It had been incredible. She had never felt anything like it. Gabrielle told him this truth, giving his ego a gargantuan boost she suspected, as Iolaus gazed fondly and languidly down at her from where she had been lovingly kissing his bare stomach and smooth chest.
There had only been one other encounter that came close to this night and, considering the life Gabrielle was forced to live after her abduction from Potedia, she was grateful for the opportunity of a comparison. Her lover had been young, possibly younger than she, and a soldier working as a novice guard at her last master's home. She had seen him once or twice, never truly taking notice of anything more than the fact that he was a rather innocent-looking securer of land and property. But when she had run away that last time, after her mistress told Gabrielle and the other slaves they would be performing heinous acts of pleasure for the amusement of a few powerful guests, she could not stay. Gabrielle knew she would be punished horribly if caught but the very idea of participating in such a humiliating and decadent spectacle was more than she could endure.
For two nights and a day she ran as fast as her feet would carry her. She nearly made it to the boarder of Theria when he suddenly appeared in front of her with a crossbow. He told Gabrielle she was going back and, exhausted, she could not struggle. As they traveled that first day the young guard seemed so very stern but not vicious. He allowed rest and let her eat and drink. He also *watched* Gabrielle, something unsure and pitying in his manner. On the second night, when he asked, she explained herself to him. Gabrielle told the young guard how she had been ripped from her home and made a slave. Soon, she came to realize he was almost as much of a victim as she. He never wanted to be a soldier, least of all to horrible people like her master and mistress. He wanted to write and read fables of woe and triumph to people. He wanted to be a bard but, times being what they were, was coerced into become something he abhorred. Gabrielle felt the young man's considerable pain as he felt her's and they made sympathetic, tender love to each other that night, beside the campfire.
His name had been Homer and he let her go the following day. She still remembered that tousled dark blond hair, nervous smile and soft blue eyes.
"You are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen ... and felt." Iolaus whispered, his barriers down. Stirred by her kisses and unable to stop himself, he pulled her upward, making a silent heartfelt request. They were again entwined, aching for a respite against loneliness and mutual satiation.
There was such a tender pain in his expression. It pulled at Gabrielle's soul. Iolaus was like a drowning man reaching for a lifeline that only she could give. She just wanted to kiss him, join him and love Iolaus like no other ever had. The last thing she remembered was his head laying at her breasts, in slumber, as she ran careful fingers through his golden hair. Then, without thinking, she traced lower over his spine ... over his back.
Gabrielle's eyes opened and her head turned to the tent flap. How long ...? Light was just barely beginning to show through. The rain had stopped and it was early morning. Some would be up but most would be sleeping late due to yesterday's battle and last night's festivities. The rebels were owed a reprieve after all they had been through. Gabrielle then, with a small smile, turned on her side, pulling the blanket over her shoulder against the cool dawn air, and looked at Iolaus. Sometime during sleep he had rolled-over onto his stomach and she now had a very clear view of what she could barely see last evening by candle light.
Before Iolaus had touched her, attempted to share with her what they so dearly desired, he told Gabrielle he needed her to see something. It might make a difference and he didn't want her to be surprised. He removed his tunic and she noted the tan under-shirt. She recalled it from training. Gabrielle had always thought it odd how the others - Lepacles, Regus and Brucitius - would, when the mid-day heat arrived, peel off their shirts revealing muscular upper bodies. But not Iolaus. At least, not entirely. Occasionally, he would remove the blue outer tunic but the tan undershirt always remained. Iolaus never seemed an overly-modest man yet would not go so far as to bare himself for comfort sake. Now she knew why.
His shoulders, trapezius and spine were terribly scarred.
Gabrielle was just scarcely able to hold back a gasp last night. Yet, when she recalled what she had been told about him, how Iolaus had been beaten and scarred by the warlord Drakus, she nearly wept. However, in retrospect, this mutilation went far beyond the normal whipping, beating and burning of a warlord. Whole sections of skin seemed to have been pulled away, nerve ending laid bare, and left to heal or rot on their own, with no healer supervision. It was as if Iolaus hadn't just been tortured but dealt with as an *experiment*. What could he have done to earn such a horrid punishment? The mere speculation was enough to make the most strong willed mortal ill.
