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Valley of the Shadow
by
Shawnee
 

Iolaus looked around as he walked, picking up suitable firewood.  As he stepped around a large tree, he stopped.  A man lay at the
foot of the tree, unconscious.  Iolaus laid his wood down and knelt next to the man.  He was alive, and didnít appear to be injured.

"Herc!  Hey, Herc!  You better come over here!"

Hercules heard his companion call to him and hurried to his side.  "Iolaus?  Whatís wrong?"

"I found someone.  Heís unconscious, Iím not sure if heís hurt or what."

Hercules carried the man back to their camp.  He was small, smaller than Iolaus, with thick black hair that fell below his
shoulders.  He was fair-skinned and delicate-boned.  He was lithe, like a runner, rather than heavily muscled.  He had a delicate,
almost ethereal beauty.  He was dressed in brown leather trousers and boots, and a tattered linen tunic that was once a beautiful
green.  He wore gold bands around his wrists and upper arms, a gold torque with green gemstones, and a green gemstone in his
left ear.  On the back of his right hand was tattooed a coiled green serpent with red eyes and tongue.  He wasnít injured, but they
could tell he was probably exhausted.

A short time later, the man stirred and opened incredible green eyes.  Iolaus knelt next to him.  "Hi.  Howíre you feeling?"

"IÖI am all rightÖI think."

Iolaus didnít react to the manís strange accent.  "Here."  Iolaus helped him sit up enough to take a drink of water.  "You just rest.
You look like you could use a good meal.  We have food cooking, itíll be ready soon.  Oh, Iím Iolaus."

"I am Sivari."

"Nice to meet you, Sivari.  This is my friend, Hercules."  He gestured at Hercules just as he stepped into the camp.

Sivari looked at Hercules and gasped, his eyes widening.  He scrambled backwards.  "By the goddess!"

Hercules stopped, looking at the man quizzically.  Iolaus tried to calm him. "Hey, hey, take it easy.  He wonít hurt you.  Whatís
wrong?"

Sivari slowly calmed.  "I..I am sorry.  I haveÖI have never seen a man so large!"

Iolaus smothered a grin as Hercules looked at Sivari, astonished.  "Donít worry, Sivari," Iolaus said, patting his shoulder.  "Youíre
not the first person to think that."

"Hey!" Hercules said indignantly.  He looked at Sivari.  "Sivari, you look as though youíve come a long way.  Where are you
headed?"

"I look for my great-grandfatherís home.  He called it Ter-mop-o-lay."

"TerÖThermopolye?" asked Iolaus.

"Yes!  That is it!"  He shrugged.  "I am sorry, I do not speak your language so well.  My great-grandfather taught me in secret."

"In secret?  Why?" asked Hercules.

"Slaves were to speak only our mistresses language.  They did not like us speaking so they could not understand."

"Sivari, where are you from?  How far have you come?"

"I do not know.  I have traveled many days since escaping from my mistress.  She was an evil woman and I was afraid she would
kill me, as she has killed so many others.  I have come from the north.  I have followed the river from the time of the new moon."

"Three weeks," said Iolaus.

Hercules nodded.  There was something about Sivariís story that bothered him, but he couldnít put his finger on it.  Ah, maybe if
he slept on it, it would come to him.

The men finished their meal and settled down to sleep.  Hercules awoke at dawn; Iolaus was already up and hunting for their
breakfast.  Heíd set several snares the night before as well as setting a trap in the river.

Hercules walked down to the river.  Stripping off his jerkin and the soft tunic underneath, he washed his face and chest.  As he
was pulling his jerkin back on, he realized he was being stared at by a beautiful dark-haired woman.  She wore a dark blue tunic
and black trousers and boots, with a sword at her left hip and a bow and quiver slung over her back.

As she realized he had seen her, in the blink of an eye, she was armed, aiming an arrow at him.  "Do not move!" she said.  Her
accent was the same as Sivariís.

Hercules raised his hands.  "Iím not armed.  Iím not a threat to you.  My name is Hercules."

The woman called out behind her and several more women appeared.  Two flanked him, holding knives.  The others followed his
trail back to his camp.

Sivari tried to run, but was run down and hauled back.  Iolaus had seen what was happening and tried to hide his trail from them,
so he could find a way to free the others, but they found him.  He fought and had to be physically subdued.

Iolaus held his sword out in front of him as the warrior women surrounded him.  One, tall, stately, and obviously in command,
stepped in front of him.  "Do not harm him," she said in his own language, wanting him to understand her.  She looked him over.  "I
want him.  Undamaged."

"He is wild, Vali," said a woman with red high-lights in her dark hair.

"Yes, he is, Kohri.  I shall enjoy taming him."

"I donít think so, woman," Iolaus spat.  "I am not an animal!"

Vali smiled.  "Oh, but you are, man.  All men are."  Her smile faded.  "Put down the sword!"

Iolaus smirked.  "You gonna make me?"

The words were barely spoken before she came at him.  But she didnít draw her own sword and Iolausí sense of honor wouldnít
let him use his sword against her.  He dodged her blows and lashed out at her with a foot.  She side-stepped, kicked him in the left
thigh.  He blocked a backhand blow, hit her in the stomach.  She doubled over, then lashed out to strike him on the inside of his
right thigh with her hand.

Pain shot through Iolausí entire body.  He screamed as he convulsed and dropped to the ground.  He had never felt such pain in
his life, burning through him like fire, consuming him.  His screams were torn from his throat and he writhed on the ground.
 

Hercules heard Iolausí screams and instantly ripped free of the leather thongs binding his wrists.  He backhanded one of his
guards away from him, hit the other with his palm in the chest, sending her flying backwards.  He ran to where Iolaus was
surrounded by several of the warrior women.  One knelt beside him, stroking his leg.  His screams had stopped, but he was still
gasping for breath, pale and shaking.

"Stop!"

Hercules stopped.  The woman held a knife to Iolausí throat.  Those around them held weapons pointed at both of them.

"If you move, I will kill him."  Vali smirked.  "So, our bindings wonít hold you, will they?"  She gestured to her warriors.  Two
walked over, seized Iolaus by the arms, and hauled him to his knees.

"What did you do to him?" Hercules demanded angrily.

"Taught him a lesson in obedience.  Itís one you will learn as well."

"I donít think so," Hercules growled.

"Oh, I know so, man."  She grabbed a fistful of Iolausí hair and jerked his head back.  "If you attack me, I will kill him.  Even if you
get to me first, you canít kill all of us before someone kills him and then you."

Hercules knew she was right.  She smirked at him.  "You are bothÖmine," she taunted.  She nodded at the warriors holding
Iolaus.  His hands were pulled behind his back and tied.  Hercules saw him wince as the leather bit into his wrists.  He was led
back to their camp.  Hercules, however, was put in chains the women had brought with them.  And the minute they were locked
around his wrists, he knew something was horribly wrong.

Vali laughed.  "The Lady was right!  She predicted we would meet a giant man on this trek, and would need her magic chains to
bind him!  You cannot escape us now, man!  The Ladyís chains sap you of your strength, put you at our mercy!  Get used to it!"

Iolaus had regained his color by the time Hercules was dragged back to the camp.  Hercules was forced to his knees beside
Iolaus.  Sivari was sitting a few feet away, curled into a ball and weeping.

"Iolaus."

Iolaus looked at Hercules, worry in his eyes at Herculesí tone.  "Herc?  Are you OK?  Whatís wrong, what did they do?"

"Itís the chains.  Thereís some kind of magic in them.  ItísÖsapping my strength."  He lifted his eyes to Iolausí.  "I canít fight
them, Iolaus."

"Weíll get out of this, Herc."  He grinned impudently.  "We always do."

Hercules chuckled.  "Hold onto that thought, my friend.  Let me know if you come up with a way out of this."

"Me?  Oh, fine time to admit Iím the brains of this outfit."

The men watched as Vali walked over to Sivari.  The man wept and groveled in front of the woman.  She pushed him onto his
back with one foot, which she left resting on his chest.

^Did you really think you would escape us, man?^

^Iím sorry, mistress!  Please, mistress, let me serve you!  I am happy to serve!  IÖI was afraid of the Lady Salin!  Please,
mistress, let me live in your service!^

Vali smirked at him.  ^Yes, Sivari, you will live and you will serve me.  Salin said if I caught you, I could have you.^  She grabbed
him by the hair and jerked him to his knees.  ^But if you ever try to run again, I will hunt you down and skin you, slowly.^  Sivari
stared at her wide-eyed, mouth open in slack-jawed terror.  ^Do you understand?^

^Y.yes, m.mistress.  Yes!^

^Vali.  What about these two?^ asked a brown-haired girl with gleaming green eyes.

Vali looked at Hercules and Iolaus.  Her lips curled into a leering smile as she looked at Iolaus.  She walked over, to run a hand
through his blond curls.  "Hmmm, Nori, never have I seen a male so beautiful, with hair like the sun and eyes like the sky!  You will
be a treasure like no other, man."  She traced a hand down his face.  Iolaus jerked away, only to have Vali grab him by the chin
and force him to look at her.  "You will obey me or you will suffer for it.  I know many ways to inflict excruciating agony on you
without leaving a mark, just as I did before."  She caressed his cheek and then slapped him, hard, knocking him backwards.  He
stared at her defiantly, his eyes going violet with rage.

Hercules had to take several deep breaths to keep from struggling against the chains that bound him and finding some way to lay
into Vali.  He hated to see Iolaus hurt, in any way.  Now was no exception.

Hercules studied the women.  All of them were Iolausí height or taller.  Vali was the tallest, at nearly six feet.  All of them
reminded him of the Amazons, but there was somethingÖsomething regal and yet almost evil about all of them.  There was a
sophistication about them the Amazons never had.  All of them were dark-haired, though some had red high-lights.  All of them
had black, brown, or green eyes.  They were perfectly fit, and well-armed, with swords, bows, and staffs.  They were all dressed
in leather boots and trousers and linen or leather tunics.  Decorations varied from nothing to feathers to colored gems and gold.

^What about the giant?^ asked a black-haired woman.

Vali slid a hand over Hercules chest and shoulder.  "I think he will make an admirable gift to my mother, the queen.  She will
appreciate his brute attributes.  Donít you think so, Maki?"  The black-haired woman chuckled and nodded.

^I donít like this, Vali.  We should kill them all and go home.  We could take Sivariís hand as proof of his death.^  This from a tall
woman wearing a gold headband.

Vali shook her head.  ^No, Tris.  I want them all returned alive.^

^It has taken us many days to catch up with the runaway, and it will take as many days to return, more with them in tow!^

Vali snarled.  ^You challenge me, Tris?^

Tris was brought up short.  ^No, Vali.  Of course not.^

^Then prepare to set out!  As soon as we have rested, we will go.^

In less than an hour, they were on their way, twelve female warriors surrounding three men.  Hercules and Iolaus noted the
northeasterly direction they were taking - straight into Macedonian territory.

That night, Iolaus kicked Vali away from him as she caressed him; she was constantly running her fingers through his golden
curls.  His action enraged her.  She grabbed him by the hair and reached down to stroke the inside of his left thigh.  A sudden
motion of her hand and he screamed.  He continued to scream until she undid whatever she had done, the same thing she had done
when he was captured.

Iolaus lay on the ground, white-faced and moaning.  Hercules was looking at him in shock.  He had never heard such sounds
coming from Iolaus before.  Never.  He hadnít believed it was possible to make his friend scream like that.  He began struggling
against the chains that held him, wanting to go to Iolaus, and wanting to snap Valiís neck.

"Hercules.  Donít.  Iím all right," Iolaus rasped.  He was recovering from the mind-numbing pain that had been inflicted on him,
and two warriors jerked him to his knees.

Vali chuckled.  "My people know many things about the body.  Including where some of the major nerves are located.  Pinch them
just right, and it causes excruciating pain, yet can be undone with a touch and there is no lasting damage."  Her face hardened.
"We also know certain points that can cause death, either instantly or in a matter of moments.  Is that what you want, Hercules?
To die?  Do you want to watch your friend die in agony?"

"NO!"  Hercules fists clenched.  "We arenít animals, here for your amusement!"

Vali laughed.  "Why, Hercules, that is exactly what you are.  That is what all men are, brute beasts to be used in the service of the
Goddess."

"What goddess?  Hera?"

"No.  The Lady.  She is our mother, and our protector.  As her daughters, we serve her and follow her tenets.  She rules with a
gentle, loving hand.  And she has taught us that men *are* animals.  Always fighting, warring with one another over land, over
gold, or women.  Foolish men.  Women will always be superior to you."

Without warning, Vali spun and hit Iolaus in the mouth with a closed fist as hard as she could.  The warriors had known what was
coming and released him at the last instant.  Iolausí head snapped back; he was limp as he hit the ground.

Vali looked at Hercules, eyes blazing.  "Remember this: from now on, when one of you disobeys, the other pays the price!"  Vali
cheered at the look in Herculesí eyes.  She had read the friendship between the two men correctly, and could use it against them.

Hercules nodded.  He was allowed to go to his friend.  He knelt beside Iolaus.  Though his chains restricted the movement of his
arms and hands, he lifted Iolaus into his arms and carried him to where they had spread their blankets.  He was starting to come to
as Hercules laid him down.  Sivari brought a cup of water.  Iolaus rinsed his mouth, spitting bloody water to one side.

Hercules turned Iolausí face up to his.  "Still got all your teeth?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"Howís your head feel?"

"My headís fine, itís my jaw that hurts.  She hits like you do, Herc."

"Thanks a lot."  Hercules winced at the bruise already forming on the left side of Iolausís face.  "This is not going to be either
pretty or comfortable by morning."

"Yeah, I know."

One of the warriors gave Iolaus a cloth soaked in a medicinal poultice.  "Itíll help take the pain away and speed the healing."

Iolaus held the cloth to his sore jaw and glared daggers at Vali.  As they bedded down, Hercules noticed that they were ringed by
the warriors.  There was no chance of any of them escaping.

Next day, Hercules and Iolaus were separated. Vali sent Iolaus ahead with one group of warriors, the others stayed behind with
Hercules.  There was always a runner on the edge of either group, ready to report to the other force.  If one attempted to escape,
the other would be severely punished.

As for Sivari, he remained behind as well, too terrified to do anything but what he was told.

Iolausí group made good time, for he was in as good a shape as they were, and able to keep up with the grueling pace they set.
They took him to a magnificent hidden valley, deep in Macedonian territory.  They stood on a bluff overlooking the valley, and
Iolaus gazed in astonishment below him.  The city below them was like nothing he had ever seen.  It was enormous, sprawling
over the center of the valley, gleaming gold and ivory, blue and green and red, in the sunlight.  There were domes and pyramids,
and as they got closer, he could see rich villas surrounded by verdant gardens.  There were paved streets lined with lamps, to be lit
at night.  As they walked down the tree-lined street, in front of homes and shops built from marble and fine woods, he saw women
coming to see the returning search party.

Iolaus had never seen anything so opulent, not even in Egypt.  All the women were dark-haired and physically fit, beautiful of face
and form.  Even the elderly matrons were still tall and straight in their bearing.  Everyone wore fine linen or leather, dyed in bright
blues, greens, reds, creamy ivory or white.  Young girls wore short leather skirts and short tunics; older women wore fine dresses.

And then he began to notice the men.  All of them were small, like Sivari, with an almost unearthly beauty.  Some were
well-muscled, obviously used to hard labor.  Others were obviously pampered pets, used to doing nothing but being displayed.
They peeked from behind doorways or alleys, always obviously in a subservient position.  Some, working in the gardens and along
the streets, wore only loincloths; others, peering from doorways, were richly dressed, like Sivari had been.  He saw no males
younger than mid-teens.  And all of them, like Sivari, were dark-haired.  No wonder Iolausí blond curls had caused such a stir.

In the center of the city were three pyramids of equal height, built so that they formed a triangle.  They were equally beautiful, but
each was differently designed.  The sides made steps up to the top, upon which sat a temple.

The groupís leader, Sienna, grabbed Iolaus by his bound wrists and pulled him to the top of the first pyramid they came to, where
she forced him to his knees.  Eighteen days with these women had taught him to obey without protest, unless he wanted either
beaten or the nerve pinch.  Iolaus watched as she knelt in front of a regal woman dressed in a red sarong over a white dress.  By
this time, Iolaus had a pretty good grasp of the womenís language, and was able to follow along as the regal woman greeted the
warrior.

"What have you brought to me, Sienna?  And where is my daughter?"

"My queen."  Sienna stood.  "Vali follows behind, with our captured run-away and a gift for you."

The woman, Deron, looked Iolaus up and down, walking around him.  "I have never seen such hair and eyes, or such a physique.
He is truly a magnificent specimen."

"He pales in comparison to the other one.  Vali wants this one for herself, and said tell you the other one will make up to you for
his loss.  They had to be separated in order to control them."

"Indeed.  I await this gift eagerly.  Take this one to Mistress Linn for training.  How far behind you is Vali?"

"We traveled much faster than the others.  I would say they are about six to ten days behind us.  The runaway was barely fit to
travel, and the other will likely be belligerent."

"Thank you, Sienna."

Iolaus was taken to the training mistress and given to her.  She ordered him bathed and dressed in clean clothes.  Iolaus didnít fight
or protest.  Until he was brought back to her.

"So, you are to be Valiís new servant.  I can see why she would want you."

"I am no oneís slave!" Iolaus spat.

Faster than the eye could follow, Linn lashed out with her fists, hitting him in the left shoulder and right hip.  The pain was such that
he couldnít even scream.  He lay on the floor, convulsing, until she released him.

"That was your first lesson.  You will speak when spoken to.  You will do as you are told.  Do you understand?"  Iolaus stared at
her.  "I am not Vali.  I will not take your impertinence.  After today, anything you do or say could be grounds for punishment.
What I did a moment ago was nothing to what I could do, and will do if I have to.  Now.  *Do you understand?*"

Iolaus slowly nodded, hating himself.  But he had to bide his time until Hercules arrived.

Iolaus was introduced to Seagare.  He was the overseer in charge of the slaves, and reported directly to Linn.  He was about
twenty years Iolausí senior, his hair graying at the temples, but he was still a robust, healthy man.  He would be Iolausí mentor.

Iolaus was first assigned to learn the duties of a companion.  He would be expected to fetch and carry, entertain, and take care of
all of his mistressí needs.  Whatever they might be.

Iolaus discovered the inhabitants werenít ignorant of the outside world, they merely chose not to be a part of it.  Still, they kept up
with the outside world, and knew much that went on.  They heard news of wars, of gods and heroes.  They knew who he and
Hercules were, but were not impressed.  Now, he was just another slave to be tamed and trained.

