Promises

by Arianna

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Michael Marks

In the distance, sunlight glittered off the surface of the wide lake that reflected the surrounding snow-capped mountains in all their glory. The day was bright and warm, the air fragrant with clover and wildflowers, and from the pines that lined the path, as the two life-long friends made their way, in high, good spirits, along hilly, forested country toward Zebron.

“It’s strange going back to Zebron when Palos isn’t king,” Hercules observed a little wistfully.

“Yeah, it’ll be even stranger seeing Beraeus all grown up,” Iolaus agreed, nodding, as both men recalled days gone by.

“Well, Beraeus has some big sandals to fill,” the demigod replied with a warm smile, “but if he’s half the man Palos was, the kingdom should be in good shape.”

Brightening, the hunter chuckled as he said, “I hope his father taught him how to throw a really extravagant wedding! Lots of food,” he continued and, whirling happily in a couple of improvised dance steps, he added hopefully, “dancing girls…”

Laughing indulgently, Hercules cut his best friend a quick look, as he asked, “You think Tarlus will be there?”

Immediately sobering, assuming a truculent expression, Iolaus asked sharply, “Who cares?”

“Iolaus. It’s been a long time,” Hercules soothed, shaking his head. Tarlus had been a good friend to them both, once - and was a good man. “Let it go.”

After what he did?” Iolaus protested, his voice hard and unforgiving. “Never!

Before Hercules could respond, they were accosted by a tall, wiry man in loose robes, who was manning a food kiosk a little further along the trial. Above the moveable, wheeled cart was a sign, ‘Falafel’s Walk-Thru, Over 100 Sold!’ and nearby, a donkey was tethered.

Ho! Travellers!” Falafel called out cheerily, with a broad, welcoming grin.

When the demigod saw recognized the man, he sighed, “Oh, no.”

But, evidently, Hercules had been recognized in his turn, as Falafel cried out, jubilantly, “Repeat customers! Another Falafel testimonial!

“My only testimony is I won’t make the same mistake twice,” Hercules mumbled, shaking his head as he gave the fast-food purveyor a wary look.

“You know what? I’m starved,” Iolaus proclaimed, as he eagerly looked over the choices on the cart.

“I--I-I-I-I-I wouldn’t,” the demigod cautioned urgently.

But his warning was drowned out as Falafel called to his newest customer, his voice enticing as he shared his incredibly affordable price, “Only one dinar for the best food in Greece!”

“You mean, for the best greasy food, don’t you?” the demigod clarified with a sharp look.

But, Iolaus was hungry, and wasn’t picking up on his partner’s warning. “One dinar?” he exclaimed, looking truly amazed, and then very pleased.

How can you go wrong? No waiting!” the vendor continued to deliver his hard sell.

“Imagine that,” Hercules mocked. But Iolaus had already accepted a half-shell of pita bread, stuffed with wilted vegetables, a highly spiced sauce and mystery meat.

Blissfully ignoring the demigod’s not so subtle jabs about the quality of his food, Falafel focused all of his attention on his enthusiastic new customer. Filling a wooden mug with a frothy, white liquid, he offered, “Goat’s milkshake?”

“Great!” Iolaus enthused, his mouth full. “What a deal!”

“A-a-hem!” Falafel held out his open palm, eager to close the transaction.

Finding both his hands were full, Iolaus looked up at his partner, clearly confident that Hercules would never deny him, as he gestured toward Falafel, and asked, “Herc, could you? Thanks.”

Hercules sighed, but he dutifully reached into his belt, and then handed the fee for fast-food poisoning to the friendly Falafel.

Another satisfied customer,” the food merchant crowed happily. As they turned to move away, he called after them, “Tell your friends. And if you’re interested…there’re still franchises available.”

Hearing him, the demigod shook his head, clearly astonished, as he muttered, “Really? Huh.”

Iolaus, always happy to share, especially as his best friend had paid for the meal, waved the sandwich as he asked, his mouth full, “Oh, um, Herc - you sure you don’t want some of this?”

But Hercules quickly raised his hands and shook his head decisively, as he replied, “I…no. It’s, uh, hard to believe, isn’t it?”

Nodding, as he took another huge bit of his meal, thoroughly enjoying it, Iolaus mumbled, “Yeah.”

The bathhouse was the ultimate in luxury. Flower petals were scattered over the marble tiles, and the water flowing from a decorative fountain at one end into the massive pool was enticingly warm. Large urns of oil bracketed the high, opaque windows that were covered with ornate grillwork, while small clay and pewter jugs and pots held scented lotions and massage oils to moisten and soften the skin. One lovely, scantily dressed attendant played a flute softly, to add to the ambiance, while another tested the water and stood to help her mistress, Ramina - the King’s betrothed.

“You really don’t need to do this,” the future queen huffed, clearly annoyed and uncomfortable. “I can fill my own tub.”

“Oh, no, Mistress,” the beautiful, blond attendant assured her. Standing away from the pool, she moved toward Ramina, as she explained with easy good will, “The King wouldn’t hear of that.”

Ramina, garbed in a silky peignoir in a deep shade of blue that complimented her dark hair and dusky colouring, stiffened as she turned away. “When do you start taking orders from me, and not the King?” she demanded sharply.

“After the wedding, Mistress,” the patient young woman assured her softly.

“Then you can look forward to that day, because this pampering isn’t my style,” Ramina snapped, her eyes dark and her jaw tight with her unhappiness.

The attendant smothered a sigh as she moved to remove the pins holding her mistress’ dark hair in a loose roll. Continuing to reassure the future queen, she said pleasantly, “But we enjoy it, Mistress.”

Pulling abruptly away, Ramina growled, “Well, I don’t. I take care of myself.”

Finding her easy patience strained by the continued rude recalcitrance, the attendant’s face stiffened for a moment, but her voice remained even as she replied, “Well, whatever suits you, Mistress.” Nevertheless, she followed her charge and tentatively reached to draw the long, sheer robe from Ramina’s shoulders.

“It’d suit me for you to stop calling me Mistress,” the restless, irritated woman stated firmly. “My name’s Ramina.”

Rolling her eyes behind the future queen’s back, the attendant murmured, “Yes, Mistress.”

She took the robe to fold it and lay it on a bench, but a sharp pounding at the door distracted all of the women. Curious, wondering if perhaps the King had sent a summons, the blond attendant went to the door, only to be impatiently, and roughly, pushed aside when it burst open.

Out of our way!” a strange man ordered abruptly, as he rushed into the room, leaving other men to guard the door. “You!” he shouted, as he grabbed Ramina and threw her over his shoulder. “You’re coming with us!

Ramina cried out as she was hauled away, “Please! No! What are you doing? Help!

But the abductor was deaf to her pleas, as he yelled to the men at the door, “Come on! Move it!

Appalled, badly frightened, the attendant followed them out the door and then screamed…

The heroes had arrived at their destination, and were pushing through the opulent, sheer curtains to enter the torch-lit dark, cavernous reception hall. A guard was posted by the entrance but, having expected them, he posed no challenge. Iolaus was looking a little pale as he held a hand firmly over his stomach, burping a little as he fought the gas and nausea that threatened. Swallowing grimly, he moaned softly, “Ooh… Herc…”

“Hmm?” the demigod murmured, as he turned to his partner, and then frowned in concern.

Belching again, Iolaus asked miserably, “Uh…you feeling okay?”

“Fine,” Hercules replied, but he cut a quick look down at his friend as they continued into the hall. “You look a little pale.”

“Your, uh, your stomach isn’t bothering you at all?” Iolaus asked, his voice a little thin with strain.

“Nope. What’s wrong?” the demigod replied, and then stooped to tease gently - well, he had tried to warn his impetuous partner. “Don’t tell me, fast food doesn’t agree with you?”

Grimacing, the older man muttered, “Fast is okay. I’m just not sure it was food.”

But Hercules had turned away, his attention caught by the fifteen-foot formal portrait of the former King, high above them on a stone platform - the man they had both gladly served years before. His expression respectful, Hercules murmured, “Ah, good King Palos.”

Moving to his side, Iolaus nodded, but both men were startled when the curtain beside the statue parted, and the new King, his head covered with a chain-mail hood, and garbed in full battle-gear, emerged.

“My father was a great man,” he agreed, but he didn’t look at the portrait, and his expression was closed, his eyes curiously flat.

“Beraeus?” Hercules exclaimed. It had been some years since he’d seen the younger man - Beraeus had been little more than a youth when they’d last met.

“Hercules. Iolaus,” the newly crowned King acknowledged them, his voice dry.

“You didn’t need to dress up in your battle armour to greet us,” Hercules remarked with a smile, surprised to note the young man’s apparent readiness for a major fight.

“I wish…that were the reason,” Beraeus sighed dramatically, as he descended blocks carved from stone to stand before them.

“Is something wrong?” the demigod demanded, frowning with concern.

“Ramina, my bride-to-be, has been kidnapped,” the King seethed then, his voice tight with anger. “And I swear I’ll bring her back - with the head of the dog who took her!”

“Any idea who it was?” Iolaus asked with anxious concern, his physical discomfort forgotten in the light of this alarming news.

“Tarlus,” Beraeus informed them coldly, “the scourge of my kingdom.”

Hercules looked astonished at the news, but Iolaus rolled his eyes and shook his head, his own expression hardening at the name of the man he’d long ago learned to despise, as he moved to perch on the stone skirt of the upper platform.

