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The following is a sequel my XENA/HERCULES story "Heir of Darkness". There are some spoilers and major plot points in here so you might want to read "Heir" first ... but its not a must. This story was not meant to infringe on any rights to holders of XENA, WARRIOR PRINCESS or HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS. This is fan fiction and meant for entertainment only.
Characters: Gabrielle, Iolaus, Xena, Hercules, Ares and Iphicles.
Rating: PG - Some suggestion of male/female sex but not anything you wouldnt see on either series. Some violence. Ditto.
Let me know what you think!
The two men, both good looking and irresistibly fit, walked down the road to Corinth. One, a bronze skinned-flaxen haired hunter, would pass by on his way home to Thebes, and the other - an impossibly strong and very sincere half god - was traveling directly to the castle.
"He should have invited you, Iolaus. I cant believe he didnt." The taller of the men said and there was a genuine sorrow in his tone, "Youre family ... Iphicles likes you. I know he considers you a friend ..." Hercules blinked his sea blue eyes against the brightness of the mid day sun and a breeze that buffeted against his handsome face, causing smooth shoulder length hair to lift on its own.
Iolaus shook his head and upraised his hands to punctuate sincere words, "Hercules, dont beat yourself or Iphicles up about this. I really need to get home anyway. I have things to do. The place has probably fallen in by now."
Hercules, son of Zeus - King of the Gods - looked down the road that would lead him to his human brothers castle. King Iphicles, successor to King Jason, invited a few people outside of the castle to attend the official ceremony which announced five year old Prince Antak as heir to the throne of Corinth. It would be all pomp. A flurry of festivities would follow -- all to be sampled by summoned guests, of which Hercules was one. Unfortunately, Iphicles did not invite Iolaus to this same function. As a matter of fact, Hercules invitation pointedly said - "Please do not bring a guest. Private party only." The demigod felt it a slap in the face, even if Iolaus didnt.
Crossing angry arms in front of his massive chest, Hercules uncharacteristically muttered as he and Iolaus hiked, "Its not fair and I dont understand." Sure, Iphicles felt it was fine to have Iolaus about when he was useful, saving his life - as was done on more than a couple occasions - but now, when the king could repay the brave warrior properly and treat him like the true hero he was, Iphicles was miserly and bad mannered. "Im going to go to this thing for two reason alone, Iolaus. First, I want to see Antak. I havent seen him since he was a baby, just before Rena died. Second, Im going to get to the bottom of this. I want to ask Iphicles why ..."
"Look, dont ..." Iolaus sighed and stopped his steady gait. He lifted a hand in front of Hercules chest, somehow blocking his substantial way. "Hercules, I learned long ago that you are the man of the hour. You do a lot of good for a lot of people -- and Im just glad you want me around at all." Before his friend could interrupted Iolaus continued, "Now, I know things between you and Iphicles havent always been good and I think its wonderful hes asked you to attend the ceremony. Now, if that means I get shoved into the background I can accept it. I dont mind, really. Im your best friend -- but Iphicles is your blood family and so is Antak. Go to the festival, have a good time, and when its over come to my home and tell me all about it."
The two men looked at each other for a moment, one smiling and the other resigned.
"I will." Hercules finally said but he did not look at peace, "But it wont be the same without you there, my friend."
"Gabrielle, please ... Weve been over this before and you agreed." Xena did not look at her companion as she spoke. She pulled on Argos reigns and the horse followed.
"I know." The Amazon Princess said, hardly above a whisper. Brooding, Gabrielle traveled steadily beside Xena, using her staff as a walking stick.
They hiked down the dirt and stone paved road side by side. One was a statuesque beauty with long, dark hair and astonishing blue eyes, appearing confident and regal in her black leather warrior gear. Her arsenal consisted of a whip, sheathed sword and chakram -- to protect she and her partner from the enemies of a not so civil world. The other was a lovely young woman, fair skinned and self-assured. Her weapon: An Amazon fighting staff but nothing more -- unless one considered Gabrielles frequently acid-tongued wit an implement of war. But most times, her barbs were reserved for The Xena Scrolls, writings of her adventures with The Warrior Princess.
(Gabrielles motto: "The quill is mightier than the sword." to which Xena would counter, "Can your quill kill dinner?")
Xena was trying to make this as easy on Gabrielle as she could but the youthful woman - an Amazon Princess by right of cast - had to understand that there were places she could not go. Xena had to leave - move off on her own for awhile - but Gabrielle ... Gabrielle could stay in Thebes -- and be safe. She would stay. No argument this time. This had nothing to do with a lack of ability because Gabrielle had developed and proven a great talent for survival. She could physically fight with the best of a well trained enemy, using her staff as a weapon. And, she often watch usurpers fall, as if they hadnt been a threat in the first place.
Yet, this quest was different. Xena was going deep into the mountain of Hecrtich, where there were notorious followers of Hera - Queen of the Gods - who were rumored to know things about the goddess and her progeny that no other could hear -- except perhaps, for the half human daughter of said goddess. Xena - still torn over her discovery of who her birth-mother was - had to move forward and learn more. There could be inexplicable dangers on the journey while unearthing such information - dangers Xena would not allow Gabrielle to come into contact with. She had to do it on her own.
"I told you before that I dont like this, Xena. Not just you striking out on your own but the whole idea of going to Hecrtich without a clue as to what you might find there."
"Answers, Gabrielle. Im searching for answers." Xena looked off, thinking deeply about something her friend couldnt possibly understand. She wasnt just compelled to go on this journey she absolutely had to. Xena didnt really understand the obsession herself. She was following a little intuitive voice inside of her head that promised all would be revealed if would just go to Hecrtich and read the sacred scrolls regarding Heras children.
Gabrielle decided not to argue further. It wouldnt get her anywhere and she and Xena were already too close to parting on unpleasant terms, "Just promise me youll be careful."
"Im always careful, Gabrielle."
This caused the blond woman to side-glanced at her friend with incredulity in her eyes. "Sure you are."
They both chuckled but the merriment quite suddenly stopped when they reached a split in the road.
"That path will take you to Corinth, then to Thebes." Xena said, "I gave you the map to Iolaus house, right?"
Gabrielle patted her scroll sack, "Its here."
"Good. Now, I know hes going to be gone, probably off with Hercules on some great adventure, so youll have the place to yourself -- and Ill be back here in a week."
"Xena - -" Gabrielle cleared her throat a bit and seemed a little uncomfortable, "Are you sure Iolaus wont mind me staying in his house? Men can be a little touchy when they think their territory is being commandeered -- or a friendship abused."
"Of course not. As a matter of fact, if you do a little cleaning hell probably be thrilled. From what I hear Iolaus isnt home often and the place is probably a disaster." she smiled, "I may be sending you to Tartarus, Gabrielle."
"Im up for the challenge." The girl returned her smile and hoped Xena got the true meaning behind the words. Yes, she could face Tartarus. She already had with Dahak and Hope. Why couldnt Xena see that she could follow her on this sojourn and take care of herself?
Gabrielle inwardly sighed. That wasnt really fair. Xena had rescued her on so many different occasions -- she honestly couldnt begrudge her this one favor. Do as your told. Gabrielle silently berated herself as she reached for Xena to give her friend a warm hug, "Take care. Ill be waiting for you right here at the crossroads."
"Gabrielle," Xena paused and looked at her closely. It had to be said. "If I dont return I want you to go home to Potadia."
"You will return." Gabrielle said, confidently.
The outside of the castle was the same as when Jason was King Jason, the brave warrior who lead the Argonauts to The Golden Fleece. Jason. His friend and step father. The man his mother, Alcemene, lived happily with for a few short years before her untimely death. Hercules missed Jason. He missed Alcamene ... and now Iolaus. He should be here, Hercules thought again as he approached the front gate.
"Halt! Who goes there?" called a voice from a tower up above Hercules head.
The demigod was right outside of the castle walls and was a bit surprised when no guard physically greeted him upon his approach. He had expected a festival atmosphere with the castle gates wide open -- Perhaps even Iphicles himself waiting to welcome him in person. Hercules called up, "I am Hercules, brother of King Iphicles." When there was no immediate reply, he added - "I was invited."
The guard, small yet rough looking, stared down at the visitor and turned away for a moment, seeming to converse with someone behind him. He then shouted to the gate keeper, "Open up! He has arrived"
As Gabrielle drew closer she smiled. Off the beaten path, it was a quaint little place surrounded by a great deal of land and forests. It was slightly over grown but that was to be expected. The house was made of logs and some materials she could not easily identify. There was also a cheery, natural flower garden strewn around the entrance. So, this is where he stays, Gabrielle thought, "when hes not out slaying beasts, bringing down warlords and rescuing lovely damsels in distress ..." Her satisfaction slipped a notch at that last thought. Had he been with any beautiful women lately? When last they parted Gabrielle practically told Iolaus she expected nothing less. Was he enjoying the company of a seductress now? Were the blond hunter and Hercules in a tavern somewhere, being entertain by a hoard of lovely young ...?
She stopped her in her tracks. Smoke was coming from the chimney ... Some freeloader taking advantage of the owners absence? What nerve! Instinctively, she held her staff tighter, with both hands. She would have to confront the intruder and see to it that nothing was stolen and ....
Then she saw him. Just a glimpse at first. The toss of a golden head and a naked shoulder. Iolaus was on the roof, half hidden by an angle, doing some repair work with a hammer and board ... and he was bare from the waist up ... and sweating.
In a pleasant stupor, Gabrielle smiled and watched. He was home ... and she would be spending time with him ... She wanted to call out but he just looked so handsome up there, laboring away, not knowing he was being looked upon, the perspiration causing that wonderful physique to glisten in the sunlight ... Then, Gabrielle suddenly realized where her thoughts were taking her and she straightened, "Oh boy ... Stop it, girl." She cleared her throat, and tried hard to look away, a little embarrassed by her unchaste introspection. This wasnt right -- She had to call to him .... "Iolaus -" but it came out in a half-hearted squeak. Then, when he turned in her direction, Gabrielle raised a hand and waved, not trusting her voice again.
"Hey!" he called, with a wave of his own. A grin shown on Iolaus sun-tanned face, obvious joy at unexpectedly seeing someone he was very fond of. As she approached, Iolaus scooted down the roof to the latter and slid to the ground on both feet. "Gabrielle!" He moved quickly, raising arms at her approach. He encircled the young woman and lifted her off the ground. Iolaus twirled her about a couple of times in the air then allowed Gabrielle to slide down the length of his compact body to her feet. "I cant believe it!" he spoke earnestly, slightly breathless.
"Iolaus!" Gabrielle squealed, a little shaken by their contact. She then stood back - "Eww!"
He dropped his arms, "That wasnt exactly the reaction I was hoping for." he said with a mock-hurt grin, but understood. Hed been working hard and probably looked and smelled like it.
"I caught you very busy." Gabrielle glanced up at the roof..
"Yeah. Im finishing up some repairs ... " He took in the sight of her. Amazing how hed just been thinking about Gabrielle and the way they were forced to say goodbye well over a month ago, right after clearing some warlords out of Cyberus. Despite the grief and confusion of that time - when they and Hercules unearthed Xenas dubious parentage - Iolaus was happy that he and Gabrielle had grown closer. They even off handily contemplated what the rest of their lives would be like if they were to spend it together. But then that sense of what Xena and Hercules needed came to the front and the couple realized it just wasnt to be. Maybe later if The Fates thought fit to give the foursome peace. "What are you doing here?" he asked warmly, "Wheres Xena?"
Gabrielle explained how Xena was off on a private quest. "You know how Xena is. She wanted me away from harm and remembered you had a place here. She was sure you were going to be gone." Her tone quivered a little at the irony. "I think she was counting on it."
"Well, this is great!" he said, not immediately catch onto the meaning of Gabrielles last comment. Iolaus escorting her into the house.
"Im impressed!" Gabrielle exclaimed. The home was clean and quite cozy. "You really take care of this place."