Iolaus saw what Seagare had brought him to wear and began to shake his head.  "No.  Absolutely not."  He wasnít going to put
those clothes on.  They were designed to expose rather than to cover, to show off his unique beauty.  The filmy blue trousers
would cling to his muscular legs and hips, while the tunic was open to expose his chest and abdomen.  There were soft blue boots
and gold accessories.

Iolausí fists clenched.  "I am not a doll to be dressed up and shown off!  I will be no oneís toy!"

"Donít do this, Iolaus.  All youíll do is bring yourself pain."

"Let her kill me!  I wonít do this!"  Iolaus was shaking.

Seagare looked at Iolaus.  It wasnít just this.  There was more to the wildness in Iolausí eyes than suddenly finding himself a
slave.

"Iolaus.  Itís all right.  Calm down."  Seagare laid the clothes aside and stepped toward Iolaus, hands out.  He stopped as Iolaus
backed up.  He looked like he was ready to run.  "Iolaus, please.  You have to calm down."

Iolaus swallowed hard and slowly unclenched his fists.  He took a deep breath and slowly let it out.  "Iím sorry, Seagare."

"What is it, son?  Why does this terrify you so?"

"I have to be free, Seagare.  I will die if I am kept like this.  I need the fields and forests.  I need the blue sky, and the rain.  I need
to be able to hunt and fish and to go when and where my restless spirit takes me.  *That* is why I am afraid.  I would rather be
dead than kept in chains, no matter how soft or beautiful!"

Seagare nodded.  "I understand, Iolaus.  You might not think so, but I do.  I have seen just that thing happen to other men whoíve
been captured."  He put a hand on Iolausí shoulder.  "Youíve told me about your friend.  Hold on until he gets here, Iolaus.  Donít
do anything to get yourself killed.  Heíll need you, you know, if everything youíve told me about him is true."

"It is, all of it."  Iolaus took a deep breath.  "Youíre right, Seagare.  I have to be here when Hercules gets here."

"Good.  Now, youíd better get dressed, before Linn orders both of us into chains."

Linn examined Iolaus closely when he appeared.  Satisfied, she ordered Seagare to take him for the dayís lesson.
 

Linn watched Iolaus.  He was sitting in the garden, meditating.  She walked over to him, standing over him.  Iolaus opened his
eyes, looked at her, and got to his feet.  He waited, an air of calm radiating from him.

Linn walked around Iolaus.  "So.  You are adjusting to your new station."

"I am trying, Mistress."

Linn grabbed Iolaus by the hair and jerked his head back.  Her eyes locked with his.  He merely looked back at her.  "I donít
believe you," she hissed.  She released him.  "Kneel!"  Iolaus sank to his knees, bowing his head.  Linn walked around him,
watching him.  He didnít move.

Linn kicked Iolaus, knocking him sprawling backwards.  He lay on the ground, watching her.  She backed off and motioned him to
get up.  He slowly climbed to his feet, his eyes never leaving her face.  She backhanded him, splitting his lip.  He merely turned his
face back to look at her, not even moving to wipe away the blood that trailed down his chin.

Linn laughed.  "You think to placate me, lull me into lowering my guard, so that you may escape.  You are a slave, man.  Whatever
you have been before, you are a slave now.  You will bend that proud neck to our service, to do whatever your mistress, whoever
she may be, may ask of you.  Whether it be the most menial of tasks or the privilege of warming her bed and siring her daughters.
You have no will now of your own."

Iolaus looked her in the eye.  "I will do as you have said, but not forever.  I will escape this place, and with me my brother whom
Vali even now brings.  I was born a free man, and a free man I will die."  His voice was low and when he finished speaking, he
bowed.

Linn was furious.  She screamed obscenities at him, screaming for her guards, and had Iolaus dragged into a special room.  Cuffs
were locked around his wrists.  Attached to the cuffs were silver chains, which were then pulled over his head.  He was pulled up
until his feet were about a foot off the floor.  He watched Linn warily as she walked into the room.  She was carrying a short
whip, much like the riding crop heíd seen some people use.  He tried to steel himself, resigned to his fate.  She wouldnít kill him,
for he belonged to Vali.  But she would inflict great pain, to make him wish for death.

The first blow came to his back, just above his right kidney.  It was quickly followed by a lash from the whip across his shoulders.
Iolaus couldnít stop the cry that escaped his lips at the sudden double pain.  She ran her hand over his chest, down his ribs, to his
right hip, and pressed.  Iolaus screamed from the pain, flinging his head back.

Outside the door, Seagare waited.  He visibly flinched each time Iolaus cried out, and went stiff when he screamed.  He didnít
know how a person could survive such torture as this.  Heíd known men, outsiders like Iolaus, who had died in this room, and in
much less time.

Linn stepped back from Iolaus, listening to his rasping breath.  He slowly raised his head and looked at her.  He didnít say a word
and after a moment, his eyes closed and he lost consciousness.  But Linn had read the question in the anguish of his eyes: Ďwhy?í

Linn stepped out of the room.  She looked around, knowing Seagare would be waiting.  He stepped from the shadows and bowed.
She nodded at him and left.

Seagare watched as Linn walked away, then turned to the doorway.  He took a deep breath before going inside, not knowing what
he would find.  He shook his head as he saw what Linn had done to Iolaus.  His back was a mass of welts, a few oozing blood.
The whip had been employed very effectively.  The welts would been painful for days, but would leave no scars to mar the
perfection of his skin.  Even those where the skin was broken werenít deep.  The deep bruises on his sides, lower back, and
stomach were actually more serious.

Seagare lowered Iolaus to the floor, easing him down so as not to injure him further.  He unlocked the cuffs and lifted Iolaus into
his arms, carrying him to his quarters.  One of the other slaves brought the healer just as Seagare was settling Iolaus onto his
stomach on the bed.

"Father?"

"Yes, Tera.  Thank you, Aran.  Will you wait, in case Tera needs to send for anything?"

"Of course, Seagare."  The boy glanced at Iolaus.  "How is he?"

Seagare sighed.  "Heís hurting right now, but heíll live."  He led Tera, who was blind, to the bed, sitting her on the edge and guiding
her hands to Iolausí left arm.

Tera left one hand on Iolausí arm and held the other over his back.  "Aran?"

"Yes, Tera?"

"His bruises are deep and painful.  I will need the comfrey for these, both inside and out.  Also the bittersweet and chamomile
ointment, thereís a new jar on my worktable.  Father?"

"Yes?"

"I will need a strong tea to be made of the comfrey.  I will need some to give him to drink, to ease the pain inside.  I will need some
help, as well, because these bruises and cuts must be dealt with, and the best thing to do will be to keep hot compresses on his
back, to improve the circulation to draw away the bad blood and speed the healing.  Who can I have to help?"

"I will, and Aran, as well."

"Whatever you need, Tera," said Aran.

"Thank you, Aran.  Go now, and get what I asked for."  She heard him leave.  "Do we have enough clean cloths for compresses
and to use as bandages later?"

"No, Iíll go get some now.  Let me get some water, you can start cleaning his back."

Tera placed one hand on Iolausí head.  She was surprised by the softness of his curls.  "Is he really as beautiful as everyone says,
Father?"

"Yes, child, he is."

"Poor man."  There was pity in her voice, for she well knew the fate of truly beautiful men in this city.

"I know, child.  But he is stronger than he looks.  He will survive."  Seagare set a bowl of water by the bed and pressed a cloth into
Teraís hand, then left to get more bandages.

To watch Tera work, one would not suspect she was blind.  Her hands moved over Iolausí back slowly, yet unerringly, her touch
sure and gentle.

Tera directed Seagare and Aran in keeping the warm compresses changed all night, as well as coaxing Iolaus into drinking sips of
the tea she made, though he didnít regain consciousness until the next morning.

Iolaus slowly became aware that gentle hands were touching him.  Something cool and soothing was being gently applied to his
abused body.  He turned his head and opened his eyes and wished he hadnít.  Nausea ripped through him.  Hands turned him on
his side so that he threw up into a chamber pot at the side of the bed.  Stronger hands replaced the others, holding his head and
stroking his hair.  When he finally stopped heaving, a cup was placed in his hands, with water to rinse his mouth with.  He spit into
the pot, then the cup was taken away and he was gently eased back onto the bed, with a hand holding his head as he laid back to
the pillow, easing him onto his back.

"How do you feel?" came Seagareís voice.

Iolaus opened his eyes and looked at his friend.  "Iíll live, I think," he whispered.  His throat was raw from screaming.

"Here.  This will help your throat and settle your stomach."  He put a cup in his hand and helped him to sit up.

Iolaus sipped the cup, filled with a warm tea.  It felt good on his abused throat.  He slowly drained the cup and handed it back.
"Thank you."

"Youíre welcome."  As he took the cup, Seagare stood and moved away.

Iolaus closed his eyes, opening them again as he sensed a different person now standing beside him.  A woman sat down beside
him.  He stared, for her eyes were covered with a gold band.  As she reached out to touch his face, Iolaus realized with a start
that she was blind.  "My name is Tera.  Seagare is my father.  He brought me after LinnÖfinished with you, to treat your
wounds."

"How long ago?"

"Just since last night.  My poultices have helped most of your bruises and the cuts from the whip.  None of the cuts are deep,
merely breaking the skin.  I have a cream I make that soothes away the pain from the nerve pinch, as well."

"You saidÖSeagare is your father?  But I thoughtÖ."

"I was born blind, and so they have little use for me.  But my father begged for my life, and he was my motherís cherished pet, so
she relented, and gave me to him.  And he has taught me to live without needing my sight.  But to the women, I am no better than
any male slave, because I am imperfect."

"Who is your mother, if I may ask?"

"Mistress Linn."

Iolaus was shocked, to say the least.  That such a brutal woman could have a daughter so beautiful, and so gentleÖhe could hardly
dare to believe it.

Tera soothed Iolaus back to sleep.  She woke him shortly after noon for a meal and to tend to his injuries.  Seagare joined them.

"You have to be careful, Iolaus," Seagare warned.  "If you fight too much, they wonít care how exotic you look, theyíll kill you."

Iolaus was still getting used to being thought of as Ďexoticí looking.  He shook his head.  "It doesnít matter, Seagare.  I wonít be a
slave.  Maybe they can keep me here for a while, but once Hercules gets here, weíll find a way out, one way or another."

"Itís that Ďanotherí that worries us," said Tera.  "Youíre a good man, Iolaus.  Weíve seen others like you, wild ones captured by
hunting parties.  They never last long.  They either die with their spirits crushed and broken, or trying to escape.  Or theyíre
executed because they canít be tamed."

Iolaus shook his head.  "Youíre talking about men as if theyíre wild beasts: Ďwild onesí, Ďtamedí.  It doesnít have to be like this.
The rest of the world isnít like this.  Out there, men and women are free.  Sure, there are places that still have slaves, but even
then, itís not like this.  Itís both men and women doing the owning, and being owned.  Men and women share the burdens of
everyday life.  They live together, love together, raise their children together."  He threw his head back against the pillow in
disgust.

"We do understand, Iolaus," said Seagare.  "But this is how life is here.  And thereís no changing it."

"Besides, weíre dying, little by little," said Tera.  "Anyone could see it, with eyes to look, or knowledge to understand."

Iolaus frowned.  "What are you talking about?"

"This is a closed society, Iolaus.  There has been very little new blood brought in in the last few generations.  You see the men.
Seagare tells me that his grandfather was bigger than his father, who was bigger than he.  Seagare is bigger than Sivari, who is
about the same age as his eldest son.  The men here are being bred out of existence.  And without men, there will be no more
babies at all.  And more and more of the girl babies are being born imperfect.  Blind, like me.  Some are born deaf, and it isnít
discovered until much later.  They are born with obvious defects, like webbed hands or feet, or club feet or they stop growing so
that theyíre the size of a one or two year old or they have severe mental deficits.  All such children are supposed to be put to
death.  A very few, like me, with lesser defects, have been allowed to live, but not to breed.  Weíre allowed to live with our
fathers.  If we do have children, theyíre immediately put to death.  This cannot go on."

Iolaus nodded.  "Youíre right."

Tera stood, reaching out for Seagareís arm.  "You should rest now.  Linn will want you to return to your duties tomorrow
morning.  I will come to tend your wounds before you go."

Iolaus caught her hand.  "TeraÖthank you."

Teraís hand went to his face, with his help.  She smiled.  "Youíre welcome, Iolaus."  She and Seagare left, going to their own
rooms.  Iolaus carefully laid back, thinking about Hercules, wondering when he would see his friend again.

Hercules was wondering if he would ever see Iolaus alive again.  It had been four weeks since the parties separated.  He had
watched the party leave, his eyes never leaving Iolausí form.  Once they were out of sight, he had closed his eyes and bowed his
head, sinking to his knees and sitting back on his heels.  He looked at Vali as he heard her chuckle.

"Your friend is in good shape, he will keep up with my warriors well.  They will make good time back to our home.  By the time
we reach our city, he will be well and truly broken and ready to serve me."

"Never," Hercules swore.

Vali threw her head back and laughed.  "Hercules, he is but a man, the same as you!  You will share his fate!  You will both live
as slaves to the end of your days."  She looked at her warriors.  "We will rest here for today."  She smiled wickedly at Sivari, who
paled.  "I want to give our run-away time to regain some of his strength.  We wouldnít want him dying before we get him home,
now would we?"  Sivari had paled and trembled at her words and the look she gave him.

Now, almost four weeks later, he wondered how Iolaus was doing.  Was he all right?  Had they reached the womenís home, the
city he heard these warriors talking of so longingly?  Like Iolaus, he had picked up their language quickly.  Sivariís tutoring helped.
He could follow much of what they were saying now, and they no longer used his own language.

It was not easy for Hercules to remain docile.  But he had only to remember the sentry, who was always out of sight, and the
threat to Iolaus, and he was able to hold his temper, though only barely at times.  Vali enjoyed goading him, finding any excuse to
hit him or to use her nerve pinch on him.  Hercules had finally concluded that she was insane, and her warriors werenít much
better.  What kind of society produced such people?

The women were excited.  They were only a few days from home, three, perhaps four.  They began pushing their prisoners, at
times literally.  Kohri kept shoving Sivari, until he finally stumbled and fell.  She lashed him with a whip, until Hercules grabbed it.

Vali was suddenly there, grabbing Herculesí left hand, pressing down on a nerve that left his hand numb, so that he dropped the
whip.  Hercules almost blacked out from the pain as she suddenly twisted his arm.  He didnít know if sheíd broken something or if
it were just badly twisted.

"Perhaps that will teach you to keep your hands to yourself," she said coldly.

"I doubt it," he muttered, only to have her backhand him, knocking him onto his back and planting a foot in his chest.

"Do you want to die?" Vali asked conversationally.  He only looked at her and she pressed down with her foot.  "Do you?!"

"No," he answered.  He shook his head.  "No, I donít."

Vali stepped back.  "Then you must enjoy pain.  Any other man would have learned to keep silent by now."  A thoughtful look
crossed her face.  "Perhaps I should let my mother have the other one, and I will keep you."  She appeared to think about it, then
shook her head.  "No, I think the other one is going to be the greater treasure."  She gestured for Hercules to get up.  "On your
feet.  Címon, get up."

Hercules rose, careful to keep his injured arm close to his body.  Vali gestured for him to walk, and he did.  She returned to the
front of the column.

As they walked, Hercules knew what he had to do. Normally, he healed quickly, but the cuffs he was wearing had made him
vulnerable.  He didnít heal so fast.  And he realized that if he antagonized Vali too much, she might just kill him, leaving Iolaus
alone in their hands.  He had to stop fighting them.

Sivari splinted Hercules wrist the best he could that evening.  He shook his head.  "Why wonít you learn, Hercules?  Theyíre not
going to release you, and youíll never get away.  All you have to do is obey them and they wonít hurt you."

Hercules sighed.  "Well, I never have been exactly what youíd call the obedient type."

"What will you doÖif you find Iolaus didnít surviveÖwhen we get home?"

Hercules shook his head.  "Iolaus is alive.  I would know if he were dead."

"How?"

"I would know.  I just would."

Sivari looked at Hercules doubtfully, obviously thinking he was in a state of denial.  But it didnít really concern Sivari.  He
shrugged, lay down, and went to sleep.

Hercules lay back, looking up at the stars.  His thoughts, as always, were on Iolaus.  *Hold on, Iolaus.  Iíll be there soon and weíll
find a way out of this.  I give you my word.  We will find a way home.*  He slowly fell asleep.

The day Hercules was dragged into the city, word had gone ahead of the partyís arrival, and the streets were lined with women wanting to see the Ďgiantí.  Vali dragged him to the temple steps, to present him to the queen as Iolaus had been just ten days before.

Iolaus was standing in the shadows at the temple door.  He had been brought there the day before, to work for Deron until Valiís return.  He watched as Hercules was forced to kneel, and as Deron walked around him, looking him over.  He looked his friend over carefully.  He didnít look good.  He winced as he saw the splint on Hercules left wrist, and wondered if it was broken.  His face was bruised; obviously Vali had been trying to beat him into submission.  Iolaus hoped he would be allowed to see his friend later.

Deron looked at Vali, smiling.  It never reached her eyes.  "I have never seen a male, even a wild one, so large.  He is magnificent, daughter!"

"He is yours, Mother.  A gift from me to you."

"Thank you, child.  Yes, I shall enjoy having a new toy to break in."

"We arenít toys," Hercules growled, "to be used by you."

Vali growled at him.  She gestured to someone behind him.  The next thing Hercules knew, pain was rippling through his body from his back.  He arched his back, throwing his head back, trying not to scream.  But the pain didnít stop.  He doubled over as a scream was finally torn from his throat.

Iolaus stepped from the shadows and was grabbed by two warriors.  He struggled against them.  "Stop it!  Youíre killing him, stop it!" he pleaded.

Deron nodded and the woman touched Herculesí back again, unknotting the nerve.  Hercules collapsed onto his side, breathing hard, as Deron nodded at the warriors holding Iolaus.  They let him go and he ran to Herculesí side.

Iolaus lifted Herculesí head into his lap.  "Herc?  Címon, Herc, look at me.  Open your eyes."

Hearing his friendís beloved voice, Hercules opened his eyes.  "Iolaus?  Youíre alive.  Are you all right?"

Iolaus smiled and nodded.  "Yes.  As well as can be expected."

"Oh, gods, Iolaus, I wasnít sure Iíd ever see you again!"  Hercules reached up to grasp his arm.

"I know.  Itís OK."  He looked at the guards nervously, then back to Hercules.  "Can you sit up?"

"I think so."

Iolaus helped Hercules sit up, then walked over to where Deron was talking to Vali.  Herculesí eyes widened as he saw Iolaus go down on one knee and bow his head.  Deron smiled as she turned to him, running her fingers through his hair.  She spoke to him and he said something back to her.  Deron looked at Hercules, then back at Iolaus and nodded.  Iolaus dipped his head again and then walked over to Hercules.

