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Main characters: Gabrielle, Iolaus, Hercules, Ares and Discord. A mention of Xena and Callisto.
Consequences: The Debt - Part One
Three For The Price of One
Ares was being petty and juvenile but he was bored and when gods, especially those with energetic libidos, were stagnating they simply had to relieve tedium in some simple yet wonderfully decadent manner -- or go mad. He'd seen his Uncle Pitifus, The God of Psychosis, lose it once and it wasn't pretty.
Now, this situation was unique and could, indeed, amuse. It was also timely. Brought before Ares during a perfect moment in his existence, when he needed to be entertained and obeyed with out question.
Certainly Strife, his troublesome nephew, had been nothing but a gnat but he had his uses. It was always diverting, watching dark and nervous young Strife take The God of War's mistreatment ... and Ares missed it. Strife, his admiring servant and foot mat was recently dead at the hands of that goddess-bitch Callisto -- and now the war god didn't have anyone the equal of him to kick around. She really cut into his amusement, Callisto, and Ares was infinitely glad that she was suffering untold horrors in another realm somewhere.
But now, here was this mortal child willing to do his bidding, not knowing what to expect, and almost cowering before his ominous presence. Okay, not cowering. She was beyond that. She'd seen him during a time when he was at his weakest, with no powers, and that gave her an edge over others in her same predicament. Plus, she was Xena's tag-along and had learned the fine art of 'brave-face' from The Warrior Princess. Too bad. Ares rather liked it when mortals cowered. Well, some mortals anyway. At least this girl was abnormally quiet and obediently promised to do what he commanded. Of course, she has no choice.
He took it as a small victory over Xena. Having power over her friend, Gabrielle. Yet, what to do with her ... So many things came to mind but the most obvious use for the pretty bard had been presented to him very recently. Ares wished he had the time and patience for a clever set up, but right now he just needed the basics. Something practical. However, it had to be a deed that would lead to an event that was gloriously devastating. The Diteans and Temptians were traditional people. He would use that. What he did today to Gabrielle would have far reaching negative consequences and until the ax came down to chop off her pleasant little head - no one believing she was merely Xena's dear little tag along companion - the Amazon wouldn't have a clue.
"So, there you stand," Ares spoke dramatically, his voice booming - "Xena's sweetest regret, prepared to bow to my will ..."
Ares had helped Gabrielle get to China, to stop Xena from killing the evil Emperor Chin (What a laugh!) with whom The Warrior Princess had a personal grudge. And now the bard was here in Ares' favorite temple - just outside of Ditea - awaiting his command.
Courageously, she kept her eyes focused on his virile face, most specifically Ares' dark beard, while he stared at her. Gods, how she hated this. What a fool! Why had she allowed Ares to talk her into going after Xena in the first place? She had caused more harm than good. Yet, by warning Chin she saved Xena's soul, Gabrielle was sure. That was worth any price she would eventually have to pay. The bard hated deception but knew what her pact would require when she allowed Ares to use his godly powers. She owed him service.
Xena didn't know about this visit. She thought Gabrielle had gone home to Poteidaia. They were to rejoin one another by The Seggi River near Castilla in a week.
Another wonderful lie. Ares pondered, reading her thoughts, and rubbing his left cheek in reflective consideration. Finally, he said - "You haven't slept with a man since your husband kicked it, over a year ago, right?"
Gabrielle was startled by the message imparted from the black clad god. She looked to the floor when answering, "No." Barely above a whisper, embarrassed and now apprehensive.
"Well now ..." Ares practically slid down the few red carpeted steps and stood directly in front of her, towering above Gabrielle. "Interesting." He reached out a hand and touched her chin. He lifted the young woman's head so he could look into her blue-green eyes. Ares almost chuckled when the irises dilated and those sweet little lips trembled. She was attractive and with some refining could even be exquisite. Why hadn't he noticed before how much Gabrielle resembled the princess of Temptius, the kingdom neighboring Ditea?
Still, Gabrielle was carnally unenlightened. That could be a problem. Ares didn't want to play teacher. He didn't have time and Lord Trecherius was due at the temple in a few hours. If this was going to work he'd have to get the girl on her way. "What?" Ares asked, examining her expression, "You think I want to sleep with you, Gabrielle?" Humor punctuated his tone. Okay, sure, he was curious but if he broke the little Amazon's spirit now she might not cooperate later and this entire overthrow wouldn't happen. It had to happen.
He needed Temptius and its incredible deposits of oil to bolster his ever decreasing position on Olympus. True, oil wasn't a huge commodity now but - as the gods well knew - in a couple thousand years there would be life and death struggles over the black-bubbly liquid. Imagine if he - Ares - could lay claim to it. He would ultimately having so much power on earth even Zeus would be impressed.
Ah yes, Zeus. Lately, The King of the Gods watched his eldest son a little too closely, as if he expected him to attempt something improper. Which, of course, was true. Ares had to bring the old man down a couple of pegs. The acquisition of Temptius might do it. That's where the little girl came in. But he'd have to be cautious. If Xena found out what Ares had put Gabrielle through the God of War would never again take control over his favorite warrior. Yet, if the Amazon Princess just mysteriously disappeared without a trace ... Xena would be lost and lonely and in need of a shoulder to cry on. Vulnerable.
Ares wanted Xena back by his side, fighting, maiming and killing like the ruthless warrior she once was. And, with this scroll-toting harpy out of the way, it would be a triple victory. He'd have Temptius, Xena and a firm grip on Olympus. Ares, King of the Gods. It had a nice ring to it.
"You're very nice to look at, Gabrielle, and any lesser god might find you physically appealing - but I like leather, screams and the occasional lethal weapon." Callisto again popped into Ares mind. Oblivious, he licked his lips then: "Semi-virgins have never held much appeal for me." Then, lower as he moved away from her - "Too much damn trouble." He returned to his throne. Gabrielle straightened her shoulders and briefly looked confused. She didn't know whether to be relieved or insulted.
"Nevertheless," he sat heavily and threw a long leather clad leg over an arm of the throne, "it would be pleasing to watch you abandon yourself with another ..." A smile grew wide on Ares face at her stunned expression. He instantly seemed inspired, "Oh yes, Gabrielle, to watch you give yourself - body and soul - to whatever man or woman I see fit ..." He looked directly into her horrified eyes, "That would be entertaining!"
Gulping slightly, Gabrielle found her voice, "Why are you doing this? What could you possibly get out of it?" she asked. Ares leaned back and grinned in that devilish way only he and his followers could appreciate. Xena would have a coronary if she knew and Gabrielle would never get the opportunity to tell.
"It'll be fun ... Don't tell me you've never fantasized about someone watching ... and watching you, little girl, with your pure heart and unshakable faith in all that is moral and good, will be especially sweet." He watched her closely. Was Gabrielle falling for this? She felt revolted and, without realizing it, began to wring her hands.
