THE SIBLING TERROR

by Beckers

This is Hercules: The Legendary Journeys fan fiction and in no way intends to infringe on any rights given to the holders of said television series or the characters of Hercules, Iolaus, Lydia ("Pride Cometh Before a Brawl") or Gabrielle (Xena: Warrior Princess).

(This story takes place at the end of season four of H:TLJ ... Iolaus is alive and well ... But will he stay that way?)

*********

Chapter 1

He stood outside of Sudsties' tavern, a mug of ale in his right hand, half listening to his friend Creedence, impart a tale of land-owner woe.

"You would not believe the tariff they've placed on my property this year, Iolaus!" Creedence exclaimed as he downed his own drink, "How's a man with a family suppose to make ends meet these days?"

Iolaus tried hard to pay attention to his companion but it was difficult. What caught the hunter's eye was a particularly spectacular sunset. The twin mountains near Thresha were tall and majestic and served as a perfect alter for the glowing ball of flame as it slowly sank in the west. A wonderful, romantic view and Iolaus wished he had someone a little softer and curvaceous to share it with.

"So, where's Hercules?"

Not exactly who Iolaus had in mind. "On his way. He was side tracked a few days ago."

"What was it? A hydra? A devil-bird? A sea serpent?"

"No," Iolaus shook his head and nearly laughed, "just visiting an old girlfriend." After a few days with Nemesis and Evander, Hercules ought to be in a good mood and ready for anything the two of them - partners and friends until the end - might face. Iolaus could see that Hercules was growing restless and suggested the detour to the demigod. It was amazing how the company of a beautiful woman, not to mention an active little boy, could invigorate a man. Not that Hercules was in bad spirits lately but he needed a diversion. Preferably one with long legs, a lovely face and lips fashioned for kisses.

Disappointed, Creedence took another drink from his mug. Lifting his own, Iolaus attention was drawn aside by the view of a little girl. Normally, he might not have been distracted by such a sight, or any busy child for that matter, but thinking of Evander made him take notice. Some day, when he was finished roaming Greece with Hercules, maybe he'd settle down and have a family of his own. He could picture a pretty wife and a sweet little girl and a healthy son. Definitely a son.

She was across the street from them, walking to a water-well. With her brown stone-washed dress, just tattered enough to show her family's station in life, she appeared a determined eight or nine year old. Small but feisty. Iolaus admired how she carried a heavy wooden bucket that was much too big for her. The child's auburn hair floated about her tiny heart shaped face and she seemed so sweet, with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose, that Iolaus was immediately charmed. He was tempted to help the girl but wondered if she might think it an insult. Children, especially those in that sensitive `I can do anything the adults can do' age-range, tended to take their tasks very seriously.

Still ... Iolaus was about to make a move when he saw a man approach her. A few words were exchanged between he and the girl then the man lifted the bucket for her and dropped it into the well. After a few moments, he pulled on the attached rope and brought the bucket up to the wellís stone lip. The child seemed grateful and smiled up at him. The man - tall, dark and grimy - had his back to Iolaus and the hunter couldn't hear what was being exchanged between the two. However, he did notice that the child's eyes had gone wide and her smile broadened. Obviously some good news.

Just when Iolaus was ready to go back into the tavern, something that didn't seem quite right caught his attention. The man took one of the girl's hands and when she pointed at the bucket he said, his bearded face now in full view (so Iolaus could read his lips), they would come back for it later. The girl nodded and the twosome walked off together. Something about this alarmed Iolaus. He didn't really know the situation. Perhaps the man was a family friend - but in his gut he felt it was wrong.

He wanted to be sure all was well. Iolaus glanced once at Creedence, who was taking in the situation himself - "I'm going to check this out." Iolaus then pushed his own mug into his friend's hand.

"Okay," Creedence appeared nervous, absently drinking. "I'd go with you Iolaus but ..."

"I know. You have a family." The hunter-warrior half smiled. Creedence was a coward, everyone knew that, but he was a friend and Iolaus really couldn't blame him for holding back right now. His family did rely on him and Iolaus figured if he were in the same position he might think twice before running off after some dark, mysterious man and a child he didn't even know. "Don't worry about it, Creed, it's probably nothing and I'll be back here in a few minutes."

"Be careful, Iolaus."

******

"What are you doing to that little girl?" The old man, sitting with his slightly bowed back propped against a wall, looked up - through a haze - at the beleaguered dark man.

"Shut up, or you'll be next!" was shot back at him.

They passed the inebriated transient as he, Jupus, and the sobbing child half walked and half ran. He had a destination in mind and she was dawdling. He hated when kids did that.

"I want my toy." She cried, frightened, and tried to pull away from his grip. "You're a bad man."

Stupid brat, Jupus thought as he dragged the rebellious little girl along the narrow passageway. He'd been watching her. Every night for the past three moons her parents sent her out to get water from the community well. When he told his companion about her he agreed that she would be their next victim.

Echlastil, the God of Fear and Despair, loved children. Their terror was pure and he gained strength from them. As his servants, having been promised power and position, Jupus and Midrie were only too happy to serve their master. Kidnapping children and young, defenseless women; presenting them to the horrifying Echlastil and hearing their cries of utter fear before they were sacrificed nourished the soul. Not just the godís, but their own.

"You promised me a toy." The girl repeated, trying to wrench her wrist away from the crushing grip of his fingers. He seemed so nice at first, helping her and offering a gift if she came with him, but now that he'd taken her to this dark place he didn't seem so kind. "Mama and Dadah are going to be mad if I don't get home soon." She warned.

Her voice was tiny and sweet and Jupus wanted to beat her senseless. He still might. He could only be civil for so long. Midrie was far better with kids than he. Soon he and the girl stood in front of his partner and watched at Midrie pulled a large fabric bag from the back of a worn cart.

Midrie crouched down to the child's level and spoke as gently as he could, "What's your name?"

She stared at him, her eyes filling with unshed tears - "Arriya." She whispered. He was the better looking of the two men, clean shaven and his light hair tied to the back of his head with a leather band. His eyes, a warm almond color, were clear and seemed sincere. Still, his mouth was a cold, thin line and she didn't trust him.

"Pretty name for a pretty little girl." Midrie reached forward and touched her chin with a soiled finger, "Now what I want you to do, dear, is crawl into this bag. I know it will seem strange to you, Arriya, but it's something that has to be done. You're going to meet someone special and he'll give you your toy."

"But Mama ..."

"When It's all over we'll bring you back to your parents and explain everything. They won't mind, really."

The girl looked again into his eyes but this time did not like what she saw, "I want to go home!"

"Just put the damn kid in the bag and let's haul it!" Jupus exclaimed, shaking her by the wrist, practically pulling the child off of her feet. "We're wasting time."

"Let her go."

The men and little girl turned and looked at him. Back lit with shadows falling across his face in ripples it was difficult to see who was making the demand. He was fair haired and not very big, but he spoke like a man who intended to have his way.

"This isn't your business. Go away or you'll get hurt, little man."

Slowly, Iolaus walked closer. A light fell on his unsmiling face. Gripped in his hand he held a long piece of wood someone had discarded; left in the alley - "Let go of the girl." he repeated, menace in his tone.

Midrie pulled a knife.


Chapter Two

His first concern was with the safety of the child. "Take it easy." Iolaus said, "Just let go of the girl and we'll talk."

"Right, talk." Jupus interrupted sarcastically, "I recognize you now. You're that friend of Hercules. I saw you two in Thara last month. It was because of you I was sent away."

Iolaus recognized him now. Jupus. A slick thief, a hot tempered bully and always out for a quick denar. In Thara, right on the street, heíd beaten a woman and stole her coin sack. Hercules saw it happen. The two of them ran after Jupus and got the money back. They then turned Jupus into the magistrate. How he managed to escape from jail or whatever prison he was sent to might make an interesting tale but Iolaus had other concerns. Jupus was now a child abductor. If the hunter had any say about it he and his friend would not only be sent to prison, but heíd encourage the guards to throw away the key.

"Something new to add onto your impressive resume, Jupus." Iolaus said with contempt. "Congratulations."

