Disclaimer - these characters are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and no attempt is made to infringe the copyright thereof. We are just borrowing them and will give them back at the end of the story!
VALLEY OF THE SHADOWS
Vali looked at Hercules and Iolaus. Her
lips curled into a leering smile as she looked at Iolaus. She walked over,
to run a hand through his blond curls. "Hmmm, Nori, never have I seen
a male so beautiful, with hair like the sun and eyes like the sky! You will
be a treasure like no other, man." She traced a hand down his face.
Iolaus jerked away, only to have Vali grab him by the chin and force him
to look at her. "You will obey me or you will suffer for it. I know
many ways to inflict excruciating agony on you without leaving a mark, just
as I did before." She caressed his cheek, pressed a light kiss to his
lips, and then slapped him, hard, knocking him backwards. He stared at her
defiantly, his eyes going violet with rage.
Hercules had to take several deep breaths to keep from struggling against the chains that bound him and finding some way to lay into Vali. He hated to see Iolaus hurt, in any way. Now was no exception.Hercules studied the women. All of them were Iolaus' height or taller. Vali was the tallest, at nearly six feet. All of them reminded him of the Amazons, but there was something ... something regal and yet almost evil about all of them. There was a sophistication about them the Amazons never had. All of them were dark-haired, though some had red high-lights. All of them had black, brown, or green eyes. They were perfectly fit, and well-armed, with swords, bows, and staffs. They were all dressed in leather boots and trousers and linen or leather tunics. Decorations varied from nothing to feathers to colored gems and gold.
^What about the giant?^ asked a black-haired woman.
Vali slid a hand over Hercules' chest and shoulder. "I think he will make an admirable gift to my mother, the queen. She will appreciate his brute attributes. Don't you think so, Maki?" The black-haired woman chuckled and nodded.
^I don't like this, Vali. We should kill them all and go home. We could take Sivari's hand as proof of his death.^ This from a tall woman wearing a gold headband.
Vali shook her head. ^No, Tris. I want them all returned alive.
^It has taken us many days to catch up with the runaway, and it will take as many days to return, more with them in tow!^
Vali snarled. ^You challenge me, Tris?^
Tris was brought up short. ^No, Vali. Of course not.^
^Then prepare to set out! As soon as we have rested, we will go.^
In less than an hour, they were on their way, twelve female warriors surrounding three men. Hercules and Iolaus noted the northeasterly direction they were taking - straight into Macedonian territory. That night, Iolaus kicked Vali away from him as she caressed him; she was constantly running her fingers through his golden curls. His action enraged her. She grabbed him by the hair and reached down to stroke the inside of his left thigh. A sudden motion of her hand and he screamed. He continued to scream until she undid whatever she had done, the same thing she had done when he was captured.
Iolaus lay on the ground, white-faced and moaning. Hercules was looking at him in shock. He had never heard such sounds coming from Iolaus before. Never. He hadn't believed it was possible to make his friend scream like that. He began struggling against the chains that held him, wanting to go to Iolaus, and wanting to snap Vali's neck.
"Hercules. Don't. I'm all right," Iolaus rasped. He was recovering from the mind-numbing pain that had been inflicted on him, and two warriors jerked him to his knees.
Vali chuckled. "My people know many things about the body. Including where some of the major nerves are located. Pinch them just right, and it causes excruciating pain, yet can be undone with a touch and there is no lasting damage." Her face hardened. "We also know certain points that can cause death, either instantly or in a matter of moments. Is that what you want, Hercules? To die? Do you want to watch your friend die in agony?"
"NO!" Hercules fists clenched. "We aren't animals, here for your amusement!"
Vali laughed. "Why, Hercules, that is exactly what you are. That is what all men are, brute beasts to be used in the service of the Goddess."
"What goddess? Hera?"
"No. The Lady. She is our mother, and our protector. As her daughters, we serve her and follow her tenets. She rules with a gentle, loving hand. And she has taught us that men *are* animals. Always fighting, warring with one another over land, over gold, or women. Foolish men. Women will always be superior to you."
Without warning, Vali spun and hit Iolaus in the mouth with a closed fist as hard as she could. The warriors had known what was coming and released him at the last instant. Iolaus' head snapped back; he was limp as he hit the ground. Vali looked at Hercules, eyes blazing. "Remember this: from now on, when one of you disobeys, the other pays the price!" Vali cheered at the look in Hercules' eyes. She had read the friendship between the two men correctly, and could use it against them.
Hercules nodded. He was allowed to go to his friend. He knelt beside Iolaus. Tho his chains restricted the movement of his arms and hands, he lifted Iolaus into his arms and carried him to where they had spread their blankets. He was starting to come to as Hercules laid him down. Sivari brought a cup of water. Iolaus rinsed his mouth, spitting bloody water to one side.
Hercules turned Iolaus' face up to his. "Still got all your teeth?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"How's your head feel?"
"My head's fine, it's my jaw that hurts. She hits like you do, Herc."
"Thanks a lot." Hercules winced at the bruise already forming on the left side of Iolaus's face. "This is not going to be either pretty or comfortable by morning."
