He had the reputation of being a hard fighter with a cool head. All knew the story. Iolaus, with the help of peasants in a village just outside of Athens, was able to bring down a battalion of Xena's best soldiers. Of course, some villagers died but many more were rescued and brought to safety. That was where his legend started. He could have been a great man, a leader amongst men, except for one thing: He was a mercenary. Iolaus fought for money, not for the betterment of the rebellion, and he didn't care who knew about it.
"That was two years ago." Iolaus spoke with Dandilus one evening about a week into training, "It had to be done. Someone needed to clear house and I was there. I took advantage of an opportunity."
"But what motivated you at that time?" Dandilus asked, snacking on a slice of sweetbread. They were resting between hand to hand combat practice. "There were no denars to be had then, Iolaus." he stated, not unkindly. "Was it the villagers, the danger or maybe even a bit of hidden morality? What really made you stick your neck out?"
Iolaus paused, taking a swig of cool water from a flask, and thought sincerely about his answer before replying: "The soldiers ... They made me mad."
Dandilus studied Iolaus, waiting for more. There was none.
The rebel leader watched as the pensive warrior stood and walked over to his men, the sober expression suddenly breaking into a grin and hardy laughter when something crude was said at his expense.
Time passed and the warriors were a surprise.
They were all solid instructors and managed patience with even the most clumsy sword handler. During intermissions - away from training the humble farmers, blacksmiths and merchants - the warriors were slovenly, vulgar and ate too much . Yet, when it came down to the task of actually teaching, communicating what it was they needed from their pupils, they were worth their weight in gold.
Lepacles and the bald warrior, Regus, were hard but honest with their men. It was appreciated. Brucitius, the young warrior, taught the women. He had a special influence with them that could not be denied. He was handsome but not too distracting. By the third day of training most of the females in camp could throw a spear and handle a small defense dagger quite well.
"You are all soldiers in training." Iolaus had told the rebels on the morning of their first training day, walking amongst the men and women as they lifted their shields, drew their swords and practice-fought one another. "When you're finished here, when we go into battle, you will all be the best of the best. You are fighting for something Xena and her followers will never understand. Freedom! Freedom from the tyranny of a the Conqueror! Remember it and live by your beliefs. It could just save a life."
Meanwhile, practicing with a staff, Gabrielle was surprised with the ease of which she learned. It was almost as if she had been carrying warrior weapons for a good portion of her life. 'I could have been an Amazon.' she thought, striking out at air, but dismissed the idea as preposterous.
Gabrielle was in composed awe of Iolaus. The words spoken earlier might have been something she would say. She wondered if he really meant them. For two weeks, when she wasn't busy with her own duties, Gabrielle watched Iolaus and was confused by what she saw. He drank too much, ate like a starving man, treated most of the women like they had only one purpose: To serve him. She balanced herself on a fine line between admiring Iolaus skills and loathing his smug attitude; especially when she saw Tresita or Belanina lavish him with their over-blown affections. They would wash his feet, feed him fruit and laugh with him when he imparted the smallest of witticisms or offered the tiniest amount of praise to either.
'I could never do that. Be a willing slave to a man. Never again.' True, she had been free with her body, giving it to those who might serve the resistance, but it was of her own accord. Gabrielle wasn't proud of the deception, how it made her look, but she was a product of her environment and did what she had to in the name of independence. With a private blush, Gabrielle recalled how her rescuer - that other Iolaus - looked at her when she propositioned him. Had she been too quick to offer him something he undoubtedly wanted?
With a wide swish, Gabrielle snared the staff under her arm. She suddenly caught site of Iolaus and was again stunned by a paradox. There Iolaus was, the uncouth warrior, with Stancles, smiling and taking care with the teenager. He ruffled his hair and include him in on conversations that only a young man could find interest in. Iolaus loved to fish and he and Stancles, at twilight, often went to the Olympian River together. Who was this man who could treat people with such disinterest yet care for a simple village boy?
He was an enigma. That was the best way to describe Iolaus.