"What were you expecting?" He took Gabrielles bag and staff, leaning one against the wall and setting the other on a dining area table. He chuckled at her astonished expression, "You know, I do have responsibilities. It may not seem like it but I do. This is my family home. After my father died and my mother remarried, she went on to live with her new husband in his house. So, this and the land surrounding it is mine."
"But I didnt think you were home enough to ..."
"Youve got that right. he confessed, "Ive been here for two days and suddenly discovered a couple of big holes in the roof. Who knows what made them. The village seer says storms are suppose to be coming this way - by tomorrow evening - so I needed to repair. And, " he looked about, "Ive been cleaning a little. The place was a real wreck. You should have seen it a couple days ago ..." he chuckled, "No, on the other hand, you shouldnt have."
Gabrielle moved a bit into the living area, near a stone fireplace and sitting area. Many skins and wittled wooden objects lay about. Weapons too. She saw a hunters bow tacked to a wall along with a heavy metal shield, with an odd crest. There were also a number of knives and swords. One sword, with odd equine etchings, caught her eye. "This sword ..." she started, reaching to touch it.
"A friends. Im holding for him." Iolaus said quickly and moved forward. "Be careful."
It makes him nervous. I wonder why., Gabrielle thought but decided it was none of her business. Instead, she turned and said, "Yes, this is obviously a hunter-warriors house. No doubt about that." She smiled, "Are you on vacation or something? ".
"Sort of. Hercules is visiting his brother, Iphicles.
Gabrielle noted a very small sound of regret but decided not to pry. Iolaus would tell her if he really wanted to. Same with the sword.
They looked at one another, comfortable in the moment, then Iolaus took a breath and said, "Let me get cleaned up and Ill fix supper. I went hunting this morning and bagged a nice size rabbit. I also have some vegetables. Theyre from the widow Sacharus garden. She gave them to me a couple days ago when she discovered I was home."
Warming to the idea, Gabrielle said, "Wonderful. Im starved. You clean up and Ill do the cooking. I better earn my keep if I expect you to let me stay here a week." Gabrielle moved around him to what looked like a kitchen area. "How does a stew sound?"
"Good." Iolaus smiled a little apprehensively, not yet moving to do as he said - "Im going to have you here a whole week?" he asked again, just to make certain he heard right.
"Complaining already?" she asked, shooting a glance at him over her shoulder. Gabrielle recalled what she had told Xena about men being sensitive about their territory.
"No." he replied, quickly. "But I think tomorrow we better go to town. I have no supplies in the house." That wasnt what Iolaus had been thinking at all. He was recalling what almost happened between the two of them at the inn a month ago in Amphipolis. Hed been so close to her, even sleeping in the same bed, and had they been that way - talking as they were about romance and commitment - for more than a single night there was no doubt in his mind that he would have eventually made love with Gabrielle. He wanted to then that very night and was certain she was open to the experience but he held back, acknowledging the girls pain and vulnerability. He was being noble, Hercules later said, but Iolaus wondered how much of it was nobility and how much was fear of spoiling a young woman hed come to think of as very special. Yet, there was more to his reluctance. Something he couldnt really pin down.
A whole week together? Alone. Would a protective friend really trust her companion with him for an entire week alone? Iolaus smiled as a humorous thought entered his head. No wonder Xena had been counting on him being with Hercules ...
The castle was quiet -- too quiet. He saw only a few people moving about the great home and the moment they saw him the guests and/or servants quickly turned in an opposite direction and removed themselves from sight.
Hercules was escorted to The Great Hall by a fully armored guard, wearing a helmet and chain mail, who politely greeted him at the door but did not speak. However, through gesture he let Hercules know that he was needed by His Highness immediately. Hercules suddenly knew all was not well in the kingdom of Corinth.
Whatever thought Hercules had of berating his brother about his treatment of Iolaus was quickly forgotten when he saw him.
Handsome King Iphicles, a man known for his strength and honor, sat alone on his throne, a hand covering his dark eyes in a grieving gesture. He was not yet aware that he was being watched. He appeared weak and torn with worry.
"Iphicles -" Hercules called as he approached, "Whats going on here? I thought ..."
The king was immediately out of his chair, crossing to Hercules, hands raised in greeting. "Hercules! Thank the gods youve come." He forced cheer into his expression and voice, "Quickly," he called to a servant, "wine for my brother." he hugged Hercules, "Im so glad you decided to visit us."
"What ...?" Hercules started.
In hushed tones Iphicles spoke quickly and close to his ear, "Not now. Later."
As the twilight of evening pushed itself over the horizon, Iolaus walked into the house - freshly bathed and toweling his tangled hair - and lifted his head for a sniff. "Smells good, Gabrielle." he commented, indicating the stew-pot she was working over. He dragging fingers through his golden shock of hair then, like a bemused dog, shook his head back and forth.
"So, thats your technique." Gabrielle quipped with a sly smile as she tossed in a pinch of spice and swirled the hot contents inside of the pot about. "I often wondered what your grooming regimen was. Now I see that the mane never is actually combed or brushed." Humor punctuated the tone.
With a chuckle he acquiesced, "It saves time and brain power not having to worry about such things." Iolaus turned and threw the towel hed been holding into a basket on the other side of the room.
Gabrielle spoke under her breath, in an admiring way. "It works for you." She returned to her stew. He appeared quite handsome, wearing a more comfortable and casual evening wear, loose light colored drawstring pants and a snug sleeveless shirt, just cut low enough in front to reveal his impressive chest but covering the abdomen. She decided to do likewise, dress cozily, after they ate. "Thank you for skinning the rabbit before you gave it to me, Iolaus." she said, clearing her throat - trying hard not to look distracted from her cooking duties. "I hate doing that sort of thing. I usually leave it up to Xena while were traveling. Ill cook the dead animal but hate to ... well, you know."
She travels with a warrior, trained to kill or be killed, and is an Amazon - whos creed is to protect their own at any cost - even death. But there wasnt an iota of killer instinct in Gabrielle. On anyone but this gentle woman Iolaus might have been irritated by hypocrisy. A bad attitude on his part, he thought. Maybe it was just a throw back to the days when he saw women fighting along side their men in the Iodysen Wars. There wasnt time for feminine allowances then. Yet, Iolaus admired that spark of sensitivity in his house guest. She still had a pure heart. It was a paradox that was totally Gabrielle.
During the meal they spoke of Thebes and Potadia, the differences in their two villages, and what they would like to see change.
Gabrielle was opting for a scroll store, where a man, woman and even their children could purchase fine writings at a reasonable price. "Better yet," Gabrielle enthused, "How about a building that lends scrolls - with all the writings of the best philosophers and bards - to common everyday people. Then, when the reader is finished they can just return the parchments for the next person to read ..."
"Wheres the profit in that?" Iolaus asked, snacking on a piece of sweetbread. "I can see selling a scroll -- but how can anyone make a living by just lending out a scroll?"
"Its an idea that needs work." Gabrielle admitted, finishing off her rabbit stew.
The rest of the evening was spent by the fire in the hearth. Gabrielle sat on the floor - wearing a commodious night toga that dipped over her slender shoulders - on the hide of a soft but rather odd looking beast the hunter had slain at one time or another. Iolaus lay across a long chair with cushions. He listened to her tell the tale of The Lost Mariner, Cecrops.
Her voice was lulling and gentle. "Athena made him immortal but he was cursed by Poseidon to wander the seas until love redeemed him. And it did. His love for a friend, his crew and the human race." Gabrielle looked into the flames as she spoke, "But he would never see his beloved Tarae again because she had died over two hundred years earlier -- before Xena and I entered into the picture."
"Thats sad." Iolaus murmured, intrigued but also sleepy.
"Yes, it is." She turned to look at him, wondering if he was getting the full picture, "But on a happier note, the last we heard Cecrops discovered his descendents and they have welcomed him with open arms." she sighed, "Such an incredible man. The stories he could tell ..."
Iolaus folded his arms snugly across his chest, "If it hadnt been for you and Xena he might still be wandering the seas. He owes you so much."
"A lot of people owe you and Hercules too, Iolaus, but I never hear you say they have to pay up. Thats how Xena feels and thats how I feel."
"I suppose thats how most heroes ... heroines .... feel."
They gazed at each other for awhile, smiling in mutual understanding.
The fire light had a dizzying and softening affect.
Her skin was so bright and touchable as she sat there, a shawl around her bare shoulders and her knees hiked up to her chin.
His hair glowed and his eyes seem to shine with an inner luminescence as he lay away from her, a tired but very aware expression on his face.
Gabrielle, not trusting her mood, suddenly stood and stretched daintily, "Time for bed." she said. And added, "Im so tired I think Ill sleep for a week."
"No, just until sunrise. We have to hit the road early if we want to make it to the market before prices raise."
They chuckled but the silent question eventually came. Sleeping arrangements.
"You take the bedroom and Ill sleep out here." Iolaus offered, preventing her from asking.
She knew he would be a gentlamn. "I accept. But tomorrow night I sleep out here and you go into the bedroom." A thought suddenly occurred to her, "Why is there only one bedroom, Iolaus?"
"I have two but the other Im using for storage. Its a wreck."
"Oh." She hesitated.
Iolaus offered, "Goodnight, Gabrielle."
She began to move but then did something totally on impulse. Gabrielle would never really know why she did it. The maneuver wasnt planned at all. She hadnt been thinking about it and probably wouldnt have acted at all if she had dwelled on the matter for any length of time. She took two quick extra steps in her progress to the bedroom, sat easily beside Iolaus reclined form, and leaned forward to kiss him very long but gently on the lips. Then, with equal deftness, she stood again and continued her walked. "Goodnight, Iolaus."
Iolaus, now awake and stunned, looked wide-eyed into the fire.
"I have to leave you here." Xena spoke gently to Argo, softly petting the horses nose, as they stood in front of Hecrtich. The mountain was steep and far more rugged than she was led to believe. Xena was glad she left Gabrielle behind. Shed been lamenting her choice for hours but now knew it was for the best. She would have to climb to the top by herself and the womans resolve couldnt be hindered. Not by man or beast. At least the mountain was surrounded by grasslands and an animal would not starve. Even if she never returned Argo would still thrive.
If she never returned.
Xena didnt know what to think. She laid a hand on her chakram, a familiar gesture when confused, and stared straight up. Why was this so important to her? Her left hand raised to her brow, blocking out the morning sun so she could get a better look. "Why am I doing this?" she wondered aloud. Youre doing this because you have to know. a voice inside of her head answered.
Hercules would not approve. He told her to let the answers come to her. You dont need to go looking." he said just before they parted. Was he being honest or protective? It didnt matter. She had no reason to believe Cyrene, her beloved mother-figure, had been lying to her when, just before she died, she confessed to Xena that The Warrior Princess was actually Heras offspring. The result of an affair between Xenas human father and The Queen of the Gods.
"Thanks for telling me, Mom." Xena later said when most of her grief had subsided and she lay in the arms of Hercules, in a corner her Mothers house, and he spoke gently to her, assuring her all would be well, telling her how special she was and how Hera couldnt mentally touch her now that she was made aware of her godhood ... (Dont let her touch you. he insisted).
Yet, Cyrene could have been mistaken. Perhaps it wasnt Hera. Maybe it was another goddess and she only thought it Hera ... Whatever the case, Xena had to know for sure. She would die, if necessary, discovering the truth.
Other trips shed made with Gabrielle over the last month yielded little and Xena could see the worry in her friends eyes. Was she afraid of her now? Even more afraid than when Xena nearly killed her after Solans death? Was that Hera working through her even then? Xena had fought an over powering urge to draw blood and had overcome it. And Gabrielle, dear Gabrielle, had been there for her in more ways than just a friend listening to another friend. Gabrielle deserved to be happy ... to marry and have a family and ....
Unexpectedly, tears began to push up on Xena. Gods, what was the matter with her? Why were her thoughts so disjointed and foolish? Gabrielle didnt want that life! She wanted to be with her, fighting evil and protecting the human race from gods like ... Ares ...
She rotated about and spotted The God of War.
