Neither wanted to admit frailty and they traveled for hours without a break.
Iolaus was concerned for Deianera and the children. The Fields were so upside down now that the security of the peace they'd known for so long could suddenly and very easily be destroyed. Iolaus couldn't let that happen. He owed it to his best friend to make certain his family, in this realm, was untouched by Hera, now that they were supposedly safe from The Queen of the Gods and her inside man, Prince Haleus.
Trying hard to keep to his goal, Iolaus nevertheless was besieged by negative thoughts. Perhaps in sleeping last night, instead of pursuing the beast that disguised himself as a handsome prince, he made a huge mistake. What if Haleus was already at Deianera's home, actually tormenting the family as he had with Gabrielle ... The hunter forced it out of his mind. He was already carrying around too much self blame.
Yet, even with all this on his consciousness, Iolaus fell back on a rather old fashion notion called chivalry. Gabrielle, who was keeping a steady and very determined pace beside him, was beginning to show signs of wear. She gulped air as she kept in step and, more than once in the last quarter of an hour, she stumbled, loosing her footing do to weakness. Yet, she did not complain. Gabrielle was as obstinate as himself.
With a sigh, Iolaus called a time out, claiming he had to rest or drop. It wasn't entirely an untruth. He was tired. Gabrielle accepted his suggestion without a word. As a matter of fact, if he read her expression right, she was thankful one of them had finally broken down and admitted they needed a rest -- and he couldn't blame her.
It couldn't be called a 'woman's fragility', Iolaus considered as he lay flat on his back in the grass, his hands cupping the back of his head. Gabrielle sat across from him, eyes closed and her own back propped against the trunk of a tree. While he'd gone nearly the whole day yesterday and into this afternoon without so much as a nut or berry, poor Gabrielle was well into her third day without nourishment. Her grandmother's tonic could sustain the young woman for only so long. Iolaus could only imagine how drained she must feel and, he wasn't certain if it was his imagination, Gabrielle seemed to have lost weight. Her usually well toned body appeared smaller, a precursor to that horrible gutted look he'd seen from the refugee camps of the recent Thesilla-Crete wars. Also, dark circles were developing under her eyes. He was worried. Simply put, Gabrielle was literally starving and couldn't go much further without food.
Yet, if she ate ... It would make null the whole reason he came to the underworld in the first place.
Briefly, he closed his eyes and tried not to think too hard about it. 'Just hold on for a little longer, Gabrielle ..."
"Hi, you two."
His eyes came immediately open and Iolaus instinctively reached for his sword but stopped before drawing it, seeing who it was that spoke to them.
The bard was on her knees, likewise alarmed, and moved a little closer to Iolaus as she eyed the pretty goddess. "Persephone, what is it?" Gabrielle asked, alarm in her voice.
"Nothing to fear." she said with a wistful smile, "I've brought you good cheer," she lifted a basket filled with an assortment of tantalizing fruits, "and something to eat."
Both of their expressions grew dark. What was this, some sort of cruel god-joke?
"We can't eat." Gabrielle spoke lowly, regret clearly in her tone as she looked longingly at the basket.
Persephone smiled sweetly, "That's not entirely true." she corrected, "You aren't allowed to eat the food of *the other side* but this," she shook the basket slightly, "isn't underworld food. Mother brought it to Hades and myself as a gift from one of her favorite orchards, topside." She kneeled in front of the couple, as if ready for a picnic. "Then, an emergency meeting was called on Olympus and he and mother had to leave. I got to thinking about you two over here and ..." she went on for a bit, "Well, what Hades doesn't know won't hurt him."
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed, "If there was a gathering of gods and goddesses on Olympus why aren't you there?"
"They didn't want *all* of us there, particularly the younger gods and goddesses, just the old troops, the decision makers - *important gods*." she stressed with a comical grin, "Something about a proclamation and vote. Very confusing but the lesser gods, they said, weren't needed."
Iolaus noted that Persephone didn't seemed upset at being referred to as a lesser god. It almost seemed to please her. She was one of the few goddesses he'd met during his life who was in touch with humankind and happy to be compared with them. Still ...
Gabrielle watched her place the basket before them, "Are you sure we can eat it?" and eyed the beautiful fresh fruit as if it were ambrosia.
