by Sandman

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Robert Bielak

The day was bright with sun, glinting off the field of gold and green and a soft breeze rippled sensuously through the air sending the landscape into waves of graceful motion. The trees at the edge of the field were in full leaf and from their boughs small birds sang melodies of such beauty and perfection that Hercules couldn’t help but smile. Iolaus, however, didn’t notice.

As he waded through the grasses he kept his eyes down and rubbed his still stinging jaw. Yeah, his head and jaw hurt, but not as bad as his ego. He hadn’t been hit that hard in years, and he shouldn’t have been hit at all he reasoned. He was small and quick, well trained in the martial arts. But he was getting older. Hercules said more mature, but Iolaus felt it in his bones; he was getting older and that bothered him.

“I don’t know, maybe I’m missing a step,” the sturdy blond complained to his best friend.

Hercules strode through the grasses, feeling the gentle brush of the seeded tassels rubbing against the braided leather legs of his trousers. “Come on, Iolaus, the guy blindsided you,” he reasoned. He hated it when Iolaus got into a mood. Iolaus was supposed to be bubbly and irrepressible, always positive. Moody was for someone else.

“No,” Iolaus countered strongly. “I saw it coming. “I just couldn’t get out of the way fast enough.” He drew his lips tight and set his jaw. It was hard to see him as slowing down even half a notch, but that’s how he felt today.

“Maybe you were preoccupied with that seven foot tree?” Hercules offered as a perfectly plausible excuse.

“He looked more like eight foot,” Iolaus admitted ruefully. But then, his perspective was a little lower than Herc’s.

Hercules kept walking, but glanced over at Iolaus. “That’s what I’m saying. There’s no shame in getting sucker punched.”

Iolaus snorted. Right, he thought. Then why do they call it ‘ucker’ punched? To Hercules, he replied. “A couple of years ago it wouldn’t of happened.” He shook his head in disdain.

Hercules wondered if Iolaus would carry this with him on their whole journey home. He certainly hoped not. There was still a long distance to travel and a grumpy Iolaus made for a less than ideal trip.

“Would you forget about it?” Hercules finally advised. “You’re driving yourself crazy!”

“How could I?” Iolaus groaned. He emitted a heavy sigh as he confessed, “I found a gray hair this morning.”

Hercules heard the sorrow in Iolaus’ voice and simply laughed, clapping his friend on the back, urging him forward faster. Maybe Alcemene would talk some sense into him when they arrived.

The woman was frightened, but not about to back down. She’d been bullied, whipped and more; she’d almost lost herself to slavery and managed to survive, but this time it was different. She had a mission she must accomplish. She crouched, fending off the advance of a hoard of thugs and prayed to whatever god would hear her that help would come.

“Get away from me! Get away from me!” she screamed, crouching low near her wagon. The dust from the path rose in swirls where the men’s boots scuffled forward, and she could feel its heaviness in her chest with each gasping breath she took.

“You’re awfully pretty,” a coarse voice growled.

“Get away from me!” Felicita cried, louder this time. She turned her face away and her long beaded braids of shiny ebony hair brushed against the rich chocolate of her skin. She trembled, and hoped the men wouldn’t notice. She’d thought these days were over. She jabbed a wooden pitchfork at the nearest man, but he only jumped easily away and laughed.

“Whaddya got for us?” another voice goaded.

This time Felicita looked up. She tried to put on her fierce face, the one she used so often when she’d been captive in Apropus. “This is mine!” she hissed through gritted teeth, like a lioness guarding her cubs.

“This?” the first man’s voice teased as he reached out to touch her face.

“Get away!” Felicita screamed. Never again, she had vowed. Never again would she allow herself to be used. She pressed back against the wooden wagon, praying that its precious cargo would be safe, that some how she could escape. But deep inside she KNEW this man could and probably would take her, use her again. Maybe if she was lucky he would simply discard her without ever searching the shabby wagon she so carefully guarded.

“I get her first!” called out the man who had touched her.

Felicita couldn’t hide her fear any longer. She trembled like a rabbit at the baying of the hounds. “Get away from me! Get away! Get…”

“What’s going on here?’ a new voice interjected from behind her.

The voice was powerful but soothing and Felicita turned to look. Its owner was as tall and well built as her husband was. Beside him stood a smaller but equally powerfully built blond man who stood hands on hips with reassurance, a half smile on his lips.

“This isn’t your problem,” the closest thug addressed the two men.

“Why don’t we let the lady decide that,” the taller man spoke with command in his voice.

Felicita turned to the two new men, ready to plead her case. “I was on my way to Apropus when these men stopped me.” She could feel the sweat trickling down her face, her chest. Could she trust anyone? What if these two were no different from any of the other men she’d known, except of course her husband?

Hercules listened to her, but never took his eyes off the men. Iolaus turned, stepping closer to Hercules and positioning himself instinctively to jump into a fray if it happened suddenly.

“Oh, well maybe they’re just lost and need directions,” Hercules mused, his tone and posture belying the friendliness in his voice. He turned to Iolaus with a shrug. Turning back to the thugs he gestured tightly with his hand. “You see, if she’s going this way, I think you should go that way.” He pointed away from the road, eyes narrowing and mouth set steely firm.

“Maybe you don’t count so well,” one of the thugs spoke up. “There’re six of us and only two of you.” He crossed his hands on his chest and stepped forward, chin jutting.

Hercules turned to Iolaus. “Good point. Iolaus what do you think? Six to two?”

Iolaus rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. It was still sore, but he’d go another round or so. “Well, it’s not really fair,” he pondered, looking up at Hercules with a tiny grin.

Hercules shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Maybe we should let them go?” Iolaus suggested with a twinkle in his eyes, and then grew serious. Here’s where it began. Iolaus tried to look casual, but inside every muscle was tense and ready.

The thugs were confused. They meant to strike terror into the hearts of the two men and the lady but somehow it wasn’t happening. “Is this a joke?” one of them piped up.

Hercules turned to the group and gesturing broadly offered, “Okay, you can go.”

That was all it took. The thugs turned on Hercules with a vengeance born of humiliation. But the Heroes were ready.

Iolaus jumped right in, going for the closest thug with two quick round kicks, one high to the chest, one low to the groin and before the man could even buckle over Iolaus had spun in a tight circle to deliver a spinning back kick to the man’s exposed mid section. The man when down with a plop, raising a small cloud of dust as he hit the path.

Iolaus spun quickly around, hearing the lumbering pace of a larger and less graceful man approaching. He administered two quick palm heel strikes to the man’s chest and jumped quickly out of the way as the victim fell forward with the breath knocked out of him; Iolaus promptly came down on him with an elbow strike to the mid-back. Two down, Iolaus grinned to himself, maybe I still have it after all.

Meanwhile, Hercules was fighting his own kind of battle. Straight punches with the huge powerful fists, followed by hard snap kicks sent an opponent down in a split second. Two more charged him and Hercules simply pushed one down and sprung over him with his hands on the smaller man’s back and kicking out he sent two other’s flying in a pile of bodies. The last man staggered away from Hercules, back aching from being used as a springboard and headed in Iolaus’ direction.

Iolaus was ready. This one was a sitting duck. With one well-aimed and perfectly executed back fist to the man’s jaw, he brought him down. Iolaus dusted off his hands and walked over to where Hercules stood.

The two men gazed down the now empty road, where once stood a wagon and a frightened woman.

“Where’d she go?” Hercules asked.

Iolaus shook his head in disgust. “You’re welcome,” he replied with a heavy sigh.

Hercules turned to Iolaus with a huge grin. “I think you scared her,” he teased, clapping an arm around Iolaus’ shoulder. “Let’s get going.”

The prison was dark and damp. Walls of granite held the cool air in, and spots of moss and lichen grew as if they were simple decorations in an otherwise Spartan environment. The bars of iron were rusty, oxidized by the dampness and not a man therein was free from aches on a rainy day. The cells were small, allowing only enough room for the men to pace like captured panthers, eyes on the outside, waiting for one mistake which would free them. Rats crawled furtively, they and the insects the only truly free lives within the confines of the jail. Small windows set high on the wall let little light filter in, and constant beams of dust and dirt floated in the thin streams of sunlight like the sulphurous smoke of the underworld.

Friendships were formed and broken with in these confines. Each prisoner knew that he must look after himself if he hoped someday to get out alive. Strength was prized as was health, and the ability to tolerate pain without a whimper was considered a god-given gift which too few had and all strived for.

It was here that Gladius had been for almost more years than he could count. His only view of the outside world was the cheering crowd of anonymous faces in the fighting arena, and he saw that only too often. Once he had been allowed out to please Postera, but not for years, and the memory of the silken sheets, heavy draperies, of the soft mattress and light streaming in like a flood over her bed were no more than a distant dream of a single day of freedom. He’d had his day as had most of the others, the ones who could fight and win, who could dominate and whose hard bodies promised her enjoyment. Times past, he knew. But some things always stayed the same. Like now, like every other fight he’d performed for the pleasure of others. Like his dreary existence. Gladius was getting more than tired of it; he had grown weary.

Gladius struggled to put on the heavy armor that he needed for the fight. Each strap felt as if it was slicing him open and the weight of the metal bowed even his strong shoulders on this particular day. He almost didn’t think he could finish gearing up, were it not for Leutis. He turned to the lithe young man with both sorrow and need in his eyes, his friend and brother of his heart.

“Thanks,” Gladius managed, breath short as he splinted against the pain.

Leutis looked at him with concern. The big man shouldn’t be fighting in this condition; he was still wounded and some of the claw marks had become infected. He knew he shouldn’t show this much concern, it could be judged weakness and would be used against him, but couldn’t help but whisper to his best friend, “You shouldn’t be fighting so soon after the bear.”

Gladius turned to him with a wry half smile. “The bear was quicker than I thought.”

“Your wounds need time to heal,” Leutis pleaded, unable to continue strapping on the armor without letting Gladius know how he felt.

“I doubt the crowd wants to wait.” Gladius stared sadly into Leutis’ worried eyes. This was the only person left he cared about, the only reason to continue to fight. He was tired and wherever he went after death couldn’t be worse than this. But Leutis needed him. He’d be shark bait for some of the others without Gladius’s protection. So fight on he must, as long as this one human being cared about him as much as he cared about Leutis.

“The crowd…or your pride?” Leutis asked knowingly, his voice soft to preserve Gladius’ pride and dignity. He reached to buckle the final strap. Gladius would not be left exposed. He didn’t want Gladius hurt again. “Here, let me,” he demanded and cinched it tight.

Outside, the arena was filled to bursting with well-dressed patrons. The air shivered with excitement and the babbling of hundreds of voices flowed in undulating timbre across the huge confines. The area was massive, built of white marble columns rising like giant cedars atop the base floor of granite that housed the actual prison where the unwilling gladiators were held. Row upon row of seats, circled within the bars of shade and sun cast by the columns, held the willing spectators who enjoyed the cool fresh air and warm lighting the open top provided.

Maxius and Postera always had the front and center seats. After all, as rulers of Apropus and initiators of ‘the games’, they deserved them. Maxius was a big man, well into his mid-years of life, bored with what he’d done thus far and looking for new challenges. His hair was gray, but reasonably thick for a man of his years, but certainly not as thick as his middle. That he enjoyed affluence was obvious. His clothing was soft and silken and tailored to fit. His sandals were custom-made of the finest lambskin, soft on the feet and designed not to leave calluses. Maxius knew he wasn’t a handsome man, but he also knew that most people cared more about money and power than looks-and Maxius was the richest, most powerful man in the entire area.

Postera sat at Maxius’s left, a trophy of a woman with dark hair pulled severely back and eyebrows penciled and shaded in the latest fashion. She was slim and lithe and possessed a catlike grace that she used to her advantage, much as she used Maxius. She wore a dress of the best velveteen, which had a feather collar that stood up like a peacock’s grand tail. In fact, it had been her idea to decorate the arena in a rich shade of purple to honor her special goddess and Apropus’ patron, Hera.

Maxius and Postera waved across and nodded at the crowd as they took their seats. Around them cries of “Hail Maxius, Hail Postera” rang out from the frenzied crowd, eager to begin the day’s entertainment.

Maxius nodded congenially and stilled the crowd temporarily with a raised hand. “Hail Hera!” he offered.

“To Hera!” the crowd responded.

“Thanks be to Hera for our continued prosperity in business and trade,” Maxius called out to the cheers of the frantic crowd.

Cries of “Hail Hera!” rang through the arena as Postera waved her attendant to fan her more vigorously, closing her eyes in rapturous contentment as the heat of this fine day enveloped her.

From the crowd an eager voice asked “And who are the opponents today, Maxius?”

Maxius smiled. This was sure to bring him in many dinars. The people loved Gladius and the glamour of the beast was undeniable. The thrill of the blood and excitement of the kill, be it man or beast drew larger crowds each week. He’d even managed to keep Postera happy thus far, but had lately sensed her interest waning.

“Brave Gladius will fight a lion!” he declared in a voice loud enough to carry to every ear. “A very hungry lion all the way from Africa! And I’m offering three to one on Gladius!” ‘That should suck them in,’ he thought to himself.

The voice of the crowd rose almost in unison, trilling with excitement. Gladius and a lion, three to one odds! Shouts from the crowd became distinct as individuals cried out their wagers.

”I’ll go fifty dinars!” “I’ll go one hundred dinars!”

A woman’s voice countered. “I’ll put mine on the lion!” While others cried out “You’re crazy!”

Maxius made sure his men circulated in the crowd taking bets and collecting money. Yes, this crowd was certainly excited. He stood to do well today.

Gladius stood at the exit door to prison, the one that led to the arena, the only one any of them usually dreaded. The crowd roared in anticipation and blood lust. Behind was nothing but the dark dank cells, in front of him was sunlight or death. Gladius shivered in spite of himself. He wasn’t afraid, far from it. He thought he must be numb to death at this point, he had caused and seen so much of it. If the lion killed him today, so be it. His only regret now would be leaving Leutis to fend for himself. He straightened and stood tall in his armor, the beams of sunlight glinting off his shoulders and the metal of his armor into the dungeon, the only rays of hope the men inside could even imagine.

Leutis looked on, worried about his friend. Gladius wasn’t in great shape and shouldn’t be battling anything, let alone a lion. He’d never seen his friend so weak, in so much pain-almost too tired to go on with the fight. Leutis swallowed his own fear. Gladius had done it before and he’d do it again. He had to…

“Pride can kill, Gladius.”

Gladius simply glanced over his shoulder at the smaller man. He spoke the words he wasn’t sure were true.

”I’ll be alright.”

Postera considered the odds. This was boring, boring, boring. But at least she could make some money. She was tiring of Gladius, tiring of these simple games, never changing, tiring of her husband and his only marginal interest in her. But he certainly provided well, and overlooked her frequent dalliances.

“At three to one, I’ll take the lion,” she muttered to Maxius.

Maxius turned to her in surprise, eyebrows arched and jowls quivering with the sudden movement of the bulldog-like head. “Over Gladius? Our best?”

“I sense he’s getting tired,” she intoned, gesturing for her aide to fan harder. The air was stifling and the clothing was hot, but the garments made her look so good…

Maxius turned his face away. “Oh you do, Postera? I sense you’re getting tired of him.” Maxius glanced at her sideways wondering if Postera was, in fact, getting tired of himself as well. She was a beautiful woman, although high maintenance and he really did care about her. She was exciting, elusive but so often cold.

Postera cut into his thoughts. “He was lucky to survive the bear last week.” She smiled coolly arching an eyebrow and her eyes grew distant.

“Well, whichever way it goes, it should still be a good show,” Maxius observed, hoping it would placate Postera.

They sat side by side, neither looking at the other nor touching. To Maxius’s right, a woman waved happily and eyed him hungrily. “Hi Maxius!” she called as Maxius simply nodded and watched Postera ignore it all.

Hercules and Iolaus continued down the dusty road. The sun beat down and the dry dirt rose with each step. Iolaus was hot, sweaty, dirty and tired. And this was making him cranky. Hercules tried to ignore Iolaus’ bad mood and changed the subject to anything else but physical discomfort: women, food, festivals, all to no avail. So when they came around the bend and saw the woman they’d helped earlier trying desperately to replace the wheel onto the axel of her wagon, Hercules wasn’t surprised to hear Iolaus let out a heavy groan.

“Ah, now what? This woman attracts trouble like dogs draw fleas. Come on,” he urged Hercules as he turned away.

“Iolaus,” Hercules cajoled, but there was warning in his voice.

“Yeah, yeah.” Iolaus shook his head in disgust as he followed Hercules to the woman.

“Hello again,” Hercules addressed her, tipping his head down to stare her in the eyes. Iolaus stood, hands on his hips and a resigned sigh at his lips.

Felicita cast her eyes down, struggling to remain composed, then looked up into the big man’s face. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have run off without thanking you.”

Iolaus leaned towards her smiling wryly. “Well, maybe that’s why your wheel fell off.”

Hercules batted his shoulder and gave him a glare, then turned back to Felicita. “Don’t pay any attention to him; he’ll fix your wheel.” Iolaus turned to his friend with a stunned look.

“Thank you,” Felicita responded humbly.

“Excuse me,” Iolaus responded as he went to the back of the cart and grabbed the wheel, while Hercules lifted the bulk of the vehicle so Iolaus could replace it on the axel and slip the pin in place.

From the wagon, a baby cried urgently and Felicita reached in to pick up the small precious bundle. The baby was hot, its skin warm and moist in the stifling heat of the day even under the protective cover of the wagon.

Hercules turned a concerned look at Iolaus then back to Felicita. “This is hard country for a woman alone,” he warned her. “You should have an escort.”

