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Sivari slipped into the kitchen. Dawn was beginning to lighten the eastern sky. There was always a hot drink kept by the fire for the night guards. He put one of the little packets he had from Tera into it. He went to wake the cook and told him what was happening and what he needed him to do. He happily agreed.
By mid-morning, guards were asleep at their posts, while those whoíd gone to bed were sleeping very soundly. As for the rest of the household, slaves began slipping out by oneís and twos, while any other members of the household who had eaten breakfast were asleep where they fell when the sedative took affect.
Satisfied that none of Valiís guards were left, Sivari unlocked a side gate to admit Hercules.
Hercules followed Sivari to the detention room. There was no key to the door, so Hercules simply ripped it off, reveling in the return of his powers as Sivari looked at him incredulously.
Iolaus had not moved upon their arrival. Sivari was dismayed to see new bruises on his face. "Vali ...Vali must have come after I left, and beaten him. Or maybe the guards did. I didnít know..."
Hercules knelt beside Iolaus, reaching out to brush his curls back. His lip was split and his right eye already black. He winced at Iolausí broken arm, seeing that it was a bad break. Gently, he bound the arm to Iolausí chest, taking great care not to move the bones, or cause them to pierce the skin. He quickly checked Iolaus over for further injuries, and found none. He lifted him into his arms and strode out with him. This was the end. Iolaus had endured enough and Hercules wasnít going to allow him to be harmed again. They were getting out of this valley and everyone here be damned.
But Hercules knew it wasnít that simple. Iolaus was in no shape to travel, and Vali would simply come after them when she found them missing. No, they had to see this out to the end. And that meant facing Vali. Hercules tried to quell the perverse pleasure the thought of ripping her apart brought him.
Hercules carried Iolaus to the temple. Tera was waiting to take care of
His arm had to be set; both bones were badly broken. Though he was still unconscious, he gave a whimper of pain when Tera manipulated the bones back into place. That sound pierced Herculesí heart painfully, for Iolaus was always one to bear his pain stoically, without a sound or complaint.
Tera finished splinting and bandaging the arm, as well as dabbing a little ointment on his split lip. Hercules watched her incredulously. It was as if she could see with her hands.
Iolaus regained consciousness just as Tera finished, but he was disoriented and in pain. She gave him a cup of tea that would help with the pain, as well as sending him into a deep, healing sleep.
After leaving Iolaus sleeping, Hercules asked Tera, "Will he recover the use of his hand?"
"Yes. Itís not that bad. But it will take time to heal." Tera put a hand on Herculesí arm. "Heíll be all right."
Hercules ran a hand through his hair. "No. Not really. Not until we leave here. Iím sorry, Tera, but...."
"Sh. I know. Itís all right. The two of you have less visible wounds which wonít be healed until you have returned home to your loved ones."
"I hope you are able to go home soon, Hercules. I really do. I will miss you both, of course."
Hercules kissed her cheek. "We owe you and Aran a great deal, for taking care of us."
"Itís the least we could do, and it is we who owe the both of you,
Hercules." She kissed his cheek and let him return to Iolausí side.
Iolaus opened his eyes slowly. He found himself lying in a soft bed, his broken arm resting on a soft pillow, bandaged and splinted. As he looked around, Hercules walked into the room. Seeing him awake, he smiled and pulled a chair up beside the bed.
"About time you woke up."
"Where are we?" Iolaus asked in bewilderment, sitting up. He winced as he jostled his arm.
"The temple. The priestesses have given refuge to us, as well as many others. Including some people who want to see you, but not until after youíve eaten."
"Herc, Iím OK. Itís just a broken arm and a few bruises."
Hercules shook his head. "No, Iolaus, itís not. And we both know it." He gazed steadily at his friend. "Why did you attack Vali?" Iolaus shrugged and turned away, only to have Hercules reach out and grasp his uninjured arm. "Iolaus. Look at me." Reluctantly, Iolaus looked at him. Hercules smiled at him. "I understand."
Iolaus sighed and sat back. "I just...couldnít take it anymore, Herc. It felt like I was suffocating. Like I couldnít breath. I couldnít do *anything* without permission, without being watched, and I...just ...couldnít...take...it." Iolaus started to look away, then suddenly gasped. His eyes had lit on Herculesí throat; now they lifted to his face. "Herc! The torque!"
Hercules nodded. "It came off in my hand last night. Looks like their goddess has decided itís time to fight."
"Herc, this is great! Now we can finally get out of here!"
"It wonít be that easy, Iolaus. Thereís a civil war about to explode here. Deronís followers are flocking to the temples for sanctuary, slaves are disappearing everywhere, and Vali is in a rage. She has her warriors stationed around the temple with orders not to let anyone out." Hercules hesitated, then said, "Sheís also demanding that you be turned over to her." He snorted and shook his head. "As if we would. By the way, is the new decoration on her face your doing?"
"How bad is it?"
"Itís pretty bad. Goes from the top of her right cheek to the corner of her mouth. Itís going to leave an ugly scar."
"She deserves to be as ugly on the outside as she is on the inside."
