The characters of Iolaus and Hercules belong to Renaissance and Universal. I am just borrowing them and will give them back unharmed at the end of the story. All other characters in this piece are my invention and I get to keep them ...

RESCUED (Part 1)

By Cass

"You can't travel with me any more."

Iolaus almost choked on the mouthful of ale he had just taken. "What?" he managed.

"I have to travel on my own from now on." Hercules' handsome, angular face was implacable, his voice equally so. There was no room for argument in the words. Iolaus attempted one anyway.

"Are you crazy?" he demanded, leaning over the table toward his friend. "Oh, I get it - you've found some pretty girl and you're scared of the competition."

His teasing didn't work. Hercules just stared at him, his expression stony. Not the least trace of amusement was evident. "I mean it, Iolaus," he said. "I'm leaving this afternoon and I don't want you following me."

The blond warrior was sure his heart had actually slipped from his chest and was even now lying on the stone floor of the tavern, beating out its last as he stared into turquoise eyes which showed no hint of emotion, no trace of regret, try though he might to locate both. "Why?" His voice held no indication of the anguish which was pulsing through him. He felt inexplicably proud of this. "Herc ..."

"We're still friends ... brothers," the demigod interjected hurriedly, almost offhandedly. "That will never change. I just ... I have to go it alone, Iolaus. I need to be on my own."

"No you don't," Iolaus disagreed. "The last thing you need is to be alone, Herc. You need company ... you need me ..."

"I don't NEED anyone!" Hercules hissed, savagely. He slammed down his tankard and rose from his seat in one fluid motion, eyes blazing.

'Finally,' thought Iolaus, 'Emotion' - just not the emotion he had ever expected to see directed toward him. "Herc ..."

"This conversation is over." There was a bleak finality in the demigod's tone - in his entire demeanour - it spoke of 'goodbye'. "I'll see you around sometime, Iolaus. So long." With that, the demigod left behind his ale, his meal ... and Iolaus.

The blond hunter had been too stunned to move for several moments., When he did finally find the impetus to get up and follow his friend, it was to discover that Hercules had wasted no time and had been deadly serious in his intent. He had already left town; his long, loping strides able to cover the ground at breakneck speed when necessary - which was just what he had done in order to shake off pursuit by possibly the best tracker in Greece - his best friend.

Iolaus was not known for giving up. He was bound and determined to find out just what had gotten into his friend, and why Hercules had found it necessary to abandon him for no good reason - hell, for no reason at all. He was not stupid. He also knew his friend far too well. Hercules had lost too many people in his life in too short a time - two wives, his children and, more recently, his mother. This 'farewell' had a familiar ring about it. After each loss, he had been determined that he should not be a threat to anyone else and had set out alone, despite Iolaus' protests. His mother and brother should be safe enough, he had reckoned. Zeus had ordered Hera not to attack Alcmene directly and her one indirect attempt had been thwarted. She had not tried again. Iphicles was not really important enough to the gods for them to attack. Iolaus, however, was a different matter. The demigod feared their friendship was a great threat to the warrior. Gods alone knew that, in the last few years, Iolaus had come under threat from the Olympians often enough. And, as much as he had tried to convince Hercules that their relationship was well worth any risk and that he would rather have a comparatively short life with his friend than a long one without him, Hercules' concerns had not been assuaged. Indeed, over the last year, Iolaus had felt the son of Zeus pulling further away from him. Where before there had been overt concern for his welfare, consoling hugs and heartfelt thanks for him risking his life for the demigod; of late it had almost seemed like Hercules was taking him for granted, or that he didn't care.

And suddenly, in a flash of blinding insight, Iolaus realised why. Hercules had become convinced that if he could persuade the gods that he didn't care as much about his friend, then they would leave the hunter alone.

And then Alcmene had died.

Thus there was only one person left in the entire world whom Hercules loved - and his sheer, unadulterated terror of losing that one person had actually prompted him into doing just that - of his own accord.

Leaving Iolaus behind; trying to convince him that he no longer cared as much was another misguided attempt to protect his mortal friend.

So the gods had won anyway.

Damn Hercules!

'Just wait till I find him,' Iolaus thought to himself as he made camp for the night, after an entire day following the demigod's less than competent attempts to cover his trail - which in itself was odd, as Iolaus had taught him better than that. It was almost as if, subconsciously, he wanted the hunter to follow him. "I'll beat him senseless," the blond continued, muttering to himself. "And then I'll tie him up and make him listen to my side for a change!" With this cheery thought uppermost in his mind, and conveniently ignoring the fact that Hercules would undoubtedly get the upper hand and could escape from any bindings unless crafted by Haephestus, Iolaus curled up on his blanket and fell asleep.

... and therefore did not feel the mace which sent him spiralling deep into a state of unconsciousness, nor felt the ropes which bound him, or the impact of being roughly slung over a horse by his captors ...


It would have interested (although not surprised) him to discover that Hercules' mind was meandering along a similar trail.

He missed Iolaus.

He missed his laughter, his companionship, his irrepressible good nature, his skill at hunting and even his bawdy songs.

But most of all, he missed his friendship.

They had been together for so long that it was practically impossible now to remember a time when they had not been friends. And it wasn't even that simple. They had been through so much together that each new escapade, each and every hour spent together forged new links in the lengthy, sturdy chain which was their friendship. Iolaus was the only one who knew his weaknesses; who truly understood and accepted him for what and who he was. Iolaus was the only one who treated him as a person, with his own faults and foibles, his own insecurities and mistakes. It didn't matter to Iolaus that he was someone special to the rest of the world. He never allowed Hercules to start believing in his own legend. On the few occasions when that had happened, the blond hunter had stepped in where others would have feared to tread and ensured that the hero was brought back down to earth. His eternal optimism and innate good humour made him the ideal companion and his compassion, courage, honesty and selflessness made him every inch a hero himself. But it was his deep, unshakeable and abiding love for Hercules which made him special to the demigod. Iolaus' love of him was unquestionable, given freely and without asking anything in return. Hercules treasured it, as he treasured Iolaus.

But Iolaus' love of him was dangerous. The warrior's unswerving loyalty and depth of feeling for his friend had placed him in jeopardy time and time again. Whilst Hercules acknowledged that the smaller man was a warrior and a hunter of few equals, that knowledge did not prevent his heart from leaping into his throat, nor his breath to pause in sheer terror each and every time his best friend placed himself in harm's way, which he did with alarming regularity, it seemed. The 'bad element' of Greece seemed constantly bound and determined to show the son of Zeus that he wasn't all he was cracked up to be and, inevitably, Iolaus was by his side when they showed up. Whilst intellectually, he knew that the blond hunter was more than capable of taking care of himself against the pitiful efforts of the ruffians against whom they usually fought, he was also well aware that one moment of carelessness, one simple distraction could have tragic consequences.

And then there were the trained soldiers whom they often faced in their various battles for good kings or against monstrous warlords. Even one as courageous and skilled as Iolaus could not stand alone against an entire army - and an entire army was usually what confronted them.

Some day his luck would run out.

And Hercules was not even factoring in the various attempts by the gods to remove Iolaus permanently from his side ...

No, he convinced himself, as a nagging little voice started telling him rather insistently that he was making a grave error in parting from his best friend, this was for the best. His friendship was too big a threat to Iolaus. The warrior would be better off on his own. He would certainly live longer - and maybe he would be happier too.

The little voice didn't go away.

In fact, it started laughing hysterically.


A couple of days and many internal arguments later, Hercules set up camp near the river. He was exhausted in both body and spirit. He was also incredibly lonely. The demigod had set himself a gruelling pace since his abrupt departure from Iolaus' side, partly in order to get as much space as he could between himself and his friend before he could change his mind about leaving the hunter and partly in order to make pursuit more difficult.

'Then why did you leave such a clear trail?' the aggravating and insistent little voice demanded.

He chose to ignore it.

It sniggered.

He was under no delusions. He and Iolaus knew each other too well. They had been friends for so long that they could practically read each other's thoughts, which admittedly came in very useful during battle. He was only too well aware that the other man would have wasted no time in following him once he had recovered from the bombshell which Hercules had dropped on him.

Of course, there was another disadvantage to this mutual and instinctive understanding which they had of each other.

Hercules sighed heavily as he pondered it, absently building up a small fire as he did so.