Delighted, the bard reached for a small bunch of grapes but Iolaus, unexpectedly, placed his hand on her wrist. He looked steadily at Persephone. Right now Iolaus could think of nothing he'd like more than biting into one of those luscious apples but he still had reservations. "Prove to me you are who you say you are." he said, suspicion in his voice.
Gabrielle's eyes darted from Iolaus to Persephone.
"It's me, Iolaus." the goddess assured, her manner amused and aura shining slightly as she attempted to prove herself to the headstrong mortal. "I know ..." her smile deepened, "Remember when you were down here last time and Hercules had to accept that Water Enforcer's help to bring you back? She accompanied your father into the Elysian Fields and ..."
"Okay," It was Iolaus turn to smile. He raised a hand when Gabrielle leaned forward to hear more. "I believe you." Very few knew of the Enforcer's involvement in bringing Iolaus back from Hades realm. It wasn't something he and Hercules talked about often, for the same reason neither of them enjoyed dwelling on the subject of death. Sometimes Iolaus wondered how Hercules would react if, for some horrible reason, he was actually cut down during the course of one of their adventures, never to return. It wouldn't happen, of course, but it was food for thought .... *Food*.
With a gasp of appreciation, both hunter and bard dived into the basket without a second thought.
Persephone giggled, rewarded by the mortals enthusiasm. "I better go. Hades will probably be back soon. Enjoy yourself." and she winked out of sight.
The two ate freely, not caring about decorum, and after a good ten minutes they finally pushed the basket aside, and both lay back in the grass, feeling better than they had in a long time.
"We have to get going." Iolaus murmured, regretfully. Gently, he fingered the blade of his sword as it lay beside him. To his other side he could hear Gabrielle sigh deeply and he chuckled. This was just too good to walk away from. Yet, they had priorities.
"You're right." Gabrielle agreed but didn't move, "Iolaus, before we go I need to talk with you about something." She then turned to look at him as he propped up on his elbows, gazing down at her. "First of all, I'm sorry for those things I said when I first caught up to you. You're not selfish and I never should have even considered it, let alone say something like that directly to you."
"You were being honest and I value that." he admitted. "I like you when you're fired up. Besides, I *was* wrong. You have as much if not more at stake here than anyone. I'm sorry, Gabrielle."
She gazed at him for a moment. He really was an excellent man. "You're so ... sweet." she said and hated her use of that word. She was a bard. 'You'd think I could come up with something better than *sweet*.' she thought, then: "Secondly, I've been thinking on it and I really believe we're going to be together forever, Iolaus."
Startled, he stared at her. He hadn't really expected her to say something like that.
"I think mortals can live their lives over and over and over again. And, in essence, they come to be with the people they loved and admired during past lives."
Iolaus considered this, "You think there is something beyond Elysia and Tartarus?" he asked.
"Yes, I do." she sat up, excited that he seemed to be understanding what she said. Most of the time Xena just looked at her as if she'd lost her marbles. "Maybe not for *everybody*. I think there are those who go on to stay in The Elysian Fields and Tartarus for eternity but then I also think there has to be something beyond this. A haven for the exceptionally good and a place that's even worse than Tartarus."
"I've never been there but from everything I've ever heard there can't be a place worse that Tartarus."
"But there is, I'm sure. Special cases. Evil doers who are even worse than warlords and selfish princes. A place for those mortals who are so deeply evil even Hades has no power over them."
Iolaus remembered what Hades told him about the enchanted sword, how there were some who needed to be struck because sending them into the portal didn't always work. At the time Iolaus thought Hades was talking about violent cases but now he wondered ... Did the sword really send these people to Tartarus or did it send them elsewhere?
"And then there are others, like us, who have so much to do with their lives that we can never really rest. We go on and on and our paradise is the continuation of the good we do."
The couple gazed at one another but before he could reach for her their attention was diverted. They heard a strange rumbling noise off in the distance. Iolaus sat up quickly, as did the bard, and listened.
What is that?" he wondered, "A storm coming?"
"Iolaus it doesn't storm here. The weather is always perfect." Gabrielle reminded.
They got to their feet and looked at one another, their most recent conversation momentarily forgotten.
They heard the rumble again.
"It's on the way to Deinera's." Iolaus commented, and sheathed his sword. "We better check it out."
Morning brought a loud whinny from one of the three horses the heroes had ridden in on ... and fish.
