"Now this is the way I like to see you." Ares advanced on Hercules, mocking him, visually examining the chains that held the demigod to the wall and the cuffs which bound his wrists and ankles, "Confined and ready for ..."
...slaughter. Iolaus nearly panicked at the thought, "You can't, Ares." Iolaus raised his bruised arms, his fingers gripping the bars between cells. "You're not allowed. Zeus's decree ..." he started, anxiously. His own aches and pains meant nothing compared to the humiliation his best friend must be feeling.
Gabrielle, slightly battered herself, sympathized with Iolaus anxiety. How often had she seen Xena bound and imprisoned and feared there was nothing she could do? She reach a hand over and touched his shoulder. He didn't react and she didnt expect him to. Iolaus had told her in the prisoners cart that he was caught in a hunters snare, set by Ares soldiers. He was angry he hadnt spotted it. "An old hunter's trick.", he had murmured, nursing the wound to his forehead. A gray bearded guard had hit him when Iolaus made a not so gentlemanly remark about his parentage.
Ares turned casually to look at Hercules' friend, noting the small bandage that hid the gash. It wasnt that easy to get the jump on the normally alert hunter-warrior. Ares decided he might have to reward his disciples for the clean catch. On the other hand, perhaps Iolaus had his mind on other things. Gabrielle was probably more deserving of plaudits.
"I'm not going to lay a hand on Hercules. Why should I?" Ares asked, "I like him this way. He can't move, can't interfere ... and he'll stay this way - chained - for the rest of his life. Or at least until I've moved him from this dungeon to my temple. I want to be able to look at him, watch as he grows more and more bitter, whenever the mood strikes me."
Again, Hercules attempted to break his bonds. It was useless. "Hephestus made these restraints." he stated, eyeing Ares with contempt and wondering how he got The God of the Forge to agree.
"And he's constructing a cell for you." Ares looked about them and turned indifferently. "You are, after all, a son of Zeus. I couldn't just keep you here." His laugh was grating, his attitude mock-benevolent. "Just think, Herc. You and me. Brothers. You living in The Halls of War... Togetherness. Dad would like that." Ares move in Iolaus direction, "And your friends..." He glanced at Gabrielle between the bars and felt an odd sentimental pang that he chose to ignore. She stood just behind Iolaus, "Shortly they won't matter." he whispered a bit more seriously.
"Leave Gabrielle alone." Iolaus urged, "She can't harm you."
The God of War folded his arms in front of his chest and continued to gaze at the girl, "Neither of you can harm me -- but you will both help me. No Iolaus, I can't let her go. She's too important to my plans."
For a moment, while watching her wide-eyed and betrayed expression, Ares felt a twinge of pity. It was an emotion he wasn't used to and he forthwith decided he was glad the bard would eventually be out of the picture. He couldn't afford to have a defect when, right now, he needed all the focus and confidence he could summon.
"Have any of you ever seen Princess Armeta?" Ares asked suddenly, seeming to change the subject, and raised a finger. His god-power forced an unwilling Gabrielle to come closer to the bars, where he reached out and lifted her chin - "She's right here, gentlemen. Gabrielle looks so much like Armeta that when I arranged this little capture I knew she would be the perfect double."
Iolaus gritted his teeth together then spat out - "This is just like you, Ares. You act as if mortals mean nothing to you but without us who would you use?" Iolaus barked and moved in close just in case the god decided to do more than just touch Gabrielle. "Tell us, what do you have planned that would require a stand in for the Princess of Temptius?"
Ares stepped back from the bars, releasing his power on the woman. He watched as she slumped weakly into Iolaus arms. Any fool could see he was in love with her. The ruling committee would have to be blind ...
Casually, determining just what he wanted revealed, Ares leaned his back against the damp stone wall behind him. His revelation took in Hercules as well as his friends, "Diteans are rather archaic. They tolerate very little and their laws, written on The Scrolls of Sovereignty, are absolute. Their king and queen, while quite respected, must also bend to the laws of the scrolls." He smiled obliquely and asked, "Now, what would happen if one of those very important laws, the law involving the character of a would-be queen, were to be questioned? What if it were to come out that lovely, thoroughly chaste Princess Armeta, the faithful betroth of Prince Homer, was - oh - of easy virtue? Ditea has a very strict foundation. Death sentences have been carried out for far less an offense."
Gabrielle, who had been concentrating on what Ares was saying, suddenly blanched. It sank in. "Gods..." she whispered, "Ares, youre not...you haven't..."
"Tomorrow is the day Princess Armeta and Prince Homer are to marry." he interrupted, "A bombshell will be announced and a kingdom over-thrown. And dear Armeta, along with her secret lover, will die. It is established by edict in the scrolls and cannot be altered."
Silence followed for a count of ten.
Hercules leaned back in his chains, "But what about the real Princess Armeta? Where is she?"
Iolaus added, "And, whatever you've done with her, do you really think she is going to stay quiet after this is all over? She has to have her own followers ..."
The God of War had been waiting for this moment and he relished it with visible glee, "Princess Armeta is missing and I had nothing to do with it. Both kingdoms know it but refuse to say an official word. Her own people feel she ran away, frightened by the prospect of being Queen and marrying the child-Prince of Ditea. She is being searched for and most are still hoping she will show up for the wedding before its too late. If Armeta doesnt marry Homer the two kingdoms will be at war. The Diteans dont want war because their army is not match for Temptius. But they know something..."
Ares glanced at his three prisoners. They were interested despite themselves. "Armeta is dead. I was told she was accidently killed while riding a favorite horse. Her body has been hidden by the Diteans but rather than be blamed for her death a plan was devised to make Armeta not worthy, running away with her secret lover. Another reason why we need Gabrielle."
