The March to Freedom

by Arianna

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Adam Armus and Nora Kay Foster

The dawn had broken on a promising new day of freedom for the stalwart travellers who had dared to leave behind their homes and lands, their own people and culture, and the perpetual conflicts and wars that had made life a hazardous gamble. Carrying all they had in packs on their backs, they walked with easy but steady strides along the hard-packed sandy shore, a straggling line of individuals and couples who followed the man, Bellus, they’d paid to lead them to Calydon.

Bellus strode with casual, even arrogant, assurance. He was a man in his middle years, with long, thick greying hair pulled back in a loose band to hang past his shoulders, bearded with heavy, bushy brows over dark calculating eyes. Garbed in a comfortable tunic and pantaloons of silk, with a wide leather belt, a shoulder wrap of fine woven linen, and solid, well crafted boots, his appearance gave mixed signals of rather tattered, and not quite clean, opulence.

Above them, rays of light streaked through pillows of cumulus, pure and illuminating, casting the rocks of the nearby cliffs into sharp relief. The endless, eternal sea rolled in white crested waves that rippled forward in line after line to crash upon the rocks and then splash up and wash the sand at their feet before slipping back into the body of the Aegean. Gulls cried and scolded as they dipped in the light wind that blew in over the water or dove to the surface of the sea to catch a luckless fish to break their fast.

The refugees felt exhilarated and yet strangely at peace. They’d travelled long to reach this place and time. Starting out from the steppes on the edges of the land of Chine, a much larger group of villagers had picked up what they could carry and had headed west. But over the months, weary of the endless miles of walking, many of the original number had dropped away, opting to stay where they stopped and try their fortunes in the rugged lands of beautiful mountains populated with rugged men. Others had lost heart in villages on the edge of the desert, the resting places for the caravans on the spice route. But this small band of refugees had persevered, carrying on to a land where they’d heard that men had rights and could live as free peasants-a land with rich soil and a pleasant climate where fruit and olives and grain and grapes practically grew themselves.

This was that different land. Less than a week ago, when they’d disembarked from the ships on which they’d worked their passage, they’d found Bellus on the docks offering to lead the hopeful settlers to a marvellous growing community called Calydon. The gregarious and confident man had described a place of hope and promise where they might build new homes and raise families far from the threat of war. It sounded more than promising-it sounded exactly what they’d hoped to find. The whole journey had been a gamble and this last leg had cost all they had left to acquire the service of an experienced and competent man like Bellus to act as their guide. But silver was worthless if you were dead, so its spending for a better life seemed a good investment, especially since they were now so close to their final stopping place.

Their own clothing was sturdy and reflected the exotic colours and designs of their homeland, not rich but well made of cottons, linens, silks and leathers. Men wore headbands to keep their hair from being whipped into their eyes by the wind, and to dry the sweat that would come soon enough as the sun climbed in the sky. The women wore shawls, and some draped the light woven fabric over their heads as well as their shoulders, modest in their manner. Some were young and newly married, others had lived long years together and were accustomed and comfortable with one another’s ways. Most felt a bubble of anticipated happiness in their breasts and gratefully inhaled the fresh, slightly salty sea air of freedom.

Most, but not all.

Trailing some distance behind Bellus, one of their number watched their guide to Calydon with disfavour and no little suspicion. A young, strong man, trained as a warrior, Cyrus walked with the love of his life, Oi-Lan, beside him. It was for her that he’d decided to turn his back on the possible glories and even wealth a man of skill might have achieved in the unsettled lands behind them. Oi-Lan had wanted a place of security in which to raise the children to come, a land of constancy and the predictable seasonal cycles of life drawing sustenance from the rich soil.

So Cyrus had sold his armour and weapons, his horse and property he’d inherited from his father. He had loaded their few remaining belongings and seeds of their own land into the pack on his back to march with his new wife away from war and toward an unknown but hopefully good life in a distant, foreign land. Still, he couldn’t help feeling vulnerable, or stop himself from thinking the route Bellus had chosen was odd. Though he’d made this journey willingly enough, to please her, he’d kept his guard up and had not forgotten his warrior heritage. Now, he felt they were too exposed, and that such a small and unarmed community of travellers would be better to pass more cautiously, more circumspectly, in the shadows of the forest rather than in the open along this sweep of sand and sea. Certainly, they hoped to find a land of peace but Cyrus was no fool, and he knew danger and predators could be harboured in any land, however gentle it was said to be. The kind of arrogant confidence that Bellus displayed raised the hackles on his neck and pricked his suspicions.

So absorbed was he on his dark study of their guide and his constant flickering of glances to the nearby cliffs and hills, that Cyrus was scarcely aware of Oi-Lan chatting happily beside him.

“I never thought this day would come, Cyrus,” she enthused. “You and me, free of the past, heading to…” But her cheerful reflections drifted off as she realized her husband was paying her no attention. “Cyrus?” she called a little petulantly as she pulled on his arm to get his attention.

“Hmm?” he replied, still not really focusing on her, his eyes gaze on Bellus’ back.

Oi-Lan studied her man and the slight irritation at being ignored faded into concern as she recognized the signs of Cyrus’ unease and felt the tautness of the muscles of his arm, as if he was expecting a battle. Frowning a little, she looked around and could see nothing but sand and sea, green-garbed cliffs and a crystal blue sky above.

Still, she trusted Cyrus and thought there must be a reason for his air of watchfulness. “Something’s bothering you,” she observed. “What is it?”

Grimacing a little as he tipped his head slightly forward, Cyrus admitted, “It’s Bellus.”

Surprised, Oi-Lan looked from her husband to the sturdy man leading them forward and shook her head, smiling softly in reassurance, “Don’t worry,” she soothed her anxious mate. “Everything is fine.”

But Cyrus was not to be so easily diverted. Scowling, he waved a hand to encompass the land around them as he demanded, “Then why is he leading us along the beach, where’s there’s no cover? We should have weapons.”

Behind him, he could hear Regus observe sarcastically to his wife, “Did you hear, Admeta? Cyrus thinks we should be armed.”

The warrior stiffened at Admeta’s disparaging response, “Ah, Cyrus…Cyrus is a fool! We left our home to escape war.”

“Exactly,” Regus chuckled, the laugh hard with ridicule. What need of weapons, indeed, in a land of peace? If they’d wanted to fight, they could have stayed in their own lands and saved themselves this long journey.

Admeta’s sharp, scorning chuckle joined his, the sound harsh in Cyrus’ ears. He knew they thought him a fool, a warrior who felt uncomfortable and half undressed without his armour and sword. But something wasn’t right here. He could feel it in the hackles that rose on the back of his neck, sense it in Bellus’ odd, cool and appraising looks and the guide’s almost contemptuous manner.

Oi-Lan might not understand why Cyrus was so convinced that danger lurked too close, and might not even agree with his assessment, but no one laughed at her man. Furious, she whirled on Regus and Admeta as she demanded, “Why do you laugh? Cyrus just wants to protect us.”

But Regus remained disparaging. “From what?” he demanded, spreading his arms in a wide sweep. “Once Bellus has taken us to Calydon, we will have no enemies.”

Unsure, seeing no threat, no danger, Oi-Lan turned back to her husband and took his arm as she murmured, wanting to placate him, “Maybe they’re right, Cyrus. We’ve had good luck this far.”

Unconvinced, Cyrus murmured, “Hmm.”

But then his attention was caught by a strange distant thundering, the rapid hollow sound of hooves beating upon the earth. Riders. Coming fast. Heading toward them from the other side of the hills not far ahead of them, rising from the shore. He gripped Oi-Lan’s arm as he stopped walking and turned to face the sound, waiting to see what was coming toward them.

The others slowed behind them, now hearing the approaching roll of sound, one they all knew well. The headlong rush of cavalry into battle, forward motion unchecked, but fast and deliberate, the distant thunder of hooves the sombre sound of impending danger and possible death.

“What is that?” Admeta demanded, all sarcasm and laughter gone as she paled, suddenly afraid.

Just then the riders broke over the crest of the hill, galloping at full speed as they swept forward and down the slope toward them, whirling whips and ropes over their heads as they stampeded toward the hapless and helpless cluster of refugees.

‘RUN!” Cyrus shouted in alarmed warning as he turned and pushed Oi-Lan hard along the beach toward the distant rocks and cliffs. Too far. Far too far to outrun the plunging pace of the warhorses that raced toward them.

A woman screamed, “Quickly!” All was confusion as the travelers turned in panic to try to escape, but they’d hardly gone a dozen paces when the horsemen were among them, using ropes and whips, laying about with clubs, to bring them down.

Cyrus fought off one attacker and then another, sick to his soul that they’d been led like lambs to some slaughter. There were too many enemies, all too well armed, for him to fight them all off alone, however great a warrior he had been. But he felt no fear for his own safety. Even as he fought, his eyes raked the confusion of bodies that ran, and tripped, that struggled and fought on the sand, searching even as he cried out in desperate fear for his love, “OI-LAN!

He finally spotted her, fighting bravely but in vain, evading one mounted enemy to continue racing back along the beach, only to be overtaken by another who flung a net over her and brought her screaming in anger to the ground.

Cyrus fought furiously until he was overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and still he struggled and resisted, but to no avail. The refugees were caught by these marauders, whoever they were. There would be no escape. Cyrus’ looked to see what had become of their ‘guide’ and his gut tightened when he spotted Bellus standing to one side looking well pleased. They’d been betrayed-and suddenly Cyrus understood.

They’d given up all they had to march to freedom, even though they had been free in their own lands however frightening the wars had been. But they would find no peace now, and certainly they would find no freedom so long as they remained in Bellus’ clutches.

The raiding party rounded them all up, using clubs and whips when necessary but not wantonly. A man cried out, waving to his comrades, “Over this way! All of you! Move along! Come on, get up, now!” And one by one, the refugees found themselves chained with heavy shackles.

Once all were bound, Bellus bellowed, “All right-move ‘em out!”

Filled with frustrated fury, his voice harsh with condemnation, Cyrus shouted, “Liar! You betrayed us!”

Amused, Bellus turned back to study Cyrus as he would a prized colt that showed fire and promise. “What’s this?” he demanded with a sneer of sarcastic superiority, “A rebel in our midst. Oh, you’ve put fear in my heart.”

“I’ll put a knife in your heart,” Cyrus promised with a snarl.

Laughing, unconcerned, Bellus retorted, “You better do it before we get you and your friends to the slave auction.”

One of the raiders shoved Cyrus belligerently as he ordered, “When I say move, I mean move!”

But Cyrus whirled back around on him, shoving back, obstinate and unafraid as he challenged, “We’ll escape, first chance we get.”

Enraged by the back-talk from a chained captive, the huge, swarthy man, Mudo, lashed out with his whip at Cyrus as he shouted, “Silence, slave! Silence!”

Uncowed, Cyrus grabbed the lashing end of the whip from the air, and looping it quickly around his arm, he pulled on it, dragging his assailant toward him, wanting the bastard within in reach that he might lash out with fists and feet. For a moment, it was an intense battle of strength and will and each pulled back against the other, until Bellus’ own whip lashed out as he bellowed harshly at his subordinate, “Don’t damage the merchandise, Mudo! A slave with fighting spirit like that will fetch top dinar at the Libyan animal games.”

Two slavers grabbed Cyrus from behind, pinning his arms and dragging him away. Bellus smirked at the sturdy warrior before turning to leer at Oi-Lan, whom he knew very well was Cyrus’ woman. Reaching out as if to brush his lascivious fingers along her cheek, while she flinched away in undisguised contempt, Bellus drawled, “And this one-I’m tempted to keep for my own pleasure.”

“Pig!” Cyrus spat as he struggled against the men holding him, sickened by his inability to protect and safeguard Oi-Lan from such shameful fondling. He couldn’t bear to think of his beautiful young wife as a hostage to this man’s base lusts. Fury and despair curdled in his gut as he continued to shove back and elbow the men who held him so tightly.

But Bellus just laughed at him again, calling out with considerable avaricious satisfaction, “Oh good! He never quits. We’ll start the bidding high on him.”

One of the slavers bellowed, “All right, move out!”

Reluctantly, having no choice, bound by chains and surrounded by armed and dangerous men, the once so hopeful refugees from the East stumbled into motion, and plodded along the shore to an unknown but now frightening future.

Pausing for a moment on his morning stroll across the green, rolling land he knew so well, Hercules paused a moment to look down at the pristine lake on the edge of the meadow by his mother’s place. The hills rose around him, peaceful and quiet, and the sky above was clear with the promise of a warm and pleasant day. He could smell the richness of the earth on the light breeze as he inhaled deeply, wishing the placid quiet of this place would sooth the ache that was still raw inside. He’d wandered far in his attempt to leave the pain behind and had come to understand it wasn’t something he could lose on the trails behind him. The grief and perpetual hollow of loss was within him, and he needed to learn to carry it as he carried the other, happier memories, in his heart.

So, he’d turned his face back toward Thebes and had just arrived back at his mother’s place the night before. She’d been delighted to see him, welcoming with warmth and enduring love, delightedly feeding him the treats he’d loved as a child, making him comfortable in his own room. She asked about his travels and they talked of the wonders of distant places, both avoiding the more painful recollection of what had happened some months ago now. Neither wanted to pick at the not yet healed wounds of loss by talking of Deianeara and the children, or their murder by Hera. Alcmene could see the abiding sorrow haunting her son’s eyes. For the first evening at least, she wanted only to give him some measure of peace and respite from his travels, letting him know that there was still a safe home for him here, in her cottage that was filled with the memories of his childhood. During the evening, she brought Hercules up to date on Iolaus’ life.

It seemed that Hercules’ best friend had finally fully given up trying to wrest a living from the soil and hadn’t done any planting in the last season; the land was gradually being overtaken by nature and was now a meadow carpeted by wildflowers. He’d also been getting rid of his animals, a slow process as he tried to find them ‘good homes’ and hadn’t yet been able to make it all the way to the butcher with an animal he couldn’t place elsewhere. Instead of farming, he was doing a lot of hunting, and had turned his attention to smithing on a more full time basis. He and Klangitus, the smith in Thebes, often worked together these days, and the last time she’d spoken to Iolaus, he’d mentioned his decision to set up his own small forge in the shed behind his cottage on the hill. Hercules was glad to hear that his best friend was making a life for himself, and doing something besides farming, which they’d both learned was not their strong suit.

Finally, at ease in his old home, he went to his boyhood room and slept.