Iolaus moved forward, peeking into the basket at the baby. He stared down into the innocent face, so soft and sweet with the scent unique to babies and felt a stab through his heart. How many times had he stared down into the crying faces of his own sons…but no more, his were in Elysium with his beloved Ania. He longed to hold the baby close to his chest, just for a minute or two, to feel the small bundle in his arms once again, smell its fresh skin, but Felicita held the basket so protectively, he was afraid even to ask.

Felicita turned to the kind stranger, pondering whether he was asking why she was alone, or offering his services, and decided the truth was the best answer.

“My husband’s in prison, “she stated, but offered up hastily, “he’s not a criminal. He’s a slave.”

Hercules was taken aback. “Wait. Slaves are allowed in Apropus?”

Felicita nodded. Fire burned in her eyes and she clung even tighter to her child as if he was a tiny life vest as she met the tall stranger’s eyes. “Well, not officially,” she explained. “But Menus Maxius is the richest man in the area, and he does what he wants. He promised to set my husband free, then didn’t. Now he’s banished me from the land.”

“Why do you want to go back there?” Iolaus asked impulsively, suspicion in his voice.

Felicita turned her fierce stare at Iolaus. “My husband has never seen his son.”

Hercules and Iolaus glanced silently at each other, both knowing how they would have felt had that been one of them. Iolaus turned back to the baby as Hercules answered.

“No one should be denied that. We’ll go with you.”

Iolaus spun around. He had a sudden sinking feeling that Hercules was going to do something VERY impulsive, in fact very unherculean. Whenever this happened, it ALWAYS meant trouble.

“No, no, not that,” Iolaus protested. “If you mean what I think…”

Hercules just raised an eyebrow and set a challenging look down at his friend.

“Wait a minute, Hercules, we aren’t headed for--?”

Felicita cut him off. “You’re Hercules? Here you’ve helped me twice and I didn’t even ask your name.” She stood wide-eyed and stunned, suddenly humbled.

“There’s no need to apologize. I mean, you’re worried about your husband.”

Felicita smiled up at him, suddenly reassured. “You’re a lot like him, strong as an ox, quick to smile and handsome as a god.”

“Thank you,” Hercules blushed as Iolaus smiled in amused disbelief at him.

“What?” was all Hercules could muster.

Gladius stumbled into the prison, to the only safe haven he knew, his cell. Gasping for air and bent double in pain he reached to steady himself on the wall. There was no room for weakness here, and Gladius above all others knew that. When he thought would simply collapse unable to even make to his bed, he felt the strong arms of his friend, Leutis, helping him to sit on the bench in the cell.

“Does it hurt?” Leutis asked in a whisper as he quickly and silently reached for bandages for Gladius.

“Only when I breathe,” the fighter answered trying to laugh, to pretend he was fine, but finding himself in too much pain to do that.

Leutis examined the bleeding gashes and readied the bandages. “Ah, you’re lucky,” he spoke a bit louder. “Your wounds aren’t deep.”

“You should see the lion,” Gladius answered dryly. “It was a good kill though, quick, clean.”

From a few cells down, a rough and angry voice called out as an inmate jangled the bars in rage. “If it was so quick, why do you wear all the claw marks on your shoulder?” There was a sneer in the voice that was clearly visible without ever being seen.

“At least I didn’t torture the beast, or make it suffer!” Gladius roared. That his word, his honor would be questioned when he was senior fighter was all he needed on this day when he felt his worst. He wouldn’t tolerate the disrespect.

Turkos respected no one, least of all Gladius. In fact, he’d welcome the chance to fight the senior gladiator. If he won, he’d be top dog, if he lost, he’d simply be dead, and that had to be better than prison.

“You’re the only one who cares about quick, clean kills, Gladius,” he hollered back, still banging the bars. “All the crowd wants is blood.”

“Well they got it. Mine!” Gladius shouted, glad that Turkos couldn’t see the way he was slumping against the bars he’d grabbed, couldn’t see his pain and weakness. If his voice conveyed an image, Gladius wanted it to be tough.

Leutis was worried. Prison life was full of squabbles sometimes escalating to out right killing. Gladius was far from strong right now and Leutis knew his friend wouldn’t last in a fight with Turkos. He pulled his friend away from the bars, trying to ease him back over to the bench and away from this confrontation.

“You shouldn’t have been out there. It’s one thing to fool the crowd, but you shouldn’t fool yourself.” He tried to keep his voice low, soothing.

Gladius wouldn’t hear it. Inside he raged at his own inadequacies and that they were becoming visible to others. He couldn’t survive in here if he lost his standing among the prisoners. He turned on Leutis in anger and disbelief

“What are you saying-that I’m not good enough?”

Leutis didn’t take the anger personally. This was his friend and he knew the big man wouldn’t hurt him. “I’m just saying you should slow down.”

“If you’re saying that I’m not good enough, we can just go right now. One on one!” He leaned over, pushing his face at Leutis.

Leutis met his friend’s glare with a solemn and non-threatening stare. “Gladius, I don’t want to fight you. I’m your friend, I’m worried about you.”

“I’m fine!” Gladius spat. “You worry about yourself. Or young Turkos there, with more brawn than brains!” He yelled the last part for Turkos’ benefit, and slammed himself against the rails for emphasis.

“Watch your tongue old man!” Turkos’ voice floated ghostlike through the prison, its disembodied threat delivered as surely as an incoming tide.

“You watch yours!” Gladius shouted. Leaning weakly against the bars of the cell, he silently let some tears leak unfettered down his cheeks and moaned softly. He couldn’t do this much longer, he thought to himself as he melted to the floor.

Oh, this is just wonderful. Hercules has no plans, no plans at all. He thinks we can just march right into Apropus, get ourselves arrested, tossed into prison and take it from there. Where is his head?

Hercules has never been in prison, but I have and it’s no picnic either. It’s certainly no inn where you can spend a night, or a stable with scratchy hay, where we might rest if the owner allowed. Prison is a place you go in and you might come out alive. Well, Hercules, he’d have no fear of a place like that. He’s big, tall and so strong that one look at his muscles and no one’s gonna mess with him after the first guy tries. But me, it burns me that he isn’t even thinking about me.

I’m not immortal, as he so well knows. I’m not big and I have to go through a lot of bigger guys before I can climb up the prison pecking order. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I can take care of myself, but there are certain unwritten rules in a prison, and these are what Hercules doesn’t know. If he takes care of me, they will consider me ‘his property’, which has the advantage of protection when he’s around. But it’s also humiliating. And I’ll have my share of injuries when he’s not around.

On the other hand, if he doesn’t protect me I’m gonna be toast. Been there, done that. And I hoped it was something that would stay in my past. Not that I belonged in prison mind you, no sir, I did it, well stupidly, for a friend, kind of like Hercules is doing now. He’d had two strikes, I only had one and, okay I’m not blameless here, we were stealing some food. I mean a street kid’s gotta eat right? Along came the authorities and they caught him, but I got away. That kid wouldn’t have made it, he wasn’t nearly as cunning as I was, and he cried too easily. Not as strong as I was either, if I say so myself. So to make a long story short, I broke him out of jail and took his place. No one ever noticed the difference. After all, it was simply a matter of punishing a street kid; who cared or could see the differences? So the next day they brought me to prison for a month and I did his time.

Hercules knows this; he’s the only one. And I have no record, not in my name. To be honest, I guess I deserved to do the time as much as the other kid did. But the point is that I know what prison is like. I always told people that the scar over my eye was a battle souvenir, but actually the battle took place in prison. I don’t tell people that; I let them think that is was war. I’m not proud of how it got there; in fact, for a while, I was so ashamed I simply wore my hair longer to cover it. The other guy had meant to kill me and no one else there cared. It was simply entertainment for the other inmates to watch this big idiot pound on me. I took a lot more than this scar away from that fight. It took weeks for the broken ribs to heal and I’m sure my wrist was broken as well, but I never let anyone know. The injuries were worth it when I got the giant of a fellow with a strong and unsuspected left to the jaw and watched him go down like a sack of potatoes. I tell you, I thought he was dead when he lay on the dirt floor of the cell so long. But he didn’t mess with me again.

No, prison isn’t one of my better memories. It’s a whole lot worse than jail, where you do you time with a bunch of locals you probably know. Jail’s a walk in the meadow next to prison, and I’m sure Hercules’ view of prison is no different from jail. That’s where he’s gonna be wrong. You see I know, two trips to jail as a kid, and then the next stop is the big one, whether you are a man or a boy. I made my mistake and I paid for it…and I learned my lesson. I truly don’t want to go back; I always thought that first time would be the last, but I will if I have to, and only for him.

I hate it when Herc doesn’t listen to me! My stomach is in a knot just thinking about this and no matter what I say about having a plan, he just answers, “We’re going to be fine Iolaus,” as if I’m a child. He’s the one being unreasonable today, acting like an impulsive adolescent! He’s bound and determined to get us both tossed into Menus Maxius’ prison. He doesn’t understand what he’s getting into. I’m going to have to give it one more try, if only to save his neck!

“I don’t know what we’re doing this for! How do you know you’re going to get in to see him? There may be more than one area, separate holding pens, you know?” Iolaus grabbed Hercules’ bicep, pulling him to a slower pace.

”I’m working on it,” was all Hercules would answer.

Iolaus was frustrated. “Well, even if you do get in, what are you gonna do? Hercules, we can’t go around busting people out of prison. There may be people who are supposed to be there. What would it do to our reputations?”

“I said I’m working on it.”

“Hercules, there are rules in prison,” Iolaus cautioned. “First, never look another guy directly in the eye unless you’re sure you’re higher in the pecking order, or you want a fight. Well, guess you’ll be at the top there, so forget that.”

Hercules rolled his eyes, but stayed striding just ahead of Iolaus.

“Second, don’t protect me. It’s imperative the other inmates don’t see me as ‘yours’. I’d be in big trouble when you’re not around, if they did. And third, we’d better pretend to be just traveling together for safety. If they know we’re friends, they’ll use us against each other, both guards and inmates. Got it?” Iolaus pushed forward, lengthening his stride and picking up the pace so he could be next to his friend.

“Okay,” Hercules agreed, with a cursory glace down at the blond hunter.

“And for the record, Hercules,” Iolaus spoke softly so only his friend would hear. “This whole thing is stupid without a plan.” Iolaus shook his head. Hercules was being thick. This didn’t happen often, but when it did, it meant trouble.

The two men saw the road widen and the grasses shorten. The sun shone across the path and they could tell the road was ending. Hercules looked carefully around. They must be nearing Apropus. A clearing stood ahead and past the clearing the road widened. Men in partial armor stood pacing at the edge of the road.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Felicita called softly to the donkey pulling her wagon as she pulled back on the reins.

Hercules turned in concern. “What is it, Felicita?

“Those are Maxius’ toll collectors,” she whispered as she huddled close to the wagon, pulling the donkey’s head down where it wouldn’t be able to see ahead and bray. “They might recognize me.” She shot Hercules a worried glance.

Hercules turned an assessing stare at Felicita, hoping she wouldn’t just run away again. “All right, there’s an inn we passed a little way back. You stay there until we send for you.”

Felicita started to protest, “B-but I…”

Hercules would hear nothing of it. “No, no. It’ll be alright,” he reassured her. “We’ll find your husband. Come on Iolaus. We have some work to do.”

Iolaus stared at Hercules in stunned disbelief and, shaking his head, watched Hercules start forward, toward the clearing where the men stood waiting. He followed reluctantly, stiff with anxiety yet knowing he wouldn’t let Hercules walk into this alone.

“Hercules,” Iolaus cajoled. “You don’t have to do this…you don’t have a plan and you don’t know what you’re getting into!”

Hercules kept walking, trying to ignore Iolaus’ pleas. Iolaus was right, he had no plans, but this was something he had to do, he just knew it.

“Hercules, please,” Iolaus tried again. “You are being the impulsive one here,” he warned as he trotted along side his bigger fiend.

Hercules didn’t even bother to look down at Iolaus, instead striding into the open area and up to the bridge. The guards stood milling around, bored it seemed until the arrival of the two men.

Suddenly wary and at attention, one of the guards faced Hercules and stated loudly and clearly, “For the glory of Hera…and the coffers of Menus Maxius…twenty dinars is the toll.”

Iolaus stood back as Hercules came up face to face with the guard.

“Twenty dinars?” Iolaus questioned in disbelief.

Hercules looked down at the guard and asked challengingly “And, if we refuse?”

“First we’ll have the pleasure of cracking your skulls. Then you’ll get to see the inside of Menus Maxius’ prison.” The guard laughed and turned to his friends who were nodding.

Hercules glanced over at Iolaus. “Ready?” he mumbled.

“No!” Iolaus called out, taken aback. He grabbed at the back of Hercules’ vest, taking a hold of his bicep again with the other hand, trying desperately to stop his friend from taking action.

“That’s what I thought,” Hercules, raised his eyebrows and pulled back a fist, then struck the first guard with a powerful straight punch that sent the guard tumbling, sword and all, to the ground like a fallen tree. The demigod spun with surprising agility for a big man and pushed the second guard over the side of the bridge and into the water. Then, in a split second, he had his hands on the shoulders of the third guard, lifting him up, still holding his axe, and tossing him over the side as well.

“Oh no, great!” Iolaus groaned, thinking only of the prison and what it meant for them, what Hercules didn’t know. “Here we go again,” he sighed, and as a second wave of guards approached. Well, he certainly wouldn’t leave Hercules alone in prison. Reluctantly, Iolaus stepped forward to join the fight. If Hercules was going to prison, then so was he.

Iolaus took down the first guard Hercules let by with a sweeping kick that pulled the legs right out from under the unsuspecting man. He edged closer to Hercules as he set a solid round kick followed by a back fist to the face of the next guard.

“I can’t believe you’re gonna get us into prison,” he hissed at Hercules, never taking his eyes off the approaching phalanx of guards.

Hercules walked forward into the solid line, extending an arm like a battering ram and setting the recipients into a spin toward the edge of the bridge. “Uh huh,” he answered simply without looking back to his friend.

Iolaus stood at Hercules’ side, his shoulder close to his friend’s chest as the last four guards approached. This was it. They couldn’t knock down these guys if they wanted to get put away. Iolaus said a silent prayer to any god who would hear them that Hercules really knew what he was doing.

“Hold it right there! Don’t move!” the tallest of the last four guards shouted, as all four pointed their spears at the two heroes.

Iolaus had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. This was it. Back to Tartarus, back to the dark, dank subterranean pit that prisons always were. Back to the macho posturing, the pecking order, the beatings. He felt a coldness creep into his very soul at the thought of what happened to those who couldn’t hold their own in the raucous world of aggression-charged manhood with no outlet. He truly, truly hoped Hercules had a real plan and knew what he was doing. Because Hercules would survive, but Iolaus...he shuddered to think what could happen to a smaller man there. Thank the gods for his Eastern training.

Hercules seemed unaware of Iolaus, of the tension in the smaller man’s stance, of his uncharacteristic complete silence. “Ah, take it easy, we’ll go quietly,” the big man spoke with an ease that frightened Iolaus. He truly didn’t understand what he was getting into. Iolaus shook his head, in both frustration and disagreement of Hercules’ easy surrender.

The guards stepped forward, grabbing the two men roughly and twisting their arms behind their backs. Iolaus felt the tight pull in his shoulder, the hard elbow in his back. ‘It’s only starting,’ he thought.

Spagos was ladling out the supper to the prisoners. The huge pots were steaming and the air in the closed area was heavy with the smell of well-cooked meat and vegetables. The men stood in an unruly line, shoving each other and holding out wooden bowls. No one wanted to be last, to have no choice and possibly no meat.

“You got your choice, venison soup or boar stew,” Spagos called out to Leutis.

Leutis grinned back, and in a soft conspiratorial voice asked, “How ‘bout both?”

“You got wax in your ears?” Spagos bellowed. It wouldn’t do to show favoritism to someone low in the pecking order. “I said you got a choice.”

Leutis gave the older man a wide grin. He knew the rules, but Spagos was okay, and sometimes if he was way in the back of the line and Spagos had made extra…

“Okay, look, I’ll take the stew. Uh, how about a double portion?”

“How ‘bout a ladle upside the head,” Spagos responded with a raised eyebrow. “I’ve got twenty more mouths to feed and a bunch of new recruits coming in.”

“Ah, come on, Spagos,” Leutis cajoled. “I’m fighting a bear later this week-just a little extra?”

“You’re fighting a boar, and you know the rules,” the cook retorted. “The better the fighter, the better the food. Ha! You got a problem with that? We can take it up with Bellicus.”

“Oh, let’s not,” Leutis grinned, his eyes serious though. “I don’t think our jailer’s capable of friendly debate.”

“Yeah, well, why don’t you tell him that? Here he comes with the new meat,” Spagos laughed and pointed with the ladle’s bowl to the new arrivals.

The room was noisy with the bickering of the men as they competed for food, trying to grab what the slower eaters had not yet finished, elbowing and shouldering each other. Steam wafted through the perpetual dusk and under the smell of the stew was the all-pervasive odor of men, unkempt, unwashed and fearful. Into this Bellicus marched Hercules first, then Iolaus. Neither man was chained, and this was definitely an attempt by Bellicus to show the others that he could control them without the outward trappings.

Iolaus was close to Hercules, his gait stiff and muscles ready. The jailer had already started on him outside, goading him about his size, about his friendship with the bigger man, about his hair, about anything and everything. It was just as Iolaus remembered and he was angry, not just with Bellicus, but if he was being honest with himself, he had to admit he was angry with Hercules as well. Hercules walked ahead with such self-assurance, so tall and strong that even the other inmates had to notice he wasn’t an ordinary man. But Iolaus had to get marched in being taunted, poked with a whip and laughed at.

“Hercules,” he whispered ahead, “You’re sure this is the best way to find this guy?” Iolaus had a hard time keeping the anger and skepticism out of his voice.