Hercules grabbed Iolausí arm.  "Iolaus?"

"Not now!  Címon!"  He helped Hercules up and let him lean on him as he led his friend away from the temple.  They were followed by two guards.

"What happened to your arm?  Is it broken?"

"No, just badly twisted, maybe sprained.  You know me, my patient streak really isnít that much longer than yours."

"Did Vali do this?"

"Yes."  He shook his head.  "Sheís either deceptively strong or Iím weaker than I thought."

Iolaus took Hercules to Linnís Ďschoolí, where they were met by Seagare.  Iolaus sent him for Linn, knowing he had to present Hercules to her before he did anything else.

Iolaus helped Hercules sit on a bench.  "Herc, listen to me," he said urgently.  "No matter what happens in the next few minutes, donít say or do anything.  Promise me!"

Hercules frowned, but nodded.  Iolaus spun as Linn walked up.  Immediately, he dropped to one knee, bowing his head.  Hercules swallowed hard and clenched his jaw tight to keep from saying something.

"Mistress Linn, this is Hercules.  Lady Deron places him into your care for training."

Linn looked at Hercules, looking him over.  "I see Valiís handiwork on your face and wrist, Hercules.  Iolaus, are you staying or are you expected back?"

"Staying, Mistress."

"Good.  Take him to the baths.  Seagare can bring you clothes and something for that wrist and the bruises."

"Thank you, Mistress."  Iolaus turned to Hercules, helping him up and guiding him down to the baths.  Hercules was too tired and hurt to do anything but let his friend take care of him.

Iolaus helped Hercules undress and slide into the warm water.  He frowned at the bruises marring Hercules back, chest, and stomach, as well as his face.  "Hercules, we have to do this very carefully.  These women arenít like any Iíve ever seen.  Theyíre cruel beyond belief.  If we want out of this alive, weíre going to have to play their game for a while."  He began working to get the splint off Herculesí arm.

Hercules looked at Iolaus as if heíd lost his mind.  "Where is Iolaus and who are you?" he asked.

Iolaus splashed him.  "Very funny.  Iím serious.  Iíve been here ten days, I know what Iím talking about.  Herc, at this moment, if someone told me that Xena had gone back to Ares, and was twice as vicious as before, and they had an army that was about to attack and I was going to be on the front lines, Iíd say Ďgreat, whereís my sword, point me in the right directioní, if it would get me out of here!"

Hercules frowned.  "How bad has it been for you?" he asked quietly.

Iolaus sat on the floor beside the tub.  He turned his face away from his friend.  "IÖI tried to defy them.  But the trainer, Mistress LinnÖgods, Herc, I didnít know it was possible to feel such pain and not die.  What they did to you out there wasnít the worst they can do.  I know."

Hercules put a hand on Iolausí shoulder, concern in his eyes at the haunted, hunted look in Iolausí eyes.  "Iolaus?  Are you all right?"

Iolaus nodded.  "Physically, Iím fine.  ButÖfor the first time in a very long time, Iím well and truly scared, Herc."

Hercules nodded.  It took a lot to scare Iolaus.  Heíd braved dangers no sane man would consider facing, and laughed through it all.

Hercules slid under the water, shaking water out of his face as he resurfaced.  Iolaus washed his hair for him, since he couldnít do it one-handed, as well as his back, being careful of his bruises.  For the first time in a long time, Hercules felt truly clean.

Seagare brought clothes that had been prepared for Hercules ahead of time: tunic and trousers in the same style as Iolausí, but dyed dark green.  Linn herself replaced the cuffs around his wrists with a golden torque that held the same power.

Iolaus led Hercules back to his room, where he massaged Teraís cream into his bruises and re-splinted his wrist.

Iolaus sat down at the head of the bed, his back against the wall.  Hercules, still sprawled across the bed on his stomach, pillowed his head on his arms and looked at his friend.  Iolaus cocked his head as he looked at Hercules, his expression serious.  "Herc, Iíve learned fast how things operate around here.  Will you listen to me, and do as I say?  The smallest infraction or defiance gets punished, severely.  Iíve seen men die, Herc.  I saw one of the guards, Talin, kill one of her slaves with a touch to his temple.  He didnít make a sound, just dropped like a sack to the floor, dead.  She did it without any emotion at all."

Hercules read the concern in Iolausí eyes and realized that he really was frightened.  He grasped his friendís hand.  "Iolaus, I trust you.  I trust your instincts and your judgment.  Will you tell me what has happened to so frighten the bravest, strongest person I know?"

Iolausí hand tightened on his.  He swallowed, hard.  Hercules felt him tremble.  He looked away, then back.  "HercÖthe men hereÖtheyíre these womenís fathers, and brothers, and sons.  And that means nothing to them.  I watched a woman sacrifice her day old son on the alter of their goddess.  She drowned him in a basin of holy water, then burned him in the sacrificial pit.  She did it with absolutely no emotion whatsoever.  It was like it was nothing to her.  After her, another woman brought her newborn daughter to that same alter and had the baby blessed.  And the other mother joined in a banquet they had afterwards.  I saw her laughing and feasting as if nothing were wrong." Iolaus shook his head and looked away.

"Iolaus.  I understand.  Oh, gods, I do understand, now."  He squeezed Iolausí hand.  "We will find a way out of here."  Hercules frowned as something caught his eye.  He pushed Iolausí tunic open.  His eyes widened and he sat up.  Iolaus let Hercules pull him to his feet and push his tunic open further.  Iolaus wouldnít look at him and didnít say anything.

Iolausí stomach, sides, and, when Hercules pulled the tunic off, his back, were marred with livid bruises and whip marks.  Most were obviously days old, a few of the bruises looked new, only hours old.  The whip marks werenít deep, he was relieved to see, it looked like only the first layer of skin was broken, but stillÖ.

"Iolaus?"

Iolaus shrugged.  He didnít want to talk about it.  He started to step back, but Hercules grabbed his wrist.

"Iolaus, talk to me.  Please," Hercules pleaded.

"Linn hates me, because she canít break me.  She beats me every chance she gets, no matter what I do or donít do.  Iím wrong if I speak and Iím wrong if I keep silent.  Are you happy now?"

"Gods, no, Iolaus!"

Iolausí shoulderís slumped and he leaned against the wall.  He slid down it and leaned on his knees, his ankles crossed.  He put his head down, hiding his face in his arms.  As his shoulders began to shake, Hercules realized he was sobbing.  He knelt in front of his friend, reaching out to stroke his head, then wrapping his arms around him, pulling him against him.

"Itís OK, Iolaus.  Weíll get out of this, somehow."

Iolaus wrapped his arms around his friend, pressing his face to Herculesí chest, over his heart.  "I didnít know if you were going to make it here, if I would ever see you alive again," Iolaus whispered

Hercules hugged Iolaus tight, laying his cheek against Iolausí head.  "I know.  I felt the same way."

Hercules held Iolaus until his tears subsided.  Those tears almost broke Hercules heart, for he knew the smaller man was close to the breaking point, to have given in to tears as he had.  And to have been pushed to that point, he must have endured unimaginable agony.

Rage built in Herculesí soul for what Iolaus had endured.  And he vowed that no matter what, he wouldnít be hurt again.  Hercules would kill Vali if she laid a hand on Iolaus or caused him one moment of pain.

They could only depend on each other here, and that had always been enough before.  Here, however, their bond had been seen for what it was, and they were going to be kept away from each other.  For the first time, Hercules had doubts about their getting out of this.

Hercules held Iolaus for a long time, even after he realized his friend had fallen asleep.  It was probably the first time heíd allowed himself to feel safe since they were separated.  Hercules didnít need as much sleep as normal humans, thanks to his divine blood, and he sat for hours, listening to Iolausí soft breathing.

Hercules loved Iolaus very much.  He was the brother Iphicles could never be.  They had laughed and laughed and cried together, had been the best of friends since the day they met.  He had often thanked the Fates for sending Iolaus into his life.  As long as he knew his best friend was there, fighting at his back, telling his outrageous stories, and flirting with all the pretty girls, Hercules felt he could do anything.  They would survive this as they had survived other times of captivity.  He was sure of it.

The next day, Iolaus was sent to Valiís residence, where his training would be taken over by Valiís slave trainer.

Iolaus stood in front of Vali, silent, but head held defiantly.  His eyes flashed with anger as Vali walked around him, inspecting him.  "Very good.  Youíre intelligent, and learn quickly.  I like that."  She continued to slowly walk around him.  One hand reached out to brush through his unruly curls, then slide down the back of his neck, down his shoulder and over his chest.  Iolaus didnít move, standing very stiffly.  It took all his will power to endure this humiliation.

Vali chuckled.  "Yes, man, swallow your pride and your anger.  It wonít do you any good and will only get you killed.  Get used to this.  You are mine!  And I intend to show you off!  You will make a pretty decoration for my arm, and everyone who sees you will be green with envy of me!"  Her laughter rang through the marble halls of the villa.  Iolaus clenched his hands into fists so tight, his fingers went white.

Slowly, Iolaus unclenched his hands.  He was remembering other times things that had seemed hopeless.  When he had been little more than a slave.  He remembered being treated just like this by the Sovereign, as a toy, a plaything, there for his amusement.  He had survived and regained his freedom then.  He and Hercules had been captured by the despot, Menas Maxius, as well, even before the incident with the Sovereign.  It had almost cost them their lives, but they had survived.  He would now, as well, and so would Hercules, and they would return home.

Iolaus turned his head to look at Vali.  His eyes raked over her.  He had to admit, she was one of the most beautiful women heíd ever seen.  She was probably as vain as any other princess heíd ever met, too.

"Mistress ValiÖ."

Vali, whoíd been speaking with one of her aideís, jerked her head around.  Iolaus smiled at her.  "Youíre probably still tired after your long trek.  Why donít I prepare a scented bath for you?  I could wash your hair, then give you a massage to help you relax and rest."

Valiís lips began to curl up.  "Well.  What have we here?  Youíre either very devious or you want to live very much.  I suspect itís the latter.  All right, my golden one.  Let us see what hidden talents you have."

Iolaus bowed and almost ran from the room.  He managed to hold his grin until he was out of her sight.

Soon enough, Vali came for her bath.  She insisted Iolaus join her, so that he could properly wash her hair.  When she saw the marks across Iolausí back, she went into a rage.  She sent for Linn.

Vali made Linn wait until she had finished her bath and her hair had been dried.  She had Iolaus help her dress in a short green leather skirt, matching leather crop top, and high boots.  He accompanied her to meet Linn.

Linn bowed as Vali entered the room.  "My Lady, welcome back."

"You marked him," Vali growled.  She gestured at Iolaus, who was still shirtless.  "You marked that beautiful body."

Linnís eyes widened as Vali advanced on her.  She started to back up, but Valiís scream froze her in her tracks.

"*DONíT MOVE!*  I didnít say you could move!!"  Vali reached Linn and she hit her in the mouth with her fist as hard as she could, knocking her to the floor.

Iolaus watched, his eyes slowly getting wider and wider, as Vali beat Linn, who only raised her arms to protect her face, but otherwise made no move to defend herself.  When he realized she was intent on killing the trainer, he stepped between them.  "Stop!" he yelled.  He wasnít going to let anyone die because of him.

The blow Vali had aimed at Linn caught Iolaus in the mouth, though she had managed to pull most of it at the last instant, and it didnít hurt him.  "What are you doing?!  Get out of the way!  Iíll *kill* her for daring to mark you!"

"No."  Iolaus shook his head.  "Please."

Linn stared at Iolaus wide-eyed.  He, a slave, was daring Valiís wrath, for her.  He was jeopardizing his life to save hers.  And she couldnít understand why.

"She did what she was supposed to do.  I fought her.  She had to."

Vali reached out to stroke Iolausí face.  "She didnít have to mark you.  You are too beautiful for that."

Iolaus shrugged.  "She didnít leave any new scars.  And itís not like I donít have any.  I have a multitude."

Valiís lips curled into a smile.  "I shall enjoy finding each and every one of them.  And you will tell me the tale behind them all."  Her smile faded as she looked at Linn, who was still on her knees behind Iolaus.

Iolaus followed Valiís gaze, then looked back at her.  "Please, Mistress," he said softly.  "Enough.  Let her go."  He reached out to stroke her face, then pulled her down into a kiss.

Without breaking the kiss, Vali looked at Linn and motioned toward the door.  Linn got to her feet and bowed, slowly backing out of the room.

Finally, Vali broke the kiss.  She smiled at Iolaus.  "My, my, you are a treasure, indeed," she said huskily.  She laced her fingers through his and pulled him after her towards the bedroom.  "Why donít we see what other talents you have?"  Iolaus nodded, but his smile didnít reach his eyes.

Hercules had been dismayed when Iolaus was sent away.  He had to tread carefully here.  There was a possibility Iolaus would be made to pay for his, Hercules, transgressions.  Hercules wouldnít be able to live with himself if he was the cause of any pain inflicted upon Iolaus.

Hercules listened to the slaves whispering among themselves.  He saw Seagare and walked over, crouching beside the bench the older man sat on.  "Seagare?  Whatís going on?"

"The messenger said Vali saw the marks on Iolaus that Linn inflicted with her whip and has gone into a rage.  She summoned Linn to appear at once."

"So why all the excitement?"

"You donít understand.  Linn is only a slave trainer.  Vali is a princess and next in line for the throne.  She could kill Linn with impunity."

Hercules frowned.  "Because she whipped Iolaus?"

"Yes.  She marked Valiís prize, without her permission.  Vali has been known to kill with very little provocation, slaves and citizens alike."

Now Hercules was worried, concerned for Iolausí safety in the hands of such a woman.  He had to know that Iolaus was all right.  He had seen Vali beat one of her warriors while they were traveling, flying into a rage over an inconsequential incident.  He knew she was mad and didnít understand why she was tolerated.

Everyone was shocked by Linnís appearance when she returned.  She was helped to her quarters by one of her aides and Seagare was sent for.  He took Tera with him, then a little later came for Hercules.

Linn was lying in bed when Hercules walked in.  Her left eye was swollen shut, she had a goose egg on her cheek and her lower lip was split and swollen.  Seagare had told him she had badly bruised ribs, one was broken, and she had been badly battered.  Vali had been like a demon, determined to kill her, until Iolaus had interfered.  He reassured Hercules that Iolaus was all right, and that Vali hadnít turned her anger on him.

Linn looked at Hercules.  "Why did he do it?" she asked.

Hercules knew what she meant.  He shook his head.  "I donít know.  Will you tell me what happened, please?  Perhaps I can tell you then, Mistress."

Linn told him what had happened.  "She could have killed him.  After the way I treated him, he should have enjoyed watching me die at her hands, beaten the same way I beat him."

Hercules shook his head.  "He couldnít.  It isnít in him.  Iolaus has the purest soul of any person I have ever met.  He believes in people.  He believes there is good in everyone, and heíll find it if he looks hard enough.  And he didnít want to be responsible for your death."

Linn looked at the ceiling.  Tera was sitting in a chair at the head of the bed.  "She needs to rest now," she said quietly.

Hercules rose.  He was stopped at the door by Linnís voice.  "I wouldnít have done it.  If I had been in his place."  She looked at Hercules.  "I would not have had the courage."

Hercules shook his head.  "Courage is doing what you know is right, whatever the cost.  And we all have that capacity."  He bowed and left.

Hercules was determined to survive.  He remembered what he had endured during his Labors, and thought of Menas Maxius and his gladiators, as well, and knew that he could do this.  He thought of his mother and brother, of Jason, Rena, Salmoneous.  Of Xena and Gabrielle.  All his and Iolausí friends and family, waiting for them to return.  He wouldnít let these women beat him.

Hercules learned first-hand what Iolaus had been trying to tell him.  These women did want to break them.  And they would employ whatever technique they felt necessary.  They had become masters of inflicting the most torturous pain, without damaging a healthy, valuable slave.  It was no wonder the men here were so meek.  Generations of this had broken them.

But Hercules often found Linn watching him, studying him.  She never raised her hand against him, whether in fear of Vali or Deron, as he was to go to the queen, or because she had learned a lesson in pain herself, he didnít know.

Hercules stood quietly as Deron inspected him.  He answered when spoken to and waited.  Finally, she seemed satisfied.  He was taken to her villa and trained as her personal body slave.  He was to remain at her side at all times unless dismissed, and his duties were varied.  He was surprised to find, however, that she did not expect him to warm her bed.

Hercules looked up as someone stopped beside him.  He started to rise, but Deron shook her head.  He remained where he was, sitting on a balcony watching the sun go down.  Deron put a hand on his head and stroked his hair.

"Itís beautiful, isnít it, Hercules?"

"Yes, it is, lady."

Deron shook her head.  "Not when we are alone, Hercules.  I am an old woman, and I know it.  You may call me by name, and speak freely."

Hercules slowly shook his head.  "No.  I donít think you really want me to speak freely."

"Youíre wrong.  I do.  What were you thinking about, just now?"

Hercules returned his gaze to the sunset.  "I was thinking about my mother.  Sheís probably worried about us now, wondering why we havenít come to visit in so long.  Sheíll be sending messages out soon, for us to come home."

"And when no word comes, and you and Iolaus donít appear?"

"Sheíll get my brother to begin sending out searchers, men on horseback to scour the country asking about us.  Our friends will hear that we canít be found and begin to search for us.  Jason and the Argonauts who are left will find a ship and search the islands.  Xena and Gabrielle will follow our trail.  They might even could find us, given enough time.  Salmoneus will keep an eye and ear out for us or word of us.  Autolycus will look for us.  He calls himself the Ďking of thievesí.  Iíve seen him steal things right out from under its guards noses, so I guess he deserves the title."  Hercules chuckled.  "Heís not such a bad person, though he tries to act tough."

"How long will they search?  What will happen when no one finds you or word of you?"

Hercules leaned back on his hands.  "My mother will probably demand that my father find me.  Xena will get Ares involved.  If I know her, sheíd make a deal with him to find us."

"Your father is Zeus, correct?  King of the Gods?  Which would make Ares, the God of War, your older brother."

"Yes, on both counts.  Not that I get along with either of them.  I donít expect them to help me and I wonít ask for their help."

Deron looked at the horizon.  "I know how that feels.  Not wanting to ask for help.  Not getting along with family who should be close to you."  She looked at him.  "You love your mother very much."

Hercules nodded.  "Yes, I do.  Sheís endured a lot, both because of my father and because of me.  Sheís the strongest, bravest woman I know."

"HerculesÖI am sorry.  I hope that, one day, you will find it in your heart to forgive me."

Hercules frowned, looked at her.  "For what?"