Hercules wasnít used to hearing such hate in Iolausí voice. It didnít fit him. "Címon. Letís go eat. One of the priestesses said something about fresh ham."
Iolaus smiled, that blazing bright grin Hercules had missed. "You think
they have a good cook?"
Vali stalked among her warriors. None would meet her eyes, not even her lieutenants. Black stitches marred the right side of her face. Everyone knew the scar was going to be horrific. Vali had been in the blackest of moods since it happened. Even her own warriors walked on eggshells around her, afraid she would take her anger out on them.
Vali looked at the temples. He was in there and one way or another, she would have him. Iolaus was going to pay dearly for defying her and marring her as he had. No mere man was going to do this and get away with it. And once she had him back in her power, and her mother was dead, she would take the throne. From that seat of power, she would send her warriors out, to raid the outlying lands. She would build her army carefully and one day, they would explode from this valley and sweep across the land. Men would become slaves for her and her warriors. She would raise up a new generation of women to take their rightful place as rulers of the world.
"Iolaus," she growled, gripping her sword. She looked at her lieutenants. "Spread the word! Iolaus is mine! I want him unharmed! Do you understand me?!"
"Yes, Vali!" the warriors chorused. They all bowed and went to spread the word that the golden man was to be spared.
Vali returned her attention to the temples. "You will beg for death
before I am through with you, my golden one."
Deron and her people spent most of the morning preparing for the battle they all knew was coming. Some of them were going to die, and they knew that, too. But it would be worth it.
Deron brought Iolaus a gift. "Mora, one of Valiís warriors, had them, and gave them to the priestesses."
Iolausí eyes lit up. "My sword! And my knife!" Iolaus picked up the sword and unsheathed it, examining it, then laid it aside and picked up the knife. "I am *so* glad to have this back." His fingers caressed the blade lovingly.
"Why is it special to you?" Deron asked.
"Herc and I forged this together. Itís kind of a symbol of our friendship."
Deron watched as Iolaus practiced throwing the knife a few times with his left hand, then picked up his sword and practiced with it a little. "Iolaus, youíre injured. You canít fight."
Hercules laughed as Iolaus looked at Deron and grinned. "Whoís gonna stop me?"
"Iolaus can use either hand just as well. And a broken arm wonít stop him from fighting. I ought to know. He has to practically be on deathís door to stay down."
A little later, Hercules joined Iolaus in looking over Valiís warriors from the top of the temple. She had most of the young warriors on her side, but their mothers and aunts were siding with Deron. Even though they were fewer in number, many of these women were experienced warriors, while a lot of Valiís were not.
Iolaus walked over to a table and sat down, sharpening his sword. Hercules watched him for several minutes. "Iolaus?"
"Will you promise me something?"
Hercules gave him a surprised look. "You donít even know what Iím going to say."
"Yes, I do. You want me to let you go after Vali."
Hercules shook his head. "How do you do that? How do you know what Iím thinking almost before I do?"
"It shows on your face."
"You werenít looking at me."
Iolausí hand paused and he looked up. "I know you almost as well as I know myself," he said softly. "I know how you think, Herc. You still surprise me sometimes, but for the most part, I know you."
"Iím...not sure if I like that or not." Hercules chuckled.
Iolaus laughed, going back to sharpening his sword. "Like it or not, Herc, Iím not going to hide from her."
Hercules sighed and nodded. "I know. But I had to try."
At that moment, Tera walked in. "I believe I have some things the two of you might want." She held their clothes in her arms. They had been cleaned and folded neatly.
"My clothes!" Iolaus almost shouted. He took his, kissing Tera on the cheek as Hercules took his. "Thank you, Tera!"
"Thanks, Tera," Hercules said, also kissing her cheek.
"Youíre welcome," Tera giggled. She left so the men could change in private, even though she was blind.
Iolaus settled his amulet around his neck and patted it into place against his chest. "Wow, I feel more like myself now!"
Hercules laughed. "Amazing how something as simple as a set of clothes can make a person feel ...whole." He clapped Iolaus on the shoulder.
"Yeah. Now, all we need is a great battle to finish this off so we can go *home*!"
Hercules laughed heartily. That was Iolaus, always looking for a good
fight. He was definitely himself again.
Vali walked into the center of the courtyard between the three pyramids. She looked around. "My people! We have come to a cross-roads! Our society has splintered into warring factions! One of these groups is led by my mother! She would have a civil war break out amongst us! And for what? Two men, strangers? Are they worth any of our lives? No! I say they are not! They threaten our very existence and must be killed! So demands our lady, the Goddess!" She turned to look at the temple she knew her mother was in. "Send out the men and stop this insanity, Deron! Let their deaths appease the bloodlust of our people!"
Deron appeared at the base of one of the temples. She looked around. "My people!" she cried, her voice carrying even to those farthest from her. "The time has come for me to make the hardest choice I have ever been asked to make! I hope I have done the right thing! We can no longer go on as we have been! We have become a debauched, degenerate people! I have begged our Lady to show me what to do, and she has sent two strangers, men, into our midst! And she has shown me the vile creature my daughter, and, indeed, many of you, have become!" Her eyes searched the crowd. "I hereby banish the warrior Vali from this place! She is to leave this valley and never return! If you support her, you are free to leave with her! If you stay, you will support me and whatever changes I deem it necessary to make!"
