The four heroes left while it was still dark, taking horses
Iphicles managed to get from his trusted stable master. At least
three of them didn't like to ride, three of the four good riders
that preferred to walk, but this was an emergency situation so
they would tolerate the beasts as best they could.
They traveled all morning and into the next evening. Finally, as
it began to grow dark again, the heroes reluctantly decided to
make camp. They were making good time and would be at the castle
by the following afternoon.
Iolaus and Gabrielle decided to take on the quest for dinner and
left Hercules and Xena to themselves, by the warm fire, talking
"They need some time by alone." Gabrielle offered when Iolaus
asked about her sudden, after a long hunt-hike into the woods,
interest in hunting. "I think Xena and Hercules are great
together, don't you? What a couple they'd make, righting wrongs
and fighting for justice ..."
"Yeah, they're just lovely." Iolaus said, a bit sarcastic and
somewhat distracted as he eyed a rabbit hole.
Gabrielle's head snapped up and she looked steadily at Iolaus,
examining his countenance and suddenly remembering something
she'd overlooked, "Iolaus, I'm so sorry. I wasn't thinking."
Confused, Iolaus look up from what appeared to be the lodgings of
their future dinner to the young woman who was giving him a
tense, sympathetic look. "What?" he asked.
"I mean, Xena ... What she means to you."
Iolaus almost laughed. He then looked at Gabrielle's
compassionate expression with a sort of level headed mirth, "That
was a long time ago, Gabrielle. Sure, I thought I was in love
with her once but it's over. She's a good person and Hercules is
my friend. I have to admit that Xena matches him far better than
any woman in his recent past and if they are meant to be --
that's fine by me. At least we know she can take care of herself.
If the gods ever decide to make Hercules life miserable by
attempting to get rid of a woman he loves again ... Well, Xena
has proven she can't be beaten down by them as easily as most.
Hercules ... he deserves happiness."
That said, Iolaus returned his attention to the wooded area
around them. He pulled a knife from his belt, sensing something
delicious was near.
Gabrielle could only gaze up at him, smiling her adoration. By
the gods, he was such a wonderful man! Forgiving Xena her
betrayal, forgiving Hercules the affair he'd once had with her
and now wishing the two the best in a possible future together.
Not, of course, that it would ever happen but ....
Then they heard a growl. Deep and reverberating, seeming to come
from beneath the very ground they were walking on.
Iolaus and Gabrielle tensed at the same moment, looking
cautiously down at the forest floor
"Something tells me that's not a rabbit." Gabrielle whispered.
"Or a damn mean one." Iolaus added.
Then it sprang up out of the ground, a short distance in front of
them. The creature was over fifteen feet tall in a squat. It was
spider-like, with three pairs of legs on either side of it's
rounded body. It was also multi eyed with a smooth, tough red
Instinctively, Iolaus and Gabrielle moved back to back and raised
"I wish I had my sword." Iolaus spoke over his shoulder to her.
"I wish you had your sword too!" Gabrielle countered, slightly
choking at the sight before them and very much afraid, but
willing to face the danger.
Then the creature sprang at them and another surprise greeted the
"Oh great! It's a fire breather!" Iolaus nearly wailed as he
threw himself on the ground and rolled. He noted that Gabrielle
did the same and it briefly flashed through his mind that he'd
have to compliment Xena on her teaching technique. Gabrielle was
going by the book and it was, in part he knew, because Xena had
taken the time to teach her well. The Amazons probably had
something to do with it too but ....
Another bolt of flame was propelled in Iolaus direction as the
creature reared back and fired. He jumped and rolled again but,
this time, heard what he would later recall as a "yelp". He
watched as Gabrielle lifted her fighting staff and smashed the
monster as hard as she could in the hind quarters. At least four
hard cracks before it swiveled around to see who was hurting it.
Grateful for the distraction, Iolaus took the opportunity to pull
his knife again. He then ran and took a mighty leap. With
probably a little less grace than either Hercules or Xena would
have displayed Iolaus launched himself on the back of the
creature and drove the knife into it's throbbing neck. He had an
idea where the jugular was and went to work as quickly as
Yellow blood oozed from the wound and Iolaus could feel the body
weaken underneath him.
Iolaus slid off the creature's back and fell to the ground,
landing on his own back. He felt Gabrielle come to kneel at his
side and she helped in into a sitting position. Iolaus was about
to make a move to finish the creature off when the bard placed a
hand to his arm and held him back.
