He should have been more driven but, at the time, he wanted to be careful.
It was dark - very early in the am - when he left his bedroom, quietly creeping past Hercules door, and down to the large foyer in King Iphicles castle. No one alive should have been awake at such an hour. Iolaus had been counting on it. He nearly jumped out of his skin when the lavishly robed Minister Glothus approached him, from the kitchen area, complaining of insomnia. He then asked where the hunter-warrior was going at such an odd hour.
Iolaus thought of telling him any number of lies. Yet, looking at the nobleman, his fingers wrapped around a warm mug of goat's milk, he reconsidered. "I need you to do something for me." he said to Glothus. Iolaus slipped his amulet - a piece of dark jewelry which meant more to him than mere words could describe - from around his neck and put it into the man's outstretched hand. "Give this to Hercules when he wakes." Iolaus said, "Tell him, I respect him and love ...." he paused, search for the words. "When next we meet, he can give it back to me."
Glothus stared at the blond man, then down at the amulet, his expression touched with both consternation and admiration. "This has something to do with the death of your young friend, Gabrielle, doesn't it?" he stated more than asked. "You ... you're going to avenge her death?" he determined, "Are you going after Prince Haleus?"
The mention of the royal's name was enough to make Iolaus blood run cold, "No." he assured Glothus seriously, understanding the man's loyalty to the family and kingdom of which he served, no matter how deviant the member in question was. " I do think he's partly to blame ..." 'but then so am I', " .. but I'm not going after him. We'll have to trust the judgment of the King of Thesilla." He could only hope Haleus punishment was more than deserving. Expulsion from his kingship wasn't enough but that was probably what the corrupted prince was going to get.
Iolaus momentarily flashed on the image of Gabrielle, back in that crumbling old palace, being dragged away from her friends at Haleus' command. Then the prince's voice, when Xena demanded to know where they were taking her: "*I hope she likes rats.*" he had said, flippantly. *The dungeon*, Iolaus had thought and was right. Yet, when he saw the bard again Iolaus understood the double meaning behind the prince's heartless words. Gabrielle was hung by her wrists, her feet barely touching the floor - unprotected - as those ravenous rodents scampered about the dungeon floor. Those sharp, yellow teeth. The eventual gnawing at her vulnerable flesh when they realized she was unable to fight them ... *'I hope she likes rats.'*.
Iolaus suddenly shivered and wished he hadn't promised Glothus he wouldn't seek revenge against Haleus. Gods, how Iolaus wished he could give Haleus a taste of his own abuse ....
He came back to himself and centered on the Minister, "Give my apologies to Iphicles and Megra. I wish them every happiness ... but I have to go." Then Iolaus nodded an acknowledgment at the aristocrat and turned, walking to the large oak exit.
"Be safe." was all Glothus could think to say. He watched Iolaus back as the blond hunter slowed for a moment, perhaps recognizing something in the expression, then accelerated his pace again.
He was going to The Olympian River, a place where at least one set of gates to The Other Side resided. Iolaus always thought it myth until one evening, while he and Hercules were still very young, the demigod told his friend and a few other awe-struck cadets about he and Jason's adventure into the underworld. They had used the gates to get there, to save a mutual friend and, once done, they were forbidden by Hades to ever do it again.
Yet rules were meant to be broken. Hercules returned more than once. The last being when he decided to save the miserable life of his best friend ....
Iolaus gulped and tried to concentrate as he rode.
It had been a simple plan to creep out early and get to the river before either Xena or Hercules discovered his intent but, as so often happened, obstacles were placed in his path. Iolaus couldn't be sure if it was Hera's doing what she did best, or just a run of truly bad luck.
When the highwaymen appeared suddenly and knocked him from his horse, demanding money, Iolaus didn't really care who or what was the cause. He didn't have time for it and battled the three big marauders who, quite naturally, thought the smaller warrior an easy target. Fists were thrown and Iolaus kicked out at the jaws and bellies of men twice his size, with skill and fury, and watched them drop.
In the end they ran from him, stunned by the man's ungodsly prowess. Iolaus felt no satisfaction. Precious time had already been lost. He could see the sun beginning to rise in the west. He quickly remounted his horse and galloped, at full speed, to the river. But, only a few miles into his quest, the horse slowed on its own then eventually stopped altogether.
Almost moaning with frustration, Iolaus realized the animal had gone lame. He couldn't possibly ride him any further.
He ran on foot. Ran as fast as he could.
The hunter could feel Hercules nearness. It didn't make logical sense, this knowing, but it was always something the two heroes could count on. They knew intuitively when one another were close. When he reached The Olympian River Iolaus didn't pause. He didn't stop or test the water temperature. He just bound into it, feeling the drenching cold, and he could hear Hercules calling to him.