Vali laughed. "You old fool! You have no place here now! Your day is over! Mine is just beginning!" She raced toward her mother, only to be intercepted by Hercules.
As Hercules stepped in front of Vali, some of her warriors began moving forward. Iolaus and those warriors loyal to Deron moved in front of them. Iolaus was holding his sword tightly in his left hand, his jaw set.
Vali looked at Hercules. "So, you are her champion!" she hissed. "A man!" she spat. "I will destroy you and then I will rule here!"
Hercules shook his head. "No, Vali. I wonít let that happen." He could see the madness in her eyes. "This is why we were brought here, Vali. To stop you."
Vali advanced, grinning. "Then you came to throw your life away!" Her eyes cut to Iolaus. "I will kill you and then he will be mine. I shall enjoy making him scream and beg for death. But I will not give it to him. No, death would be too easy." She looked at Hercules again. "Take a good look at him now, Hercules, for it will be many years before he joins you in the Underworld!"
Vali and Hercules both looked at Iolaus. He walked down the steps, sword gripped in his left hand. "This is between us, Vali, and you know it."
Vali sneered. "You donít have a chance against me!"
"Prove it. Face me."
Vali bared her teeth. "All right."
"No one interferes." He looked at Hercules.
Vali nodded. "No one interferes." She motioned her people back, backing up.
Iolaus walked down the steps to the stone courtyard. The two groups of
warriors backed up on either side. It was eerily quiet as the two of them squared off. Slowly, they circled on another.
Vali moved in cautiously, her sword weaving, ready to block or strike, then suddenly lunged. Their swords met with a clashing ring. They backed off, circled again. Without warning, Iolaus swung his blade and brought it straight down, then, when Vali moved to parry, Iolaus feinted and cut low. Vali countered, let the impact direct her sword toward Iolausí throat, but Iolaus met the riposte and stepped back. Before Vali could gather herself, Iolaus attacked again, much more aggressively. He advanced in a flurry of lunges, each met with a loud ringing as Valiís sword blocked his. Vali retreated a step at every slash, swiveling once to bring her blade up viciously, but Iolaus batted it away, pushing Vali back yet again.
Vali screamed and suddenly lunged. Iolaus swung to one side and Vali swung her sword around. The tip snaked under Iolausí sword and drew a light line across his chest. Iolaus batted the sword aside and slashed at her. She stepped back and parried.
Hercules watched the battle, his heart in his throat. When Iolaus went to his knees, he thought his heart had stopped, and only began beating again when Iolaus caught Valiís blade with his and pushed her back, then leaped to his feet. Beside him, Deron was clutching his arm. He felt sorry for her and clasped her hand, knowing that, in all likelihood, she was about to witness her daughterís death.
The two warriors battled back and forth for a long time, neither seeming to gain an advantage over the other. Then Iolaus lost his sword when Vali attacked furiously and got her sword inside his guard. It was loose the sword or his hand and he chose to let go of the sword. In the same instant, he dove under her arm and caught her around the waist. They fell to the ground and Vali kicked Iolaus off of her, over her head. He flipped, rolled to his feet, and kicked her sword out of her hand before she could get to her feet. Iolaus dove for his sword as she dove for hers.
Hercules watched Iolaus and Vali battling with each other. Their swords sang, each a blur of motion as they thrust and parried, blocked and swung. As Iolaus twisted to allow her sword to go past him, he grabbed her wrist and flipped her over his hip, following and straddling her stomach, his sword pressed to her throat.
"Give me one good reason not to cut your throat right now," he growled.
Vali giggled. "You canít hurt me, Iolaus. My golden lover, not after what we have been to each other." He felt her hands on his hips. "Not when I carry your child inside me," she whispered, licking her lips.
Iolaus gave her a horrified look. "No. I donít believe you."
"Ask Tera. She would not lie to you."
Iolaus stood, backing away from her, shaking his head. He watched her as she slowly stood.
"Iolaus...what are you doing?" Hercules cried.
Iolaus dropped his sword. The sound as it hit the stone floor of the courtyard was loud in the silence. He stood there, unarmed, waiting, watching Vali.
"Iolaus...donít," Hercules whispered.
Vali looked at him quizzically for a moment, then laughed. "Your honor is going to be the death of you, golden one." Iolaus didnít answer as she began to advance. He fell back as she screamed and leaped at him with a knife. They fell to the ground, grappling for the knife.
"Vali...donít make me kill you...please..." Iolaus gasped.
"Oh, I wonít, my love," she trilled. "Iím going to watch you die, instead." She laughed, her madness consuming her.
Iolaus saw the light in her eyes and made the hardest decision of his life. He suddenly gave in, then twisted the knife and turned it on her. She gasped and stared at him as it went hilt deep in her side, just under her ribs.