"I can't ... I mean, I know I owe you but this ... I can't, Ares. It goes against everything I believe in."
The God of War frowned. On the surface, he wasn't asking so much but her fumblings, innocent and puerile as they were, rather disturbed him ...or even touched him. He would never admit it but Ares appreciated Gabrielle's tenacity and loyalty - misdirected as they were - and although he wouldn't let her out of this predicament - Hey, he was a 'bad guy' after all - he could, at least, make an allowance. Why not let her spend these last few days of her life having a good time with someone she liked? In the end they'd both end up dead but at least they'd go to the Otherside with a couple of fond memories.
"What if I make your partner someone you've always thought about making love with. Maybe a man from your past. Someone good looking and virile. Would that make it easier?" He then said, although he knew better - "You've been spending a lot of time with that character, Joxer...."
"No. Not Joxer." Gabrielle said, immediately and absolutely.
This time Ares did laugh, tossing his head back as the guffaw easily left his lips. "Is there another?" He took in her indecisive expression and sighed, "I've made a concession, Gabrielle. But I *will* pick someone for you if you can't."
"You're asking too much of me, Ares. I just can't do this. It's not just the morality it's ..."
Unsmiling, his eyes burning with impatience, Ares trumpeted: "If you don't repay me by doing what I tell you, Gabrielle, I will select another woman to take your place. How about your younger sister? Lila's quite pretty, like a flower ready to be picked. I'm sure I can find someone to initiate her. Maybe a soldier or a barbarian ...."
"No!" Appalled, Gabrielle closed her eyes as a frightening image entered into her mind. "Okay ... okay ..." she gulped air and, sobbing, opened her eyes to look at him again.
"Good." he said in a tone that imparted weariness and a mood to get on with the thing. She was being such a child. Really, what more could she want?
Gabrielle hesitated, "I don't want him to remember what we did after it's over. I mean, after the entire debt has been paid off. Can you at least do that for me?"
Ares didn't hide the smile, "You really are an innocent, aren't you?"
'No Ares, I've killed and I've made love. I'm not innocent. I'll never be innocent again.' Gabrielle spoke softly, "I think I know who you can pair me with and I know he doesn't think of me that way. Well, he could, but I'd need to work on him. Right now, to him, I'm just a friend and it will be too embarrassing, too hard, if ever we see each other again, after having said goodbye ..." Gabrielle looked upward, toward the ceiling, pained. "And I know we will. See each other again, I mean."
"And, of course, you're worried about what Xena will say if she finds out, right? She'd want to know details and you're not a good liar ..." Ares nodded, understanding -- "If that's what you want, of course." Then he said, "But I have a condition too, Gabrielle."
Her eyes locked with his.
"You have to seduce him twice - in two totally different places - and you have twenty four hours to do it in." Originally, he was going to give her only a few hours for the first encounter - Trecherius would want to see something immediately - but Ares felt compelled to grant this untainted girl a little more time. He could be patient if required. Trecherius would just have to understand. "You cannot tell your partner anything about me. If you can't make love twice in that period of time you owe me another favor in addition to the original."
"But I don't think I can." she sputtered. Fear shown in Gabrielle's eyes, "He's used to a more experienced women and I'm not ...The circumstances..."
"That's the deal, Gabrielle." Ares lifted a hand in her direction, a gesture for her not to think or argue. The beginning of godlike magic suddenly swirled about the temple, "Concentrate on who you want to be with...and go to him."
Two For the Price of One
"I suppose you think that was my fault." Iolaus looked up at his friend as they walked leisurely down the dirt paved road, friendly accusation in his tone. "He seemed sincere. I didn't know Shatgunius had invited us to his daughters wedding for anything other than to have a good time - and to be able to say 'Hercules was there'. He really made it sound like a good time."
Hercules lifted his hands in exasperation, "Iolaus, you should know better than to trust an old man you've just met in a tavern." He attempted to keep his anger in check, "Shatgunius wanted me to marry his daughter! Why couldn't you figure that out? I saw it the minute we stepped foot in Toledous."
"Well, yeah," Iolaus allowed, "but you had the advantage of that huge banner stretched from one side of Mainus St. to the next that screamed, "Welcome, Hercules, my Future Son In Law."
The two friends side-glanced at each other as they walked and started to laugh. It was funny when you really thought about it. Luckily, before matters got too uncomfortable, the two were able to beat a hasty retreat and were now on their way to a place where they could really enjoy themselves.
"Help!" came a cry. It was female and in trouble.
"Sounds like our song." Iolaus commented before he and Hercules ran to where they thought the scream was coming from. Backed up against a tree, her staff several feet away on the forest's dirt floor, with a wild ten foot tall boriaxus monster stomping the ground in front of her - snorting angrily - Gabrielle appeared stunned and horrified.
"Gabrielle?" Hercules stopped short, several yards away from the sobering sight, and stared.
Iolaus nearly plowed into his spine. "Gabrielle?" he repeated, looking up at his friend then over to where the woman stood, terrified. "What are you doing here? Where's Xena?"
"I think we'd better ask her later. Right now ..."
The men yelled and waved their arms, diverting the attention of the beast from Gabrielle to themselves. It reared up on its squat hind legs and let out a scream that would make Echidna jealous. Tentacles shot out from it's black glistening forehead at the intruders but the men were able to beat them off with relative ease. It wasn't really interested in them anyway. Gabrielle ran for her staff but one of her legs was unexpectedly caught up by another tentacle which sprang from the creature's left shoulder - causing the woman to land face first on the wet grass. 'Geez Ares, couldn't you have at least left me with a little dignity?' She spat out leaves and clawed at the ground as the monster dragged her in its general direction.
The boriaxus was distracted enough for Hercules to throw a powerful punch to its oversized face. It shuddered once, looked as if it might strike out, then - abruptly overcome - fell unconscious to the ground. The tentacle released Gabrielle's ankle and retracted. She allowed Iolaus to help her to shaky feet and put her arms around him. She held the blond warrior close, "Thank you." Gabrielle whispered in his ear, her voice trembling. "I've never been so afraid." Don't pour it on too thick, Gabrielle, or he'll suspect something isn't right. He knows you better than this. She thought.
"It's okay." Iolaus helped Gabrielle over to a large-flat boulder. He sat the bard down so she could catch her breath.
"That was one of the scariest things I've ever seen. It had my staff out of my hand before I even realized it was anywhere near me." she explained, quickly.
"Are you all right?" Hercules asked, looking over his shoulder at the fallen boriaxus. Seeing that they were out of danger for a time, the demigod folded his arms in front of his chest and watched her closely. "Did it hurt you?"
"I'm fine, Hercules." Gabrielle smiled, visibly relaxing. "Not a scratch. Just frayed nerves."
