"Anya ..." he whispered her name, feeling the crush of her soft body against his, his lips automatically kissing her cheek, forehead and hair. Anything he could reach. She was as beautiful as he remembered. His wife. The mother of his child.
"You've been away so long ..." she cried over his shoulder, "For awhile I thought Myles and I had lost you!"
Myles. Gently, Iolaus disengaged himself from Anya to kneel, his arms spread in front of the boy, "Son ..." he implored, miming for the little, fair haired tike to join him.
In response, Myles ran in a tottering fashion, as most two year olds will, to his father and threw both arms around his neck, "Dadah ..." he crooned, unaware of how the very word sent an unconstrained spasm up and down his father's spine.
It was as if they had been parted for only a month, not years. Too many years.
Iolaus picked the boy up, feeling the tears invade his eyes, rocking him. He was strong, this boy, and would have grown to be a great hunter and tracker like his father. But Myles had been taken ill, his little body unable to fight off infection -- and had died only a few months after his beloved mother passed away.
Dead. Both were dead and there was no bringing them back. Iolaus purposely ran it through his head over and over ... because he'd almost forgotten. How odd to suddenly disregard something he'd adjusted to years ago.
"Come Iolaus," Anya moved beside him, "Let's go to the house and eat. You must be hungry after your long journey."
Iolaus nodded, unable to do anything else. He held the boy in one arm as Anya linked herself to his other, resting her head on his shoulder as they walked.
"How is Hercules?" she asked, innocently.
"Fine." Iolaus answered, choking on emotion slightly, looking up into the clouds. 'Hercules', he thought. He had to make a decision once. "He misses Dienerra and the children."
"Well, then he should stop all this running around, dragging you with him, and go home to her. Honestly, you men and your adventures." Anya laughed with mock disapproval.
It was then that Iolaus realized, like Dienerra before her, that Anya was not aware that she was dead. As far as she was concerned, her husband was returning home from a monster killing or a warlord debacle. For her, this was paradise. At home with her child, waiting for her beloved to return to her. Of course the real joy would come when he finally did arrive ... as he had but ...
... it was too soon. He shouldn't be here because ...
Iolaus mind raced as they walked up the path to the house. Why was he here, in The Fields, when he wasn't dead? There was a reason but he couldn't remember what it was. Funny, that. There had to be a reason.
They entered the house, as he remembered it, and Iolaus was again awash with memory. Joy and sadness. Myles slipped from his arms and weaved a line over to his wooden toy chest, in the corner of their living area.
"Iolaus, I have fruit and bread for you." she called from behind him.
He could hear Anya placing the eatables on their dinner table.
"I think I finally got the idea behind this yeast thing." she said, slicing the warm bread with a long blade knife, "Dienerra said I was adding too much to the mixture. But I also think ..."
He half listened. Hera had given him this second chance with his wife and child. Hera had a motive for all she did. She wanted Haleus to remain in The Elysian Fields and for Iolaus to not intervene. This was a diversion. To keep him from interfering. But, more than even that, Hera wanted Hercules miserable. That was truly why she had shown him Anya and Myles. If he were to stay, Hercules would be forced to fight his battles alone. Battles fought with the memory of his best friend, who doomed himself by looking for a ... something.
Once again, Iolaus became disoriented. 'Why am I here!?' There was a purpose. He came here without Hercules because of ... something.
"Come on, Husband, sit down." Anya urged with a chuckle.
And if he ate, he would be here always ... away from Hercules and their adventures, leaving his friend to suffer and feel an unbearable guilt over his passing. Yes, that was important but - damn! - there was someone else he was forgetting .... Someone he cared for was in danger ....
"Ouch!" Anya dropped the knife on the wooden table and looked at her finger.
Startled, Iolaus moved quickly forward and took her hand. "You all right?" he asked, almost in a fear.
"Of course. It's nothing, silly. I just cut my finger."