Hercules didn’t even look back at him. Not here, not now… “Did you have a better idea?”

Fine time to ask THAT, Iolaus thought as Bellicus shoved him hard in the back with the whip once again. “Keep moving!” the jailer snarled.

Iolaus whipped around, unable to contain his anger any longer. “You shove that thing in my back once more and you’re gonna end up wearing it,” he threatened, fire in his eyes as he leaned into his captor’s laughing face.

“Did you say something?” Bellicus retorted, his face growing hard and the smile being replaced by a knowing sneer.

“Yeah! I…” But Iolaus didn’t get to finish. Before he could answer, Bellicus landed an unexpected straight punch right into his face, hitting him on the same part of the jaw that had been punched so hard earlier on this long, long day. Iolaus dropped to the floor with a moan, in front of the whole roomful of inmates, cradling his jaw in his hands as Bellicus towered over him laughing.

“Ow,” Iolaus groaned and tried at first unsuccessfully to rise to his feet. The room was spinning and seemed a little darker than it had only seconds ago. His jaw felt as if it had broken and memories of the past welled up like a tsunami. He had to get up, couldn’t lie here like this with the others watching.

Hercules turned, stretched an arm out instinctively to Iolaus, but was stopped short by a coarse warning from Bellicus’ curled lips.

Iolaus meanwhile staggered up to his feet, not quite fully erect, and stood weaving and nauseous, bent slightly and unguarded. Hercules watched tight-lipped, knowing what would come next, seeing it written in the jailer’s eager eyes. ‘Iolaus,’ he thought to himself, ‘look up!’ But the smaller man didn’t.

Iolaus hadn’t even remotely recovered from the first strike when the second one came hard and faster than the first. He never knew what hit him as the well-muscled Bellicus kicked him directly between the eyes, his boot heel catching the bridge of Iolaus’ nose.

Hercules heard the sickening crunch of Iolaus’ nose breaking; saw the spattering of blood as the momentum of the kick actually lifted his best friend’s limp body in the air, sending it soaring in a graceful arc into an empty cell. The demigod stood tense, horrified and for the first time wondering if he’d made the right choice as he stared at Iolaus’ limp body sprawled on the cold dirt floor, face already bruising and nose bleeding, both from the inside and from the great laceration the boot heel had caused. He turned to Bellicus, standing tall and threatening.

“We’ll talk about this later,” he told the jailer, with barely controlled anger. He held the jailer’s stare with one of his own, and carefully made no move toward his friend. Iolaus had warned him about this and begged Hercules to not protect him, no matter what. And Hercules had promised, unsuspecting that his promise would cost such a high price.

“Oh, we will,” Bellicus answered with an air of superiority. “You’ll be with us for a while.” He pushed Hercules, but with none of the roughness he’d showed Iolaus, into another open cell.

Hercules tried desperately not to call out to his friend, not to look over even though that was the only thought on his mind. He would do as Iolaus wanted; even if he thought the smaller man had been foolish in his request, because he knew Iolaus was usually right. But inside he felt a finger of cold dread and worry prodding at him. What was right for him might not be right for Iolaus.

From across the room Bellicus laughed heartily at Hercules’ attempt at unconcern for his friend. Oh, they knew each other well in spite of what they claimed. He’d watch them closely. This might be something he could use later.

Gladius continued eating, not missing a spoonful as he watched the new man’s muscles ripple in suppressed anger and concern. He looked like he could break down the bars if he wanted, but Gladius knew no man could that. No, these new men were prisoners just like him and this big one just might mean trouble for him.

Oh man, that was a heck of a blow. My head feels bigger than a pumpkin and my nose is only just now stopping its bleeding, even though the prison is dark. I’m not sure how many hours I was out, but I’m thinking it was quite a while. If I recall, there was the smell of food and people were eating when this all started. Now everyone seems asleep. Except Hercules. He’s standing stiffly at the bars staring at me, like I told him not to do. They’ve put me in with him and he looks as if he’s holding himself to the bars to keep himself from hugging me.

I knew this would happen, the beating I mean, not necessarily the nose. I just figured it would take more than, oh, say a few minutes into our arrest to come though. My jaw is extremely sore, but as I rub it I don’t think it’s broken. Hades! Twice in one day. I am getting old!

Wow, let me tell you, this nose is throbbing, and I’ve got dirt stuck to the blood on my face. I must be a sight. I’m sure I look terrible, but not being pretty has it’s advantages. Hercules may not know it, but I’m lucky. A simple broken bone will heal but a broken spirit doesn’t mend as quickly. And I’m not the kind o f man to let my spirit get broken. I hope to stay that way. I figure if I keep pissing off the jailer, Bellicus I think his name is, that the other guys just might leave me alone. Enough blows and I won’t be pretty and I get the added bonus of getting a reputation as a brawler, someone willing to push on the guard and take some heat, they just might leave me alone. It worked before anyway.

Let’s see if I can sit up. Aw, Hercules saw and he’s pressing his back against the bars again, keeping away but whispering to me. That’s nice, but I told him not to do that. Well, maybe it’s okay if everyone is asleep. I just wish he’d listen to me though. I told him to pretend he barely knows me and that means acting unconcerned when I get hurt, and I told him that would happen. Guess he didn’t think it could be like this. Wow, the cell is really spinning; maybe I’d better lean back against the wall, too. Yeah, that’s cool. Things are looking clearer and I think I can keep from throwing up now, not that there’s any food in my belly.

Around me, I can see that a few guys are still up, sitting in their cell. Some are doubled up like Herc and me; others get to be alone. I don’t know if the others had a choice, but I’m awfully glad that they put Herc and me together. I’m not in a rush to get in another fight. Gotta get up on that bunk over there and see if I can find out what’s been going on.

Hercules broke the rules. Iolaus looked so pale and weak; he couldn’t stand to see his friend staggering as he tried to stand, retching out the old blood that had trickled from his nose down his throat as he lay unconscious. He slipped an arm across his friend’s back and carefully moved him to a sitting position on the bed. Iolaus gave him a warning glare, which carried his message nicely. Hercules quickly removed his arm and walked to the other side of the cell, over to where Leutis sat on his bunk on the other side of the bars.

Leutis observed the two new men cautiously as did the few other inmates who were still awake. Hercules tried to look unconcerned and the quiet in the room enveloped the men even closer than the bars.

Iolaus finally sighed heavily. He’d have to speak first softly, not wanting to wake the others, he asked, “Are you sure there isn’t any other way to find this guy?” He had a hard time keeping the disgust out of his voice as he dabbed at the trickle of blood, flowing anew from his nose in protest to the change in position.

Hercules studiously ignored Iolaus, knowing if he looked over at his friend again, saw his pain and displeasure, he might find it even more difficult to pretend to not care. “I’m sorry Iolaus,” he answered coolly. “I promise we won’t stay any longer than we have to.”

He turned to Leutis and spoke louder to anyone who would listen. “I’m trying to find a man named Gladius.”

In their cells, the inmates looked warily around, shooting warning glances to each other, lips tightly sealed. None would own up. Only Gladius could answer for himself. It was the rule.

Leutis stared cautiously at Hercules through the bars, putting his face closer. This new man didn’t seem to know the rules. Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to, at least not at first. He was bold. This might be interesting. “Maybe he doesn’t want to be found,” Leutis answered simply.

From next to Leutis, a powerful and tragic voice called out wearily. “Why are you looking for him?”

“That’s my business,” Hercules answered insolently. Iolaus nodded his approval. At least some of what he’d told Hercules had gotten through. You couldn’t be friendly or forthcoming with these guys.

Leutis shot a half grin of approval at the big man in the next cell. ‘Fast learner,’ he thought to himself. “Just what is it that you two did that you ended up in here?” he asked. Appropriate questions had to be answered first before any information would be given.

“We refused to pay a toll,” Hercules answered in a tone that indicated how ridiculous he thought that was.

“That’s all?” Leutis couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice.

Iolaus nodded in the dark. “We refused with extreme prejudice.” His voice was nasal, stuffy and edged with pain, which he tried to hold back.

“And for that grave transgression, let me guess…two years hard labor?” Leutis was genuinely curious. He stared intently at Hercules who now leaned against the bars assessing Leutis.

“Thirty days,” he answered simply. Around them, the prisoners erupted in knowing laughter.

“You hear that, Turkos?” Leutis grinned down the row of cages. “Only thirty days. Maxius is getting more lenient with his sentencing.”

“It’s just a number,” Turkos called out, nothing more than a disembodied voice. “Thirty days, thirty years, what’s the difference?”

Iolaus sat up straighter, continuing to dab at his nose, pick the dried blood off his face. “What do you mean, ‘what’s the difference?’ Ow!” Dang his nose hurt!

The disembodied voice floated out an answer. “I was sentenced to two years. I’ve been here three.”

“Same here,” Leutis added. “Sentenced to two, so far I’ve done five.” He nodded at Gladius, not giving away his name yet. “They told him three; he’s been here fifteen.”

“Fifteen?” Iolaus called out in disbelief. He chanced a glance of concern at Hercules.

“If I was you guys, I wouldn’t make any long term plans,” Turkos’ ghostly voice intoned. “The only way anyone gets out of here is in a box.”

Hercules sighed, suddenly realizing that maybe Iolaus had been right about this. “Great,” was all he could find to say as he laid his head against the cool rusty bars.

The quarry seemed to stretch on forever, gray, tall and blocking the sun from the sky. That didn’t mean it wasn’t hot, however. The men working at the base of the great granite cliffs perspired heavily as they labored to split, load and move the huge hunks of stone. Their skin was no longer black or white, but simply a muddy ashen as the rock dust clung, then slipped in rivulets through the crevasses of muscles made hard by forced labor. There was no spring to any step or even a whistle to while away the time. The men stood as stiff as iron soldiers, toys for the pleasure of Menus Maxius.

“Easy!” a voice called out, taking too large a load from another, but was quickly lost to the cacophony of voices, guards calling out. “Work faster!” Move!” “Quickly, quickly!” “Get to work over there!” “Put your backs into it!” “Keep movin’ slave!”

Midway along the great cliff, Hercules hefted a heavy hammer, its handle of solid oak and steel head sturdy enough to slap off a giant chunk of rock, given a strong enough man. Hercules lifted the hammer as easily as an old bone and simply sliced chunk after chunk off the face of gray stone. The sweat trickled softly down his back, between his shoulder blades, but he had not yet grown sweaty enough to have to remove his shirt.

Iolaus grunted as Hercules tossed a large slab of granite at Iolaus as casually as a loaf of bread. “Could you…make them a little smaller,” he complained with a nasal sniff as he staggered under the weight it. To the two heroes’ left, Turkos laughed, nodding as Hercules casually glanced over at him. He flicked a look at Gladius, reclining uncomfortably and noticed the fighter pulling back his vest to assess the claw marks striping his ribs.

Iolaus steamed. It was obvious that the men were noticing Hercules’ ease at labor, his strength and self assurance, while Iolaus labored at his side drenched in sweat. The laugh was at Iolaus’ expense and in Iolaus’ eyes, it didn’t bode well. They obviously had noted his discomfort in working alongside Hercules, his inability to keep up in the heat. That they would laugh at his discomfort didn’t surprise Iolaus, but it did anger him.

Hercules ignored Iolaus’ heavy sigh and insolent glance to the side and turned instead to Leutis with a raised eyebrow.

Leutis grinned. He knew Gladius better than anyone. He didn’t need to put anyone down. He was top dog here. But as for Turkos, this was a man to be wary of, a second man always wanted to be first and would do anything to raise his status in the eyes of others. These were men who had shut away any emotions they once possessed. Except Gladius, who still retained the capacity to care for his one and only friend.

“Don’t mind Turkos,” Leutis spoke softly. “He simply takes delight in the misery of others.”

A guard strode over, staring at the younger man and started moving away, calling over his shoulder, “No talking over there.”

Iolaus was miffed. Too many thoughts of the last time he was in prison, of the tough road up the inmate ladder. “Yeah? Well, that guy has a sick sense of humor,” he spat, staring at Turkos with vengeance in his eyes. “All that stuff about us being here forever…”

Leutis didn’t meet Iolaus’ eyes, gazing instead over at Gladius and Turkos. “Turkos doesn’t have a sense of humor.”

“Yeah, well all we got was thirty days,” Iolaus shook his head in disbelief, fighting to keep the concern out of his voice.

Leutis turned away, back to the granite and grabbed a chunk Hercules had just severed free. “Well that’s subject to debate. It might make more sense if you thought of yourselves as slaves, not prisoners.” He tossed the chunk into a cart behind the three men with a small groan.

Hercules turned to Leutis, concern etched on his chiseled features. “I fought to wipe out slavery in this province many years ago.”

Iolaus nudged him, concerned that he might give his identity away.

“Then think of yourself as prisoners,” he shrugged. “To Menus Maxius, it’s all the same.”

Iolaus continued staring over at Turkos and Gladius, lounging casually, sheltered from the heat of the day, sipping water and eating fruit, as his own body ached and his face throbbed from yesterday’s beating.

“What do you do to get that?” he asked. Hercules thought he detected a note of envy in the smaller man’s voice.

Leutis answered simply, “You earn it.” He turned to Iolaus, letting his gaze stray from Gladius and set on his two work partners. “If you don’t want to work the quarry, you fight animals. The better you fight the more you eat. And if you’re really good,” he nodded over to Gladius, “well, they might even send a girl or two your way.”

Iolaus opened his north to speak but Hercules cut him off.

“That’s Gladius?”

“Yeah, he’s the best.” Leutis couldn’t keep the admiration from his voice. “And he’s earned every scar on his body.”

Iolaus turned to Leutis curiously. “What makes him so good?” But before he could get an answer he heard the heavy snap, and felt the sting of a whip tearing into the flesh of his bicep. “OW!” he hollered, turning an angry glare on Bellicus.

“Work, don’t talk,” Bellicus ordered, meeting Iolaus’ anger with a cold stare. He raised his whip again and Iolaus felt it slap heavily against his shoulders, felt the warm trickle of blood tracing its path down his pecs and ribs to his flank.

Bellicus laughed, taunting Iolaus. He raised an elbow, trying to bait the new prisoner and waited for him to lurch forward. But Iolaus had been this route before and it led the wrong way. He stood still, swallowing his pride, but not backing away, staring the jailer right in the eyes.

From his peripheral vision, he noticed Hercules stepping closer to his side. Quietly, so the others wouldn’t hear, Hercules addressed the bullying Bellicus.

“That’s two.”

Bellicus turned his sarcastic grin to Hercules, simply laughing, and then he slammed heavily into Iolaus as he walked casually away.

“I’m getting bored with the games,” Postera declared coyly as she lightly stroked the iron bar and chains she used when she was really bored. She enjoyed the feel of the cold curved metal against her hot skin, the roughness of the links rubbing against her forearms. She furrowed her eyebrows as she noticed a fine layer of dust on the upper edge. This device was losing its appeal, much like the games, and to be honest a bit like Maxius lately.

Maxius eyed her nervously from across the splendid room decorated in silks, leather and peacock feathers. Postera was a fine looking woman, a daring woman with a sharp face and lithe figure, which she knew exactly how to use to get her way. Maxius stared hungrily at her sharp pointed leather gauntlets, and leather neck collar, tight and spiked like an iron fence, tiny speared ends pointing down at her provocatively displayed breasts.

Maxius didn’t like it when Postera was displeased, and her furrowed brow told him exactly how bored she was. “Oh yeah?” he ventured. “Which games are those?”

He stepped closer, letting a hand slide down her shoulder, feeling the silken smooth skin that covered her hard interior.

“All the games!” she answered tartly, carefully keeping her back to Maxius. She toyed with the hard rod of metal, jangling the chains and allowing her fingers to become entwined in the thick sturdy links as she caressed them.

Maxius felt warmth suffuse him and leaned forward, letting his lips slide gently along Postera’s shoulder, tasting her with the tip of his tongue before bestowing a kiss of desire on the side of her neck.

“Well, we’ll just have to fix that won’t we?” he offered, not quite sure yet exactly what he would do, but knowing it would have to be even more barbaric than simply allowing the slaves to slaughter animals, or visa versa.

Postera stopped toying with the bondage device, her eyes glazing over as she pondered just what Maxius might do. He was a clever man. Not much to look at and not really satisfying either. But he knew how to appeal to her other desires…and he was rich. She allowed herself a moment to ponder what kind of bloodshed Maxius might actually consider to please her. A small shiver slid through her body, stimulating every nerve ending and warming the cold spot in her heart.

“Do…something different,” she urged. “Something… exciting!” Postera began to purr like a lioness sated as she spun on Maxius, slipping her agile fingers along the bulk of his chest in a playful caress. Then, not waiting, she dug her garishly painted nails through his skin, clawing downward and leaving bloody trails to attest to her impatient desire.

Maxius cringed and then caught himself. It wouldn’t do to look weak to Postera. “Hey,” he pushed closer to her, “I just thought of something you are gonna love.”

“Hmm,” Postera purred in contentment as she watched Maxius’ discomfort, felt the tension of his chest muscles, if you could call them that, and ran the tip of her finger through the blood that tricked lower towards his belly.

“I promise you,” Maxius intoned, disconcerted.

The sky was beginning to deepen its hue to orange, with a few lengthening patches of red and shadows, as Hercules and Iolaus were finally allowed to leave the quarry. They accompanied a huge cart of granite boulders destined to enlarge Menus Maxius’ arena and prison. The slaves were herded in pairs, heavy chains around their wrists and a multitude of guards brandishing whips. The men were for the most part silent, and the only noise that accompanied the sad parade was the grinding of the cart’s wheels on the gravel path, the clink of chains, and the weary shuffle of footsteps in boots too inadequate and worn to protect the aching feet within them.