Handsome as always, he leaned casually back on one leg, his hands on his hips. The smile on his face hid nothing, "I just heard, Xena! Were family!" he enthused, raising his arms and grinning like a dirt farmer who had just won the grand prize in a squash growing contest. "I always wondered why I found myself obsessed with you, your talents and charms -- when I should have gotten rid of you long ago. I mean, what good is a nice warrior to me? Especially one I was grooming to be my right hand man ... women." He moved in closer, his voice growing deeper - almost sensual, "Now, I find out it was all in our Mothers plan and I never knew it. Im still a little miffed at her for not mentioning our blood tie before but, hey, I can live with that if you can."
"Ares, what do you want?" Xena removed Argos bridal and saddle, then smacked the horse on the rear to get him moving. She would come back for him later - if there was a later.
"To the point as always." He straightened his shoulders and tried to look serious, "To help you."
"I dont want your help." She looked again up the mountain, trying to decide where to start.
"You say that now but when youre half way up, tired and dejected, youll be sorry you didnt hear me out, Xena."
"I dont want to be under obligation to The God of War. Go away."
The smile returned, "Fine, sis. But I know things. Just call me when youre ready to talk, okay?" and, with a brilliant flash, he disappeared.
"Dont hold your breath." Xena murmured. She started to climb.
Their walk to the village was energetic and playful.
Gabrielle, enlivened by a wonderful night sleep, leapt into wild detail about a poem she was preparing for The Xena Scrolls. "A Tribute to Body Armor" she said and Iolaus wasnt entirely certain she was joking. The bard used her body and fighting staff to punctuate her overwrought sentences and Iolaus could only laugh uncontrollably. She was very funny and it amazed him how much the young womans sense of humor matched his own. At one point during their walk she started sentences only to have him finish her thoughts. It might have been eerie if not for the whimsical energy surrounding them. They couldnt take anything too seriously on a wonderful, breezy and exhilarating day like this. True, the sun was not visible, hidden well behind high clouds that threatened to lower as evening came on but right now, first thing in the morning, as they approached the outer border of The Thebes Village Market, all appeared well.
The bustle of people around them was also invigorating. Stalls and stands of traders with everything from fish to togas, babbling and bartering and begging to be heard. It was so exciting!
"How are you at bargaining?" Iolaus asked Gabrielle as he pointed to an area with a varying amount of staples. Flour, sugar, goats milk and broths ... "Are you game?" he asked, lifting his hand which contained seven denars.
The eager determination on her face could not be denied, "Just watch me." she said, snatching the coins and walking over to the jolly proprietor.
Smiling, Iolaus let her go (he thought she would enjoy it) and turned to another booth whos owners were selling leather goods and costume jewelry.
By mid day the couple met up again and presented their purchases to each other .
"Iolaus Im starving. Is there any place we can get something to eat around here?"
"Several." Iolaus accommodated, feeling the gnaw of hunger himself. He took Gabrielle by the arm and walked her in the direction of his own favorite haunt, Gickis Tavern and Place to Eat Food.
"I like an establishment with a name that spells it out for you." Gabrielle commented, wryly.
Along the way Iolaus was greeted by friends and passerbys, not a few of who were gorgeous women. The females - Gabrielle counted at least six in the half block they walked - seem to give the hunter-warrior special attention, waving and blowing him kisses. Gabrielle felt slightly vexed of what she knew was common place --- but she couldnt castigate Iolaus. He was single, handsome and available. What was a guy to do? "Youre very popular." Gabrielle remarked.
"Its a small village." he replied.
The couple strolled into the restaurant and were about to be seated when Gickis, the owner, approached Iolaus. He was a normally amicable man but now looked uneasy, "Iolaus, I hate to ask this ... but do you think you and your lady friend can come back another time?"
The hunter noted Gickis discomfort, "What is it?
"Privi and his men are here and you know what happened last time you two came to blows. It took me two days to get this place back into shape."
"Gickis, you know that wasnt my fault. He was annoying a girl who wanted nothing to do with him."
"She was his fiancee."
"But I didnt know that."
Gabrielle listened to the exchange and sighed, "Iolaus, lets go to your second favorite place to eat. We really dont want to cause this man trouble." she reasoned.
He nodded, "Youre right." If left to himself he might have taken a chance but Iolaus didnt want to get Gabrielle caught up in any ugliness.
They turned to leave -- and walked into the biggest, brawniest man Gabrielle ever saw. He looked down at the couple, especially intrigued by Gabrielle, like Zeus might look down on them from Olympus. Beside "the beast" stood a smaller man with whispy white hair, a sharp nose and beady little eyes. Behind them, smirking, were two other thugs.
"If it isnt the little man with a big mouth." said the beady-eyed trouble maker, obviously the leader.
"Privi, just let us pass." Iolaus said, trying valiantly to be rational.
He sneered, "Thanks to you Winifred wont see me anymore. I dont like that, shorty." The voice was high and grating.
Gabrielle could easily see why Iolaus felt obliged to punch this jerk out. "Listen," she said, smiling sweetly and trying to calm matters. "Were on our way out and ..."
"Whos the little trollop and why is she carrying such a big stick?"
Gabrielle stopped short, stunned. Did he really just call her a trollop?
Steaming, Iolaus made a move - "I think you should apologize to the lady." he said
Gabrielle held him back as best she could, "I can take an insult Iolaus. Lets just go." and she struggled to push him around the mountain of a man who hadnt yet said a thing - just stared at her.
"Thats right." Privi drawled, "Run away. Its not as if you have Hercules or Xena here to save you ."
This time both Iolaus and Gabrielle stopped their movement and simultaneously turned and glowered.
With a heavy sigh of surrender, Gickis threw up his hands and called, "Put away the breakables!"
The King of Corinth took him into a back room, a place few people knew about and even fewer dared to explore. The cheery expression he had reserved for the others, those who were watching their little reunion, suddenly returned to the sad desperation Hercules caught sight of when first he saw Iphicles, before his brother realized he was being watched.
"Hercules," The kings voice caught in his throat, "Shes cursed my son." He strained, attempting to hide his fears, "And she said shed kill him if I didnt send you to her right away. Hes all I have ..."
Raising a sympathetic hand and placing it on Iphicles shoulder, the son of Zeus took in his brothers story with the ear of someone who felt immense guilt that his immediate family was being threatened by a very distant relative - that wielded great power. In this case, more power than a mere human could possibly hope to fight.
Iphicles told Hercules of an old dark cloaked woman who had come to the castle and managed to enter, slipping past his guards and nearly every device Iphicles had sanctioned to insure castle security. He said her avoidance of these traps should have been his first clue that this woman was not mortal. Then, she approached him in the throne room. King Iphicles hadnt been doing anything particularly interesting, signing a few parchments that would regulate water rights between farmers and shepherds, and didnt yet feel danger. He smiled charmingly at the woman, "How can I help you?"
"Its true," she croaked, "The King of Corinth does bare a striking resemblance to The God of War."
He stared at her, wondering who she was - thinking her an old harmless healer woman or perhaps one of those wanderers who profess to see the future.
"Is there something I can do for you?" Iphicles asked, gently.
"You might well ask that question ..." she laughed with a cackle, "I have information for you, my King. It is about your brother ... Hercules is to die soon."
"My brother is in good health." Iphicles assured, a little less tolerant than he was seconds before, "I saw him a little over a month ago and ..."
"Never the less, he is scheduled to die. For, if not he then it will be your son, Antak."
Iphicles immediately stood, "Who are you?"
"Tell Hercules he must come to the mountain of Hecrtich, to a temple of Hera, or Antak will die. Even now the boy sleeps in his bed, not to be awakened until Hera has Hercules in her grasps."
Then without further word, she was gone - fading from sight like a doused torch.
The King ran to Antaks bedroom and fell to the side of his small bed. He tried, all in vain, to rouse the boy but it was true. He was asleep and could not be awakened. Iphicles called in the best healers of the kingdom but they could do nothing. This was a spell from the gods and totally out of their realm. That was when Iphicles sent the messenger for Hercules.
Advisors told the king that if he were to announce to the kingdom that Antak was in danger of losing his life there could be a frenzy of upheaval, unlike anything Corinth had never known. The peasants were still reeling over Queen Renas death and that was over a year ago.
Though grieved, Iphicles agreed and the lie of a private party was developed. "Right now only my closest advisors know the truth - and some trusted house servants. Hercules," Iphicles, who hadnt slept well since that terrible moment of realization, when he knew for certain his son was in mortal peril - tensely grasped his brothers powerful shoulder, "She also told me that if you didnt show up others would suffer. She led me to believe Herad blow Corinth off our maps. Destroy everyone." Then he blink in confusion, "But I thought you destroyed Hera. I thought she was thrown into the pit of Tartarus."
"So did I." But could Hercules really believe Hera was out of his life? She had followers, both gods and humans, and it wouldnt surprise him to find someone had devised a way to bring her back. "Okay," he thought for a moment, "If Im going to save Antak I cant do it on my own. Ill need Iolaus."
"Do you think thats wise?" Iphicles sounded desperate. "He could end up dead. Hes mortal."
"I know --" Hercules couldnt look into his brothers eyes. This was a dilemma constantly on the demigods mind. Through his friendship with a target of the gods (and others), Iolaus was also a sitting duck and could truly end up dead one day - with no return. You could only have Hades owe you favors for so long. Sumeria, and what had happened to Iolaus there, flashed through Hercules mind and he pushed it aside. He couldnt go there now. "But I also know there is no one else I trust more and weve both had dealings with Hera and her minions before. I need him, Iphicles -- and something hes holding for me."
The rest of Iolaus and Gabrielles denars went straight into the hand of the proprietor, Gickis. They owed him. Smashed chairs, tables, plates, waiters - not to mention the frantic flight of frightened clientele that shot out of Gickis Tavern and Place to Eat Food when the battle began. It might not have happened if the couple had kept their tempers in check.
Gickis could only watch in agony as the hunter and his girlfriend beat off the troublemakers. He with his quick agility and the girl with that staff she brought along with her. He couldnt really blame them. They didnt initiate the brawl and Iolaus was a good man. Unfortunately, wherever he went a fight was sure to follow and it was always at a poor business owners expense. Still, if it wasnt for people like Iolaus, Hercules, Xena and Gabrielle men like him, trying to earn an honest denar, would have been out of business long ago.
Later, bleeding slightly from his temple where one of Prvis goons had sliced Iolaus with a sharp edged ring, he apologized to Gickis and helped him clean up. Iolaus and Gabrielles triumph - with Privy and his men running from the tavern/cafe - had been expensive.
The Amazon Princess, a bump on the back of her pale head, felt as if the roof had caved in on her (it was raised by a heavy metal platter). She held a cool cloth on her injury and smiled when Iolaus asked her if she was all right. "On our next date Ill pick the eatery." she commented.
The restaurant was empty now except for the three of them and that was when, with Gabrielles approval, Iolaus handed over their money and newly purchased supplies.
"Iolaus, you dont have to do this." Gickis smiled tiredly. "I know how it is ... and you two havent even eaten yet."
Hunger had completely left her and Gabrielle couldnt prevent a snorting laugh. Iolaus followed up with one of his own and Gickis chimed in.
It could be worse, they thought, at least no one had been badly hurt.
It was evening by the time Iolaus and Gabrielle returned to the house and by then the couple were famished again. They had given up everything they bought, with the exception of one small package Iolaus hid in his traveling pouch, and there was nothing in the house.
"This wasnt one of my more productive days." Gabrielle said, slumping into a kitchen chair. She had changed out of her walking clothes into her night toga and was glad to see Iolaus looking more comfortable as well.
Despite it all, Iolaus smiled. "Thats okay. I have something that will make you feel better. Lets go to the hearth."
She followed Iolaus, noting he had procured a handful of something from a jar sitting on a shelf near the front door ... They looked like little kernels. He threw them into a deep frying pan, a lid firmly in place and a bit of oil added.
"Jason brought a pouch of this back with him from a land in uncharted regions of the ocean. Its amazing. Watch and listen."