"It's going off to die, Iolaus. Let it."
"But it could live and harm someone else."
"It won't. It was a creature sent by Hera. It failed. If it
doesn't die because of the harm we inflicted, Hera will kill it."
Iolaus looked at her as Gabrielle watched the monster toddle off.
She was right and he found himself slightly awed by her mature
forethought. She'd been scared. So was he but it didn't stop her
from thinking logically. This wasn't the same young girl he'd
come to admire at Vulcan mountain so many years ago. Then another
idea came into his head and Iolaus smiled as the bard looked down
at him, "We did it, Gabrielle. The two of us. We defeated a
She nodded and a grin spread across her face, "Without either
Hercules or Xena."
"Not that there was ever a doubt we could do it ..."
"Oh no!" Gabrielle asserted, "How could there *ever* have been a
doubt that we could defeat that beast ... with my little stick
and your little knife ..."
Then, without knowing exactly why, the sidekicks exploded in
laughter and both fell back on the cool grass. They tried to
speak to each other but could only laugh louder with each word
uttered. When finally their giggles had eased a bit, Gabrielle
rolled over and looked down at him, "You really are one of a
kind.' she said, softly.
Soberly, he lifted a hand to remove some grass that had gotten
caught up in that head of red-gold. Then Iolaus began to stroke
the hair, savoring the softness between his fingers. He gazed up
at her, wanting more but knowing they shouldn't. She wasn't his.
Would never be his. They had a destiny apart. She with Xena and
he with Hercules. Yet right now, as he bore into her eyes with
his own and saw the longing in them, Iolaus could forget all of
Slowly, he pulled her down to him ... and they conquered yet
Hera watched from Olympus and was not amused.
When the bard and hunter returned to camp they told Hercules and
Xena of their run in with Hear's latest "homicidal freak" (as
Hades would call it)/creation. It not only restrained the
inevitable question: "What took you two so long?" but also
explained why the couple's clothes were so rumpled and, after
nearly two hours of stalking, the only dinner Iolaus - an
accomplished hunter - was able to capture was a single rabbit.
Yet, it *was* a plump animal and combined with the few salmon
Xena caught in a nearby stream, all were satisfied.
Hercules sat on the ground, his back to a fallen log and he
chewed absently on a bone as he spoke: "I wish I knew why *you
two* were attacked." he said aloud, "And why does Hera really
care whether we reached Elysia castle or not?"
"She has a stake in this, Hercules." Xena said, "This is just the
sort of stratagem Hera likes to sink her teeth into. It not only
gives her a thrill but if there is power involved, well, she
enjoys it all the more."
"Sounds like Ares." Hercules commented, looking over at The
Warrior Princess, knowing her sorted past with his trouble-making
"He is his mother's son." Xena replied simply, then: "I think
Hera's just trying to pick us off one by one, preventing us from
rescuing the princess. Alone, Gabrielle and Iolaus were
convenient targets." Xena left out that Hera probably felt they
were the easiest prey as well. The hunter and bard really didn't
need to hear that again, especially from a friend.
But all knew the consensus, from both humans and gods.
"She under-estimated us." Iolaus declared matter-of-factly,
sharpening his sword with a flat stone in front of their
campfire. He had missed his father's sword while he and Gabrielle
were in the woods and, patting the blade gently, Iolaus told it
silently that he wouldn't ignore it again.
Iolaus then shot a smile over at Gabrielle.
She acknowledged him with a wink.
"Maybe." Hercules didn't look entirely convinced.
Later, after they bedded down for the evening, Gabrielle turned
her head on her makeshift pillow and gazed at him as he rested on
the other side of the campfire. *Iolaus*. Oh, to just openly go
over there and share that blanket with him, she thought. To feel
his masculine warmth against her skin, his lips clinging to
her's, those strong arms ... Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried
to shut out the memory -- but it wasn't easy. She turned over and
snuggled a little closer to Xena. It was a cold night.
Iolaus opened his eyes and turned his head in time to see her
shift on the blanket. He watched as Gabrielle's hair, caught by
the firelight, cascaded down her back. He could see her shoulders
move with the gentle rise and fall of her breathing. Would they
ever find another occasion to be alone together? How would she
react if he were to tell her what was in his heart?
With regret, he closed his eyes and sighed.