"What are you doing out here by yourself?" Iolaus asked, relieved and taking one of her hands in his. He smiled and was openly pleased to see her.
"I'm sort of on vacation," she thought quickly, "Xena went to Amphipolis to see her family and I decided to take a nature hike.
"Amphipolis is twenty five miles away." Hercules commented.
"A long hike, Hercules." Gabrielle shot back and quickly tried to change the subject. "Boy, am I glad you two showed up when you did." She squeezed Iolaus hand and gazed into his blue eyes. This won't be so bad. As a matter of fact, if it wasn't for Ares watching it could even be wonderful ...
"You look great, Gabrielle ..." Iolaus, realizing they probably weren't the right words when her smile broadened then said, "It's great to see you, Gabrielle." Hercules rolled his eyes - Oh, Iolaus... "We're heading to Bantius for a few days." the hunter-warrior rebounded quickly, "It's a Summer Solstice festival. Would you like to join us?" He tried hard not to be too terribly obvious, anxious for the company of a lovely young woman, but he wasn't succeeding.
Perfect. "Is it okay, Hercules?" Gabrielle looked up innocently at the handsome halfgod, "I won't be crowding you, will I?"
"No." he said firmly with a smile, despite trepidation. Hercules recognized the longing gaze Iolaus was giving the bard and, after all, Gabrielle was on their side. He stuck out a hand, which she took, and helped the bard to stand. "Gabrielle, your company is always a pleasure."
She could have any man in the known world, including my demigod-dimwit half brother and she picks Iolaus. Ares rolled his eyes and slumped back in his chair. Well, the hunter was a good looking hero-type and that sort of thing did appeal to young human females ... but geez. "He's a sidekick!" The God of War growled ... Still, this could work. He's just the type Armeta might have a fling with...
"Isn't that the guy who turned me into a chicken?" Discord petulantly stood beside Ares, watching the threesome through his wide-screen portal. She had fixated on Iolaus. Her dark leather one piece ensemble, with its metal studs and light body armor, sounded as she moved. She tapped her booted right foot on an alter step. "I hate him."
Ares said nothing but continued to glower. Yes, he was a pain in the posterior but it was Hercules that Ares truly detested. Dad always liked him best. Discord suddenly smiled with wicked anticipation, "Are you planning to do something to them?" Her red, pouty lips parted in a sinister smile.
"Just watching someone pay off a debt."
"Who, the girl?"
"No, two times with the little blond guy."
Both sides of Discord's mouth upturned slightly while considering the possibilities - "That's all? Oh, we can do better than that." Discord folded her arms under her breasts, "I could make trouble. Shake things up a little?" With a snap of her head she tossed dark hair over a shoulder. "At least let me try to get things heated up between the two. I think a little violence... Maybe he could take her by force or..."
"Maybe later --" Ares thinly smiled, not wanting to tip Discord off, and reached over to touch her cheek. Actually, he appreciated her imagination but couldn't trust the goddess as far as he could drop kick her (which was a good distance when he thought about it). Discord had no idea what Ares ulterior motives were with this girl and he wanted to keep it that way for awhile. "I want to see how far she will have to go first. She's inexperienced and clumsy. It could be great fun watching her make a fool out of herself, without any of our help. But yes, I'd also like to see her in action." He made an appearance of thinking hard for a moment, "We'll throw them a bone to start but later - if it's just too easy - then you can have your fun, Discord. Throw up barriers or something."
The goddess reached over to rub a muscle in his neck, "You're so good to me." And she smiled devilishly. One day Discord fully expected to be The Goddess of War. Ares would eventually slip up and she would be there to pounce on an opportunity. She was ripe for advancement and had already allowed The King of the Gods to know that she was capable. However, in the meantime, she studied Ares. His methods and the way his mind worked fascinated her. It also didn't hurt that he was a magnificent lover.
"Exalted one ..." A lithe hand maiden walked into the temple and respectfully bowed before her master, "Councilor-Lord Trecherius of Ditea has arrived." she announced.
"Very good." Ares suddenly stood, shaking off Discord. "Send him in."
Discord watched Ares, curious.
"Hercules, could you please help us?" The woman, plump and dressed in a white apron - her hair tied back with a ragged piece of cloth - asked, as the demigod as he and his friends entered town. "We need someone to help judge The Beautiful Baby Contest."
"I think all babies are beautiful." Hercules smiled weakly, trying to get himself out of the chore. If he was asked to judge pies, archery, crafts or demonstrate his strength for charity, no problem. But baby contests only meant trouble. He saw a brawl break out in Thrace once. It was ugly. "I couldn't make just one choice ..." he pressed.
"But you're honest and no one trusts any of the judges we have. They all have children in the pageant." She pleaded, "It would mean so much to us."
Iolaus and Gabrielle quietly giggled at Hercules dilemma. "I think you should." The hunter said, purposely standing behind Gabrielle while putting his friend in a bad position. "'Healthy competition breeds strength, Hercules.'" Iolaus quoted a mentor from his and the demigod's warrior-academy days.
Hercules shot Iolaus a peeved look. His best friend just loved doing this sort of thing to him. Giving up, the demigod allowed the grateful woman to lead the way.
"We'll see you later, buddy!" Iolaus called and took a hold of Gabrielle's hand, turning in the opposite direction.
"That was mean." Gabrielle tittered, amused despite the misdeed. And clever.
Already booths had been set up and tangled groups of people were running from one exciting event to the next. Gabrielle and Iolaus watched an impressive juggler for awhile then a couple of impromptu actors somehow managed to get the couple involved with their play. They didn't stay in the production long, both being terrible actors, but it was all in fun and everyone watching seemed to enjoy their amateur attempts. The couple snacked on apples and grapes while examining clay pots and tapestries then Iolaus tried to get Gabrielle to enter a story telling contest. She was sure to win, he told her.
Out of character, Gabrielle - almost shyly - shook her head no. "I haven't prepared anything." the bard said. Iolaus was incredulous but accepting. Gabrielle was always ready to tell a tale. She seemed preoccupied despite her cheery expression.
Finally, when the opportunity presented itself - as they stood near a gaming table surrounded by some rather boisterous players - Gabrielle timidly asked: "Iolaus, could we go some place a little quieter? I'd like to talk with you ..."
He was a little surprised by the seriousness in her tone. Gabrielle looked like she needed to say something important. Iolaus wondered if she was still traumatized by the boriaxus. "I think there is a place over here where we can talk." he said, motioning to a makeshift bench near an alley.
As they came close, ready to plop down and talk, a dark-cloaked figure approached - "Give me your money!" it demanded gruffly, wielding a dangerous looking dagger.
Taken off guard, Gabrielle gasped and took a step backward.