After breakfast, she’d sent him out for a walk, and had thought he might either head toward Iolaus’ homestead up the long hill, or across the fields to the remains of his own home. But he’d headed toward the forests instead and she’d shook her head. He was still seeking isolation, not yet ready for companionship, nor able to face the tangible evidence of his loss. Sighing, she turned to the barn to haul the harvested sacks of grain from the corner of the old dim structure, to the two-wheeled wooden handcart for transport to the market. It was hard work, but she was still strong…and determined. It was slow work, but gradually, as she persevered, she made progress.

Now, close to his mother’s property, Hercules could hear her soft grunts and rough panting from the strain of the heavy work. Frowning, he loped the short distance down the sloping meadow and into the uncertain light of the barn to find his mother wrestling a sack of grain that was likely heavier than she was across the straw-strewn earthen floor toward the cart. Several sacks were already loaded and shaking his head as he moved forward to rescue her from her current struggle with a recalcitrant sack, he couldn’t even imagine how she’d managed to load the others.

“Mother!” he protested as he gently moved her aside and took hold of the sack, lifting it with ridiculous ease to shift it into the cart. “What are you doing? That’s too heavy for you.”

Alcmene laughed, in part at his obvious indignation and in part with amusement at how he made such heavy work seem like child’s play.

Straightening her aching back, she chuckled, “Guess I’m used to taking care of things by myself.”

As Hercules lifted another of the sacks and carried it to the cart, he grimaced with fond impatience as he scolded her, “All you have to do is ask.”

Undeterred, she’d had gone for another of the heavy sacks, to continue the loading, and puffed a little as she hauled it backwards toward the cart. Stubborn, self-sufficient by nature, she huffed, “Thanks, but, I can manage-really.”

Shaking his head, Hercules again divested her of her burden as he chided, “Would you let me do that? What good is it having your son visit if you don’t put him to work?”

Relenting with a smile, Alcmene studied him as he continued to fill the cart. “I suppose you’re right,” she allowed, quite enjoying the experience of having her son home again and watching him perform mundane, everyday chores.

“Of course I am,” he said smugly, grinning at her.

As he finished tossing the last heavy sack onto the cart, she said to him, “Don’t settle for less than 400 dinars for this load.”

“You want me to sell the grain?” Hercules asked with some surprise and no little dismay.

Grinning at him, Alcmene shrugged as she replied, “You said you wanted to help.”

“Well yes, but,” he hedged with a smirk, “You know I’m no good at haggling with those vultures in the marketplace.” He crossed his arms as he reminded her, “I might have been a farmer for a dozen or so years, and I provided the muscle to get our collective harvests to market, but you’ll remember that it was always you, Iolaus or Deianeara who did the selling. You all used to tell me I wasn’t aggressive or avaricious enough for the thrust and parry of the grim battles that are waged daily over tomatoes and grapes.”

Laughing in memory, Alcmene patted his arm consolingly. He needed to go into Thebes and see old friends, needed to be around people he knew, not hiding out here at the cottage or wandering the forest nursing the lingering hurt of his terrible losses. And she was determined to get him moving in the right direction now that he was home. The direction of friendship and involvement with people who cared about him. So she continued in her campaign to divest her responsibility for selling the grain onto his broad shoulders. “The gods gave you a sharp mind to go with that strong body, Hercules,” she encouraged him. “Give yourself a chance.”

Capitulating with good grace, Hercules smiled in defeat as he agreed, “All right, all right.” Turning to grab hold of the carts’ long handles, he paused to give her a sharp look as he added, “But you’re wrong about one thing.”

“Oh?” she queried, arching a brow.

“Uh huh,” he smirked, lest she think he hadn’t divined her purpose and was well aware that he was being manipulated ‘for his own good’. “It wasn’t the gods who gave me a sharp mind,” he told her knowingly. “It was you.”

Mildly chastened, but more reassured by the fond warmth in his eyes as he teased her, she only nodded with a smile as she murmured, “Mmm.”

Hercules hauled the heavily loaded cart with an easy, effortless stride up the long, green hills, choosing a path across the land rather than following the winding, dusty road below. Though he walked with a light tread, his heart was heavy as he crossed the land he’d once farmed to support his family. There was no avoiding it all-together in his journey from Alcmene’s small property to Thebes. It was either cross the fields or follow the road that would take him within view of his own ruined home…and that he could not yet bear to see. When he’d left months ago now, he’d left in a rage of grief, his house in shambles, the ashes of his family in the scorched remains of their beds. Now he wondered if in running away as he had, he’d really been running from the reality of having to inter their remains and mourn their loss-running from having to accept he’d never see his beloved wife or cherished children again.

Now, as he strode across the land, the cart rolling along behind him with the odd creak of protest and lurch as the wheels lifted and dropped over stones in the soil, his eye was caught by the wooden markers shaded by the big spreading oak that his kids had loved to climb while he and Dei had picnicked in the cool of its shadow, their favourite spot for gazing out from the crest of the hill over the valley of their farm.

His throat tightened as he drew nearer, and the shape of the markers, one larger than the three little ones arrayed around it, became clearer. He recognized Iolaus’ handiwork in the fine carving of the roses that entwined over the face of the wood, of the little birds that darted in play on the smaller markers, and his eyes misted, his lips trembling with an awareness he could no longer deny.

These were the graves of his family-all that was left of those he’d loved better than his life-loved so much it had filled him with a sweet, perpetual ache that brimmed in him still but was now bittersweet with the grief that twisted painfully in his heart. Sighing, he stopped and tipped the rails of the cart to rest on the ground. Iolaus had done this, Hercules thought with sad gratitude but he was also conscious of a stab of guilt. He’d run away, and when he’d stopped running, he’d kept walking in another direction. Iolaus had come home and performed this last task of love and safekeeping on his behalf.

Slowly, unconsciously, Hercules gathered wild flowers as he’d once done often to bring to his beautiful wife, as he made his way toward the carved wooden markers that were protected by a small fence and shadowed by the ancient tree. Solemnly, he knelt before the largest marker, but was unable to gaze at it, turning his face instead to the sweep of land that fell away to the valley below.

“How many times did we walk across this very place?” he asked pensively, sadly. “Laughing. Thinking our happiness would never end. I look around and all I see is you, Deianeara.” Reluctantly, he turned his gaze to take in the markers as he continued, “and you, Ilea, Aeson, and Clonis.” Turning his gaze back to the large wooden arc carved with beautiful and delicate flowers, entwined in eternal vines, he hung his head as he admitted sorrowfully, his voice catching, “That’s why I didn’t come back sooner. I was afraid it would hurt too much.”

He’d been right. It hurt like Tartarus to be here, to see their graves-the pain a crushing weight in his chest. He tightened his jaw and forced back the lump in his throat, sniffing as he swiped at the burning saltiness in his eyes. Forcing himself to look again at the marker of Deianeara’s grave, he said softly, his voice thick with emotion, “I know I should get on with my life, but I can’t stop missing you.” When his voice cracked, he shook his head and sighed wearily. His eyes were red-rimmed as he again forced back a heavy lump of grief, his eyes lifting sightlessly to the empty sky as he murmured brokenly, “You were everything to me…and now I have nothing except the memories you gave me.”

Biting his lip, he heaved in a deep breath and looked down at the flowers he’d forgotten he’d gathered and still clutched in one strong hand. Laying them gently on the ground, a humble offering in remembrance of everlasting love, he whispered to his wife, wondering if the soul of a beloved could hear words spoken from the heart, “All I can offer in return are these.” Looking up at the marker, forcing himself to stand, he promised, “I’ll try to do better the next time I come here.”

It was hard to turn away, hard to walk down the slope toward the cart, out of the shadows that shaded his family’s resting place and into the glaring sunlight…hard to swallow the tears, to not scream out in rage and an agony of endless aching pain. Gods, it hurt to his soul to know they’d been murdered as a gesture of vengeance that had had nothing to do with them-they’d been innocent and helpless…and they’d only died because he’d loved them so much.

Holding tight to his control, Hercules bent between the shafts and lifted the handles to resume his trek across the long emerald hills toward the market place in Thebes. But his tread was heavier now, burdened by a grief that weighed far more heavily upon him than did the sacks of grain in the cart.

The market place thronged with people shouting their wares, voices raised to bicker in barter, mothers calling to their children to behave, friends shouting out greetings and laughing in the exchange of banter. The stalls filled the square, the passages between and around them narrow, so that people unconsciously pushed and shoved their way past those who stopped to browse or buy.

As he dragged the cart down the narrow, dark lane to the edge of the mercantile area, Hercules heard the chants of the farmers and craftsmen hawking loudly to attract the attention of the passing potential shoppers. A girl’s voice called out hopefully, “Chickens! Chicken-here’s a chicken!” One man chanted in counterpoint, “Two dinar! Two dinar!” Until another chimed in, “Here you go! Two dinar!” Below the tenors of the men engaged in the exchange of dinars, a bass voice rumbled, “Goat for sale!” and someone else cajoled, “Fine-crafted…”

As he came into the marketplace, the booth on the corner exhibiting weapons attracted his attention and the owner called him closer. Setting down the shafts of his cart, Hercules ambled over, more reluctant to engage in the sale if his grain that he was interested in what the man had to sell. “Weapons, sir? The finest weapons in the marketplace. Please, have a look, sir. May I interest you in some bows, sir? The finest quality. Try it out, sir, try it out.”

Remembering the well-tended graves and thinking of Iolaus, Hercules bent to pick up one of the bows, wondering if his old friend would like a new one. As Hercules recalled, the hunter’s bow had had years of long use. “It’s a nice bow,” he murmured. But his contemplation of the possible gift was interrupted by something snuffling around his boots.

Expecting a dog, the demigod was surprised at the sight of the good sized pig that had developed a sudden attraction for him, but his attention was distracted by the craftsman in the booth, who, sensing a sale, began the bartering process by offering his first price. “Only 15 dinars,” he said, sounding as if he had amazed himself by what a good price he was offering.

The demigod was considering his reply when the pig started pushing at his leg, all the while snuffling happily, and he had just absently pushed it gently away with the side of his boot, when another voice growled menacingly, “Hey, you! Stop kickin’ my pig!”

Turning at the growl, careful not to step on the pig at this feet but quickly replacing the bow onto the pile of weapons, Hercules caught the blond whirlwind flashing at him in sudden attack and dumped him unceremoniously flat on his back on the ground.

“Woww!” the blond on the ground exclaimed to find himself so suddenly horizontal. If this hadn’t become their traditional mode of greeting over the years, ever since Hercules’ had flattened him in this same market place just before his wedding to Ania, the Hunter might have been a bit dismayed to find himself in the dust. But it had become almost a tradition and Iolaus couldn’t help laughing at their perpetual boyish antics. With the skills he’d acquired in the East, both friends knew they had an equal chance of bringing the other down if they really wanted to, but this ritual…this was just for fun and old times’ sake.

His expression impassive, as if nothing had happened, Hercules turned blandly away to again pick up the bow, as he said off-handedly, “Hello, Iolaus.”

His best friend was still laughing and making no move to get up and Hercules found himself smiling broadly as he stopped fooling around and, setting down the bow, he turned eagerly to offer Iolaus a hand up.

Delighted to have so unexpectedly encountered the demigod in Thebes, Iolaus gripped Hercules arm in warm welcome, still chuckling with merriment as he called out, “Herc, you monster slayer! What are you doing here?”

“Visiting my mother,” Hercules explained with a bright smile, the ache in his heart soothed by the warm ripple of Iolaus’ laughter and the delighted look of welcome in his old friend’s eyes.

“Oh, and neglecting your best friend?” Iolaus sniffed, teasing as he shook his head with feigned disgust.

“No,” Hercules protested quickly in response. “Actually, I was just going to head over to your place, when my mother roped me into selling her grain.” Rolling his eyes, the demigod gestured toward the laden cart.

Amused, Iolaus gazed at the cart and shook his head, wondering at Alcmene’s whimsy in trusting Hercules to conduct the sale of her grain. “Oh-ho,” he joked, pursing his lips, thinking it might be amusing to watch Herc try to hold his own with the sharp traders in town. The guy could face down a monster or a raging god without flinching, but he turned to mush when he had to deal with the intricacies of haggling for a profit. Eying the stacks of grain, he figured a fair price for the load would be between one hundred and seventy-five to two hundred dinars.

While Iolaus eyed the grain, Hercules had been drinking in the sight of the man who’d been his best friend for the whole of his life. “You’re lookin’ well!” he observed.

Looking back up at the demigod, Iolaus grinned as he replied, “Thanks.” The hunter hauled on the rope lead in his hand to draw the pig away from one of the stalls. “Come on,” he called to the animal.

Amused, Hercules snickered, “Oh, someone new in your life?”

Snorting, Iolaus shook his head as he shot back, “Oh, very funny.” Grimacing a little sadly at the pig, he leaned closer to the demigod to explain in confidentially quiet tones, “Actually, uh, I’m just about to sell Penelope to the…” Iolaus paused to glance at the pig and then spelled out in a whisper, “b-u-t-c-h-e-r.”

“Oh, the butcher,” Hercules replied with no sensitivity whatsoever, causing the pig to squeal in alarm and drawing an irritated look from Iolaus as the demigod turned back to his cart. Over his shoulder, he chided gently, “You know? You’ve got to stop naming your animals.”

Their light banter was interrupted by a loud, grating shout as Bellus called, “Get in there. Low-life scum.”

Looking down a side alley, Hercules frowned as he saw what looked like prisoners being roughly herded into a building. “What’s all this about?” he asked, not liking what he was seeing. The people in shackles were dressed in slightly foreign garb and looked cowed, afraid. And there were women as well as men in chains. Behind him, the chant of merchants droned on, “Gold and jewellery! Get your…”

Iolaus had also turned to look down the alley at the harsh shout, and he grimaced in disgust as he replied, “That’s Bellus, a slave trader. Comes through here every month.”

“Slaves?” Hercules protested with a disbelieving tone. “Jason outlawed slavery here years ago…”

“Yeah, but Bellus claims these are ‘indentured servants’ who have sold their labour for the opportunity of being transported to a more hospitable country. He ‘sells’ their ‘contracts’ to the highest bidder,” Iolaus explained. “Slavery is illegal in these parts, but indentured labour is as common as it ever was. At least those bought here have some hope of regaining their freedom once they’ve worked out their terms of four or seven or ten years, whatever Bellus sells them for. It’s not right, and I hate it…but no one has proved the documents he has on each of his captives have been forged, and when the victims protest, he just claims they are lying, waves the forged or forced documentation in front of the magistrate and he wins every time.”

