They dozed -- for too long.
"Gabrielle, wake up." Iolaus was already into his pants, boots and gauntlets. He was now looking for his vest, which had been tossed across the room, "Hercules is probably going out of his mind searching for us." he said, urgently.
She sat up in bed, dazed, and pulling the coverlet over her. Visually, Gabrielle searched for her own clothes, "How long have we been here?"
"About three hours. It's suppertime. I heard a bell-ringer toll it outside." Iolaus found her skirt and halftop. He pitched them at her.
Slightly groggy, Gabrielle struggled into her clothes, "What do we tell Hercules when he asks us where we've been?"
Slipping the string attached to his black amulet over his head, Iolaus said - "He probably won't."
"He knows me and it's sometimes better not to ask."
"But would he think I...?"
She dressed quickly then raked slender fingers through her blond hair. She spotted her staff leaning against a rickety chair. 'When did I put it there?' she wondered. Mentally shrugging, Gabrielle picked it up and looked at Iolaus, "Ready." She took a quick breath and moved to the door.
Just before it was opened Iolaus, almost apologetically, grasped her arm and met Gabrielle's eyes. "Hey..." His anxiousness had momentarily made him lose sight of the incredible encounter they both had just shared. He pulled her a bit closer to him. "You're really wonderful. I want you to know that." Iolaus spoke softly and sincerely.
These words weren't enough, he knew. This wasn't just a quick, passionate tryst. He'd been with other women where this statement might seem appropriate but Gabrielle was different. He was so moved by her and what they had experienced together. He hoped she understood that he didn't think of this as only one of many forgettable rendezvous. He leaned forward and gently kissed her on the forehead. "I'll never forget this, Gabrielle." he swore.
"Neither will I." she said tenderly; a little sadly. Oh, but you will. You will forget everything, Iolaus. I'm so sorry.
He sat to the back of the tavern, his half-mug of watered down ale barely touched. Exhaustion creased the demigod's normally bright and well focused eyes. He came to Bantius for fun and relaxation but ended up in the middle of a battle. A war of words between two insistent mothers who absolutely refused to believe their little darlings were not chosen "Most Beautiful Baby".
Hercules passed on them, not because they weren't cute tikes - all the children were - but because he saw something in the little blue-eyed girl with the whispy blond hair and serene expression that out-shined all of the other children. In truth, the baby reminded him of his own daughter, Ilea. Perhaps it wasn't fair but all his pleas to make each baby a winner fell on deaf ears. Hercules had to make a choice and she was it.
He stretched in his chair. Iolaus and Gabrielle were late. Hercules rather expected it. Iolaus had trouble with that sort of thing. There had been meager hope Gabrielle might keep him focused but the hunter could be a little overwhelming when it came to fun. Besides, he doubted all their energies were centered on the festival. Romance was a real possibility between these two. Hercules didn't know how far it would go but suspected there might be a little heat generated once they were left alone.
Then he saw the couple enter through the front tavern doors. Iolaus was holding Gabrielle's arm and whispered something into her ear. She leaned onto her staff, amused by what he said, and laughed. Both seemed energized and in a good mood. Hercules could speculate as to the reason but decided against it.
Iolaus, when spotting his friend, lifted a hand and waved. He and Gabrielle then made their way through the somewhat rambunctious crowd and over to the table.
"We're starved, what's to eat?" Iolaus plopped down in a chair across from his friend. Hercules smiled. Yeah, this was Iolaus. No doubt there. "Bread and venison will be here soon."
Still standing, Gabrielle, leaned her Amazon staff against the wooden table, "I'll go get us something to drink." she told Iolaus and nodded graciously at Hercules before she turned to go to the bar.
Both men watched her move across the floor, Hercules noting Iolaus' enchantment. "She's so special." the hunter murmured earnestly, not aware he'd spoken aloud.
"Yes, she is," Hercules agreed and couldn't prevent a teasing smile when Iolaus eventually looked him in the eye. "I noticed that a long time ago."
Clearing his throat, Iolaus immediately changed the subject, "How did it go?" he asked, referring to the babies, and laughed when Hercules rolled his eyes and slumped dramatically back in his chair, "I guess I shouldn't have asked."
"I don't think I'm going to forgive you for abandoning me, Iolaus. You and Gabrielle had better have had fun."