"I am the reason you and your friend are here."

"I donít understand."

"You spent four weeks with my daughter.  Youíve seen what she is capable of.  I have taken a good look at my people, Hercules, and I am horrified at what we have become.  We have become a debased, sadistic society that is slowly crumbling into ruin.  All this beauty is but a thin veneer over a rank and decaying body.  The time has come to put it out of its misery before it can harm too many more people.  I prayed to my goddess, Hercules, to send someone to help my people.  I wept for many nights in her temple, begging her to somehow spare us, to save us from this degeneration.  And then my sisterís pet ran away, only to be returned with two men the likes of which none of us had ever seen before."

"How is it that this valley remains hidden?  Donít people find their way here, see you from the bluffs?"

"No.  There is a spell laid over the valley by our goddess, to protect it.  We may come and go, but no outsider may enter here.  Anyone looking into the valley would just see a valley, perhaps hidden by dense mists."

Hercules shook his head.  "What do you expect us to do?  You have made us slaves, separated me from Iolaus."

"Vali knows you have my permission to seek out Iolaus whenever you wish."  Deron smiled.  "I told her I would make this one concession, to keep the two of you happy and subservient."  Her smile dimmed and she sighed.  "Vali.  My daughter.  She was so beautiful when she was a little girl, so happy.  What did I do wrong?"

"From what Iíve seen, it wasnít just you."

"Youíre right.  You know, legend says that our foremothers were kept in  virtual slavery by their husbands and fathers.  And one day they revolted, and drugged the men, and turned them into slaves.  They wanted to teach the men a lesson.  But many women didnít want to go back to the Ďoldí ways.  They found they liked being in power.  So men became slaves.  And as the years passed, men were seen as having little value beyond breeding either more slaves or daughters to rule after their mothers.

"But there was no new blood coming into our culture.  And it was continuing to change.  Until it reached a point where a woman could kill her newborn son as if he were nothing.  I have sons, Hercules.  Two of them.  I had both dedicated to the temple at birth, in order to save their lives.  No one can touch them, they belong to the Goddess.  I also had four daughters.  Only Vali now lives.  One died as an infant.  I suspect she was smothered by one of her sisters, most probably Vali.  One died in childbirth, and left me a granddaughter.  And Vali murdered the other, though I have no proof of this."

"Arenít you afraid for your granddaughterís life, if Vali did kill two of her own sisters?"

"No.  Vali has raised Asha as her own, and she is a devious, evil girl now fifteen years old."  Deron sighed, shaking her head.  "My people are becoming a festering evil, Hercules, and it must be stopped.  Even if it means the destruction of this valley."  She placed a hand on his head and stroked his long hair.  "Iím sorry, Hercules, that you and your friend were dragged into this."

Hercules took her hand and kissed it.  "Deron, we will find a way to help you."  He grinned.  "As Iolaus would say, itís what we do."

Deron laughed.  "May the goddess protect you both, Hercules."  She kissed the top of his head, rather like his mother was apt to do, then went inside.
 

Iolaus jumped as something crashed to the floor near him.  He looked around, to find Sivari had dropped a tray of sweets.  Iolaus went to help him clean up the mess.

"No, Iolaus!  Youíll get into trouble, too!"

"It was an accident, Sivari.  No oneís perfect.  Accidentís happen."

Mistress Linn appeared.  "You again, Sivari!  You clumsy excuse for a man!  What does it take to teach you to walk a straight line?!"  She grabbed him by the shoulder.  "Maybe if I lay a few lashes along that back, you wonít forget so easily!"

"It wasnít his fault.  It was mine.  I didnít see him when I rounded the corner and I bumped into him.  I shouldíve been watching where I was going," said Iolaus.

Mistress Linn looked at Iolaus.  She studied him for a moment.  He looked at her calmly.  "You should be more careful, Iolaus.  He could have been carrying a tray of hot soups."

Iolaus nodded.  "Of course, Mistress."  Iolaus couldnít resist smiling at her and winking.  He knew she knew he was lying.

To his surprise and delight, she smiled at him and winked back.  "Sivari, when you finish cleaning this up, I think you should seek Tera out.  Talin worked you hard today, you should rest."

"Y.yes, Mistress."  Sivari looked from her to Iolaus and back, mystified.

"Iolaus, youíd better get back to Vali, I think sheís about ready to send the guards after you."

"Yes, Mistress."  He waved at Sivari and left, almost bouncing.

Iolaus grinned at Hercules, who was sitting beside Deron.  He smiled back, watching as Iolaus slid onto the couch behind Vali, grabbing her wrist as she started to take a bite of a fig and guiding it instead to his own lips.  Vali laughed and stroked his cheek, commenting to the other banquetors around her that sheíd never enjoyed a slave as much as she did Iolaus.  He put his chin on her shoulder and grinned impishly.

"Well, she keeps me well-fed, bathed, I donít have bandits and warlords chasing me and trying to kill me, and I donít have to work."  Iolaus laid down, his head on her stomach.  "Who wouldnít be happy?"

Vali laughed and fed Iolaus grapes.  "Pest!  Youíre becoming spoiled!"

"Mm-hm.  And you love giving me anything I want."  He pulled her into a kiss.

"Imp!" Vali laughed.  She stroked his chest.   "Off with you, now.  Get a good nightís rest, youíll be busy tomorrow."

"Anything for you, Mistress."  Iolaus stole another kiss, one that took her breath away, then he, along with Hercules and the others slaves, left the room.

Hercules waited until they were out of the room before leaning against the wall and laughing until tears ran down his face.  "Iolaus!"  He shook his head.  "Youíre impossible!"

Iolaus was grinning fit to bust.  "Hey, she likes me.  Of course, what woman can hold out against me for long?"

The two headed for the quarters they would share that night, as both Vali and Deron were staying overnight, along with several other high-ranking women.  They would be making choices of which of Linnís Ďtraineesí they would take with them tomorrow.

Iolaus frowned as he examined the torque.  "Herc, I canít even find where this thing fits together."  He sat down beside his friend on the bed.  "We gotta get that thing off of you.  If I could just get into the forgeÖ."

"Forget it, Iolaus, the place is off-limits.  Weíll fine another way to get it off.  In the mean time, just keep playing their game."

Iolaus laid down, looked at Hercules.  "You know that Valiís absolutely certifiable."

Hercules nodded.  "I know.  You be careful, Iolaus.  Promise me.  No matter what, donít let her goad you."

"I promise Iíll try, Herc.  Thatís the best I can do."

Hercules grasped his arm.  "No, Iolaus, itís not.  However long it takes, you can do it.  I need you to be here."  He leaned against the headboards.  "Iím scared, too, Iolaus.  I had a taste of this beforeÖ."

"With Serena," Iolaus whispered.

"Yeah.  I gave up my powers so I could marry her.  And it made me appreciate what you go through to be with me.  I may not say it very often, but I do appreciate you, Iolaus."

"I know, Herc."  He flung his arms over his head.  "Now how are we gonna get out of this mess?  Iím starting to miss Alcmeneís cooking!"

Hercules laughed.  "Valiís right about one thing, you are an imp!"

Iolaus tried to give him an injured look, but couldnít keep a straight face.  Their laughter was a relief from the stress of the last few days.  At least they were in this together.
 

Vali watched as Iolaus went through an intricate Tai ChíI exercise, every move slow and controlled.  He finally finished and walked over to a bench and picked up a towel.  He didnít hear Vali as she walked up behind him and his response was automatic as she touched him: he jumped and side-kicked.  Vali saw the kick coming and leaped out of the way.

Iolaus froze, a horrified look on his face.  "IÖIím sorry.  I didnít know you were there."

Valiís smile never wavered.  "Itís a good thing I believe you, golden one.  If I didnít, Iíd have to teach you a lesson about the folly of attacking your mistress."

Iolaus lowered his eyes.  "I am a warrior.  Itís what Iíve been for most of my life.  That kind of response canít be conquered in such a little amount of time, if ever."

"Thatís what makes you so interesting, Iolaus."

Iolaus jerked his head up.  That was the first time sheíd called him by name.  He accepted her kiss.  "Thereís a council meeting at my motherís tonight, as well as a banquet.  I want you to look your best.  Have Sivari help you get ready."

"I donít need his help."

"But youíll let him help you anyway, wonít you."

Iolaus sighed.  "Yes, Vali."

"Good.  Now, go on."

Sivari sat on Iolausí bed, watching him putting on his boots.  When he had arrived, Iolaus had pointed at him and told him to sit and not to move. Sivari had obeyed, dismayed by the look in Iolausí eyes.

"Iolaus, you could get into big trouble.  She said I was to help you.  If she finds out I didnít, she could have both of us whipped.  Itís not worth it."

"Donít ever say that!" Iolaus said fiercely.  "Every man deserves the right to make his own life, to be free!  Thereís only so much she can take away from me!"

"You really believe that?"

"I *know* that."  Iolaus shook his head.  "Iíd better go.  Vali wants to show me off, sheís going to get a show indeed!"

"Be careful, Iolaus."

"I will."  He squeezed Sivariís shoulder and went to meet Vali.

Hercules stood behind Deronís chair, arms crossed across his chest.  He was dressed in deep hunter green again tonight, from his boots to the open vest he wore.  A metal headband of silver held his hair away from his face, like a coronet.  Deron had chosen not to adorn him further this night, for which he was grateful.

Hercules watched as Iolaus walked in with Vali, a huge smile on his face as he escorted her to her couch and bowed as she sat.  He kissed her fingers, looking into her eyes as he released her.  He was dressed all in violet and gold.  Hercules had never seen him looking more beautiful.  He could also see the rage in his eyes.

Iolaus played his part well all night.  Hercules intrigued the women because of his size, but Iolaus drew them with his beauty.  All of them wanted to touch him.  Several offered Vali exorbitant prices for him.  One said she would give up all she had for him.  Vali laughed them all off.

"Vali, Iíll give you anything you want for him," said a priestess of the Lady.

Iolaus smirked at her, then looked innocently at Vali.  "Mistress, you wouldnít sell me so soon, would you?"

Vali laughed and caressed his curls.  "Hardly, golden one.  No, you are my treasure, now and always."

Iolaus kissed her hand again, stroking her arm.  "And shouldnít the next queen have the best treasure?"

"Is that what you are, the best?"

"Of course.  I belong to you, donít I?  How could I not be?"

"You play with words, golden one, as nimbly as your fingers stroke my flesh, but I enjoy it just as much!"  Vali laughed and fed him a honey cake.  Iolaus grasped her hand and licked the honey from her fingers.

Finally, the servants were all dismissed.  Vali would be staying overnight, so Iolaus could share Herculesí quarters.

Once in the slaves quarters, Iolaus stripped off the clothes Vali had chosen for him, then ran and dove into the pool.  He came up and shook his head, whipping hair and water out of his eyes.  But he said nothing.  He caught Herculesí eyes with his own, then looked up and to one side.  Hercules followed his gaze.  Two guards stood in the shadows of a balcony, watching and listening.

"Címon, Herc.  The waterís from an underground hot spring.  Itíll help you relax and youíll sleep better."

Hercules stripped and joined his friend in the pool.  They talked about what they had been doing, how their training was going, until the guards left.  They waited, then left the pool.  Wrapping towels around them and gathering their clothes up, Hercules led them to a small garden set aside for the use of the slaves.

"All the others will have gone to bed.  Weíll have the place to ourselves.  The guards never come here.  They think thereís no way out, that no one could get over the wall."  Hercules put a hand on Iolausí shoulder.  He pulled him into a patch of moonlight and turned him so the light was falling on his chest and shoulders.  "I hope for your sake youíre keeping these clean," he said quietly.  Iolaus had several obviously human bites on his chest and shoulders, as well as many red claw-marks across his back.

Iolaus shrugged.  "Sheís like having a tiger by the tail.  Sheís unpredictable.  She bites like one, too, her teeth are sharp.  I swear she has fangs."  He chuckled.  Hercules didnít.  Iolaus turned his back on his friend and walked off a few steps.  "I want to go home, Herc," he said, very quietly.

Hercules put his arms around Iolaus and hugged him back against him.  Iolaus let his head fall back against Herculesí shoulder as he grasped his wrists.  "I know, Iolaus.  So do I.  I just donít know how to get away from here." Quietly, he told Iolaus everything Deron had told him.  Iolaus just listened until he was finished.

"Sheís asking us to destroy this place, basically."

"Yes," said  Hercules.

"Huh."  Iolaus shook his head.  "I wouldnít have believed a person could actually want to do something like that."

"I think Deronís basically a good person, Iolaus.  She knows right from wrong, even though she was raised in this culture.  Maybe, too, the fact that sheís a priestess of this goddess gives her some insight."

"Maybe."  He looked at Hercules.  "Then why doesnít she take this off of you?"  He gestured at the torque.

"I donít know.  Maybe sheís waiting for the right time."

Upon returning to Herculesí quarters, Hercules insisted on cleaning the bites Vali had inflicted upon Iolaus.  He gathered ointment, clean cloths, and herbs and returned to his quarters.

Hercules mixed the herbs into a concoction to clean the wounds with.  Iolaus hissed as he cleaned a bite on his shoulder.  "Iím sorry, Iolaus, but theyíre deep and will get infected if I donít do this."

"I know.  Donít mind me."

Hercules shook his head.  "Iíve seen people bites turn poisonous a lot more often, and more quickly, than dog bites or bites from wild animals."

Iolaus nodded, then jumped.  "Ow!"  Hercules was shaking his head over a bite on the back of Iolausí left shoulder.  "I know, I know!  If I didnít know better, Iíd swear she was one of those blood-drinkers I heard about in Egypt."

"Blood-drinkers?"  asked Hercules.  "I donít remember that story."

"Itís said that this man who was cursed by a god.  Heís not dead, but heís not alive.  He canít come out in the day, sunlight would kill him.  And he can only drink blood to sustain himself.  He can pass this curse on if he wants, to his victims, by taking their blood into him, but just to the brink of death.  Then, before they lose consciousness, he opens a vein and give it back to them, by them drinking it.  And they die, yet live.  Theyíre immortal."

"Whoever told you that story didnít believe it, did they?  Surely something that disgusting canít be true."

"Hercules, where the gods are concerned, I wouldnít put it past them."

Hercules grinned and nodded his agreement.  "Youíre right, Iolaus."

Hercules didnít share his quarters with another slave, so there was an empty bed for Iolausí use.  Both men were sound asleep within minutes of lying down.

As Valiís party prepared to leave the next morning, Hercules clasped Iolausí forearm in the warriorís handshake.  They locked eyes and Iolaus nodded.  Neither said a word and Iolaus followed Vali down the street.

Iolaus lifted his head as he heard Vali scream.  She was yelling at someone, then he heard the snap of a whip.  He jumped up and ran toward the sound.  Vali was standing over Sivari, who was curled into a tight ball on the floor.  She was yelling at him how worthless he was, and not worth the effort sheíd put into him, and she should never have saved his life to begin with.  She lifted the whip to hit him again and Iolaus caught the end of it.

Vali spun to see what had caught her whip.  "What do you think you are doing?" she asked, her voice calm, but with an underlying threat to it.

"What did he do?"

"What business is that of yours?  Youíre only a slave, just like him!"  Valiís eyes narrowed.  "Careful, golden one, or you may share his punishment."

Iolaus cocked his head.  "Heís not animal.  Even animals arenít beaten for the slightest error.  No oneís perfect, everyone, even you, make mistakes."

Vali snarled at him and jerked the whip free.  "Youíre right.  And you just made one."  She jerked the whip away from him and lash out with it, a strike Iolaus deftly avoided.

Iolaus crouched, smirking at Vali.  He knew this was a reckless thing to do, but he couldnít let her beat Sivari for some imagined slight.  He caught the whip, wrapping it around his hand and jerking it away from her.  As she lunged at him, he threw himself to one side.  But the floor was slick marble, and he slid, giving her a chance to grab his leg.  She straddled his waist, pinning his arms over his head.  He wrapped his legs aound her waist and flipped her off of him, so that he was straddling her, with her arms pinned.

Vali smiled at Iolaus and then struck, hitting him in the shoulder with enough force to knock him off of her.  She followed and touched the inside of his right thigh.

Pain exploded through Iolausí body.  He clamped his jaws shut in the effort not to scream, curling into a ball.  Vali released him and he lay on the floor, gasping.  She knelt beside him, stroking his curls.

"You will learn not to defy me, golden one.  One way or another."  She touched the back of his left shoulder, and this time Iolaus did scream.

Sivari, hiding behind a marble pillar, drew his knees up to his chest and put his hands over his ears in an effort to shut out the sound of Iolausí screams.  Tears flowed down his face.  Iolaus was suffering because of him.  It was his fault.  But he was too much of a coward to help Iolaus now.  He prayed to the Goddess to help Iolaus, offering to trade his own life for that of the brave warrior.

Iolaus was unconscious by the time Vali was satisfied heíd learned his lesson.  She called two of her guards to take him to the slave quarters.

Once Iolaus was in his quarters, Sivari set a younger man to sit with him.  There wasnít much that could be done, but Sivari would do what he could.  The first order of business was to send someone for Tera.  She was the only one who could help after this kind of attack, which left the victim with cramping muscles and twitching limbs.

When the messenger came, Tera went to Linn.  Hercules was also there, having been Ďloanedí to Linn for the day by Deron.  Linn sent him with Tera, as her guide, though she didnít need one.

When they arrived, and Hercules saw Iolaus, he was appalled and angered.  "Why?" he asked as he crouched beside the bed, one hand stroking Iolausí tousled curls.  He lay curled on his side on the bed, obviously still in pain.  His breathing was uneven and he was covered with sweat, hands twitching uncontrollably, spasms contracting his arms and legs painfully.

Hercules looked at Sivari, who shook his head.  "He heard Mistress Vali beating me and interfered.  She didnít like it.  ItÖit was like he goaded her into attacking him.  And he fought back.  I think that enraged her the most.  IÖI thought she was going to kill him."

"He isnít safe yet," said Tera.  "The body can only withstand so much pain before it gives in.  She has pushed Iolaus to the edge.  His heartbeat is unsteady, his breathing is uneven.  Heís already feverish.  This is not good." She began giving orders to Sivari, telling him what she needed.

Hercules held Iolausí hand and stroked his hair.  "Hold on, Iolaus.  My brave, fool-hardy friend, donít leave me in this alone."

Iolaus stirred.  "H.herc?"

"Iím here, Iolaus."

"G.guessÖI w.wasÖpretty dumbÖhuh?"

"Letís just say, maybe you went a little too far.  How do you feel?"

"IÖI hurtÖeverywhere."

"Why did you do it, Iolaus?  She could have killed you."