"Yeah, I know."
One of the warriors gave Iolaus a cloth soaked in a medicinal poultice. "It'll help take the pain away and speed the healing." Iolaus held the cloth to his sore jaw and glared daggers at Vali. As they bedded down, Hercules noticed that they were ringed by the warriors. There was no chance of any of them escaping.
Next day, Hercules and Iolaus were separated. Vali sent Iolaus ahead with one group of warriors, the others stayed behind with Hercules. There was always a runner on the edge of either group, ready to report to the other force. If one attempted to escape, the other would be severely punished.
As for Sivari, he remained behind as well, too terrified to do anything but what he was told.
Iolaus' group made good time, for he was in as good a shape as they were, and able to keep up with the grueling pace they set. They took him to a magnificent hidden valley, deep in Macedonian territory. They stood on a bluff overlooking the valley, and Iolaus gazed in astonishment below him. The city below them was like nothing he had ever seen. It was enormous, sprawling over the center of the valley, gleaming gold and ivory, blue and green and red, in the sunlight. There were domes and pyramids, and as they got closer, he could see rich villas surrounded by verdant gardens. There were paved streets lined with lamps, to be lit at night. As they walked down the tree-lined street, in front of homes and shops built from marble and fine woods, he saw women coming to see the returning search party.
Iolaus had never seen anything so opulent, not even in Egypt, or during his travels in the far East. All the women were dark-haired and physically fit, beautiful of face and form. Even the elderly matrons were still tall and straight in their bearing. Everyone wore fine linen or leather, dyed in bright blues, greens, reds, creamy ivory or white. Young girls wore short leather skirts and short tunics; older women wore fine dresses.
And then he began to notice the men. All of them were small, like Sivari, with an almost unearthly beauty. Some were well-muscled, obviously used to hard labor. Others were obviously pampered pets, used to doing nothing but being displayed. They peeked from behind doorways or alleys, always obviously in a subservient position. Some, working in the gardens and along the streets, wore only loincloths; others, peering from doorways, were richly dressed, like Sivari had been. He saw no males younger than mid-teens. And all of them, like Sivari, were dark-haired. No wonder Iolaus' blond curls had caused such a stir.
In the center of the city were three pyramids of equal height, built so that they formed a triangle. They were equally beautiful, but each was differently designed. The sides made steps up to the top, upon which sat a temple.
The group's leader, Sienna, grabbed Iolaus by his bound wrists and pulled him to the top of the first pyramid they came to, where she forced him to his knees. Eighteen days with these women had taught him to obey without protest, unless he wanted either beaten or the nerve pinch. Iolaus watched as she knelt in front of a regal woman dressed in a red sarong over a white dress. By this time, Iolaus had a pretty good grasp of the women's language, and was able to follow along as the regal woman greeted the warrior.
"What have you brought to me, Sienna? And where is my daughter?"
"My queen." Sienna stood. "Vali follows behind, with our captured run-away and a gift for you."
The woman, Deron, looked Iolaus up and down, walking around him. "I have never seen such hair and eyes, or such a physique. He is truly a magnificent specimen."
"He pales in comparison to the other one. Vali wants this one for herself, and said tell you the other one will make up to you for his loss. They had to be separated in order to control them."
"Indeed. I await this gift eagerly. Take this one to Mistress Linn for training. How far behind you is Vali?"
"We traveled much faster than the others. I would say they are about six to ten days behind us. The runaway was barely fit to travel, and the other will likely be belligerent."
"Thank you, Sienna."
Iolaus was taken to the training mistress and given to her. She ordered him bathed and dressed in clean clothes. Iolaus didn't fight or protest. Until he was brought back to her.
"So, you are to be Vali's new servant. I can see why she would want you."
"I am no one's slave!" Iolaus spat.
Faster than the eye could follow, Linn lashed out with her fists, hitting him in the left shoulder and right hip. The pain was such that he couldn't even scream. He lay on the floor, convulsing, until she released him.
"That was your first lesson. You will speak when spoken to. You will do as you are told. Do you understand?" Iolaus stared at her. "I am not Vali. I will not take your impertinence. After today, anything you do or say could be grounds for punishment. What I did a moment ago was nothing to what I could do, and will do if I have to. Now. *Do you understand?*"
Iolaus slowly nodded, hating himself. But he had to bide his time until Hercules arrived.
Iolaus was introduced to Seagare. He was the overseer in charge of the slaves, and reported directly to Linn. He was about twenty years Iolaus' senior, his hair graying at the temples, but he was still a robust, healthy man. He would be Iolaus' mentor. Iolaus was first assigned to learn the duties of a companion. He would be expected to fetch and carry, entertain, and take care of all of his mistress' needs. Whatever they might be.
Iolaus discovered the inhabitants weren't ignorant of the outside world, they merely chose not to be a part of it. Still, they kept up with the outside world, and knew much that went on. They heard news of wars, of gods and heroes. They knew who he and Hercules were, but were not impressed. Now, he was just another slave to be tamed and trained. Iolaus saw what Seagare had brought him to wear and began to shake his head. "No. Absolutely not." He wasn't going to put those clothes on. They were designed to expose rather than to cover, to show off his unique beauty. The filmy blue trousers would cling to his muscular legs and hips, while the tunic was open to expose his chest and abdomen. There were soft blue boots and gold accessories.