Soldiers marched through the hall and on outside, Beraeus turning to follow them, but Hercules lightly took his arm to turn him back, as he urged, “Beraeus, wait. This isn’t Tarlus.”

“You don’t know him anymore, Hercules,” the King insisted. “He’s changed since the days he fought at my father’s side.”

“But what could he hope to gain by doing something like this?” the demigod protested.

Slapping a rolled scroll against the hero’s chest, Beraeus snapped, “10,000 dinars ransom.”

“Now, hold on!” Hercules insisted, as he held the scroll to Iolaus, who had moved to his side and now opened it to see if there was anything more to be learned. Turning back to the young King, the demigod continued, “I mean, the more men and weapons you take out there, the more chance that Ramina might get hurt. And you know Tarlus - those hills are his home.”

Looking up from the scroll, Iolaus agreed, “He’s going be in the trees, the grass, the water…you’re not going…”

“I can’t let him get away with this,” Beraeus argued.

“You won’t have to,” Hercules assured him, his tone reasonable, even placating, as he continued, “but don’t send an army. Iolaus and I know all his tricks. We’ll go.”

“He’s your friend, Hercules. What if you have to fight him?” the King challenged, his tone taunting. “Or kill him?”

“You’re our friend, too, as was your father,” the Son of Zeus assured him. “What Tarlus did was wrong. I promise you, we’ll bring Ramina back.”

Beraeus hesitated a moment, then nodded as he turned to tell his men to stand down.

Iolaus cut a look up at Hercules, as much as to say Tarlus couldn’t be trusted, but Hercules shook his head, finding it hard to believe. The blond warrior grimaced, looking a little exasperated as he turned away.

The two heroes had loped some distance from the castle, its stone walls and turrets still visible through the trees on the hills behind them, as they paused to get their bearings.

“Hercules, this is not going to be easy,” Iolaus observed with a grimace, as he gazed over the forested hills that surrounded them.

Nodding, the demigod agreed, but added, “But better us out here, than Beraeus. At least we don’t want Tarlus’ head.”

“Speak for yourself,” Iolaus snorted, as he took the lead.

“What is it with you two?” Hercules demanded, with no little frustration, following Iolaus out of the clearing and into a steep, heavily wooden area, as they climbed up toward the mountains.

For a moment, Iolaus didn’t answer. He’d never told anyone, not even Hercules, what had happened - he’d hoped for a long time that Tarlus would explain, that could be some reason for what he’d done. But first days, then months and years had passed - and they had never seen one another again. It had hurt badly at the time, and it still did. But, perhaps, especially now, it was time to share what had happened, so that Hercules would understand that Tarlus could not be trusted. “In the battle of Paltros, Tarlus and I were fighting back-to-back,” Iolaus finally explained, as he hauled himself up the sharp incline by grabbing onto the trees and thickly growing shrubbery, panting a little from exertion. “We were badly outnumbered, but holding our own. You know the drill. Anyway, I looked around at one point, and good thing I did - because he was gone! With no warning! No reason! I’m just lucky I wasn’t killed.” Pausing, as they’d reached a slightly level place, he paused to look up at Hercules, “You tell me -- what am I supposed to think?”

“Well, that’s not Tarlus,” Hercules insisted, though he felt a little sick at what Iolaus had described. That had been a hard battle - and Iolaus was right - he could too easily have been killed on that long ago day. “I mean, something must have happened.”

“Yeah?” his partner challenged, his voice bitter and his eyes hard. “Well, there was a time I wouldn’t have believed he’d kidnapped a woman, either.” When Hercules grimaced, his gaze dropping to the ground, the blond warrior continued, “Look, all I know is, he left me alone in the middle of a battle, without telling me why. That says it all, don’t you think?”

Turning away, not able to reconcile what he knew of the man with his actions, but unable to deny that Tarlus seemed to have done terrible things, however out of character, the demigod sighed heavily as he muttered, “Yeah.”

They continued to climb high into the wilderness, finally scaling the almost sheer rocky ridge that overlooked a narrow, winding canyon, the usual trail into the heights. As he pushed a huge boulder into position, the demigod grunted as he observed, “Must have been tough growing up in this wild country! Tarlus is lucky he survived.”

“Primordial country,” Iolaus concurred, referring to the creatures who lived high in the mountains, as he studied the trail below to instruct Hercules on the exact placement of the massive stone. “Uh, a little more. You think we’re gonna run across any?”

Hercules grimaced up at his partner, but he heaved the boulder into place as directed. “Hope not,” he replied as he stood, adding mockingly. “Thanks for your help.” Iolaus just shrugged, knowing full well his assistance would have been superfluous. Studying him, the demigod cautioned, “Just don’t reveal yourself too quickly.”

“What, you mean like knocking his head off the moment I lay eyes on him?” the blond retorted, though he gave his friend a half-grin.

Quirking a brow, Hercules nodded, soberly. “Exactly.”

“Huh,” Iolaus grunted, as he turned away. “I’ll see what I can do.”

A short while later, disguised by a ragged greyish-blue shawl pulled over his head and around his body, looking more like an old crone than an able warrior, and using a long, thin length of crooked wood as a staff, Iolaus made his way out of the forest. Pausing, the wind whipping the wool cloak and thrashing through the trees, he peered around as if a little nervous. “I’ve come for the girl!” the ‘old woman’ proclaimed, his voice high and quavery. “I was sent by King Beraeus!”

Behind him, a lithe man of about the same age, dropped down from behind some large boulders; he was wearing a sleeveless, leather vest and breeches, his hair short and his face smeared with dried mud for camouflage. Eying the old crone warily, he ordered. “Throw down your weapon.” When the staff was cast aside, but the messenger from the King remained turned away, he grew suspicious. There was no sign of any sack or bag. “Where’s the money?”

“Oh…oh, it’s, uh, nearby, butcha don’t get it until I see the girl!” the disguised warrior advised him spunkily. But, the outlaw, smelling a trap, yanked off the hood, so that he could see who had come to collect Ramina. “Hello, Tarlus,” Iolaus said cheerfully enough, having fulfilled his mission to successfully distract the bandit from his hostage. The blond warrior smiled with cold satisfaction as he turned to face his erstwhile comrade-at-arms, “Good to see you again.”

Furious, Tarlus back-handed Iolaus, knocking the warrior hard to the ground, as he shoved past, shouting, “Watch out! Hercules will be with him!

He’s up here!” one bandit cried, as the demigod laid into the four men keeping watch over Ramina on the rocky knoll high above.

Tarlus raced up the long grassy incline to render assistance, but he was too far away to be of any help. The demigod made short work of punching out the guards, and then grabbed Ramina’s hand, pulling her along as he cried out, “Let’s go!

In the clearing below, more than half a dozen men had surrounded Iolaus as he stood, rubbing his jaw. Drawing them closer with an air of defeat, he muttered, “Uh, hi guys, I…I’m sorry, I, uh,” and then, as they were finally close enough, he whirled into action - kicking out and knocking one man flat, and then another, and finally a third - before they quite knew what had hit them. Having cleared a path of escape, he called over his shoulder, “I gotta go!”

Tarlus reached the top of the rocky outcrop in time to see Hercules disappearing with Ramina into the trees some distance away and, as he looked back, he was disgusted to see that Iolaus was also making his escape, as he scampered around a tumble of boulders, heading back toward the castle. “Natros! Natros!” Tarlus shouted to his second-in-command, as he raced full-tilt back down the incline toward his men.

What happened?” Natros, a shorter, swarthy man demanded, as Tarlus pulled up briefly.

We’ve been tricked! That’s what happened!” his leader snarled, and then pushed past, after Iolaus. “I want Ramina back!” he growled.

“Yeah, but that one doesn’t have her!” Natros protested the obvious.

He’ll lead us to the one who does!” Tarlus shouted back over his shoulder, as he broke into a run.

Iolaus led the outlaws a merry chase through the forest, as the men behind him called, out, “There he is! Through those trees!”

“Faster! Don’t lose him!” one exhorted the others, “Hurry!”

But the blond warrior easily maintained his lead, dashing out of the shadows of the forest ahead of them. Racing to the narrow defile through the stone, he paused for the briefest of moments to signal Hercules at the top, and then he loped onward, disappearing from sight as, behind him, he could hear agitated voices calling out, “Where’d he go?” and “Stay with him!”

Tarlus and his men appeared at the edge of the forest just in time to see him disappear into the passageway. Pleased that they were closing the gap and nearly on top of him, the rugged outlaw sneered, “Shortcut through the canyon. You’re slipping, Iolaus.”

On the heights above, Ramina looked down past Hercules’ shoulder, alarmed as the plan became clear to her. “You’re going to kill him!” she protested.

“No, no,” Hercules assured her quickly, pleased to learn the future queen wasn’t a bloodthirsty harpy. “It’ll take a lot more than this to kill Tarlus.”

Iolaus arrived, puffing, in time to overhear the exchange, and added gleefully, “Yeah, but it’ll be great to see him scramble.” Hercules cast an expectant look at his partner, and with a whispered, “Yeah,” Iolaus bent his back to help the demigod heave the massive boulder they’d positioned earlier, over the side of the cleft of stone…

Below, the men looked up, startled and alarmed, at the sudden racketing sound of crashing boulders. “Get back!” Tarlus shouted urgently, as he turned to shove his men back to safety.