"N.no.  N.notÖnot yet.  S.she wonít."  He swallowed hard, wincing.  Hercules saw the shiver than ran through him.  "Sh.she was goingÖto killÖSivari.  I saw itÖin her eyes.  I c.couldnítÖlet that happen."

Hercules sighed.  He was in agony, seeing Iolaus like this.  He knew that Iolaus, with his spirit, was in constant danger, not just from Vali, but from any of these women.  None would hesitate to hit or use their pain technique on him at the slightest provocation.  And there was nothing Hercules could do except pray that Iolaus would be careful.

Tera, who had left the room while Hercules talked to Iolaus, returned.  "Hercules, Iíve had a warm bath prepared for Iolaus.  It will help the cramping in his muscles.  Will you bring him?"

Hercules picked Iolaus up.  The fact that Iolaus didnít protest being carried worried him more than anything.  Once, heíd even refused to be carried after breaking his leg, hobbling around on a crutch instead.

Hercules helped Iolaus undress, then set him in the warm water.  Tera gently massaged his abused muscles, which also helped to soothe frayed nerves.  Finally, the twitching stopped and so did the cramping.  He was still unsteady, however, and had to lean on Hercules as he stepped from the bath.  Hercules wrapped him in a large, thick towel, helping him dry off.  Iolausí shaky legs wouldnít hold him, so Hercules carried him back to his quarters after helping him dress.

Iolaus was asleep by the time Hercules laid him on the bed.  Tera commented that she wondered how heíd managed to stay awake as long as he did.  "Heís very lucky, Hercules.  Talk to him.  I know how this captivity is wearing on him, but goading Vali into killing him isnít the answer."

"I know.  TeraÖthank you."

"I admire him, and you, Hercules.  Your presence here has triggered something.  Because of my skills as a healer, I have access to almost every home in this valley.  I hear things.  And I know that in a few of these homes, though it is kept a carefully guarded secret, men are not slaves.  They are lovers and fathers.  Boy children are hidden and raised by both mother and fatherÖloved by both parents.  But it isnít enough anymore.  They want to bring this into the open, for men to be the equal of women.  They want to rejoin the outside world.  And some have seen you and Iolaus and are asking themselves questions.  If the rest of the world is such a bad place after all, and if it can be so wrong for men and women to be equal."  She put a hand on Herculesí shoulder, then touched Iolausí chest.  "He will be fine by morning, though sore.  I will return to Linn.  You stay with him, but try to keep out of Valiís sight, and return to Linnís first thing in the morning."

Hercules nodded.  "I will."  He squeezed Teraís hand and she left.

Hercules sat beside Iolaus all night.  As the night wore on, just as Hercules had expected, Iolaus began to toss as nightmares invaded his sleep.  He reached out to put a hand on Iolausí shoulder as he jerked and awoke.

For an instant, Iolaus didnít know where he was or who was beside him, and he leaned away from Herculesí touch.  Then he heard Hercules voice, speaking softly to him, and relaxed.

"Herc."  He laid back.  "Youíre still here."

"Yes, Iolaus.  I have orders from Tera not to leave you alone."

"Iím not a child, Hercules, who needs comforting after a nightmare," Iolaus said peevishly.

"I know that.  But she was worried you might have more cramps.  The damage may not be visible, Iolaus, but your body took some major punishment."

Iolaus sighed.  "I know, Iím sorry."

"Itís OK."  He poured a cup of water and handed it to the hunter.  "Here.  Tera also said to get you to drink as much water as possible."

Iolaus took the cup.  "What are you still doing here, anyway?  What are you doing here in the first place?"

Hercules chuckled.  "I was helping out at Linnís when the messenger came for Tera.  Linn sent me along to help.  She said you needed me, and I was to do whatever Tera said."

"Hmm.  Linn said that?"

"Yes."

Iolaus laid back against the pillow, then moved down.  Hercules tucked the blanket around him, even as Iolaus mumbled about not being a kid.  Hercules only smiled and stroked his hair back as he sighed and went back to sleep.

Hercules sat back in his chair.  "What would I ever do without you, my friend?"

Next morning, before Hercules left, he had a long talk with him about why heíd goaded Vali into attacking him and tried to make him promise not to do it again.  Iolaus refused and Hercules finally gave up.

Hercules hugged Iolaus.  "Be safe, Iolaus.  Please.  If not for your sake, then for mine."

Iolaus hugged Hercules tight in return.  "OK."

Sivari watched the two men from the shadows.  A thoughtful look crossed his face.  What kind of world could produce two such strong, independent men, who yet depended on each other so much?  And where this wasnít seen as a weakness, but as perhaps their greatest strength?  He had a lot to think about.
 

Hercules looked up from his task as Linn came into the room.  She beckoned him to come with her.  He followed her to a bench on the far side of the gardens.

"How is Iolaus?" she asked as she sat down

Hercules crouched in front of her.  "He was pretty sore this morning, but he seemed fine otherwise."

"Good."  Linn looked at him, tucking a strand of hair behind one ear.  "Everyoneís talking about the two of you, from the men to the priestesses."

Hercules shrugged.  "And why would everyone be concerned with a pair of slaves?"

Linn laughed.  "Hercules, the two of you will never truly be slaves.  You may be playing along now, but eventually, when the time is right, you will tear away any perceived shackles and leave this place.  And in doing so, you will turn our world upside down and inside out.  Whether that be for the best or the worst, only time will tell."

"You donít seem too concerned."

"Ah, but I have Seagare, and my daughter.  I am learning what it is like to care about more than myself.  And I have you and especially Iolaus to thank for that.  I feel as if I have been asleep for a very long time, and have just awakened to find that the world is a very different place than when I went to sleep."  Her smile faded.  "Our people are splitting into two factions.  Deron has been quietly and privately querying who is for change and who is against.  Those for are rallying to her; those against are supporting Vali."

"And Iolaus is caught in the middle," Hercules muttered.

"Yes."  Linn put a hand on his arm.  "Hercules, you can best help him by helping us change our way of thinking.  Some of us are gathering tonight, at Deronís, to talk about this.  About the changes we want to make.  Will you talk to us?  Answer our questions about what itís like out there?"

Hercules nodded.  "Yes.  I will."

"Good."  She stood.  "I must go.  I am lunching with my daughter."  She shook her head.  "I was a fool and missed out on much of her first seventeen years.  I want to miss as little of the next seventeen as possible."  She smiled and left him to return to his task.
 

Vali dismissed Iolaus and watched him leave, then summoned one of her guards.  Giving her a jar, she told her, "Take this to Locita.  Sheíll know what to do with it.  And whatever you do, donít open it!"

"Yes, Vali!"  The guard bowed and left.

Vali rubbed her hands together.  "So, youíre plotting against me, are you, my mother?  It wonít work.  Enjoy your evening; it will be your last!"

At Deronís villa, the guard, Nika, went to the guards quarters.  Her sister, Locita, was there, preparing for the evening.

"Locita?"

Locita looked up and frowned.  "What do you want?" she asked brusquely.

"Nothing.  But the Lady Vali has a task for you."

"No."

"Do you really want to refuse her?"

Locita looked at her sister.  "Youíre as mad as she is," she spat.

Nika laughed.  "Perhaps."  She held out the small jar.  "She said you would know what to do with it."

Locita took the jar carefully.  Unsealing it and opening the lid just a crack, she peered into it, then shoved the lid back on.  "Merciful Goddess," she breathed, shuddering.

Nikaís eyes had widened at the hairy, sun-colored leg that had thrust through the crack.  "Goddess, what is that?"

"What do you think?" Locita snapped.

"How did she catch it?"

"Probably with her hands."  She carefully re-sealed the jar.  "This is the last time, Nika.  You tell her."

Nika smirked.  "Then you can watch your lover die on the alter of the Goddess."

"The Goddess has never asked for human blood to be spilt for her!  You donít worship the Goddess, but some demon!  Or perhaps itís just Valiís whim, a way for her to control the rest of you!  Get out!"

Nika laughed.  "You just remember, little sister.  Youíre loveís life depends on you obeying Vali.  And in case youíre thinking about warning Deron, donít.  You donít know who here is actually loyal to Vali."  Nikaís laughter echoed back to her as she left.

Locita looked at the jar.  Tears trailed down her face.  "Goddess forgive me," she whispered.
 

That evening, Hercules helped Deron get ready for the evening and they talked about Vali.  Deron told him what she had been like as a child, and of her dismay when she saw the beginnings of her daughters madness.

"I knew she had a cruel streak.  She would beat slaves and citizens alike.  I thought at first that she was simply spoiled.  But by the time she reached her teens, I knew it for what it was.  She had no sense of the other personís pain.  No one, not even myself, truly meant anything to her."

"And yet she was allowed to continue, to become a leader."

"I couldnít prove anything.  Most everyone else saw nothing wrong with what she was doing.  My own sister was apt to kill her slaves on a whim; Vali was no different."

"Vali did something, didnít she, that woke you up to what your people were becoming."

"Yes.  She gave birth to a boy child.  And as soon as she saw that she had born a male baby, she cut his throat.  I was there, I saw her.  She ordered the body burned.  And I learned that she wasnít the first to do something so atrocious.  I remembered the boys I had given birth to, and whom I had dedicated to the temple.  I looked at the men around me, and for the first time, I saw fathers, and lovers, and sons and brothers.  They were us, our other halves, and we needed them.  That was almost two years ago.  That was when I began praying to the Goddess for help."

Hercules fastened a necklace for her and put his hands on her shoulders.  "Your people have to want to change, Deron.  Iolaus and I can only show you the way.  We canít make you take it.  And we have our own lives and family to return to."  He touched the torque at his throat.  "And I canít do as much as I would like so long as I wear this."

"I know, Hercules."  She put a hand over his and sighed.  "I cannot remove it.  Only the Goddess can.  There is a secret to it that only she knows.  She said that it would bind you until the time came.  I donít know what she meant.  Iím sorry."  She looked at him.  "If I were thirty, even just twenty years younger, I wouldnít let you get away from me, you know."  She smiled at him as he chuckled and bent to kiss her cheek.

"My Lady, you remind me too much of my mother."

Deron laughed, then slipped her arm through Herculesí and he led her out to the waiting guests.

Hercules found that he wasnít to serve on this night.  He was there as one of them, to answer questions about the outside world and how to best defeat Vali and her warriors, for they all knew she would never willingly let any of them leave.

"Then you have three choices, as I see it," said Hercules.  "You can sneak out.  You can fight.  Or you try to bring as many of your people around to your way of thinking as possible, and force Vali out of the valley that way."

"Iím not sure that would work.  There are too many of the younger generation who are as debauched as she is," said Gellan, a matron of Deronís generation.

"Maybe not as many as you think," said Zera, who was of an age with Vali.  "She has the warrior class, yes, but most of the citizenry still follow Deron, regardless of their age.  And we are all as skilled warriors as her followers, moreso in many cases."

Hercules glanced at the tray of fruit sitting between he and Deron and reached for one of the figs.  His hand froze as something moved.  "DeronÖmove away, please."

"What isÖ."

"JustÖmove away."

Deron moved away.  Everyone watched as Hercules slowly pulled his hand back, only to have something move even faster than he and fasten to his wrist.  It was a large yellow spider, almost the size of his hand.  It had been hidden under the golden grapes and apples.

Hercules cried out as the thing bit him.  He flung it to the floor, then grabbed a knife and threw it, impaling it to the floor, where it writhed until a servant killed it and removed it.

"Hercules!"  Deron raced over as he looked at his hand.  She got his hand.  "Linn, send for Tera, now!  Vali, what have you done?"

Hercules was shaking his hand.  "My handís gone numb!  What was that?"

"We call it a deathís head spider, because on their abdomen they have a mark like a skull.  Theyíre venomous."  Deron was shaking her head.

Hercules looked at her.  She was tying a tourniquet above the bite.  "How bad?"

"Depends on how much venom she got into you, and how much protection your divine blood affords you."

"And is there a treatment for the venom?"

"YesÖbut it doesnít always work.  And before you ask, sucking the venom out doesnít work and would only endanger the one sucking it out."  She saw him wince in pain.  "How do you feel?"

"How fast does the venom work, Deron?"

"Itís different for different people.  Come, letís get you back to your quarters."

Hercules was stumbling by the time they got to his quarters, leaning heavily on the two women who served as Deronís bodyguards.  He wasnít very lucid as he was laid on the bed, but he was lucid enough to know there was something he had to tell Deron, had to make her understand.

"Deron," he rasped.

Deron sat down beside Hercules, taking his hand.  "Iím here."

"Deron, swear to me, by your goddess, if anything happens to me, you wonít leave Iolaus in Valiís hands.  One way or another, youíll free him."

Deron clutched his hand and finally nodded.  "I swear by my Lady, Iolaus will be free."

"Thank you."

Deron stroked his face.  "You will be all right, Hercules.  I know it."

"IÖI feelÖnumbÖ."

Zera leaned over.  "Thatís a good sign, heís only experiencing the numbness, not the pain," she whispered.

Deron nodded.  "Yes.  Did Linn send for Tera?"

"Yes, but she was at Valiís checking on Iolaus.  She will be here soon."

"And Iolaus will no doubt be with her, even if he has to defy Vali."
 

Iolaus stood in front of Vali, hands curled into tight fists, jaw clenched.  Vali looked at him.  "I said, no."

"I have to go to him!"

"You donít *have* to do anything but what I tell you to do, slave!" Vali retorted sharply.  She gestured to her guards.  "Take him to his quarters.  See that he stays there."

When the guards reached for him, he kicked one, doubling her over, and grabbed the other by the wrist and flipped her over his hip.  He backed toward the door, only to suddenly find himself grabbed, his arms pulled up behind him and a knife laid to his throat.

Vali looked at him coldly.  "Take him to a detention room."

The detention room was an empty room, with only a pile of straw covered by a blanket.  There were no windows.  It was totally dark.  Shackles were bolted to the wall and ceiling.  Iolausí wrists were imprisoned by the shackles and he was left in the dark, cursing Vali, the guards, and himself.
 

Tera walked into Herculesí room, to find Deron herself taking care of him, bathing his face with cool water as he mumbled in delirium.  Deron looked up as she walked in.  "Did Iolaus come with you?"

"No, Lady, Vali forbade him."  Tera moved to the side of the bed and sat down on it.  She examined Hercules, then had Linn send for Aran.  "I will need his help.  Tell him we will need tea made from the borage plant, strong, to dose him with, and cedron seed to make a poultice with, to help draw out the poison, and if he doesnít have any, there is some in my workshop, heíll know where."  She put a hand on Herculesí chest.  "And Linn?  Tell him to *hurry*.

Linn went to take the message herself.  Deron looked at Tera.  "Are you totally blind?"

"Since the day of my birth, My Lady."

"Then how is it that you are a healer?"

"I see with my hands, my fingers are very sensitive.  And I see with my heart, as well."

"And this Aran?  Who is he?"

"He is my brother, and he is also a healer.  We work well together."

"Is he also blind?"

"No.  He is a man."  Tera shrugged.  "He is two years my junior, but he is a very talented healer in spite of this."

Deron looked at Hercules.  "Will he live?"

"By the grace of the Goddess, yes."

Linn and Aran soon arrived.  The two healers ignored everyone else in the room, and Linn made everyone leave except Deron.

As Linn shooed everyone out the door, she saw one of Deronís guards looking at Hercules with tears running down her face.  She frowned.  "Locita?"

Locita didnít look at her.  "HerculesÖoh, Goddess, what have I done?  Forgive me, Hercules!"

Linn grabbed the womanís arm and made her look at her.  "Locita, what are you going on about?"

Locita looked at her.  "Iím sorry, Linn.  Tell him that for me, will you?"  She pulled away from Linn and began to back up.  "Iím sorry."  She shook her head.

"Locita?"  Linnís eyes widened as she saw the guard pull a dagger.  "Locita, what are you doing?"

"She made me do it!  She has my lover!  My beautiful lover whom I pledged my heart to, and who pledged himself to me!  I failed, and she will kill him!  I canít live like this anymore, I wonít live without him!  Better to die now than be sacrificed to Valiís madness!"  She plunged the dagger into her own chest.

"NO!" cried Linn.  She ran to the guard, but it was too late.  She was already gone.  Linn closed her eyes and signaled two of her own guards to carry her out.  She looked back toward Herculesí room.  "Vali, you have gone too far.  Now you have us turning against each other and ourselves.  You have to be stopped, one way or another."  She returned to Herculesí room and told Deron what had happened.
 

Iolaus shielded his eyes as the door was opened, the sudden light blinding him.  The shackles holding him were long enough for him to sit down, but his hands were held at shoulder height.  As his eyes adjusted, he blinked, trying to see who had come.

"Are you ready to be reasonable now?" came Valiís voice.

"Are you ready to let me go to Hercules?" he asked in the same reasoning tone.

Vali backhanded him.  "You really are a glutton for punishment, arenít you, golden one?"

Iolaus looked at her.  "Arenít you?"

Vali crouched in front of him and grasped his chin.  She kissed him, hard.  He bit her lip, making her jerk back.  She grabbed him by the throat and squeezed.  Iolaus began to thrash, kicking her away from him.

Vali picked herself up, her eyes never leaving Iolaus as he gasped for breath.  "Why donít you kill me?" he gasped.  "Iíll never let you break me, Vali.  Never."

Vali grinned.  "But Iolaus, that is what makes you so interesting.  This test of wills between us.  Because I know that one day, I will break you, and you will be mine forever."  She caressed his curls, laughing as she stepped out of reach of his kick.  He was left in darkness again.

Iolaus laid his head back against the wall, his thoughts turning to Hercules.  "Hang on, Herc," he whispered.  "Please."
 

The spiderís venom was still coursing through Herculesí veins, making him feverish and delirious.  Heíd also had a bout of seizures, which alarmed Tera and Aran both.  Aran immediately began gathering the ingredients for a stronger medicine that would prevent the seizures, but he was missing one.

"I donít have any valerian root!" he told Tera in frustration.  "And I know you donít either, because you gave me the last of yours for Timus!"

"You must calm down, Aran.  You know where to find it.  Go."

"It will take several hours to go there and back.  He may not survive."

"He will.  We will see to it."

Linn gestured to Aran.  "Aran.  Come.  Iíll have my fastest horse saddled and get you where you need to go as fast as he will carry us."

"Thank you, Mistress!"  Aran scrambled to his feet and they were both hurrying to the stables.

Deron went to the door and looked for her guards.  She thought sadly of Locita, knowing she would give the woman a proper funeral.  But right now, Hercules needed her.

"Keth!  Sylea!  Go to Valiís.  Bring Iolaus to me.  If Vali protests, arrests her and bring her as well.  Take as many guards with you as you think necessary."

"It will be done, My Lady!"  Keth bowed and the two guards left.
 

