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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?"
"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 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.
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
"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
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.
Go to part three