Battle Royale

by Chrysim

Not long after leaving the rolling farmlands and orchards of Pyrrhea, Hercules and Iolaus entered the vast wild territory known as Thessala. It was a place of scattered city-states and small kingdoms carved out of a mountainous wilderness. Outlaws and others with no tolerance for civilised existence roamed its bountiful forests, rugged mountains and canyons, grasslands and otherwise predominantly hostile terrain. It wasn't a place to linger even at the best of times.

Hercules was tall, imposing, powerful and majestic, both in countenance and comportment. A long mane of tawny brown hair framed his ruggedly handsome face and his eyes were a deep, mesmerising shade of blue.

His courage was unsurpassed, fed by an integrity and morality that were phenomenal. Though a fighter without equal, Hercules was foremost a pacifist.

He was articulate, reasonable and almost fanatical in his pursuit of peace, justice and liberty.

In point of fact, Hercules wasn't just a simple good, decent hero with kingly attributes and godlike powers.

He was the tried and true unconquerable conqueror of monsters, tyrants, maniacs, demons and gods alike.

Iolaus appeared to be just a carefree rogue with a disarming smile and an infectious laugh.

He was a lean, robust, athletic dynamo endowed with impressive strength, agility and great endurance.

He had an unruly thatch of wavy blonde hair and a pair of sparkling azure eyes that were the barometer of his passionate temperament.

Well camouflaged by his youthful good looks and exuberance, beat the fierce heart and indomitable spirit of a natural warrior.

His quick temper, sharp tongue and impetuosity always made a strong impression wherever he roamed.

Yet it was his protective, selfless, kind-hearted nature, morality and idealism that set him apart and made him a hero.

Together, the legend and the hero, were an awesome, invincible team.

Best friends. Virtually inseparable partners.

Brothers, not of blood, but of choice... of the heart.

Weather had played a very major role in their odyssey to Nicrosetti. Now it seemed as if it would plague them again as they were overtaken by a wicked thunderstorm. In the raging wind and torrential rain the two travellers inadvertently lost their way.

Neither of them had ever been in this part of Thessala before. After the arduous, adventurous trek he and Iolaus had made just to reach Nicrosetti, all Hercules wanted was to have as uneventful a journey as possible this time out.

Neither had counted on getting lost, however.

There were all sorts of trails that criss-crossed the foothills through which the two soon found themselves traversing. In the dark of night, blinded by the driven rain and unfamiliar with their surroundings, they more or less let their horses select the trail to follow.

Soon they stood on the craggy ridge of a rugged string of weather-worn mountains. These were more hills than mountains, however, when compared to the ones that had barred their way to Nicrosetti.

The trail they were on was twisting, narrow and treacherous. On one side rose the sparsely treed, boulder-strewn mountainside and on the other was a sometimes precipitous escarpment. In the unreliable light provided by intermittent lightning they were able to discern that down in the valley beneath the cliffs lay a dense forest.

Whether their trail led into that forest was an unknown factor but just the thought of perhaps finding shelter from this storm in it urged them onwards.The trail was very difficult, full of ruts and littered with stones, broken branches and even the occasional fallen tree.

On the crest of a steep incline they paused to consider how to descend. Hercules dismounted and crouched beside his horse, trying to peer into the gloom below to see just how sheer the path became.

Iolaus took the opportunity to examine their surroundings. To their left loomed three jagged granite peaks that reminded him of the phalanx of mountains he and Hercules had been confronted with enroute to Nicrosetti not so long ago. On the right was the pitch-black void of the forested valley below. Beyond that, there seemed to be only darker darkness.

Iolaus's sharp eyes detected something odd in the shadows and he alighted in the mud next to his horse to investigate.

Stroking the muzzle of his horse, he brushed some scrubs aside and frowned at the man-made post embedded in the ground.

There was a very thick length of frayed, weather-rotted rope dangling from it but just as he realised what it was - or, rather, what it'd once been, a blinding streak of lightning ripped out of the turbulent sky above.

The powerful bolt struck a nearby tattered mountainside fir with a loud boom and sent a shower of brilliant sparks in all directions. The high-strung thorough-breds reacted in terror, rearing and shying wildly in the slick mud.

Hercules tried to calm his animal but it was thoroughly panicked. In trying to avoid its deadly flailing hooves, Hercules lost his footing and fell backwards down the incline he'd just been contemplating.

He tumbled and rolled down the slope until coming to gradual rest, battered and winded, on the floor of a gravelly hollow.

Iolaus's frightened horse also reared, almost yanking him completely off his feet. He slipped in the mud and lost his grip on the bridle.

As he tried to gain a footing in the unstable saturated soil, both horses turned to flee. Iolaus, anxious not to lose them, lunged for one of the dangling reins just as the ground beneath his feet gave way.

With an alarmed cry, Iolaus went flying heels-over-head down the hill, sliding and somersaulting crazily down the embankment until skidding to a breathless, jarring halt several yards ahead of where Hercules was just climbing dizzily to his feet.

Groaning from a brand-new collection of aches and bruises, Iolaus pushed himself to his knees and complained, " A warning sign would've been nice. ", he said irritably as Hercules grabbed his arm and helped him onto his feet.

His friend looked at him curiously, " What are you talking about, Iolaus? "

Pointing back the way they'd just come, Iolaus explained, " There's an old post with some rope attached to it by the side of that crest. I think there used to be a bridge spanning this hollow once. " He lowered his arm, wincing at his bruised shoulder, and looked up at the opposite hillside thoughtfully.

By the time Iolaus had finished his explanation, Hercules had already concluded why there had once been a bridge across this area and what had happened to it.

He looked up at the imposing mountain peaks and tensed imperceptibly as Iolaus asked apprehensively, " This is a flashflood ravine, isn't it?"

Hercules said nothing but pushed him urgently towards the muddy hillside. Iolaus took that as a yes. He recognised the preoccupied expression on his friend's face and knew trouble was on the way.

Hercules had exceptional senses as befit a son of Zeus. Often he could hear sounds no one else could and his sixth sense was a hundred times more sensitive than even the most acute mortal intuition. Whenever he got that far-away look on his face or tensed for no apparent reason, Iolaus knew invariably trouble wasn't far off .

Even as they began to clamber up the slippery slope the ground began to vibrate and a steadily building roar spurred them upwards.

It was a futile effort.

For every inch they gained, they slipped another two or three. Realising that they wouldn't get clear in time, Hercules yelled to his friend above the tumult, " Iolaus, grab onto something solid!"

Hercules's massive hands had just clamped onto the bole of a sturdy-looking sapling when he looked up and saw a tremendous wall of raging water bearing down on them.

Iolaus was about six feet lower than Hercules, kneeling behind an enormous boulder. Peering anxiously over it, his eyes widened with terror upon catching sight of the awesome tidal wave about to engulf them. He immediately ducked back down behind the boulder with his back against it, his strong legs braced as firmly as possible in the tenuous dirt.

Neither the tree Hercules clung to nor the boulder Iolaus perched behind were sufficient to save them from the tremendous force of the rampaging waters.

As if being grasped by some immensely powerful claw, Hercules was swept away with the sapling still in his unyielding grip. The flood carried Hercules towards the mountainside relentlessly, bashing him against boulders and trees in the process.

On the very brink of the mountain was a small outcropping of solid granite around which the mad waters stormed.

Hercules found himself batted up against that solitary, rocky promontory. With great difficulty he pulled himself out of the possessive clutches of the flood and collapsed breathlessly on his modest refuge.

Around him the surging waters cascaded over the cliffs into the valley below.

The berserk waters slammed into the boulder where Iolaus sheltered with such force that it was dislocated as easily as if it were a pebble in the surf. Iolaus was torn from his sanctuary and buried beneath the flood's savage waters.

He was raked across the bottom of the rocky hollow until finally being pushed to the surface amidst a variety of other flotsam.

Instinctively he latched onto a large buoyant log, choking and gasping for air. As the waters raced towards the cliffs, Iolaus crawled up onto the gyrating log.

Though he couldn't see well in the gloom, his eagle-eyes did see the same granite pinnacle that Hercules was resting upon.

He didn't see his friend, however, as intent as he was on his own plight.

Just as the log reached the brow of the flood-fed waterfall, Iolaus leapt for that granite bluff. He couldn't get much impetus behind his leap, though, and instead of landing on it, Iolaus found himself clinging to its sheer face while the wild waters roared past inches away from where he dangled.

Almost immediately Iolaus felt his tenuous hand-holds crumbling as his boots desperately scraped against the smooth rock seeking any kind of purchase.

There wasn't any, however, and, as his left hand lost its grip, Iolaus heard an involuntary short cry of terror escape his lips.

Closing his eyes tightly, he concentrated on maintaining his last precarious hold on survival. Despite his formidable determination and impressive stamina, Iolaus's right hand gradually began to tire and weaken as the strain took its toll. He continued to try to re-establish his left hand or to find a foothold but all his efforts were in vain.

With a cry that was as angry as it was terrified, Iolaus plunged towards the pitch-black void below.

Out of the ubiquitous velvety black night, Hercules's long arm reached out and snared Iolaus's right wrist before he'd fallen far. He'd heard his earlier cry but had assumed that his friend was still afloat in the flood.

He'd only just realised his error and fortunately had the remarkable reflexes to make up for his mistake.

Yelping at the sudden jolt, Iolaus looked up and almost fainted with relief when he saw Hercules's face in the shadows.

Hercules leaned back and in one, smooth over-powering tug, pulled his ally safely up onto the granite slab beside him.

Flexing his stiff, sore right arm, Iolaus grinned with weary gratitude at his relieved friend, " Thanks! But what took you so long? ", he asked with mock exasperation.

Hercules smiled impishly, " I think you better work on your screaming, buddy.", he remarked sardonically.

Iolaus looked up suddenly, catching a glimmer of movement in the dark. The expression on his face struck terror in Hercules's stalwart heart.

He turned and saw another wall of water thundering towards them.

This colossal torrent of water was even larger and more potent than the previous wave, they were trapped directly in its path and this time even the granite outcropping wasn't going to escape its fury.

Great physical strength, iron determination and raw courage helped Hercules and Iolaus struggle against the initial onslaught but both were pushed and dragged inexorably towards the edge.

A huge log like the one Iolaus had used earlier slammed against the granite, was tipped end over end and crashed like a felled tree between the two friends. It landed heavily on Hercules's right leg before being washed over the precipice.

As it fell, it swept Iolaus with it.

Hercules valiantly lunged, trying to save his friend even as he was smothered in a pounding wave and carried, still kicking and fighting, over the edge too.

Iolaus fell through the darkness so fast that he didn't have time to be scared or even to think. With bone-jarring abruptness he left one element and plunged into another. The deep, icy waters of a broad river.

His momentum carried him right to the bottom. Before he could surface, the log that had precipitated his plunge crashed into the water in the exact same place.

It hit Iolaus hard on the side of the head, knocking him unconscious.

The undertow was strong and carried Iolaus's light inert body to the surface quickly.

Hercules hit the water awkwardly and sank to the bottom, severely disoriented and barely conscious. He tried to kick but his right leg hurt too badly.

Relying on his powerful arms, Hercules stroked for the surface.

Soon he was treading water and gasping for oxygen as he tried frantically to locate Iolaus.

There was alot of jetsam drifting in the river and the darkness severely limited his visual range but he persisted.

Swimming to the riverbank, Hercules pulled himself painfully onto a rocky shoreline. He stood up, leaning heavily against a sturdy tree, careful not to put any weight on his painful right leg.

Scouring the river in both directions, Hercules cupped his huge hands around his mouth and called, " Iolaus! ", several times in his loudest voice.

Then, in the fleeting illumination of a lightning flash, his keen eyes caught sight of Iolaus's floating form alittle way downstream.

Grimacing stubbornly, Hercules dove back into the river and soon caught up to his friend. He anxiously turned him over and, even in the dark, immediately discerned the cause of his friend's unresponsive state.

Grasping Iolaus securely in his strong grip, Hercules swam for the shore.

By the time he reached the riverside, Hercules was feeling very faint. His awesome strength began to mysteriously desert him and he had a difficult time pulling himself and his partner out of the water at the same time. Finally, by virtue of pure determination, he collapsed on a grassy portion of the river bank, exhausted and numb with pain.

Despite his weariness and light-headedness, Hercules rolled Iolaus onto his side and kneaded his friend's back vigorously. He was rewarded for his effort when Iolaus coughed, retched violently and then expelled the river water that he'd swallowed. Hercules leaned back and closed his eyes. Satisfied that he'd done all that was possible under the circumstances, he quietly passed out.

Iolaus groaned loudly as he stirred, grimacing at the ache in his head and the nausea it caused. He opened his eyes and rolled onto his back as his right hand investigated the huge lump and nasty gash on his right temple.

He frowned as he noticed Hercules's limp body but he was distracted by the sudden appearance of an elderly centaur.

Iolaus squinted up at the stranger, fighting the churning in his stomach and the pounding in his head, " Who are you? ", he asked weakly.

The elder smiled reassuringly, " My name is Chaeson. My house is just over there. I heard somebody shouting so I came to see what was wrong. It looks as if you and your friend could use some help. "

Iolaus looked again at Hercules and his frown deepened. His mind was a swirling maelstrom of disparate images, thoughts and feelings that made him so dizzy and exasperated that he began to tremble. His obvious distress concerned Chaeson. He had seen such reactions many times before.

He reached down and began to lift Hercules in his strong arms, " I am a healer, friend. Come with me. You're in shock. " he said soothingly, " Don't be alarmed. Everything will be alright. "

Completely bewildered and confused, Iolaus staggered to his feet. He swayed sickeningly but before he could fall, Chaeson moved next to him, saying helpfully, " Lean on me, son. "

Without hesitation Iolaus took his advice, placing one hand on Chaeson's back and clasping the other over his tumultuous stomach.

The venerable centaur smiled and, carrying the unconscious Hercules comfortably in his arms and guiding the extremely unsteady hunter, walked very slowly back to his cabin.

Chaeson laid Hercules on a bed in his modest one room house. Iolaus collapsed in a chair beside the bed, staring at Hercules's damp face and grimacing intensely.

Chaeson collected some fabric, a bowl of water and some short wooden splints. Iolaus watched as he slit the pants on Hercules's right leg and revealed a bloody gaping wound just below the knee. Gagging as acidic bile burned his throat at the gruesome sight, Iolaus turned away, choking.

Chaeson looked at him seriously, " Hold him while I set the bone, friend."

Awkwardly Iolaus held Hercules's massive arms across his broad chest as Chaeson's experienced hands yanked on his leg.

He felt the latent strength in those recumbent arms as Hercules twitched at the subsequent pain. Chaeson nodded, " There, it's realigned. Is he hurt anywhere else?"

Iolaus noted a variety of cuts and bruises all over Hercules's body. When he noticed that he was also just as battered, he muttered in consternation, " What on earth happened to us? "

Chaeson reached out and gently angled Iolaus's head towards the light of a tabletop oil lamp.

He had a very large black bruise just above the hairline of his right temple aswell as a deep, badly bleeding gouge. Altogether a pretty nasty injury but it wasn't the physical damage that worried Chaeson the most, " You don't remember what happened to you?", he asked, gingerly cleaning and bandaging Iolaus's wound.

He noted how Iolaus's eyes seemed sensitive to even the pale lamp light and his simple question seemed to baffle him completely. Chaeson had a fairly good idea why.

" What's your name? "

Iolaus reached up and grasped Chaeson's wrist, stopping his ministrations, " I don't know! ", he replied in a deeply distressed voice.

He looked over at Hercules and shook his head, hissing at the pain it induced, " I don't know who he is either! I can't remember... anything! "

He pressed his hands against his hammering head as his face contorted in pain and agitation. Fear and uncertainty flickered in his poignant azure eyes as Chaeson urged him towards another bed that was kitty-corner with the one Hercules was asleep on, " Don't worry about it, friend. You've had a real good knock on the head. You'd be inhuman if you weren't alittle addled afterwards. Rest for now and perhaps in the morning, your memory will return," he advised gently but firmly.

Iolaus felt sick and had no strength to resist his benefactor's soothing coercion. As he lay down, he looked up at the kind old centaur with genuine gratitude shining in his pain-glazed eyes, " Thank you for your help, Chaeson. Whoever I may be, I'm very grateful. "

Chaeson had just fallen asleep when Hercules awoke with a loud painful moan. He blinked up at the old centaur and asked, " Where am I? Who are you? " Chaeson smiled and held Hercules back as he tried to sit up, " You're in my house, young man. I am Chaeson. Please don't move. Your leg is broken. ", the healer replied succinctly.

Hercules sighed dejectedly as his eyes fell upon his splinted leg, " Just great! "

Then his deep blue eyes darkened in alarm and his expression became frantic, " Iolaus! ", he cried and tried to get up again but Chaeson and his painful leg conspired to restrain him, " My friend is hurt. I've got to find him. ", he insisted fretfully.

Shaking his head, Chaeson pointed to the bed where Iolaus had fallen into a restless, distressed slumber, " Relax, friend. Do you suppose I'd rescue just one of you? Your companion is safe but he isn't well. "

Hercules grimaced as he squirmed up to a sitting position. He sighed with great relief when he saw Iolaus but pursed his lips apprehensively, concerned by his friend's unnatural pallor, " He suffered a very bad blow to the head. Has he been unconscious all night? ", he asked Chaeson.

The aged centaur checked Iolaus's pulse, " He has a severe concussion. He ought to have a fractured skull - or worse - but he seems to be a really tough nut to crack. " He smiled, trying to reassure Hercules with more than words, " Fortunately, your friend is healthy and strong. I think he'll be fine after some rest. "

He went to the fireplace and poured some tea into a cup. He brought it over to Hercules and said, " This is willowbark tea. It'll help lessen the pain in your leg and help reduce your fever. "

Hercules was an expert healer in his own right and accepted the tea graciously. The centaur folded his arms across his chest and asked, " Who are you? "

Hercules frowned, " Didn't Iolaus tell you? " He shrugged and replied, " My name is Hercules and his is Iolaus. We got caught in a flashflood up in the mountains last night. How'd you happen to meet us? "

Chaeson had heard of Hercules naturally. His cousin Chiron had spoken of his famous pupil many, many times.

Their conversation was interrupted as Iolaus suddenly sat bolt upright, clutching his mid-section. Chaeson quickly brought him a bucket and, as they looked on with grave interest, Iolaus was violently ill.

When at last his convulsions ended, he collapsed back on the bed, moaning and writhing in extreme discomfort.

Hercules reached out a long arm and touched his friend's shoulder, " What can I do?"

Their host left to empty the bucket as Iolaus slowly sat up. After swallowing the accompanying nausea and dizziness, he looked at Hercules with troubled blue eyes, " Tell me... who YOU are... who I am? ", he demanded in a plaintive, flustered voice, running fingers through his damp hair in a familiar gesture of agitation, " I don't even know my own name!! ", he cried, wincing at the pervasive ache in his head.

Hercules was thunderstruck by Iolaus's news. He knew what it was like having amnesia since it'd happened to him once before.

He hurried to try to reassure and comfort his distraught partner, " Your name is Iolaus. Mine is Hercules. We're best friends and we're in Thessala. Trust me, my friend, this is just a temporary malady. Your memory WILL return. "

Iolaus touched the lump on his head gingerly. He felt very confused and the immense black void in his mind frightened him. It was like waking up in somebody else's body, in someone else's life, without a clue to tell him who he was.

Even his name didn't sound familiar.

All he knew was that he felt awful, he was scared and he trusted this giant implicitly.

Iolaus took a deep breath and then abruptly changed the subject, " How are you, uh, Hercules?! ", he asked with awkward embarrassment.

Hercules smiled as Chaeson returned, " Well, thanks to Chaeson and you, in alot better shape than I was. "

Rubbing his hands together enthusiastically, Chaeson said, " Since we're all up, let's eat. What would you like for breakfast?"

Iolaus was studying the ebony talisman around his neck curiously but the mention of food sparked an automatic response from him, " As long as it doesn't talk back, I'll eat it. ", he said, immediately frowning at his words.

Hercules burst into delighted laughter. Although his friend's reaction completely escaped him, Iolaus felt a smile breaking out irresistably on his face.

" You might not remember who you are, Iolaus, but your personality sure knows itself. There's no mistaking that humour or that appetite. They're totally you! ", Hercules explained to his astonished ally.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door. Chaeson swung the broad door open and a young man marched into the house.

He hesitated when he saw Hercules and Iolaus but Chaeson allayed his doubts, " Please, come in, your highness. I'd like you to meet my new friends. "

With his right hand, he gestured towards one and then the other as he introduced the newcomer, " Hercules. Iolaus. This is his royal highness, Prince Laelin of Eskander. "

The prince was about Iolaus's height but was slightly heavier than Hercules's svelte ally. He had blazing red hair, a pale complexion plentifully sprinkled with freckles and charismatic green eyes. He was young but carried himself with confidence. A capacious cloak covered his silvery armour and an ornate sword hung at his side but he wore no other regalia to mark his station.

Standing up carefully, Iolaus extended his hand to the prince, " I'm honoured to meet you, your highness. "

Laelin grinned and accepted Iolaus's hand warmly, " I've never seen you around here before, are you just passing through? ", he inquired casually.

Iolaus looked at Hercules for help and his partner replied, " Yes, we're on our way to Amphipolis. We had abit of trouble in the storm last night. That's how we ended up here. "

Laelin patted Chaeson on the shoulder, " My old friend is a good samaritan in the truest sense of the word. I am proud to call him my friend and Eskander is fortunate to have him as its chauncellor. "

The prince's expression abruptly darkened as he said, " Most people appreciate his good deeds but my brother naturally has to be the exception. Actually, that's why I came here today, Chaeson. I really need your medical expertise. Some of my men are injured and require a healer's touch. Please come to the castle. You could even stay until this stupid war is over. "

Iolaus sat down beside Hercules and looked his friend in the eye earnestly, " Why does the thought of fighting excite me? ", he pleaded.