The girl felt a little foolish, listening so closely at the crackling fire and the oil inside of the pan sizzling but it wasnt unpleasant either. Iolaus sat right next to her on the fur rug and the fire before them was warm in contrast to the bad, rainy weather brewing outside. This is tea weather, she thought, and snuggling weather ....
"What?" Her attention focused on the pan.
"Whats it doing?" she whispered at Iolaus a little nervously.
"Magic." he replied with a grin.
A few minutes later he brought the pan out of the fire and removed the lid. Inside were white, fluffy pieces of popped kernels - something Gabrielle had never seen before.
"Was this something created by the gods?" she asked sincerely, amazed and tentatively reaching for a portion.
"No god could create this. I told you, Jason brought it over from a land far away. He said the people were dark skinned and spoke in an odd tongue. They wore ceremonial head dresses and grew certain vegetables on stalks ... It was all very interesting. Ill have to get him to tell you about it some day."
"Whats this called?" She asked, reaching for more.
"Popped-wheat, I think. Be careful. Sometimes they get stuck in your teeth."
"They ate the treat and when the pan was empty between them, Iolaus moved it out of the way.
Becoming aware of his earlier injury, Gabrielle reached up and gently touched the hunters temple, which was turning slightly purple. "That cut may leave a scar." she said, concern in her tone. "Oh, those men ... children."
"Just one more line to add to the rest." he said.
"Laugh lines. Lines of character." she reminded.
A soft rain began to fall outside, followed by a flash of lightening and a loud, unanticipated thunderclap.
Caught off guard, Gabrielle shuddered and nervously leaned into Iolaus, "Sorry, thunder always alarms me a little. When I was a little girl I use to get teased about it all of the time."
"I dont mind." He half smiled and put his arms around her.
Iolaus and Gabrielle, now sitting very close, gazed at one another ... Then, seemingly on their own, his hands drew gently upward to cup her face. He leaned forward and their lips touched. At first very gently then, as a mutual longing grew, with more conviction.
Her arms lifted without reluctance, hands resting on the back of his golden head, her fingers gently running through a thick tangle of curls. His mouth tugged at hers, the skin soft and sensuous. Gripped firmly and held close, his body was hard and well muscled, reminding Gabrielle of Iolaus dedication, his will to keep fit, knowing his fragile life depended on good reflexes and stamina. Then, she was falling gently back on the fur rug in front of the fire and taking him with her, tenderly massaging his broad shoulders through the tunic as he hovered above her. He carefully - slowly - rained kisses on her lips, cheeks, neck and shoulders. Gods, he knew just what to do -- He was perfect.
Iolaus was lost in his desire for her. Gabrielles ingenuous sensuousness and purity of spirit was as inciting as the strongest aphrodisiac. Soft skin, gloriously perfumed hair and a sleek, unblemished body -- and an obvious uncomplicated attraction. A craving and need for only the love he could give her. He ached to hold her even closer. She was perfect.
"Iolaus," Gabrielle whispered in his ear, a slight catch in her throat, "Lets go into the other room ..." she urged. No flowery language. Just expectation and suggestion.
And suddenly, as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold river water over his head, Iolaus was away from her, sitting up and looking entirely lost.
In a stunned love-haze, Gabrielle didnt know what was happening, only that he had moved away and it wasnt in response to her request, "Wha ..." she started, sitting upward - "Iolaus ...?"
But he didnt look at her, only at the flames in the hearth. He couldnt look at her. But he had to ...
Rejection. What could have been one of the most exquisite moments of her life was unceremoniously torn away. The expression on Gabrielles face was agonizing to behold. She suddenly appeared the perfect recipient for betrayal and her tears, as they stood out in her eyes, were enough to make even the strongest warriors heart break, "Gab, no --" He made an attempt to touch her hand but she was away from him, sobbing and running for the bedroom. He wanted to go after her but couldnt.
When the door slammed behind her and he heard the young woman's raw emotion pouring out in muffled sobs, it was as if a hot poker had been thrust into his stomach. Gods, what had he done? It was wonderful, her passionate kisses and physical response - better than even he could imagine - but then Iolaus suddenly realized he wasnt just with any female but Gabrielle. A woman-child he could not hurt or take advantage of if his life depended on it. But no, it wasnt that. He stopped for a purely selfish reason.
She was someone he desperately wanted, yet she scared him.
And suddenly a voice came into his head:
"No! What are do you doing? Are you out of your mind?!"
Ares? No, it didn't sound like Ares - It didn't even sound masculine.
"Hes doing this on purpose! I mean it Cupid, give me one of those arrows or ..."
And then it faded away.
Xena didnt scream when something frightened her. She had trained herself to be above that reaction in the face of fear. However, if she did now would have been a good time. She was nearly halfway up the mountain when an unexpected rock slide caught her in its dangerous path. She fell a little way, avoiding the carnage of rock and rubble, and would have to start over when she caught her breath. She turned to look down and could vaguely see Argo below, romping through a field. She would miss him.
Then, she swiveled and saw them. Sitting right next to her on a ledge were skeletons. Travelers or seekers of knowledge who had attempted to climb Hecrtich but never quite made it. One, she saw, had a broken leg and the others probably died from the cold or starvation. Who were they? Did they foolishly come to pray to The Queen of the Gods?
Taking a deep breath, Xena narrowed her blue eyes, turned and continued her climb up the mountain. In the back of her mind she could hear Ares call :
"Are you sure you dont want my help?"
Morning brought with it a respite from the rain. The sky was still cloudy and off in the distance he could hear soft rumblings of thunder but, for now, it was calm.
So why did he feel dread and a tightening in his chest? Iolaus stood on the porch, dressed in his daily wear, with a cup of warm cider in his hands. He stared out at his land. He had lent most of it out to farmers in the area (why not? Im not using it), and a good portion, off in the horizon, was plowed and ready for seeding. He hated farming. Hed tried it once but just couldnt see himself doing it for the rest of his existence. Life was made for heroics, exploits and fun. Wine, women and song ... Funny how the mind of a youth could come back to haunt you. Iolaus had told Gabrielle that he had responsibilities. He didnt really. He did what he wanted - which was adventuring with Hercules. He seldom saw his mother and her poet husband, although they told him they understood and respected what he and Hercules did for people.
Maybe it wasnt Gabrielle who was young, needing to grow, but himself.
"Good morning." She came out, the shawl wrapped around her shoulders, hair slightly disheveled. Gabrielle appeared delicate and a bit embarrassed. Her eyes were slightly puffy from her night of misery.
He smiled weakly at her. "Hi."
They stood silently next to each other for a few moments, breathing in the cool air and watching the beauty of nature before them.
"The roof held up last night." she commented timidly. "Not one leak."
"Yeah." He couldnt look at her.
Then, taking a shallow breath, Gabrielle said - "Iolaus, Im so sorry." She spoke in a tiny voice, "I behaved badly." Her bottom lip trembled as she sought the right words, "I was such a dunderhead ...."
He couldnt believe it. She was apologizing to him. "No Gabrielle, you werent." and he finally turned to gaze at her, "I hurt you. I didnt mean to but ... if you had reacted any differently last night Id probably be wondering why." There was a pause as he put his hands on her shoulders and gently tried to meet her eyes. "Lets put it in the past. Can we?" A change of subject: "Gabrielle, Im going to work around the house this morning and later go off on a hunt." . His eyes exhibited struggle. A need to make amends as only a not so simple hunter could. "Would you like to come?" There was something hidden in that request - Please dont say no. I couldnt take it if you said no.
She understood what he was trying to convey and she wanted to spend time with him. "Yes, I would."
Apology accepted. Lets start over.
"Well Hera, if you want me Im on my way." Hercules thought but question after troubled question entered into his head. What was she up to this time? Why did she feel it necessary to have him go to Hecrtich? If she wanted to destroy him, as she undoubtedly did, why not just send some of her henchmen? That was Heras usual standard of operation. And why involve Iphicles and Antak? Was The Queen of the Gods stretching her depraved imagination these days? And - of course - where was Zeus? Why didnt he warn him? Gods, should it surprise him that his father was no where to found?
He was nearly to the boarder of the kingdom when an old woman came up behind Hercules and cackled bizarrely. Hercules quickly turned about and looked at her as she stood only a few meters away. This had to be the woman who came to Iphicles. "Are you Heras servant? What do you want? Why are you doing this?"
"Oh child," she nearly scolded in a raspy voice, "I can tell you nothing. Just go and go quickly because if you dont Xena will surely find trouble -- and she may not overcome the power of Hera this time. Not without your help."
"Yes, The Queen of the Gods wants you both but she is counting on Xena getting there first -- because she wants to turn her from good to evil yet again. The Warrior Princess is teetering. In the temple of Hecrtich a transformation can happen. Unless someone stops her."
"But why? Why is Hera going through all of this?"
"Havent you guessed, Son of Zeus?" The woman cackled yet again and just before she disappeared she said, "Hera wants Hebe, her daughter, to annihilate you once and for all!"
"Iolaus, please dont!" Gabrielle pulled on his arm just before he was ready to release the arrow from its bow.
The hunter-warrior sighed in exasperation as the doe ran off. "Gabrielle, this is the third time youve done that since weve been in the woods." He almost told her that he was sorry he asked her to come -- but that wouldnt have been the truth. He was actually very happy to have her with him, with her warm touch and humor, even though she was scaring off dinner.
"Im sorry," She punch the sharp end of her staff into the moist ground beside her, "but I saw a baby buck back there a little ways and it occurred to me that the doe might be his mother ... I just couldnt stand the thought of that poor baby out here all by itself."
Iolaus half smiled, "How do you expect us to eat tonight if you ...?"
"Is there a stream around here somewhere? I know there is because I can hear it. I have no problems with the murdering of fish." she said with a straight face - at first - then when Iolaus started to chuckle she broke down too.
"Fine, fish!" He threw his hands up in mock exasperation. "I hope you like perch." he muttered.
"I do." she said as they walked to the lake, only about fifty yards away. "By the way, can you catch fish with your hands? Xena can, you know. I can too if I put my mind to it."
"Now, that Id like to see."
When they reached the lake Gabrielle unabashedly leaned her Amazon staff against the trunk of a tree, took off her boots and waded into the water.
"Youre really going to try it, arent you?" Iolaus said, amazed. He thought she was joking.
"Of course!" she called, concentrating on the water as Xena had taught her. Listen for the fish, feel for the fish, understand how the fish thinks ... "And this is a lot more reasonable than what you did to that poor beast you now have laying in front of your hearth. At least were catching fish for a reason - to eat." she verbally shot at Iolaus but there was no real malice in the words.
Iolaus sighed and sat on the rivers edge, "That poor beast was three times my size, had a row of jagged teeth and nearly decapitated me." the hunter yelled in his defense, "And the meat went to three hungry families in Corinth." he added. A sudden clap of thunder was heard and Iolaus looked up. The clouds had lowered and were turning a deeper shade of gray. "Its going to rain again, Gabrielle. You better hurry."
"Hush, youre frightening the fish." Gabrielles hands raised as, knee deep, she saw a denizen of the deep of her liking, swimming near her right ankle. Carefully, she reached down and attempted to pluck dinner up like shed seen her Warrior Princess partner do so many times in the past. Unfortunately, Gabrielle misjudged the distance and just how slimy the creature was. There was a brief struggle but the fish eventually won out, slapping her soundly in the face with its tail, causing the young woman to spasm and fall back with a startled cry. She ended up landing on her hind end right in the middle of the shallow lake. Embarrassed, she could hear Iolaus unrestrained laughter at her predicament. Gabrielle looked at the blond warrior with peeved eyes. "All right, hunter-boy, if you think you can do a better job, be my guest!" she challenged.
Still chuckling, Iolaus waded into the water. When he reached her he put a hand out to help Gabrielle stand up, "Why dont we just make fishing poles, Gabrielle. I have twine in my arrow pouch. " he suggested. "It will be faster, easier and maybe well get back to the house before we get caught in a thundershower." Then, he added, "Of course, some of us are already soggier than others."
