The following day training went on as it always did. While the rest of the warriors drilled their pupils Iolaus watched the younger troupes and waited for an opportunity.
Stancles was up against Marhea, a tall and rather muscular young woman who was an ace with a sharp edged staff. They fought on barrels, connecting hard. Stancles almost had the girl tripped up once but it was easy to see which was the better fighter. Before the boy could regroup she had a staff underneath Stancles feet and he was knocked off the barrels, landing hard on the ground.
"Okay, that's enough." Iolaus called, "Take a five minute break. Stancles, come with me." Curious, the young warriors held back but Iolaus voice was a nearly ferocious, "GO!" he shouted and they hastily did as they were told.
Nervous, Stancles stood and grasped his staff hard. He thought he knew what Iolaus was going to say and he was disheartened. "You're not going to let me go to the academy with the rest tomorrow, are you?"
Iolaus nodded, trying to draw Stancles further away from the training area.
The boy stood still and called to him, "I know I'm having problems but I'm much better than I was three weeks ago."
"You're not going to fight at all." Iolaus face was unemotional but he roughly took the staff from the teenager's hands. "You are our weak link, Stancles. Whoever follows you into battle, any battle, will die and so will you. You're not a warrior and you never will be."
Dumbstruck, Stancles stared at Iolaus and absorbed his frigid words.
"Go home to your mother, son. Be anything than what you're not. *A soldier*."
"But I can be." Stancles pressed, "I know I can if ..."
"*No, you can't*." Iolaus' tone took on a barely controlled severity, "We don't need you here and we don't want you here, boy."
Sitting close to the training area, Gabrielle and Aramis, who were with a contingent of women and children stringing bows and sharpening arrow heads, looked up and over at the scene.
"Iolaus," Stancles voice trembled, "why are you talking to me like this? You know all I want is ..."
"... to help?" the mercenary barked, "You would best help your people by being away from them when Tartarus breaks loose. Because if you go out on any field and try to fight you will die. Then your family will blame me because I didn't stop you when I could."
"That's not true!" Stancles suddenly shouted back, "I can do this! I am a warrior just like ..."
"You are a casualty!" Iolaus snarled, almost lunging in at the teenager. "Have you ever felt an arrow entering your flesh, Stancles, just above the third rib? Have you ever felt a lash across your back and legs? Or a man's hands around your throat doing his best to crush your wind pipe? No? Well, you have all these stupendous things to look forward to, boy, and more ... because you are *no soldier*. You'll go out and will either be killed or captured before the enemy can say 'Hail Xena!'. Pray for death because if you're captured you will be tortured. The Conqueror's soldiers will do things to you that will make you wish you *had* died."
The boy stared at Iolaus, unable to speak but visibly shaking.
"If you're very lucky you'll be put out of your misery quick, with an arrow through the heart. But if they decide to play with you, Stancles, try to make an example of you, there will be a crucifixion. Then you'll die slowly, painfully in an agony you could not have dreamed of in your worst nightmare ..."
Stancles stepped back again, horrified and hurt beyond all measure. He then kicked dirt at Iolaus feet and screamed, "You bastard! I hate you!" and ran back to camp, sobbing, into his family's tent.
Iolaus closed his eyes briefly, blocking a hidden sickness the others could never comprehend, and turned to glance at the small crowd, including Gabrielle, who witnessed the conflict. He said nothing but threw down Stancles staff. Slowly, sensing the eyes at his back, he walked over to a fallen log which had six water-skins lined up for whoever thought they might need refreshment.
He could feel her before hearing the woman walk up behind him.
"Tell me, were you *purposely* trying to be cruel?" Gabrielle asked and was frustrated by his stillness. "Iolaus, he's had family members killed by The Conqueror's soldiers. Can you imagine the images you put in Stancles head? He's in pain and he wanted to make a difference."
"I just saved his life." Iolaus spoke in a monotone.
"You humiliated him." Gabrielle clenched her fists, "You made him feel like he was less than a man."
