The two men, both good looking, virile one time warriors, walked diligently down the road to Corinth. One was a bronze skinned -flaxen-haired hunter, who would pass by on his way home to Thebes, and the other - an impossibly strong and honest half god - traveled directly to the king's castle.
"He should have invited you, Iolaus. I can't believe he didn't." The taller of the men said and there was genuine sorrow in his tone, "You're family ... Iphicles likes you. I know he considers you a friend ..." Hercules blinked his sea blue eyes against the brightness of the mid day sun and a breeze that buffeted against his handsome face, causing smooth shoulder length hair to lift.
Iolaus shook his head and upraised his hands to punctuate sincere words, "Hercules, don't beat yourself or Iphicles up about this. I really need to get home anyway. I have things to do. The place has probably fallen in by now."
Hercules, son of Zeus - King of the Gods - looked down the road that would lead him to his human brother's castle. King Iphicles, successor to King Jason, invited a few people outside of the castle to attend the official ceremony which announced five year old Prince Antak as heir to the throne of Corinth. It would be all pomp. A flurry of festivities would follow -- all to be sampled by summoned guests, of which Hercules was one. Unfortunately, Iphicles did not invite Iolaus to this same function. As a matter of fact, Hercules invitation pointedly said - "Please do not bring a guest. Private party only." The demigod felt it a slap in the face, even if Iolaus didn't.
Crossing angry arms in front of his massive chest, Hercules uncharacteristically muttered as he and Iolaus hiked, "It's not fair and I don't understand." Sure, Iphicles felt it was fine to have Iolaus about when he was useful, saving his life - as was done on more than a couple occasions - but now, when the king could repay the brave warrior properly and treat him like the true hero he was, Iphicles was miserly and bad mannered. "I'm going to go to this thing for two reason alone, Iolaus. First, I want to see Antak. I haven't seen him since he was a baby, just before Rena died. Second, I'm going to get to the bottom of this. I want to ask Iphicles why ..."
"Look, don't ..." Iolaus sighed and stopped his steady gait. He lifted a hand in front of Hercules chest, somehow blocking his substantial way. "Hercules, I learned long ago that you are the man of the hour. You do a lot of good for a lot of people -- and I'm just glad you want me around at all." Before his friend could interrupted Iolaus continued, "I know things between you and Iphicles haven't always been good and I think it's wonderful he's asked you to attend the ceremony. Now, if that means I get shoved into the background I can accept it. I don't mind, really. I'm your best friend -- but Iphicles is your blood family and so is Antak. Go to the gala, have a good time, and when it's over come to my home and tell me all about it."
The two men looked at each other for a moment, one smiling and the other resigned.
"I will." Hercules finally said but he did not look at peace, "But it won't be the same without you there, my friend."
"Gabrielle, please ... We've been over this before and you agreed." Xena, intent on their destination, did not look at her companion as she spoke. She pulled on Argo's reigns and the horse followed.
"I know." The Amazon Princess said, hardly above a whisper. Brooding, Gabrielle traveled steadily beside Xena, using her staff as a walking stick.
They hiked down the dirt and stone paved road side by side.
One was a statuesque beauty with long, dark hair and astonishing blue eyes, appearing confident and regal in her black leather warrior gear. Her visible arsenal consisted of a whip, sheathed sword and chakram -- to protect she and her partner from the enemies of a not so civil world.
The other was a lovely young woman, fair skinned and self-assured. Her weapon: An Amazon fighting staff but nothing more -- unless one considered Gabrielle's frequently acid-tongued wit an implement of war. But most times, her barbs were reserved for The Xena Scrolls, writings of her adventures with The Warrior Princess. (Gabrielle's motto: "The quill is mightier than the sword." to which Xena would counter, "Can your quill kill dinner?")
Xena was trying to make this as easy on Gabrielle as she could but the youthful woman - an Amazon Princess by right of cast - had to understand that there were places she could not go. Xena had to leave - move off on her own for awhile - but Gabrielle ... Gabrielle could stay in Thebes -- and be safe. She would stay. No argument this time. It had nothing to do with a lack of ability. Gabrielle had developed and proven a great talent for survival. She could physically fight with the best of a well trained enemy, using her staff as a weapon. And she often watched as they fell, as if her opponent hadn't been a threat in the first place.