His eyes narrowing in thought, his jaw tight, Hercules asked, “What about the one pushing the slaves around?”

Wondering exactly which of the slavers Hercules was referring to, Iolaus asked, “What, the big guy?”

“Hm-hmm,” the demigod muttered.

“That’s Mudo,” Iolaus drawled with contempt. “ “The Gargantuan’.”

“I hate slavery,” Hercules growled. “It’s not right, Iolaus.”

“You’ll get no argument from me about that,” his friend replied wearily. “I hate it, too…but, technically, this isn’t slavery and you’re not gonna end the trade around indentured labour here today.” Sighing, shaking his head, wishing there was something they could do for the poor souls condemned to years of servitude, which he was certain they’d likely never agreed to, Iolaus turned away. Much as he hated it, there really wasn’t anything they could do. “Come on,” he said to Hercules, pulling on his friend’s arm, “You got some grain to sell. Let’s see if we can find a buyer.” Tugging on the rope leash in his hand, he called over his shoulder, “Come on, Penelope.”

Reluctantly, Hercules let himself be pulled away, his last glance down the lane meeting the angry eyes of an exotically beautiful woman who was clearly furious at the way she was being shoved toward her fate.

Both men were preoccupied with their disturbing thoughts about the luckless people, who’d no doubt been ambushed and were helpless to free themselves, as they strode slowly down the lane between the market stalls and more established shops. A woman’s voice cut into their reverie as she called out, “Hello, Hercules.”

Looking up, they both noticed that the lovely young women of the town had noticed the hero and were smiling at him with invitation in their eyes as they passed by, calling out greetings.

“Will ya look at that?” Iolaus sighed in admiration as one luscious damsel drifted past.

“Hiiiii,” she drawled, low and sultry, with eyes only for the demigod.

“There’s nothing like a hero’s homecoming,” Iolaus teased good-naturedly, used to being the slightest bit invisible whenever he stood in Hercules’ shadow.

Grinning sheepishly, Hercules looked down at him as he replied, “I forgot the scenery around here was so good.” Laughing softly, Iolaus nodded.

Another voice caught their attention as a pretty young woman with bare shoulders and a shimmering shawl tied around her knitted and tightly fitting dress called out with a warm smile, “Don’t walk away before you hear my offer, Hercules.”

Misunderstanding the offer implied, Hercules actually blushed as he stammered, “Uh, look, I’m flattered and all…”

Smirking a little, appreciating his discomfiture, she drawled flirtatiously, “I was talking about your grain.”

Iolaus snickered while Hercules blushed a deeper scarlet. The big guy really was hopeless in a market place, caught off-balance and uncertain, embarrassed too easily. Iolaus was aware her flirtatious offer had been delivered deliberately in such a way as to unnerve the demigod so that he’d be less sharp when the bargaining started.

Gamely, mindful that he did have to sell the grain after all, Hercules replied with almost painful eagerness and ingenuity, “You were? Well, good, because there’s a time and place for everything, and this is the time and place for business.” He babbled, smacking Iolaus on the chest to stop his buddy’s snickering at his expense. “Do you mind?” he muttered to Iolaus before turning back to the young woman. “What I have here is the finest grain that can be found for a hundred miles-in any direction.”

Hercules patted one sack with an unconsciously heavy hand, causing the sack to burst. Golden grains flowed from the breach in a tiny yellow river to the ground.

Having noticed the flow of grain from the sack, the young woman quirked her brow with amusement as she suggested with a nod toward the damage, “Then, you better not waste it.”

A little confused, not sure what she meant, Hercules followed her glance and was surprised to see the grain he was supposed to sell spilling out of the sack. Hastily, he shifted the large sack to halt the loss of grain and turned back to her, shrugging a little with embarrassment as he made light of the damage he’d wrought inadvertently, “Oh, hardly enough for a loaf of bread,” he stammered, minimizing the loss of a few grains given the number of large sacks he had in the cart. Trying to regain the initiative, he stuttered, “Uh, um, so, uh-I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll…I’ll drop the price of, uh, what spilled there and, um, give you all six sacks for…” he lifted his hands innocently, “400 dinars. Now, you know in your heart you can’t beat a deal like that.”

Iolaus looked at astonishment at Hercules at the suggested price, wondering for a moment if his best friend had learned something after-all about haggling in his travels. But there was no awareness on Hercules’ face that he’d just asked double what the cartload was worth. Grinning to himself, Iolaus figured Alcmene had safeguarded her investment by suggesting the price Hercules should get. Knowing her son knew nothing about bargaining, and had even less skill at it, she’d no doubt told him what price to get, well assured it would be the first amount he’d propose when asked.

Meanwhile, an ugly old hag with scraggly long grey hair and a garish eye patch had pushed her way in front of the pretty young woman. “I don’t have a heart,” she snapped.

Blinking at her aggressive interference in the negotiations, Hercules asked, “Who are you?”

Jerking her head back toward the young woman, the old crone grated, “Her mother.”

Gaping from one woman to another, Iolaus mumbled to himself, “I never would’ve guessed.”

Ignoring him, the crone scolded sharply, “You’ve got your nerve, trying to take advantage of my daughter.”

Her eyes wide, embarrassed to have her mother barge into the conversation, effectively putting a halt to the pleasant light flirtation she’d been enjoying with the handsome demigod, the younger woman protested, “Oh, but Mother…”

The older woman waved a hand as she shrugged the protests off, cutting in, “Quiet! I wouldn’t feed your grain to a pig.”

Miffed, Penelope snorted and squealed loudly, while Iolaus protested at the disparaging tone, “Aw, hey!”

Hercules wasn’t sure whether Iolaus was defending his pig’s honour or the grain, but the demigod wasn’t about to take the insult without his own protest, “My mother grew that grain,” he exclaimed in defence of the product of his mother’s hard work.

“A likely story,” the old crone sniffed, unimpressed.

Her daughter was obviously mortified by her mother’s antics and hissed at her, “Mother, this is Hercules.”

Startled, the ugly old crone gave the demigod an appraising look. “It is?” she murmured, and then moved closer to peer up at Hercules with her one good eye. Without warning, she grabbed hold of his arm and unceremoniously dragged him toward the entrance to their establishment as she ordered, “Come here a minute.”

Uncertain, and uncomfortable with the leering look in that one good eye, Hercules appealed over his shoulder as he stumbled after the woman, “Iolaus?”

But his buddy was too convulsed with mirth to be of any help at all. He and the young woman moved closer to the doorway to overhear the conversation coming from the dim interior, and Iolaus could just make out the old woman stroking an admiring hand down a no-doubt mortified demigod’s chest.

“Hey, Hercules,” they heard her murmur in a parody of seduction, “I’ve got a deal for a big, strong man like you.” Gripping his arm to keep him from stepping away from her touch, she continued, “If you’ll spend a little time with me, I’ll give you everything you want for your grain.”

Iolaus couldn’t help it-he burst into gales of laughter.

Since Hercules was very evidently struck dumb by the magnitude of her offer, she continued with an encouraging and hopeful tone, “What do ya say, pretty boy?”

When the demigod still seemed at a loss for words, she gripped both of his arms and shook him a little as she cajoled, “It wouldn’t kill ya.”

Finally finding his voice, Hercules asked respectfully, though his voice sounded a little strangled, “How much for just the grain?”

“Scared of a real woman, are you?” she taunted, unwilling to give up so easily.

Swallowing, not wanting to offend her, Hercules stammered, “No, it’s not that, it’s just that, um…”

“You don’t know what you’re missin’,” she cut over his explanation, with a wheedling tone.

Desperate to escape, Hercules just kept stammering, “Uh, I’m the shy type.”

Sniffing, disgruntled to have been rejected, the old crone, snapped, “Two hundred dinars!”

“That’s all?” Hercules asked in a weak voice, thinking how disappointed his mother would be to receive only half of what she’d sent him to get for the grain.

“Unless you’d care to renegotiate,” she offered slyly.

Shaking his head with the air of man who feared being eaten alive, Hercules said quickly, “Two is fine. Two is great.”

Disgusted, she shoved a small sack of coins at him as she grated, “Take it and be gone.”

Grabbing the small bag, grateful to escape unscathed, the demigod turned to hasten from the dim interior of the workshop. “Thanks, it’s been, uh-a pleasure doing business with you,” he mumbled over his shoulder as he moved back out into the light and safety of the marketplace.

“Goodbye, Hercules,” the young woman sighed wistfully.

“Goodbye,” Hercules paused in his escape to call back, one hand on Iolaus’ shoulder.

But the old woman had followed him out and shouldered in front of her daughter to give the demigod a chance to rethink his decision as she said flatly, “That other 200 dinars’ll be waitin’ for you if you change your mind.”

Hercules blinked at her and then turned away, mumbling under his breath to Iolaus, “Pigs’ll fly first.”

As they strode away, Iolaus looked askance back over his shoulder for a moment at the pretty young woman and her incredibly unattractive mother, and then murmured to Hercules, “Maybe she gets her looks from her father.”

“Uh huh,” grunted the demigod in reply.

Iolaus trailed behind the demigod as the larger man put some distance between them and the old crone, leaving his cart to be retrieved later once they’d unloaded it. When Hercules paused with a stony look toward the building where the sale of human beings was going on, obviously listening to the distant chant of Bellus’ voice as he encouraged the bidding, Iolaus shook his head and sighed as he hastily tied Penelope’s leash to the handy post of one of the stalls.

Wordlessly, the two men entered the dim, crowded building. Torches burned on the walls, but were scarcely enough to illuminate the stuffy, cavernous interior. Clusters of men in loose groups of affiliation filled the hall, some still drifting in behind the heroes, others passing them on their way outside. At the far end, Bellus’ voice was calling out loudly, “Sold! And next, fresh off the livery, a young scrapper!”

The sleazy trader laughed as Cyrus was forced up on the block. Haranguing the crowd, Bellus assured the potential buyers of the sturdy warrior who seemed only a peasant in his current garb. “He’ll work your fields, tend to your livestock, and he’ll take a good whipping, besides. Who’ll start the bidding at a hundred and fifty? Do I have one-fifty? Do I have one-fif-I have one-fifty.”

The bidding began at the requested ‘one-fifty’ and rose immediately to two hundred dinars. Bellus called out, trying to generate more interest, to encourage a higher bid and his efforts were rewarded when the original bidder called out, “Three hundred!”

Bellus smiled sensing the excitement in the hall. “Three!” he acknowledged and called for more. “Three hundred-a strong lad here. Three-fifty. Three-fifty. Four?”

The second bidder bit his lip and then called out, “Four hundred.”

Bellus nodded and called immediately back, his eyes on the first bidder, “Four hundred dinars. Do I have more? Do I have any more?”

And the first man, not fooled by the peasant’s clothing and determined to have this prize, called back, “Five hundred.”

Shifting his eyes to the contesting bidder, Bellus encouraged, “Five hundred? Five hundred? Five hundred, once…”

The man shook his head and turned away, waving off the contest as he called, “Fold.”

Bellus continued the spiel that ended a round of bidding, “…twice-sold to Ineas for five hundred dinars. Congratulations, you’ve got yourself a spirited young sla…uh…servant.” And he laughed again richly at the joke he shared with the buyer. Ineas would be taking this strong and aggressive warrior well beyond the bounds of the anti-slavery laws of King Jason.

As Cyrus was hauled down from the block, Hercules’ shook his head, his jaw tight as he stared at the man who’d bought the man. Iolaus leaned over and told him, his voice heavy with helpless fury at the injustices being perpetrated in this hall, “Ineas is a buyer for the Libyan animal games.”

Grimly, Hercules grated, “Lunch for the lions, huh?”

But their contemplation of Cyrus’ fate was interrupted by a woman’s sharp voice of protest, as Oi-Lan was pulled forward and shoved up onto the block, “Get your hands off me!”

“Ah, gods,” Iolaus sighed in pity and frustration. She was pretty, very pretty…and her fate didn’t bear imagining.

“And now, what you’ve all been waiting for,” Bellus exclaimed with rich good humour. “The best for last! A fine young wench for your bidding. She’ll cook your dinner, scrub your floor, and…with that soft skin and pretty face,” he chuckled with knowing lasciviousness as he winked at the potential buyers, “she’ll warm those cold, lonely nights.”

Oi-Lan scowled at him, and kicked out at one of the slaver’s men who had dared to get too close to her, revealing to all who cared to see that her spirit was far from broken. Some of the men laughed-a few in appreciation of her spunk, but most with a nervous edge, thinking they didn’t need a hellion like her in their beds.

Sensing the shift in mood, Bellus shot Oi-Lan an irritated look, but then oozed unctuously to the crowd, “Come, gentlemen…”

Hercules’ attention was attracted by low urgent murmurings close by as a dark-haired, bearded man muttered to his companion, “How much do you have?”

Bellus called out, asking who would start the bidding as the nearby men swiftly counted up their combined resources. “With his twelve, we’ve got enough,” one affirmed. But another protested, “Well, what about my new plough!”

But the bearded man in his middle thirties, sneered, “Fool! Once we buy the wench, we’ll charge others to use her! We’ll make enough to buy ten ploughs!”

Eager to get the bidding going, Bellus called out, “Who’ll give me one hundred dinars for this flower of the mystic East?”

The bearded man called out, “One hundred.”

To which bid, Hercules quickly replied loudly, “Two hundred!”

Startled, Iolaus demanded, “What are you doing?”

“Trying to save her,” Hercules grated, his voice tight with fury.

Bellus called out, his voice urging more consideration of the charms of this last sale of the day, “I’ve got two hundred, but surely, this is not enough for a woman who has so much untapped potential as a concubine. Do I hear two-fifty?”

The determined and salacious bearded man rose to the challenge, raising his bid, “Two-fifty!”

“Ah, music to my ears,” Bellus acknowledged with a pleased nod as he turned his attention back to the other bidder, a tall, muscular man with long hair. “Do I hear three hundred?” he asked as his eyes met those of the demigod.

“How much money have you got?” Hercules demanded with a quick glance down at Iolaus.

“Uh, Hercules, I want to help but…” Iolaus hedged, but he frowned as he looked at the young Asian woman. He didn’t want her in the clutches of the odious men in the corner any more than Hercules did and he was already reaching for his money pouch as Hercules grated, his eyes again locked on Bellus.

“Consider it a loan,” the demigod stated flatly.