Then Xena, "No, Iolaus, no!"
He ignored them. He had to. He had to keep going. He had to dive deep and find that gate. He had to go there -- to The Other Side ... and he had to rescue her and apologize and ... bring her back with him ... to the land of the living.
He just had to.
Iolaus swam deeper and deeper, his lungs aching for air, knowing if Hercules or Xena caught up to him he'd never have another opportunity to do what he must.
Suddenly, his hand felt it. It was metal or maybe not. Stone. A handle or a knob. Something to be pushed on. For an instant Iolaus thought he knew what it was he was touching, but then it disappeared and he was falling -- but not through water. Air. And, as he fell, he realized he was breathing oxygen.
The next thing the hunter knew he was toppling down a long row of stone stairs to land flat on his back on a dusty ledge. Iolaus sighed, "Why did I know something like that was going to happen?" he said under his breath.
A long, enigmatic and twisting river greeted him when he turned slowly onto his side and sat up.
"Hey fella, Hades isn't going to wait forever for you." came a gruff voice.
Now on his feet, Iolaus swiveled about and saw a man. A very ugly man in a long dark robe, standing in a boat which sat peacefully in the water, "Wha ... Hunh?"
'Come on! I don't have all day. Hades is waiting for you and ... hey ..." He paused a moment, eyeing Iolaus carefully. "Don't suppose you have a gold coin to cross, do ya?"
Iolaus lifted his hands to pat his vested chest, in a searching gesture. "I'm sorry ... but I'm not really dead. I wasn't expecting to ..."
"Yeah, they all say that." His blood shot eyes stared at the hunter for awhile then, when there was no movement, he said: "*Get in.*"
"Oh." Iolaus carefully crawled inside the boat, and sat. "You're Cheron, aren't you?' he asked.
"How'd you guess?" The boatman spoke caustically, sticking his pole into the mire and pushing them along The River Styx.
"Hercules told me about you."
"Hercules-Shmerucles. He owes me more than one gold coin, I tell you. Not to mention a pig." Cheron then hiccuped, the results of imbibing a bit too much earlier in the day (or evening? it was hard for Iolaus to tell).
Iolaus was about to ask Cheron what he meant but decided against it. He was obviously smashed. Instead, "There was a girl. You must have brought her over, about a day or two ago." Iolaus lifted his hand to indicate size, "She was about this tall, long reddish-blond hair and very pretty."
"I get a lot of women on my boat, mister." Cheron huffed, "She your sister or something?"
"Oh wait, green shirt and brown leather skirt ... talks a lot?"
"Yes!" Iolaus half smiled and turned, looking for more from the boatman, "Was she okay?"
A paused, "She was dead, you idiot."
"I know that but ...."
"You get off here." Cheron announced, docking them on an unstable rim.
Iolaus looked about and spotted a rusty gate, covered with what appeared to be ivy and other assorted plant life.
"Things aint been good here. Hades doesn't tell me anything but it's serious. Otherwise he wouldn't let you in."
Iolaus nodded. He thought as much and was ready for anything.
Xena had built a fire in a small clearing near the river and called over to Hercules for the third time. "You need to get those wet clothes dry or you'll catch your ..." she stopped herself before uttering the faux pas. Why was it she could keep propriety with nearly anyone but Hercules? It seemed the minute she was alone with him Xena stopped being the brave, well respected Warrior Princess and suddenly turned into a fawning, babbling teenager. Well no, that wasn't completely true. However, he did have the ability to emotionally touch her in a way very few men were capable. No one else could have prevented her from falling into that pit of utter despair after she spotted Gabrielle's dead body. No other man brought out a mothering instinct in her like he did. And no one but Hercules, she considered with a thoughtfully arched eyebrow, had ever made love to her and made her *want* to be the weaker of two sexes.
Xena glanced down at her own damp, dark leathers then over to where she laid her armor and sword. A bit self consciously, she touched her forehead and hair, noting the moisture from both the river water and nervous perspiration.
For over a half hour, since she dragged him out of the The Olympain, Hercules stood at the river's edge expecting to see Iolaus pop out of the water, demanding his assistance. She could understand how hard this was for the demigod. Iolaus, with all the best intentions in the world, was sacrificing himself and Hercules felt somewhat at fault. Xena knew what was running through his mind because she had felt many of the same things at one time or another and, no doubt, would feel them again. Hercules was asking himself why hadn't he watched Iolaus a little closer? He could see his friend was unstable. Why didn't he talk to him more about this horrible situation with Gabrielle? Hercules could see he cared for her but he thought Iolaus, as with all the tragedies in his life, would come to his best buddy when he was ready to talk. Hercules didn't want to press him -- or inadvertently hurt him.
