Keys

by Lynne A-J

Iolaus sighed. How could things have gone from terrible to even worse?! "I told you," he said flatly for what seemed the one thousandth time, "I didn't kidnap any girls. I didn't even see the girls you've talking about." He swallowed hard now, wondering if the overzealous guard would take more of his frustation out on Iolaus -- He tried to stifle the moan, but the pain brought to mind an image of a dragon eating him alive. He opened his eyes, gasping as the guard pulled away his knife. Now, yet another cut on Iolaus's hand oozed red drops.

At least the guard's hunger for cruelty seemed to have been satisfied for now. Iolaus watched the man's back as the man left, and put his cut hand to his mouth. The door groaned as it shut. Iolaus closed his eyes again. There wasn't anything to look at in here anyway -- just a small, dank, shadowy cell with a wooden door, some straw on the cold, hard floor. He was getting awfully tired of all this. Tears blurred his vision. What was he going to do? If he told them he was the kidnapper, they'd expect him to be able to tell them where they could find the missing girls. A confession might buy a bit of time, but what then? He could only hope that Hercules would find him when he arrived. Surely Herc would ask around about him . .

He brushed the useless tears away, sat back, tried to relax, to conserve his strength -- But it was so hard to do. His heart was torn between just enough anger to simmer, and the growing sense of deep despair. The chain binding his left wrist to the wall clanked.

"Come on, Herc," he murmured. "You're my only hope."

Hercules was gazing at the position of the sun in the sky. Where could Iolaus be? True, they'd both been held up in the past when they'd planned to meet, but this time Hercules had a nagging feeling that something just wasn't right. No, more than that -- that something was definitely wrong about Iolaus.

All right, then. Time for action. He walked over to a merchant, selected a fresh fruit from the man's wagon and paid him. Then he described Iolaus and asked if the merchant had seen anything of him. Of course, no luck. That would have been too easy. He thanked the merchant and moved on . . .

When he finally came upon someone who thought they'd seen Iolaus, Hercules was sure that they'd made a mistake. Taken to a prison? Iolaus? Yet he proceeded to the small prison building, for what did he have to lose?

"No," said the man inside. "I cannot let you see any of the prisoners."

Annoyed, the demigod added, "I'm Hercules."

Yet the guard still didn't seem impressed. "I don't care who you are. I have my orders."

Hercules eyed the man, toyed with the idea of forcing his way in. But that went against his nature -- especially when Iolaus probably wasn't in there, anyway. He stepped back through the doorway, sighed, and headed in the direction of the inn. Something to eat might help him think . . .

Hercules was unaware that someone else had heard him announce his identity.

A hooded, caped figure glided along behind him.

Somehow, Iolaus had managed to drift into a restless doze. In the mess of images that floated through his head, he kept hearing a vaguely familiar voice. But it wasn't Herc's -- or Jason's --

He blinked, opened his eyes. Someone was whispering to him through the bars of the viewhole in the door. Still he couldn't place the voice -- and the words didn't seem familiar. Something about the door -- a noise --

A click, and the door began to open, very slowly, and not very far. A head peeked around the edge of the door -- "Autolycus!"

"Shh! Keep your voice down, Goldilocks. There're still guards around, you know!"

Iolaus was already moving, easing his small form toward the opening where the King of Thieves held the door. Autolycus bade him stay silent, and leaned over with some sort of tool. There was a click, and the shackle which had bound Iolaus's left wrist to the wall was open. As Iolaus stepped into the corridor, he noted the thin piece of metal which Autolycus had used to crack the lock. The thief pocketed this slowly, quietly, as he eased the door shut once more.

"This way," he murmured, his voice barely audible.

They turned around a corner, then another, keeping to the dark areas of the shadows. Suddenly Autolycus stopped. "Up," he whispered.

"Up?" Iolaus was doubtful.

"Up."

And quickly the thief was scrambling up the wall, as though by magic.

"Up," Iolaus muttered. So what does he expect me to do, jump? "Oh," he murmured as he seized the rope which had suddenly dropped in front of him, "up." He grit his teeth against the pain of his cut hand, braced his boots against the the stone wall and scrambed upward. Autolycus reached a hand down through a trapdoor opening. Iolaus took it and was quickly through. He'd barely made it through before he heard the thief ease the trapdoor shut. The dust in the air had Iolaus struggling not to cough, but Autolycus's hand was on his shoulder as he whispered for Iolaus to follow.