Panicked men yelled in their terror, “Avalanche!” “Watch out!” as they scrambled to back the way they’d come, while stones and boulders cascaded down the rocky walls. “Run!

Above, Iolaus laughed as he watched them run from danger. “It’ll take ‘em hours to get out of there!” he observed with great satisfaction. The plan had worked perfectly - no one had been hurt, but they’d gotten the lead they needed to get Ramina safely back to Beraeus.

“Tarlus isn’t the kind to give up easily,” she warned darkly.

“Yeah, I know,” Hercules agreed. “We better get going.”

Not yet having had time to get his breath, Iolaus protested, “What? I just b…! You c…!” But, he gave up as the demigod just turned and started away, and he followed, muttering, “Oh! Hercules!” Sometimes the demigod forgot that ordinary mortals could use a little time to catch their breath - but then, Iolaus had to admit, he’d spent a lifetime proving he could keep up with no trouble at all. Made it a little hard to complain at this late date!

But Ramina did not stir from the lip of the canyon as she continued to peer over the edge, a worried expression on her face.

Hercules turned back and caught her arm, hastening her to follow as he repeated, “Let’s go.”

Beraeus was eating in a dark room, the gloom alleviated by but a few candles on the table, and a torch on the wall. The flute-playing servant girl from the bathhouse was now wafting a large, ostrich-feather fan over his head, while the one who’d attempted to wait upon Ramina served his meal.

The Captain of Beraeus’ personal guard strode into the chamber, and his King stood to hear his report, ready to leave immediately. “Sire, the scouts have returned.”

“And?” Beraeus drawled, wrath sparking in his eyes, as he tensed - this was not the message he’d been awaiting.

“They lost them,” the officer replied tightly, not quite meeting his liege lord’s eyes.

What?” Beraeus yelled furiously, as he slammed back into his chair and grabbed up a clay-fired goblet of wine.

“They said it was difficult to track them…without being seen,” the Captain replied, stammering a little in his reluctance to be the bearer of bad tidings.

“Isn’t that what those idiots are paid to do?” the young King snarled viciously.

“Yes, your Highness,” the officer replied, as he again inclined his head deferentially, hoping he’d be allowed to keep it. The King smashed his goblet on the table, ruby wine splashing and spilling like the blood the young man wished so much to see flow as his enemies died under his sword.

“Dock the head scouts a month’s pay. Use that as bonus for anyone who picks up the trail. Understand?” Beraeus shouted shrilly, beside himself with rage.

“Yes, your Highness,” the Captain of the Guard replied tightly, as he turned briskly to carry out his ruler’s orders.

Iolaus waited restlessly for Hercules to return. He understood the need for one of them to remain with Ramina, to protect her, but he would have preferred to be the one doing the scouting. There was something about the young woman that put his teeth on edge - she didn’t act like a woman who had been in fear for her life, or was at all grateful for having been rescued. If anything, she was sullen and haughty, and needed to be practically dragged along toward safety. He glanced briefly at the nearby high waterfall, the roiling white water tumbling fast to the broad river beside which he was sitting on a boulder, waiting.

Shifting his gaze to check on Ramina, as she had a tendency to wander away, he gaped to see her standing ankle deep in the river, her back bare as she held the gathered silk of her nightgown around her waist. Standing, he called sharply, “What are you doing?”

Glancing back over her shoulder, she told him bluntly, “I’m taking a bath. I’m hot and sticky and feel like a piece of dirt.”

Striding toward her, unable to believe her arrogant stupidity, the warrior told her, equally bluntly, “Now’s not the time!”

Cutting him a cool glance, she retorted sarcastically, “If I’m making you nervous, I can go around the bend.”

“You’re making me nervous, all right! Hercules will be back from scouting any minute, and we need to be ready to move, quickly,” he told her, fast becoming irritated.

“Then he can wait,” she snapped, wheeling to face him, her gown held only as high as was necessary for a modicum of modesty. Coldly, she continued, “I’m not going to let Beraeus see me like this.”

“But you look fine!” Iolaus protested. Gods, women and their vanity! She’d been dragged through the forests and hills - Beraeus could care less if she was impeccably groomed; he just wanted her back, in one piece.

Her eyes sparked with anger, as she snarled insultingly, “Maybe you’re used to living like a pig, but I’m not!”

“But…” the warrior tried to reason, only to be abruptly cut off when she pushed past him roughly to cut through the forest to another point on the river, just around the bend. “Ow!” he exclaimed, as he lost his balance and slipped, falling on the wet rocks, but scrambled up to hasten after her. “Excuse me,” he called sarcastically after her retreating figure. “Wait! Wait! You can’t go alone!

“Are you planning to scrub my back?” she demanded icily, when he caught her arm, forcing her to stop.

“No! I just…” he began, but she rounded on him, nearly spitting in his face as she sniped, “Then what possible good would you do?”

Giving up on any further attempt to reason with her, Iolaus replied staunchly, “I could stand guard. We are in Primord country, you know.”

“Are we?” Ramina rejoined, contemptuously. “I’ve been out here for days, and I haven’t seen anything bigger than a squirrel.”

“Then you’ve been lucky,” Iolaus told her, meaning it. The Primords were fearsome creatures that could be violent, even deadly.

Unimpressed, she snapped back, “Well, if I see a Primord, or a flying turtle, or anything that looks like it doesn’t belong in the water with me, I’ll scream.” Sniffing ostentatiously, she wrinkled her nose as she informed him insultingly, “You should consider taking a bath yourself, by the way.” And then she once again stormed off.

Iolaus grimaced as he watched her go, and then surreptitiously sniffed at his armpits. Well, what could she expect? He’d been racing all over these damned hills, and engaging outlaws in battle, to save her sorry hide. Damn, but she was irritating. He wished Beraeus good luck with her as he turned to find a spot on the river where he could keep a lookout, and still hear her, to be certain she was safe.

Having decided that it likely wouldn’t hurt to freshen up a little, Iolaus had removed his vest and was splashing water on his upper body when Hercules emerged from the forest behind him.

“What are you doing?” the demigod demanded, thinking it an odd time to be taking a bath.

“Uh,” Iolaus wheeled around, startled, and castigating himself for not keeping a better watch. Picking up his vest, he waved half-heartedly at the water, as he explained sheepishly, “I was taking a…just…cooling off.”

“Oh,” the demigod muttered, casting his partner a puzzled look before lifting his gaze to search the area. “Where’s Ramina?” he asked with a slight frown.

“Oh, she’s taking a bath,” the blond warrior replied a bit peevishly, jerking his thumb downstream as he hauled on his vest. “So, uh, did you find us a good trail?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah,” Hercules nodded, feeling as if he were missing something. Iolaus seemed distinctly irritated. “It’ll take us a half-day longer, but Tarlus won’t expect it.”

“Good,” Iolaus replied, as he climbed up the bank to join his friend. “Uh, Hercules?” he began uncertainly.

“Hmm?”

“Have you ever noticed whether I…?” Iolaus began, feeling foolish, but wondering if his body odour had indeed become offensive. “I-I mean, I wasn’t taking a bath…I was just, you know, cooling off, but, uh, do you think I…? Oh, never mind,” he broke off in confusion. That idiot woman was making him crazy. If he stank, Hercules wouldn’t be shy about telling him so - gods, his partner had literally thrown him into a creek more than once in the past. Besides, who cared?

“Well, now that you’re…cool,” Hercules said, again giving him an odd look when Iolaus’ voice drifted into silence, “maybe we should go check on Ramina.”

“Right,” the warrior replied briskly, giving himself a shake. It was beyond time for them to be making tracks, so he led off through the short obstruction of forest, toward Ramina’s position on the river, explaining, “She’s just around the bend.”

But, when they got there, they both stopped in confusion, looking up and down the empty river. “No sign of her,” the demigod observed unnecessarily, but his tone was worried.

“She should be here,” Iolaus insisted, unable to believe she could simply vanish into thin air.

Ramina? Ramina!” Hercules shouted, wondering if she was simply hiding in the trees, and hadn’t noticed they’d come for her.

But there was no answer. Sighing, Iolaus moved up river while Hercules went down, both of them searching the rocky ground for tracks.

The demigod’s face clouded, and his gut clenched as he bent to retrieve a small scrap of blue silk caught on a bush. There was no mistaking it - it had to have been torn from Ramina’s nightgown. Standing, his gaze raked the area, as he yelled, “Iolaus!

In moments, the warrior had loped to his side, and grimaced when he saw the small bit of material that the demigod held out for his inspection. Someone - or something - had taken her…

They headed out immediately, downriver, angling into the forest as there was no one in sight along the water’s edge. “I can’t believe it,” Iolaus muttered, “I heard her splashing around just before you came.”

“You sure that wasn’t your own little bath?” the demigod demanded, not happy with the turn of events.

Grimacing, knowing he’d screwed up and should have been watching her more closely, Iolaus just shook his head, and jumped over a fast-rushing stream to continue searching. But his attention went back to the issue at hand. “Even Tarlus couldn’t catch up with us that quick,” he said, shaking his head as his gaze again raked the ground around them, searching for sign of who it could have been.

“Maybe it wasn’t Tarlus,” the demigod murmured thoughtfully, his own gaze lifting to the forest.