Bellus was encouraging more bidding by taking time to redirect attention to Oi-Lan’s assets, as he crooned, “…see this woman’s many gifts.”

Sighing, Iolaus was handing his money pouch to Hercules as Bellus continued, disgusting them both, “Come now, gentlemen. A lass this lovely is certainly worth at least three hundred dinars.”

“So much for the new forge I was planning to buy,” Iolaus sighed with wry acceptance. “There’re two hundred dinars in the pouch.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll get your money back,” Hercules assured his friend. Iolaus rolled his eyes, thinking there was little chance of that, as Bellus called again.

“Do I hear three?” the slave trader called, certain that the tall muscle-bound man had at least one more bid in him.

“Four hundred!” Hercules called out coldly.

“What are you doing?” Iolaus exclaimed. He wanted to save the girl, sure, but he realized belatedly that he probably should have been doing the bidding. Herc never did have any patience for the nuances of these transactions. “No one’s bid three hundred yet,” he hissed, but sighed. The bid was made…the dinars committed, and that was that.

“Four hundred? Hah!” exclaimed Bellus, well satisfied. “At last, a man who appreciates pulchritude. Do I hear five?” The bearded man shook his head bitterly, so Bellus continued, “All right, then, going once, going twice-sold! To the gentleman with the sparkle in his eye, for four hundred dinars. Congratulations, sir. Enjoy your purchase.”

Hercules lips were thin with disgust as he glared at Bellus, while Iolaus shrugged philosophically and turned his gaze toward the young woman whose life they had very likely just saved. His eyes narrowed as he took in the cold look of hatred in her eyes as she focused her wrath on the man who had just bought her.

Outside, Ineas’ men were herding their purchases into a sturdy wicker cage, one shouting, “This way, knave! Keep moving, or you’ll feel my whip!”

One frightened slave called out, “Where are you taking us?”

But the slavers ignored him, just shoved him into the cage while they harried others toward their confinement, as they called out, “Hurry along! Come on, you!” and made the occasional pithy observation that the slaves found particularly unnerving, “He’ll make a tasty morsel for the lions!”

Cyrus was pushed along, the last in line and shoved roughly into the crowded cage, the slaver shouting, “Get in there, ya vermin! You heard me!” Cyrus was not afraid for himself, indeed, he scarcely noticed what was happening to him and spared no thought for the fate he faced in a distant arena. Distraught, terrified for his wife, he cried out, “Oi-Lan!

Hercules and Iolaus pushed their way to the front of the hall toward Bellus.

“I’m here for the woman,” Hercules coldly informed the unscrupulous trader.

“Money first, friend,” Bellus replied, his tone easy. It had been a good day, the ‘goods’ going for a better price than he usually enjoyed in this slave-free state of Greece.

“Sure,” Hercules agreed as, disgusted, he flung the pouch of dinars, the sum total representing Alcmene’s harvest and Iolaus’ new forge, at Bellus, and then added, “Now, take her shackles off.”

Mudo, ‘The Gargantuan’, sneered, “You think you can handle her?”

Turning icy eyes on the big man, Hercules commanded coldly, “Do it.”

“Go ahead, Mudo,” Bellus directed mildly, happily counting the coins, “We’re just spectators from this point on.”

Oi-Lan stood rigidly before them, fury wafting off her in waves of hostile indignation.

Looking at her with a certain wariness, Iolaus asked his best friend, “What do we do, now?”

“Ah, well, maybe we should introduce ourselves,” the demigod suggested, uncomfortable with her anger and clear misunderstanding of their intentions toward her. Before Iolaus could utter a greeting in the language of the East that he’d learned in his travels a few years before, Hercules held out his hand toward her as he said, “Hello, I’m Hercules. Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Before they quite knew what happened, she’d wordlessly grabbed his arm, using his own motion and weight against him and had flipped the big demigod to the ground. Stunned, more by surprise than from any injury, he exclaimed softly, “Wow!”

Shaking his head, keeping a wary eye on the woman, Iolaus held out a hand to help his friend up.

“It’s bad enough when you flip me,” the demigod groused with good humour as he, too, regarded Oi-Lan with a newly appreciative and appraising eye. She might look slender and helpless, but this young lady could clearly take care of herself.

Iolaus snickered, as he teased, “Well, you certainly have a way with women, Hercules.”

But Oi-Lan saw no humour in the situation. Poised to defend herself, she warned, “Don’t touch me-either of you.”

Outside, Bellus and Mudo caught up with Ineas to gather in his dinars for the men he’d bought for the games in Libya. As Bellus took the silver, scarcely bothering to look at it, he said with oily affront, “You seem to have forgotten something-the delivery charge?”

Not fooled for a minute by the affronted attitude, knowing he was being fleeced, Ineas snapped angrily, “You’re changing the rules! It always used to be included!”

Unmoved, Bellus challenged, “Then you’re refusing?”

“I certainly am!” Ineas exclaimed, having no intention of being played like a fool. “This is robbery!”

“Tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk…such a pity,” Bellus shrugged as he pocketed the silver. “I guess we’ll just have to take the slaves back.”

Astonished, Ineas protested, “But they’re mine! I paid for them!”

Shaking his head, Bellus sighed, “There you go again-forgetting the delivery charge. Mudo, show Ineas the error of his ways.”

Suddenly afraid, Ineas cringed away, crying hoarsely, “Now, you keep that animal away from me.”

Indifferent, Bellus nodded to Mudo to continue, as he drawled, “I’m afraid it’s the price you have to pay for being so cheap.”

“You…” Ineas began, whether to protest or beg would never be known, for his voice cut off in a sudden sharp scream as Mudo punished him for having been ‘cheap’, and Ineas paid the penalty for parsimony with his life.

Watching with cold calculation, Bellus mused, “What do you say we take the slaves to Libya ourselves and sell them all over again?”

Turning away from the corpse as if it were nothing more than a heap of trash, he laughed.

Iolaus was scratching his head at Oi-Lan’s hostile defiance, wondering whether to bother addressing her in the language of Chine, or to stick with Greek since she seemed to speak it well enough. Before he could assure her that no one was going to molest her, she informed them grimly, “You’ll have to kill me, first.”

“Beg your pardon,” Hercules demanded, becoming mildly irritated at her continued belief that they had unscrupulous motives. He’d assured her they meant her no harm before she’d slammed him onto the ground and they’d done nothing to restrain her or retaliate despite her aggressiveness.

“That’s the only way I’d be your slave. I’d have to be dead,” Oi-Lan proclaimed dramatically. Gesturing toward her body, she continued graphically, “You’d have to slice me open and skewer me.”

“Shy, passive, willing to please,” Iolaus mused, thinking of the way she’d kicked out at the slave trader’s man, and the daggers she’d been glaring at Hercules after the bidding had concluded. “Yeah, she’s pretty much like I expected her to be.”

Shaking his head, Hercules explained patiently, “Don’t pay attention to him. Look, we’re trying to help you.”

“How?” Oi-Lan snorted with arrogant haughtiness. “By selling me to someone else? Turning a nice profit?”

Tired of the attitude, Iolaus snapped back, “Hey! You better watch your mouth. This is Hercules and he’s just spent a lot of our money to help you.”

Unimpressed, Oi-Lan gave him a cold look as she replied, “So? Everyone has a name.”

So?” Iolaus echoed in loud annoyance, his irritation with her intransigence quickly flaring toward anger. “A little gratitude wouldn’t be out of order here!”

“It doesn’t matter, Iolaus,” Hercules interjected.

“Yeah, but, she…” Iolaus started to protest, only to be cut off by the demigod.

Lifting a hand to stem Iolaus’ irritated commentary, Hercules said bluntly, “You’re free to go.”

Clearly stunned, thinking it must be some kind of trick, Oi-Lan shook her head, as she gasped, “I don’t believe you.”

“I mean it,” the demigod insisted. “Go on. You’re free.”

Not understanding, caught completely off-balance, Oi-Lan asked with a soft note of wonder, “Why are you doing this?”

“Because we hate slavery,” Hercules told her flatly.

Reclaiming her cloak of bravado, Oi-Lan turned to run out, calling boldly over her shoulder as she fled, “You better not change your mind until I’m gone.”

“Well,” Iolaus sighed with weary acceptance of his loss for the greater good, “that’s two hundred dinars I won’t see again.”

But Hercules was watching the bearded man and his companions who had been so interested in acquiring the Asian woman, frowning thoughtfully as they followed the freed slave out of the building.

Not having noticed, as he was looking at Hercules, Iolaus chuckled lightly as he observed, “On the other hand, maybe it was a good thing she took off and we don’t have to find shelter for her. A Calydonian boar has got a better personality. She was dangerous.”

Still staring toward the exit with a thoughtful expression on his face, Hercules nodded as he replied dryly, “I noticed.”

Picking up on his friend’s preoccupation, Iolaus teased, “What’s up? Something bothering you? Trying to figure out how to tell Alcmene why you’ve nothing to show for the grain?” Not that Alcmene would mind all that much. She was the one who had first taught them both to hate the concept and reality of slavery and would not only support their impulsive action but would likely applaud them for having saved the young woman.

“The other guy who was bidding on her,” Hercules replied, cutting Iolaus a look. “I think he and the men with him are trailing after her.”

“What?” Iolaus demanded with a quick glance at the empty doorway as he shook his head. They exchanged a look that needed no words and then both strode quickly from the building. It seemed their assumed task of rescuing that spunky young woman wasn’t quite yet finished.

Oi-Lan exited the building in time to see Bellus and his crowd pull out with a massive wagon carrying the caged slaves. Though she shadowed them closely through the narrow streets of the busy town, there were too many men for her to affect any kind of rescue. When they hit the open countryside, Bellus gave the order to his men to pick up the pace and the horses responded to the whips, stretching out in a full gallop. Alarmed, Oi-Lan raced after them but was soon hopelessly left behind. Panting, she swallowed tightly and forced herself to slow down and to pace herself for the long journey to Libya. With grim resolution, she set herself a steady, even brisk pace as she strode alone through the alien land.

So intent was she on following after Cyrus that she was completely unaware of the men who skulked after her, watching for the opportunity to take her captive.

By the time Hercules and Iolaus set off after Oi-Lan, the slave wagon and its intrepid shadow had already reached the edge of town. Hercules asked around for information from anyone who had seen either Oi-Lan or the men following her while Iolaus took his pig, Penelope, to his friend Klangitus, the blacksmith, for safe-keeping.

Within half an hour, they had picked up Oi-Lan’s trail and were loping past the town’s limits, hoping to catch up with her before she ran into more trouble than she could handle.

The sun had long passed its zenith when Oi-Lan rounded an outcropping of granite and looked out across the wide empty land. For a moment, she was assailed with despair, wondering if she’d ever see her husband again. Fighting back tears, she whispered, “Cyrus.”

But her brief reverie was sharply interrupted when a bearded man appeared on the trail in front of her, asking in a taunting tone, “Where are you goin’, slave-girl?”

Her eyes blazing, and her chin held stubbornly high, Oi-Lan ordered, “Get out of my way!” But even as she prepared to fight her way past, two more men dropped onto the path behind her.

“We can’t do that,” the bearded man drawled and then sharply called to the others, “Get her!”

But when they lunged closer to grab her, she lashed out in a flurry of kicks and sharp jabs, driving them back. Startled by her resistance, the bearded man pulled out his sword and shifted to try to threaten and subdue her, but the fast moving fight and her lightning moves kept him from getting too close. The men were over-confident, believing such a tiny woman should be easy to subdue but though they came at her over and over, she continued to hold her own, jabbing at one as she back-kicked another, until the two men who had tried to grab her were laid out unconscious.

Their leader waved his sword menacingly as he paced toward her while she backed away, watching him warily, waiting for an opening to disarm him. Mistaking her retreat for fear, her would-be assailant smiled grimly, anger and lust glittering in his eyes as he snarled, “Now, you’re mine.”

“That’s funny,” Hercules drawled, startling both of them, as he stepped out from the rock on the trail behind Oi-Lan and moved blithely forward to place himself between her and the sword, “I bought one just like her.”

Though surprised by Hercules’ unexpected appearance, the lecherous lout recovered quickly as he threatened, “That’s not gonna matter when you’re in two pieces.”

Hercules flicked a look past him at Iolaus who had emerged from the other side of the outcropping and was now behind the bad guy. Iolaus smiled wryly, crossed his arms and stood back to enjoy the action, while Oi-Lan watched all of them warily.

Suddenly, Hercules whirled, lashing out with his boot to clip the bearded guy’s sword, sending it flying. “And which two pieces would those be?” the demigod enquired mildly as the now disarmed man swallowed hard, realizing belatedly that he’d bitten off a bit more than he could chew.

“A figure of speech, that’s all,” the would-be procurer stammered, backing away. “No harm intended, friend. You bought her…she’s all yours.” But he froze when he felt Iolaus’ hand on his shoulder, not having realized the warrior was behind him, his eyes widening in fear.

Leaning forward in a companionable sort of way, Iolaus whispered in his ear, “I’d get out of here, if I were you.”

Gulping, the man flinched away and hightailed it out of sight. His two unconscious comrades chose that moment to come to their rather groggy senses, but one look at the intimidating demigod and his cheerful blond friend was enough to send them scurrying away as well.

“You should have hurt them,” Oi-Lan stated coldly.

Shaking his head as he turned to her, Hercules replied patiently, “That’s not what we came for. We wanted to make sure you were all right.”

She sniffed as she narrowed her eyes, replying haughtily, “Don’t worry about me.”

“Well, worrying is just something we do,” Iolaus muttered with a sigh as he moved along the trail to join them.

“Ha! You probably want to make me your slave again,” Oi-Lan jibed, preparing to once again defend herself.

Iolaus rolled his eyes and planted his hands on his hips as he shook his head at her persistent hostility while Hercules reminded her, “You were never my slave in the first place.”

Pushing past them, she snapped, “Then keep it that way.”

The two men exchanged a look of frustration but followed after her, determined to help whether she wanted their assistance or not. “If you tell us where you’re going, we might be able to help you,” Hercules called after her, irritation edging his tone.

She paused a moment, half turning to reply over her shoulder, “I’m going to save, Cyrus, the man I love. They made him a slave, too, and he’s somewhere on his way to Libya. Now, if you really want to help, leave me alone!”

Iolaus snorted, but he called back, “But you’d be safer with us.”

“I’ve heard that before,” she sneered.

“We know the road to Libya-in fact, we’ve travelled it many times,” Hercules told her, hoping that might make her willing to accept the help she very evidently needed if she was going after Bellus.