Follow, Iolaus pondered. How? It's so dark in here I can't see a --

"Hey," came Autolycus's impatient whisper, "come on, man!"

Iolaus moved in the direction of his companion's voice, scrambling on hands and knees along the dirty surface. Off in the distance he could see a ray of light --

"Welcome to our small city, stranger," said a smooth, melodic voice.

Hercules turned, smiled politely to the dignified-looking woman by his side. "Thank you."

"I'm Collurna," she said pleasantly, flashing perfect teeth, "and you are?"

"Hercules."

"Ah, the son of Zeus! What an honour for our humble city! What brings you here? Let me guess! You must be here to help someone. Let me buy you a drink -- ale?"

"Uh, no. Just juice. But a refill would be welcome."

Collurna rose, moved to the serving area and returned with two filled cups.

Hercules accepted the one which she extended, murmuring his thanks, and eyeing her as her hood slipped back to reveal auburn hair neatly pinned away from her pale cheeks. She looked to be a few years older than he was. No doubt she'd been quite attractive as a girl. She was attractive now, for that matter . . .

She chatted amicably for a while, and then, as he found himself relaxing more in her presence, he, too, was sharing bits about himself. All seemed quite pleasant enough . . .

"Well, thank you, but I --" He'd risen to leave, but a strange wave of dizziness had him sitting down once more. "Oh," he murmured, a bit embarrassed, "I don't know -- I don't --"

But when he turned to look at Collurna, he understood. And a cold icicle of dread made its way down his backbone.

Iolaus had begun to think that he'd never again see the light of the sun. They seemed to have been finding their way through the upper sections of the prison building for centuries . . .

Finally! Autolycus jimmied with the old shutters, cursing softly at the creaks and moans this elicited. "Iolaus," he murmured quietly, "take hold of it here. That's it."

The thief had pulled out a small tool as though by magic, and with this he proceeded to loosen the small doors. Gingerly he pushed one outward, warily scanning what lay below. "No problem, Goldilocks!"

And then he disappeared. Or so it seemed to his companion.

Iolaus leaned forward, looking below for his companion, but all he saw was a narrow street and awnings sheltering market wagons. He turned his gaze to the left, squinting at the sun's brightness, and saw a figure crouched on the rooftop. The figure raised an arm, then dropped it, and Iolaus found a rope coming to rest in front of him. He glanced at the sharp drop beneath, then at his companion, and scrambled out of the small window to clutch the rope with hands and feet. He let go with one hand to push himself away from the wall, and was heading toward the King of Thieves. As he neared the wall, he reached upward for a handhold. A sudden shift in the rope's direction sent him reeling --

And cursing as his head caught an uneven section of stone. "Hey," he couldn't resist muttering. But hands had hold of him now, and were easing him atop the roof. "Hey, Autolycus! Watch it, will you!"

"Sorry, my good man, but sometimes speed takes precedence," he said, nodding toward the prison building as he gathered his rope and hook. Through one of the side windows, there seemed to be sudden movement.

Iolaus glanced in that direction, then back toward the thief. He had to move quickly, as Autolycus was already making his way along the narrow catwalk. They made their way gingerly, keeping low and out of sight as much as was possible. Finally they arrived at a quieter section, where buildings came together to form an enclosure. Down here they could drop the rope and make their way to the ground. Autolycus gathered up his rope once more; Iolaus shook his head. How did the man do it? Somehow he seemed to have a magical supply of tools and equipment that disappeared as soon as he was finished with it --

Quickly he made his way after the thief, keeping close to the wall. Autolycus stopped at an intersection, peering carefully around the corners. "Anything?" asked Iolaus.

The thief's shoulders seemed to drop as he visibly relaxed. "Not a thing, Goldilocks, not a thing." He straightened, and turned to face Iolaus. "So -- where were you headed?"

Iolaus sighed. Did it really matter now? He was supposed to meet Hercules. But that must have been, by now, the day before yesterday, although it seemed like ages. Where would Hercules be now? Surely Herc'd be looking for him. And, assuming that, how would he ever find Herc?

"Well?" Autolycus prodded.

