the Levkos Amulet

by Rhianon

Chapter One

The two men stood side by side on the brow of a hill, gazing down at the valley below.

The small blond man sighed heavily. His tall companion glanced at him in amusement. Ordinarily on a beautiful day such as this Iolaus would be full of the joys of life, bounding forward eagerly, undoubtedly singing one of his vast repertoire of bawdy songs at the top of his voice. However, the hunter was standing stock still, arms crossed, a look of apprehension mixed with resignation on his face.

“Come on, Iolaus, I'm sure you have nothing to worry about. King Levkon will have forgotten all about it.”

“Forgotten about it!” Iolaus yelped, shifting so he could look up at his friend. “After what happened? I'll be lucky if I'm not thrown into the deepest dungeon the moment the King lays eyes on me!”

“Iolaus, King Levkon knows it was all a misunderstanding,” Hercules continued patiently, even though they'd been having variations of this same conversation for two days now. “He was fine about it all in the end, he knows you wouldn't have tried to take advantage of Area ....”

At the mention of Princess Area, Iolaus groaned theatrically. “Don't even mention her! I was hoping I'd never have to see her again; now here I am actually walking voluntarily into the lion's den!”

Hercules had to grin at his friend's discomfort. Iolaus was always getting into trouble because of one woman or another - women were attracted to the handsome warrior like bees to a honeypot. But for once, the incident with Area hadn't been Iolaus' fault. They had been visiting King Levkon and his son Querros several years before and Area, then only a girl of 15, had fallen heavily for the blond. Iolaus, while flattered, had firmly countered her blatant advances. A spoilt child who was used to getting anything she wanted, Area was angry at his rejection and accused the warrior of attempting to seduce her. It had taken all of Hercules' diplomatic skills and some harsh talking on the part of her brother to persuade Area to admit to her lie and extricate Iolaus from a nasty situation.

Since then, Hercules and Iolaus had not had a reason to return to the kingdom of Levkos, although they had met up with Querros from time to time.

“Look, Hercules, I really think it would be better if you went on your own,” Iolaus continued hopefully. “I could meet you in Thrace ....”

“Oh, no!” Hercules replied, smiling. “Querros invited both of us. Anyway, I thought you were looking forward to helping Querros enjoy his last few weeks of freedom!”

Prince Querros had spent the last three years on the lands of his uncle and had recently returned to Levkos to marry a princess from another kingdom to seal a peace treaty. His father planned to abdicate in his son's favour shortly after the marriage ceremony had taken place. Hercules and Iolaus had run into Querros a week or so ago and he had invited them to stay at the castle and help with the security plans for the wedding.

Iolaus sighed and assented reluctantly and the two began to make their way down the hill into the valley below.

“You know, Hercules,” Iolaus commented after they had walked some way in companionable silence, “Querros didn’t seem too excited at the idea of getting married and becoming king.”

“No, he didn’t,” Hercules agreed. “I guess he was hoping for a few more years of freedom before taking on the burden of kingship.”

“Or maybe it has more to do with his uncle’s daughter, the one he couldn’t stop talking about last time we saw him!”

Hercules grinned at the memory of a lovelorn Querros waxing lyrical about his beloved. “He did seem pretty taken with her, didn’t he? But he always knew nothing could come of it - I guess that’s just one of the sacrifices of being royalty.”

Iolaus looked away quickly and Hercules silently chided himself for his careless words. He knew that his friend was thinking of Queen Niobe and the love they had sacrificed for the sake of her kingdom. But the demigod said nothing. Although it had been several years since Iolaus had seen Niobe, Hercules knew that the wound was still raw and that his friend found it hard to talk about the woman he had loved and lost.

They continued on their way, each lost in thought about the problems of life as a member of a royal family.

On reaching the royal castle late that afternoon, the two were led into the throne room and greeted warmly, if formally, by King Levkon. Prince Querros’ greeting was a little more boisterous, as he engulfed both men in a bear hug.

“Protocol, Querros, protocol!” Iolaus teased, grinning. “You won’t be able to do that sort of thing when you’re a king, you know!”

Querros’ grin faded for a moment. “Don’t I know it,” he muttered, so quietly that Iolaus barely caught the words. Then the Prince laughed, and took his friend’s arm. “Guess I’d better enjoy what freedom I still have then! Come, my friends, we have a lot to talk about!”

He was leading the way from the throne room when the door opened and a woman entered.

“Area!” Querros greeted his sister. “Our guests have arrived.”

Iolaus couldn’t help staring. Area had grown into a beautiful woman, her hair long and luxurious, features perfectly formed. Yet the look of arrogance that had been apparent on their last encounter was still present and the coldness of her expression warned the hunter that although her beauty may have matured, her character hadn't changed since their last encounter.

Area came forward, smiled graciously at Hercules, then turned to his friend. “Iolaus.” she said flatly, lifting her hand to be kissed. Iolaus took it carefully, brushing his lips against the back of her hand and dropping it again as quickly as he could. She smiled and he knew that she was aware of his discomfort and was enjoying it.

Querros, sensing the tension in the air, quickly excused himself and his friends. “Let me show you round the castle, give you an idea of the kind of security arrangements we’re making for the wedding.”

He showed them the throne room first with the small secure room off it that housed the crown jewels. Then, as they crossed the courtyard towards the guards quarters, they met a man coming in the other direction.

“Ah, Bardos,” Querros called as the man walked towards them. “Come and meet Hercules and his partner, Iolaus.”

Hercules and Iolaus turned to face the man as he approached. He was tall, with dark hair pulled back from a strong featured yet handsome face. Iolaus froze in shock as he recognised the newcomer.

“This is our Chief of Security, Bardos,” Querros continued. “You’ll be working together on the security arrangements.”

Bardos smiled slowly as he reached the demigod. “Long time no see, Hercules,” he drawled, raising a languid eyebrow. “Still fighting for the poor and oppressed I trust?” Then he turned to Iolaus. “And Iolaus. Still following the big man around like a puppy who's lost its master?”

Iolaus stood very still, but Hercules could see his fists clenched tightly at his sides. “It's been a long time Bardos,” the blond said finally. “I'm surprised to see you here.”

“Really? Well then, the advantage is obviously mine. Querros informed me that you’d been invited.” Bardos turned to the Prince. “Perhaps I didn’t mention that we’ve met before, your Highness, a long time ago.”

“Really? Well, that’s good, you’ll have plenty of time to get reacquainted. I’m sure Hercules and Iolaus will be a valuable asset to you over the next few weeks.”

Bardos smiled. “Indeed, Prince Querros, I’m sure they will.” He turned slightly so that only Iolaus could see his face and the hunter almost recoiled from the venom in his glance. “I’m looking forward to getting .... reacquainted.” He turned back to Querros. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.” Querros nodded and Bardos continued on his way.

Hercules watched his friend surreptitiously as they continued their tour of the castle. Meeting Bardos like this must have rattled him, but the blond showed no sign, joking with Querros in his usual fashion. But Hercules was concerned. Bardos had reason to hate Iolaus.

Later, after the evening meal had been served, Querros took Hercules aside and asked him about their history with Bardos, commenting that he’d sensed an undercurrent of feeling between his Chief of Security and Iolaus.

Hercules was surprised that Querros had noticed. “Bardos attended Cheiron’s Academy with Iolaus and I,” the demigod explained. “He and Iolaus never got along - I think Bardos was jealous of Iolaus - Iolaus was a better swordsman than he was, better fighter, more popular with the other cadets. Anyway, one day they were out on an exercise together. Something happened - Cheiron got involved and as a result, Bardos was expelled. He’s never forgiven Iolaus for that. The one or two occasions we’ve encountered him since then have been - difficult. Cheiron told Iolaus not to talk about the incident and he never has - not even to me.” he paused. “I have to admit I was surprised to see Bardos in a position as your father’s Chief of Security, Querros.”

Querros shrugged. “He was taken on while I was at my uncle’s. Apparently he saved Area from bandits one day and she persuaded father to employ him. He’s risen through the ranks due to her patronage.” He smiled thinly. “You may have noticed that father gives Area everything she wants. I can’t say I like the man, but he hasn’t given me any cause for concern. On the contrary, I’ve seen great improvements in the way affairs are run since he’s been here.”

“So you intend to keep him on when you become king?”

Querros nodded. “I see no reason not to.”

Iolaus wandered over to join them and Hercules dropped the subject. The three spent a pleasant few hours talking over old times before retiring for the night. Once they were alone, Hercules tried to get Iolaus to talk about his meeting with Bardos, but the hunter insisted that everything was fine and the demigod didn’t push him. If Iolaus wanted to talk, he’d do so in his own time.

Chapter Two

Rising the next morning, Hercules heard shouting and glanced out of the window which looked over a large courtyard where yesterday they’d seen soldiers at practice. To his horror, he saw Iolaus and Bardos squared off, swords raised, a crowd of soldiers around them. Quickly pulling on his breeches, he raced out of the door. When he arrived in the courtyard the two men were still circling each other.

“Iolaus ....”

“Keep out of this, Hercules,” Iolaus hissed, his eyes never leaving his opponent’s. “This is between him and me.”

“Iolaus, this isn’t the time or the place. Bardos, use some sense - we’re all on the same side here. There’s work to be done. What do you imagine Querros and King Levkon will think about this?”

For a moment the two men continued to circle each other warily. Then the sense of Hercule’ words seemed to penetrate Iolaus’ thoughts and he seemed to relax a little. “Hercules is right, Bardos. We can finish this another time.”

Bardos continued to stare at his opponent, loathing and anger evident in his eyes. Then suddenly his gaze lightened and he raised his sword. “Later, then, Iolaus. But don’t think you’ve escaped your fate.” He turned abruptly and walked away.

The watching soldiers dispersed when it became evident that the anticipated fight was not going to happen. Hercules took Iolaus by the arm and drew him aside. “For Zeus’ sake, Iolaus, what did you think you were doing?”

Angrily, Iolaus shook off the demigod’s restraining hand. “The man’s dangerous, Hercules, Can’t King Levkon see that?”

“Perhaps not, but it isn’t up to us to intervene in their business, Iolaus - you’re letting your personal feelings towards Bardos blind you to that. I thought you told me you were OK with this.”

Iolaus glared at him for a moment. Then he blew out a long breath and smiled faintly at his friend. “I’m sorry, Herc. You’re right. I let him get to me. I meant it when I said I was OK with Bardos being here, I thought I could deal with whatever he decided to throw at me.”