"Those who wish to take over Ditea and Temptius. My followers."
"Of course..." Gabrielle breathed out, stricken. "I should have known ..."
"I still don't understand how you hope to accomplish your goal, Ares." said Hercules, "I never met Armeta but I understand she was a lady in every sense of the word. I dont believe she ever had an affair so how can you...?"
"Youre right. *She* didnt. The poor girl died a virgin." and he stared directly at Iolaus and Gabrielle as he said this. "But I have evidence to the contrary."
Iolaus mouth opened and he was only minimally aware that Gabrielle looked as miserable, "You were watching when we..." he started.
"It was entertaining."
Furious, Iolaus suddenly reached through the bars as if to take Ares by the neck and throttle him, "Bastard!"
A wave from the war gods hand and the hunter was knocked against the cells back bars. "Iolaus!" Hercules called, struggling uselessly with his cuffs.
Gabrielle ran to him and helped the groggy man into a sitting position on the floor. "Relax." Ares smirked, "It wasn't as if she didn't know I was watching..." Then he laughed, leaving the comment dangling, and disappeared in a flash of sparks.
Stunned, Iolaus looked at Gabrielle. An understanding, horrible and real, came to him as he stared at the guilt written all over her face.
Hercules, confounded, watched his friends from his cell. He was silent. As much as he wanted to, this was something he could not help them with.
"I was going to tell you, Iolaus." she whispered, "But I never thought ... I..."
He moved back from her as he might from someone who just told him she had the plague, "I can't believe it."
"I had a debt to Ares..." she said, distraught. "I was repaying it... He gave me no choice. I didn't know about any of this, I swear... My sister Lila..."
"You used me." he whispered, sounding deeply hurt and not able to look at her now.
She wanted to protest but couldn't. The sadness in his eyes, that blessed ignorance now lost ... "Please, Iolaus..." She lifted a hand, almost frantic, to touch his arm. He had to understand why she did this. Had to know that if she had had another option she never would have done this terrible thing. He just had to know... "I love you, Iolaus."
He pulled his arm violently away from her touch. "You don't know the *meaning* of the word." he snarled in a fierce, emotionally charged whisper.
Struggling to his feet, Iolaus stood and walked to the other end of the cell, away from her.
Hercules closed his eyes and sighed.
Discord watched Hephestus latest effort as he had a few of his men bring the cage into Ares temple. It was tall and solid -- not even Zeus himself could escape from it. She was impressed. However, the scarred and lame yet somehow still handsome God of the Forge did not look pleased. As a matter of fact he appeared positively irritated.
"So tell me Hephy, what did Ares do for you that made you have to pay up?" Discord asked with a sanctimonious lilt in her tone.
Hephestus crossed muscular arms over his massive chest and ignored her. He didn't like Discord and he detested Ares. The only near god he liked other than his beloved Aphrodite was Hercules -- and now he was being forced to aid in his destruction. Yet, there was something Ares didnt know ...
"Oh, come on. You can tell me. What did Ares do for you?"
The cage was lowered into a corner, gently.
"Something to do with Aphrodite?" Discord continued to queery, "Maybe telling you where she and a lover were meeting?"
The comment hit a nerve and Hephestus glanced in her direction.
"Thought so." Discord smiled. Men were such idiots. Always thinking with the lower half of their bodies rather than their brains. Still, that manly weakness had gotten her where she is today, as Ares second in command, and she would use it again to not only better her position but teach a certain bard the meaning of human life ...
*Gabrielle just thinks shes so hot, attracting not only Iolaus but Ares, with her gullibility and goodness.* And as angry as Iolaus was now he would eventually forgive Gabrielle. The little Amazon would be left off the hook before she watched Iolaus die and it boiled Discords god-blood. She was sure that was the whole idea ... Ares wanted to kill Iolaus, have Gabrielle to himself, and - for whatever reason - keep Hercules imprisoned here at his temple.
Gabrielle, taking Discords place in Ares bed. She couldn't have that. Or, if she couldn't prevent it she would at least show Gabrielle who is boss ... and give her an experience she wouldn't soon forget. Her love for Iolaus and his for her would turn as cold as Hera's heart.
She'd show the little mortal wench just what she could really attract in men...
Four burley guards arrived.
Unlocking the door to Iolaus and Gabrielles cell, the Captain stepped forward and took one of her arms, "The first part of your trial starts here, Princess." he said, "And it will conclude, with both of you tomorrow morning." He glanced at Iolaus, who sat quietly on the cot. The blond man made no move to stop him. The Captain had seen his fierce fighting nature early in the day, when the soldiers had picked Iolaus up while he was hunting in the woods, but now he was mute and nearly lethargic. His men must have knocked the fight right out of him.
Gabrielle glanced at Iolaus over her shoulder, hoping for some spark of worry or remorse but saw nothing. Not even anger.
It didn't occur to him that he was acting out of character. Distraught, Iolaus drew his knees up and consciously didn't attempt an escape. There was no point. He'd only get slapped down and Gabrielle would be taken anyway. His world had, yet again, been shattered. 'When will I ever learn?' he wondered with more than a little self pity.
When Gabrielle and the guards departed he looked over at Hercules who stood quietly in his shackles, looking about the cell. "Any ideas?" he asked, "I'd really like to get out of here before tomorrow."
"Unless you can produce a key or magically make Hephestus appear and remove these chains I'm afraid were out of luck."
"You can usually find some way around that."