Iolaus' fists clenched. "I am not a doll to be dressed up and shown off! I will be no one's toy!"
"Don't do this, Iolaus. All you'll do is bring yourself pain."
"Let her kill me! I won't do this!" Iolaus was shaking.
Seagare looked at Iolaus. It wasn't just this. There was more to the wildness in Iolaus' eyes than suddenly finding himself a slave. "Iolaus. It's all right. Calm down." Seagare laid the clothes aside and stepped toward Iolaus, hands out. He stopped as Iolaus backed up. He looked like he was ready to run. "Iolaus, please. You have to calm down."
Iolaus swallowed hard and slowly unclenched his fists. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "I'm sorry, Seagare."
"What is it, son? Why does this terrify you so?"
"I have to be free, Seagare. I will die if I am kept like this. I need the fields and forests. I need the blue sky, and the rain. I need to be able to hunt and fish and to go when and where my restless spirit takes me. *That* is why I am afraid. I would rather be dead than kept in chains, no matter how soft or beautiful!"
Seagare nodded. "I understand, Iolaus. You might not think so, but I do. I have seen just that thing happen to other men who've been captured." He put a hand on Iolaus' shoulder. "You've told me about your friend. Hold on until he gets here, Iolaus. Don't do anything to get yourself killed. He'll need you, you know, if everything you've told me about him is true."
"It is, all of it." Iolaus took a deep breath. "You're right, Seagare. I have to be here when Hercules gets here."
"Good. Now, you'd better get dressed, before Linn orders both of us into chains."
Linn examined Iolaus closely when he appeared. Satisfied, she ordered Seagare to take him for the day's lesson.
Linn watched Iolaus. He was sitting in the garden, meditating. She walked over to him, standing over him. Iolaus opened his eyes, looked at her, and got to his feet. He waited, an air of calm radiating from him. Linn walked around Iolaus. "So. You are adjusting to your new station."
"I am trying, Mistress."
Linn grabbed Iolaus by the hair and jerked his head back. Her eyes locked with his. He merely looked back at her. "I don't believe you," she hissed. She released him. "Kneel!" Iolaus sank to his knees, bowing his head. Linn walked around him, watching him. He didn't move. Linn kicked Iolaus, knocking him sprawling backwards. He lay on the ground, watching her. She backed off and motioned him to get up. He slowly climbed to his feet, his eyes never leaving her face. She backhanded him, splitting his lip. He merely turned his face back to look at her, not even moving to wipe away the blood that trailed down his chin. Linn laughed. "You think to placate me, lull me into lowering my guard, so that you may escape. You are a slave, man. Whatever you have been before, you are a slave now. You will bend that proud neck to our service, to do whatever your mistress, whoever she may be, may ask of you. Whether it be the most menial of tasks or the privilege of warming her bed and siring her daughters. You have no will now of your own."
Iolaus looked her in the eye. "I will do as you have said, but not forever. I will escape this place, and with me my brother whom Vali even now brings. I was born a free man, and a free man I will die." His voice was low and when he finished speaking, he bowed. Linn was furious. She screamed obscenities at him, screaming for her guards, and had Iolaus dragged into a special room. Cuffs were locked around his wrists. Attached to the cuffs were silver chains, which were then pulled over his head. He was pulled up until his feet were about a foot off the floor. He watched Linn warily as she walked into the room. She was carrying a short whip, much like the riding crop he'd seen some people use. He tried to steel himself, resigned to his fate. She wouldn't kill him, for he belonged to Vali. But she would inflict great pain, to make him wish for death.
The first blow came to his back, just above his right kidney. It was quickly followed by a lash from the whip across his shoulders. Iolaus couldn't stop the cry that escaped his lips at the sudden double pain. She ran her hand over his chest, down his ribs, to his right hip, and pressed. Iolaus screamed from the pain, flinging his head back. Outside the door, Seagare waited. He visibly flinched each time Iolaus cried out, and went stiff when he screamed. It seemed to go one forever. He didn't know how a person could survive such torture as this. He'd known men, outsiders like Iolaus, who had died in this room, and in much less time.
Linn stepped back from Iolaus, listening to his rasping breath. He slowly raised his head and looked at her. He didn't say a word and after a moment, his eyes closed and he lost consciousness. But Linn had read the question in the anguish of his eyes: 'why?'
Linn stepped out of the room. She looked around, knowing Seagare would be waiting. He stepped from the shadows and bowed. She nodded at him and left. Seagare watched as Linn walked away, then turned to the doorway. He took a deep breath before going inside, not knowing what he would find. He shook his head as he saw what Linn had done to Iolaus. His back was a mass of welts, a few oozing blood. The whip had been employed very effectively. The welts would been painful for days, but would leave no scars to mar the perfection of his skin. Even those where the skin was broken weren't deep. The deep bruises on his sides, lower back, and stomach were actually more serious.
