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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 didn’t 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? What’s wrong?"
"I found someone. He’s unconscious, I’m not sure if he’s 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 wasn’t 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. How’re you feeling?"
"I…I am all right…I think."
Iolaus didn’t react to the man’s 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, it’ll be ready soon. Oh, I’m 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 won’t hurt you. What’s wrong?"
Sivari slowly calmed. "I..I am sorry. I have…I have never seen a man so large!"
Iolaus smothered a grin as Hercules looked at Sivari, astonished. "Don’t worry, Sivari," Iolaus said, patting his shoulder. "You’re not the first person to think that."
"Hey!" Hercules said indignantly. He looked at Sivari. "Sivari, you look as though you’ve come a long way. Where are you headed?"
"I look for my great-grandfather’s home. He called it Ter-mop-o-lay."
"Ter…Thermopolye?" 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 Sivari’s story that bothered him, but he couldn’t 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. He’d 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 Sivari’s.
Hercules raised his hands. "I’m not armed. I’m 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 don’t 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 didn’t draw her own sword and Iolaus’ sense of honor wouldn’t 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 Iolaus’ 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 Iolaus’ 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.
Hercules stopped. The woman held a knife to Iolaus’ throat. Those around them held weapons pointed at both of them.
"If you move, I will kill him." Vali smirked. "So, our bindings won’t 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. It’s one you will learn as well."
"I don’t think so," Hercules growled.
"Oh, I know so, man." She grabbed a fistful of Iolaus’ hair and jerked his head back. "If you attack me, I will kill him. Even if you get to me first, you can’t kill all of us before someone kills him and then you."
Hercules knew she was right. She smirked at him. "You are both…mine," 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 Lady’s 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 looked at Hercules, worry in his eyes at Hercules’ tone. "Herc? Are you OK? What’s wrong, what did they do?"
"It’s the chains. There’s some kind of magic in them. It’s…sapping my strength." He lifted his eyes to Iolaus’. "I can’t fight them, Iolaus."
"We’ll 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 I’m 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?^
^I’m sorry, mistress! Please, mistress, let me serve you! I am happy to serve! I…I 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 Iolaus’ height or taller. Vali was the tallest, at nearly six feet. All of them reminded him of the Amazons, but there was something…something 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. Don’t you think so, Maki?" The black-haired woman chuckled and nodded.
^I don’t like this, Vali. We should kill them all and go home. We could take Sivari’s 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 hadn’t 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 Vali’s neck.
"Hercules. Don’t. I’m 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 aren’t 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. Iolaus’ 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 Hercules’ 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 Iolaus’ face up to his. "Still got all your teeth?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"How’s your head feel?"
"My head’s fine, it’s 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 Iolaus’s 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. "It’ll 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.
Iolaus’ 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 Iolaus’ 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 group’s 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 women’s 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 didn’t fight or protest. Until he was brought back to her.
"So, you are to be Vali’s new servant. I can see why she would want you."
"I am no one’s 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 couldn’t 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 Iolaus’ senior, his hair graying at the temples, but he was still a robust, healthy man. He would be Iolaus’ 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 mistress’ needs. Whatever they might be.
Iolaus discovered the inhabitants weren’t 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 wasn’t 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.
Iolaus’ fists clenched. "I am not a doll to be dressed up and shown off! I will be no one’s toy!"
"Don’t do this, Iolaus. All you’ll do is bring yourself pain."
"Let her kill me! I won’t do this!" Iolaus was shaking.
Seagare looked at Iolaus. It wasn’t just this. There was more to the wildness in Iolaus’ eyes than suddenly finding himself a slave.
"Iolaus. It’s 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. "I’m 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 who’ve been captured." He put a hand on Iolaus’ shoulder. "You’ve told me about your friend. Hold on until he gets here, Iolaus. Don’t do anything to get yourself killed. He’ll need you, you know, if everything you’ve told me about him is true."
"It is, all of it." Iolaus took a deep breath. "You’re right, Seagare. I have to be here when Hercules gets here."
"Good. Now, you’d 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 day’s 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 don’t believe you," she hissed. She released him. "Kneel!" Iolaus sank to his knees, bowing his head. Linn walked around him, watching him. He didn’t 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 he’d seen some people use. He tried to steel himself, resigned to his fate. She wouldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t know how a person could survive such torture as this. He’d 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 didn’t 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: ‘why?’
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 weren’t 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.
"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. "He’s hurting right now, but he’ll live." He led Tera, who was blind, to the bed, sitting her on the edge and guiding her hands to Iolaus’ left arm.
Tera left one hand on Iolaus’ arm and held the other over his back. "Aran?"
"His bruises are deep and painful. I will need the comfrey for these, both inside and out. Also the bittersweet and chamomile ointment, there’s a new jar on my worktable. Father?"
"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, I’ll go get some now. Let me get some water, you can start cleaning his back."
Tera placed one hand on Iolaus’ 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 Tera’s hand, then left to get more bandages.
To watch Tera work, one would not suspect she was blind. Her hands moved over Iolaus’ 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t. 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 Seagare’s voice.
Iolaus opened his eyes and looked at his friend. "I’ll 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."
"You’re 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 Linn…finished 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 said…Seagare is your father? But I thought…."
"I was born blind, and so they have little use for me. But my father begged for my life, and he was my mother’s 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?"
Iolaus was shocked, to say the least. That such a brutal woman could have a daughter so beautiful, and so gentle…he 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 won’t care how exotic you look, they’ll kill you."
Iolaus was still getting used to being thought of as ‘exotic’ looking. He shook his head. "It doesn’t matter, Seagare. I won’t be a slave. Maybe they can keep me here for a while, but once Hercules gets here, we’ll find a way out, one way or another."
"It’s that ‘another’ that worries us," said Tera. "You’re a good man, Iolaus. We’ve 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 they’re executed because they can’t be tamed."
Iolaus shook his head. "You’re talking about men as if they’re wild beasts: ‘wild ones’, ‘tamed’. It doesn’t have to be like this. The rest of the world isn’t like this. Out there, men and women are free. Sure, there are places that still have slaves, but even then, it’s not like this. It’s 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 there’s no changing it."
"Besides, we’re 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 isn’t discovered until much later. They are born with obvious defects, like webbed hands or feet, or club feet or they stop growing so that they’re 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. We’re allowed to live with our fathers. If we do have children, they’re immediately put to death. This cannot go on."
Iolaus nodded. "You’re right."
Tera stood, reaching out for Seagare’s 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. "Tera…thank you."
Tera’s hand went to his face, with his help. She smiled. "You’re 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 Iolaus’ 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 wouldn’t 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 women’s home, the city he heard these warriors talking of so longingly? Like Iolaus, he had picked up their language quickly. Sivari’s 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 weren’t 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 Hercules’ 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 didn’t know if she’d 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 don’t."
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. C’mon, 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 didn’t 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 won’t you learn, Hercules? They’re not going to release you, and you’ll never get away. All you have to do is obey them and they won’t hurt you."
Hercules sighed. "Well, I never have been exactly what you’d call the obedient type."
"What will you do…if you find Iolaus didn’t survive…when we get home?"
Hercules shook his head. "Iolaus is alive. I would know if he were dead."
"I would know. I just would."
Sivari looked at Hercules doubtfully, obviously thinking he was in a state of denial. But it didn’t 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. I’ll be there soon and we’ll find a way out of this. I give you my word. We will find a way home.* He slowly fell asleep.
Go to part two