“Primords?” Iolaus replied, pausing to cut a concerned look back at his friend.

“Just because we haven’t seen them doesn’t mean they aren’t around,” the demigod replied tightly, his lips thinning with worry.

“Well, what would they want with Ramina?” his partner wondered. Primords were quick to defend what was theirs, but they weren’t known for kidnapping people.

“I’m not sure I want to think about that,” Hercules muttered, as he followed Iolaus along the rocky shore and then back into the bush, as the hunter sought their tracks.

“Well, they came this way, that’s for sure,” Iolaus called back a few moments later, as he nodded toward another torn patch of material dangling from a branch.

Trying to make sense of what happened, Hercules observed, “It’s odd…there’s no sign of a struggle here or back by the river.” Turning to Iolaus, he asked, though he knew the question was ridiculous, “You never heard her scream?”

Iolaus just gave him a pained look, but tried to make allowances for the fact that his best friend was worried about the young woman, as he answered, “No. Maybe they took her by surprise.”

Hercules sighed and shook his head. “Maybe,” he allowed as they once again set off to find her.

“Poor Ramina,” Iolaus muttered, honestly concerned about the woman, despite her annoying and insulting behaviour - she was likely just rattled, terrified even, and trying to instill some sense of normalcy into what was happening to her when she’d insisted on taking a bath. “First she’s grabbed by Tarlus, then the Primords grab her. Maybe she was born under an unlucky sign.”

They’d been searching for some time, “Speaking of signs,” Hercules said, bending to pick up a straggly clump of fine, dark hair, “I’d say we’re getting pretty close.”

He’d no sooner spoken when there was a strangled cry of warning - and then Primords were roaring and rushing toward them. The two heroes braced for the attack by the long-haired, wild man-like beasts that were covered in dark brown, almost black fur, their faces animal-like with snouts and fangs in their lower jaws - and they appeared wild with frenzy. Three rushed the demigod, while another grabbed Iolaus from behind. Hercules lashed out with a quick punch, laying one out, kicked sharply to drive back another, and quickly slugged the third, but more were attacking. Iolaus had elbowed back sharply, breaking the beast’s grip, and then whirled to plough him with a hard right, knocking him out. He kicked one and another, leaping onto a third, and then while the beast held him, he punched and kicked two others simultaneously, while Hercules fought off even more of the creatures. One leapt onto the demigod, and Hercules head-butted him, before whipping around, using him as a battering ram to take out three more of the creatures. Iolaus broke loose of the big monster that held him, kicking the beast into insensibility as he whirled to kick out fast at several others, before standing back as Hercules dealt with the last attacker.

“Boy, I hope Tarlus has got her!” Iolaus exclaimed, as he looked around at the crumpled bodies of the Primords. “I don’t want to meet them again!”

“Oh, no!” a muffled cry caught their attention from the bush nearby.

“Let’s see who warned us,” Hercules called over his shoulder, as he loped toward the cry, Iolaus on his heels. They found a battered shepherd, clothed in woollen garments with a cap on his head, crumpled against a rock. Quickly, they knelt on either side of the man, to check his injuries and to break the ropes binding him. “Are you okay?” the demigod asked with concern.

“My sheep,” the man moaned, inconsolable. “They took my sheep!”

“We have to get him some help,” Hercules said, looking up at his partner.

“The town is miles away,” Iolaus reminded the demigod. Thinking about Ramina, and the danger she was in, he added, “We can’t afford the time.” But his eyes narrowed in concern, as he took in the debilitated state, and confusion, of the shepherd.

“We don’t have much choice,” Hercules returned. “He’ll die out here alone.”

“I’ll be all right!” the injured man protested, as he tried to stand, but he wobbled and nearly fell.

But Hercules had risen with him, and reached out to lend much-needed support. “Yeah, you’ll be all right. Come on, friend,” he countered. Iolaus nodded, and they moved out toward the nearest settlement. Hercules was right - the man couldn’t manage on his own.

They’d just have to hope that, whatever the Primords wanted with Ramina, she wasn’t in immediate danger - that she’d be all right until they could come back and search for her.

The Captain of the Guard paced grimly in the dark corridor as he waited for his sovereign, inclining his head when Beraeus strode down the stone steps from his personal quarters above.

“I’m sorry, your Highness. The new scouts…didn’t have any better luck,” he reported bleakly.

“You told them what their punishment would be if they failed?” the King demanded, exasperated, as he paused in his descent.

“Yes, Sire.”

Grimacing, raising his arms in the air in frustration, the young monarch demanded, “A king shouldn’t go back on his word, should he?”

“No…Sire,” the officer replied, however reluctantly. His men had failed to fulfill their mission, had failed to carry out the King’s will - punishment was inevitable, and there were worse things than having one’s pay docked.

“Slap them in irons,” Beraeus snapped, no longer content with a simple monetary penalty. Striding down the steps, he ordered abruptly, “Ready the rest of my troops.”

“Sire?” the Captain queried, not sure what the King could accomplish when the best scouts hadn’t been able to find a trail.

Oblivious to the futility of his intent, the young King growled, “I’m going after Ramina, myself.”

“But…what about Hercules?” the soldier asked, knowing full well the Son of Zeus and his partner had set off to retrieve Ramina, and he was confident that they’d be successful.

“Do you see him? I don’t!” Beraeus raged. Reining in his fury, his voice dropped, dangerously cold, as he continued, “The scouts don’t! And I have a wedding coming up with…no bride.”

Knowing there was no reasoning with the young Royal, the Captain acquiesced, “Yes, Sire.”

“I’ll handle this,” the King grated, “the way it should have been handled from the beginning…my way.”

The King’s personal attendant handed him his sword, and he took it, holding it upright before his face. His gaze caressed the weapon, his expression hungry for blood…

The two heroes helped the unsteady shepherd into the busy tavern of the inn near the gate of the walled village. The place was busy, with music playing loudly and a dancing girl writhing in time to the beat. Men clustered around the walls and tables of the torchlit interior, avidly taking in the show as they quaffed mugs of ale. Hercules and Iolaus supported their comrade to a table by the bar, and settled him gently in a chair. Turning to the bartender, as he pulled coins from the pouch on his belt, the demigod said, “This man needs his wounds patched up, and some food…and a place to rest.”

The short, stocky innkeeper boggled at the amount of lucre on the bar, his one eye wide (the other was covered by a black patch), as he looked up at the tall, muscular stranger. “Twenty dinar! Friend, for that sort of money, he can have the deed to the place,” he assured with no little astonishment at the generosity. He moved out from behind the bar, while another man took his place, to lean upon it while the two strange warriors took their leave of the dazed man.

“I should be out with my flock!” the shepherd insisted, again trying to set off on his own, only to stumble. Hercules caught him and settled him back on his chair, while Iolaus laid a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder.

“No, no, no, hey. Take it easy,” Hercules insisted gently, when the man appeared to still be agitated. “You need rest for now.”

“My sheep!” the man continued to protest pitifully. “They’re being eaten raw by those…things!” he moaned in despair.

“You’ll have other sheep. You only have one head - you need to take care of it,” the demigod insisted, and then looked up at his partner as he gestured toward the door. “ Iolaus…”

Nodding, Iolaus moved away from the shepherd, but the man caught at their arms as they turned to leave, muttering urgently, “Wait. I overheard you say that you’re looking for Tarlus.”

“Yeah?” Hercules concurred, waiting.

Looking around warily, the shepherd cleared his throat, and then continued in a low whisper, so that the heroes had to sit on either side of him to hear his words, “I’ve seen his camp.”

“Where?” Hercules demanded.

“Do not tell anyone,” the man insisted, “who told you this.”

“We won’t,” Iolaus assured him in a low murmur. “Go on.”

Taking a breath, the shepherd told them, “Head east out of town until you reach a grove of apple trees. Turn towards the mountains. When you reach them, you should see the camp.”

“Good,” Hercules murmured, as he reached out to pat the shepherd’s arm. “Thank you.”

“Be careful,” the informant urged as they stood. “You two don’t exactly blend in out there.”

“Right. Thanks,” Iolaus responded and turned to follow Hercules from the tavern, but his eye was caught by the charms of the lithe dancer, and he couldn’t help but pause in admiration. Hercules broke into his brief moment of contemplation by moving into his field of vision, his expression clearly, and not patiently, asking if Iolaus was ready to go. Startled, chagrined, Iolaus grimaced as he started. “Oh,” he muttered and then followed Hercules outside.

Behind them, the shepherd stood, no longer shaky on his feet and evidently no longer cowed by abuse and fear. The innkeeper moved up close behind him as the shepherd held his hand out, palm up. His lip twisting, the one-eyed man dropped some coins into the shepherd’s palm.

The fully recovered shepherd smiled with cool satisfaction as he observed, “Ten dinar…an even split. You made out well.”

“Tell Tarlus we miss him,” the innkeeper said quietly as he turned away, and the ‘shepherd’ ambled outside, and then through the village gate as he headed out into the countryside.

Behind him, the two heroes emerged from the shadows under the trees to the far side of the inn’s entrance. “So, how’d you know he was gonna send us the wrong way?” Iolaus asked, curiously.

“Intuition,” Hercules replied succinctly.

“Come on,” Iolaus challenged, chuckling. “You’ve seen Tarlus do it before.”