Iolaus looked at the minor slice and the blood that encircled it. He took her over to a wash bucket and bathed the wound. When Anya's fingers lifted out of the water and he wiped the moisture away -- there was no wound at all.
"See, all better." Anya smiled, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and turned from him back to the bread.
Iolaus closed his eyes. This was The Elysian Fields and he did not belong here. At another time, maybe, but not now. And there was someone else he knew he should be thinking about. Hera: 'She's making you forget about ... Haleus and ... someone ....'
Danger, he knew this. There was some awful danger present.
*Gabrielle* a whisper came to his ears. And he jumped to his feet suddenly, "Gabrielle!" She was in horrible trouble and he had to rescue her.
Anya lifted her head from her cutting chore, "Who's Gabrielle?" she asked but there was less jealousy than concern in her tone.
Coming back to himself, Iolaus gulped and took in a deep, quivering breath. "Anya," he nearly murmured, "I have to go outside to wash first, before I eat."
"You're becoming clean in your old age," she laughed, reaching for a bowl of honey, "Okay." she spoke lilting, concentrating on what she was doing.
Iolaus stared at her, his heart breaking. "Anya ... I love you."
This time, a bit surprised but nevertheless delighted by the remark, she turned to look at her husband. A slow, warm grin spread over her lovely face. Anya rounded the table, glanced quickly at Myles, and slipped her arms around Iolaus. "I've been thinking, Darling. Don't you think it's time to have another baby? We have been talking about it."
He couldn't verbally reply, for fear he might start visibly mourning, but he gave her a quick, affirmative shake of his head.
"I love you too, Iolaus. And tonight I'll show you just how much." she giggled, pecking him on the lips. Anya then turned with a wink and went back to work.
Gulping, Iolaus made a start for the door but paused once again, looking over at his son. "I love you Myles." he told the boy, lowly.
The child looked up from his building blocks, "Wuv you too." he said, quickly -- too busy with his play to take time for anything further. Miles went back to placing his colorful blocks on top of each other on the floor.
'Haelus must be stopped and Gabrielle needs you.' Iolaus told himself firmly. It was the only way he would be able to do what he must. Trying hard to keep his emotions under control, Iolaus walked from the little house - the image of a home where he spent many of the happiest moments of his life - never to return.
Hercules had been gone for well over an hour and Xena began to worry. She promised him she would stay by the lake, watching for anything out of the ordinary, but couldn't overcome her own desire to seek him out. Where had he gone?
She put on her armor and sheathed her sword and, with a heavy sigh, walked a bit into the woods, keeping the lake in view at all times. "Hercules?" she called, knowing she was probably the last person he wanted to see right now. How would she feel if Hercules had said the same things to Gabrielle that she had said to Iolaus? What if it had been Iolaus who had died and Gabrielle felt the need to resurrect him?
Xena heard a leafy rustling, "Hercules, is that you? We need to talk."
Another movement but no answer.
Slowly, fearing an ambush, Xena drew her sword. It would be just like the gods to send some sort of enforcer to corner the already beleaguered demigod and Warrior Princess.
The rabbit quickly skittered from the bush and took off down a small path to the left of her.
Xena felt immediate relief and chuckled to herself.
She then turned and, with a start, saw Hercules standing in front of her.
"I've been after that rabbit for an hour. It was going to be our supper." he said, straight-faced.
"Sorry." Xena offered, feeling a little embarrassed, sheathing her sword.
They said nothing for a long while then Hercules face broke into a humorous little smile. "Hope you like nuts and berries." he said and brought one of his hands from behind his back, "It's all we've got.". They were resting in a ragged cloth. "Oh, one more thing." His other hand appeared from behind his back. A small bouquet of flowers was revealed. "I know it's corny but I'm apologizing." he said and held them out. "I've been treating you badly, Xena, and I'm sorry. None of this is your fault or mine or Iolaus'. Let's just hope he can do what he set out to do. I'll be accepting of whatever turns out." he summed up
Relieved, Xena nodded. "And so will I." She walked to him, standing close and looked steadily into his soulful eyes. She then took the flowers. "Let's go back to camp."