So well did they know each other that it would have taken Iolaus very little time to figure out just why Hercules had left him behind. It was a topic around which they had danced numerous times before, each occasion ending up with the demigod capitulating to his small, but incredibly tenacious partner. It wasn't often that the blond hunter lost his temper with his best friend, but Hercules' stubborn insistence on sacrificing their friendship for the sake of Iolaus' well being was almost always guaranteed to set him off. Hercules had never enjoyed being on the receiving end of Iolaus' tongue. The compact warrior in full flow had an unnerving talent for making him feel about 2 inches tall - which was quite some feat considering their disparate statures. It was, however, one of the things he loved most about his friend. Iolaus treated him as a human being, not a hero and Hercules appreciated that more than he could ever say. It got a little lonely up on the pedestal on which the rest of the world placed him. Being with Iolaus meant that he could step down from time to time and be a normal person. Of course, being normal and being with Iolaus brought with it as many pitfalls as it did blessings - and he treasured each and every one of them.

Reflecting on all of this, Hercules realised that, when Iolaus caught up with him, as he eventually, inevitably would. He would be as mad as Hades. Leaving him behind had been a mistake. The son of Zeus recognised that now. Hell, he had recognised it all of two minutes after his abrupt departure but had been unwilling to admit it, arguing with himself that he was only doing what was best for his friend. He was not sure when that persistent and awfully familiar little voice inside had forced him to see sense, to realise that, danger or not, he would rather face it with Iolaus than without him and that his over-protectiveness had finally reached ludicrous proportions. But it had, eventually, won out over his streak of self-sacrifice. And now here he was, feeling regretful, remorseful and ever so slightly giddy with anticipation - awaiting Iolaus' arrival, looking forward to being once more with the one person on earth who understood him better than he could ever hope to understand himself.

His self-enforced loneliness was about to end.

He spent the rest of the evening in thoughtful contemplation, trying to come up with suitable and heartfelt ways of apologising - ways which would prevent Iolaus from hitting him over the head with a convenient tree branch, as he had often threatened in the past. One thing was for sure - when Iolaus finally got here and confronted him about his behaviour, he had better be sure and be damned contrite - because the smaller man was not going to let this one go in a hurry.


Hercules awoke with a start a few hours later. He had finally fallen into a restless sleep, punctuated by visions of a rather ticked off blond haired man coming across him in the forest and subjecting him to a period of haranguing which had left the demigod smarting.

At first he was not sure what had disturbed these rather too realistic images, but as he closed his eyes and began to drift off once more into Morphius's arms, he was jerked rudely back to full awareness by the sound of rustling in the thicket nearby.

"Iolaus?" he whispered. "Is that you?"

There was no response from the nearest bush.


If he listened hard enough, he could hear the faint sound of someone breathing. Instinctively, he knew that it was not his friend who was concealed therein, even whilst admonishing himself for ever believing that it could be. Had Iolaus been hiding nearby, Hercules would never have known it. The hunter was far too accomplished in the art of stalking to reveal his position so soon and so obviously.

"All right, come out - whoever you are," ordered the demigod in a tone which brooked no argument.

There was a heavy sigh, followed by the sound of twigs snapping underfoot and the rustling of several branches. At length, a figure emerged from the undergrowth. It was blond and slight of stature - but that was where the resemblance to his friend ended. The eyes which peered at him from behind the rather sheepish expression which it wore were deep brown and there were no laughter lines on the rather pleasant, impossibly young face. In fact, Hercules guessed the age of the boy - for that was who had been following him - to be no more than about 15.

"Um," said the boy, somewhat hesitantly, "I'm .. um ..."

"Spying on me?" Hercules finished off for him sardonically. "Or can I take it you were looking for berries and got a little ... lost?"

The boy shook his head. "No, I was looking for you," he confessed.

Hercules narrowed his eyes. "Looking for me?" he echoed. "Why?" He suddenly had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and, try though he might to quell it, the fires of dread ignited.

"It's about your friend."

The flames crawled upward, fanned now by the winds of fear. "My ... friend?" he repeated. "What - which 'friend'?"

The winds grew stronger, the flames crept ever higher, until they touched his heart and forced their way inside.

"Iolaus - Iolaus of Thebes," the boy confirmed. His voice was gaining in confidence as he spoke, his entire demeanour changing. "I ... I think he's been taken."

The fire was now a raging furnace, as it swept aside all humour and reason in its quest to consume him. He had known something like this would happen. This was why he had left Iolaus in the first place. His friendship was too dangerous, too risky for the hunter, no matter the cost to both of them in losing it. It was not worth Iolaus' life. But his departure from his best friend's side had been too late. They had reached him anyway. And now Hercules was placed once again in that world where hurt and heartache resided. For to see his best friend, his brother, in pain or suffering in any way was to rip the heart out of his own breast. He couldn't bear it. It was too much. And it was all his fault.

The boy had backed away a little, stepping back into the bushes, practically cowering into their protective cover at the dark expression which had slowly suffused the demigod's handsome face, banishing every other emotion. "Um- Hercules?" he whispered, hesitantly. "Um - are you okay?"

Okay? Hercules would have laughed had his heart not been slowly splintering. No, he was not 'okay'. He would never be 'okay'. Because this was going to happen again and again. Running away from Iolaus wasn't going to solve their problem. Running away had not removed his love for his friend and he could, therefore, still be hurt by what happened to the blond warrior. Running away had not removed the threat from Iolaus - if anything, it had made him an easier target, because Hercules was not at his side, protecting him, even though Iolaus had always balked at that very concept. And now Iolaus had been captured and was in danger - all because of him and their friendship.

"Where - where was he taken, do you know?" Funny, it sounded like his voice - although it was hoarse with turmoil and he was sure there had been a strangled sob in there somewhere. But he could not recall speaking the words. He must have done, though, because the boy answered him.

"There were a lot of them," he said, not directly responding to the actual question. "I've seen them around the villages in the area where Iolaus was camped. They come, stay for a day or so then leave - and half the village disappears with them. My uncle says they're slavers from the North. They come here to gather people to work in their mines and their quarries and don't exactly take 'no' for an answer. Those who have resisted have been killed."

"Slavers?" echoed Hercules in a low, horrified voice. He had always abhorred the very concept of slavery. It was an abomination - the use of people as though they were no better than cattle or sheep, and, in most cases, lower than both those animal species. It was totally alien to his own beliefs. He had never understood what possessed those who had instigated it, nor those who had come to condone it. He and Iolaus had, in the past, been responsible for freeing slaves and now Iolaus had fallen victim to one of the repulsive gangs themselves. Then, "You said the slavers came from the North?" he demanded of the boy.

He nodded. "They started coming last winter season," he informed the stunned demigod. "Whole villages have been decimated by their arrival. They take indiscriminately. At first it was mostly the young and the strong but now they don't seem to care. It's as if they need as many people as they can lay their hands on. When we know they're coming, we hide. My uncle and cousins and a few more of the villagers have some secret caves where we go, but they're sure to find us eventually. My family is thinking of moving further South before they come again next season."

Hercules heard the boy's words, but tuned them out as one thought reverberated around his head. The slavers came from the North. They took indiscriminately. This was not his fault. Iolaus had not been taken because of their friendship, but because he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. His relief at this realisation was, however, short-lived. This did not negate the fact that his best friend was in danger. He had needed Hercules and the demigod had failed him. Almost without volition, he doused his small campfire by kicking some of the surrounding dirt on top of it and gathered his things together. He needed to be on his way. He needed to follow these slavers before they were too far away and their tracks too well covered for his limited abilities in that area to pursue. He had to find them and rescue Iolaus; get the blond hunter back before anything happened to him And when he had his dearest friend beside him, where he belonged, he would never go anywhere without him again.

He was halfway out of his campsite before he remembered the boy, who was still standing practically in the bushes, regarding him with a slightly bewildered expression. "Look," he said, turning slightly to address him, "thank you very much for the information. I do appreciate it. I have to go now. I have to rescue my friend," 'before it's too late', he added to himself, then brushed the negative thought away. "You'd better get home. Your folks will be worried."

The boy shook his head. "Oh, they know I'm out hunting," he said, airily. "They won't worry about me. I'm the best hunter and tracker in these parts. It was why I was following Iolaus."

A puzzled frown swept across the demigod's face. "What?"

"My father taught me to hunt and track," the boy told him, proudly. "By the time I was five, I could spot any print in a forest and tell you how old it was, give you a description of the man or woman or animal which had made it and practically tell you what they were wearing - unless it was an animal, of course," he added.