Hercules walked behind Gladius, assessing the man’s proud posture, his ease with the chains. Iolaus had told him not to make a public display of his need to speak with the gladiator, of the problems it would cause with the guards and the alpha slaves necessity of putting down the newcomer. But the timing just seemed right to Hercules. He leaned forward and Iolaus knew what was going to happen. His lips tightened and he jerked on the chain that held the two of them together, but to no avail.

“I have news from your wife,” Hercules spoke loudly and clearly.

Gladius spun towards Hercules, eyes ablaze, pushing himself forward in a threatening fashion before turning abruptly away.

No, no Iolaus thought to himself. Not here, not now. Gladius can’t let it seem that this newcomer has something he wants, that could hurt or heal him. He can’t allow a sign of weakness or his standing will slip. And he won’t let that happen. Herc is not playing by the rules. And that could hurt both of us.

One burly guard reached a restraining arm between Hercules and Gladius. No one wanted to be caught in a fight between these two and though the guard put on a gruff front, he was not happy with the thought of these particular men being out of control.

The men moved forward silently. Gladius marched ahead stiffly, all muscles tense, ready for a fight. He stared ahead as if even a glace backward would belittle him. “I have no wife,” he spat. “And if you ever mention her name again I’ll…I’ll kill you!”

Bellicus stopped Hercules with a stiff arm to the hero’s chest. He leaned forward, pressing his face with inches of Hercules’. “I can see you’re gonna be a troublemaker,” he growled. He turned to Gladius. “Keep moving Gladius!” Turning back to Hercules, he held his whip close to the big man’s face, the threat evident without so much as a word.

The first guard noticed that the line of prisoners had stopped moving, freezing and watching the scene play out with keen interest. “Go on!” he bellowed.

Bellicus stared Hercules in the eye. “You too,” he said with a tight steely voice.

The men moved on, past Bellicus and back in formation with the guards. All eyes were to the front. The silence made the shuffling footsteps and clanking chains sound thunderously loud.

Iolaus waited a minute before he spoke, trying to stem the anger and fear he felt when Bellicus brandished the whip at Hercules. He hoped that Hercules had learned a lesson, however small. “What was that all about?” he finally whispered.

“I wish I knew,” was all Hercules answered with a shrug of his shoulders.

The prison was dark, the night too warm for easy sleeping. Most of the prisoners lay awake and more than few arguments broke out. But now in the late hours it was mostly quiet. Hercules paced his cell, alone tonight. The guards had taken Iolaus away before he’d even eaten supper, and Hercules was worried. He’d broken most of the rules that Iolaus had carefully explained, and now his friend was gone. Hercules suspected that the guards weren’t eager to tangle with him, but Iolaus was a different story.

Although Iolaus had told him to stay away after the first beating, Hercules had gone to him in the dead of the night, tending to his wounds as best as he could, given his total lack of supplies. Iolaus had whispered to him to go back to his own side of the cell, but Hercules wouldn’t. Iolaus was really hurting, and Hercules felt responsible for his smaller friend’s misery. He hadn’t noticed any guards, but Iolaus had warned him the other inmates would use the information to barter with the guards for extra privileges or to get out of trouble. And Hercules hadn’t listened.

Hercules wanted to be out of this cell, to have Iolaus back at his side, safe and well. He wanted this whole adventure to end now, but he still had to get Gladius safely to Felicita. After all, he was Hercules, a man of his word. He stood at the iron grid that kept him prisoner and tested its strength. He knew he could bend these bars easily, but it wasn’t yet time for that, as much as he wished it were.

Leutis was still awake and watching Hercules pace and pull at the bars. This big man is not your ordinary prisoner, he thought. He has too much self assurance and too little brawl in him. He cares, and that’s something too few in this place know anything about. No, this big fellow didn’t belong here.

Leutis moved over to the bars near Hercules and turned a querying face to him. “Planning to escape?”

Hercules avoided his eyes. “Just stretching my muscles.”

Leutis answered with a dry laugh. “Save your strength. More than a few have tried. Usually they end up lashed or dead for their efforts.”

Hercules turned to the young man with a tightlipped stare. “It still seems better than growing old in here.” He looked down on the earnestness on Leutis’ face and thought, with another pang of guilt, of Iolaus.

“Look, no one should have to live like this, but you pick your fights, and their time and place.” Leutis pressed his face closer to the bars, trying to get his point across. This big man was in for a big fall if he didn’t stop riling others.

“Hmm, like your friend, Gladius,” Hercules commented, turning his face away.

“Gladius is a brave man!” Leutis defended his friend.

“He’s been here fifteen years,” Hercules pointed out.

“And he’s had his spirit broken and mended more times than you have bones in your body. But I’ve never met anyone more…honorable or courageous!”

Hercules turned to face Leutis now. He had to get the prisoner to hear the truth. “Then why does he deny the existence of his wife?” The words came out more of a condemnation than a question.

“Because he has no wife. She died in childbirth.”

Hercules’ eyes bored into Leutis. “Not if her name is Felicita.”

The words stuck into Leutis, like dagger to his heart. How could this man know of her? How could he know of Gladius’ greatest tragedy? “How did you know that?” he croaked.

“Because I met her,” Hercules explained with a sigh. “She’s no more a ghost than you or I.”

“She’s alive?” Leutis couldn’t keep the astonishment from his voice. How wonderful for Gladius!

“She’s alive,” Hercules confirmed.

“Gods above,” Leutis breathed out in astonishment.

“They lied,” Hercules informed him, surprised that these men would have believed the story to begin with. “The question is…why?”

Leutis knew the answer to that instantly. “For the amusement of the landowners. Gladius is the best fighter in the camp. Maxius makes money off him.”

“Wagering!” Hercules spat in disgust.

Leutis was lost in memories. He pressed his face to the bars, staring intently at the new prisoner. “He once fought an African water buffalo with a short sword. That’s how he met Felicita. She was slave to Maxius’ wife…and was offered to Gladius. No one guessed they would fall in love.”

“Felicita said he was offered his freedom?” Hercules stated as much as questioned.

“He was. Gladius offered to fight anything if Maxius would let him marry the girl and set them free.”

“So what happened?” Hercules felt himself being pulled in by the story.

Leutis continued, eager to relay this epic to Hercules. “He fought two mountain lions at one time…killed them both. Then Maxius went back on his promise, told him the girl died.”

“She’s alive,” Hercules spoke loud enough for Gladius to hear if he was awake. “She waits for him outside the city with Gladius’ son.”

They took me away before I even finished eating, and boy, was I hungry. But this is prison and the guards do what they want. I wish Herc would listen to me. I don’t know why he isn’t paying attention. I could have predicted this! When I was in prison for the other kid, I saw this happen. Two guys there were kind of friendly, liked to hang out together and even though they kept their friendship from the guards, another inmate squealed, and just for an extra bowl of slop, too. The guards took him away and when he came back, he was a real mess. The friend became the play-toy of the guards and was used to make his friend toe the line. These guards are ruthless. I think there is a line on their job application that says, “Are you willing to belittle, humiliate, beat or kill another human being?” and if they answer yes, they get the job.

I guess it seems like I’m joking but I’m not. I’ve been through hours of torture and they can’t wait to return me to Herc in the morning and see how he reacts. I ache in places I didn’t know I had and my back is so bad I don’t want to put on my vest again, but I’ll have to, so Herc doesn’t know. Yes they gave my nose another round of abuse and my back has stripes, but I didn’t give him up, I wouldn’t. Not now and not ever. Yeah, I know, he got me into this mess, but still he’s my heart brother, and I love him. Not that I let the guards know that though. I’ve been soaked with icy cold water and left here to stew in my own juices and, Hades, I’m so cold in this stone cell, I’m shivering. But I didn’t give up that I knew Herc before were tossed into this pit together and I think they believe me. But I know what’s next. They’ll be watching him like a hawk, and if he shows any regard for me whatsoever, then they’ll use me against him. That’s what I dread.

But, I’m sure Herc will do SOMETHING to show he cares. He’s tried hard to seem unconcerned around the guards, but he underestimates the other slaves. Sometimes late at night when he thinks they are asleep, he talks to me as he used to, soft and nice, companionable. He worries over my nose and fusses with me. I tried to dissuade him. There is ALWAYS someone awake, something else I learned about prison, and there are no secrets. So when they return me to the cell with Herc, and they definitely will by morning (after all, they need me to work in the granite quarry), we will have to be extra careful.

Herc may be immortal, but I’m not and I intend to get out of here alive. Even it means hammering the rules through Herc’s thick skull.

Felicita could wait no longer. She’d thought the two men would have freed Gladius by now, after all Hercules was strong enough to break the prison down. But here she was alone with her son in a strange inn with only the promise of two men she’d only known for a matter of hours to pay the bill. Felicita couldn’t wait any longer. She had to see Gladius, to touch him, to hold him, to smell his scent and feel his powerful arms around her. She wanted to see the pride and joy in his eyes when he caught his first glimpse of his son, their first child. She’d intended to go on her own before meeting Hercules and his friend and after these many days alone waiting for word, she had to conclude that either something had happened or they hadn’t come through for her.

Deciding to take action, she left the inn through a back door. As her heart pounded in terror and her arms clasped the baby’s basket like a vice, she slipped away from safety and down toward the river. She’d follow the water, slipping silently through it where she would leave no scent and follow its trail directly in to town and Menus Maxius’ prison. If they came for her, perhaps she could drop the basket. The child would float down river to safety, away from a life of servitude.

Felicita thought she had it all planned, but she didn’t think about the baby. Although the journey wasn’t long, the baby was unhappy with something, the sun, a wet diaper, who knew? But it let its displeasure be known with a wide wail just as Felicita slipped silently into the cool flow of the river.

“Shhh!” Felicita whispered, leaning down to look into her baby’s face. ‘Not now,’ she thought. ‘Not when we are so close to your father, my little one.’

She was too distracted to hear the rustle of the reeds on the other side of the river, too distracted to realize that the baby’s wail had attracted the attention of the guard at the river crossing. She wasn’t aware of him until she felt his arm grip her upper arm with a fierce power that caused her to wince. She tried to pull away but the man was too strong. Felicita looked up in alarm. She should have listened to Hercules, should have stayed at the inn, and should have trusted the son of Zeus. But it was too late now.

The guard stared at the frightened face of the former slave of Postera, the woman who had been forced to service so many men, including him. How could he ever forget her exotic beauty? She was the woman they had all wanted, but Gladius, a mere slave, had gotten her as his own.

“Oh, well,” the guard sneered. “If it isn’t the banished wife of Gladius?! I guess you prefer death to exile.”

Felicita trembled in fear. It was all beginning again. Why hadn’t she listened? She loosed her grip on her son’s basket, but thought better of it. Gladius would still want to see his son. Maybe his son would empower him the way their marriage hadn’t quite done. Maybe this time they could escape together. She gripped the baby tighter as the guard dragged her mercilessly along to Menus Maxius’ palace.

The day dawned bright and warm and Iolaus found himself tossed unceremoniously back into the cell with Hercules. He couldn’t hide the fact that his nose was again bleeding and his voice was even more nasal. He sat stiffly on the cot chained to the cell wall, careful not to let his back lean against the rough stone.

Hercules noticed Iolaus’ discomfort and his heart ached. He’d pushed too far and realized it too late. And it was Iolaus who’d had to pay the price. He held onto the bars and kept his forehead pressed firmly against the cool metal, willing himself to stand unmoving when the guard tossed Iolaus, none too gently, back though the cracked open door. The demigod didn’t turn as he heard the thud of Iolaus’ head on the metal edging, followed by cursing just loud enough to offend the guard and preserve some dignity for the smaller man. This was followed by the shuffle of Iolaus’ boots in the direction of the cot and a sigh of relief as the leather-clad derriere finally placed itself on something softer than the stone cold floor.

Hercules wouldn’t let himself turn around, didn’t want to see what they’d done to Iolaus. He closed his eyes and hoped no one could read the guilt and pain he wore with the shame of a leper’s skin. Certainly, if the eyes were the windows to the soul, as poets and bards declared, he didn’t want the tarnish of his own showing right now. He could only hope that his face would remain impassive enough to spare Iolaus any further torture. He stayed glued to the bars, watching the early morning routine of prison life unfold with the creak and creases of an ancient and well-read scroll. It was only when he heard Iolaus’ breathing grow softer and steadier and the sniffing stop that he allowed himself a peak at his friend.

Iolaus had an arm thrown protectively over his face, the other holding his vest tightly closed. Hercules didn’t want to approach too close, and instead sat on his own bunk across from his friend. Leaning forward tentatively, he could see the dried blood caught in the stubble of the unshaven cheeks and jaw, the new bruising on Iolaus’ forearms; and from the careful placement of the arm away from the bridge of the nose, Hercules could just barely make out that it aappeared to have been newly rebroken.

Hercules stomach sank and his conscience hurt as he watched the pained rise and fall of Iolaus’ chest as he slept. Iolaus never held the vest shut and Hercules realized that the smaller man was probably covering other injuries. The big man turned away from his friend and stared instead at the slowly waking Gladius. Leutis sat on the floor of the gladiator’s cell polishing his armor and watching over the ailing man. The claw marks on his side looked raw and one seemed to be festering. Hercules could tell that Leutis, too, felt deep concern for his friend and, as much as both men would have denied it, they shared a common bond there.

When the breakfast bell rang and Iolaus slept right through, Hercules began to feel not just guilty but down right worried. It was not like Iolaus to miss a meal. When Hercules sat down to eat, he realized that he really had no appetite, but ate anyway. That’s the way Iolaus would have wanted it, and he’d ignored Iolaus’ wants for far too long. But when lunch rolled around and Iolaus still lay quietly on the bunk, Hercules began to feel almost unable to hide his concern. Had the smaller man taken a blow to the head? Was he unconscious? After lunch was consumed, he returned to the cell and quietly but deliberately bumped heavily against Iolaus’ bed. He stood there feigning disinterest as Iolaus groaned and opened gritty, sleep-heavy eyes.

“Oh,” the blonde hunter groaned. “I feel like I’ve been run over by a chariot and a whole team of horses.” He closed his eyes, as if even the dim light that filtered through the tiny barred windows was too much to bear. Biting down on his lower lip to stay silent, he struggled to sit, finally achieving a vertical position, assisted by the wall behind him.

Hercules handed him a cloth torn from the hem of his under shirt and wet with water from lunch, nodded at Iolaus’ nose and turned away. Iolaus dabbed thankfully at the crusted blood, removing the dried scabs that pinched against his skin and pulled at the several days’ growth of beard. He stared up at the shuffling sound a few cells down the row. A gladiator in armor, pacing restlessly. It must be afternoon, time for “the games”.

Skouros shuffled along the short distance between the bars that marked the perimeter of his cell. His legs, like short trees stumps carried his thick body with relative ease and even though he didn’t have the physique of Hercules or Gladius, it was easy to see that he would be a force to contend with. The stocky man mumbled as he shuffled, tossing salt in alternate handfuls over his shoulders.

“What’s he doing?” Iolaus asked Hercules, unable to keep the nasal twang out of his voice.

Turkos answered before Hercules could even turn around. “Skouros is fighting in the pit today. He thinks if he throws enough salt and pepper over his shoulders he’ll have good luck.”

Iolaus shot a quick glimpse at Hercules who had turned away.

“Maybe the cook should try that,” Hercules chuckled dryly. He watched as the guards moved forward and released Skouros, and then Bellicus stepped away. He strode with determined steps over to Hercules’ cell and announced, “YOU…Out! A new order starts today! From now on there will be two men fighting in the pit…beginning with Skouros and you.” Bellicus opened the cell door, grabbing Hercules arm as he stepped out.

Hercules stopped in his steps, mule-like in his resistance and crossed his arms over his impressive chest. “I won’t fight,” he declared with finality.

Bellicus first sneered, and then outright laughed. “That’s not your decision to make,” he answered with finality.

“I have just made it,” Hercules answered in that voice that Iolaus knew meant business at the wrong place and the wrong time. “Men fighting animals for the amusement of others? I don’t believe in it and I won’t be a willing participant.” He stood like wall, challenging the head guard.

If Iolaus could have shook his head he would have, but it simply hurt too much. And he was weary, his reflexes were slow. He could see it coming but was powerless to stop it. Hercules just didn’t listen.

“Have it your way,” Bellicus shrugged. He stared neutrally at Hercules. Iolaus could see the guard stepping behind Hercules with feigned casualness. He should be at his partner’s back, he should be defending him. Hercules always thought he could handle things, but never realized that there were so many problems that Iolaus averted for him. He staggered to a standing position but before he could even call out, Hercules was slumped on the floor, a huge bump rising from the back of his head where the heavy club had struck him.

Iolaus pressed against the bars, now himself unable to hide his emotions. He gasped for breath and squeezed against the bars with fierceness and fear for his friend that couldn’t be contained. Not Hercules… not left out there unconscious…not when a failure to fight meant death.

“Drag him out,” Bellicus ordered his guards coldly as the prison spun in front of Iolaus.

Outside the stadium was filled. The bright colors of the silken dresses and woven shirts moved in the seats like confetti tossed from a child’s hand. The sparkle of jewels and sheen of neatly coiffed hair shone in a sunlight so brilliant that even Skouros had to blink and turn his eyes momentarily away. At the sight of the guards walking one man and dragging another into the arena, the gay tinkling of the mingled voices grew into an all encompassing cheer. The games were beginning.

Postera sat in her usual spot, next to Maxius and on display for the masses to admire. She smiled tightly and waved a hand in a small gesture, meant to convey friendship, but no friendlier than a pit bull with a wagging tail. She wore the blue dress with the peacock feathers around her neck that she was sure made her irresistible and had done her eyebrows in elegant small dots over the arched and plucked area which sheltered the deep blue shadow meant to enhance her dark eyes. Postera just knew she looked wonderful, flawless in fact. She gazed over the crowd to see how many seemed to notice.