Xena cooked it over their campfire and watched as Hercules raised up out of his slumber, reaching to clutch Iolaus amulet as it still hung around his neck. "'bout time." she murmured with a half smile.
In truth it was early and Hercules hadn't slept well. He volunteered to sit up and keep watch in case Hera's archers decided to put in another appearance. They didn't, thank the gods, and when Xena woke to spell him, Hercules barely heard her say his name.
He had been staring at the lake again. Thinking what, she didn't know. Maybe she'd never know.
Then when he lay down to sleep he tossed and turned, nightmares causing him to shout names of people or deities Xena did not know and cities and villages where she'd never been. "Iolaus" did come through once or twice and Xena sighed at what Hercules must be going through. A couple times, in the early morning hours, she was tempted to wake him but refrained. Something told her he needed to ride it out on his own.
Xena passed Hercules a plate as he sat up. "Eat this." she commanded rather than suggested. He nodded and picked at the food on his plate. Xena did little better but they had to eat something. It would do Gabrielle and Iolaus little good to see a couple of malnourished friends awaiting them. "Hercules," Xena started and suddenly lost her considerable nerve, "Never mind."
He suddenly focused and looked over at Xena, "What were you going to say?"
"This isn't the place." she said tentatively, "You've just awakened and ..." she fumbled.
Curious, he stared at her. Something was on Xena's mind. It looked as if she'd been thinking on it pretty much all night. "Tell me, Xena." he coaxed.
"Well," she hesitated then dived in, "It's about our last night at Iphicles castle." She looked uncomfortable, "We never really talked about it. We had no time and ... I just didn't want you to think ... I mean, I haven't been with a man for awhile and ...."
Watching Xena, Warrior Princess, stumble around for words was an interesting sight, Hercules thought. He almost smiled. "Xena, it's okay." he assured. "Actually," he cleared his throat a little, "I've been thinking about it too. I guess there's been a lot on both our minds."
"Yeah ..." She had been looking down at the pan which held their breakfast and now she looked over at Hercules, unsure. "How did it make you feel?" she asked, almost like a first time teenager.
"Are you asking me if it brought back some of those old feelings?"
She nodded slowly.
Hercules craned his neck a little and looked into the clear morning sky as he thought about what words he'd use, "Xena, you were the first woman that I felt something - *anything* - for after Deianera died. At that time you were like a breath of fresh air ... and, when we started to travel together I knew I was attracted to you. But then I remembered Iolaus and wondered how he'd feel if he knew I was having these feelings for someone he ..." Hercules paused, sorry he brought Iolaus' name up at all. He felt a deep pang of guilt. "But then I fell in love with you ... Salmoneous, of all people, saw it." He couldn't prevent the soft laughter that escaped him and was glad to hear the expression of amusement also coming from Xena. "But you were right when you said you needed to go on your own. You needed time to discover and learn and be all that you could be. I was just glad you found someone like Gabrielle to hold onto. A best friend, particularly someone you are so close to you can practically feel her blood in your veins, is a priceless thing."
Xena understood he wasn't just verbalizing about she and Gabrielle. "And that's what you have with Iolaus as well?"
"We don't talk about it but, yeah, I think so. Telling everyone that he's my best friend is a good label but I think our relationship goes beyond that."
Xena stared at Hercules for a moment, uncertain what he was really talking about. "More than friends?" she questioned.
The seriousness in his expression collapsed a little and Hercules belly laughed for the first time in days, "I don't mean *that*. I mean something beyond the physical and the here and now." Then, more serious, "Sometimes I think Iolaus and I will be together forever, watching each other's backs and, generally speaking, keeping one another out of trouble."
Xena nodded, "I feel that with Gabrielle sometimes too. She's like you and tries to put it into words, and I mock her, but I get her general meaning. And I believe her too."
Then, getting back to their original discussion, Hercules said: "And sometimes I think you and Gabrielle are apart of that equation. The four of us have a link and where one of us goes the other three will eventually follow."
"Are you saying we love each other because we really have no choice? We're destined to love each other as Iolaus loves Gabrielle, as I love Gabrielle, as I love Iolaus and you love Iolaus?"
"And I love you. Sounds crazy, doesn't it?" He looked down at his hands and shook his head.