"You're a tracker?" Hercules shook his head in amazement. This boy had more in common with his best friend than he had realised. "And you were tracking Iolaus?" How had the warrior missed him? Obviously the boy's words were no idle claim, else Iolaus would have realised he was being followed. He was too canny a hunter himself to allow himself to be pursued by a mere teenager. Unless, of course, he had been distracted by something else - perhaps his thoughts had been centred as much on Hercules as Hercules' thoughts had been centred on him.

The question had elicited a nod from the boy. "I told you I was good," he said, almost as though he had been able to read Hercules' most recent thoughts. "Iolaus never heard me. I only made myself known to you when I was sure you wouldn't attack me or something."

"I never 'attack' anyone!" responded Hercules, somewhat testily. "I would think you'd know that." The words had emerged harsher than he had intended. He was very worried about his friend. That was no excuse for scaring the boy half to death, however. When he spoke again, he moderated both his tone and his words. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you. It's just .."

"You're worried about your friend, I know," interjected the boy sympathetically. "I'm sorry, too, Hercules. I know better than to think you would hurt me. All of Greece knows who you are and how you've helped people. And your friendship with Iolaus is legendary. Course, I've always admired Iolaus because he's the best hunter in Greece - he's my hero. Um ..." he shifted uncomfortably as he suddenly realised he may just have insulted the country's most famous son. "I ... er .."

To his amazement, Hercules grinned, albeit that it was tempered by worry and the smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "That's all right," he said, kindly. "It's actually nice to hear someone praise Iolaus for a change. Usually, people fall all over me and either ignore him altogether or just tolerate him because he's my friend. Of course, there are those who see him for the warrior and true hero that he is in his own right, but he's so much more than that and I'm glad someone recognises that at last. I want you to know that I'm very proud to be his friend and without him, half the battles I have fought would have been lost."

The boy returned the grin. "Oh, I know he's a hero," he said, "but like I said, he's the best hunter in all of Greece and I've wanted to be like him for as long as I can remember. Course, I don't have what you'd call a best friend to share things with, but that's okay. The forests and trees are my friends. When I heard that he had been seen in the area near my village, I couldn't resist using my tracking skills to follow him - just to see if I could. Now I'm glad I did." His face became sorrowful as he recalled the easy capture of the famous warrior. "I couldn't help when the slavers got him, but I knew that where he was you wouldn't be far away and so I just came after you instead. I knew that once you found out what had happened, you'd help him. My name is Phaedro, by the way."

The demigod couldn't resist a smile as he took the proffered hand. Phaedro hadn't seemed to stop for breath all the way through his tale - once more, Hercules was reminded, painfully, of his best friend. "Pleased to meet you, Phaedro," he said. "I'm glad you were on hand to see what happened to Iolaus, but you had better get home now ..."

"Oh no," Phaedro interjected again. Hercules was beginning to wonder if he would ever get a word in edgewise with this young man. It was almost like having Iolaus beside him, he reflected, sombrely. "I can help, Hercules. I can track those slavers down. The trail will be cold by the time you find the beginning of it. Let me go with you. Let me show you what I can do. Besides, I want to help. I admire Iolaus and I want to meet him."

The son of Zeus couldn't help but admire the boy's youthful enthusiasm and his genuine admiration for Iolaus was guaranteed to endear him to the hunter's by now desperately worried friend. "Okay," he said, a little reluctantly. "You can come with me. But the moment there's any danger, or any fighting breaks out, I want you out of there. Okay, Phaedro?"

A vigorous nod of the head and the boy practically leapt from the bush to the demigod's side. "Just wait till Iolaus hears about this," he mused, excitedly. "He won't believe what I've done!"

Hercules was wont to agree. And he couldn't help but be grateful that, for once, Iolaus' keen hunter's senses had failed him (either that or this boy was really as good as he claimed to be). Otherwise he would never have known the fate of his best friend and he could have lost him forever.


Iolaus returned to awareness with the accompaniment of a groan. Malicious little men in heavy boots were stomping around his head, beating an incessant tattoo inside his skull in time to the beat of the blood roaring through his ears. His mind was blanketed by a thick fog, although he vaguely remembered following Hercules, making camp and then - nothing. Nada. Everything after that was a complete blank.

He tried to move and heard a clanking sound, then realised that something cold and heavy weighted down his wrists and ankles. 'Chains,' he thought, morosely. 'Oh, great.' Gingerly, he tried again, only to discover that this was probably not the best idea he had ever had as his head started spinning and a raging nausea began to swirl within his stomach. He relaxed back against the hard floor for a moment, struggling to recall how to breathe. 'Calm,' he told himself, firmly. Slowing his respiration down, he tried to compose himself, waiting for his head to cease its relentless gyrations and the queasiness to die down. The little men continued to march around, but their pace slowed somewhat. At length, he made another attempt to rise, relieved that, this time, his stomach appeared to be staying in one place. His head felt like it was about to drop off but at least it had stopped trying to pirouette on his shoulders.

Everything was black, that was his first impression. Then he realised that he had yet to open his eyes. The fact that he had forgotten this basic impulse worried him somewhat, but he decided to table that concern for the moment. He was still groggy, after all. He could be excused a little forgetfulness.

The scenery didn't alter much when he did manage to force open his heavy eyelids. A murky gloom greeted him and the rank odour of sweat and human waste assaulted his nostrils. He fervently hoped that it wasn't himself he was smelling then concluded that this pungent aroma was one which permeated the entire place. Either he wasn't the only prisoner - and a prisoner was, indeed, what he was, he had already been forced to admit - or he wasn't the first. He couldn't hear any sound other than his own ragged breathing, so obviously the second guess applied.

"Terrific!" He leaned back against the wall to which he now discovered he was chained. The links on the manacles around his extremities were attached to bulkier chains which led to two heavy iron circlets embedded in the stone. There was sufficient room for him to sit up and lie down but anything other than that was a physical impossibility. The shackles were too short and the circlets placed too far down in the wall to allow for standing. Undoubtedly they had been designed thus to put prisoners at a distinct disadvantage to the guards. He lowered the investigative hand with which he had traced the chains and sighed heavily. Escape seemed impossible.

With nothing else to do except to wait for whoever it was who had captured him to come and explain why, he peered through the murkiness of the cell - for that was what it appeared to be - and tried to clear his mind. There was nothing much he could do about his predicament at the moment, he conceded, although, every so often, impatience would triumph over quiet reflection and he would yank somewhat ineffectually on his chains. He seemed to be totally alone, as no voice from the darkness beyond ordered him to stop and no-one came to see if he had awoken.

Hours passed. Hours in which he became more agitated and more frustrated with his situation. There was no window in the cell so he was completely oblivious to the passage of time and had no idea how long he had been held prisoner. He knew he felt ravenous despite the churning nausea associated with his concussion and his mouth and throat were achingly dry. The stench from his clothes and his own skin told him that he had been there for some considerable time and the cell was freezing cold, which meant that it was either deep underground or he was in a different, colder part of Greece. He estimated from all of this that the travelling here must have taken at least a day and a half, possibly more and maybe another half day or so had elapsed since then. He reflected somewhat resignedly what if someone didn't come soon to give him some water, then all they would find when they finally did deign to fetch him would be a corpse.

This thought gave him absolutely no pleasure and he bitterly regretted not being more alert when he had been overcome. He had been distracted by his contemplation of the situation between himself and Hercules and had, therefore, not been as vigilant as normal, nor had his hearing been as acute.

It was possible, he conceded, that whoever had captured him had been an excellent tracker themselves but deep down, he admitted to himself that he had been far too concerned over his best friend's behaviour to pay much attention. On reflection, he realised that he had been subliminally aware that someone had been following him since he had passed the last village before the forest in which he had camped. That he had chosen not to investigate his observation had proven to be his downfall and on top of everything else, he was angry with himself for being so careless.

Still, it was too late now for regrets. It would not help him escape his current circumstance and it was a pointless exercise in futility. There was one burden, however, which refused to be quelled, refused to secede - and that was how Hercules would feel when he found out, as he eventually would, that his friend had been captured and, more than likely, killed. This painful thought weighed heavy on his mind and made him even more determined to escape - when he had the opportunity. He did not care how or when this would be accomplished, only that he could not and would not allow the demigod to undergo any further anguish, especially not on his behalf. Hercules had suffered enough. He was not going to suffer any more.

His impatience finally bettered him.

"Hello!" he yelled. The sound of his hoarse voice reverberated around the cell, echoing hollowly on the thick walls. There was no response to his cry.