"Oh mighty Hera!" the cloaked figure knelt and prayed in front of
the stone peacock, "You know I am your servant. I thank you for
this opportunity ... Now, tell me Queen of the Gods, what can I
do for you?"
It appeared on the alter just in front of the figure. Silver,
etched with symbols of power, and curved to a sharp tip. It was
meant to fit over a human being's forefinger.
"And what do I do with this My Queen?"
The answer came.
As did the floating of a peacock feather, where the figure had
Hercules examined the lop sided, ivy smothered, neglected castle
with disdain. "Certainly doesn't look as stable as it did when
Iphicles and I were children."
"That's putting it mildly." Xena critiqued, leaning most of her
weight on her shapely left leg as she folded her arms in front of
her. She stood beside Hercules, "A moderate wind could blow it
over." she commented, arching a brow.
"If Princess Megra is in here than we'd better hurry." Gabrielle
suggested, "She could easily be hurt just by being locked away in
a place like this.
A perfect morning for a rescue, Hercules thought, looking up into
the clear blue sky.
"Where do we start, Herc?" Iolaus asked, his hands resting on his
hips, his sword sheathed to his back.
The demigod, taking on the expression of someone recalling an
important fact, walked to an area behind the castle where the
mote seemed to dry up and disappear, yet the structure was solid
and upright. He balled his hand into a fist and punched hard at a
small elevation of stone that started at the muddy ground and
traveled up the castle wall. The stones fell to dust and a
convenient crevice-hole appeared, just the size for a small human
body to slip through.
"You and Iphicles created this?" Iolaus asked.
Hercules nodded, "We knew I could break it away, although someone
else might not be able to -- even if they wanted to." His blue
eyes narrowed slightly, "We were boys at the time and - to be
honest - I'm not sure I can fit through that now." he leaned down
a little and peaked through the hole which led into the bottom
half of the castle, "Of course, I *could* always break away more
"Look," Gabrielle lifted her hands as she too examined the
crevice, "I know *I* can fit through this and I suspect Iolaus
can too." she said, "Better we two go through, check the place
out and see if we can find Megra, than Hercules bashing away at
an already unsound structure. Don't you think?"
Xena nodded, "Makes sense. They can come up a little later and
let us in through the front gate if possible. That is, if we
don't find a way in sooner. Besides," Xena seriousness lightened
just a bit, "with all the noise you're making, Hercules, I'm
surprised we haven't been found out already." She then half
smiled as she turned, enjoying a private joke.
"It wasn't that bad." Hercules murmured, appearing hurt.
Iolaus grinned at his friend's rather wounded expression as he
slip through the gap right after Gabrielle. It was always nice to
have someone around that could put the demigod in his place, if
not best him.
They started in the most logical place. The dungeon. If there
were still cages and working manacles it would make sense for a
prisoner, royalty or not, to be imprisoned in that area.
"See anything?" Iolaus asked Gabrielle, standing behind her and
watching the three connecting halls. His sword was drawn, just in
case, waiting for a possible waylay.
She shook her head as she stared through the half bars at the top
of a heavy wooden door which lead to the prison area. "Nothing.
No guards, no noise and as far as I can see no prisoners.
However," she turned, "someone *has* been here because there is
fresh bread and wine sitting on a table."
"Bread and wine." Iolaus licked his lips, "Sounds good."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes but had to snicker. "We'll eat
breakfast after we rescue the princess." she told him.
The couple walked cautiously and in silence, trying to avoid
dislodged stones which lay in their path and wooden beams that
had let loose from the ceiling months or years ago.
Finally, when they reached the third floor, Gabrielle whispered -
"I'm beginning to think Hercules and Xena made a mistake." She
unintentionally brushed her hand against a grimy railing then
proceeded to quietly clap her hands together to dislodge the
dust, "Maybe the bread was a mirage. I haven't heard so much as a
mouse squeak since ..."
As if on cue, they suddenly heard voices.
Iolaus, quickly sheathing his sword, seized one of Gabrielle's
arms and pulled her into a tight alcove with him. A floating
scrap of stained material, hinged on an iron bar above them, hid
the couple from the approaching group of men. Yet, the heroes
could see them clearly. Their fur hats, heavy coats, unkempt hair
and skin ....