Seagare lowered Iolaus to the floor, easing him down so as not to injure him further. He unlocked the cuffs and lifted Iolaus into his arms, carrying him to his quarters. One of the other slaves brought the healer just as Seagare was settling Iolaus onto his stomach on the bed.
"Yes, Tera. Thank you, Aran. Will you wait, in case Tera needs to send for anything?"
"Of course, Seagare." The boy glanced at Iolaus. "How is he?"
Seagare sighed. "He's hurting right now, but he'll live." He led Tera, who was blind, to the bed, sitting her on the edge and guiding her hands to Iolaus' left arm.
Tera left one hand on Iolaus' arm and held the other over his back. "Aran?"
"His bruises are deep and painful. I will need the comfrey for these, both inside and out. Also the bittersweet and chamomile ointment, there's a new jar on my worktable. Father?"
"I will need a strong tea to be made of the comfrey. I will need some to give him to drink, to ease the pain inside. I will need some help, as well, because these bruises and cuts must be dealt with, and the best thing to do will be to keep hot compresses on his back, to improve the circulation to draw away the bad blood and speed the healing. Who can I have to help?"
"I will, and Aran, as well."
"Whatever you need, Tera," said Aran.
"Thank you, Aran. Go now, and get what I asked for." She heard him leave. "Do we have enough clean cloths for compresses and to use as bandages later?"
"No, I'll go get some now. Let me get some water, you can start cleaning his back."
Tera placed one hand on Iolaus' head. She was surprised by the softness of his curls. "Is he really as beautiful as everyone says, Father?"
"Yes, child, he is."
"Poor man." There was pity in her voice, for she well knew the fate of truly beautiful men in this city.
"I know, child. But he is stronger than he looks. He will survive."
Seagare set a bowl of water by the bed and pressed a cloth into Tera's hand, then left to get more bandages.
To watch Tera work, one would not suspect she was blind. Her hands moved over Iolaus' back slowly, yet unerringly, her touch sure and gentle. Tera directed Seagare and Aran in keeping the warm compresses changed all night, as well as coaxing Iolaus into drinking sips of the tea she made, though he didn't regain consciousness until the next morning. Iolaus slowly became aware that gentle hands were touching him. Something cool and soothing was being gently applied to his abused body. He turned his head and opened his eyes and wished he hadn't. Nausea ripped through him. Hands turned him on his side so that he threw up into a chamber pot at the side of the bed. Stronger hands replaced the others, holding his head and stroking his hair. When he finally stopped heaving, a cup was placed in his hands, with water to rinse his mouth with. He spit into the pot, then the cup was taken away and he was gently eased back on to the bed, with a hand holding his head as he laid back to the pillow, easing him onto his back.
"How do you feel?" came Seagare's voice.
Iolaus opened his eyes and looked at his friend. "I'll live, I think," he whispered. His throat was raw from screaming.
"Here. This will help your throat and settle your stomach." He put a cup in his hand and helped him to sit up.
Iolaus sipped the cup, filled with a warm tea. It felt good on his abused throat. He slowly drained the cup and handed it back. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." As he took the cup, Seagare stood and moved away.
Iolaus closed his eyes, opening them again as he sensed a different person now standing beside him. A woman sat down beside him. He stared, for her eyes were covered with a gold band. As she reached out to touch his face, Iolaus realized with a start that she was blind. "My name is Tera. Seagare is my father. He brought me after Linn...finished with you, to treat your wounds."
"How long ago?"
"Just since last night. My poultices have helped most of your bruises and the cuts from the whip. None of the cuts are deep, merely breaking the skin. I have a cream I make that soothes away the pain from the nerve pinch, as well."
"You said...Seagare is your father? But I thought...."
"I was born blind, and so they have little use for me. But my father begged for my life, and he was my mother's cherished pet, so she relented, and gave me to him. And he has taught me to live without needing my sight. But to the women, I am no better than any male slave, because I am imperfect."
"Who is your mother, if I may ask?"
Iolaus was shocked, to say the least. That such a brutal woman could have a daughter so beautiful, and so gentle...he could hardly dare to believe it.
Tera soothed Iolaus back to sleep. She woke him shortly after noon for a meal and to tend to his injuries. Seagare joined them.
"You have to be careful, Iolaus," Seagare warned. "If you fight too much, they won't care how exotic you look, they'll kill you."
Iolaus was still getting used to being thought of as 'exotic' looking. He shook his head. "It doesn't matter, Seagare. I won't be a slave. Maybe they can keep me here for a while, but once Hercules gets here, we'll find a way out, one way or another."
"It's that 'another' that worries us," said Tera. "You're a good man, Iolaus. We've seen others like you, wild ones captured by hunting parties. They never last long. They either die with their spirits crushed and broken, or trying to escape. Or they're executed because they can't be tamed."
Iolaus shook his head. "You're talking about men as if they're wild beasts: 'wild ones', 'tamed'. It doesn't have to be like this. The rest of the world isn't like this. Out there, men and women are free. Sure, there are places that still have slaves, but even then, it's not like this. It's both men and women doing the owning, and being owned. Men and women share the burdens of everyday life. They live together, love together, raise their children together." He threw his head back against the pillow in disgust.