The hunter paused only briefly, revealing nothing he didn't want brought out into the open. "The festival's great but we had a run in with a not so friendly villager." He pulled the decorative knife from his waist-band and laid it on the table in front of Hercules. "Threatened us with this. What do you think?"
"I thought so too. He probably stole it."
"Maybe." Hercules turned the knife over and saw something that made him start - "Uh, oh."
"What is it?" Returning with two ales, placing one in front of Iolaus, Gabrielle leaned forward to look at the dagger. With purpose, Hercules lifted it so both friends could see, "Ares." Hercules pointed at the design etched into the blade handle, "His crest."
"A follower of Ares? Here?" Then Iolaus shrugged, and leaned back in his chair. "Oh, why do I bother wondering? You're here and Ares has followers near and far."
"But he didn't attack me this time. It was you two. I wonder why?"
Gabrielle sat silently for a time beside Iolaus, her fingers rigidly clutching the handle of her ale mug. Then, "Well, Ares is Ares." She said a bit too flippant, "Does he really need a reason for what he does?"
Hercules stared at her for a moment, "Whatever's going on I better check it out." Pointedly, he stopped speaking as their food was being delivered to the table. Then, when a pretty red-haired tavern maid turned to leave - giving the handsome demigod a suggestive wink as she made an about face - Hercules continued, "Ares closest temple is in Ditea. That's not too far away from here ..."
"Don't you think you're over-reacting a little?' It was Gabrielle that spoke, looking nervously up from her as yet untouched bread and venison. "I mean, Ares has followers. Lots of them. Does it have to mean he's up to no good just because one of them happened to take a swipe at us, Hercules?"
Iolaus took a drink from his mug and nodded, "She has a point, Herc. It could just be a coincidence. Besides, the festival is just getting started. We can keep an eye on things and still have a good time."
The demigod nodded, "You two stick around and I'll go on my own. If it's nothing I'll be back in a few days."
Iolaus sighed and gave his friend a tired look - "Right and if it is something I'll feel like a jerk - especially if you get hurt.'" Iolaus shook his head 'no' - "I'm going too."
Gabrielle looked from one man to the other. She wanted to say something, anything that would make them change their minds but if these two heroes were anything like Xena there simply were no words. They were as stubborn as her best friend.
"That makes it three." she said and bit thoughtfully into a biscuit.
Later, that evening ...
She immediately knew who it was the moment she heard the gentle knock. Gabrielle suspected he might stop by and honestly hoped he would. She opened the door and he instantly came into her arms, holding her close. With a gentle push, she closed the door and held him tightly, "I crossed my fingers..." Gabrielle whispered over his shoulder. "What did you say to Hercules?"
Iolaus pulled back slightly and softly rubbed his nose against her own - "Told him I wanted to say goodnight to you."
"You mean good morning." She giggled, lightly.
He joined her for a moment, his thoughts mingling with her own. "Actually, I want to talk with you." Iolaus expression grew serious and he loosened his hold on her. "Something's on my mind.'
For a fleeting moment Gabrielle felt dread, "Did I do something?"
"No .. Well, yeah. But it's not about you. Or it is but ... "
Try as she might Gabrielle couldn't prevent an amused smile. Could anyone but Iolaus sound so confused but have such purpose at the same time?
He leaned forward.
For a moment Gabrielle thought he was going to kiss her but instead Iolaus merely touched her forehead with his own and spoke softly. "I ..." He stopped again.
"You do want to say something to me, don't you?"
"I'm a bard. I can tell." She chuckled gently and felt a movement that told her he was doing the same, "Don't be afraid, Iolaus. You can tell me anything." she prompted.
He took a short breath, feeling unexpectedly comfortable despite what was on his mind. "What we did today ..." Iolaus closed his eyes, "It wasn't right."
She tensed, her forehead still against his, saying nothing.
"An honorable man doesn't take a proper young lady to a shabby room to make love." Gabrielle relaxed and inhaled gently.
"You've been feeling guilt." she summed up.
"Yeah." His eyes opened.
She pondered for a moment then spoke, telling him what was in her heart - "It was beautiful, Iolaus. Maybe we didn't sleep together under the best circumstances but it was lovely - and if you're thinking that the location cheapened the experience you're wrong." Then, a little warily, "Unless you think it made me seem ...?"