"Not always." Hercules corrected, "But I know Hephestus. There is a key somewhere. Maybe Gabrielle will pick up on something while shes out." He then paused, gazing at the silent and thoughtful Iolaus. "I hope she'll be all right." Hercules said the last part more to get a rise out of his sullen friend than as a hopeful remark.
"Shes a hand-maiden of Ares. Im sure shell be fine."
Hercules recognized the vindictiveness, "Iolaus, dont."
The hunter stood and walked over to the bars that separated he and his best friend, "She betrayed us, Hercules. Ares double-crossed her but she *did* betray us. You can't deny that."
"Not entirely but I don't think she knew anything about this, Iolaus." Hercules rattled the chains around his cuffs, "Gabrielle has always been a good person. She's kept Xena whole even while having to battle her own inner demons. But something happened somewhere. She was desperate. Ares must have threatened her with something pretty terrible for Gabrielle to..."
"...sleep with me?" Iolaus blurted without meaning to. Miserable and feeling violated, he bent his head backward and closed his eyes. He smiled ironically. "Its getting so you can't trust anyone. I would have staked my life on Gabrielle's honest nature." Then, "The next thing I'll find out is that you've been Heras love-slave since Diennera ..."
The color nearly drained from Hercules face, "Iolaus!"
Realizing hed gone too far the hunter raised his head again and opened his eyes, looking at a startled Hercules. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that." Iolaus said with quick shame. "I know I'm feeling sorry for myself, Hercules. Let's just work on a plan to get out of here and I'll deal with it later."
Hercules bit back his initial response. Then, "I know you're hurt." he said, trying to control his own emotions. "But you know I'm a good judge of character, Iolaus. Try to believe me when I say there is something more to this than meets the eye. Gabrielle has a good heart but she stumbled. We all do. I did when Hera killed my family, you did with Xena -- and now Gabrielle... She's not the perfection you envisioned, Iolaus. But she's warm and caring and she *does* love you. I can tell."
"Hercules..." He wanted to tell him to stop. He couldn't think anymore about Gabrielle or he'd go crazy. Iolaus hesitated for a long while before whispering: "Ill try to keep an open mind." but his expression was far from forgiving.
He could hear a womens voice in his head, laughing at him and telling him he was an ignorant fool. Yet, the voices also seemed sympathetic. They spoke truths: 'Woman just love to play with your mind, Iolaus. Wouldn't it be wonderful if just once you could smack a smirk off one of their faces?'
*No...no...* His control took over. I'd never want to do that.
Discord watched Iolaus, the bewildered expression on his face, from the portal in Ares temple: "You'd be surprised what you can do if properly motivated, handsome." she whispered. Ares would hate her meddling -- and that's why she was doing it.
Clenching her hands into fists, nails biting deeply into her palms, she smiled.
Part Four: "Trial & Error"
It was an extravagant room. Pillars of bronze and ivory, cathedral ceiling and ornate tapestries decorated its expansiveness. Men and women, wearing flamboyant togas, grape leaves for head dresses and the most expensive but practical sandals available, lined the aisles. Some of these people, the law-givers, were seated.
Gabrielle doubted there was a courtroom this fine even in Athens. A hush came over the crowd of highly decorated officials - no peasants or nobles yet; that would come tomorrow for the second trial (or was it going to be a wedding?) - as she was escorted down the aisle to stand before the ruling committee. Men and woman from both Ditea and Temptius studied Gabrielle.
She heard someone whisper, "Where did the princess get those awful clothes?" Gabrielles hands were tied behind her back and a gag placed over and inside her mouth.
"Councilor!" An elderly man stood and shot daggers at his opponent, "This is the Princess of Temptius, not a common criminal! You remove those bonds at once!" he demanded.
"Advisor Tallus, she has no station! The evidence is clear! Armeta is nothing but a common courtesan!!" Annoyus, the prosecutor, shrieked.
Gabrielle was shocked by the unexpected fierceness in both tones.
"How dare you?" A mature woman, with a round compassionate face, stood. "I am Minya and Ive nursed Aremta since she was a baby. She was and is chaste child, I tell you!" She looked over at Gabrielle and the womans eyes seemed to be searching for something.
A murmur arose from the crowd.
If this was a trial it was the strangest and most unorganized Gabrielle had ever seen. Men, women and witnesses standing about, tossing their opinions to whomever would listen. A defendant - who was royalty no less - brought before her accusers tied and gagged... Dont I get to say something? she thought.
"Observe!" the prosecutor demanded and waved an expressive hand to his right.
The portal, a swirl of color and light, appeared and opened.
The assembly gasped their amazement.
Soon, to Gabrielles horror, all were looking at she and Iolaus - back at the inn. The conclave watched as she and Iolaus kissed. They observed the manner in which she eagerly stroked his smooth bare chest and the way he slipped the green half top off her shoulders...
Gabrielle, through her gag, couldn't prevent a sob. This was too much. No one but she and Iolaus should be a witness to this. It was private and beautiful but was being made to look filthy. She found herself silently praying, to Ares no less. Please make it stop ... please ...
Then, almost as if he had heard her, the God of War did appear and with a quick stroke of his hand the image disappeared. "Enough!" he called to the gawking assembly.
"The God of War!"
Shouts came from all over the courtroom. Scribes, thrilled by the unexpected appearance, began to quickly scratch on their scrolls.
Gabrielles eyes widened. He was allowing himself to be seen. Why? "What you've just seen," he announced, "was evidence brought to Lord Trecherius and Councilor Annoyus by me. My favorite temple is in Ditea and most of you have taken me to heart. I am your patron god. You've prayed to me and trust me. I understand the laws of both kingdoms and know an injustice when I see one. Princess Armeta is all that the prosecutor accuses her of -- and more."