He tried again. "Hello! Is there anyone there!"

Again - nothing. No reply. Not even the sound of scuffling feet outside, indicating a guard's presence. For a moment or two, Iolaus felt real fear beginning to blossom as the thought that he may have been brought here, chained and left to die of thirst and starvation ran though his mind. 'Calm,' he told himself, firmly. 'Stay calm. There must be a way out of this. You just have to think.' But his head ached intolerably and the nausea was starting to have a debilitating effect on him. Still, he mused, at least he no longer felt hungry. In fact, he no longer felt much of anything ... except for the pounding in his head where the obnoxious little men were doing their best to execute a wild dance - or execute him. He was no longer entirely sure which. All he knew was the throbbing in his head, which was increasing in intensity until it was too much to bear and the sound of his blood surging through his ears. It was a loud, booming noise which almost drowned out his surroundings, and, after a while, completely sublimated them as he drifted toward an ever beckoning darkness ...


When he regained his somewhat shaky senses again, he was practically blinded by the bright sunlight beating down on his face. He dragged open eyelids which felt like dead weights and blinked rapidly, staring around him in mute horror.

He was suspended from a beam about 6 foot high by 5 foot across. The manacles on his wrists were looped over the crossbeam and he was left dangling about a foot from the ground. The strain on his abused wrists and arms was intolerable and he could not suppress a groan of pain. The sun beat down relentlessly on his naked torso, its raw heat searing his nerve endings and penetrating every pore. It seemed to bore straight into his very soul, burning incandescence which sent beads of sweat streaming to the surface of his skin, running in rivulets down his face, his body, already severely dehydrated. It was moisture he could ill afford to lose and he knew it. Focusing on this problem diverted his mind, for the moment, from other issues, such as the strange buzzing sound which was assaulting his eardrums and the occasional lashing noise which seemed to originate from behind him. He had a very good idea as to what was going to happen to him next and he did not particularly care to dwell on the prospect, instead concentrating on his current condition. He had a feeling, however, that this was a luxury which he was not going to be allowed to maintain for much longer.

He was right.

The first stroke fell without warning, lashing into his back, opening a gash several inches long. He hissed as the pain flared, then drew in another breath as the second lash wound around his side. The subsequent strike of the whip elicited a low moan, as did the one following. The fifth and sixth impacted with increasing ferocity, and drew out the screams he had been doing his utmost to contain, and the next three coincided with shortened gasps as his strength drained from him and oblivion beckoned.

But he was not to be allowed even that sweet respite. As he started to fall headlong toward the welcoming darkness, he was rudely brought back to bitter awareness by a torrent of cold water. He groaned again, and some of the moisture slipped into his mouth. He gulped at it eagerly. It was too little. He needed more.

He stared dazedly downwards whilst he waited for the next stroke to fall, discovering to his horror that the droning which had echoed in his ears was the clamour of people. Thin, drably garbed people gathered in the courtyard, cheering somewhat unenthusiastically. From his elevated viewpoint, he soon detected the reason for their lack of excitement as he noticed the robust, leather attired guards stalking the crowd, flicking their whips in a threatening manner and leering maliciously at the man on the beam. Him. They were regarding him with a lasciviousness which sent raw terror crawling down his physically defiled spine.

He did not have time to dwell upon this, however, as the whip fell again, blazing across his back with a flame which burned with molten fire with each progressive stroke. Ten more fell in quick succession, each one more forceful than the last, until his spine felt like a river of fomenting lava, and his blood dripped ceaselessly on the sandy ground. He was no longer able to utter a sound. His throat had long since dried up, his screams finishing the process the aching thirst had begun. His heart hammered in his chest, threatening to burst from that cavity at any moment, and there was not anywhere on his body which seemed free from pain. The flogging had been professionally and expertly administered, for maximum effect. He could even allow a vague admiration for the man responsible, although that admiration was tempered by a seething hatred for the same person.

Moments passed and no more lashes fell. Cautiously, he lifted his head, peering at the crowd and their overseers. He was inexplicably pleased to note that none of the people gathered in the courtyard seemed particularly happy at his condition, although he had heard each muted cheer at every stroke of the whip. Gradually, he came to the conclusion that perhaps these people were as much prisoners as he was. Indeed, from the expressions on the faces at the front of the crowd, perhaps some of them had suffered a similar indignity in the past. 'Good,' he thought. 'That will make them more sympathetic and maybe there is a way out of this'. He tried to convey something of this thought to one of the men standing closest to him. Something in the other's eyes gave him hope that he had an ally in here - wherever 'here' was. But blackness was spiralling in from either side and his head was spinning uncontrollably. He fought it with every fibre of his being but the pain was too great, the torture too prolonged and he fell into oblivion with a tiny gasp and a final shudder of his tormented body.


He awoke an indeterminate time later to find himself wrapped in a thin blanket, his face half-turned onto a bed of semi-clean straw.

"Welcome back." He started at the voice and tried to rise, then fell back with a strangled moan. "No! Don't try to get up yet," the voice implored him. "You're not strong enough. You need to rest. Gods alone know there's little enough time for that and you should take advantage of it whilst you can."

He nodded, mutely, desperately trying to regain a hold on his whirling senses, and concentrating on the soothing female voice, using it as a focal point to centre himself. At length, he forced himself to open his eyes again and tried to focus on the figure beside him.

His first impression was that she was young, but her pleasant face was thin and pale, and her clothes were little more than rags, hanging on a bony frame. She had obviously been a beauty once upon a time for some radiance still shone from her deep emerald eyes, but it had faded under the oppression of abuse. "Who ... who are you?" he managed. He was aghast at the sound of his own voice. It sounded so weak, so hoarse, and his throat was still parched, although not as badly, he realised.

"My name is Anaxibia," she told him. She reached beside her and brought up a flagon from the straw. "Here," she said," levering his head up with her other hand, "drink this. Slowly now. You've been left without water a long time."

He nodded and, despite his overwhelming desire to gulp down the precious, lifegiving liquid, sipped slowly, the relief he felt at its presence in his dehydrated body almost overwhelming.

"How is he?" A new voice. Male. Iolaus glanced upward and found himself staring into the face of the man from the front of the crowd. The man who had seemed to him to share his plight.

"F .. fine," he managed, brushing aside the flagon very reluctantly so he could talk. "I - what's happening ... here?"

The man smiled grimly and squatted beside him, displacing Anaxibia, who touched him briefly on the shoulder and handed the flagon over to him before rising and walking away. "Name's Tectamus," he said. "And you, friend, are?"

"Iolaus," the blond warrior introduced himself. He struggled to free his hand from the blanket in which he was seemingly cocooned so that he could greet the man properly but found, to his horror, that he was too weak. "Tectamus ... where are we? What ... is this ... place?"

The man's grim smile disappeared under the weight of a bleak frown. "We are in slaver's country and this, friend Iolaus, is Tartarus."


Over the next hour or so, Tectamus related to Iolaus what he and the others knew of their 'home'. During this time, the blond warrior was encouraged by his guide to drink as much as he could as often as possible, and at some stage during the explanation, Anaxibia brought their food - a thin, unappetising gruel which Iolaus regarded with distaste until a rebellious stomach convinced him to partake of it.

It transpired that Tectamus, Anaxibia, Iolaus and the other people who even now milled around the large dungeon had been brought here from villages and towns of Northern Greece. Here they were firstly incarcerated in separate cells, starved, left to thirst and then taken out and beaten in front of a similar crowd to the one which had been forced to witness Iolaus own flagellation. Tectamus did reluctantly point out, however, that none of them had received quite as severe a punishment as the blond haired warrior. Iolaus managed to quip that perhaps this was some sort of comment on his endurance or maybe the slavers had heard some of his songs. Privately, however, the hunter was appalled at Tectamus's words. Slavers! Gods. Slavery was something against which he and Hercules had fought almost their whole adult lives, and which they both felt was an affront to the entire human race. To think that he was in the hands of proponents of it filled him with both fear and loathing, and fortunately, the latter was winning out. He could not afford to show any of the consternation which he felt at the prospect of being in the hands of those who would treat human beings little better than insects. These people needed guidance - and a way out of here. And maybe fate had brought him here to provide that. If only he didn't feel so weak!

"Your wounds have been treated," Tectamus informed him, mildly. "We have developed salves and oils for such wounds. They have been needed for the many who have suffered at the hands of the tormenter. Unfortunately, you won't have a lot of time to recover from the whipping. They'll expect you to work in the mines or in the quarries tomorrow."