Yet, this quest was different. Xena was going a long way up and deep into the mountain of Hecrtich, where there were notorious followers of Hera - Queen of the Gods - who were rumored to know things about the goddess and her progeny that no other could hear -- except perhaps, for the half mortal daughter of said goddess. Xena - still torn over her discovery of who her birth-mother was - had to move forward and learn more. There could be inexplicable dangers on the journey while unearthing such information - dangers Xena would not allow Gabrielle to come into contact with. She had to do it on her own.
"I told you before that I don't like this, Xena. Not just you striking out on your own but the whole idea of going to Hecrtich without a clue as to what you might find there."
"Answers, Gabrielle. I'm searching for answers." Xena looked off, thinking deeply about something her friend couldn't possibly understand. She wasn't just compelled to go on this journey she absolutely had to. Xena didn't really understand the obsession herself. She was following a little intuitive voice inside of her head that promised all would be revealed if she would just go to Hecrtich and read the sacred scrolls regarding Hera's children.
Gabrielle decided not to argue further. It wouldn't get her anywhere and she and Xena were already too close to parting on unpleasant terms, "Just promise me you'll be careful."
"I'm always careful, Gabrielle."
This caused the blond woman to side-glanced at her friend with incredulity in her eyes. "Sure you are."
They both chuckled but the moment of quiet levity suddenly stopped when they reached a split in the road.
"That path will take you to Thebes." Xena said, "I gave you the map to Iolaus' house, right?"
Gabrielle patted her scroll sack, "It's here."
"Good. Now, I know he's going to be gone, probably off with Hercules on some great adventure, so you'll have the place all to yourself -- and I'll be back here in a week."
"Xena - -" Gabrielle cleared her throat and seemed a little uncomfortable, "Are you sure Iolaus won't mind me staying in his house? Men can be a little touchy when they think their territory is being commandeered -- or a friendship misused."
"Of course not. As a matter of fact, if you do a little cleaning he'll probably be thrilled. From what I hear Iolaus isn't home often and the place is probably a disaster." she smiled, "I may be sending you to Tartarus, Gabrielle."
"I'm up for the challenge." The girl returned her smile and hoped Xena got the true meaning behind the words. Yes, she could face Tartarus. She already had with Dahak and Hope. Why couldn't Xena see that she could follow her on this sojourn and take care of herself? Gabrielle inwardly sighed. That wasn't really fair. Xena had rescued her on so many different occasions -- she honestly couldn't begrudge her this one favor. 'Do as your told.' The Amazon bard silently berated herself as she reached for Xena to give her friend a warm hug, "Take care. I'll be waiting for you right here at the crossroads."
"Gabrielle," Xena paused, reluctant to say what was on her mind. "If I don't return I want you to go on without me. Make a life for yourself. Go to the Amazons or, better yet, return to that bard academy in Athens."
"You will return." Gabrielle said, confidently.
The outside of the castle was the same as when Jason was King Jason, the brave warrior who lead the Argonauts to The Golden Fleece. Jason. His friend and step father. The man his mother, Alcmene, lived happily with for a few short years before her death. Hercules missed Jason. He missed Alcmene ... and now Iolaus. 'He should be here', Hercules thought again as he approached the front gate.
"Halt! Who goes there?" called a voice from a tower up above Hercules' head.
The demigod was right outside of the castle walls and was a bit surprised when no guard physically greeted him upon his approach. He had expected a festival atmosphere with the castle gates wide open -- Perhaps even Iphicles himself waiting to welcome him in person. He called up, "I am Hercules, brother of King Iphicles." When there was no immediate reply, he added - "I was invited."
The guard, small yet rough looking, stared down at the visitor and turned away for a moment, seeming to converse with someone behind him. He then shouted to the gate keeper, "Open up! He has arrived"
With a rattle of chains against wood the heavy door was opened.
"Hercules!" Jason, apparently at the castle to attend the ceremony, approached his friend. His hand extended for a warrior's shake. "Iphicles is inside, preparing for the festivities. He can hardly wait to see you." He smiled but it never quite reached his eyes. "It's quiet now but later ... well, you know Iphicles."