"No." he spoke instantly, "No, no."
"Then," She raised her head, fingers lifting to touch his chin, and smiled. Once again she looked into his soulful, searching eyes, "know it was one of the most magnificent experiences of my life. I have no regrets...and neither should you."
He knew what she was saying was in earnest but there was something more. She had to know how he felt about her. "What I'm trying to say, Gabrielle, is..."
"You respect me? Is that it?"
'Yes, but more.' Still, it was a start. For now, it would do. He nodded once. She allowed him to take her in his arms and they hugged affectionately. A careless thought entered into the bard's head as he held her: This is a nice room. This is a respectible part of town. How does that make you feel, Iolaus?
It was as if he'd read her thoughts.
Gabrielle felt a hand rub very gently up and down her back, between shoulder blades and over the spine, partially touching the material of her green half-top and trailing down to stroke the smooth skin of her lower back. His touch held magic and she felt herself melt in his embrace. Her lips reached for his and she pressed herself close, closing her eyes and allowing herself to be saturated in passion.
The debt, the fact she was on the verge of paying off Ares, had nothing to do with this experience. It couldn't have been further from her mind. She wanted to feel the firm line of Iolaus' form against her own again. She needed his touch, those nearly poetic words, and for him to make her feel like a desired woman. To pacify that craving. Gabrielle ran her fingers through his hair as they kissed, her lips moving hungrily against his. Did he want her as much as she wanted him right now? That didn't seem possible.
"Gabrielle...Gabrielle..." he breathed her name, his lips trailing from her mouth to her temple, then to her neck. She was doing something to him, making him feel emotions no other woman ever had. Did she understand her power over men? Had she grasped her mastery over him?
Lost in sensuality, the bard slowly opened her eyes and was jolted by what she saw.
Ares! Standing behind Iolaus, leaning against the door, arms crossed over his massive chest. He was in a shadow but she could see him and he was smiling. No, not a gesture of acceptance but a smirk of approval.
She suddenly pulled away from her lover, "I'm sorry..." Gabrielle fumbled an apology. She wouldn't do this. Not now. Couldn't.
"What is it?' Iolaus asked, startled. He held her hands in his and searched for something in her expression. "Are you all right?"
Again, she looked past him but The God of War was gone. Or was he? Had he actually ever been there? "Iolaus...I need sleep. I'm so tired..." She couldn't meet his eyes, understanding how ridiculous it had to sound. Especially after her initial reaction to his touch. And she felt guilt. Horrible, intollerable guilt.
He almost asked Gabrielle if she was joking but there was a dread in her expression that made him pause. She appeared truly torn, nervous and...afraid? He wanted to understand, even help her, but it was obvious that the bard didn't want his aid at this time. Whatever was bothering her, perhaps everything that happened during the day, Gabrielle clearly needed to be alone with it. How could he have misread the signs? It hurt a little but Iolaus was gentleman enough to let it slide. With a nod, he took her jaw between his thumb and finger and gave Gabrielle a gentle kiss on the lips.
"Goodnight. Sleep well." he said and smiled to comfort before turning to leave.
"Goodnight." she whispered in return and regretfully watched Iolaus depart.
"I don't get it. Why did you do that?' Discord asked, a frown on her full lips. Scowl-lines marred an otherwise smooth forehead. "She was getting ready to score again."
"A little too fast." Ares muttered, his expression darkly thoughtful. "If she and hunter-boy did the mattress dance again tonight the bet would be paid in full. I can't have that quite yet. I need them both." He allowed a grin. "Maybe, in the process, I can also have Hercules done away with. It can't be by my hand ..."
Ares nodded to himself, cursing the rule that forbade gods from killing other gods. Zeus had extended that law to include Hercules as well, to both Hera and Ares' chargrin. "but this can work. I'll need help from Hephestus. He owes me..."
Discord grew excited. Ares was plotting and being devious. She had to know more - "So, you really don't want a pay off at all, do you? You want her to remain under obligation, is that it? And Iolaus?"
"Let's just say the two of them will be on the road with Hercules tomorrow -- and that's exactly as it should be. If the debt's paid too soon Xena's little friend might want to part company with her golden boy before I can make use of them. I can't have that. Not yet."