"Actually, that sounds exactly like something Gabrielle might say and, having you repeat it, makes me think you're not too far away from the truth, Hercules." Xena smiled at his facial cast as he looked over at her, a gleam of something tenuous in his expression. It was her turn to take a breath, "And, I'm not sure if this is what you want to hear from me but ... I love you back and always will." She reached over and took his hand, "And if all four of us are destined to spend eternity together as friends and lovers I can't think of three people I would want with me more."
Carefully, Hercules reached over and touched Xena's cheek.
It was typical really. A small village with ordinary people scurrying here and there. How often, while she was still alive, had Gabrielle walked into such a village? How many times had Iolaus wandered into a tavern in a village like this and ordered a mug of too tart ale to quench his never-ending thirst?
Yet, this village was different and it wasn't because it was entirely too clean and organized. Nor because the inhabitants wore white or light colored clothing, unmarred by the sweat and dirt of everyday toil. Not even because these people talked with one another in an easy-civil and harmonious manner, as could only happen while living in the peace of Elysia.
This village was different because it was on the verge of being totally demolished by a monster ... and no one seemed to care.
For a few awe struck moments Iolaus and Gabrielle could only stand on the outskirts, pausing on a hill, over-looking the village and observe. In the distance they could see it coming, knocking over trees and whatever else got in the way while it marched ahead, intent on going wherever it was Prince Haleus demanded destruction.
The men and women, going about their business, seemed unaware of what was happening. They didn't appear to hear the loud crunching noises or, if they did, they didn't care. Nothing was going to hurt them. They were living in paradise, after all.
'This is what Hera and Haleus want,' Iolaus thought. The villagers, assured, would not be eager to help the two heroes fight the beast if they could not see it. He and Gabrielle were being slowed down and made ineffective in their attempts to reach Deinera. Whatsmore, the longer they took the more unlikely they were to return to the upperworld. Soon. Prince Haleus would become too powerful to be stopped. The longer he stayed in Elysia the more his power grew. Especially if he could bring over a creature like this from Tartarus. He was using Hera's power to his best advantage.
"I don't believe this." Gabrielle murmured at Iolaus side.
Prince Haleus knew they could not just ignore the creature. They would fight to save the village, wasting precious time, and possibly costing Iolaus his life. While Gabrielle could get hurt and be driven insane with pain and fear while in her current state in Elysia, it was Iolaus - a living man - who could end up dead!
"One thing Hera does not lack is imagination." Gabrielle observed with a sigh. Her shoulders slumped a little, "Where does she come up with these things?"
"Something tells me that was in existance long before Hera's time."
"A Titan?" Gabrielle wondered aloud.
As it moved closer to the village they were able to see the beast clearer. It had the width of ten well-fed horses, the height of the tallest building in Athens and the temperament of a really vexed hydra. To top it off, it was uglier than Echidna on a bad scale-day, only hairier.
"Yeah, maybe. But if it is a Titan he's one they left out of the scrolls." Iolaus drew his sword and clentched his teeth, "I'm ready to send it back where it belongs."
"Do you have a plan?"
"Yeah." Iolaus looked from where the monster was toppling an oak to the bard, "It requires bait."
Gabrielle did a double take, "A little blond bait?"
"'fraid so." he grimaced, not liking the idea of putting her in further danger. Still, he needed her assistance and Gabrielle didn't like being treated like delicate porcelain.
"Well," she took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. Gabrielle then tossed her long hair behind them, "what do I have to lose, besides the use of my limbs?" she reasoned, "What's on your mind, Iolaus?"
Hades had sent it to that place - where it was always hungry. But the human - the prince - told it where there was food. He allowed it to come over here, to this big green underworld as opposed to that dark-dry place, where there were always screams of terror but no real sustenance.
The Prince promised it ambrosia. Food of the gods. It wanted to be a god. It should have been a god when it's kinsman, the Titans, ruled the world. But even they thought it too ugly and mean-tempered to be one of them. Fools. No ambrosia for it. Only darkness. Then, when Zeus and his gods came to rule they sent it to Tartarus, into another darkness. Only the human prince, recognizing its significance, let it out.
When it became a god it would reward the prince ... with oblivion.
And Zeus? Hera? No match for it. They would go to that other place, worse than Tartarus. It would find a way.
But it needed to eat.
It heard voices. Human laughter in the distance. Human food was good until it found the ambrosia.