Gabrielle and Iolaus glanced at each other and spoke the word
When the barbarians moved in close, their crude, booming laughs
bouncing off the walls around them, Iolaus tightened his arms
around Gabrielle. It was an instinctive reaction to keep her from
harm. It didn't even occur to him that he was in as much danger
as the pretty Amazon.
She closed her eyes and lowered her head to his shoulder, praying
they wouldn't be caught.
The voices faded down the hall and both man and woman felt a
great tide of relief.
After the danger past neither were in a great hurry to break the
embrace and they just gazed at each other for a few moments, lost
in memory. It was Gabrielle who came back to reality first and
whispered, "Megra." to her ally.
"Oh, yeah." Iolaus replied and moved with her out of the alcove.
They discreetly walked up one more flight when Gabrielle lifted a
hand and placed it on Iolaus chest, brushing indifferent fingers
across his amulet - "Listen," she said, looking down the hallway
they were traveling, "I hear ... singing."
Iolaus heard it too and followed to where the lullaby seemed to
grow strongest. The room was open, in a lounge, and was designed
at one time for entertainment. The singer was none other than
Princess Megra herself, dressed as she had been two nights
before. She sat on a long sofa, plump pillows surrounding her, as
she sewed on a piece of fabric in her right hand.
"Princess?" Gabrielle asked, slightly confused.
The woman looked up at her and smiled, "Have you come to deliver
me?" she asked and seemed amused by something unsaid. "I've been
waiting here for you."
"Where are your kidnappers?" Iolaus asked, quietly, his eyes
darting about the room.
"Around." The Princess then stood, dropping her sewing, gathering
the fold of her gown around her. "Shall we?" she asked, "I do
need to get back for the wedding." She approached Iolaus, with a
smile, and link an arm with his. "Is Iphicles terribly upset?"
Gabrielle and Iolaus looked at one another, perplexed. Was she
drugged? What was going on?
Then the woman turned on them. A hand raised, revealing what
looked like a silver thimble ... or no ... a small blade attached
to an apparatus, strapped to her forefinger and, without pity,
she reach out for Iolaus and slashed it across his smooth chest.
It wasn't until he felt his leg muscles give out, the utter
weakness, and he dropped to his knees - hearing his sword clang
to the floor - that Iolaus realized a betrayal was afoot.
His vision began to blur but he could just make out Prince Haleus
entering the room.
"Well done, dear sister!" he called.
Iolaus wanted to shout but couldn't.
The last thing he heard was Gabrielle's shout of "NO!" before he
fell head long into a world of blackness.
"It's been too long." Xena said, staring at the castle's
drawbridge. "Something's wrong."
Hercules, who had been standing with her and pondering similar
thoughts, nodded. "Think we should storm the palace?" he asked.
It wasn't really a joke because the situation didn't call for one
but he hated the thought of aggressing into an unknown variable.
Particularly when Iolaus, a man he who knew as more than capable,
probably had a recovery well in hand. Still, she was right. It
did *feel* wrong.
Then, before another word could be uttered by either, the
drawbridge began to lower.
"Finally." Xena let out a breath. Yet, her relief was short
Ten heavily cloaked barbarians unexpectedly came at Xena and
Hercules from the gated opening, their sword's drawn. They
growled like animals, a war cry from their geographical region,
ready for the kill. They encircled the heroes.
Hercules and Xena stood back to back and never had time to draw a
weapon. They lifted their hands in a defensive stance -- awaiting
"Son of Zeus ...." came an patrician voice.
Both Hercules and Xena glanced at Prince Haleus as he stood
casually at the castle gates, a somewhat bored expression on his
Julius Caesar flashed into Xena's mind for a few seconds but the
mental picture was just as quickly gone.
"We can do this the hard way," he said, "and yes, I'm sure both
you and the ever impressive Warrior Princess can give my men a
run for their money -- but do you really want to expend the
energy? We *do* have lovely Gabrielle and your impetuous friend,
Hercules. Right now they're alive and well. However, if you want
to see them before they're tortured and killed you had better
behave yourselves and come peacefully."
"I'd like nothing better than to come peacefully." Hercules
remarked, anger in his tone.
Xena gritted her teeth as she felt her sword removed from its
scabbard. The shabbily dressed men didn't touch her chakram,
probably not knowing what it was, thinking it something
decorative. She quelled an urge to snap it from her belt and toss
it at Haleus' impertanent head
Both man and woman were pushed forward into the castle.