Grinning agreeably, as he looked down at his best friend, the demigod admitted, “That too.”

As they followed the ‘shepherd’ out of the gate, Iolaus asked, “If the Primords kidnapped Ramina, why are we heading toward Tarlus’ camp?”

“Aah, just a hunch,” Hercules replied, but then added, “Tarlus sure went to a lot of trouble to send us in the wrong direction.”

“Ah-h-h-h-h-h,” Iolaus acknowledged thoughtfully, and then smiled.

“Ah-h-h-h-h-h,” the demigod echoed at the bright look of awareness in his partner’s eyes, and with a smile he led the way after Tarlus’ man.

The armed and armoured troop burst out of the castle’s gates, King Beraeus riding in the lead, determined to find his betrothed, and to deal with the man who’d taken her. They headed into the hills, the men on foot running to keep up with the pace set by the horses.

They traveled for hours into the wilderness…

The two heroes followed the ‘shepherd’ a considerable distance over rolling, rocky ground, moving cautiously and taking cover behind large boulders so that, though their target frequently checked his back trail, he never spotted them. Keeping to low ground, below his line of sight, the two heroes got a little ahead of him as they worked their way through a patch of woods, and came out near a wooden palisade that provided a defensive wall for what appeared to be a small village set within an old quarry.

“Any ideas?” Iolaus enquired softly, as he checked out the fortifications, the guards and the busy inhabitants beyond the open gate.

“Get Ramina from Tarlus…” Hercules replied, matter-of-factly.

Iolaus cast his friend a sardonic look, but grinned as he muttered, “O-kay…” But his attention was taken by movement along the trail to their left.

“There’s our man, now,” Hercules murmured quietly, as they crouched behind the shelter of the thick forest shrubbery, and watched their man approach the camp.

He lifted his arms in jubilant triumph in response to the shouted greetings of his comrades, and then embraced a young girl, who called out, “Daddy, you’re back!” They moved to sit by the fire.

But then Hercules’ attention focused on the action behind the man they’d been following. He caught Iolaus’ attention and pointed to Tarlus, who was walking toward the sheltered entrance to a cavern, a bouquet of wildflowers in his hand. Ramina loped out of the cavern and came to meet him, smiling broadly.

“Ramina,” Tarlus said her name warmly, as Iolaus mumbled disbelievingly to Hercules, “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“These are for you,” the outlaw explained, as he offered her the flowers.

“They’re gorgeous,” she sighed, and then lifted her face to kiss him, while the heroes gaped, suddenly understanding that they hadn’t understood a thing. Taking Tarlus’ hand as she turned back to the cave’s entrance, Ramina murmured invitingly, “Come with me.”

The two heroes snuck into the camp by scaling down one of the almost sheer rock walls, their advance sheltered somewhat by tall trees that grew by the old quarry walls. Stealthily, they moved through the encampment, taking refuge behind a wagon filled with hay, not far from the entrance to the cavern. Uncertain, Iolaus asked softly, “Herc, what do we do? Should we go in?”

Shaking his head, the demigod murmured back, “No. Let’s wait till they come out.”

Inside, the cavern was lit by torches in brackets on the walls of the short entrance tunnel, and by candelabra further inside. It was a residence of sorts, with wool-stuffed mattresses and blankets, trunks and stools, and the air was cooler than out in the sun but comfortable. Tarlus led Ramina to one of the beds, and bade her to sit and close her eyes, as he had a surprise for her.

While she sat with eyes tight shut, and sniffed at the bouquet of fragrant flowers he had brought her, Tarlus went to a trunk and drew a square of folded white lace from it. He handled it reverently, and then turned back to Ramina, as he said, “You can open your eyes now.” When she did, he handed her the white lace, and murmured, “I know it’s not much.”

“It’s beautiful,” she sighed as she opened it and found it was a handmade shawl.

“It was my mother’s,” Tarlus explained. “She wore it at her wedding.”

“It’s so soft,” Ramina said quietly, as she studied the pattern and workmanship, “and delicate.”

“Like you,” the outlaw lord murmured, as he gazed at her lovingly. “I wish I could give you more.”

Smiling, she assured him warmly, “This is perfect.” And then, with a playful grin, she added, “Besides, I don’t think a long, flowing veil would be appropriate for our little outdoors ceremony.”

Tarlus stiffened, and then stood to move away a few paces. “That’s what I mean,” he said, despair resonating in his voice, and clouding his eyes. Looking up, as if to implore the gods, he went on, “You deserve more - a huge celebration -the finest food and wine.”

But she ran to join him, to lay a hand on his back, as she insisted, “I’m getting what I want.” Shifting around to face him, she told him firmly, “I’m getting the man I love.”

“An outlaw,” he grated, wanting so much more for her…

“You didn’t choose that...” she protested.

But he cut in, “Doesn’t matter.” He swallowed, as he gazed into her dark, candid eyes, and then told her, “You’ll be living the life of a fugitive - maybe dying the death of one.”

“If it’s by your side,” she insisted, “that’ll be enough.”

Tarlus felt a lump in his throat as he drew her into a tight embrace. He loved her so much, and was so afraid for her. For a moment, he wondered if he was being unfair to her - she could be the Queen! But - they loved one another, for good or ill, whatever the future might hold. He needed her and, it seemed, she wanted him, even with all the danger and hardship. Blowing out a breath, he cast their lot to the Fates, and prayed the old sisters would deal kindly with them…it was really all he could do. Bending his head, he kissed her, and could not help but smile at the love that glowed in her eyes, and the happiness that lit her face when she looked at him.

“I love you,” he murmured. “I offer you my life and all I have…”

“And I love you,” she whispered back. “I always will…”

Nodding, he caressed her cheek, and then turned to leave her - there were still dangers, still threats to her safety, that he must guard against.

Outside, Hercules and Iolaus waited, and kept their heads low.

“We need to talk to him,” the demigod murmured as he watched the activity in the encampment. This wasn’t the hold of a warlord, nor a military camp of rebels - whole families lived here, and it all seemed…normal, except that the village was hidden away from the King.

“Yeah, but that’s not the Tarlus we knew,” Iolaus reminded his friend, again warning him to be cautious. “He would never have extorted money from the king.”

Grimacing, Hercules shook his head with irritation. “This doesn’t make sense,” he argued. “There has to be more to it.”

“We promised Beraeus,” Iolaus pointed out. Neither hero gave their word lightly.

“I know,” Hercules sighed, clearly regretting having given his word without knowing all the facts.

Sensing his partner’s ambivalence, and given the very evident relationship between Tarlus and Remina, the blond had to admit, the situation was murky at best. “So, what do we do?” Iolaus queried. “Get her anyway?”

Hercules hesitated a moment, but when he saw Tarlus come out of the cave, he reluctantly acknowledged, “A promise is a promise.”

They cautiously made their way into the cavern, and when Ramina heard them, she exclaimed happily, “Tarlus!” - and then she turned, and saw that they had once again come for her. Both Iolaus and Hercules signalled for her to be quiet, but she had no interest in aiding their abduction of her. “No!” she cried out, moving to intercept them. Iolaus tried to shush her, but she argued, loudly, “I’m not going back!

A man outside, hearing her distress, called, “What’s going on?”

Ramina struggled against Iolaus, and he was forced to fling her over his shoulder, as she screamed, “No, let me go! No! HELP!

As Iolaus wheeled to the entrance, the man who’d heard Ramina’s protests lumbered in, but Hercules was running interference. The demigod slammed the hapless outlaw against the wall, as Iolaus hurried past with Ramina kicking violently, and then Hercules slugged the man, knocking him unconscious. Disgusted, Hercules grated, “So much for sneaking out quietly.”

Outside, Iolaus dashed as quickly as he could for the gate, while alarmed voices rose around him, “Hey, they’ve got Ramina!” and someone yelled at him to, “Stop!

And every step of the way, Ramina struggled to be set free, as she screamed at the top of her lungs, “Damn you! Put me down! No! Put me down! Tarlus!

More voices rose in a chorus of alarm and threat, “Warn Tarlus! Ramina’s been taken!” and “Get him!

But Iolaus kept running, dodging obstacles, his single focus to get Ramina away, trusting Hercules to give him the necessary cover. One man got too close, just he had almost made it to the gate, and he swung his shoulders, so that Ramina’s kicking boots connected with the hapless, would-be rescuer’s jaw, knocking him out cold.

The demigod had raced out of the cave on Iolaus’ heels and, for a moment, it seemed he must fight the entire camp to make good their escape. Men came at him from every direction. He slugged one, and kicked another back. When a third attacked him with a mace, he caught the man and spun him around, using the mace to ward off yet another outlaw. He kicked the armed man, and then had to spin him again, striking out with the mace to drive back a sixth, or was it seventh, attacker. Spinning, kicking, he cleared a small space, and leaned his strength into pushing the hay wagon, that they’d hidden behind, forward to block the stockade’s entrance. Grabbing up a long spear, he used it as a lance, driving back more of the outlaws, and then speared a burning brand from the open fire. Even as more were racing toward him, he took two quick steps toward the wagon, and pole-vaulted over it - and was finally free of adversaries. He drove the burning brand into the hay, which caught immediately in a whoosh of smoke and flame.

Exasperated, frightened for Ramina, Tarlus shouted out to him, “You don’t know what you’re doing!