“You have?” she demanded, turning to face them. Just before she’d been attacked by the three men, she’d been wondering how she’d ever find her way through such a vast and unknown land without risking falling so far behind that she’d never catch up to Cyrus in time to help him win his freedom.

“Yes, we have,” Iolaus assured her, cocking his head a little to see if that would be enticement enough to mute her brittle defensiveness and persuade her to allow them to travel with her.

She looked from one to the other, weighing out her options, still very uncertain of their motives, but finally she nodded solemnly, “Very well. You may help me, then. Just stay out of my way!”

“Fine,” the two men responded in unison.

“Fine!” she snapped as she turned to stride swiftly away.

The two heroes gave one another a quizzical, long-suffering look. “The short cut?” Hercules suggested.

“It’s the only hope we have of catching up with them,” Iolaus agreed.

Turning, they jogged to catch up with her, and then Iolaus moved into the lead. She didn’t like it, but he just asked bluntly, “Do you want to catch up with Cyrus or not?”

With ill grace, she nodded and fell in behind him to walk stiffly beside the demigod.

It was late afternoon by the time they’d reached the cliff they’d need to descend while there was still light. Her eyes widened at what appeared at first glance to be a very long, sheer drop but Iolaus drew them along the edge until he reached the place where he and Hercules had found handholds the last time they’d been forced to cut miles off their journey to Libya.

Pausing at the cliff’s edge, Iolaus turned to the young woman. “Uh, what’s your name?” he queried, realizing neither of them yet knew it. She hadn’t said a word to them after agreeing to allow them to travel with her.

“Oi-Lan,” she snapped, glaring at him as if he might use her name as some kind of weapon against her.

“Fine, my name is Iolaus. Oi-Lan, do you think you can manage this climb?” Iolaus asked bluntly.

Unwilling to show any weakness, she continued to glare wordlessly at him, as if offended to have even been asked.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” he sighed with a quick look at his best friend. Hercules shrugged as he moved forward, following Iolaus over the edge.

“Be careful!” he cautioned Oi-Lan. “Just follow our path of descent and you’ll be fine.”

It was a hard, harrowing descent. The hand and footholds were sparse and shallow. They had to press their bodies against the rock face as they eased themselves down slowly to minimize the danger of slipping by moving too fast with foolish over-confidence. Oi-Lan was frankly terrified, though she’d’ve cut out her tongue before she would have admitted it.

“How are you doing?” Hercules called up at one point when he and Iolaus were about three quarters of the way down, while she was still at the halfway point, and he knew she had to be tiring. “Do you need any help?”

“When I need your help, I’ll ask for it!” she snapped back and then muttered sarcastically, “Some shortcut!”

“We had to take it!” Hercules shouted back. “If you wanna catch up with Cyrus, this is the quickest way down. You sure you don’t need help?”

“I’m fi…oh!” she gulped as her hand slipped, but she recovered and pressed herself against the rock. “Be down in a minute!” she called less belligerently.

Hercules joined Iolaus on the ground and they both stood, looking up at her. “She’s gutsy, I’ll give her that,” Iolaus observed with quiet appreciation despite how annoying she’d been. Her explanation that she was following after the man she loved, and her resolute bravery in the face of impossible odds, had impressed them both.

“Uh huh,” Hercules agreed.

“Look,” Iolaus suggested, “it’s going to take her a while yet to get the rest of the way down. I’m going to go on ahead and scout out the slavers. If she doesn’t make it down before dark, there’s a cave…”

“Yeah, I remember,” Hercules agreed, not liking the idea of Iolaus going on alone but realizing they couldn’t both abandon her on the cliff-face. “I’ll hunt around for something for us to eat. If we need to spend the night here, we’ll catch up as soon as it’s light.”

“Got it,” Iolaus nodded as he turned to continue the journey.

“Iolaus…be careful,” Hercules called quietly.

His friend threw him an indulgent grin. “I’m not the one who might have to spend the night with the ungrateful spit-fire. Try not to throttle her!” Iolaus teased.

Hercules laughed and waved his friend off as he turned to call back up to Oi-Lan, “Looks like there’s a cave over here! I’ll fix us dinner!”

Night had fallen some time before and Hercules had a rabbit cooking over a bright fire in the nearby cave, when he heard a slither of gravel, a squeak of alarm, a thump and a muffled curse in a language he didn’t understand. Worried that she’d fallen, he rose quickly to his feet but by the time he reached the mouth of the cave, she was standing and brushing loose gravel from her clothing.

“What happened?” he asked with a frown of concern.

“Nothing!” she snapped.

Sighing, he waved toward the fire and turned back to it as he suggested, “Why don’t you come inside, where it’s warm?”

But she still didn’t trust him. Stiffly, she shook her head. “I’ll just stay out here.”

“You should have something to eat,” he told her, waving to the meat browning nicely over the fire.

“And miss this beautiful evening?” she sniffed, regretting it as she inhaled the savoury fragrance of the meat and her empty stomach clenched in longing. But thunder rumbled suddenly, and lightning flashing as a sudden storm burst above them, drenching her in seconds. She rolled her eyes and grimaced.

Hercules just waved at the fire and, reluctantly, she stepped into the cave.

Bellus had ordered the slave wagon and outriders to a halt some time before. Night had now fallen, but the campfires burned merrily creating an oasis of light in the darkness. Some of the outriders, men dressed in flowing robes, belted with leather and wearing cloth turbans patrolled the perimeter while some hunted and others tended the fire. Leaving ‘The Gargantuan’ in charge, Bellus rode out to visit a compliant widow of his acquaintance in a nearby village.

Mudo patrolled the camp with an air of great self-importance, his broad sword (a weapon very nearly as long as he was tall) ostentatiously drawn and casually supported on one massive shoulder. The bodyguard cum enforcer wasn’t quite as bright as his master, Bellus. Whereas the slaver could cruelly taunt and torment, Bellus usually only did so with some ulterior motive or purpose-otherwise he simply couldn’t be bothered as he scarcely noticed other human beings unless there was profit or pleasure to be had. Mudo, however, taunted and tormented for the sheer joy of the cruelty itself. Both men were monsters, just of a different degree and nature.

As he strutted by the sturdy cage holding the slaves in tight, cramped quarters, Mudo spotted Cyrus and then paused, studying him like a bug that was oddly fascinating. When he smiled, it was an ugly sight, bereft of any warmth or friendliness, a grimace of superiority and delight in the other man’s suffering. Cyrus watched him warily, fury burning in his own eyes, and desire for vengeance hot in his heart.

“I hear Hercules bought your woman,” Mudo sneered. “She must be making him very happy.”

When Cyrus snarled and slammed the bars of the cage with impotent fury, Mudo laughed and continued along on his stroll around the camp.

Lounging by the fire, Hercules watched Oi-Lan, who sat stiffly silent on a distant rock near the entrance to the cavern, half-facing away from him. With a glance at the now well-cooked rabbit, which he’d lifted away from the direct heat before it scorched beyond edibility, Hercules observed wearily, “It’s there for the eating. Help yourself.”

“I’m not hungry,” she maintained, her voice as tight as her body.

Sighing, the demigod observed, “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to trust somebody.”

She shook her head once, sharply. “I’ve already tried that,” she reported bitterly. “It didn’t work.”

“The slave trader?” Hercules speculated.

Stun, Oi-Lan jerked to face him as she very nearly shouted, “That’s not what he said he was. Cyrus and I aren’t fools! We’d just gotten married and were starting on our new life…seeking a decent land and a new life where we could raise a family in peace. And this man, Bellus, said he would take us there-us and all the other settlers who believed his lies.”

Empathy darkened the demigod’s eyes and warmed his voice as he replied, “Bellus isn’t a reason to give up on everybody else on the face of the Earth.”

Once again turning away from him, Oi-Lan swallowed and again shook her head. “A lot you know,” she grated.

Though the demigod replied mildly, there were echoes of sorrow and deep pain in his voice as he told her, “I know how it feels to be betrayed.”

Oblivious to anyone’s hurt but her own, the young woman snapped unsympathetically, “I doubt it.”

Blowing out a long sigh, Hercules observed candidly, “You really make it hard to like you, you know that?”

“You can leave me any time you want!” Oi-Lan informed him, her jaw rigid as she refused to look at him or warm to overtures of friendship. “I can get along by myself.”

Rolling his eyes, giving up on trying to reassure her, Hercules drawled with weary irritation, “I’ll try to remember that.” Casting a look at the rabbit, ensuring it was well away from the flames, he laid the improvised knife of bone he’d been using to turn and test the meat on a ledge of rock between him and the fire. “If you change your mind about eating, it’s here for you. I’m going to sleep.” With that, he lay down and curled on his side, his back to her and the light of the flames.

“Good,” she sniffed repressively. “I could use a little peace and quiet.”

The slaves weren’t treated well, far from it, but neither were they starved or wantonly abused. They’d have no worth, particularly in Libya, if they weren’t obviously strong and in reasonable health. So, while the gruel prepared for them might be foul, it was nourishing and there was plenty of it.

With so many armed men in the camp, and given the slaves had been held in cramped conditions with no food or water all day, the guards grew careless, not expecting any resistance. So, it was a vast surprise to the one who so thoughtfully brought their soupy gruel for the night to find the wooden door to the cage slammed back hard against him, knocking him aside and to the ground as Cyrus burst from captivity.

He was Fury Incarnate, as he whirled and kicked, jabbed with elbows and head, laying out all who came within reach. In mere seconds, five slavers lay unconscious on the ground.

Mudo had been on the perimeter when he heard the yells of consternation and Cyrus’ exhilarated cries as he delivered retribution to the men who’d held him captive. Running back toward the fires, Mudo arrived just as the last two guards went down and he brought his sword around in a sweeping arc. Bellus might want all his slaves alive and in good condition, but Mudo was less committed to that ideal. If he had to kill this one to maintain order, so be it.

Cyrus dodged back from the deadly flash of heavy steel, and dodged again…and then a third time, dancing and weaving in front of ‘The Gargantuan’, enraging the much larger man, while at the same time conveying a certain, subtle fear of attacking Mudo directly. Finally, Mudo brought the sword up over his head, intent upon driving it down with such power that he would literally cleave this arrogant slave in two. But Cyrus had been watching and waiting for just such a blow. Taking one step back as the sword flashed down, he lifted his manacled and chained wrists-and the powerful sword swept through the iron links as if they were putty.

And Cyrus was free.

Indifferent to the threat of the sword, the much smaller man launched his attack, sweeping around in a powerful kick that disarmed Mudo and sent the sword flying. And, then, Cyrus leapt, pounding hard, sharp kicks to ‘The Gargantuan’s’ chest and jaw, dropping to sweep a leg behind the staggering man’s legs to bring him crashing to the earth.

Mudo might be down but he was far from out-and he reached to grab at Cyrus’ leg, catching him and tripping him, and as the smaller man fell, Mudo stood to kick him sharply. Cyrus rolled with the kick, back upon onto his feet, but Mudo was bearing down upon him and caught him in a grip of steel, crushing him in an embrace of death. Cyrus fought back, using heels and head, thumbs and teeth…and enraged, Mudo pitched him heavily into the slave wagon, onto the cage-the force of his landing snapping the wood and causing one section of the cage to collapse.

The cavern was silent but for the crackle of the wood in the fire and the continuing patter of rain outside. Though there was still the occasional rumble of thunder, it had moved off and was but a distant echo. Oi-Lan’s rigid posture began to relax as she heard Hercules’ slow deep breaths, signalling he’d indeed gone to sleep.

She swallowed and looked longingly at the rabbit, but felt she should deny herself. What food would Cyrus be enjoying? What comfort would he know that night? How could she give herself better than what he endured? And, truthfully, when she thought of him in that cramped cage-or worse, in an arena with a lion, all hunger fled, leaving a cramp of nausea in its wake.

She studied the demigod, and in fairness, she knew her behaviour had been unreasonably irksome and even nasty. This man, and his friend, had done nothing but spend their own hard earned silver to save a strange woman from the abused life of a slave. Nothing but follow after her when they’d sensed more danger threatening. Nothing but try to aid her in catching up to Cyrus as quickly as possible. Nothing but provide her with shelter and food. They’d been nothing but respectful, if a touch irritated by her haughty and offensive manner, and legitimately so. She couldn’t blame them for their impatience with her-she hadn’t liked herself much either these last hours and days.

And now this one showed that he trusted her enough to turn his back upon her to sleep, though he’d left a knife within reach. Was he a fool or did he believe one had to give trust if one hoped ever to be granted trust? Somehow, she didn’t think either this man or his friend were fools. She could not imagine what advantage there was for them in helping her-but it was hard to believe anyone capable of altruistic goodness after the life she’d led, particularly during the past few days.

Still, perhaps she was being too unreasonable. Perhaps, she owed at least some modicum of courtesy for all that Hercules and his companion had done for her. She wasn’t an unreasonable person. Her brittle belligerence and hostility were borne of fear, not for herself, but for Cyrus; and anger, that their dreams, so dearly held and lovingly fashioned might now only be so much dust.

As she studied the sleeping demigod, she stiffened, her eyes narrowing as she watched the shadows. Rising, she moved with slow deliberation, careful not to disturb him, as she moved past the fire and gripped the knife. Taking a steadying breath, she brought the knife up and lunged…

Hercules was startled into wakefulness as he felt her closeness and he turned with swift reflex, instantly on the defence, to find her leaning over him, very close. Her black, fathomless eyes glittered in the flickering light of the flames, and her expression was impassive as she lifted the bone blade and showed him the huge and deadly arachnid skewered upon it.

He swallowed, looking from the knife back to her face.

She’d read his wariness, the tension in his face and body, his immediate reflex to defend himself, and she asked with cool self-possession, “What’s the matter? Don’t you trust me?”

Cyrus flipped himself from the wreckage of the cage, tumbling in the air, and resumed his attack on Mudo, who was astonished that the smaller man still had fight left in him. The big man tried to grab the smaller one, relying on his superior strength and reach, but Cyrus danced around him, evading his grasping or sweeping fists, but diving in to make his own kicks count. Mudo was strong, but Cyrus was tireless…and energy, not to mention the fury that drove Cyrus, began to count. ‘The Gargantuan’ began to stagger and his moves slowed, his recovery from each blow took longer, until the moment came when he’d left his head unprotected and Cyrus launched up in a fast, hard kick with the entire weight and power of his body behind it…catching Mudo between the eyes and dropping him like a stone.