Standing abruptly Gabrielle grimace, "All right." she agreed, taking a portion of her skirt and trying - with all due dignity - to wring it out. "But Xena would be disappointed if she knew I didnt give it a second try."
"I wont tell her if you dont."
Another clap of thunder, a bit milder this time, rumbled through the sky.
"Well, look what we have here ... A couple of fish poachers." came a familiar and galling voice. He was leaning against Gabrielles staff, which hed taken from against the tree trunk he was standing next to.
Iolaus and Gabrielle quickly revolved to look at who was addressing them.
"I dont believe it ..." The Amazon Princess suddenly looked tired but also alerted to sudden danger.
Kicking through the water, Iolaus carefully approached the men and their leader, "Privi, leave us alone." he demanded, "Were not hurting you here in any way. You only want to cause trouble."
The man with the whispy hair tossed the Amazon staff to a goon behind him and folded his arms in a defying gesture. He spoke to his three companions, including "the beast", who was eyeing Gabrielle intently. "The little man thinks that just because he got lucky in the tavern hell be able to beat us all here in the wild. Think it can be done, men?!"
"NOT!" the two henchmen shouted in unison.
Iolaus sighed, "Privi, I beat you every time we get together."
"But this time you got your girl with you ..."
Gabrielle, without her weapon of choice, suddenly felt a little naked and defenseless and she remained standing in the water. The two goons behind Privi were big, not as big as "the beast" but quite formidable. Iolaus was a good fighter but, without a weapon, could he hope to take care of four strong men on his own?
"Bubus here," Privy indicated the mountain of a man, "says he likes your girl. He wants her and will be happy to take you on for her."
"Look, Im not willing to give her up and even if I was I guarantee you that she wont go willingly."
"Hey," Gabrielle, hands on her hips, felt piqued. "Im standing right here. Whats all this bartering about?"
"Shes a hand full, you know." Iolaus tossed out, his expression tough and impassable.
"I like her." Bubus grunted. "Pretty."
Gabrielle suddenly got the willies. Why couldnt men like Hercules or Autolycus be attracted to her? Right now shed even settle for Salmoneus.
Iolaus walked the rest of the way out of the lake, "Lets do it." he capitulated.
Prvi was delighted. "Very good - Bubus versus the big mouth -- for the irritating little blond trollop."
When this is over, Gabrielle thought, Im really going to have to hurt that man.
A fair fight wasn't possible considering how much one opponent outweighed the other but a chance of civility went truly afoul when, as Iolaus came out of the lake, preparing to do combat, one of Privi's men stuck out a foot and tripped the hunter. Iolaus cursed himself, realizing he should have seen it coming.
Bubas was there, kicking Iolaus awkwardly in the stomach the minute the unfair advantage was taken.
"Stop it!" Gabrielle screamed, initiating a wade to land.
"Stay put, Gabrielle!" Iolaus demanded. His tone left no room for argument.
Now was not the time to quibble and she was immediately still. Iolaus had too much to deal with right now to worry about the feelings of a unfocused Amazon. Besides, the way the goons were looking in her direction - licking their lips with anticipation - Gabrielle was really in no hurry to leave the somewhat safe confines of the water.
While Bubus laughed deeply and heartily Iolaus got slowly to his feet and sized the situation up in his mind. Strength against strength obviously wasn't going to do it. If the man's fists were even just a bit stronger than the blows he received from his meaty feet Iolaus didn't have a chance. He would have to use his skill, brain and agility.
Iolaus took a well practiced leap when Bubus lunged for him, rolling between "the beast" legs and jumping quickly to his own feet. He managed a quick kick-out at the back of "the beasts'" calves and watched as he, all three hundred pounds of him, collapsed to his knees. That accomplished, Iolaus spotted Gabrielle's staff. It was laying on the ground where one goon had dropped it and Iolaus leapt for it as Bubus attempted to get to his feet again. Swinging with purpose, the hunter-warrior clipped him twice, short and choppy strokes, against the back of his neck and head.
With an "Ooomph!" the giant lay sprawled, face forward, on the ground, unconscious.
It started to rain.
"Get the girl!" Privi shouted at his remaining men, pulling a knife from his own boot.
"Gabrielle!" Iolaus threw the staff, long and hard, at the woman. She caught it with both hands in one smooth motion as the two ruffians waded into the water to assault her.
Privi took a swipe at the dodging Iolaus and missed him cleanly. The hunter had his hands up and his body was in a fighters stance, prepared for whatever the rogue had in mind.
Meanwhile Gabrielle, tossing damp hair over a shoulder, had already given a gut punch to one of the burley goons and while he attempted to recover from the unexpected force of the girls staff she worked on the other. Fighting in the water, with the rain pouring down upon them, wasnt easy but as hard as it was on her it was even more difficult on the clumsy men. Every time they made an attempt to grab for one of her slick arms she was able to pull away with relative ease. She made an easy lower swipe with her staff and managed to get both goons in the water, sitting and wondering what happened. In pain, neither were ready to follow Gabrielle as she ran for ground. She saw Iolaus predicament but Gabrielle wouldnt interfere. This was his fight. But Gabrielle wanted to be there in case she was needed.
With reckless impetuosity, Privi made another move on Iolaus, managing to cut into his colorful vest but not hitting skin.
"Hey!" Iolaus paused and looked at the damaged garment, "This is my favorite!" With new incentive, the hunter - using the patented quick movements a hand to hand combat expert once taught him - struck out at Privi with several fast yet stunningly effective blows. The knife dropped from the assailants hand and Iolaus kicked it away.
Gabrielle watch in amazement. Shed never seen moves like them - not even from Xena or Hercules.
Privi, sitting on the ground and nursing a bloodied mouth and sore scalp, lifted a hand in surrender, "All right! he shouted, "Just take the girl and get out of here!" He held his head in his hands.
"Maybe --" Iolaus, slightly more relaxed now that the danger had past, " -- but you never did apologize to my friend. I think the word you used was "trollop". She didnt like it and neither did I."
"All right, Im sorry!" Privi huffed, painfully squinting his beady eyes..
"And --" This time Gabrielle spoke, positioning herself next to Iolaus, "youll never bother Iolaus or myself ever again?"
Iolaus fold his arms over his chest, awaiting the reply.
"No, we wont bother either of you ever again." Privi finally said.
"Good," Iolaus decided to toss one more thing into the pot, "Now, why dont you and your friends catch us some fish. Gabrielle and I havent had lunch and were hungry."
With a chuckle, The Amazon Princess saw that Privis two goons - minus the unconscious Bubus - were already trying to do as the golden-haired hunter suggested. Catching fish -- with their hands.
Running into the house from the outside downpour they giggled like children.
"Im soaked!" Gabrielle exclaimed but it was with a hardy laugh of triumph. They had out mastered the enemy and all on their own. No one could take it away from them. Not that either Hercules or Xena would try but it was nice to know that at least four bad guys now had a healthy respect for two more than ungodly humans.
Iolaus shut the front door and tossed their fish, with little care, onto the kitchen table, "Gabrielle, youre amazing with that staff. You get better each time I see you." he complimented in earnest.
She was giddy and allowed her weapon to drop beside them. Happy, excited and drunk with victory she fell into the hunters embrace without thought. "And youre just so wonderful ..."
And suddenly they were holding one another gently but close, both soaked to the skin, and the giggles ceased. Gabrielle and Iolaus had their eyes closed, trying hard to control whatever thoughts they were having, and drank in the moment - the feel of their arms around each other, their faces very close to each other, the warm deep breaths coming from one another -- and neither spoke for a long while.
Finally, Iolaus broke the silence. "Gabrielle, there is something unseen here between us. I don't understand it. I'm not sure I'm suppose to understand it. But it's here - and I don't feel with you what I feel around other women."
"Oh." her tone quivered slightly, "I see. What happened last evening - the kissing and touching - was a fluke ---" she suggested, not convinced but trying hard not to fall apart again like she did last night. "Because you think me still a child?"
"Youre no child." He opened his eyes. Pulling back slightly, Iolaus lifted a finger and touched her smooth left cheek, "Youve experienced so much -- Known too many horrors and hardships. Youre a woman and a damned incredible one. And what makes you unique is, after all you have been through, you have remained gentle and pure of heart. Its beautiful."
"Last night ..."
"Ive known women, Gabrielle. Ive cared for many but have only truly fell in love twice in my adult life."
"Was Xena one of those times?"
Iolaus felt a little flustered. How much had Xena told Gabrielle about their relationship? "I dont think I ever really loved Xena." he said, "I know that sounds odd now. It does to me. But Ive been going over it for awhile - especially after we discovered her connection with Hera - and I believe what I was feeling for Xena had far more to do with her then unknown powers as a half goddess than my own true feelings for her at that time."
Gabrielle, her hands on his shoulders, suddenly looked very interested, "What do you mean?"
"I really didnt know Xena very well at that time but I was willing to give up my friendship with Hercules and even kill him because I supposedly loved Xena. It all happened in a matter of days! It never made sense to me. I grew up with Hercules. We were and are best friends. A woman has never come between us - because neither of us would let that happen - in all of our years together -- so why did Xena?"
"Love can do odd things ..."
"Given time maybe. But not like that. I wasnt even willing to listen to reason." He sighed, still puzzled and angry over what Hercules referred to as ancient history - "It was totally out of character for me. At least where Herc is concerned."
After all of this time he still feels guilty, she thought and suddenly felt a tide of loving warmth.What a wonderful friend he is. And what a wonderful man. "Later you hated Xena." Gabrielle reminded.
"I blamed her for what happened when I couldnt accept my own short comings. Butt, I dont think she even rationalized her own powers. Xena knew she was attractive to men with weak minds but she didnt know anything about me and what I had built up with Hercules." Then, with a mild smile, "Tell me, have there been many men who have fallen for Xena?"
"It happens all of the time." Gabrielle confessed. "Of course, she is beautiful."
"Yes, she is. But even the most beautiful women have their limits. I think Xena could get any man or woman to do what she wants just by turning her godpower on them."
"That certain something she doesnt know she has." Gabrielle went over it in her mind. That settled, she looked again at Iolaus, "Who were the two women you loved?"
"Maybe some day Ill tell you about them, Gabrielle. But not now ..."
It still hurts him ... Hes so sensitive ... The Amazon Princess took his chin in her hands and raised his face so she could look into his eyes. That was what she had originally planned but, instead, she leaned in and brushed her lips across his. Then, she pulled back. "Im sorry." Gabrielle apologized.
He wouldnt let her out of his grasp so quickly, "You didnt allow me to finish what I was saying --" and "I know what it is like to fall in love, Gabrielle, and I know what its like to leave the person you love when you know you cant be together. It hurts worse than anything you could ever imagine -- and Im afraid if we do what we could very well do while youre staying here I will fall in love with you ... and be lost when you go back to Xena. Because we both know it will happen. Im with Hercules and youre with Xena. These are the lives we are living right now." Then, emotion choking his tone, "I dont think I can put either of us through what we could go through if we fall hopelessly in love. The sadness and heartache. Weve both been through it too many times ... and once is really enough."
"Did you say LOVE, Iolaus?" she smiled, in a daze. She had heard every sentence but it was that one word that burned itself into her brain - "Real love or the love a brother might feel for his sister?" she teased. Gabrielle wasnt being cruel but Iolaus had grown too serious and it saddened her to see him so confused about something that could be so wonderful.
He had to smile, "Only if you're Ares." Iolaus said, "No Gabrielle, Im talking about a love a man feels for a woman -- a companion he wants to spend the rest of his life with. A soulmate." How to make her understand - "What we do, Gabrielle, traveling with Xena and Hercules - fighting for justice and foiling evil -- It set's us up. There is a very real possibility that one or the other of us will end up dead. Do we dare open up something like this between us, knowing the person we love could die -- and never come back?"
She touched his hair, "Please believe me when I say I understand what youre trying to tell me, Iolaus but ..." she searched for the right words, "If one of us does die in the course of an adventure ... wouldn't it be horrible if we never had the chance to love each other at all?"