Discord did a double take, "And Hercules? You really want him involved?"
"Not originally but, thanks to the dagger, it's inevitable." He looked over at her, noting the ambivalent silence. Discord hadn't meant to leave her dagger with Iolaus but it was unavoidable ... and useful. Now Trecherius' men wouldn't have to tear Bantius apart looking for the bard and hunter. They were coming to him and would be dealt with. Hercules was both a deterent and bonus.
Discord exhaled in frustration, "Ares, what aren't you telling me? I demand to know!"
"Demand, Discord?" Ares looked hard at his sibling.
"Only because I want to serve you better." she tossed in, gritting her teeth.
"I have plans for the girl, Discord." Unimpressed, Ares said, "Be patient. All will soon be revealed." Then he added quickly before she could interrupt, "It's nothing you need know about until I'm ready to tell you. Now, why don't you go off somewhere and do mayhem. Crete has been quiet lately. Do something there."
"You're dismissing me?" she challenged, petulantly.
"Sounds that way, doesn't it?" He closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the padding of the throne.
The petite but deadly goddess hesitated and tightly clenched her teeth together. She then turned on her spiked heel and exited the room. Yes, she'd go somewhere. Ares couldn't just push her aside and think it wouldn't have repercussions. She'd get him and that cute little human Amazon-princess he was so obviously enamored with!
"What do you know about Ditea, Herc?"
"Not much. Its soon to be ruled, through marriage, by Princess Armeta of Temptius. Shes due to be crowned Queen on her next birthday. I think thats sometime this week."
"Is she pretty?"
Gabrielle reach over and playfully punched Iolaus shoulder. Amused, Hercules continued to talk as if he hadnt seen his friends playful exchange. "Ive never seen her but heard the prince shes going to marry is only a child."
"Thats why she is going to be the ruler over him?" Gabrielle questioned, almost pleased.
"Yes, it was arranged before he was born. Marriages like this usually are."
"Nice." Iolaus, artfully using Gabrielles staff as a walking stick as they hiked, considered something the bard and halfgod hadnt, "I hear both kingdoms are extreme when it comes to the purity of their monarchs. Poor lonely Princess Armeta."
They walked for miles, pausing only briefly to observe landmarks which told the trio they were on the right road to Ditea, where Ares temple resided. Then, as evening drew near and the sun began to slowly sink in the west it was decided to set up camp near the Thebea River. Having made good time they would be in Ditea by tomorrow afternoon.
"Im going to scout ahead a couple of miles." Hercules announced, troubled and staring in the direction where he planned to walk. "You never know what might be waiting for us."
"You never know." Gabrielle repeated in an undertone, not quite listening.
Or - perhaps - listening all too well.
Hercules looked over at her, watching as she leaned her Amazon staff against a tree. Gabrielle then searched the ground busily, hunting for wood and dry grass. Something about her presence continued to disturb him.
Reluctantly, Hercules began to wonder if he wasnt feeling a form of jealousy. His best friend had said very little directly to him since they started to travel early this morning, Iolaus attention was aimed nearly exclusively on their guest. Hed obviously seen nothing amiss and was enjoying Gabrielles company immensely. Of course, he was like this with all pretty women but it did worry the demigod that Iolaus, who he now observed tightening the string on his sturdy bow, didnt appear to sense the uneasy vibes in Gabrielle that he, a halfgod, was picking up on. Hercules watched them as, earlier, they walked together, hand in hand. Iolaus and Gabrielle, laughing and trading stories, happy in each others company. There was a physical closeness there hed never seen before. It again made Hercules wonder - but only briefly - just what went on between the two while he was judging the baby contest in Bantius.
Hercules continued to watch her for awhile. Although she was trying hard to appear ordinary, Gabrielle wasnt herself . Still, it had been awhile since he and Iolaus had any form of contact with either Gabrielle or Xena. People change.
A disturbing picture inexplicably entered into Hercules mind. Serena, the Golden Hind. His much beloved and very brief bride. A one-time hand maiden to Ares. A sweet, beautiful creature whose only crime had been aligning with The God of War. Because Serena had loved him, Hercules, and left Ares for the life of a human, she was killed. No one who served Ares could ever leave him without paying a price.