Iolaus turned about and looked directly into her eyes, "He'll get over it."
"You really don't understand, do you? When you told him he would never be a soldier ... you told him he was *nothing*. You were a hero to him, Iolaus. He admired you as much, maybe even *more* than his own father."
"I never asked to be anyone's hero."
Barely able to control her anger, her heart beating heavily, Gabrielle watched Iolaus as he walked away from her. Dismissing her. She was not a crying woman but his total lack of consideration was enough to choke the voice right out of her throat. What happened to the man she spoke with last night, the one who's ice cold exterior slowly melted down to reveal a human being? He held the slightest glimmer of the hero who rescued her from Xena's executioner courtyard. But now ... "Cold and cruel." Gabrielle whispered. How could she have ever thought this Iolaus and the other in Corinth one and the same?
Iolaus was right. He was no hero.
And no, he was not a friend either.
"Someone really should teach that egomaniac some manners." Perdicus was beside Gabrielle, watching Iolaus as he walked over to Dandilus. "He acts like we're his servants, to be kicked when we don't live up to his expectations."
Or maybe, Gabrielle inner mind whispered, he was being honest with Stancles the best way he knew how? Gabrielle's felt deep regret. Even while despising him, she could not help excusing him.
What was *she* becoming?
The afternoon meal was quieter than usual, the rebels picking through their rations with indifference, either thinking too hard about the upcoming battle or wondering if, like Stancles, they had been misleading themselves into believing they were ready for a full blown battle with Xena's warriors, even if they were only fledgling soldiers.
Walking by the river's edge, twirling a small twig between her fingers, Gabrielle tried - with great difficulty - to forget all she saw during the morning practice. Yet, the harder she chose to ignore the event the more Iolaus and Stancles intruded on common thought. Yes, she was angry with Iolaus approach, how he belittled the boy, but Gabrielle was also mad at him for purely personal reasons. After the last evening, when they talked next to the Olympian, when they had made eye contact during the meeting, Gabrielle thought she and Iolaus made great progress. Somehow, while they were alone, he had softened ... and so had she. They were still careful not to say the wrong thing but they had opened up a little and she was pleased to see he could be approachable when not surrounded by bad elements. They were beginning to understand and trust each other. What's more, he had a charming sense of humor and a laugh that made Gabrielle think of better days, before the Conqueror, before their world had been turned upside down.
Iolaus was correct about Stancles, of course. Perhaps they had known it all along but didn't want to admit the boy's short comings. In this day and age if you didn't know how to fight you really weren't worth much in the real world. Still, it was the way Iolaus approached the impressionable youth that tore at her heart. Why was he so savage? Why did Iolaus seem to *want* to hurt Stancles?
"Thank you. No really, thank you ..."
"Don't thank me. Do what you promised."
"I will, I swear."
Gabrielle heard the urgent whispers as they came to her, moving down the path opposite from where she strolled. Instinctively, for everyone else should have been back at camp eating what some referred to their last lunch, she ducted and moved aside. Gabrielle hid in a shadow, in the middle of two concealing bushes and looked between the foliage. The speakers were men.
"I'm not doing any of this for the resistance against Xena. It's not just because he can't fight. *Most* kids his age can't fight. It's what's displayed during the battle itself that shows a man's true character." Iolaus stated, his mouth pressed into a firm line before elaborating, "I'm doing it because Stancles reminds me a lot of myself before I grew up and life changed. It was a better time and no boy his age should have to ..." Iolaus, who suddenly realized he was rambling concentrated on his listener again, "Do you understand?"
"I think so." Falavius, Stancles father, nodded. "You don't want to see him hurt by what he could witness."
"I don't want to see him dead."
"You're a good man."
"No I'm not."
"Yes, you are." Falavius insisted, "He wanted to be a warrior against our wishes, Iolaus. 'Strong and smart and free.' he said. Stancles wanted to be *you*."
