The Siege at Naxos

by Ziggy

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Darrell Fetty

Nestled at the base of a heavily forested mountain, the village sat along the banks of a clear-water stream. Though quaint and sparsely populated, it was the second largest town of the small island of Naxos. A fishing village, with it’s boat that transported people and goods back and forth from Athens, situated on the opposite side of the island, boasted the title of largest habitation. The warmly shining sun and blue sky combined together to help create the peacefulness that had led people to settle here.

On such a beautiful day, the villagers relaxed in the warm afternoon sun. Brightly dressed, they gathered at the local tavern and enjoyed conversation as well as a bowl of mutton stew or a pint of ale. A young woman and her male companion were two of many such people enjoying the occasion to take in the sun.

Suddenly, there came the sound of a horn, similar to that used by men hunting. The sound familiar, the woman looked up, then quickly back at her friend. “Barbarians!”

A large band of darkly-clad warriors, on foot and on horse, came thundering down the slope that bordered one end of the village. A large man, astride a chestnut stallion and brandishing a sword, galloped headlong into the village, shouting, “Grab everything you see! Everything is for the taking!”

Villagers scattered, screaming and yelling as they tried to evade the barbarians’ charge. People were ruthlessly knocked down as the horde overran the small community. Those that tried to resist or fight back were viscously dealt with.

Pleased with his men’s work, the leader, a huge man sporting a beard, his long, greasy hair bunched into a queue at the top of his head, wearing furs under a black battle harness, pulled his horse up close to the tavern. He swiftly dismounted, entering the establishment with several of the invaders. “Food and drink for my men!” He paused as he spied the woman, bent down in an effort to appear inconspicuous, at the outside table. “As for me, you’ll do just fine.”

He manhandled the woman to her feet, held her tightly against himself with his right arm. To her male companion, he ordered, “Bring us food and drink.” When the villager hesitated, he barked, “Maybe you’d hear better if I opened up your ears! Move!”

As the man dashed out of the way, another stepped up to take his place. This villager was thin, wearing a yellow shirt with a green robe covering it; on his head he wore a colorful turban. “I can help you.” The matter-of-fact tone in his voice belied his nervousness at having to deal with the barbarian leader.

The warlord grinned, then put his left arm around the newcomer. His right arm still tightly encircled the waist of the woman. “And who are you, little man?”

“Argeus, owner of this establishment. I can get you whatever you want.”

“Well, Argeus, my name’s Goth! And you can bring me everything you’ve got!”

“I will,” Argeus agreed, “but first, let go of the woman.”

To his milling men, Goth announced, “This man has the courage of an ox!” He pushed the woman into the arms of one of his men; he grabbed Argeus by the throat. “And the brains of one!”

Argeus stomped on Goth’s foot, then swiftly raced from his tavern when he was released from Goth’s grasp.

“Coward!” Goth growled. He followed Argeus outside. He took a spear from one of his warriors, then heaved it after the fleeing tavern owner.

Hercules and Iolaus were enjoying the day up in the hills, taking in some fishing. Their “private” fishing hole was a secluded pool fed by a small waterfall. The area was surrounded by lush vegetation, further adding to the illusion that, for the moment, they were the only ones in existence. Iolaus stood on the shore where the pool emptied itself into a small brook. Not wanting to be burdened with hook and line, Iolaus held a homemade spear poised and ready as he scanned the water’s depths.

A flash of shadow and the spear was plunged downward. “Gotcha!” Iolaus shouted triumphantly as he heaved his catch-a large trout out of the water. Laughing, he crowed, “Nice size, too! Come on, Hercules, admit it! This is one thing I’m better at than you are!” He turned slightly to deposit the fish on top of an already large pile of previously speared trout of all sizes.

Hercules shushed his best friend. The demigod stood waist-high in the middle of the pool. He, too, scanned the depths of the water in search of his prey and, like Iolaus, he didn’t use any line or bait; unlike Iolaus, however, he also carried no spear. Swiftly, Hercules drove both hands under the surface. A second later, he rose up, his hands clutching tightly to a large, thrashing fish. He grinned. “You talkin’ quantity or quality?”

The smile on Iolaus’ face dropped to a slight frown at the thought that his legendary friend had bested him again. The chagrin was short-lived, however, when his eyes spotted a sizeable shadow lurking near the bank. Grinning, he stated, “Both!” as he thrust his spear into the water. As he hauled up the spear with both hands, Iolaus couldn’t help thinking how huge the fish must be. As his catch cleared the surface, his vexation returned as he realized he’d “caught” a big piece of driftwood.

Hercules laughed. “You’re right, I never caught a log that big.” The still-struggling trout in his hands, he waded towards the bank.

Iolaus, meanwhile, worked at pulling his tightly wedged spear from the solid wood. “Never caught a log that big,” he grumbled. A moment later, he realized the absurdity of the situation; a giggle escaped from him. It was too nice of a day to hold grudges.

Helios’ chariot was descending from the sky when the two heroes decided to call an end to their fishing trip. Each carrying a large string of the day’s catch, they strode casually down the hillside that would take them to the village where they intended to stay the night.

“I have to admit, Iolaus, you do know your fishing holes.”

Iolaus smiled at the compliment. “Ah, it’s the water on this island. Naxos has the best fishing anywhere.”

Hercules took in the scenery, appreciating the beauty surrounding them. “It’s beautiful country, too. I’m glad we came.”

“See, it’s great to just relax and take it easy once in a while.” The blond hunter held up his bounty of fish. “Boy, these are gonna taste great! My friend, Argeus, has a tavern up ahead. He’ll be able to cook ‘em up and give us a bed for the night.”

“Argeus.” Hercules mulled over the name. “I don’t remember you ever mentioning a friend named Argeus before.

Iolaus seemed surprised. “I didn’t?” He thought a moment, then continued, “I met him way back, remember when my father took me away that one summer?”

“I remember. You were eight, I think.” The son of Zeus glanced down at his string of fish, then back at his friend. “When you got back you didn’t want to talk about it. Knowing Skouros the way I did, I knew it had to be something bad.”

“Well, Skouros brought me here in an attempt to make a mighty warrior out of his runt son.” Iolaus spoke with no malice in his voice, having long since come to terms with his father’s prejudices, even against his own flesh and blood. “It was after a particularly rough day…”

“More ale!” Skouros yelled at the tavern owner. As the man refilled his tankard with more of the bitter stuff, the warrior continued with his tales of battle to an attentive, if not also slightly drunk, audience.

Little Iolaus knew better than to be within sight during those times. He’d made a hasty exit towards the stables and the friendlier acquaintances of the horses. They didn’t seem to mind his shorter stature, especially since he was bribing them with purloined carrots and slices of apple. The practice sword lay abandoned against a bale of hay.

“Who are you?”

Guiltily, Iolaus whirled at the young voice. A tall, very skinny boy about his own age stood just inside the stable doorway. In his hands, he held the reins of a chestnut mare.

“I didn’t do nothin’ wrong!”

“I didn’t say you did. I just asked who you are.”

The tall boy seemed friendly enough, and he spoke nicely. “Iolaus. Who are you?”

“I’m Argeus. My dad runs this place.”

“Oh.” Not knowing what else to say, not particularly wanting the other boy to know his father was the loud braggart in the tavern, Iolaus commented, “I was just visitin’ the horses.” He nodded to the mare. “That’s a nice looking horse! Is she yours?”

“Nah, belongs to a friend of my dad’s.” He stepped inside, led the gentle mare into one of the stalls. “Want to help me groom her?”

Iolaus smiled. He loved horses. “Yeah!” Feeding the rest of the apple to the bay gelding, the blond hurried over to help his new friend.

“Every night, Argeus and I would hang out,” Iolaus told his companion. “He wasn’t a fighter by any means, but he,”

The hunter stopped in his tracks as they came within sight of the village. The tiny settlement had been overrun. Barbarians were running amuck, chasing villagers, destroying buildings. There came angry shouts from the leather-clad invaders and screams from village women.

Iolaus took in the unbelieving sight before his keen eyes caught sight of something else: his friend Argeus lying facedown at the bottom of the hill, a long spear stuck in his back.

“Argeus!”

Iolaus bolted down the hill to his friend’s side. Hercules trailed behind. Dropping the string of fish, Iolaus knelt beside Argeus. He gently pulled the spear out of the man’s back and rolled him over. He was somewhat surprised to see Argeus was still alive, though blood did trickle from the corners of his mouth.

“Iolaus,” Argeus gasped, clearly in pain, “run, get away!”

Anger crossed the hunter’s handsome face. “Who did this?”

“Goth. Save yourself. Run!” Argeus drew in his last breath and died.

Iolaus reverently lowered his friend to the ground. Looking up, his gaze fell on the barbarians creating havoc in the village. As yet, none of the invaders had noticed the two warriors. Teeth bared in a snarl, Iolaus pulled his sword, keeping the empty scabbard in his other hand, and raced towards the enemy. Knowing his best friend had nothing but vengeance on his mind, the demigod followed, his long strides allowing him to quickly catch-up. They approached three of the barbarians who stood in front of Argeus’ tavern.

Iolaus didn’t bother with any pleasantries. “Where’s Goth?”

The barbarian Dax, wearing the head of a panther on his head, set aside his large bow and gestured with his thumb. “Inside, but you’ll have to get past us, first.”

“With pleasure.” Iolaus growled. He swung his sword at one of the barbarians, who promptly kicked it out of the blond’s hand. Iolaus punched his opponent in the face, then quickly darted away. Several of the invaders followed the lithe form back to the main thoroughfare.

The rest of the barbarians that were in the vicinity charged Hercules. He smacked the first one with the haul of trout, sending the man flying. Just as he was preparing to look for his next opponent, Hercules found his arms pinned to his side by two arms wrapped around him from behind. Two others were rushing towards him, ready to take on what they thought was a helpless victim. Using the “friend” behind him as an anchor, the demigod brought both feet off the ground and kicked the attacking barbarians away. Setting his feet back on the dirt, he flipped the man off his back in one swift motion.