Why did observing Gabrielle suddenly bring this thought into his mind? She had nothing to do with either Serena or Ares. Xena and Gabrielle, like he and Iolaus, did their level best to deter Ares destructive and self-serving plans.
"Well be waiting for you, with supper, when you get back." Iolaus said good naturedly, examining the sharp tips of his arrows.
With a nod, the demigod swiveled about and started to trek. Crouching to pick up his quiver, Iolaus casually watched as his tall friend walked down the gravel strewn path, heading south. The demigod had that look on his face again. Hercules seemed to sense something wasnt as it should be. The attack on he and Gabrielle by a stranger and the appearance of Ares dagger disturbed Hercules deeply. Although Iolaus thought it all a coincidence, his friend decided long ago that nothing connected with his evil half-brother random. Even now he feared they were playing right into Ares hands while seeking him out. There was a reason for his trepidation, Iolaus knew. Ares was devious and after all of these years of watching the two kinsman at odds with each other, the hunter could well imagine the turmoil in Hercules mind.
Iolaus stood to his full height, veering his attention away from the departing demigod to Gabrielle, where she was tossing dry twigs onto a small campfire shed created. Later, the three of them would use its warmth when the temperature dropped. Also, to cook whatever the hunter brought back for supper.
Unable to stop himself, Iolaus continued to gaze at her - fumbling purposelessly with the arrows in his pouch - watching as, distracted, her comely blond head turned and Gabrielle looked out at the river. She reminded him of a goddess at this moment, the manner in which portions of her hair slowly lifted with the invisible breeze, wafting about her cheeks and forehead. And how the bards expressive eyes caught the reflected light off the river water.
That dazzling half smile.
He wished he were able to seize the moment. If he were a painter hed want her to stay still so he could capture her on canvass. Her beauty and manner, lost in thought and somewhat melancholy, was inspiring. Perhaps she missed Xena or her family and was pondering their absence.
Or maybe she was puzzling over personal fears, as was he. Were those few stolen hours yesterday a mistake? If not, did they mean the same to her as him? Did she want something more substantial from him now? Should he ask? If she said no, how would that make him feel? Hurt? Angry? Relieved?
Lately, even before he and Hercules ran into the bard on the way to Batius, Iolaus had been thinking novel thoughts. Home. Security. Wife. Children. He was beginning to feel his age and the longer he kept company with Hercules, a near god who didnt seem to show the scars of time, the more Iolaus felt ready to settle down.
He did love Gabrielle. Of that Iolaus was now certain. It hadnt just been the impulsive intimacy they shared. There was so much more to her than that. But hed been in love before and paid dearly for an attachment that could not be reciprocated (Xena...Cynea...Regina...). However Gabrielle, with her pure heart, was different than the others. He felt connected to her more than any other woman hed ever been with. He couldnt really find the logic or put the feeling into words. It was just there.
On the surface she seemed a simple girl from Potedia who was finding her way while traveling with a larger than life heroine. Nothing too unusual about that really. Maybe a little remarkable when considering she had stayed with Xena for so long, never feeling she had enough of the danger or roughness of life on the road. He admired that. Gabrielles devotion to her friend. Much like what he felt for Hercules, he suspected. Perhaps that was what bound them together, the hunter and bard, emotionally.
Still, hed been with many women. Beautiful, exotic women from the east. Sophisticated, sultry and accomplished women from Athens and Sparta. Even the simple, pretty girls from Thrace and Thebes had known his charms. What was it about this young woman sitting before him that made her a genuine marital prospect? He hadnt felt the emotions he experienced with Gabrielle, while they made love, for a long, long time. And, even now, he couldnt get enough of her. He just wanted to look at her, touch her, and forget whatever dangers were on the horizon. He wanted to set up a home with her, work with her, talk with her, love her and have her give birth to his children. He wanted to put her up on a well deserved pedestal. She deserved no less.
Shaken by his own careless emotion, Iolaus visibly frowned. Another not so nice thought occurred to him. Gabrielle was young and, perhaps, not as willing to leave her life of travel and adventure as he. She loved Xena. Could she leave her? Were Gabrielles feelings for him as strong as her devotion to The Warrior Princess? Did she really have deep feeling for him?