Iolaus lifted his head.  He could hear the sound of people yelling.  The door was suddenly jerked open, blinding him.  As his eyes adjusted, someone came to stand beside him, unlocking the shackles.

"Deron has summoned you," said the guard, helping him to his feet.

"And Hercules?"

"He lives, but he is very ill.  She is with him."

Iolaus saw that Vali was surrounded by guards, and obviously very unhappy.  Keth mounted her horse and held out a hand to Iolaus.  He took it and swung up behind her.  They raced ahead of the others.

Iolaus was off the horse and running almost before he came to a stop.  He ran to Herculesí side, dropping to his knees beside the bed.  He gripped Herculesí right hand tight as he saw with dismay that his left hand and forearm were badly swollen, with red streaks radiating from the bite.  He was feverish and delirious.

"Herc?  Herc, can you hear me?  Iím here, Herc."  But Hercules gave no sign that he was aware of Iolausí presence.

Iolaus didnít take his eyes off Hercules, even when Deron gently bathed his bruised and skinned wrists and bound them with soft bandages.

"What did this to him?" he finally asked.

"A deathís head spider bit him," Deron said.  She looked at Hercules.  "It was meant for me, Iím sure.  Iím also sure that it was Valiís doing."

"She tried to assassinate you, then.  Are you going to do anything about it?"

"How do I prove it?  The only one who could answer my questions is dead, by her own hand.  Vali will claim the woman was acting on her own."

"Vali."  Iolausí voice held a wealth of hatred.  And a plan began to form in his mind.

Vali was finally allowed to leave, after being persuaded to let Iolaus remain until Hercules was out of danger.

Iolaus grabbed Tera and jerked her backwards as Hercules went into another seizure, thrashing uncontrollably.  He then pulled his friend against him, sliding in behind him and holding him until the seizure passed.  Iolaus talked to him, reminding Hercules of their past adventures, and how they had always survived.  He helped Tera get her teas down him and kept bathing his face and chest in cool water to keep his fever down.

"Herc, remember what you did for me, when Heraís fire enforcer killed me?"  He didnít notice how his words affected his listeners: Tera started and went very still, while Deron gave a little gasp and stared at him.  "You went to Hades and bargained with him to bring me back.  And you brought me back when the She-Demon turned me to stone.  And you think I donít remember the Amazons killing me, but I do.  I did eventually remember.  Maybe because I was around you and so many gods and goddesses.  But I do remember.  Three times, Herc, three times, you brought me back from death!  I would gladly do the same for you.  I would happily take your place now."

"Did he really bring you back from death?" asked Tera.

Iolaus looked at her.  "Yes, he did.  The first time, we went to help this village, andÖ"

Tera and Deron listened, enraptured, as Iolaus told his tales.  It also helped to take his mind off the passing of time as they waited for Aran and Linn to return, and prayed they arrived soon.

Aran and Linn returned in record time with the valerian root.  Aran quickly made the medicinal tea they needed and gave it to Hercules, a cup every hour or so.

Hercules fought against taking the tea, not lucid enough to realize they were trying to help him.  Until Iolaus coaxed him into drinking it.  Somehow, Iolausí voice cut through the delirium of the spiderís venom and calmed the demigod.

Iolaus brushed Hercules long hair back.  Hercules was finally sleeping peacefully, his fever broken.  He had been bathed and dressed and Aran and Tera had gone to get some sleep, Iolaus stubbornly refusing to leave or even lie down on the other bed.

Iolaus checked the swelling in Herculesí arm.  It wasnít as bad and the red streaks were gone, as was the heat that had radiated from it.  He redid the poultice.  Hercules roused just as he finished, taking a deep breath.  Iolaus clasped his good hand and laid one hand on his chest.  "Herc?  Címon, Herc, open your eyes.  Look at me."

Hercules felt terrible.  What had happened?  Everything was fuzzy, he couldnít remember.  He drew in a deep breath and let it out, then opened his eyes.

Iolaus smiled.  "Hey, there."

Hercules blinked at him, and memory suddenly surged back.  He smiled at Iolaus.  "IolausÖ."  His hand tightened on Iolausí.

"How do you feel?"  Iolaus poured a cup of water and helped Hercules sit up enough to drink it.

"Washed out and weak as a kitten."

"I bet."

"How long was I sick?"

"Just since last evening.  Itís mid-afternoon now."

"How long have you been here?"

"Since about mid-night."  He chuckled.  "Valiís not happy about it, either.  Deron practically took me away from her.  Wonder what sheíll have planned for me when I go back?"

"You canít go back to her now, Iolaus.  Sheíll kill you."

"No, she wonít.  Donít worry about me, Hercules."

"Like you donít worry about me?"  Iolaus only shrugged.  "Iím not in as much danger as you are, Iolaus.  Deronís not liable to kill me on a momentís whim."

Iolaus shook his head.  "You need to rest.  Weíll talk more later."

Hercules would have argued with him, but he was too tired.  He clasped Iolausí hand again as he let sleep claim him again, his friendís presence making him feel safe.

Iolaus wasnít beside him when Hercules woke next.  Tera had just entered the room, Aran right behind her with a tray of food.  Tera sensed that he was awake, as well as his distress.  "Itís all right, Hercules.  Look to your right.  He sleeps in the other bed.  He needs the rest, he hasnít slept since he arrived.  He was too worried about you."

Hercules looked and saw Iolaus curled on his side, his back to the room, on the other bed.  "He shouldnít worry about me so much."  Hercules sat up as Tera unwrapped his arm and examined the bite, her fingers moving lightly and surely across his skin.

"The poison is gone from your system.  You may feel weak for another day or so, but youíll be fine otherwise."

"Thank you, Tera."

"I didnít do it alone, Hercules.  Aran and Iolaus helped as much or more than I did."

"Especially Iolaus.  We couldnít have done half what we did without him.  Once you became delirious, you didnít know us," said Aran.  "He was able to calm you and get you to drink the medicinal teas to counter the poison."

"Heís saved my life before, on countless occasions."  He accepted the bowl of soup and thick slices of bread Tera gave him.

A few minutes later, Iolaus rolled over and stretched.  He sat up and grinned at seeing Hercules already awake and eating.

"Mm, what smells so good?" he asked.

"You must be starving, Iolaus.  We brought plenty," said Aran.

"You feel OK, Herc?"

Hercules nodded.  "Iím fine, Iolaus."

Satisfied, Iolaus got his own soup and bread and dug in.
 

Vali paced furiously.  Her guards were careful to keep out of her sight, lest she take her fury out on them.  She had already beat one slave unconscious, and they doubted he would survive such a beating.

"Nika!" Vali screamed.

Nika walked into the room and bowed.  "I am here, My Lady."

"Take a message to my mother: I want Iolaus sent back to me by dawn."

Nika bowed and left.  She wondered what Vali would do if he werenít returned.
 

Iolaus was laughing with Hercules when Deron came to see them.  She told Iolaus of Valiís message.

"Did she say what sheíd do if I didnít return?"

"No, but we all know what she is capable of."

"Then I have to go back."

"No, Iolaus," said Hercules, shaking his head.  "You donít.  Itís going to come down to a fight one way or another."

"Youíre in no shape to fight anyone right now.  I have to go back for now, Herc."  He shook his head and raised his hand, cutting off Herculesí arguments.  "Just for a little longer, until you can fight.  Until we figure out how to get that damn torque off."  He held out his hand and Hercules gripped it tight.

"Be careful, Iolaus.  And be safe."

"I will, my friend.  You rest and get well."

Deron watched as their eyes locked and said everything they didnítí speak aloud.  Then they both nodded and Iolaus turned and walked away.

Hercules watched Iolaus leave.  Deron sat down on the foot of the bed.  "Heíll be all right, Hercules.  She wonít hurt him."

"Much," Hercules growled.  He laid back, thrusting his fingers into his hair.  "I just feel so useless!  SoÖhelpless!"  He grabbed the torque.  "Damn this thing!"  He grabbed it in both hands, pulling on it, but it held.

Deron put a hand on his leg.  "Rest, Hercules.  I must go.  The time has come and I must prepare my allies.  The fighting will begin soon and we donít want Valiís warriors attacking without warning."  She smiled at him and left.
 

Vali was lounging in a bath when she heard someone quietly enter the room.  She thought it was a guard, until strong fingers slid into the water to touch her shoulders.  She opened her eyes and looked around into Iolausí solemn face.

Vali smirked.  "So, you came back."

"You sent for me."  He shrugged.

"And does your friend live?"

"Yes."

"And you would always chose him over me?"

"Yes."

Vali settled back into the water.  "Wash my hair for me, slave," she ordered.

Iolaus did as he was ordered.  He could feel the anger in her and wondered  what would happen now.
 

For the next five days, everything was deceptively calm.  Everything seemed to going on as normal.  But below the surface, a storm was brewing.  It just needed the right spark to set it off.  And that spark came in the form of a small, muscular blond man who reached the end of his endurance with captivity.
 

Iolaus brushed Valiís long hair out.  He had washed it for her during her bath, something she loved to have him do, and then had brushed it dry, so that it crackled and curled around his fingers like a living thing.

Vali caught Iolausí wrist and laid her head back to look at him.  She pulled him around in front of her.  Her eyes searched his face.  "Youíre unhappy."

Iolaus shrugged.  He started to turn away, but she put a hand on his hip and he looked at her.  "Thereís nothing you can do."

"You want to leave here."

"YES!" he hissed angrily.  His eyes narrowed.  "Why canít you understand?  I hate everyone here, and you most of all!"

Vali was taken aback.  Her eyes widened at the venom in his voice.  No male had ever dared to talk to her like that.  "Why?  Iíve given you everything you could possibly desire!  Am I not beautiful enough for you?  Do I not satisfy your passions?  Can you not love me?"

Iolaus shook his head.  "You have taken the one thing I treasure most: my freedom.  How could I love someone so cold and cruel as you?  You think nothing of inflicting pain for no reason at all.  You can take a persons life without one second of remorse.  Youíre as much a monster as any of the creatures Hercules and I have fought over the years."

Valiís nostrils flared with sudden anger.  Her eyes darkened to almost black.  And Iolaus struck, drawing the dagger heíd hidden beneath his tunic.

Vali felt his sudden tensing, and threw herself to one side, lashing out with a foot.  Iolaus twisted to one side and lunged at her.  She caught him and flipped him over her, rolling and gathering into a crouch to face him as he did the same.  When he threw himself at her, she slid to one side and shoved him past her with a hand between his shoulder blades.  Iolaus caught himself and spun, his hand coming around in a backhand slash with the dagger.  The tip caught Valiís cheek, spraying blood everywhere.  She screamed in rage.

Iolaus smirked with satisfaction at having drawn blood.  He pressed his attack, bringing the dagger back around, aimed for her heart.  She kicked his legs out from under him.  He rolled away from her kick and returned to a crouch, dagger held in front of him, his face grim.

Vali licked her lips.  "Iím going to beat you, Iolaus."

"Iíll die first."  He lunged at her.

Vali fell back under his attack.  She tripped on her robes and fell onto her back.  Iolaus straddled her and she caught his wrist as he stabbed down.  Moving suddenly, she bucked and rolled and their positions were reversed.  She twisted his wrist, forcing the knife back toward his throat.

Vali moved so suddenly, Iolaus wasnít prepared for it.  She suddenly twisted his arm in a different direction, there was a sickening snap and a surge of white-hot pain shot up his arm.  The dagger dropped from his suddenly numb hand as he screamed.

Vali picked up the dagger.  Iolaus, cradling his broken arm against his chest, watched her.  She shook her head.  "No, Iolaus, Iím not going to kill you.  Not like this.  Iím going to have you executed in front of everyone."  She sighed.  "A pity, for you truly are beautiful."  She walked over to the door and shouted for guards, who came running.  She nodded at Iolaus.  "Take him to one of the detention cells."

Iolaus shrugged off the guards hands as they came for him, and stood on his own.  He looked Vali in the eye, standing straight.  And then he laughed at her.  He had the satisfaction of knowing that his laughter hurt and humiliated her worse than anything else he could have done.  Not even the stinging backhand slap she gave him could wipe the smile from his face.  He looked at her and spit blood at her, then walked toward the door.  As he walked down the hall, he could hear her screaming as she trashed the room.
 

Sivari had heard everything.  As Iolaus walked away with the guards, he wondered how he could get word to Hercules.  He finally decided it was worth the risk to go to Hercules himself.  He was stumbling and gasping by the time he reached Deronís villa.  He had run hard all the way.  He slipped into the slaves quarters and went to Herculesí room.

Hercules opened the door and barely managed to catch Sivari as he stumbled in, for he had been leaning against the door.  "Hercules...."

"Sivari!  Whatís happened?"

"Iolaus...attacked Vali...."

Fear gripped Herculesí heart and a cold shiver ran down his spine.  He sat Sivari on the bed and poured him a cup of water, waiting impatiently as he drank it and caught his breath.

Sivari told Hercules everything that had happened.  When he finished, Hercules went to Deron and had Sivari repeat the story.

"We have to get him out of there, Deron, now, tonight."  He was fingering the torque, a recent habit he had picked up.

"We would never get past her guards...."

"Oh, yes, we would," said Linn, just walking up.  "Not all of Valiís guards are so loyal.  One of them brought word to me what was happening.  And I know that my guards are a match for Valiís."

"No," Hercules said.  "We canít go in there fighting, Iolaus would be the first casualty.  We need to find some way to sneak in and get him out."

"Linn, send messengers to our people, tell them whatís happening.  We need to go to the temple, weíll be safe there, we can plan...."  She stopped.  "Tera.  We need Tera and her herbs.  Linn, get to her, ask her if she has something that will act as a sedative if eaten or put in a drink.  Sivari, does anyone know youíre gone?"

"Probably not, Mistress, I was supposed to be in bed."

"Good.  Do you think you can get back in and get into the kitchen?"

"Yes, I believe so."  He understood what Deron was asking.  He was going to put something in the food and drink to sedate the household.

"Good!  Hereís what weíll do..."  Quickly, she outlined her plan and sent Linn and Sivari off.

Hercules watched Sivari leave with Linn.  He felt Deron put a hand on his arm and clutched the torque.  "Dammit!  It has to come off!  One way or another, I have to get this thing off!  Iolaus is hurt, that bitch could kill him!"  He gripped the torque and pulled...and was shocked to have it come off in his hand.  He could only stare at it for a moment, feeling his strength surging back.  He had almost forgotten what it was like to feel so powerful.  With an oath, he flung the torque away from him and ran, his speed increasing with every step until he was once more able to run as fast as the fleetest horse.

Deron smiled and began shouting orders to her guards and servants.  The morrow would bring a civil war to this valley, and she wanted to ensure her victory.

Sivari slipped into the kitchen.  Dawn was beginning to lighten the eastern sky.  There was always a hot drink kept by the fire for the night guards.  He put one of the little packets he had from Tera into it.  He went to wake the cook and told him what was happening and what he needed him to do.  He happily agreed.

By mid-morning, guards were asleep at their posts, while those whoíd gone to bed were sleeping very soundly.  As for the rest of the household, slaves began slipping out by oneís and twos, while any other members of the household who had eaten breakfast were asleep where they fell when the sedative took affect.

Satisfied that none of Valiís guards were left, Sivari unlocked a side gate to admit Hercules.

Hercules followed Sivari to the detention room.  There was no key to the door, so Hercules simply ripped it off, reveling in the return of his powers as Sivari looked at him incredulously.

Iolaus had not moved upon their arrival.  Sivari was dismayed to see new bruises on his face.  "Vali ...Vali must have come after I left, and beaten him.  Or maybe the guards did.  I didnít know..."

Hercules knelt beside Iolaus, reaching out to brush his curls back.  His lip was split and his right eye already black.  He winced at Iolausí broken arm, seeing that it was a bad break.  Gently, he bound the arm to Iolausí chest, taking great care not to move the bones, or cause them to pierce the skin.  He quickly checked Iolaus over for further injuries, and found none.  He lifted him into his arms and strode out with him.  This was the end.  Iolaus had endured enough and Hercules wasnít going to allow him to be harmed again.  They were getting out of this valley and everyone here be damned.

But Hercules knew it wasnít that simple.  Iolaus was in no shape to travel, and Vali would simply come after them when she found them missing.  No, they had to see this out to the end.  And that meant facing Vali.  Hercules tried to quell the perverse pleasure the thought of ripping her apart brought him.

Hercules carried Iolaus to the temple.  Tera was waiting to take care of him.  His arm had to be set; both bones were badly broken.  Though he was still unconscious, he gave a whimper of pain when Tera manipulated the bones back into place.  That sound pierced Herculesí heart painfully, for Iolaus was always one to bear his pain stoically, without a sound or complaint.

Tera finished splinting and bandaging the arm, as well as dabbing a little ointment on his split lip.  Hercules watched her incredulously.  It was as if she could see with her hands.

Iolaus regained consciousness just as Tera finished, but he was disoriented and in pain.  She gave him a cup of tea that would help with the pain, as well as sending him into a deep, healing sleep.

After leaving Iolaus sleeping, Hercules asked Tera, "Will he recover the use of his hand?"

"Yes.  Itís not that bad.  But it will take time to heal."  Tera put a hand on Herculesí arm.  "Heíll be all right."

Hercules ran a hand through his hair.  "No.  Not really.  Not until we leave here.  Iím sorry, Tera, but...."

"Sh.  I know.  Itís all right.  The two of you have less visible wounds which wonít be healed until you have returned home to your loved ones."

"Yes."

"I hope you are able to go home soon, Hercules.  I really do.  I will miss you both, of course."

Hercules kissed her cheek.  "We owe you and Aran a great deal, for taking care of us."

"Itís the least we could do, and it is we who owe the both of you, Hercules."  She kissed his cheek and let him return to Iolausí side.
 

Iolaus opened his eyes slowly.  He found himself lying in a soft bed, his broken arm resting on a soft pillow, bandaged and splinted.  As he looked around, Hercules walked into the room.  Seeing him awake, he smiled and pulled a chair up beside the bed.

"About time you woke up."

"Where are we?" Iolaus asked in bewilderment, sitting up.  He winced as he jostled his arm.

"The temple.  The priestesses have given refuge to us, as well as many others.  Including some people who want to see you, but not until after youíve eaten."

"Herc, Iím OK.  Itís just a broken arm and a few bruises."

Hercules shook his head.  "No, Iolaus, itís not.  And we both know it."  He gazed steadily at his friend.  "Why did you attack Vali?"  Iolaus shrugged and turned away, only to have Hercules reach out and grasp his uninjured arm.  "Iolaus.  Look at me."  Reluctantly, Iolaus looked at him.  Hercules smiled at him.  "I understand."