Hercules took a moment to choose his words carefully before replying. When he did answer, both Chaeson and Laelin listened with rapt interest too, " I guess because that's what we do, Iolaus. We fight for those who can't. The enemy being whoever or whatever causes needless suffering and hardship, terrorises or exploits anybody else. "

Hercules's expression was poignant, his words genuinely sincere as he concluded, " You've fought at my side for years, Iolaus. Together, we've done alot of good for alot of people. Too much good for you to forget, dear friend. Your memory will come back, I just know it will. "

Iolaus was pensive for afew moments and then sighed, " I'm sorry. This must be very strange for you, too. ", he said in an apologetic tone, smiling weakly, still somewhat embarrassed by a relationship he could feel was so natural but couldn't remember. His friend smiled in turn, " I know exactly how you feel, Iolaus. If not for you, I would never've regained my memory that time in Castus when Hera caused my amnesia. "

Iolaus's azure eyes widened with enlightenment and he grabbed Hercules's hand excitedly, " Hera! I remember Hera. She's your stepmother, right? "

His eyebrows lifted in amazement as he added, " She's a goddess and you... you're the son of Zeus! "

Hercules slapped Iolaus heartily on the shoulder as he frowned, " Whoa, do I travel in select company or what? "

Shaking his head, Hercules remarked, " See, Iolaus, it'll all come back to you. Meanwhile, it seems your wit and other aspects of your personality aren't affected by your amnesia. THANK GOODNESS ! "

Chaeson had made breakfast during their conversation.

While they all ate, the prince and his chauncellor gave the two friends a synopsis of the political situation in Eskander.Prince Laelin was the rightful heir to the throne of Eskander but his younger brother Daemar was jealous, ambitious, devious and militant.

Laelin had been in the neighbouring kingdom of Edessa on a diplomatic mission when their father King Petrus had suddenly died.

Before he could return to Eskander, Daemar had declared himself king. King Parymus of Edessa had given Laelin some of his own troops and the prince had returned to Eskander to reclaim his throne.

That had been six months ago.

Daemar was still in control but Laelin had garnered quite alot of public support for his cause. Still he wasn't ready to launch a decisive strike against his brother yet.

Laelin disliked warfare. He prefered to rally support with words rather than by the sword. Daemar was just the opposite and he was vindictive. Anyone who supported Laelin was in grave jeopardy from the ill-natured usurper.

Perhaps Daemar could sense his power slipping as Laelin's popularity grew but lately he'd become even more ruthless.

Laelin had been forced into hiding as Daemar's forces scoured the countryside in pursuit of him and all who dared to believe in his right.

Prince Laelin was obviously a very articulate young man but Chaeson was just as obviously very stubborn, " Sire, there are people in Hydraxis who depend on me. I can't let them down. I have to look after them first. When it's dark, I'll come to the castle and look after your men. I'm sorry, but that's the best I can do. ", the elderly chauncellor argued once the meal had been finished and Prince Laelin had pressed his concern for his injured men.

Hercules had eased himself onto the edge of his bed during the meal. Now he motioned for Iolaus to join him, " How are you feeling, my friend? ", he asked, still troubled by Iolaus's uncharacteristically anemic appearance. It bothered him too that his usually voracious ally had only eaten abit of bread and fruit this time.

Iolaus stood before Hercules and said, " I feel alittle queasy but better than before. How about you? ", he asked suspiciously, sensing that his friend had something up his sleeve.

Before he could protest, Hercules reached up and grabbed his shoulder firmly. Leaning heavily on Iolaus, he stood up slowly.

Instinctively Iolaus put a supportive arm around his waist, " What are you doing, Hercules? Are you crazy? You should stay in bed until your leg mends.", he objected but didn't bother to even try to stop his imposing friend.

Chaeson saw by the determined expression on Hercules's face that trying to keep him in bed would be futile. He produced a sturdy crutch instead and Hercules smiled gratefully, " Thanks, Chaeson, this will help alot."

The experienced centaurian healer snorted, " As if I had a choice, young man! Chiron always said you were incredibly headstrong. "

Hercules and Iolaus both looked at him in surprise, " Chiron? You know him? ", Hercules asked while Iolaus frowned intensely, " That name is SO familiar... I just can't remember... ", he muttered, grinding his teeth in frustration.

His head, which hadn't been hurting quite so badly as before, abruptly began to pound again and his stomach lurched portentously.

Hercules felt Iolaus tremble and immediately removed his arm from his friend's shoulder in fresh alarm, " What's wrong, Iolaus?", but even as he asked the question his ally was dashing for the door.

Balancing on his good left leg, Hercules teetered momentarily but Chaeson steadied him. They shook their heads grimly as the sound of Iolaus being violently ill somewhere outside the hut reached their ears.

With Chaeson's aid, Hercules limped to the door, " He should be in bed. A concussion as bad as his can lead to other complications, like cerebral hemorrhaging and even blindness. This nausea isn't good either. If he can't keep food down, he's going to get progressively weaker. ", he said in a tone that rang with genuine concern aswell as guilt for not taking his friend's injury seriously enough until now.

Chaeson smiled faintly, " Look who's talking! In case you haven't noticed, you have a broken leg, Hercules! You shouldn't be on your feet but what force on earth could've kept you in that bed, eh? You and Iolaus are two of a kind. Are you sure you aren't related somehow? "

At the edge of the forest, Iolaus leaned weakly against a tree, trying to ignore the gurgling in his stomach.

His mind was so muddled and confused that it was making him angry. The rush of intense emotion worsened his pain and he fell on his knees, grimacing as a terrible wave of nausea made him shake like a leaf in a gale.

He closed his eyes because the sunshine hurt them and would've fallen over but quick reflexes shot his hand out in the nick of time to brace himself.

Although he now knew his name, Iolaus still couldn't remember much else. All he was certain of was that Hercules was definitely somebody close to him.

That much he felt rather than knew.

It was excruciatingly frustrating. He could see faces but couldn't place them. Names floated around his subconscious but they were like mental confetti, utterly devoid of any meaning to him. The more he tried to remember, the darker his memory grew and the more disoriented he became.

Fortunately some things about himself it seemed he didn't need to remember to know. Everything instinctual seemed unaffected and, as Hercules had already observed, his personality appeared intact, as if nothing had ever happened.

Some impulse compelled him to sit down and cross his legs. Frowning in confusion he did it although he didn't know what he was doing.

It felt so familiar and right that it was irresistable.

He dropped his hands into his lap and began to chant. After a few moments the frown on his face eased and he heaved a tremendous sigh.

Hercules was watching him from the doorway of the hut.

Meditation had become an integral part of Iolaus's mental, emotional and physical well-being. He used it to master his sometimes over-zealous emotions, to focus his thoughts, to sharpen his concentration and intuition - which were already quite considerable intangible qualities of his - and, perhaps most significantly of all, he used his meditative expertise to ease his pain, fatigue or distress.

Even now, when he couldn't even recall Chiron, Iolaus instinctively knew what to do to help himself.

Chaeson touched Hercules's muscular arm and remarked, " My cousin told me that, next to you, he's never had a more astute student than Iolaus. How is my cousin these days, Hercules? "

Leaning against the door-jamb, Hercules folded his great arms across his chest and replied, " He's still living outside Galos and he's still teaching. I believe his latest pupil is young Theseus and, last I heard, Cassius was there, too. "

He looked at the kind-hearted centaur thoughtfully, " Maybe I should go with Prince Laelin, Chaeson. I'm a pretty good healer though I don't get to practice my talents much these days and I'm also good at helping people. If the prince is amenable, so am I. "

Prince Laelin had joined them and now spoke up, " I'd appreciate your assistance very much, Hercules, if you feel up to it. ", he said, laying a hand on each of their shoulders, " Chaeson, must you go into Hydraxis? As Daemar grows more desperate, there's no telling what he may do. If you're not careful, you'll be an easy target for General Bane.", he said in a sincerely worried tone of voice.

Hercules was intrigued, " Who's General Bane?", he asked.

Laelin answered though his expression was fraught with distaste, " My brother has a chauncellor, too, Hercules. His name is Bane. He's a mercenary and there's no more vicious or cruel human in this land! He's easy to recognise because he has a terrible scar on his left cheek and he always wears black. I believe he's behind most of my brother's actions. ", he said bitterly.

Chaeson added, " Some people think he's a fallen general that Ares has resurrected to wrack ruin throughout Eskander. "

Laelin scowled, " Those rumours stem from Bane's total lack of compassion or conscience. I've seen him hurl babies from battlements and laugh while people were burned alive! "

The prince shuddered at the gruesome recollections.

Hercules had encountered his evil brother's hideous cadavers on several occasions. His recent defeat of Ares's immortal protégé Rhynox at Nicrosetti being the latest of these.

If Bane was another of Ares's creations maybe that lighning bolt last night hadn't been an accident? If Ares was on Daemar's side, this war took on a whole different complexion.

The discussion between the three men had broken Iolaus's concentration.

Actually it was the name Ares that'd shattered his meditation. It'd struck a deep-rooted chord of hate and vengeance within Iolaus's heart. Of course he understood that they were talking about some god but he had no recollection of any Ares. Other than an immense, almost obsessive dislike of him.

Suddenly realising that he was restless and bored, Iolaus climbed to his feet and proposed a solution to his tedium and Laelin's anxiety, " If Hercules is going with you, sire, then I'll go with Chaeson. I'm not a healer - atleast I don't think that I am? - but I can help in other ways. "

It was Hercules's turn to object, " Iolaus, you should be in bed resting not volunteering. "

His partner smiled, " I feel fine now, Hercules. This fresh air has done me a world of good. I need some activity to go with it. Besides, Chaeson has been very good to us. I'd like to do something in return. "

He folded his arms across his chest in a good imitation of his burly friend, " If you can pretend not to have a broken leg then I can pretend not to be hurt, either. ", he said petulantly, mischief sparkling in his azure eyes.

Chaeson looked at Prince Laelin and laughed, " I swear these two are brothers. How can two people be so alike yet not be related? "

The prince tried to hide his smile as he said, " Iolaus, your gallant offer is graciously accepted. "

He unfastened the splendid sword from his belt and gave it to Iolaus, " My father and his brother, Prince Cyracus, had identical, unique weapons, given to them by their father. On my eighteenth birthday, my father gave his sword to me and my uncle gave his to my cousin. I have a feeling that you know how to use it better than most. "

The look of a little boy in a candy store filled Iolaus's face as he removed the shining sword from its scabbard and admired it, " This IS a beautiful weapon, your highness. I'll take good care of it... "

With an obvious natural skill, Iolaus manipulated the gleaming sword as he tested its mettle. His expression was that of a very satisfied swordsman as he replaced the sword, " ...Aswell as your chauncellor. ", he vowed.

Then he frowned slightly, " How did you know...?", he inquired, searching the faces of all three of his friends.

Prince Laelin smiled indulgently as he tried to satisfy Iolaus's curiosity, " Eskander may be in the heart of Thessala but we're not as isolated as those down south seem to believe. We've heard all about the legendary Hercules and his great adventures. Since you're Hercules's partner and ally, it stands to reason that we've heard of you too, Iolaus. "

Chaeson retrieved a cart from his barn and helped Prince Laelin hitch his horse to it.

As Hercules settled down in the back of the cart, Iolaus said awkwardly, " Be careful, okay? ", smiling and frowning at the same time. He didn't know why he was concerned about his friend but it seemed very normal somehow, " You're all the memory I have right now. Without you, I'm nobody. "

Hercules tapped Iolaus playfully on the shoulder and smiled confidently, " That you'll never be, Iolaus. Try to stay out of trouble for once. I'll meet you back here at sunset, alright? "

Iolaus nodded reluctantly as the prince and Hercules headed for his castle. He watched the cart disappear into the forest and barely suppressed the urge to run after it. He wasn't sure whether his apprehension was for Hercules or for himself.

Chaeson cleared his throat noisily, " We better get going, Iolaus. Hydraxis isn't far but I've got alot of work to do there. "

Shaking his head in bemused irritation, Iolaus remarked, " Why do I have the feeling this is going to be a really long day? "

Compared to the night before it was an especially beautiful morning. The sun was still low in the east and ghostly mists still hung amidst the tall, stately trees as Hercules and Prince Laelin rolled sedately towards his castle. It was very quiet as the cart rumbled along the bumpy forest road and neither seemed eager to impose on such rare tranquillity.

Hercules untied the thongs and removed the splint from his leg. Already he could feel strength returning to his traumatised limb though he knew he wasn't quite cured yet. Thanks to his birthright, Hercules had a miraculous immune system that mended or remedied any and all inflictions he suffered in an amazingly brief period of time. In another day or two he'd be as good as new.

Prince Laelin glanced over his shoulder and saw Hercules using the thin leather laces Chaeson had used to secure the splint to tie his torn pants leg together.

Smiling indulgently to himself, the prince asked quietly, " How'd you and Chaeson meet, Hercules? "

Sitting back, satisfied with his efforts, Hercules frowned and shrugged, " Actually, I have no idea, sire. The last thing I remember is dragging Iolaus and my sorry self out of the river. Next thing I know, we're in Chaeson's place. " He tapped two of the short splices of wood together thoughtfully and continued, " One good turn deserves another. Chaeson helped us. Now I'm helping you. Perhaps you can pass alittle of it on in some way yourself, sire? "

Prince Laelin sighed, " Believe me, Hercules, I've been trying to do just that for six months or more. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only man in Eskander who stands between my brother's dark ambitions and the welfare of our people. In his thirst for power and glory, Daemar has been blind and indifferent to the hardship and suffering his drive for domination has caused the very people he seeks to govern. "

Hercules was moved by the fervour in the young prince's voice. As he spoke the prince's body language conveyed his abject weariness at bearing such an overwhelming burden.

The demigod reached up and laid a supportive hand on Laelin's shoulder, " You are a good man, your highness, and your cause is just. In the end, you'll prevail and when you do, you'll appreciate what you've accomplished all the more because of the struggle now. "

Laelin's lips trembled with unbidden emotion at Hercules's gestures of support. It'd been a very long time since he'd had any kind of personal encouragement. If not for Chaeson's gruff advice and friendship, Laelin sometimes wondered whether he would've had the will to go on.

He didn't care about being king. All he wanted was to stop his militant sibling from destroying other peoples's lives.

Clearing his throat and collecting his composure, Laelin replied, " I know that you speak from experience, Hercules, and I pray that your optimism is justified but... ", he shook his head in despair, " Every day that my brother rules, Eskander is diminished alittle more. I fear that, by the time this conflict is over, one way or another, there'll be nothing or nobody left. "

The young Eskandian prince reminded Hercules of his nephew Vespasian. They were both young and idealistic yet thoroughly reasonable and mature beyond their years. Hercules was fond of his nephew and the more he got to know Laelin, the better he liked him too.

" I know it's hard when so much depends on you but don't lose heart now, Laelin. You're not alone. Chaeson is on your side and, if you consider a pair of virtual invalids to be of any help, then Iolaus and I are with you too. ", Hercules commented, instilling as much spirit as he could in his voice.

Prince Laelin smiled broadly, " I appreciate your intentions, Hercules, but haven't you had enough problems on your journey already without getting caught up in my troubles too? ", he asked.

Hercules's bright blue eyes shone as he laughed, " As Iolaus would say, we do trouble and we do it well! "

The peace was shattered by a loud commotion up ahead.

Intrigued by the vociferous shouting, Hercules grasped the cart rail and arduously transplanted himself from the back of the cart onto the driver's seat next to the prince.

Swathed in the dappled shadows of early morning up ahead was a large wagon. It'd lost one of its wheels and four disgruntled men were standing in the middle of the road arguing vehemently over how to fix it.

As the cart approached, two of the men turned away from their dispute and stared at the newcomers with hostility.

Prince Laelin scowled irritably back at them.

Hercules's attention had drifted from the wagon and its noisy proprietors to a group of people barely visible in the deeper shadows that lined the road.

Outrage and anger turned Hercules's cerulean blue eyes to indigo as they fell upon the shackles that dangled from those peoples's wrists and ankles, " Prince Laelin, do you condone slavery in Eskander?", he demanded as the cart lurched to a halt.

The prince turned from the two men in the road and soon found the reason for Hercules's inquiry. His expression darkened as Hercules eased himself down from the cart, " Slavery is outlawed in Eskander. ", he replied angrily.

He sprang from the cart himself and confronted the belligerent slavers, " You're breaking the law, cretins. All forms of slavery or bondage are forbidden in Eskander and it doesn't matter whether you're from here or not. This road will not be used to transport slaves to or from anywhere! ", he raged in a loud voice.

His tirade attracted the other two miscreants just as he'd intended. While Laelin supplied the distraction, Hercules limped over to the forlorn pack of apprehensive people.

The barbaric shackles snapped and crumbled as Hercules quickly and as quietly as possible began to release the prisoners.

Laelin scrutinised the four men as they glared at him unrepentedly. Fighting was the very last thing Laelin wanted to do, now or ever.

However he wasn't adverse to employing the arts of intimidation and bravado when necessary.

He drew a gleaming, long bladed silver dagger as his green eyes flashed with rancour, " The penalty for this violation of Eskandian law is castration. Who'd like to be first? ", he said with the appropriate menace.

The slavers backed away but didn't flee. Instead they drew knives and daggers of their own, creating a stand-off.

Hercules broke the last shackle. Smiling at the dumbfounded people who surrounded him, he smiled and said quietly, " You're free to go wherever you want now. Have a happy rest of your lives, friends. Excuse me."

As he hobbled back towards the cart, one of the slavers saw him and then saw what he'd done. With an enraged bellow, he hefted his dagger and sprang at Hercules.

The other three attacked Laelin.

Brandishing Chaeson's sturdy crutch for a weapon, Hercules rammed it into the mid-section of his assailant. As he doubled over, Hercules brought the staff down on his head for the finishing blow.

Smiling faintly with satisfaction, Hercules moved as quickly as he could to Laelin's aid.

The prince side-stepped one of the enemy, giving him a good shove as he charged by, thereby propelling him headlong into some thickets off the side of the road.

Laelin then parried a dagger thrust from a second foe but the third slaver never completed his intended blow.

Hercules's gigantic hand firmly grasped the malcontent by the scruff of the neck and lifted him off of his feet. His other hand seized the slaver's arm and then Hercules tossed him vigorously into the air. His terrified scream was cut short as he collided with the disabled wagon.

Hercules looked back in time to see Laelin knock his opponent to the ground with a solid uppercut.

The prince grimaced as he shook his hand painfully.

Hercules grinned, " It only hurts the first couple of times, sire. "

Laelin laughed and heaved a sigh, " I'll take your word for it, Hercules. "

Now that the men who'd incarcerated them were no longer a threat, some of the erstwhile slaves's thoughts turned to revenge.

When Hercules saw a former slave pick up a fallen dagger and approach one of the dazed slavers, he reacted swiftly, " Don't do something you'll regret, friend. They're far from virtuous but their lives are just as precious as your own. Revenge may be sweet but it leaves a very bitter aftertaste that'll never go away. ", he remarked passionately.

The man hesitated, " Because of these guys entire families have been destroyed and many lives have been ruined. They've caused pain and anguish for alot of innocent, decent folk. They deserve to be punished. ", he argued emotionally.

Prince Laelin took a deep breath and tried to reason with him, " Trust me, my friend, these fools will suffer the consequences of their actions. If you kill that man, you become just as bad as he is. Please, don't do that to yourself. "

His calm, rational words augmented Hercules's compelling argument and, together with his deeds, proved overwhelmingly persuasive.

The four slave peddlars were spared.

Prince Laelin put away his dagger and addressed the ragtag band of disoriented, bewildered people, " You're free now but freedom is a very big responsibility. You need a good meal and a safe place in which to consider your future. My castle isn't far from here. You're welcome to come with us if you want. "

Prince Laelin and Hercules put as many of the people as possible aboard the cart before climbing up onto the driver's seat themselves.

Trevallis, Prince Laelin's castle, was built upon a hill in the middle of the forest. For several hundred yards all around the imposing, stout-looking fortress there was an open swatch of terrain. A no-man's-land that no enemy could cross without being detected. The road that Hercules and Prince Laelin had followed through the forest split in two and wended its way along the periphery of the roughly circular treeless zone. Behind the castle it joined up with itself and disappeared into the forests again.

Prince Laelin paused warily in the shade of the forest fringe and Hercules's immaculate sixth sense prompted him to remark, " There are unfriendly eyes on your castle, highness. "

He climbed down from the cart and peered more closely into the shadows of the woodlands on their left.

The brilliant noon-day sun glinted off of polished helmets and cold steel, betraying the enemy's position to the sharp eyes of Hercules.

Prince Laelin swore softly under his breath as he spotted another covert enemy detachment on the right.

So much for Trevallis being a secret.

Laelin worried as he looked back at the impatient group of ex-slaves. Perhaps it hadn't been such a great idea afterall to bring civilians to a military installation. While he and his soldiers might be prepared for a siege or an assault, these poor people weren't.

He felt it was only fair to explain the situation so everybody knew exactly what to expect, " Prince Daemar has men lying in wait on the left and right of our approach to Trevallis. They don't know we're here, yet, though. With the element of surprise and alot of luck, we can probably make it to the castle safely. ", he said calmly.

Hercules stood beside him in silent support as he got to the point of his speech, " Trevallis is going to become the eye of a very violent storm really soon. Daemar is probably on his way with his army even as I speak. If not by nightfall, then certainly by dawn, this forest will be echoing with the sounds of battle. "

Prince Laelin's expression transmitted his almost palpable distaste for the inevitable. All the skirmishes and raids that he'd already been forced to fight on his quest to reclaim his throne had only deepened his strong revulsion for war-fare. Fighting a pitched battle was not something he was looking forward to for in his heart, he still hoped to resolve this conflict with his brother in a peaceful way. Despite the fact that Daemar had given every indication that peace was the last thing on his mind.

Hercules knew that look of mixed emotion well and patted Laelin fraternally on the shoulder.

Brother fighting brother was by its very nature always a particularly difficult, heart-wrenching dilemma. Hercules could certainly empathesize with Laelin for he'd been embroiled in similar conflicts on more than one occasion himself.