“So, what happened?”

“I couldn’t sleep, so I came out early and joined the guard at practice. Bardos - I just let him wind me up, Herc, that’s all. It was my fault. I won’t let it happen again, I promise.”

Hercules raised an eyebrow. “No, really, Herc, I won’t,” Iolaus reassured his friend earnestly. “Not even if he calls me ‘little’ or .... or ....”

“OK, I believe you.” Hercules grinned and clapped his friend on the shoulder. Now what do you say to getting some breakfast?”

“Breakfast! Great!” Iolaus agreed enthusiastically. “Lead me to it!”

The next day or so were busy for the two friends. King Levkon and Prince Querros were entertaining Prince Metos, the brother of Querros’ future bride, who had come to spend some time with his sister’s prospective family. Fortunately for Iolaus, that also meant that Area was occupied and he managed to keep well out of her way.

The third day of their stay found Hercules and Iolaus in the town of Levkos, investigating the monthly festival. There would be a similar festival every day on the week of the wedding, and Querros had suggested that they mingle with the crowds and look out for anything that might present a particular security problem.

The friends strolled around the stalls of the festival, enjoying the festive atmosphere, but alert to any signs of trouble. As they walked they were hailed by a familiar voice. “Hercules! Iolaus! What good fortune! Come, try my latest delicacy - you can recommend me to all your friends!”

Hercules and Iolaus exchanged horrified glances. It couldn’t be! Slowly, they turned as one and found their worst fear a reality. There, standing behind a gaudily painted awning, a variety of unusual looking food spread out on a table before him, stood Falafel.

“Falafel! Long time no .... eat,” Hercules said uncertainly as they reluctantly approached the fast food seller.

Iolaus looked suspiciously at the table, vivid memories of his last encounter with Falafel rising uneasily to mind. “Falafel - just what is this pig swill anyway?”

Falafel looked hurt. “It’s a new idea. It’s called a swineburger.”

“A .... swineburger? What’s in it?”

“Pig’s meat, onions, oats .... see, you put it in a piece of bread, like this ....”

He slapped a chunk of the interesting looking meat into a piece of bread and held it out to the hunter. Iolaus backed away hastily. “Thanks, Falafel, maybe later ....”

Falafel looked philosophical about the rejection. “Well, enjoy the festival. You might like to visit my cousin, Tourisshopus - he has some wonderful souvenirs for sale.”

“You have a cousin?” Hercules asked, wondering why this surprised him.

“Of course! You’ll spot him easily, he looks just like me. Tell him I sent you, he’ll give you a discount!”

Tourisshopus turned out to be a mirror image of Falafel although, surprisingly, his ‘souvenirs’ were of a higher quality than the friends would have expected, given the standard of Falafel’s cooking. “Hey, Herc, look at these!” Iolaus exclaimed, picking up a basket of variously coloured jewels. “Exact replicas of the Levkos crown jewels,” Tourisshopus explained proudly.

“They do look a lot like them,” Hercules agreed. “Umm, Tourisshopus, just exactly how do you know what they look like?”

Tourisshopus tapped his nose. “Trade secret, my friend. Would you like to purchase them?”

Hercules laughed. “No, thank you. We have enough on our hands with the real ones!”

After a while the friends split up and patrolled different areas of the festival, looking for anything unusual or suspicious. Shortly before they were due to meet up again, Iolaus was wandering near the outer stalls near an alley when he heard the sound of a woman screaming.

Unsheathing his sword he ran into the alley, alert for an sign of attack. In its murky depths he could see what looked like a young woman being manhandled by three men.

“Hey! Let her go!” Iolaus shouted, running towards them, hand moving to the hilt of his sword. One look at him and the three men took off, pushing the girl violently forward so that she collided with her rescuer. They fell to the ground together and by the time Iolaus had picked himself up there was no sign of the men. He dropped to his knees again beside the girl. “Are you alright?” he asked in concern. She looked up at him and smiled shakily. “Yes, yes, I’m fine. Could you help me up?”

Iolaus helped her to her feet and she put a hand on his arm. “I don’t know how to thank you. I think they were going to kill me. You saved my life.” She smiled at him radiantly and he felt his heart melting. Even in the darkness of the alley he could see that she was beautiful, with long dark hair and delicate features. She reminded him vaguely of someone, but he couldn’t quite think who. “You’re welcome.” He smiled his most winning smile. “But I didn’t really do anything ....”

“You frightened them off. They could tell you are a warrior.” She moved her hand to stroke his arm, outlining the solid muscle. Iolaus’ heart missed a beat as she smiled again.

“Is this a private conversation or can anyone join in?” said a voice behind him.

Iolaus jumped. “Hercules! Don’t sneak up on a man like that!”

“Sorry,” Hercules said pleasantly, sounding completely unrepentant. “Are you going to introduce me to your friend?”

“Yeah, sure, sorry. This is ....” Iolaus stopped, realising he hadn’t yet asked the girl her name. He looked at her questioningly, but as she began to speak, he caught sight of someone walking past the entrance to the alley. His eyes widened in shock. It couldn’t be! Muttering a quick, “Sorry, I have to go,” the hunter pushed past the girl and raced out of the alley, leaving Hercules and his companion bemused.

Hercules shrugged his shoulders helplessly and smiled at the girl. “I’m sorry about that. It isn’t like Iolaus to run out on a pretty lady.”

The girl smiled back. “My name’s Rhianna and your friend .... Iolaus .... just saved my life.”

“Did he now?”

Rhianna briefly outlined what had taken place in the alley. “I was sure they were going to hurt me or even kill me. He’s a real hero. But it doesn’t look as if he’s coming back, and I have to be on my way, so do you think you could give him something for me?”

“Give him something?”

Rhianna took off a pendant she’d been wearing and held it out to the demigod. “Where I come from, it’s traditional to give a token to someone who has saved your life. It acts as a talisman to protect that person from harm.”

“It really isn’t necessary,” Hercules began, but Rhianna insistently pushed the pendant into his hand. “Please, it’s important to me. Promise me you’ll make sure he gets it?”

“Of course, if it means that much to you.”

“It does. I must go now. Thank Iolaus again for me.” With that, she hurried out of the alley.

Hercules looked at the amulet in his hand. It wasn’t large, and seemed to be made of some kind of polished stone or bone with some intricate carving on it. Obviously of no real value, except to Rhianna. He pushed it into his belt pocket and went to find Iolaus.

Hercules found his friend some distance away, pacing back and forth outside a tavern, looking agitated. “Iolaus! What was all that about! I felt like a compete idiot ....”

“Yeah, I know, I’m sorry, but you’ll never guess who I saw ....”

Hercules folded his arms resignedly and raised an interrogative eyebrow. “Who did you see?”

“Think, ‘priceless crown jewels’ - now, who’s the last person you’d want to come across in this town?”

“Autolycus!” Hercules groaned. “Are you sure?”

“Of course, I’m sure! I thought I saw him cross the entrance to the alley, then when I got out there I saw him again going into the tavern. Then I lost him.”

Hercules put his head in his hands. “We don’t need this! Maybe he’s just passing through?” he suggested hopefully.

“Yeah, or perhaps he’s here to take the waters?” Iolaus suggested with a grin, his good humour returning as he began to see the funny side.

“Very funny. We’ve got to find him and make sure he doesn’t try for the jewels. The penalty for any kind of theft in Levkos is execution - and annoying as the man is, I don’t want to be the one responsible for sending him to the block!”

Iolaus sobered. He and Autolycus hadn’t always gotten along - at their first meeting Autolycus had landed the hunter in a whole heap of trouble and almost got him executed - but he had to grudgingly admit that he liked the thief, infuriating as he could be. Hercules was right - they had to stop him trying to steal the jewels.

However, several hours spent combing the festival and the town failed to reveal any sign of the self-named Prince of Thieves and eventually, reluctantly, they returned to the castle.

Chapter Three

After dinner that evening Querros took the two friends aside. “My father’s been called away on urgent business and will be gone for several days.” he began. “He was due to accompany Prince Metos on a hunting trip, so I will now be going in his place. He’d particularly like you to joint us, Hercules.”

“Great!” Iolaus said enthusiastically. “I could do with a few days without Bardos breathing down my neck.”

Querros turned to him, eyes troubled. “Actually, I was hoping you’d stay behind.”

“Stay behind!” Iolaus exclaimed. “You must be kidding!”

“I’m uneasy about leaving the arrangements solely under Bardos’ supervision.” Querros explained. “Especially with my father leaving unexpectedly. I’d feel a lot happier if you were here to keep an eye on things, Iolaus.”

“I agree that someone should stay and help Bardos,” Hercules said, “but it would make more sense if it was me. You know that Iolaus and Bardos don’t get along and besides, Iolaus is a better hunter than I am.”

“I know that, but Prince Metos particularly asked for you, Hercules. He wants to meet you and hear about all your exploits.”

Iolaus grinned and clapped the demigod on the back. “There’s nothing Hercules likes better than to talk about his exploits!” he said, with a sideways glance at his friend. Hercules shot him a venomous glance which the hunter cheerfully ignored. “I guess I can survive a few days.” He turned to Hercules, suddenly serious. “Don’t worry, buddy, I’m not going to let Bardos rile me. I know how important this wedding is to Querros and I’m not going to do anything to jeopardise that. Anyway, I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the opportunity to impress prince Metos with tales of your many and wide ranging adventures!”

Hercules reluctantly agreed. Hot headed as Iolaus could be, he wasn’t irresponsible and he was unlikely to do anything foolish. But the demigod was still concerned. He didn’t trust Bardos and the man’s blatant hatred of Iolaus was worrying. But he was also fairly sure the man wouldn’t be stupid enough to try to harm one of the Prince’s friends and anyway, Iolaus could certainly handle anything the man tried to hand out.

The following morning the hunting party prepared to leave at first light. Hercules packed his things together then looked for Iolaus to say goodbye. The hunter was nowhere to be seen. Finally, he tried Iolaus’ room, but the hunter wasn’t there either. As the demigod turned to go, his hand touched his belt and he noticed the pendant. Gods! He’d forgotten all about it! The news about Autolycus had completely driven it out of his mind. And he’d promised Rhianna he’d give it to Iolaus straight away. Well, he couldn’t take it on the trip with him, or Iolaus wouldn’t get it for another three days. He pulled it out and put it in Iolaus’ carry sack for safekeeping. He’d explain its presence to the hunter as soon as he saw him.