Yes, he did and he also knew Jason. Something wasn't right. He felt it in his handshake and manner. Hercules had known this man nearly all his life and could tell when he was covering for something. The lines around his eyes were a little too deep and his demeanor slightly apprehensive. What didn't he want him to know?
As Gabrielle drew closer she smiled. Off the beaten path, it was a nice little place surrounded by a great deal of woodlands and a farming field. It was slightly over grown but that was to be expected. The house was made of logs and some materials she could not easily identify. There was also a cheery, natural flower garden strewn around the entrance. 'So, this is where he stays,' Gabrielle thought, "when he's not out slaying beasts, bringing down warlords and rescuing lovely damsels in distress ..." Her satisfaction slipped a notch at that last thought. Had Iolaus been with any beautiful women lately? When last they parted Gabrielle practically told him she expected nothing less. Was he enjoying the company of a seductress now? Were the blond hunter and Hercules in a tavern somewhere, being entertain by a hoard of lovely young ...?
She stopped her in her tracks. Smoke was coming from the chimney ... Some freeloader taking advantage of the owner's absence? "What nerve!" Instinctively, Gabrielle held her staff tighter, with both hands. She would have to confront the intruder and see to it that nothing was stolen and ....
Then she saw him. Just a glimpse at first. The toss of a golden head and a naked shoulder. Iolaus was on the roof, half hidden by an angle, doing some repair work with a hammer and board ... and he was bare from the waist up ... and sweating.
In a pleasant stupor, Gabrielle smiled and watched. He was home ... and she would be spending time with him ... She wanted to call out but he just looked so appealing up there, laboring away, not knowing he was being looked upon, the perspiration causing that wonderful physique to glisten in the sunlight ... Then, Gabrielle suddenly realized where her thoughts were taking her and she straightened, "Oh boy ... Stop it, girl." She cleared her throat, and tried hard to look away, a little embarrassed by her unchaste introspection. This wasn't right. She had to call to him. "Iolaus --" but it came out in a half-hearted squeak. Then, when he turned in her direction - either by chance or he somehow actually heard her call - Gabrielle raised a hand and waved, not trusting her voice again.
"Hey!" he called, with a wave of his own. A grin shown on Iolaus' sun-tanned face, obvious joy at unexpectedly seeing someone he was very fond of. As she approached, Iolaus hastily scooted down the roof to the latter and slid to the ground on both feet. "Gabrielle!" He moved quickly, raising arms at her approach. He encircled the young woman and lifted her off the ground. Iolaus twirled her about a couple of times in the air then allowed Gabrielle to slide down the length of his compact body to her feet. "I can't believe it!" he spoke earnestly, slightly breathless.
"Iolaus!" Gabrielle squealed, a little shaken by their contact. She then stood back and made a face - "Eww!"
He dropped his arms, "That wasn't exactly the reaction I was hoping for." he said with a mock-hurt grin, but understood. He'd been working hard and probably looked and smelled like it.
"I caught you very busy." Gabrielle glanced up at the roof.
"Yeah. I'm finishing up some repairs ... " He took in the sight of her. Amazing how he'd just been thinking of Gabrielle and the way they were forced to say goodbye well over a month ago, right after clearing some warlords out of Cyberus. Despite the grief and confusion of that time - when they and Hercules discovered Xena's dubious parentage - Iolaus was happy that he and Gabrielle had grown closer. They even off handily contemplated what the rest of their lives would be like if they were to spend it together. But, as always, that sense of what Xena and Hercules needed came to the front and the couple realized it just wasn't to be. Maybe they could talk of such things later if The Fates thought fit to give the foursome peace. "What are you doing here?" he asked warmly, "Where's Xena?"
Gabrielle explained how The Warrior Princess was off on a private quest. "You know how Xena is. She wanted me away from harm and remembered you had a place here. She was sure you were going to be gone." Her tone quivered a little at the irony. "I think she was counting on it."
"Well, this is great!" he said, not immediately catch onto the meaning of Gabrielle's last comment. Iolaus escorted her into the house.