It was as if a door suddenly swung open. It could happen. They both had gone and come back, he more than once, and next time how could he be certain Gabrielle wouldnt be gone forever? The mere thought made him want to shudder. Gabrielle dead, away from him for a lifetime ... Perhaps one day to be reunited on the other side? What then? How cruel if she forgot him! And to never have loved her as a living human being when he had the chance ...
And suddenly, with out a doubt, he swept her into his arms, gently crushing the woman to him, and kissed Gabrielle firmly on the mouth. How odd ... and blissful ... and natural it felt.
Her heart skipped a beat as passions were aroused. "Iolaus ..." and she smiled as his kisses moved to her neck. Thank the gods, he was finally realizing how wondrous their situation was. And she felt herself being literally lifted off of the floor and held across his arms.
"Are you sure, Gabrielle?" He asked softly, breathing in her scent and magnetic nearness. Her arms encircled him in a tight embrace as he held her svelte weight.
She kissed his temple and hair "Absolutely." Gabrielle gasped between kisses.
And he slowly walked with her to the bedroom ...
... but before they had even reached the door ...
Shaken out of his passionate reverie, Iolaus turned - still with Gabrielle across his arms - to look at the front door. "What was that?" He then deposited the young woman gently onto her feet.
"It sounded like something hit the door." she acknowledged, equally aware and immediately snapped out of her love-haze. "It could be Privi." she thought aloud, her eyes suddenly searching for her staff, "Maybe hes setting us up for another ambush."
"Iolaus!" came a familiar and desperate call, "Open up, its Hercules!"
Hercules told them the entire story, including what Hera had planned for him by way of Xenas supposed destiny.
"She just doesnt give up, does she?" Iolaus, looking disgusted as he leaned most of his weight against a wooden cupboard near the kitchen, passed Hercules a cup of cider as his friend sat at the kitchen table in his home. "And now shes threatening a child. Why should we be surprised?"
Gabrielle, sitting across from Hercules, was thoughtful and troubled. "I knew it." she murmured. Then, louder - "I knew it was a bad idea. I told her I had a horrible feeling about her going to Hecrtich by herself -- but do you think Xena would listen to me?" Gabrielle knew she was blathering but she couldnt stop. "Hercules, we have to do something." she whispered urgently. "Not just because Xena could lose her soul to Hera but she could very well butcher some innocent person if out of control. There is so much good in her but Ive seen when the blood lust takes over ..."
"I know." Gently rapping the knuckles of his right hand against the wooden table top and taking one of the young womans hands in his other, Hercules said, "Thats why Im here, Gabrielle." Glancing at Iolaus, he wanted to asked his friend what Gabrielle was doing here, of all the places where she could stay while Xena was away, but there really wasnt any time to hear what was probably a detailed answer. He said, "But we wont be able to get to Xena in time if we walk or even run. Shes had too big a head start. Theres only one way well get to her before its too late."
For a count of three Iolaus looked puzzled then what Hercules was referring to suddenly came to light and he grew anxious, "Herc, we cant. Do you remember what happened last time?
"We have no choice. Maybe it will be different this time. Its been years."
Gabrielle attention bounced back and forth from one man to the other during their exchange and none of their odd conversation made sense to her. "What are you two talking about?"
"Pegasus." Hercules answered.
"The winged horse?" Gabrielle asked, not sure she heard him right.
Iolaus sighed and explained, "When Hercules was a boy Pegasus was given to him by the goddess Pomona, the guardian of orchards and gardens. The horse was a thank you gift. Hercules, through hard work and persistence, managed to save one of Pomonas favorite cultivated areas in Athens."
"Unfortunately," Hercules took up the story, "Hera found out. Being Hera she cursed Pegasus with madness. I was suppose to destroy him with one of my fathers swords but ... I couldnt. Pomona, understanding my grief, took the sword I was suppose to slay Pegasus with and drew him into it ..."
"Into the sword?" Gabrielle sat a little straighter and looked over at Iolaus weapons wall.
"Yeah." Iolaus saw where her attention was directed, "That one. The sword you were so interested in when you first arrived."
"I thought it was different." she murmured. "Does Pegasus really fly?"
Hercules nodded, almost proud. "Yes, and hes about twice the size of a regular horse. You can easily seat five adults on his back. All I have to do is take the sword and hit it against a hard surface like a stone and Pegasus will be released."
"But Herc," Iolaus lifted a hand and gently scratched the side of his head, "Pegasus is crazy. He nearly killed both of us last time he was freed. I think I still have an indentation on my back from his hoof."
"I need to risk it, Iolaus ... for Xena."
"Oh, risk-schmisk!" A flighty yet melodious voice, which didnt belong to anyone in the trio, was heard. "Whats risk when your sister is The Goddess of Love?" and she suddenly materialized in front of them, in all her pink and practically unclad glory.
Hercules stood, "Aphrodite, what ...?"
"Ive been hanging out, Big Bro." she answered his question before he could ask. Aphrodite patted the back of her blond, perfectly quaffed hair and took in Iolaus and Gabrielle. If there was ever a couple that needed watching and seemed to have the worst luck when it came to romance it was these two -- and Cupid absolutely refused to shoot his arrows. He kept going on about how they were soulmates and would eventually find their own way ... Kids were pains! Aphrodite turned to her brother, "So, what you need is for Pegasus to behave for awhile while you and your friends rescue Xena and get rid of Horse-Face Hera, right?"
"That pretty much says it all." Hercules agreed.
"Okay, well this is cool." Aphrodite paced in front of the group, concentrating.
Gabrielle and Iolaus glanced at one another, wanting to laugh but not daring.
"See, I cant dissolve the spell but I might be able to turn it away for awhile, to keep him calm and have him follow directions -- at least until you get to Hecrtich. Deep down inside we all, even cursed horses, know who loves us --" Again she glanced at Iolaus and Gabrielle, "-- although some seem to take forever to get it out in the open." Then back at Hercules, " -- and Pegasus knows you love him. Ill work on that, kay?"
With a smile of relief and warmth, Hercules raised a hand and touched Aphrodites slender shoulder, "You know, you can be pretty great when you want to be." he said and allowed a short laugh when she giggled charmingly.
They took the sword outside into a grassy clearing behind Iolaus house. Hercules lifted the large silver blade over his head, ready to strike it against the large bolder the hunter had fashioned into a decorative bench - "Remember Aphrodite, the minute Pegasus begins to act strange you do what you have to."
"Got it bro!" she called, bouncing on her heels and giving Hercules a thumbs up gesture.
"This is going to work. I can tell." Gabrielle murmured, standing away from the area, beside The Goddess of Love.
"Sure it is." Iolaus agreed, sounding unsure and a bit more serious than usual. He stood next to Gabrielle and look out at Hercules.
Aphrodite gazed at the couple. Geez, these two were so obviously right for each other. Why did it take them so long to see it? The girl, having married that Perdicus guy, would have been so miserable - not being able to go out and adventure - and Aphrodites own Sweetcheeks, Iolaus, pairing up with not one but two female rulers. First Niobe then Nebula! Wrong! Not that he wasnt worthy of royalty but, come on, how could he be happy when one lady was obviously into the relationship for herself - not willing to even try to reach out for the man who was her real husband, Ortese, because Iolaus was all she could obsessively think about. And the other? A beautiful, practical but acid tongued, world weary Sumerian pirate? That probably would have been good for awhile but Nebula was so stubborn. Aphrodite sighed internally. It just wouldnt have worked. She wasnt his soulmate. Nah, the best destiny for this couple were in each others arms, where they could love and fight and live ... Thats right. LIVE. No more death or near death experiences ... and who knew who their children might grow up to be? Perhaps heroes! Just like Mom and Dad ...
"Are you listening to me, Aphrodite?" Hercules called.
"You bet! Go to it, Hercie!"
The sword slammed down upon the stone, eliciting a metal tune and sparks. Then, there was a rumble and a blinding flash of light --
-- and there stood the most beautiful creature Gabrielle had ever seen. Tall, pure white with large bird-like wings, at least twelve feet across when expanded. He jumped energetically up on his back legs - kicking out - and landing on all fours again. Pegasus seemed healthy and happy to be free ...
"Wait!" Hercules called to Aphrodite, "He seems okay ..." He approached the horse, laying a gentle hand on its back and speaking soothingly.
Pegasus rubbed his nose against the demigods chest and neighed in low tones.
"This is great!" Gabrielle clapped her hands together and smiled.
Iolaus, still pensive, wasnt so sure, "Hercules, he seemed okay last time too until ..."
No sooner had the words been said then Pegasus began to huff and bray in distress.
"Whoa, boy. Whoa." Hercules patted Pegasus gently on the mane and attempted to calm him.
Pegasus would have nothing to do with it. Suddenly he bucked and the noises coming from its mouth sounded like the muffled scream of a she-demon.
"Aphrodite, now! Iolaus called.
She nodded and lifted her hands towards the beast - "This is tough! He keeps moving."
Foam appeared around Pegasus lips and he charged Hercules, trying to pick the half god up with his nose and throw him as Hercules held him still.
"Hurry!" Gabrielle cried.
"Got him!" Aphrodite yelled in triumph, sending a pink bolt of godlight at Pegasus and watching, with the others, as he calmed -- allowing Hercules to touch him, unabused, once again.
The threesome walked over to where Pegasus and Hercules were getting reacquainted.
"I wish there was a way for me to keep him like this for you, Herc." Aphrodite said, sensing her brothers love for his one time equine companion. "Heras such a ..."
Hercules nodded, "Thanks, sis."
She stood at the aperture with her sword drawn. Sounds unlike anything human she ever heard were coming from the deepest regions of the blackened cave. Xena, through experience, knew it could only mean danger.
Then she heard chanting, as if from many men and women, and prayers: "Oh great goddess! Give us a sign of your magnificence!" someone, probably a priest, called.
"Mom likes ovation." Ares said. He appeared behind her at the edge of the cliff Xena just crossed. "I have to congratulate you, Xena. That was quite some climb. Ive seen experts take falls and never make it to this point. Course, if theyd been worthy they probably wouldnt have fallen, right?"
Xena relaxed her grip on the sword and sighed, "Ares, dont you have anything better to do?"
He approached her, "No, not really. I would be playing with my son about now - you know the one you and its Grandmother killed awhile back - but since that went by the wayside and Zeus is a bit peeved at me for the "betrayal of the gods as he calls it, Im just not as busy as I once was."
"Youve been demoted? Youre not The God of War anymore?"
"Oh yes, thats still my job and always will be. Lets just say Im on restriction for awhile, until Zeus decides Discord is a lousy God of War. Shes erratic so it shouldnt take that long."
The Warrior Princess looked again into the darkened cave and started forward.
"Xena," Ares paused then continued when she looked up at him - meeting his eyes, "I know weve had our differences in the past and I know you dont trust me. Ive never given you a good reason ... "
She didnt have time for this. "Dont try to stop me from entering."
"I wont. Why should I? Just realize this - If you go looking for something dont be disappointed if what you find isnt what you were hoping for."
"Im prepared for that."
He watched her enter the black abyss. "Are you really?"
I'm flying! I can't believe it! Flying!" She held her arms out to her sides and closed her eyes, imagining she really was a lone being soaring through the sky, instead of a mere passenger on one of greatest wonders of the known world. The pretense was a somewhat difficult task when one considered she was sandwiched between Hercules, tall even when he was sitting, and Iolaus -- the latter man's hands comfortably resting on her hips, supposedly to keep himself (and Gabrielle) upright and planted on the great white Pegasus' back -- but she was inclined to wonder a little about that - although Gabrielle would be the first to admit she really didn't mind the familiarity. Not from him. They had unfinished business.
Iolaus chuckled at her wonder and childlike antics as he watched Gabrielle from behind. Didn't he do the exact same thing, lifting his arms as if to glide when - long ago now - he had his first ride on the back of this incredible horse? Iolaus remembered well that first time on a Pegasus cruise with Hercules, feeling the wind and seeing clouds, close enough to touch. Such exhilaration! That feeling of power! Almost as if he was a god - - but he wasn't. Not even a half god. It didn't really bother him, then and now, because Iolaus had seen all the trouble gods cause and the way they treated their own wasn't something to be envied.