Tears filled Iolausí eyes as Vali backed away from him. She wrapped one hand around the knife and pulled it free, letting it drop from limp fingers. She looked at him questioningly, falling to her knees. Iolaus got to his knees, watching her. He looked away, closing his eyes, as she fell limply to the ground, staring up at the sky.
Iolaus finally stood and looked at her. He stared at her for a long moment, then turned away. He walked toward Hercules, his head down. Hercules let go the breath he hadnít even known he was holding and started forward.
And then, to his horror, he saw Vali move. Her hand grasped the knife, her head lifted, and then she was up and moving with a speed born of hate and madness.
"IOLAUS!" Hercules screamed in warning.
Iolaus grabbed the arm Vali wrapped around him, felt the knife pressing into his back. "My love," Vali murmured, and then shoved.
Hercules stood frozen as he saw Iolaus stiffen, eyes widening. Their gazes locked, then Iolausí eyes rolled back and closed, his head fell back onto Valiís shoulder, and she was cradling him to her as his knees buckled and she sat back on her heels, one arm still around his chest, the other holding a knife that dripped with Iolausí blood.
"NOOOO!" Hercules screamed, running toward them. That seemed to be a cue for the two groups of warriors to attack.
Vali laid Iolaus on the ground, hand caressing his curls, as she watched Hercules. She stood to meet him and he lunged at her, shoving her away from Iolaus. She flew across the courtyard, to lie in a stunned heap at the base of one of the pyramids.
Hercules knelt beside Iolaus. There was already a pool of blood running from under his body and he was paler than Hercules had ever seen him. "No...Iolaus," Hercules whispered. He placed a trembling hand on his friendís chest, his eyes squeezing shut as he realized there was no heartbeat. A sobbing moan was torn from him. Part of him wanted to crumple to the ground right there and die beside his friend. The other part wanted to rip Vali apart...slowly.
Slowly, Hercules got to his feet. Vali was shaking her head and getting to hers. Hercules didnít see Tera, Linn, and Seagare surrounding Iolaus. Nor did he notice the fighting going on around him. All his concentration was centered on Vali.
Vali grinned madly at Hercules, blood running from her mouth. "Shall we dance, Hercules?" she asked sweetly.
Vali stood her ground as Hercules advanced on her. But as she looked into his eyes, her grin faltered, then faded. She began to back up. She hadnít anticipated this. The look of madness in his eyes exceeded even that in her own.
"HE WAS MY BEST FRIEND!" Hercules screamed. His fist hit a statue, shattering it. He stalked forward, eyes never leaving Valiís. "He was the most important person in my life!" Hercules shattered a statue of some mythical creature as he followed Vali, who was backing up the steps of the temple pyramid. "He was the one person *I* could lean on! I didnít have to be a hero with him! I didnít have to be strong, or brave, or anything other than myself!" They reached the top of the pyramid. "He never expected *anything* of me except my friendship!" He caught the knife she threw at him, breaking the blade from the handle and throwing them away from him. She lunged forward and hit him with a left to the face, quickly followed by a right. Hercules just shook his head and swung at her. His fist caught her in the face, smashing her backwards. "He was the bravest, strongest man I ever knew! He was my brother! No one means more to me than him!" Vali rolled away from him, into a crouch. Blood ran from her mouth and dripped from her chin; it was also still flowing from the wound in her side. She ran at him again and he caught her and threw her over his hip, in a move Iolaus had taught him. "I LOVED HIM AND YOU TOOK HIM AWAY FROM ME!!"
Vali rolled to her feet and met his charge, kicking at him. He batted her leg aside, then grabbed her, pulling her back against his chest, his arm around her throat. He squeezed. She suddenly realized he meant to break her neck. She kicked backwards, knocking him off his feet. His hold on her broke and she rolled free. He lunged at her, his hand wrapping around her throat. But his momentum carried them both off the side of the temple.
Deron and the priestesses ran to the edge of the temple and looked
down. Hercules and Vali lay sprawled at the bottom, Hercules on his back,
Vali face-down. Deron hurried down to them, aware that with Valiís death,
the fighting was already dying down. No one had any real heart for it, but
the damage had already been done, as bodies and injured lay about the courtyard.
When Hercules went after Vali, Linn rolled Iolaus into Teraís arms and examined the wound. "Itís useless, Mother. Heís gone," said Tera.
"Thatís for the Goddess to decide, daughter," Linn said. She took a pad of cloth from Seagare and placed it over the wound in Iolausí back, which was still oozing blood.
Teraís attention was drawn to Hercules as he screamed at Vali. They could clearly hear everything he was saying. And Tera slowly became aware that something had changed. Then she realized that Iolaus was breathing. She slid her hand to his chest and felt his heart beating under her hand, very slowly, but it was beating.
"Mother!" Tera gasped.
But Linn had seen what was happening as well. "Seagare, bring Tera." She picked Iolaus up and carried him inside. Seagare followed with Tera to a room set aside as the infirmary. Aran was there, and came running, as did Sivari, who was also helping tend the wounded.
Linn laid Iolaus down and turned him onto his stomach. "Aran, Vali stabbed him in the back."