"I-I'm not sure," Iolaus sighed again. "I was supposed to meet Hercules. But where he'll be now is anyone's guess!"

"Hhmmph. Well, if we assume that he's here somewhere looking for you, I guess we'd better check around. C'mon, Goldilocks." Autolycus turned the corner.

Iolaus looked doubtful. He paused, gazing in the opposite direction, shrugged his shoulders, and followed the thief. They hadn't gone all that long a distance when the thief stopped. Iolaus caught up to him. "Look," Autolycus said, nodding to the right. "There. Is that him?"

Iolaus had to stand on his toes to see over the thief's shoulder. "I - I think so. It's hard to be sure from here."

"Well, let's get goin'," Autolycus suggested, and began making his way across the street, Iolaus close behind.

They moved quickly, and soon Iolaus could see clearly that this, was, indeed, the commanding figure of Hercules. Iolaus quickened his step. There was something awfully strange here. Herc definitely did not appear to be looking for him. Hercules was walking strangely, in a very straight path, as though he was not even aware of his surroundings. And he wasn't alone --

Beside him strode a figure clad in a dark cape. They appeared definitely to be walking together, yet they did not seem to be speaking.

Who could this be? And where would Herc be going with this person?

"Must be -- must be," he muttered, suddenly speaking aloud, "must be someone he found to help him look for me --"

Autolycus was silent for a few heartbeats, but he gazed at Iolaus. "The only place they're looking is straight ahead, blondie."

"I - I know. C'mon, Autolycus. Let's get closer. I want to know what in Tartarus is happening here!" Iolaus quickened his step, pursuing his friend, but staying off to the side where he might watch them without being easily noticed.

Suddenly Iolaus's heart seemed to have leaped into his throat. There, not far ahead, lay what seemed to be their destination --

A temple to Ares.

"We've got to stop them!" Iolaus shouted to Autolycus. The thief opened his mouth to reply, but Iolaus was already moving.

"Hercules! Herc! Where are you going! What do you think you're doing? Stop --"

But the other individual -- the hooded one -- had stepped between them. from somewhere came the recognition that the woman was admonishing him for interfering with something that was none of his business, but he barely heard her. He could only stare . . .

Hercules was like a statue. He gazed over Iolaus's head, in the direction of the temple. He didn't seem to hear his friend, nor even be aware that he was near. What could --? What was --?

"Hercules!" Desperately, Iolaus lunged forward, seizing the demigod's forearm --

For a brief moment, Iolaus thought he saw some sort of response in his friend's eyes. But the woman had muttered something at Iolaus again, and began to steer Hercules back toward the temple.

"It's okay, madam. Terribly sorry," Autolycus was calling to her as she moved away. "My cousin here is a few ants short of a picnic, if you know what I mean. Sorry for the inconvenience. I'll take better care of him. Have a good day, now!" He waved to her, and as she moved out of earshot, added: "Wench."

"Wh - what did you tell her all that for?"

Autolycus was doing some steering of his own now, leading Iolaus away from the direction of the temple's entrance. "We don't want her to suspect anything," he said as he nodded in the direction of a grove of trees beside the temple. "We can't give away our plan."

Iolaus blinked. "What plan?"

Autolycus gave a grand sigh. "Oh, Goldilocks, when will you learn? There's always a plan!"

Iolaus stopped, crossed his arms across his chest, hoping that he looked stern enough to gain a complete explanation. But his cut hand made him wince, and he stood, shaking it out, licking at the more painful spots. He gazed after the thief, who'd already entered the treed area. "Wait!"

Iolaus had experienced many things in his life; after all, he had been a thief once, as well. Yet, somehow, tagging after Autolycus involved more excitement than he wanted, or needed. Surely this guy was part bird, or insect or tree-snake or something. Like some people seemed to fear heights, Autolycus seemed to crave them! "Again with the ceiling," Iolaus muttered to himself as he moved beside the thief to gaze down through a small opening Autolycus had created in the lower floor's ceiling by lifting a trapdoor slightly. "Yes," Iolaus whispered, "they're there. But I can't see -- wait! I can make out what they're saying . . ."