Hercules easily punched aside a couple more of the attackers as he entered the inn. He spotted Goth, a village woman in each arm, in the dimness of the building. The warlord was kissing and fondling each woman even as he held them closely to his body to prevent them from escaping.

“Pardon me for not knocking,” Hercules announced. He pulled one woman away before he lashed out with a fist, catching Goth square in the face. The man dropped like a stone.

Iolaus, meanwhile, was standing atop an outdoor table. He was punching and kicking any barbarians that tried to get at him. For awhile, he was striking with the empty sword scabbard until he was disarmed of that, as well. The blond whooped as he kicked out.

“Come on!” shouted an angry voice. “Take his feet out!”

At that suggestion, one of the attackers swept a pole at Iolaus’ feet, knocking the compact warrior onto his back. Undaunted, Iolaus continued to lash out with fists and feet at his opponents. Two of the barbarians managed to grab him by the arms. As he was dragged off the table, Iolaus used this momentum to push himself back onto his feet. Kicking out again, a lucky punch from one of the barbarians sent him tumbling to the dirt. Swiftly, he jumped back up, grabbing up the first thing he could find to use as a weapon.

Iolaus found himself brandishing one of the large trout like a sword. The unexpected weapon gave the fierce horde pause. They backed a couple steps, not sure what to make of the unusual situation.

“Boy,” Iolaus remarked, “I guess some people really don’t like fish.”

Just then, Hercules emerged from the tavern. His right hand was around Goth’s throat as he pushed the dazed barbarian into the main street. Hostilities ceased as the others realized their leader had been captured. “Tell your men to drop their weapons!”

“You’ll need more help than that.” Goth smirked despite his dire circumstances. “That’s my brother, Bledar, with the rest of my men.”

All eyes looked towards the knoll Hercules and Iolaus had descended a short while ago. A very large band of barbarians-some on horses, some on foot, was scattered along the hillside. With a cry of “Charge!” three of those on horseback broke from the group, galloping down the hill.Iolaus sighed, muttering, "It's never easy!" as he tossed his fishy weapon aside.

Goth chuckled as the small band stopped at the edge of the village. Bledar was a husky man, though not as tall as his brother. The mounted warlord sported a beard that was braided in two places, his face was streaked with lines of red and black paint; he wore the skull and skin of some unknown beast on his head, with the skin trailing a short distance down his back. Like his men, he wore fur and dark leather. Many of the others had their faces and bodies decorated with paint; all carried an array of various weapons. Bledar took in the situation before him with narrowed eyes.Hercules was undaunted. "Tell your men to stay where they are!""You're in no position to make demands!" As Bledar spoke, Dax stepped up beside his leader's mount, his bow held in readiness. "Who are you?”

Iolaus picked up his fallen sword, brandishing it in front of him with both hands. “He’s Hercules.”

“Hercules!” Goth scoffed. “Make a muscle, strong man.”

Hercules obliged him, tightening his grip around Goth’s throat. The barbarian, eyes widened in shock, gasped as his air was briefly cut off.

Bledar gestured soothingly. “Let’s just all settle down.” More business-like, he asked, “What do you want, Hercules?”

“Justice. Your brother’s wanted by the Athenian government for war crimes. And he just killed the owner of this tavern.”

“Perhaps the food wasn’t to his liking!”

Bledar’s men laughed. Iolaus gripped his sword tighter, the tension in his body like a tightly coiled spring. He inched forward a little, ready and willing to take them all on.

Hercules could sense his friend’s hostility. He knew it wouldn’t take much to set him off. “Iolaus!” The unspoken command halted the blond warrior. He addressed Bledar. “We’re taking him to Athens to stand trial.”

“Yeah,” Iolaus stated, “but for the record, I’d rather try him here,” he indicated his sword, “with this.”

The semi-friendly expression on Bledar’s face swiftly turned to anger. The audacious little whelp, he thought as one of his men asked, “Who does he think he is?!”

Goth struggled against Hercules’ strong grip. “Bledar! Kill them all! Kill them now!”

Iolaus stepped back and quickly brandished the sword at Goth’s neck.

Taking careful aim, Dax pulled back on the bowstring. “I can take him, Bledar, without harming Goth.”

“Go ahead,” Iolaus challenged, fire in his eyes, “give me an excuse.”

For a second, all was still. Finally, Bledar tapped the archer on the shoulder. “Dax, put down the bow.” As Dax followed orders, Bledar stated to the Greek warriors, “You’re very brave, but there are only two of you, and it’s a long way to Athens!”

Unfazed by the threat, Hercules commented, “We’ll do all right.”

“We’ll see!” Bledar pulled his mount around. “We will meet again! Yah!” He urged his horse back up the hill, his men joining him in retreat.

Iolaus stepped back from Hercules and Goth. He swung his sword in an arc away from Goth’s neck until the blade rested gently in his left palm. “I can hardly wait,” he muttered sarcastically as he watched the horde depart.

As much as they wanted, Hercules and Iolaus didn’t stay to help the villagers get things straightened out. They knew their presence, especially now that they held Goth prisoner, would make the village more prone to another attack. The grateful inhabitants accepted their apologies and bid them farewell and good fortune.

Iolaus led the small group downstream, then cut through the thick woods. Eventually, they would find themselves on the other side of Naxos and the docks where they would be able to catch a boat to Athens and drop off their “esteemed guest.”

And turning Goth over to the authorities couldn’t happen soon enough for Iolaus. As he pushed aside some dense foliage with his sheathed sword, the hunter grumbled, “I wish we could have at least stayed for Argeus’ funeral. You know, make sure he gets a proper send-off.”

Hercules, leading Goth by a thick rope “leash” that was attached to the barbarian’s tightly bound wrists, sympathized. “I know, but we couldn’t risk another attack. Besides, Argeus was well-liked; he’ll get a funeral fitting a hero.”

“Hero? Ha!” Goth taunted mercilessly. “He doesn’t even deserve a funeral pyre! He was nothing but a coward!”

Iolaus stopped in his tracks, his angry countenance falling on the tall warlord. He took a step forward, his sword slowly sliding from the ornate scabbard.

Hercules laid a comforting hand on his friend’s arm. “He’s not worth it, Iolaus. Let the Athenians deal with him.” When Iolaus reluctantly returned his sword all the way back into its scabbard, he soothed, “You honored Argeus’ memory when you provided Charon’s payment. With that, Charon will see him safely to the Other Side.”

“He doesn’t deserve to see even that!” Goth goaded.

It was with visible effort that Iolaus resumed their trek. As he concentrated on getting them through the woods, he relaxed somewhat-he was, afterall, in his element, though they both remained alert for danger. He knew that it was only luck that had kept them from being ambushed or attacked so far. “You know,” he said after hearing Hercules drag their prisoner over a fallen log, “we’re only postponing the inevitable.”

“The only thing inevitable is your death!” Goth promised.

Iolaus ignored the boasting words as he checked out the lay of the land. “The Athenians had a fort around here when I was a kid. You know, we could hand our prisoner to the soldiers and let them take him to Athens. Much more of his badgering and I’ll save everybody the trouble of having to deal with him.”

The demigod felt the same way. “That’s not a bad idea.”

“There was a road around here, somewhere.”

“You call yourselves warriors!” Goth scoffed, laughing. “You’re nothing but sheep! Lost in the woods, looking for some army to save you!”

Iolaus glared at the man. “Hey, don’t laugh. Those soldiers hate you almost as much as I do, especially after what you did during the Mycenian invasion!”

“A great war!” The barbarian boasted, “I beheaded an entire company and left the road to Thessaly lined with rotting, Greek skulls!”

Iolaus gave his partner a quick glance. Hercules was doing his best trying to ignore their bragging prisoner as he scanned the forest warily. “Someone should put him out of his misery.” Softer, Iolaus added, “And I’d be happy to volunteer.”

Goth continued as if the blond hadn’t spoken. “War… isn’t won by the weak! Conquest and control by the strongest! That’s the real law! The only law!”

“Is that why you killed Argeus? To prove you’re stronger than a gentle, kind-hearted man who never fought anyone in his life?”

“He was weak! He ran from battle! He deserved to die!”

Fury crossed Iolaus’ face once again; he started towards Goth.

“Iolaus!” Hercules halted his friend with that single word. Then, “He’s not worth it.”

Suddenly, an arrow emerged from the thick foliage. Hercules reached out and snatched it midair-just as it was about to strike Iolaus’ chest dead center. Iolaus glimpsed the arrow, then met his friend’s eyes with silent gratitude. Hercules acknowledged the look with a quick nod as he let the arrow drop. “Too close,” the son of Zeus murmured as Iolaus automatically pulled his weapon.

“Hunting season’s open!” Goth crowed as the two Greek warriors took off through the woods, just as a barrage of arrows littered the slight clearing where they had just stood. Goth was forced to follow as Hercules’ semi-divine grip on his leash allowed him little choice. They dodged more arrows, some coming too close for comfort. Goth seemed to be the only one unconcerned by their proximity. “Can’t lose my men!”

Behind them, they could hear the excited shouts of the trailing band and the baying of tracking hounds. This encouraged Iolaus and Hercules to push a little harder through the undergrowth even as more deadly arrows thudded into trees and ground alike.

They reached a small clearing, where they could see a fort on top of a small rise. A dash through another copse of trees brought them to the entrance of the fort, its stone walls overgrown with thick vines.

“Open the gate!” Hercules called, pounding on the wooden door.

Goth took advantage of his captor’s distraction to face his approaching men. He raised his still-bound hands above his head. “Come on! Shoot!” he shouted irately. “Can’t you blind idiots hit anything?!”