Midrie, was tossing his dagger back and forth, from one hand to the other, anxious and practically making a game out of the fact he seemed to have the better of their two weapons. "Youíre out classed fella." he said to Iolaus with a wicked chuckle, "Weíre taking the little girl and before the night is out youíre going to wish you were dead."

Iolaus looked down at the thick wooden stick in his hand, "Quit talking and letís go at it.í he said.

Arriya finally pulled free of Jupus and backed up to a damp stone wall, holding her tender wrist and fearfully eyeing the angry kidnapper. She'd always been told to obey adults and although she knew the situation dangerous the eight year old found herself unable to move further under the bad manís cold gaze.

"Stay put!" Jupus warned her, "Take one more step, sweetheart, and you wonít only not get your toy, but Iíll tell your parents just how rotten a kid you are! Theyíll spank you for sure."

She sobbed and turned to watch the nice blond man and the other mean blond man fight. Midrie took a swipe at Iolaus but missed him clean when the hunter dodged and struck out with his stick. It nearly connected with Midireís abdomen but the evildoer was quick and deftly evaded the blow. Iolaus then kicked out, connecting with Midrieís chest - sending him flying backward against an alley wall. The knife skittered across the wet pavement and Iolaus lost sight of it. He jumped forward, punching Midrie twice in the face, and watched as the thug slid to the ground, nearly unconscious.

Jupus came up behind Iolaus and threw his gangly but effective arms around his neck. He was met with an elbow to the belly. Yet, he hung on, pounding on Iolausí back and cursing.

Iolaus glanced at the girl standing alone - "RUN!" he shouted to her, pulling at Jupus arms - "Run home and donít stop for anything!" Then, Iolaus added - "And donít talk to any more strangers!" He flipped Jupus over his shoulder.

She didnít have to be told twice. "Thank you!" Immediately Arriya was sprinting off down the alley and didnít look back.

"Go after her!" Jupus, laying on his back with Iolaus foot firmly planted on his chest, shouted at Midrie who managed to get to his feet.

Furious, Midrie came at Iolaus. "In a minute!" he roared and once again lifted the dagger.

Not realizing the thug had found the blade and was positioning himself for a kill, Iolaus swung backward instead of lifting a forearm. The cutting edge did not make contact with his back, as was intended, but did pierce deeply across his right shoulder. Iolaus cried out at the unexpected pain and, falling to his knees, he pushed forward with all his might.

Midrie was caught by the blow and he fell backward, his head smashing up against the alley wall Arriya had so recently been standing in front of. His neck snapped, and he died instantly.

Dismayed, Jupus quickly crawled across the alley to see his friend, "Midrie?!" he cried - "He was my best friend ... and you killed him!" Jupus shouted at Iolaus, who was lifting a hand to his injured and bleeding shoulder, "You murderer!"

Dazed, Iolaus licked his dry lips. "Look, I didnít mean to kill him, but ..." Feeling dizzy, he shook his head and backed up to a far alley wall. The pain the horrible. He didnít see Jupus grasp the dagger but he did see him turn, murder in his eyes, and stand erect.

"Echlastil demands a sacrifice!" he spoke menacingly, "If not the little girl, then it should be you!" Deranged and grieving over his friendís death, he ran at Iolaus and swung wide.

The blade once again connected with the already injured shoulder but through his shout of agony Iolaus was able to strike out, knocking the blade away and landing a firm punch to Jupus' jaw.

The goon stumbled backward and fell to the ground, confounded.

Iolaus, in agony and feeling a sweeping faintness overcome him, stumbled down the alley. He had to get to the main street. People would be there. They could help him. He needed a healer ... and Jupus might already be following him ... He might not be able to defend himself this time and ...he ... could .... die ....


********

Chapter 3

Night had fallen and gray clouds were quickly covering the star lit sky. Twice he nearly collapsed while making his way through the alley to the usually busy street of Cere. The blood, as he held his wounded shoulder, seeped through the purple material of Iolaus' vest, through his fingers, and coursed over his shaking hand. There had been other shoulder wounds - he'd been a warrior and Argonaut after all - but there was something other-worldly about this injury. It was strange - bleeding profusely - and the intense pain, while not unexpected, was peculiar. The weakness. Yes, he was losing blood but he should not be feeling so fragile so soon, hardly able to stay on his feet. Iolaus had withstood - for a time - being nearly beaten to death by the Fire Enforcer ... but this knife wound ....

"I'm coming after you, little man! No one withstands the bite of Echlastilís dagger!"

He heard the call from behind, a short distance away. The Dagger of Echlastilís? What had he been told about it? Hercules would know ...

An unseen Jupus was on his feet and advancing. Revenge was on the agenda. He not only considered Iolaus responsible for his friend Midrieís death but the blond hunter freed the little girl, their sacrifice to the great god Echlastil. Death was what this meddler deserved. Torment and death.

Iolaus pushed on. Through blurred vision he could see light coming from the street. It was the full moon or perhaps someone had ignited a bond fire. Sometimes villages did that when they were certain there were no warlords in the region. A night time beacon for weary travelers.

"I'm going to kill you!" came another manic shout, now closer.

Iolaus stumbled out into the street but saw no one. "I don't believe this." He muttered, gasping for air. The town was deserted, everyone having locked themselves inside their homes for the evening. It wasnít that late. Certainly the tavern would still be open. But could he make it that far? Iolaus pushed himself forward and felt his legs nearly give out. In the distance he heard horses. A cart or carriage. People.

Iolaus turned and saw Jupus, dagger in hand, emerging from the alley. He didn't immediately see Iolaus as the hunter hid in the shadows, his form hidden by an awning support beam.

Wheels were turning. Animals neighed. The carriage came closer. Narrowing his eyes, he could see what looked like two human beings sitting inside -- but it was difficult to see who they might be because a fever induced sweat was pouring into his eyes. Iolaus felt pain everywhere but he still had enough sense about him to realize this carriage was his only hope. Jupus would turn at the right moment and he would be overwhelmed.

No Hercules here to help you now ... The hunter, with an ironic little laugh, thought. For a moment his brain balked at the idea it was forming. More than likely heíd be taken before he got to the carriage and explained himself to these poor, innocent people, thus putting them in peril. Hercules would never do that ... But Hercules would never find himself in this situation in the first place. No more time to think. Time to act. Iolaus was being forced to depend on the unconditional charity of strangers. Gods help them.

With a super-human effort he ran and lunged for the carriage door and held firmly onto its handles as the horses instinctively slowed. Iolaus heard a squeal of astonishment as he fell onto their skirts, then to the floor.

"Please ..." the lapsing warrior croaked, "I need your help ..."

Then, without another word, he fainted.

*******

Hercules sat up, jolted from his sleep by a startling vision. "Iolaus!"

He looked about, confused, feeling moisture on his skin. The night air was damp. It was going to rain. Hercules looked at what was left of his campfire; burning embers only. Heíd camped near the Thresha Mountains, beside a natural spring. During the day it had been beautiful but now it was cold and forbidding.

With a toss of his tousled chestnut hair, the demigod shook his head, clearing his thoughts, and narrowed his eyes.

He had had a dream ... or no. It wasnít a dream. A series of pictures. He saw Iolaus, hurt and alone. The clothing he wore was strange and his wavy blond hair was disheveled. There was a woman and a painting on parchment but Hercules could make neither out clearly. Then, the last image, someone was attacking Iolaus. Tearing into him with something more lethal than a sword ... and his cries echoed through the halls and ...

... that was when Hercules awoke. With a sigh, the handsome half-god stood. There would be no more sleep for him tonight. If he started walking now heíd be in Cere City by tomorrow morning. Heíd meet with Iolaus, eat breakfast, and theyíd both have a good laugh.

All would be well.

*****

Chapter 4

"Faster, Valetese! Faster!" an agitated voice called to the driver of their carriage, "That horrible man is catching up to us!" They had come to the edge of town, into a rural area just outside of Cere City.

"By the gods, Mavala!" another voice cried, "Look at his face! He looks just like ..." A bump in the road silenced the exclamation.

The two mature sisters sat opposite one another, with the unconscious hunter-warrior laying at their feet. Both appeared rather prim, wearing their best silk togas with matching beaded coin sacks.