"We do understand, Iolaus," said Seagare. "But this is how life is here. And there's no changing it."
"Besides, we're dying, little by little," said Tera. "Anyone could see it, with eyes to look, or knowledge to understand."
Iolaus frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"This is a closed society, Iolaus. There has been very little new blood brought in in the last few generations. You see the men. Seagare tells me that his grandfather was bigger than his father, who was bigger than he. Seagare is bigger than Sivari, who is about the same age as his eldest son. The men here are being bred out of existence. And without men, there will be no more babies at all. And more and more of the girl babies are being born imperfect. Blind, like me. Some are born deaf, and it isn't discovered until much later. They are born with obvious defects, like webbed hands or feet, or club feet or they stop growing so that they're the size of a one or two year old or they have severe mental deficits. All such children are supposed to be put to death. A very few, like me, with lesser defects, have been allowed to live, but not to breed. We're allowed to live with our fathers. If we do have children, they're immediately put to death. This cannot go on."
Iolaus nodded. "You're right."
Tera stood, reaching out for Seagare's arm. "You should rest now. Linn will want you to return to your duties tomorrow morning. I will come to tend your wounds before you go."
Iolaus caught her hand. "Tera...thank you."
Tera's hand went to his face, with his help. She smiled. "You're welcome, Iolaus." She and Seagare left, going to their own rooms. Iolaus carefully laid back, thinking about Hercules, wondering when he would see his friend again.
Hercules was wondering if he would ever
see Iolaus alive again. It had been four weeks since the parties separated.
He had watched the party leave, his eyes never leaving Iolaus' form. Once
they were out of sight, he had closed his eyes and bowed his head, sinking
to his knees and sitting back on his heels. He looked at Vali as he heard
"Your friend is in good shape, he will keep up with my warriors well. They will make good time back to our home. By the time we reach our city, he will be well and truly broken and ready to serve me."
"Never," Hercules swore.
Vali threw her head back and laughed. "Hercules, he is but a man, the same as you! You will share his fate! You will both live as slaves to the end of your days." She looked at her warriors. "We will rest here for today." She smiled wickedly at Sivari, who paled. "I want to give our run-away time to regain some of his strength. We wouldn't want him dying before we get him home, now would we?" Sivari had paled and trembled at her words and the look she gave him.
Now, almost a month later, he wondered how Iolaus was doing. Was he all right? Had they reached the women's home, the city he heard these warriors talking of so longingly? Like Iolaus, he had picked up their language quickly. Sivari's tutoring helped. He could follow much of what they were saying now, and they no longer used his own language. It was not easy for Hercules to remain docile. But he had only to remember the sentry, who was always out of sight, and the threat to Iolaus, and he was able to hold his temper, though only barely at times. Vali enjoyed goading him, finding any excuse to hit him or to use her nerve pinch on him. Hercules had finally concluded that she was insane, and her warriors weren't much better. What kind of society produced such people?
The women were excited. They were only a few days from home, three, perhaps four. They began pushing their prisoners, at times literally. Kohri kept shoving Sivari, until he finally stumbled and fell. She lashed him with a whip, until Hercules grabbed it. Vali was suddenly there, grabbing Hercules' left hand, pressing down on a nerve that left his hand numb, so that he dropped the whip. Hercules almost blacked out from the pain as she suddenly twisted his arm. He didn't know if she'd broken something or if it were just badly twisted.
"Perhaps that will teach you to keep your hands to yourself," she said
"I doubt it," he muttered, only to have her backhand him, knocking him onto his back and planting a foot in his chest.
"Do you want to die?" Vali asked conversationally. He only looked at her and she pressed down with her foot. "Do you?!"
"No," he answered. He shook his head. "No, I don't."
Vali stepped back. "Then you must enjoy pain. Any other man would have learned to keep silent by now." A thoughtful look crossed her face. "Perhaps I should let my mother have the other one, and I will keep you."
She appeared to think about it, then shook her head. "No, I think the other one is going to be the greater treasure." She gestured for Hercules to get up. "On your feet. C'mon, get up."
Hercules rose, careful to keep his injured arm close to his body. Vali gestured for him to walk, and he did. She returned to the front of the column.
As they walked, Hercules knew what he had to do. Normally, he healed quickly, but the cuffs he was wearing had made him vulnerable. He didn't heal so fast. And he realized that if he antagonized Vali too much, she might just kill him, leaving Iolaus alone in their hands. He had to stop fighting them.
Sivari splinted Hercules' wrist the best he could that evening. He shook his head. "Why won't you learn, Hercules? They're not going to release you, and you'll never get away. All you have to do is obey them and they won't hurt you."
Hercules sighed. "Well, I never have been exactly what you'd call the obedient type."
"What will you do...if you find Iolaus didn't survive...when we get home?"
Hercules shook his head. "Iolaus is alive. I would know if he were dead."
"I would know. I just would."
Sivari looked at Hercules doubtfully, obviously thinking he was in a state of denial. But it didn't really concern Sivari. He shrugged, lay down, and went to sleep.