Keenly aware of the arrows still flying around them, Iolaus looked up at the figures on the battlements. He waved his exposed blade in his agitation. “Guards! We’re under attack! Open the gate!”

“What’s wrong with him?” Hercules growled; he, too, was aware of their dangerous position. With a heave of his gods’ given strength, he slammed both fists onto the gate, knocking it wide open.

As the two started over the threshold, Goth stood yelling at his men. “Kill them now! It’s our last chance!” He was suddenly jerked backwards when Hercules yanked on his leash.

“Sorry,” the demigod apologized, not the least bit contrite, “I thought there was more slack.” He hauled Goth inside, letting the man’s momentum carry him to the floor, before turning back to the double doors. He found a large beam of wood, using it to barricade the gate.

Iolaus sheathed his sword as he bounded up the stairs to the parapet. Once there, he spotted the still figure of a guard standing overlooking the area where they had just come. Iolaus reined in his temper as he approached the man. “Sentry! Where’s your commanding officer? There are barbarians out there!”

When he was ignored, the blond warrior became infuriated. “What’s wrong with you?” he demanded. “We could’ve been killed!” He grabbed the guard by the shoulder, shaking him.

So hard, in fact, that the man fell apart.

Iolaus watched as the bony remains of the guard thudded to the stone floor. A quick glance at the other sentries revealed that they, too, were only human skeletons dressed cleverly in soldier’s garb. Iolaus reached down, picked up the skull of the first guard. Comprehension dawned. “Ah.” Then, louder: “Uh, Hercules, we got a problem.”

Iolaus trotted back down the stairway. On the ground floor, he found Hercules looking around as he coiled up the rope to Goth’s makeshift leash.

“What’s wrong with the guard?” Hercules asked casually. “Asleep at his post?”

“Well, you could say that.” Iolaus showed his friend the skull.

“I see,” came the slightly disgusted reply.

Goth, now seated on a pile of rock, chuckled softly.

“So, what are we gonna do now?”

“Same thing we started out to-get to the nearest port and catch a boat to Athens.”

The two glanced about the rundown interior of the fort, seeing things that, in their haste to protect themselves from Goth’s men, they hadn’t before: rubble, dirt and spider webs everywhere. Not the orderly appearance that would greet them if an army had still been housed within those walls. In fact, it looked as if nobody had been within those walls for a long time.

“You’re forgetting the part where we fight to the death with a horde of bloodthirsty barbarians,” Iolaus reminded as he tossed the skull to the floor. It clattered hollowly as it hit the stone floor.

“I’m still hoping to avoid that.”

“You think they’re gonna forget about him?” The blond nodded at their prisoner.

“If that was a scouting party, the rest of his troops won’t get here for awhile. We can wait ‘til nightfall, then slip away in the dark.”

Iolaus nodded agreement to his partner’s plan.

The ghost of a sinister smile crossed Goth’s face. “No army to save you,” he stated, a trace of mirth in his tone. “It will be sweet when I cut out your livers and roast them over an open flame.” He laughed.

“Can we do something about him?” Iolaus wanted to know, irritation in his voice.

“Yeah, why don’t you find him a cage, while I look around and see if there’s anything here besides… ghosts.”

“Sure. Come on!” Iolaus dragged Goth off his butt, forcing the warlord to follow.

Hercules watched them go, making sure Goth wasn’t giving his partner any trouble, though he knew Iolaus could more than handle himself. And given Iolaus’ temper right now, Goth would be in some major trouble if he started anything. Silently, the demigod wondered if his plan was, indeed, a good one.

As he wandered through the fort, Hercules found nothing but cobwebs, dried leaves scattered all over the floor and quiet. He allowed himself the regret at not being able to allow Iolaus to see his friend Argeus off to the Other Side. Even though he never got the chance to know the man, he was grateful to Argeus for being the friend Iolaus had so desperately needed during Skouros’ “training” sessions here. Without that companionship, Iolaus may have returned bitter or broken.

Hercules entered what had obviously been the dining hall. Seeing the goblets, dishware and platters, covered in cobwebs, laid out on the long table made him wonder what had happened to make Athenian soldiers abandon their post so quickly. Well, he mused, spotting the suits of armor-sported by more skeletons lined against the interior wall, maybe not so quickly. They certainly took the time to make the place look like somebody was home.

The demigod’s senses warned of danger at the same moment he spotted the suit of armor partly covering blue fabric that hung almost to the floor. Blue fabric that was rather clean looking; in any event, definitely out of place in an army’s stronghold. Keeping his pace casual, he walked slightly past the figure, noticing the helm that covered the face and the mace being held with both hands, then deliberately turned his back on it.

He sensed more than saw the mace being swung at him. With a sudden, but smooth action, he grabbed his attacker by the arms and flipped him over his shoulder. He dropped to his knees so he hovered over the enemy, snatching up the fallen mace. Raising the mace so he could put it to use promptly, he removed the helm from his assailant’s face. He stopped himself from bringing down the weapon when he saw the flow of long chestnut hair and realized “he” was actually a “she.”

Stunned, he found himself stating the obvious: “You’re a girl!”

“Lucky you,” she retorted. “If I was a seven-foot man, I’d be the one on top.”

Still taken aback, Hercules studied her. She was rather pretty; her light blue dress was typical peasant garb, over which she wore a purple sweater. She wore upper body armor, obviously hoping to “blend in” with the rest of the silent sentries lined up against the wall so she could take him out.

“You might as well just go ahead and kill me, because if you try to have your way with me, I’ll make you wish you were dead,” she threatened.

Hercules tossed aside the mace. “Don’t worry. I’m not gonna do anything to you.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Then why are you still on top of me?”

Hercules realized he was still straddling her. “Oh.” He gave an embarrassed laugh. “Sorry.” He quickly got to his feet, then reached down to help her up. “Why did you attack me?”

“What did you expect? A big kiss?” she queried sarcastically, then softer, “All that yelling outside-I was scared.”

“Oh, that, let me explain-“

Just then Iolaus, elsewhere in the fortress, called, “Hercules!”

Hercules glanced in the direction of his friend’s voice, then back at the other. “Ah, excuse me. That’s my friend. I’ll be right back.” With that, he retreated through the doorway.

The young woman hugged herself. “Hercules. I wonder-“ She followed the demigod back through the abandoned fort.

Hercules followed his friend’s voice down into the dungeon. There he found his friend kneeling in front of the slouched figure of an old man. The man was gray-haired with a long, thin beard jutting from his chin. A wool robe covered his body, but that didn’t prevent the demigod from seeing that he was chained neck and wrists to the wall.

“This old man is dying,” Iolaus commented as Hercules crouched beside him.

The man opened his eyes. “A drink,” he rasped, “please… only a few drops to… ease my parched and aching throat.”

Iolaus hastily grabbed his canteen, offered it to the prisoner. “Here you go.”

With the hunter’s help, the elderly man put the canteen to his mouth and drank deeply. A wide-eyed look of shock cross his face and, just as quickly as he had gulped it, he spit the water out. “This is water!” he accused indignantly.

“Well, I thought you were thirsty,” Hercules stated. “What’s wrong with the water?”

“What’s wrong with it?” the man sputtered. “Fish swim in it! Skunks take baths in it! If the gods had meant for people to drink it, they wouldn’t have invented wine! Now, you heard what your friend said! I’m dying! Get me something to drink!”

As he spoke, the woman came up behind the two heroes. Iolaus noticed her entrance, his brow furrowing in confusion. He glanced at his partner, who didn’t seem to notice they had another visitor.

The woman promptly knelt beside the old man. “Papa, please,” she scolded lightly. To the other men, she said, “You’ll have to forgive my father. Years of confinement have made him forget his manners.”

“Who’s this?” Iolaus asked.

“My name is Ilora.”

“Ah. Well, uh, I’m Iolaus and this is my friend-“

“Hercules,” Ilora interrupted. “Yes, I know. We just met.”

A smug look crossed Hercules’ face. It quickly vanished when he spied Iolaus’ questioning glance.

Not noticing the exchange, Ilora continued, “And this ill-tempered gentleman-“

“I can talk!” The man stated huffily. “I used to be called Charadan. As a young man, some called me ‘Charadan the Brave!’” he boasted, his voice full of pride. “You see? I, too, was once a warrior!”

“A very long time ago, Papa.” Ilora reminded, then explained, “What he did best was raise a family and to try to eke out a meager living on a small farm not too far away from here.”

“How did you end up in prison?” Hercules asked curiously.

“Uh-personal,“ Charadan stammered, then with more conviction: “Hardship turned me into a vicious outlaw!”

“Papa, please,” the woman chided gently. “After our crops failed one summer, he was arrested for stealing bread for me and my sisters.”

Indignantly, Charadan retorted, “She lies! Don’t be fooled by my present condition! I’m still capable of vile and merciless assault. When I’m in a foul mood, I advise you not to venture too close!” He chuckled.

“I’ll, uh, try to remember that,” Iolaus humored the man. Looking at Ilora, he asked, “What happened to all the other soldiers?”

“An epidemic wiped out everyone in the fort except Papa.”

“Because I wouldn’t drink the water!” Charadon told him forcefully, then started coughing.

As Ilora tended her father, the demigod thought about what she’d said. “I don’t remember hearing of any epidemic. Iolaus?”

The blond shook his head. “Nope.”

“It wasn’t a well-known fact,” Ilora clarified. “The few of us who live on this side of the island were afraid if word got out, then we'd be more at risk from attack. Since the Athenians were pretty self-sufficient and rarely ventured to the one or two villages on the other side, it wasn't hard to do.”

“And the skeleton sentries?” Iolaus wanted to know.

“Somebody found an ancient burial site in a cave, probably those who once lived here long before us. They took the skeletons from there and set them up here to give the illusion that the fort was manned.” She saw Iolaus nod appreciatively of their plan. “Of course, with everyone afraid of what happened, they don’t venture in here. Just me, to help Papa.”