Iolaus almost laughed at that. Right now he didn't feel capable of attending to his basic personal needs alone, and they expected him to mine? If it wasn't so tragic, it would have been funny. "B ... but what are they mining?" he asked, breathlessly. "Why so many slaves?" The crowd at his flogging had been impressive but he had never considered the fact that they might all have originated from other places, brought here against their will and made to work manually for cruel overlords.

Tectamus shrugged. "Who knows?" he replied, carelessly. "We stopped asking a long time ago. We soon found that questions were perilous to our continued health. Then there was the uprising. A hundred slaves were killed in one night. Granted the uprising was engineered by only a few but a vast number paid the price. The guards herded them into the quarry and surrounded them. We found them all the next morning. Every one of them slaughtered by arrows or wounded and then cut down like animals by the guards' swords. After that, they started bringing back more slaves, probably to make up for those which had been lost. We have been servile ever since."

"But some of you ... don't like it," surmised Iolaus thoughtfully.

Another shrug. "What if we don't?" The other man shook his head helplessly. "We can't fight back against them. We can't risk everyone's lives for a few."

"Everyone's lives are ... already at risk," Iolaus pointed out. "Tectamus, if everyone fights together ..."

"We may all die," the older man finished off for him.

The blond warrior shook his head. "No, no ... well, maybe," he appended. "But surely ... it's better than .. dying day by day, giving up your freedom, your rights, your lives. Living like this is a death of its own. At least if you fight ... you will regain your lives ... if only for a short time. And ... maybe ... maybe you might win. Have you ... ever thought of that ...?"

To his surprise, Tectamus smiled warmly at him and clasped him on the shoulder. "Yes, my friend," he said. "I have. And I thank you for putting into words what I have been thinking for such a long time. It is time we fought back. We cannot go on like this day after day for much longer, allowing them to leech our lives, our very souls from us. I have heard of you, friend Iolaus. You are the companion of Hercules, are you not?"

Iolaus' face clouded for a second at the mention of his best friend's name. Hercules would never find out where he was, not in time. No, this was something he would have to do alone - well, not alone, he amended, with the help of the people here. He only hoped that it would be enough. He only hoped he was strong enough. "Hercules is ... on a journey elsewhere," he lied. "I'm afraid you're ... stuck with only me."

"From what I heard before I was captured and brought here, there's nothing 'only' about you, Iolaus. You have garnered as much a reputation in your own right as your friend. True, it would have been a much needed boost for these people to know that Hercules himself was going to help us, but I think hearing your name will be impetus enough. Most of us only need a little encouragement and we'll be ready to fight with whatever we have. We've been trying to fashion weapons and have hidden them in the mines and in the straw in here - much like that water flagon Anaxibia gave you. They're not much, but they'll do and will at least give us the confidence we need to wield them. With you on our side we should be able to persuade those who are not so ready to join us. We must have everyone involved or none at all. None of us are willing to risk a fight if it means that others who did not join will pay the ultimate price."

Iolaus nodded wearily. "I understand," he said. He winced as a stab of agony shot through him, originating from his back but spreading throughout his entire nervous system until his entire body was wracked with the conflagration.

Tectamus regarded him with concern. "You need to rest, now," he advised the hunter. "Here." He lifted Iolaus' head from the straw and poured a cool liquid down his throat. The hunter gulped eagerly at it, swallowing it before he registered the taste, which was acrid and bitter.

"What ...?" he gasped.

"A painkiller," the other man explained, soothingly, placing the blond head back on the grassy pillow. "And something to help you sleep. We will need to speak to everyone tomorrow but we must wait until the end of the day and you will need all your strength simply to get through the mining. Don't worry," he went on, reassuringly, as Iolaus' eyes widened somewhat at this statement, "we will all help you - as much as we can, anyway. Now - sleep."

Any protests which the blond hunter were about to make were swept away as the drug began to take effect and he drifted back into a place where pain and distress did not exist.


The next day Iolaus was made to rise and walk to the mines. Tectamus and another man, who introduced himself as Memnon woke him before the guards arrived and he found his clothes neatly folded and placed beside him. Getting into his leather pants and boots was bad enough, given the extent of the injuries on his thighs and lower back, but the very notion of wearing his jerkin was unthinkable. The lacerations caused by the whip were of varying degrees of depth and severity, but one thing they all had in common was searing agony and the individual marks blended into one fervid whole, making every movement a new experience in torture.

Iolaus, however, was nothing if not tenacious and determinedly hung on to both consciousness and his dignity so that when the guards finally did arrive to march them to their daily grind, he was able to walk under his own steam, albeit with swimming vision and the occasional stumble, which his new friends covered with an expertise which surprised him.

The hours passed slowly for them all; a long, torturous process of digging rocks and breaking them down into smaller pieces to be handed to the next man in line. Iolaus had fortunately been chosen to be one of those handling the rocks rather than wielding the axe. Fortunately because, much as he would have enjoyed using it as a weapon against these men, without the backing and prior knowledge of the other prisoners it would have been an exercise in futility and besides, he was in no fit state to lift the tool time and time again. Tectamus had been sent into the mines themselves whilst Iolaus was placed between Memnon and another man, who had not had the opportunity to introduce himself. Talking was strictly forbidden whilst the prisoners were working and the rule was enforced with the whip, viciously and effectively operated by the guards, who seemed to take sadistic pleasure in using their power whenever it suited them rather than for any transgressions by the men and women under their rule. The prisoners were chained together whilst outside, in order to reduce the chances of their escaping - not that there was anywhere to go if they did get away. The nearest village was apparently deserted, so Tectamus had told Iolaus during their rather one-sided discussion the previous night. The older man suspected that it had been the source of the first batch of slaves and, once their numbers had been diminished through either sickness or death through the constant application of the whip, the slavers had looked further afield for their workers, eventually finding them in the Northern Grecian villages and small towns.

If the hours passed slowly for the others, for Iolaus every moment was torturous. Try as he might, his mind could not overcome the torturous blaze of agony which assaulted him as his now festering wounds protested the strain to which they were being subjected and his muscles screamed in pain at the unaccustomed and never-ending work. Too many times to count he seemed on the verge of crashing through the barrier into insensibility before the sting of the whip would strike his shoulder, adding new torment to that which he was already undergoing. As the day went on and the sun moved through the sky until it was directly overhead, he knew it was only a matter of time until his badly wounded and sadly depleted body gave up any semblance of control and he fell to the ground like one of the stones he was hauling.

"Don't give in," came the whispered urging from beside him. Memnon, who had watched with increasing concern as the smaller man grew paler and sicker with every passing moment.

"Wh ...?" Iolaus glanced at him in consternation, hardly daring to breathe, and his respiration was already ragged and racked with a cough which had developed a couple of hours before. "Shouldn't ... talk ..." he rasped, heaving a stone over to his companion with arms which threatened to drop off at any moment. "They'll punish ... you."

"Then stay alert," ordered the other man firmly, in a low voice. He said no more as a guard glanced in their direction, but did not come to investigate nor use his whip to drive them further into servitude. Iolaus, however, nodded slightly and turned to handle the next stone, wondering at the same time how he was going to comply with the urgent demand.

The end of the day came not a moment too soon as the blond haired warrior was past exhaustion and way past his pain tolerance level as the sun set in the West. The journey back to the cell seemed interminable, but he and Memnon were once more joined by Tectamus and the two other men, despite their own obvious fatigue, helped him back, virtually holding him up as he sagged between them.

Once inside the relative privacy of the large holding, they guided him to his blanket, where Anaxibia once more tended to the wounds inflicted by the whip and dosed him with another painkiller. As he finally fell into a restless and disturbed sleep, she rose and moved across to the corner where Tectamus was regarding the warrior with apprehension. "How is he?" he asked. He kept his voice low, not wishing to broadcast his concerns to the others, most of whom he had managed to speak to during the day. The internal mines were not so well guarded and therefore it was easier to communicate with the other prisoners therein.

Anaxibia shook her head dismally. "Not well," she reported. "His wounds have not had time to heal and now he has more. The guards were extra vigilant today and they seemed to take great delight in striking out at him. It saved the rest of us from our daily beatings but it has had a grave effect on his constitution."

"Will he survive?"

She stared at him in something akin to horror at the dispassionate tone in which he voiced the question "Tectamus, is that all you can think of - that he survive to help us? You care nothing for him as a person?"