Aran, who was as accomplished a surgeon as Tera was a general healer, nodded. He examined the wound, which was still bleeding. He frowned. "This is very deep. It may have punctured his lung, or pierced very close to his heart. Itís also very close to his spine. Damn!" He grabbed bandages and placed them over the wound, which had suddenly begun to pump bright red blood. "Sivari, get Endion and Corrus, I need them to hold Iolaus down! Seagare, I need lots of bandages and the sharpest knife you can find! Put it in the fire, this has to be cauterized, now!"
"Aran?" asked Linn.
"Iíll do everything I can to keep him alive, but heís obviously lost a great deal of blood. Thereís only so much I can do."
Linn nodded. "The Goddess has kept him this long, she wonít let him die now. Iíd better go let Hercules know Iolaus is alive." She left the room in a hurry, almost running, and arrived just in time to see Deron kneeling beside Hercules and Vali.
"What happened?" Linn asked.
"Nevermind. Hercules is alive, but heís badly hurt."
Linn smoothed Herculesí hair back. "Hercules, hold on. Iolaus is alive. He needs you, as much as you need him. Hold on, all right?" She looked at Deron. "Iíll get some help to move him."
Deron nodded. She left one of the priestesses with Hercules as she turned to her daughter. "Vali," Deron sobbed. She reached out to touch her hair, then turned her over. Valiís eyes were partially open, staring at the sky. Blood trailed from her mouth. Her body was badly broken. Deron gathered her into her arms and wept over her, asking the Goddess to forgive her child, to have pity on her soul.
Deron looked up. A glowing figure stood there. "My Lady!"
"Deron, you have done far more than was ever asked of you, and suffered much. You still have your granddaughter, Asha. Take her from this valley, Deron, and teach her to love. As for Vali, she is at peace now. Rest assured that she will be waiting when you cross to the other side. Her madness was not her fault." Her eyes strayed to Hercules. "Now, another needs your help, as do your people. You know what you have to do. Be strong, my daughter. I will always be with you."
"Thank you, my lady. Thank you." She lowered her head and the figure vanished. Deron composed herself as Linn returned with a stretcher and six strong men. She laid her daughterís body down and stood. She began giving orders, including that a funeral pyre be readied, for her daughter and the other fallen warriors.
Hercules was taken to the infirmary, where Aran was just removing the knife from the fire. Two well-muscled men were holding Iolaus down. Aran sluiced water over the wound, to clean away the blood long enough for him to see what he was doing, then touched tip of the blade inside the wound. There was the smell of burning flesh and Iolaus screamed.
Aran glanced at Iolaus. "Iím sorry, my friend, but this is the only way to save your life." Aran touched the tip into the wound again. This time, Iolaus only moaned, a sound which gave way to a whimper.
Aran quickly put a medicinal salve on the wound and bandaged it. He didnít dare close the wound now. There was a good chance of infection and Aran wanted to be able to clean the wound again.
Aran washed his hands and dried them. "Move him to one of the private rooms. I donít want him left alone, someone stay with him, I need Tera here."
"Iíll stay with him," volunteered Sivari.
"Thank you, Sivari, but I need you here, too."
"Iíll stay with him, Aran," said Seagare.
"Thank you, Father." He had moved to Hercules side. Tera had already been tending him and described his injuries to Aran.
"He has some broken ribs, and his left arm is broken above the elbow. His left knee is badly wrenched. The most serious injury is to his head. He took a bad blow." She guided his hand to a large knot forming behind Herculesí left ear.
Aran bit his lip. "This could be very bad. Thereís not much to do but treat his other injuries and wait."
"I agree. Remember, however, that he is a demi-god. Undoubtedly, he will heal much faster than a normal person would. And where a mortal would die from a blow to the head like that, he may well live."
Linn watched as Tera helped Aran set, splint and bandage Herculesí arm, then wrap his ribs and knee and place a warm poultice to the lump on the back of his head.
"The two of you are amazing. You work so well together."
Aran smiled. "Thank you, Mother."
Linn laughed. "You like calling me that, donít you?"
Aran ducked his head with a smile. "Yes," he said shyly.
"I like it, too." She hugged him. "Now, letís get our friend the demigod to a bed."
Once Hercules was settled into bed, Linn asked, "Aran, what should we do about our injured heroes? You and Tera are needed to help with the other wounded. Seagare and I can stay with them, unless they should have a healer present?"
"No, just keep a warm poultice to the back of Herculesí head for a
while. Call me should either one show signs of waking." He took
Teraís hand and led her as they went to see who else needed their help.
Iolaus awoke to a searing pain in his back. He clutched the bedclothes and hid his face in the sheets, not quite stifling the moan that was wrenched from him.
Iolaus turned his head, to find Aran crouching beside the bed. "Aran...."
"Iolaus, I need you to answer some questions for me. I know the pain is very bad, but thereís nothing I can do until you answer my questions. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Iolaus gasped.
Aran stood. He put a hand on Iolausí leg. "Iolaus, can you feel my hand?"
"Where is it?"
"Back of my right leg."
