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Part 3

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 hioff 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.
 

Go to part 4