"Why should The God of War produce evidence of this kind?" Tallus, the defender, asked bravely. Ares looked at the worn attorney hard for a moment and was impressed when he didn't back down. "Because I appreciate the Temptian people and want them to worship me. Wisely, Ditea already pays homage to me and so should Temptius. A new regimen, lead by an opened minded establishment - preferably led by Lord Trecherius - will see to it. I gain much by having the truth revealed."
Gabrielle, now accustomed to Ares betrayal, narrowed her eyes as she watched the god. There was more to it than what his words insinuated. She knew it. There was something he wasnt telling the ruling committee. "What do you recommend, oh powerful God of War?" Annoyus simpered.
"It is not up to me to recommend anything." he intoned, "It is what the ancient scrolls demand. All I ask is that you do what is just." Then, taking a single glance at Gabrielle - meeting her eyes briefly - Ares disappeared.
"Execution!" someone shouted.
"Death by fire! called another.
Magleus, the judge who sat at the head of the ruling committee weighed the evidence in his mind. "We must go into chambers to discuss this further." he told the men and women to his right and left. Then, to the assembly - "Tomorrow our decision will be rendered, immediately followed by the verdicts consequences."
Gabrielle understood. They would either be celebrating a wedding or implementing capital punishment. Iolaus would be with her, the guard had said. She had to talk with him. Iolaus. She had to explain her actions. She couldn't go to Tartarus without telling him how she truly felt, having him hate her for an eternity.
"fraid matters didnt go well for your little princess."
Iolaus sat on the cot in his cell and watched the guard - fumbling with his wineskin - leaning into the bars, "Is she all right?" he asked.
Hercules who had been watching the soldier, a man clearly in deep trouble if his Captain discovered him inebriated while on duty, drink from his narrow-mouth skin. He boasted, as most drunken men will, of what he knew. Hercules then looked at Iolaus. Despite his friends hurt, what he considered a horrid betrayal, he was worried about her. Hercules couldnt blame Iolaus. It'd been hours and the soldiers had yet to return Gabrielle to the cell. Neither of them knew what was happening but hoped, through this besotted soldier, to gain a little information.
"Now she is. Tomorrow will be another story. They said there was a commotion at her trial. Especially when Ares showed up."
Iolaus and Hercules looked at one another.
"But she pretended to be brave. Didn't fall apart like most of those filthy royals do ..." The guard hiccuped and reeled a bit. He held himself up with one hand, clutching the cell door.
With an inward sigh of regret, continuing to listen to the guard blather on, Iolaus realized that if he held the key to either his cell or Hercules restraints he would be an easy target right now. But it was never that easy. This man did not have any keys on him.
"So, tell us what Ares did." Hercules suggested.
"Showed everyone just what a tramp Armeta is... What else." he laughed, "And now shes going to the tower room. Whenever royalty goes to the tower room it means something. Usually that they're going to die."
Iolaus closed his eyes for a moment. He couldnt let this happen. He had to do something. He had to rescue Gabrielle and free Hercules. He was a man, some had even called him resourceful ... But what to do ... Where was the opportunity?
She expected to be taken back to the cell but grew confused and a little frightened when the guards steered her in an entirely different direction. They mounted stairs and seemed to walk forever before coming to the tall wooden door in an area at the highest point of the castle. A tower room.
The door was flung open and Gabrielle expected to see an executioner or something even worse. But there was nothing. Just a bedroom. A lovely but confining room decorated for royalty. The bed was a huge canopied monstrosity. The doomed were at least allowed a good night sleep before they were sent to The Otherside.
A young soldier respectfully untied her hands and removed the gag from her mouth. "You will be staying here until morning, Princess." he said in a monotone and gently pushed her forward.
Gabrielle thought she saw a spark of regret in his eyes. "I'm not Princess Armeta." She said but her words were hung up by another voice.
An older woman. "I am to serve the princess." she stated in a solid tone, "Lord Trecherius wishes to see her in two hours and her clothes are inappropriate. You know how Ditea is about tradition." She spoke in a nearly mocking tone.
Despite the circumstances, Gabrielle smiled at her words.
Apparently the woman's point was considered valid because the large door creaked opened further and she made her way in with a wash basin, pitcher and a few clean towels. The door was closed behind her and bolted.
Gabrielle faced her. Minya. The same servant who spoke up for the princess at trial. She couldn't quite meet her eyes and watched at the woman put the pitcher and bowl on a stand in the far right of the room. "Thank you for what you said." she said, unable to think of anything else.
"Someone had to say something." The woman had her back to Gabrielle and folded the towels.
"I'm not your princess. You know that, don't you?"
"Yes." Finally, she turned to look at the bard. "Although the resemblance *is* amazing except... You aren't wearing her seal."
"Armetas royal seal. It identifies her. She never goes anywhere without it. She even has a small identifying mark on her body which matches the seal. Its secret, only a few of us know. And you dont have that either, I take it."
"I couldn't possibly."
Minya moved forward, "Do you know where they are hiding her? she asked, slightly anxious.
"I don't..." Gabrielle shook her head, wondering if she should tell the woman what she knew - "No, I dont."
The woman closed her eyes for a few seconds and took a breath, "I fear my sweet Armeta is dead." she said, "And you, poor child, are taking her place. I saw this coming over a year ago. Attitudes. Men and women talking in secret. And that preposterous marriage to the child king..." Again, she shook her head, lost in thought. "Advisor Tallus would make a wonderful ruler. If Armeta is dead he should be the one..." she trailed off.