This time the blow came right between her shoulder blades but the woman managed to keep her lips sealed, only the tiniest of moans escaping her mouth as her body shook from the impact and pain.
"How did that feel?" he asked his victim too sweetly, circling her, the makeshift club firm in his hands. "Remember how you used that staff of yours on me?" he ask, his princely robes swishing gently about his ankles, which was all Gabrielle was really able to look at, tied as she was, her head bowed as she hung.
His four barbarian henchmen had taken great pleasure in binding her wrists in front of her, whilst she was still only semi conscious. Not truly understanding what had happened, how Haleus could possibly be here in The Fields, Gabrielle didn't struggle. She was too dazed and unsure of what was materializing. If only she had known what was going to transpire she might have put up a fight, but it just didn't register in time.
As they had done at the castle, back when they were all alive and well, the barbarians - with Haleus impassioned encouragement - hoisted Gabrielle up so that her sandled tip toes barely touched the grassy ground. 'One of their favorite amusements.' the bard thought with an ironic blend of humor and fear.
But there were differences this time, of course. She wasn't alone, only hearing her own voice echoing about a deserted dungeon. Neither was she surrounded by mildew or the stench of sickness. Large, hungry rats weren't scurrying about her feet, eyeing her as they might a wedge of finely aged cheese.
She was outside now, fresh air touching her skin and lifting her hair, billowing her white Elysian gown, now torn down the back by Prince Haleus. The scent of fresh flowers and citrus fruits stirred her nostrils. Yet, she'd trade it in an instant for that hideous dungeon. For even those revolting rats. Because ...
... she was in trouble. Terrible, terrible trouble.
'But this is the Elysian Fields,' Gabrielle's mind revolted. 'What heinous thing in your last life did you do to deserve this?'
The rope that hoisted her had been thrown over a heavy limb of a huge tree and she was left dangling, in pain and knew she would go insane shortly if someone didn't cut her down and stop the torture. Even now, as hard as she tried to prevent them, Gabrielle could feel stress tears rolling down her cheeks.
Prince Haleus was right in front of her, enjoying the spectacle of her helplessness. He questioned her about anything and everything and when the bard didn't give an answer he appreciated he would either use his stick, a heavy branch he found on the grassy Elysian forest floor, to knock her about or hurl insults. Gabrielle wasn't certain which was worse. The focused part of her brain knew that the club Haleus carried was a substitute scepter. Something he never would have been allowed to carry when he was alive. Here, it psychologically gave him that extra edge of power he required and felt he deserved.
Her tormentor moved in close and whispered in her ear, "I bet you wish you'd taken me up on my proposal when I originally offered you my charms."
Gabrielle tried to bite back a retort, knowing she would have to pay for insolence, but couldn't. "Never in my life have I been happier with a decision." she said.
First he grabbed her by the hair, pulling her head painfully back then he slap her face with an opened palm. One of the rings he wore scratched her cheek. Gabrielle could feel a burning and a trickle of blood crept from the corner of her mouth.
She was bruised and battered and could barely breath.
What was happening? She couldn't understand it. Was she sent to Tartarus because of her feelings of doubt? Was that it? Why was Haleus here at all? Had he really died? Who killed him? Xena? Iolaus?
The barbarians lay in the grass away from them, eating that which had fallen from the fruit heavy trees all around Elysia. Occasionally they laughed at something one of them said in their native tongues.
Gabrielle suspected it was at her expense but that was the least of her problems. She lifted her head to look up to where the rope dug into her already tender wrists. She could see where the flesh was being bitten into and where skin was already starting to part.
Closing her eyes and taking a breath, fighting the pain, she said, "Let me down." in a deep whisper. It was the first time, since they hoisted her that she had shown a verbal sign of weakening.
"What was that, dear?" Haleus asked, mocking. "Did you say something?"