Prince Laelin smiled gratefully at him as he continued, " So, before committing yourselves to perhaps a fatal choice, take a moment to consider. There's a village, Hydraxis, about two hours north-east of here where you'll be safe. My friend Hercules will escort any of you who wishes to go there. "

Hercules's eyebrows lifted in surprise and confusion, " What? I thought you needed help?", he stammered but Prince Laelin interrupted him, shaking his head impatiently, " That was before this development, my friend. I don't want you to lose your life on my behalf. There's already been too many deaths in this stupid war. "

Hercules's expression became one of passive defiance as his eyes darkened to indigo, " I didn't come all this way just to turn around again within sight of our destination. I think perhaps you're conceding defeat alittle prematurely, sire. "

Prince Laelin lost his temper, " Is that so? Well, perhaps this whole bloody war is nothing but one massive defeat for the people of Eskander, Hercules! For six months I've tried to stop Daemar from turning our kingdom into a slaughter yard but the killing just goes on and on. Maybe if Daemar wins, it'll stop! "

His voice had started out strong with emotion but ended weakly as Laelin's spirits sank beneath his despair.

Despite what he'd said, Laelin didn't believe that his brother would ever stop killing. The only way to stop the bloodshed was to stop Daemar.

One of the former slaves stepped forward just then and said, " Your highness, we've talked over the matter and we've all decided unanimously to join you in Trevallis. We'd rather die in support of a good man than live in fear of a bad one like your brother."

Hercules smiled broadly, winking conspiratorially at the group's spokesman. The man nodded in return and asked, " So what're we waiting for? "

Prince Laelin was still rather stunned by this unexpected endorsement.

As he hesitated, Hercules jumped into the gap, " There are too many enemies at the moment. I'm going to try to improve our odds. When you see me, that'll be your cue to break for the castle, okay? "

He turned to leave but Prince Laelin held him back anxiously, " Hercules, you can't do this?! "

Hercules looked at the prince intensely and Laelin removed his hand with a sigh of resignation, " You'll be surprised by what I can do, your highness. Be ready! ", Hercules remarked tersely and then slipped into the sheltering forest.

For several moments after Hercules's departure the prince paced in agitation before gesturing to the man who had spoken to him earlier, " What's your name, my friend?", Laelin asked, with a disarming smile.

The man replied, " My name is Thadeus, your highness. "

Prince Laelin put an arm around his shoulder and said, " Thadeus, I'm going to take care of that other nest of rats. I need you to keep watch for Hercules's signal and then to get these people to the castle as quickly as possible. Can I rely on you? "

Thadeus nodded without hesitation and Prince Laelin was delighted, " Thank you, my friend. Keep your eyes peeled and good luck! "

Without a backwards glance Prince Laelin vanished into the forest too.

Thadeus heaved a great sigh and crept to the edge of the forest where he had an unobstructed view of both enemy positions.

Hercules traversed the forest with caution. His broken leg protested vehemently against so much activity but he set his jaw and ignored it. He moved slowly yet silently despite his handicap and was soon pressed against a mighty tree, taking stock of the enemy afew yards ahead.

There were only six soldiers skulking in the leafy shade. Hercules hefted Chaeson's crutch in his powerful hands and stepped around the bole of the tree into the open. A twig snapped beneath his foot and the enemy turned away from their observations.

Smiling faintly, Hercules remarked, " You guys need a refresher course in camouflage. I spotted you a mile away. "

His startled opponents weren't in the mood to be critiquéd. One after another, they charged at him.

Planting his feet a comfortable space apart, Hercules met the onslaught without trepidation. He was able to bat and hammer the first two soldiers out of commission with the crutch but when Hercules tried a flying kick at the third trooper, his injured leg couldn't bear the strain.

He crashed to the ground, grimacing in pain and chagrin, annoyed by his limitations. He rolled onto his back and held off the third and fourth soldiers with his feet until he could dispose of them with the crutch.

Then he climbed to his feet and sent the fifth soldier flying with a devastating backhanded blow.

A spear came soaring through the dimness but Hercules saw it at the last second. He spun out of its path although it knocked the crutch out of his grasp before sinking with a loud thunk into one of the trees.

Hercules staggered, fighting to keep his balance as his injured leg began to weaken in earnest. He steadied himself against a reassuringly solid tree, pausing to catch his breath and search the shadows for the last soldier who'd taken cover.

Slowly Hercules moved towards the fringe of the forest. Just as he was about to step out into the open, the sixth soldier raised a bow and fired. Hercules heard the trademark thwanging sound of a bowstring being released.

He skipped aside and caught the arrow as it was speeding past.

Holding it by the feather-flight, he flicked his wrist and sent it back towards its point of origin. The arrow whirled end-over-end with incredible speed, finally lodging with a resounding twang in the tree behind which the archer knelt, preparing to fire yet again.

He was distracted by the boomeranging arrow and lost his concentration momentarily.

Though he had an arrow poised to fly, Hercules's great fist grabbed him gruffly before he could fire it.

With relish Hercules knocked the archer's head against the tree. He slumped to the ground and Hercules stood back, grimacing painfully but satisfied with his efforts.

He quickly turned his back on the shady battle scene and stumbled triumphantly out into the open.

Waving his great arms over his head, Hercules yelled loudly, " Go for it! The coast is clear! Run! "

Even before he'd finished shouting, clusters of two or three people at a time began to race towards the castle.

Hercules shuffled towards them as fast as he could, puzzled that there was no threat coming from the opposite enemy encampment.

As he reached the dirt track that lead to the castle, his frown changed to a wide grin as Prince Laelin dashed out of the trees towards him.

As the young prince reached Hercules, the sound of charging horses caught their attention.

Out of the same gap in the forest where their group of refugees had been waiting moments earlier, thundered a troop of Daemar's cavalry.

Laelin pushed at Hercules to bolt but he could barely walk let alone run. Ducking under his arm, Laelin lent him support and mobility as they tried to out- run the charging enemy horses.

The gates of Trevallis creaked open and the fleeing people dashed inside.

Daemar's cavalry abruptly aborted their charge half-way across the buffer zone as a hail of deadly arrows covered Laelin and Hercules's retreat.

With one last glance at the frustrated enemy, they slipped inside the castle and the gates slammed shut behind them.

Prince Laelin extricated himself as Hercules collapsed wearily on a set of stone steps, gasping for air.

The prince was greeted with relief by his officers.

While they monopolised the prince's attention, Hercules began to explore the castle confines.

It was a spacious castle and there were quite afew people within its thick, sheltering walls. In the middle of the compound was a large, square four-storey tower; undoubtedly the prince's quarters.

He was trying to locate the castle infirmary when Prince Laelin called to him, " Hercules! There you are. I was wondering where you'd disappeared to so quickly. Are you alright? "

He nodded as the prince indicated the tower, " Before you start your mission of mercy, Hercules, I'd like to talk to you. Please come with me to the audience chamber where we can be alittle more comfortable. ", Laelin said, holding the door open for him.

Hercules acquiesced politely and lead the way into the unfamiliar interior.

The prince's audience chamber was a fairly good sized room, sparsely furnished but functional.

Laelin ushered Hercules to a chair on his right-hand side at a large solid oak table.

The prince sat at the head of the long, oblong table and his officers sat beside and across from Hercules.

On the walls hung various maps and charts. They didn't interest Hercules much but he knew his ally would've found such things fascinating.

He very rarely found himself in a military situation without Iolaus. However, he'd never realised just how much he'd come to rely upon his partner's combat experience and military expertise until now.

Prince Laelin stood up and smiled proudly at Hercules, " My friends and allies, it is my great privilege and honour to introduce you to the world's greatest hero, Hercules! "

The prince seemed amused by Hercules's embarrassment but continued without commenting on his healthy blush, " He is not here to fight, however. This is not his war, afterall. He is here to look after the wounded and when he has done so, he will be leaving. "

One of Laelin's officers spoke up, " How will he leave, your highness, if Trevallis is surrounded by the enemy? "

Prince Laelin met Hercules's own inquiring eyes and his expression became solemn, " After dark, Hercules will be escorting all of the wounded out of Trevallis. Even my brother will not harass a wagon full of sick and injured people. "

Hercules was watching the young prince very closely. He caught a glimmer of cool slyness in his emerald eyes and was not surprised when Laelin sat down and spoke to him very directly, " Hercules, I have a favour to ask of you. Please hear me out before making a decision, okay?", the prince asked without guile.

Hercules nodded, " I promise to listen to anything you have to say, your highness. ", he said earnestly.

Laelin smiled with pleasure and stood up again as he began to speak, " You see, my good friend, I have been somewhat misleading. Trevallis is my headquarters but it isn't my only camp. Not far away, across the river, both my cavalry and chariot forces under the adept command of General Beldorian anxiously await my command. Meanwhile to the south-east, perfectly hidden in these gloriously dense forests, lie the camps where my infantry and archers also wait, commanded by General Rhendos. All of them are within hours of Trevallis... "

As he spoke, the prince paced around the room, " Daemar is the prey. This castle and I are the bait. Beldorian and Rhendos are the hunters... "

Hercules listened and followed his words with total comprehension. As the prince paused, he smiled sagaciously and finished for him, " Your problem is that your brother took the bait alot sooner than you'd planned. Nobody can get into Trevallis without being spotted thanks to that buffer zone but now nobody can get OUT either. How exactly do you get word to your 'hunters' that the snare has already been sprung? ", Hercules asked rhetorically, " I've met alot of military geniuses, your highness, and this plan of yours, if it works, ranks right up there with anything they could've devised. It's brilliant! ", he said with sincerity.

Prince Laelin was standing before a window and said in a very reflective tone, " My father was a great warrior, Hercules. When he laid down his sword, he became an even greater king. I think that's where Daemar gets his aggressiveness although he does tend to take it to extremes. All I want is for the fires of war to be replaced by the beacons of peace. "

He turned and, in the sunlight streaming through the window behind him, the prince seemed endowed with an otherworldly presence as he asked simply, " Hercules, will you leave with the wounded tonight and get word to my generals? "

Hercules walked over to the young prince, " How far is the nearest base and how do I convince them that I'm your courier?", he asked, in a roundabout way of answering Laelin's question.

A great weight seemed to have been lifted off Laelin's shoulders as he removed a ring and offered it to Hercules, " This ring has been in my family for generations. Both Beldorian and Rhendos know it well. "

He moved swiftly to one of the maps on the wall and pointed to a large red mark, " This is Trevallis. ", he explained as Hercules joined him. Laelin tapped his finger on another mark, " This is Beldorian's camp, Hercules. It's about twenty miles north-west of Trevallis. "

An expression of misgiving crossed the prince's face and Hercules was intrigued, " What's wrong, your highness? "

Laelin sighed and looked frankly at him, " It's just... I think perhaps I'm asking too much, my friend. You're hurt and these forests are vast and dangerous, alive with many wild beasts, rebels and outlaws."

Hercules crossed his massive arms on his broad chest, " I appreciate your concern, Laelin, but I think that I can survive a trip through the forest at night. It's not as if I've never done anything like this before, you know? ", he remarked with supreme confidence.

He flexed his leg, " As for being hurt; alittle pain has never stopped me from doing the right thing. Helping you put an end to a senseless war is definitely the right thing. ", he said, determination shining in his cerulean eyes.

Prince Laelin heaved a great sigh of relief before changing the subject, " I'll take you to the hospice now, my friend. "

Hercules was about to suggest that he could find the place on his own when one of Laelin's officers interrupted, " Excuse me, sire, it'd be my honour to take Hercules to our infirmary, if you don't mind. I know how busy you are... ", the man said in a concise, non-emotional tone.

Prince Laelin nodded and introduced Hercules to his castellan Marselis, " You're right, Marselis, I do have alot of details to discuss with the others. Please accompany Hercules to the infirmary and make sure he has everything he asks for, understand? "

Marselis bowed respectfully and, as he lead Hercules away, Prince Laelin said, " Thank you for everything, Hercules. I'll see you in alittle while. Have a good day. "

Hercules waved good-bye and followed Marselis out of the tower.

The hospice was located in one of the castle's corner turrets. It was packed with about two dozen wounded soldiers and nearly a dozen civilian casualties.

He set to work immediately and didn't even notice Marselis leave until he returned in the company of several of the refugees. Hercules soon had all four volunteers hard at work.

In the back of his mind he was recapping the events and conversations of the day, assessing the significance of certain things. Overall he was pleased with how things had progressed so far.

The only thing he regretted was not having his partner by his side.

Iolaus would've been a great help now and his woodlore would be an even greater asset tonight.

As he wrapped a bandage around a soldier's head, Hercules frowned.

What would Iolaus do when he didn't show up for their rendez-vous?

He wiped sweat from his face and decided that somehow he'd have to meet him as planned.

Because if he didn't, Iolaus would come looking for him. Knowing his ally's unerring penchant for trouble, Hercules didn't want him anywhere near this pending war-zone.

As Iolaus soon discovered, it was indeed going to be a very long and busy day. There were people lined up outside the hut that Chaeson used as his clinic long before they arrived.

At first Iolaus was hesitant to help Chaeson but, as he applied some salve to soothe a little girl's heat-rash, he smiled at how vaguely familiar it felt to help.

The elder healer saw the half-smile on his assistant's face and the perplexed sparkle in his blue-blue eyes, " Perhaps this'll help jog your memory, Iolaus. I know for a fact that you've studied medicine with Hercules aswell as with Chiron and even Asclepius. ", he said, trying to encourage him.

Iolaus laughed as he tickled the little girl before she ran giggling to her mother.

As he motioned for the next person to approach, he replied in a wistful voice, " I hope you're right, Chaeson. I sense that this is something I've done before... How can I forget such important things? "

While he spoke, Iolaus expertly diagnosed his new patient's malady and took the proper steps to treat it. He looked up and saw that Chaeson was watching him, " What? ", he demanded, instantly doubting his actions, " That was the right dose, wasn't it? "

The centaur nodded, " Relax, your treatment was perfect, Iolaus. You knew exactly what to do. It seems that knowledge isn't entirely dependant on memory, is it? "

Iolaus drew a long, shuddering breath and remarked sardonically, " Great! I know what to do. I just don't know HOW or WHY I know what to do! "

They worked for hours without a break, treating the sick and injured from all walks of life.

Around noon, Iolaus couldn't suppress his restlessness any longer and went for a walk around the village. Ambling down the streets, he found himself assailed by tantalising, evocative flashes of maddeningly obscure memories.

Voices... some seductive, some threatening, some terrified, some even terrifying... all just mysterious echoes...

Objects... all kinds of weapons, cryptic emblems, precious gems, scattered fragments significant enough to be scored indelibly on his memory yet... forgotten...

Smells... fragrant, asphyxiatingly foul, intoxicating, maddening ephemeral traces...

Faces... stunningly beautiful, hideously ugly, handsome, young, aged, innocent, evil, human, inhuman... precious, hated strangers...

Feelings... good, bad, intense, earnest, soul-shaking, heart-breaking, nerve-shattering, mind-blowing, faith-affirming, breath-taking... totally screwed up pangs of passion...

All jumbled together in an agonising, exasperating kaleidoscope that still made no sense to him.

In his thoroughly preoccupied state of mind, Iolaus nearly collided with a soldier as he crossed the village's central square.

Jolted back to reality, he paused in consternation as five more soldiers marched into the square. All six of the soldiers carried lighted torches.

In broad daylight?

Iolaus's curiosity was aroused.

Behind the soldiers rode a black-clad officer who was made even more ominous by the gruesome helmet and face-guard that he wore.

Iolaus got an instant bad feeling about this.

The soldiers spread out as villagers fled in fear and scrambled into hiding. Within minutes the square was almost deserted.

In an harsh, arrogant voice the mounted officer shouted, " By command of his majesty, King Daemar, the centaur known as Chaeson is to be arrested for treason! As chauncellor of Eskander, I am here to strongly advise you, peope of Hydraxis, to surrender him to me within the next five minutes. If not, this village will be burned to the ground as punishment! "

There was an awkward lull. Iolaus found himself alittle disheartened when not one of the villagers came forward to object to such intimidation.

So this was the infamous General Bane. He certainly dressed the part. Neither his cold, despotic words nor his sinister appearance impressed Iolaus though.

Almost to his own surprise Iolaus spoke up, " I'm guessing your 'king' isn't big on public relations, right? "

His insolence, as always, made an immediate impression. General Bane inclined his masked face in Iolaus's direction, " I advise you to keep out of affairs that don't concern you, stranger.", he snapped brusquely, " Or you may wind up with more than a bandage on your head. "

Iolaus had folded his arms across his chest and was glaring at the surly general with rebellious azure eyes. He shook his head as his eyes darkened to cobalt, " I'd rather have a bandage on my head than a bucket like you have on yours. ", he retorted crossly, " Instead of giving advice, perhaps it's time you took some for a change. "

Trying to inject any common sense into this situation seemed doomed to failure but he tried nonetheless, prepared for the worse yet hoping for the best.

In a calm voice that still managed to convey his impudence, Iolaus said, " I mean, just who're you trying to kid? Everybody knows who you are, Bane! They can tell from the smell at a dozen paces! Pew! I strongly advise YOU to recall your men before this goes too far. Chaeson isn't here. "

Though he couldn't see the general's face, Iolaus could see his eyes. He had a very disquieting feeling that he'd seen cold, ruthless, quasi-human eyes like those far too many times.

He was unsurprised when Bane laughed humourlessly and snarled, " Your words may be bold but they're a waste of breath. What the king commands, I intend to do."

The general drew his sword and pointed it menacingly at him, " Now, where is the centaur? "

When he had to be Iolaus could be a very convincing actor. He needed a distraction and called upon his innate ingenuity to create it.

A look of alarm filled his face and Iolaus started, crying anxiously, " No! Chaeson, get out of here! ", with just the right touch of panic to be totally believable.

As Bane turned to look behind him, Iolaus broke into a power-packed sprint. There was just one way to neutralise this kind of threat now asfar as he could see.

Leaping into the air, he tackled the chauncellor from his horse. They crashed to the ground on the other side of the animal. Iolaus sprang to his feet with Laelin's stunning sword in his hands and knocked the general's sword flying with a sharp, pirouette kick. Then he grabbed the grim helmet aggressively and yanked it off of Bane's head.

Taking a firm hold of the general's hair, he rammed a knee into his back and placed the keen blade of his sword against his throat.

In a deadly serious tone Iolaus shouted to the dumbfounded soldiers, " Drop those torches or your leader dies! "

They hesitated but didn't obey.

Iolaus pressed the blade more emphatically against Bane's wind-pipe and grated in his ear, " Call off your firebugs or you are dead! "

The general grudgingly barked, " Put the torches down! "

Iolaus was immensely relieved when the firebrands were thrown in the dirt. He released Bane and slowly backed away, keeping his sword poised and dividing his attention between his erstwhile victim and the soldiers.

Bane quickly climbed to his feet and glared at him malevolently, " It's YOU who are dead, fool! Why do you risk your life for a paltry village? ", he demanded haughtily, " You must be some kind of centaur-loving nut? "

Iolaus saw why the man wore a face-guard now very clearly. A pale jagged scar disfigured his left cheek from the corner of his eye to the edge of his twisted mouth. It wasn't the man's facial deformity, however, that sparked Iolaus's instant, intense dislike of him. It was something inexpressable in those dark, predatory eyes that made his blood run cold.

Raising his sword in readiness as the soldiers encroached but not taking his eyes off of their leader, Iolaus replied tersely, " I have my reasons! "

He whirled Laelin's sword in his adept hands, wondering whether the distinctive weapon would be recognised by one of the prince's most prominent enemies. He saw the general's evil eyes narrow almost imperceptibly and grinned grimly, " His highness, Prince Laelin, sends his sincerest regards, general!", he shouted.

Two of the soldiers were now within striking range and Iolaus exploded into action.

In a whirlwind of aggressive sword blows, powerful kicks and robust punches, Iolaus's acrobatic and energetic combat style easily disposed of the pair.

Without hesitation he moved on to the third. With his free hand, Iolaus reached out and grasped the soldier's wrist. He twisted it ruthlessly, forcing the soldier to drop his sword. Then he stepped aside, spun and flipped his opponent onto his back, all in one smooth motion.

As he stepped away from the inert man, the fourth and fifth soldiers charged at him from opposite directions. He waited until the last moment before somersaulting out of their path. Rolling to his feet, Iolaus wheeled just as they collided with one another. He reached out, knocking their dazed heads together solidly, and they collapsed in a tangled heap.

Iolaus whirled in time to block the sword thrust of the last soldier. As they grappled, Iolaus brought his knee up and rammed it into his rival's abdomen. That broke their clinch and drove the soldier back a step or two.

As Bane climbed back onto his horse, the animal reared. That act caught Iolaus's eye and seemed to mesmerise him for an instant.

In his mind's eye he saw a horse rearing... then felt a disconcerting sense of falling... before his memory went blank again.

His preoccupation gave his foe time to recover and retaliate.

Chaeson, watching the battle from the clinic entrance with a mixture of concern and admiration, saw Iolaus suddenly falter and called to him in alarm, " Iolaus! Look out! "

His warning didn't quite get Iolaus's attention but it made the scar-faced general smirk.

His opponent tackled Iolaus vigorously to the ground. They rolled in the dust until Iolaus was able to get his powerful legs between himself and his rival. Then he kicked hard and drove the soldier flying backwards while he scrambled to his feet.

As Iolaus advanced on his winded foe, Bane spurred his horse forward, straight at him. The thunder of the horse's hooves and another frantic cry of alarm from Chaeson alerted Iolaus to the danger but he had little time to react.

He tried to spin out of the way, planning to block Bane's blow with Laelin's sword, but the general swerved at the last moment. The great war-horse brushed against Iolaus and sent him flying through the air.

His bandage fell in the dirt as Iolaus hit the ground very hard, knocking the wind out of him. Gasping, he pushed himself stubbornly to his knees but fell over dizzily, blinking as blood from his aggravated wound dribbled into his right eye and trickled down his damp, ashen face.

He looked up, momentarily dazed but with enough presence of mind to raise his sword as Bane cantered towards him.