The older of the two, Mavala, looked down at Iolaus with the deceptively calm expression of one who was pondering the future. "I believe the gods have recognized our problems." she spoke quietly, raising a hand to the silver amulet she wore around her creased throat, "They have sent us this man. We have been long suffering and this is our sign that all we have done has been exemplary."

Although barely conscious, Iolaus could hear the women speak as if through a fog. He could feel the carriage move beneath him. All a dream. He thought. Soon heíd either wake up from having indulged at the town tavern or heíd be in the hands of a merciless enemy. But the thought was fading, as were the voices of the two women. It was all too painful to roll around in his mind. Iolaus could hear only mumbles now as he drifted off into a vacuum; as he plunged ever deeper into another world ... where she sat on a large stone, her legs dangling, and a scroll was on her lap. She smiled at his approach ....

"But Mavala, heís been wounded. He could be nothing more than a horrid little thief, sent to us by Hades and running away from Cere because the law is after him ...." Blanchea, a bit less serene than her older sister, twisted her plump form about to see if they were still being followed.

"He didnít look like any soldier or magistrate Iíve ever seen." Mavala speculated, "But even if he was, itís a chance weíre going to have to take. We simply have no options opened to us, Blanchea. I was not born to be a pauper and neither were you." She looked down at the blond man as he slept, "And if he can help us, it will be well worth whatever happens as a result. Besides, wounded he canít possibly harm us. Thatís a part of the gods plan. See how they work? No, this young man shant cause mischief like so many others do these days ..."

Worried, Blanchea turned her attention from the dusty road sheíd been watching back to her sister. They lost the dark, bearded man and she felt better. Yet, she was still cautious, "What if someone comes looking before we can make use of him? So much can go terribly wrong. Weíve never had a witness before. He saw this man fall into our carriage!"

"Men disappear everyday, sister. I doubt that scoundrel knows who we are. Zeus knows we ordinarily would never associate with his kind. In the long run it wonít matter." Gratified and smug, Mavala lifted a hand to pat down a strand of gray hair which the wind had blown out of place.

"Oh dear --" The younger sister lamented in the same tone she might use when spotting a broken dish laying on their kitchen floor, "Heís such a nice looking young man." She leaned forward to get a better view. Arthritic fingers gently pushed a lock of Iolaus fair hair away from his forehead, "Such a disappointment last time ... and it took days to clean up the mess. You know how Penelope can get."

"Dearest, it will be different this time. Youíll see." Mavala firmly folded arms across her bosomless chest and spoke resolutely, "It cannot be a coincidence that he came to us out of no where. And his looks ... Well, the great god Echlastil is indeed watching out for us this time ...."

******

In his dream, Iolaus was bleeding to death and receiving an invitation from the great beyond. The Elysian Fields awaited him ... and suddenly his wound was gone and he was standing in a green place. Grass and trees. A lake in the distance. Surely this was it. The Other Side. He needed to take one last step ... to let go completely ...

But then he saw her. The blond hair, blue-green eyes and warm smile, innocent and honest. The type of woman who could make a man throw away all that was important just to bask in her pure radiance, inside and out.

She watched him, nearly amused by Iolaus' cocky manner, as he approached her - "Stop now." She lifted a hand, the quill sheíd been working with now visible. "No further, Iolaus. Itís not time for you ..."

"Gabrielle, youíre not dead. Why are you here?"

"Youíre not dead either. Thatís the point. Go back, Iolaus."

"You donít want me stay for awhile?" He couldnít prevent the charming smile as he tried to meet the girlís eyes with his own. She really was quite exquisite, the bright sun above turning Gabrielleís hair into a near halo of light. This was a nice place with good company. If he went back heíd feel hurt again. He didnít want that. Iolaus hated pain. He just needed to let go...

She seemed suddenly confused by the question. "Of course I want you to stay, but ..." The bard tossed the quill to the ground and rolled her scroll. "Youíre right. Iím not supposed to be here. Iím asleep in a wooded area near Corinth, dreaming this just like you are, Iolaus. Xena is close by and so is Argo ... Iím not sure why weíre sharing this dream, Iolaus, but I think itís to help encourage you to hang onto life." Distracted, she then looked behind Iolaus and unexpectedly smiled, "Oh, I see." Gabrielle hopped down from her sitting stone, "I was brought here to keep you company until he arrived." She walked to Iolaus and, without hesitation, put her arms around him. Instinctively, his own arms came up to embrace her. Their touch was satisfying yet strange.

Gabrielle leaned forward and veered slightly to the right. Gently, she kissed Iolaus on the cheek, "Iím flattered, really. Your inner-self is rebelling even if you donít know it. And you made me part of that rebellion."

What was she talking about??

"Brother ..." Hercules said, and his voice held echoes.

Startled, Iolaus turned quickly around and dropped his arms from Gabrielle and stared at his best friend. "What ...?"

"Snap out of it, buddy. Greece still needs you." Hercules hesitated only slightly, "I need you." Puzzlement, pity and concern all crossed the usually stoic face, "Please donít check out on me now, Iolaus."

Their eyes met. Unsure, Iolaus look back at Gabrielle then again at Hercules.

Iolaus nodded his understanding.

******

Chapter Five

He awoke during the very early hours of the morning. A small candle was lit across from him while he lay on a comfortable bed with plush pillows. Iolaus could hear, although it was somewhat muffled, the pelting of the rain outside. But there was also another sound ....

The frenzied scream of a wild beast, possibly caught in a trap. And it was right outside his bedroom door! Suddenly, Iolaus was a child again, afraid and dazed and in pain. "Mama, make it go away! Please make it go away, Mama!"

Where was he? He could hear humankind trying to subdue the animal.

"For Zeus' sake! How did she get out?!"

"She saw him from the window, Madam!"

More struggling. More inhuman shrieking. A strike at the door.

"Why wasnít she chained?!"

"Iím sorry, Madam!"

Through his delirium (for what else could it be?) Iolaus struggled shakily into a sitting position. He needed to run and hide, to get far away from here! Firm yet very gentle hands placed themselves on his bare chest, "Keep still." a female ghost urged. "Relax ..."

"Gabrielle?" No, of course not. That was a dream ... But this is a dream too, isnít it?

"Go back to sleep, Iolaus. Youíll feel much better in the morning." Then, when he wouldnít lay back the voice said: "This is a dream. A bad, bad dream."

His shoulder ached horribly. He listened as the animal cry lessened and the thunder rattled heavily outside - "But I need to go ..."

"Shh. No you donít." She gently stroked his bare chest and hummed a lullaby.

The voice was right. Although he would normally protest Iolaus - exhausted and weak - lay back and, once again, fell asleep.

******

Wet and uncomfortable, Hercules arrived in Cere during mid morning. If it hadnít been for the storm he would have been there sooner. Fortunately, before it got too bad, he managed to duck into the shelter of a cave. He remembered sitting on the dirt floor, determined to wait out the worst of it, but he didnít recall falling asleep. Yet, he must have. Hercules was beset by the strangest dream. He was in the Elysian Fields with Iolaus. Gabrielle was also there .... He didnít even begin to know what it all meant but the dream - the mental pictures - stayed on his mind as, hours later, he walked the rest of the way to Cere City.

But now, as he sat by a firepit, drinking a warm cup of cider in the town tavern, Hercules began to feel anxious. Where Iolaus? They were suppose to meet here but his friend was missing. Heíd approached the tavern keeper first but he was little help.

The unkept old man admitted seeing Iolaus early last night but then his friend, Creedence, came back into the tavern without him. "Maybe your friend got lucky." The keeper offered with a rather lewed smile.

Well, Hercules had to admit to himself, that was a possibility.

"Hercules." Creedence entered, his eyes searching the sparcely occupied tavern for the demigod. "Iím so glad to see you." He lifted his hand for a shake, "Have you seen Iolaus?"

"I was just going to ask you the same thing."

Creedence closed his eyes for a moment and made a apprehensive gesture, "I was afraid of this." He went on to tell Hercules about the little girl and the dark, bearded man who took her away -- and how Iolaus felt it necessary to follow them. "Why canít that guy leave well enough alone?" Creedence sighed.