It was at this point, when Gabrielle thought of all Iolaus had endured, that she didn't want to know anymore. At least, not yet. She just touched his back, felt the abuse from unnamed others, then leaned forward and kissed it. She left gentle traces against each scar, ever so slight flicks with her tongue against healed abrasions, and soon Iolaus - overwhelmed - was turning and taking her in his arms. With his fiery kisses he was passionately thanking her for her understanding; with his urgency he was begging her for a remedy, and perhaps even loving her because it didn't matter to Gabrielle how he looked. She wanted him with all his physical faults and mental scars. She had said she was falling in love with Iolaus and meant it.
And now, in this quiet early hour, Gabrielle reached out and touched his back yet again, quietly searching, wondering about those details she didn't dare or care ask last night. Would he think her incredibly tactless now if she should make a query? Could this be part of the reason why Iolaus felt he was not meant to be a hero? Despite their fervor last night and the stories he had told her evenings before, which she suspect Iolaus had disclosed to very few people, Gabrielle really knew very little about the man she loved.
Then she heard him sigh and removed her fingers before he rolled over and gazed at her.
"Good morning." Gabrielle spoke very softly and returned his smile.
"You look lovely at sunup." he whispered, at ease.
"So do you." she laid a hand on his cheek and was gratified when he moved it, kissed her palm and held the hand as she continued, "I know Dandilus will be calling on you. He'll spend the day talking and helping to arrange meetings with the amazons and centaurs ..." and Gabrielle regretted her smile could not remain in place. She had let the subject slide last night but she would make her position known during the inescapable meeting today, " ... but do you have to leave so soon?"
Iolaus nodded, "When it comes to centaurs and amazons it's always best to act quickly. But for now, " Iolaus too glanced at the tent flap, noting the very breath of light and early morning fog outside, "maybe we can distract ourselves with other, more rewarding pursuits." He smiled again, teasing, loving the dreamy look in her eyes and the creamy glint of her exposed shoulder as it barely peaked from underneath the blanket.
"Poetic." Gabrielle spoke lowly, amused and taking him in her arms once again, feeling the delicate strength of his lips on her throat. She always expected he had the heart of a bard and Gabrielle thanked the gods above, whether they were responsible or not, for this lovely intermission.
They argued. They always argued. It covered a multitude of sin.
The following day, late morning, after an evening of heavy rain, it was cold and damp. A good portion of the rebels were huddled together in a circle around the community campfire. Some were breaking their fast and others merely lifting hands to warm chilled fingers. Others were there for slightly more political reasons.
Perdicus was quiet and subtly chafed as he sat and listened to his company. This latest debate, a war of words between two people equally up to the task, was a last shred of hope for the young warrior. He was meant to have a future with Gabrielle and, by the gods, it could still happen.
Distracted and pensive, he drank from his hot cup of cider, recalling what he witnessed this morning. He had seen them. She and the mercenary. Perdicus was worried about Gabrielle, concerned when he hadn't seen her, so conscientious she usually was of early AM duties, making rounds. They all had a bit too much ale last night during the celebration and it would be natural for someone not used to hard drink to fall ill. He proceeded to her tent, wanting to make sure she was well.
Then he saw Iolaus, practically tumbling from her tent, pulling on a boot, his clothes in disarray. The blond hair - normally gathered to the back of his head with a leather strip - was loose about his shoulders. His expression was lax and giddy, not at all like he'd ever seen him. Perdicus was confused until he saw Gabrielle. She came right after Iolaus, giggling, wrapped only in the blanket from her bed. Perdicus was stunned by the look on Gabrielle's face. Never had he seen her so happy and (what was the word?) *content*. The couple hugged and kissed their good-bye, unaware of Perdicus watching from a distance. He couldn't hear them but could guess what was being said. Promises of passionate nights to follow.