“You know where to find us,” Hercules yelled back, and then turned to race after Iolaus.

Ramina was still struggling, screaming, “Tarlus

And her lover cried back, “Ramina.”

The blond warrior ran as fast as could, burdened as he was with a solidly built, squirming, kicking, struggling woman over his shoulder. She fought like a wildcat, furious, yelling continuously as she dug in with her nails, “You let me go! Put me down!

And, finally, she found purchase. “Ow!” Iolaus yelled, and then as she dug deeper, again, “Ow!

Let me go!” she shrieked, her fingers working down his forehead and over his cheek - toward his eyes.

And she was getting far too close. “Ow!” the warrior yipped again, and then tossed her off his shoulder - and this time, she was the one who yelled with sharp pain as she hit the ground. “What!” Iolaus demanded, indignant, as he rubbed the skin around his eye, “Do you sharpen those things?” Grimacing, he muttered in pain and irritation, as he dabbed at the damage her claws had done.

Ramina scrambled to her feet, intent upon running away, but Hercules caught her around the waist and, tired of the games, he grated, “You can run, or be carried. But one way or the other - you’re going with us.”

She stiffened for a moment, but then heaved out a sigh of defeat, at least for the moment, and pulled away from Hercules’ grip to stride off down the forested path.

The two heroes exchanged frazzled looks, but they could hear the voices of their pursuers closing in, so they turned wordlessly to hasten Ramina through the forest. They kept up a stiff pace for some considerable period of time, following a circuitous route to throw off pursuit. Finally, the voices of the outlaws faded away, and they could slow to a more sustainable pace, at least for Ramina, who was getting winded.

Desolate at being hauled back to Beraeus, she snarled at them, “I can’t believe you two are doing this! Growing up, all I heard about was stories of you two and Tarlus, and how you fought together. Now I find out you’re not his friends at all.”

“We made a promise,” Hercules explained, not liking the situation a whole lot more than she did.

“To who?” she demanded, turning to face them.

“The King,” Iolaus advised her.

“Beraeus?” she snorted with contempt. “He doesn’t know about keeping promises. Ask Tarlus.”

“We will,” the demigod assured her.

“When?” she demanded, furiously. “After I’m married to Beraeus?”

“You agreed to the wedding!” Iolaus pointed out, finding the whole business exasperating.

“Of course, I did!” she snapped back, clearly out of patience with the two of them. “He threatened to burn my ancestral village if I didn’t. Faking the kidnapping was the only way Tarlus could get me away from him without people being hurt.”

“You mean, without Tarlus being hurt,” Iolaus countered, caught in the argument, not sure he could believe anything she said. She’d agreed to marry the King, but had been party to her own abduction, to run off with a known outlaw. Tarlus had proven himself to be untrustworthy, but she evidently loved him anyway - so how much could her word be worth? She’d likely lie to protect him.

“That’s a lie!” Ramina raged, at the insult to Tarlus. “There’s not a cowardly bone in his body.”

“Yeah?” Iolaus sneered. “Could have fooled me.”

Hold it!” Hercules shouted, having had more than enough of the pointless bickering. “Both of you!

“But…” she protested.

“No ‘but’ anything, Ramina,” he interjected. “You’ve got to realize how hard it is for us to believe what you’re saying.”

“We’ve known Beraeus since he was a boy,” Iolaus exclaimed. “And his father was as good and decent a king that ever lived.”

“Even rotten apples fall close to the tree,” she snarled back.

“Okay. We’ll talk to Beraeus,” Hercules intervened again, before the two of them could resume their verbal sparing, “after we take you back. I promise no harm will come to you or your village.”

“Until you’re gone,” she contested sharply, desperation echoing in her voice, though she tried hard not to show her fear. “Then every lie Beraeus tells you will turn into death for my people.”

The war of words was interrupted when the Primords burst from the trees around them, roaring with fury. Quickly, Hercules shoved Ramina behind him and Iolaus, cautioning her to, “Stay behind us,” as the two heroes fought to protect her from the ravaging beasts.

Once again, Hercules and Iolaus battled overwhelming numbers, whirling and kicking, punching and wrestling with the incredibly strong beasts, who seemed to know nothing of fear. Ramina picked up a short log, holding it as a weapon, and seemed to be looking for an opportunity to use it on the demigod’s head, but he was moving too fast as he battled three and four Primords at a time. Iolaus, too, was holding his own, though it didn’t seem to matter - the more they dealt with, the more that seemed to pour out of the forest. Still, they dared not fail. On and on, they fought…until one got a grip on Iolaus’ arm, and swung him hard into the trunk of a tree, head-first, stunning him, just as another caught Ramina by the arm and pulled her away…which seemed to be the signal for the rest to fade back into the forest. But Hercules grabbed the one that had stunned Iolaus, and hefted him hard, throwing him through the trees and for some considerable distance, to land on the one racing away with the young woman, stunning them both for long enough that both Hercules and Iolaus could race after her, and capture her again, before she slipped into the shadows of the forest. Hastily, they pressed on, leaving the Primords behind.

When they were able to stop to catch their breath, Iolaus groused, “Boy! You fought us a lot harder than you fought those beasts!”

“They’re not beasts!” Ramina snapped, looking as if she was on the verge of tears.

Caught by her tone and behaviour, Hercules questioned, “Friends?”

“In the truest sense,” she sniffed. “Not like some people who just call themselves friends.”

The two friends exchanged bemused looks and shook their heads. Each way they turned, they were confronted with another surprise. “No wonder Tarlus knows so much about them,” Iolaus observed.

“Tarlus is respected out here,” she told them, “because he respects them. He’s good to people and beasts. Out here, nobody would force a woman to marry them.”

“I told you,” Hercules insisted, running out of patience, “when we’re face-to-face with Beraeus, we’ll settle this.”

“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed, more than ready to be done with the whole sorry lot of them. Pushing past, he dabbed at his bleeding lip, as he muttered with grudging respect, “And those friends of yours - hit really hard.”

“Tarlus,” Natros insisted, as he caught up with their leader and drew him to a halt, “we need to rest.”

But the outlaw lord was focused on the hunt, desperate to rescue Ramina, and he countered urgently, “We have to be close. Whether she’s walking or being carried, we gotta be catching up with them.”

Heaving for air, his tone imploring, Natros persisted, “Look, we’ll do whatever we have to…to get Ramina back. But if we keep going like this…we’ll be no good to you when we catch up to them.”

Taken aback, Tarlus cast a glance over his shoulder, and saw his men half-sprawled on the ground behind him, struggling to catch their breath. One man gasped, “Five minutes, Tarlus - that’s all we ask.”

Stricken to realize he’d been running them into the ground, abusing their loyalty, Tarlus bowed his head. “I’m sorry,” he apologized to them, meaning it.

“I can’t go much further,” another man groaned. They’d fought the demigod and been running for hours - they had nothing left.

“We’ll stop,” Tarlus told them, as he slung an arm around Natros’ shoulders. But he turned to look off into the forest, so they couldn’t read the expression in his eyes, and know how much it cost him to support their needs - rather than continue to race after Ramina, to save her from the King…

The King’s men had captured three Primords, and had bound them tightly to the trees near a small clearing. The frightened beasts moaned and roared, struggling against the bindings, but could not free themselves. Every inch the King, with his crown and chain of office, the regal deep blue robes and opulent armour, Beraeus leaned close to one of the creatures, as he wheedled, “There’s no need to make this difficult. Just tell us where we can find Tarlus, and, uh, you can go back to, uh, whatever it is your kind do.” His expression and tone were contemptuous of the beasts, and his eyes were hard with cruelty, as he continued, “He really isn’t worth the pain you’ll suffer before you die.” But when the poor creature simply roared, its eyes wild with panic, he muttered as he turned away, “Stupid beasts.”

“Sire,” the Captain of the Guard interposed, “I don’t think they can talk.”

“Well, let’s find out!” Beraeus suggested cheerfully.

His expression strained, clearly uncomfortable with the order, its futility and the innate cruelty behind it, the officer turned away, but swallowed and nodded to one of his men. Immediately, his subordinate pulled out two scimitar-like curved blades, razor-sharp, and began to twirl them in front of the Primords, his manner aggressive and intimidating - very frightening as if, perhaps, he too, hoped the threat would be sufficient.

The beasts howled with terror, looking from one to the other, clearly understanding what was going to happen, and very much afraid for their lives. They struggled, and moisture grew in their eyes, as if they were weeping with hopeless helplessness. They roared, and moaned, making the only sounds of which they were capable - even had they been willing to sacrifice Tarlus to save themselves, they could not - they did not have the means to speak.

The torture was just that - torture, to no other purpose but to abuse wantonly…and Beraeus knew it. But, still he played out the wretched charade, as if by pretending that they had brought this on themselves, he need not be responsible for what was to be done to them. “It’s your last chance,” he crooned into the ear of what was to be the first victim. “Once he gets going, it’s…it’s hard for me to stop him.” The desperate creature mewled in distress and rolled his eyes, wordlessly begging for mercy.

And Beraeus understood the mute plea, understood it very well, indeed.

Stepping back, he said coolly, “You really don’t talk, do you?” Turning away, he mounted his horse and then looked down at the three Primords; he might have been discussing the weather for all the feeling in his voice or manner - certainly, there was no regret or remorse, as he told them bluntly, “Well, you’re absolutely no use to me.” Nodding to his men to finish their appointed task, he turned and rode away.