Because...heís a hero. "I'd better go find him." Worried, Hercules stood. "Show me the alley he disappeared into, Creed."

*******

He heard music. Gods awful music. But appropriate considering the way he felt. After all, wasnít he in Tartarus? Wasnít that what the nightmare last night was all about? Wait. He wouldnít be laying on a firm matress with crisp, clean sheets and a warm blanket if that were the case, right? Oh, but that music ... from some out of tune stringed instrument ....

A cool, comforting breeze buffeted against his face and, if it wasnít for the pain in his shoulder - calling further attention to the fact that Iolaus was alive - he might have felt quite content to lay in this manner, with his eyes shut, forever.

With an effort, Iolaus forced his eyes open and was pleased not to feel a jar of discomfort which often follows such episodes. He was in a large bedroom, adorned with several colorful tapestries. There was a stone fireplace and many expensive antiques resting on equally rare wooden tables. Rather appealing in an old fashion sort of way, Iolaus thought. He was high up, perhaps on the second or third floor of this house or castle or whatever, and he noticed long-curtained windows which lead out onto a balcony.

It had rained. At least that much of his nightmare had been true. Gazing through the window as he lay on the bed, he could see the clouds parting as he watched the sky, revealing bright sunshine and the fragrance of sweet blossoms.

The music stopped.

"Well, Iolaus. I see youíve finally decided to join us." a perky voice called. She stood at the door, which lead out into a darkened hall, with a pitcher and bowl in her slender hands. The dark-haired girl smiled at him through naturally rose colored lips. "Do you remember me?" She moved to his bedside table when Iolaus said nothing. "Itís all right. It will come to you." She lay the bowl and pitcher down.

Iolaus looked down at himself and noticed for the first time that he wasnít dressed. He wondered, as he made a move to sit up, who took off his clothes. He moved too quickly and the pain cutting through his shoulder was mind numbing. An attack of dizziness nearly sent Iolaus falling back on the feather pillows.

"Careful." the girl counselled, helping him to slowly lean back - "Youíll never heal if youíre not more mindful and better able to ..."

"Where am I?" He interrupted hoarsely, trying to focus through the pain.

She looked diappointed and then slightly distracted, "Youíre in the Summites' family home. From what they tell me you were resacued last night while trying to escape a man who clearly meant to do you great harm." she smiled inexplicably, "Of course, Iím sure you would have thought of something if Miss Mavala and Blanchea hadnít come along. Youíve always been very inventive, Iolaus."

"Huh?" While trying to piece things together the hunter gazed at the young woman. He wished he knew what she knew -- because she was obviously hiding something. "Okay, I give up. Who are you?" he said, not unkindly.

Those marvellous lips pouted just slightly -- "Does Thrase ring a bell? How about a hydra, a giant eel and a bunch of men dressed like hairy monsters?"

Iolaus eyes suddenly widened, "Lydia*!?" How could he forget her? The beautiful, brave young woman who helped him prove that he could - indeed - be a hero in his own right. With, or without Hercules. How long had it been? Five years since their adventure? "How did you get here?" He smiled widely, recalling their time together fondly. The danger and romance.

"A long story." she sighed and her expression darkened slightly. "Iíll tell you about it sometime but for now just know Iím going to be taking care of you until youíre better."

"Oh, I have no problem with that ..." Iolaus, didnít catch the slight transformation. A thought struck him, "Lydia, I need to let Hercules know whatís happened to me. Heís waiting for me in Cere by now."

Iíll talk to the ladies of the house." she murmured as she touched Iolaus wounded shoulder, examining the gash and reapplying a clean bandage, "Right now, you need rest." she stated firmly.

In the hall, Valetes - the head servant and carriage driver - listened closely. He would have to give a full report to Miss Blanchea. If this man knew what was going to happen to him he wouldnít be so eager to stay ....


*******

Chapter 6

The sun had arisen brightly but high-dark clouds were off in the horizon, threatening to blow in another storm by evening.

"This one, Hercules." Creedence pointed into an alley, "Iím sure this is where that guy took the little girl. And Iolaus followed."

"Okay," Hercules was about to proceed, "You coming?" he asked.

Creedence hesitated, "I would but...I have to get home." he stammered, "My wife is holding breakfast and the kids are ..."

Hercules nodded, knowing he shouldnít have asked. It took all of Creedenceís courage reserves just to point the way to this alley. He was a naturally fainthearted man. "Go ahead, Creed. I let you know if I find Iolaus." Then, "Wait, one more thing."

Creedence paused, looking a little fearful.

"See if you can find out who the little girl is. If Iolaus wasnít successful in his rescue attempt her family ...." Hercules hesitated, thinking how he would feel if his own daughter hadnít shown up in his home after a chore, "...theyíre probably going out of their minds with worry."

He nodded. This was something he could do. "Gotcha, Herc." Creedence was away.

Hercules moved cautiously through the dingy back street, preparing his impressively athletic form for any ill advised attack, which could come from behind a refuse container or badly lighted corner. Yet, the alley seemed deserted. He saw a few bins, discarded wood and an underfed feline but there appeared to be no ... Then he spotted the cart. It wasnít new, the wood splintering badly near the base, but he could picture a man tossing a child inside and taking her away.

Hercules picked up a fabric bag laying on the floor of the cart and recognized markings imprinted on the cloth. Echlastil. Heíd never seen the evil god but Zeus told a young Hercules about him many years ago and those stories were enough to make him never want to meet his half uncle. Fear and despair were Echlastilís gifts to the mortal world. What type of men and women would want to follow such a monster?

The same people who follow Hera and Ares ...

Hercules searching eyes lifted from where he examined the sack to a far wall. A small awning protected the surface from rain saturation and the demigod inwardly cringed. He could clearly see a sickly splash of red.

Blood. Whoís blood?

"Young man."

Startled, the half god swiveled and instinctively struck a fighterís pose. Hercules quickly relaxed when he saw the old man wearing a tattered green hat and a torn and discolored tunic.

"Have any spare denars?" he asked, holding himself against the mid-morning cold.

"Here." Hercules replied and reached forward to give the transient a coin. "Listen, were you here last night?"

Thoughtfully, the old man took the denar and scratched his white bearded chin with it, "I sleeps over in that corner there." He pointed a shaky hand in a general direction, "When that man brought in the girl ... I knew he was up to no good. Mean and ugly he was. His partner was better looking but just as nasty."

"His partner ..." Hercules thought aloud, "Anyone else?"

"No ..." The vagrant was about to leave then, "Yeah wait, there was this other man. Blond and limber. Good fighter. He rescued the girl ... but got cut up pretty bad."

Hercules heart skipped a beat, "What happened? Did the other two take him away?"

The old man squinted up at the tall questioner, "No ... I think he ran away. But not before he got the little girl to leave. Oh ...." he cleared his throat, " ... and he killed one of them."

Hercules felt a split second of panic - "What? Who was killed?"

"One of the bad ones. The good one fought him and killed him. The dark one was really mad and stabbed him." He looked over at the wall, "Lots of blood."

Hercules could feel himself grow anxious with fear and anguish. "The little girl. I donít suppose you heard her name."

"I may be old, sonny, but Iím not deaf. It was Arriya. Donít know the family though."

With a sigh of gratitude, Hercules lifted a hand - "Thank you for your help." he said and made a move to shake the old manís hand. "By the way, whatís your name?"

He shrugged, "Bartum today. It might be something else tomorrow."

An odd answer but Hercules thought he understood. He watched the old man leave then looked up to the heavens. "Iolaus, what did you get yourself into this time?" Hercules murmured, his thoughts racing.

*******

Not long after Lydia left him, promising Iolaus some reading material and propping the hunter up with more plump pillows, a distinguished looking gentleman came into the bedroom, carrying a tray. "Your breakfast, sir." He announced without smiling. He placed the silver set on Iolaus lap and removed the cover.

"Thank you ..."

"They call me Valetese."

"Thank you, Valetese."

He turned to leave.

"Valetese, Iíd like my clothes." Iolaus called.

"Yes, sir." the man servant replied, never turning or breaking his stride to the door.