Maxius stood, hand in the air and jowls jiggling as he gave his head a regal tilt. He raised a fleshy hand in the air to silence the crowd and waited for the din to die down. When things were sufficiently under control, he sang out loudly, “To great Hera!”

The crowd cheered and the air filled with the sounds of hundreds of voices singing the praise of the goddess who wished to see Hercules dead. Maxius again raised his hand, stilling them.

“Today, to honor our great goddess, I’ve come up with a new contest!” The minions clapped, cheering again and the murmur of their voices rose like the rush of a river as it heads to the falls. “Something even more exciting than the ones we’ve had in the past!”

Postera’s head spun towards her husband and a look of unexpected surprise creased her heavily made up features. Her dotted eyebrows shot skyward in excitement and her muscles tensed. Maxius was clever, yes, but not particularly inventive. Perhaps this was a new side. If only he was so inclined in the bedroom, she thought, she wouldn’t need the slaves…

Inside the prison, Spagos had set up several large kettles on the wooden benches from the dining area. By stacking them carefully, he could stand on top of them and see what was happening to the gladiators. The men in their cells sat quietly at first, waiting for the short squat cook to place himself precariously on top of the tipping pile.

Spagos peered out the small sliver of window, tipping his head and turning so he could take in the entire arena. “The crowd is sitting down,” he announced as he always did.

Iolaus held his breath. This was disastrous. Hercules wouldn’t kill Skouros. But if he couldn’t get himself together from the blow on the head, Skouros most certainly would kill him. He couldn’t help but wonder if the guards had done this to try and get more information from him. He’d resisted with extreme prejudice. Someone had seen Hercules behavior towards Iolaus, interpreted it correctly and fed it to the guards. They’d known he was close to Hercules and because they feared the big man, tried to find something to use against him. But Iolaus hadn’t given it to them…and wouldn’t. .

“Skouros is already out there,” Spagos called over his shoulder. “He’s armed with a sword. They’ve carried the new man out. He’s still unconscious.”

“Now he’s moving!” Spagos called out, and Iolaus let his tight breath out slowly. If Hercules was up he at least had a chance.

Outside, Hercules was rising shakily to his feet, one hand rubbing the large painful knot at the base of his skull. The stadium swam before his eyes, but he still struggled to a standing position. Around him the crowd roared in anticipation, their voices ringing in a great swell. Hercules steadied himself with a small shake like a wet dog. The dust from the arena fell off his gauntlets and his braided pants in a small puff that rapidly dissipated leaving Hercules feeling like nothing less than a phoenix.

Menus Maxius stilled the crowd with a raise of his hand. “Today we have two men in the pit. But they won’t be fighting animals. They’ll be fighting each other …to the death!”

The crowd roared and rose to their feet as Postera swung her face in pleasure and surprise to her husband. My, my, but Maxius was getting daring! She felt her heart beating faster, her skin tingling as she looked down at the two men. Oh, this new man certainly had a godly physique! She sucked a breath in sharply as the image came to her mind of the leather and the metal bar and chains, and this slave. Hmm, she regretted not visiting the prison. Had she known he was there, he certainly wouldn’t be using that magnificent body for fighting.

Postera didn’t hear the cries around her, the shouts of “To the death” and “Yes, yes!” as others looked through different eyes at the two men. “We want blood!” a voice close by shouted and Postera didn’t even turn to see who it was. Who was this new slave?

At the base of the arena, Bellicus stood in front of the two men with a mean sneer. He didn’t like this new man, a troublemaker and a strong one at that. He acted as if he, a mere prisoner, was better than anyone else. And he had an agenda. Bellicus could feel it in his bones. Best to be rid of him. And the runt he was captured with was another story. He knew too much about prisons, when to take the punishment and when to behave. He couldn’t be trusted, not if he was with the bigger man. No, something had to be done with these two, and soon, before they disrupted the pleasure of the status quo. This big one had to die. Then he could deal with the little one. Maybe he’d be next in the ring…after the big one died.

“Begin!” Bellicus cried as he tossed a trident to Hercules and watched Skouros draw his sword.

Hercules stared at the heavy man circling him warily. That he should fight a man with the same name as Iolaus’ father was an interesting quirk of the Fates. How many years as a youth had he wanted to hurt Skouros just as the father had hurt Iolaus! Yet now when he could turn the anger and frustration of being unable to end his best friend’s torment into reality, albeit with a different Skouros, he couldn’t do it.

“We don’t have to do this!” he cried out, facing Skouros, holding the trident defensively as the big man parried at him.

“Kill him or be killed!” Bellicus warned with an angry growl. This new slave was a troublemaker to the end.

Skouros paid no heed to anything going on around him, to the new man, the crowd or the angry jailer. This was a kill or die situation. He’d been here before and never lost. And he didn’t intend to this time, either. He struck out at Hercules quickly, the first blow clanging loudly and echoing through the arena. The crowd screamed and Hercules fended it off.

A trident was not the weapon of choice against a sword, but at Cheiron’s academy Hercules had learned to use what ever was at hand. He thrust and parried, moving quickly around in large circles, careful never to back up, just circle out and keep Skouros moving. Thrust and parry followed thrust and parry as the two men fought wordlessly, a macabre dance to only the sounds of clanging metal, rasping of breaths and cheers of the crowd.

Skouros was strong and agile for a big man. He was quick to start and having made the first thrust to Hercules, took the demigod off balance. Hercules found himself in the defensive position as Skouros stabbed and moved in small sure steps. His head was still spinning and he wished he had Iolaus at his side about now, but he’d gotten them both into this mess and he’d get them out of it.

Hercules went down first as Skouros slashed at his midline. The only place to go was down and Hercules dropped with a grace that suggested practice and tried to roll away. But Skouros had been a gladiator for a very long time and knew exactly how to position his bulk. With speed that belied his size he was astride Hercules, sword held high. Hercules stared assessingly up at the other man’s face and knew that Skouros wouldn’t hesitate to kill him.

The cloud screamed in excitement, waving fans and rising up to lean over the edge of the balcony for a better view of the grand finale. Above Hercules, a great wave of colors flew against the azure sky as the fight fans rose, the breeze catching dresses and shirts and fluttering them like so many flags of war. “Kill him!” echoed across the arena as the rabid betters watched Skouros position himself for a clean kill.

Hercules waited for Skouros to shift, putting his weight on his right as he balanced for the killing thrust. As Skouros lifted to his highest arc, the demigod twisted, pulling his legs up and rolling as the mark was passed on the down slice where Skouros could not retrieve his blow. The sword thudded heavily into the hard-packed dirt of the arena floor, and Skouros grunted as he felt the blow of the solid earth transferred back up his well-muscled arms and into his shoulders. This new man was tricky.

Hercules was up on his feet, shrugging his vest back onto his shoulder. Postera stared down at the sensual movement with a small lick of her lips. She watched the sweat shine on the new slave’s muscles, the anger on his face and the way his hair lifted in the breeze. She hoped this one would win today. He was far preferable to Skouros, or for that matter, Gladius.

Hercules faced Skouros defiantly, trident held at the ready. “I won’t kill you.” Skouros circled him warily thinking that Hercules’ lack of blood lust could be used against him. “We can throw down our weapons; we can make a stand together. Give it up!” Skouros shook his head in disbelief as Hercules spoke the next words. “I don’t want to hurt you!” As if.

Postera was hot, and it wasn’t just the temperature. This new man wasn’t just strong and good looking; he was powerful…in a way that Menus Maxius was not. She fluttered her peacock feather fan faster knowing that even this feeble attempt wouldn’t cool what was really hot in her. She must not let this one die, at least not yet.

In the prison, Spagos was getting excited. He peered through the small window, bobbing and weaving as if he was himself a fighter and not a simple cook. “Skouros slashes at him, a backhand slice!” he yelled excitedly as a cheer rose from the outside. The prisoners pressed against their bars some cheering and some sitting slumped in silence. Iolaus took in a deep breath. Somehow this had to work out.

“The new man blocks him. Now a spin!” Spagos was excited. This fight was so much better than the others, more at stake and two such good fighters. Who would have expected such out of a new man? He did a little hop, trying to turn and see clearer. Beneath him, the stacked pots shifted with a creak and groan of metal under pressure. Spagos tried to balance as he felt the pots move, but he was a big man and older, slower of reflex and not well balanced. He flung his arms in the air, swinging them in circles like an old heavy goose trying for liftoff. It was to no avail though. As the pots tilted to an angle unsuitable to standing, Spagos fell with a heavy thump like a sack of grain to the floor.

Outside Hercules spun on Skouros, knowing the other man would kill him given the chance. He took the handle of the trident and, using it as a staff, struck the heavier man with a force that the gladiator didn’t expect. Skouros was off balance in the middle of a parry with his sword and Hercules’ blow lifted him off the ground. Hercules watched dispassionately as Skouros rose in an arc landing head first against a granite pillar. Skouros’ skull gave a soft thunk and his neck hyper-extended as he hit the solid stone. Hercules turned away from the crowd and rushed to Skouros.

The big man still breathed, although an ugly lump was rising on the top of his head. Hercules felt his stomach knot. Had he used his strength to even its half, he’d have killed this man. In the heat of the moment, he’d heard nothing but the sickening thunk of Skouros hitting the pillar, but now as he raised his head, he saw the crowd on their feet.

The sound was deafening, like an army of beasts suitable for Hades or Ares all roaring together and swaying with the undulating movement of a cobra transfixed before the strike. Hercules stared up in anger, his head turning to take in the madness surrounding him and heard the slow stilling of the crowd, the flow to a murmur like a passing stampede as Maxius and Postera rose to their feet. Hercules turned his glare upon them knowing full well what they would say.

Postera’s breasts heaved as she gasped in excitement. This new man was incredible, so strong and virile, so sweaty and, yes, perhaps even godly. What she would like to do with him. ‘Well to the victor goes the spoils,’ she thought lasciviously as she leaned over the rail to point a delicate thumb down and scream her lust out.

“Kill him!”

Maxius noticed her excitement. This new man could be a problem, one that might need fixing. But he could also bring in a lot of dinars if he played his cards right. He turned away from Postera and, pointed his thick thumb down and declared proudly, “Kill him!”

Hercules didn’t even try to contain his anger. These people were as bad as the gods he fought against so vehemently. He hadn’t given in to the gods and he certainly wouldn’t give in to these mortals.

“I don’t kill for pleasure! I don’t kill for sport!” he shouted up at the crowd, keeping his eyes on Maxius and Postera as he took his weapon deliberately in his hands and broke it resoundingly over his bent knee. “And I’ll burn in Tartarus before I kill for your enjoyment!”

There was a collective gasp from the crowd as the murmuring grew louder. Above him, Hercules could hear the anxious voices wondering what was happening and whether Maxius was losing control of the slaves. A lone male voice called out as if to make up Maxius’ mind for him.

“You’ll burn in Hades!”

Maxius stared down with fire in his eyes. How dare a slave disregard his order!

“That fight was to be to the death!”

“And who are you to order such a thing?” Hercules shouted back defiantly, his shoulders bunched and fists tight as sledgehammers as he took his broken weapon and pointed it threateningly at Maxius.

Postera arched an elegantly dotted eyebrow. My, my, this was growing interesting. Two alpha dogs in a pissing battle. This was one argument she couldn’t lose. She watched Maxius stand momentarily stunned at the slave’s insolence. He would have to save face now.

Maxius paused, staring in wonder and hatred at this man below. He’d show him a thing or two.

“I’m a generous man; I’ll give you one more chance. Kill him, or be killed yourself.” Maxius tilted his head up and turned to the masses for their approval.

“Yeah!” a lone voice shouted beginning the chant of “Kill, Kill, Kill!”

Hercules shook his head, elegant long hair shifting like the loose pages of a book in the wind. “I’m not going to kill an innocent man, not for your entertainment or anyone else’s!” he sang out righteously, standing like a statue of bronze glory in the reflection of the sun.

Postera caught her breath. She had never seen a man like this one, slave or free. She must have him.

The crowd above murmured in shock and anger. They were being denied their entertainment. They’d paid the price. This wasn’t what they’d come to see.

Maxius sensed their displeasure. He must regain control, keep them coming back, betting their dinars, holding him in esteem. This slave may be worth a world of wealth, but he wasn’t worth Maxius’ future.

“Very well, then,” he answered regally, his mind made up. “Guards, kill him.”

Hercules heard a lone voice start up the chant. “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” He dropped his eyes from Maxius’ and with senses alert, he poised himself into a fighting position. Aware of the guards’ positions, his eyes scanned the area immediately surrounding himself for cover as the guards advanced, crossbows at the ready.

Hercules still held the wooden handle of the broken trident, his only defense. The guards arranged themselves in a semicircle around the big man, sights trained on him as the crowd roared for the blood they’d come to wager on.

“Advance! What are you waiting for?” Bellicus screamed and Hercules made himself ready. He heard the bowstrings draw back with a soft swish and a click as they caught on the release mechanism. He heard the crowd roar louder, felt the tension in the air, smelled the sweat.

Thwack! Triggers were pulled and Hercules reacted with demigodly speed, raising the broken wooden handle high. He couldn’t afford to make even the tiniest mistake, he knew, as he shifted infinitesimally to catch each arrow in the wood. He held it up like a spiky mace and the crowd gasped. Hercules stood glaring across at the man who’d beaten his best friend so badly, wanting desperately to flick the handle just right and send the arrows flying back at him, hurt him even worse than he’d hurt Iolaus. But he wouldn’t. He was Hercules.

The guards reloaded their crossbows and raised the weapons again, taking careful aim, meaning this time to do the job they’d just failed. Postera felt her heart pounding. They couldn’t kill him! Not before she’d had her way with him. Never before had a man so excited her for something other than his money. She had to have him!

“Stop!” she yelled as she stood, holding out her hand, desire unrestrained.

The crowd murmured in wonder at this strange turn of events.

“Bring the slave to my chambers,” she smirked, casting an eye to Maxius’ angry glare and gently raising a hand to her heaving breasts. She turned, moving away.

Below Hercules stood in stunned silence, as the guards surrounded him, grabbing him and calling out, “Come on slave, move it.”

Postera’s room was lavishly decorated in bright colors, light and airy. The bed was huge and dressed with a goose down mattress, satin sheets and a silken comforter hastily turned back. The leather straps and chains stood prominently displayed in sharp contrast to the perfume of flowers in a crystal vase.

Hercules was led into the center of the room by the guards and shoved purposely toward the waiting Postera. She stood in her feathered gown with her air of fake regality like a miniature Hera, and Hercules felt his stomach churn and his heart hammer at the sudden revelation. Postera stepped forward and let her eyes roam freely from Hercules’ steely blue eyes down his chest and stop just a bit lower before sliding suggestively back up to his sweaty dirt streaked face.

Postera liked what she saw. This one would be able to take a lot of handling, unlike most of the others. He’d stood up to Maxius after all, the only slave she’d ever seen do that, in spite of the fact that Maxius was so soft and doughy. But not this new man. What she could do with him!

“You’ve made quite an impression in a short time,” she purred, stepping close enough to the big man to smell his breath coming hot and hard after the big fight, mingling with the musky scent of his sweat. She stood her ground, unafraid of the new slave; after all, he was just a slave and snapped her eyes to the guard holding Hercules at arms length. “Take his clothes off!” she commanded.

The guard obeyed without question, used to Postera’s routine. He grabbed the yellow vest that covered Hercules’ chest and unceremoniously ripped it off him, along with the under garment. Postera watched impassively as Hercules stood unflinching.

“Umm, you’re a big man. Nice muscle tone.” She pressed closer now, placing a small hand against his pectoral muscle and slipped it assessingly across and down. No fat here, she thought, firm, hard, exciting. She turned from Hercules walking a few steps away, wondering what she should do first with him, and then spun suddenly around to face him again. “I have a proposition to make,” Postera purred, not bothering to hide her desire. She drew in a sharp breath and let her tongue slip through her lips and lick them slowly and suggestively.

Hercules rolled his eyes. Could she be any more obvious? “Let me guess…you want me to be your personal slave?” Hercules didn’t even attempt to hide the sarcasm dripping from his voice.

Postera was taken aback, but tried hard not to show it. She’d never been turned down before, least of all by a slave. “Oh don’t make it sound so negative,” she cooed, staring coldly at the unwavering set of his face. “You’d have a much easier life than you have now.” She ran a fingernail down his chest, digging in, but he still didn’t flinch.

Hercules stared into the icy face of the overconfident Postera, not caring what the outcome would be. “Still not much of a life,” he spoke challengingly.

Postera was taken aback. She unwillingly dropped her eyes away from Hercules’ face and choked out a small strangled laugh. “You sound like Maxius,” she snorted in derision as she turned to distanced herself from him.

“Oh, did he turn you down as well?” Hercules twisted the verbal dagger he’d so willingly inserted.

“He paid for his disrespect!” Postera spat, spinning back to Hercules. She paused for a moment, mouth tight and jaw firm. These were memories she didn’t want to relive. “His wife did too,” she murmured, wishing to regain the upper hand.

Hercules stared at her unwaveringly. “You must be very proud.”

“You’re starting to wear out your welcome,” Postera intoned, unable to hide the tension in her voice. This new man obviously still needed taming. “What’s your answer?” she asked, already knowing what he would say, but yet somehow needing to hear it.

Hercules stood stonily and thought of Hera. “I’d rather sleep in a dungeon with rats, than share satin pillows with a viper,” He drawled with a cold, knowing smile at the stunned Postera.

Postera laughed, taken aback. “You have a strange sense of humor,” she intoned in hurt surprise. Never had a man spoken to her this way.

Hercules knew when he had the upper hand. “Am I laughing?” he asked, staring coldly at Postera’s face, her arched eyebrows. He was ready, baiting her. He couldn’t risk that she might like him, keep him out of the prison.