Hercules left the room quickly and joined the hunting party. Iolaus re-appeared just as they were leaving and the demigod had time only for a hurried goodbye and handshake before they were off, the pendant once more forgotten.

The next few days were far less difficult than Iolaus had anticipated. Although he’d willingly agreed to stay behind, it had not been without a certain degree of apprehension. However, Bardos must have decided to put his personal feelings aside and he and Iolaus between them fairly amicably finalised the security plans for the wedding. Guards were already posted in force throughout the castle. Area had decided to take her meals in her room and Iolaus was grateful that he was spared her snubs and cold glances.

Mid way through the morning of the second day, Bardos and Iolaus were discussing the number of guards needed for the royal escort, when a guard rushed into the room. “Sir!”

Both men rose to their feet at the urgency in the man’s voice.

“What is it, Guirod?” Bardos asked tensely.

The man was white, face a picture of fear at the news he had to report. “Sir .... I don’t know how it could have happened ....”

“WHAT?”

“The crown jewels are missing!”

“MISSING! You mean they’ve been stolen?”

The man nodded miserably. “I went in to check on them on schedule, sir, and they were .... gone. Everything was gone.”

“Including the Levkos amulet?”

The man nodded mutely.

“They were there when you last looked?”

“Yes, sir. Only two hours ago.”

“Then the thief can’t have gotten far. Search every room in the castle. And have the men pair up - if one of them is the thief, I don’t want him to have a chance to hide the evidence.”

Angry and frustrated, Bardos turned to Iolaus. “How could this have happened? Our security was watertight - there were guards swarming over the castle.”

Iolaus looked at him grimly. “I don’t know. But we’ll find the thief, Bardos. As you said, he can’t have gone far.” Secretly, he was terrified that Autolycus had pulled this off. Certainly, the King of Thieves was capable of it, and Iolaus was torn between his desire to see the jewels found and a sense of loyalty to a man he had grudgingly come to think of as a friend.

Bardos supervised the search on the upper floors, Iolaus on the lower, each making sure that every nook and cranny in every room was thoroughly searched. Eventually, Iolaus heard a cry of triumph from the upper floor. Racing towards the sound of voices, he was surprised to find himself in the doorway to his own room. The moment he appeared, he was surrounded from behind by several armed soldiers and before he had time to react, he was seized and a sword held to his neck.

“What in Hades name is going on, Bardos?” Iolaus said angrily. “Tell your guards to let go of me, before I have to make them!”

Bardos walked slowly towards him, holding something in his hand. He held it up towards the hunter. It was an amulet, made of some kind of stone with an intricate carving.

“What’s that?” Iolaus asked warily.

“That, my friend, as I think you well know, is the Levkos amulet. It doesn’t look much, does it? I suppose that’s why you kept it - as a souvenir, I suppose. You’re right - it isn’t worth anything in monetary terms, but it’s priceless in sentimental value - it’s been in the family for centuries.”

“What do you mean .... kept it?” Iolaus asked. He was beginning to have a really bad feeling about this, and the look of triumph on Bardos’ face wasn’t helping.

“Gregorio and Guirod found it in your carry sack. So - what have you done with the jewels, Iolaus?”

“With the ....” Iolaus was stunned, his instincts telling him that this was a trap. “You surely can’t think I had anything to do with the theft!”

“What am I to think, Iolaus? We find this in *your* room, in *your* carry sack. Where were you during the time when the jewels could have been taken?”

“You know very well where I was. Checking the cellars.”

“Can anyone verify that?”

Iolaus was silent but his mind was racing. He knew he had been set up, but he didn’t know why or who had done it and he had no idea what to do about it. Obviously, declarations of his innocence were going to fall on deaf ears here.

“Take him to the dungeon.”

Arms grabbed him from behind and he pulled against them. “For Zeus’ sake, Bardos! You must realise this is a set up! If I *had* taken the jewels, do you think I’d have been stupid enough to leave any evidence in my own room?”

“Why not! You didn’t think anyone would suspect you - Hercules’ best friend!”

“I want to see the king!” Iolaus countered in desperation.

“Oh, you’ll see the king alright. You’ve chosen the wrong place to pull this little stunt, Iolaus. King Levkon is very stringent about the laws on theft, it’s the one thing he feels most strongly about. And the theft of the crown jewels? The penalty will be death, you can be sure of that! Take him away.”

Princess Area was confused. Much as she hated Iolaus for his rejection and for making her look a fool, she really couldn’t picture him as a thief.

“Are you sure, Bardos? Could this all be a big mistake?”

“I’m quite sure, Princess Area,” Bardos answered smoothly. “We caught him red-handed. Obviously he didn’t realise the real value of the amulet, so didn’t bother to pass it on to his accomplis. And there’s something else that makes me sure above all doubt. I didn’t want to mention it when he first arrived, after all, it’s been a long time since the days when I knew Iolaus and Hercules, but you should know that Iolaus was a thief when he was young. And you must be aware of the old saying, Your Highness - once a thief, always a thief.”

“I suppose you’re right. But what are we going to do? You couldn’t blame Prince Metos if he has the wedding cancelled - some of the emeralds and diamonds were to form his sister’s dowry. We must send word to Querros immediately ....”

“Your Highness, may I suggest that we wait a little before disturbing your brother unnecessarily. We have to act decisively. We have the thief in custody. Now we need to find out what he’s done with the jewels - time is of the essence. There may still be opportunity to retrieve them before they’re sold on and put everything to rights before your brother’s return.”

Area thought for a moment. She was sick and tired of her brother and her father thinking she was useless for anything but ornament. If Bardos was right and they could retrieve the stolen jewels before her brother’s return, it would show her in a good light. She also liked the idea of having Iolaus at her mercy for a legitimate reason. He had made her look a fool in front of her father and her punishment had been humiliating. Yes, she would take full advantage of this opportunity. “Very well, Bardos. Have Iolaus interrogated immediately. I want the jewels found before my brother returns tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Your Highness. That’s a wise decision. I’ll supervise the interrogation myself.” He bowed and Area waved her hand in dismissal.

As he left the room, Bardos smiled to himself. He was going to enjoy this. He’d waited a long time for an opportunity to get revenge on Iolaus, and now the little man had played into his hands. Oh, yes. This was one interrogation he was going to enjoy to the full.

Chapter Four

Iolaus had been taken to the dungeon, locked in a small, dark cell, and left alone. It took him only a few moments to realise that there was no escape. The walls of the cell were made of stone and the door solid wood. The only light came from a slit window too small for a man to climb through. There was nothing in the cell except a smell of damp and decay. Iolaus shivered, partly from the cold, partly from a growing fear that he was in a really bad situation.

He wasn’t left long with his thoughts before the came for him, six guards heavily armed. He tried to fight them anyway, but a couple of vicious blows to his abdomen and another to the side of the head left him dazed and reeling, and he was able to put up little resistence as they half dragged him down the corridor and into a room at the end.

By the time his head had cleared enough to focus on his surroundings, all chance of escape had gone. He was lying spreadeagled on what seemed to be a large wooden table, wrists and ankles firmly chained to rings at each corner. At some point they had removed most of his clothes, for he was naked except for a loincloth and the amulet which still hung around his neck.

The room was dimly lit by two or three lamps in wall holders around the walls. The table was positioned in the centre of the room, the only piece of furniture he could see within his line of vision. He had no time to look any further, for the door opened and two men entered.

The first was Bardos. The second was a man Iolaus recognised as Velon, Bardos’ second in command. The hunter had had little to do with Velon, but what he’d seen of the man he didn’t like. Velon had a vicious streak which he demonstrated in the way he treated the men under his command. Velon grinned evilly at the prisoner, but hung back while Bardos approached until he was standing at the foot of the table.

“You know, Iolaus,” he began mildly, “I’ve dreamt of a moment like this. Many times. But never in my wildest dreams had I imagined such a perfect situation. I can do what I like to you, and the king will thank me for it!”

“Go to Hades, Bardos,” Iolaus returned defiantly. “You and I both know I didn't steal the jewels. This is your way of getting revenge because you don’t have the guts to face me in a fair fight.”

Bardos’ eyes narrowed angrily. “You're right, Iolaus. I’ve been waiting for a long time to get my revenge on you. I must say, I was surprised when we found the amulet in your room - I thought you’d become too much of a goody-two-sandals hanging round with Hercules. Then again, maybe you did take them. After all, you were a thief once.” he smiled coldly. “But even if you didn’t, I’m not going to let a little thing like the truth hold me back.”

The two men locked eyes for a moment. Iolaus swallowed, trying not to let Bardos see his fear. Bardos nodded to Velon and his Second moved forward. He took a small, stiletto type knife out of his belt, holding it up and twirling it in his fingers so that the blade caught the light.

“Well, then, Iolaus,” Bardos continued. “Much as I’m looking forward to this, I have to give you the chance to confess before we start our little .... session. So - are you going to tell us what you did with the jewels?” Iolaus forced himself to remain silent. He wasn’t going to confess to something he didn’t do, and anything he wanted to say would only anger Bardos further.

Bardos shrugged, stood back and gestured to Velon. Velon approached slowly, watching his victim closely. Then he allowed his eyes to drift slowly over the hunter’s body, finally raising them to lock once more with Iolaus’, and deliberately licked his lips. Iolaus felt himself redden as Velon’ thoughts were reflected in his eyes. Then the torturer move quickly, stroking the point of the knife softly down the sole of Iolaus' right foot, smiling as the foot jerked reflexively. Without warning, he changed his grip on the knife and plunged it deep into the sole of the hunter’s foot. Iolaus' whole body convulsed and he couldn't hold back a scream as white hot agony shot through his whole body. Bardos held up his hand for Velon to stop.

“Well?”

Iolaus turned his head away, fighting nausea, then closed his eyes as Bardos nodded to Velon and the torturer approached again, a sadistic grin of pleasure on his face. The hunter fought back panic, desperately trying to remember all the mind control techniques he'd been taught in the East. But as the knife was plunged once more into his foot, all thought of control was lost as another scream of pure agony was torn from his throat.

Autolycus had been rattled by yesterday’s close encounter with Hercules and Iolaus. Until then, his plan had been working perfectly. He’d had his eye on Levkos for some time, knowing how valuable the crown jewels were. The preparations surrounding the upcoming wedding had given him his chance. The castle had been hiring extra help and he had managed to get a job in the royal kitchens a few weeks before. He had worked hard and was soon known for being reliable, polite and suitably subservient. Before long, he’d been trusted with small errands that had taken him all over the castle and it had been only a few days before he had memorised the layout of the castle and begun to formulate his plan to steal the jewels. Not only that, but he’d managed to get the chief chef drunk one night. The man had told him of some secret passages that ran the length of the castle, opening to the outside at a point far from the castle gates.