"I'm impressed!" Gabrielle exclaimed. The home was clean and quite cozy. "You really take care of this place."
"What were you expecting?" He took Gabrielle's bag and staff, leaning one against the wall and setting the other on a dining area table. He chuckled at her astonished expression, "You know, I do have responsibilities. It may not seem like it but I do. This is my family home. After my father died and my mother remarried, she went on to live with her new husband in his house. So, this and the land surrounding it is mine."
"But I didn't think you were home enough to ..."
"You've got that right.' he confessed, "I've been here for two days and suddenly discovered a couple of big holes in the roof. Who knows what made them. The village seer says storms are suppose to be coming this way - by tomorrow evening - so I needed to repair. And, " he looked about, "I've been cleaning a little. The place was a real wreck. You should have seen it a couple days ago ..." he chuckled, "No, on the other hand, you shouldn't have."
Gabrielle moved a bit into the living area, near a stone fireplace and sitting area. Many skins and wittled wooden objects lay about. Weapons too. She saw a hunter's bow tacked to a wall along with a heavy metal shield, with an odd crest. She lifted a hand to touch both, impressed by the craftsmanship. There were also a number of knives and swords. Some more elaborate than others. Randomly, Gabrielle touched the hilt of a weapon. "This sword ..." she started.
"It doesn't belong to me. I'm holding it for a friend." Iolaus said quickly and moved forward. "Careful."
''The sword ... It makes him nervous', Gabrielle thought, but didn't question him. She decided it was none of her business. Perhaps it was just a man-thing. Instead, she turned and said, "Yes, this is obviously a hunter-warrior's house. No doubt about that." She smiled, "Are you on vacation or something? ".
"Sort of. Hercules is visiting his brother, Iphicles.'
Gabrielle noted a very small sound of regret but decided not to pry. Iolaus would tell her if he really wanted to. Same with the sword, with its odd equine etchings.
They looked at one another, comfortable in the moment, then Iolaus took a breath and said, "Let me get cleaned up and I'll fix supper. I went hunting this morning and bagged a nice size rabbit. I also have some vegetables. They're from the widow Sacharus' garden. She gave them to me a couple days ago when she discovered I was home."
Warming to the idea, Gabrielle said, "Wonderful. I'm starved. You clean up and I'll do the cooking. I better earn my keep if I expect you to let me stay here a week." Gabrielle moved around him to what looked like a kitchen area. "How does a stew sound?"
"Good." Iolaus smiled a little apprehensively, not yet moving to do as he said - "I'm going to have you here a whole week?" he asked again, just to make certain he heard right.
"Complaining already?" she asked, shooting a glance at him over her shoulder. Gabrielle recalled what she had told Xena about men being sensitive about their territory.
"No." he replied, quickly. "But I think tomorrow we better go to town. I have no supplies in the house." That wasn't what Iolaus had been thinking at all. He was recalling what almost happened between the two of them at the inn a month ago in Amphipolis. He'd been so close to her, even sleeping in the same bed, and had they been that way - talking as they were about romance and commitment - for more than a single night there was no doubt in his mind that he would have eventually made love with Gabrielle. He wanted to then that very night and was certain she was open to the experience but he held back, acknowledging the girl's pain and vulnerability. He was being noble, Hercules later said as a compliment, but Iolaus wondered how much of it was nobility and how much was fear of spoiling a young woman he'd come to think of as very special. Yet, there was more to his reluctance. Something he couldn't really pin down.
A whole week together? Alone. Would a protective friend really trust her companion with him for an entire week alone? Iolaus smiled as a humorous thought entered his head. No wonder Xena had been counting on him being with Hercules ...
The castle was quiet -- too quiet. Where were all of the attendants preparing for the gala? He saw only a few people moving about the great home and the moment they saw him the guests and/or servants quickly turned in an opposite direction and removed themselves from sight.
Hercules was escorted to The Great Hall by a fully armored guard, taking the place of Jason who had been mysteriously called away. Wearing a helmet and heavy gear, the soldier politely greeted Hercules but did not speak otherwise. Through gesture he let the demigod know that he was needed by His Highness immediately. Despite their best efforts, it was clear that not all was well in the kingdom of Corinth.