Furious, wanting to shout but knowing better, Perdicus bit the inside of his bottom lip, stifling an obscenity. This was torture! That bastard had seduced Gabrielle, Perdicus future wife, the mother of his children! He enticed her with that crude, reckless manner of his. Women were so gullible. Even a woman like Gabrielle, so smart and remote, could be led astray by such vermin. Perdicus had always tried to treat her with respect and dignity. Gabrielle seemed to appreciate his consideration. Yet, here she had bedded that common rabble. Why would she do such a thing when she could have Perdicus, who truly adored her and treated her with honor, as her lover at any time of her choosing?
Iolaus had always been an annoyance. Perdicus never liked him. Yet, he tolerated the mercenary because he was a good warrior and his men, for reasons known only to the gods, admired him. But now things were different. He had gone too far. He'd taken what rightfully belonged to Perdicus and would suffer for it! Perdicus made arrangements long ago for Iolaus exit but never, until now, had the nerve to implement his plan. The mercenary had too many friends, including Dandilus. Still, there had to be something more here, a sign from Gabrielle, that might set the scheme into motion.
"Gabrielle, you are needed here." Iolaus pushed, seriously. He paced back and forth in front of the fire, lifting his hands to punctuate earnest words, "When we finally get the centaurs and amazons together to fight Xena's warriors we're going to need a big scaled plan. You know strategics best out of everyone here. You can negotiate. Aramis and Dandilus will need you gift."
"He has a point, Gabrielle." Dandilus concurred, "When our guests get here there will be no time to wait around. We'll need to be ready for them."
With a sigh Gabrielle realized she had miscalculated. Whatever tenderness she and Iolaus shared last night and this morning they were back to business now, as it should be, and he would not relent. "If you all admire my 'gifts' as much as you say then you should all realize I'm the logical choice to approach the ...."
"You know that's not going to happen." Iolaus nearly snarled, tiring of the disagreement.
"Why?" Gabrielle barked back.
Iolaus paused, attempting to control himself. She was being purposely stubborn and they had no time for this squabbling. "Three reasons. One, the Conqueror will be watching us carefully now. The academy burning might have made us feel good but surely has brought soldiers and warriors loyal to Xena out of the woodwork. We may not make it **into** the centaur or amazon encampments alive." Before Gabrielle could interrupt Iolaus continued, "Two, the amazons and centaur alliance is shaky at best. They've fought one another for years and their together out of necessity. Nothing more. **And they don't like outsiders**. We may not make it **out** of their encampments alive once we get there." Iolaus stopped pacing and looked directly at Gabrielle now, "The rest of us can come and go, little girl, but you mean too much to your own people to be put at risk. They follow you, listen to your words, and need you for more than the information you impart."
Puzzled, Gabrielle's vision took in the entire assembly.
This time Dandilus nodded, "When Iolaus and his men first got here, when we thought you were dead, our morale was lower than it had ever been. Whether you like it or not, Gabrielle, you're a symbol. If you die previous to us making our mark, before we really make a difference, so will a lot of our people's faith. You're destined to embody our struggle for freedom."
"But yesterday I fought with you all at the academy ..."
"And your people were there, watching you, taking stock in everything you were doing." Iolaus exclaimed, "It had nothing to do with any of **us**." Iolaus glanced at Regus and Lepecles who grudgingly nodded. "The rebels get their strength from your presence and heroics, Gabrielle." Iolaus then lowered his voice, "How could you not know that?"
It was just too incredible to believe. She was a woman. A simple village girl. A mortal with flaws. Many of the rebels referred to her as the "soiled dove" and it was true. But it was also true that they still followed she, Dandilus and Aramis . And yes, she would be a fool if she didn't know she had value. Gabrielle didn't mind responsibility but for everyone in camp to look at a single person, particularly herself, for guidance (when she was as lost as they) was ludicrous. No, Gabrielle could never be put on a pedestal.
Still, Gabrielle did recalled how everyone reacted when she returned, how their eyes were wide with wonder, how they only half-accepted her story about the man who rescued her from Xena's punishment. Many sincerely believed, despite her words to the contrary, Gabrielle had managed to rescue herself. A few of the children felt she was magical in some odd way.