Tarlus! Tarlus!” Natros yelled as he raced back from his scouting mission. “You were right. They doubled back…but there’s something else you should see.”

In minutes, he’d led them to the slaughtering ground - the now dead Primords hanging limply from the ropes still binding them to the trees. It was shocking, and so very tragic. “No,” Tarlus groaned, anguish on his face.”

And, behind him, one of his men snarled, “Murdering cowards! How could they do this?”

But, though his men might think this was the work of the demigod and his partner, Tarlus knew those two men would never be party to such cruelty. His face twisting in a grimace of rage, he snarled, “Beraeus.”

They’d paused for a moment to let Ramina catch her breath, when they heard a crack of wood, and rustling in the bushes not far away. “What is it?” Iolaus hissed.

“I’m not sure,” Hercules murmured back, instantly alert. There’d been far too many surprises already during this very long day. “Wait here,” he told his partner, as he slipped into the forest to determine the threat.

Ramina plopped down on a log, and crossed one ankle over her knee, ruefully rubbing at the ache in her leg as she glared at Iolaus.

The hunter whirled sharply away from her, thinking he’d heard something, and moved a little away from her. There was something or someone lurking nearby, he was certain of it.

Turning back, about to direct Ramina to follow after Hercules, he only had time to call out to her, softly, when he was struck hard on the back of the head…

…and he crumpled to the ground.

When Hercules returned, no wiser for having searched the area and thinking it must only have been an animal, his gut clenched when he saw his best friend lying so still in the dirt.

“Iolaus!” he cried out sharply, as he lunged toward his fallen partner, and knelt by his side to turn him gently, supporting Iolaus against his shoulder with one strong arm - vastly relieved to see that the warrior was still alive.

Iolaus groaned as his eyelids fluttered and he stirred…

“Easy,” the demigod murmured, frowning with concern. But when Iolaus blinked awake, and looked around a little dazedly, Hercules asked, “What happened?”

“Ow,” the warrior muttered as he rubbed the back of his head and pushed away, to sit up. “What do you think? I saw something moving in the bushes. I…where’s Ramina?”

Helping his friend to stand, Hercules muttered disgustedly, “The same place she always is - gone.”

And then they were attacked again!

Men swarmed out of the forest, and the two heroes wheeled back into action, Iolaus whirling to kick at one, and punch at another, though it only made his headache worse - and the dizziness was definitely annoying. As for the nausea, well, he didn’t really have time for it.

Hercules grabbed another, and was about to lay in with a powerful punch, when he recognized Tarlus, and held back.

“Where’s Ramina?” the outlaw lord demanded, as they’d had time to determine she was not present.

“You mean, you don’t know?” Hercules demanded, surprised. He’d assumed it had been Tarlus’ men who had assaulted Iolaus.

Realizing the demigod was as mystified about her whereabouts as he was, Tarlus sharply ordered his men to stop fighting.

Shaking his head as he exchanged a glance with Iolaus, the demigod turned back to their old comrade, and he said with no little frustration, “We thought you took her.”

When Tarlus just shook his head, Hercules grimaced with frustration as he grated, “This is starting to give me a headache.”

Rubbing the back of his head, Iolaus could only roll his eyes and nod in agreement.

Well content with his prize, Beraeus rode with his arms around a sullen Ramina, holding her perched and helpless on his mount. “Smile, Ramina. Soon you’ll be Queen!” he told her, and then laughed with delight.

Walking now with Tarlus and his men, Hercules said with sorrowful chagrin, “It still surprises me that Beraeus turned out this way. I mean, his father…”

“…wasn’t the man we expected, either,” Tarlus interjected with a sigh. “King Palos did his best. He taught his son how to rule, but not how to handle power. Beraeus didn’t prove to be the man we thought he was.”

Snorting, Iolaus drawled, “Well, I guess people change, don’t they, Tarlus?”

The outlaw turned to face his one-time comrade and friend, his eyes dark with regret, as he said, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time, Iolaus.”

“I trusted you,” Iolaus snapped, the hurt of betrayal still fresh.

“I know,” Tarlus acknowledged, his voice tight. “Leaving you at that battle was the most difficult thing I ever had to do.”

“Then why did you do it?” the warrior demanding, hoping despite all the evidence, that there was some explanation that would make sense, that would justify Tarlus abandoning him, without warning, leaving him with no one at his back - risking his life.

“I can’t tell you,” the outlaw sighed, voice and expression strained. “I made a vow.”

Furious, Iolaus demanded, “Are you saying, that after all these years, you can’t talk about it, because you’re…keeping a secret?”

“A promise,” Tarlus clarified, but said nothing more.

“Who to?” Iolaus asked, sincerely wanting to know, but Tarlus’ gaze shifted away from his, and the outlaw maintained his silence. Exasperated, Iolaus shook his head, “If you can’t talk about it even now…how can I forgive you?” Disgusted, he turned away. It was hopeless - whatever friendship they’d shared quite obviously had had little meaning then…and had just as little meaning now.

But Tarlus called out, his voice ringing with regret and sorrow, “For what I did, I could never expect your forgiveness.”

But Iolaus kept walking away.

Hercules moved up behind the outlaw lord, and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. Whatever had happened years ago, he was convinced there was more than either he or Iolaus understood. Tarlus was, and seemed was still, a good and honourable man. “I’ll talk to him,” he murmured.

Tarlus looked up at Hercules, wishing he could hope that Iolaus might one day understand and forgive him - but he didn’t. What he’d done had been too great a betrayal…

Hercules gazed at the other man with sympathy in his eyes, and then he set off after his partner.

The King and his men made good time back to the castle, the heavy gates opening for them, and they clattered into the courtyard.

“The wedding will be at daybreak,” Beraeus announced briskly. “Start the preparations.”

“But your Highness,” the Captain of the Guard protested, “the guests haven’t arrived.”

I don’t care about the guests!” the young, arrogant King shouted. “You have all night to prepare! Now, move!

His contempt barely hidden, the officer swallowed and nodded, muttering, “Yes, Sire,” as he rode on.

Laughing gleefully at his struggling bride, Beraeus thrust her to the ground, and into the arms of one of his guards. Leaning down, he leered, “Get some rest. I want you looking beautiful for our wedding day.”

“You can make me marry you,” Ramina spat back, and then vowed, “but I’ll never be your wife!”

“How appealingly naïve,” Beraeus taunted her. “The practical truth is that you’ll enjoy being married to a king. Raising heirs to the throne is so much easier than getting pregnant to some… some peasant! And having to struggle to feed your dirty…dirty, little children.”

Ever feisty, Ramina argued back, disgust in her voice as she glared at him contemptuously, “A struggle I’d find more pleasurable than spending one night in your bed!”

Unmoved and uncaring of her feelings in the matter, concerned only for his own wants and desires, Beraeus told her brutally, “Well, get ready for a life of pain, because your home will be my bed.” Turning to his men, he ordered coldly, “Take her away. Post extra guards.”

In the absence of invited guests, the King ordered his entire household to attend the nuptials early the next morning - though none looked happy to be present. The crowd was subdued, cowed by his authority, but everyone present knew the bride-to-be was opposed to the marriage, and was being forced against her will. Guards were posted on the walkway around the top of the stone walls, and were stationed in the courtyard as well.

Beraeus, however, seemed not to care about the mood of his servants and subjects. Dressed in his finest purple silks, with a formal, embroidered tabard, a large pearl hanging from a gold wire in his left ear, and wearing his crown and golden, linked medallions of authority, he waited upon a raised dais for his bride to be escorted to his side.

The Captain of the Guard led Ramina from the castle. She was garbed in an exquisite ivory lace gown, with rubies in her ears and around her throat. Her ebony locks were piled high and set with a coronet, her makeup was immaculate. But for the dismal expression on her face, she looked every inch the regal royal bride that Beraeus wanted. The elaborate bouquet of lilies and other blossoms that she carried concealed the fact that her wrists were bound - she was a prisoner, for all the fancy plumage.

She was led up the steps to the platform, where Beraeus took her arm. Turning to the richly robed priest, he ordered, “OK, let’s get this over with.”

In a high, quavery voice, the priest began, “We are gathered before the gods on high, to join together Beraeus… ”

Impatient as ever, the King commanded, “Just get to the final vows.”

Obligingly, valuing his head, the official intoned, “Do you, Beraeus take Ramina as your wife for all time, and swear by Zeus to love and protect her?”

“Oh, yes,” Beraeus confirmed as he gazed at Ramina possessively.

Turning to the bride, the old priest asked, “And do you, Ramina, take…”

But she interrupted him, cutting off the formal question as she insisted, “No, I do not. I don’t want to marry this man.”

But the King simply tightened his grip on her arm, overriding her objections, as he told the priest, bluntly, “She does.”

“Does anyone present have any objections to these two people being joined as man and wife?” the priest asked, as was required by the ceremony. He cut a very brief glance over his shoulder, confident no one would dare object, and then hastily continued, “In that case, I now pronounce…”

Wait!” Hercules called out, as he strode into the courtyard. “I object!

“Hercules, you have no business interrupting,” the King objected in his turn.

“She doesn’t want to marry you, Beraeus,” the demigod replied sternly as he approached the dais.