With a sigh, Iolaus looked down at the pleasant array of food on the platter. Usually a better than average eater (but never gaining an ounce of weight because his stamina burned calories) he found it difficult to know where to start. In truth, he wasnít very hungry. With a mild smile he could almost hear Hercules exclaim: "Youíre NOT hungry?" as he stared at him with those doubtful blue eyes. With an effort, Iolaus picked up a slice of fruit and popped it into his mouth.

There was a knock on the bedroom door. Lydia walked in followed by two elderly women. They were a handsome and slightly comical looking pair. One was tall and thin, with a stern and strongly superior expression, and the other was stout, sporting an enigmatic grin.

"How are you feeling?" The tall woman asked out of politeness, "I am Mavala and this," she pointed to her sister, "is Blanchea." She allowed what might pass for a smile to cross her lips, "We hope you are comfortable, young man." She noted the tray of untouched food.

"Youíve been more than generous, taking me in like this."

"Yes, we have." Mavala agreed rather bluntly. She fingered the jeweled locket at her throat and gazed at him for a moment. Yes, he would do ...

Iolaus inwardly grimaced. She seemed to be sizing him up for some reason and he suddenly felt very naked.

Blanchea said, "Weíre just happy that youíve awakened, Iolaus." she smiled, "Lydia told us your name." The old woman winked in Lydiaís direction and lifted her hands to punctuate words. "Are you feeling better than you did last night?" Before he could answer Blanchea continued, "You simply must tell us how you found yourself with such an awful injury. was that terrible man chasing after you? Lydia said she knows you from Thrase but Thara is a long way from there ... Where are you from originally?"

"Blanchea, hush!" Mavala cautioned, "Sometimes my sister asks too many questions. Very nosy. Iíve never been able to break her of the habit."

"Itís all right." Iolaus said, glancing at an oddly quiet Lydia. The young woman stood in the background, her eyes darting from one sister to the other, her hands nervously gripping and wrinkling the white apron she wore.

"We feel you will be well enough to leave us in a week." Mavala announced.

"A week?" Iolaus chuckled and leaned back, "Iím a quick healer. A couple days tops." he said, confidently.

"A week." Mavala said, no room for argument. "Your wound is far more serious than you believe."

Iolaus instantly felt nervous under the womenís intent stares. He glanced down at his bandaged shoulder then again at Mavala - "Iíll be fine, really." He stated, "Iíd like my clothes."

Blanchea moved to stand closely beside her sister, "In time, Iolaus. Please, let Lydia take care of you. If youíre well enough by tomorrow weíll give you your clothes AND you can get up and walk around."

"But you have to rest here first." Malvala inserted, almost fiercely.

"Iolaus," Lydia stepped forward, passing the two elderly women, and sat on the edge of his bed. She took one of Iolaus hands in hers, "They have a point. Your injury isnít closing well and you need rest. Youíve lost blood and donít want to rush leaving. It could cause more harm than good."

"I told you that Hercules is waiting for me in ..."

"Yes, Lydia told us about Hercules." The elder sister interrupted, "Iím going to send our man, Valetese, to Cere City this evening to find your friend. Heíll bring him here. Will that ease your mind?"

Iolaus visibly relaxed, "Yes, it does. But I think ..."

Blanchea said, "If Valetese is quick about it we can have Hercules here by tomorrow evening. How does that sound?"

With a smile akin to embarrassment, Iolaus dipped his head. These ladies were being very helpful and kind. Why was he fighting them? He had to stop being suspicious about every little thing. "Thank you."

The two sisters slowly backed out of the room.

Mavala said, "Lydia, keep him company." and she shut the door.

Outside the bedroom, away from where Lydia and their guest could hear, Mavalaís hand raised and struck out. "You little fool!"

Blanchea lifted shaking fingers to her reddened cheek and whimpered, "What did I do wrong?"

Valetese watched the scene and appeared not to be concerned but, in reality, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck raise. Whenever Mavalaís wrath was present it was usually at either his or Blancheaís expense. He really despised the woman but he was indebted to her. And poor Miss Blanchea ...

"Did you have to tell him that Hercules will be here tomorrow? I need time to get Penelope prepared. Youíve just cut that time in half."

Blanchea took a breath, making her sister see reason: "But you heard him. Heís an anxious young man. Wounded or not, he isnít going to stay in bed for a week. If I didnít promise him Hercules he might have left tonight!"

Mavala clicked her tongue, "I saw that too. But I also see that he is attracted to our little Lydia. I donít think heíll be too eager to leave her." She glanced at Valetese, "Go make yourself scares." she commanded, "If he sees you walking about heíll know we didnít send you to get Hercules and heíll get suspicious."

Valetese bowed and left the room.

*****

Chapter 7

Hercules sat in their house. It was a small, two room home inside the Cere City limits. Creedence had come to him earlier in the day and said he found the childís father, Festre, and he would be proud to have the son of Zeus visit he and his family.

Hercules learned from Festreís wife, Gyia - as she passed the demigod some fruit and a mug of fresh well water - that her husband was a cobbler by trade. They had three children, Arriya the youngest, and were not wealthy but did better than some. Times were not good but they managed.

The cobbler patiently listened to Hercules plea and looked over at the girl as she sat, playing with a homemade rag doll, in front of their hearth - "Arriya, come here." He commanded his young daughter. Festre picked the child up in his arms and together they sat across from Hercules at the family table, "I want you to tell this good man what you told me about last night. Why were you late coming home?"

The little girl gazed up at her father with troubled eyes then looked over at Hercules, "I fell down on my way home and had to go back for more water. It took time." Unable to meet the big manís gentle eyes she looked down at her own hands, the first indication of a fib.

Hercules spoke quietly, "A friend tells me he saw you and a tall, bearded man enter an alley. Is that true?"

The girl did not speak, keeping her attention on the little fingers.

"Arriya, do you have a best friend?" Hercules tried to reason with her another way, "Someone who is special you would do anything to keep him or her safe?"

"Peta." she spoke in a tiny voice.

"A neighbor." Festre clarified.

"I have a friend like that. Heís a really, really good man and he helps people all of the time. He especially likes to help children when he thinks theyíre in trouble ... Maybe youíve seen him. About this tall ...." Hercules raised a hand in the air, "... with yellow hair and blue eyes. He wears a purplish vest."

Nervously, glancing once at her father, Arriya nodded, "And a black necklace." she murmured and tapped gently at her own throat and chest.

"Heís in bad, bad trouble, Arriya. Last night he went into an alley to help a little girl and some really mean men hurt him. Now, I canít find him and he could -"

"...Die?" the little girl interrupted, her tear filling eyes meeting his own.

"He might." Hercules hated to upset her, but he was becoming anxious. This childís story and that of Bartum confirmed that Iolaus had been wounded. His own memory of that blood smeared wall wasnít fading either.

She squirmed a little on her fathers lap and sobbed, "I saw him last night. He was a nice man, trying to help me when the other two men wanted to put me in a bag and carry me away. They had a knife ..."

Arriyaís mother gasped, "Oh no ..." Stricken, she knelt on the floor, at her husbandís feet, and took the childís hands, "WHY didnít you tell us this?"

"I didnít want you to get mad. He was going to give me a toy ... the bad man..." Now the girl was crying out-right, fearful of punishment. "And when those two old crazy women came and took the nice man away I saw he was hurt and..."

"Two old women?" Hercules questioned, noting some new information. "What women?"

"Miss Blachea and Mavala."

"Them?" Festre grimaced, speaking in a tone that did not comfort. "Theyíre wealthy sister who live together in their ancestral home outside of Cere. No one goes around them because ..." he hesitated, " .... because itís said they pray to Echlastil ... Theyíre crazy."

"Just gossip really." Gyia interjected, "But there is more to the story. Something hideous happened in the past that shamed the family. It had something to do with a third sister who died tragically ... but it was nearly thirty or forty years ago. No one really remembers. But the sisters shut themselves away. Itís said people disappear around them ..."

Sacrifices to Echlastil. No one said it, but Hercules knew what they were thinking.