"You don't want to do this." Iolaus said. Instinctively, he pulled Gabrielle protectively behind him, momentarily forgetting her fighting abilities nearly matched his own. A sincere attempt at civility infused his tone, "If you're hungry ..."
"Don't argue with me or I'll take it outta your pretty little girlfriend there."
Holding her staff firmly, Gabrielle stayed quiet, ready to fight if needed. She couldn't be sure Ares had anything to do with this but if he did, and he was causing trouble so she couldn't pay off the debt, then she'd have to help take care of matters. She'd fight and inevitably come clean with Iolaus. She was starting to feel guilty about the whole thing anyway. If it wasn't for Lila ....
The attack, when it came, was quick and ineffective. The dagger came down clumsily and Iolaus knocked it effortlessly from the thug's hand. He then gave the man a quick elbow in the midsection and watched him fall, gasping for air. Iolaus picked up the impressive and oddly decorated blade, "I'll take this as an apology." he said, slipping it into a small sheath attached to his belt. In truth, he didn't want this guy going after anyone else.
"I won't forget this!" the man shouted hoarsely, glancing once at the dagger, and scurried away from his intended victims.
"Iolaus, you were wonderful!" Gabrielle piped enthusiastically, propping her staff against the bench. Excited, pleased their attacker had apparently been a real thug rather than Ares, she put her arms around Iolaus and kissed the hunter full on the lips.
He hadn't been expecting the physical endearment but didn't dislike it either, "Gabrielle." Iolaus breathed her name when they parted, holding her gently. "It wasn't that big a deal --" but the kiss was and, motivated, he leaned in for another.
Suddenly distracted, understanding something anew (Did Ares just help me?) Gabrielle turned away from his lips, allowing them to softly touch her temple and cheek. He was breathing warmly in her ear and Gabrielle liked it. Iolaus touch could almost made her forget ... and then she glanced around - checking to see if they were alone.
Yes, she knew Ares was watching but it was the mortals the bard was concerned with. All of Bantius didn't need to know what she was going to say to Iolaus. Mustering courage, she whispered huskily in his ear: "I want you."
Startled, he blinked. "What?" Iolaus pulled back a little. Did he hear her right?
Her tone was low but sincere, "I know this seems sudden and please don't think I'm wanton or a harlot but I ... I would really like to be with you, Iolaus. Can we go someplace?" and Gabrielle felt strange, knowing Ares was observing and probably laughing at her.
Iolaus could only stare at her for a few moments. Is that what she had been wanting to tell him all this time? "Look ..." he hesitated, holding her gently by the arms and feeling a bit perplexed. Yes, she was lovely but she was also very young and if an over-protective Xena ever thought he was taking advantage of her friend -- Of course, his own welfare was the least of Iolaus' worries. Gabrielle had been through two traumas, attacked by a vicious monster and a desperate mugger, in less than six hours. Was this misplaced hero worship?
"You were my first love, Iolaus." The bard spoke quickly, almost desperately - seeing the reservation in his eyes. "That first time, when you kissed me near Vulcan Mountain - was that really three years ago? - opened my eyes. Then later when we got together in Corinth for King Iphicles official coronation ceremony .... Then later still when you rescued me while I was trying to take Xena's body home..."
She stopped speaking, seeing that her muddled words were only making Iolaus more uneasy. She would need to try a different approach. "Haven't you ever thought of the two of us together? I realize you're an adventurer, Iolaus, and I don't expect this to mean forever..." She lost focus for a moment, the words sounding unreal and forced even to her, "Really I don't. I need to adventure too. I just want..."
"You just want to make love with me." he finished for her quietly; seriously. He knew she was trying to take the pressure off of him but her 'I don't expect this to mean forever...' unintentionally hurt. Oddly, said by any other woman he'd immediately feel at ease and ready for romance. But Gabrielle ...
"I do, Iolaus, with all my heart." and Gabrielle smiled when realizing what she was saying was completely true, debt to a war god or not. She then took in his thoughtful manner and, instinctively, pressed herself boldly against him, "Can you blame me?"
His expression lightened and Iolaus couldn't help the chuckle which escaped him. It was intriguing. But Gabrielle? They had an unstated mutual understanding and respect for each other and, admittedly, an attraction but she was just a girl... Okay, yeah, a well proportioned girl whose smile could melt ice and whose eyes were so fetching I could get lost in them very easily and...
Again, sensing Iolaus hesitation and abruptly wondering if there was any interest there at all, Gabrielle leaned in and gently began to kiss his temple and cheek. Then, a bit more daring, feeling the need to show him she wasn't completely untaught, Gabrielle nibbled on his earlobe and gently flicked her tongue where she thought it might do the most good.
He pulled her back a bit, "Gabrielle..." Iolaus was weakening rapidly. But he had to be the voice of sense here. "I just don't think ..."
"I'm not a kid anymore, Iolaus." she stated abruptly, seriously.
No, he realized. She wasn't. Iolaus began to warm to the idea. Gabrielle knew her own mind. She wasn't a child anymore -- and besides, she was anxious and offering herself in such a good-natured way. And he liked her a lot. Always had. From that first probing question in Falafel's souvenir tent to that time, much later, when he found her alone and depressed; needing a compassionate friend...
He lifted a hand to cup her face. Was this a mistake? Closing his eyes, Iolaus moved slowly in on Gabrielle and they kissed tenderly on the lips, unaware of the few curious passerby's who glanced at one another and smiled at what they judged were two unsuspecting lovers taking a moment for themselves. Iolaus noted how different her reaction to this kiss was from their first. Full bodied and tremulous, her lips moved beneath his. Her instincts were top notch, Iolaus thought.
While he spoke with Trecherius, confirming already discussed plans, Ares told Discord to leave them. Iolaus and Gabrielle were one thing and he could use her instincts and limited assistance with them but this business, between men of ambition, was none of her affair. She was an enterprising goddess ... and not to be trusted.
Discord was annoyed and turned acrimoniously. "Fine Ares, I'll go and do what I do best," and she faded from sight. She hated to be cut out of something so potentially important, even if she didn't know exactly what it was.
Distracted, Ares didn't know Discord was up to something until it was too late.Yet he knew, the moment he and Trecherius witnessed the goon pull a knife on Iolaus and Gabrielle, it was the work of his impetuous sibling.
"What's this?" Trecherius had asked, his dark eyes narrowing with concern as he watched the scene taking place. Talking quickly, damning the fact that he needed this man, Ares explained - with verve - what their next move would be.
Trecherius was impressed. Ares managed to save the moment. More importantly, he saved face. Approving of what The God of War had in mind for his kingdom and the land he hoped to conquer, Trecherius left the temple to speak with his soldiers, giving them instruction.
Calmly, Ares approached Discord, who had returned, as she watch the kissing couple through the portal, "A thug? That was the best you could do?"