"I want down."
Haleus looked over his shoulder and addressed his henchmen, "She says she wants down, gentlemen." he told them and listened to their laughs. Then, back to his victim: "But Dearest, you haven't said the word I most want to hear from you." he taunted, his voice teacher-like and expectant. "That one magic word I will await to hear every night for eternity from you ... right before I take you into my arms and we retire to my chambers to make passionate love. What is that word, Gabrielle? Can you tell me?" He moved in close to hear her utter it.
Gabrielle's first instinct was to bite his ear off but attempting to control herself, knowing she couldn't possibly take any more of this, she whispered, "Please ..." raggedly and wanted to scream her anguish.
Haleus then smiled and closed his eyes, lifting his handsome face so that the Elysian sun caught the reddish glints in his hair, "Ah, now that's lovely ..." he murmured.
Gabrielle sobbed, feeling shame suffuse her body. She tried to be brave, tried to be as strong as Xena or Hercules, but she couldn't do it. She was only a sidekick after all ....
Haleus moved in a bit and kissed her chin, which was all he could reach in her current position, "I think you should stay this way for at least another half hour." he said, ignoring the silent plea in her manner, the strangled-muffled cry. "It will make you even more docile. And then ..." his hands raised and he placed them on her hips, as if itemizing.
A grunt, followed by what sounded like a lightening strike greeted Haleus ears. It came from where the barbarians were resting. He twirled about.
Startled, Gabrielle raised her head at the sound and when she saw him was both over-joyed and heart broken. "Iolaus!" she cried.
Iolaus had struck out at one of the barbarians with Hades sword and he was astonished at its effectiveness. The moment the blade made contact with the man's chest, he winked out of existence -- actually sent back to Tartarus where he belonged. No muss, no fuss.
The three other savages surrounded Iolaus.
He charge one of them but his blade was deflected by another. A barbarian to his left kicked out and connecting with Iolaus hand. The sword flew into the air and landed on the grass behind him.
From there Iolaus could only use his own physical skills. Punching out, kicking and head butting. He used everything in his arsenal. Techniques he'd been taught as a boy in Chairon's Academy, eastern moves he had learned from a mentor after Anya died ...
Two of the men backed away. The third, the biggest, looked as if he was enjoying himself.
Iolaus then came at the savage, surprising him with his quickness, strength and the skill of each blow the smaller man threw. A punch to the face and chop to the neck and the barbarian was down.
Iolaus then flipped backward, head over heels, and found his sword again.
A third man came at him as Iolaus was half way to his feet and cut him hard across the arm with his sword. The hunter-warrior didn't cry out but the pain was very real. He then made a low swooping motion with his own sword and watched the man, shock and surprise briefly registering on his face, as he made a connection. This barbarian too disappeared as if he never existed.
Only two more to go ...
The shorter of the two barbarians stood by Haleus, in close proximity to Gabrielle, silently holding the tip of his sword underneath her chin, pushing it against her throat.
"I don't think you want to press your advantage." Haleus said, his arms crossed arrogantly across his chest, "Although that is an interesting little toy you have there." he indicated the sword.
"Let her down." Iolaus demanded calmly, gritting his teeth in his attempt to not lose control. He could see the misery in Gabrielle's eyes, the blood which traced her full lips and also the crimson trails that were starting to form near her wrists. She was bruised and obviously in a great deal of discomfort. Iolaus was furious but losing direction wouldn't help either Gabrielle or himself.
"And if I say no?" Haleus asked.
"Then I'll have to kill you." Iolaus paused, "Again."
"That will be a little difficult to accomplish, dear boy, don't you think?"
"Not really." Iolaus glanced from Haleus to Gabrielle and back again, "If I don't get you with this sword there's always torture. And I bet I can think up some real mind boggling games to play on you, Prince Haleus." Iolaus spoke in his most menacing voice. "After all, we're both on the same playground now, aren't we?"