“Very interesting,” Hercules muttered. Like Iolaus, he could understand what had happened here. Unfortunately, the barbarians had come anyway.

The rest of Goth’s men caught up to the scouting party not far from the fort. After hearing what had happened, Bledar rounded on his best scout. “Dax! You’re lucky Goth wasn’t injured in your clumsy ambush!”

“Your brother wanted me to attack!” Dax defended.

“Figures,” Goth’s brother retorted. “He’s as crazy as you are.”

“Well, I almost had them! I mean, if they hadn’t made it inside!”

Bledar cut him off angrily. “Listen! And listen well! You ever disobey a direct order again and I’ll have your head on my sword! Are we clear?”

The scout seemed ready to protest further, then answered simply, “Yes, sir!”

Satisfied, Bledar ordered, “Now! Tell me about the fort!”

Charadan had collapsed weakly against his daughter. Ilora noticed Hercules looking over the lengths of chain and the iron cuffs that held her father prisoner. “I’m afraid these irons were meant to stay on forever. I take care of him as best as I can: bathe him, keep him covered when he’s cold, bring him food every day and as much wine as I can find.” She managed a small, fleeting smile before her voice sobered again. “But I fear he doesn’t have much longer.”

“Well, not if he has to carry on like this,” Iolaus agreed sympathetically.

Hercules nodded, then suggested, “First, let’s get him out of these chains.”

“It’s impossible,” Ilora stated. “Others have tried-“

Hercules reached out, easily cracking open the heavy left cuff binding Charadan. He did the same with the right cuff. Iolaus looked on silently, proudly. When Ilora turned a disbelieving, though awestruck, expression at him, the golden hunter just shrugged. He was used to his best friend’s show of strength.

Unaware of the silent communication occurring over his head, Hercules inspected the thick manacle around Charadan’s neck. “I could break this one, too, but I’m afraid it might hurt him. Iolaus, see that catch inside?”

Iolaus knelt, examined the lock. “Oh, yeah.” He took out the huge knife he and Hercules had forged, then carefully used the tip to release the catch inside.

Once again taken aback, Ilora asked, “How did you do that?”

The back-to-back heroes answered, in unison, “It’s an Old Hunter’s Trick.”

They exchanged a glance and quick smile before returning their attentions to Charadan.

“You know, Hercules, we ought to get ready,” the blond suggested.

“For what?” Ilora wanted to know.

Not wanting to worry or scare their new acquaintance, Hercules answered casually, “In case any visitors drop by.”

Ignoring the woman’s continued look of confusion, Iolaus said, “Yeah, it’s dark and, uh, we have to light the torches.” To Hercules, he stated, “I left our travelling companion in a room down at the end of the hall.” With that, he got up and left the dungeon.

Hercules avoided Ilora’s quizzical gaze, though he could feel her looking at him. Before she could voice her query, he shifted to remove the broken manacles off Charadan’s wrists and neck. “Let’s get these off.”

After listening to the scouts’ report on the Athenian fort, Bledar mulled over their plan of action. “No one get in or out. Eventually, they’ll be forced to give him up.”

“Starving them out could take months,” Dax protested.

“Oh, so your plan” Bledar countered with contempt, “will be to simply charge over the walls and destroy everything in our path!”

Several of the other barbarians agreed with that particular plan. Obviously, there was nothing they would have liked better to do.

“Or,” Bledar continued, “we could use Titantis.”

Stronger agreement from the rest of the men. One grinned and raised his mace.

“It’d take time for that monster to get here.” Dax reminded.

Bledar heard his men concur with the scout. He narrowed his eyes, realizing his command was at threat. As much as he didn’t want his brother Goth to be hurt or killed by his captors if they rushed into battle, he also knew that if he didn’t act as his men so obviously wanted, his authority would be usurped. Any show of emotion would only be construed as weakness on his part. As his mind quickly contemplated this chain of events, he heard Dax further his cause.

“If we wait, we lose the advantage of surprise.”

Knowing now was not the time nor the place to face this challenger to his leadership, especially considering the men would most likely side with Dax and his plan of action, Bledar ordered, “All right! We’ll go over the wall! Tonight!” His words were received with grunts of support and a few snarls of “All right!”

“However!” Bledar got their attention once again. “We’ll still send for Titantis!” He gave Dax a meaningful glare. “Just in case.” Addressing the others, he stated, “Here’s what we’ll do…”

Ilora was holding her sleeping father, awaiting the return of Hercules, who had gone back upstairs to fix up a cot on which they could lay Charadan. The man’s neck clearly bore the marks of his incarceration on his neck and wrists.

Finally, the demigod returned to their side. He handed the young woman a silver goblet. “Here, let’s see if he’ll drink this.”

As she took the goblet, she asked, “What is it?”

“It’s a mixture of some herbs and oils I found in the storage bins. It should help him get back on his feet.”

“Where’d you learn to make medicine?”

“My-cousin, Asclepius, showed me.”

“The god of Healing.”

“One of the few gods who tries to help people instead of control them,” Hercules confirmed, not hearing the disbelief in her voice.

Ilora took the goblet and, gently waking her father, she offered it to him. “Here’s your wine, Papa. Drink up." Charadan swallowed the concoction without complaint.

A loud, annoyed voice boomed from down the hall. “Anybody out there? I need food!”

Ilora jerked. “Who’s that?”

“Just our-travelling companion,” Hercules answered.

Again, Goth’s voice roared. “Can anybody hear me?! I’m stuck in this filthy hole, with nothing to eat or drink!”

“I hear you, Goth! Pipe down!” The demigod yelled, aggravated. To Ilora, he said, “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

Getting to his feet, Hercules strode purposefully to the far end of the dungeon and entered a smaller room situated there. In the room was a lone cell; in the cell stood Goth, his wrists still bound. The son of Zeus was pleased to see Iolaus hadn’t taken any unnecessary chances at Goth’s possible escape by also locking a shackle around the warlord’s neck.

Seeing his warden had finally heeded his shouts, Goth prodded, “Hercules. Starving your prisoners! It’s not what I’d call civilized behavior!”

Undaunted by the remarks concerning his humanity, Hercules stated, “You’ve had the same as me today.”

“Maybe my hunger is bigger than yours!” He spotted Ilora stepping cautiously into the room. His voice softened just a tad. “Now, that stirs an appetite.”

Ilora gazed at the barbarian for a long moment then quickly fled the small room.

“Watch your mouth, Goth!” Hercules reprimanded. “Maybe I’ll bring you something later.” He turned and followed Ilora.

“Just-bring her!” Goth laughed.

Hercules trailed Ilora back through the dungeon. The young woman paused at her father. She waited patiently as the demigod easily lifted Charadan into his arms.

“What--?” the old warrior woke as he felt himself being moved.

“It’s okay, Papa,” she assured patiently, “we’re taking you out of here.” She gave the demigod a brief glance before leading the way up the staircase.

Carrying a lit torch, Iolaus climbed the stairs to the battlements. Soldiers made of bone, dressed in military garb, holding shields and spears, stood silent watch over the outer wall of the fort. The blond warrior paced the length of the parapet, igniting torches set in sconces at equal distances along the wall. That duty finished, Iolaus gave an otherwise weaponless skeleton a spear, taken from the fort’s weapons store. Another received a sword, Iolaus binding the weapon to its bony hand and allowing it to rest on the stone before it.

Fixing another spear to another long-dead warrior, Iolaus instructed, “There you go, soldier. Now, when the fighting starts, give it everything you’ve got.” He paused as he moved away. “And don’t lose your head.”

Certain that the battlements looked fully manned-at least from a distance with an alert company of Athenian soldiers, Iolaus stepped over to one side. There he was rigging together several crossbows so they would fire simultaneously. Carefully, he set about arming the crossbows with short, stout bolts.

Hercules carried Charadan into the common room. A curtained doorway, opposite the one they had just come through led to the battlements, where Iolaus was busy equipping their makeshift army. A crackling fire blazed in the large heart, a kettle of water heating above it. The walls were decorated with shields and weapons; along one wall casks were stacked three high.

“Why didn’t you tell me you had that barbarian with you?” Ilora demanded.

“We were waiting for a better time.” The demigod gently laid Charadan on the makeshift bed he’d set up earlier.

“Everybody knows about Goth and his vandals. They came through Naxos about two years ago-burning, looting, killing, destroying everything in their way.”

“We’re taking him to Athens to stand trial.”

“His brother and his men will never let that happen.”

Charadan, who had begun to sit up on the cot, interrupted their discussion. “Alemedes and Saturn, they’re-they’re crossing into the Underworld. This must be Erebus,” he finished as he glanced about him, his mind obviously elsewhere.

Ilora was at his side instantly. “Papa, you’re not dead. And you’re not in the dungeon anymore.” She directed his attention to the son of Zeus. “This is Hercules. He and his friend got you loose from the irons.”

The distant look in the old man’s eyes cleared as he regarded the tall man. “I know who he is. He was supposed to be getting me some thing to drink.”

Hercules set down a bucket, scooped up a dipper full of water. “Whoa, take it easy.” He eased the former warrior back onto the bed. “You haven’t used those legs in a long time. It may be a while before you can walk again.”

Charadan leaned his head back to gaze at the casks lining the wall. “Those-kegs there. Wager at least one of them holds wine. Fill my belly with that and I’ll be dancing before morning!” he laughed.

“I gave you medicine that works better, with water.” He held up the ladle.

Charadan irritably waved him away. “Oh, water!”

Iolaus’ urgent voice cut through their debate. “Hercules.”

“Here, you try.” Hercules handed the dipper to Ilora, then strode outside to the battlements. There, he found Iolaus at the outer wall, staring into the forest beyond. Hercules immediately saw what had grabbed the hunter’s attention: several torches and many more darker shadows were converging along the perimeter of the small hill. They spread out to encircle the stronghold.