"No," Discord huffed, disenchanted and child-like, turning from the screen. "Just what I thought would work. And it did. It gave the little Amazon trollop an excuse to tell him she wanted him." Discord ran long nailed fingers through her own dark hair, "You did want them to get on with this, didn't you? That bone you mentioned, Ares?"
He smiled deceptively then roughly took Discord's jaw between his fingers, "Press me, sweetheart, and I'll have you working a detail in Tartarus. Don't think I can't." he threatened, releasing her. Damn Discord. She could have ruined everything! He watched the spoilt young goddess move irritably away.
He smiled. As it turned out, she had done well. He might even tell her that some day.
Gabrielle was shocked by her own desire. Yes, it had been awhile but - despite what her mind advised - her heart and the hot fire-blood coursing through her veins told another story. She wanted Iolaus desperately and knew she should be revolted by the circumstances. But somehow this room, an inn they found in a rowdier part of town, his presence and the fact that what she was doing was wrong... Evil, evil child. She nearly spoke aloud as he held her in his arms. "Iolaus..."
His breath was sweet and his movements deceptively calm and practiced. Iolaus was being so considerate, not rushing them although his own heated appetite was nearing a bursting point. Gabrielle was pleased by that. Despite the initial trepidation she sensed in Iolaus, she was able to arouse him. His touch, loving and sincere, gave her time to admire the golden sheen of his hair, the burnished flesh of his incredible body, those earthy-handsome features...and his technique. The things he was doing; the way Iolaus touched her and stimulated her...
Perdicus. Gabrielle thought of him suddenly as Iolaus loved her. Why hadn't her time with him, her beloved husband of an oh so short period of time, been like this? It hadn't. Not even close.
Later, breathing heavily as they gently lay together, Iolaus touched her face and smiled down at her, pushing some strands of damp hair from Gabrielle's lovely face...kissing her delicately.
"You are so..." he started but couldn't continue. She was kissing him again. Then, with a gentle shift, Gabrielle parted from Iolaus.
Looking up at her lover, appearing to have discovered something sacred, she whispered, "Iolaus, I've never..." she gulped, trying to make him comprehend, "I've never had that happen before...I mean, that feeling...I've never..."
Astounded, he held her more snugly to him. She didn't have to say more. He understood what it was Gabrielle was trying to say without actually saying it. She had never experienced that moment of ultimate fulfillment before. Perdicus might have been a good man, would have been a great husband and father if he had lived -- but he was still a boy in many ways, despite his outward soldier-worldly ways. He didn't know how to pleasure a woman. In time he would have surely learned yet Gabrielle had loved him and loved being loved by her husband despite the incompleteness of their unions.
Iolaus closed his eyes as he thought it through. She was still a girl in so many ways and, when one thought about it, he had unintentionally been her first true lover. Iolaus felt both guilt - that it was he who'd opened this realization in Gabrielle (a rather awesome responsibility to his way of thinking) - and pleased. Gabrielle would remember this moment and he - Iolaus - for the rest of her life, He wanted to be remembered by Gabrielle.
But he also wanted more, even if he didn't know what it was yet.
"Is that something only you can do?" she asked timidly, only half joking - feeling a little foolish. Gabrielle realized her naiveté was showing through when his smile widened.
Iolaus couldn't prevent the laugh, "If only that were true ..." he murmured and giggled, looking over at her. She joined him. His manner, so dreamy and heartfelt, warmed her.
Gabrielle bit her lower lip then: "Iolaus ..." Again, that charming self-consciousness, "... can we do it again?" she asked. Before he could reply she had wriggled her way atop of him, "I dare you to say no ..." She teased, her long hair brushing against his chest and firm fingertips expertly tickled him.
"Stop that!" Iolaus cried throatily, grasping her hands and chuckling. But already he could feel himself responding to her touch -- feeling an overwhelming warmth for this young woman. How long had it been since he felt authentic love, not just desire? Did he really know the difference anymore?
Images of women he'd known flashed briefly through Iolaus mind. Beautiful women. Cruel women. Regina, Cynea and Xena... Why suddenly did he think of them while looking at this beautiful sweet-souled girl? She wasn't like them. They had used him.
Xena. He thought he'd vanquished her betrayal from his heart but it would always be there no matter how much she changed or how good a friend she'd become. He'd lost himself so completely with Xena. A hot, passionate, unreal love... Possibly Iolaus' biggest regret. Even now it distressed him to think Xena had nearly cost him his friendship with Hercules. But that was all in the past...
Gabrielle kissed his cheeks and moved over to his ear to gently nibble the lobe. "I want to be in charge this time." She whispered, "Can you be patient with me, Iolaus?"
He grinned again, snapping back to the present. He had thought she would need teaching but Iolaus had the strangest feeling that it was he who was being taught. "You are a wonder, my darling bard..." A hand lifted to touch Gabrielle's hair and trail fingertips over a cheek. So lovely. So pure of heart. "Do what you will ..." and then he fell dramatically back, as if slain. "I'm yours!"
"Oh, little girl..." Discord smiled, "She wants more ..." She glanced at Ares who didn't seem very pleased. As a matter of fact, he appeared annoyed. "What's the matter? I thought they did pretty good. Maybe a little dull. No toys or anything but ..."
Trecherius and his men had left, positioning themselves for a confrontation. Ares would follow but not participate. Trecherius watched Iolaus and Gabrielle making love through Ares portal and was pleased at what The God of War was able to show. The ruling committee and court would have no choice but to see things his way once they were given the evidence he produced. And none other than Ares himself would be there to back him up. The Councillor-Lord and his men stomped out of the temple, anticipating unfathomable power.
Ares continued to watch the couple - "Why again?" He spoke, almost gloomily. "She knows this isn't going to count. Gabrielle has to get him in a different area, away from the inn, for it to count so why is she wasting time?"
Their attention was diverted by the girl's excited gasp, a male groan, and the impassioned call of her lover's name.
Ares was far more annoyed with himself than the actual act of passion between the man and woman. This was a good thing, really. He and Trecherius had more than enough now to bring down the current rulers of Temptius but Ares still felt unaccountably disturbed. He turned away from the image before him and looked at his hands.
Discord almost laughed, "I think the little Amazon has forgotten that you're watching Ares and, for now, about the debt. She's having too much fun... the little tramp." She turned away from Ares and walked confidently to an exit, "It's always the innocent looking ones." she murmured before disappearing in a flash of light.
The God of War, without knowing exactly why, suddenly felt an unequaled urge to destroy Discord.
Out of the Fire...
They dozed -- for too long.
"Gabrielle, wake up." Iolaus was already into his pants, boots and gauntlets. He was now looking for his vest, which had been tossed across the room, "Hercules is probably going out of his mind searching for us." he said, urgently.