Gabrielle stared at her for a moment. Tallus, her defender at the trial, had been more than an attorney. He was a man of position. Gabrielle had sensed he was a good man and Minya now confirmed it. A brave man too. Standing up to Ares the way he did. The bard's eyes took in the room, "Do you know of any way I can get out of here?" she asked.
"There is no way. Nobles have been trying to escape the tower for centuries and it is just too heavily guarded. Not just by the lummox outside," She tipped her head with disdain at the wooden door, "but this room is so far from the ground ... I've seen men and women plummet to their deaths before bars were put in the windows." She mimed to a boxed opening where long curtains were wafting in the breeze from outside, "It was horrible."
"I'm going to die tomorrow, arent I?" Gabrielle asked in a strong voice.
The woman nodded, "Yes dear, I think you are." she said with sorrow in her dark eyes. Then, suddenly realizing why she was in the room with the girl, "You need to dress. There is a green gown ..." she moved to an clothes cabinet and opened its doors. Minya then pulled the garment she spoke of from its hanger.
"I won't be needing that." Gabrielle started.
"Yes, you will." the woman countered. "Don't argue with me on such a silly issue, child." she warned, "Lord Trecherius will be here in an hour and if you want to get any information from him, which I'm sure you do, then you'll have to at least dress the part. Cooperate and you might save the two men down in the dungeon. You want to do that, dont you?"
Slowly, Gabrielle nodded. She didn't know what type of deal she could possibly strike with Trecherius but Minya was right. If she could say anything or do anything that might help either Iolaus or Hercules then, by the gods, she'd do it. Iolaus might spurn her and might not mourn her death but she couldnt die knowing there was something she could do for him but didn't try. As the servant helped Gabrielle off with her clothes a sudden thought struck the bard, "Minya, do you think you could bring Iolaus here to me later?"
"A prisoner? I hardly think..."
"Please," Gabrielle turned around and took the woman's hands as she had them held up, "I need to talk with him. Its important. You told the soldiers you're here to serve me. After all, imprisoned or not, they still think me their princess. Possibly even their future queen. Tell them I ordered you to bring Iolaus here to me. I need him."
"They will use this against you tomorrow."
"It doesnt matter and you know it. I'm dead and so is Iolaus. The trial has already taken place. There is no evidence to support me." The last was said with a slight catch in Gabrielles throat, "Please."
The woman nodded, "I'll see what I can do."
"For Zeus sake, think of it as a last request!" Advisor Tallus exclaimed and walked into the prison followed by two soldiers. He'd been arguing with the Captain for over twenty minutes and finally managed to get him to agree with the petition, reminding him that as advisor to the still "in office" Princess it was well within his power to discharge him and have all his soldiers executed if he had just cause. "Besides, Hercules can stay where he is. The Princess only wants to see the other man."
"Yes, Advisor." The Captain replied, aware that this man could still cause trouble. Tallus might be banished after the Princess execution, and he'd be happy to see him go, but the advisor could take many with him if he cared to name names.
Unseen by the Captain, Tallus gripped something in his hand, hidden by the belled cuff of his tunic.
Hephestus had paid him a visit.
"Tell the Princess ..." Iolaus started.
"Go to her." he heard Hercules order from across the cell. "And dont start any trouble."
Iolaus stared at Hercules as the guard opened his cell door. A non-verbal exchange was made between he and the demigod. Telling Iolaus not to start trouble could only mean one thing. Hercules wanted him to make as much trouble as possible ... for a diversion.
Something was up. Iolaus had seen a look pass between Hercules and Advisor Tallus, the man who delivered Gabrielles message, "Oh fine, Ill go see her!" he play acted agitation. In truth Iolaus did want to see Gabrielle. His anger abated, he was now ready to talk with her. Maybe the two of them could find a way out of this insane situation -- both personal and physical.
The first steps were being made by Tallus and Hercules. A plan was unfolding. Whatever is was it required Iolaus loudness and absence. Or, at least, his nonattendance would be a screen for whatever it was that was going to happen. Iolaus didnt and couldn't know any details but hed been Hercules friend for too many years for this not to be the case. They could practically read each others minds.
Iolaus nodded and allowed the guards to tie his hands in front of him before escorting him from the cell. "Not so tight." he told the soldier, purposely hot-headed.
The guard, the drunk that had spilled bits and pieces about the trial to his prisoners not long before, smirked - "These eager hands will be free soon enough, little man, then you and the Princess can have the entire night to get reacquainted." He smiled lewdly and slurred his words, "Is the rest of her as pretty as the face?" he asked. Then, even lower - "Is she a screamer?"
Iolaus would have punched the guy whether he was suppose to create a distraction or not. Two fists, bound together, right in his gut. Furious, the guard lifted the butt of his club and was about to strike an awaiting Iolaus when the Captain came from Tallus side and approached them.
"What is this ...?" he demanded.
Hercules and Tallus looked at one another and in that instant the Advisor lifted the key from his cuff, lipped the name Hephestus. and tossed it at Hercules who was just able to catch the key and hide it in his bound fist before the Captain had quieted matters between Iolaus and the guard.
"Are you drunk?" The Captain took his guard by the shoulder and leaned in to smell his breath, "You idiot!" He shoved the man away from Iolaus and out of the cell. "Get out of here, fool!"
"Id say discipline is really lacking in your soldiers, Captain. You might want to do something about that!" Iolaus exclaimed, sarcastically.
Tallus nodded at Hercules who replied with a nod of his own.
"Ill show you discipline..." The Captain was about to lift a polished stick to strike at Iolaus, unconsciously mirroring his subordinates actions of only a minute before, when Councilor Tallus interrupted him.
