cave in dark, shadowless emptiness once more.

CHAPTER 7

Kara ran and played with Lania and Malakos' children, squealing with delight, as they played a game of tag. The adults relaxed at a table outside of the inn, enjoying the antics of the youngsters. Lania had prepared them a delicious lunch, which they had just finished up. Malakos raised his ale cup, tapping his spoon on the table for their attention. Hercules, Iolaus and Lania gazed at him.

"A toast, to our friends here, for saving our fine village from the likes of Gamides and his bunch." he declared. He clinked his cup with those belonging to his guests and wife and took a swallow.

"Here, here!" Lania chimed in after sipping from hers. Hercules lifted his and also proposed a toast.

"To the brave people of this town, especially you two, for the courage you exhibited in the face of the danger. That you gave a damn about it, other villages might very well have been spared a similar fate. You are to be commended.""

"I'll drink to that." Iolaus added with a grin and downed a huge gulp. Lania took her turn.

"To Iolaus' award winning performance that really saved the day. We truly appreciate what you had to suffer for us and the rest of our friends and families. It won't be forgotten." she stated, pride showing through her words. Iolaus grinned shyly and dropped his eyes to his hands.

"Thanks, but I didn't do it alone.." he corrected.

"Speaking of which, what exactly happened back there? You promised to give us a blow by blow description." Hercules prompted, nudging his buddy playfully. "Lania said that Gamides nearly died from fright. How did you know that he would go there instead of here?"

Iolaus chuckled at the recollection,Lania added a giggle of her own and shared a glance with Iolaus.

"Well, first of all, I lived on the streets with them for a few years. After that much time, you learn a few things about each other. Gamides knew that I couldn't swim, for instance. That's why he threw me in the lake. What I didn't know, then, was that he had no intention of rescuing me.

"Anyway, in the cave, Lania and I were debating whether or not Gamides would show up or not. She also wondered if Gamides had any weaknesse. It made me think a moment. You know, a backup plan or something. So I tried to recall his foibles and fears and then it hit me." Here, Iolaus paused dramatically. Hercules spread his hands.

"Well?" he asked, knowing Iolaus' love for a well-told story. Iolaus made a face at him, then grinned again.

"Patience, Herc. I'm getting to it. Once, there was a time when Gamides and I had to pass through a graveyard at night, on the way back to town. I noticed that he seemed afraid of the dark and the stories people told of the dead rising after the sunset.

"For a brief moment of insanity or stupidity, I dared to pretend that I disappeared and left him alone. Then I started making weird noises like a ghost. He nearly jumped out of his boots. I really had him going. Then I ran at him, screaming that the ghost was after us. It didn't take him long to beat feet outta there."

"So you're saying that he was afraid of ghosts?" Malakos interjected.

"Yeah. He made me promise not to tell anyone and emphasized it with a smack to my head. He was always doing that." Iolaus replied, rubbing his head.

"What's that got to do with the cave?" Herc asked.

"Don't you see, Herc? He thought that he and his buddies had killed me, after taking me for that ride. He'd boasted that he would finish me off for turning on him. I told him that I wouId haunt him for the rest of his life if he tried. I guess that he didn't believe me. So we poured the oil from the lamps around the cave perimeter, dusted ourselves with dirt for effect and set the place on fire. I got all spooky and told him that Hades had sent me for him, that there was no hope for him. He panicked when I shot the arrow at him, thinking that I was the grim reaper sent to put him out of his misery. Lania and the others pretended to be other dead people and surrounded the whole lot of them. Gamides turned absolutely white and passed out. The others turned tail and ran, without looking back. It was beautiful! I guess old fears die hard."

Hercules shook his head but was chuckling. Malakos and Lania were wiping tears of laughter from their eyes.

"Iolaus, you've got a demented sense of humor." Hercules commented, pouring another round of drinks.

"Payback's a charm. It's the least I could have done for all of those who weren't so lucky." Iolaus replied, his voice taking on a more somber tone. His glance shifted to the little red-haired girl amongst the children. "At least she is safe now." The others followed his gaze.

"She'll have a good home here, Iolaus. We'll see to that." Malakos said with assurance. Iolaus' eyes remained on the child.

"No child should ever have to be alone," Hercules echoed, his eyes meaningfully focused on his friend's profile.

"You're right, Hercules." Lania added quietly, catching his meaning.

For another seven-day, they stayed at the inn, until Iolaus' wounds had a chance to heal. Though still stiff and sore, he insisted that he felt better enough to travel again. They stood outside the inn once more, exchanging their goodbyes. Malakos was shaking Hercules' hand.

"The magistrate says that Gamides and his gang will be spending a long time in prison. The five who ran from the cave had even turned themselves in, so the ghost wouldn't get them. I guess you put the fear of the gods in them, Iolaus. Hopefully they will have learned their lesson." he said with a grin.

"Amen." Hercules stated.

"I certainly hope so." Iolaus agreed. He shifted uncomfortably. Lania had rebandaged his ribs and insisted that he keep them on for awhile longer, to insure his ribs mended properly.

"Be safe and make sure Iolaus takes care of himself. I'm counting on you." she ordered, giving Herc a warm hug. Hercules laughed and nodded.

"Don't worry. I will." he answered. Then she faced Iolaus. "And you listen to him. Those wounds were hard-earned, but that doesn't mean you're to be overexerting yourself for some time yet. Make sure you visit a healer and have them checked out." She pointed out, then opened her arms to him. Iolaus smiled crookedly and gave her a heartfelt embrace. He kissed her cheek.

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you."

Just then, the children came charging around the corner.

Kara, seeing the two men with their packs, slowly approached them. She took Hercules' hand.

"Are you going away now?" she asked softly. Hercules lifted her into his arms.

"Yes, honey. We have to go, but we'll come back to visit." he replied and gave her a kiss. She hugged him tightly, then wiggled to get down. Her sweet, cherubic face focused on Iolaus'.

He squatted down in front of her. She daintily wrapped her arms around his neck, mindful of his injuries.

"I'll miss you, Iolaus."' she said in childlike adoration, "I know you'll get better. I love you."

Iolaus felt his throat tighten up and tears stinging his eyes. He held her close. "I'll miss you, too, sweetheart. Remember to behave while we're gone, okay?" he managed gently.

Kara wiped a stray tear that had coursed down his cheek.

She kissed him also, then pulled away, going to Lania and Malakos. She took one of their hands in each of her smaller ones and smiled brightly.

"They're my new mommy and daddy." she declared, then pointed at the children. "and they are my brothers and sisters.

"We're gonna have lotsa fun!" Lania stroked her curly hair and smiled tenderly.

"She'll be fine. She's a survivor. We'll take good care of her and make sure that she never forgets the two kindest hearts who brought her to us." Her voice was full of emotion and love. Malakos wrapped his arm about both of them.

"Count on it. Good luck and safe travels." he added. Hercules helped Iolaus to stand and draped an arm across his shoulders. "We will. Thank you." He answered cheerfully and raised his hand in farewell. Iolaus clasped Malakos' hand once more and touched Lania's cheek.

"Goodbye," he said with feeling and ruffled Kara's hair.

"Goodbye!" Kara piped up. Hercules and Iolaus started down the road at an easy pace, then turned once more and waved.

"Everything's gonna be okay, Herc. They'll make a great family." Iolaus commented with a relieved sigh, catching a glimpse of the trio. Hercules nodded.

"It's a sure bet, indeed. Let's go," he agreed. Iolaus nodded and they strolled casually along, enjoying the warmth of the new day.

Finis

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