She sat up in bed, dazed, and pulling the coverlet over her. Visually, Gabrielle searched for her own clothes, "How long have we been here?"
"About three hours. It's suppertime. I heard a bell-ringer toll it outside." Iolaus found her skirt and halftop. He pitched them at her.
Slightly groggy, Gabrielle struggled into her clothes, "What do we tell Hercules when he asks us where we've been?"
Slipping the string attached to his black amulet over his head, Iolaus said - "He probably won't."
"He knows me and it's sometimes better not to ask."
"But would he think I...?"
She dressed quickly then raked slender fingers through her blond hair. She spotted her staff leaning against a rickety chair. 'When did I put it there?' she wondered. Mentally shrugging, Gabrielle picked it up and looked at Iolaus, "Ready." She took a quick breath and moved to the door.
Just before it was opened Iolaus, almost apologetically, grasped her arm and met Gabrielle's eyes. "Hey..." His anxiousness had momentarily made him lose sight of the incredible encounter they both had just shared. He pulled her a bit closer to him. "You're really wonderful. I want you to know that." Iolaus spoke softly and sincerely.
These words weren't enough, he knew. This wasn't just a quick, passionate tryst. He'd been with other women where this statement might seem appropriate but Gabrielle was different. He was so moved by her and what they had experienced together. He hoped she understood that he didn't think of this as only one of many forgettable rendezvous. He leaned forward and gently kissed her on the forehead. "I'll never forget this, Gabrielle." he swore.
"Neither will I." she said tenderly; a little sadly. Oh, but you will. You will forget everything, Iolaus. I'm so sorry.
He sat to the back of the tavern, his half-mug of watered down ale barely touched. Exhaustion creased the demigod's normally bright and well focused eyes. He came to Bantius for fun and relaxation but ended up in the middle of a battle. A war of words between two insistent mothers who absolutely refused to believe their little darlings were not chosen "Most Beautiful Baby".
Hercules passed on them, not because they weren't cute tikes - all the children were - but because he saw something in the little blue-eyed girl with the wispy blond hair and serene expression that out-shined all of the other children. In truth, the baby reminded him of his own daughter, Ilea. Perhaps it wasn't fair but all his pleas to make each baby a winner fell on deaf ears. Hercules had to make a choice and she was it.
He stretched in his chair. Iolaus and Gabrielle were late. Hercules rather expected it. Iolaus had trouble with that sort of thing. There had been meager hope Gabrielle might keep him focused but the hunter could be a little overwhelming when it came to fun. Besides, he doubted all their energies were centered on the festival. Romance was a real possibility between these two. Hercules didn't know how far it would go but suspected there might be a little heat generated once they were left alone.
Then he saw the couple enter through the front tavern doors. Iolaus was holding Gabrielle's arm and whispered something into her ear. She leaned onto her staff, amused by what he said, and laughed. Both seemed energized and in a good mood. Hercules could speculate as to the reason but decided against it.
Iolaus, when spotting his friend, lifted a hand and waved. He and Gabrielle then made their way through the somewhat rambunctious crowd and over to the table.
"We're starved, what's to eat?" Iolaus plopped down in a chair across from his friend. Hercules smiled. Yeah, this was Iolaus. No doubt there. "Bread and venison will be here soon."
Still standing, Gabrielle, leaned her Amazon staff against the wooden table, "I'll go get us something to drink." she told Iolaus and nodded graciously at Hercules before she turned to go to the bar.
Both men watched her move across the floor, Hercules noting Iolaus' enchantment. "She's so special." the hunter murmured earnestly, not aware he'd spoken aloud.
"Yes, she is," Hercules agreed and couldn't prevent a teasing smile when Iolaus eventually looked him in the eye. "I noticed that a long time ago."
Clearing his throat, Iolaus immediately changed the subject, "How did it go?" he asked, referring to the babies, and laughed when Hercules rolled his eyes and slumped dramatically back in his chair, "I guess I shouldn't have asked."
"I don't think I'm going to forgive you for abandoning me, Iolaus. You and Gabrielle had better have had fun."
The hunter paused only briefly, revealing nothing he didn't want brought out into the open. "The festival's great but we had a run in with a not so friendly villager." He pulled the decorative knife from his waist-band and laid it on the table in front of Hercules. "Threatened us with this. What do you think?"
"I thought so too. He probably stole it."
"Maybe." Hercules turned the knife over and saw something that made him start - "Uh, oh."
"What is it?" Returning with two ales, placing one in front of Iolaus, Gabrielle leaned forward to look at the dagger. With purpose, Hercules lifted it so both friends could see, "Ares." Hercules pointed at the design etched into the blade handle, "His crest."
"A follower of Ares? Here?" Then Iolaus shrugged, and leaned back in his chair. "Oh, why do I bother wondering? You're here and Ares has followers near and far."
"But he didn't attack me this time. It was you two. I wonder why?"
Gabrielle sat silently for a time beside Iolaus, her fingers rigidly clutching the handle of her ale mug. Then, "Well, Ares is Ares." She said a bit too flippant, "Does he really need a reason for what he does?"
Hercules stared at her for a moment, "Whatever's going on I better check it out." Pointedly, he stopped speaking as their food was being delivered to the table. Then, when a pretty red-haired tavern maid turned to leave - giving the handsome demigod a suggestive wink as she made an about face - Hercules continued, "Ares closest temple is in Ditea. That's not too far away from here ..."
"Don't you think you're over-reacting a little?' It was Gabrielle that spoke, looking nervously up from her as yet untouched bread and venison. "I mean, Ares has followers. Lots of them. Does it have to mean he's up to no good just because one of them happened to take a swipe at us, Hercules?"
Iolaus took a drink from his mug and nodded, "She has a point, Herc. It could just be a coincidence. Besides, the festival is just getting started. We can keep an eye on things and still have a good time."
The demigod nodded, "You two stick around and I'll go on my own. If it's nothing I'll be back in a few days."
Iolaus sighed and gave his friend a tired look - "Right and if it is something I'll feel like a jerk - especially if you get hurt.'" Iolaus shook his head 'no' - "I'm going too."
Gabrielle looked from one man to the other. She wanted to say something, anything that would make them change their minds but if these two heroes were anything like Xena there simply were no words. They were as stubborn as her best friend.
"That makes it three." she said and bit thoughtfully into a biscuit.
Later, that evening ...
She immediately knew who it was the moment she heard the gentle knock. Gabrielle suspected he might stop by and honestly hoped he would. She opened the door and he instantly came into her arms, holding her close. With a gentle push, she closed the door and held him tightly, "I crossed my fingers..." Gabrielle whispered over his shoulder. "What did you say to Hercules?"
Iolaus pulled back slightly and softly rubbed his nose against her own - "Told him I wanted to say goodnight to you."