The general glared down at him, " Give it up, stranger. You're wounded and out-numbered. There's no way you can win this fight. "

Even as Bane spoke, Iolaus wiped the blood away from his eye with the back of his hand and staggered to his feet.

He kept his intense cobalt eyes locked on the general but didn't fail to notice the other soldiers closing in from all directions.

Although he was feeling very weak and his head was pounding so loudly he could hardly think or see clearly, the thought of surrender never crossed Iolaus's muddled mind, " I'm not finished yet! ", he proclaimed defiantly.

In a blinding, perfectly executed spin Iolaus let fly the silver dagger that he'd held in reserve for just such an opportunity.

Before his deadly glittering projectile even struck the unlucky soldier who'd been creeping up behind him, Iolaus had already crossed blades with the next closest soldier.

Despite his growing exhaustion and a peculiar, pervasive sense of urgency, Iolaus moved with plenty of power and precision. His earlier exhibition had been impressive but now there was an edge to his actions as the fully aroused warrior within took over.

While he was engaged with his immediate opponent, the blades of two other soldiers sliced through the air towards him. Iolaus lashed out behind him with his right leg and pre-empted one of the blows, catching the soldier in the mid-section with his foot. Then he brought the same leg up to catch another rival in the abdomen with his knee. As that soldier doubled over, Iolaus drove the hilt of Laelin's sword backwards into the ribcage of the third soldier. Holding his sword at just the right angle and height, Iolaus turned in a fast, concise circle, dealing all three of his opponents a finishing blow with its hilt in one fluid sweep.

Then he dove over their sprawled bodies and came to his feet beside the soldier with his silver dagger protruding from his chest.

He snatched it and threw it again in the same smooth motion before rolling out of the way of Bane's wild sword swing.

The dagger hit its target just as Iolaus climbed to his feet.

He swayed as his vision suddenly bleared. He shook his head trying to clear it and nearly fainted. Sagging against the wall of one of the shops that populated the square, Iolaus berated himself through tightly clenched teeth, " This is really NOT a good time for this sort of thing... get hold of yourself, Iolaus! "

Bane leapt from his horse and joined the last of his soldiers as they warily advanced upon Iolaus.

Suddenly Laelin's sword felt very heavy in his hands as Iolaus squinted to keep the pair of encroaching enemies in clear focus. He took several deep breaths and swallowed the bile that burned his throat. The threat of mortal danger seemed to revive him somehow.

Holding his sword with both hands, he moved slowly away from the wall, feigning retreat. It was an old ploy which Bane didn't fall for but his inexperienced subordinate did.

When the over-anxious soldier lunged for him, Iolaus was ready. He blocked his opponent's thrust and delivered a solid kick to the stymied soldier's groin while directly beneath both their raised swords. As the soldier recoiled, Iolaus brought his sword down hard, knocking the weapon out of his opponent's hand, rendering him defenceless.

Bane hacked at Iolaus viciously but a quick twist took him well out of harm's way. Bane couldn't react in time and stabbed his own soldier. Screaming in fury, Bane wheeled and aimed his dripping blade madly at Iolaus.

His quarry was kneeling not far away, one hand pressed against his aching head while the other held onto a post for support. Laelin's gleaming sword lay idle in the dirt in front of him.

Bane scowled and lowered his sword as he considered how to dispose of his foe.

Suddenly Iolaus sprang to his feet. As his hand closed on the hilt of Laelin's sword he somersaulted in mid-air, landing in a cloud of dust right in front of the bewildered general. Before Bane had a chance to react, Iolaus kicked the sword out of his hand. Grinning triumphantly, he jabbed the point of his own sword against Bane's breastplate,

" You're nothing but an egotistical, loud-mouthed, particularly ugly bully, Bane. It's a wonder you've made it this far! " Iolaus's grin disappeared and was replaced by a glacial look that turned his bright blue eyes to frosty medallions of blue ice, " Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you right now where you stand? ", he asked bluntly, tightening his grip on his sword menacingly.

The general seethed with frustration as his sinister eyes burned with hatred, " Kill me and you'll never leave Eskander alive! King Daemar will send his whole army after you if needs be! "

Iolaus rolled his eyes in sarcastic irritation, " Save it for somebody who cares! Just tell your wannabe king that his days are numbered. If either of you have a brain in your head, you'll get out of here while you still can. I hear Tarsus is nice this time of year! ", he advised with typical verve.

Iolaus prodded the general towards his horse as he declared coldly, " Don't come back here unless you want to die, general! "

Bane climbed up onto his horse and glared down at him, " This isn't over yet. No matter where you try to hide, I'll hunt you down! ", he vowed.

Iolaus lowered his sword as soon as Bane disappeared from view and expelled a long, weary sigh of relief.

His legs felt very unsteady as he slowly turned towards Chaeson. For a sickening moment the village seemed to spin and Iolaus reeled, wincing at the blinding pain in his head. He closed his eyes and leaned weakly against a post until the pain and dizziness subsided. When he opened them again, Chaeson was by his side.

His venerable friend wagged his head and chided him, " You sure know how to make an impression, don't you, young man? "

As Iolaus smiled sheepishly and sheathed Laelin's sword, he became aware that a crowd was gathering around them. He surveyed the sea of curious, somewhat apprehensive faces and apologised, " Sorry for the disturbance. It's alright now. Please, go on about your business. "

A man attired in the long robes of a magistrate strode through the crowd and approached them.

Iolaus sighed, not anxious to prolong being the centre of attention, but Chaeson smiled broadly and extended his hand towards the newcomer, " Phineas! How are you, old friend? "

The mayor and magistrate of Hydraxis was a tall, sturdy man with curly brown hair peeping out from beneath his cap and soulful brown eyes that were intelligent and friendly.

As his meaty hand grasped his friends' eagerly, Phineas exclaimed, " Chaeson! You old reprobate. You're too old for this sort of excitement... and so am I. "

He turned to Iolaus, studying him closely as he said, " I am Phineas, mayor of Hydraxis. I don't know who you are, stranger, but I thank the gods that you were here today or else I'd be mayor of nothing more than a pile of cinders by now."

Iolaus was very tired and the bad feeling that had bothered him before hadn't dissipated with Bane's departure. He shrugged, flinching in annoyance at an ache in his right shoulder and said, " If you people have a place to hide, I recommend that you don't waste any time getting to it. Bane will be back! "

He turned to leave the square but Phineas's reply made him hesitate, " Why didn't you kill him when you had the chance? "

Iolaus looked at Phineas with pity in his eyes but his face was flushed with indignation and his voice was angry, " I am a warrior NOT an executioner! "

He strode over to the body of the soldier with his silver dagger still embedded in him. He knelt beside the corpse and solemnly removed it, saying grimly, " If you live by the sword, you die by the sword - sooner or later. "

He stood up and glared at Phineas, " I risked my life to delay Bane to give your people time to escape while NOT ONE OF YOU lifted a finger to help! Now you crawl out of your holes and have the nerve to complain?! " The contempt in Iolaus's eyes was evident even from several hundred yards away.

Phineas opened his mouth to protest but Iolaus was still angry, " I'm overwhelmed by your gratitude!", he remarked bitterly and motioned for Chaeson to follow him, " C'mon, let's get out of here before I lose my temper. "

Chaeson and Phineas exchanged bemused glances. The mayor of Hydraxis asked in a low voice, " Who is your friend, Chaeson? He's very -uh- passionate, isn't he? "

The aged centaur smiled tolerantly and replied, " His name is Iolaus and there's more to him than meets the eye, Phineas. I'd tread lightly on his toes if I was you. "

Phineas had seen Iolaus's battle, of course, and had been suitably impressed. It was obvious that this young warrior had a disposition as formidable as his fighting prowess, " Iolaus, I'm sorry if I offended you. We're all very grateful for what you did... thank you. ", Phineas said in a reasonable tone as he walked with Chaeson towards him.

Abruptly Iolaus spun, tensing at the unexpected approach of horses. Phineas smiled and tried to soothe his alarm, " Here's someone I think you'll be pleased to meet, Iolaus. You have alot in common. "

A party of riders trotted into the square and, as soon as Iolaus saw that they weren't soldiers, he relaxed.

The townsfolk began to gather around the riders and Iolaus found himself irresistably drawn towards the band's apparent leader.

Mounted upon a white horse sat a pretty young woman with long, jet-black hair and brilliant green eyes. She wore a tunic of supple leather, a short cape and high laced boots all trimmed with fur. From the bronze chain-link belt around her slender waist hung a bullwhip and an ornate sword that Iolaus recognised as a twin of Laelins'.

His eyebrows momentarily furrowed in mild surprise. This was Prince Laelin's cousin?

Princess Gaia was a smart, cunning individual with a mind for strategy that went far beyond simple gamesmanship. A healthy, energetic tom-boy, Gaia was a better swordswoman than either of her cousins and she was a crackshot with a bow.

She had strong ideals and the courage to fight for what she believed.

Gaia was considerably younger than she looked but comported herself with a confidence and dignity many more mature women couldn't rival.

When war had broken out, Gaia had sided briefly with Daemar. However, she'd soon seen how Bane manipulated her cousin into escalating the conflict to horrific levels of violence. The wholesale massacre - men, women and children - of a poor, defenseless hamlet had been the final straw.

Gaia had established a rebel or guerilla force to harass Daemar's ambitions and to provide some kind of protection for the civilians Bane loved to terrorise. She harried Daemar and Bane but lent no support to Laelin's efforts.

In this manner she was able to preserve her band's membership and even broaden her sphere of influence.

For now, she felt that what she was doing was the best that she could do for the people of Eskander.

The girl turned as Iolaus approached and, as their eyes met, they both smiled like two long-lost friends finally reunited.

Iolaus thought there was something very familiar about her... it was almost as if they'd met before...

Phineas saw the fascination in both their eyes and shook his head while Chaeson whispered in his ear, " Do you believe in love at first sight, old friend?"

Clearing his throat loudly, Phineas began introductions, " Your highness, I'd like you to meet Iolaus. He just saved Hydraxis from Bane... single-handedly! "

Iolaus bowed as Phineas continued, " Iolaus, this is her royal highness, Princess Gaia. Commander of Eskander's underground resistance movement and champion of the common people! "

Gaia slipped down from her horse and extended her hand towards Iolaus, " Welcome to Eskander, Iolaus.", she said politely, her vibrant emerald eyes twinkling as she recognised a kindred spirit, " From one rebel to another, well done!"

Iolaus returned her radiant smile as he accepted her hand, saying, " Thank you, my lady. "

Gaia had noticed the sword he wore and asked, " How fares my cousin Laelin? "

Iolaus answered without hesitation, " He was very well when I saw him this morning, your highness. "

Gaia had been studying him carefully. She liked his self-assured yet respectful attitude and his straightforward, guileless response put her at ease. It was easy to understand why Laelin trusted him and Gaia decided that she could, too. The princess read compassion in Iolaus's eloquent azure eyes and wasn't surprised to hear him say, " I'm afraid the danger to Hydraxis isn't over, your highness, only deferred for a time. "

By necessity, Gaia had become an excellent judge of character but it was instinct that told her that Iolaus was a person of strong integrity. Both his words and the concern in his eyes alluded to a caring, protective nature.

Two qualities that they happened to share.

" What do you suggest? ", she asked.

Iolaus was gratified by her apparent unconditional trust and hoped that she could succeed where he'd failed, " Bane will be back, your highness. I strongly advise that nobody be here when he does. "

Gaia was thoughtful a moment and then smiled faintly, " I have a plan, Iolaus. May I borrow your dagger? ", she asked, her face and eyes bright with cunning.

Iolaus passed her his dagger without question, intrigued.

Gaia knelt and drew a simplistic diagram in the dirt with the dagger. Iolaus recognised it immediately as Hydraxis. Kneeling across from her, he quickly surmised what she planned. They looked at each other, grinning in commiseration.

Iolaus not only found Gaia's personality stimulating but sensed that the physical attraction he felt was reciprocal.

Phineas couldn't restrain himself any longer, " What are you two plotting? ", he demanded impatiently.

Ignoring the mayor totally, Iolaus pointed to the bell-tower adjacent to Hydraxis's northern gate, " I'll need a bow and two or three quivers of arrows. ", he stated calmly though his eyes flashed with excitement.

Princess Gaia nodded and drew some more outlines in the dirt, " I'll take twenty of my men and wait in ambush for Bane as he comes back from Cyrnassis. The others will hide throughout the village because that gate won't hold them off for very long.", she explained.

Iolaus seemed dubious but the princess insisted and he finally agreed with a reluctant nod.

As their intense strategy session went on, Chaeson beamed with pseudo- parental pride, " I think this is the start of a beautiful, not to mention, powerful alliance, Phineas. " He pounded his friend heartily on the back, " Sending for Gaia was a stroke of genius, my friend. Pure genius! "

All Phineas could see above the throng were Iolaus's golden-haired and Gaia's raven-haired heads as they conspired in the heart of a crowd as if they were the only two people present.

He agreed with Chaeson. This instantaneous bonding between perfect strangers was most extraördinary... perhaps even pre-ordained.

Phineas had no idea what those two were up to but he had the feeling that, whatever it was, it wouldn't be good news for Bane.

Iolaus paused in the midst of making a point and suddenly grinned. Gaia sat back on her heels and tried hard not to smile back as she asked, " What's so amusing? "

Iolaus frowned alittle wistfully as he replied, " It just occurred to me that I don't know anything about you, yet... I feel like I've known you all my life? "

Gaia cocked her head curiously and said, " Funnily enough, I was just thinking the same thing...? Weird, huh? "

They laughed and rose to their feet. Gaia gave Iolaus back his dagger, " Did you get hurt fighting Bane? ", she asked abruptly. Her voice was neutral but sympathy shone in her captivating eyes.

Iolaus tugged at the gold earrings in his left ear, embarrassed to admit that he had no idea how he'd come to be injured, " Uh, no, your highness. I can't seem to remember... exactly what happened... ", he confessed self-consciously. Thoroughly nonplussed, he concluded, " ...I have amnesia... so, if I appear befuddled, your highness, it's because I AM, actually!"

Gaia's response erased his awkwardness instantly, " Then we should all be as befuddled as you! ", she commented graciously.

She turned and motioned to her lieutenant, " Nicos, help gather all the women and children aswell as anybody else who wants to leave as quickly as possible. "

Iolaus explained the evacuation plan to Phineas, " In fifteen minutes, Hydraxis will be a virtual ghost town. Only Gaia, her rebels and I will be left to welcome Bane upon his return. "

Chaeson crossed his arms across his chest obstinately, " I'm not leaving you here alone, young man. I don't care how good a warrior you may be, you're hurt and it's my fault you're in this mess in the first place. "

Before Iolaus could argue Phineas chimed in, " This is my village. I want to help defend it not run away. ", looking at Iolaus meaningfully.

Just then Gaia brought Iolaus a bow and three quivers full of arrows, " You said that you met Laelin this morning, Iolaus? Then maybe you know who his companion is?", she inquired as he followed her back to her horse.

Iolaus instantly realised how Gaia knew about Laelin and Hercules being together. Naturally Gaia's underground employed a comprehensive network of watchful, unseen eyes as any similar group would do.

Iolaus slipped the bow over one shoulder and the quivers over the other as he answered, " My friend Hercules went to help Laelin with his wounded. He's an excellent healer, among other things. "

Gaia paused before mounting her stallion and favoured Iolaus with a very pleased yet enigmatic gaze, " So, you are Hercules's ally? That explains a great deal. "

The square was full of frightened and excited people by then. Gaia had to shout so her lieutenant could hear her over the buzz of the crowd, " Nicos, take these people to the caves across the river. Bring reinforcements back here but be careful. Remember, Bane is a general and has alot of tricks up his sleeves. Use your discretion. "

Iolaus fixed Chaeson and Phineas with a very annoyed expression when they refused to join the exodus, " Look, guys, I understand you want to help but you're just going to be a handicap to us if you stay. Please, go while you can!", he said candidly.

Phineas was as determined as ever to remain but he understood Iolaus's anxiety over Chaeson.

He grabbed his old friend by the arm and headed for the townhall, " Don't worry about us, Iolaus. We'll stay in here 'til it's all over. "

Iolaus eyed the stone building critically. Compared to the other structures in the village, it was clearly the best built and therefore probably the best choice for refuge. He called to Gaia, " Your highness, can you position acouple of your men in this building? To hold it as a fall-back point? "

Princess Gaia delegated four of her fighters to protect the townhall. As Iolaus walked beside her towards the northern gate, she leaned over and commented, " That was a good idea, Iolaus. Perhaps futile but nonetheless a good thought. You do know that our chances are pretty awful, don't you? "

Iolaus shook his head, " I always fight to win, your highness, and my chances are always better for it. ", he replied, relentlessly optimistic.

They paused when they reached the gate.

Iolaus watched Gaia as she gave instructions to her fighters and wondered how any person could possibly feel so close to another in just an hour?

A name - Xena - began to spin around in his subconscious, making him sigh wearily. Obviously Gaia reminded him of somebody else he couldn't remember.

His head began to throb again. Iolaus took a deep lungful of air and exhaled very slowly. As his thoughts turned to the task before him, his frustration transmuted into excitement. The subsequent rush of adrenalin temporarily soothed his aching head.

Gaia leaned down unexpectedly while Iolaus was lost in his own thoughts and kissed him aggressively. There was still residual shock mixed with the pleasure in his azure eyes when she gently pulled away, smiling although her words were serious, " Keep your head down, Iolaus, and be careful! "

She spurred her stallion through the gate, following her men into the forest as Iolaus called after her, " Good luck, Gaia! "

As the double gates were swung shut, Iolaus started up the bell-tower ladder.

The bell-tower wasn't technically a tower. It was as close to a tower as a modest village like Hydraxis could aspire to however. Resting on a quartet of fourteen-foot high pillars was a wooden platform with a hole cut in the centre.

As Iolaus climbed the ladder and emerged through that hole, he had to duck to avoid banging his head on the bronze bell. He found himself on a square landing encircled by a railing of rough-hewn lattice-work and covered by a thatched roof.

Kneeling to organise himself, he took a moment to marvel at how different things looked from this height.

He could see over the twelve-foot high fence/wall that surrounded Hydraxis although dense forests curtailed the panorama in all four directions.

Straight-ahead a grey-brown track meandered north up a gradual hill towards, among other places, Cyrnassis which, Iolaus assumed, was Prince Daemar's stronghold.

To his right (east) between the village and the forest was a rocky meadow with a gurgling brook wending its way through verdant grass, shrubs and flowers.

On the left (west) and behind him (south) towered a seemingly inpenetrable barrier of trees.

Aside from the northern gate, which was its main entrance, Hydraxis had two auxiliary gates. A well-travelled road cut across the lower flank of the meadow, crossed the brook via a narrow, rickety footbridge and entered the village from the eastern gate. Directly across the oblong central square from the eastern gate was the western gate which lead into the forbidding gloom of the forest.

Fifteen minutes earlier the rebels led by Gaia's lieutenant Nicos had escorted the villagers through that gate to safety.

Even from his vantage point Iolaus could barely detect Gaia's white horse in the deep gloom of the forest that lined the northern road.

Suddenly his attention was drawn away from Gaia towards the crest of the hill where Bane sat imperiously upon his horse glowering malevolently towards Hydraxis.

Iolaus raised his bow and took careful aim but before he could fire, Bane withdrew alittle bit.

A column of soldiers took his place, bearing a primitive but nevertheless very intimidating battering ram.

Iolaus shook his head disparagingly.

Leave it to Bane to resort to overkill.

The fence/wall that enclosed Hydraxis had been intended to keep wild beasts and marauding bandits out... not an army!

One good hit with that thing and...

Iolaus raised his bow again, targeting the lead soldiers on the ram. Something flashed on the outer fringes of his visual range and broke his concentration.

He turned, grimacing with annoyance, and almost dropped his bow in alarm.

Deployed all along the idyllic babbling brook stood a string of twelve archers.

As Iolaus sprang to his feet in horror, the tongues of fire that flickered from their flaming arrows were reflected in his wide, shimmering eyes but did little to melt his panic-frozen heart.

The pounding of his heart superseded the pounding in his head as he looked from the battering ram to the phalanx of flame and back, " Oh, boy! ", he exclaimed in a breathless, dread-filled whisper.

While Hercules toiled in the infirmary, Prince Laelin was summoned to the ramparts of Trevallis by his sentries.

His brother's army had arrived in full force.

For the benefit of the soldiers and others who lined the ramparts too and watched the forests come alive with Daemar's troops, Laelin remained inscrutable. Inside, however, he was torn between fear and revenge. One way or another, this upcoming battle would decide this useless war.

It was only mid-afternoon and, knowing his brother's impatient nature, Laelin decided to sound the call to arms.

In the infirmary Hercules heard the trumpet and drums. He dashed out of the turret to find the castle in a frenzy as soldiers raced to take their defensive positions and civilians ran for shelter.

Spotting the prince up on the battlements, Hercules bounded up the stone staircase to join him. With just one glance he was able to surmise the reason for Laelin's alarm, " So, this is your brother's army, huh?", he asked rhetorically, trying to penetrate Laelin's stony gravity, " You don't think he'll attack Trevallis now after marching his men all day, do you? "

Staring unwaveringly out towards the massing enemy Laelin replied bitterly, " You don't know my brother, Hercules. Patience isn't in his vocabulary and neither is compassion! If only to test us, he'll order an attack. I can see him now, drooling in anticipation. "

Hercules's sharp eyes caught sight of an ominous yet all too familiar shape partially camouflaged among the trees. He tapped the prince on the shoulder, " Your highness, I just thought of a flaw in your plan... what if your intended prey devours the bait before the trap gets sprung? "

Laelin shrugged, " That's why I chose Trevallis, Hercules. Its walls are very... ", As he spoke, the prince followed Hercules's gaze and soon his green eyes grew wide with dread as they discerned the monstrous catapult lurking in the foliage, "...sturdy.", he finished with a weak, horrorstricken gulp.

Hercules had been scouring the rest of the forest for sign of any more of those destructive machines. When he found two others, his heart became heavy with uncharacteristic pessimism.