There would come a time, she knew, when she'd have to leave them. Gabrielle would endanger her people by just being with them. She didn't totally understand it but she was sure, because of her people's faith in her, she'd eventually become a liability. "Look, I'm just one among many." Gabrielle urged, knowing in her heart she should be the one to approach the amazons. It was as if a voice echoed this fact in her ear. "After all, it's not as if I'm a Joxer, The Mighty."
"Who?" Iolaus questioned.
"A local legend." Aramis replied.
The Mighty Joxer, acclaimed in song and scroll, whose revered name would go down in history as the first great leap of insurrection between the eastern rebels and The Conqueror. There were very few in the resistance who hadn't heard of the brave young man whose parents were warlords, bringing their children up to be the same. Only Joxer was different from the rest. One day, having snuck into Corinth in the guise of visiting a local brothel, he defiantly stole one of The Conqueror's horses and led twenty of her best soldiers on a frantic chase to Spifya Gorge. Out numbered but fearless beyond all measure, he sacrificed himself, leading the storming soldiers onto the weak ledge above the steep drop. All of the warriors, including Joxer himself, had fallen to their deaths. It had been a huge step back for The Conqueror but a giant leap forward for the rebels.
Oh yes, the Conqueror attempted to pass the whole affair off as "a fluke". As a matter of fact, to hear her people tell the story, Joxer had accidentally taken the wrong horse, lost control of it, then ran for his life when the soldiers started to chase him. He and the others lost their lives when the unstable rim of the gorge unexpectedly collapsed. Too much weight had been placed on it. Nothing calculated. Just an unexpected and unfortunate event. But the resistance knew the *true* story. Joxer The Mighty was a hero. He had shown them the way.
"This discussion is closed." Iolaus suddenly announced, "You're not going." He then turned from Gabrielle and began to speak to the rebels about what they might expect once the centaurs and amazons were brought back to camp.
Dandilus lifted a hand to silence Gabrielle, "Quiet now." he said and meant it.
Disappointed and angry, dismissed not only by Iolaus but by the two people she considered her second Mother and Father, Gabrielle walked away from the discussion, her hands bunched into fist, in the direction of the Olympian River. She had to think.
Perdicus, watching, smiled over his cider cup.
She sat cross-legged on the grass and pulled unthinking at the green blades between her fingers. Gabrielle stared distractedly ahead, all her thoughts cumulating in one simple question: "Am I a leader, follower or merely a supporter?"
*Or am I an emblem, to be seen and admired, but not necessarily contribute?*
Gabrielle hadn't cried in a long time. She had come close once or twice but actual tears hadn't manifested since her sister, Lila, died. She wasn't about to breakdown now over something as obtuse as it was confusing. She was a stone as she gazed out at the river, watching busy ducks and the occasional splash from a frisky fish.
Her people wanted and needed (her) a symbol, someone who by example could steer them in the right direction. The more she thought of it the more Gabrielle disliked the over-blown perception. She was a rebel like the rest. She didn't want special treatment or to be put up on a pedestal. As long as her people thought of her as some sort of notable she wouldn't have the latitude and freedom to do what she must.
*And tell us, Gabrielle. What is it you must do?*
*Then what you have wished for is coming true. Or is there more?*
Gabrielle closed her eyes and bowed her head. Yes, so much more. "Iolaus." she whispered. Gabrielle thought he, above all others, understood. After everything they shared last night and this morning, after she professed her love for him, how could he betray her like this?
*Yet, haven't you done a little manipulating yourself? Perhaps a bit of self-serving assuming?*
As beautiful as their night together was, as wonderful as it was to reveal intimate secrets, unveil a vulnerability hidden deep for so many months, and experience an amour she had never felt before, Gabrielle had to admit that in the back of her mind, occupying a very tiny corner, was the thought that she could probably get Iolaus to do whatever she wished now. Gabrielle chuckled bitterly. Who was she kidding? Iolaus had her wrapped around *his* little finger. He had touched her mind, heart and soul like no man ever had. All she had to do was look into his blue eyes, run a hand through that tousled yellow hair, touch the smooth, tanned skin on his chest, and she was at his mercy.
*If only you had the same influence on him, little girl.*
Stunned, Gabrielle jumped a bit as he stood beside her in the grass.