"You think so little of me, daughter? That I care nothing for him?"

"I ..."

"I would like nothing better than to see him well and strong again. He is a brave man. He has borne the beatings over the past two days with a strength I have never seen before and would never have expected of any mortal, but we cannot deny that we need him and his reputation for our fight here. And think about this. If he is not strong enough to help us, and we do not win, or we do not fight at all, then he will die of this agony which he is undergoing. So it is for him as well as for ourselves that I ask this."

She sighed, heavily. "Yes, of course. I'm sorry, father. Well, then, yes, he will survive. Whether he will be strong enough or awake enough to help you address everyone tonight is something I cannot tell you. That is up to his own will, his own tenacity, and whether he can overcome his pain in order to speak and then to fight."

"And I have every confidence that he will," said Tectamus. "Or he will die in the attempt." He drew a deep breath and smiled grimly. "Do what you can for him, little one, and when the time is here, get him on his feet. We must move tomorrow, or not at all."


Hercules and Phaedro had made camp for the night after a long, arduous journey. Much to his surprise, the demigod had found Phaedro to be just as proficient at keeping up with his pace as Iolaus was. Yet again evoking memories of his dearest friend. They had backtracked to Iolaus' last known campsite, where they discovered some very apparent signs of a scuffle including, the demigod noted with rising panic, a splattering of blood on the ground. Hercules could not tear his eyes away from the sight - there was a frightening amount of the lifegiving liquid staining the earth here, and he knew, with all the senses at his disposal, that it belonged to Iolaus. It was all too evident that the warrior had not left here of his own accord. Plus, the fire had not been doused as the remaining embers still shone in the pale light of the day and his pack was still sitting beside the rumpled blanket. Even more telling, however, was the object which Hercules found hanging on a tree branch nearby, swinging to and fro in the slight breeze, its dull jade moist with dew.

His heart skipped a beat as he closed his fist around his friend's ever-present amulet and pulled it reverently from its resting place. There was more blood on the leather and on the metal itself, and his mounting terror rose up, threatening to choke him. The amulet's very presence here instead of around the strong, corded neck around which it constantly hung sent huge waves of alarm coursing down his spine, adding fuel to the already raging fires of dread.

"What's that?" enquired Phaedro, rounding the tree to discover the strong man staring off into space, his face drawn and pale, his hands clutching something with such an iron grip that he was sure it must crush the object at any moment.

Hercules spun sharply at the interruption and for a moment, the grief suffusing his fine features unsettled the boy. Had the demigod found some proof that Iolaus was dead instead of merely being kidnapped? He had been so sure that Iolaus had still been alive when the slavers had made off with his admittedly limp body, albeit that he was bleeding badly from the head wound he had sustained. But these two friends were reputed to have such a strong relationship that many suspected that, if one died, the other would be able to feel it.

Was that what had happened?

"It's ... Iolaus' amulet," Hercules finally said, solomnly. "He ... he's worn it ever since I've known him ... practically all my life," he added, in a low tone.

"It must've snagged on the branch when they took him," surmised Phaedro. He could tell that anguish was threatening to tear apart the famous son of Zeus and sensed that only part of this could be attributed to Iolaus' current predicament. "Don't worry," he continued, attempting reassurance. "We'll find him. The trail starts there, see?" He pointed to some barely discernible tracks in the soft grasses near the tree. "Maybe we should get going."

Hercules nodded his assent, bringing his errant emotions back under some semblance of control. "Let's go," he said, grimly. "We have a lot of ground to cover and I don't want to waste any more time."

Dusk had fallen before they decided to make camp. Phaedro had been all for going on, confident that he could follow the trail which the slavers had left, even in the dark. But Hercules had demurred. He was incredibly grateful to the boy for his eagerness and determination, but Phaedro was, like Iolaus, only mortal, and he needed the rest, loathe though he may be to admit it.

They sat almost companionably beside the blazing fire, watching the fish which Phaedro had insisted on catching cook over the roaring flames, despite the demigod's eagerness to be on the road. He had been reluctant to call a halt to their travels, though he had realised that both he and Phaedro needed to rest. But his heart ached for his friend and he had to quell the constant desire to jump up and continue on his way, with our without Phaedro. However, he needed the boy to guide him, and his recognition of that fact overcame his impatience - just. If he looked carefully and hard enough, Hercules could swear that occasionally, he could see the outline of a face in the flames, then a bright smile, a pair of laughing blue eyes - all topped by a thatch of unruly blond curls would come into view. Iolaus. The demigod could not bank down the inferno which raged within him, stoked and fanned with panic, apprehension and the very real fear that he was going to lose Iolaus forever. Once the blond warrior discovered the identity and vocation of his captors, he would be as sickened as Hercules had been. And if there were, indeed, other slaves there, then he would have no compunction about fighting for them and their human rights, no matter that it may be a solitary battle. And Hercules had no doubt that Iolaus, as courageous and skilled a fighter as he was, would be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Either that or - and he did not even care to dwell on this particular line of thought - his friend would refuse to subjugate himself to his captors and would be slowly tortured to death, a lesson for all would-be belligerent slaves.

Neither prospect was conducive to either a hearty appetite nor to easy sleep, and he found himself unable to eat more than a bite or two of the admittedly tasty fare which Phaedro had prepared. Particularly as he also could not help wondering what his friend, his brother was being fed that night, if anything at all.

He recognised intellectually that this overt concern for Iolaus could well be out of all proportion to the danger the blond warrior might actually be in, but, admitting to himself that he could not go on without that bright, golden presence beside him also brought with it the sheer terror of losing him. And that was unthinkable. Iolaus was everything to him. He was the most important person in Hercules' life and he couldn't conceive of a future without him. Which was what scared him so about his friend's current situation, despite his intimate knowledge of the hunter's fighting abilities and determination.

Phaedro could not fail to notice the demigod's preoccupation, and also his lack of appetite, although he was unsure how to broach either subject for fear of being either rebuffed or worse. He had heard tales of the legendary friendship between the two men - the demigod and the warrior - and had, like a lot of other people, wondered at its strength and intensity. But even he had been totally unprepared to witness the depth of feeling which ran through the demigod for his friend. It was more than love, more, even, than need. It was almost as though Hercules was lost, split in two, as though, Phaedro suddenly realised, he was searching for the other half of his soul. Was that, then, what true friendship was, he wondered? A true meeting between heart and soul? Something so strong, so intrinsic to each party that to lose that thread, or to have it unravel even slightly, hurt with such physical pain? Would he even wish something like that upon himself - a boy with no friends to speak of? For it was patently obvious that Hercules was terrified of losing his other half, that it cut him, deeply, somewhere inside, unleashing wave after wave of anguish and pain, making him lose interest in anything other than following that thread to its source and being reunited with the one person who could bring him succour, who could fill the black, yawing emptiness in his soul.

Suddenly he felt very, very lonely.

They would have sat in contemplative silence all night, each lost in his own thoughts, had Hercules not shaken himself out of his reflections and noticed the slightly lost expression playing on the boy's expressive features. He had no clue as to the reason but he recognised the look. He was sure that if anyone looked closely enough, they would see it reflected in his own eyes.

"So, tell me," he said, softly, conversationally, breaking the oppressive silence which had fallen over their small campsite. "How long have you been a fan of my friend's?"

Phaedro gaped at the demigod. "Wh ... what?" he spluttered, helplessly.

The son of Zeus smiled, kindly. "You heard me," he stated. "How long have you been following my friend's exploits?"

Relieved that the onorous atmosphere had been rent at last, Phaedro returned the smile and, poking idly at the fire with a stick, he replied, "Ever since I was little - since I knew of your names."

"That long?"

He turned to the older man again, relaxing at the teasing note in his voice. "I'm almost 16," he said, proudly.

"And Iolaus and I have been friends for more than 25 years," Hercules told him. "It's been a long time."

"How do you stay friends with someone that long?" Phaedro wasn't intending to sound obtuse. He was genuinely interested in the answer. Not having had a friend of his own due to the circumstances in his life made him more inquisitive about the relationships in others'. And this particular partnership was more than just famous. It was an ideal to which a lot of young boys and their friends aspired.