“But I’m the King. I have chosen her. Now, if you could be civil a moment, you can celebrate with us when we’re done,” Beraeus lectured, but he smiled to show there was no ill-will between them and turned back to the priest.

Shaking his head, Hercules pushed aside the crossed spears of the soldiers who blocked the steps up to the raised platform - and, in the absence of orders to the contrary, they didn’t stop him. They were sworn to defend the crown, and would carry out whatever commands their King gave to them - but this so-called marriage was a travesty, and not a man there was happy about the ceremony.

“A forced marriage,” Hercules argued as he mounted the steps, “is nothing to celebrate.”

“You don’t understand,” Beraeus protested, seemingly absolutely sincere in believing what he was about to do was right. “My father wanted me to take a queen.”

“Not like this, he didn’t,” Hercules returned repressively as he took Ramina’s arm and led her away, down the steps.

“Oh, I’m sorry you feel that way,” the King sighed, and then flicked a command to his troops, as he added, “but it really doesn’t matter.”

The soldiers drew their weapons, and advanced on the demigod, who pushed Ramina back and behind him, as he moved to meet the guards. Behind him, Beraeus yelled out, “Stop them!

When the two guards swung their swords, Hercules ducked under the blades and came up fast, punching them both out simultaneously. And then he whirled around, kicking back a soldier coming up behind him, following up with a punch that sent the doubled-up man flying backwards.

Above, on the parapets, the soldiers were watching the fight below, and didn’t realize the castle was being invaded by outlaws. Tarlus led the way in along the stone walkway, punching out soldiers, and clearing a path for his men - and for Iolaus.

But Beraeus noticed the assault, and he ran down from the dais to grab his bride, holding a knife at her throat, as he hauled her backwards, away from her rescuers.

Ramina!” Tarlus called from above.

Tarlus,” she screamed back, but Beraeus was too strong to resist, and he pulled her into the halls of the castle.

A sword in each fist, Tarlus fought his way to the steps and then punched and kicked soldiers out of his way until he reached the ground. One of his men tossed a guard from the heights as they fought for command of the upper levels. Two soldiers charged Hercules, and he dropped to one knee, punching them both hard in the gut and then straightened quickly to grab them and smash their helmeted heads together.

Above, Iolaus was fighting his way down the steps, and swung his sword, driving a soldier back over the halfwall to crash to the ground. “Happy landings!” the warrior called after him, and then dashed down the remaining steps. He slashed and kicked, beating off one man, and was fighting off another, when a soldier charged at his back - but Tarlus intervened, and dealt with the ambusher.

“I got your back,” he called to Iolaus, casting a quick look over his shoulder.

Iolaus yelled, “Get down!” and then swung a claymore to take out another soldier who had been about to skewer the outlaw lord. “And I got yours,” the blond called to the outlaw. Both men smiled fleetingly, and then turned again to the battle.

Another soldier fell, screaming, from the parapet, while Iolaus kicked and slashed, and Hercules tossed a guard out of the way, as he charged after Beraeus and Ramina.

Inside the castle, the demigod had just come through an arched entryway when Beraeus, who had been lying in wait, yanked a thick, woven cord, and arrows flew out of the mouths of stone jackals carved on the walls. Hercules caught one, and ducked - the others impacting harmlessly with the walls. Disgusted, the King grunted and took off again, dragging Ramina into the dining room. Hercules snapped the shaft of the arrow he’d caught, as easily as he might snap his fingers, and lunged after them.

When he raced into the large, formal banqueting hall, he found Beraeus was holding Ramina tightly at the far end of the table. The chamber had been prepared for the wedding meal, and fires flared from mounted braziers, linen coverings and flowers were draped upon the table, and the ornate shields that lined the walls were polished to a high gleam.

Beraeus held the blade to his helpless hostage’s throat…and his eyes glittered with a kind of madness born of his fury at having his will so flaunted.

“Don’t do this, Beraeus,” Hercules called out, too far away to physically intervene.

King Beraeus,” the furious, cornered young man insisted wildly.

“Being king is more than a title,” Hercules challenged, though he kept his tone reasonable - still hoping to dissuade the young man from his outrageous behaviours. “I thought your father taught you that.”

“My father was a weakling!” Beraeus shouted back in rage. “I saw that at the battle of Paltros!”

“I don’t know what you saw, but keeping Tarlus and Ramina from marrying can’t change it,” the demigod argued, desperately trying to reason with a man who was beyond reason.

Beraeus shook his head, and then tightened his grip on Ramina, as he brought the blade closer to the skin of her throat. “If I can’t have her - no one will!”

In desperation, Ramina cut back with a sharp elbow, startling him enough to loosen his grip, and she lunged away, and Beraeus raised his knife, as if intending to throw it into her back. Hoping to give her a chance to escape, Hercules shoved the brutally heavy wooden table forward, to trap the King against the wall…and then he scrambled to pull Ramina away to safety.

…Beraeus stumbled back, pinned to the wall, and gasped…going suddenly deathly pale as a paroxysm of pain froze on his face.

For a moment, neither Ramina nor Hercules understood what had happened, but when blood bubbled from the King’s lips, the demigod knew something deadly had occurred. Quickly, he shoved the table back…and caught Beraeus as he crumpled, easing him gently to the ground - behind where he’d been standing, the sharp, serrated blade of the decorative shield on the wall dripped with royal blood…

Dropping to his knee beside the mortally wounded young King, his eyes clouded with sorrowful regret, Hercules stammered with heavy sadness, “Beraeus…I--I’m sorry it had to turn out like this.”

The King looked up at him, his eyes already glazing, and murmured pathetically, “Maybe I was…never meant to be a king…” He might have said more, but suddenly he spasmed and gasped with pain, moaning a little…and then he died.

Hercules sorrowfully, and very gently, closed his staring eyes, as he said quietly, “The end of the house of Palos.”

“And the end of what I’ve been carrying around all these years,” Tarlus called from the back of the room, having just entered with Iolaus. Turning to his former comrade at arms, the outlaw lord was finally able to explain - and he could only hope that Iolaus would understand, even if he could never forgive the betrayal so long ago. “There was a reason I left your back unguarded at the battle of Paltros. I saw my King - Palos - on his knees, begging for his life - and the life of his wife and son beside him. I had no choice but to leave your side and save them.”

Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Iolaus asked, astonished.

“Palos was humiliated,” Tarlus told him. Shaking his head, he continued, “He made me promise never to tell anyone - not even you.”

“But Beraeus knew,” Hercules interjected as he stood, “and he couldn’t stand your knowing.”

Nodding, as he encircled Ramina with one strong arm, Tarlus added, “That’s how I became an outlaw in my own land.” Turning back to Iolaus, he sighed as he offered, “I’m sorry. If I’d known at the time that I had made the wrong choice…”

“No,” the blond warrior cut in, “you made the right choice. We were both fighting for the King. You did your duty.”

When Tarlus looked as if he could hardly believe Iolaus not only understood, but was forgiving him, the warrior held out his hand - and Tarlus, his throat too tight for words, took it in a warrior’s grip. Iolaus smiled at him, and then covered Tarlus’ hand with his own - and Tarlus reached to add his second hand to their grip - and so old wounds were finally healed, and a warm friendship restored…

A canopied tent had been set up in the meadow below the walls of the castle, and arches made of bound reeds and entwined with flowers marked out the place for the bride and groom. The retainers of the castle, and Tarlus’ men, their wives and children, were all present on the warm bright day, to witness a marriage between two people who loved one another with all their hearts.

“How do I look?” Tarlus asked anxiously, feeling uncomfortable in the loose, suede tunic - and looking distinctly pale.

“Like you’re about to pass out,” Iolaus chuckled.

“That’s because I am,” the former outlaw muttered, more nervous now than he’d ever been before a battle. “Where is she?”

“Relax,” Iolaus laughed, as he patted his friend on the shoulder. “It’s her wedding day.”

A few moments later, Ramina emerged from the tent, her hair down but covered by the beautiful lace shawl that had been Tarlus’ mother’s…held in place with a coronet of woven flowers. Her white dress was simple, but she was radiant as she stepped forward to meet Hercules, who would escort her to her groom.

“You look beautiful,” the demigod assured her with a warm smile, as he took her arm in his and led her forward.

“Thank you,” she murmured happily - but she had eyes only for Tarlus.

The same old priest who had tried to marry her to the late King, only a day before, now stood beaming with delight, as he began the ceremonial ritual. “We are gathered together before the gods on high, to join together Tarlus and Ramina in the bond of marriage.”

Back in the crowd, Iolaus murmured to his partner, “They make a great couple, don’t they?”

“Yes, they do,” Hercules agreed, his face alight with happiness for the couple who’d wrestled with fate and won.

“You know? We should come to Zebran more often,” Iolaus said then, but added as he looked around at the gathered assembly, “…only they oughtta get some more dancing girls.”

The demigod chuckled and shook his head - as he playfully jabbed his elbow into his best friend’s chest.

Iolaus exclaimed, “Ow!” softly, so as not to interrupt the ceremony, but he grinned as he rubbed his chest.

The ceremony was concluding, as the priest announced, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

As Tarlus bowed his head to kiss his bride, cheers and clapping broke out - and then music. The groom and his bride joyously led off the dance, and they were soon followed by an exuberant demigod and his partner - who was very pleased that the party was finally starting!

Finis



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