"Good. Can you move your toes?" He watched until Iolausí toes moved. "Yes, all right, Iolaus, thatís wonderful! Now, weíre going to do something about the pain. I have to clean that wound again, so Iím going to sedate you, all right?"
"No! Donít put me...out."
"Iolaus, the pain will be incredible! Itíll be worse than now!"
"Iolaus, there is no reason to suffer. You will only sleep a short while," said Tera.
Iolaus reluctantly relented. When he had relaxed into sleep, Aran cleaned the wound again, much more thoroughly than before. There was no sign of infection, so he closed it and bandaged it.
The next time Iolaus awoke, he was in much less pain than before. The pain in his back was now a dull throbbing that was bearable. Although it threatened to become worse as he slowly sat up, it abated when he sat still.
"Iolaus?" Tera appeared at his side. "How do you feel?" she asked, touching his shoulder.
Iolaus took a deep breath. "I hurt, but Iíll live." He looked at Hercules. "How is he? What happened to him?" He grasped Teraís hand. "Vali?"
"Hercules is hurt, but heís mending. He had some broken ribs and his left arm is broken above the elbow. The most serious injury is to his head. He and Vali were fighting and fell from the top of the main pyramid." Tera hesitated, then quietly said, "Valiís dead." She knew Iolaus looked up at her. She caressed the back of his head, stroking his hair. "Yes, Iolaus. She was pregnant."
"Oh, gods." Iolaus covered his face with his hands. He let Tera pull him against her and murmur soothingly to him, doing her best to comfort him, but there was really nothing she could do.
Iolaus finally composed himself and Tera helped him into a chair beside Herculesí bed. "How long has he been like this?" Iolaus asked.
"Three days. Aran and I kept you sedated that long, wanting your back to have time to heal."
Iolaus frowned. "I woke up...Aran was asking me questions...."
"That was two days ago."
"Has he shown any sign of coming around?"
"No, and weíve tried everything. Weíre very worried. If he doesnít wake up soon, heíll die."
Iolaus shook his head. "No. He wonít. I wonít let him."
Tera cocked her head. "And can you bargain with Hades for his soul, as he has for yours?"
Iolaus grasped Herculesí hand and looked at his friend. "Iíll trade myself for him if I have to," he said fiercely. "Herc, I know you can hear me. Címon, Herc, itís time to wake up. Open your eyes for me." Iolaus shook his head. "If you think Iím going to let you leave me, and make me carry word of your death back to all our friends and family, to Alcmene!, you can just think again! Iíd rather take on all the gods of Olympus than have to face your mother with that news." His eyes searched Herculesí face for any sign of movement. "I wonít let you go, Hercules. Iíll come after you. Iíll *join* you if Hades wonít let me take your place."
Tera stepped back and listened as Iolaus begged, cajoled and threatened his
friend. Sheíd never seen two people who were so close before. Who
would be willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. What kind of
world was out there? Would she be able to survive out there? She
didnít know, but she wanted to try. A world that could produce heroes such
as these couldnít be all bad.
Hercules slowly became aware of himself. He didnít know where he was, but it was dark and warm. He was content just to stay here and sleep. But something had awakened him. He didnít know what. He didnít hear anything now. He couldnít see anything. But he knew something outside of himself had awakened him.
Hercules shivered in spite of the warmth around him. Was he dead? If so, where was he? Heíd wanted to die. Iolaus was dead. Just like everyone else he loved, except his mother and Iphicles. Iph would take care of Alcmene, he knew. She would be devastated by their deaths, but she would survive. Or she could join them in the Elysian Fields. Then sheíd never hurt anymore.
If he was dead, why wasnít he in the Fields? Had he been denied for some reason? He knew thatís where he would find Iolaus. Iolaus was a hero, heíd never be denied. Maybe he wasnít dead yet. Maybe he was dying. He hoped no one saved him. He didnít want to live.
Was that a sound? What was that? Was someone calling him? Was it Iolaus, come to meet him?
It *was* Iolausí voice! Iolaus was dead, so if he was calling to him, then Hercules must be dead, too, right? He went toward that voice that was so much a part of his world, nothing felt right when it was absent.
Iolaus was sitting beside Herculesí bed, holding his hand, talking to him. Hercules had been unconscious for four and a half days now and Iolaus was scared. He was alone in the room and now he was begging Hercules not to leave him.
"Hercules, you have to wake up! Hercules, I canít do this alone! Me, and Xena, and Gabrielle arenít enough to fight the evil out there! There are slavers to put out of business, warlords to stop, thereís Ares and Hera to fight! Theyíre always plotting one rotten thing or another!" Iolaus stopped to compose himself. "Hercules, you know that I love you. The day I met you changed my life forever. I donít think I would have even survived my childhood without you. My own father hated me. I didnít know what it was like to feel wanted, to feel necessary to someone, until I met you. You gave purpose to my life. You showed me what I could be, in spite of my father, not because of him. Iíve achieved everything he said I wouldnít, with your help and encouragement. Youíve always been there for me. I never had any brothers, born of the same parents. But it didnít matter, because I had you. I could depend on you. No matter what kind of trouble I found myself in, I knew you would be there, no matter what. And you know Iíll always be there for you. ĎBack-to-back heroesí, that what we swore. Blood brothers to the death. We said weíd go out together. You wonít let me go without you, and I wonít let you go without me. I swear it, Hercules, if you decided itís time to join Deianeira and the kids in the Elysian Fields, then Iím coming, too. Anya and my son are waiting for me, too, you know, and I miss them. Iíd like to see them." Iolaus suddenly gasped and sat straight up. "OW! Hercules, let go, youíre gonna break my good hand!" Iolaus froze as Hercules opened his eyes and looked at him. "Hercules?"