Hercules' smile faded as he considered the question. Strange, that he had never thought about this before. But he and Iolaus were not in the habit of analysing their friendship. They didn't exactly take it for granted, for it changed and evolved all the time. But it was not something they ever really discussed. It just was. How had he and the blond warrior remained friends for so long, growing closer and ever closer over the years until they were almost a part of each other? The question ran interminable circles in his mind until he was forced to admit that he had no ready answer. "Friendship can't be analysed and categorised," he finally told Phaedro. "When you find someone who understands you, who loves you for who you are, with all your good points and all your faults; someone who does not want to mould you into their idea of a friend - that's a part of it. But there's so much more to it than that. It's sharing life's triumphs and tragedies. It's being there for the other person no matter what happens, even if that person tells you that you can't help them. You know that, just by being with them, silent, supportive, you are helping, and that when the time comes, they will turn to you for comfort. And you will give that comfort willingly, unconditionally. It's being willing to die for each other, being happy when the other is happy and always wanting the best for each other. It's never judging, but also having the insight to let the other person know when they're being an idiot. Being a real, true friend isn't difficult, Phaedro, but there are not many who can truly claim that they have such a friendship. I can. I have a friend who is all of these things, and so much more besides. He makes me laugh when I'm sad, lets me mourn when I need to and is the only man I trust to watch my back. He knows me - inside and out, and loves me anyway. And I know that he would die rather than let anyone hurt me, be that physically or emotionally. And he would rather die than hurt me himself, in any way. Our friendship was built on strong foundations, and nurtured through both tough and carefree times, and it has evolved over the years into something without which I would never survive. The simple truth is, we are soul mates, and no matter where our hearts go, they will always be together."

"Wow!" Phaedro sat back on the grass, staring at Hercules with something akin to awe. He had never suspected that friendship could be at once so complicated - and so mind-numbingly simple. It was a lot to take in. He fell back onto the blanket he had spread out beneath him - a loan from the demigod and stared at the stars. "Hercules?"

"What?" The demigod sounded distant, as though he were as much overawed by what he had just said as the boy to whom he had just imparted it.

"D'you think I'll ever have a friendship like that?"

Hercules smiled again , although it was tinged with melancholy. "I don't know, Phaedro," he said. "Maybe. I hope so. Because, much as such love can hurt, it can also bring with it the most wonderful rewards, and to have a true friend is to be rich beyond your wildest imaginings."

Phaedro nodded. There didn't seem to be anything further that he could say to this, so he turned over on his blanket, whispered a 'thank you' and 'goodnight' to his fellow traveller, and fell into a doze.

Hercules' good humour faded as he gazed at the peaceful face. He hadn't particularly wished to engage in conversation, even with this boy, who was the very epitome of Iolaus in so many ways. However, oddly enough, their conversation had made him feel closer to his friend, as though talking about him kept the hunter safe, well and unharmed.

He prayed that this would remain true as he drifted off himself into a fitful sleep, hoping that tomorrow they would find the slavers' headquarters.


Tectamus had called a meeting for the early hours, when the guards would be asleep and no one would bother them. Memnon had managed to pass the word along to the quarry workers, despite the inherent dangers in such an assignment. Now all they awaited was Iolaus.

The warrior was gently awoken by Anaxibia, who plied his face with gentle pats from her careworn hands until the blue eyes flickered open, focusing on her dazedly. "Wh ..? Anaxibia?" he mumbled, drowsily. "I ... what is it?"

"Can you get up?" she asked.

A confused expression swept across his mobile features. 'Get up'? What did she mean? Surely it wasn't morning already? Oh gods, what had happened to time?

"The meeting," she reminded him, watching the play of emotions across the bone-white face already lined with pain. "We have to fight tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" he echoed, in dismay. Great Zeus, how could he be ready to fight for these people tomorrow? And yet, he must. They were relying on him. Exerting all of the willpower at his disposal, he dredged up a smile for the worried looking girl and rose up on his elbows, pointedly ignoring the tendrils of agony shooting through his back and creeping inexorably through his entire body. "Just ... give me a hand, here," he panted, suppressing a sudden urge to cough. "I'm ... ready." She flashed a warm, grateful smile at him and once again he could see the beauty which dwelled within the auburn haired healer. As he tottered to his feet, her steadying arm at his back, he reached over a hand and put it to her cheek. "You're ... very pretty," he whispered. "I'd ... do anything for you."

She blushed attractively and her emerald eyes twinkled. She realised that this was probably just a line - like most men used when they wanted something. But he had sounded so sincere, and his hands were so gentle on her skin. Her cheek still flamed where his fingers had touched, almost as though he generated an otherworldly energy. Like many others before her, she was falling under the spell which was Iolaus' natural charm and kindness, and she was quite content to plunge headfirst into it, just to see what would happen next.

"Then come with me and speak to the others," she managed, at length. "Tectamus has called on you."

With Anaxibia's assistance, he made his way across the open cell to where the others were gathered. He noted the expectant faces of the crowd, recognising some of them from those who had been forced to witness his flogging. But there was no condemnation nor even embarrassment in their expressions, just hopefulness, anticipation and a confidence in him which he wasn't entirely sure was justified. How could he hope to fulfill their dreams, how could he promise to help end their suffering when he felt very much like lying down somewhere in a darkened corner and curling into a small ball where the pain couldn't find him any more? But he couldn't disappoint them. There had to be a good reason why he was here, now, in this place. And no matter what became of him, these people deserved something better. They deserved their freedom, they deserved their lives. In that moment his decision was made, had there ever been any doubt. He was going to do this, even if it meant giving up his own life in the process. These people were going to go home. He was going to make sure of it.

Tectamus smiled as he approached them, his grin widening as the blond warrior gently removed Anaxibia's guiding hands from around his waist and shoulders, his slightly bowed shoulders suddenly straightening and his head erect, proud . "Friend Iolaus," he greeted him, almost jovially. "You honour us with your presence. Here," he made space for Iolaus beside him, "sit here and let us tell you what we mean to do."

Iolaus listened intently as Tectamus outlined their plan. It was simple. Too simple. It involved using the weapons they had managed to conceal in the cell to attack the guards as soon as they came to let the slaves out the next morning. "They're distracted whilst they lock us in the chains," he said, a note of disgust lacing his voice at the latter word. "That'll be our best opportunity."

"And ... then what?" asked the blond warrior, breathlessly.

Tectamus stared at him. "We take the fight outside," he declared. "We kill as many of those slaving bastards as we can and escape."

"To where?"

Tectamus's eyes narrowed. "Friend Iolaus," he began in a warning tone, before the hunter cut him off urgently.

"Tectamus, listen to me," he said. "Listen to me ... all of you. Forgive ... me - this is not a plan. This is ... suicide."

"Better suicide than staying a slave a moment longer!" yelled a woman from the crowd. A few other voices murmured their agreement, and the crowd began mumbling amongst themselves. This was the warrior who had come to save them? He was no more than a coward. A gainsayer who put all their hard thought plans at risk.

Iolaus sensed the discord and held up his hand. He was startled to see how much it was shaking and dropped it almost immediately. It did, however, have the desired effect as the low noise died away again and everyone's eyes fixed upon him. "You don't understand," he said, patiently, fighting for breath. Gods, he still felt so weak. But he couldn't let them know the agony which plagued him. He had to get through this. Summoning up every spare reserve of energy he had, he continued, "I'm not saying that your ... plan to fight isn't good, just that it needs more work, more thought into the ... consequences. You're fighting to free yourselves, right? Well ... first you need all your weapons."

"But the rest are in the mine," Memnon pointed out.

"It's going to take time to get them all here," added Tectamus. "We want to fight now."

"I ... know," admitted Iolaus. "But you've waited this long ... can't you wait a while longer?"

The older man looked sceptical, but he finally nodded, curtly. "And your idea?" he prompted.

"When we have all the weapons ... here," Iolaus went on, "we wait ... another day, then, when the guards ... bring us back and unlock the chains ... those who are freed first back away into ... the cell and get the weapons ... unobtrusively. They wait ... till the others are free. Then the strongest and best fighters among you ... attack the guards, get their weapons and get outside to prevent ... the other guards from closing the gates. The secondary assault group follow; the women last."

"And then we can rush the other guards and catch them unawares," Tectamus completed for him, having caught the idea behind Iolaus' strategy. "Yes, yes, that makes better sense. That way we don't all rush at once and stand a better chance of both fighting and escaping with our lives."

Iolaus nodded. He was feeling very light headed and the room was beginning to spin alarmingly, but he had to get out the last part of his plan. "Exactly," he gasped. "We ... have the element of surprise on our side, plus, we ... outnumber the guards. And as for getting ... away - maybe running to that ... village you spoke of would be the best idea, Tectamus. That way everyone can rest and ..."