Arriya continued her story, "I waited outside the alley for a little bit. I thought the nice man might take me home when he was finished ... but I heard yelling and someone cried out and then the nice man was running away from the mean man with the knife. They didnít see me. I was hidden behind a barrel near the blacksmithís stable ... and then I saw Miss Blanchea and Mavalaís carriage."

"They picked the nice man up?" Hercules asked, still gentle but also grave. Iolaus was in more trouble than he imagined. Hercules recalled back to the dream he had the night before. Iolaus in trouble, being torn to pieces by something crazed.

"He ran to them and I saw him fall inside, and then I ran home when I saw the bad man chase after them."

"The bad man ...." Hercules thought briefly, wondering who he could be and how he should be dealt with. The demigodís attention switched from the little girl to her father, "Do you know where these ladies live?" He asked, his jaw setting firmly. Determination was in his aqua eyes.

*****

Lydia came to him and redressed his wound. If it didnít stop bleeding soon sheíd have to stitch the shoulder and she hated the thought. Purposely placing an ugly scar on that lovely, smooth flesh would be a crime. It took all of the concentration she could muster to keep her administrations practical, resisting the urge to stroke his burnished chest and neck. Despite resent events and his obvious pain, Iolaus was as virile as she recalled.

He gritted his teeth through the discomfort, "Careful there, Lia." Iolaus said, noting the distant look.

"Donít fuss." she admonished, gently straightening the bandage, "Youíre eventually going to have to tell me how this came about. Who attacked you?"

"Later." He half smiled, tired and not ready to think about it. "When Hercules gets here Iíll relay the entire incident. But, right now, Iím more interested in your story."

She laughed softly and looked out the window next to his bed, her expression gentle and a little troubled with remembrance. "About two years ago I was still living with my Uncle in Thrase. He was badly hurt during a hunt - some creature attacked him - but before he died he confessed to me that I wasnít his blood niece. The woman I thought my mother, and her husband, had adopted me from a foundling home when I was a baby. I couldnít believe it."

Iolaus took one of Lydiaís hands.

"When he died I didnít know what to do, really. I wasnít a farmer and didnít feel his land truly belong to me, although my uncle had arranged for it. I guess I was being over-emotional but I couldnít stay in Thrase. The only logical thing I could do was sell out and go find a job somewhere."

"You wanted to find yourself?" Iolaus offered.

She nodded, "I needed to get away. My travels eventually brought me to Cere where I worked in the local tavern for awhile. It was horrible but kept food on my table. Then, one day Miss Blanchea and Mavala came to town. They go to market once a month. Through a set of strange circumstances I became entrenched with them and they offered me a job here."

"So you became their housekeeper?"

"More than that, really. I was like a granddaughter to them and I..." She became uncomfortable, suddenly realizing her use of the word was, "...do other things. Theyíre good women really. They taught me medicine and how to take care of myself..."

"I donít think youíve ever had a problem with that, Lydia. I seem to recall a time when there was a young woman who came up with a very clever way to distract a rather nasty hydra ...."

She smiled.

Carefully, he raised a hand to her cheek.

"But youíre lonely, arenít you?"

Astonished by his insight, she met Iolaus eyes with her own, "A little."

Slowly, he leaned in and kissed her softly.

*****

"Punch him, Hercules! Lay into him! Give him what he deserves!" Creedence shouted, throwing his entire body into his own mock-strikes he observed from the demigod. A crowd had gathered behind him, rooting for Hercules in the same manner as Creedence. No one truly knew what was going on but understood if Hercules was beating a man senseless there was justice being dispensed.

"Now, one more time --" Hercules warned, lifting the man up into the air by his neck, "WHY?"

They had found Jupus in the tavern. Neither Creedence or Hercules had really been looking for the man but when he was spotted, drunk and grieving over a friendís death - and boasting over the murder of "that little blond twirp" - there was little doubt that Hercules needed to have a talk with him.

Jupus shouted, "He killed Midrie and I spent the entire day burying him. Iolaus deserves everything I gave him..." When Hercules angrily shook him he relented, "...but heís not dead! I saw him ride out of town in a carriage!" Jupus was already aware of Hercules powers, how he could snap a mortal man in two without breaking into a sweat, "But I tell you that he was struck by The Dagger of Echlastil, and he wonít heal quickly, and..."

Hercules brought him down to the ground then flung the man at some awaiting law enforcers who were watching the scene with interest, "Lock him up! Iíve got to find my friend."


******

Chapter 8

Hercules took The Blade of Echlastilís from Jupus. Heíd need the dagger if he hoped to save Iolaus life. He could almost feel the agony he was certain his best friend was going through and if Hercules could do anything to stop it, he would. The cure was going to be horrible - possibly even more painful than the wound itself - but demigod took comfort in knowing his "brother" wouldnít hold a grudge. Not because of this.

With purpose, Hercules walked the long, lonely road to Thara and occasionally glanced up into the dark, threatening sky above. It was going to rain again and no doubt heíd be caught in another downpour. Maybe not tonight or tomorrow morning but surely by the time he reached the house where Iolaus was being held captive.

Wet and cold. Thatís all he needed. "Youíre a half-god. Quite complaining." Hercules thought aloud. True, he wasnít likely heíd catch cold. He could never recall, as a child, having had a fever -- but it was a miserable way to travel.

"Hercules." She stood in the middle of the pebble strewn road he just passed.

Startled, the demigod twisted about - his expressive blue eyes growing wide when he saw her. "Gabrielle?" he asked, "What are you doing here?" He moved forward as if to greet the bard.

"Donít. Iím not really here." She said, her voice slightly ethereal.

He stopped short and saw her image flicker. Gabrielle spoke the truth. "Am I dreaming?" Hercules asked, unsure.

She smiled and leaned a little on her staff, "No, youíre not dreaming. Xenaís hunting and Iíve settled down for a nap. Iím the one dreaming ... but I need to tell you something. Iolaus is in grave danger."

"I know. From Echlastil." he replied, "Heís being set up as a sacrifice of some kind, isnít he?"

"No -- Thatís not really it, Hercules. There is danger from the knife wound but you already know how to take care of that ... But there is another menace. Something you arenít expecting ... There are followers watching over the house of Summitse and theyíll be waiting for you."

"Gabrielle, how do you know this?" Then Hercules thought of another question, "How are you able to come to me in this way in the first place?"

"Itís too complicated to explain fully. Iím not sure myself -- but sometimes I see things when I sleep ... " She looked behind her, distracted. "Listen, Iím going to be awakened soon and have to break off this conversation with you, Hercules. Just be prepared, careful and quick. Iolaus needs you."

Hercules nodded, "Iíll be sure to thank you for this next time we meet."

"Donít bother. I wonít remember it anyway. I never do." Gabrielle abruptly made an anxious motion and looked over her shoulder again. "Iím being roused! Hurry Hercules! Run! Find Iolaus!" She faded away.

****

Morning came and, after a warm sponge bath, Lydia rebandaged the wound for what seemed to Iolaus the hundredth time. Hot rods of pain shot through his shoulder and he almost wept. He wasnít getting better. The bleeding continued. Despite Lydiaís constant attention, Iolaus suspected infection.

The Dagger of Echlastil ... Iolaus recalled being told, as a child, about a curse on the dagger but until now he hadnít thought too much about it. Was he doomed to feel this pain forever?

The night before, with Iolaus consent, Lydia battled her initial uncertainty and sewed on his knife-wound. She was careful and meticulous - had even brought Iolaus something pleasant to drink to calm his nerves and deaden the pain - but the gash continued to bleed through the stitching. And it was now turning an unnatural color. "You need a Healer." she said.

"I donít need a Healer." he replied, stubbornly (knowing it was a lie), as he sat up in bed. "I just need to get out of this damn place." Wrapping a bed covering around his waist, Iolaus impatiently threw his legs over the side of the bed and stood, nearly falling. It was morning. Theyíd promised him clothes today.

Iolaus suddenly turned and looked on the table next to his bed. An assortment of clothing, not his own, had been laid out. Along with a note:

These are for you while your own garments are being cleaned and repaired.
When you dress this morning please come downstairs to the tea room. We will be having breakfast in your honor.
Miss Mavala

"Cleaned? They didnít have to ..." Iolaus was grateful but it then occurred to him that one of those strange old women had been in his room last night while he was sleeping. That was unsettling.