Dandilus hadn't exactly been elected to approach Iolaus on the matter but as the resistance leader in this territory it fell upon his qualified shoulders to spell matters out and he did what was necessary. "Iolaus," Dandilus approached the blond warrior as he stood on a gravel apron, watching over the day's training exercises.
"Dandilus," Iolaus acknowledged, "your people are coming along fine."
"It's good to hear but not why I've come to talk."
The earnestness in the normally jovial man's voice made Iolaus look at him, "What's up?"
"I don't want to point any fingers," he started, "but things are beginning to show up missing in camp. Small stuff at first. Food, tools and even wood. But last night two crossbows vanished from the weapons tent. It's becoming a real problem."
Iolaus expression was impassive. "You think we have something to do with it?"
"Not you, Iolaus. Don't ask me to explain. I just think you're above it. But your men ... You know them better than me."
"Could it be one of your own?" Again, the voice was neutral.
"It started when the warriors came to us, not before."
There was a hesitation then Iolaus nodded slowly, looking out at his men - shirtless and sweating - as they trained the rebels, "I'll talk with them." he said, not offended.
"Thanks." Dandilus, relieved it had gone so easily, slapped the shorter man on the back and walked over to his own training area.
With barely a wink between focus, Iolaus turned his attention to the youths.
At sixteen years he was older than a boy but not yet a man.
He thrust forward with his heavy sword but Stancles opponent, a few years older than he, moved easily out of the away. During evasive maneuvers he attempted a back flip, as all the young men and women had been taught, and he landed on his backside in the dirt. The others watched and laughed as Stancles stood sheepishly and tried yet another maneuver.
Iolaus also watched him and came to a decision.
"The Warrior Academy? Are you sure, Iolaus?" Aramis watched him uneasily from her position around the fire, the rebels typical meeting place. She was as tense as the others, unsure yet if the resistance was ready for such an undertaking. "Are you certain we're prepared?"
Iolaus, with Lepacles, Regus and Brucitius behind him, nodded: "The academy is a perfect place to start. Not only is it close to Corinth but, if we succeed, we'll be taking out a whole new wave of the Conqueror's warriors."
"Are there children in that place?" Gabrielle asked, appearing both concerned and steadfast. "I want to kick Xena around as much as the rest of you but I really don't want to take innocent lives if we can avoid it."
"The school was closed years ago." Iolaus said with obvious regret. "It's now manned by warriors, being trained in combat, much like you've been doing for the last few weeks. We talked about it," he mimed to the men behind him, "and decided since these soldiers are young and don't have battle field experience yet, you'd be well matched."
Perdicus who had been standing back, his arms folded across his firm stomach, was skeptical, "But its still an Academy. It's not exactly a hot-bed. We take it out and who really cares? The Conqueror will just build another somewhere else. She already has three training centers in Cirra."
With a frown of irritation, Dandilus said: "We have to start somewhere and I don't want us to jump full blown into a battle we can't possibly win." He wouldn't say it out loud but Perdicus was beginning to really anger him. He'd been combatant ever since the warriors showed up to train them and, behind Iolaus back, was saying a lot of things he shouldn't.
"In other words," Gabrielle smiled at her friend, "baby steps, Perdicus." Then she thought of something more, and it should have been obvious. "There will be weapons, armor and uniforms there." She met Iolaus eyes and was pleased to see, in a figurative sense, they were on the same page of an identical scroll, "We need it all."
They looked into each other's eyes and pause. No one but Perdicus noticed.
Breaking the moment, Iolaus straightened and proclaimed, "And who's really saying you're going to win?" His tone was suddenly biting. "You've all improved over the last few weeks. You're even better than we imagined." He glanced at Lepacles who allowed a begrudging nod, "But the men you're facing have had the advantage of being taught by warlords and army veterans. A lot of them. Who knows what new surprises the Conqueror's men have in store for us ... you."
"Do we have anything going for us other than the element of surprise?" a rebel standing near Regus asked.
Iolaus thought for a moment, "No. Not really."
Startled, the group was silent for a moment then a small eruption of laughter over-came them. The truth was the truth.
That evening, after supper, Gabrielle strolled by the Olympian River.