Hercules lay back, looking up at the stars. His thoughts, as always, were on Iolaus. *Hold on, Iolaus. I'll be there soon and we'll find a way out of this. I give you my word. We will find a way home.* He slowly fell asleep.
The day Hercules was dragged into the city, word had gone ahead of the party's arrival, and the streets were lined with women wanting to see the 'giant'. Vali dragged him to the temple steps, to present him to the queen as Iolaus had been just ten days before.
Iolaus was standing in the shadows at the temple door. He had been brought there the day before, to work for Deron until Vali's return. He watched as Hercules was forced to kneel, and as Deron walked around him, looking him over. He looked his friend over carefully. He didn't look good. He winced as he saw the splint on Hercules' left wrist, and wondered if it was broken. His face was bruised; obviously Vali had been trying to beat him into submission. Iolaus hoped he would be allowed to see his friend later.
Deron looked at Vali, smiling. It never reached her eyes. "I have never seen a male, even a wild one, so large. He is magnificent, daughter!"
"He is yours, Mother. A gift from me to you."
"Thank you, child. Yes, I shall enjoy having a new toy to break in."
"We aren't toys," Hercules growled, "to be used by you."
Vali growled at him. She gestured to someone behind him. The next thing Hercules knew, pain was rippling through his body from his back. He arched his back, throwing his head back, trying not to scream. But the pain didn't stop. He doubled over as a scream was finally torn from his throat.
Iolaus stepped from the shadows and was grabbed by two warriors. He struggled against them. "Stop it! You're killing him, stop it!" he pleaded.
Deron nodded and the woman touched Hercules' back again, unknotting the nerve. Hercules collapsed onto his side, breathing hard, as Deron nodded at the warriors holding Iolaus. They let him go and he ran to Hercules' side.
Iolaus lifted Hercules' head into his lap. "Herc? C'mon, Herc, look at me. Open your eyes."
Hearing his friend's beloved voice, Hercules opened his eyes. "Iolaus? You're alive. Are you all right?"
Iolaus smiled and nodded. "Yes. As well as can be expected."
"Oh, gods, Iolaus, I wasn't sure I'd ever see you again!" Hercules reached up to grasp his arm.
"I know. It's OK." He looked at the guards nervously, then back to Hercules. "Can you sit up?"
"I think so."
Iolaus helped Hercules sit up, then walked over to where Deron was talking to Vali. Hercules' eyes widened as he saw Iolaus go down on one knee and bow his head. Deron smiled as she turned to him, running her fingers through his hair. She spoke to him and he said something back to her.
Deron looked at Hercules, then back at Iolaus and nodded. Iolaus dipped his head again and then walked over to Hercules.
Hercules grabbed Iolaus' arm. "Iolaus?"
"Not now! C'mon!" He helped Hercules up and let him lean on him as he led his friend away from the temple. They were followed by two guards.
"What happened to your arm? Is it broken?"
"No, just badly twisted, maybe sprained. You know me, my patient streak really isn't that much longer than yours."
"Did Vali do this?"
"Yes." He shook his head. "She's either deceptively strong or I'm weaker than I thought."
Iolaus took Hercules to Linn's 'school', where they were met by Seagare. Iolaus sent him for Linn, knowing he had to present Hercules to her before he did anything else.
Iolaus helped Hercules sit on a bench. "Herc, listen to me," he said urgently. "No matter what happens in the next few minutes, don't say or do anything. Promise me!"
Hercules frowned, but nodded. Iolaus spun as Linn walked up. Immediately, he dropped to one knee, bowing his head. Hercules swallowed hard and clenched his jaw tight to keep from saying something.
"Mistress Linn, this is Hercules. Lady Deron places him into your care for training."
Linn looked at Hercules, looking him over. "I see Vali's handiwork on your face and wrist, Hercules. Iolaus, are you staying or are you expected back?"
"Good. Take him to the baths. Seagare can bring you clothes and something for that wrist and the bruises." She unsnapped the chain between the cuffs and removed it, as the magic was in the cuffs.
"Thank you, Mistress." Iolaus turned to Hercules, helping him up and guiding him down to the baths. Hercules was too tired and hurt to do anything but let his friend take care of him.
Iolaus helped Hercules undress and slide into the warm water. He frowned at the bruises marring Hercules back, chest, and stomach, as well as his face. "Hercules, we have to do this very carefully. These women aren't like any I've ever seen. They're cruel beyond belief. If we want out of this alive, we're going to have to play their game for a while." He began working to get the splint off Hercules' arm.
Hercules looked at Iolaus as if he'd lost his mind. "Where is Iolaus and who are you?" he asked.
Iolaus splashed him. "Very funny. I'm serious. I've been here ten days, I know what I'm talking about. Herc, at this moment, if someone told me that Xena had gone back to Ares, and was twice as vicious as before, and they had an army that was about to attack and I was going to be on the front lines, I'd say 'great, where's my sword, point me in the right direction', if it would get me out of here!"