"Enough, Captain!" Tallus quickly stepped over, "Take him to the Princess." He said firmly then lowered his head, "If matters go badly tomorrow this little incident won't mean anything. He will face far worse agonies than a beating." He then turned to Hercules, "I have done all I can for the Princess. Her fate is with the gods now... But know this, Hercules, I will be back for you."
Hercules again nodded, understanding his meaning.
The Captain also nodded, unaware of what passed. "He's under sentence from Ares. If the Princess dies tomorrow... gods help him and us all."
Iolaus continued his attitude even as they left the cell. "Hey," he shouted at the soldiers Tallus brought with him, "What was that look?" he asked petulantly. "Dont look at me again like that or you'll be picking your teeth up off the ground." With this, the guards laughed, their attention on this small warrior who was hardly in a position to be passing around threats.
Hercules heard more commotion as the voices faded away and he nearly smiled. When he was certain he was alone the demigod began to work with the key and his cuff. It wasn't easy but he managed. He was a halfgod after all.
Iolaus grew quiet as they walked up the steep stairs. At first he wasnt certain what he was hearing but soon knew. He'd heard from them before --
The women. The voices. They were speaking calmly and driving him crazy with their half truths and logic.
*Remember me, Iolaus? I'm Cynea. You came to care for me when I led you to believe that the killing of a dragon was the only way into my heart. I deceived you. I wanted you and Hercules dead. I used you. You really meant nothing to me ...*
*Nor me!* came the voice of Regina, *Your hometown girlfriend. Remember how I led you on, made you believe I loved you when all the time I was using you to make Dificlese jealous? No, I never loved you ... I used you. You are just so easy to use, Iolaus!*
*I'll say.* and this was Xena, *Our time together was nothing but a huge farce. I wanted Hercules dead and I took Iolaus to my bed just to make sure it happened. He has such an ego. Why would he ever believe someone like *me* could love someone like him? And now he's fallen in love with Gabrielle! This is really rich. Did you think she'd really want you after all of the stories I've told her about us, Iolaus? How easy you were to manipulate ... how bad you were in bed.*
Iolaus bit his lower lip as the soldiers continued to walk him upward.
"Fool!" cried Cynea.
Iolaus clenched his hands together as they were bound in front of him. 'Gabrielle would never purposely send me to my death. She was sincere when she said she didnt know this would happen ...'
"Fool!" from Regina.
Iolaus could feel a sweat break out on his forehead. 'Gabrielle isn't like you. She's honestly kind. She was forced to betray me because of Ares ...*
"FOOL!" from Xena. *And was she really forced to tell you she loved you when she didnt mean it? Face it, Iolaus, she said it because shes afraid. Gabrielle wants you to get her out of this castle and away from harm. That's the only reason she professed love. You're pathetic! Didn't you ever wonder why I ran from you straight into Hercules' arms? Now there is a man whos good in bed ... *
'Shut-up! Shut-up! Shut-up!' This was insanity. It wasn't real. It was in his head. What was happening to him? *Who* was happening to him?
Discord, unseen by Iolaus or the soldiers, stood to the side of the stone stairs and watched their progress. Her head tilted back in a silent chuckle.
"I've brought him his supper as well." Minya spoke to the two guards who were busily munching their way through the stew the mature woman lay in front of them, "Could one of you let me in to feed him?"
The senior of the two soldiers, coarsely bearded and dark, looked up at her from his sitting position, squinting suspiciously. "What's the rush, old woman?"
Minya grimaced at the disrespect, "As much as I like your stimulating company, I dont have all evening, boy. Are you going to let me in to feed the prisoner or not?"
He glanced into the bowl she held, "He eat'in the same slop we are?"
She smiled, "Are you joking? He's a prisoner and gets curd like the rest."
Approving, sharing a laugh with the other guard who was plowing through his stew with enthusiasm, the soldier stood and pulled the key from a peg on a wall behind him. "Hear rumor this guy is Hercules but he hasn't shown me much..." They walked from the outer room into the cell block and, as he opened the cell door, the guard continued: "If he's so strong how come he can't break free from those chains?"
Minya rolled her eyes at his foolishness. Apparently not everyone had been told that Ares enlisted the aid of Hephestus. "And why would they make an old woman feed him?" she added with a weary tone, attempting to sound just as skeptical as the soldier.
Hercules was standing where he always stood, his wrists seemingly clamped, and met the woman's gaze as she entered his cell. He noted that she lifted a secretive hand as if to tell him not to make a move.
The guard locked the cell door behind her, "Give me a call when youre finished."
"I will, thank you." Then she added, "Eat your dinner quickly, young man. I want to pick up the bowls on my way out."
The soldier mumbled a "Yeah, sure." over his shoulder.
The minute the outer door shut, Hercules snapped free of his cuffs and watched as Minya tossed the bowl aside.
Minya whispered, "Advisor Tallus told me to take you directly to him."
"I have friends I have to rescue first." Hercules walked quickly to the bars.
"No, not yet. Your friends will be fine tonight, Hercules. No one will touch them until the morning. They both have to remain alive to be publicly tried. But there is something bigger at stake here."
He looked at her, "Tell me."
"If that execution takes place tomorrow or if no proof is presented of wrong doing, Councilor Trecherius will become the indisputable king of both Ditea and Temptius. It's his right and he has Ares backing. He is a cruel and ambitious man and the peace our two kingdoms have maintained with neighboring empires will come to an end. There will be bloody wars and destruction you would not believe."