Whatever thought Hercules had of berating his brother about his treatment of Iolaus was quickly forgotten when he saw him.
King Iphicles, a man known for his strength and honor, sat alone on his throne, a hand covering his dark eyes in a grieving gesture. His rich robes, golden crown and well taught manner could not hide an inner turmoil. The king was not yet aware that he was being watched. He appeared weak and torn with worry.
"Iphicles -" Hercules called as he approached, "What's going on here? I thought ..."
The king was immediately out of his chair, crossing to Hercules, hands raised in greeting. "Hercules! Thank the gods you've come." He forced cheer into his expression and voice, "Quickly," he called to a servant, "wine for my brother." he hugged a puzzled Hercules, "I'm so glad you decided to visit us."
"Iphicles, where did Jason go and what ...?" Hercules started.
"All in good time, brother." Iphicles, in hushed tones, then spoke quietly and close to his ear, "Not now, Hercules. Later."
As the twilight of evening pushed itself over the horizon, Iolaus walked into the house - freshly bathed and toweling his tangled hair - and lifted his head for a sniff. "Smells good, Gabrielle." he commented, indicating the stew-pot she was working over. He dragging fingers through his golden shock of hair then, like a bemused dog, shook his head back and forth.
"So, that's your technique." Gabrielle quipped with a sly smile as she tossed in a pinch of spice and swirled the hot contents inside of the pot about. "I often wondered what your grooming regimen was. Now I see that the mane never is actually combed or brushed." Humor punctuated the tone.
With a chuckle he admitted, "It saves time and brain power not having to worry about such things." Iolaus turned and threw the towel he'd been holding into a basket on the other side of the room.
Gabrielle spoke under her breath, in an admiring way. "It works for you." She returned to her stew. He appeared quite handsome, wearing a more comfortable and casual evening wear, loose light colored drawstring pants and a snug sleeveless shirt, just cut low enough in front to reveal his impressive chest but covering the abdomen. And, of course, he wore the amulet. Gabrielle liked it and hoped Iolaus would tell her the whole story behind the black stone. It obviously meant a lot to him. "Thank you for skinning the rabbit before you gave it to me, Iolaus." she said, clearing her throat - trying hard not to look distracted from her cooking duties. "I'm not really fond of them - had a bad experience with one not too long ago - but I hate doing that sort of thing - skinning them. I usually leave it up to Xena while were traveling. I'll cook the dead animal but hate to ... well, you know."
Puzzled, Iolaus wondered just what type of a bad experience Gabrielle could possibly have had with a fury little rabbit but decided not to ask. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. Then, he was struck with a paradox. Gabrielle. She travels with a warrior, trained to kill or be killed. She is an Amazon - who's creed is to protect their own at any cost - even death. Yet, there wasn't an iota of killer instinct in the woman. On anyone but his guest Iolaus might have been irritated by hypocrisy. A bad attitude on his part, he thought. Maybe it was just a throw back to the days when he saw women fighting along side their men in the Iodysen Wars. There wasn't time for feminine allowances then. Yet, Iolaus admired that spark of sensitivity in the bard. She still had a pure heart. It was a inconsistency that was uniquely Gabrielle.
During the meal they spoke of Thebes and Potadia, the differences in their two villages, and what they would like to see change.
Gabrielle was opting for a scroll store, where a man, woman and even their children could purchase fine writings at a reasonable price. "Better yet," Gabrielle enthused, "How about a building that lends scrolls - with all the writings of the best philosophers and bards - to common everyday people. Then, when the reader is finished they can just return the parchments for the next person to read ..."
"Where's the profit in that?" Iolaus asked, snacking on a piece of sweetbread. "I can see selling a scroll -- but how can anyone make a living by just lending out a scroll?"
"It's an idea that needs work." Gabrielle admitted, finishing off her rabbit stew.
The rest of the evening was spent by the fire in the hearth. Gabrielle sat on the floor - wearing a commodious night toga that dipped over her slender shoulders - on the hide of a soft but rather odd looking beast the hunter had slain at one time or another. Iolaus lay across a long chair with cushions. He listened to her tell the tale of The Lost Mariner, Cecrops.