Dropping gracefully back onto his feet, scarcely breathing hard, Cyrus noted that the other slaves had fled the ruined cage, only Regus remaining on the edge of the camp where the forest began.

“Cyrus, where are you going?” Regus called to him as he turned away.

“To find Oi-Lan,” Cyrus yelled back, “and to kill Hercules.”

Regus had no time to reply before Cyrus had taken a running leap toward the nearest tree, grabbing onto a branch and swinging himself up and over, his momentum carrying him higher-and then he was flipping and leaping from hold to hold, branch to branch, flying, so much as a man can fly, through the dark forest and back toward Thebes.

Watching him go, Regus was unaware that a few of the guards had regained consciousness and that one was sneaking up on him from behind. His first clue that a threat lurked was the grunt of the guard as he was again knocked unconscious and crumpled to the earth-and then a blond whirlwind was moving past him to defend him from two more of the guards, dispatching them quickly with the same kind of footwork and speed of motion that Regus had seen Cyrus employ.

Startled, he gaped at the compact blond stranger, who was warily watching the bodies of the other guards, looking for signs of consciousness or insipient attack. Seeing that there was no immediate threat, the blond turned to him, asking, “Are you all right?”

But Regus didn’t understand the Greek tongue and he shrugged as he shook his head, backing away nervously. As if he’d realized Regus’ problem, the man switched immediately to address him in his own tongue. Roughly, with awkward grammar, to be sure, but understandably.

Astonished, Regus assured him that he was unharmed and asked the stranger his name and his purpose.

“My name is Iolaus,” the blond replied, remaining in the language of Chine. “My friend, Hercules and I are helping Oi-Lan track and save Cyrus. Is he here?”

“Why-he just left,” Regus stammered, pointing toward the trees.

Iolaus softly cursed in his own tongue. He’d arrived only in time to hear the shouted exchange in the foreign tongue, but hadn’t seen the man who’d vowed to kill Hercules. He had to get back to his friend and warn him. Cyrus didn’t understand that Herc hadn’t bought Oi-Lan for any purpose other than to set her free.

But, there were still the other slaves to be considered. “Where are the rest of the slaves?” Iolaus demanded, once again casting a wary look at the unconscious guards.

“They’ve run off, scattered, but probably haven’t gone far in the dark,” Regus replied.

“Call to them, in your language, not loudly but enough for them to hear if they are near by, as we make our own escape,” Iolaus instructed, moving past Regus to lead the way into the forest and get him started on the right path back to Thebes…one that would be off the main travel routes and allow them some hope of escaping the slavers who would no doubt try to hunt them down.

Before long, most of the other runaways had responded to Regus’ calls, and Iolaus found himself with a group of a dozen men. He rapidly learned that they’d been heading to Calydon when Cyrus had betrayed them and they’d been enslaved. Most had wives that had also been taken and who had been put on the block back in the Thebes marketplace, and so they wanted to go back, to get their women back.

“Right,” Iolaus replied, well understanding their need and determination. He spent a good part of the night leading them through the forest and covering the trail behind them, until he was as assured as he could be that they were in no further danger of being retaken. By the light of a small torch, he drew them a crude map, not only on how to find their way back to Thebes, but specifically back to his cottage.

“There is food there, and shelter,” he told them. “Wait until I get back-you’ll need me to interpret for you to the magistrate, to stand witness that you were illegally taken and held as slaves in King Jason’s domain, so that we can have the ‘contracts’ to the labour of your wives rescinded and destroyed. Do you understand?”

The men looked at one another and nodded, but they clearly looked perplexed and still wary. Regus asked the question on all their minds. “Why are you doing this? Why are you helping us?”

“I hate slavery,” Iolaus replied with a steady look at each of them. “People are not animals or chattel…we weren’t born to live our lives in cages, to labour or live or die only at the will of other men.”

With that, he turned and raced into the night, soon swallowed by the shadows. He had a lot of ground to cover that night as he loped cross-country to try to intercept Hercules and warn him of Cyrus’ deadly intentions because the man misunderstood why Hercules had ‘bought’ Oi-Lan.

Hercules awoke before Oi-Lan, and remembering the hot pool deeper inside this cavern, he slipped away, hoping to use the time to bathe quickly before she roused. His shoulder had been stiff and achy since he’d landed on it badly the day before.

When he’d reached out a hand toward her, he hadn’t been expecting her hostile reaction. In truth, he was a little embarrassed to have been caught so off-guard that he hadn’t had time to recover from her unusual attack to roll or otherwise mitigate the impact of hitting the stone floor so suddenly. The stiffness wasn’t serious, but it could slow him down-and given he had every expectation of having to fight to win Cyrus’ freedom, he wanted to be in top form.

But he hadn’t been soaking in the soothing heat of the steaming pool long before he heard call out, “There you are. I was looking for you.”

Uncomfortable to have been caught without his pants on, so to speak, he blushed, and hoped the natural flush engendered by the heated water would mask his confusion. “I, uh, didn’t wanna wake you. Besides, I thought I could use a bath, ” he stammered, trying to sound casual.

Cocking one brow, she nodded and replied, “I could use a bath, myself.”

Amused by the candour, the demigod snickered, “Yeah, you could.” But when she began to strip in front of him, he whirled away, facing the rock wall, as he exclaimed, “I, uh, I didn’t mean right now.”

Amused in her turn as she slipped easily into the water behind him, Oi-Lan replied, “Don’t be embarrassed. People bathe together all the time where I’m from.”

“Well-not where I’m from,” he protested, taking a deep breath and shaking his head as he unconsciously rubbed at his sore shoulder and wondered how he got himself into these situations.”

Not expecting her touch, he flinched when he felt her fingers on the skin of his back. “Relax,” she directed, matter-of-factly. “I don’t bite.” With deft, firm fingers, she began to massage the bruised and stiff muscle.

His expression a picture of embarrassment and discomfiture, Hercules muttered, “You could have fooled me.”

Feeling the tightness under his skin, Oi-Lan frowned as she asked, “Something wrong with your shoulder?”

Nodding, the demigod admitted, “Well, it’s a little stiff, yeah.”

“Hmm, I thought so,” she mused, changing the motion of her hands, working in small circles, “This should help.”

“Why are you being so nice to me, now?” Hercules demanded, finding her sudden change of demeanour disconcerting.

Choosing to ignore his question, instead she asked, “That’s not so bad, is it?”

“No,” he had to admit. “It’s, uh, it’s very good.”

Her features relaxed marginally, pleased, as she murmured, “I used to do this for Cyrus all the time when he was an acrobat at my father’s palace.” He was an acrobat when he wasn’t on patrol on the borders, or out fighting a skirmish somewhere, but she felt no need to explain as much to Hercules.

Brows rising in surprise, though he thought that might explain a lot about her overbearing and superior airs, Hercules exclaimed, “Your father has a palace?”

“Yes, and all the power that goes with it,” she replied, bitterly, though her touch remained sure and soothing. “He banished me from our province because my mother wasn’t his number one. I’m sure you wouldn’t understand.”

She didn’t see the distant look in the demigod’s eyes, or the flicker of pain across his face, but she could hear the echo of anger in his voice as he told her, “Oh, I think I do. It sounds like the family I come from-if you could call it a family.”

Surprised, she regarded him thoughtfully, “Then you know how it feels to be lonely?”

Swallowing, closing his eyes against the memories, he nodded and murmured quietly, “Uh, yes.”

“Cyrus cured my loneliness,” she confessed, a note of wonder in her voice. “He stood by me when my father neglected me.” Pausing, she added sincerely, “I hope you have somebody who loves you, too.”

She thought he wasn’t going to answer, but then she caught the low whisper, “I used to.” And she heard the pain clearly that time…and felt his muscles tightened unconsciously under her hands. Suddenly, she knew this man had known great pain and suffering…had endured a terrible loss. His easy confident manner, his strength and confidence had misled her into thinking he hadn’t ever known what it was like to suffer, and she was sorry to have misjudged him.

“We come from far different places, Hercules,” she offered then, hoping he’d understand and accept the truce she was offering, “and yet we come from the same place.”

When he sighed and said, “Thanks,” she nodded. They would make a new beginning.

The tavern enjoyed only a few of its most loyal patrons given that it was yet early, at least two hand spans before Helios’ chariot would reach its zenith and begin its journey back down to the west. Cyrus grimaced at the stench of stale ale and unwashed bodies as he shouldered his way in the door. One man called out, his voice rough and already slurred, or perhaps still slurred from the night before, “Hey! Set me up with another!” In the corner, two men played a desultory game, and one protested, “What’re you tryin’ to do? Cheat me?”

An old crone, with unkempt and wild grey hair, sporting a gaudy patch over one eye, sat propped against the bar, nursing a mug of ale. Sniffing, curious, she looked up as he approached the bar and her good eye brightened as she registered his exotic looks and the muscles that rippled as he walked. She wasn’t so far gone, however, that she didn’t notice his scowl and the dark, angry eyes.

“What’s the problem, handsome? You lost?” she called out to him as she swivelled on the stool to face him.

“I’m looking for a man,” Cyrus replied flatly.

“Aren’t we all?” she replied, chuckling at her own wit.

Unamused, Cyrus’ jaw tightened as he elaborated, “This is serious. His name’s Hercules.”

Snorting, the old woman turned back to the bar as she said bitterly, “Figures he’d be the one. You’re no more fun than he was.”

Impatient, taking a step toward her, having to rein in the urge to shake her, Cyrus demanded curtly, “Tell me where he is.”

“Men,” she spat out contemptuously, flicking a look back at him, not in the least intimidated by his manner, “you’re all the same. ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme.’” Scowling as she picked up her mug and peered into it, she demanded, “When do I get mine?”

Taking the hint, Minus, the bartender, called out to the dark stranger, “You buyin’ for the lady?”

“No,” Cyrus stated coldly, his lip twisting in disgust. This was no lady.

She huffed, and sniffed, wiped a hand across her mouth and then cut him a sharp look, as she lectured, “You’re gonna have to learn how to treat a lady, if you wanna get anywhere with me.”

He didn’t know how much longer he could contain the rage that burned within him, and perhaps it showed on his face, or burned in his eyes as he stepped closer still, looming over her, as he demanded harshly, “Where is Hercules?”

Cringing back a little, deciding this one looked more than halfway mad, she shrugged and relented, giving him the information he was so desperate to have. “Off to Libya, I hear, him and his new woman.”

Unable to hide his astonishment or frustration, not believing her, Cyrus grated, “That’s the direction I just came from!”

She gave him a wry look, as if he were a mindless, useless, creature. “And you didn’t bump into them?” she asked incredulously. “What were ya doin’? Swinging through the trees?” At the look on his face, though she didn’t understand it, she laughed harshly, tickled by her own sharp retort. But curiousity got the better of her as he abruptly turned away to stalk toward the door. “Hey!” she called out, “Why do you want Hercules, anyway?”

With slow deliberation to maintain his shreds of control, Cyrus turned back as he snarled, his voice low with menace, “I don’t want Hercules. I want the woman I love. If he tries to keep her from me, I’ll kill him.”

The old crone spluttered in surprise and then broke into gales of laughter. “You?” she choked, “Kill the son of Zeus! Did ya hear that, Minus? This little guy’s gonna kill Hercules!”

But Cyrus was paying them no attention. He had to go back and retrace his steps…he was furious to know he must have passed them in the night, and sick to his soul at the cost Oi-Lan might well have had to pay for his failure.

As he pushed through the door, the old woman mused loudly, “Think he’s single?”

Hercules and Oi-Lan were keeping up a steady, ground eating pace as they moved through the forest, intent upon catching up with Iolaus to see if he had word about the slavers and their captives. But, Hercules was curious about how he’d seen her fight the day before, so much like Iolaus had learned to fight in the East. Given she seemed far less prickly since, well, since that morning, he ventured to ask, “Do you mind if I ask you something?”

“You don’t need my permission,” she replied, less stiff but not exactly warm in her manner.

“Those three lunkheads who tried to grab you-where’d you learn to throw people around like that?”

A thin bitter smile played briefly around her lips, quickly and then it was gone, as she replied with a tone of irony, “One gift my father gave me was an education in martial arts.”

Hercules grinned as he replied, “It didn’t look like you missed any classes.”

Shrugging indifferently, Oi-Lan asked, “How much farther?”

“Until we find Cyrus?” the demigod clarified, wondering why they hadn’t yet met up with Iolaus, “I wish I knew.”

She paused at that, a wave of hopelessness washing over her. What if they never caught up? What if something had already happened to Cyrus? What if…

“What’s wrong?” Hercules asked, his concerned voice intruding into her anxious thoughts.

“I keep thinking about Cyrus,” she admitted mournfully, her voice catching.

Moving closer, Hercules murmured empathetically, “I’d be surprised if you didn’t.”

Her voice was tight with unshed tears as she blurted out, “There’s this voice in my head that keeps telling me that we’re never gonna find him.”

The demigod pulled her gently into his arms to comfort her, and she wept quietly on his shoulder, no longer able to hold it all in, tired of being strong when she was so afraid, sick with worry, aching with her loss. Soothingly, he stroked her back as he murmured gently, “We will, Oi-Lan. I promise we will.”

Neither of them was aware that they had a sudden audience, Cyrus having only just then swung close enough overhead to see Hercules holding his wife so close. Rage flared within his breast as he vowed hoarsely, “You’ll pay for that, Hercules.”

Iolaus was tired, but he kept up his steady jog through the forest. He’d gone a long way out of his way to ensure the escaped slaves would stay free, and were able to find their way back to Thebes unaided. With every step, he heard the echoes of Cyrus’ voice in his mind, the threat repeated over and over. Iolaus knew Herc could take care of himself, but the warrior wasn’t certain he trusted Oi-Lan as far as he could throw her. If Cyrus ambushed Hercules, if she turned on him at the same time, with no one to watch his back…well, it didn’t really bear thinking about, but Iolaus increased his pace unconsciously.

With a sigh of relief, he caught the sound of their voices up ahead, on the trail near the rim of the cliffs over the sea. In another couple of minutes, less, he’d be with them.

“It can be dangerous around here,” Hercules said quietly, keeping a wary watch, “but we’ll make it.”

“I trust you,” she said simply, surprising him completely. She’d given no sign of trusting anyone.

Gratified, pausing to turn toward her, he replied warmly, “Never thought I’d hear that.” But even as he turned, he caught the blur of motion as she was swept up and away. Alarmed, frightened for her, he cried out, “Oi-Lan!”