As if supremely insulted, Iolaus grabbed the startled man by the front of his worn tunic and pulled him forward, "*You get that out of his head*. He can never know me as anything more than the bastard who took his friendship and pulverized it. Next time he sees me I want him to spit on my boots because he'll think I'm not worth anything more. *I am not a good man.* He needs to hate me, Falavius. Because if he admires me and follows me, and if I'm not there to watch him, we both know what will happen." Iolaus gulped slightly, uncomfortable with the fear in Falavius manner, and pushed the man back a bit. Calmly, he said: "But I also have to have authority here. That's why you and your family must leave. I can't be both a cruel tyrant to Stancles and a convincing warrior to the others."
Falavius nodded shortly, "When you and the others move out tomorrow, to the academy, my wife and I will take Flavaius and we'll go to neutral ground. We'll live with my brother near Gargarencia. It hasn't been claimed by The Conqueror ... yet."
Their voices faded as the two men continued down the path to their tents.
Enlightened and remorseful, Gabrielle stood and watched them.
That evening, after final preparations had been made for the journey to Corinth, Gabrielle came to a decision she would either learn from or deeply regret. She hovered outside of his tent for over fifteen minutes before summoning the courage to actually tap at the outer leaf and call his name.
Once inside she watched as Iolaus, one leg propped up on a small stool, held a gleaming sword in one hand and a sharpening stone in the other. Beside him was a standard issue table with oils and cleaning cloths lined in a row. "Didn't think I'd get a chance to do this." Iolaus said, touching the sword's blade almost lovingly. "I always like to clean her before battle."
Gabrielle looked about his tent. Although it was small, as they all were, it had the basics. A cot, covers and supply corner furnished with a table and two chairs. The torch that lighted the space was also standard issue.
"I wanted you to know, despite what happened this morning, I still support you." Gabrielle, not usually at a loss for words, cleared her throat, "I over-reacted and apologize. Whatever reason you might have had for speaking with Stancles the way you did ... I'm sure you did it for his own good."
"You think so?" Distracted and docile, Iolaus ran a spotted cloth over the sword blade once again and examined the shine. "I think you were correct the first time, Gabrielle. I'm just *cruel*."
The words hurt Gabrielle, as they were meant to, and she winced. "You're not cruel. You're driven. By what I don't know, Iolaus. But I wish you'd let someone in because you're more than what you show. You have talent and a soul. You can reach so many people if only ...."
"Gabrielle." Iolaus voice was firm. His eyes met her's coldly. "I told you last night ...."
"... not to make you out to be anything you aren't." Gabrielle interrupted and was silently pleased when her firm voice quieted him, "I remember and I'm not idealizing you, Iolaus. I'm also not going to pry. If we're going to learn why you've shut yourself away, why you travel with men who are clearly beneath you, then the explanation is going to have come directly from you." Then she paused, gazing at Iolaus as he continued to stare at her, "But I want you to know, if you're wanting to talk, I'm here. I won't make any judgments or give advice if you don't want to hear it, but I'm here ... and I care."
There was silence.
Gabrielle could tell he was thinking, possibly a dozen uneven thoughts in his head. But then he again picked up his oil rag and began to polish the sword.
Disappointed, she began to slowly move to the tent flap.
"This sword belonged to my father." Iolaus unexpectedly said, "He was a great general in the Athenian Army. And he married a great woman, my mother."
Unsure, Gabrielle retraced her steps and sat on the bottom edge of his cot. "Are your parents still alive?" she asked, noting the care he took with the sword's intricate handle.
"No. Skorous died during battle and Erytheia was taken away to an undisclosed place a couple years ago. I was told she had leprosy. Her last words, as she was wheeled away, were that she was going to soon join me in Elysium."
"Your mother thought you were dead?"
"A lot of people did. I was buried, after all."
Gabrielle blinked her confusion. She had no idea what he was saying.
"Did you ever see the Plague Pits near Thebes?" Iolaus asked, seeming to change the subject.