They would be attacking the academy in three days. She didn't want to think about what it meant, the possible loss of life and, for the young, a realism they never expected. Apparently others felt the same way. While making her way to this comfortable spot Gabrielle had to pass many tents and she could hear both the sounds of families at play and men and women, softly whispering to one another, gasps of pleasure, and other sounds all too familiar. What was it about the advent of strife that made men and women want to get down to basics? Was it an internal need to couple because war often severely depleted the mortal population?
She smiled and admonished herself in a whisper, "Bad Gabrielle. Leave them to their pleasure."
Languidly, Gabrielle sat on a grassy spot and stared out at the rippling water. There was a full moon up above, allowing a clear view of the surrounding area. She loved this spot. It was always quiet and calm at night. Sometimes Gabrielle just needed to get away from the others and enjoy the solitude. She would ponder good times, remember her family, and wonder about the future. Sometimes bad memories intruded and Gabrielle found herself taking deep breaths without realizing she was doing so.
"It's a nice night."
Startled, Gabrielle gasped and raised her hands as if to fend off an assault. She then looked between her fingers and saw Iolaus in the moonlight, standing next to her. "Yes, it is." she replied quickly.
"Are you okay?" he asked her, a little stunned by her reaction.
Blinking, as if waking from a deep sleep, Gabrielle whispered, "Yes, of course. Would you like to sit down?"
"Sure." Iolaus plopped down next to Gabrielle, folded his hands, and looked out at the river, "You looked like you thought ..."
"No. Just a habit I need to break." Gabrielle nervously smiled, and explained: "Not that long ago I was owned by a master and mistress who would suddenly come up on me and ..." she gulped slightly and trailed off. "Well, not many of us here have led charmed lives."
Iolaus nodded, seeming to understand. He wouldn't quiz her about it further. He respected her privacy and hoped she felt the same regarding him.
They rested in comfortable silence for a few minutes then Gabrielle looked at Iolaus' profile, studying his manner, and asked: "Are we really ready for the academy?"
"I think so." but his voice betrayed him, "Most are."
Gabrielle took his answer for what it was worth and decided to change the subject, "Iolaus, I hope you weren't offended by the things I said on the first night you and your men arrived at our camp."
"The guys were rude. We deserved it." he said objectively, still staring at the lake.
"They deserved it." Gabrielle gently corrected and smiled when he turned to look at her, "You're not like them, Iolaus. Lepacles, Regus and even Brucitius are good warriors but that's all they are. They're living their lives for the moment but I see more in you. You think and you also ..."
"Don't, Gabrielle." Iolaus warned, his expression not exactly stiff but definitely troubled, "Don't make the mistake of envisioning me as something I'm not. I'm a mercenary. I get paid to kill and to teach men to kill each other. I drink, swear, sleep around and don't particularly like people. Most are just a disappointment. But every once in awhile ..." he faltered, "Dandilus and Aramis are good people. Like the rest of you I think they're deluded into thinking the resistance will matter a hundred years from now, but they're good." Then, he looked steadily at her. "You're a good person too. I know you've been through a lot. I've heard stories ..."
Gabrielle looked away from Iolaus, "Don't believe everything you hear."
He noted a haunted look in her eyes and was almost sorry he mentioned what the others had imparted. "I don't." he assured, "But I think I've learned enough about what you've gone through the last couple of years to know you're not what I originally thought."
The first question Gabrielle wanted to ask was why he had even bothered to quiz the rebels about her. After all, he was supposed to be uninterested in people. Instead, she asked: "What did you originally think?"
A lot of things. Foolish things. But he had watched her, saw how hard Gabrielle worked and how dedicated she was to her cause. She might be a dupe like the rest, believing in a crusade that could only have one out-come, but she was special and not easily defined. "It doesn't matter now." he murmured then grinned, "But I did like how you were able to hold your own with Lepcles. I should have known there was more to you than what met the eye." A pause, "I hope we can become ..." he searched.
"Friends?" she offered.
Had he ever had a woman who was just a friend? "Yeah sure, friends."
Gabrielle smiled, "Okay."