Iolaus glanced at his friend. “Bledar’s arrived with the rest of the troops. They’re surrounding the fort,” he stated matter-of-factly. “You know? With Ilora and her sick father-it’s going to be really hard to escape tonight.”

“You’re right. We’ll have to make a stand.” Iolaus nodded. “Good.”

Ilora approached, moving to stand next to Hercules. “What can I do to help?”

“Ah, they won’t try anything tonight,” the demigod assured her. “We have some time.”

“Yeah, I tried to make the fort look fully manned,” Iolaus added.

“Hopefully, we can keep up the illusion in daylight.”

“Why wouldn’t they attack at night?” Ilora queried.

“It’s dark,” the blond explained as if stating the obvious. “They don’t know what they’re up against. No one would be stupid enough to attack at night.”

A flaming arrow suddenly hit the wall behind them.

Iolaus dropped his head onto his gauntleted forearm.

“Of course,” Hercules remarked, springing into action as more arrows whistled through the air towards them, “barbarians aren’t really known for their brains.”

An arc of flaming arrows rained down on them. As the two warriors quickly scrambled to snatch them up and toss them over the wall, Iolaus asked, “Aren’t you glad I asked you on this vacation?”

Hercules deftly caught a blazing arrow in each hand. Tossing them over the wall, he corrected, “You said we’d go fishing! You didn’t say we’d catch so much trouble. Ilora,” he commanded, “get back inside!”

As Ilora dodged back inside, Iolaus darted to one side to grab strung bows and full quivers for both of them. “How’d you do that?” he asked, in reference to his friend’s double-handed mid-air snatch.

“I don’t know.”

The back-to-back heroes quickly notched their bows and let fly with arrows of their own. Unfortunately, the moon had fled behind the clouds and the prevailing darkness prevented them from being able to pick out effective targets, though they aimed towards the darker shadows when they could see them. Both knew that it would be folly for any men-even brainless barbarians to be standing near the glowing torches, where they could easily be picked off by the enemy.

Another volley of arrows forced them to duck, then remove the projectiles before they could set fire to the fort. Constantly being on the defensive didn’t allow them much time to continue their counter-attack.

“Hercules,” Iolaus led his comrade to his crossbow arrangement, “meet some of my best soldiers.” Shouting to keep up the illusion that they had an army at their disposal, Iolaus commanded, “Ready, men! Aim! Fire!” He freed a catch, which triggered the release of the notched quarrels.

The blond hunter would never know how well his “archers” did. Several of the bolts embedded into barbarian flesh, killing or disabling some of Bledar’s men.

“Pretty clever,” Hercules admired. “Now if you could only reload as fast as they shoot.”

“Yeah, that is a small problem.”

A few fiery arrows shot through the outer doorway, slamming into several things in the common room. Hearing the commotion, Charadan sat up in bed.

“My men!” he hollered, concerned. “Where are my comrades? Thaddeus! Saturn! I-I need you! The enemy are upon us!”

Ilora rushed to his side. “Papa, I need to move you. Stay down.” She helped her father get to his feet then, keeping as low as possible, moved him swiftly to a corner near the tall kegs.

“Palamedes-has the whole battalion deserted us?” Charadan queried to a man only he could see.

“No, Papa, they’re on their way!” Ilora ducked down as a regular arrow struck the wall above their heads. “Your comrades will be here any minute to save us.”

Charadan came back to the present. “It’s all right, my dear,” he patted his daughter’s hand comfortingly, “there’s no need to humor me. I know where I am. For a moment, I-I just forgot.”

A flaming missile thunked into an old leather shield hung on the wall.

“Stay here, Papa,” the woman ordered, getting to her feet, rushing over to the burning arrow.

The old man held out his hands in supplication. “Mighty Zeus, please, send me a sign that my men might come soon. Please, give me a sign.” An arrow hit the cask above him. Purple fluid leaked from the hole. Charadan allowed some of the liquid to dribble onto his hand, then tasted it. “Is it? It-it is!” He stated excitedly. “Wine! Yeah!” He looked up to the ceiling. “Thank you, Oh Mighty One! Thank you!” He opened his jaws wide to allow the stream of wine to flow directly into his mouth.

Barbarians, armed with scaling ladders, hooks and ropes, rushed the front wall of the fort.

“Here they come,” Iolaus announced as the first ladder was set against the wall.

Hercules made short work of it, pushing the ladder, bristling with Goth’s men, away from the parapet. It toppled backwards.

Another ladder was positioned further down the wall. As the first barbarian got to the top, Iolaus pushed him off his perch. “Get out of here!” he hollered. “Join your buddy!” He told the second guy as he punched him in the face, sending him falling onto his comrades below. When another ladder was set up, Iolaus jumped on top of the wall and knocked it over before the enemy could begin to climb it.

Despite their commendable efforts, several more ladders were raised and barbarians managed to pour over the wall. The two Greek warriors fought the horde a man at a time. Hercules used his gods’-given strength to take out the enemy by pushing them into walls or smacking them into each other. A few found themselves flying back over the wall from being picked up and thrown by the demigod or a well-placed punch or kick from the hunter.

Inside, Ilora pulled a flaming arrow out of the wooden mantle, tossed it harmlessly into the hearth fire. A couple barbarians, who managed to get past the outer defense, entered the room. They rushed at her. Ilora grabbed the pot hanging over the fire and tossed the boiling contents onto them. The brutes screamed, scalded.

Two more entered the room, looking for trouble. Charadan rushed over to the casks. “You’ll do the trick!” He pushed on them. Several of the casks tumbled down, pushing the two barbarians into their staggering, burned comrades.

Ilora squealed as a fur-clad barbarian grabbed her from behind. She snapped up the first thing within reach: an iron pan. She swung the pan behind her, whacking the barbarian and knocking him unconscious.

Flushed with the success of her skirmish, Ilora laughed, then tightly embraced her father.

Iolaus jumped onto the edge of the wall. Grabbing a rope hanging near-by, he swung across the small battlefield, taking out several barbarians in his path. He alighted on another part of the wall, expertly evaded a slash from an enemy sword with a quick leap straight up, then pushed himself away from the edge again. More thugs fell victim to his feet and fist. As he landed, he kicked a barbarian just coming over the wall back to his comrades still on the ground.

He jumped down. The hunter glanced around then, seeing one of them approaching, he performed a handspring, his legs locking behind the neck of the warrior and pulling himself up so he was face-to-face to the man. Taken totally off-guard by the unorthodox attack, the barbarian was repeatedly punched by the lithe blond.

Iolaus hauled himself back onto the wall. Grabbing the rope, he hung suspended as he pummeled the dazed barbarian with his feet. The man finally fell. Iolaus placed his feet back onto the edge. He glanced around for his next victim.

Hercules battled his share of the attacking horde. He alternated punches between two barbarians, taking them down quickly. One swung at him with a sword. The demigod ducked, but the skeleton sentry behind him wasn’t so lucky: his head was taken off by the swipe. Hercules picked up the decapitated guard’s body and battered yet another of Goth’s men with the flailing arms.

Fighting off another war-painted brute, Hercules became aware of something holding his left foot in place. A glance revealed one of the barbarians gnawing at his legging. Dispatching the standing warrior, the demigod kicked the biting one away.

Almost immediately, he found himself facing one with a knife. After easily evading the slash of the knife, Hercules picked the man up and tossed him, screaming, over the wall.

A horn sounded. The few barbarians that were left standing staggered back over the wall.

Iolaus jumped from the wall, then leaned against it tiredly as he breathed heavily. “I hope that means they’re takin’ a break.”

Hercules, also tired, dirty and sweaty, nodded. “Me, too.”

Bledar watched in disbelief as his men staggered back into camp. Several nursed broken limps while others dabbed at blood from injured noses or open cuts. All were bruised, battered and groaning.

“I should have followed my instincts. I never attack without knowing my enemy’s strength!”

Dax, as shocked as his leader, observed, “There were more of them than we thought.”

Frustrated that his troops had gotten beaten so badly and they still hadn’t freed his brother, Bledar shouted, “Where’s Titantis?!”

“It’ll be here by morning.”

“We should have used him the first time! That monster will crush that fort like an anthill!”

Trying to make up for his error in judgement for pushing his leader into ordering the night attack, Dax requested, “Sir, let me take a small scouting party to the fort. Tonight. I’ll find out their strength.”

Bledar met the scout’s beseeching look with narrowed eyes. Finally, after letting Dax fidget a bit, he acquiesced. The other quickly moved to gather his best men.

Knowing the barbarians would probably strike again, Hercules and Iolaus began restringing the crossbows. They worked in companionable silence, enjoying the break from battle, knowing they had both done an excellent job repelling Goth’s army. The quiet activity also gave them a chance to get their second wind back.

“Hercules!” boomed Goth’s voice from the dungeon below. “I heard the sounds of battle! Are you and your friend dead yet?”

“You call that a battle?” Iolaus shouted back. “All we did was swat away a few stinking barbarians!” To his demigod companion, he retorted, smiling, “I thought it was kind of fun.”

“You won’t be making jokes after Bledar overruns this woodpile and I hang you on a meat hook!” The warlord promised. “Hercules? Hercules! Get me some water! You said you’d bring me something later!”

Ilora approached the two, handing some quarrels to Iolaus.

Goth continued bellowing. “Are you a man of your word, or not?”

Ilora snatched up the water skin lying near the two. “I’ll take it.”

Hercules looked up from what he was doing. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“I’ll be careful,” she promised.

“Yeah, but,” Hercules realized he was talking to the back of Ilora’s skirts, as the woman quickly rushed off. He glanced at his partner, who gave him a shrug in answer.

A trifle uncertain, Ilora descended the stairs leading to the dungeon, then walked down the hall to Goth’s holding cell.