Now, Xena knew, Hercules was damning himself for not demanding Iolaus' attention as soon as they returned to the palace. He should have *made* him talk. If Iolaus could have got the bereavement out of his system he might not have done such an impulsive thing.
Or was it impulsive? Perhaps Iolaus knew exactly what it was he was going to do all along. By going to see Hades, Iolaus was vindicating himself from all those who stared at him with knowing, sympathetic and, in some cases, resentful eyes. Xena included herself amongst the latter group and felt more than a little ashamed. Yet, on The Other Side there was a very small chance ... Xena was glad Iolaus decided to take the risk.
She closed her eyes and gulped at her own excessive self-indulgence. Gabrielle meant the world to her and yes, she wanted her back. She needed her to carry on ... but to wish Iolaus the dangers of the unknown? To be grateful that he was willing to die to have her come back to the living? No, it wasn't right. It just wasn't right.
This was a sacrifice Xena should have made. She wanted to do it and now, in a horrible moment of selfishness, found herself angry once again with Iolaus for taking it away from her. Or no, not really Iolaus. It was Hercules who talked her out of the venture. Hercules who told her it was impossible. The Warrior Princess tried hard to fight the furious, confused thoughts as she watch the demigod finally turn in her direction and walk to the fire. Xena took a deep breath and again shook the thoughts from her mind. What was she doing? This wasn't Hercules fault! What was wrong with her? 'I'm fighting my own guilt,' her consciousness supplied, 'Gabrielle is hardly cold and what were you doing last night? You were sharing your bed with the son of Zeus, that's what.'
He had been so tender and compassionate, listening to the warrior woman jabber on about what she would do next, how she would make amends to Gabrielle's parents and sister for dragging the bard off to unknown dangers. She actually found herself sobbing as he walked her to her bedroom and then, at the door, Hercules held her, wrapping his strong arms around her, whispering endearments in her ear; trying to comfort.
Then, in a moment of vulnerability, their lips met and she was consumed by a sudden burning urge to be with him. Xena found herself opening the door and pulling him with her, begging Hercules to heal her, praying he could make her grief disappear. Just to feel his gentle touch, his bare skin against hers ... to be loved by a man she cared for so much. A man Xena trusted. There were so few. And he was there, wavering at first then, with her seductive urging, very eager.
It was beautiful .... only to be marred by the morning.
Iolaus remembered the underworld. Yet, it now seemed so odd. After pushing open the iron gate, which was badly in need of oiling, and poking his head inside of what he assumed was the middle ground between Tartarus and The Elysian Fields, Iolaus was startled to see a figure approaching him.
A woman with dark hair, a light colored gown and pretty. He immediately knew her by the resplendent bouquet of flowers she held in her right hand, "Persephone." he said.
"Iolaus, it's so good to see you again!" she greeted with a radiant smile and put her arms around him for a gentle, friendly hug. "And I'm so glad you're here." She looked behind him as if she were expecting another then shrugged. "Come on. Hades it waiting."
"He really knew I was coming?"
"Of course he did." She linked an arm with Iolaus as they walked through a dark tunnel, "We're in desperate trouble down here, Iolaus. I've only been here for a week, just starting six months with my beloved, and I can feel it. There's been a breech by one of our incoming and he's causing all sorts of problems. My poor Hades is exhausted and, he won't admit it, but is also afraid."
Iolaus sighed, "Look, I'm sorry you're having problems, Persephone, but I'm here to find someone. A young woman who should not be here."
"You're talking about Gabrielle."
He stopped walking and turned her to him, "You know? Have you seen her? Is she okay?"
"Well ..." Persephone hesitated, not able to look directly at the mortal. "She was fine. Gabrielle waited around for awhile before crossing over. She was sure Xena would come for her and didn't want to cross before saying goodbye to her ... but then Hades convinced her it was time. Her grandmother was waiting for her and there was Perdicus and ..."
"Perdicus." Iolaus whispered. He'd forgotten all about Gabrielle's husband.
"But ... she's still holding onto something inside. I know it because she won't eat anything."
"Is she sick?" Iolaus rolled his eyes when he heard Persephone giggle, "Yeah, I know. She's dead." He then sighed. Gabrielle wasn't eating because once the food of the other side was eaten an individual could never leave. It was one of those irritating little rules Hades made up for some long extinct reason. Yet, it made Iolaus optimistic. If she wasn't eating then Gabrielle too realized something wasn't as it should be. She was holding onto her attachment to Xena and - maybe - she was even thinking about the man who put her into this place. "I need to talk with her. I have to some how tell her how sorry I am that I killed her."