Postera couldn’t believe what she was hearing. This was beyond insolent. She stretched her arm back and swung an outstretched hand at Hercules’ face. But Hercules was quicker. He grabbed her wrist stopping the blow and watched the look of surprise bloom across her face. He released her wrist as she spun away.

Postera walked straight-backed and head high, stunned. Over her shoulder, she spoke softly but distinctly, “You insolent pig! You’ll get your wish. You’ll sleep in a dungeon. But before you get there, perhaps forty lashes’ll bleed the insolence out of you.” She no longer tried to hide her anger or embarrassment as she addressed the guard. “Take him to Bellicus.”

Hercules staggered shirtless, filthy and with his back still raw and striped, after the whipping. Iolaus gasped and pressed against the bars of his cell as Hercules passed, standing quietly at the entrance as Bellicus snickered and opened the door, pushing Hercules roughly inside. As soon as Bellicus turned to leave, Iolaus rushed to his friend’s side.

”What happened?” Iolaus whispered, barely able to mask his concern.

Hercules shook his head, staring down at the floor. “I’m all right Iolaus,” he answered simply.

Iolaus wasn’t ready to accept that. In truth, he was angry. Hercules had caused them both to suffer and all for nothing to this point. “You know, you could just break outta here,” was all he could choke out. No good revealing his anger. Hercules would see this through, no matter what.

“It’s not time yet,” Hercules whispered back. (One has to wonder, ‘why the hell not?’)

“Get moving!” Bellicus grunted, shoving Hercules.

“Hey, where are you taking him?” Iolaus protested.

“To the tombs,” Bellicus laughed. “Postera thinks he should experience sleeping with real vipers.” The guard pushed Hercules again and snickered, “Oh, and she’s also chosen the next opponents…Turkos and Gladius. And if you don’t put on a better show than the last two, you both die!”

This has been one of the longest days of my life. First, they dragged Hercules out to fight while he was still unconscious, then they took him away to Postera. I don’t even have to imagine what she wanted him for; even here in the prison cell I could hear her desire echo across the arena, ringing as clear as the dinner bell. It seemed like he was gone forever and I thought I would go crazy with worry, but this was only a prelude to what was to come.

They brought him back after I’d about paced a path in the dirt floor of this cell. I know I’m not supposed to show I care, I know that was my own rule and for the most part I’ll keep it. But I figure they knew I was lying when they took me away for my torture session yesterday. Why else would they do this to him? Either that or they think they can get it out of him. Gods above, it was hard enough to keep lying when they kept whacking the broken spot on my nose.

Hercules was standing a bit too tall when they marched him in here and Bellicus was very irritated with him, so I figure he turned Postera down. Trickle down effect…Postera is mad then everyone gets it. But Hercules got it worst of all. They chained him to a post right in front of all of us and Bellicus whipped him. Not just a few times, but forty lashes. And Bellicus put everything into it too. Every frustration was spelled out clearly on Hercules’ back as Bellicus put not just his arms into it, but his shoulders and back muscles, too.

At first I couldn’t look. I turned instead to watch the other prisoners, most of whom watched but a few averted their eyes. I had to look down, put a hand on my face. My eyes were wet with tears but I had to stifle my gasps, just sit like a stone monkey and let Hercules be the martyr. About half way through, at 21 lashes, I was counting, I heard him whisper my name as he exhaled when the whip tore into him. I looked up and saw his eyes locked onto mine, kind of foggy and far away, but there was still something there and he dug down deep and found himself for just an instant. In that instant, that one moment of eye contact, he told me volumes. I could feel his pain and knew that if I could hold his eyes, I could somehow keep him from floating off to his private world of pain.

Bellicus took his time between lashes, letting each slice of the whip hit hard and lay there long enough to not just cut but bruise as well. Hercules’s blood ran down across his braided leather pants and his back looked like a young hunter’s first attempt to skin his kill. But I held his eyes with mine, as I would have held him in my arms if I could have. Our gaze was his lifeline and in my heart I cursed evil Bellicus with everything from death to hemorrhoids. I kept that in my heart though. In my face, my gaze, I showed him my love, my need for him; I told him he needed to hold on, that he needed to either keep his strength under control or break us both out now. I told him how I had suffered last night as he was suffering now and that the thought of him had kept me sane.

I couldn’t watch Bellicus, couldn’t focus on his grunts with each lash of the whip, or Hercules’ sharp intake of breath each time the leather slapped against his skin. I couldn’t let myself think of his pain or the danger we were both in. I could only hold him with my eyes and offer him any comfort and strength I could find inside myself at this horrifying time.

It seemed to take Bellicus an hour to administer the forty lashes and I think that if Hercules wasn’t chained to the post he would have fallen to the dirt, as it was it took every ounce of his godly strength just to stand erect when the chains were released. I expected him to be tossed unceremoniously into our cell, but he seemed to know they had other plans for him. He chanced a glance over his shoulder to me as he staggered forward, trying desperately to regain his steady stride as Bellicus pushed him away from the prison proper and down a small hall I’d seen only last night.

It lead to the solitary room, the dark and dank mud floored, rat infested stone room they chose to put me in last night. I held my breath as they lead him away, thinking he could barely take more punishment, but Bellicus was back too quickly. They’d left him there. Alone. In the dark, with the rats. Bleeding and injured and needing care and comfort. How I wished he’d listened to me, just kept a low profile and did what we came to do.

I spent the night sleepless. All I could think about was Hercules in pain, wounds becoming infected (although I hoped his godly blood would prevent that), about how he could pull this whole prison down if he wanted. But he wouldn’t, he was being too darn boar-headed.

The next day when they herded us like oxen out to the quarry, I fully expected to see them drag Herc back up. He’s way too good a worker to not use, but I was sadly disappointed. I worked instead with Leutis, if you could call it work. We were both distracted. He was worried about Gladius and I stewed about Herc. We were distracted, worried and not getting our share done. Leutis could see it and I knew then that I’d blown our cover for friendship. Herc had pushed me too far. I couldn’t act as if I didn’t care when it came to something this serious. Leutis didn’t say anything though. I think he’s a good man and I can usually trust my intuition. He hasn’t lost that little bit of caring that he could hold onto in spite of this horrible prison. That alone speaks volumes about the man.

I laid on my hard bed in my stark cell in the dark that second night alone, unable to sleep. Herc and I weren’t always together, but when he needed me I was always there, except this time. Damn him! What was with this sudden impulsive behavior? I was the one taking the risks usually. Now I understood why he got so tense with me. I clung to the hope that as a demigod, he was healing and more than able to handle a few nights in the dark and dampness. I had nothing else. Two sleepless nights, three actually if you counted my own night of torture. I felt disgusting and exhausted, but when Bellicus opened the door to the solitary area, went in and came out shoving a staggering Hercules in the first light of day, nothing else I felt counted except for the joy in my heart.

Iolaus sat wishing he was with Hercules as he watched Leutis tending to Gladius, trying to help his friend into his armor.

“The new slave’s right. This is wrong,” he admonished Gladius. His eyebrows cut sharply across his forehead and he couldn’t keep the concern from his voice.

“I’m getting too old to fight,” Gladius conceded quietly, not looking at Leutis. He needed this to be between only the two of them.

“Can you kill Turkos?” Leutis queried, staring directly at Gladius, assessing his weakness.

“I’ll do what has to be done,” Gladius responded, but without his usual vigor.

Leutis stood tightlipped. Gladius couldn’t do it. He was weakened from the claw-raking his ribs had taken, by too many fights in too short a time. Leutis wouldn’t let his best friend die. Not while his wife was still alive, not while he had a child to be a father to, not while he still had a chance at a normal life.

Gladius leaned over to check his shin pads and that’s when Leutis took his chance. He grabbed Gladius’ helmet and swung his arms in a high arc, bringing the metal down hard against Gladius’ skull. With a sickening thunk, Gladius slipped bonelessly to the floor of his cell.

Iolaus gasped. Not Leutis! He couldn’t be doing this. He’d only fought boar, never men! “What are you doing?” he hissed, staring directly at the younger man.

“This doesn’t concern you,” Leutis answered as he tenderly covered Gladius with his own blanket.

Bellicus heard the exchange and sauntered up the row, stopping at Gladius’ cell. “What is this?” he asked suspiciously as he eyed the limp form of the big gladiator lying in an awkward position in the dirt.

“Gladius is sick,” Leutis lied convincingly. “Probably from Spagos’ stew. Tell Maxius and Postera that I will be fighting in his place.” Leutis held his head up proudly as Bellicus let his eyes run slowly up and down the smaller man.

“We don’t have much choice,” he intoned disgustedly. “Come on.”

Leutis shot Iolaus a knowing glance.

“Leutis,” Iolaus called out. “Come back in one piece.”

Outside in the huge arena, the crowd waited restlessly for the two fighters to appear. Finally a fight to the death! Leutis hadn’t fought much, not like Gladius, and he still felt jittery when he stepped into the center of the dry dirt floor and had to look up at Maxius. The jowled slave master never seemed to smile, even at his wife, not that she was prize package either. He felt his heart hammering against the chest piece of his armor so fiercely that he thought it might actually start clanging. Beside him, Turkos stood impassively, a giant of a man, who fought almost as often as Gladius.

Leutis was nervous, but he wasn’t afraid. Hadn’t he been Gladius’ closest friend all these years? He’d had the benefit of being kept awake by the great gladiator’s stories of his epic battles. He’d memorized Gladius’ every move and, yes, the fact that he idolized the other prisoner had helped. Gladius had coached his moves often in the dark of night, in the silence of the prison late when everyone else slept, exhausted and fitfully. He could take Turkos. It was dealing with Gladius afterward that he feared.

Bellicus pushed the two men forward to present them to Maxius and the crowd stood as one, a giant wave of cruel humanity, rippling the bright colors that hid the dark hearts as they rose in allegiance.

“Gladius cannot fight!” Bellicus announced. He stood face upturned to Maxius and Postera and continued unhastened. “Leutis will fight in his place.”

Maxius glared down angrily. The people wouldn’t be happy to see a lesser fighter in the ring. He had promised a great time and Turkos was a far better fighter than Leutis. What did Bellicus think he was doing presenting the younger and smaller man as a fill in for the great Gladius? The wagering would certainly go against him today and he stood to lose a lot of money as well as a tarnishing his reputation for presenting quality entertainment.

“You remember,” he growled and shook a finger pointing at the two fighters below. “Only one of you will walk out of here alive!”

Postera fanned herself, trying to cool her excitement at the thought of the blood, of the agony, of the entrails spilled, perhaps while the other fighter was still alive. Could it be more perfect? This younger man was handsome to be sure, but he was simply a sacrifice on the altar of Maxius and Postera…and Hera of course. Postera leaned forward, letting the peacock feathers around her collar tickle along her delicate jawline. Yes, today would be good fight.

Leutis tried to ignore the shouts around him, the taunts. “Yeah, yeah, a fight to the death!” He didn’t want to kill Turkos. Sure the other man was a bully, but Maxius’ prison had been the cause of that. Still Leutis knew he didn’t want to die either.

“To the honor and glory of Hera!” Maxius shouted from above, the sun glinting off the silver goblet of wine he raised in his right hand.

“To Hera!” a lone man echoed, and the crowd joined in.

“To Hera!” reverberated off the granite walls, echoing over and over and amplifying itself until the chant had become a mantra and the mantra had become a thunderous roar.

Maxius raised his left hand, dropping the goblet to his side and stilling the crowd. “And to your pleasure,” he intoned like the perfect host. At his side, Postera smiled with a self-satisfied smirk, chancing a peek around to see if the crowd had noticed her, had seen how fine she looked this day.

“Don’t forget my pleasure, Maxius,” she purred more like a hunting lioness than a kitten, as she nodded to her audience. Below, the arena stilled as the two gladiators picked up their weapons, facing each other.

“Begin!” Bellicus roared.

Leutis and Turkos circled each other, swords held at the ready. Leutis stared into the more experienced fighter’s eyes, gauging his readiness to attack and carefully circled out. The big man wanted to toy with him; he could read it in his every feature. This was a good sign, Leutis realized. Turkos was underestimating him.

“You’re going to wish you let your friend, Gladius, fight,” Turkos laughed derisively, an ugly sneer creasing his lips.

Leutis shook his head slowly and confidently. “We’ll see,” he answered, knowing that had Gladius come out here he would have most certainly died. “Maybe you’ll wish he was fighting.”

Inside the prison the men sat silently as Gladius stirred, awaking with a headache that pounded like a rainstorm on a roof. His foggy eyes searched around himself, slowly focusing, seeing the bars around him, Spagos on the tippy benches and pots, feeling the damp and solid ground beneath his side. His armor was cold and hard against his sore muscles and it took an instant more for the fact to sink in that he was alone. And still in his cell.

“What…what’s going on?” Gladius questioned, still groggy and hoping that he had been simply sleeping, awakening in time for his fight.

Iolaus stared over at him, arms crossed against his chest, assessing the weary Gladius’ confusion. “Leutis is fighting in your place,” he answered simply.

Gladius fought to right himself, to get himself fully awake. It couldn’t be…he was supposed to fight! “Spagos!” he cried out in worry. “What’s going on?”

Spagos barely acknowledged the waking Gladius. He simply gave a small wave of his hand and continued his usual commentary as he stared in rapt attention out the small window.

“Turkos thrusts! Leutis parries! A shield blow!” The cook was excited. This fight was turning out to be much better than he expected. “Leutis is staggering! Now a counter offensive. He’s got Turkos on his heels!” The benches wobbled below him, but Spagos maintained his balance. The men deserved, no needed, to know what was happening.

Outside Leutis was matching Turkos blow for blow. The clang of swords rang across the arena with a clarity and purity that belied their dreadful deeds. Turkos could barely hide his shock at the skill that Leutis showed. Indeed, even the crowd roared in surprise and excitement when the small fighter who rarely got his turn in the arena proved the more skilled swordsman of the two. Turkos’ body glistened in sweat, his muscles bunched and released as he tried to move out of the agile Leutis’ way.

Leutis seemed to be gliding on air, as if his feet never even touched the ground. The thought of all that Gladius had taught him and the knowledge that he had saved his friend from sure death today gave him a burst of courage and speed that he didn’t even know he had. Leutis felt the adrenaline rush as he realized that he had the better of Turkos, and he let the taunts of the larger fighter roll uninhibited through his mind, fueling him to even greater heights. Today he would win; he would be top gladiator and get the best bowl of meat, something he had never yet tasted in his five years here in this filthy prison. Nothing could stop him, he realized as he saw Turkos take a misstep, unable to parry away the thrust of his own blade…Gladius’ blade.

Leutis thrust his blade at Turkos and the heavy fighter dropped to the ground, intending to roll away, but Leutis was smaller and faster. He pounced on Turkos, pulling him by the hair and arching his neck back uncomfortably, holding his sword at the fallen fighter’s throat.

The crowd around them screamed in excitement, the voiced rising as one loud exhortation. “Kill Him!” echoed in a frenzied roar bouncing from wall to wall and rising like a burnt offering, fogging Leutis’ brain.

Leutis knew only that he needed to make a decision and that he couldn’t hold Turkos down for long, but the screams and chants were almost hypnotizing. “Come on, get on with it!” a woman’s voice screamed, breaking the hypnotism of the chant and Leutis suddenly knew what he must do. He took the handle of his sword and used it to land a fierce blow on the back of Turkos’ skull. Turkos fell limp in his hands and Leutis allowed the big man’s body to slump gracelessly to the ground.

Leutis turned his face up, staring directly into the eyes of Menus Maxius. Around him the roar of the crowd demanding Turkos’ death softened to a murmur, then a hush fell over the arena as Leutis simply stood staring defiantly up at the slave master. He watched the rotund ruler’s face sag, jowls shaking in anger as he stood head turned down to meet the raised eyes of the winning gladiator

In the ensuing silence, Leutis took one step forward. “I refuse!” he answered proudly. “The new slave is right. We’re not animals to be used for sport, we’re human beings.”

The arena grew as silent as the eye of a storm as the lowly slave stood rock solid and unbending, staring up at his captor.

Maxius knew that he had to do something now. He didn’t need a reputation for being soft. Postera had cut him down a notch at the last fight when she took the new man so obvious in her lust, not allowing Maxius to kill him. He couldn’t allow that to happen again. This Leutis wasn’t a bad looking fellow and young too, just what Postera liked usually. But she’d been in a mood since the new slave wouldn’t service her and Maxius knew exactly what everyone needed. Blood.

“You’re taxing my patience, slave!” he growled. “One last time!” He meant to seem reasonable, but Postera shot him a look of surprise at his seeming leniency.

Postera shot up from her seat stiff with anger, every muscle at the ready, mouth nothing more than a straight slash across her painfully thin face. “No more choices!” she spat. “Kill them both!”

Inside the prison the slaves sat silently, Spagos no longer even bothering to comment, allowing the drama to unfold uncomfortably, the words from outside filtering like the checkered pattern of sun and clouds that raced across the dirt floor. The voices stopped, and the slaves sat in stunned silence as the sudden clanging of swords sounded and the tortured cries of both Turkos and Leutis wafted through the windows like nothing more than the wind in a storm, then suddenly silent. The roars of the patrons rocked the granite prison walls as cheers and cries of praise to Menus Maxius and to Hera thundered and echoed before finally dying down, leaving the prison in silence.

Gladius was frantic. The gruff and independent fighter wanted to know, yet feared the truth of what he’d heard.

“Spagos! What is it?” he questioned, unable to hide the tremor in his voice.

Spagos turned away from the tiny window, unwilling to watch anymore. He’d seen too much already. Never in all his years here had he seen such a sight, two fighters killed simply for the sport of it. And not simply killed, brutally slaughtered. He faced the men standing in silence, hanging on his every word. Never had a sentence stuck in his throat with the barbs of this one.