"You mean good morning." She giggled, lightly.
He joined her for a moment, his thoughts mingling with her own. "Actually, I want to talk with you." Iolaus expression grew serious and he loosened his hold on her. "Something's on my mind.'
For a fleeting moment Gabrielle felt dread, "Did I do something?"
"No .. Well, yeah. But it's not about you. Or it is but ... "
Try as she might Gabrielle couldn't prevent an amused smile. Could anyone but Iolaus sound so confused but have such purpose at the same time?
He leaned forward.
For a moment Gabrielle thought he was going to kiss her but instead Iolaus merely touched her forehead with his own and spoke softly. "I ..." He stopped again.
"You do want to say something to me, don't you?"
"I'm a bard. I can tell." She chuckled gently and felt a movement that told her he was doing the same, "Don't be afraid, Iolaus. You can tell me anything." she prompted.
He took a short breath, feeling unexpectedly comfortable despite what was on his mind. "What we did today ..." Iolaus closed his eyes, "It wasn't right."
She tensed, her forehead still against his, saying nothing.
"An honorable man doesn't take a proper young lady to a shabby room to make love." Gabrielle relaxed and inhaled gently.
"You've been feeling guilt." she summed up.
"Yeah." His eyes opened.
She pondered for a moment then spoke, telling him what was in her heart - "It was beautiful, Iolaus. Maybe we didn't sleep together under the best circumstances but it was lovely - and if you're thinking that the location cheapened the experience you're wrong." Then, a little warily, "Unless you think it made me seem ...?"
"No." he spoke instantly, "No, no."
"Then," She raised her head, fingers lifting to touch his chin, and smiled. Once again she looked into his soulful, searching eyes, "know it was one of the most magnificent experiences of my life. I have no regrets...and neither should you."
He knew what she was saying was in earnest but there was something more. She had to know how he felt about her. "What I'm trying to say, Gabrielle, is..."
"You respect me? Is that it?"
'Yes, but more.' Still, it was a start. For now, it would do. He nodded once. She allowed him to take her in his arms and they hugged affectionately. A careless thought entered into the bard's head as he held her: This is a nice room. This is a respectable part of town. How does that make you feel, Iolaus?
It was as if he'd read her thoughts.
Gabrielle felt a hand rub very gently up and down her back, between shoulder blades and over the spine, partially touching the material of her green half-top and trailing down to stroke the smooth skin of her lower back. His touch held magic and she felt herself melt in his embrace. Her lips reached for his and she pressed herself close, closing her eyes and allowing herself to be saturated in passion.
The debt, the fact she was on the verge of paying off Ares, had nothing to do with this experience. It couldn't have been further from her mind. She wanted to feel the firm line of Iolaus' form against her own again. She needed his touch, those nearly poetic words, and for him to make her feel like a desired woman. To pacify that craving. Gabrielle ran her fingers through his hair as they kissed, her lips moving hungrily against his. Did he want her as much as she wanted him right now? That didn't seem possible.
"Gabrielle...Gabrielle..." he breathed her name, his lips trailing from her mouth to her temple, then to her neck. She was doing something to him, making him feel emotions no other woman ever had. Did she understand her power over men? Had she grasped her mastery over him?
Lost in sensuality, the bard slowly opened her eyes and was jolted by what she saw.
Ares! Standing behind Iolaus, leaning against the door, arms crossed over his massive chest. He was in a shadow but she could see him and he was smiling. No, not a gesture of acceptance but a smirk of approval.
She suddenly pulled away from her lover, "I'm sorry..." Gabrielle fumbled an apology. She wouldn't do this. Not now. Couldn't.
"What is it?' Iolaus asked, startled. He held her hands in his and searched for something in her expression. "Are you all right?"
Again, she looked past him but The God of War was gone. Or was he? Had he actually ever been there? "Iolaus...I need sleep. I'm so tired..." She couldn't meet his eyes, understanding how ridiculous it had to sound. Especially after her initial reaction to his touch. And she felt guilt. Horrible, intolerable guilt.
He almost asked Gabrielle if she was joking but there was a dread in her expression that made him pause. She appeared truly torn, nervous and...afraid? He wanted to understand, even help her, but it was obvious that the bard didn't want his aid at this time. Whatever was bothering her, perhaps everything that happened during the day, Gabrielle clearly needed to be alone with it. How could he have misread the signs? It hurt a little but Iolaus was gentleman enough to let it slide. With a nod, he took her jaw between his thumb and finger and gave Gabrielle a gentle kiss on the lips.
"Goodnight. Sleep well." he said and smiled to comfort before turning to leave.
"Goodnight." she whispered in return and regretfully watched Iolaus depart.
"I don't get it. Why did you do that?' Discord asked, a frown on her full lips. Scowl-lines marred an otherwise smooth forehead. "She was getting ready to score again."
"A little too fast." Ares muttered, his expression darkly thoughtful. "If she and hunter-boy did the mattress dance again tonight the bet would be paid in full. I can't have that quite yet. I need them both." He allowed a grin. "Maybe, in the process, I can also have Hercules done away with. It can't be by my hand ..."
Ares nodded to himself, cursing the rule that forbade gods from killing other gods. Zeus had extended that law to include Hercules as well, to both Hera and Ares' chagrin. "but this can work. I'll need help from Hephaestus. He owes me..."
Discord grew excited. Ares was plotting and being devious. She had to know more - "So, you really don't want a pay off at all, do you? You want her to remain under obligation, is that it? And Iolaus?"
"Let's just say the two of them will be on the road with Hercules tomorrow -- and that's exactly as it should be. If the debt's paid too soon Xena's little friend might want to part company with her golden boy before I can make use of them. I can't have that. Not yet."
Discord did a double take, "And Hercules? You really want him involved?"
"Not originally but, thanks to the dagger, it's inevitable." He looked over at her, noting the ambivalent silence. Discord hadn't meant to leave her dagger with Iolaus but it was unavoidable ... and useful. Now Trecherius' men wouldn't have to tear Bantius apart looking for the bard and hunter. They were coming to him and would be dealt with. Hercules was both a deterrent and bonus.
Discord exhaled in frustration, "Ares, what aren't you telling me? I demand to know!"
"Demand, Discord?" Ares looked hard at his sibling.
"Only because I want to serve you better." she tossed in, gritting her teeth.
"I have plans for the girl, Discord." Unimpressed, Ares said, "Be patient. All will soon be revealed." Then he added quickly before she could interrupt, "It's nothing you need know about until I'm ready to tell you. Now, why don't you go off somewhere and do mayhem. Crete has been quiet lately. Do something there."
"You're dismissing me?" she challenged, petulantly.
"Sounds that way, doesn't it?" He closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the padding of the throne.