One catapult at this range was a serious threat while two escalated the peril astronomically.

Three of those huge devices, however, spelled disaster in no uncertain terms.

Before Hercules could apprise Laelin of the full scope of the danger, he tensed as his acute hearing detected a tell-tale whooshing sound.

With no time for a warning, Hercules threw himself at Laelin and pulled the prince down onto the cold stone rampart, shielding him with his own body. The parapet almost directly beside where they lay exploded as it was pulverised by one of the catapult's missiles. Chunks of masonry pelted Hercules and the cloud of dust raised by the impact made both of them cough.

Springing to his feet, Hercules glared at the distant catapult, " We've got to do something about those things or we're doomed. ", he fumed as he helped Laelin to his feet.

The prince was shaken by his close call but he didn't waste time fretting. Shouting in as loud a voice as he could manage, Laelin immediately urged all of his people to seek cover.

His fervour was dramatically punctuated by the spectacular impact of two more missiles. Stone crumbled and timbers splintered as the castle echoed with the screams of panicked people fleeing for their lives.

Hercules shook the grit out of his hair and watched grimly as the ramparts rapidly became deserted. He was soon the only one left but that was certainly not an unusual role for him. Whenever his stalwart ally wasn't by his side, more often than not, Hercules found himself standing alone against the enemy. It was one of the most fundamental reasons why they tried so hard to stay together.

Several more missiles crashed into Trevallis and the pediment where Hercules stood rumbled as part of the wall just below it was punctured. Squinting in the swirling dust, an idea for retaliation inspired him as his irritated indigo eyes fell upon the rubble created by the last missile.

Prince Laelin had retreated to his tower but as Hercules leapt down from the ramparts, he bolted from his refuge to implore his friend to join him, " Hercules?! Please don't tempt fate by staying out here. Come with me until this assault is over."

Hercules was intently sifting through a pile of smashed masonry which mystified Prince Laelin. As his powerful friend hefted a fragment of Trevallis that weighed more than he did, Prince Laelin shook his head in bewilderment, " What are you doing? ", he asked as another missile rocked the castle.

Laelin was knocked to the ground by the impact but Hercules continued on as if nothing had happened. He watched in amazement as Hercules struggled up the stone steps back onto the ramparts. Fascinated by his friend's behaviour, the prince forgot his fears and followed him.

Pausing as if to summon his resources, Hercules lifted the large, heavy chunk of stone over his head. His injured right leg wobbled slightly at first but gradually stiffened as Hercules asserted control of his body.

Two more missiles slammed into the castle.

One struck just behind and slightly above where Hercules stood, sending a shower of dusty destruction cascading over him. Laelin crouched and covered his head against the rain of debris but Hercules stood unperturbed, like a statue; seemingly impervious to everything.

With a mighty bellow Hercules launched his own counter-strike even before the dust had settled. He stumbled against the parapets as he eagerly watched his rock sail through the air.

Laelin joined him just as the projectile smashed into its target with a resounding crash. The sound of cracking timbers and shattering wood made Laelin grin with joy and awe, " You are amazing! ", he declared earnestly.

Hercules pushed himself to his feet and smiled at the prince's wonder, " One down, two to go!", he noted before descending the ramparts again to obtain another missile. Laelin followed him out of curiosity.

As Hercules was sorting through a mound of rubble in the courtyard outside the massive square tower, two more missiles struck virtually in the same location, causing enormous damage. The double impact demolished one of the corners near the top of the tower, sending several large chunks of masonry plummeting into the courtyard below and collapsing half the tower's clay-shingle roof.

Hercules and Laelin both heard the deafening crash as the missiles made contact but this time Laelin reacted first, throwing himself at Hercules. He knocked his friend clear of the torrent of debris and almost escaped it himself but tripped before he got fully out of danger.

As he fell, he was quickly buried by a thunderous shower of stone, masonry, shingles and dust.

Hercules rolled to his feet just in time to see what befell Laelin and responded instantly. It only took him afew moments to uncover the prince. Though he had some minor cuts and was bruised Laelin was otherwise unhurt as Hercules dragged him clear. Marselis and several others dashed from their refuges to assist their leader as Hercules deposited Laelin on one of the steps of a stone staircase. As he crouched in front of the young prince, Hercules looked up at his disshevelled friend and smiled gratefully.

Laelin's green eyes twinkled as he replied, " One good turn, deserves another, eh, my friend? " Hercules rose to his feet and resumed the search for the ideal pitchable rock.

This time, though, when Hercules staggered up the stairs to the ramparts, he had a veritable entourage as Laelin, Marselis and the others tagged intently behind him.

Not entirely unexpectedly, Daemar's soldiers tried to stop Hercules from repeating his remarkable toss. As he stood on the ramparts with the rock balanced tenuously above his head, the enemy opened fire.

Everybody cringed as a pair of missiles smashed into the castle and a hail of arrows whistled over its still inpenetrable walls. Even when one of the arrows creased Hercules's left elbow he refused to budge but for Laelin that was too close for comfort. He seized possession of one of his soldier's shields and hurried to provide his friend with a semblance of protection. Marselis, emboldened by his prince's example, followed suit and between the two of them, Hercules was well guarded against further danger.

With a vigorous groan Hercules hurled his missile into the air. His tremendous effort sent him reeling off-balance but, as he collapsed breathlessly against the parapets, he saw through one of the embrasures that his projectile was dead on target. The gratifying sound of timbers being torn asunder mingled with the outraged, somewhat terrified cries of Daemar's men.

For several moments Hercules sat in the corner where he'd fallen, gathering his strength, until another missile thudded into the castle and reminded him that his endeavour wasn't quite finished yet.

He pulled himself to his feet, limping noticeably as he slowly made his way back down into the courtyard.

Laelin frowned as he watched his heroic friend, distressed by his evident discomfort.

It was very easy to forget in the light of Hercules's incredible feats that he was every bit as mortal as the next man. He contributed to that misconception himself by blithely ignoring his mortality just like everybody else did.

Particularly when he was bent on some specific purpose, as he was now. It seemed to Laelin to be an uncharacteristically arrogant, almost foolish attitude for somebody as intelligent as Hercules to retain. Yet it was obviously an integral facet of his nature that he'd decided wasn't worth denying.

Hercules looked around at the destruction that Daemar's catapults had wrought in just afew moments and grimaced darkly. This was just the softening up part of the assault. The real battle hadn't even begun yet and Trevallis was already in a shambles.

Just then a different kind of missile exploded nearby. Instead of the usual rock, the object that disintegrated against Trevallis's stout walls was a crusty ball of flaming red embers. Countless fragments from this red-hot fireball were scattered throughout the castle by the force of its collision. Anything those sparks touched that was flammable either burst into instant flame or began to smoulder. Fortunately this time all of the potential fires were quickly extinguished.

Hercules selected his final rock and carried it up onto the ramparts. Laelin and Marselis re-enacted their blockade as Daemar's archers tried desperately to thwart Hercules's mission. As he hoisted the rock over his head, Hercules thought that the last standing catapult seemed to be further away than the others.

Then he realised that it was moving.

Apparently Daemar was trying to salvage his only surviving weapon of mass destruction.

Hercules couldn't resist a brief, hard smile as he thought, ' Uh-uh, Daemar, once a game-piece is in play, it can't be removed from the board! '

He took an extra moment to gauge the fluctuating distance and then heaved his final shot with a great cry that ricocheted eerily around the castle. Hercules watched tensely, hopping awkwardly on one leg, as his missile soared through the air, alittle bit unsure this time about his accuracy. He needn't have worried.

Like the first two, this catapult was reduced to kindling by Hercules's powerful bombardment. Laelin was as relieved as everyone else in Trevallis but his primary concern was for his mighty friend.

Hurrying to Hercules's side, the prince asserted his authority, " Okay, now that you've proved how strong you are, my friend, let's see how sensible you can be. It's time for you to get off your feet for awhile, Hercules. Come with me.", he said with a warm smile.

Hercules was in no mood to argue. He was exhausted and his injured leg was severely aggravated by his strenuous activity.

Alittle R & R sounded very appealing.

As they picked their ways carefully through the debris-littered courtyard Prince Laelin kicked at a piece of shattered stone and remarked bitterly, " I'm glad that my Uncle Cyracus isn't here to see what Daemar's done to his castle! "

Hercules was mildly surprised by his statement, " I thought Trevallis was your castle, Laelin? "

The prince paused with his hands on his hips as he unhappily surveyed the damage to his tower, " Technically Trevallis belongs to my cousin, Princess Gaia. Locating my headquarters here in the first place was her idea. "

As they entered the audience chamber, Laelin elaborated, " You see, Hercules, because these forests are so vast and dense and there're only afew villages of any signifigance in the vicinity, Daemar tried to ignore this region. When I went to ground, however, he knew I'd retreat to these forests. I'm not sure if he even remembered that there was a castle in here somewhere but it took him a long time to find Trevallis. Just as Gaia anticipated that it would. "

He dusted off his chair and sat down with a chuckle, " You see, Daemar has absolutely no sense of direction. He's so inept that he still gets lost in his own stronghold Cyrnassis. We grew up in that castle, believe it or not?! "

Hercules smiled as he sat down wearily, " So, where is this clever cousin of yours? ", he asked curiously. He hadn't missed the unmistakable tone of respect that had possessed Laelin's voice when he mentioned her name.

Laelin sat back in his chair with his hands locked behind his head while an expression of obvious affection and admiration played on his face, " Gaia is the leader of Eskander's resistance movement. It's been months since I've heard from her but I know she's out there somewhere causing Daemar headaches. There wouldn't be any resistance without her. To Daemar, she's a traitor because her band of rebels has caused him a great deal of trouble but I consider her to be a heroine in the purest sense of the word! "

Hercules was trying to picture a young princess leading a motley group of vigilantes and Xena, the only other warrior princess that he knew of, immediately sprang to mind, " I assume that Gaia isn't your average princess. You know, fancy clothes, precious jewels, too much makeup, prissy habits, that sort of thing? "

Laelin laughed merrily at the image Hercules's characteristics evoked, " Gaia is and always has been a very unconventional princess. She's an excellent swordswoman and an immaculate archer. She's smart and as sly as a fox, courageous and a born leader. Though we're on the same side, Gaia is totally independant and doesn't participate in any confrontations between Daemar and myself. Gaia uses her skills to protect the people from Daemar's tyranny and Bane's unspeakable cruelty. That's her priority and I applaud her dedication. I think you'd really like Gaia, Hercules. She's a real civil libertarian. ", he said with genuine veneration.

Hercules had gotten up and was ambling around the large chamber in a leisurely fashion.

His leg was extremely sore and he was irritated by its incessant ache. He wasn't accustomed to being disabled and had little tolerance for self-affliction. Usually, whenever he was in need of a distraction, Hercules could rely on Iolaus and his inimitable wit but this time he'd just have to divert himself.

He paused to pick up one of the maps that had fallen to the floor during the recent commotion as he said, " Your cousin, coincidently enough, reminds me of a friend of mine. In fact, the sole purpose of our trip to Amphipolis is to visit her. "

While he spoke Hercules was studying the map with fresh interest. In bold black lettering his eye caught the name Cyrnassis and then progressed to the blue dyed name Hydraxis and then finally drifted to the large red name Trevallis.

Because he hadn't known anything about Daemar's stronghold earlier, he'd had no cause to worry but now he knew better.

Frowning, he laid the map on the table, jabbed a finger at Hydraxis and looked at Laelin gravely, " Please tell me, your highness, that Daemar's army didn't have to pass through Hydraxis first to get here? "

Laelin leaned forward and traced a line on the map with his finger, " There's a seldom-used road through the forest running parallel to the village that I think Daemar probably took today. His army has gotten here in record time so I doubt whether it bothered with Hydraxis... "

Now the prince's green eyes were troubled as he rubbed his chin pensively, " However, I'm afraid that clemency won't last very long."

Hercules was almost reluctant to ask, " Why is that? ", and Prince Laelin was almost reluctant to answer, " Guilt by association. "

Hercules wanted a much more detailed answer than that, " What do you mean, Laelin? What's Daemar got against a simple little village in the middle of nowhere?", he demanded as the chilly tendrils of uneasiness began to wend their insidious way up his spine.

Laelin shook his head and looked up at Hercules, " It's General Bane who's the real threat to Hydraxis this time, Hercules, not my brother. For several inter- related reasons... "

The expression on the prince's face became wistful as he continued, " The mayor of Hydraxis is Phineas, a close friend of my Uncle Cyracus in years gone by. They shared alot of the same liberal ideas. Phineas has steadfastly maintained his liberal ideals and even expanded upon them, in his capacity as Hydraxis's mayor and magistrate. His popularity and progressive attitude haven't exactly endeared him to either Bane or Daemar. Phineas knows his daring political position poses a risk to Hydraxis but he's always had lots of support from Chaeson - and, by extension, from me - aswell as the protection of Gaia's rebels."

Hercules understood the situation clearly by then and comprehended what Laelin had inferred by 'guilt by association'.

It didn't, however, assuage his anxiety very much.

Instead it made him rather angry, " Laelin, you should've told me all this before I let my best friend walk into potential danger!"

Prince Laelin sighed deeply and answered in an almost petulant voice, " I couldn't turn down his offer, Hercules. Put yourself in my place and try to understand. I truly hope that nothing happens in Hydraxis today but if it does, it gives me great peace of mind to know that Iolaus is there to protect Chaeson... but he won't be alone. If Bane tries anything, Gaia won't be far away. "

Hercules was very displeased by the prince's cavalier attitude and his response was harsh, " I've misjudged you, Laelin! I thought you were an exception but I see now that you're every bit as imperious and thoughtless as any other selfish, ambitious, spoiled royal brat! "

He started for the door with anger flashing in his eyes, " I'm out of here! "

Laelin was hurt by Hercules's censure and reacted defensively, " You're just upset because you feel guilty. If it makes you feel better, go ahead and take it out on me but remember this, Hercules. Iolaus has a mind of his own and it was HIS idea not MINE to go to Hydraxis in the first place! "

Without missing a stride, Hercules turned and strode back towards the prince angrily, " When are you going to grow up, Laelin, and take responsibility for your actions? If you'd told Iolaus what you've told me about Hydraxis, he wouldn't be in jeopardy right now."

Laelin stood up to meet Hercules with anger flaring in his emerald eyes just as brightly, " You make it sound as if he were totally helpless when we both know that, even without a memory, he's anything but. He's quite capable of taking care of himself, Chaeson and the village, if needs be! "

They stood nose to nose, emotion flashing respectively in their eyes and strident animosity clouding their faces for several long moments. Finally Laelin dropped his gaze and said, " I'm sorry, Hercules. No more excuses. I knew Chaeson wouldn't listen to reason so the next best thing was exactly what Iolaus proposed. I couldn't believe my ears or my good fortune... how could I decline such a propitious solution to my dilemma? Please believe that I never intended to put Iolaus in any danger... just as I never intended to get you into such a mess as this! "

Hercules relaxed and smiled sheepishly, " I am sorry, too, for flying off the handle like that. I understand your reasoning, Laelin. In your place, I doubt whether I'd have been able to resist either."

He glanced down at the map briefly and then said, " Before I deliver your message tonight, Laelin, I'm going to Hydraxis. You're right. Iolaus CAN take care of himself and then some but he IS hurt and he IS only human... even if he does seem to forget that fact sometimes. I need to know that he is safe. "

The prince nodded in total agreement, " You must do as your heart commands, my friend. I pray that you'll find nothing amiss.", he said sincerely.

There was literally no time to think.

Taking a handful of arrows, Iolaus swiftly tore one feather off of each of them as he knelt calmly on one knee.

Then, two at a time, he fit them to his bow and let them fly.

He had no idea when or where he'd picked up such a skill and certainly didn't have time to ponder why it or his fighting acumen were unaffected by his amnesia. Yet, in the back of his mind these aspects of his tattered personality felt very basic... very natural.

Before his first two shots even reached their targets, Iolaus was already taking aim with another pair.

His unexpected attack caused some of the archers to falter but the majority stood their ground.

As two more of Bane's bowmen fell beneath Iolaus's assault, the others let fly with their own fiery missiles.

Fortunately most of the flaming arrows missed any of Hydraxis's thatched dwellings and landed impotently in the dirt.

Much to Iolaus's relief.

Gaia's fighters reacted quickly to extinguish the few fires that were ignited, allowing Iolaus to concentrate even better on alleviating the threat.

His sharpshooting had claimed more than half the dozen archers before they spotted him and began to retaliate.

It was too little too late as far as they were concerned but just as Iolaus struck down the last of them, pandemonium broke out to his left.

Bane's battering ram came barrelling down the hill and Gaia's squadron sprang to the attack.

Iolaus turned his bow against the new threat and didn't see a fresh contingent of archers slip out of the forest to replace their fallen comrades.

Instead of firing exclusively into Hydraxis, however, these bowmen were intent upon avenging their predecessors aswell as razing the village.

The first arrow shot at Iolaus singed his right ear and cheek as it sizzled past his face just as he fired himself. He naturally recoiled at the near miss and threw himself instinctively face-first flat on the platform as a multitude of flaming projectiles filled the air like a swarm of very deadly, very angry fireflies.

Several came unnervingly close but Iolaus was lucky and his good fortune made him more determined than ever.

Gaia and her band of fighters were engaged in an intense battle just outside the gates of Hydraxis.

The battering ram was stalled by Gaia's fierce assault on its bearers but her small band was grossly outnumbered and couldn't hope to sustain resistance for very much longer.

As Iolaus stamped out the few flames that had caught atop his aerie, he smiled with admiration as the flash of Gaia's sword in the mid-afternoon sunlight caught his eye.

Then his attention was usurped by the sinister spectre of Bane approaching her like an ugly spider stalking a butterfly trapped in its web.

With steely-eyed assiduity, Iolaus took aim at his nemesis but before he could release his intended shot, another hail of lethal fire forced him to scurry for cover once more.

The problem was that the open bell-tower provided very scant protection. As Iolaus tried frantically to evade the flurry of burning arrows, more of Bane's soldiers poured over the crest.

Gaia reluctantly ordered her surviving cohorts to withdraw. While they retreated expeditiously into the sheltering forests, she waged a formidable vanguard action to cover their flight. Soon she was the only rebel left in a mass of enemies and could do nothing as the battering ram was raised once again and aimed at Hydraxis's main gate.

As the princess manoeuvred her horse, slowly yet steadily battling towards the ram, she came face-to-face with Bane himself.

Despite his own predicament, Iolaus was determined to stop the general. Lying on his belly as bolts of fire whistled all around him, he drew his bowstring back and fired his last arrow through a curtain of thickening, acrid smoke.

Above him flames shot from the roof of the bell-tower as he clambered to his feet. The platform by then was warm to the touch and hungry tongues of flame were beginning to flare out of the centre hole, cutting off any chance of escape by that route. As he tossed his bow away, Iolaus paused briefly to see whether delaying his escape had been worthwhile.

The arrow pierced Bane's right shoulder and his sword fell from his grip as he flinched.

Satisfied, Iolaus turned, intent on fleeing, but even as he ran he could feel the tower beginning to collapse beneath his feet.

The battering ram smashed through Hydraxis's gate with a resounding crash, startling Bane's horse. It reared in terror and sent him sprawling into the blood-soaked dirt.

Gaia spurred her horse towards the shattered gate to reunite with her second group of fighters in a last-ditch attempt to stave off the inevitable. Charging towards the village, her eyes searched the flaming bell-tower for a trace of Iolaus. Her relief upon seeing him as he scrambled through the smoke was short-lived as the tower began to disintegrate.

Bane was helped to his feet by one of his soldiers. As the general watched Gaia disappear into Hydraxis, the blazing bell-tower distracted him momentarily. He caught a glimpse of Iolaus for the first time as he battled his way through the flames and swirling billows of smoke.

Realising immediately that Iolaus was responsible for wounding him, Bane furiously tore the arrow from his shoulder and threw it disdainfully on the ground.

His dark eyes were hate-filled as he retrieved his sword and stalked vengefully towards the village.

As Gaia cut an impressive swath through the ranks of enemy soldiers being confronted by her fellow rebels, the tower was totally engulfed in flames and imploded with a tumultuous roar.

Seconds before Iolaus had hurled himself from the tower railing onto the thatched roof of a neighbouring hut.

Although he wasn't very heavy, Iolaus's momentum carried alot of weight. He crashed through the roof, bounced off of a table, landed on the dirt floor with a painful jolt and was promptly buried beneath a cascade of mangled thatch and splintered staves.

For several long minutes he remained still on the cool ground, catching his breath and letting his rattled senses rally. He came very close to passing out but obstinately gritted his teeth and crawled out of the debris on his hands and knees.

The hut was beginning to fill with smoke as sparks from the tower set it ablaze. On shaky legs Iolaus staggered towards the door and dove through it blindly just as the rest of the roof caved in.

Blinking his smarting eyes, Iolaus wearily surveyed the battle raging before him.

Gaia and her rebels were in over their heads. Bane had three times as many soldiers and not even the princess's fierce leadership could overcome such lopsided odds.

Lurching to his feet, Iolaus added his waning yet willing strength to the rebel cause.

Inexorably Hydraxis's defenders were driven backwards by Bane's forces towards the square. As preoccupied as they were trying to fend off the main body of Bane's army, they didn't notice that the eastern gate had been breached until they found themselves surrounded. Bane's archers began to mercilessly decimate their thinning ranks even further.

Gaia's horse was felled by several of the lethal bolts and she tumbled heavily to the ground. Dazed, she looked up in alarm as a shadow fell over her. She smiled in weary relief as Iolaus gazed down on her with concern, " Your highness, are you alright? ", he asked, helping the princess to her feet.

Gaia nodded but inexplicably lowered her blood-soaked sword, " I'm fine but not for very long, I fear. ", she murmured dejectedly.

Iolaus turned to follow her gaze, puzzled by her sudden lack of enthusiasm, and cursed under his breath as he saw Phineas and Chaeson being dragged from the townhall.