"Ares likes that kind of thing." Hercules lifted his hands, his fingers wrapping around the bars as he looked out and determined just how strong the cell door was. "I thought the Princess was going to marry Prince Homer. Why isn't he next in line?"
"Homer is too young -- and Trecherius is his guardian, an uncle. It wouldn't surprise me if the child ended up dead after all this is over, just so Trecherius is certain to seize power." she answered, "However, there is a way to stop this ... but we need your help. Tonight."
Hercules turned and looked at the woman, "What can we do tonight?"
"We can recover the real Princess Armeta."
Puzzled, Hercules brow creased. He opened his mouth to ask an obvious question but stopped himself. He then focused his attention once more on the cell door and pulled mightily. The door snapped easily off of its hinges and he quietly moved it to the inside corner of the cell. "Now for the guards ..." he said and quietly shifted position to the door connected to the guards station.
"Not to worry." Minya spoke to him from the cell opening. "I put something in their stew. Theyll sleep for hours before anyone discovers you missing."
Hercules raised his eyebrows. He didn't have to fight anyone? That was a welcomed switch. Slowly, he pushed open the wooden door and looked at the slumbering men. He then watched the old woman who indifferently passed them.
"We cant have the whole castle know you escaped before dawn. We have too much work to do for that type of upheaval."
Hercules nodded and smiled as he followed Minya out of the room. She reminded him a little of Alcemne. He liked her.
They were nearly to the top of the staircase when two richly dressed gentlemen were seen descending the steps Iolaus and the guards ascended.
"Lord-Councilor Trecherius." one guard bowed slightly, regarding the official.
Trecherius paused and looked at Iolaus who stared back at him with contempt. He'd obviously been to see Gabrielle and considering this man was with a prosecutor, Annoyus, it couldn't have been a good experience for her. Over his shoulder, in a tone that clearly illustrated distaste, Trecherius spoke with Annoyus - "So, he's what all this fuss is about." and the noble chuckled,
"Shes not only naive but there is something to be said for her lack of taste as well."
Annoyus and Trecherius laughed cruelly as they continued their descent.
Iolaus eyes followed them. He'd see the powerful Lord Trecherius in Tartarus one day.
A very young soldier was positioned at the top of the landing.
"Open up." the senior guard who stood at Iolaus right demanded, "He's to stay the night with the princess. No one will disturb them." The young soldier nodded, blinked a little, but said nothing.
Iolaus thought he spotted a bit of sadness there in his expression. Maybe even a touch of jealousy. Apparently, he was sympathetic to Armetas plight. Or, perhaps Gabrielle had charmed him as much as she had Iolaus. She was easy to be drawn to.
The ropes were removed from his wrists and Iolaus was propelled through the opened door. It shut with a crisp thump behind him. He could hear the key inserted and the bolt latched.
Iolaus looked at her as she sat on the edge of the huge bed, staring at him. Her hands were folded nervously against her stomach, She said not a word.
He could only stand there for a moment. Awed.
She was the most gorgeous woman hed ever seen. Gabrielle wore a green, deeply detailed off the shoulder gown. Her silky hair, left loose and long about her back and neck, was styled with small blond ringlets. When she stood and took a few tentative step forward Iolaus couldn't prevent a gulp. She was the picture of purity, beauty and aristocracy and he wanted to forgive her all past wrongs instantly.
Then he forced his eyes away and looked about the room, "Have you looked for an escape?" he asked her.
"Yes." she whispered, "I was told there is no way out but I looked anyway."
Iolaus crossed the room and gazed purposely out of the window. Nothing but solid ground below. If they attempted to jump they'd surely die.
"Iolaus," Gabrielle started and paused when he looked inflexibly at her, "you won't be executed."
"I know I won't." he spoke firmly, again looking about the room to see what other alternative was open to them.
"No, you don't understand." She walked over to him and touched his arm, conscious of the bruises still visible on his beaten flesh.
Iolaus stood still, unnerved. He could smell a delicate fragrance. He couldn't be sure if it was perfume or Gabrielle's natural scent.
"I just spoke with Councilor Annoyus and he promised me that if I tell the court tomorrow that I am Princess Armeta he will see to it that you and Hercules are released."
"And you believed him?"
"Trecherius has influence with Ares."
He closed his eyes and shook his head at her gullibility, "Gabrielle, he lied..."
"Maybe he didn't." Frantic for him to understand, she clutched his arm all the harder, "They don't need you and Hercules. Not really. *I* am the one that is standing in their way. If I'm executed, as Trecherius has planned, then ..."
She met his eyes, "They will have what they want. Both kingdoms."
"Arent you forgetting about Ares?" He attempted to move away.
Gabrielle pulled on his arm again, keeping Iolaus still -"I havent forgotten." Her voice shook slightly, "But with you, Xena and Hercules ... The three of you can beat Ares. I know you can. You'll make things right."
Iolaus took in a slight breath, steadying himself - "And you will be dead."
"Does it matter?"
"Yes, it matters!!" Iolaus unintentionally shouted and stared hard at Gabrielle.
She scrutinized at him, stunned and a little hopeful. "Iolaus, I love you. I just can't let anything happen to you ..."
She might have said more but Iolaus didn't hear it -- but he heard something.
The voices. Womens voices ...
"She loves you, Iolaus!" Cynea using a falsetto, "You've heard that one before, havent you?"
"What an act!" Regina intoned, "Are you buying any of this, Iolaus? Or is she winding you around her little finger like the rest of us have?"
"Gabrielle was always very good with that virtuous act." Xenas voice, "Remind me to tell you about the time she betrayed me in China ... A lot of laughs there, I tell you."