"I've heard of them." A lump grew in Gabrielle's throat, "But I've never actually been there.".
"I was. Three years ago, just before Xena captured Thrace, she had set up one of her first death camps in Thebes. I was caught, tortured, killed and buried in that large pit along with a thousand others. There was no plague. Just a lot of death."
"My gods, Iolaus ..." Gabrielle felt the shiver start at the bottom of her spine and begin to travel up her back, "But how ...?"
"It didn't matter if you were *really* dead." he clarified, "If you *looked* like you were dead that was enough for Xena and her warriors. Once they buried you it didn't matter anyway. You'd eventually *be* dead." He paused, this time looking past his sword into a world that he had often tried to forget, "I remember the darkness and clawing my way through mud and rotting bodies. It was cold and I could barely breath. How long I had been there I didn't know, maybe days. I remember being so hungry and eating bugs, worms and anything I could get my hands on as I pulled my way over men, women and children ..." It was Iolaus turn to clear his throat, "I broke through the surface during the night. The first thing I saw was a torch and I thought it was Hades." He closed his eyes and nearly laughed at the memory, "I think I had gone a little crazy by then. There I was, more dead than alive, looking up at that torch on its pole and thinking Hades had rescued me. Then, I heard voices. Two soldiers were talking and their backs were to me ..."
With an eerie monotone, a sound that had become almost too familiar to the warrior, Iolaus further explained that he, childlike, asked the soldiers if they could direct him to the home of Skorous and Erytheia. He was like a three year old and wanted to go home and take a bath. He wanted to be tucked into bed by his mother and hear her sweet voice sing him a lullaby. He nearly frightened the soldiers to death and with good reason. Not only had he sudden come upon them, without warning, but he looked a horror, covered from head to toe in mud, his eyes gleaming unsoundly.
"They tried to kill me but I was quick and out-dodged them. Maybe I *did* still have part of my mind because I then saw a dagger in the belt of the larger soldier ... and I pulled it." Iolaus looked directly at Gabrielle, who's eyes had grown into large saucers, "I stabbed them both and watched as they fell dead." His jaw trembled ever so slightly, "I then thanked Hades for delivering me ... and I ran. I ran faster then I ever had in my life ... and I laughed as I ran. Then I cried. There was nothing more for me to do. I think I must have covered ten miles before I collapsed on the porch of a family who didn't know any better than to let a muddied, insane person into their home."
A show of kindness in the midst of all that panic and horror, Gabrielle thought and closed her eyes in relief at the respite, "And did they help you, Iolaus? Were they good people?" she asked, recalling their conversation the night before.
"Yes," he nodded, "A man and a woman with two children. I tried to explain to them what happened but I think I must have been babbling incoherently because they just kept nodding and trying to soothe away my fears. They cleaned me, dressed me, fed me, and gave me a warm place to sleep in their barn. The little girl gave me her favorite blanket and the boy a stuffed toy of some kind."
And the five year old boy gently kissed his cheek and said goodnight .... but Iolaus did not mention this.
"I was there for over two weeks and healed. They wanted me to stay longer but I couldn't. I had to move on. I knew there were others out there that needed my help. I had some foolish idea in my head that I might be able to assist them. Maybe I could be a hero ... I had so much to make up for."
Breaking a promise but unable to help herself, Gabrielle asked: "What did you do that you felt you had to make amends?"
Iolaus said nothing but he did sheath his sword in a leather holster. He then propped it on the table next to his bed.
Contrite, knowing he wasn't yet ready to answer that particular query, Gabrielle then asked what she thought was an easier question, "These people, Iolaus. The man and woman who were kind to you. Did you ever get their names? Did you ever see them again?"
"Oh yes, I did see them again, Gabrielle. I saw them in their home. It had been destroyed by the Conqueror and the entire family had been burned to a crisp, dying in unspeakable agony. Their names were Iphicles and Rena and they died because they were *good people*."