Iolaus lifted the silky tan shirt and brown trousers to get a better look. Beside them stood a pair of black boots. ĎNice but a bit too refined for the likes of me.í he thought, absently. Still, they looked like they were made for him. It was a nice gesture.

"You shouldnít be moving." Lydia, apprehensive, didnít take her eyes off of the clothing. "Youíre not well. They shouldnít be inviting you out of this room."

"Iíll be fine, Lia. Help me get dressed."

"But Iolaus, you donít understand," Lydia spoke as she helped him, first with the shirt - "Iíve seen these garments twice before. Two men visitors who came here last year were given these exact same clothes."

"Apparently Miss Blanchea and Mavala like these colors." Iolaus half smiled and mimed Lydia to help him with the fastenings. "Look, these probably belonged to some male member of the family that died long ago -- and the ladies just have a surplus to give away." When she appeared skeptical he said, "Donít worry about it, Lydia. Even with a bad shoulder I think I can handle myself with two old women if things get dicey."

She struggled, "But the next day, after being given these --" she tugged on his shirt, "-- they were gone. The men, I mean. I was told they left during the early morning hours, before Iíd awakened, but ..." She continued to fasten his shirt.

"Iím not sure I know what youíre talking about, Lia. Do you think the old women did something to the men?"

"It seems crazy, I know. But sometimes they act so strange. And one of the men, Liam, told me he wanted to say goodbye to me before he left. I remember being so tired that night. I fell deeply asleep." She looked from the shirt fastening into Iolaus eyes, "Miss Mavala and Blanchea. They both can be so moody and eccentric. I told you when I first came here they treated me like their grand daughter ..." Lydia hooked the last fastener and, distracted, turned to the pants. She lifted them and cleared her throat, "Do you want me to...ah..."

"I think I can do it on my own." he assured, "Go on with what you were talking about."

Lydia discreetly turned around and listened while Iolaus struggled, almost giggling when she heard a curse and some rather odd thumping noises. She whispered, "Miss Blanchea and Mavala were so kind to me when I first came here. Then later, things began to change...as I became more deeply involved with the family and its history I noticed how the ladies pulled away from me. Then, one day I was introduced to..." Lydia stopped speaking, realizing she had said enough. Probably too much.

"Who?" Iolaus asked.

She turned to look at him and was pleased by what she saw. Iolaus was as handsome as she remembered. "No one." she said softly and before he could reply - "If the clothes make the man, Iolaus, youíre worth a million denars."

He chuckled and pointed at the side table, "Boots, please."

******

"Iolaus! You look splendid! Doesnít he look splendid, Mavala?" Blanchea stood and clapped her hands together, obviously pleased by his appearance. "And those clothes -- Just wonderful!" she enthused.

Mavala, always calm and poised, sat back in her chair. She gently fingered a string of pearls around her neck as she surveyed their guests. "Quite." she said, satisfied. In her other hand she held a tea cup. "Sit." She indicated a spot at the table for Iolaus. The woman then turned to her sister, "Didnít you have something you wanted to show Iolaus, Blanchea?"

The old woman paused for a moment, trying to recall, then snapped her fingers, "Of course! Iíll be right back." and she was away from the table.

"My sister fancies herself a painter and when she learned you were a friend of Hercules she felt the need to rummage and bring out a painting she once did of the son of Zeus. Of course, sheís never met him so I ask that you please be kind to her in your criticism when you see it."

Sitting, Iolaus smiled - "No problem." He watched as Lydia made a move to leave the room - "Lia, where are you going?"

"I never eat with the ladies." She started.

"Lydia has work to do." Mavala spoke quickly, over-lapping the girlís explanation. "You two will have plenty of time together later, Iolaus."

Lydia nodded politely and walked from the room.

"You know, she really adores you and your sister." Iolaus picked up a biscuit in front of him and took a bite, "She said you once treated her like a grand daughter."

"We still do." Mavala said, sipping from her cup. "Sheís a good girl but spoiled. Sometimes we have to remind Lydia that although we treat her as our own -- she isnít."

He stared at Mavala as he held the biscuit to his mouth. "You think Lia is spoiled?" She spoke of the girl like she was an inferior. Iolaus didnít like that.

"Please," Miss Mavala smiled gently, nearly patronizing, and leaned forward in her chair, "I didnít invite you here to talk about Lydia. I want to know about you and tell you a bit about us. We seldom get strangers here and when we do they leave so quickly we never really get to learn about them."

Sighing but attempting to be a gentleman, after all he was a guest in this womanís home, Iolaus gave Mavala a brief history of his life. "Not too exciting Iím afraid." he concluded.

"Iíd hardly say that!" Mavala piped, genuinely impressed, "An Argonaut, friend of the one time King of Corinth - Jason , best friend to Hercules. Youíve fought monsters, sailed around the world and studied in the east ...and your cousin was King Orestes of Attica. That is fascinating all on its own. Royal blood in your veins."

"No, not hardly." Iolaus chuckled. Then, "And what of your family?"

Blanchea arrived then with a large, framed covered parchment. She leaned it against a far wall and came back to the table for her own breakfast.

Mavala said, "Our father was Summitse and our mother Batias. He fought in the Punic Wars under General Tolklus and was awarded this land and great wealth for his labors."

Iolaus nodded, "My grandfather also fought in Punic Wars."

She continued, "We were all born in this house. Me and my two sisters."

"Two?" Iolaus questioned.

"Yes, we had a younger sister who died long ago."

Blanchea murmured, "Died of a broken heart."

Mavala glanced in her sisterís direction and nodded, "Itís true. The man she would have married was killed and it wasnít long after that...Well, our sister was with child. Our family was scandalized, of course." she sipped her tea, "And our sister, Penelope ..." She cleared her throat, unable to continue.

Blanchea spoke, "Our sister attempted suicide. It was our mother who found her. Penelope tried to hang herself in the family room."

Iolaus felt somewhat uncomfortable.

"So, she was whisked away to have her child. From what they tell us it was a terrible labor and the baby died. When Penelope came back to us she was terribly depressed and one day..." It was Blancheaís turn to choke back emotion. "...we found her dead in her bedroom." Mavala continued, "The poor dear, having lost her lover and his child, felt she had nothing more to live for. She just gave up."

Iolaus bowed his head considerately, "Iím sorry."

"Life goes on." Mavalaís toned lightened slightly, "And now, Blanchea, why donít you show our guest your painting of Hercules."

A smile grew on Blancheaís face and she stood excitedly, in complete contrast to the mood a few moments before. "Now, Iím not a professional." she spoke, quickly "But I do hope you like it..." She brought the large framed parchment over to Iolaus and, with flourish, pulled off the covering.

"What do you think?"

Iolaus had prepared himself not to laugh but - as he stared at the parchment - he was stunned. The portrait was uncanny. It looked exactly like Hercules. She depicted his friend wearing a lionís skin - probably in tribute to his slaying of the Nemean Lion so many years ago - but the eyes, hair and facial cast were perfect. "I canít believe it." He whispered.

Blanchea looked at Mavala and smiled.

********

Chapter 9

The breakfast had gone well and after some pleasant but rather odd conversation, Iolaus confessed to the ladies that his shoulder was still definitely on the mend. He told them about the child who was in danger and his run in with the abductors.

"Youíre a very brave man." Blanchea piped giddily, sounding more like a teenager than a woman in her seventies. "Every inch our Penelopeís Champion." Then, she quickly put a hand to her mouth and glanced over at Mavala who gave her sister a burning look.

"Champion?" Iolaus asked, finishing the last of his tea.

"He was our sisterís lover." Mavala said, gravely.

Blanchea had been delighted that her composition of Hercules had been accurate and she marveled over a few stories Iolaus told of he and the half-godís adventures.

Mavala also listened with interest. "He means a lot to you, doesnít he? Hercules."

"Heís my best friend. I donít know where Iíd be without him."

"Do you think..." Mavala looked off a bit, thinking carefully. "...if something were to happen to you that Hercules could manage on his own?"