Hercules, too, heard the words only too clearly. It was a dastardly business. but then, it always was when political factions sought to gain power. A lump was filling his throat as he listened, but he was helpless. He could not move, not even to clear the lump away. He could not even change the direction of his gaze. He was completely . . . under . . . control. Her control. Something in the drink she'd given him. Had to be. And now she and a warlord would use him -- Hercules, who'd struggled so long to protect the innocent -- as a pawn, a gamepiece, to move the two factions to war. Yet, no matter how much anger this stirred in him, he seemed unable to do anything about it.

Although his insides were in turmoil, he showed no outward expression whatsoever. Yet fight -- somehow -- he must --

"Oh no," Iolaus murmured, sitting back on his haunches. Sighing, he passed a hand through his already dishevelled hair.

Autolycus gave a low whistle. "Well, there goes old Herc's reputation."

Iolaus stared coldly. "Pul - lease!"

Autolycus toyed with his moustache a moment. "Well, Goldilocks, we'd better get out there." He rose to a half-crouch, preparing to move back in the direction they'd come.

"And do what? You heard them, too! They're gonna have Hercules assassinate the prince, to start the war! And he's under her control. What are we gonna do?"

"We're not going to accomplish anything in here. I guess you'd better get thinking. C'mon."

"'I guess you'd better get thinking,'" Iolaus repeated sarcastically. "Bah!"

He scrambled after the thief, trying to clear the emotions away so that he could come up with some sort of idea. His heart ached for Herc, for what his his friend must be feeling --

They hurried to the square, where the prince's appearance was to be. As each idea entered Iolaus's mind, he seemed to find some flaw, and mentally tossed each one away. There had to be something. It would be an awful lot easier if he could work with Hercules. Somehow.

They waited, moving through the gathering crowd. Should they be close to the raised platform, where the prince and his attendants would be? Or should they be closer to where Hercules would likely enter the scene, and try to head him off? For that matter, they couldn't be sure where Hercules and the woman would make their entrance . . .

All of this concern, the hot sun, the tension, were making Iolaus ache all over. His head was pounding. He was beginning to wish this would all end -- in any way at all. He sighed, rubbed his temples. But that made his hand hurt again. Damn!

The crowd was getting bigger. Someone jabbed him in the side. He turned; "Hey! Watch it!"

But it was Autolycus, who was looking off to the right, at the roadway between the two tallest buildings. He nodded in this direction. The prince's entourage was approaching.

Hercules grit his teeth, tried again to break free of this strange bond that held him, enslaved him. At least now he could grit his teeth. He kept reminding himself of this development; he was regaining some control, even if only a tiny amount. But could he gain more before he did this horrible deed which he was slated for? It didn't seem likely. He was only too well aware of the feel of the steel clutched in his fist. It had been a cold sensation at first, but now it was as warm as the palm of his hand. Hot metal in his sweaty hand.

At Collurna's bidding, he followed her. From the corner of his eye, he saw the prince and his entourage. Oh, no! This was really going to happen! He'd managed to convince himself that it wouldn't -- that everything would be okay -- but he'd been wrong! He, Hercules, was going to kill an innocent, knowing full well that his action would start a war --

With a mighty burst of energy, he managed to turn his head slightly. But that was it. That was all he could do. He just couldn't fight this thing. It was simply too powerful -- this was the end of him --

And suddenly Iolaus was in front of him, between him and Collurna. Iolaus was talking to him, holding him by the arm, speaking urgently as he cast glances over his shoulder toward the back of the cloaked woman. "You can do this, Hercules. You have to! You can't let this happen! Come on! I know you can do it, Herc! You've got to! Fight it!"

Hercules tried. He tried so hard, but he was still walking, still following Collurna, still under her control. Maybe it was time to give up. Maybe he should just let it happen and stop fighting. Maybe he could separate his mind and body, let his mind go into some sort of fantasy world so he could live with the guilt, the horror . . .

"What about Deianeira, Herc? She's watching from the Elysian Fields! She can see what you're doing! And Alcemene! Come on, Herc! Do you really want them to see this? Fight it, buddy!"

Iolaus had such a tight grip of Hercules's arm now that Hercules was really beginning to feel the pain. It was a delicious sensation -- real contact with the world outside of him --

Collurna turned, her expression ice-cold. Hercules stopped where he was, still hearing Iolaus's pleas as the woman raised her hand, prepared to throw the knife --

"Sorry, doll, not this time!" And this time it was Autolycus's face which appeared behind her. He disarmed her and clapped a hand over her mouth -- and the two were gone . . .