Iolaus sighed and sat back.  "I just...couldnít take it anymore, Herc.  It felt like I was suffocating.  Like I couldnít breath.  I couldnít do *anything* without permission, without being watched, and I...just ...couldnít...take...it." Iolaus started to look away, then suddenly gasped.  His eyes had lit on Herculesí throat; now they lifted to his face.  "Herc!  The torque!"

Hercules nodded.  "It came off in my hand last night.  Looks like their goddess has decided itís time to fight."

"Herc, this is great!  Now we can finally get out of here!"

"It wonít be that easy, Iolaus.  Thereís a civil war about to explode here.  Deronís followers are flocking to the temples for sanctuary, slaves are disappearing everywhere, and Vali is in a rage.  She has her warriors stationed around the temple with orders not to let anyone out."  Hercules hesitated, then said, "Sheís also demanding that you be turned over to her." He snorted and shook his head.  "As if we would.  By the way, is the new decoration on her face your doing?"

"How bad is it?"

"Itís pretty bad.  Goes from the top of her right cheek to the corner of her mouth.  Itís going to leave an ugly scar."

"She deserves to be as ugly on the outside as she is on the inside."

Hercules wasnít used to hearing such hate in Iolausí voice.  It didnít fit him.  "Címon.  Letís go eat.  One of the priestesses said something about fresh ham."

Iolaus smiled, that blazing bright grin Hercules had missed.  "You think they have a good cook?"
 

Vali stalked among her warriors.  None would meet her eyes, not even her lieutenants.  Black stitches marred the right side of her face.  Everyone knew the scar was going to be horrific.  Vali had been in the blackest of moods since it happened.  Even her own warriors walked on eggshells around her, afraid she would take her anger out on them.

Vali looked at the temples.  He was in there and one way or another, she would have him.  Iolaus was going to pay dearly for defying her and marring her as he had.  No mere man was going to do this and get away with it.  And once she had him back in her power, and her mother was dead, she would take the throne.  From that seat of power, she would send her warriors out, to raid the outlying lands.  She would build her army carefully and one day, they would explode from this valley and sweep across the land.  Men would become slaves for her and her warriors.  She would raise up a new generation of women to take their rightful place as rulers of the world.

"Iolaus," she growled, gripping her sword.  She looked at her lieutenants.  "Spread the word!  Iolaus is mine!  I want him unharmed!  Do you understand me?!"

"Yes, Vali!" the warriors chorused.  They all bowed and went to spread the word that the golden man was to be spared.

Vali returned her attention to the temples.  "You will beg for death before I am through with you, my golden one."
 

Deron and her people spent most of the morning preparing for the battle they all knew was coming.  Some of them were going to die, and they knew that, too.  But it would be worth it.

Deron brought Iolaus a gift.  "Mora, one of Valiís warriors, had them, and gave them to the priestesses."

Iolausí eyes lit up.  "My sword!  And my knife!"  Iolaus picked up the sword and unsheathed it, examining it, then laid it aside and picked up the knife.  "I am *so* glad to have this back."  His fingers caressed the blade lovingly.

"Why is it special to you?" Deron asked.

"Herc and I forged this together.  Itís kind of a symbol of our friendship."

Deron watched as Iolaus practiced throwing the knife a few times with his left hand, then picked up his sword and practiced with it a little.  "Iolaus, youíre injured.  You canít fight."

Hercules laughed as Iolaus looked at Deron and grinned.  "Whoís gonna stop me?"

"Iolaus can use either hand just as well.  And a broken arm wonít stop him from fighting.  I ought to know.  He has to practically be on deathís door to stay down."

A little later, Hercules joined Iolaus in looking over Valiís warriors from the top of the temple.  She had most of the young warriors on her side, but their mothers and aunts were siding with Deron.  Even though they were fewer in number, many of these women were experienced warriors, while a lot of Valiís were not.

Iolaus walked over to a table and sat down, sharpening his sword.  Hercules watched him for several minutes.  "Iolaus?"

"Um-hm?"

"Will you promise me something?"

"No."

Hercules gave him a surprised look.  "You donít even know what Iím going to say."

"Yes, I do.  You want me to let you go after Vali."

Hercules shook his head.  "How do you do that?  How do you know what Iím thinking almost before I do?"

"It shows on your face."

"You werenít looking at me."

Iolausí hand paused and he looked up.  "I know you almost as well as I know myself," he said softly.  "I know how you think, Herc.  You still surprise me sometimes, but for the most part, I know you."

"Iím...not sure if I like that or not."  Hercules chuckled.

Iolaus laughed, going back to sharpening his sword.  "Like it or not, Herc, Iím not going to hide from her."

Hercules sighed and nodded.  "I know.  But I had to try."

At that moment, Tera walked in.  "I believe I have some things the two of you might want."  She held their clothes in her arms.  They had been cleaned and folded neatly.

"My clothes!" Iolaus almost shouted.  He took his, kissing Tera on the cheek as Hercules took his.  "Thank you, Tera!"

"Thanks, Tera," Hercules said, also kissing her cheek.

"Youíre welcome," Tera giggled.  She left so the men could change in private, even though she was blind.

Iolaus settled his amulet around his neck and patted it into place against his chest.  "Wow, I feel more like myself now!"

Hercules laughed.  "Amazing how something as simple as a set of clothes can make a person feel ...whole."  He clapped Iolaus on the shoulder.

"Yeah.  Now, all we need is a great battle to finish this off so we can go *home*!"

Hercules laughed heartily.  That was Iolaus, always looking for a good fight.  He was definitely himself again.
 

Vali walked into the center of the courtyard between the three pyramids.  She looked around.  "My people!  We have come to a cross-roads!  Our society has splintered into warring factions!  One of these groups is led by my mother!  She would have a civil war break out amongst us!  And for what?  Two men, strangers?  Are they worth any of our lives?  No!  I say they are not!  They threaten our very existence and must be killed!  So demands our lady, the Goddess!"  She turned to look at the temple she knew her mother was in.  "Send out the men and stop this insanity, Deron!  Let their deaths appease the bloodlust of our people!"

Deron appeared at the base of one of the temples.  She looked around.  "My people!" she cried, her voice carrying even to those farthest from her.  "The time has come for me to make the hardest choice I have ever been asked to make!  I hope I have done the right thing!  We can no longer go on as we have been!  We have become a debauched, degenerate people!  I have begged our Lady to show me what to do, and she has sent two strangers, men, into our midst!  And she has shown me the vile creature my daughter, and, indeed, many of you, have become!"  Her eyes searched the crowd.  "I hereby banish the warrior Vali from this place!  She is to leave this valley and never return!  If you support her, you are free to leave with her!  If you stay, you will support me and whatever changes I deem it necessary to make!"

Vali laughed.  "You old fool!  You have no place here now!  Your day is over!  Mine is just beginning!"  She raced toward her mother, only to be intercepted by Hercules.

As Hercules stepped in front of Vali, some of her warriors began moving forward.  Iolaus and those warriors loyal to Deron moved in front of them.  Iolaus was holding his sword tightly in his left hand, his jaw set.

Vali looked at Hercules.  "So, you are her champion!" she hissed.  "A man!" she spat.  "I will destroy you and then I will rule here!"

Hercules shook his head.  "No, Vali.  I wonít let that happen."  He could see the madness in her eyes.  "This is why we were brought here, Vali.  To stop you."

Vali advanced, grinning.  "Then you came to throw your life away!"  Her eyes cut to Iolaus.  "I will kill you and then he will be mine.  I shall enjoy making him scream and beg for death.  But I will not give it to him.  No, death would be too easy."  She looked at Hercules again.  "Take a good look at him now, Hercules, for it will be many years before he joins you in the Underworld!"

"Vali!  Stop!"

Vali and Hercules both looked at Iolaus.  He walked down the steps, sword gripped in his left hand.  "This is between us, Vali, and you know it."

Vali sneered.  "You donít have a chance against me!"

"Prove it.  Face me."

Vali bared her teeth.  "All right."

"No one interferes."  He looked at Hercules.

Vali nodded.  "No one interferes."  She motioned her people back, backing up.

Iolaus walked down the steps to the stone courtyard.  The two groups of
warriors backed up on either side.  It was eerily quiet as the two of them squared off.  Slowly, they circled on another.

Vali moved in cautiously, her sword weaving, ready to block or strike, then suddenly lunged.  Their swords met with a clashing ring.  They backed off, circled again.  Without warning, Iolaus swung his blade and brought it straight down, then, when Vali moved to parry, Iolaus feinted and cut low.  Vali countered, let the impact direct her sword toward Iolausí throat, but Iolaus met the riposte and stepped back.  Before Vali could gather herself, Iolaus attacked again, much more aggressively.  He advanced in a flurry of lunges, each met with a loud ringing as Valiís sword blocked his.  Vali retreated a step at every slash, swiveling once to bring her blade up viciously, but Iolaus batted it away, pushing Vali back yet again.

Vali screamed and suddenly lunged.  Iolaus swung to one side and Vali swung her sword around.  The tip snaked under Iolausí sword and drew a light line across his chest.  Iolaus batted the sword aside and slashed at her.  She stepped back and parried.

Hercules watched the battle, his heart in his throat.  When Iolaus went to his knees, he thought his heart had stopped, and only began beating again when Iolaus caught Valiís blade with his and pushed her back, then leaped to his feet.  Beside him, Deron was clutching his arm.  He felt sorry for her and clasped her hand, knowing that, in all likelihood, she was about to witness her daughterís death.

The two warriors battled back and forth for a long time, neither seeming to gain an advantage over the other.  Then Iolaus lost his sword when Vali attacked furiously and got her sword inside his guard.  It was loose the sword or his hand and he chose to let go of the sword.  In the same instant, he dove under her arm and caught her around the waist.  They fell to the ground and Vali kicked Iolaus off of her, over her head.  He flipped, rolled to his feet, and kicked her sword out of her hand before she could get to her feet.  Iolaus dove for his sword as she dove for hers.

Hercules watched Iolaus and Vali battling with each other.  Their swords sang, each a blur of motion as they thrust and parried, blocked and swung.  As Iolaus twisted to allow her sword to go past him, he grabbed her wrist and flipped her over his hip, following and straddling her stomach, his sword pressed to her throat.

"Give me one good reason not to cut your throat right now," he growled.

Vali giggled.  "You canít hurt me, Iolaus.  My golden lover, not after what we have been to each other."  He felt her hands on his hips.  "Not when I carry your child inside me," she whispered, licking her lips.

Iolaus gave her a horrified look.  "No.  I donít believe you."

"Ask Tera.  She would not lie to you."

Iolaus stood, backing away from her, shaking his head.  He watched her as she slowly stood.

"Iolaus...what are you doing?" Hercules cried.

Iolaus dropped his sword.  The sound as it hit the stone floor of the courtyard was loud in the silence.  He stood there, unarmed, waiting, watching Vali.

"Iolaus...donít," Hercules whispered.

Vali looked at him quizzically for a moment, then laughed.  "Your honor is going to be the death of you, golden one."  Iolaus didnít answer as she began to advance.  He fell back as she screamed and leaped at him with a knife.  They fell to the ground, grappling for the knife.

"Vali...donít make me kill you...please..."  Iolaus gasped.

"Oh, I wonít, my love," she trilled.  "Iím going to watch you die, instead."  She laughed, her madness consuming her.

Iolaus saw the light in her eyes and made the hardest decision of his life.  He suddenly gave in, then twisted the knife and turned it on her.  She gasped and stared at him as it went hilt deep in her side, just under her ribs.

Tears filled Iolausí eyes as Vali backed away from him.  She wrapped one hand around the knife and pulled it free, letting it drop from limp fingers.  She looked at him questioningly, falling to her knees.  Iolaus got to his knees, watching her.  He looked away, closing his eyes, as she fell limply to the ground, staring up at the sky.

Iolaus finally stood and looked at her.  He stared at her for a long moment, then turned away.  He walked toward Hercules, his head down.  Hercules let go the breath he hadnít even known he was holding and started forward.

And then, to his horror, he saw Vali move.  Her hand grasped the knife, her head lifted, and then she was up and moving with a speed born of hate and madness.

"IOLAUS!" Hercules screamed in warning.

Iolaus grabbed the arm Vali wrapped around him, felt the knife pressing into his back.  "My love," Vali murmured, and then shoved.

Hercules stood frozen as he saw Iolaus stiffen, eyes widening.  Their gazes locked, then Iolausí eyes rolled back and closed, his head fell back onto Valiís shoulder, and she was cradling him to her as his knees buckled and she sat back on her heels, one arm still around his chest, the other holding a knife that dripped with Iolausí blood.

"NOOOO!" Hercules screamed, running toward them.  That seemed to be a cue for the two groups of warriors to attack.

Vali laid Iolaus on the ground, hand caressing his curls, as she watched Hercules.  She stood to meet him and he lunged at her, shoving her away from Iolaus.  She flew across the courtyard, to lie in a stunned heap at the base of one of the pyramids.

Hercules knelt beside Iolaus.  There was already a pool of blood running from under his body and he was paler than Hercules had ever seen him.  "No...Iolaus," Hercules whispered.  He placed a trembling hand on his friendís chest, his eyes squeezing shut as he realized there was no heartbeat.  A sobbing moan was torn from him.  Part of him wanted to crumple to the ground right there and die beside his friend.  The other part wanted to rip Vali apart...slowly.

Slowly, Hercules got to his feet.  Vali was shaking her head and getting to hers.  Hercules didnít see Tera, Linn, and Seagare surrounding Iolaus.  Nor did he notice the fighting going on around him.  All his concentration was centered on Vali.

Vali grinned madly at Hercules, blood running from her mouth.  "Shall we dance, Hercules?" she asked sweetly.

Vali stood her ground as Hercules advanced on her.  But as she looked into his eyes, her grin faltered, then faded.  She began to back up.  She hadnít anticipated this.  The look of madness in his eyes exceeded even that in her own.

"HE WAS MY BEST FRIEND!"  Hercules screamed.  His fist hit a statue, shattering it.  He stalked forward, eyes never leaving Valiís.  "He was the most important person in my life!"  Hercules shattered a statue of some mythical creature as he followed Vali, who was backing up the steps of the temple pyramid.  "He was the one person *I* could lean on!  I didnít have to be a hero with him!  I didnít have to be strong, or brave, or anything other than myself!"  They reached the top of the pyramid.  "He never expected *anything* of me except my friendship!"  He caught the knife she threw at him, breaking the blade from the handle and throwing them away from him. She lunged forward and hit him with a left to the face, quickly followed by a right.  Hercules just shook his head and swung at her.  His fist caught her in the face, smashing her backwards.  "He was the bravest, strongest man I ever knew!  He was my brother!  No one means more to me than him!"  Vali rolled away from him, into a crouch.  Blood ran from her mouth and dripped from her chin; it was also still flowing from the wound in her side.  She ran at him again and he caught her and threw her over his hip, in a move Iolaus had taught him.  "I LOVED HIM AND YOU TOOK HIM AWAY FROM ME!!"

Vali rolled to her feet and met his charge, kicking at him.  He batted her leg aside, then grabbed her, pulling her back against his chest, his arm around her throat.  He squeezed.  She suddenly realized he meant to break her neck.  She kicked backwards, knocking him off his feet.  His hold on her broke and she rolled free.  He lunged at her, his hand wrapping around her throat.  But his momentum carried them both off the side of the temple.

Deron and the priestesses ran to the edge of the temple and looked down.  Hercules and Vali lay sprawled at the bottom, Hercules on his back, Vali face-down.  Deron hurried down to them, aware that with Valiís death, the fighting was already dying down.  No one had any real heart for it, but the damage had already been done, as bodies and injured lay about the courtyard.
 

When Hercules went after Vali, Linn rolled Iolaus into Teraís arms and examined the wound.  "Itís useless, Mother.  Heís gone," said Tera.

"Thatís for the Goddess to decide, daughter," Linn said.  She took a pad of cloth from Seagare and placed it over the wound in Iolausí back, which was still oozing blood.

Teraís attention was drawn to Hercules as he screamed at Vali.  They could clearly hear everything he was saying.  And Tera slowly became aware that something had changed.  Then she realized that Iolaus was breathing.  She slid her hand to his chest and felt his heart beating under her hand, very slowly, but it was beating.

"Mother!" Tera gasped.

But Linn had seen what was happening as well.  "Seagare, bring Tera."  She picked Iolaus up and carried him inside.  Seagare followed with Tera to a room set aside as the infirmary.  Aran was there, and came running, as did Sivari, who was also helping tend the wounded.

Linn laid Iolaus down and turned him onto his stomach.  "Aran, Vali stabbed him in the back."

Aran, who was as accomplished a surgeon as Tera was a general healer, nodded.  He examined the wound, which was still bleeding.  He frowned.  "This is very deep.  It may have punctured his lung, or pierced very close to his heart.  Itís also very close to his spine.  Damn!"  He grabbed bandages and placed them over the wound, which had suddenly begun to pump bright red blood.  "Sivari, get Endion and Corrus, I need them to hold Iolaus down!  Seagare, I need lots of bandages and the sharpest knife you can find!  Put it in the fire, this has to be cauterized, now!"

"Aran?" asked Linn.

"Iíll do everything I can to keep him alive, but heís obviously lost a great deal of blood.  Thereís only so much I can do."

Linn nodded.  "The Goddess has kept him this long, she wonít let him die now.  Iíd better go let Hercules know Iolaus is alive."  She left the room in a hurry, almost running, and arrived just in time to see Deron kneeling beside Hercules and Vali.

"What happened?" Linn asked.

"Nevermind.  Hercules is alive, but heís badly hurt."

Linn smoothed Herculesí hair back.  "Hercules, hold on.  Iolaus is alive.  He needs you, as much as you need him.  Hold on, all right?"  She looked at Deron.  "Iíll get some help to move him."

Deron nodded.  She left one of the priestesses with Hercules as she turned to her daughter.  "Vali," Deron sobbed.  She reached out to touch her hair, then turned her over.  Valiís eyes were partially open, staring at the sky.  Blood trailed from her mouth.  Her body was badly broken.  Deron gathered her into her arms and wept over her, asking the Goddess to forgive her child, to have pity on her soul.

"Deron."

Deron looked up.  A glowing figure stood there.  "My Lady!"

"Deron, you have done far more than was ever asked of you, and suffered much.  You still have your granddaughter, Asha.  Take her from this valley, Deron, and teach her to love.  As for Vali, she is at peace now.  Rest assured that she will be waiting when you cross to the other side.  Her madness was not her fault."  Her eyes strayed to Hercules.  "Now, another needs your help, as do your people.  You know what you have to do.  Be strong, my daughter.  I will always be with you."

"Thank you, my lady.  Thank you."  She lowered her head and the figure vanished.  Deron composed herself as Linn returned with a stretcher and six strong men.  She laid her daughterís body down and stood.  She began giving orders, including that a funeral pyre be readied, for her daughter and the other fallen warriors.