The arrival of the demigod and his pesky partner had thrown a spanner in the works, but he’d been vigilant and had managed to avoid being seen. Until the festival. He cursed himself for his carelessness in letting Iolaus see him, though he had to grin as he remembered the look on the blond’s face when he’d first spotted the King of Thieves, and the frustration in his eyes when he’d lost his quarry.

Autolycus liked Iolaus, but he and his partner really were a little too keen on the moral stuff and they certainly weren’t stupid enough to think his appearance in Levkos was a coincidence. At least now he’d discovered that Hercules had gone with the hunting party, there was only Iolaus to deal with.

This morning palace guards had burst into the kitchens, obviously searching for something. They hadn’t spoken a word, just thoroughly searched the kitchens and the workers in them, then left without a word. Something must have happened and Autolycus had resolved to sniff around later and find out.

However, he was confident that his plan would still work. After all, if the King of Thieves couldn’t pull this off, who could? He smiled smugly to himself as he walked through the courtyard carrying some empty wine pitchers back to the kitchen, his mind preoccupied with thoughts of all the things he could do with the riches he’d get from selling the jewels. Of course, he’d have to travel to some distant kingdom to sell them ....

His thoughts were shattered as he walked straight into someone coming in the opposite direction. They fell to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs, the empty pitchers breaking around them. Autolycus cursed to himself. A great way of remaining inconspicuous! He recognised the person he’d felled as Princess Area’s handmaiden. He helped the girl up, apologising profusely. She waved off his apology. “It was my fault. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

Autolycus noticed that the girl’s face was streaked with tears. She swayed suddenly and he instinctively put his arm round her shoulders. “Here, come and sit down for a moment,” he said, leading her to a nearby bench. The girl sat gratefully. “Shall I call someone ....” he began tentatively.

“No! Please, I’m fine .... just a little upset about what’s happened today.”

Autolycus’ ears pricked up. This was the information he needed. “What has happened, ma’am? The guards were searching the kitchens earlier ....”

She looked up at him incredulously. “You mean, you haven’t heard?”

“Um .... no, I’m afraid not. We don’t get to hear much in the kitchens.”

“The crown jewels have been stolen and ....” Autolycus heard no more after the first few words. Stolen! How could they have been! The jewels had been so well guarded, no-one but the King of Thieves had the skill and cunning to steal them! “.... and they plan to execute him as soon as the King returns!” Autolycus realised he’d missed the rest of her explanation. “I’m sorry - did you say they’d arrested someone?”

“You weren’t listening!” the girl exclaimed. “They’ve arrested Iolaus, Hercules’ friend - they found the Levkos amulet in his room!”

“Iolaus! That’s ridiculous! He’s the most honest man I know!” Autolycus blurted out before he had time to stop himself.

The girl stopped speaking and looked at him curiously. “You know him?”

“Well, I know of him,” Autolycus explained hastily. “Everyone knows of Hercules and Iolaus and the way they fight for justice ....”

She seemed to accept this and continued, “Anyway, I don’t believe he could have stolen the jewels. He’s far too nice and he’s Hercules’ best friend. Someone must have set him up. But Bardos has convinced Princess Area that he’s guilty, and she seems to dislike him anyway, so she didn’t take much convincing, and they’re torturing him ....”

“Torturing him!” Autolycus interrupted her flow of words. He was beginning to get a bad feeling about this. He’d seen Bardos around the castle, even overheard some of his conversations with his men. He was a hard man and if he’d taken against Iolaus ....

“Bardos is torturing Iolaus to get him to admit what he’s done with the jewels! But I know he couldn’t have taken them, so he won’t be able to tell them anything, will he? And Bardos hates Iolaus, and I’m afraid the time the hunting party returns, Iolaus will be dead!”

“Has word been sent to Hercules and Prince Querros?”

She shook her head. “Princess Area said that she wants to deal with this herself.”

“Do you know when the hunting party is returning?” Autolycus asked, his mind racing.

“Tomorrow, at sunset.”

“And where exactly are they holding Iolaus?”

She looked at him sharply. “In the dungeon, of course. But there’s nothing you can do to help him, if that’s what you’re thinking. No-one’s allowed down there except the serving wenches who bring the guards their food.”

“Help him? How could I help him? I’m only a kitchen hand.” Autolycus said hurriedly. He stood up and patted her on the shoulder. “I’d better get back. I’m sure it will all work out alright.”

She gave him a disbelieving look, but got up herself and headed off without another word.

Autolycus made his way back to the kitchens, deep in thought. One part of him, the part that put self preservation top of his list of priorities, was telling him to keep out of this. He couldn’t afford to draw attention to himself. Another part was telling him that Iolaus was his friend. Hercules wouldn’t be back until sunset the next day - plenty of time for the blond to die under torture in the dungeon. Would Autolycus be able to live with himself if he knew he could have done something to prevent it? What would he tell Hercules? ‘I knew your partner was being tortured to death, but I was more worried about saving my own neck’. He sighed heavily. It went completely against his better judgement, but he knew what he had to do. He had to get Iolaus out of there. But first, he needed a plan ....

Chapter Five

Time seemed to have stopped. Iolaus was aware of little but wave after wave of intense pain. Velon knew his job well, knew which instruments of torture to use and the most vulnerable and sensitive parts of the body to attack. He knew, too, how to keep his victim conscious and aware, never allowing him the blessed release of unconsciousness.

Somehow, Iolaus held on, stubbornly refusing to give in to Bardos’ demands for a confession. And eventually, just when he was beginning to think he could hold on no longer, darkness claimed him. Bardos looked down at his unconscious victim for a moment, relishing the sight of his bloody body. Reluctantly, he decided that the torture would have to stop for now. There was plenty of time to continue later. A few hours in his cell anticipating what was going to happen next would soften the hunter’s willpower.

“Take him back to his cell.” he ordered.

Autolycus had hidden in the secret passageway in the dungeon, needing time to observe the guards and their routine. When he heard the faint sounds of screaming coming from a room at the far end of the corridor he almost threw caution to the winds and rushed the door. But survival instincts took over. The only thing he'd accomplish would be to get himself caught and he certainly wouldn't be able to help Iolaus then. Eventually, the screams faded away and a few moments later the door opened. Two guards emerged, dragging the battered and unconscious body of the hunter between them. They were followed by Bardos who locked the door behind him. “Take him back to his cell and keep a close watch on him. Let me know when he regains consciousness. Do you understand?” He disappeared down the corridor, followed by the four remaining guards.

The corridor was dark and Autolycus couldn't see very well, but it was obvious that Iolaus was in no condition to walk out of here. The King of Thieves made a note of the cell Iolaus was taken to, then made his way quickly back up the passageway. It was still light and he wouldn’t be able to make his move until it was dark. He only hoped Iolaus would survive that long.

Area looked down at the unconscious man, lying sprawled on the damp floor of the cell. She wrinkled her nose at the smell of the place and shuddered at a rustling sound that surely signified the presence of rats nearby. Yet she hadn’t been able to stop herself coming down here. She’d suffered a lot of indignity at Iolaus’ hands, now she wanted to witness his suffering herself.

Area prodded the hunter in the side with her foot. Iolaus groaned, but didn’t move. She prodded him again, harder this time, and was rewarded when he groaned again and opened his eyes. She squatted down beside him and smiled.

“Hello, Iolaus.”

Iolaus focussed on her with difficulty. His body was screaming with pain and he felt nauseous and light headed. Her presence here didn’t make sense to him either.

“What’s the matter, Iolaus? No smart remarks? No jokes?”

He looked at her squarely for a moment. “This is a big mistake, Area,” he whispered hoarsely. “I didn’t take those jewels.”

“You didn’t? Well, that’s what Bardos is trying to find out, isn’t it. In this kingdom, you’re guilty until proven innocent, didn’t you know that?”

She moved closer, leaning over him. Slowly, she ran her hand down his body, over his chest and the tight muscles of his stomach, coming to rest just above his groin. Iolaus turned his face away, afraid of what she might do next. Area laughed, understanding his fear, but instead of drifting lower her hand moved up his body again, coming to rest once more on his chest. She reached up with her free hand and removed the brooch holding back her hair, allowing the long dark tresses to fall freely around her shoulders. The brooch was large, fixed with a long thin pin.

She ran her hand over his chest again, fingers closing around one of his nipples, softly squeezing and stroking it between her fingers. She laughed in triumph as, against his will, his body began to respond to her action and the nipple hardened under her touch. “Why Iolaus. There I was thinking you didn’t like me. That’s not what your body’s telling me.” Iolaus shut his eyes. “Open your eyes!” Area commanded sharply. “Open them, or I’ll have them burned out!”

Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and looked warily into hers. She was holding the brooch with the pin between her thumb and forefinger. Eyes never leaving his, she caressed his nipple once more, then suddenly brought her hand down and drove the pin deep into the hardened nub. Iolaus clenched his teeth, determined to deny her the pleasure of hearing him scream, while his whole body arched in agony. Rich red blood spurted and spilled down his chest. She removed the pin, scooping a little of the blood onto her finger and bringing it to her mouth. “Mmmm. I love the taste of your blood. Shall we try that again?” She drove the pin into the nipple again, then again, and this time Iolaus bit through his lip trying to hold back a scream as his body convulsed once more.

Area leaned over and whispered in his ear. “You made a fool of me in front of the whole palace, and I don’t like to look like a fool, Iolaus.” Abruptly she stood up, pulling her cloak tightly around herself. “I’m going to enjoy watching your execution, little man. In the meantime, sweet dreams.” She swept out of the cell, leaving Iolaus once more alone in the dark.

At the sound of several pairs of boots marching towards his cell, Iolaus tried to fight back the wave of fear that flooded him. They were coming for him again. Since Area’s little visit, he’d lain on the hard stone floor, curled up as best he could against the cold, trying to fight back the thoughts of what was in store for him next. Velon was full of surprises and each surprise carried with it a world of pain. As the door opened Iolaus fought back the urge to curl up tighter in a shaking ball. Instead, he forced himself painfully to his feet and glared defiantly at his tormentor as Bardos entered the cell.