Her voice was lulling and gentle. "Athena made him immortal but he was cursed by Poseidon to wander the seas until love redeemed him. And it did. His love for a friend, his crew and the human race." The bard looked into the flames as she spoke, "But he would never see his beloved Tarae again because she had died over two hundred years earlier -- before Xena and I entered into the picture."
"That's sad." Iolaus murmured, intrigued but also sleepy.
"Yes, it is." She turned to look at him, wondering if he was getting the full picture, "But on a happier note, the last we heard Cecrops discovered his descendants and they have welcomed him with open arms." she sighed, "Such an incredible man. The stories he could tell ..."
Iolaus folded his arms snugly across his chest, "If it hadn't been for you and Xena he might still be wandering the seas. He owes you so much."
"A lot of people owe you and Hercules too, Iolaus, but I never hear you say they have to pay up. That's how Xena feels and that's how I feel."
"I suppose that's how most ... heroines .... feel."
They gazed at each other for awhile, smiling in mutual understanding.
The fire light had a dizzying and softening affect.
Her skin was so bright and touchable as she sat there, a shawl around her bare shoulders and her knees hiked up to her chin.
His hair glowed and his eyes seem to shine with an inner luminescence as he lay away from her, a tired but very aware expression on his face.
Gabrielle, not trusting her mood, suddenly stood and stretched daintily, "Time for bed." she said. And added, "I'm so tired I think I'll sleep for a week."
"No, just until sunrise. We have to hit the road early if we want to make it to the market before prices raise."
They chuckled but the silent question eventually came. Sleeping arrangements.
"You take the bedroom and I'll sleep out here." Iolaus offered, preventing her from asking.
She knew he would be a gentleman. "I accept. But tomorrow night I sleep out here and you go into the bedroom." A thought suddenly occurred to her, "Why is there only one bedroom, Iolaus?"
He couldn't resist humor, "Why do you think?" he asked with a husky man-of-the world tone.
She stared at him, comically mute.
Then, with a snicker, Iolaus answered truthfully. "I have two but the other I'm using for storage. It's a wreck."
"Oh." She smiled, satisfied, but didn't move.
Iolaus offered, "Goodnight, Gabrielle."
Catching her own hesitance, Gabrielle began to advance but then did something totally on impulse. She would never really know why she did it. The maneuver wasn't planned. She hadn't been thinking about it and probably wouldn't have acted at all if she had dwelled on the matter for any length of time. Gabrielle took two extra steps in her progress to the bedroom, sat easily beside Iolaus' reclined form, and leaning forward, she kissed him very long but gently on the lips. Her hand reached for his amulet and stroked it gently, almost seductively. Then, with equal deftness, she stood again - bright eyed and innocent - and proceded onto the bedroom. "Goodnight, Iolaus." she said, with an amused smile that he did not see.
Iolaus, now awake and stunned, looked wide-eyed into the fire.
"I have to leave you here." Xena spoke gently to Argo, softly petting the horse's nose, as they stood in front of Hecrtich. The mountain was steep and far more rugged than she was led to believe. Xena was glad she left Gabrielle behind. She'd been lamenting her choice for hours but now knew it was for the best. She would have to climb to the access cave by herself and the woman's resolve couldn't be hindered. Not by man or beast. At least the mountain was surrounded by grasslands and an animal would not starve. Even if she never returned Argo would still thrive.
If she never returned.
That wasn't usually an option. Xena always expected to return from wherever she and Gabrielle traveled. But this time ... Xena didn't know what to think. Danger was everywhere. She laid a hand on her chakram, a familiar gesture when confused, and stared straight up. Why was this so important to her? Her left hand raised to her brow, blocking out the morning sun so she could get a better look. "Why am I doing this?" she wondered aloud. 'You're doing this because you have to know.' a voice inside of her head answered.