Cyrus had dropped down upon them swiftly and soundlessly, swinging from a vine from high in the trees to grab Oi-Lan and bear her away from her captor, to save her. But saving her wasn’t enough. He had to also take revenge for the harm done to her and her honour.

Startled, relieved to see him but afraid of the almost crazed look on his face, Oi-Lan called out, “Cyrus!”

But he wasn’t able to listen, and he pushed her hands away, as he directed her, “No. Wait here.”

Below them, having heard Oi-Lan call out her husband’s name, Hercules relaxed. Hands on his hips, a bit bemused, he called out, “Cyrus, what are you doing?”

Iolaus heard Hercules call out, and his chest tightened in sudden anxiety as he raced along the trail, and finally spotted his best friend. “Hercules! Look out!” he cried, even as Cyrus cut the vine holding back the massive log he’d prepared for this moment and it swung heavily out over the trail to crash with immense power into the demigod, blowing him off his feet-flinging him over the edge of the steep cliff.

NOOOO!” Iolaus screamed, frozen with horror at what he’d just seen and then he was racing to the edge of forever.

Hercules!” Oi-Lan screamed from the boughs above. Furiously, sick with disbelief, she turned on her husband, yelling at him, “You killed him!”

Unrepentant, Cyrus grated, “He got what he deserved.”

“But he was helping me!” she protested, shaking her head, her eyes raking the rocks far below. “We were going to rescue you!”

“Didn’t you hear the same thing from Bellus?” he snarled, still raging. “They all say they’re helping you, but you can’t trust any of them!”

“But Hercules was different!” Oi-Lan wailed. Looking down, her eyes filled with tears of unrestrained grief and regret, she met the icy blue eyes of Iolaus and felt frozen by the depth of anger and pain she read in them.

Cyrus, too, was aware another man had suddenly appeared below, had heard his shouts, and was determined to get his wife away and safe. There was no time now to listen to her words, to debate the issue. It was done and it was beyond time they made their escape together. “Come on, Oi-Lan!” he ordered, locking one strong arm around her and gripping another vine to swing into the forest, beyond the curve in the trail to a meadow where he could safely put her on the ground.

Iolaus scarcely spared them a thought beyond the one furious glance upward when he’d heard her voice, protesting her husband’s precipitate action. They weren’t important. Nothing was important but getting to Hercules. His sharp eyes raked the rocks below, but there was no sign of his best friend. Widening his visual search to the sea, he finally spotted a splotch of yellow against the blue, and he realized Hercules was being washed toward the deadly rocks by the waves. Sick with his inability to get close enough to help, the distance too far to dive without killing himself, which would be of no help to anyone, Iolaus watched intently, and heaved out a sigh, his knees weak with relief, when he saw Hercules drag himself weakly up onto one of the rocks to lie sprawled upon it.

Herc was alive…but it looked like he could use some help.

With a fast, assessing look at the almost sheer cliff below his feet, Iolaus turned and began to crab his way down the wall, clinging with fingertips and the toes of his boots, as he climbed down to the sea.

Oi-Lan was stunned with shock and grief as Cyrus hastened her onward. She had no idea where they were going, and wondered if he did, or if they were just running. She couldn’t take it in. Hercules was dead. Her husband had killed the man who’d done nothing but help her regain her freedom and search for Cyrus. She felt sick.

His wife’s pallor and unnatural silence concerned Cyrus-and he began to understand that he’d made a terrible mistake. But he couldn’t undo what had been done, and now, they simply had to get away. Had to find someplace safe.

But they hadn’t gone far when the hackles rose on his neck and he paused, but was too late. The large net flew out at them, shrouding them in its tangles, while men quickly followed and bore them to the ground. Cyrus had only had time to curl around Oi-Lan to protect her body with his own as they rolled to the earth. She screamed in sudden alarm, but more in overwhelming fury to have been taken again after all that had happened-her single-minded search for Cyrus, the unexpected help of two brave strangers, and unbelievably, Hercules’ death for the sole crime of having tried to help her. She shrieked and twisted, punched and scratched and bit at whatever target the slavers presented to her.

“What a pleasant surprise,” Bellus observed with great satisfaction, unconcerned with Oi-Lan’s hot rage or the look of cold, deadly fury in Cyrus’s eyes. “I’ve got my two most valuable commodities back.”

“Let her go!” Cyrus shouted as they were disentangled from the net and again chained. He felt nauseated, his gut cramping with his failure. She’d been safe-and he’d led her back into danger. When Oi-Lan found that her naked rage was of no use, she stilled her struggles and now she watched Bellus with the same concentration she’d lavished on the huge, deadly spider in the cave the night before…just before she’d killed it.

“I’m not going to Libya one slave short,” Bellus chuckled at the ridiculous request. Leering at Oi-Lan, he added, “Besides, it’s a long trip, and I might get lonely. Let’s go!”

Not long after he’d begun the harrowing descent, Iolaus had heard Oi-Lan scream from somewhere down along the trail to Patras and he sighed, closing his eyes for a moment to steady his breathing and allow the anger he felt toward her and Cyrus to drift away. Cyrus hadn’t known Hercules was a friend, not an enemy. If someone had enslaved Ania and threatened to sell her body, or had done the same to Deianeara, he and Hercules would have been single-minded to the point of madness in finding and saving their beloveds. And now, from the sounds of things, the two hapless lovers were in trouble again. Iolaus glanced down to the base of the cliff, the waves pounding and crashing up against the rocks and Hercules, lying crumpled and too still. First things first. He had to get to Herc and make sure his buddy was okay.

And then they would both go after Oi-Lan and Cyrus.

It seemed to take forever, but was likely no more than half a hand span before Iolaus reached the slippery, wave-slicked rocks at the base of the cliff. Mindful of his balance and footing, he moved quickly across the granite outcroppings, leaping from wet rock to another, bracing against the surging power of the waves that crashed up and over rocks, soaking him with monotonous regularity.

“Herc!” he called, as he made his way closer to his best friend, hastening even faster as he saw the back wash of the waves tugging his partner down toward the sea. If he didn’t get there in time, his best friend could well drown once he was pulled back under the waves, unconscious and unable to help himself…and he’d surely be battered against the jagged rocks. Made reckless by urgency, Iolaus lunged forward, leaping across the last broad space of raging water to snag Hercules’ arm, just as the demigod was lifted by another wave and was almost swept from the rock.

Pulling back with all his weight, Iolaus fought the dragging power of the sea, and won. Panting, he slipped his hands under Hercules’ shoulders to ease him up a little higher on the large boulder and carefully laid him down on the wet rock. He’d seen Hercules’ swimming, however awkwardly, but now the demigod seemed to be deeply unconscious. Anxiously, Iolaus checked his friend for injuries and found severe bruising on Hercules’ left shoulder, arm and side, maybe a couple of damaged ribs, and there was a bruise forming on his forehead. His breathing sounded a little raspy, but when Iolaus lowered his ear to his friend’s chest, he could hear a strong and steady beat.

Biting his lip, Iolaus brushed wet bangs back from his friend’s pale face, wondering if Hercules had sustained a head injury. Shifting so that he could support the demigod’s head and shoulders against his arm and chest, keeping his friend’s face elevated above the constant splashing of the waves and sheltered from the salt spray, Iolaus looked back up the cliff and tried to recreate what had happened.

The log had caught Hercules on the left side, impacting with his body, not his head, and had flung him off the cliff. Herc had gone with the force, and while he’d be sore, and might have a cracked rib or two, his godly strength would have helped him absorb the blow. It was a long fall, and had he hit the rocks, he might well have been crushed, but he’d been thrown wide, out into the sea. The shock and pain of the blow would have likely rendered him unconscious, and the hard impact with the sea wouldn’t have helped, but the water had evidently also revived him, if only long enough for him to climb up out of the water to some semblance of safety.

As bad as it had been, Iolaus had seen Hercules suffer worse and dared to hope his friend would soon wake.

“C’mon, Herc,” he called softly. “This is no place to spend the night!” Casting a wry look back up at the cliff, he added, “And don’t think I’m going to carry you out of here, either. C’mon,” he cajoled, turning his attention back to best friend. “It’s time to wake up!”

But Hercules remained limp in his arms. Swallowing his anxiety, Iolaus told himself that Herc was going to be just fine. It was only the shock. He just needed to rest for a bit. He’d be fine.

He had to be fine.

Cyrus and Oi-Lan were dragged back down along the trail to where the wagon and horses had been left, guarded by four of the slavers. But, there were far fewer slaves chained in a line than there’d been in the wagon when Cyrus had made his break. It was little comfort to know that more than a dozen men must have made their way to safety but the warrior spared a brief breath of silent thanks that his old friend Regus, and several others who’d made the long journey with them from the Eastern steppes, were no longer captive. Briskly, Bellus bellowed, “I want her at the front, and him at the back! I don’t want ‘em anywhere near each other.” Turning to glare at Cyrus, he warned, “And now you’ll all live or die as one.”

His spirit still unbroken, Cyrus snarled contemptuously, “If you had any spine at all, you’d fight me man-to-man.”

Mudo, unhappy with how the fight had ended the night before and needing little provocation, cuffed Cyrus hard on the back of the head for his insolence.

“Mudo!” Bellus shouted sharply, clear warning in his voice-the slave was only valuable if he was alive. “There’s no time for that. We’re already behind schedule. Let’s get movin’!”

There was a crack of a whip and men called to one another and their horses, as the wagon and the slaves jerked into motion, back on the road to Libya.

Hercules moaned softly as he struggled back to consciousness. Gods…every bone in his body hurt!

“Easy, Herc,” he heard Iolaus’ voice, muffled, as if he was still very far away. “You’re okay…but waking up is good. The tides’ coming in and we’ve got to get out of here. Y’hear me, buddy?”

“Tide?” Hercules muttered, having latched onto the impending threat as he’d tried to make sense of Iolaus’ words. Wet. He was soaking wet-and he heard the dull roaring of the sea, the almost subliminal rumble and power of constantly moving water surging up against the land.

“Hercules?” Iolaus’ voice almost squeaked with relief. “You’re awake? Where’s it hurt?”

“Ever’where,” Hercules grumbled, swallowing and sniffing before blowing out a long, hitching, breath. He blinked and noticed he was staring at Iolaus’ vest from very close proximity, and that’s when he realized his best friend’s arms were supporting him. “Wha’ happened?” he mumbled, trying to remember. Oi-Lan had been there, and Cyrus…but where had Iolaus come from?

“You got knocked off the cliff into the sea,” Iolaus told him succinctly, pulling back a little to look down into his friend’s face, the tightness of his chest easing as he saw that Hercules was waking and seemed increasingly alert. “Can you move?” he asked. They really had to get going before the sea dragged them both off this damned rock.

“Um, yes, I think so,” the demigod allowed as he stretched, hissing at the bruises and stiff muscles. Iolaus continued to support him until he was sitting up, and then his older friend helped him stand-holding him steady when dizziness threatened and the waves beat at their legs. Feeling disoriented, Hercules kept a strong grip on Iolaus’ shoulder while he looked up and around to get his bearings.

As his gaze travelled up the very high, very steep, cliff and then back down to the raging sea, he asked in disbelief, “I got knocked off that?”

“Yep,” Iolaus replied succinctly, his gut clenching at the memory of seeing Hercules struck by the swinging log and disappearing over the edge.

“How?” Hercules demanded, irritated that he couldn’t remember.

“Uh, why don’t we go over the details when we’re outta here,” Iolaus suggested, feeling the sea suck at them. “The tide, remember?”

“Oh, right,” Hercules muttered again, looking for an easy way to a nearby beach, a route that would save putting any demands on his battered body, but all he could see was cliff in either direction. And he suddenly realized that Iolaus must’ve come down that cliff to get to him. Squinting at the rock again, he wondered where Iolaus had found enough hand and toe holds to have managed it. “We’ve got to climb out?”

“‘Fraid so,” Iolaus agreed, frowning with concern as the watched Hercules, who seemed stunned and was obviously in pain, made evident in the twisted grimace of his face and the way he was standing, a little bent forward, as if he felt fragile.

Hercules rarely felt ‘fragile’.

“You going to be able to make it?” Iolaus asked, wracking his mind for other alternatives. But there weren’t many…swimming out through the raging sea, trying not to be battered up against the rocks or caught by the undertow, would take more energy and strength than the climb would.

“Do I have a choice?” the demigod demanded, but he gave Iolaus a wry grin, and there was a twinkle deep in his eyes.

“Nope,” the warrior replied with a grin of his own. “I don’t plan to carry you up, that’s for sure…and last time I checked, neither of us could fly.”

“Well, then I guess I can do it,” Hercules replied with a light chuckle, though he gasped and winced again at the pull on his ribs. Wordlessly, he allowed Iolaus to help him move across the slippery rocks to the base of the cliff.

As they stopped and examined the practically sheer wall, Hercules suggested dryly, “Well, since you found the way down, maybe you could lead the way back up?”

Iolaus snickered, but he gamely reached up to find practically non-existent hand-holds and began the arduous climb, taking his time to test each outcrop or crack to be sure it could support Herc’s weight as well as his own, setting a pace that Hercules, in his weakened state could manage.

It took them almost two hours, and they were inordinately happy to sprawl over the flat ground at the top, panting heavily, and sweat rolling off their bodies in runnels. But there really wasn’t time to loll around. Iolaus pushed himself up to a sitting position, stretching and massaging his aching shoulder muscles.

“We have to get going,” he told the demigod.

Hercules rolled his head to look up at his friend. “Where? And why?” He felt like he’d been hit by avalanche. It was nice to just lie here and let his muscles relax.

“I think Bellus captured Oi-Lan and Cyrus,” the warrior explained.

“Again?” Hercules snorted.

Iolaus just snickered. “Don’t blame me,” he teased, and then as he stood, he reminded his best friend of exactly why they were on this journey in the first place. “You’re the one who wanted to buy her, remember?”

“You paid for half,” Hercules groused, but he grinned. And then he pushed himself up with only the merest, muted, moan of protest and loped slowly after Iolaus who had already jogged off in the direction from which he’d heard Oi-Lan’s scream.

Bellus was feeling disgruntled. The uprising of the slaves led by Cyrus the night before had cost him dearly, not only in human cargo, but a goodly number of his horses had been run off, as well. And while he’d managed to recover the two most valuable slaves, Cyrus and Oi-Lan, the delay in backtracking along the trail to Thebes until the two aggressive slaves had been apprehended played havoc with his schedule. The ship to Libya was waiting at Patras, but it wouldn’t wait forever. The slaves, strung out behind the wagon, the broken cage long abandoned, tended to stumble and straggle, requiring the guards to hustle them along without unduly damaging the ‘goods’. Slaves were a bothersome cargo, always bitching or trying to escape. Too bad cattle didn’t give as good a profit.