Poor Pegasus, he thought. To be such an incredible animal but never really enjoy your gift -- because of a curse.
It was a dark journey from the mouth of the cave to its inner sanctum. A few times, while listening to the voices of the devout, Xena slid and nearly tripped over stones, gravel and small scattered golden idols that decorated the floor of Hera's temple. The light, when it came, was soft and radiated from a fire on a ritualistic alter.
Xena took in the sight in front of her. A large room, carved from the inside of Hecrtich and decorated with large jewel imbedded tapestries; each depicting one of Hera's children - her personal ideals - and certain important events during their lifetimes. Xena was not surprised to see Ares, Hera's proudest achievement, with the largest and most detailed tapestry. Hecrtich wasn't the most glamorous and decorative of Hera's temples but it was the most sinister and anointed, holding a power hardly touched by any of the goddess others.
The chanting, heard from another room, stopped and Xena instinctively touched her chakram.
"Go to the book of scrolls."
Startled, the Warrior Princess swiveled about and looked closely at the mature woman, with thinning white hair, who was wearing dark ceremonial robes. Where did she come from?
"Go to the book, child ..." She lifted a withered hand and indicated a large tome laying on a stone platform, "All of the answers to your questions are in the book, Honored One." And she bowed to Xena, backing politely away so she could pass.
"Were you expecting me?"
"For years." The woman replied. "I am the Priestess Hoth. We were told of your coming a lifetime ago."
The book, embossed with a peacock feather - the symbol of Hera - was large and leather bound. The minute Xena flipped a few pages she could feel an unusual tingle move through her fingers. The parchments - yellowed with age and use, were in perfect order and thoroughly well taken care of. The tome was old. Older than man. Older even than most of the gods. Written by who? Hera herself? The old priestess? The first few chapters spoke of the Titans and Chronos, then gradually fell into Zeus rule and his marriage to Hera. Flipping pages randomly, Xena wasnt surprised to see that Hera was hailed as a good goddess, only wanting the best for her followers. "Amazing." Xena whispered, aloud.
Then she found it. New pages added to the end of the tome. The story of Hebe - Human daughter of Hera. Hand written with a dull quill, there wasnt much to read. It re-counted the story Cyrene had told Xena just before she died, how Hebe was born to Hera by a human male and how it was in The Queen of the Gods plans to have Hebe be The Destroyer. A great warrior who would conquer the known world and make it a better place for the strong and loyal.
Xenas eyes narrowed as she read further, "An inflicted child and the death of a hero will bring Hebe back to her inevitable destiny. With her own sword she will slay the obstacles. And, in the end, find true peace and glory amongst her own kind, at the right hand side of her mother, on Olympus." At the turn of another page Xenas breath caught in her throat. A drawing of Hebe. It was her. The blue eyes, dark hair and strong jaw. The figure was bowing before The Queen of the Gods.
"What the book does not tell you, Honored One, is that the child - who is marked for death - can be spared if you destroy the hero ... However, if you decide to go against the decree you will be driven insane with pain. That is the punishment ordained by The Furies for such blasphemy."
The Warrior Princess slammed the tome shut and turned on the old woman, "You cannot make me kill anyone!" she shouted. But her attention was diverted when an image, reflected up against one of the stone walls, was thrusts in front of her. Xena could see a small boy asleep in bed and beside him crouched the sad and anxious figure of his father. "King Iphicles?" she murmured.
"Yes, the boy is a nephew of Hercules. He will sleep until he dies."
"Unless I murder Hercules?" Xenas brow raised as she absorbed the data. She should have known. Hera up to her old tricks. And who else? "He would never let that happen. Hercules probably already has the situation well in hand."
"He is nearly here -- with two friends."
Suddenly worried, Xenas normally strong voice quaked, "Not Gabrielle."
"No ..." Didnt they know how dangerous it was for them here?
"Kill Hercules and you will truly please Hera. But, kill them all ..." Priestess Hoths voice raised an octave, "Your mother will certainly grant you, a half human, all of the greatest gifts of ..."
"NO!" Xena pulled the chakram from its hook on her belt, wanting to plant its sharp edge into the old womans skull. "I will not kill Hercules or anyone else -- except maybe you." She suspected it and now she was sure, "Ares, you are as transparent as stone-still water!"
"All right." And the old woman was gone, replaced by The God of War in all of his black clad brilliance, "I should have known youd catch on." The womans intuitiveness was one of the things he most admired in Xena.
"I was a fool." Xena clipped the chakram back on her belt, "There you were, egging me on while I was climbing the mountain, knowing I couldnt be stopped. I fell right into your hands, Ares." Xena felt used and angry, "Is any of this real?"
"Oh yeah. This is Heras temple and the scrolls are real. Every word. As a matter of fact, I was instrumental in making a lot of it happen. What will happen, I should say. I always was Moms favorite."
"Did you really think Id kill Hercules?"
Xena seethed and her voice grew deep, "How can you be so sure?"
"Because by your refusal you will be driven mad and an insane woman can be molded. Im here to mold, Xena."
She was about to throw out a retort when something indefinable happened. Xena lifted her hands to her dark head when a searing pain abruptly made its way into her brain, followed by a loud mind numbing thumping. An amplified heartbeat. She could hear hushed voices telling her conspiracies and half truths and urging her to only do as Ares asks -- It was her destiny. "No!" Xena shouted. A piercing agony enveloped her and the warrior woman fell to her knees, sobbing for breath. "Ares!" she cried in pain, "Stop this!"
"Do it, kill Hercules and all of the pain will go away ..." Ares encouraged.
Once on Hecrtich at the mouth of the correct cave, they sent Pegasus down to play with Argo.
"Theyll like each other. Argo seldom gets a chance to be with other horses." Gabrielle summed up. "I just hope Pegasus doesnt change before we return."
"Aphrodite will watch over them." Hercules assured although he really wasnt certain himself. His sister wasnt really reliable. "This way." Hercules lead them into Hecrtich, aware of the dangers yet knowing they had to be faced. He could hear the chanting as Xena had before them and, after awhile, saw the dull light illuminating from a room purposely carved into the mountain. There was a fork in the road and none of the trio could make up their minds which way to go. "Ill check the right way first." he told his friends. "The light seems to be stronger there. Follow me when I call."
Normally Iolaus would have been anxious to go in by Hercules side, fighting to the death if necessary, but he saw wisdom in holding back, not knowing what was ahead of them. He was worried about Gabrielle. Her best friend could be in there and the bard was anxious to see her, to be sure she was well, and who knew what Gabrielle would do if she found matters not to her liking. She was emotional and eager for a confrontation with whatever was putting Xena in danger. Once again Iolaus realized that Gabrielle was much like him. Distraction was usually the best course of action - "I want to give you something."
Gabrielle, holding a torch they had picked up along the way, looked from where Hercules entered the inner area to staring at Iolaus, "Give me something? Now?"
"We might not get a chance to be alone later." Iolaus pulled a package out of the back of his waistband. It was small and she recognized the paper the gift was wrapped in from a stand at the Thebes Village Market, "This was the one package I didnt give to Gickis for all of the trouble we caused him. I had a friend make it while you were off bargaining."
Gabrielle, questioning, passed Iolaus the torch and took the small loosely wrapped package from his extended hand. She slid the wrapper off and was stunned to see an impressively fashioned ornament attached to a thin string of brown leather. Examining it closely she realized it was a smaller version of the amulet Iolaus wore around his neck. The etching was identical but much smaller. "Its beautiful." she whispered, genuinely touched. She knew Iolaus own meant a great deal to him, passed down from his grandfather to his father then to him. It was really the only tie he had to the male side of his family.
"I always felt it brought me luck." he explained, "Yours has a small compartment in the back and it opens. Later Ill give you something to put inside." Iolaus said mysteriously, pleased by her expression. He had never given another woman a gift like this. Well yes, Nebula had kept the original for a time when ... but he didnt want to think about that now.
"Oh Iolaus ... Its so ..." A hand reached over to touch one of his cheeks. Her eyes searched his, overcome.
The couple reached out to kiss one another but they were interrupted.
"Come on you two. This way." Hercules called. "I think Ive found her."
Gabrielle put the amulet around her neck and followed Iolaus and Hercules through the cave.
Xena sat in the middle of the room on the stone floor, her legs crossed, attempting to feel no pain. She could hear them entering and knew who they were. Demons from Tartarus sent to destroy her. Yes, that was it. Or no, that wouldnt make sense because Hera wanted her to kill Hercules. How could she do that if she were busy elsewhere?
She heard the whisper from behind. It sounded like someone she knew. The girl. What was her name? Gab... What? "Go away or Ill have to kill you." she told them quite honestly and dully. She couldnt look at her friends. It was taking all the strength she could muster to speak and not attack. The pain will go away if you kill Hercules. he had said. But if you kill them all ...
The pain intensified and Xena stood and screamed in agony.
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried out and moved with the two men to help her.
"NO!" Xena drew her sword, one hand clutching her aching head. "You dont understand if you come near me Ill kill you. Its the only way to stop the pain -- and I might just do it because I cant help myself!"
"Shes the daughter of Hera. Its what she is suppose to do." Priestess Hoth appeared before them, standing on the pulpit near the scroll book and fire.
"Its YOU." Hercules called, "Shes the woman who told Iphicles I had to come here and she warned me about what Xena could become."
"Its Ares!" Xena spat out, impatiently.
Once again The God of War materialized and Hoth disappeared. "Shes right." he smiled and spoke with a taunting sort of simplicity, "Hera needed you two here to fulfill a prophecy. The temple and its priests disbanded long ago, only a few loyal keeping the temple up to par." The explanation turned into a sneer, "After you dropped Hera into the pit of Tartarus a few of her loyal human followers were able to raise the old girl again. She came to me weakened and, being the good son I am, I couldnt resist her requests. Killing Hercules and bringing Xena back to the fold ... How could I resist? Especially when it has the extra added advantage of putting Zeus in his place. Hes been a thorn in our side for far too long."
"But hes your father ..." Gabrielle said, a little amazed by his disrespect.
Ares chortled, "Your point being?"
"So, where is she?" Iolaus, looking about, asked. He had drawn his own sword but didnt know what to do with it.
Ares detested this little man. Why couldnt he have stayed dead in Sumeria? "Hera? Shes around."
Xena dropped her weapon, "I wont kill Hercules." she said, although the madness and pain were wracking her body in waves. She held onto an inner strength that refused to make her step back into that world of a vicious warrior, intent on destroying the world -- and the man she loved. If she killed Hercules it would happen. She knew it. And so many people would die ... Gabrielle included.
A frown appeared on Ares face. The womans strength amazed him still. She would be unstoppable if left in his care." You will because you must do as your mother commands." He looked over at Hercules, "And you must kill her or your nephew will die! Thats whats at stake, Hercules."
The demigod spotted the image of Iphicles and Antak as it appeared again on the temple wall. He looked around the Hecrtich and shouted, "You can't get us to fight each other, Hera!" he cried to the air, "She's not yours. Xena is her own woman and nothing you can do will change that!"
"Oh - do you really think so?" the goddess' voice suddenly echoed around the chamber. "If given the right reason Xena will do whatever I ask. And so will you, Hercules!"
Stunned, the heroes looked about themselves. They hadnt expected Hera to be so close.
Only Ares smiled and seemed at ease. This was going to be good.
Then they felt it, a great build up of electricity in the air. Something was being processed but none of them, especially the glassy-eyed and nervous Warrior Princess, could fathom it. Then, without warning, a bolt of explosive energy shot from the alter fire, splitting in two and struck Iolaus and Gabrielle squarely in the chests. They were thrown at least twenty feet , Iolaus sword dropping to the ground, and fell to the stone floor, only a few feet away from one another. The man and woman lay as if dead.