Bardos looked him over appraisingly, surprised and irrationally angry that his prisoner still had some pride left in him. Most men would have been gibbering wrecks by now, begging for mercy. Yet Iolaus stood before him, holding his abused body straight and tall and Bardos knew what that must be costing him. But he said nothing, just held Iolaus’ gaze, only his eyes communicating his pleasure at the position of power he held over the hunter. Finally, he uttered only two words before turning and marching out of the cell. “Bring him.”

Iolaus was taken to the room again and tied down on the table as before. Bardos stared at his victim thoughtfully for a moment.

“All I want to know is what you did with the jewels,” Bardos said eventually. “You've been caught fair and square, the least you can do is save yourself some pain.”

Iolaus forced himself to look his tormentor squarely in the eye. “I can't tell you where the jewels are. I didn't take them.”

Bardos sighed theatrically, then grinned broadly. “Well, I can’t say I’m too disappointed at your stubbornness. I’m enjoying this too much. And you know what the best thing is? Wondering what you're going to say when I finally break you. You know, you could always lie. It might save you a lot of pain. But you're not going to do that in a hurry, are you? Your pathetic pride won't allow you to admit to a crime you didn't commit. But that’s fine by me. It isn’t yet morning and we have until sunset before Querros and your precious friend return. I’m going to enjoy breaking you and the longer it takes, the more I’ll enjoy it. I suppose you think your big buddy is coming to rescue you? Well, I have news for you. He isn’t. And by the time he gets here it’ll be too late. You’ll be falling over yourself to confess, you’ll say anything just to stop the pain. And we know how the great Hercules feels about justice - he’ll have no choice but to allow your execution to go ahead.”

Iolaus licked dry lips and whispered, “Don’t you care who really took the jewels?”

Bardos shrugged. “Not particularly. If I get to see you hung for the crime, that’ll be good enough for me.” He grinned again. “Now, one last chance, Iolaus. What did you do with the jewels?”

When no answer was forthcoming, he opened the door and beckoned to Velon. “I'm afraid our friend is still being stubborn. I think a little more persuasion is called for.”

Iolaus watched warily as the torturer approached. This time the man moved to the side of the table. Iolaus swallowed. He didn’t know what was coming next, but he did know that it wasn’t going to be pleasant. Without warning, Velon’s hand closed over something at the edge of the table and turned. Red hot daggers of pain shot through Iolaus’ shoulders and back. There was no way he could hold back the scream of agony that rose in his throat.

Bardos laughed. “What do you think of my little invention, Iolaus? Did it feel like hundreds of needles piercing your flesh? That’s because it was. They’re embedded in the wood. A turn of a wheel is all it takes. Ingenious, don’t you think? Velon, why don’t you give our friend another demonstration?” The torturer moved to another wheel and this time the spikes bit into the hunter’s buttocks and thighs, easily penetrating the thin fabric of the loincloth that still hung around his hips. A further turn drove the spikes deeper into soft flesh and as the pain reached a crescendo Iolaus’ screams echoed around the room.

Chapter Six

Autolycus slipped into the cell, pulling the two guards in and locking the door behind him. So far, his plan had worked like a charm. Disguised as a maid, he had taken the guards some food laced with a sleeping drug, and within a few moments they were sleeping like babies.

The cell was dark, with only a tiny window high up near the ceiling giving any light. He could just make out a still figure lying huddled against one of the walls. Ruthlessly preventing himself from rushing straight to his friend, he quickly tied up the two guards, gagging them in case they regained consciousness prematurely. Then he crossed the cell, dropping to his knees in trepidation.

Iolaus was lying where he’d been thrown, half on his back, half on his side, naked but for a ragged loincloth and seemingly unconscious. It was cold in the cell and the hunter was shivering badly and ice cold to the touch. Autolycus looked round carefully then quickly lit a small torch he had brought with him. The flickering light of the torch lit up his friend's body and Auolycus drew in a sharp breath. There seemed to be no part of the hunter’s body that wasn’t marred by burns, cuts and bruises. Autolycus examined him quickly, to his relief detecting no broken bones. He turned the hunter onto his side to examine his back and bit back an exclamation of horror. His whole body from shoulders to legs was covered with small puncture marks, many of them still bleeding, some already looking infected. The Prince of Thieves didn’t want to even imagine the amount of pain that had been inflicted, nor how it had been done. Noticing blood on the hunter's feet, he shone the light on them. The soles of both feet were raw and still bleeding, more vicious looking puncture marks evident. He began swearing under his breath as he took his cloak off and carefully wrapped it around his friend. Iolaus groaned and shifted slightly, but didn't wake up. Autolycus prayed that he'd stay unconscious until this was over.

He gently lifted the unconscious man, grunting as he put him over his shoulder. Iolaus might be small, but he was certainly solid enough. The thief was glad he’d left a cart just outside the wall of the dungeon - he wasn't sure how far he could have carried the hunter otherwise.

He negotiated the secret passageway without incident, but had to stop to rest several times. By the time he’d cautiously pushed open the hidden trapdoor in the ground outside the walls, and pulled first himself then his friend out, he was exhausted, arms and back aching, body shaking with exertion. But he couldn’t stay here, it wasn’t safe. He staggered to the horse and cart he’d left hidden in the undergrowth and with a final effort lifted Iolaus into the back of the cart and covered him up with the blankets and sacks he’d placed there earlier. Then the thief climbed wearily into the driving seat and moved off into the night.

A short time later Autolycus pulled the horse to a halt near his cave. He’d picked this cave out as a hiding place to use for his escape with the jewels. It had two advantages. Firstly, it was close to the castle. No-one would dream that the thief would dare stay so close. Secondly, the first opening to the cave was relatively easy to find, but there was a second chamber and the entrance to this was virtually undetectable from the first.

He lifted Iolaus out of the cart and carried him into the cave, pulling him with difficulty through the narrow opening into the second cave. The inner cave was relatively warm, even though there was no fire. Autolycus thanked the gods that he’d had the foresight to stock the cave with supplies and blankets in readiness for his stay. He deposited his burden gently on a pile of furs and looked down anxiously at the bloodless, pain etched face.

Iolaus stirred and groaned, but didn’t awaken. Autolycus debated building a fire and decided that a small fire was worth the risk - he was sure he had a few hours before they came looking. Once the fire was lit, Autolycus gritted his teeth and began the task of cleaning the blond’s many injuries.

Eventually, satisfied that he’d done all he could, Autolycus sat back and looked down at the unconscious man beside him. None of Iolaus’ injuries should be life threatening - the torturer had obviously been a master of his trade, knowing how to inflict the maximum amount of pain without endangering the life of his victim, so that the torture could be continued indefinitely. Autolycus shuddered, his mind shying away from imagining the horror of what his friend had been through. Iolaus seemed to be sleeping quietly, but he was still very pale and Autolycus was sure he was beginning a fever. He’d had the foresight to steal some healing herbs from the kitchen, but he knew that the hunter needed a proper healer and that his own clumsy ministrations in a dark cave were far from ideal. Yet there was no choice, there was no-one he could trust at this point.

The King of Thieves dragged his hand through his hair in frustration. He didn’t know what to do. He was so used to looking out for himself that being in a situation where he was concerned about someone else was a surprise to him. Yet he still felt his anger boil at what had been done to his friend.

He toyed with the idea of riding out to find Hercules, but dismissed it immediately. He could easily miss the hunting party and he didn’t want to leave Iolaus for too long. They were due back at the castle by sunset. Eventually, he decided that the best course of action would be to lay low for the time being then wait on the outskirts of town and intercept Hercules as he arrived.

Iolaus remained unconscious for most of the day. Autolycus stayed with him, leaving his side only to look out for pursuers. They came, as he knew they would, around midday. He heard them searching the outer cave, then the words he wanted to hear, “Nothing here. Let’s search further north!” He relaxed a little then, knowing that it would be some time if never before the searchers returned.

Iolaus stirred and Autolycus moved quickly to his side. The hunter opened pain filled eyes and focussed blearily on the figure before him. “He ... hercules?”

“No, not Hercules. Autolycus,” the King of Thieves replied quickly, holding a mug of water to the blond’s lips. Iolaus drank gratefully. Slowly, his mind began to process his situation. He was lying on a pile of furs, covered with blankets, in what appeared to be a dimly lit cave. There didn’t seem to be a part of his body that wasn’t screaming in pain. And Autolycus was here? He closed his eyes and when he opened them again the apparition before him was still hovering, a worried look on its face. Iolaus groaned. “Autolycus? I must have died and gone to Hades.”

“Oh, thank you. That’s a nice greeting for someone who just saved your sorry butt,” Autolycus exclaimed indignantly, secretly relieved that Iolaus was in a state to make such a statement. Iolaus groaned again and tried to sit up. He couldn’t hold back a hiss of pain as a white hot blast of agony shot through his body.

“Hey, what’re you trying to do?” Autolycus chastised as he hastily put his hands on the hunter’s shoulders and gently pushed him back down. “Bit soon for you to be thinking of sitting up. You’ve been out for over twelve hours.”

“Twelve hours? Wha .... what happened? What .... The jewels!” the hunter exclaimed as memories of the previous day came flooding back. “Bardos .... he .... he set me up!”

“Someone certainly set you up,” Autolycous agreed. “But ....”

“No!” Iolaus interrupted, but wisely resisted the urge to try and sit up again. “It must have been Bardos. He and I .... he has reason to hate me.” He closed his eyes for a moment. Autolycus put a hand on his shoulder.

“Try not to talk too much. They did a real number on you. You need to rest.”

After a moment, Iolaus opened his eyes again. “How did I get here?”

“I had to get you out of there, Iolaus. I was afraid they might kill you before Hercules could get back to help.” Autolycus explained his overheard conversation and the subsequent rescue.

Iolaus grinned faintly. “I thought our security was fool-proof.”

“Oh, your security *was* fool-proof,” Autolycus agreed airily. “But it wasn’t King of Thieves proof!”

“Well, this is one time when I have to admit I’m grateful for your skills,” Iolaus said with feeling, visibly shuddering at the thought of another day at the mercy of the man who hated him so much. “I *knew* it was you I saw at the festival. What I don’t understand is how you got into the castle in the first place?”

“Ah, well,” Autolycous said hastily, “that bit isn’t important .... you should get some rest now, Iolaus.”

“Rest! Bardos must have the whole castle guard out searching for me! How in Zeus’ name am I going to get out of this one!”

“The hunting party is due back at sunset. I’ll go and meet Hercules, tell him what happened.”