"Hey you! Ugly! Down here!"
Startled by a sound unlike the noises of the forest which surrounded it's enormous bulk, it looked down and saw the tiny human female. What were these words she spoke? It did not know. Yet, it did know that she was challenging it with the little stick she held in her hands. What insolence! It didn't have time for one little girl. It continued to walk, ignoring the human.
"I mean it! Stop, you big brute! Stop!"
It could feel her striking him with her stick, at its heel. It stung and was irritating. Well, one little snack wouldn't hurt before it got to the main course. With a roar, it bent down to scoop her up ....
"Oh, no you don't!" Gabrielle struck the creature's padded fingertips as hard as she could with her new staff. It was a little something she fashioned on her way into the woods. A large, slender tree branch. While it wasn't perfect it was something she knew how to use and made Gabrielle feel a little more confident. Still, it wasn't as if she was using it on another human being ... This was a monster. A *large* monster that could pick her up, toss her into its mouth and swallow her in one gulp. "Iolaus, whatever it is you're doing, hurry up!" Gabrielle screamed as she dodged the beast's outreached hand, rolling away from the hairy, grasping fingers.
The monster bellowed its displeasure.
She couldn't see Iolaus. The hunter, about a quarter mile before she was to confront the creature, told her to go on and he'd be there before anything happened. Gabrielle had news for him. Something *was* happening and he wasn't here as he promised.
Gabrielle got to her feet and ran down the path from which she had come. She could hear the creature coming up behind her, its heavy footfall shaking the ground. Then, she felt herself being lifted off of the road, suspended in midair. Something had grasped her by the back of her green shirt.
Suddenly horrified, Gabrielle realized the monster had her between his thumb and forefinger and was lifting her, getting a better look at the nusiance, before it devoured her. The fingers on its other hand, patted Gabrielle's dangling feet, cruelly teasing her. "Stop that!" she shouted, exasperated.
Then the monster grunted.
For a moment Gabrielle thought he had been stung by her exclamation of fear and anger. But then she saw Iolaus crawling on it's substantial shoulder and understood that the hunter had been hiding in a tree. When the creature passed underneath he merely jumped onto his back or shoulder.
Iolaus raised his sword and plunged it sideways, into the monster's thick, hairy neck, severing an artery. The beast shook and trembled for a few moments.
Time enough for Iolaus and Gabrielle to make eye contact. Comprehension dawned on both faces.
"Iolaus, I don't think you should have ...."
Then, the beast disappeared, sent back to Tartarus - or wherever it belonged - and both heroes went crashing, from a great height, to the forest floor.
Hercules and Xena heard a great booming bolt of thunder, followed by a lightening streaking across the clear blue sky.
One of the gods was currently very angry.
The couple looked at one another.
Hercules smiled. "Keep it up, Iolaus." he murmured.
He crawled on his hands and knees to where he thought he saw her drop. "Gabrielle!" Iolaus called, feeling an ache in every joint of his body. "Where are you?" He felt bruised and battered and was surprised he didn't break or sprain anything when he fell. "Gabrielle!"
"Here!" she called out, exasperated.
Getting to his feet, Iolaus looked forward a little to see the bard breaking her way out of a large, leafy bush she had fallen into. Leaves, small sticks and thorns were in her hair, chlorophyll stained her clothes and the bard's arms were scratched from briar contact.
And she was nettled.
"For the gods sake, Iolaus, did you have to strike it down while we were both hanging on for dear life?!" Frustrated, she pulled pieces of foliage from her clothes and brushed off dust and moisture that had gathered on her skirt, "Did you purposely wait for the thing to pick me up before you used your sword? What do I look like, a bird?!"
Without meaning too, Iolaus suddenly burst out laughing. He couldn't help it. She just looked too funny, standing there looking a mess, angry and frustrated. But safe. "No ... not a bird ..." he choked, attempting to get serious and ask her if she was well, but unable. "More like a .... lost squirrel." and he lifted a hand to hide his smile and more guffaws.
"That's not funny, Iolaus! Look at me?!"
But this just caused him to laugh all the harder.
Finally, not able to stay mad at him and, in all honesty, finding the situation pretty darn funny, Gabrielle shook her head back and forth in a 'I give up' mime and started to giggle herself.
A few minutes later, when they were able to get themselves pulled together, the hunter and bard hit the road again.