Hercules blinked at him. "Iolaus?" He looked Iolaus over, taking in the bandages wrapped around his middle. "Iolaus...h.how...you were dead...I saw her...I saw...."
Iolaus shook his head, sitting down on the edge of the bed. Herculesí eyes never left him. "Itís OK, Hercules. I was hurt pretty bad, but Aran and Tera pulled me through."
"No, Iolaus, give credit where credit is due. You *were* dead. Itís Hercules who brought you back." Tera walked into the room and sat down in the chair Iolaus had vacated. "Iolaus, get him some water, please. Aran will bring soup soon."
"Oh, yeah!" Iolaus poured a cup of water for Hercules and helped him sit up enough to drink it. He brushed Herculesí hair back as he laid back. "How do you feel?"
Hercules smiled at him and reached to grasp his hand. "Happy to see you alive." He touched the bandages. "How bad?"
Iolaus shrugged. Tera raised a hand. "It was a bad wound, Iolaus. Do not shrug it off so lightly. You were dead."
"She said that before. What does she mean?" Hercules looked at Iolaus questioningly.
"He had no heartbeat and no breath. But your voice brought him back. The words you spoke to Vali pulled his spirit back. But the wound was still serious and Aran had to cauterize it. He was very afraid doing so would cripple Iolaus, but it was the only way to save his life. It will take time to truly heal." Her face turned toward Hercules. "You, on the other hand, are healing quickly. Get some food into you and youíll feel even better."
As if on cue, Aran entered the room bearing a tray. Soup, fresh bread, roast lamb, figs, dates, and spiced wine. He and Tera joined the two men as they ate. Neither noticed that the two healers did not drink the wine.
Hercules smiled as he noticed Iolaus nodding. He felt very sleepy himself and guessed a sedative had been added to something, maybe the wine. He let Tera tuck him in as Aran helped Iolaus up and over to the other bed. He was asleep as soon as he sprawled on the bed. Hercules smiled and let sleep claim him.
As Hercules and Iolaus healed, Deron came to visit often. Her people had finally accepted the fact that their lives in the valley were over. They were already leaving. Many of the men were being asked to stay with former mistresses. Deron and her granddaughter, Asha, as well as her sons, would journey, along with Linn, Seagare, Tera and Aran, to the coast. Families were being created and they were all spreading to the four winds.
Hercules looked at Iolaus. His expression concerned him. "What is it?"
"Itís time for us to leave as well."
Hercules studied him. "Itís a long road home, Iolaus. Are you sure youíre up to it?"
Iolaus nodded. "If I have to crawl, Hercules, Iím leaving this valley."
Hercules nodded. "Weíll leave first thing in the morning."
Hercules and Iolaus spent the rest of the day preparing. Deron insisted that they take two of her best horses, to speed their journey home. She made sure they had plenty of supplies, and warm blankets for those cold nights sleeping on the ground.
The sun was only barely peeking into the valley when Hercules and Iolaus mounted their horses. Hercules bent down and kissed Deronís cheek. "May the Goddess go with you," he said.
"And with both of you," she smiled, putting a hand to his cheek and smiling at Iolaus.
Hercules and Iolaus knew the people of the valley would have a rough road ahead of them, but they were survivors, especially with Deron to advise them. Now, it was time to return to their own families, who probably thought they were dead by now.
As they turned their horses toward the pass out of the valley, the two heroes
looked at each other and grinned. They had survived again. Together.
Alcmene stood on the parapet, eyes searching the horizon. She was thinking about her boys. She remembered all the trouble they got into when they were children. How Hercules had helped the smaller Iolaus to stand up to the bullies in the town. And to survive his fatherís harsh treatment, as well. And Iolaus had kept Hercules from becoming a too-solemn man, weighed down by his differentness.
She smiled as she thought about the first time Iolaus had slipped and called her mother. She had smiled and kissed his cheek and told him she was honored. He still called her that, sometimes. In many ways, she had been more of a mother to him than his own.
Jason stepped up behind Alcmene and put his arms around her. "Itís been long enough, Jason. If they arenít here by morning, Iím going to Zeus and demand he tell me...."
Jasonís arms tightened around her. "Iím sure theyíre all right. Why donít you come down and see our guests? The festival starts tomorrow, weíre all looking forward to having a good time."
"Iolaus wouldnít miss the harvest festival. Itís his favorite time of year. He wouldnít let Hercules miss it, either. Oh, Jason!" She turned and sobbed into his shoulder.
Jason didnít know how to comfort his wife. It had been months since they heard anything of the two heroes. Even Xena and Gabrielle had heard nothing. They simply vanished.