Iolaus’ eyes brightened, but Autolycus, reading his mind, fixed him with a stern look. “Don’t even think about it. You’re in no state to be tramping around the countryside. I cleaned you up as best I could, but you’ve lost a lot of blood and there’s still danger of infection. And I am not, I repeat *not* going to be the one to explain to Hercules why I allowed his best friend to kill himself. Do I make myself clear?”

“But ....”

Autolycus glared at him. And, truth be told, Iolaus himself wasn’t sure he’d even he able to get up, never mind accompany the thief. He hurt so much and he was so tired. Despite all his attempts to stay awake his eyes were already closing of their own volition and within a few minutes his final protests were stilled as sleep overtook him.

Autolycus breathed a sigh of relief. Iolaus was such a stubborn cuss, the King of Thieves had been afraid he’d have to tie him up to get him to stay put.

The thief waited another hour then quietly left the cave.

Chapter Seven

The hunting party arrived back at Levkos a little before sunset. Hercules had enjoyed the trip, despite having to spend so much time regaling their guest with tales of his exploits, and the hunting had been good. But he had missed his best friend, wished he had been there to tell the stories so much better than Hercules himself could. The demigod grinned. He had a couple of new stories he was looking forward to telling Iolaus.

As the party rode through the gates of the town an old woman rushed in front of Hercules’ horse, causing him to pull up abruptly.

“Hercules! What good fortune you should be passing by!” she croaked. “My cart has overturned a little way down the track. I wonder if you could come and help me?”

Hercules looked closely at the old crone. She seemed familiar somehow. As he started at her, she turned slightly, out of view of the rest of the party, and winked. Hercules blinked in surprise. There was something about those eyes .... he almost fell off his horse as the dinar dropped. Autolycus! Seeing the sudden realisation in the demigod’s eyes, Autolycus went on hurridly, “Please, Hercules, it won’t take you a moment, and it’s *really* important to me that I get this cart home by nightfall.”

Hercules turned to Querros who had ridden over and was regarding the stranger curiously. “Querros, this woman has asked for my help. It won’t take long. I’ll see you back at the castle shortly.”

Querros nodded his assent and rode to catch up with the rest of the party. Autolycus, still moving slowly and slightly hunched until the party rode out of view, led Hercules a little way down the track and then into a copse of woods where they wouldn’t be overheard.

Hercules stopped and turned to the thief, arms folded. “OK, Autolycus, out with it, and for Zeus’ sake, take off that hat. I’ve never seen such an ugly old crone.”

“Had you fooled for a minute there, didn’t I?” Autolycus grinned, as he removed the hideous hat and his grey wig with a flourish. He sobered abruptly as he remembered the urgency of his task.

“Hercules, the crown jewels have been stolen.”

Hercules drew in his breath sharply. “Stolen!” He raised an eyebrow. “And you’re here to tell me you didn’t do it, right?”

“No! Well, yes, of course I didn’t do it ....” he stopped indignantly at Hercules’ disbelieving look. “OK, OK, I admit, the thought had crossed my mind.” Before Hercules had time to comment, the thief continued, “But I’d hardly be standing here if I’d stolen the jewels, would I? But that’s not the point. The point is that Bardos has arrested Iolaus.”

“Iolaus!” Hercules exclaimed in astonishment. “Why?”

“Hercules, they found one of the jewels in his room.”

Hercules’ eyes narrowed in disbelief. “Then someone must have planted them there. I need to get back to the castle and sort this out.”

“Hercules, wait!”

Hercules shook off Autolycus’ restraining arm impatiently. “I need to get to the castle! Iolaus will be going wild if they have him under lock and key.”

“Hercules, you have to listen to me,” Autolycus went on urgently. “Iolaus isn’t in the castle. He’s safe, in a cave a couple of leagues from town.”

Hercules looked confused so the thief went on and explained his rescue of the hunter. When Autolycus had finished, the demigod said mildly, “So let me get this straight. In a nutshell, you busted him out of jail?”

Autolycus nodded smugly.

Hercules exploded. “Of all the stupid, hare-brained things to do ....”

“Hey!” Autolycus yelped, stung at the demigod’s sudden anger. “It wasn’t hare-brained! Considering the short notice, it was a well thought out plan!”

“Autolycus, you idiot, they already suspect him of stealing the jewels,” Hercules hissed, barely able to contain his anger and sudden worry for his friend. “What do you suppose they’re thinking now?”

Autolycus recognised Hercules’ anger as a reaction to his fear for his friend and rushed on with his explanation, though he knew the demigod wasn’t going to react well to what he had to say. “Hercules, you don’t understand. Bardos didn’t just arrest Iolaus. He and Princess Area are convinced of Iolaus’ guilt and they wanted to find out what had happened to the jewels before the King and Prince Querros returned .... so they had Iolaus taken to the dungeon and ....” he paused, and swallowed nervously, “Hercules, Bardos had him tortured, badly. I had no choice. I had to get him out of there .... I was afraid he might not survive until your return.”

Hercules went pale. “What did they do to him? Is he alright? Where is he!”

Autolycus quickly filled him in. When he had finished, Hercules said contritely, “I’m sorry, Autolycus. I understand why you did what you did. And I’m grateful to you for taking care of him. Now, please take me to him. Then I’ll go back to the castle and explain everything to Querros.”

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Hercules. Someone in that castle must have stolen the jewels and you can bet they’ve covered their tracks.”

“You surely don’t think Querros knows anything about this!”

“I’m not accusing anyone. All I’m saying is that the evidence against Iolaus seems pretty damning, and until you can prove who the guilty party is, there are no other suspects.”

“Then, that’s what I’ll have to do.”

“I, umm, I have an idea about that.” Autolycus said.

Hercules groaned. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but, ‘go ahead!’”

Autolycus outlined his plan. “No way,” Hercules responded firmly, shaking his head. “It’s too risky. Besides, it won’t come to that. Querros will convince Bardos he has the wrong man.”

“So - how do you plan to expose the real criminal, Hercules?”

“I don’t know. I’ll think of something. Look - I need to see Iolaus.”

“Hercules, I really think you should keep away for now. They’ll be wondering where you are ....”

Hercules was torn. He saw the sense of Autolycus’ words, but he desperately wanted to see his friend, to assure himself that he was alright. Sensing the emotions raging within his companion, Autolycus put a hand on his arm. “I’ll take care of him, Hercules, I promise. Look, if it makes you feel better, let’s meet at midnight at the castle gates. By then you’ll have had chance to talk to Querros. If things aren’t working out - there’s still my plan.” Reluctantly Hercules nodded. Autolycus faded into the forest and Hercules stood still for a moment, gathering his thoughts, before heading back to the castle.

When Hercules arrived at the castle, he found himself in the middle of a heated discussion between Bardos, Querros and Area. Swallowing his anger at his knowledge of Bardos’ brutal treatment of his friend, he listened to the man’s story of how the amulet had been found in Iolaus’ possession and his arrest, ‘interrogation’ and subsequent escape, possibly aided by the kitchen hand who had failed to turn up for work that morning. Eventually, Hercules turned to Querros in frustration. “Querros, for the gods’ sakes, you know Iolaus. You know he’d never do a thing like this.”

Querros turned troubled eyes on the demigod. “If he didn’t do it, Hercules, why did he escape? Why didn’t he stay and claim his innocence?”

“He was set up, Querros, can’t you see that? We need time to find out who did it and why, and I have the feeling,” turning cold eyes towards the Chief of Security, “that Bardos wasn’t inclined to do anything but take the evidence at face value.”

Querros turned to Hercules. “Hercules, you have to admit the evidence is pretty damning. There’s nothing to prove Iolaus was set up. The amulet was found in his room. If he didn’t steal it, how would it have got there, and what possible motivation would anyone have had anyway?”

“You keep talking about an amulet, not a jewel. What exactly does this ‘amulet’ look like?”

“The amulet isn’t a jewel, Hercules. It isn’t worth anything in a material sense. It’s a family heirloom, priceless for its sentimental value. Iolaus probably kept it because he didn’t think it was important enough to sell.”

Hercules had a sudden sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. “What does it look like?”

“It’s about half the size of your hand, made from bone, with an intricate design on it in the shape of a flower.”

Hercules closed his eyes for a moment, horror filling him at his own unwitting part in this plan. “Then I know how Iolaus was set up.” He went on to explain about the encounter with Rhianna in the marketplace.

Bardos snorted. “You expect us to believe such an unlikely story?”

Hercules turned on him. “Are you calling me a liar, Bardos?”

“I’m saying I think you’d make up anything to get your little friend off the hook. But both you and I know about his past, don’t we Hercules? Does Prince Querros know he used to be a thief?”

Querros looked at Hercules in consternation. “Hercules?”

Hercules shot a look of anger at Bardos. “It was a long time ago, Querros, before we were at the Academy. Iolaus had got in with a bad crowd. But he’s been the most honest person I know for as long as we’ve been friends.”

Querros shook his head. “I’m sorry, Hercules. I like Iolaus, he’s been a good friend to me, but the facts speak for themselves. I admire your desire to protect him, but unless you have some proof to back up this ridiculous story, I’ll have no choice. When we find him .... and we will find him .... he will be executed for his crime.”

With that pronouncement, he left the room with Bardos, leaving the demigod gaping in astonishment that rapidly turned to anger.

That night, Hercules met Autolycus as planned by the gates of the castle. “Well?” Autolycus asked quietly. Hercules looked into the night for a moment. Then he said grimly, “Do it.”

Chapter Eight

Hercules went back to bed after his meeting with Autolycus, but he couldn’t sleep. His mind was racing, his heart filled with a mixture of emotions. There was anger towards Bardos, who had tortured his friend. When he’d first seen Bardos on his return to the castle he’d wanted nothing more than to tear the man apart. Sitting calmly, listening to what that scum had to say, had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

He was afraid, desperately afraid for Iolaus. No amount of assurances from Autolycus could take the edge off his fear that the hunter wasn’t more badly hurt. And even if his injuries weren’t life threatening, he must be in a lot of pain. He needed his best friend and Hercules couldn’t go to him. But Autolycus was right - the way things were going, it wouldn’t be safe.

He couldn’t believe that Querros had sided with Bardos against Iolaus and that he could think that Hercules would make up an elaborate lie to protect his friend. It was this fact and his growing fear that the situation was out of control, that had led him to agree to Autolycus’ ridiculous plan.