Hercules would not approve. He told her to let the answers come to her. 'You don't need to go looking." he said just before they parted. Such an odd thing for him to say. Hercules, who always said "Follow your heart." telling her it unnecessary this time. Was he being honest or protective? She suspected the latter
Xena had no reason to disbelieve Cyrene, her beloved mother-figure. She had no reason to lie to her when, just before she died, Cyrene confessed to Xena that The Warrior Princess was actually Hera's offspring. The result of an affair between Xena's human father and The Queen of the Gods. Still, Xena was also told, a long while back, that her father wanted to sacrifice her, as a baby, to Ares! It had been a horrible discovery ... and a lie. But now Xena could understand. Cyrene was weighing an option. Was it better for her daughter to think her father, a man she barely knew but admired, a lout or to know that her birth mother was Hera? Cyrene was protecting her and continued the charade until her death, when she knew the secret had to be at last revealed.
"Thanks for telling me, Mom." Xena later said when most of her grief had subsided and she lay in the warm arms of Hercules, in a corner her Mother's house, and he spoke gently to her, assuring her all would be well. He told her how special she was and how Hera couldn't mentally touch her now that she was made aware of her godhood ... ('Don't let her touch you.' he insisted.). And, of course, Hera was also gone, sent to the pit of Tartarus by Hercules himself.
Yet, Cyrene could have been mistaken. Perhaps it wasn't Hera. Maybe it was another goddess and she only thought it Hera ... Whatever the case, Xena had to know for sure. She would die, if necessary, discovering the truth.
Other trips she'd made with Gabrielle over the last month yielded little and Xena could see the worry in her friend's eyes. Was she afraid of her now? Even more afraid than when Xena nearly killed her after Solan's death? Was that Hera working through her even then? Xena had fought an over powering urge to draw blood and had overcome it. And Gabrielle, dear Gabrielle, had been there for her in more ways than just a friend listening to another friend. Gabrielle deserved to be happy ... to marry and have a family and .... Xena blinked back unexpected tears. Gods, what was the matter with her? Why were her thoughts so disjointed and foolish? Gabrielle didn't want that life! If she did she would have stayed in Poteidaia. She wanted to be with her, fighting evil and protecting the human race from gods like ... Ares ...
She rotated about and spotted The God of War.
Seductively handsome as always, he leaned casually back on one leg, his hands on his hips. The smile on his bearded face hid nothing, "We're family!" he enthused, raising his arms and grinning like a dirt farmer who had just won the grand prize in a squash growing contest. "I always wondered why I found myself obsessed with you, your talents and charms -- when I should have gotten rid of you long ago. I mean, what good is a nice warrior to me? Especially one I was grooming to be my right hand man ... women." He moved in closer, his voice growing deeper - almost sensual, "Now, I find out it was all in our Mother's plan and I never knew it. I'm still a little miffed at her for not mentioning our blood tie before but, hey, I can live with that if you can."
"Ares, what do you want?" Xena removed Argo's bridle and saddle, then smacked the horse on the rear to get her moving. She would come back for her later - if there was a later.
"To the point as always." He straightened his shoulders and tried to look serious, "To help you."
"I don't want your help." She looked again up the mountain, trying to decide where to start. "After what you did to Gabrielle and how you betrayed the other gods ... I'll never forgive you for that, Ares. Never."
Ares had to admit that he blew it big time with that Dahak and Hope situation but, after all, he was The God of War and had pretty well been a bad boy for much of his existence. Did anyone really expect scruples from him? Did Zeus? "What's past is past, Xena." he summed up, "You're upset and stubborn now but when you're half way up Hecrtich, tired and dejected, you'll be sorry you didn't hear me out. You'll be begging for my help."
"I don't want to be under obligation to The God of War. Go away, Ares."
The smile returned, "Fine, sis. But I know things. Just call me when you're ready to talk, okay?" and, with a brilliant flash, he disappeared.
"Don't hold your breath." Xena murmured. She started to climb.
Their walk to the village was energetic and playful.
Gabrielle, enlivened by a wonderful night sleep, leapt into wild detail about a poem she was preparing for The Xena Scrolls. "A Tribute to Body Armor" she said and Iolaus wasn't entirely certain she was joking. The bard used her body and fighting staff to punctuate her rather overwrought sentences and Iolaus could only laugh uncontrollably. She was very funny and it amazed him how much the young woman's sense of humor matched his own. At one point during their walk she started sentences only to have him finish her thoughts. It might have been eerie if not for the whimsical energy surrounding them.