Curious, the warlord heard the lighter footsteps; he smiled hugely when he saw her enter the small room. “Ahhhh, Ilora. Such a beautiful name.” He laughed.

She unlocked, then opened, the cell door. Stepping cautiously inside, she stood before the barbarian. “It’s been a long time, Goth.”

“Too long, little bird.” Goth quickly reached out and, grabbing her by the arm, pulled her to him. “Too long.” He pulled her close, kissing her hard on the mouth.

Iolaus and Hercules were trying to make some sense of the chaos of scattered weapons, armor and bones when Charadan staggered from the common room. The older man carried a jug and, from his inebriated state, it was easy to deduce the container didn’t contain water.

Catching the two watching him curiously, he stated, his voice somewhat slurred, his face flush from the wine, “Hercules, and Iolaus. I-I-I can walk! It’s a miracle, isn’t it?”

“Old soldier,” Hercules stated affectionately, “I’d say, you’re the miracle.”

Iolaus’ face split with a big smile. “Great job, Charadan, but that’s probably enough exercise for now. You should go inside and get some rest.”

“Oh!” The elderly warrior groused.

“And, why don’t you give us that jug?” The demigod pointed to the container.

Charadan tried to hide his source of comfort. “What jug?”

Hercules stepped beside him, trying to take it. “This one.”

Charadan pulled away. “Oh! No, no! That’s the only thing that makes me feel better.” He gave the two a crooked, if somewhat drunk, smile.

“For the last few years, that wine’s kept you from feeling anything. You don’t need it anymore.”

“Oh, no!” Charadan stepped back. He looked over the battlements, into the forest beyond, as he started to take a swig. His eyes suddenly widened. “Maybe you’re right,” he stated, his voice practically sober. He shoved the jug into the demigod’s hands. “I’m starting to see things!” As quick as he could, he went back inside.

As one, Hercules and Iolaus turned their attention to where the old man had been looking. They were startled to see a huge contraption coming through the woods. The device was easily the height of several tall men, looking like some sort of possessed beast, with huge steer-like horns “growing” out of what appeared to be the skull of some strange creature. Flames burned within the two “eye sockets.”

As the two watched, they could hear barbarians yelling, “Heave!” and the contraption would be wheeled forward, slowly, moving only a short distance with every push and tug of rope. The heroes exchanged baffled looks, then looked back at the “beast” coming to join the barbarian’s cause.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Iolaus asked.

“I’m not sure.”

“What kind of a monster is that?”

“A big one.”

“Well, yeah, that goes without saying!” The hunter stated. After a moment, he asked, “Do you have any idea what that thing is?”

“It’s called a catapult. I saw one in Macedonia. It can hurl boulders the size of men and pound walls to dust.”

“That’s good news,” Iolaus said sarcastically. “So, what else can go wrong?”

Ilora pushed against Goth, breaking the rough kiss, then backed off. Goth followed, brought up abruptly by the tether about his neck. He held out his bound hands.

“Hurry up and cut me loose!”

“I couldn’t bring a knife. They-they were watching me.” Even as she said the words, they sounded lame to Ilora.

Goth, however, didn’t appear to notice. “Then go back and get one!”

“Give me one good reason!” Fire flashed in her eyes. “I haven’t seen you for over a year!”

“I was busy, waging war, little girl! I asked if you wanted to come along!”

“And who would have taken care of my father? Admit it, Goth, there was no love lost between us. There never was any love! You used me when I was vulnerable!”

“You offered yourself to me in exchange for food and protection!” Goth snarled. “Without me, you would have been worse off and you know it!” His eyes raked lustfully over her shapely body. “Your precious father would have died of starvation!”

“You got what you wanted and then you left!”

“I came back, didn’t I?” He retorted. Realizing he wouldn’t get free if he alienated the woman, he said, his voice genial, “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you. Why do you think I’m here? For you, Ilora. I came back for you.”

Ilora’s anger faded, though she remained indecisive. She knew what Goth was, what he was capable of, but the man had saved her life, and her father’s, even if he had just used her for his own pleasure. A life for a life. Didn’t she owe him that much?

Goth played a trump card. “Help me, Ilora, and I will see to it you and your father are not harmed. You will want for nothing! I promise you.”

“And of Hercules and Iolaus?”

The barbarian evaded her question. “We’ll talk about that later. Just get the knife!”

The moon escaped from the confines of the clouds. Its brightness shone down on the world below. Its light allowed Hercules and Iolaus, standing by the outer wall, to observe the barbarians as they rolled huge rocks to readiness near the foot of the catapult.

“The size of those boulders,” Iolaus commented in amazement.

“It’d be nice if they never got to use them.”

“Yeah. Well, maybe one of us could get close enough to sabotage the thing.”

It took all of a split-second for Hercules to consider the validity of his partner’s statement. He placed his hands on the wall, his powerful muscles bunched in preparation to heaving himself up. “Stay here. I’ll try not to take too long.”

Iolaus reached out, put a restraining hand on his shoulder. “Wait. It’s my turn.”

The demigod gazed at his friend, puzzled. “Why is it your turn?”

“I don’t know. It just makes more sense for me to go.”

Hercules eased himself back from the edge. “How’s that?”

“You’re bigger,” the blond rationalized. “If we make a run for it, someone’s gonna have to carry Charadan.”

“We’re not gonna make a run for it.”

“Okay, I’m smaller. And sneakier. It’s gonna be easier for me to get past their lines. I know more Old Hunter’s Tricks than you.”

The look Hercules gave the smaller man said he didn’t believe a word of his explanation. “Iolaus,” There came a loud crash from inside. The two turned towards it. “Ilora! Charadan!” Giving his partner a pointed look, he stated, “We’ll discuss this later. Keep an eye on that thing.” He pointed towards the enemy lines.

Iolaus nodded as he faced the forest. He rested his outstretched hands against the cool stone. Alert, but relaxed. “Sure.”

Seeing that her father slept quietly on the cot, Ilora knelt to pick up a long-bladed dagger that was lying next to one of the fallen skeleton sentries. She contemplated it for a long moment, wondering what to do. Hercules and his friend wouldn’t always be around to protect her or help her father, but it wasn’t right to allow Goth to continue his reign of terror, either. Why can’t things always be in black and white? Why these subtle shades?

“Everything all right?” Hercules queried as he entered the common room.

Ilora jerked to her feet, quickly hiding the blade behind her back. “Um, yeah, I was just cleaning up some of the mess.”

“Oh. Iolaus,” he called over his shoulder, “everything’s okay in here.”

On the parapet, Iolaus answered, “Great! Same here!” To himself, he remarked, “But, if I have to watch that thing, I might as well get a closer look.”

Easing himself onto the wall, Iolaus tested the stability of one of the barbarians’ hooks and ropes left dangling from the battlements. “I told him I was sneakier.” He eased himself over the edge and silently climbed down.

“Any problems with Goth?” Hercules asked.

“No. Why should there be? I told you I’d be careful,” she stated irritably.

Hearing the annoyed timbre in the woman’s voice, the demigod tried to explain. “Ilora, I was just worried about you. Goth could have hurt you. He’s as evil as they come.”

His explanation didn’t help. Now she was annoyed. “And you think a simple country girl can’t tell the difference between good and bad.” Her words were more statement than question.

“There’s nothing simple about you. I’ve seen how you’ve sacrificed, taking care of your father.” He gestured to the elderly man sleeping, totally oblivious to their conversation. “The way you handled yourself in the battle.”

“Yeah? Well maybe you don’t know me as well as you think.” Ilora stated, thinking of Goth’s “romance” with her.

“But,”

Charadan awoke then. The old man, his cheeks still flush from the wine, struggled up so he was leaning on one elbow to regard them. “Oh, Hercules, my head’s beginning to clear, but my throat’s awfully dry. Do you happen to have any of that, um, water?”

The demigod smiled. “Yeah.” As he turned to find the bucket and dipper, he realized that Ilora was gone.

Iolaus soundlessly skirted his way through the dense woods to the enemy’s camp. It had been easy to get fairly close to the “beast” as the barbarians obviously didn’t believe perimeter guards were a necessity, thinking they had their enemy trapped in the fort. A large clump of bushes hid the lithe hunter as he moved to close to one of the camp’s fires, around which several barbarians stood warming themselves.

Iolaus looked up at the monstrous contraption. How am I going to disable that? He wondered as he took in the sheer size of it. There has to be a way! Once I can get a closer look-

As if in answer to his musings, several of the barbarians left the warm fireside, leaving behind a lone comrade, who wore a pair of weird horns on his hooded cloak. Iolaus took the opportunity, most likely the best one he’d get, offered him. He sneaked out of his hiding place, coming up behind the horned barbarian. Giving the man a tap on the shoulder, the blond warrior waited until the other had turned then slammed his right fist into the barbarian’s jaw. His adversary dropped like the unconscious brute he was as Iolaus shook his smarting hand.

Ignoring the ache, Iolaus chuckled at the Old Hunter’s Trick before approaching Titantis. Standing beside one of the wheels, taller than the hunter himself, Iolaus studied the mechanism, knowing there had to be a weakness somewhere. His attention fully on what he was doing, he failed to hear the approach of several barbarians. Just as he was preparing to climb onto the weapon, he realized he wasn’t alone.

“Hi,” he smiled, effecting an attitude of nonchalance. “Nice piece of equipment! You know, I’m lookin’ to buy a machine just like this! You guys wanna sell?”

“I don’t think so,” one muttered as another urged, “Come on, get him!”

Weapons drawn, the group closed in on Iolaus. Never one to back down from a battle, but thinking this time making a run for it might be the best course of action, Iolaus kicked out, hoping to create a gap big enough for him to slip through. The barbarian he struck was pushed back just a step, though not enough room to allow the smaller warrior the breach he needed. His actions, however, did get another result: it made his enemy angry. They quickly tightened the circle and took out their ire on Iolaus.