Behind them, Bane grinned with immense satisfaction and shouted in his obnoxious voice, " Surrender or your friends die! "

Iolaus hesitated, unwilling to concede defeat although ravenous flames and suffocating clouds of smoke all around them testified to bleak reality.

Hydraxis was lost.

The streets of the village were littered with the dead and dying. In the blackened depths of Iolaus's absent memory, random flashes from many other battlefields -- the sounds, smells, excitement and horror -- evoked sharp, poignant emotions in him. To acquiesce to Bane now would render all the lives lost in this battle mere, meaningless sacrifices. Common sense advocated capitulation but Iolaus was ruled by his heart more than his head.

Aslong as the fight against Bane went on, these poor lost souls wouldn't have perished in vain.

Gaia watched Iolaus while he was ruminating and it was almost as if she could read his thoughts. There was a spark in his cobalt eyes that rivalled any of the fires burning around them. It made her own brilliant emerald eyes glitter as she sighed, " The eastern gate is our best bet! "

Iolaus and Gaia looked at one another and asked simultaneously, " Do you think you can make it? " Despite their dire predicament, the pair of rebels couldn't help but laugh.

The princess was splattered with blood from head to toe and, at the moment, her sword rested by her side giving her exhausted arm a well earned break. She'd been in many battles in the last six months but this fight represented the apex of her rebellious career thus far. Deep beneath her composed veneer, rage and grief were embroiled in a mighty tug of war over her emotions. This was the first time she'd lost so many people and it was hard to come to terms with such an awesome responsibility. Now, for the first time, Gaia could appreciate Laelin's obsessive caution which she'd formerly dismissed as being excessively prudent.

She owed her cousin an apology.

Iolaus saw and understood the conflict in her captivating vivid green eyes for it was akin to how he was feeling but wallowing in guilt and angst wasn't his nature.

Crisp, reassuring self-preservation took possession of him as he re- focussed his concentration on their present dilemma. He brushed aside his fatigue and banished his pain to the black domain of his phantom subconscious although he knew it'd come back to haunt him eventually.

Bane's archers aimed their bows as the general's soldiers warily began to tighten the circle around the two rebel leaders.

Iolaus reacted with typical defiance and his timing proved uncanny.

He grabbed the princess's hand just as the archers fired and the blazing building next to where they'd been cornered collapsed with a catastrophic roar.

As sparks, arrows, flame and smoke filled the air, Iolaus and Gaia bolted for the eastern gate.

They both realised instinctively that this was their only true course of action. To surrender wouldn't have helped their captive friends any. Time had run out on Hydraxis today but aslong as Gaia and Iolaus were at large, the general's all-consuming hunger for revenge would keep Chaeson and Phineas alive until a rescue could be launched.

First, though, it was imperative that they both escaped. Only then, when they were safe, rested and rejuvenated, could the tide be turned back against Bane.

As they raced through the gate, Iolaus suddenly veered away from the princess, heading towards the beckoning sanctuary of the southern forest that, along with the western and northern woods, nearly surrounded the razed village.

With Iolaus's parting words echoing in her ears, " Chaeson's house. After dark. Good luck! ", Gaia flew across the meadow and vaulted over the brook, pausing only a split-second to assimilate what the untidy collection of bodies on, in and around the stream signified.

Smiling shrewdly, the princess dashed the final few yards into the comforting refuge of the forests while behind her Bane screamed for his soldiers to concentrate their pursuit on Iolaus.

Bane knew that chasing Gaia through these dark, forbidding forests would be pointless because in there her natural stealth, cunning and familiarity with her environment rendered her virtually invisible.

Iolaus, on the other hand, was another matter.

Although he might be clever and quick, these forests were foreign to him.

As Bane cradled his aching wounded arm, his face reflected his primary motivation - hatred - as he shouted at his minions, " I want that aggravating little renegade dead or alive! Bring me his head or don't bother coming back! "

After dinner Hercules and several of the refugees gently transfered the most gravely wounded men into a wagon.

Hercules wasn't so busy that he failed to notice when one of the sentries jumped down from the wall, ran across the compound and dashed into the prince's tower.

Moments later Prince Laelin hurried out and motioned for Hercules to join him, " My brother is at the gate, requesting a conference. Please join me. ", he disclosed alittle nervously.

Hercules accompanied Laelin back into his audience chamber. The prince took his place on his throne while Hercules leaned against the big oak table. He was barely visible in the gloom although he was less than six feet away from his friend. Marselis ushered Prince Daemar into the chamber and closed the door behind him.

Daemar was taller than Laelin and beefier. He had blonde hair, a matching beard and moustache and the same entrancing emerald eyes. He was dressed in burnished copper armour, leather and studs.

Daemar marched up to his brother, tilted his head in a siminal gesture of greeting and said in a brash, arrogant tone, " Well, big brother, we both knew this day would come. If you renounce your claim to the throne, I will let you live. If you persist with this foolhardy campaign of yours, everyone in this castle will die - including yourself!"

Prince Laelin hadn't seen his brother in person for over six months. He was amazed at Daemar's boldness and dispassionate attitude. He jumped from his throne and confronted his duplicitous sibling, " You have a nerve dictating terms to me, Daemar. The throne of Eskander is mine by right. When did you become such a skulking coward that you usurp what you know is not yours? You never seemed interested in ruling before, brother? Why all of a sudden did my crown tempt you? ", he asked in angry puzzlement, " Perhaps your head has been filled with nonsense by that inhuman general of yours? "

Daemar retorted with twin anger, " What do you know about me, Laelin? You've always been too busy being an heir to be interested in me. Why should you be king just because you were born first? You are too gullible and weak to be master of this kingdom. Father would've been disappointed by the ruin a milk-sop like you would've brought to Eskander. I decided, for the good of our people, to prevent such a tragedy. Crowns are for the strong, not the weak, Laelin! "

This discussion was quickly deteriorating into a personality conflict. Hercules was anxious to broach the subject of evacuating the wounded and to keep the two young brothers from coming to blows. Stepping out of the gloom, he said, " Somehow, Prince Daemar, I don't think your father would approve of what you've done! "

The prince wheeled in alarm and then cried accusingly, " What is this, Laelin? A trap? Don't be a fool! If I don't return to my men, they have orders to attack. " His hand flew to the hilt of his sword but Hercules's words prevented him from drawing the weapon, " This isn't a trap, your highness. I'm here to try to help you two reach a peaceable truce. You are grown men not children! Royalty isn't just about privilege, there's responsibility too. Behaving as if Eskander is an object to be fought over will get you nowhere! ", he said in a reasonable tone.

Prince Laelin bowed his head and counted to ten, replacing his anger with rational thought, " Hercules is right, Daemar. This is pointless. "

His brother looked at Hercules with evident surprise, " You're Hercules? What are you doing in Eskander? "

Prince Laelin replied for his friend, " He is on his way to Kavalla, Daemar. He wants no part in our dispute. He just wants safe passage from Trevallis for himself and my wounded. Are you willing to allow such a good-will gesture? ", he asked, studying his brother's face closely.

His brother had always been truculent but usually acquiesced to reason in the end.

Prince Daemar considered this development carefully. He'd had suspicions about Laelin's mysterious new ally ever since his three catapults had been destroyed but it was still somewhat of a shock to learn that his brother had indeed recruited such a powerful personage.

Hearing that this legendary warrior wanted nothing more than to run away went a long way to quelling Daemar's anxiety, " I will allow your invalids to leave, brother, on one condition. "

Daemar turned his cunning green eyes on Hercules, " Just so I know that this isn't some sort of trick, you must be my guest until dawn, Hercules. Once the sun rises, you will be free to leave. I give my word on it. What do you say? "

Prince Laelin and Hercules exchanged glances before the prince answered,

" Daemar, how can you question the integrity of someone like Hercules? If I was you, I wouldn't get on his bad side, you know? I've seen him when he's angry. ", Laelin said in desperation.

Daemar was adamant, " That's my condition, take it or leave it. If Hercules truly wants to avoid this battle, then this is his only way out. "

Hercules spread his huge hands before him in a gesture of compliance, " I have no objection, your highness, but I urge you both to do your utmost to avoid a battle. It will only cause more suffering. Prove that you truly care for your people. Find a way to stop this war once and for all! ", he implored with genuine passion.

Daemar was unmoved by Hercules's plea. Shaking his head, the younger prince headed for the door, " You aren't at all what your legend portrays you to be, Hercules! ", he said in a disillusioned voice.

He paused at the door, " I will expect you an hour after sunset, Hercules. If you are even a minute late, our agreement is off. Understand? "

He didn't wait for an answer and stormed out of the chamber leaving Prince Laelin frowning over this twist.

Hercules started for the door himself but noticed the prince's worry. In a decidedly unworried voice, he said, " Don't worry, I'll find some way to slip away from your brother's camp. Nothing changes."

Prince Laelin realised that this was the last time he would be speaking to his fabled friend. His voice was somewhat sad as he said , " Please be careful, Hercules, and have a safe trip to Kavalla. When you're reunited, please thank Iolaus for me, too. I appreciate all that you've both done on my behalf. "

He extended his hand and Hercules accepted it warmly, " Good luck, Laelin. It's been a pleasure to meet you. "

Then, with a parting smile, Hercules departed.

Iolaus ran as if the hound of hell was after him. He was an excellent runner and neither the gloom nor the foreignness of the terrain seemed to matter as he tore through the under-brush. He had no idea where he was going or what lay ahead but it had to be better than what he'd left behind.

At length he paused to catch his breath and assess his situation. Crouching in the shadow of an immense tree, Iolaus gulped air desperately into his starving lungs and listened...

The soldiers pursuing him were either incredibly clumsy or stupid given the tremendous racket they raised. Iolaus surveyed his surroundings carefully. He could hear that there were many hunters at large but as of yet he couldn't see any of them.

Standing up very slowly, Iolaus decided to try to put abit more distance between himself and pursuit rather than turning to fight. As he set off at a moderate clip, his constant companions of late - exhaustion, pain and nausea - dogged his every stride and syphoned his rapidly dwindling reserve of stamina.

Gone were any thoughts of aggression, replaced by simple self-preservation. As game as Iolaus was, he had no delusions. In his present condition he was no match for anybody... his only hope was to run or hide.

As he ran, Iolaus became aware that the ground was steadily dropping away. The steep pitch added zest to his flight but almost precipitated his demise too because suddenly he found himself careening helplessly towards the brink of a rugged ravine. He grasped frantically at bushes and trees as he plowed past in an effort to stop, all to no avail. Finally in desperation, he deliberately threw himself on the ground, hoping to break his momentum. It was perhaps a reckless act and, as he tumbled and somersaulted down the slope, it exacted a painful price but it proved in the end to be effective.

Iolaus came to rest on the very brow of the flint-grey granite cliff. The rigours of his fall on top of everything else conspired to knock him senseless and he lay sprawled, bruised and bleeding, on the verge of disaster for a long time.

Gaia made her way west through the forests and intercepted her lieutenant Nicos and the rebels he was bringing to reinforce Hydraxis.

It was not an happy reunion. The princess was defensive, still very upset over losing so many of her fighters and would not elaborate on what had transpired except to snap that Hydraxis had been lost.

Nicos knew better than to press the matter and wisely changed the subject, " I have some news from Trevallis.", he announced as he dismounted to join his leader. As Gaia looked at her hardy, seasoned right-hand man, she read the well- repressed excitement in his light brown eyes and braced herself, " Prince Daemar's army has the castle surrounded. He seems to be waiting for General Bane's arrival before launching a full-scale attack. "

This was not entirely unexpected news but it couldn't have come at a worse time. Still, such were the foibles of armed conflict and she was not about to whine over timing when there was precious little time to get done what had to be done.

" Nicos, take a dozen of your best and ride to General Rhendos's camp as quickly as you can. I don't know whether Prince Laelin was able to send a messenger himself and I'm not about to take a chance that he didn't. ", she said, her face a mask of perplexion and worry not reflected in the calmness of her voice. Panic and indecision were luxuries she never indulged in and she had self-control down to a fine art.

Nicos nodded and inquired curiously, " You will warn General Beldorian then? "

Gaia smiled in response. Just before disappearing into the forest again, she addressed her rebels, " This is the battle we've been waiting for - and dreading - all through this stupid war! I will join you as soon as I rendez-vous with Iolaus and we alert General Beldorian to the situation. "

Nicos was surprised, " Prince Laelin's champion escaped Bane, too? Where is he? "

The princess hesitated a moment to answer his query, " He's out there somewhere but I'll find him. ", and then vanished without a trace as if she'd only been a figment of their imagination.

Nicos sighed. He was accustomed to Gaia's impetuosity but her independence still managed to drive him nuts.

Iolaus woke up very slowly, a sense at a time. At first he feared that he was paralysed but gradually realised it was his innate self-preservation that was preventing him from moving. The view was panoramic as his vision cleared and the reason for his uncanny caution became alarmingly obvious. He moved his head slightly and grimaced at the surge of nauseating dizziness that touched off.

It took alot of tenacity and concentration to resist the tempting siren song of peaceful, painless, impotent oblivion but resist it he did, with all his might. With every moment that passed Iolaus felt stronger, more determined and even somewhat confident. Gradually, his addled thoughts settled down to the task at hand.

Moving with great care and deliberation, Iolaus sat up. Like an inverted crab he began to ease himself away from the edge on all fours. He'd only moved a few feet when his sixth sense forced him to pause. Helios's fiery chariot was low in the sky nearing the end of its long daily journey, leaving in its wake very deep shadows full of menace.

Without conscious thought Iolaus reverted to instinct. With a swiftness that surprised even him, he rolled to his feet and plunged into the surrounding sanctuary of the forest.

Even though it was nearly impossible to see in the gloom, he moved with silent, fleet-footed assurance, senses tuned not just to his own movement but to all those around him.

As pursuit closed in, Iolaus sought and found a place to make his stand.

Between the massive gnarled knees of just one of the forest's collection of impressive gigantic oaks, Iolaus crouched and carefully drew his sword.

His sharp azure eyes scanned the forests with practised efficiency.

Long before the first enemy came into view, though, Iolaus had ducked down behind his refuge, relying totally upon hearing and a wealth of experience that kept his eagerness in check until just the right moment.

Leaping over the huge root, Iolaus brought the hilt of his sword down on the neck of his pursuer. The body and his feet touched the ground at the same time.

Standing over his vanquished rival, an aberrant ray of pale sunlight glanced off of the gleaming blade of his sword and caught Iolaus's attention.

Frowning with complete bewilderment, he examined the splendid weapon in minute detail, muttering under his breath,

" Where did I get this? "

His frown deepened as the maelstrom of distorted and fragmented images that represented his memory refused to coalesce. He put a hand to his head as though that might help his concentration but the lump he found there only intensified his confusion, " What in Hades has happened to me? " Other questions began to press incessantly into his consciousness. Who I am? Where am I?

His preoccupation was shattered when an arrow soared out of nowhere, snagged the leather arm-band on his right wrist and pinned him firmly to the rough, twisted oak appendage.

Even as Iolaus grabbed the arrow to pull it free, two more enemies rushed out of the darkness towards him. Though his range of movement was somewhat hindered by his immobility, that didn't stop Iolaus from putting up a fight.

With a powerful windmill kick, Iolaus knocked the firstmost attacker flying backwards. He collided with his cohort and both staggered off-balance as Iolaus broke the arrow and wrenched himself free.

Another arrow bit into the oak mere inches from him and, without further encouragement, he beat a hasty retreat behind the colossal tree.

Lurking in the oak's sheltering shadow, Iolaus winced at his grazed wrist as he switched the sword to his other hand. His memory might be an unbelievable mess but his mind was clear and racing.

Knowing that he had very little time in which to act, he sheathed his sword, reached up and vanished into the dense over-hanging branches scant seconds before yet another arrow thudded into the oak in the spot where he'd paused.

Crouching on one of the oak's sturdy secondary branches, a faint crooked grin relieved the frown on Iolaus's face for a moment - that archer was a damn good shot - before an intense look of cunning took over as he stealthily began to make his way along the bough.

Two more arrows cut through the cool air, one passing just behind Iolaus and the other lodging in the branch a fraction shy of his right foot. By then Iolaus had succeeded in locating the elusive archer and, while he was re-arming, dropped down on top of him.

The surprised bowman swung his crossbow in desperation but Iolaus kicked it out of his hands. As the archer turned to flee, the other two enemies came hurtling into the fray.

Iolaus managed to side-step the first but the second bowled him off of his feet, sending him flying into the tangle of nearby bushes.

Eventually he would've liberated himself but his pursuers were impatient. He was hauled kicking and squirming out of one predicament into the heart of another as the two swords and crossbow of his rivals greeted his exasperated glance up from his position on the ground in the centre of their unfriendly midst.

One of the trio stepped forward and jabbed his sword point against Iolaus's collarbone, growling, " Move an inch and you're carrion for the crows. "

His partner quickly disarmed Iolaus while he gloated, " General Bane is going to be very pleased at this turn of events. "

Brushing aside his humiliation, an overwhelming wave of frustration prompted Iolaus to blurt, " Who is this, this General Bane?... and who are you? Why are you chasing me? "

His questions seemed to amuse his captors immensely as they laughed heartily at his outburst.

' See if you find this as funny! ', Iolaus thought grimly, kicking out and up with blinding speed and precision.

His right foot knocked the crossbow flying while his left connected with the tender inner thigh of the unfortunate archer, doubling him over in instant agony. As Iolaus rolled away from them, coming to his feet poised for action, he heard the loud crack and then caught the lightning strike of a bullwhip as it snapped the sword out of one of his rival's hands.

He didn't have an opportunity to contemplate this intervention but he was immensely heartened by it all the same.

Iolaus caught the free-falling crossbow neatly in his left hand seconds before decking the incapacitated archer with a solid right uppercut.

Shaking his jolted wrist Iolaus whirled in time to catch a raised sword about to be thrust into one of his enemies. " Wait! Don't! ", he cried with such alarm that the person wielding the sword hesitated.

In the harsh half-light it was difficult to make out little more than vague shapes let alone facial features but as Iolaus deliberately aimed the crossbow, he made contact with a pair of stunning green eyes, " Please, whoever you are, don't kill him. I have enough problems, I don't need his death on my conscience, too. ", he pleaded, keeping his voice, gaze and weapon remarkably steady.

What seemed like an eternity passed before there was any reaction to his words. Then the hand which held the unconscious soldier loosened its grip and he slumped to the ground.

Princess Gaia lowered her sword and stepped cautiously towards Iolaus, " I have enough deaths on my conscience to last a lifetime already... ", she said, frowning as he backed away from her approach.

Gaia stopped, realisation draining the flush of her recent activity from her pretty face, " Oh, By the Runes!..., you don't recognise me, do you, my friend? ", she whispered, bracing herself for an answer she didn't want to hear.

As expected Iolaus shook his head but his reply gave the princess cause for hope, " I'm... not sure... There is something very familiar about you... besides, why else would you help me if we didn't know each other... right? "

Smiling her most reassuring smile, Gaia slowly sheathed her sword, saying, " Right... We are friends, Iolaus. I didn't chance upon you just now either. I've been looking for you all afternoon... "

Though she kept her voice calm and her demeanour unaffected, Gaia was acutely aware that they didn't have time right now to be engaging in conversation, meaningful or otherwise.

Bane's soldiers were all around them and the sooner they got out of here, the better. " I need your help. ", she added, some portion of her underlying anxiety transmitting itself to Iolaus, who was on edge aswell.

He quickly assessed his options and then chose a leap of faith, making his decision based purely on intuition.

The moment Iolaus dropped his defensive stance, Gaia was urging him to run. The cacophony of reinforcements converging on that vicinity from all directions was growing louder by the second so, without a word, Iolaus and Gaia slipped into the shadows.

Graced with alot of natural stealth, the soldiers' appalling lack of woodlore and some over-due luck, the two fugitives made excellent progress.

Gaia lead the way, blazing a trail that gradually took them down into the same craggy ravine at whose edge Iolaus had recently dangled so precariously.

There their progress slowed considerably because of the terrain but the deafening rush of the river and the ever-deepening shadows made them virtually undetectable from above.

At length they came to a narrow cleft in the towering wall of granite. Gaia climbed over a huge boulder and disappeared completely into the gloom beyond.

Iolaus hesitated, eyeing the oppressive canyon walls with apprehension. He was feeling quite disoriented and, try as he might, he still could not place this pretty, very self-reliant young woman and that bothered him more than all the weariness and pain his body kept reminding him it had endured. There were so many questions and such a disarray of images, memories and terrifying blanks careening around in his head that he was finding it an increasingly difficult task just to keep his mind on the present.

His attention was attracted by the flare of a torch as Gaia reappeared, beckoning him impatiently, " Iolaus? C'mon, get in here. We need to talk. "

In the centre of a spacious cavern Gaia had lit a fire. As he followed her inside, Iolaus noticed neat piles of furs, kindling, pottery, and weapons stored among the cavern's secretive shadows.

A faint smile of admiration replaced the stern mask of tension which he had worn since taking flight, " Nice place you have here. ", he remarked, holding out his hands to warm them over the campfire while continuing his visual exploration, " Hmm, even has running water... ", he added, noting the telltale gurgle of an underground stream from somewhere deeper in the cave.

Gaia was adding more kindling to the fire, " It isn't a palace but it's an excellent hide-out. ", smiling at his idle chatter, but as she glanced up at him that smile abruptly disappeared, " For the love of Apollo, why didn't you tell me you were injured? ", she exclaimed.

Just for a second Iolaus was taken aback but then recalled the bump on his head, " Ah, well... don't worry about that. It's an old wound... " '...atleast, I THINK it is? ', his mind added uncertainly.

Gaia collected a bowl of water and some linen for bandages which she placed on the ground in the fire-light.

She shook her head as she waved for Iolaus to sit upon one of the smooth little stones that encircled the fire, " I'm not talking about that... ", she answered.

In response to his obvious puzzlement, the princess reached out, taking Iolaus's right hand in hers and only then did he see that it was covered in blood. " Ah, that... well, it's just a scratch... ", he essayed, flinching as Gaia began to untie the laces of his gauntlet, " It looks alot worse than it is. ", he said and smiled sheepishly when Gaia threw him an amused look.