“They killed them both,” he croaked, choking back his own tears, fighting the cry that wanted to escape unhindered, fly along the windy path of the dying men’s moans and escape unfettered finally from this netherworld.

The room grew still for a moment in time when the truth struck all the prisoners as cleanly as a well-honed sword blade. The lone voice of Gladius rose like the howl of a wounded beast and the metal bars of his cell sang out in protest as he pounded his glistening skull against them repeatedly.

“No! Noooo! Noooo!”

“Cold-blooded bastards!” Gladius cursed, as if words could release all the anger that had boiled over the years, coming to this final vaporization. No one dared to answer and many knew that if their thoughts did find voice, it would be anything but comforting. The prisoners answered Gladius with stony silence covering their own fears that this was only the first stage of a very bad time to come.

The silence in the prison was broken by Bellicus’ roar of rage, the only answer to Gladius’ pain.

“When Maxius says ’fight to the death’ he means it. And this will help to remind you.” He stared coldly, his eyes roving to all the prisoners and back. He tossed his head to the two guards that followed him, carrying the bodies of Leutis and Turkos. “String them up!”

Gladius pressed himself to the bars as the guards hung Turkos and Leutis from the rafters, allowing the bodies to swing like nothing more than the sticky paper coils of flypaper that hung from the ceilings of stables. He reached through the bars as if somehow his arm would magically lengthen and he would be able to snatch his friend away from this horrendous fate.

“You’ll pay for this Bellicus, I swear by the gods!” Gladius roared.

Bellicus simply laughed as he stared the imprisoned man directly in the eyes. “This is what refusing to fight gets you.” His sneer taunted the massive gladiator, dared him to defy orders again.

Iolaus turned away as Bellicus laughed. This was turning out to be a nightmare. What would happen next, he wondered?

As Bellicus turned away, satisfied that the prisoners knew their place, he turned his cold hard eyes on the door leading to the solitary chamber waiting to accept the new man’s release. Two down, two to go.

Iolaus watched as the first guard appeared from the passageway to the solitary chamber where they’d taken first him, then Hercules. He pressed closer to the bars wondering what would happen next, if they were finally releasing his friend.Hercules staggered out, blinking in the dim light as if even this was too much for his dark accustomed eyes. He turned his face to the dangling forms before him and blinked again to clear his vision, finally realizing what he was seeing. With catlike grace and speed, he snatched the sword from the belt of the guard leading him to his cell and in one quick motion sliced through the ropes holding the dangling bodies aloft. Catching them both in one arm and allowing them to drop easily to the floor, he turned on Bellicus, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him close.

“You bury them properly…or I swear…I’ll bury you.”

Bellicus was caught by surprise. He never thought that this new slave would still be so strong after his days of confinement in the dark with only bread and water, and darn little of that. He fought not to cry out in pain as he felt the hard squeeze on his bicep and realized that if he tried to escape he could easily lose the arm. He stared across at the angry face of the new slave and saw a determination there that actually made him afraid. This new one was simply toying with him, with all of them. With his strength he could rip even Gladius apart in a matter of seconds.

Bellicus came to the swift realization that this man must be taken care of, and quickly. They might not be able to control him much longer. He would speak to Maxius and make the suggestion that this one be the next to die. And his friend, maybe they could use him, too. It could make for an interesting fight…

Hercules suddenly became aware that he was using almost all of his strength. That Bellicus didn’t cry out or even flinch told Hercules volumes. He quickly released his grip, afraid he’d given away one of the secrets he was trying to hide. Iolaus had warned him, and once again he hadn’t paid heed.

Bellicus took advantage of Hercules’ momentary release and pushed the bigger man forward, into the cell with his blond friend, giving him a shove far more forcefully than he would otherwise have done. This man was different. He didn’t break. At least not yet. But everyone had a breaking point; he had only to find the right tool.

Hercules staggered into the cell, still blinking away the dim light, so much brighter than the solitary cell he’d just come from, and felt the sturdy arms of his friend guiding him to a sitting position on the bed. He allowed his friend to settle him easily down, avoiding placing his back against the wall behind him. With his eyes closed, he listened to the buzz of prisoners discussing what had just taken place.

His quiet reverie was broken by Iolaus’ voice. “We don’t have to take this. Why don’t we just break out of here?” Iolaus looked down on his friend’s raw back and shoulders. Even with Hercules godly blood there was much healing yet to come. He wanted to wash the sores clean, rub aloe into the red burns the leather whip had made, as he would have done in any other place but this damn prison. He felt useless and angry and sad that this whole adventure had come to this, innocent people being killed, tyrants getting rich off their blood and nothing had yet been accomplished.

Hercules heard the sorrow and disgust in Iolaus’ voice. He knew what Iolaus was thinking. “We haven’t accomplished anything,” he conceded. “Gladius…these men…” His voice trailed off, acknowledging for the first time how impotent he felt right now. Perhaps it was the days of solitary confinement. Perhaps it was the pain in Iolaus’ usually exuberant voice. Whatever it was, Hercules hadn’t felt this low in a long time. He needed to talk with Iolaus alone.

“These men, they don’t care anymore. They’ve given up even thinking of freedom…or what it’s like on the outside,” Iolaus spoke softly, urgently.

Hercules turned his head up, looked into Iolaus’ impossibly blue eyes and answered, “Then we have to remind them.”

Behind Iolaus, the bars of the cell clanged and Bellicus twisted the key in the lock, pulling the door open savagely. These two should not be together. Besides, he knew what he had to do. He followed orders; that’s why he held the keys.

“You,” he grabbed Iolaus’ shoulder, digging his fingers into the trapesius muscle and pinching a nerve near the base of his neck. “You’re coming with me!” He didn’t even attempt to hide the threat in his voice or conceal the smirk that was smeared across his hard jaw.

Iolaus turned to face the jailer. “What for?” he questioned, pulling back slightly and letting his displeasure edge out in his tone of voice.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Bellicus laughed threateningly.

Iolaus turned, jaw set, and let Bellicus push him out of the cell.

Hercules watched as Bellicus turned the key once again, locking him apart from Iolaus, the one person he needed the most right now and had to think that this, the taking of Iolaus, was not a good thing especially now. He stood shakily and walked the few paces to press himself against the bars and watch Iolaus be shoved along out of sight.

The night fell heavily on the prison, not softly and starlit, but like a smothering blanket that held the prisoners immobile in its grasp. The usual small talk was replaced by gloomy silence, broken only by the occasional sob from Gladius.

Hercules slid over to the bars that separated him from the great gladiator, both of them bereft, partner-less and feeling the loss. Hercules hoped that Iolaus was still alive, but didn’t know what to think. All he knew for sure was that the time for action was long past. He sat silently at Gladius’ side, letting him feel the power of his presence, the power of caring and the love of another human being.

Time seemed to stand still as the two men sat almost shoulder to shoulder, only the iron bars separating them. Finally, Gladius broke the silence.

“They carried Leutis through, paraded him past like the animals I used to slaughter.”

“I’m sorry,” Hercules answered simply. He knew how he would feel if it was Iolaus and not Leutis. There could never be words to soothe the pain.

“He fought in my place. The last living person I ever loved...” Gladius couldn’t finish. He choked out a sob and wiped a paw-sized fist roughly across his eyes.

“He was a brave man,” Hercules acknowledged. There was so little he could say that would carry meaning.

“For twelve years I was like these bars, strong, hard, nothing could pierce me. Then Leutis came. He was like the brother I never had.”

Hercules let his mind wander to Iolaus. He regretted getting them both into this, but it had to be done. Iolaus surely knew this. Iolaus was his heart brother, the one person he loved most in the world, well right up there with his mother, of course. He found himself hoping it wouldn’t be him sitting there weeping like this next.

“He gave me enough hope to reach out to Felicita,” Gladius continued. “Her coming was like night suddenly pierced by the sun.’

Hercules turned to face Gladius. Maybe now he’d listen. “She lives, Gladius. She waits for you with your son.”

Gladius turned his head sharply to Hercules and fixed an angry glare on him. “No! I warned you. Don’t…”

“I’ve seen her,” Hercules interrupted.

“Don’t lie to me,” Gladius growled, but Hercules could see a glimmer of hope creep into his swollen and reddened eyes.

“I swear to you, she’s safe, outside the city.” Hercules held Gladius’ eyes with his own steely stare.

“I want to see her.” Gladius couldn’t keep the urgency out of his voice. He sat eye to eye and shoulder to shoulder with Hercules, his equal in size and build.

“You will,” Hercules reassured him. “But first we have to find a way out of here.”

The guard banged a pie pan on the bars of Gladius’ cell, laughing at the way the gladiator’s body stiffened, conditioned to instant reaction like the clang of swords. He laughed with a mean edge and unlocked the door of the cell to toss in Gladius’ armor.

“Looks like you’ll be needing your armor today, Gladius,” he sneered, noting Gladius’ still unhealed wounds and wondering how much longer he could continue to fight and win.

Bellicus stood in front of Hercules. Here, he thought to himself, was the culmination of a beautiful plan. He opened the cell door, and reached for Hercules, grabbing his shoulder roughly and tugged him out.

“Your weapons will be handed to you in the arena. That’s right,” Bellicus could barely hold back his sneer. “You two fight next.”

Hercules waited for the guards to step away, clearing the area for the two fighters to proceed to the arena, and took this moment to press near the bars that separated him from Gladius.

“We can put an end to this, Gladius,” he whispered urgently. He didn’t want to hurt the man he’d come to save. “If we fight, it’ll just keep going.”

Gladius turned a tear-streaked face to Hercules, no longer strong enough to hide his grief. He might as well be dead. Everyone he loved was gone and he saw no hope to escape the grayness of this existence. “If we refuse, we’ll die like Leutis and Turkos,” he answered with a catch in his throat. Maybe he should refuse. Maybe joining the others would be better than this. Maybe this man was wrong and Felicita was dead, after all--it had been so long since he’d seen or heard from her.

Hercules felt the big gladiator’s confusion, his sorrow, and his waning desire to continue on like this. He saw the pain in the lines pulling the flesh of his face down, the reddened eyes, the puffy lids. “Then we fight Maxius, his guards, the people who watch these spectacles” he whispered quickly, feeling the urgency of the situation. “They’re the enemy. Don’t you see why they’ve pitted us against each other? It’s because they fear us.” He looked into Gladius’ face, assessing whether his words had hit home.

“They fear us,” he added. “Together we can make a difference.

The arena was in turmoil as Hercules and Gladius were pushed forward into its center. Trumpets toned, clear and pure as the sky above, and the many voices became one excited tone, like a bee leading its hive mates to a newly discovered flower patch. Above the buzzing, a few stray voices called out their excitement and at the entrance of the two gladiators, the voices started singing “Here they are!”

High above the arena floor, Maxius entered with Postera at his side, listening carefully to the calls of “Maxius!” and “There he is!” Maxius was pleased that the crowd was so large. After the last few battles, he knew people were disillusioned, and disillusioned people lost interest, which meant a slowing of money into Maxius’ coffers.

Maxius made a show of waving to the crowd as Postera seated herself. Without turning his head to her, he spoke out of the side of his mouth. “I hope we have a good show today. Our guests haven’t been pleased of late. And it’s affecting their wagering.”

Postera fanned herself excitedly. She knew she looked good in her black bustier and black feather boa. And her skirt was simply ravishing. My goodness, wouldn’t that new slave be sorry now that he hadn’t taken her up on his offer.

“They’ll like this just fine,” she intoned, then smiled at herself and with a pleased grin added, “Wait ‘til our warriors see my little surprise.”

As if on cue, the arena hushed and all eyes turned to Maxius and Postera. She nodded and the guards appeared next to her, holding Iolaus in chains and Felicita with her baby in her arms as she struggled to free herself.

“Get your hands off me!” Felicita cried in fear and indignation that echoed hollowly in the hushed arena. The guards paid neither captive heed as they pushed them forward to the edge of the balcony, displaying them as motivation for the fighters.

“Felicita!” Gladius called out, his voice choking with emotion. Oh, how he’d truly hoped that she was alive, as the new slave had said! But never had he thought he’d see her like this. He whirled towards Hercules in fear and anger and even let a tiny glimmer of hope show through the anguished eyes.

“She was supposed to wait for us,” Hercules groaned, his voice carrying in the silence. Felicita hung her head, unable to meet Hercules’ eyes.

Iolaus could feel Felicita’s fear, her pain and shame at how things had ended up for all of them. He turned to her, uncaring what the guards thought and spoke with quiet reassurance, “They’ll find a way out of this…I think.” He raised his head high and stared coldly at Maxius and Postera.

Maxius saw the crowd’s confusion and their anticipation of yet another new twist. He stood, raising his arms and swung from the captives to the fighters.

“Silence!” he roared. He stared down at Hercules and Gladius. “The rules remain the same. You will battle to the death. Today, however, a slight modification, which my wife will explain.”

Postera stood and smirked down at the new slave. She would teach him to refuse her. “For our newest slave,” she curled a corner of her lip. “It’s simple. You refuse to fight and your friend dies. She indicated Iolaus, who stood impassively staring down at Hercules.

“But for you, Gladius,” she stopped smiling. “It becomes more interesting. If you balk, your wife returns to her former life…servicing all the prisoners, and guards and anyone else I choose. And, oh,” at this she smiled lasciviously, “your son will be my personal slave.”

“No!” Felicita cried out.

Down below, Gladius gasped, staring up with his jaw dropped aghast at the very thought of what his wife and son would have to endure. It couldn’t be that she had actually escaped once only to return to this torture.

Hercules stared in concern at Gladius wondering if the valiant fighter could hold his emotions under control when the time came to fight, or if he would indeed fight to the death.

“Gladius! Gladius!” Hercules whispered, trying to refocus his friend. “Remember what we talked about.”

They dragged me away, making a big show in front of the others, as if I was a troublemaker or something. I knew this meant no good, but I didn’t fight it, it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. They had their plans and I needed to find out exactly what these were. So I didn’t even turn a glance to Hercules as they shoved me away. I ended up back in that stinky dark room where they tortured me only a few nights ago and much to my surprise I had company!

You know, Felicita is really a stubborn woman. She has been from the beginning. She got us into this mess in the first place and all we asked was that she stay at the inn down the road until she heard from us. But she messed that up too. I know it’s hard to wait for word when time drags on like it did, but she needs a little patience. I know she see me as just that blond guy ‘what’s his name’, but she should at least have trusted Hercules. I mean after all, he is a demigod, and he’s never done anything even remotely bad to mortals, heck he’s their champion.

I couldn’t say any of that though; I had to bite my tongue. She was scared enough without me making things worse and she really needed a friend. The baby was yowling and Felicita’s hands were shaking so hard she couldn’t even get the little guy to her breast. So instead of lecturing her I slipped an arm around her thin shoulders and pulled her close, letting her cry on my shoulder. I whispered to her of Gladius and Leutis and what had gone on and how much Gladius missed her and needed her. Eventually she quieted down and the baby got the meal he so desperately wanted.

We sat alone in the dark for what seemed like hours. There was no sun streaming in to tell us what time it was or how much of the day had passed. We had only the cold damp silence of the room and the soft puff of our own breaths, the tiny snorts of the sleeping infant, the scratching of mice and the scuttle of a few bugs across the floor to break the terrible quiet that invaded our minds and pushed us to think the worst.

The arrival of the guards was actually a relief, although not to Felicita. She began to tremble again so hard that I thought she might drop the baby. But instead she clutched him like a life preserver, pressing his tiny heart to hers and drawing strength from his need. She walked regally out with the guards in spite of her fear. She didn’t glance away from her son’s face as we were paraded past the prisoners and led up a granite stairway into the seating area above the arena floor. She kept a step ahead of the guards and behaved nobly.

I, on the other hand, made sure the guards were too preoccupied to pay much attention to her. I let them shove me and resisted, pushing back, letting my strength be known. They ended up putting me in chains, though in truth I knew they planned that anyway as they were carrying them like they expected problems from the beginning. The chains didn’t matter to me, although I’m sure Felicita would have melted if they’d been used on her instead. Actually I’ve been in chains and they can be useful, good defensive weapons and certainly less confining than a broken bone. So I wasn’t all that upset.

What did bother me was where they placed us, in the box with Maxius and Postera. It doesn’t take a Greek philosopher to figure out that Maxius is a corpulent lackey at the beck and call of the evil Postera. . Maxius barely spared us a glance, but Postera leered at me as if I was nothing more than a piece of delicious meat. She ran her eyes over my chest slowly and deliberately let them linger longer than is polite. Then she let her eyes drop lower and stared below my belt as she let herself smile in pleasure.

That didn’t last long however. I ignored her and I don’t think she liked that at all. But my eyes were down lower still, at the floor of the arena and on Hercules’ face. He had a plan, I could see it. And I didn’t even need to know what it was, just that it existed. I could work with anything; we’d known each other so long. Somehow, we’d get out of this. This was the moment we’d both been waiting for.

Hercules stared up at Iolaus standing so defiant even while chained. The sun glinted off the golden curls and caught the square jaw and upturned chin. Iolaus’ eyes met his, gazing down, holding them, locking on to the truth that this was the moment.

The trumpet sounded and the two fighters eyed each other warily as the weapons were tossed with a clang and rising of dust into the arena, long swords like the one favored by Iolaus. Hercules felt his vest slip down off his shoulder and he shrugged it back on as he grabbed the sword. Gripping the sword loosely, he circled away from his opponent.

Gladius stared Hercules in the eyes. The slave had rivulets of sweat running down his face and had Hercules not been watching him ever since Felicita appeared he would have thought they were tears. Gladius flexed, testing the sore muscles, the open wounds from the earlier fight with the lion. He didn’t flinch and he didn’t take his eyes off of Hercules. He watched the big man circle out, counting his paces, assessing his stride and then when the timing was right, Gladius lunged.