Hercules frowned. "How bad has it been for you?" he asked quietly.Iolaus sat on the floor beside the tub. He turned his face away from his friend. "I...I tried to defy them. But the trainer, Mistress Linn...gods, Herc, I didn't know it was possible to feel such pain and not die. What they did to you out there wasn't the worst they can do. I know."
Hercules put a hand on Iolaus' shoulder, concern in his eyes at the haunted, hunted look in Iolaus' eyes. "Iolaus? Are you all right?"
Iolaus nodded. "Physically, I'm fine. But...for the first time in a very long time, I'm well and truly scared, Herc."
Hercules nodded. It took a lot to scare Iolaus. He'd braved dangers no sane man would consider facing, and laughed through it all.
Hercules slid under the water, shaking water out of his face as he resurfaced. Iolaus washed his hair for him, since he couldn't do it one-handed, as well as his back, being careful of his bruises. For the first time in a long time, Hercules felt truly clean.
Seagare brought clothes that had been prepared for Hercules ahead of time: tunic and trousers in the same style as Iolaus', but dyed dark green. Linn herself replaced the cuffs around his wrists with a golden torque that held the same power.
Iolaus led Hercules back to his room, where he massaged Tera's cream into his bruises and re-splinted his wrist. Iolaus sat down at the head of the bed, his back against the wall. Hercules, still sprawled across the bed on his stomach, pillowed his head on his arms and looked at his friend. Iolaus cocked his head as he looked at Hercules, his expression serious. "Herc, I've learned fast how things operate around here. Will you listen to me, and do as I say? The smallest infraction or defiance gets punished, severely. I've seen men die, Herc. I saw one of the guards, Talin, kill one of her slaves with a touch to his temple. He didn't make a sound, just dropped like a sack to the floor, dead. She did it without any emotion at all."
Hercules read the concern in Iolaus' eyes and realized that he really was frightened. He grasped his friend's hand. "Iolaus, I trust you. I trust your instincts and your judgment. Will you tell me what has happened to so frighten the bravest, strongest person I know?"
Iolaus' hand tightened on his. He swallowed, hard. Hercules felt him tremble. He looked away, then back. "Herc...the men here...they're these women's fathers, and brothers, and sons. And that means nothing to them. I watched a woman sacrifice her day old son on the alter of their goddess. She drowned him in a basin of holy water, then burned him in the sacrificial pit. She did it with absolutely no emotion whatsoever. It was like it was nothing to her. After her, another woman brought her newborn daughter to that same alter and had the baby blessed. And the other mother joined in a banquet they had afterwards. I saw her laughing and feasting as if nothing were wrong." Iolaus shook his head and looked away.
"Iolaus. I understand. Oh, gods, I do understand, now." He squeezed Iolaus' hand. "We will find a way out of here." Hercules frowned as something caught his eye. He pushed Iolaus' tunic open. His eyes widened and he sat up. Iolaus let Hercules pull him to his feet and push his tunic open further. Iolaus wouldn't look at him and didn't say anything.
Iolaus' stomach, sides, and, when Hercules pulled the tunic off, his back, were marred with livid bruises and whip marks. Most were obviously days old, a few of the bruises looked new, only hours old. The whip marks weren't deep, he was relieved to see, it looked like only the first layer of skin was broken, but still....
"Iolaus?" Hercules turned his face toward him, eyes searching his face, full of concern.
Iolaus shrugged. He didn't want to talk about it. He started to step back, but Hercules grabbed his wrist.
"Iolaus, talk to me. Please," Hercules pleaded.
"Linn hates me, because she can't break me. She beats me every chance she gets, no matter what I do or don't do. I'm wrong if I speak and I'm wrong if I keep silent. Are you happy now?"
"Gods, no, Iolaus!"
Iolaus' shoulder's slumped and he leaned against the wall. He slid down it and leaned on his knees, his ankles crossed. He put his head down, hiding his face in his arms. As his shoulders began to shake, Hercules realized he was sobbing. He knelt in front of his friend, reaching out to stroke his head, then wrapping his arms around him, pulling him against him.
"It's OK, Iolaus. We'll get out of this, somehow."
Iolaus wrapped his arms around his friend, pressing his face to Hercules' chest, over his heart. "I didn't know if you were going to make it here, if I would ever see you alive again," Iolaus whispered
Hercules hugged Iolaus tight, laying his cheek against Iolaus' head. "I know. I felt the same way."
Hercules held Iolaus until his tears subsided. Those tears almost broke Hercules' heart, for he knew the smaller man was close to the breaking point, to have given in to tears as he had. And to have been pushed to that point, he must have endured unimaginable agony.
Rage built in Hercules' soul for what Iolaus had endured. And he vowed that no matter what, he wouldn't be hurt again. Hercules would kill Vali if she laid a hand on Iolaus or caused him one moment of pain. They could only depend on each other here, and that had always been enough before. Here, however, their bond had been seen for what it was, and they were going to be kept away from each other. For the first time, Hercules had doubts about their getting out of this.
Hercules held Iolaus for a long time, even
after he realized his friend had fallen asleep. It was probably the first
time he'd allowed himself to feel safe since they were separated. Hercules
didn't need as much sleep as normal humans, thanks to his divine blood,
and he sat for hours, listening to Iolaus' soft breathing.