Suddenly in his mind's eye he saw the figure of another woman kneeling before him, tending to a wound of his... an older woman with honey-brown hair and gentle cerulean blue eyes... he heard her voice, very faintly but ever so comforting, "...I think I've put more stitches in both you and Hercules than I have in all the clothes I've ever sewn in my entire life - when will you ever learn?... "

Iolaus felt a small twinge of pain as Gaia began to wash the nick on his wrist but he also felt a much deeper, more profound feeling of loss as the image in his mind dissipated...

He sighed deeply and looked down on the young woman gently bandaging him, " Who are you? ", he asked.

Without guile, Gaia replied, " My name is Gaia. I'm a friend. "

Her marvelous green eyes were warm with compassion as she met Iolaus', " You have amnesia, my friend... Do you remember anything? ", she asked hopefully.

There wasn't much time before they would have to leave here again and there was so much he needed to know... ' so much I need to know ', Gaia realised abruptly.

For several moments Iolaus was lost in thought. The fire-light washed across his face and seemed to accentuate the strain Gaia read there.

Impulsively she gently squeezed his now clean hand in a gesture of encouragement and yes, she conceded, even affection...

Those vivid azure eyes, which were the windows on a soul so sweet that not even the turmoil that plagued it now was readily evident, smiled tenderly at her and lifted her spirits tremendously.

Iolaus was leaning forward to kiss Gaia when his eye fell upon the hilt of her sword and he suddenly remembered...

" Oh, no...! My sword! I left it behind... Laelin will have my head! ", he shouted frantically, jumping to his feet so unexpectedly that he almost knocked Gaia over in his haste.

He took several steps towards the entrance and then stopped as if paralysed.

Princess Gaia was alarmed by his abrupt, erratic behaviour. As she scrambled to her feet and rushed to his side, she thought the look on his face seemed almost... ecstatic?

Iolaus looked at her and laughed with delight, " I remember you... your highness... and I remember Prince Laelin and Chaeson and Hercules, too. "

He sounded as relieved as Gaia felt but then his happiness dissolved into grief-tinged anger, " I also remember Hydraxis... all too well! ", he seethed.

Gaia shook her head, " Hydraxis is history, Iolaus. We have another much greater problem now. ", she informed him.

Iolaus nodded, " You better tell me about it, your highness... quickly! "

The warrior who had single-handedly confronted Bane was back and not a moment too soon.

While Princess Gaia explained the situation at Trevallis, Iolaus paced back and forth, growing steadily more agitated as the peril to his friend became clear to him.

Gaia watched him guardedly, wondering whether the amnesia Iolaus was suffering was any cushion against her alarming news.

As she began to broach the subject of going together to summon General Beldorian, Iolaus paused in his restlessness.

Gaia waited, expecting Iolaus might have made a decision already.

He had but she was relieved that it wasn't what she'd feared.

From the supply of weapons, Iolaus retrieved a quiver and filled it with arrows. He unfastened his empty dagger sheath from his belt and put one of the small, keen knives from the weapons cache into it. Then he slipped the sheath inside his right boot. As he tested several bows, he surprised Gaia by asking, " You're not confident that Prince Laelin was able to get any couriers out of Trevallis before his brother's army arrived...? "

By her place at the fire, the lovely champion of the people smiled approvingly. ' Cute AND clever, too. ', she thought before continuing, " I doubt it. I know where Beldorian's camp is located and I am go... "

Iolaus stood up, quiver over one shoulder and his chosen bow in hand, interrupting her sentence, " am I. " He peered out of the cavern entrance and nodded in satisfaction, " If we leave now, we can be half-way there by the time the moon is over-head. "

Princess Gaia moved to Iolaus's side. She stood silently beside him for several long moments, watching the gathering darkness lessen the intensity on his face but fail miserably to dull the light in his eyes.

Then for the second time that day she acted on impulse and laid a hand on his shoulder, " Try not to worry, my friend. If there's one person on earth who can look out for himself, it's Hercules. ", she said with quiet confidence.

Iolaus reached up and patted her hand gratefully, sighing and smiling at the same time, " Thank you, Gaia. I can't help myself. "

He chuckled ironically, " It's strange but right now, YOU probably know more about Hercules than I do! I can still only remember... pieces of things... it's very... annoying! "

He smiled bravely and squared his shoulders decisively, " Well, if you're ready, I think we'd better be going. "

Gaia nodded affirmatively and moved past him as he sighed to himself, " When Hercules is safe - when I see that with my own eyes - then I'll stop worrying... " He shook his head hopelessly, " ...maybe. "

Without further ado, they set out on their trek just as Helios was reluctantly surrendering the skies to Erebus.

At exactly that precise moment in time many miles away the gates of Trevallis castle swung open and Hercules drove a wagon of injured men through it. Prince Laelin watched solemnly from the parapets but Hercules didn't pause or look back.

As he neared the forbidding gloom of the forest the son of Zeus tried to tell himself that there was nothing amiss but that wasn't what his intuition kept telling him. More and more flickering pin-points of light became visible amongst the trees but still Hercules was reluctant to stop. He fought the urge to spur the horses on and forget his agreement with Prince Daemar but it soon became apparent that that possibility had already been anticipated and countered by the prince in the form of a substantial roadblock.

As the wagon came to a squeaky halt and the myriad embers of light drew nearer, Hercules handed the reins to Thadeus with the best smile he could force under the circumstances, " This is where I get off, my friend. Have a safe trip and a good life."

He jumped out of the wagon and turned to face a knot of very hostile- looking soldiers, " Evening, fellas, will somebody please tell Prince Daemar that I'm here... oh, and would acouple of you mind giving me a hand to move this blockade so the wagon can pass...? ", he spoke quickly and with characteristic polite earnestness but expected little in return.

It was an attempt to stall, size up the enemy and dream up a plan to deal with what felt very much like a trap.

When there was absolutely no reaction to his words, Hercules sighed and shook his head, " Look, guys, I have no quarrel with you. So, before somebody gets hurt, just back off. I'll clear the road by myself. "

He moved towards the stack of logs piled across the road. It only took one good look for him to realise where the timber had come from... these were remnants of the catapults he'd demolished.

His fists clenched as he murmured, " Oh-oh... " while in the pit of his stomach, anxiety began to writhe uncomfortably.

At last a voice spoke from the darkness, " So, you're the mighty Hercules, huh? Why are you playing nursemaid to a pathetic bunch of cripples? Are you tired of fighting or something? "

The cold, contemptuous tone deepened Hercules's burgeoning irritation but he simply shrugged as he searched the shadows trying to identify the mystery speaker, " Look, what's-your-name, quit playing games, alright? I'm really not in the mood. Where's Prince Daemar? I need to speak to him... NOW!"

Several shapes detached themselves from the mass of blackness in front of Hercules. As they approached accompanied by five or six torch-bearing soldiers, Prince Daemar shook his head and addressed the tall, scar-faced man that walked beside him, " I really am disappointed. For all the hype, I expected so much more..."

Hercules ignored the prince's derogatory farrago, letting his anger colour his words as he shot back, " We had an agreement, Daemar. I've kept my end of the deal, one way or another, you're going to keep yours! Let these men pass and I promise not to interfere in your affairs any further."

General Bane approached Hercules haughtily. He studied the impassive hero for several long moments and then drew his sword. As he raised the gleaming weapon in front of Hercules's face, Bane exulted in the anxiety that sprang into the demigod's eyes as he recognised it.

Grinning darkly Bane hissed, " I knew that Iolaus was no ordinary soldier- of-fortune. Once King Daemar told me that you were in Trevallis, I realised who he had to be..."

Hercules glowered down on Bane but the general was unintimidated. He pointed with the sword towards the wagon, " Just where were these cripples bound? ", he demanded. Hercules knew a rhetorical question when he heard one. Bane was almost bursting with pleasure as he continued, " If it was Hydraxis, I'm afraid they're too late. "

The general lashed out suddenly and kicked Hercules's injured leg out from under him. He fell to his knees awkwardly and as he struggled to retain his composure, Bane laughed in his face, " Despite the heroics of your combative ally, Hercules, and the spunky Princess Gaia, Hydraxis is nothing but a big pile of smoking rubble now!"

Bane leaned his ugly face close to Hercules' as his sinister black eyes bored intensely into his indigo eyes, " Iolaus is dead! "

He stepped back and signalled to a group of soldiers still cloaked in the darkness, " He put up a brave fight, I admit but in the end, he was simply over- matched! "

As Chaeson and Phineas were lead out into his view, Hercules closed his eyes dejectedly, " He fought for Hydraxis... and lost. He tried to defend Chaeson... and lost. He even lost the sword Prince Laelin gave to him... then he finally lost his life!", Bane brayed maddeningly.

Hercules shook his head vigorously and bellowed, " You lie! Iolaus can't be dead...!" He couldn't be! How could Iolaus die and he not know, not sense it somehow?

Bane roared at Hercules's desperate denial, " You know your friend better than anybody, hero? Could I capture Chaeson AND Laelin's sword any other way? "

The truth of Bane's point twisted like a knife in Hercules's heart. Gradually the son of Zeus's expression slipped from furious, stubborn disbelief to indescribable sorrow. His mind reeled, spinning from one incoherent thought to the next as an excruciating mantle of heavy, almost paralysing grief engulfed his body. Then, in his mind's eye, his memory mercilessly projected an image of Iolaus... only this time that brilliant smile elicited tears of guilt and heartache rather than joy.

Yards away Chaeson hung his head in abject defeat. When the soldiers had returned from the forests claiming to have killed Iolaus and brandishing Laelin's sword as evidence to that effect, the elderly centaur had been profoundly affected. His initial reaction had been exactly the same as Hercules'.


Despite apparent irrefutable fact, Chaeson had obstinately clung to an infinitesimal thread of hope... until now. It seemed as if Hercules's bitter acceptance of his ally's tragic fate made the once unthinkable a reality.

Not only was the prince's champion lost but so, too, the weary old sage conceded, was this war. Daemar and Bane would be victorious.

The battle royale was over... Eskander was doomed.

As if his friend were standing right next to him, Hercules heard Iolaus saying, "...without you I am nobody. "

Brushing hot tears from his pale face, Hercules stood up, mighty fists clenched at his sides, ' No, my friend. It is I who am nobody without you! '

All around him, Bane's soldiers tensed as he strafed them with ferocious indigo eyes, " Take your best shot, boys. You won't get a second chance! "

One man against an army. Insane odds and not a risk that a rational man like Hercules would normally have taken but these were abnormal circumstances.

He defeated man after man after man, advancing steadily towards General Bane and Prince Daemar. At first the prince had stood by watching smugly, confident that this charlatan of a legend would soon join his late unlamented partner in Hades but it soon became obvious that that was not going to happen.

In exasperation, General Bane grabbed the crossbow from one of his archers who had not been able to establish a clear shot because of the frenzied melée that engulfed Hercules. The sinister general deliberately killed three of his own soldiers in order to expose and distract his target.

Swaying with exhaustion and not a little pain in the centre of a chaotic mass of groaning, writhing bodies, Hercules did not see Bane take aim at him from the shadows... but Chaeson did.

The noble old centaur gathered all his waning strength and leapt, throwing his body between Bane and Hercules even as the arrow left the bow. Time and motion seemed to move very slowly as Hercules, taking advantage of the gap Bane had created, dove forwards, somersaulted and regained his footing just in time to see Chaeson topple to the ground only feet away. That diverted Hercules's attention away from his powerful thirst for vengeance and momentarily stunned both Bane and Prince Daemar.

Kneeling beside the fallen healer, Hercules knew as soon as he saw Chaeson's injury that it was fatal even for a being as resilient as a centaur. The rage in his indigo eyes softened to shades of cerulean sadness as Chaeson's body ceased its struggle and grew very still. Hercules reached out, touching yet another slain friend's shoulder and bowed his head in sorrow, " Rest my brave friend. Your death will not be in vain. I swear it! " Behind him, a soldier swung a huge club and before Hercules could react, the blow temporarily freed him from one pain-filled moment in time but did not save him from worse yet to come.

On the shores of a lake about twenty miles away from Trevallis, Iolaus leaned against the smooth bole of a poplar tree gasping. Beside him, Princess Gaia was doubled over fighting for air, too.

Their flight had been remarkably unhindered as they tore through the pitch- black woodlands, moving with barely a sound at impressive speed. Overhead Selena was just beginning to emerge from behind dark clouds, sprinkling the lake with glittering moondust.

Although his legs felt like wet noodles, Iolaus pushed himself away from the tree and stood, hands on hips, grimacing at the silvery waters ahead, " Your... highness... how much farther... is this camp? ", he asked, before looking up to study the night sky to get his bearings.

Gaia had moved to kneel by the water's edge to take a drink but paused as her eye was caught by the image of Iolaus so strikingly illuminated by a soft beam of moonlight that she forgot all about being thirsty.

As she rose, moonlight wreathed her in its ethereal aura, making Iolaus's heart skip a beat with the vision of beauty thus created.

The beautiful princess and the handsome hunter looked at each other and the physical attraction which had existed between them from the beginning became irresistible desire. They reached out simultaneously, pulling one another into the other's arms and then, bathed in the moon's shimmering glow, they kissed.

For long moments they remained entwined until the sharp crack of a twig snapping underfoot caught their ears and they immediately parted, tense and alarmed at the unrelenting approach of danger.

Iolaus pulled Gaia towards a group of massive boulders clustered near the lakeshore. By the time they ducked behind them, Gaia had her sword in her hand and Iolaus was fitting an arrow to his bow, " If these are Bane's men, I'll eat my talisman.", he stated categorically, echoing the princess's thoughts, " General Beldorian's camp is just across the lake. The woods around here are probably teeming with his patrols... "

Despite their assumptions neither of the rebels was prepared to take a chance, however, and stayed hidden as a quartet of soldiers slipped out of the trees and cautiously examined the lake side where they had stood moments before. Iolaus raised his bow and was taking aim when the strangest look crept across his face and he shuddered.

Gaia noticed his odd reaction and was instantly concerned, " Iolaus? What's wrong? Are you okay? "

He looked up at her and although he tried to smile the anxiety that clouded his eyes was poignant, " I have this... FEELING that Hercules is in ... danger. " He winced as the ache in his head which up until then had been barely noticeable suddenly intensified.

Gaia saw both the pain in his eyes before he looked away and in the abrupt rigidity in his body language. Gently she pushed him down to a sitting position behind the boulders and whispered, " Just be still, my friend. These soldiers are wearing the insignia of the royal house of Eskander... They're not Bane's men. Stay here. I'll go talk to them and we'll be with the general in no time..."

She started to rise but Iolaus grabbed her hand and her attention. Although his voice was barely a whisper, his words were nevertheless alarming, " No, Gaia, I can't wait! I have to go... NOW!"

Gaia and Iolaus looked at one another for a long while; he trying empathically to convey to her the sense of desperation... of foreboding he was feeling and she searching for a sign that he was mad for surely he couldn't be serious...?

Iolaus raised her hand to his lips and kissed it tenderly but his eyes never left Gaia's face, " Gaia... I can't explain it but.. Hercules needs me! " He looked away for a split-second as if to gather strength but then looked back up at her with such earnest determination on his face that the princess sighed, finding it impossible to doubt his sincerity or conviction.

Soundlessly Gaia firmly placed the hilt of her sword in Iolaus's hand, " Please, don't lose this one! ", she said, covering the quiver in her voice with a radiant smile.

Before Iolaus could protest, the brave princess continued, " Keep to the lake shore,", she instructed him quickly, pointing in the opposite direction, " until you come to a river. It will guide you all the way to Trevallis... "

She began to move away but again Iolaus held her back, " Gaia... please, be careful! ", he pleaded and Gaia smiled, touched by his concern, " Practice what you preach, my friend... and never fear, I won't be far behind you! "

They kissed and then parted reluctantly, going their separate ways but knowing in their hearts that they would meet again.

With the coming of night, the forbidding forests had become a realm of shifting ghostly mists haunted by sinister movements from within shadows so dark and deep that Selena's silvery moonbeams could not penetrate. Even amidst the glow of campfire or torchlight, the chilling veil of Erebus numbed both body and soul and set nerves on edge.

At first Hercules thought he was surrounded by a universe of twinkling fireflies but as his eyes focussed and he returned, shivering in the cold night air and groaning with pain, to reality, he realised the fireflies were actually torches held in the hands of a multitude of soldiers all around him. He grimaced as the ache in his head was exacerbated by a cruel voice from somewhere behind him saying, " Ah, welcome back, Hercules. You're just in time for your execution! "

The taunt by Bane normally would've amused Hercules but this time his mind was elsewhere. He looked up, braving a sickening wave of dizziness, to see both of his wrists bound by thick coils of stout rope and tightly lashed to the solid limb of an enormous oak. He fought consciousness, dreading the onslaught of heart- rending memories. He felt sapped of energy and devoid of strength but the ominous crack of a cat-o-nine-tails succeeded in rousing him where his spirit had failed.

Though it caused the rough ropes to bite into his gauntletless wrists Hercules strained to look over his shoulder. He frowned in consternation to see Bane raise an arm and cast his whip towards a nearby tree. It sent a shower of shredded bark in all directions and Hercules's eyes widened with alarm.

His reaction made Bane laugh but it was Prince Daemar who remarked coldly,

" There are nine little baubles of lead on the ends of that instrument... " as he stepped out of the shadows, a smug expression twisting his features into an ugly mask. His malevolent eyes met Hercules' piercing indigo gaze as he continued, "...which, as you have seen, can inflict far more damage than an ordinary whip could ever do. "

Hercules glared at the prince for several moments and then turned away in disgust, " You are one sick puppet, Daemar, and the puppeteer isn't any better! "

The prince's green eyes, so like his brothers' yet so totally different, gleamed eerily in the torchlight as several soldiers hastily wrapped a chain around Hercules's ankles and fastened it to the ground with an iron stake a foot below where he dangled, " We'll see how spirited you are after Bane gets through with you, hero! ", Daemar responded in a vicious, arrogant voice.

Hercules wasn't paying attention to the prince any longer. Although he dredged up some will power to fuel a brief struggle, it was to no avail. Even with his vaunted strength, splayed in mid-air with no way to get any leverage rendered him as helpless as any man. The suffocating pall that engulfed his soul did not help at all either. For the first time in his life Hercules truly did not care whether he lived or died.

Prince Daemar, annoyed by Hercules's disinterest, was just turning away when the son of Zeus spoke, " Honour your promise, Daemar. " Eyes of penetrating midnight-blue met the prince's bemused contemplative glance. It was mostly curiosity and not integrity that caused him to ask, "What promise? "

Hercules replied, " Let the wagon from Trevallis pass. "

The prince considered for a moment before nodding, " If you are still alive by sunrise, I will let your band of misfits go. In other words... if you die, they die! "

Laelin's brother could see the outrage in both Hercules's eyes and in his abrupt refreshed attempt to break free which amply satisfied his inherent sadistic streak. As he turned away, sneering at Hercules's impotence, he added, " Better save your strength, big guy. Dawn is a long way away. "

" I'm warning you, Daemar. If you harm those people, dead or alive, I will make you pay for it! Watch your back! ", Hercules shouted, his words embued with far more spirit than he was actually feeling as he gave up his struggle to escape.

Behind him General Bane grinned a grin of pure evil as he cocked his arm, " Brave words, Hercules, but I'd worry about my own back if I was you! "

Iolaus followed the river faithfully moving through the trees with all the ease and speed of one of the forest's own spirits only with far more purpose. When his sixth sense abruptly froze him in his tracks and his sharp eyes detected the flicker of campfires and torches piercing the shadows ahead, behind and all around him, Iolaus knew his objective wasn't much farther.

He advanced slowly, bow at the ready, keeping to the darkest patches of blackened woodland until he found himself on the fringe of an expanse of open terrain. The sombre bulk of Trevallis was easily discernible awash in Selena's frail golden light.

All his instincts told him to venture out there would be tantamount to suicide but he HAD to reach that castle. Exasperated, Iolaus was just about to bolt for his objective when he noticed a blaze of concentrated torch light on the far side of the clearing. He frowned and curiously began to make his way towards it.

He soon came to a very well travelled road. He paused to catch his breath and to contemplate what might lie ahead. His frown deepened as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. There were no soldiers posted on the road and he had hardly seen any patrols or sentries anywhere. Either this was an extremely confident army or else the soldiers were busy elsewhere...

Suddenly the cold, still night air was shattered by an heart-stopping cry of agony.

Iolaus, sitting at the base of a large tree, was on his feet in a twinkling, dread and alarm vying for supremacy on his face. There was not a doubt in his mind, muddled as it might be, as to whom that tormented voice belonged! He started towards the sound but froze when several shadows leapt out of the darkness and surrounded him.

It was far too dark to see more than indistinct shapes but that didn't deter Iolaus. Using his bow, he lashed out with it and drove one of the looming hulks back before turning the weapon and his feet against some of others.

The speed, power and ferocity of Iolaus's reaction caught his would-be assailants completely off-guard and within minutes he stood gasping in the midst of half a dozen fallen opponents.

He threw his broken bow on the ground and spun to depart but hesitated as one of the indistinguishable bodies spoke, " For a ghost, you sure pack a whallop! "

Curiosity over-rode anxiety prompting Iolaus to cautiously approach the slowly rising enigma, " Ghost? What are you talking about? ", he demanded, straining to identify who he was addressing; right hand firmly grasping the hilt of his as yet unsheathed sword.

" I am Nicos, second-in-command of Princess Gaia's rebels. I was at Hydraxis, remember? ", the voice explained calmly.