Maybe he was letting his imagination take over. It wouldnt be the first time. Iolaus sighed. He was back to square one. A broken heart was nothing new to him. Hed given as well as received rejection on many an occasion. He could take it again if need be. Iolaus didnt know what to do yet knew he had to do something or lose her forever.
"I can catch a couple of fish too," Gabrielle murmured. Gently troubled and purposely not looking at him at this moment, she referred back to an earlier conversation. Her eyes then focused on Iolaus and she spoke a little louder, "Not that I dont think you can catch enough rabbit to keep us content but a little variety doesnt hurt -- and I know how you can eat, Iolaus."
Gabrielle felt a flood of affection for him as she watched Iolaus handsome features melt into a smile he tried to hide with a gauntlet. He then laughed aloud in good humor. Was there anything better in the world than watching her handsome Golden Hunter when he was amused? The way those little lines around his mouth and eyes crinkled ... It made her feel warm all over.
Unintentionally, a pang of regret pierced her soul. He was too good for her. How would Iolaus feel if he knew she, incorruptible little Gabrielle, had manipulated him? But she had done it for Lila! Gabrielle clung to the thought. Her sister... She was saving her sister. Iolaus didnt know and couldnt know. Their experience together had been mutually satisfying and, eventually, it wouldnt matter because he would forget the whole thing ever happened. Ares promised.
Ares. How could she believe a word the devious god said? Besides, could she really be pleased that Iolaus wouldnt remember any of this? That beautiful, incredible time they had together and another exquisite encounter yet to come. He would forget it all and she would be the only one with those sweet memories to build on or to weep over as a lost opportunity...
He knelt beside her, laying a gentle hand on the bards shoulder. "We need to talk," Iolaus said seriously then quickly added, "but not now. Tonight." His fingers strayed to the smooth angle of her throat, "I need to tell you a few things. Maybe we can talk after Hercules has gone to sleep."
Heart heavy, she stared at him but was unable to say the right words in response. Iolaus leaned forward and kissed Gabrielle on the cheek. Then, before he could make a move to leave, she raised a hand that was surprisingly determined and placed it to the back of his neck. Gabrielle pulled him so she could meet his lips with her own. The touch didnt last long but it was effective.
Both hearts were beating quickly but for slightly different reasons. With a soft, dreamy smile Iolaus whispered her name and got to his feet. Reluctantly, scooping up his bow, he turned and walked into the woods.
Tears, earlier suppressed, began to form in Gabrielles eyes. I cant keep this up. she moaned silently. "I lov..."
Unexpected, a shadow materialized beside Gabrielle.
Startled, thinking it might be Hercules already returned, Gabrielle turned quickly but saw instead the form of a darkly attractive young woman wearing black, "Who are you?' she asked.
"The names Discord." The goddess smiled sweetly with her too red mouth, hands balancing on the shapely curve of her hips. "Ares never spoke of me? Im hurt."
Gabrielle was further startled when the goddess sat cross-legged in front of her on the turf, as if she and the bard were summer-camp girlfriends, and started to chat.
"I have to tell you something, Gabrielle. Im impressed by you. I really am."
Silent, the bard stared at her, puzzled.
"How you maneuvered this whole thing." Discord looked the bard straight in the eyes, "Iolaus, I mean. I'm not much for humans but he is a cute one and I can see why you'd select him as your love-toy."
"Love toy..." Gabrielle murmured and looked passed Discord, uncomfortable.
"And the best part of this is he won't remember a thing. You'll have your fun, use the guy up, pay off Ares and that will be that. No guilt."
"Guilt..." Gabrielle realized she was repeating but couldn't help herself, "But, I really do care for him." She spoke urgently. "He's a good, gentle man and I think...I love him."
"Sure, you do," Amused, Discord looked off over the serene lake. "And using him like you are, well, he'd understand completely, right? As a matter of fact, if your roles were reversed, he'd do the same thing to you...right?"
Gabrielles mouth opened to answer but she couldnt. Of course Iolaus would never do this to her. Tears of shame again formed in her eyes, "Am I horrible?" she asked, more to herself than the goddess.