Hercules parried with a clang of the sword, forcing Gladius’ weapon down and away. Hercules moved warily and he couldn’t help but be concerned. It was a distinct possibility that Gladius would really try to kill him.

“Listen to me,” Hercules spoke, only loud enough for Gladius to hear him. “We pretend to fight until they let their guard down.”

“I can’t take that chance,” Gladius answered sorrowfully, as he thrust again with a quickness that belied his injured state.

Hercules jumped away and rolled nimbly, raising a cloud of dust that stopped Gladius’ advance. He jumped to his feet and called out, “You have to! You can’t let Leutis’ death be in vain!”

Above, the crowd roared in appreciation of Gladius’ advance and the new slave’s sense of timing. A thin breeze rippled through the banners, gently lifting them and then letting them fall, coursing downwards and causing dust devils to rise at Hercules’ feet. From this distance, Hercules could barely make out Spagos’ voice from the prison area as he stood on his tippy pile of kettles and called the fight to the confined prisoners.

“Give it to him, Gladius!” The cook called out. “Watch his feet. His feet! Nice footwork!”

In the arena, Hercules was on his guard. Gladius was a fighter to be reckoned with and Hercules didn’t want to be caught unaware. But it was hard to fight and at the same time try to convince Gladius that what he was doing was wrong. Around him the crowd screamed in anticipation, their voices rising. Hercules fought to not be caught in the mesmerizing cries so very like the sirens, leading him to death.

“If you kill me,” Hercules started, and suddenly had to stop to jump away from Gladius’ vicious swing. Hercules was suddenly extra glad he wasn’t a lion. “Do you really think…” This time Hercules had to duck. . “They’ll set you free, or your son?”

“Shut up!” Gladius screamed, his face a contorted mask of pain and rage. His world was spinning out of control. He must get things right.

Hercules jumped this time and moved to Gladius injured side. He was angry now and desperate to convince Gladius that he must do what was right.

“They lied before.” Hercules pushed forward displaying the flat edge of his sword. “What’s different now?” His sword struck Gladius’ with ominous toning.

“Shut up!” Gladius raged as he stepped backward under Hercules’ parry.

Hercules could see that the aging gladiator was losing focus and took his chance. He ducked low again and swung a powerful leg out, kicking it behind Gladius’ own legs and felling the fighter like a heavy tree. Gladius landed with a heavy thud, sending up a spray of dust as Hercules quickly straddled him, placing his sword to Gladius’ chest.

The crowd went wild as the arena erupted in cheers. People stood, brightly colored shirts and dresses waving in the breeze like party confetti. In the royal box at the best vantage point in the arena, Maxius smiled. Wagering had been good and with the fighting he’d seen today it would only get better. Just a little bloodshed would ensure a queen’s ransom next time around.

Postera leaned forward in hungry anticipation, slipping a pointed tongue out to lick her lips like a snake seeking a scent. How exquisite! The two strongest fighters and one would die! Gladius had lived long, perhaps even out living his usefulness. This new slave would serve her well, she’d see to that. And in more ways than one.

“Join me, Gladius,” Hercules urged. “Help me fight them…for Leutis…for Felicita…for your boy! You have to decide who will control your life, you or Maxius and Postera.” The words coursed urgently through the sweat-scented air.

Gladius wasn’t finished. He wouldn’t die like this, like an animal captured and on its back exposing the soft underbelly. Noting Hercules’ lack of pressure on the sword tip resting against his chest, Gladius took a chance. Pulling his legs up, he gave Hercules a kick that set him off balance. This was the advantage that Gladius had sought. With the speed and instinct of a panther, he wrapped his legs around Hercules and pulled the big man down. In an instant, he had reversed positions and was atop the new slave with the sharp tip of his own sword pressed against the tender flesh of Hercules’ throat.

Iolaus stood frozen as the crowd rose to its collective feet, chanting “Kill him” like a holy mantra. He could almost hear Hera laughing and had to fight to control his breathing and retain his composure. He had faith in Hercules, but Gladius was the unknown component. Hercules was fast and agile, as well, but was he faster than this trained and more than experienced gladiator was? Iolaus could only go on his own faith that Hercules had allowed himself to be put in this position to help Gladius save face and make him see the wrong of his actions. Iolaus prayed silently to any god that would hear him that this ploy would work. Beside him, Felicita stood silent and shaking, believing her fate to be resting in Gladius’ hands, when in truth it was Hercules who held it.

The chanting of the crowd grew louder, more insistent, and as Iolaus tried not to look, he saw from the corner of his eye that Maxius and Postera were both giving Gladius the thumbs down. Around him the crowd roared in anticipation and pointed their thumbs down as well. The walls of the arena shook as the voices thundered loud and clear, calling for the death of Hercules.

Iolaus saw Gladius look up from below apologetically staring at Felicita as he mouthed the unheard words, “I’m sorry.”

Felicita gasped and drew the baby closer as Gladius pulled back his sword, seemingly ready to plunge it into Hercules’ chest.

Iolaus held his breath, hoping beyond hope that Hercules was right about Gladius. He stood solidly staring down as Hercules locked his eyes onto Gladius’. Then, when the roar of the crowd had reached a crescendo, Gladius spun away from Hercules with a speed born of many fights and self-preservation and flung the sword with ease and power directly into the chest of the nearest guard.

Postera gasped. This couldn’t be happening! She was upset and aghast. Not again! Slaves didn’t know their places any more, especially this new one. He must have influenced Gladius. She knew the older fighter well enough to realize that he wouldn’t have done this on his own. Especially with Felicita here and the threat. She turned in askance to the young guard at her side as if he could change things.

At the ground level, things had grown suddenly silent. Guards looked to Bellicus for instruction, nudging each other, hesitant to take on these two fighters. Bellicus would have none of this, however.

“Fight them!” he ordered and the guards moved forward, even more afraid of Bellicus than the two gladiators.

Hercules took advantage of the sudden disarray. He swung into action, taking on several advancing guards at once as Gladius turned to meet the others.

“The keys!” Spagos called out from his window to Hercules.

Hercules never took his eyes off the guards but heeded the plaintive cry. He swung his sword, catching the ring of keys on Bellicus’ belt and pulled them free. In one swift toss, he sent them flying with uncanny accuracy into the window of the prison and to Spagos’ waiting hands. The men inside had done more than their share of time. Freeing them was justified.

“Let us out, Spagos, let us out!” the men called out. “Set us free! No more chains!”

Hercules heard the jangle of the keys and smiled in satisfaction. Reinforcements were coming.

Above, Felicita decided to take her own chance at freedom and while Postera stood to look over the edge the former slave gave her a mighty shove. Postera screamed as she tumbled in a most unladylike fashion over the edge of her private box, skirt swirling like a pinwheel above her waist and feather boa flying on its own. She landed face first in the mud with a heavy thud as her hair came undone and slapped with impunity at her cheeks.

Iolaus could wait no longer. He didn’t even bother to see if there was anyone below, all he knew was that he could see Hercules and the big man was okay. He leapt with catlike ease to the rim of the box over which Postera had just disappeared and soared with acrobatic strength and grace in an arc to the dirt below, landing easily on his feet.

“Cha!” Iolaus bellowed as, with hands still chained together, he joined the fray. Iolaus whirled around, raising his arms high and brought the heavy chain down on the nearest guard with such force the man simply slumped to the earth as if he’d melted. He spun again and this time raised his leg high for a roundhouse kick, connecting solidly with the chest of another guard. He rebalanced quickly and kicked low this time, a direct shot to the groin, dropping the man. Iolaus heard the sound of a step behind him and wheeled around with his chained hands upraised.

Hercules stood there, wearing a slightly amused grin, as he brought his sword down on the chains that bound his friend, splitting them cleanly in two.

“Thanks, Herc,” Iolaus called out, and then turned back to back with his friend to meet the onslaught. The defense didn’t last long, though, as Iolaus saw Felicita being grabbed by the guards and Gladius trying to dispatch his two foes and unable to get to her.

“Go!” Hercules commanded and Iolaus shot away.

Above, the crowd was panicking, pushing randomly and trampling the unfortunate ones who didn’t move fast enough. Never before had they seen such carnage with slaves and guards fighting. What would be next? Their screams filled the air like frightened boars under the hunter’s gaze. But the men below paid them no heed.

Hercules turned to face Bellicus. The guard grinned evilly with a light in his eyes as he approached Hercules with his whip raised in readiness. “I’ve been waiting for this, slave,” he growled.

“So have I,” answered Hercules calmly.

Bellicus moved first. He slashed angrily with the whip, catching Hercules’ arm with its bladelike edge.

Hercules grabbed the whip and used it to pull Bellicus to him, as if he was reeling in a fish. When Bellicus was within arms length, Hercules gave him a mighty punch, causing the guard’s head to snap back and his step to falter. But Bellicus hadn’t risen to the rank of head guard without having fought many a battle of his own. He held himself together and quickly reached for his sword.

Hercules was quicker, though. He took his own sword and knocked Bellicus’ to the ground. Hercules stared the guard in the eyes and pressed the tip of his sword against the other’s chest.

“Surrender!” he commanded with steely coldness in his voice.

But Bellicus instead reached for his knife. Hercules didn’t hesitate. With one thrust, he ran the sword through Bellicus’ chest. Bellicus fell backward, one hand on the impaling sword and the other still on his own knife as the light quickly faded from his eyes.

Hercules turned. The noise in the stadium was rising. Women screamed and men rumbled as their escape failed and they instead found themselves surrounded by released gladiator slaves. The high-pitched tones of panic rose as the smell of sweat and fear and blood assaulted Hercules. He scanned the arena to see if his friend was still fighting.

Iolaus was fighting, hard and strong and with all the righteousness of the wrongfully imprisoned. His golden locks clung to his face and sweat left tracks in the dirt that coated his torso. His nose was dripping blood and the gash where it had been broken appeared to have reopened. But Iolaus was having fun. After all this time being repressed in prison, he was free. No more bad memories. No more worries about Hercules. No more darkness, or whippings and, best of all, no more of Spagos’ cooking. No sir, Iolaus planned on eating a rabbit tonight, maybe two, roasted over an open flame. And he’d take his time about it, too. Iolaus smiled to himself. Only about 30 more guards to go. He’d be out of here in plenty of time for supper.

Under the seats and against a supporting pole, Maxius cowered behind Postera. How could this have happened? He watched as the slaves attacked the guards and the patrons fled in panic. He was done for; no one would ever come back to wager here again after this. The best he could hope for would be to escape with his money and start anew somewhere else.

Postera glanced over her shoulder at Maxius, like a frightened rabbit. She’d wanted blood, but not their own. They must get away! “Maxius! Let’s get out of here!” she cried and then bolted away from their hiding place toward the exit with the panicking masses.

Maxius stood as if glued to his spot, too frightened to even run after Postera. “Come back here!” he yelled at Postera’s rapidly departing posterior before he finally summoned the courage to try and follow her.

Hercules heard Maxius’ cry and saw the ruler moving to escape. Thinking quickly, he drew back his arm and tossed his weapon. The sword flew with speed and accuracy tearing through Maxius’ grand robe and pinning him to the pole where he cowered as if awaiting a fatal blow.

Gladius in the meantime had caught sight of Postera’s hasty departure and sprinted to catch up to her. Even with his armor he was fast and easily over took the diminutive female, grabbing her by the arms to restrain her as she fought back. Oh, how he wanted to kill her! He couldn’t keep the hatred from his eyes, but as he felt her shrink away from him, he realized that if he acted on his desires he would be no better than she.

Meanwhile, Hercules had dashed to Maxius’ position. He stood facing the quivering leader and commanded, “Call off your men!”

Gladius swung Postera around and pointed his sword at her breast. How he’d love to thrust that blade home, but he was bigger than she was in heart and spirit. He wanted to believe that Leutis had not died so that violence would continue. But at this moment in time, he needed to use Postera. He stared past the frightened woman and into her husband’s face. “Or you both die!” he added.

Maxius knew defeat when he saw it, and this time it was his own. “Stop!” he called to his guards in panic. “Stop! Put your weapons down!”

The guards were ready. They’d already taken a trouncing and in truth had been waiting to hear Maxius call out these words. They readily dropped their swords to the ground and stood, arms upraised as the prisoners they’d fought grabbed up the swords with glances to each other in wonder of the opportunity that waited.

“Now it’s our turn! We’ll see who dies now!” Heads nodded, weapons were raised.

Hercules heard the vengeance in the voices and moved to quell the rebellion. He grabbed a sword and stabbed it through Maxius’ robe, pinning him tightly to the pole. He gave the corpulent ruler a “stay there” look and turned to the rioting prisoners.

“No!” he called to the slaves. “We’ll spill no more blood! Freedom is more precious than revenge.” He turned to Maxius now, “And you will set them free, won’t you?”

The slaves searched each other’s faces for a sign of agreement, then as one dropped their swords.

Maxius cleared his throat uncertainly. This was working out all wrong. He was being forced to make a decision that went against all that he stood for. “Sure.” He cleared his throat again. “Um, but how would I do it? I mean, I mean…there will have to be some sort of decree.” He quivered as he stared into the angry faces of the slaves. “How would I word it…it’s…”

Hercules smiled. He turned to Gladius, then Iolaus. “Oh I’m sure Gladius will help you think of something.”

Maxius and Postera stood downcast, dirty and disheveled, and then were forced to their knees as the former slaves held swords to their throats. The former despots now presented figures more sad than tyrannical as Iolaus read the proclamation.

Iolaus cleared his throat to make sure everyone was listening. Then, glancing at his audience, he read. “I, Menus Maxius, decree that from this time forth, no man should own another in Apropus or the surrounding provinces.” A collective cheer arose as Iolaus stopped his speech momentarily, letting the people have their say.

“Furthermore,” he continued, when the quiet returned. “No one shall be imprisoned without just cause.” More cheers arose then faded as Iolaus continued yet again, “Henceforth, my wife…and I…shall enter into voluntary exile.”

Maxius and Postera stared at each other. Around them, cheers rose on the soft breeze and carried the happiness aloft, disseminating it like seeds to germinate and grow. The couple realized that their time here was finished and as one, they slunk off, not even bothering to cast a glance over their shoulders at all they had lost. And no one in the crowd bothered to cast a glance their way as they scurried away like rats from a burrow claimed by others.

Felicita turned to Maxius, holding their son. She leaned into him, kissing him lightly and handed him the child so he could look on his for the first time. Gladius couldn’t help but smile as he looked down on the cherubic face.

”Ah…to my son, and a life of freedom.”

Felicita turned a blazing smile to Hercules. “And to Hercules, champion of free men!”

Gladius turned, staring up at his fellow gladiator and slave looking stunned. “He’s…he’s Hercules?” He handed his son back to Felicita and turned to fully face Hercules, unable to hide his astonishment.

“I, yeah…I would have told you myself but…” Hercules stammered with a slight blush. He hated when people did this to him.

Gladius reached out to place a strong hand on Hercules’s shoulder and spoke with a quiet voice of realization. “…you could have killed me.”

“And what would that prove? I came here to help.”

Hercules smiled across at the big gladiator who hugged Felicita while Iolaus simply shook his head.

Iolaus stood tall as the sun spread its warmth across his shoulders and lit his golden hair. The early morning breeze carried the scent of grass and wild flowers and honey. The hum of the bees and gentle whispering of the tree leaves above him were more comforting to Iolaus than any bed or meal at an inn could ever be. This is where he belonged, outside, a part of the free world. No more cold damp prisons for him. It would be rabbit every night for a week.

The hunt of last night, the taste of the rabbits, the flicker of the campfire and the chirp of crickets surrounding him at first had seemed surreal, more like an artist’s work than real life. But, moment by moment, it came alive as the arrow flew true and hit it’s mark, as the meat juices rolled down his chin and as the flicker of the flames never stopped all night, never left him alone in the dark. He felt Hercules lying next to him; his shoulder pressed up against his own and in those moments before he actually fell asleep on the soft bed of grasses, Iolaus knew he was truly free.

There was a spring in Iolaus’ step as he left last night’s camp and started up the path toward home. This was the life, he thought to himself. The road to home would be a few days travel, but it didn’t matter. He was going home.

Iolaus felt the heavy thump of Hercules placing an arm across his shoulders, matching him stride for stride.

“You know, Iolaus, I didn’t see any signs of you slowing down back there,” Hercules grinned down as Iolaus tipped his head up to meet his partners smile.

“Yeah, well, I was inspired,” he gestured broadly, thumping an arm against Hercules’ chest in the effort. “You know, Gladius…all those slaves.”

“Yeah,” Hercules conceded, “You fought well.” He turned his face away from Iolaus. It still hurt to have to see the broken nose, the deep gash his partner sported for his sake.

“Thanks, Hercules.” Iolaus knew he’d fought well, but didn’t often hear it from Hercules. This meant something special to him.

The two men continued along the path companionably enjoying the day, anticipating the pleasures of the hike ahead. Suddenly, Hercules stopped his tracks, staring down onto the top of Iolaus’ head.

“Huh, what’s this?” he puzzled.

Iolaus stood stock still, letting Hercules examine his head. “What? Am I still bleeding?”

Hercules chuckled. “Oh, it’s nothing, just a few more gray hairs.” He rubbed his palm through Iolaus’ curls affectionately.

“Hey, come on, Hercules! That’s not very funny you know.” Iolaus didn’t even try to hide his indignation. “I’m sensitive to that sort of thing.” He paused thoughtfully. “Maybe I could get something to color it with. What do you think?”

Hercules laughed heartily and shook his head. “Come on, Iolaus.” He clapped the smaller man on the back.

“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed. “You probably gave them to me anyway.”


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