Ilora was seated on the stairs that lead down to the dungeon, the long blade setting on the step above her. Tears traced their way down her cheeks. Uncertainty clouded her mind as she considered the test put before her. Should she free Goth?

A soft noise intruded on her quiet contemplation. She turned her head to see a tall man, dressed in the unkempt, dark manner of Goth, coming down the staircase towards her. Her hand shot out for the blade, but a heavily booted foot clamped down on the weapon, thus staying her hand.

Hercules sat in a chair, listening to Charadan relive his days as a warrior. The demigod was enjoying the moment of relaxation, knowing that if Goth’s warriors had decided to make a move outside, Iolaus would have raised the alarm.

“Then,” the old warrior was saying, “we marched from there to Lycini.”

His ears picking up a noise coming from inside the fort, Hercules cut into the narrative. “Shhh. Someone’s coming.”

As he quickly rose to his feet, all senses battle-alert, three barbarians entered the common room. He recognized one as Bledar’s archer, Dax. Another was escorting a very frightened Ilora, holding a sharp knife to her throat.

Dax waved his sword, taunting, “So, this is your army! One warrior, a girl, and a sick old man!”

“Don’t worry, my dear,” Charadan told his daughter. “My battalion-500 warriors strong is marching here even as we speak!”

“Shut up, old fool!” Dax grabbed Charadan, pushing him into the strong grip of the other barbarian. He gestured to Hercules. “Take us to Goth.” As they stepped from the common room, he yelled, “We’re coming for you, Goth!”

Keeping his hands down at his side, though all he wanted to do was strangle the brutes, Hercules led them through the fort. Briefly, he wondered of his best friend’s whereabouts, then realized Iolaus would wait to come to their aid when he could use the advantage of surprise. He guided them down the stairs, then past the ordinary cells until they got to Goth’s chamber.

“You look like lambs,” Goth gloated upon seeing his armed men shoving the great Hercules before them, “on their way to slaughter!” He laughed. “Where’s your friend, Hercules? Already on a meat hook?!”

“Bring that one to me.” He gestured to Ilora. She was pushed into Goth’s waiting hands. He pulled her close.

It was all Hercules could do to keep from reacting. He knew he had to wait for the right moment, lest his new friends get hurt.

“My prize! And future wife!” Seeing the surprised expression on Charadan’s face, he asked, “What’s the matter? Didn’t she tell you how I took care of her-brought gifts to her while you were in prison?”

Distraught, Charadan shouted, “Liar!”

Ilora twisted in Goth’s tight grasp. “It’s true, Papa! We had nothing. We needed anything we could get. I had no choice.”

“And you have no choice now!” Goth reminded. “You are mine and will be my wife!” He looked at the elderly warrior. “You! You should be grateful for my saving her life!”

Charadan spit at Goth’s feet. The other barbarians moved, as if to avenge the insult to their leader.

“Leave him alone!” Ilora cried.

“Easy, boys!” The warlord soothed. “Dax, give Ilora your sword.” To the woman, he said, “I give you the privilege of cutting me loose.” He released her.

The scout didn’t seem pleased with the order, but obeyed nonetheless. He held out his weapon to the woman.

Ilora took the sword. She glanced at Hercules, who nodded his understanding. She stepped into Goth’s open cell, the sword pointed towards the dirt floor. “You have to promise you won’t hurt Hercules or Iolaus. Just let them go.”

“Don’t be stupid!” Goth growled, impatient. “I’ll cut Hercules’ heart out and make history!”

Fire flashed in Ilora’s eyes. “I’m not stupid!”

“I said. Stop. Being. Stupid. Now, cut me loose!”

Ilora raised the weapon, aiming the point at Goth’s throat. Dax and his scouts reacted angrily, but could do nothing with their leader in such peril.

“Don’t, Ilora!” Hercules reasoned. “You’re not a killer. You don’t want his blood on your hands.”

Seeing her hesitate, Goth took the advantage of the situation; he quickly cut the bindings about his wrists with the sword edge. He reached out to grab the weapon, or possibly the woman.

Ilora instinctively jerked back. She tossed the sword in a high arc to Hercules.

The son of Zeus swiftly punched Dax, sending the man unconscious to the ground. He kicked the one holding Charadan, then knocked out the third barbarian before the man could even think to react. Plucking the sword from the air, he held the sword’s tip at Goth’s throat, even as the warlord was straining at his metal collar and leash. Gently, Hercules pushed Ilora behind him protectively. Pulling the weapon from Goth’s neck, Hercules closed the cell door.

A strange whistling noise sounded from outside.

“What’s that noise?” Ilora asked, gathering her father into her arms.

The fort shook violently; dust fell about them.

Goth started laughing. “Sounds like Titantis has come for you!” He pointed mockingly at Hercules as another missile pounded the outside wall.

“Wait here!” The demigod raced from the room. He found part of the staircase blocked with rubble, but quickly skirted around it. He ran up to the battlements and looked over the wall to where the catapult was stationed. In the moonlight, he could make out the form of Bledar, standing in front of the weapon.

“Did we get your attention?” Goth’s brother shouted.

“Keep firing! You’ll never find your brother in the rubble!”

“Maybe we could use your friend as a rock!” Bledar jerked a thumb behind him. “He’d make a great sound hitting the wall!”

It was then Hercules noticed his best friend was tied, arms tightly outstretched, between the “horns” of the catapult beast. With his demigod sight keener than regular mortals’, he could see Iolaus was battered, blood coming from one side of his mouth and a cut on his right temple. The look Iolaus threw him, however, was more exasperated than hurt.

The joyful shouts of the other barbarians, as well as laughter, could be heard: “Yeah!” “Splat!” “Like a ripe melon, or a pomegranate!”

“Oh, Iolaus,” Hercules muttered. “My thick-headed, nearly invincible friend.” Louder, he called, “What do you want?”

“A trade! Goth! For your friend!”

Without hesitation. “Done.”

“Bring him out!”

Hercules glimpsed the sword in his hand as he thought furiously. “I’ll need time!” he stated a few seconds later. “Your catapult just blocked the entrance to the dungeon.”

“You got two hours!”

Hercules nodded. He forced himself to turn away from the scene of his beaten companion strung up like a sacrificial victim. As he strode purposely inside, he heard his friend call out, “Don’t do it, Hercules!” That, more than it being the “right” thing to do, helped the demigod harden his resolve to put things back on track.

Hercules carried the unconscious scouts to another cell. After unceremoniously depositing them on the floor, he locked the cell behind him. Whether their comrades would find the keys to let them out after he and the others had left, the demigod didn’t waste any time worrying about it. His main concern was getting Iolaus free from his barbaric captors. He took consolation in that, though Goth’s men might roughen him up a bit, they wouldn’t kill him outright. If they murdered their hostage, there would be no bargaining chip available to use in Goth’s release. Still, he couldn’t help but be worried what injuries his friend may have received, and may yet receive.

I should have known you were too complacent earlier, my friend. You still seem to think you have to prove yourself to me. I would have no others to watch my back. You keep me firmly on the ground when I become too full of myself. I’ll get you out of this, even if I have to take on all of Goth’s men by myself to do it.

He joined Ilora and her father in the common room, gathering what weapons they had. They got them to start stacking spears, and then told them the bargain he’d made with Bledar.

“But without Goth as a hostage, you’ll have no bargaining power,” Ilora protested.

“They’ll overrun us,” Charadan added.

“Unless your men get here first,” the demigod amended. “I… have an idea, but I’ll need help.”

“Anything,” Ilora offered, placing a spear on the growing pile.

“I’m sorry about Iolaus,” Charadan said. “Uh, you know? He might not have got caught if he’d gone through the tunnel and come up behind the enemy.”

“Tunnel?” Hercules paused in his task.

“Under the dungeon. Years ago, some prisoners dug their way out.”

The demigod heaved a heavy sigh. “Now you tell me.”

False dawn was creeping across the island when the main gate to the fort opened. Hercules walked out, pushing Goth before him. The warlord’s arm was twisted behind his back, held fast with demigod strength. Charadan followed a short distance behind.

From the other direction, Bledar and several barbarians strode forward, then stopped a good distance away. One of them held Iolaus, a double-bladed axe held near the hunter’s throat. The battered blond kept his gaze focused on his friend. He neither stumbled nor were his blue eyes filled with pain, giving Hercules hope that the barbarians hadn’t done much damage.

“Start Iolaus walking!” Hercules ordered. “I’ll send Goth.”

With a shove from his captor, Iolaus walked forward. He wiped the blood off the side of his mouth with his right gauntlet.

Hercules pushed Goth forward. “Start walking.”

Goth started forward, his strides long, his pace deliberate.

Charadan stepped up beside the son of Zeus. “Hercules? Between us, I don’t think my battalion’s gonna make it in time.”

“Then we’ll make do with what we have,” Hercules assured him.

As Iolaus and Goth advanced towards each other, the barbarians shouted encouragement. “Come on, Goth!” “Goth is finally free.” “A true warrior!”

The two approached each other. As they passed each other in a small glade, Goth slowed his steps as he regarded his smaller enemy. He made bleating noises at Iolaus, then turned from his path to see the effect his taunting would have.

Iolaus paused, not missing the insult thrown at him. He turned to consider the larger man, clad in battle armor. The blond rushed forward, throwing his shoulder into Goth’s midriff. The warlord kneed Iolaus, driving him back.

Hercules noticed Bledar starting forward, as if to assist his brother in battle. “Let them fight, Bledar!” The warlord backed down. Hercules wished he could tamp down his own anxiety as easily. He had no doubt in Iolaus’ abilities as a fighter, hand-to-hand or with weapons. In fact, his friend seemed to excel at fighting without sword or knife in hand, enjoying using his smaller stature to throw off his enemies into thinking they could easily take him on.