Discords tone was mocking in its support, "Not at all!" she reached forward and patted one of Gabrielles hands, "Ive been watching you and think it's a big improvement. You're always so wrapped up in being concerned with the welfare of others. All that morality. Not to mention how you pride yourself on not hurting other people's feelings. Oh, and that irritating way you have of knowing what is right and wrong... It's nice to see you have failings, Gabrielle -- But no, not really failings! After all, you are repaying a debt to Ares, a responsibility you're not shirking, and - hey -" her tone suddenly turned from overly warm to cold and an eyebrow arched deviously, "I'm sure you hated every minute back at the inn, when you were with Iolaus, right? That whole sex thing made your skin crawl... because you knew it was wrong. You and he together only because Ares made you do it."
Her smile was ice. Gabrielle wanted to collapse on the grass and weep uncontrollably but she spoke in a strong voice, with a deceptively straight face - "Why are you here?"
Discord shrugged and once again looked over at the lake, "Ares." she stated, honestly. "He's looking at you and I don't like what he's seeing."
The bard was surprised by Discords apparent openness, "You dont like?"
"He's The God of War and my brother-lover. And when he looks at you -" the goddess turned to meet Gabrielles eyes, "...he sees potential. Not just what he can get out of you for kicks. He has servants for that. Hes seeing something else." Discord abruptly stood, "What I dont know. He wont tell me. Maybe youre a substitution for Xena or an instrument of revenge. But he s not thinking right, not telling me things he should. Hes being weak." Discord didnt tell Gabrielle that weakness in Ares she could well tolerate.
After all, a ineffective Ares opened the door for other gods and goddesses. Discord thought she would make an excellent Goddess of War -- but not if it is proven that Ares was able to keep her out of touch, thus gaining power through whatever it was he was doing in Temptius and Ditea ... and with the unwitting help of this silly bard. Again, she shrugged, "Men ..." Then, "Take care, Gabrielle. Youre doing fine. Well be watching, honey." and she was gone.
There was going to be terrible trouble. Gabrielle could feel it. She had to tell Iolaus and Hercules. She had no other choice. Her eyes focused on the calm of the lake and she sighed audibly. Then, another shadow appeared. Discord back to dispense more sarcasm? "Look, I..." Gabrielle began.
She nearly cried out in surprise and, as an after thought, reached for her staff. But, caught off guard, Gabrielle was overwhelmed before her hands could grasp onto the weapon. No sound escaped her lips as a large hand closed over her mouth.
Then she saw Iolaus. Bleeding from his head, tied and gagged, he dully looking at her from his imprisonment in the back of a captives cart. He seemed only semi conscious.
Gabrielle heard a low, evil laugh in her ear as she was roughly pushed forward.
He sensed them before seeing them. Men. Big men. Soldiers. Warriors. They were on the prowl and looking for a fight. Hercules dashed off of the road when he felt them drawing near. No point inviting trouble before he got to where he was going but he did want to see who these men were. He crouched behind a large bush, brushing long chestnut hair out of his eyes, and watched the three leather clad thugs as they slowly traveled and loudly plotted their next acquisition.
"Hes not so tough." One said.
"I heard a guy from Sparta beat him soundly." said another.
"Hercules? Hes never been beat. Youre crazy!"
The demigod had seen their kind before. Bullies, dishonorably discharged soldiers, out to make a name for themselves on there way to sacking and pillaging a small villages. Who better to defeat than the son of Zeus if you wanted to make a name for yourself? They had known he was going to be on this road. Perhaps someone back in Bantius told them.
But, no. His god-sense was off. Hercules shook his head as if you clear away a foolish thought. This wasnt right. These werent typical thugs. They were traveling this road because they knew something. Men. Big men...
Diversions. They were working for Ares. Too late, but he knew it. Being a half god gave him this perception as well as his strength. Then he heard a warning. Muffled but clear -- and right behind him.
"Hercules! Get away!" came Iolaus cry beneath the gag.
He turned, only a split second of seeing Iolaus and Gabrielle imprisoned in the back of a wagon, the hunters head bloody from an earlier confrontation.
Then the chain was thrown over Hercules head. Lightning fast, in a way only another god could accomplish, cuffs were snapped around his wrist.
"We got him!" a rough voice shouted. "Praise Ares!"
And those were the last words Hercules heard before being slammed on the back of the head. Darkness claimed the son of Zeus just as he felt something cold and hard being clamped around his ankles.
Ares, He thought. Of course its Ares.
Hercules then heard a delighted and evil laugh.
Part Three/Part Four