Forgetting his pain for a moment, Iolaus shrugged cautiously and allowed a nervous smile. "Iím sure he could. Heís the worldís strongest man."

"It takes more than strength to do all of the thing you and he have done together. It takes good character, cleverness and - I think - knowing there will always be someone there for you. Someone to guard your back. He knows you will always be there for him." Mavala purposely pushed her cup and saucer aside and leaned forward in her chair, lacing her fingers together and resting the knuckles on her chin. "I dare say he may even love you."

Iolaus wasnít sure what the woman was getting at but he nodded, "You may be right. Heís like a brother to me. Iíd hate to think of a life without him."

Iolaus could see the woman wanted to hear more. He was a little uneasy but continued, "Hercules saved me from a life of crime and helped me realize what true friendship is all about. Iíve strayed a few times, feeling inferior to him, but he always brings me back to my senses."

"So you rely on him more than you think he relies on you?" Satisfied, Mavala lifted a small bell resting beside her right arm and rang it.

Lydia appeared.

"I think it is time for Iolaus to return to his room and rest, Lydia. Will you take him?"

A little startled by the sudden excusial, Iolaus stood and bowed slightly in the elder ladies directions, "Thank you." he said civilly and took a hold of Lydiaís hand as they walked to the stairs near the front entrance.

"Lydia," Iolaus tugged gently on her hand as she made a motion to guide him upstairs. He glanced once over to the tea room where he could see Mavala and Blanchea speaking quietly with one another but couldnít hear what they were saying. "Iím going to go raving mad if I go up there and sit until Hercules gets here. I really need some fresh air."

"Iíll open a window." she smiled and started up again.

He stood his ground and tugged again, "Letís go for a walk... outside." He begged with a slight pout and using his vivid eyes to their best advantage. "Miss Blanchea told me there is a garden in back. Letís go see it."

"Iolaus..." Lydia glanced once in the direction of the tea room then, carefully considering, she stepped down and pulled at the collar of his tan shirt. She examined his shoulder through the wrapping, noticing that nothing had bled through yet. Lydia understood how bored Iolaus was, a man whoís clever ingenuity managed to get both of them through a few horrifying scrapes. She begrudgingly agreed that a walk in the garden could be good therapy. It might even keep his mind off of the considerable pain he must be feeling. "All right. But only for a short while."

Quietly, they crept to the front exit, like mischievous children, and silently shut the door behind them.

******

They came at him from all sides - six determined ruffians - but, thanks to a warning from the ghostly vision of Gabrielle, Hercules was prepared for the attack and beat off his assailants with little problem. With the exception of a couple cowardly men, who had run off when they finally realized that the beating into submission of a halfgod probably wasnít going to happen, Hercules had most of the men laying unconscious. A few flat on their backs.

On his knees and impatient, Hercules grabbed onto a filthy goon by his tattered collar and spoke in a strained voice, "Who sent you after me?"

"Someone who knows youíll do everything in your power to destroy destiny." The scraggily assassin said, "Someone who pays well..." He added.

"What did Echlastil promise you? Power? Fame?"

The manís eyes focused on Hercules. You think Echlastil, The God of Fear and Despair, sent us?" He almost laughed, "No, my friend. We were sent by a sweet little old lady who felt youíd cause too many problems for what she and hers have planned for a friend of yours." He watched as Hercules expression changed from challenging to dawning, "She paid us in denars and promised more if what she did paid off for her family. But it has nothing to do with Echlastil. Although, now that you mention it, would be a prize sacrifice..."

Hercules punched him once in the face, "Not in this lifetime." and dropped the man to the ground.

******

If you were to look at the Summitse home from a distance you would think you were looking at a grand residence. Four floors, many windows and each room that had a balcony was covered in a lush layer of dark green ivy. It was charming and comfortable to the senses. Yet, upon closer inspection, the outside of the house was as neglected as a Hestian virginís dance card. An attempt had been made to cover up the many large fissures with a gray substance but the gaping splits were clearly visible all through the structure. Iolaus stood back and took it in. There really was something haunting about the place. He just couldnít put his finger on it. The garden was lovely. Too many varieties of flora to be identified without a guide-scroll but Lydia and Iolaus did their best.

After a few minutes, Lydia took Iolaus hand and they walked over to the lake which splashed near the east side of the house. She glanced up into the sky, which had darkened, then back at the rushing water. "I love this place." She said, "I come here often to think."

"I have a place like that too." he smiled, "When I die, in about sixty years, I expect to be buried there. I can just picture Hercules ..." Iolaus was not able to keep his voice or expression from showing the unexpected pain and fatigue he was feeling. He stood erect, closed his eyes and took a ragged breath.

"We need to get you back inside." Lydia said.

"Not yet." He looked passed her at a large leafy tree surrounded by luxuriant tufts of inviting grass. "Letís take a sit for a few minutes."

****

She could see them from where she stood by the window. Her hands closed around the bars, holding them tightly. Her eyes, red from weeping, widened and her breath was shortened. Heíd come home. It was true this time. He was here! "Champion!!" she cried but he didnít respond. Did he not hear her? "I have a dowry, beloved! Come to me and itís all yours!"

*****

He rested his head on the apron folded over her black skirted lap. Iolaus looked up, through the leaves, at the half hidden sun. Dark clouds were moving in quickly and it was starting to get cold ... But gods, he loved this. The cool, damp grass his hands were resting against, the fresh sweet air, and the softness of a beautiful woman. His eyes closed as her velvety fingers traced patterns on his forehead. Elysia on earth. Was there anything closer?

"Youíre beginning to drift, Iolaus." Lydia smiled above him, "Are you tired, or is it the company?"

"Neither." With effort, he sat up. "Just relaxed...for the first time in a long while." He leaned in a bit closer to Lydia. She had almost made him forget about his hurt and the strange set of circumstances surrounding his stay at this house. Unexpectedly, the girl pulled back and looked past him. Her thoughts were with the people inside of the home and she seemed anguished,

"Iolaus, I think you ought to run - run away from here - as fast as you can." she whispered but her tone did not sound urgent.

He stared at her and quietly replied, "Such a strange thing to say." and a little lighter, "Is this the same woman who, not too long ago, didnít even want me to go outside?"

Tears began to form in her lovely green eyes, "I donít want you to go but...I donít think itís safe for you here. Iíve been thinking, Iolaus, and itís not right, none of this..."

"In what way?"

Lydia was straining, as if she were doing battle with an inner demon. "I donít know!" she cried, truly exasperated.

"Shh." Iolaus lifted a hand and touched her cheek, "Donít cry." he gently implored, his face just inches from hers. "You are so unhappy, Lydia, and I want so much to help you, to take you away from here. Take you to a place where youíll be treated kindly, with tenderness." And here, right now, as he touched her softness and breathed in the perfume of her body, Iolaus truly believed what he was saying.

"If only you could..." Lydia whispered, just before she fell into his embrace and the couple indulged in an ardent kiss.

****

"Nooooooo!"

She could see everything from her room. It was indecent!

"Oh, vile betrayer! Incestuous pig!"

****

He gasped as they parted, but it was more from pain than pleasure.

"Iolaus, Iím so sorry." Lydia pulled back then helped him to stand.

Iolaus had gone visibly pale and he lifted a hand to his shoulder, "My fault..." he panted, biting back the agony. "I should have been more careful."

Lydia folded the collar back and examined the wound, "Youíre beginning to bleed through. We need to go back into the house and..." She looked up at his face and suddenly realized Iolaus wasnít listening to her. He was looking away, toward the stable. Something had caught his attention. "What is it?" she asked, turning and trying to see what it was he saw.

"Who is that man?" he asked in a tone that was both inquiring and a little frightened.

She could see why Iolaus was having trouble. He was a distance away. Yet, she knew who it was. Sheíd recognize that stilted walk anywhere, "Itís Valetes. Heís..." and Lydia, suddenly horrified, understood.

Valetes. He was suppose to be in Cere City, finding Hercules.

"Iolaus..." she gasped. "They lied!"

"I donít understand what is going on, Lia. But youíre right about one thing. I have to get out of here - and quickly!"

CONTINUE READING HERE