No, I don’t doubt Iolaus’ skill. I doubt his thinking clearly in this particular fight, his wanting to avenge Argeus’ so badly that he’ll let it cloud his judgement. Be careful, my friend!

Iolaus jumped forward again, striking Goth repeatedly on the stomach and chest. The blows had no affect; in fact, Goth stood grinning as he allowed the smaller man to beat on him. Twice, the hunter struck out at the warlord, kicking him in the face and chest, to no avail. A solid punch to Goth’s jaw also had no affect on the towering man.

Goth grabbed Iolaus by the right wrist and forced the smaller warrior to his knees. He pushed Iolaus forward, wrenching his right arm into the air behind his back. Goth twisted, trying to break his wrist or dislocate his shoulder. The barbarians cheered their leader on, excited for the show of superior strength.

Iolaus suddenly dropped his right shoulder, sending Goth tumbling to the dirt. Iolaus flew forward, but quickly regained his footing. He rotated his sore shoulder, then quickly returned to the fray. The two exchanged blows, Iolaus using both fists and feet while Goth put his upper body strength to use in an attempt to batter his opponent to the ground. At one point, Iolaus managed to kick Goth onto his butt.

As the warlord rose to his feet again, his brother shouted his name. Twisting to face his troops, Goth easily captured the double-bladed axe thrown to him. He grinned wickedly as he twirled the weapon, showing off his prowess.

Hercules gulped at the sudden change of odds. He resisted the urge to join his friend, knowing any action on his part would cause all of Goth’s men to also enter the fray. Even they couldn’t hope to survive such overwhelming numbers.

Iolaus managed to avoid the sharp blades of the axe, though a couple swings did come very close to disemboweling him. He danced backwards after one such attempt, then quickly leapt off the ground as Goth used the momentum of that failed effort to veer the axe lower. As the barbarian brought the weapon down for another swipe, Iolaus kicked out, striking Goth’s weapon-arm. Dislodged, the axe flew backwards. Hercules easily caught it midair.

Iolaus backed off again, and then the duo warily circled each other. The blond managed a couple of well-placed kicks to Goth’s face, stunning him. The warlord staggered a bit, tried to shake off the effects of the blows.

Iolaus raced towards the disarmed man. Like a cat leaping onto a mouse, Iolaus jumped onto Goth’s shoulders so he was sitting on them, his legs dangling down the warlord’s chest. He punched him repeatedly on the top of the head, the kicked him. Goth fell forward, dazed by the beating and unbalanced by the unaccustomed weight moving relentlessly on his shoulders.

Iolaus spread his arms to maintain his balance, tumbling nimbly off Goth’s shoulders into a forward roll that ended with the hunter back on his feet. Iolaus clasped his hands together and drew them back, gathering all his might into a final blow then, with a cry of “This one’s for Argeus!” he pitched a jaw-cracking wallop to the sagging warlord’s jaw. Goth was flipped head over heels to once again kiss the dirt.

Seeing his brother defeated and by the blond runt, no less, Bledar ordered, “Archers! Get ready!”

Iolaus picked up the beaten Goth, pushing him forward, back towards the fort.

“Hold your fire, men!” Hercules commanded loudly.

“What men?!” Bledar returned. “All I see is a barricade made of earth, wood and stone! Big… and empty!”

“I was considering showing you some mercy! You’re caught in the open!”

“On my command, sound the charge!”

“Right and left flanks!” Hercules shouted as a battle-weary, but still alert, Iolaus, herding Goth, came up to his side. “Attack positions!”

Charadan looked behind them in pleased surprise as soldiers, bristling with weapons, suddenly appeared along the battlements. “My battalion!” he shouted joyfully. “Thaddeus! Saturn! Alemedes! They made it!” He laughed.

“Sound your retreat!” Hercules ordered Bledar. “Or die where you stand!”

“But you forget!” Bledar shouted back. “We have Titantis! That evens the field!”

“No, this,” the demigod held up the double-bladed axe, “evens the field.” He tossed the weapon, only a fraction of his gods’-given strength behind it. It was enough, however. One blade embedded into Titantis, creating a major crack that spread throughout the catapult’s main frame. The rest of the machine fell apart. The huge saucers that held the flames that accented the eye sockets were jolted asunder, allowing drips of fire to fall. The dried wood and hemp that made up the machine quickly caught fire, further destroying the “beast” that helped the barbarians maintain their reign of terror. As a final send-off, the main catapult was released, the heavy boulder it housed tumbled to the ground, taking one of Goth’s soldiers with it.

Bledar looked on in disbelief. Clinching his fists tightly in anger, he commanded, “Sound the retreat!”

A horn sounded, calling the barbarians back from the front line.

“Come on. Let’s get out of here.” Hercules shoved a still dazed Goth forward, then gave his best friend an almost humorous look. “Sneakier, huh?”

Iolaus shrugged, undeterred.

“This way,” Charadan urged, heading back into the fort. He took Ilora, standing near a system of ropes and pulleys, gently by the arm and led her further into the garrison.

Iolaus tightly bound Goth’s wrists, attaching another length of rope for a tether, as Hercules closed and barricaded the front gate. The hunter noticed the pulley system. “So, this is how you made your ‘army’ come to life.” He smiled, tugging the two ropes hanging down.

“You aren’t the only one who knows Old Hunter’s Tricks,” the demigod teased. He gently slapped his sword-brother on the shoulder. He picked up Iolaus’ travel pouch and sheathed sword, handed them to Iolaus.

They started through the fort, Hercules taking Goth’s leash and pulling him along as the hunter buckled his sword about his waist and hung the pouch over his one shoulder. Seeing the cuts and bruises up-close, some still bleeding afresh from the battle with Goth, Hercules questioned anxiously, “You all right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine!” Iolaus answered nonchalantly. “It’ll take more than a few punches from some barbarians to stop me!”

“Nonetheless,” Hercules stated firmly, “I’m taking a look at those wounds as soon as we get away from here.”

Iolaus knew better than to argue. The hunter followed Hercules back down into the dungeon. There, they found father and daughter already waiting for them in one of the back cells.

“Here, Hercules!” Charadan gestured excitedly. “The tunnel’s behind here!”

“Great job, Charadan.” Hercules moved aside an old tapestry to reveal an opening near the floor. He had to crawl through the opening but, once past the dungeon wall, the tunnel expanded. The ceiling was tall enough that they wouldn’t have to slouch too much to get through, the walls wide enough to accommodate even his wide shoulders.

The demigod retreated back into the fort. “It opens up inside, so we won’t be crawling all the way out. Ilora, get one of those torches.” She did so, holding it as Hercules struck his gauntlets together to create the spark that would ignite it.

Taking the flaming torch, Hercules led the way inside. The tunnel was musty and cobwebby, but otherwise passable. Behind him, he dragged Goth. Charadan and Ilora followed; Iolaus brought up rear guard. Peering into the darkness ahead of them as they rounded a bend, the hunter asked, “You sure about this tunnel? I don’t see any light at the end of it.”

“I saw prisoners escape down into it,” Charadan stated. As an afterthought, he added, “’Course, I never saw them come out.”

“Great,” Iolaus muttered, realizing the “escaped” prisoners may have never gotten out at all.

The tunnel sloped downwards, taking them deeper into the earth. Iolaus rubbed at his sore shoulder, briefly touched the smarting cuts on his face.

“Not much to say now, huh, Goth?” he couldn’t help taunting the defeated warlord. “Now that your army can’t save you.”

Goth threw him a nasty look, but no cutting remarks issued from him. Indeed, it seemed now that he knew his comrades would not be able to save him, plus his humiliating defeat to the smaller warrior, had broken his spirit.

It gave Iolaus a small measure of satisfaction. Argeus, I’ll be back to honor your memory somehow. By bringing Goth to justice, I’ll know your death, at least, wasn’t in vain. Rest well in Elysium, my friend.

Daybreak was fast pushing away the darkness as Bledar stared at the fortress that had swallowed his brother. “They’re very disciplined,” he told the few men that stood with him. “Almost dawn and not one soldier has moved a muscle. If I didn’t know better, I’d s-say… can’t be.”

He gazed steadily at the guards. Realization dawned on his dark features. Realization that they’d been duped. “Rally the men!”

The tunnel exited, not behind the barbarians as Charadan had thought, but below the fort itself. Emerging from tall grasses that kept the entrance there hidden, the intrepid group was met by a sandy beach. The rising of Helios’ chariot also met them.

“Whoa.” Iolaus threw up a hand against the momentary brightness and the strong winds blowing up from the ocean that tugged at their hair and clothes.

“I recognize this place!” Ilora gripped her father’s arm excitedly. “Papa, our farm is just east of here!”

Charadan nodded. “You can catch a boat at the next village. It’s just around that cove.” He pointed to the west.

“Ilora,” Goth spoke for the first time since his battle with Iolaus, “stupid little fool! You could have had the world as my wife!”

“I know,” she admitted, “but then I’d have to be with you, and that’s too high a price to pay.” She looked fondly at their rescuers. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You already have,” Hercules smiled, “by realizing you deserve better. Just keep believing in yourself.”

“I will.” Ilora returned the smile. She gave Hercules a kiss on the cheek. Mindful of his injuries, she gave a gentler one to Iolaus. Charadan gave them the warrior’s handshake, gripping each on the forearm in an acknowledgement that they were brothers-in-arms.

“Good luck, you two,” Iolaus stated.

Ilora led her liberated father down to the beach. They walked contently to the east, and home.

Hercules and Iolaus watched them go, then turned to take a slightly rockier path towards the west and the fishing village around the cove. As Hercules pulled Goth along behind him, Iolaus paced beside his friend.

“Hercules, on the boat to Athens, you think we could get in a little fishing?” Iolaus’ melodious chuckle was caught and carried by the wind.

No barbarians were harmed during the production of this story.

3/17/04



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