Haleus expression wavered for just a moment. He gave a short nod to the savage who, with one stroke of his sword, cut the taut rope connecting Gabrielle to the limb.
With a gasp, she fell and crumpled to the ground.
"We're going to take our leave of you, now. Simply because we have other things to do before our mastery of this realm. I wouldn't want to disappoint Hera. She's already been very good to us."
"What does she want you to do next, Haleus? Torture small animals?"
"No, not quite. Hera has asked that we pay someone near and dear to her a friendly visit." he thought about it, "But it can wait until morning. I'm hungry and am going to eat and retire for the evening ... Food sounds good about now, doesn't it?" he asked his companions and laughed as he walked away from Iolaus and Gabrielle, not giving them a backward glance.
Iolaus briefly watched them go. He had his chance to cause some damage. If he tried he could send Haleus where he belonged, to Tartarus, but Iolaus knew this was not the time. He was in no fit condition, either mental or physical, for further confrontation and, as Haleus said, it was getting late. Tomorrow was another day. Besides, Iolaus attention was needed elsewhere.
She was sitting up, weakly attempting to remove the rope from her tender wrists but accomplishing very little.
Iolaus knelt beside her, gently pulling the bindings. "Gabrielle ..." he breathed her name, feeling both relief at seeing her again and sorrow at her condition.
She said nothing, only stared at him as he concentrated on releasing her then, when the hands were free, as he attempted to check just how torn they were, she threw her arms around him and sobbed, "Iolaus ... Oh, Iolaus ...." and it was in guilt and sadness.
He wasn't just here to rescue her, Gabrielle thought, but had actually died. Was it because of her? Had Xena gotten the wrong idea and killed him? Or did Iolaus actually take his own life as Haleus had told her, after she'd awakened? The prince had taken such joy in seeing her pulverized expression. Of course, he would.
"Sh." Iolaus gently put his arms around her -- but not gently enough he soon discovered when she gasped in pain at his touch. He pulled from her and moved her long, fair hair away from her neck and shoulders. Large, ugly bruise marks were present all over her body, where Haleus' club had made its merciless connection. Iolaus cursed the Prince, looking off in the direction where he could still see the corrupt royal walking with his two man servants.
Briefly, Iolaus made an impulsive move to grab the sword and put an end to them right there, but Gabrielle placed a hand on his arm.
"Iolaus ..." she spoke with a sob, "I don't want you to go. I'm sorry. Not yet. I .... Please." and she fell into his arms again, weeping like a child, clinging to his warmth. Wanting kindness and a respite from violence, for just a little bit.
"I'm sorry." He held her as gently as he could and rocked her, kissing her head, those fair, soft locks of hair. How wonderful it felt just having her here in his arms again. "I'm sorry I took so long."
"But you were distracted?' she asked, looking at the bleeding cut on his arm. A part of her wanted to bandage it and another wanted this moment, with his arms around her -cloaking her in security- to last forever, neither of them moving..
"Yes, I was distracted and I'm pained about that, Gabrielle."
He didn't elaborate and she didn't want him to.
"I'm going to take you to Alicita's, where we can both get cleaned up and rest."
He didn't say they could both use a good meal too. That was one thing they couldn't do and Iolaus suddenly wondered how long the two of them could last.
She didn't ask him how he came to know her grandmother. Gabrielle knew all would be revealed as they walked together on the trail that lead to her home. He had an enchanted sword, she recalled as she watched him sheath it to his back. That could have only come from Hades. Iolaus was here for a reason, other than her rescue, and she was satisfied, for the time, that he had matters well in hand.
Gabrielle stood slowly and lifted a hand for him to grasp.
They needed to talk about so much -- a few very personal matters. But that could wait too. They both needed clear minds to even begin such a discussion.
As they walked, neither were aware of the lone peacock feather that had plastered itself against the thick rooted tree Gabrielle had been tied to. Nor did they see the furious eyes that looked down at them from the suddenly clouding Elysian sky.