Persephone's dark eyes grew wide and the perpetual smile on her pale face faded, "You killed her, Iolaus? Hades never told me that." The goddess' whispered. She suddenly looked skeptical and her lips puckered, "I don't believe it. Not for a minute. You couldn't kill anyone. At least, no one who didn't deserve it."
"It was an accident. Hera might have had a lot to do with it. But I still ..."
"Hera! It figures ..." she huffed, "Mother hates Hera because she's always making unrealistic demands on nature. 'Give me rain here, give me snow there ...' It's enough to make a goddess ..."
"Iolaus!" The black clad Hades approached them at a fast walk, appearing busy and in no mood to make idle conversation. "Where's Hercules?"
"He's not here."
Hades balled one of his hands into fists and smacked it into the palm of the other, "Damn." he hissed, "I told Cheron to make sure he took both of you when I saw you."
"He saw you swimming in the river." Persephone clarified.
Iolaus said, "I'm the only one that made it through. The gate slammed shut behind me and that was pretty well it." He raised a hand and scratched his head, "I think Cheron's been drinking a little."
"Not again!' Hades moaned, "I really do need to get another boatman." he told Persephone, who nodded. "Make a note on that, will you love?"
She nodded again and put a hand on an impatient Iolaus shoulder. "Hon, he wants to see Gabrielle now. Iolaus told me some ridiculous story about how he is responsible for her death. Tell me he's wrong."
Hades momentarily ignored his beloved and looked hard at Iolaus. "That scratch on your chest," he indicated with his eyes, "Done by a hand maiden of Hera. Yes?"
Iolaus looked down at the half healed wound and nodded.
"She drugged and put a spell on you. Hera made you kill Gabrielle. You're not responsible. You're still scheduled for the Elysian Fields -- but not for quite sometime."
He took the information in but it did not dissuade him."That's good to hear, Hades, but I need ..."
With a sudden upward motion, Hades waved a hand.
A loud thundering noise was heard, followed by what appeared to be a bolt of lightening.
Startled, holding onto Persephone's arm to keep from being knocked down, Iolaus suddenly realized they were no longer in the dark tunnel but at the entrances of two portals. One being Tartarus and the other, The Elysian Fields. He glanced down at the goddess and she smiled casually up at the hunter, obviously very used to this type of unexpected travel.
Stepping to the other side of Iolaus and watching the hunter look into both portals, seeing the peace and joy of one and the never ending turmoil of the other, Hades said - "You're mortal and a good warrior. I can use you ... but I really could have used Hercules."
Iolaus could have raised a fuss about never being appreciated but he waited patiently.
"You don't have much of a choice, Hades.' Persephone said, "Your own hunters are bunglers and at least Iolaus - well - " she lifted her flowers to hide momentary distress, "He has a reason to do all you are going to ask of him."
The God of the Underworld nodded. "I'll make a bargain with you, Iolaus. If you get me out of the difficulty I'm in I'll give Gabrielle a second chance at life." He stared hard at the hunter, watching his expression grow hopeful, "But the conditions are that she can't have eaten yet and when this is all over neither you or she will ever come to see me again -- until it's your time, of course."
"That's it?" Iolaus turned to Hades and appeared surprised. "You must be in some trouble to offer me something this big. When Hercules came after me a couple years ago he nearly had to knock you down and drag a bargain out of you."
"My realm wasn't in danger then. It is now -- and by a mortal of all things."
"Aided by Hera of course. The guy died yesterday and he was nasty. I sent him to Tartarus but there was something strange about him. As he was entering the gate of ever lasting torment he smiled -- like he knew something. Had an ace up his sleeve."
"I take it he did."
"Yes, Hera gave him the power to breech the wall between Tartarus and the Elysian Fields ... and now he's there, in the Elysian Fields, with some of his goons, causing all sorts of trouble. I need him out and I need him out now or my realm will forever be compromised. You have no idea the type of paperwork involved with something like this." Hades then reached to a wall of armor beside him and pulled an impressive sword, "Take this. You'll need it."
Iolaus gripped the sword, impressed with it weight and the way it felt in his hand. It wasn't his fathers sword but, lately, that weapon was no friend of his anyway. "Who is the guy I'm after?"
"You can't miss him. He's wearing an enchanted gold cloak. That's what's giving him the power to move between Tartarus and The Fields." Hades then took his eyes from the portals to look at Iolaus profile, "I think you know him. His name is Prince Haleus."
Iolaus nearly dropped the sword.