Iolaus felt a slight flush of embarrassment as he exclaimed, " Oh! Uh, well, you guys really shouldn't sneak up on a person like that... you could get hurt! "

The rebel chuckled ruefully, " Right! Should've known better than to startle the king's champion! " Then his tone became serious, " The princess was looking for you. You're in the wrong place at the wrong time, my friend. When the dawn comes, so will war! "

Under his breath Iolaus muttered, " Looks like I'm just in time for the party! "

Again he turned to leave but Nicos seized his arm, " Listen to me! You know Bane holds prisoners - Phineas from Hydraxis, about two dozen of Prince Laelin's wounded... and your friend, Hercules?! There's nothing you can do alone except endanger their lives all the more. Come with us until sunrise. Then if you want to fight, join us... the choice is up to you. "

Iolaus impatiently shook off Nicos's hand, " That's right; it's up to me and I am NOT leaving Hercules in that monster's hands until dawn! I'll rescue him and the others, if I can. NOW! "

He started away but then stopped abruptly and looked back over his shoulder at Nicos, " You didn't mention Chaeson... why?", he asked, dreading the reply.

From the refuge of the forest Nicos had witnessed Hercules's earlier battle. He'd also seen Chaeson's sacrifice and though his reply was blunt his voice conveyed the depth of his sorrow, " The chauncellor is dead! "

The words were barely out of his mouth when Iolaus grabbed the rebel leader by his tunic and pulled him so close that even in the darkness Nicos could see the cold fury in the hunter's vivid cobalt eyes, " Was it Bane? ", Iolaus seethed.

Nicos simply nodded. As the grip on him relaxed significantly, Gaia's lieutenant explained quietly, " Bane was about to shoot Hercules... Chaeson jumped in between them! He gave his life for your friend... will you give yours, too? "

Iolaus released Nicos and replied without hesitation, " Yes. If it comes to that. "

He sighed wearily as he turned to find five swords levelled at him, " Do we have to go through this again? ", he grumbled but before he could move he felt the cold, sharp point of Nicos's sword pressed against the small of his back, " I'm sorry, my friend. There's too much at stake... thousands of lives hang in the balance. If you try to rescue Hercules and Bane captures you... we can't take the risk that you might inadvertently reveal our presence here... I hope you understand, it's nothing personal. ", the rebel said with genuine regret.

Iolaus shook his head, " Why did you call me a ghost earlier? ", he asked, feigning curiosity though he had an entirely different, subtle motive. Nicos's voice was still remorseful as he replied, " Bane thinks that you're dead, friend. His soldiers brough him Laelin's sword... "

The rebel commander abruptly stopped speaking as he noticed that Iolaus still appeared to possess his sword. He immediately lowered his own weapon and ordered his men to do likewise before demanding, " Why on earth didn't you tell me that the princess sent you? " , in an exasperated voice.

Iolaus shrugged, " Because she didn't. "

He turned and faced the rebel, saying frankly, " I came here explicitly to rescue Hercules. " Stepping closer to the revolutionary, he continued in a conspiratorial tone, " However, if, in the process, we could stop this war right here and now, would you be interested? "

Gaia's lieutenant studied the bold golden-haired warrior who stood resolutely before him . What he proposed - seven against an army! - was preposterous but the sheer audacity of the idea and the twinkle of cunning in those vivid blue eyes appealed to the veteran of far too many battles. If there was even the slightest chance to put an end to this war now, he had to take it. Grinning, Nicos replied, " Count us in! What's the plan? "

Twenty minutes later Iolaus was wriggling meticulously through the undergrowth on his belly towards the edge of the brilliantly lit clearing. He squinted in the harsh light until his eyes adjusted, frowning in consternation and tensing instinctively at the unexpected spectacle of hundreds of soldiers ringing an oblong shaped glade intently watching something just out of his line of vision.

He flinched involuntarily at the unmistakable crack of a whip and then his heart nearly stopped in dread when a loud, agonised moan testified that its victim was very close at hand.

Desperately inching forward some more, Iolaus's anxious eyes finally found Hercules.

It took all of his will-power and discipline not to give voice to his horror and shock as a rapid farrago of emotional impulses swept through him, almost compelling him to act.


Though the storm that raged within made him tremble and brought tears of grief and frustration to his eyes, Iolaus held onto his self-control ferociously as he reluctantly examined his abused friend.

Hercules's head hung awkwardly, chin almost resting on his broad chest, his long sweat-dampened hair mercifully veiling his face. Blood trickled down his muscular arms from his lacerated wrists and although Iolaus could not see the deep, ugly gouges that marred the demigod's back because he was in front of him, enough sweat flecked with blood covered Hercules that the hunter didn't need to see to know. The whip cracked again and Hercules shuddered as the blow fell.

Beneath the bushes Iolaus buried his face in his arms to stiffle his cry of outrage, gritting his teeth and struggling against the over-powering urge to intervene. ' Hurry, Nicos! Please, friend, hurry! ', he subconsciously implored the rebels, ' I can't bear much more of this! '

As if in answer to his pleas, a din arose from the far end of the glen. Amidst the increasingly frantic disturbance, the frenzied neighing of panicked horses seemed to monopolise everybody's attention. Even Hercules seemed aware that something was happening and, as he rushed from cover, Iolaus caught a glimpse of deep blue eyes as his friend tried to lift his head enough to look.

Iolaus hesitated only a fraction of a second as he hurled his boot knife at the ropes that restrained his ally. Then, as that razor-sharp weapon freed one arm, Iolaus leapt into the air and sliced through the thick cords of the other with his sword.

As his feet touched the ground, he felt it quake and heard the increasing roar of hooved thunder as the stampede neared but his mind was completely on his task as he skillfully caught his falling ally.

Hercules was barely conscious but the sound of his friend's voice in his ear brought him back from the brink, " Herc? Hercules?! It's going to be alright! ", Iolaus whispered quickly as he struggled to unwrap the chain from around his partner's legs, keeping an eye on the approaching stampede and watching out for Bane all at the same time.

He sheathed his sword, ducked under Hercules's arm and stood up slowly, taking the full weight of his far larger and heavier friend onto his own strong shoulders. He wrapped one arm around his friend's waist, pulling his tortured body close to his, and tightly grasped Hercules's other hand to keep him from slipping then began to half-carry, half-drag him towards the beckoning shadows.

Several times Iolaus stumbled, partly from the burden he bore but mostly because he was trying to cover as much ground as possible as soon as possible. Strained muscles protested each time but Iolaus perservered.

Even after they entered the forest, Iolaus kept moving until they reached the sanctuary that he had earlier chosen.

Very gently, he lowered the unconscious Hercules to the ground, paused to make certain that they were unobserved and then dragged the son of Zeus swiftly into the shelter of a towering pine.

Under its thick sloping branches, the two friends were totally undetectable.

Iolaus took his vest off, folded it and slipped it under Hercules's head. In the pitch dark he could not see the horrible wounds that were painfully etched across his ally's back but he could sense his agony all the same.

He took a flask that he'd obtained from Nicos and gently held it to Hercules's parched lips.

There was little else he could do and that helplessness echoed in his hushed words as he said, " You're safe now, Herc. Everything is going to be fine now... trust me! "

He was glad for the darkness, glad that the worry that furled his brow could not be witnessed by his partner.

For, despite his optimistic words, Iolaus was very unsure that everything would indeed be fine. Here they were in the middle of nowhere smack in the midst of a war zone , wounded and exhausted... if they got out of this, it would be by sheer luck!

Iolaus lay down beside Hercules on the bed of soft, fragrant pine needles and winced at the pounding pain in his head. For several minutes he closed his eyes and as his tension eased, he found that so did his discomfort. As the thunder inside his head subsided, Iolaus's ears tuned in the sounds all around him.

The steady yet understandably laboured breathing of his ally; the intermittent sounds of disorganised men in the dark of night; the peaceful rustling of a gentle wind through the trees; footsteps...

Iolaus sat bolt upright and regretted his haste as he impatiently beat down a wave of nausea. An influx of acidic bile seared his throat bringing tears to his eyes as he scrambled as quickly and as quietly as possible from sanctuary.

As he drew his sword, intensely trying to penetrate the dense shadows everywhere all at once, he felt his legs quiver and it wasn't from the cold night air. Grimacing fatalistically, Iolaus ignored his own niggling frailities, gripped his sword tighter and moved further from the protective pine that shielded his tormented friend, drawing any potential danger away.

He knelt by a little tinkling brook and smeared some of its cold clear water over his flushed face, moistening his dry lips and cooling the burning in his throat. Despite the coldness of the night, Iolaus felt very hot and noticed with annoyance that his skin was covered in a fine, dewy sweat.

Irritated by the signs of imminent physical incapacitation, he stood up and had to grasp a sapling to keep from falling as a torrent of dizziness swept over him. He was just about to turn around to retrace his steps when the distinctive crack of a whip somewhere behind him prompted a different reaction altogether.

Despite his physical woes, Iolaus moved with impressive speed, diving well out of harm's way mere seconds before the lead-tipped whip wielded by Bane practically snapped the sapling in half.

Rolling to his feet, sword in hand, Iolaus retaliated before the whip could be retracted by neatly slicing it in two.

General Bane's curse brought a fleeting derisive grin to Iolaus's face as he very deliberately raised his sword in his rival's direction. However, when he saw that Bane was not alone, the grin faded to an expression of sarcastic disdain, " You really are a master of overkill, Bane! ", Iolaus remarked, warily eyeing the eight soldiers who flanked the general and the stocky young man who stood by his side.

Although he had never met him before in his life, Iolaus was certain that Bane's companion was Laelin's traitorous brother Daemar, " Are you sure you have enough men this time? ", he added with patented temerity, putting up a brave front when all the while he felt on the verge of fainting.

Bane was an extremely frustrated man. Not only had he been interrupted before satiating his sadism but from the sounds that issued from the darkness all around them, his army, once poised on the verge of imminent victory was now scattered in disarray as it fought unexpected opposition.

He eyed his nemesis hatefully. It was not sheer accident that this attack and his miraculous resurrection coincided!

Coiling the remnants of his severed whip, Bane snarled, " Oh, more than enough to deal with one injured, half-naked, pint-sized nuisance like you! "

He signalled for the soldiers to proceed but Prince Daemar unexpectedly countermanded him.

Bane looked at the young man whom he had coerced and cajoled tirelessly for months on his ruthless quest for empire and was amazed by the expression on the prince's face.

It was oddly amiable as he stared transfixed by the defiant, golden-haired warrior. The general shook his head in exasperation. Where he had an appetite for cruelty and sadism, Daemar had a taste for something far different and even more decadent... a perverse predilection for homophilia.

Attempting to dissuade Daemar from his fascination, Bane snapped, " But, sire, this man is a great danger to you! He's already ruined our plans by staging this surprise attack... "

The prince responded with a glance so sharp that it might've drawn blood had it been corporal, " The fault for our defeat tonight lies not with him but with you, the military genius who allowed an enemy army to catch ours offguard! "

The disagreement between Bane and Daemar held no interest for Iolaus. He was feeling weaker by the minute and tried to take advantage of their distraction to slip away. Unfortunately there were just too many eyes watching his every move and, before he was able to edge even a foot, the eight soldiers were upon him.

As Iolaus parried the first blows and fell back he vaguely heard Daemar bellow, " Take him alive! " but was too busy defending himself to wonder about it. With his quick hands and feet, he managed to repel the first wave quite handily but even as the last soldier retreated, Iolaus felt the thrill of triumph sink beneath an overwhelming flood of fatigue and pain.

Swaying on disconcertedly unsteady legs, breathing heavily from his exertion and grimacing against the almost deafening ominous buzz in his head, Iolaus was barely able to raise his sword as Bane and Prince Daemar loomed into view.

They approached their obviously over-wrought prey like a pair of wolves stalking a stag, separating and circling Iolaus while staying beyond the range of his sword. Trying to watch them both forced Iolaus to constantly glance back and forth which quickly made him dizzy, sick to his stomach and desperate.

When Daemar feigned a move towards him, Iolaus reacted instinctively although, from his own point of view, rather sluggishly.

Bane took advantage of his preoccupation, moving swiftly from behind to slip what remained of his whip over Iolaus's head and then around his throat. Savagely he pulled the blood-soaked leather thong so hard and tight that it once again drew blood and he laughed out loud at the sound of his victim's choking.

With all his might, Iolaus propelled himself backwards, knocking Bane to the ground and winding the startled general as he landed heavily on top of him. Bane's grip on the whip slackened enough for Iolaus to slip the fingers of his free hand between the leather and his throat. As he gulped in a painful lungful of air, he rolled away from Bane and yanked the length of leather out of his hands as he did so.

Gasping spasmodically on all fours, Iolaus angrily threw the lethal remnant into the bushes but before he could get to his feet he was surrounded by Prince Daemar and his soldiers. Shivering uncontrollably even on his knees, he looked up at the smug prince through a rapidly deepening haze interspersed with tiny exploding motes of light, took one more deep breath and keeled over.

Prince Daemar crouched by the fallen warrior's side, lasciviously admiring glistening muscle and the fairness of his somnolent if pale visage. Moonlight glinted in Iolaus's sweat-dampened golden hair but as Daemar reached out to touch it, Bane abruptly grabbed his arm and dragged him away, " Sire, this is neither the time nor place for THAT sort of thing. We must get out of here before we're captured! "

Daemar wrenched himself out of his general's grasp, glaring at him accusingly, " You tried to kill him! I want him alive, you idiot! Our cause tonight may be lost but with any luck we may be able to salvage something IF we can persuade Iolaus to join us! "

General Bane shook his head in disbelief, " Even if we could do that, what good will one man do? ", he demanded, not bothering to disguise his scepticism.

The prince bristled at his tone but shot back sharply, " That 'one man' has practically precipitated the ruin of an entire army, fool! My father used to say, ' Keep your friends close but your enemies even closer. ' Iolaus would make as formidible an ally as he does an enemy - even YOU have to admit that much! "

While Bane and Daemar were busy argueing a lithe figure with raven hair and shimmering green eyes crept out of the shadows and knelt momentarily beside Iolaus.

Princess Gaia placed her hand tentatively on his chest, never taking her eyes off of the distracted enemy, and sighed hugely at the rhythmic rise and fall of life she discovered there.

Her emerald eyes flashed as she gently pryed her sword from Iolaus's grasp. Rising, she positioned herself protectively between her misguided cousin, his evil general and Hercules's helpless ally.

Clearing her throat loudly, the princess smiled grimly as all eyes turned towards her, " Well, cousin, I hate to spoil your sport but you can forget about Iolaus - he's mine!", she stated with quiet assertiveness.

Prince Daemar was stunned by his cousin's sudden appearance but Bane reacted with typical aggression. However, even as he drew his sword from its scabbard, a flurry of arrows thudded into the ground all around him and his colleagues, forcing them to retreat.

This development even caught Gaia by surprise and she scoured the shadows warily until the mystery archers revealed themselves, " Nicos! Fancy meeting you at this party! ", Gaia shouted joyfuly as her lieutenant and his half dozen rebel compatriots cautiously slipped out of the darkness.

The veteran dissident smiled wryly, " It's a long story, your highness... one of many, I suspect. "

The two rebel leaders shook hands warmly before returning to business. Gaia's voice was alive with excitement and confidence as she addressed the rival party, " Looks like the odds are almost even now, cousin. " Her sword shone portentiously in Selena's glow but just as she was ready to signal an attack, Gaia was distracted by a loud, unhappy moan from behind.

Iolaus sat up, grimacing and delicately massaging his abused throat, and the princess was quickly at his side, " Did you have a good nap, my friend? ", she asked brightly to counter the concern she knew he would read in her eyes.

With side-way glances up at Nicos and the others, Iolaus discerned the situation almost instantly and when he finally looked at Gaia, a sardonic smile played on his weary face, " It's good to see you, too. ", he whispered and was on his feet before the last word reached the princess's ears.

Nicos steadied him when he staggered momentarily but when one of the rebels offered Iolaus a crossbow, the hunter simply clenched his fists fiercely and glared across at Bane's dark silhouette, " This time I'm taking an hands-on approach! ", he vowed in a bruised but brave voice.

Iolaus's resilience greatly relieved and impressed both Nicos and Gaia. In a spontaneous gesture of support and solidarity they moved to stand on either side of him. Side-by-side-by-side the three rebel leaders, flanked by their rebel archers, presented a formidible challenge from any opposition's point of view.

With the arrival of his cousin, Prince Daemar's thoughts had turned to flight rather than fight. He grudgingly admired Gaia asmuch as he admired Iolaus and was just as jealous of them as he was of his brother. He really would've prefered to have them both on his side but obviously that was not to be.

The night sky was actually beginning to lighten alittle as he listened dolefully to the clamour of the invisible battle being fought all around them. Despite the masterful tactical advantage that his army had held just scant hours before and although it irked him tremendously to acknowledge the bitter truth, it was clear that, for all intents and purposes, his forces were indeed defeated. He had to concede that his brother had outwitted, out-manoeuvered and out-muscled him... this time.

Daemar decided to retreat and begin a fresh plot against Laelin but before he could tell General Bane what he intended, he'd already stepped forward.

Grimacing as his wounded shoulder reinforced his hatred, Bane pointed Laelin's captured sword in Iolaus's direction, " You'll wish you'd stayed dead by the time I get through with you, you trouble-making demagogue! ", he threatened.

From the shadows a quietly powerful voice replied to Bane's threat before Iolaus could, " He may be a trouble-maker but if you're looking for a demigod, I'm your man! "

Iolaus couldn't help but smile as Hercules showed himself but it was an amusement quickly replaced by other concerns. Before either Nicos or Gaia could stop him, Iolaus bolted to his partner's side.

The two friends exchanged significant looks... a split-second summary of their individual sufferings since they'd separated mixed with mutual anxiety for one another and tremendous relief and joy at finally being reunited.

Hercules placed a hand on Iolaus's shoulder the moment his friend reached him, " You have no idea how good it is to see you, my friend! ", he declared solemnly although the smile on his face was one of unparalleled ecstacy.

The first words out of Iolaus's mouth were, " Are you okay? What in Hades are you doing here? I'm usually the reckless one... aren't I? " He frowned and then they both laughed.

Unfortunately their happiness was short-lived.

Just as Bane, infuriated by the presence of not just one but two major irritants, screamed an order to attack, the battle which had been raging through-out the forests suddenly engulfed the area they were in, too.

At first Iolaus tried gallantly to keep any combatants away from his injured friend but there were just too many and Hercules did not shrink from the fight despite the exasperated looks Iolaus sent his way at every chance. It was soon evident, as men flew helter-skelter in all directions, that the son of Zeus was as awesome as ever even if, to Iolaus's practised eye, he moved stiffly and awkwardly while administering his punishments.

As another foe went flying, Iolaus shook his head disparagingly at his ally, " Have I ever told you that you're an insufferable show-off! ", he shouted, planting a solid fist in the face of an opponent as he spoke.

Hercules smiled faintly and shrugged, " It's this ' half-god thing'... can't help myself!", he replied apologetically and then raised his eyebrows in alarm.

Iolaus grinned, ducked and then spun to face the soldier Hercules had warned him about. Two expert punches dropped the man at his feet.

Wincing, Iolaus flexed his bothersome right wrist but his attention was suddenly snared by the distinctive ring of clashing metal.

Shadows and grappling contestants alike parted to reveal General Bane and Princess Gaia locked in fierce combat several hundred yards away.

As soon as he set eyes upon them, Iolaus knew there was something dreadfully wrong. The princess's left arm hung limply by her side although she still fought with unbelievable strength and skill.

The hunter noticed that she refused to give ground and then he saw the reason why. Behind her on the ground being attended to by another rebel was the sprawled body of her lieutenant, Nicos.

Diving over the prostrate body of the man he'd just subdued, Iolaus came to his feet on the other side with a sword gripped tightly in his hand.

He moved towards the conflict but abruptly hesitated, torn between leaving one friend to go to the aid of another. He looked back at Hercules who simply mouthed the word "Go! " and drove home his point by summarily dealing with a pair of unfortunates dangling from his mighty hands.

With that endorsement Iolaus plunged into the fray, eager to reach his beleaguered princess.

General Bane held the upper-hand. He'd severely injured and neutralised Nicos before inflicting a deep wound to Princess Gaia's left shoulder. Now, as the rebel leader valiantly tried to protect her stricken cohort, instead of pressing his advantage, Bane arrogantly toyed with his seemingly over-matched prey.

Princess Gaia held her ground tenaciously, determined not to give Bane the satisfaction of defeating her even though with every swing that possibility came nearer to reality. She was annoyed when she realised that Bane was pulling his strokes but then, on the edge of her periphy, she saw - and heard! - Iolaus approaching and suddenly understood the general's strategy.

Bait! She was bait to lure Iolaus into danger!

Ignoring her own welfare, Gaia screamed a warning, " Stay away, Iolaus! Back off!", and tried to slip by Bane to intercept her friend.

Undetered, Iolaus leapt over a mass of writhing bodies and was just afew feet away when he heard Gaia's scream.

He saw Bane step away from her, his sword slick with blood, as Gaia collapsed.

Horror-stricken, Iolaus screamed, " NOOOOOOOOOOO! "

Bane seemed stunned by what had happened and as Iolaus sprang furiously at him, he back-tracked in bewilderment. The incensed warrior knocked the sword out of Bane's paralyzed grip with one blow but just as he was about to deliver the coup de grâce, something very heavy and hard struck the back of his head. The world exploded momentarily and then subsided into blissful nothingness....

...." Hey! I think we need a doctor over here! "

Iolaus moaned loudly at the pain in his head and reluctantly opened his eyes. As his vision cleared he became aware of a circle of anxious, strange faces peering down at him. He tried to sit up but a familiarly strong hand restrained him, " Take it easy, Mike! You took a pretty bad fall... let the doc have a look at you before you move, okay? "

The face was the same... the eyes were the same... but as Iolaus looked up at this lookalike, he knew unequivocally that he was NOT Hercules, " Who are you? What's going on here? Where am I? ", he asked with growing anxiety and again struggled to sit up.

His questions caused quite an agitated stir amongst the circle of observers and brought a worried frown to his should-be friend's face.

As he sat up, the crowd parted and a man in a bright white jacket knelt beside him, "Now, don't worry Mr. Hurst, everything is going to be just fine. It's not uncommon for people to become disoriented after a blow to the head... ", he explained as he gingerly examined the area of impact. Iolaus felt a great wave of excitement and terror race through his body and he trembled.' Oh, boy! Something tells me, this is not just a simple case of amnesia anymore! '

The End... for now be continued....