Most of all, he was wracked with guilt. *He* was responsible for the mess Iolaus was in. He groaned as he remembered the encounter with the girl. How could he have been so stupid? Looking back, it was obvious to him that there was something odd about her behaviour. If only he’d been suspicious, if only he’d talked to Iolaus about the amulet, if only .... Hercules knew there was no point in going over and over it in his mind. He couldn’t changed what had happened. But his mind kept turning to Iolaus, imagining the pain his friend had gone through, the despair he must have felt as he lay in his cell, waiting for them to come for him again ....

Iolaus lay in the soft furs, trying desperately to take his mind off both the immediate pain and the hopelessness of his situation. He was beginning to feel hot and shivery, as fever began to overtake him, but he couldn’t sleep. He knew Hercules would move mountains to help him but, despite his faith in his friend, Iolaus had a nasty feeling that his enemy was one step ahead. He knew that he could probably escape from here, with Autolycus’ help, but to what avail? To spend the rest of his life as a hunted criminal? He’d have to travel far away, assume a new identity, no longer able to be at Hercules’ side.

Maybe he should just give himself up, and trust Hercules and Querros to fight his corner. But the thought of returning to the castle filled him with a fear that shamed him in its intensity as it brought back with vivid clarity memories of the pain he had suffered at Bardos’ hands. Bardos. Iolaus was still sure that Bardos was the one who had set him up, and the thought filled him with anger.

After a while, he began to go over the events of the last few days in his mind, hour by hour, trying to find something that would give him a clue as to how he had been set up. Strangely, when he began to think of his rescue of Rhianna in the alley, he found himself remembering the girl not as the dark haired beauty he had seen only two days ago, but as a blond, laughing as she looked up into the eyes of a man. He tried to concentrate through the haze of pain and the thumping in his head. Somehow, he knew that this memory was important. He allowed his mind to roam back, trying to see the face of the other man. And then, suddenly, he saw the man, clear as day in his mind, and felt a cold lump in the pit of his stomach.

If this was the girl he remembered, and he was sure she was, her appearance in Levkos couldn’t be a coincidence. Suddenly, he knew for sure who had set him up and stolen the jewels. A feeling of despair came over him as he realised that there was no way he would be able to prove his suspicions. Not even Hercules would be able to get him out of this one. When they found him, as they eventually would, he would be executed and there was nothing he could do about it.

His mind was working sluggishly, but he began to remember Autolycus’ last words to him before the thief had left just before dawn. Autolycus and Hercules had a plan to unmask the thief. If so, Hercules was in danger. Iolaus knew that he had to get to the castle to help.

Slowly he sat up, his body shrieking its protest, but he gritted his teeth, forced back the rising nausea and concentrated on breathing. Eventually, he managed to lever himself to his feet. He gasped and almost fell as his injured feet touched the ground. Even thickly bound as they were, the pain still went through him like a knife. He laughed mirthlessly at the apt analogy. Feeling around in the semi-darkness, he found Autolycus’ carry sack and pulled out a pair of breeches and a vest. He pulled them on carefully, hissing in pain as the material rubbed against his many cuts and burns, grateful that the garments were a few sizes too big. He rested for a moment, then slowly, painfully, dragged himself out into the night.

After breakfast the following morning, Hercules put his part of Autolycus’ plan into action, asking for a meeting with Querros, Area and Bardos. He was outwardly calm, but inside his heart was thumping. The more he thought about it, the more ridiculous the plan seemed and he had no idea if Autolycus had managed to carry out his side. But there was no choice but to go ahead.

“Querros, I’d like you to order another search of the castle.”

“Hercules, what good will that do?” Querros responded irritably. “What we need to do is get more search parties out looking for Iolaus.”

“There are plenty of men out looking for Iolaus. Indulge me, Querros. What harm will it do?”

Querros sighed. “Very well, if it will make you happy. Bardos - gather the castle guard and have the search begun.”

Hercules watched Bardos closely to see his reaction, but the man merely nodded and beckoned to Velon. Hercules continued to watch the Chief of Security as he gave out instructions. The demigod didn’t trust Bardos, the man was the most likely person to want to frame Iolaus. But nothing in the man’s behaviour had given anything away. Either he was a very good actor, or he truly knew nothing about the circumstances of the theft.

The party waited, in uncomfortable silence, until one of the guards came running into the room and thrust a bag at Bardos. “Sir, Your Highness, the jewels have been found!”

Bardos handed the bag to Querros, who put his hand in and drew out a handful of bright, shining emeralds and diamonds. Hercules looked quickly round the room, observing the reactions of those present. All registered varying looks of surprise and shock. Except Velon. Velon’s face showed disbelief, shock, and something else. Something that looked very much like fear. Seeing Hercules’ eyes on him, his eyes grew wide, and he blurted out, “It’s impossible! You can’t have found them ....”

“Velon?” Hercules stood and approached the man slowly. “Why is it impossible? Is it because you thought you knew where the jewels were?”

Velon looked round desperately. His eyes moved passed Hercules and widened in fear. He began to back away.

“It wasn’t my fault!” he blurted out. “I didn’t hide them in the castle ....” Realising his admission, he rushed on, “It wasn’t my idea. He made me do it!”

All eyes were on Velon.

“Who?” Hercules demanded. “Who made you do it?” Velon shook his head and backed away further. Then, as he opened his mouth to speak, all Hades broke loose.

Hercules started at a scream of “Hercules! Look out!” and whirled round just in time to see a small, blond tornado hurl itself across the room, thudding into Prince Querros and bringing him to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. As he hit the ground, a knife fell from Querros’ hand and bounced away. Iolaus lay where he had fallen, gasping as his body turned into a ball of pain. Querros recovered quickly, lunging for the knife and before Hercules had time to move, had an arm around the hunter’s neck and the knife held against his throat.

“Keep away, Hercules!”

Seeing Hercules’ attention distracted, Velon made a bolt for the door, but was stopped in his tracks by Bardos who felled him with one blow.

Hercules recovered quickly from the shock of seeing Querros poised to throw a knife aimed in his direction. He stood still, quickly assessing the situation. Iolaus was limp in Querros’ hold, seemingly barely conscious and hardly aware of his surroundings. He looked so ill that Hercules couldn’t tell if he was faking it or not. By the looks of him, probably not. A river of anger flooded through the demigod at the thought of his friend’s suffering. And now it appeared that it was at Querros’s hands.

“Querros, put the knife down. It’s over.” Hercules said slowly, keeping his voice even and steady.

“No, Hercules. It isn’t over. I’m going to leave here and you’re not going to stop me. Believe me, I’ll kill him if I have to.”

“You’re not going to kill Iolaus, Querros. For Zeus’s sake, man, he’s your friend. He’s saved your life more than once.”

Querros’ voice rose slightly. “You don’t understand, Hercules. I can’t stay here. I have to get away, to be with Rhianna, and I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Rhianna! Understanding began to dawn on Hercules. “Is that what you’ve become, Querros? A man who would kill his friend in cold blood? What happened to the warrior I used to know?”

Tears were beginning to trickle down Querros’ face now, but he didn’t relax his hold on the knife. “He fell in love, Hercules. He became the kind of man who would give up all his principles to be with the woman he loves.”

“Querros, it isn’t too late to work all this out.” Hercules said softly, beginning to edge his way forwards slowly. “You and Rhianna can still be together.”

Querros looked up at him, then down at the unconscious man in his arms. The knife had made a small nick in the hunter’s skin and a trickle of blood was running down his neck. “No! I’ve come too far!” But he hesitated, and for a moment relaxed his hold on the knife. Iolaus had been waiting for that moment and, gathering the last vestiges of his strength, sprang into action, pushing Querros away from him with a mighty heave. Taken by surprise, Querros stumbled. That was all the opening Hercules needed and with one mighty blow he threw Querros back against the wall. Querros slumped to the ground, unconscious.

Hercules checked quickly to make sure he was out, then left a bemused Bardos to deal with him while he himself ran to his friend, now lying nearby in a boneless heap. “Iolaus?”

There was no response from the hunter. Hercules looked down at him anxiously, noting with horror that the back of both his breeches and vest were stained red with blood. The demigod turned his friend over gently, resting the hunter’s head in his lap. “Iolaus? Come on, buddy. It’s all over. Time to wake up.”

Iolaus, groaned and opened his eyes slowly. His eyes focussed with difficulty on the worried face looking down at him, and he attempted a grin. “Always told you .... you need me to watch your back.”

“Always, Iolaus,” Hercules agreed fervently. “Always.” The hunter’s eyes closed again and he sank back into darkness.

Chapter Nine

Iolaus woke slowly. He could hear a voice far away calling him, and tried to ignore it. The darkness was too comfortable and somewhere at the back of his mind he knew that if he woke up the pain would begin again. Here, in the darkness, the pain was just a memory.

But the voice continued to nag at him and got louder and louder. And as the voice became clearer, so the darkness began to recede to be replaced by light. Eventually, he opened his eyes.

Looking down on him, with a broad smile on its face, was a familiar, if tired and worried looking face. “Hi Herk!” Iolaus managed to croak. Gods! He sounded like a hydra with a sore throat. Come to mention it, that was much how he felt. A cup was held to his mouth and he drank gratefully, the cold water soothing his sore throat.

“Hi yourself, partner,” the demigod responded lightly. “About time you came back to us. I was getting a bit worried for a while there.”

Iolaus looked at him, confused. “Where’ve I been?”

Hercules laughed. “You’ve been out of your head with fever for the last three days.” His smile faded abruptly. “There was a moment there when I ....” his voice broke and he looked away for a moment, then cleared his throat noisily. “Your fever broke last night. The healer says you’re going to be fine.”

Iolaus looked at his friend closely for a moment. He had very little recollection of the past three days. There were shadowy images of Hercules and a stranger, but mostly of Hercules. His last clear memory was of throwing himself at Querros .... Querros!

“Querros! Herc, he was the one who set me up ....” Iolaus tried to sit up as he spoke, then sank back onto the bed with a groan and closed his eyes as a wave of pain hit him.

“Take it easy, partner,” Hercules said softly. “Your wounds are beginning to heal, but you shouldn’t be moving about too much for a while. You need to rest.”

Iolaus opened one eye. “Herk, you look awful. When did you last get any sleep?”

Hercules smiled. “I’m fine.”

“You know, you really ought to take better care of yourself.”

“*Me*!” Hercules yelped indignantly. “You’re a fine example. I should have strangled you myself when I realised what you’d done, sick as you were. Of all the stupid ....”