Yet Hercules still wasn't free. Somehow she still controlled him --

Iolaus's hands were on Hercules's shoulders now. "Listen to me!" Iolaus reached his hands behind Hercules's neck, forced his friend to look downward until their eyes could meet. "You're in there, Herc. Now get control. Listen to me. Up in the Elysian Fields, your children are probably watching right now. Think of it, Herc. Think of your sons. Think of your daughter. Think of that face of hers. Think of her touch . . ."

A tremor shot through Hercules. He closed his eyes, seeing the face of his little girl; felt again the wonderful sensation of her arms as they'd wrap around his leg when she'd tell him she loved him -- He could see now, in his mind, the tendrils of Collurna as they entwined through his brain, his heart --

No! Focussing on Iolaus's words of encouragement, focussing on Iolaus's incredible energy, he began untangling Collurna's tendrils from him. Focussing on memories of his daughter's little face, he forced himself free --

He was falling, falling -- through the clouds, down, down, down -- he felt sick, he was dying --

The spinning sensation was slowing. He could finally open his eyes. His mouth was impossibly dry. He murmured, "Iolaus."

"Herc! Thank the gods! I thought -- I thought -- I don't know what I thought!" Iolaus shifted position. Hercules was no lightweight, and he wouldn't be able to support him in this half-sitting position for very long.

Hercules gazed upward. People were stepping carefully around the pair, evidently thinking that the heat and sun had gotten to Hercules. "I - I guess we'd better get up --" But he had to lean heavily on Iolaus, who eased him over to a wall. He leaned his back here, gazed toward the platform. "Look, Iolaus. The prince. I guess he'll be all right after all."

But Iolaus was looking at Hercules. He let go a long breath. "You know, I'm not really concerned about him. Let's get out of here! I've had more than enough of this place!"

Hercules managed a wry grin. "You're not the only one, buddy." He put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "What about Collurna?"

Iolaus glanced around the area. "If we find Autolycus, we'll find her." He looked to his left, ahead, behind, but all they could see were the crowds and the prince's entourage. A thought struck Iolaus. Suddenly he grinned. "Oh yeah," he said. "Up."

Hercules blinked. "Up?"

Iolaus nodded. "Up." He turned and headed toward the nearest alley, nodding to Hercules to follow.

His companion paused a moment, muttered "oooookay," and stepped after him.

"I can't get over it," Autolycus was saying as they sat on the rooftop. "How could she -- how could anybody -- be as good an escape artist as I am? I mean, it's just not possible --"

"Well, apparently, it is," Iolaus corrected him. "She's not here, is she. Come on, let's get out of here."

They rose and made their way down the catwalk. Hercules lowered his large frame carefully down to the ground, tossed the rope back up for the others.

"What about her, Herc?" Iolaus was saying as he reached the ground. "I mean, this is awfully dangerous, if she has something like she used on you, and she's still free."

Hercules sighed. His head still ached. He still got sensations of light- headedness. Iolaus's hand needed care. They were all tired.

"Let's get some horses," he suggested. "We can get to the next town in not too long. We've got enough money, I think."

Iolaus shrugged. He gazed upward. "Autolycus? What do you think? Autolycus?"

Hercules put one hand on Iolaus's shoulder, pointing with his other one. Iolaus followed the direction his friend indicated, and could make out, against the slowly sinking sun, the silhouette of the thief as he moved gingerly off, along the rooftops. And, through the quiet, he could make out the words of a bawdy song , sung in the slightly offkey tones of the King of Thieves.

They headed toward the stable. "You know," Iolaus said, "I really owe Autolycus. I don't know what I would've done without him!"

"Well," came the reply, "I can say the same to you. You really knew how to get to me -- how to find that - that key inside me that I needed turned."

Iolaus shrugged. "Aw, you'd have done the same for me."

Hercules considered a moment. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. Anytime you need someone to give you that kick in the -- in the -- you know, you can count on me, buddy."

Iolaus snorted. "Gee, thanks."

"Anytime, Iolaus. Anytime."

Keys
by Lynne Armstrong-Jones



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