So they were shambling along through gently rolling hills at a reasonable pace, over-confident and unwary when Hercules and Iolaus jogged silently around the bend in the dusty road behind the slavers. The demigod barely broke his pace as he reached out to grab the heads of the two rear guards in either hand and bring them together with a dull thud, and they both crumpled to the ground. Iolaus had moved on past Hercules to tap the next guard on the shoulder and then hit the man with a solid roundhouse to the jaw that turned the guy’s lights right out.

Hercules loped forward, spotting Cyrus at the end of the line of slaves. As they’d run to catch up with the slavers, Iolaus had told Hercules the details of how he’d been ‘knocked off the cliff’ and though Hercules could understand Cyrus’ behaviour, sort of, he hadn’t been all that well pleased to have been attacked without first being given a chance to explain matters. Now, as he grabbed Cyrus’ shoulder and stopped his forward march, he leaned in to say, “Cyrus! I think you owe me an apology!”

The slave gaped to see the man he was certain he’d killed. “Hercules! I thought you were dead!”

“We’ll talk about that later,” the demigod replied dryly, scarcely paying any attention to the guard who’d noticed his actions and had attacked him, elbowing the man sharply away, winding him. Hercules grabbed the links of Cyrus’ shackles in his hands and snapped them, as if they’d been no more than brittle twigs.

Cyrus, astonished, looked up and saw the guard coming back for more, “Look out!” he cried to the demigod.

And the fight was on.

Hercules rounded on the man stalking him, laying him out with a single powerful punch and bent to rifle at his belt for the means to quickly free the remainder of the slaves, while Cyrus whirled to meet another guard who’d turned at the sound of scuffling and muted exclamations. The acrobatic warrior spun and kicked, driving the man back and finally flattening him. Iolaus found himself occupied with two other guards, and he, too, spun and kicked, dancing away lightly from their blows, using the back of one as a platform to launch a drop kick at another and then clipping the doubled over guard with his elbow, sending him, too, to the dirt.

The confusion attracted attention all down the line, and Bellus turned, wondering what was delaying things now, but his eyes widened when he saw Hercules and a strange blond man, as well as a newly freed Cyrus, making short work of his men. “Kill them!” Bellus bellowed, waving the other, as yet unaware, guards toward the back of the line.

“Thanks for the keys,” Hercules muttered to the unconscious guard, having found them attached to his belt, and then spotting Oi-Lan, tossed the metal ring at her. “Oi-Lan!”

She caught them and speedily unlocked her shackles, tossing the keys to the next slave in line as she grabbed a long cane of wood, used to ‘discipline’ the slaves, from the back of the wagon, and whirled to join the fray.

“Stop her!” Bellus screamed, infuriated by the chaos and the threat to his profit, “She’s getting away!”

And chaos it was. Oi-Lan snapped the cane in half and used the crossed pieces to block a sudden sword thrust rushing at her head, and then she was a whirl of motion and angry grace, taking on antagonists two at a time, and making short work of them. Cyrus and Iolaus were both dancing and whirling, leaping into high kicks, disarming men with knives and swords with effortless ease.

And meanwhile, Mudo, ‘The Gargantuan’, had gone after Hercules, his massive broad sword cutting the air in deadly anticipation of skewering living flesh.

“Careful,” Hercules cautioned as he watched for an opening, “Big knife like that, you might cut yourself.”

Not in the least amused, Mudo bellowed in rage and charged at the demigod, who spun in a tight circle and effortlessly kicked the big sword away. The two tall, heavily muscled men came together in a clash of blows. ‘The Gargantuan’ took a little more effort than most men, but the demigod finally laid him out with a straight punch to the head.

Bellus could scarcely believe that all his plans were being ground into dust, his guards falling like flies before the masterful, if strange manner of battle employed by Cyrus, his bitch, Oi-Lan and the blond stranger, whoever he was…and the demigod who had just flattened Mudo.

Furious, desperate to save his own skin, Bellus pulled out his own short sword and, taking advantage of Oi-Lan’s momentary distraction as she finished off yet another guard with a sharp downward cut of her hand to the back of his neck, snuck up behind her.

A slave yelled, “Look out!”

But it was too late. Bellus’ beefy arm snaked around the narrow column of her throat and he held the blade pointed threateningly toward her face.

“Drop ‘em!” he bellowed, and, momentarily helpless, she let the sticks fall from her hands. “You still belong to me,” he snarled into her ear as he began to drag her backwards, away from the battle and toward the forest.

Cyrusssss!” she screamed, dragging her heels, squirming, but off-balance and unable to break Bellus’ grip.

The two heroes and her husband looked up at her scream, distracted from the individual battles they were still fighting. Cyrus got tackled by a guard, but quickly heaved and kicked the man into submission as Hercules raced past, after Oi-Lan, calling, “Cyrus! Hurry up!”

Cyrus, chasing after the demigod, yellws, “Oi-Lan!

Iolaus lingered a while longer by the wagons, playing the ‘clean up crew’, taking out the few guards who still remained standing, and then he, too, chased after the others.

As Bellus dragged her rapidly through the thick brush, Oi-Lan continued to struggle and scream, “Cyrus!

But Bellus tightened his grip around her throat, choking off her air even as he waved the blade of his sword in front of her eyes. “Mind your manners,” he growled. “I wouldn’t wanna have to cut that pretty little throat of yours.”

Burdened as he was by the young woman, Bellus found it difficult to move quickly through the forest, and the others weren’t long in catching up with him. From not far behind, he heard Hercules shout, “Bellus! We want the girl!”

Beside the demigod, Cyrus grated, “If he’s hurt her…”

But Hercules simply touched his shoulder and lifted his eyes to the trees above them. Quickly catching on, Cyrus leapt, as if magically, high into the air to grab a limb, roll around it, arms stiff, for momentum and then he was flying through the boughs, lost to Hercules’ sight.

“How does he do that?” Hercules mumbled, and then turned as Iolaus crashed through the undergrowth behind him. Together, they continued chasing behind Bellus, as Hercules called out, keeping the villain’s attention on them, “Let her go.”

Pausing to catch his breath, Bellus turned back to the two men he could hear chasing him. “You want her so much?” he shouted, “Buy her!”

Coming into view, Hercules slowed and stopped, “I’m not here to negotiate,” he said flatly, his eyes hard with determination.

“Stay back!” Bellus warned, a trace of hysteria entering his voice, “I’ll kill her!”

“That’s not a good idea,” Hercules told him and Bellus’ eyes widened as he saw the second man come into view. The blond stranger. Oh gods, where was that demon Cyrus? His gut cramped in fear as he saw Hercules’ gaze go past him, to some higher point behind him-and the slaver understood, and began to turn to defend himself, but too late.

Cyrus dropped from the trees, twisting to clip a kick to Bellus’ head as he dropped. Instinctively, the slaver loosened his grip on Oi-Lan, to raise his arms in self-protection. She snaked away from him and kicked hard at his arm, numbing it so that he dropped his sword. And then it was a blur of pain as both former slaves reined their fury upon him.

Hercules and Iolaus stood back, crossed their arms and watched the show-until Cyrus’ arm pulled back, his hand fisted, for a killing blow. Hercules lurched forward quickly to grab his arm and hold him still.

“Ahhhhhh!” Cyrus screamed in frustrated protest at being stopped. “He deserves to die.”

“No,” Hercules replied quietly, calmly. “I have a better idea.”

Just inside the entranceway to her dim establishment, the old crone counted out the silver coins, her voice grudging, “Three hundred. Three fifty. Four hundred dinars.” Shoving the money pouch toward the vendor, she complained, “You drive a hard bargain, Hercules.”

“Hey,” the demigod assured her that her purchase of the contract of a new long-term indentured labourer, “he’s worth it.” Turning, Hercules pulled Bellus closer and then pushed him at the leering old woman.

“You should a’ let that crazy man kill me,” Bellus whined, cringing in appalled horror.

But the old crone caught hold of him, her grip on his arms like iron as her face loomed closer and closer to his, “Uh, uh,” she scolded him, just as she leaned in to kiss him with hungry demand, “Mummy wants her little love slave nice and lively.”

“Hercules!” Bellus spluttered desperate, as her mouth drew nearer to his.

“Listen to the lady, Bellus,” Hercules called back over his shoulder as he strode into the bright day. Behind him, he could hear a desperate, muted, garbled, “Hercules!”… and he smiled. It always gave him a lift to see justice done.

His stride lengthening to a lope, he quickly left the marketplace and Thebes behind as he headed out of town towards Iolaus’ place, where his friend had taken Cyrus and Oi-Lan, while Hercules had headed into town with Bellus to sell his twenty-year contract for indentured labour to a suitable buyer.

When Hercules arrived at Iolaus’ cottage on the hill, he was surprised to find not only Cyrus and Oi-Lan with the slaves they’d freed from Bellus, but also at least a dozen other strangers…and he smiled, realizing what had happened to the missing slaves. Somehow, Iolaus had gotten them away safely and sent them here until their problems could be sorted out.

As he got closer, he could hear Iolaus talking to the men and Oi-Lan who now held Penelope on her leash, but in a language he didn’t understand. Whatever he was saying, it must be good, because the others were looking at him as if he’d just answered all their prayers.

Iolaus looked up as Hercules came into view and broke away from the others, grinning as he called out, “Hey! So, uh, Bellus all settled.”

“That he is,” Hercules assured his friend. “What’s going on here?”

“Oh, I just told them they could farm my land as a beginning,” Iolaus replied off-handedly, looking back over his shoulder at the excited new settlers. “It’s not like I’ve got any use for it. And, since Bellus is dealt with, we shouldn’t have any trouble using the money we found in his wagon to pay off the ‘contracts’ their wives were sold into…should be a tidy sum left over, to help them establish their homes. Oh, and I’ve given Penelope to Cyrus and Oi-Lan with the understanding that I better never hear that she’s been turned into bacon!” Grinning back up at Hercules, he opined, “I think they’ll make good neighbours.”

“I think you’re right,” Hercules nodded. When Oi-Lan and Cyrus moved to join them, Hercules said, “Why don’t you call your friends together? There’s another stretch of land Iolaus and I want to show you that’s also available for farming…and a house I know of that some newlyweds might want to call home.”

Hercules stood on a rise of land, pointing out across the countryside, “The land extends to the end of that ridge. It’s a lot of work, but like Iolaus’, the soil is fertile, and the weather is kind.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Cyrus replied, overwhelmed, as Iolaus translated to their friends.

“Say you’ll take it,” the demigod encouraged warmly.

Oi-Lan hugged him tightly as she sighed happily, “You know we will.”

Clapping the demigod on the shoulder, his gaze taking in Iolaus, Cyrus said, his voice thick with emotion, “Thank you, both of you, for everything.”

“You’re welcome,” Hercules smiled as he released Oi-Lan and looked back out over the land, the house and barn just barely visible in the distance, “I hope you’re as happy here as I was with my family. We were always good to each other. Try to do the same.”

“Trust us,” Oi-Lan vowed.

“And have lots of children,” Iolaus added irrepressively, his eyes twinkling with fond amusement.

Everyone laughed, and the two heroes left the newcomers to head toward the buildings, to mill around Hercules’ house and barn, becoming accustomed to their new land and their base of operations until the others could build homes of their own.

As they strolled back across the fields, Hercules pulled the felt pouch out of his shirt, having already transferred Alcmene’s 200 dinars to the small pouch inside his belt, and tossed it to Iolaus. “Told you it was just a loan.”

“Thanks, Herc,” Iolaus laughed, jiggling the felt bag. “I never expected to see that silver again.”

“I know,” Hercules said with fond respect as he gripped his best friend’s shoulder. Iolaus had unhesitatingly put his own dreams of new forge of his own on hold to help a woman he’d never met. “But you’re entitled to your own dreams, too, Iolaus-now you can go ahead and buy that new forge you wanted.”

Iolaus’ gaze drifted away. The new forge wasn’t his ‘dream’, never had been. “Herc, you know I’d rather…”

“I know,” Hercules replied softly. “Let’s just see how things go. I may still need a little time on my own. Do you understand?”

Sighing, Iolaus nodded wordlessly. Thinking of Ania, of Aeacus and Telaus, he thought, yes, he understood very well. But he felt bereft all over again, bereft and useless, every time he saw Hercules walk away, following distant trails, journeying alone.

Hercules’ gaze had lifted to the horizon, to the tree that spread its limbs wide, giving shade and shelter to four silent graves. “I never thanked you,” Hercules said then, his throat tight and his voice unsteady. “For taking care of them for me.”

Iolaus’ head lifted and he followed his best friend’s gaze, understanding then what Hercules was talking about. “I loved them, too,” he replied quietly. “Like my own family…”

“I know,” Hercules murmured. “They all loved you, too, Iolaus…you were, are, family. I’m, ah, just going to stop there for a while and then head back to Mother’s place. Want to come over later, for dinner? You know Mom is always glad to feed you!”

Iolaus nodded and smiled. “Sure, I’d like that. See you later.” He slapped Hercules lightly on the arm and then strode away across the fields, back to his own lonely cottage on the distant hill.

“You’d like them, Deianeira. They’ll bring laughter back to these hills,” Hercules murmured. He’d settled on the ground in front of her grave marker to tell her about all that had happened. “And one day, they’ll bring children, too-the kind of children who’d have run and played with ours.” He paused and clasped his hands around his raised knees. “People as much in love as Oi-Lan and Cyrus shouldn’t have to spend their lives apart.”

His throat was thick, and he felt the sting of tears burn his eyes. “But sometimes it happens, doesn’t it?” he whispered hoarsely. Swallowing, taking a deep breath, he straightened his shoulders as he gazed at her marker, but saw only her beautiful face, “Then all you can do is look at the ones who are lucky enough to be together and try to remember what you had.”

A single tear slipped down his face as he whispered to her soul, “It was special, Deianeira. I take you with me everywhere.”

He sat there in silence a long time, remembering, smiling softly to himself from time to time as he recalled the antics of his children or the warmth of his beloved wife in his embrace.

And then he pushed himself back up to his feet. The sun was settling in the west.

His mother and his best friend would be waiting for him.

It was time to move on….

Finis



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