Iolaus closed his eyes quickly and groaned. As he’d expected, Hercules stopped his tirade abruptly. “Iolaus, what did I tell you? Are you in pain? I’ll get the healer ....”

Iolaus tried to hold back a grin. He *was* in some pain, although nothing like he remembered from a few days ago, but it was a good ploy to head off the inevitable lecture. “I’m fine, Herk, really. Just a bit sore. Are you going to fill me in on what’s happened?”

“Later,” Hercules said firmly, giving his friend a look when he began to protest. “You need to rest, healer’s orders. When you’re feeling a bit stronger, I’ll tell you the whole story.”

“But ....” Iolaus began to protest, then shut up when Hercules glared at him. And he had to admit that he was suddenly tired. Very tired in fact. So tired ....

Hercules looked down at his friend affectionately as his eyes closed and he drifted off. The demigod shuddered as he remembered the last few days, when Iolaus had lain in the grip of a raging fever. There had been many times when he’d sat at his friend’s side, certain he was about to breath his last breath, willing him to fight for life. And fight Iolaus did, as he always would. Hercules had almost collapsed with relief the night before when the blond’s fever broke and the healer confidently announced that the worst was past.

Hercules felt again a raging anger against Bardos for the cruel torture the man had inflicted on the hunter. Bardos had been summarily dismissed by King Levkon on his return, but without punishment. Levkon was a strict enforcer of just punishment but had always refused to allow prisoners to be tortured. He had been appalled to hear that Bardos had attempted to torture a man into a confession and that this wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened in his own castle. However, he also believed that Bardos had been acting in the King’s interests, so refused to mete out a punishment. Bardos had left the castle, threatening revenge on Hercules and Iolaus.

The next day Iolaus was greatly improved. The puncture marks on his back and legs had begun to heal cleanly now that the infection had been purged and although his feet were still tender, the healer didn’t think there would be any permanent damage. Now, he was sitting up in bed, eagerly plowing his way through a huge bowl of broth, while Hercules filled him in on Querros’ treachery.

“He did it for love, Iolaus,” Hercules explained.

Hercules had spoken to Querros shortly after his arrest. Querros had been quiet, all the anger gone and left only with an air of despair. He told the demigod the whole story of his relationship with his uncle’s daughter, Rhianna.

“I love her,” the Prince had explained simply. “I couldn’t give her up. We needed the jewels so we could run away and start a new life together. I was going to fake my death, everything would have worked out.” He looked at Hercules earnestly. “I didn’t mean for Iolaus to get hurt, Hercules. I thought if we planted the amulet on him, they’d arrest him, but I figured you’d work out a way to put things right, no-one would convict the friend of Hercules! Then everything got out of hand, and I didn’t know how to stop it ....”

“So it was Rhianna I saved from robbers in the alley?” Iolaus asked.

Hercules nodded. “She was supposed to give you the amulet, but when you rushed off she gave it to me instead and I played my part perfectly ....” he paused, then looked his friend in the eye. “This is all my fault, Iolaus.” Hercules had been dreading the moment when he’d have to admit to his friend that he had been the cause of his suffering. But now that he’d finally been able to confess, he felt relieved.

“Your fault? How could it be your fault?” “Iolaus, I should have smelled a rat, realised it was all a set up ....”

“Why?” Iolaus asked reasonably. “If I hadn’t rushed off after Autolycus, I’m sure I’d have accepted the amulet. There was no reason to suspect a pretty girl.”

Hercules shook his head. “No, I should have been suspicious. If I had, you wouldn’t have .... I’m sorry, Iolaus.” He turned away, no longer able to look at his friend.

“Hey,” Iolaus said, grabbing the demigod’s arm and forcing him to turn back. “Enough, Hercules,” he went on firmly. “You have nothing to be sorry about. It was *not* your fault. And for once in my life, it wasn’t mine, either!”

Hercules looked at him solemnly. “Iolaus, I got you into this mess and then you end up by saving my life.”

“So? Isn’t that what partners are for?” Iolaus held his friend’s gaze for a moment until Hercules nodded and smiled slightly. Iolaus wasn’t sure he’d convinced the demigod, but decided to leave the subject for now. “So,” he went on, “why go to all the trouble of having Rhianna give me the amulet? Why not just plant it in my room?”

Hercules shrugged. “Velon was afraid of getting caught. There were guards all over the castle - even slipping into your room wouldn’t have been easy.”

“And stealing the crown jewels was?”

“Secret tunnel behind the throne room. Querros knew about it, from exploring the castle as a child.”

“Oh.” Iolaus was silent for a moment. He finished the soup, grimacing in pain as he reached over to put it down on the table by the bed.” He grinned at Hercules’ look of concern. “I’m fine, Herk. Just a bit stiff. I need to get out of this bed ....”

“Not until the healer says you can.” Hercules replied firmly.

Iolaus sighed. He was feeling well enough now that being confined to a bed was beginning to drive him mad. He tried to take his mind off the situation by continuing the conversation.

“So, how did you get Velon to confess?”

“I didn’t. Autolycus had a plan. It was pretty wild, but after Querros refused to take your side against Bardos, I decided we had no choice.”

Iolaus raised an eyebrow incredulously. “You went with a plan *Autolycus* came up with?”

Hercules grinned. “Yup. Shows how desperate I was! And it worked too! Remember Falafel’s friend Tourisshopus? Autolycus bought his replicas of the crown jewels and hid them in the guards’ quarters. When I asked Querros to order another search of the castle, they were found. Velon was so surprised he gave himself away.”

Iolaus chuckled. “That’s a first - Autolycus breaking in to put something back!! And how did Velon get involved in all this?”

“Querros knew he was a ruthless man with no scruples, so he offered him a large enough cut to ensure his co-operation.”

Iolaus sighed. “Querros must really love her, to do something so desperate.”

“Lots of people love someone they can’t have, Iolaus.” Hercules said softly. “But some of them are strong enough to do what’s right.”

There was silence for a moment. Iolaus knew that Hercules’ comment had been directed at him, and he was grateful. The only way he’d been able to live with the loss of Niobe had been to hold on to the knowledge that he’d done what was right.

After a moment, Iolaus asked, “What’s going to happen to Querros?”

“The King hasn’t decided yet. He’s still beside himself with grief and anger - the wedding’s off, of course. Rhianna’s been sent back to her uncle in disgrace. I suspect the King will send Querros into exile, which will mean that Area becomes the new heir to the kingdom.”

Iolaus shuddered at the thought of Area as Queen of Levkos. He hadn’t told anyone about the visit he’d received from her in the dungeon. Over the past few days she’d been falling over herself to make sure he was comfortable, allowing her own handmaiden to tend to his every need, obviously terrified that Iolaus would talk and that her father would discover the cruel streak she kept well hidden from him. But Iolaus had kept silent. He figured that King Levkon had enough to worry about already.

His thoughts were shattered by a commotion at the door of his room as a man burst in followed in close pursuit by two guards. He was carrying a large sack and, despite the blond hair and beard, looked a lot like Autolycus.

“Ah, Hercules,” the newcomer boomed as he swept into the room. “Please explain to these good men that I am your good friend Taleo - a healer of renown throughout the land. I’ve come to reassure myself that my friend Iolaus is being well looked after.”

Hercules hid a grin. “It’s alright,” he reassured the guards. “We can vouch for him.”

The guards gave the man another suspicious glance, then nodded and left the room. Autolycus bounced onto Iolaus’ bed and grinned cheerfully. “Well, you look fit as a flea, my friend. I’ve obviously been worrying unnecessarily!” Beneath his words both men could detect an underlying current of relief. Hercules felt a momentary guilt. The thief had been lying low for the last few days and Hercules had only been able to get word to him once. Autolycus had probably been worried sick about the hunter, although he’d never admit it.

Iolaus looked at Autolycus hopefully. “Well, have you brought me anything? Grapes? Apples? Anything edible would be nice!”

Autolycus looked disgusted. “Don’t you ever think about anything other than your stomach? Surely my very presence is enough to cheer the sick!”

The look on Iolaus’ face sent him hastily delving in his bag. He produced a huge, sticky slice of cake covered with honey. “How about this?”

Iolaus was reaching for the treat eagerly when Hercules snatched it from his hand. “Hey!” The hunter yelped indignantly.

“Where did you get it, Autolycus?” Hercules asked, sniffing it suspicously.

“From a stall in the market. Why?”

“Was the stall owner tall and thin with black hair?”

Autolycus looked mystified. “No! He was short and fat with a bald head, if you must know.”

“Oh, that’s OK then,” Hercules said cheerfully, handing the cake to Iolaus who began to munch it happily. The demigod got to his feet. “I have to go and see the King. You two enjoy your visit!”

After Hercules had left, Autolycus settled himself more comfortably on the bed.

“So, how are you really?” he asked.

“I’m fine, Autolycus.” Iolaus answered honestly. “A bit sore still, and I seem to spend most of my time asleep, but other than that, no real damage.” He paused awkwardly. “Autolycus, I never really .... I mean, I’d like to ....”

Autolycus looked uncomfortable. “If you’re going to thank me, don’t bother. I only helped you because I knew Hercules would have my hide if I didn’t, and you know how scared I am of the big fellow!”

Iolaus grinned. “That’s OK then, I had a horrible feeling for a minute that you did it because we were friends!”

Autolycus shuddered. “Perish the thought, pipsqueak, perish the thought! Who’d have thought it, though - Querros stealing his own inheritance!”

Iolaus sobered. “I can’t help feeling sorry for him, though. The king hasn’t decided what to do yet, but I suspect he’ll send him away in disgrace. The worse thing about that, is that he may give the throne to Area instead!”

“What about that son of Hades, Bardos?”

“He’s been dismissed. The king was horrified when he learnt that .... torture .... was a regular feature in Bardos’ interrogations. So now Bardos has another thing to hate me for.”

“Well, watch your back, my friend.”

“Sure. Though, I kind of rely on Hercules to do that!”

“Yeah. Guess that’s why the two of you are so irritatingly good at everything!”

Iolaus grinned. “You should find yourself a partner, Autolycus.”

Autolycus looked at him in horror. “A partner! Who could possibly be good enough to partner the King of Thieves, terror of all Greece, master of ....”

Iolaus listened contentedly as Autolycus reeled off a list of his virtues, feeling at peace for the first time since this whole thing had begun. But he couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that Hercules was still harbouring a sense of false guilt and that this incident was by no means over. And at the back of his mind was the knowledge that Bardos was out there somewhere, with revenge on his mind, and that eventually they would meet again ....

The End



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