With a cry of horror and anguish, Xena ran to her friend and Hercules did the same. "I feel no pulse," she sobbed, "No heartbeat! She's killed them!" The Warrior Princess shrieked in pain and unbalanced, acting on premonition, drew her chakram yet again but wasnt really aware of who she could reasonably fight over her loss.
"They are not dead." Ares came to the foreground, "but they might as well be because if you two don't fight to the death they will be sacrificed." He folded his arms across his chest, "However, if you do fight the winner will be rewarded with the life of his or her friend."
"Youre so kind!" Hercules shouted, furious.
Xena stood straight, her expression impassive. She knew what she had to do - "Hercules, Im sorry ... but I cant lose Gabrielle again." She did several back flips that landed her close by her sword. Xena picked it up, and with a warrior cry, ran at Hercules. He had to die!
Blackness. Total and complete.
He could see her as she approached, at first shimmering then slowly growing into focus and finally becoming three-dimensional. The amulet hed given her swayed back and forth across her smooth chest as Gabrielle moved. Both of them were the only beings alive or dead in this realm.
"Where are we?" Gabrielle asked, her voice holding gentle repetition.
"What do you see?' he asked her, his tone echoing as well.
"I want to know if we're seeing the same thing, if we're really in the same room. What do you see?'
"Just you. Everything else is dark - black."
He sighed, "Yeah, we're in the same place."
"Do you think we're dead?' she asked.
"I've been to the other side and this isn't anything like it. At least, not what I've seen."
"I've been there too." She reminded, "And you're right." She looked about them nervously. "I think were laying in wait. Oh, poor Xena and Hercules. What must they think?"
He lifted a hand to touch and comfort Gabrielle and both were suddenly shocked when his fingers passed right through her chin and out her cheek, in a short ark. Iolaus jumped back, frightened for a moment. "Geez! Are you all right?" he quickly asked.
"I'm fine." As a matter of fact, she thought, the experience of having his flesh pass through hers wasn't totally unpleasant.
He had felt the warmth too. "This is just too bizarre." Iolaus gulped.
"What do you think Xena and Hercules are doing right now?"
"Probably trying to figure out a way of rescuing us. I wish we could help them or at least let them know we're all right."
"For the moment." she added.
He nodded, "We can only wait."
He laughed shortly. "The last time we had a good detailed talk we were interrupted."
"Just before something good was going to happen." she repeated his laugh.
Was it his imagination or was she finishing all of his sentences? "Gabrielle, are you reading my mind?"
She appeared startled, "I don't know. I don't think so but I do feel like I know what you're going to say ...."
"... before I say it."
With purpose, Gabrielles hands lifted to hover over his shoulders. She could feel something magnificent radiating from him. "Do you feel that?" she asked, watching his uneasy expression.
"Yes," he spoke haltingly, "It's warm and --"
"What?" she urged. This time she didnt know what he was going to say and she suspected because it wasnt something he could effortlessly put into words.
"Whatever it is feels like it belongs." That didnt sound right and his expression showed it, "Does that make sense?"
"Not entirely but I think I understand." Her hands gently slid from almost touching his shoulders to nearly touching his chest. Then Gabrielle pressed forward ever so gently.
Iolaus caught his breath. The feeling was so incredibly intense.
Gabrielle felt it too. Like he, she attempted to put into words what she was feeling, "Its almost as if two souls are becoming one." .
"No ..." Iolaus, breathing deeply and fully aware, "Its as if one soul was torn in two and now it desperately wants to be rejoined."
She looked up at him, eyes wide with astonishment. That was it! Gabrielle tried for an instant to pull back but his arms raised, and never quite touching her, enveloped her in an embrace, "Iolaus ..." She felt excitement, her heart beating rapidly, a gentle ache of anticipation in her stomach ... "This is almost like ...." and she suddenly wanted to be with him like this forever. One soul ...
His enlightened eyes looked down at her with a warmth only the two of them could share. Soulmate-Soulmate-Soulemate! came a voice in both of their heads. Neither knew who it was that spoke. He nodded his assent when she said, with her mind, what she wanted to do next. It could be a mistake but they would never have this opportunity again if Hercules and Xena were successful in a rescue attempt.
Quietly, with little preamble, she was moved her entire body into him. A man and woman sharing their soul and flesh in a way that could never be duplicated. Both threw back their heads and closed their eyes as a sweeping rush of love, warmth and fierce tenderness engulfed them. Surely, this was the ultimate caress, true love, in its most heightened form.
They could suddenly see their future together, flashing by their minds-eye as if the gods were impatient to get to the highlights .... the touching ("Ohhh...") ... wedding ("I truly do ...") ... passionate love-making ("Iolaus!" "Gabrielle!") ... the working together side by side ("Herc, were not just farming. Im building a life for me and ....") building ... fighting .... growing older as Xena and Hercules remained the same ("You knew we couldnt stay partners forever, Herc ..."- "I know.") birthing ("Its a boy!") ... children -- Two boys and a girl ("Gabrielle, I swear, if you name her Xena Ill hit you with your own staff"- "Oh, all right Xena but ..."). And reaching ... reaching ... reaching .... tumbling further and further into the future until one day .... ("Gods no, please wake up! Please ... I cant go on if you .... I love you!") ....
NO! I dont want to know this!!
"Dont die!" Gabrielles eyes opened wide and she cried out and pushed herself from him. She wept bitterly, and fell backward onto what served as a floor in the black realm, the shock of so quickly and unexpectedly being separated from him, both in her mind and with her soul was more than she could take. Gabrielle dissolved into tears and held her face in trembling hands.
Iolaus collapsed weakly to his knees, breathing heavily. He stayed that way, stunned, for quite some time before he opened his eyes. Slowly, he crawled over to Gabrielle, who had rolled herself into a quivering ball of emotion - "Gab ..." Weakened, he could barely speak. The tears came, flowing out of his eyes and down his cheeks unchecked. He wanted desperately to hold her and be held! They had felt too much and seen more than mere mortals were meant to witness. At a loss he could only say what he felt. Iolaus whispered, "I love you too." before falling beside her, not quite touching, into a void of senselessness.
"Xena, no!" Hercules rolled from the near blow and managed to grab Iolaus sword along the way. "Theres got to be another way!" he called to the tall woman with the demented and determined expression.
"There is no other way! Ares shouted, "Youve read the sacred scrolls, Xena. You know what you have to do ... Keep going, Xena!" Ares clapped encouragement as he might to a figure during a sporting event.
Hercules dodged another blow and kicked out at Xena, connecting with her upper right leg, sending her sprawling. He didnt want to hurt her and he avoided it at all cost. This wasnt her fault. She was only responding to the voices in her head, the ones tormenting her -- and Gabrielle. If she felt the same for the girl as Hercules did for Iolaus he knew how powerfully important Gabrielles well being was to Xena.
She had read from the book? Were the scrolls the key?
Hercules sword deflected the brutal blows thrown by the female warrior. She was good and he could now see that she was, indeed, a demigoddess. He should have known it long before Cyrene told her. She was strong and special. He saw it from the start. He could have helped her ... and he still might. "Destroy the book, Xena!"
Her eyes grew wild, searching. The book? Of course! Hera was weak and her powers were currently limited. Everything that had happened to her was the result of something Ares did, not Hera! Destroy the book and you destroy Heras scheme ... or at least slow them down.
The book is where Xena first felt herself losing a grip on reality! THE BOOK!
"No!" Heras voice cried, "The boy will die, Hercules!"
"A warning from you, Hera? I dont think so. Once the book is destroyed so is your power over us and Antak!"
Xena made a bee line to the podium and swept up the scroll book before Ares could make a move. What retaliatory movement he did make was unceremoniously squashed when Hercules tackled The God of War, dropping him so quickly he couldnt respond in time to take action. Xena tossed the tome into the alter fire and watched as it burned to ashes. Immediately she felt a sweet sense of calm overcome her. The pain was gone.
Hercules looked over at the image of Antak and watched as the boy awakened to be held in his fathers grateful arms.
Xena sobbed and he ran to her, holding the woman in his arms and trying to calm her the best he could. The last few days had been Tartarus! "GABRIELLE!" she suddenly gasped and came back to her senses. The couple were still laying "dead" on the stone floor. "Hercules, have we lost them?"
The half gods looked about the temple, checking for any sign that might give them hope.
"Do you see it?" Hercules lifted a hand and pointed to a seam of light illuminating a wall near a tapestry of Apollo. He walked to it and she followed, "Take one side and Ill take the other. Pull."
With all of the strength the heroes could possibly muster they pulled at the seam, on either side and it slowly began to widen into a mist of mysterious black light.
Xena stuck her head inside of the crevasse and shouted, "I see them, Hercules!" She shimmied her shapely body between the opening, "Hold it open while I get them."
They both lay unconscious on the black floor. This had once been an eddy of sorts, in-between worlds, but when Xena destroyed the book it had become whole and she could touch their souls, without her hands passing through the "bodies". Yet, they were difficult to wake.
"Hurry Xena! I cant hold it open much longer!" Hercules called urgently, struggling with the opening, a sweat breaking out on his athletic body.
With purpose, Xena grasped one of Iolaus arms and one of Gabrielles and pulled with all of her might. She could see the breach start to close, despite Hercules best efforts, and there was no more time to waste. With a warriors shriek of protest, she gave a great heave. Xena and her friends were through the opening just before Hercules was forced to let it close.
The demigods, exhausted and falling together in a heap, watched as Iolaus and Gabrielles souls hovered briefly above the ground then rejoined their bodies.
She lay her mouth gently on his and felt a stirring of passion that quickly abated as she reluctantly pulled away. "Do you think were selfish?" Xena asked him, her hands resting gently on his muscular upper arms.
"Selfish?" Hercules half smiled, slightly puzzled.
"Theyre in love, you know."
He looked over to where Xenas attention was focused. Iolaus and Gabrielle, standing close in the field where Argo and Pegasus romped, talking quietly and just sort of gazing at one another. They did seem an item yet hed seen that sort of mellow love-haze in his friend before - "I dont know ..." he considered, carefully. "Iolaus usually talks with me about his romances. If he was in love with Gabrielle hed probably have told me."
"Or perhaps because its a REAL love this time - he hasnt?"
This comment startled Hercules. Now he knew what Xena meant when she spoke of selfishness. Love or not, the son of Zeus couldnt fathom the thought of Iolaus leaving him again. Not so soon. So much had happened over the last year but the one consistency in the demigods life, even when he didnt want to go on anymore, was the thought of his fair-haired partner. His company and the deep, bonding friendship they shared. Even after that devastating incident in Sumeria he knew, somehow, one day theyd be reunited .... But to lose him to love? REAL love? There was no coming back from that. If Deianeira was still alive would you be thinking these thoughts? Hercules felt embarrassed. Yes, this was frank selfishness. The Warrior Princess recognized it right away in herself and wasnt verbally denying what the loss of her companion would do to her. By denying he saw true love in Iolaus for Gabrielle he was.
Silently, Hercules looked down at Xena as she gazed at her their friends. A closeness had redeveloped between them. Funny how trying to strike each other down with swords can do that to a man and woman.
Someday, when they were old and gray, maybe he and Xena could look back at this moment as one of those little inconsistencies they found so endearing in one another
"Theyre looking at us." She clutched the amulet hed given to her in her right hand as it hung around her neck.. Inside of its hidden compartment was a snippet of his golden hair -- for Gabrielle to carry with her wherever she and Xena traveled.
"I think theyre frightened."
"Of losing us?"
"We can only assure them it wont happen ..."
"Not now but someday?" She almost laughed, despite her sadness at having him leave her yet again. Hadnt they had this conversation before?
"Yes," He leaned into her and placed his smooth forehead against hers, closing his eyes. "Someday soon."
The Goddess of Love gently touched Pegasus nose with her satiny hands, "Were going to have to put you back." she whispered to the winged horse, "but dont feel badly. One day Ill figure out how to keep you like you are right now, Peggie, and Hercules will be so jazzed ..." Her smile faded ever so slightly as she watch the two couples standing together, saying their good-byes. "Well, as happy as any unattached man can be ..." she clarified.
(No winged horses were harmed while writing this fiction)
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