They couldn't take anything too seriously on a wonderful, breezy and exhilarating day like this. True, the sun was not visible, hidden well behind thick clouds that threatened to lower as evening came on but right now, first thing in the morning, as they approached the outer border of The Thebes Village Market, all appeared well.
The bustle of people around them was also invigorating. Stalls and stands of traders with everything from fish to togas, babbling and bartering and begging to be heard. It was so exciting!
"How are you at bargaining?" Iolaus asked Gabrielle as he pointed to an area with a varying amount of staples. Flour, sugar, goats milk and broths ... "Are you game?" he asked, lifting his hand which contained seven denars.
The eager determination on her face could not be denied, "Just watch me." she said, snatching the coins and walking over to the jolly proprietor.
Smiling, Iolaus let her go (he thought she would enjoy it) and turned to another booth who's owners were selling leather goods and costume jewelry.
By mid day the couple met up again and presented their purchases to each other .
"Iolaus, I'm starving. Is there any place we can get something to eat around here?"
"Several." Iolaus accommodated, feeling the gnaw of hunger himself. He took Gabrielle by the arm and walked her in the direction of his own favorite haunt, Gickis Tavern and Place to Eat Food.
"I like an establishment with a name that spells it out for you." Gabrielle commented, wryly.
Along the way Iolaus was greeted by friends and passerby's, not a few of who were gorgeous women. The females - Gabrielle counted at least six in the half block they walked - seem to give the hunter-warrior special attention, waving and blowing him kisses. Gabrielle felt slightly vexed of what she knew was common place --- but she couldn't chastise Iolaus. He was single, charming and available. What was a guy to do?
"You're very popular." Gabrielle remarked.
"It's a small village." he replied.
The couple strolled into the restaurant and were about to be seated when Gickis, the owner, approached Iolaus. He was a normally amicable man but now looked uneasy, "Iolaus, I hate to ask this ... but do you think you and your lady friend can come back another time?"
The hunter noted Gickis' discomfort, "What is it?'
"Privi and his men are here and you know what happened last time you two came to blows. It took me two days to get the tavern back into shape."
"Gickis, you know that wasn't my fault. He was annoying a girl who wanted nothing to do with him."
"She was his fiancee."
"But I didn't know that."
Gabrielle listened to the exchange and sighed, "Iolaus, let's go to your second favorite restaurant. We really don't want to cause this man trouble." she reasoned.
He nodded, "You're right." If left to himself he might have taken a chance but Iolaus didn't want to get Gabrielle caught up in any ugliness.
They turned to leave -- and walked directly into the biggest, brawniest man Gabrielle ever saw. He looked down at the couple, especially intrigued by Gabrielle, like Zeus might look down on them from Olympus. Beside "the beast", also known as Bubus, stood a smaller man with whispy white hair, a sharp nose and beady little eyes. Behind them, smirking, were two other thugs.
"If it isn't the little man with a big mouth." said the beady-eyed trouble maker, obviously the leader.
"Privi, just let us pass." Iolaus said, trying valiantly to be rational.
He sneered, "Thanks to you Winifred won't see me anymore. I don't like that, shorty." The voice was high and grating.
Gabrielle could easily see why Iolaus felt obliged to punch this jerk out. "Listen," she said, smiling sweetly and trying to calm matters. "We're on our way out and ..."
He looked her up and down. "Who's the little trollop and why is she carrying such a big stick?"
Gabrielle stopped short, stunned. Did he really just call her a trollop? Obviously Privi didn't know an Amazon when he saw one.
Steaming, Iolaus made a move - "I think you should apologize to the lady." he said.
Gabrielle held Iolaus back as best she could, "I can take an insult, Iolaus. Let's just go." and she struggled to push him around Bubus "the beast" who hadn't yet said a thing - just stared at her.
"That's right." Privi drawled, "Run away, rabbits. It's not as if you have Hercules or Xena here to save you ."
This time both Iolaus and Gabrielle stopped short and simultaneously turned ... and glowered.
With a heavy sigh of surrender, Gickis threw up his hands and called, "Put away the breakables!"