Then he heard another woman. He knew the voice but couldnt put a face or name to her... Her words pounded in his head louder than all of the rest -
"Think of what shes done to you..." it urged, "Think of the pain and the other deceitful women ... Think of what you were willing to give up... Think of Hercules, your best friend, and what he must be going through because of her. Powerless! Think of her lies, Iolaus!"
An over-powering fury took him. That lovely face, those rich clothes that framed her young body so perfectly and her manner, so virtuous and inherently regal, wanting to love him and needing his forgiveness. Her voice, low and feminine, begging his pardon and willing to sacrifice all. Those eyes, looking at him and filled with pain, searching his for some sign of absolution.
The voices were right. It was a lie. Every bit of it.
And suddenly Iolaus hated her. He despised Gabrielle with a passion unlike anything he'd ever felt before in his life. She was like all of the others. Regina... Cynea... Xena... But even worse because behind her treachery there was honesty. She'd gone that extra league, rebelled against her own good nature to get what she wanted. And she'd used him to do it!
He loathed her. He wanted her. Wanted to possess her, to hurt her, to take her physically in a way that was horrible and totally contrary to his own character.
Trying to ignore the voice and the fury-fever coursing through his blood, Iolaus turned from Gabrielle and walked toward the window again. He needed air. 'If I could I would jump.' An odd, impossible thought. He wasnt suicidal. Iolaus didn't know what was happening to him. Why was he so angry?
He was irrational, being possessed by an evil he didn't understand ... and it terrified him.
Then he felt her. Gabrielle had come up behind him, reaching out and touching his back. A light, understanding touch just between his shoulder blades.
It enraged him.
"She knows exactly what she is doing to you, Iolaus! Dont let her get away with it! Make her know what it is like to be tortured by unrequited love ... Make them *all* know!"
"No!" Iolaus twirled on Gabrielle and grasped her wrists hard. Revulsion, paranoia and hate were plastered all over his once handsome face.
Gabrielle stepped back and gasped, taking in his change of expression, her heart beating wildly in her chest when his hands moved from her wrists to clutch her upper arms. She'd never seen him like this. Iolaus facial cast was fierce. She was absolutely terrified yet accepting. "Iolaus..." Gabrielle whispered and felt his fingertips bite deep into her flesh.
"Hit her! Hit her!" the voice shrieked.
No... no... he wouldnt do that but... but... She needed to pay! Then his mouth closed over hers greedily and Iolaus crushed her firm body to his. He then pulled Gabrielle with him. There was no doubt where they were going.
"I love you..." Gabrielle gasped, gently-pleading, between heated, hungry kisses. She suddenly felt a fire ignite in her own blood in defiance of the situation. This was horrid, indecent and heartless and - dear gods - she wanted him so much!
He heard her impassioned cry and hated her all the more as he collapsed with Gabrielle onto the plush bed, ripping violently at her clothing, hearing the light material tear, his lips savagely clinging to her mouth, trying to block her from his mind yet exacting a revenge that was brutal and just. He was only vaguely aware that Gabrielle was pulling at *his* clothes, in a near imitation of his own frenzy. That burning need...
She felt the leather string of his amulet brush her cheek, the black stone resting on her shoulder as he hovered above her. Gabrielle knew the warrior in Iolaus could hurt or cripple her badly right now. He could kill her. But even in this mad fury - their bodies moving together in desperate, angry passion, - he was not capable of giving her anything she couldn't take. Gabrielle knew this and was well aware that Iolaus did not know it. It didn't matter.
"I love you... I love you... I love..."
"Stop!" Iolaus cried in despair. She still spoke the words! How could she? He was taking her without any thought other than the fulfillment of his own need for dominance. She had to know this... She had to understand this was an assault... She had to...
"Please... forgive... me..." she sobbed.
The impassioned words ripped at his soul... Then, when his fury-passion was spent she was gently stroking his smooth back as he lay exhausted. Gabrielle whispered something that crushed Iolaus heart, filling him with shame, and caused tears of remorse to flood into his eyes...
"Thank ... thank you so much."
... and he could hear the emotion in her voice as she said this, the total inoffensiveness and sympathy, the love and forgiveness... something he could not give...
...and Iolaus wanted to die. Gods above, how could he continue living? He wasn't a man. He was a monster. A foul, deranged creature that had no business existing ...
Iolaus pushed himself away from her, falling to her side on the bed as a wail of complete devastation overtook him. "Nooooo." he keened. He couldnt breath. He needed to get away from her, this tender-beautiful woman, and hide himself in shame! What had he done? Gods, what had he done?!
Yet, she wasnt allowing it.
Gabrielle's body turned, her legs entwining with his, and she pinned him on his back -- her well toned body now above his. Her tender lips, still blushing from his ravishment, kissed his gently. Her hands fluttered over his shoulders and chest. Gabrielle whispered endearments, small fingers wiping the tears from his face, those tears which mingled with her own as they fell from her eyes and splashed on his cheeks.
And finally, unable to do anything but speak the soul-tearing truth, he lifted fingers of his own to her lovely temple and moaned what was in his heart, "I love you so much, Gabrielle!"
She collapsed on him, emotion over-whelming her. She rested her head on his shoulder and wept, feeling his gentle arms wrap around her. The warmth as he pulled the covers over them as they lay together. She could hear his sobs.
They would make love again and again, more gently and with an all encompassing affection, later in the night. But now they rested. Bodies touching, trusting, souls entwining, and minds drowsily contemplating their resent past and a very doubtful future.
Quite possibly they would both be dead by this time the following day.
Part Five: Do Unto Others ...