Hercules was taken to the infirmary, where Aran was just removing the knife from the fire.  Two well-muscled men were holding Iolaus down.  Aran sluiced water over the wound, to clean away the blood long enough for him to see what he was doing, then touched tip of the blade inside the wound.  There was the smell of burning flesh and Iolaus screamed.

Aran glanced at Iolaus.  "Iím sorry, my friend, but this is the only way to save your life."  Aran touched the tip into the wound again.  This time, Iolaus only moaned, a sound which gave way to a whimper.

Aran quickly put a medicinal salve on the wound and bandaged it.  He didnít dare close the wound now.  There was a good chance of infection and Aran wanted to be able to clean the wound again.

Aran washed his hands and dried them.  "Move him to one of the private rooms.  I donít want him left alone, someone stay with him, I need Tera here."

"Iíll stay with him," volunteered Sivari.

"Thank you, Sivari, but I need you here, too."

"Iíll stay with him, Aran," said Seagare.

"Thank you, Father."  He had moved to Hercules side.  Tera had already been tending him and described his injuries to Aran.

"He has some broken ribs, and his left arm is broken above the elbow.  His left knee is badly wrenched.  The most serious injury is to his head.  He took a bad blow."  She guided his hand to a large knot forming behind Herculesí left ear.

Aran bit his lip.  "This could be very bad.  Thereís not much to do but treat his other injuries and wait."

"I agree.  Remember, however, that he is a demi-god.  Undoubtedly, he will heal much faster than a normal person would.  And where a mortal would die from a blow to the head like that, he may well live."

Linn watched as Tera helped Aran set, splint and bandage Herculesí arm, then wrap his ribs and knee and place a warm poultice to the lump on the back of his head.

"The two of you are amazing.  You work so well together."

Aran smiled.  "Thank you, Mother."

Linn laughed.  "You like calling me that, donít you?"

Aran ducked his head with a smile.  "Yes," he said shyly.

"I like it, too."  She hugged him.  "Now, letís get our friend the demigod to a bed."

Once Hercules was settled into bed, Linn asked,  "Aran, what should we do about our injured heroes?  You and Tera are needed to help with the other wounded.  Seagare and I can stay with them, unless they should have a healer present?"

"No, just keep a warm poultice to the back of Herculesí head for a while.  Call me should either one show signs of waking."  He took Teraís hand and led her as they went to see who else needed their help.
 

Iolaus awoke to a searing pain in his back.  He clutched the bedclothes and hid his face in the sheets, not quite stifling the moan that was wrenched from him.

"Iolaus?"

Iolaus turned his head, to find Aran crouching beside the bed.  "Aran...."

"Iolaus, I need you to answer some questions for me.  I know the pain is very bad, but thereís nothing I can do until you answer my questions.  Do you understand?"

"Yes," Iolaus gasped.

Aran stood.  He put a hand on Iolausí leg.  "Iolaus, can you feel my hand?"

"Yes."

"Where is it?"

"Back of my right leg."

"Good.  Can you move your toes?"  He watched until Iolausí toes moved.  "Yes, all right, Iolaus, thatís wonderful!  Now, weíre going to do something about the pain.  I have to clean that wound again, so Iím going to sedate you, all right?"

"No!  Donít put me...out."

"Iolaus, the pain will be incredible!  Itíll be worse than now!"

"Iolaus, there is no reason to suffer.  You will only sleep a short while," said Tera.

Iolaus reluctantly relented.  When he had relaxed into sleep, Aran cleaned the wound again, much more thoroughly than before.  There was no sign of infection, so he closed it and bandaged it.

The next time Iolaus awoke, he was in much less pain than before.  The pain in his back was now a dull throbbing that was bearable.  Although it threatened to become worse as he slowly sat up, it abated when he sat still.

"Iolaus?"  Tera appeared at his side.  "How do you feel?" she asked, touching his shoulder.

Iolaus took a deep breath.  "I hurt, but Iíll live."  He looked at Hercules.  "How is he?  What happened to him?"  He grasped Teraís hand.  "Vali?"

"Hercules is hurt, but heís mending.  He had some broken ribs and his left arm is broken above the elbow.  The most serious injury is to his head.  He and Vali were fighting and fell from the top of the main pyramid."  Tera hesitated, then quietly said, "Valiís dead."  She knew Iolaus looked up at her.  She caressed the back of his head, stroking his hair.  "Yes, Iolaus.  She was pregnant."

"Oh, gods."  Iolaus covered his face with his hands.  He let Tera pull him against her and murmur soothingly to him, doing her best to comfort him, but there was really nothing she could do.

Iolaus finally composed himself and Tera helped him into a chair beside Herculesí bed.  "How long has he been like this?" Iolaus asked.

"Three days.  Aran and I kept you sedated that long, wanting your back to have time to heal."

Iolaus frowned.  "I woke up...Aran was asking me questions...."

"That was two days ago."

"Has he shown any sign of coming around?"

"No, and weíve tried everything.  Weíre very worried.  If he doesnít wake up soon, heíll die."

Iolaus shook his head.  "No.  He wonít.  I wonít let him."

Tera cocked her head.  "And can you bargain with Hades for his soul, as he has for yours?"

Iolaus grasped Herculesí hand and looked at his friend.  "Iíll trade myself for him if I have to," he said fiercely.  "Herc, I know you can hear me.  Címon, Herc, itís time to wake up.  Open your eyes for me."  Iolaus shook his head.  "If you think Iím going to let you leave me, and make me carry word of your death back to all our friends and family, to Alcmene!, you can just think again!  Iíd rather take on all the gods of Olympus than have to face your mother with that news."  His eyes searched Herculesí face for any sign of movement.  "I wonít let you go, Hercules.  Iíll come after you.  Iíll *join* you if Hades wonít let me take your place."

Tera stepped back and listened as Iolaus begged, cajoled and threatened his friend.  Sheíd never seen two people who were so close before.  Who would be willing to sacrifice their lives for each other.  What kind of world was out there?  Would she be able to survive out there?  She didnít know, but she wanted to try.  A world that could produce heroes such as these couldnít be all bad.
 

Hercules slowly became aware of himself.  He didnít know where he was, but it was dark and warm.  He was content just to stay here and sleep.  But something had awakened him.  He didnít know what.  He didnít hear anything now.  He couldnít see anything.  But he knew something outside of himself had awakened him.

Hercules shivered in spite of the warmth around him.  Was he dead?  If so, where was he?  Heíd wanted to die.  Iolaus was dead.  Just like everyone else he loved, except his mother and Iphicles.  Iph would take care of Alcmene, he knew.  She would be devastated by their deaths, but she would survive.  Or she could join them in the Elysian Fields.  Then sheíd never hurt anymore.

If he was dead, why wasnít he in the Fields?  Had he been denied for some reason?  He knew thatís where he would find Iolaus.  Iolaus was a hero, heíd never be denied.  Maybe he wasnít dead yet.  Maybe he was dying.  He hoped no one saved him.  He didnít want to live.

Was that a sound?  What was that?  Was someone calling him?  Was it Iolaus, come to meet him?

"Hercules!"

It *was* Iolausí voice!  Iolaus was dead, so if he was calling to him, then Hercules must be dead, too, right?  He went toward that voice that was so much a part of his world, nothing felt right when it was absent.

Iolaus was sitting beside Herculesí bed, holding his hand, talking to him.  Hercules had been unconscious for four and a half days now and Iolaus was scared.  He was alone in the room and now he was begging Hercules not to leave him.

"Hercules,  you have to wake up!  Hercules, I canít do this alone!  Me, and Xena, and Gabrielle arenít enough to fight the evil out there!  There are slavers to put out of business, warlords to stop, thereís Ares and Hera to fight!  Theyíre always plotting one rotten thing or another!"  Iolaus stopped to compose himself.  "Hercules, you know that I love you.  The day I met you changed my life forever.  I donít think I would have even survived my childhood without you.  My own father hated me.  I didnít know what it was like to feel wanted, to feel necessary to someone, until I met you.  You gave purpose to my life.  You showed me what I could be, in spite of my father, not because of him.  Iíve achieved everything he said I wouldnít, with your help and encouragement.  Youíve always been there for me.  I never had any brothers, born of the same parents.  But it didnít matter, because I had you.  I could depend on you.  No matter what kind of trouble I found myself in, I knew you would be there, no matter what.  And you know Iíll always be there for you.  ĎBack-to-back heroesí, that's what we swore.  Blood brothers to the death.  We said weíd go out together.  You wonít let me go without you, and I wonít let you go without me.  I swear it, Hercules, if you decided itís time to join Deianeira and the kids in the Elysian Fields, then Iím coming, too.  Anya and my son are waiting for me, too, you know, and I miss them.  Iíd like to see them."  Iolaus suddenly gasped and sat straight up.  "OW!  Hercules, let go, youíre gonna break my good hand!"  Iolaus froze as Hercules opened his eyes and looked at him.  "Hercules?"

Hercules blinked at him.  "Iolaus?"  He looked Iolaus over, taking in the bandages wrapped around his middle.  "Iolaus...h.how...you were dead...I saw her...I saw...."

Iolaus shook his head, sitting down on the edge of the bed.  Herculesí eyes never left him.  "Itís OK, Hercules.  I was hurt pretty bad, but Aran and Tera pulled me through."

"No, Iolaus, give credit where credit is due.  You *were* dead.  Itís Hercules who brought you back."  Tera walked into the room and sat down in the chair Iolaus had vacated.  "Iolaus, get him some water, please.  Aran will bring soup soon."

"Oh, yeah!"  Iolaus poured a cup of water for Hercules and helped him sit up enough to drink it.  He brushed Herculesí hair back as he laid back.  "How do you feel?"

Hercules smiled at him and reached to grasp his hand.  "Happy to see you alive."  He touched the bandages.  "How bad?"

Iolaus shrugged.  Tera raised a hand.  "It was a bad wound, Iolaus.  Do not shrug it off so lightly.  You were dead."

"She said that before.  What does she mean?"  Hercules looked at Iolaus questioningly.

"He had no heartbeat and no breath.  But your voice brought him back.  The words you spoke to Vali pulled his spirit back.  But the wound was still serious and Aran had to cauterize it.  He was very afraid doing so would cripple Iolaus, but it was the only way to save his life.  It will take time to truly heal."  Her face turned toward Hercules.  "You, on the other hand, are healing quickly.  Get some food into you and youíll feel even better."

As if on cue, Aran entered the room bearing a tray.  Soup, fresh bread, roast lamb, figs, dates, and spiced wine.  He and Tera joined the two men as they ate.  Neither noticed that the two healers did not drink the wine.

Hercules smiled as he noticed Iolaus nodding.  He felt very sleepy himself and guessed a sedative had been added to something, maybe the wine.  He let Tera tuck him in as Aran helped Iolaus up and over to the other bed.  He was asleep as soon as he sprawled on the bed.  Hercules smiled and let sleep claim him.

As Hercules and Iolaus healed, Deron came to visit often.  Her people had finally accepted the fact that their lives in the valley were over.  They were already leaving.  Many of the men were being asked to stay with former mistresses.  Deron and her granddaughter, Asha, as well as her sons, would journey, along with Linn, Seagare, Tera and Aran, to the coast.  Families were being created and they were all spreading to the four winds.

"Hercules."

Hercules looked at Iolaus.  His expression concerned him.  "What is it?"

"Itís time for us to leave as well."

Hercules studied him.  "Itís a long road home, Iolaus.  Are you sure youíre up to it?"

Iolaus nodded.  "If I have to crawl, Hercules, Iím leaving this valley."

Hercules nodded.  "Weíll leave first thing in the morning."

Hercules and Iolaus spent the rest of the day preparing.  Deron insisted that they take two of her best horses, to speed their journey home.  She made sure they had plenty of supplies, and warm blankets for those cold nights sleeping on the ground.

The sun was only barely peeking into the valley when Hercules and Iolaus mounted their horses.  Hercules bent down and kissed Deronís cheek.  "May the Goddess go with you," he said.

"And with both of you," she smiled, putting a hand to his cheek and smiling at Iolaus.

Hercules and Iolaus knew the people of the valley would have a rough road ahead of them, but they were survivors, especially with Deron to advise them.  Now, it was time to return to their own families, who probably thought they were dead by now.

As they turned their horses toward the pass out of the valley, the two heroes looked at each other and grinned.  They had survived again.  Together.
 

Epilogue...
 

Alcmene stood on the parapet, eyes searching the horizon.  She was thinking about her boys.  She remembered all the trouble they got into when they were children.  How Hercules had helped the smaller Iolaus to stand up to the bullies in the town.  And to survive his fatherís harsh treatment, as well.  And Iolaus had kept Hercules from becoming a too-solemn man, weighed down by his differentness.

She smiled as she thought about the first time Iolaus had slipped and called her mother.  She had smiled and kissed his cheek and told him she was honored.  He still called her that, sometimes.  In many ways, she had been more of a mother to him than his own.

Jason stepped up behind Alcmene and put his arms around her.  "Itís been long enough, Jason.  If they arenít here by morning, Iím going to Zeus and demand he tell me...."

Jasonís arms tightened around her.  "Iím sure theyíre all right.  Why donít you come down and see our guests?  The festival starts tomorrow, weíre all looking forward to having a good time."

"Iolaus wouldnít miss the harvest festival.  Itís his favorite time of year.  He wouldnít let Hercules miss it, either.  Oh, Jason!"  She turned and sobbed into his shoulder.

Jason didnít know how to comfort his wife.  It had been months since they heard anything of the two heroes.  Even Xena and Gabrielle had heard nothing.  They simply vanished.

Xena sat on the edge of the well and looked at Gabrielle.  "I was really hoping Iphicles would have heard something from them."

"I know.  Xena, you donít think...I mean, if Ares or Hera had...had succeeded in...."

"Weíd know.  Theyíd brag about it."

"What couldíve happened to them?"

Xena shook her head.  "I donít know."

Iphicles sat in the council chamber, alone.  He stared at the far wall, his mind years away.  He smiled as he remembered playing with Hercules and Iolaus, fishing, roaming the hills of Thebes.  He and Iolaus were the same age; Hercules was two and a half years younger.  The three of them had been so happy then.  Until his uncle had taken him away.  At least Hercules and Iolaus had each other.  Heíd been jealous for so long, had envied their happiness.  But now, he knew the kind of bond they had shared...did share.  Heíd seen them in battle.  It was like they could read each otherís minds.

Iphicles looked around as his wife appeared next to his chair.  He took her hand and smiled as she ran a hand through his hair.  "Theyíll show up, Iphicles."

"Will they?  Theyíve been gone so long, Rena, and thereís been no word.  Men like Iolaus and my brother donít just disappear.  Theyíre not exactly inconspicuous."

"I know.  Have faith, Iphicles.  Whatever trouble theyíre in, theyíre in it together.  Everyone knows they can handle anything together."

"And what if theyíre dead together?" he asked bitterly.

"Zeus would have told Alcmene."  She kissed his cheek and left.

Alcmene awoke and sat up.  Jason snored softly beside her.  She rose and dressed, then slipped from the room.  The sun wasnít even up yet.  The guest room door was closed; Xena and Gabrielle were still asleep, too.

Alcmene padded silently down to the kitchen.  As she neared it, she heard someone moving around.  Who was up this early?  Had a thief gotten in?  She moved forward and peeked around the door.

Hercules laughed softly as Iolaus sat a platter laden with food on the table.  "You intend to eat all this?"

"Iím starving, Herc!  Besides, itís your motherís cooking."

"Save some room for the festival foods."

"I always have room, you know that."

"You always were...a bottomless pit...Iolaus."  Alcmene sobbed and stepped into the room.

"Mother!"  Hercules ran into her outstretched arms.

"Hercules!"  Alcmene hugged him tight and kissed his cheek, then turned to Iolaus.  "What, no kiss from my other missing son?"

Iolaus laughed and hugged her, kissing her cheek.  "We missed you, Mother," he whispered in her ear.

Laughing, Alcmene ran to the foot of the stairs.  "Jason!  Jason, get out of that bed this instant!  Xena, Gabrielle, get up and come down here, right now!"

"Mother, what are you doing?" Hercules asked, grinning.

"Watch."  She looked back to the top of the stairs as her husband and guests appeared.  "Will all of you hurry up, we have a festival to go to!"

Jason, Xena, and Gabrielle took in Alcmeneís laughing, happy eyes and the smile on her face, looked at each other, and ran down the stairs.  The three of them stopped upon seeing Hercules and Iolaus.

"Youíre alive," Xena breathed.  And then she was launching herself into Herculesí arms, reaching out to grasp Iolausí arm and drag him into a hug.  Gabrielle began to cry and went to Iolaus, hugging him tight and kissing him, blushing with embarrassment, then turning to greet Hercules.  Jason also had warm, tight hugs for both men.  Everyone began asking questions at once.

"Whoa, wait a minute!" Hercules yelled, waving everyone to silence.  "Weíll tell you what happened, but not now.  Not until the whole familyís together."

"Then letís get going!  Oh, Hercules, Iphicles is going to be so relieved to see the two of you!"

The castle had barely begun to stir when one of the servants went to wake Iphicles and Rena, saying their presence had been demanded by intruders in the castle.

"Demanded, huh?"  Iphicles dressed and got his sword, then went to confront these Ďintrudersí.

"Do you always have to greet me with a sword in your hand?" came Herculesí laughing voice.

Iphicles stared at Hercules and Iolaus open-mouthed for a moment.  Then the sword clanged to the floor as Iphicles and Hercules hugged each other tight.

Iphicles turned to Iolaus, who grinned at him.  "I see you havenít lost your crown yet.  How do you keep up with that thing, anyway?"

"Easy.  I let Rena take care of it."

"Smart man."  The two old friends hugged each other.  But Iphicles hand brushed the wound in Iolausí back, sending a stab of pain through him.

"Iolaus?" Iphicles asked as Iolausí hands tightened on his arm.

"Iolaus!"  Hercules moved to his side.

Iolaus shot Hercules a nasty look.  "Iím all right, itís just incredibly tender and if you donít stop hovering over me, Iím going to hit you!"  He took a deep breath and let it out, grinning.  "See?  Itís gone."

"I still say we shouldnít have ridden through the night.  Two weeks on horseback hasnít done that wound any good.  You needed the rest."

"I needed to get home!"

"Enough!" said Alcmene sharply.  "Now, I want to know where the two of you have been for the last six months.  And I want to hear it all.  No leaving anything out, do you hear me?"

The two heroes looked at her and meekly nodded.  "Yes, maíam," they chorused.  Around them, their friends and family laughed.  It was good to be home.
 

Fini
 
 

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