Xena sat on the edge of the well and looked at Gabrielle. "I was really hoping Iphicles would have heard something from them."
"I know. Xena, you donít think...I mean, if Ares or Hera had...had succeeded in...."
"Weíd know. Theyíd brag about it."
"What couldíve happened to them?"
Xena shook her head. "I donít know."
Iphicles sat in the council chamber, alone. He stared at the far wall, his mind years away. He smiled as he remembered playing with Hercules and Iolaus, fishing, roaming the hills of Thebes. He and Iolaus were the same age; Hercules was two and a half years younger. The three of them had been so happy then. Until his uncle had taken him away. At least Hercules and Iolaus had each other. Heíd been jealous for so long, had envied their happiness. But now, he knew the kind of bond they had shared...did share. Heíd seen them in battle. It was like they could read each otherís minds.
Iphicles looked around as his wife appeared next to his chair. He took her hand and smiled as she ran a hand through his hair. "Theyíll show up, Iphicles."
"Will they? Theyíve been gone so long, Rena, and thereís been no word. Men like Iolaus and my brother donít just disappear. Theyíre not exactly inconspicuous."
"I know. Have faith, Iphicles. Whatever trouble theyíre in, theyíre in it together. Everyone knows they can handle anything together."
"And what if theyíre dead together?" he asked bitterly.
"Zeus would have told Alcmene." She kissed his cheek and left.
Alcmene awoke and sat up. Jason snored softly beside her. She rose and dressed, then slipped from the room. The sun wasnít even up yet. The guest room door was closed; Xena and Gabrielle were still asleep, too.
Alcmene padded silently down to the kitchen. As she neared it, she heard someone moving around. Who was up this early? Had a thief gotten in? She moved forward and peeked around the door.
Hercules laughed softly as Iolaus sat a platter laden with food on the table. "You intend to eat all this?"
"Iím starving, Herc! Besides, itís your motherís cooking."
"Save some room for the festival foods."
"I always have room, you know that."
"You always were...a bottomless pit...Iolaus." Alcmene sobbed and stepped into the room.
"Mother!" Hercules ran into her outstretched arms.
"Hercules!" Alcmene hugged him tight and kissed his cheek, then turned to Iolaus. "What, no kiss from my other missing son?"
Iolaus laughed and hugged her, kissing her cheek. "We missed you, Mother," he whispered in her ear.
Laughing, Alcmene ran to the foot of the stairs. "Jason! Jason, get out of that bed this instant! Xena, Gabrielle, get up and come down here, right now!"
"Mother, what are you doing?" Hercules asked, grinning.
"Watch." She looked back to the top of the stairs as her husband and guests appeared. "Will all of you hurry up, we have a festival to go to!"
Jason, Xena, and Gabrielle took in Alcmeneís laughing, happy eyes and the smile on her face, looked at each other, and ran down the stairs. The three of them stopped upon seeing Hercules and Iolaus.
"Youíre alive," Xena breathed. And then she was launching herself into Herculesí arms, reaching out to grasp Iolausí arm and drag him into a hug. Gabrielle began to cry and went to Iolaus, hugging him tight and kissing him, blushing with embarrassment, then turning to greet Hercules. Jason also had warm, tight hugs for both men. Everyone began asking questions at once.
"Whoa, wait a minute!" Hercules yelled, waving everyone to silence. "Weíll tell you what happened, but not now. Not until the whole familyís together."
"Then letís get going! Oh, Hercules, Iphicles is going to be so relieved to see the two of you!"
The castle had barely begun to stir when one of the servants went to wake Iphicles and Rena, saying their presence had been demanded by intruders in the castle.
"Demanded, huh?" Iphicles dressed and got his sword, then went to confront these Ďintrudersí.
"Do you always have to greet me with a sword in your hand?" came Herculesí laughing voice.
Iphicles stared at Hercules and Iolaus open-mouthed for a moment. Then the sword clanged to the floor as Iphicles and Hercules hugged each other tight.
Iphicles turned to Iolaus, who grinned at him. "I see you havenít lost your crown yet. How do you keep up with that thing, anyway?"
"Easy. I let Rena take care of it."
"Smart man." The two old friends hugged each other. But Iphicles hand brushed the wound in Iolausí back, sending a stab of pain through him.
"Iolaus?" Iphicles asked as Iolausí hands tightened on his arm.
"Iolaus!" Hercules moved to his side.
Iolaus shot Hercules a nasty look. "Iím all right, itís just incredibly tender and if you donít stop hovering over me, Iím going to hit you!" He took a deep breath and let it out, grinning. "See? Itís gone."
"I still say we shouldnít have ridden through the night. Two weeks on horseback hasnít done that wound any good. You needed the rest."
"I needed to get home!"
"Enough!" said Alcmene sharply. "Now, I want to know where the two of you have been for the last six months. And I want to hear it all. No leaving anything out, do you hear me?"
The two heroes looked at her and meekly nodded. "Yes, maíam," they
chorused. Around them, their friends and family laughed. It was good
to be home.