"Yes, yes, I think that's an excellent idea," said the older man, watching with growing alarm as Iolaus' already ghostly white face blanched of every last residue of colour. He leaned closer to the ailing warrior. "This could take two or three more days, my friend," he said, gently. "Are you sure you'll be able to hold out?"

The warrior nodded, then wished he hadn't as the world tilted on its axis and the faces all blurred into one spinning gyration, rushing round him at breakneck speed, until he could no longer tell which direction was up and which was down. "I'll ... be ready," he mumbled, as he lost all hold on reality and fell sideways, straight into the older man's lap.


Consciousness intruded again some time later as he became aware of muffled voices and the feeling of being shackled. He could not suppress a groan as the iron circlets were fastened around his ankles and wrists, chafing at skin already rubbed raw the previous day. What he wouldn't give for his gauntlets, but he had no idea what had been done with them, and his ever present amulet had gone from around his neck, too. A pang of sorrow splintered his heart at its loss. Although his memories of his father were bittersweet, the amulet had once belonged to the General and his father before him and had hung around his own neck for as long as he could remember. There were memories attached to it which made him smile whenever he touched it, including those of his grandmother, Leandra and he missed the pendant more than he would have thought possible. It brought him small measure of comfort to know that the memories would live on in his mind, but he was enough of a pragmatist to realise that if this was all he had, then it would have to be enough.

His musings were rudely interrupted by a rough shove from behind. "Hey!" he protested, in a rasping voice which was barely recognisable as his own. The hacking cough which followed his objection unfortunately feeling and sounding all too familiar.

"Get on with you, slave!" came the ill-tempered retort. "Else I'll put the whip to you!"

"Been there ... done that," muttered Iolaus, and felt the sting of the lash across his shoulders for his audacity. He bit back a moan of pain but stumbled and the whip fell again, this time catching at the already infected sores inflicted by the lashing of the previous two days. He could not suppress a cry of anguish at the agony which tore through him and had it not been for Tectamus and Memnon beside him, he would have crumpled to the ground. As it was, his knees buckled and they practically had to drag him out of the cell between them, flinching as the whip fell again periodically throughout the journey to the mines.

Iolaus was made to work inside the mines this time. Once his senses stopped swimming and his head cleared sufficiently for him to take stock of his surroundings, he found himself facing a huge wall of black rock, which seemed to go on forever. The mine itself was immense, its height unbelievable and its length indeterminable, as it went on for as far as the eye could see and beyond, illuminated by dull lanterns which cast an eerie glow over the lustrous ore of which it was seemingly constructed. "Wh ... what are we ... mining?" he managed, turning to Tectamus with a puzzled expression.

"We don't know," the other man replied, brusquely. He regarded his smaller companion uneasily. Iolaus looked terrible. Even in the dim light cast by the torches he could see that the warrior's eyes were glittering unnaturally. His skin was ashen and bathed in a sweaty sheen, despite the coolness of the mines, and he was trembling with such force that Tectamus wondered if he would even be able to hold onto a tool, let alone apply it. "Iolaus ..."

The warrior had noticed the man's keen observation of him and realised how he must look. He tried to smile. It emerged as more of a grimace. "I'll ... be okay, Tectamus," he declared, with a lot more confidence than he felt. "Just ... remember to get the weapons ..."

Tectamus sighed and nodded. "We can do this without you if you're too sick," he began. Iolaus cut him off, a burst of anger giving his voice more strength than he had previously been able to muster.

"No!" he exclaimed. "This is ... my fight too. I'll be fine. Just ... let's get through ... this day. Okay?"

A little taken aback by the outburst, Tectamus nodded again. "We should be able to get most of them out today," he said, in a low voice, aware that the few guards who had accompanied them down here were patrolling nearby. "If we manage that, then there should be enough for us all. You won't have to go through another day of this, friend Iolaus."

The blond warrior did manage a grin this time, although it was muted by the effects of the pain blistering through him every second. "WE won't have to go through ... another day of... this, Tectamus," he corrected the other man. "Remember that. We're ... all together in this."

Tectamus returned the grin. "Together or die!" he vowed. Then, wary of the guard walking toward them, he started swinging his pick at the rock face, seemingly intent on his task.

Iolaus watched him for a few moments, trying to summon up the strength to even lift his tool. Without warning, a vision of Hercules entered his mind. The demigod was smiling, then the smile was suddenly wiped away as grief took its place. The warrior swallowed convulsively. Gods, he missed his friend. And he had no intention of dying here in some godforsaken hole somewhere far away from home, thereby forcing the demigod to grieve for his loss. Glancing around at the others with whom he was sharing his current fate, he drew upon that thought and added to it with the resolve that he was not going to let these people suffer any further either. They didn't deserve this. No-one deserved this. And he was not going to let them or Hercules down. Not in this lifetime. Not if he could help it.

It took every ounce of reserve strength which he had and then some besides, but eventually, he was able to lift his own pick, although the liquid fire which poured through his body at the action almost had him tumbling to the ground. With a grunt, he let the tool fall, then hefted it again, let it drop and repeated the action, time after time. Blazing agony coursed through him with every movement, but he found a rhythm and stuck to it, hour after ceaseless, unremitting hour.

It seemed that he was going to make it after all.

Even for Iolaus, that thought was a tad optimistic.

Hercules and Phaedro were making good time, although they were not travelling as quickly as the demigod would have managed alone. He did not share this opinion with his companion, however. Had it not been for the boy, then he would have lost the trail several miles before and what was the use of speed if you had no idea of the direction in which you must travel?

They were getting close, however. Hercules could feel it. The link which he and Iolaus had always shared; that invisible bond which had been stretched and cut but never truly severed told him that he was within reach of his best friend. Already he could feel the candle which flickered within his soul burn brighter and hotter as that which kept it alight fed its flame. It flickered, once, twice, then steadied, glowing with bright red and cool blue, surrounded by a golden halo. "Iolaus," he breathed. "I'm on my way, Iolaus. Hold on, my friend. I'm on my way."

Phaedro looked askance at the demigod at these barely discernible words, but all he said was, "These tracks look fresher. I think we're getting close."

Had Hercules not been so worried about Iolaus he would have let loose a cry of relief. But that outpouring of emotion would have to wait. They still had to reach the slavers' stronghold and who knew what they would find when they got there?"


Their day in the mines ended not a moment too soon for Iolaus. The hacking cough which had plagued him earlier had returned with a vengeance, and he had suffered several attacks, each one leaving him weakened and gasping for breath. His entire body was quivering with the strain of trying to retain a hold on his fast fading senses, and the effort of trying to breathe with lungs which felt like someone had been tearing them apart. Little pinpricks of light twinkled behind his eyes and it was growing darker with every passing second. At the order to cease work, he allowed the pick to fall from limp, numbed fingers, and staggered against the wall, unable to suppress the whimper of frustration which emerged as his head spun faster and faster, until a veritable kaleidoscope of colours whirled around him. His legs felt like jelly and he could hear a faint keening sound echoing around the caves, the irritating noise penetrating his eardrums, threatening to split them asunder. He wasn't sure when he realised that the sound was originating from him, but it was abruptly terminated by an hysterical giggle, then sound and light were gone as he tumbled over the edge of oblivion and fell into a darkness which knew no end.


Iolaus came to the conclusion that waking up certainly wasn't becoming any easier. His body ached. There wasn't any part of him which was free from pain, and he wasn't entirely sure why his senses had chosen to return him to awareness when he would just as soon remain in the realms of sweet oblivion. He could feel her beckoning to him, the siren's song she was singing too powerful to resist. He almost smiled as he took a step toward her, then was pulled back, reluctantly, inexorably. A faint cry issued from between broken lips as her song faded away and he surfaced into bitter reality. A face swam into view as his eyes slowly opened. It was a familiar countenance but it took him several long moments to come up with a name to accompany it.

"Anaxibia ..." he murmured. It was barely a breathy whisper but she seemed to hear it and a smile of relief washed away her anxious expression.

"Welcome back," she said, softly.

"Wha ...?" He turned his head slightly to discover that he was back in the cell. Beneath him was soft straw and he was covered with a thin blanket. He couldn't remember getting there.

"Tectamus and the others got you back," she told him, reacting to the utter confusion on his grey, drawn face. "You collapsed in the mines. Don't you remember?"

Forward to Chapter Two

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