"Thought you might need some company."
Gabrielle smiled mildly and allowed him to reach down and take one of her hands, "Thanks."
"Pretty rough back there, wasn't it?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle admitted, gently taking in a deep breath.
"Do you want to take a walk?"
Gabrielle hesitated for the briefest moment. What she really wanted was to be left alone. "Sure."
She stood and Perdicus slowly walked with her beside the Olympian River. How she wished Iolaus had come to her instead. If she could just reason with him alone ....
After a short time, appearing mysteriously troubled, Perdicus said: "I hated seeing you treated that way: Told you're important but dismissed like a simpleton. It's unfair." Then, when there was no reply from Gabrielle, he tossed in: "You know how *I* feel about you, don't you? If it were up to me I'd respect your wishes and let you go."
Appearing unsettled, Gabrielle didn't instantly answer. She stared straight ahead as they walked.
Perdicus said, "I love you."
Gabrielle paused in their walk and balanced her weight against a tall leaning oak. He stood before her, looking for a reaction. She knew what he wanted from her. A promise. Perdicus wanted their lives to be like it was when they were children, with a couple small exceptions. Gabrielle wished she could say something that would ease his mind. 'I love you like a brother.' was not what Perdicus wanted to hear. Why did he insist on cornering her, making their relationship more than it is?
Fleetingly, Gabrielle closed her eyes and sighed. There was just too much on her mind right now. "Perd, there are a lot of girls in camp who, if you asked them, would cut off a pinky finger for you." She looked down, concentrating, trying hard to be tactful. "Maybe you should look their way, not to someone who could never give you the deep love you so richly deserve."
He stared at her, fury bubbling underneath a mask of passiveness, "You're trying to tell me we have no future?"
"You could learn to love me, Gabrielle ..." Perdicus started then, when he saw the pained-negative shake of her head, he pressed his lips together. He didn't want to do this but she was asking for it.
"It's him, isn't it? Iolaus."
With a sudden jerk of her head Gabrielle looked out to the water, striving oh so desperately to hide the emotion on her face, "I love him, Perdicus. I'm sorry. I know that's hard for you to hear."
"He's bad, Gabrielle. He's a thief and mercenary. You've heard the stories."
Now she looked directly at Perdicus, offended by his ignorance. Misrepresentations had been spread about Gabrielle as well, touting how she enjoyed her earlier indiscretions far more than what was wholesome. All lies and most in their circle were well aware of her sacrifices, how Gabrielle allowed herself to be used for the betterment of the rebel alliance. "Not all stories are true, Perdicus. Iolaus is a hero."
"He gets paid to kill people. He admitted it himself. He's no hero."
Gabrielle could almost hear Iolaus say those same words. 'I'm no hero.' Iolaus was wrong and so was Perdicus. "You saw him back at the academy. He was incredible."
"Do you really think he did that because it was the *right* thing to do, Gabrielle? He's doesn't know or *care to know* the meaning of the word and he doesn't give a damn for any of us. He does everything for purely egotistical reasons. He kills ..."
"All wicked people!" Gabrielle shouted in an explosion of justification, "Warlords! Tyrants! Soldiers loyal to Xena! Greedy men and women who enslave others!" Gabrielle's voice quieted when reflecting on her own history, "Men and women who humiliate and torture those weaker than themselves ..." she murmured. Then, with a gulp: "He's not what we thought, Perd. Iolaus has told me things ... and if you knew what he's been through you would understand. Iolaus is doing this not just for the money but to right a horrendous wrong. He's no thief ..."
"Oh Gabrielle, you are so wrong!" Perdicus challenged, "I too tried to look past what I knew as true. Especially after our victory at the academy. I didn't want to believe Iolaus an opportunist. But this morning I couldn't find him ..." He took a small amount of pleasure from the blush now coloring Gabrielle's cheeks. "I poked my head into his tent and ..." As if suddenly coming to an important decision Perdicus took Gabrielle's wrist firmly in his right hand, "No. I'll have to show you. It's the only way you'll ever believe it. He and the other will still be talking by the fire. Come."
Hesitant and nearly afraid, Gabrielle allowed herself to be led.