Hercules loved Iolaus very much. He was the brother Iphicles could never be. They had laughed and loved and cried together, had been the best of friends since the day they met. He had often thanked the Fates for sending Iolaus into his life. As long as he knew his best friend was there, fighting at his back, telling his outrageous stories, and flirting with all the pretty girls, Hercules felt he could do anything. They would survive this as they had survived other times of captivity. He was sure of it.
The next day, Iolaus was sent to Vali's residence, where his training would be taken over by Vali's slave trainer.
Iolaus stood in front of Vali, silent, but head held defiantly. His eyes flashed with anger as Vali walked around him, inspecting him. "Very good. You're intelligent, and learn quickly. I like that." She continued to slowly walk around him. One hand reached out to brush through his unruly curls, then slide down the back of his neck, down his shoulder and over his chest. Iolaus didn't move, standing very stiffly. It took all his will power to endure this humiliation.
Vali chuckled. "Yes, man, swallow your pride and your anger. It won't do you any good and will only get you killed. Get used to this. You are mine! And I intend to show you off! You will make a pretty decoration for my arm, and everyone who sees you will be green with envy of me!" Her laughter rang through the marble halls of the villa. Iolaus clenched his hands into fists so tight, his fingers went white.
Slowly, Iolaus unclenched his hands. He was remembering other times things had seemed hopeless. When he had been little more than a slave. He remembered being treated just like this by the Sovereign, as a toy, a plaything, there for his amusement. He had survived and regained his freedom then. He and Hercules had been captured by the despot, Menas Maxius, as well, even before the incident with the Sovereign. It had almost cost them their lives, but they had survived. He would now, as well, and so would Hercules, and they would return home to their friends and loved ones.
Iolaus turned his head to look at Vali. His eyes raked over her. He had to admit, she was one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen. She was probably as vain as any other princess he'd ever met, too.
Vali, who'd been speaking with one of her aide's, jerked her head around.
Iolaus smiled at her. "You're probably still tired after your long trek. Why don't I prepare a scented bath for you? I could wash your hair, then give you a massage to help you relax and rest."
Vali's lips began to curl up. "Well. What have we here? You're either very devious or you want to live very much. I suspect it's the latter. All right, my golden one. Let us see what hidden talents you have."
Iolaus bowed and almost ran from the room. He managed to hold his grin until he was out of her sight.
Soon enough, Vali came for her bath. She insisted Iolaus join her, so that he could properly wash her hair, as well as her back. When she saw the marks across Iolaus' back, she went into a rage. She sent for Linn.
Vali made Linn wait until she had finished her bath and her hair had been dried. She had Iolaus help her dress in a short green leather skirt, matching leather crop top, and high boots. He accompanied her to meet Linn.
Linn bowed as Vali entered the room. "My Lady, welcome back."
"You marked him," Vali growled. She gestured at Iolaus, who was still shirtless. "You marked that beautiful body."
Linn's eyes widened as Vali advanced on her. She started to back up, but Vali's scream froze her in her tracks.
"*DON'T MOVE!* I didn't say you could move!!" Vali reached Linn and hit her in the mouth with her fist as hard as she could, knocking her to the floor.
Iolaus watched, his eyes slowly getting wider and wider, as Vali punched and kicked Linn, who only raised her arms to protect her face, but otherwise made no move to defend herself. When he realized Vali was intent on killing the trainer, he stepped between them. "Stop!" he yelled. He wasn't going to let anyone die because of him.
The blow Vali had aimed at Linn caught Iolaus in the mouth, though she had managed to pull most of it at the last instant, and it didn't hurt him. "What are you doing?! Get out of the way! I'll *kill* her for daring to mark you!"
"No." Iolaus shook his head. "Please."
Linn stared at Iolaus wide-eyed. He, a slave, was daring Vali's wrath, for her. He was jeopardizing his life to save hers. And she couldn't understand why.
"She did what she was supposed to do. I fought her. She had to."
Vali reached out to stroke Iolaus' face. "She didn't have to mark you. You are too beautiful for that."
Iolaus shrugged. "She didn't leave any new scars. And it's not like I don't have any. I have a multitude."
Vali's lips curled into a smile. "I shall enjoy finding each and every one of them. And you will tell me the tale behind them all." Her smile faded as she looked at Linn, who was still on her knees behind Iolaus.
Iolaus followed Vali's gaze, then looked back at her. "Please, Mistress," he said softly. "Enough. Let her go." He reached out to stroke her face, then pulled her down into a kiss.
Without breaking the kiss, Vali looked at Linn and motioned toward the door. Linn got to her feet and bowed, slowly backing out of the room. Finally, Vali broke the kiss. She smiled at Iolaus. "My, my, you are a treasure, indeed," she said huskily. She laced her fingers through his and pulled him after her towards the bedroom. "Why don't we see what other talents you have?" Iolaus nodded, but his smile didn't reach his eyes.
Forward to Chapter Two
Return to Hercgen Fiction
Return to Home Page