The petite but deadly goddess hesitated and tightly clenched her teeth together. She then turned on her spiked heel and exited the room. Yes, she'd go somewhere. Ares couldn't just push her aside and think it wouldn't have repercussions. She'd get him and that cute little human Amazon-princess he was so obviously enamored with!
The Road of Reckoning
"What do you know about Ditea, Herc?"
"Not much. It's soon to be ruled, through marriage, by Princess Armeta of Temptius. She's due to be crowned Queen on her next birthday. I think that's sometime this week."
"Is she pretty?"
Gabrielle reach over and playfully punched Iolaus' shoulder. Amused, Hercules continued to talk as if he hadn't seen his friends playful exchange. "I've never seen her but heard the prince she's going to marry is only a child."
"That's why she is going to be the ruler over him?" Gabrielle questioned, almost pleased.
"Yes, it was arranged before he was born. Marriages like this usually are."
"Nice." Iolaus, artfully using Gabrielle's staff as a walking stick as they hiked, considered something the bard and halfgod hadn't, "I hear both kingdoms are extreme when it comes to the purity of their monarchs. Poor lonely Princess Armeta."
They walked for miles, pausing only briefly to observe landmarks which told the trio they were on the right road to Ditea, where Ares temple resided. Then, as evening drew near and the sun began to slowly sink in the west it was decided to set up camp near the Thebea River. Having made good time they would be in Ditea by tomorrow afternoon.
"I'm going to scout ahead a couple of miles." Hercules announced, troubled and staring in the direction where he planned to walk. "You never know what might be waiting for us."
"You never know." Gabrielle repeated in an undertone, not quite listening.
Or - perhaps - listening all too well.
Hercules looked over at her, watching as she leaned her Amazon staff against a tree. Gabrielle then searched the ground busily, hunting for wood and dry grass. Something about her presence continued to disturb him.
Reluctantly, Hercules began to wonder if he wasn't feeling a form of jealousy. His best friend had said very little directly to him since they started to travel early this morning, Iolaus' attention was aimed nearly exclusively on their guest. He'd obviously seen nothing amiss and was enjoying Gabrielle's company immensely. Of course, he was like this with all pretty women but it did worry the demigod that Iolaus, who he now observed tightening the string on his sturdy bow, didn't appear to sense the uneasy vibes in Gabrielle that he, a halfgod, was picking up on. Hercules watched them as, earlier, they walked together, hand in hand. Iolaus and Gabrielle, laughing and trading stories, happy in each other's company. There was a physical closeness there he'd never seen before. It again made Hercules wonder - but only briefly - just what went on between the two while he was judging the baby contest in Bantius.
Hercules continued to watch her for awhile. Although she was trying hard to appear ordinary, Gabrielle wasn't herself . Still, it had been awhile since he and Iolaus had any form of contact with either Gabrielle or Xena. People change.
A disturbing picture inexplicably entered into Hercules mind. Serena, the Golden Hind. His much beloved and very brief bride. A one-time hand maiden to Ares. A sweet, beautiful creature whose only crime had been aligning with The God of War. Because Serena had loved him, Hercules, and left Ares for the life of a human, she was killed. No one who served Ares could ever leave him without paying a price.
Why did observing Gabrielle suddenly bring this thought into his mind? She had nothing to do with either Serena or Ares. Xena and Gabrielle, like he and Iolaus, did their level best to deter Ares destructive and self-serving plans.
"We'll be waiting for you, with supper, when you get back." Iolaus said good-naturedly, examining the sharp tips of his arrows.
With a nod, the demigod swiveled about and started to trek. Crouching to pick up his quiver, Iolaus casually watched as his tall friend walked down the gravel strewn path, heading south. The demigod had that look on his face again. Hercules seemed to sense something wasn't as it should be. The attack on he and Gabrielle by a stranger and the appearance of Ares' dagger disturbed Hercules deeply. Although Iolaus thought it all a coincidence, his friend decided long ago that nothing connected with his evil half-brother random. Even now he feared they were playing right into Ares hands while seeking him out. There was a reason for his trepidation, Iolaus knew. Ares was devious and after all of these years of watching the two kinsman at odds with each other, the hunter could well imagine the turmoil in Hercules' mind.
Iolaus stood to his full height, veering his attention away from the departing demigod to Gabrielle, where she was tossing dry twigs onto a small campfire she'd created. Later, the three of them would use its warmth when the temperature dropped. Also, to cook whatever the hunter brought back for supper.
Unable to stop himself, Iolaus continued to gaze at her - fumbling purposelessly with the arrows in his pouch - watching as, distracted, her comely blond head turned and Gabrielle looked out at the river. She reminded him of a goddess at this moment, the manner in which portions of her hair slowly lifted with the invisible breeze, wafting about her cheeks and forehead. And how the bard's expressive eyes caught the reflected light off the river water.
That dazzling half smile.
He wished he were able to seize the moment. If he were a painter he'd want her to stay still so he could capture her on canvass. Her beauty and manner, lost in thought and somewhat melancholy, was inspiring. Perhaps she missed Xena or her family and was pondering their absence.
Or maybe she was puzzling over personal fears, as was he. Were those few stolen hours yesterday a mistake? If not, did they mean the same to her as him? Did she want something more substantial from him now? Should he ask? If she said no, how would that make him feel? Hurt? Angry? Relieved?
Lately, even before he and Hercules ran into the bard on the way to Batius, Iolaus had been thinking novel thoughts. Home. Security. Wife. Children. He was beginning to feel his age and the longer he kept company with Hercules, a near god who didn't seem to show the scars of time, the more Iolaus felt ready to settle down.
He did love Gabrielle. Of that Iolaus was now certain. It hadn't just been the impulsive intimacy they shared. There was so much more to her than that. But he'd been in love before and paid dearly for an attachment that could not be reciprocated (Xena...Cynea...Regina...). However Gabrielle, with her pure heart, was different than the others. He felt connected to her more than any other woman he'd ever been with. He couldn't really find the logic or put the feeling into words. It was just there.
On the surface she seemed a simple girl from Poteidaia who was finding her way while traveling with a larger than life heroine. Nothing too unusual about that really. Maybe a little remarkable when considering she had stayed with Xena for so long, never feeling she had enough of the danger or roughness of life on the road. He admired that. Gabrielle's devotion to her friend. Much like what he felt for Hercules, he suspected. Perhaps that was what bound them together, the hunter and bard, emotionally.
Still, he'd been with many women. Beautiful, exotic women from the east. Sophisticated, sultry and accomplished women from Athens and Sparta. Even the simple, pretty girls from Thrace and Thebes had known his charms. What was it about this young woman sitting before him that made her a genuine marital prospect? He hadn't felt the emotions he experienced with Gabrielle, while they made love, for a long, long time. And, even now, he couldn't get enough of her. He just wanted to look at her, touch her, and forget whatever dangers were on the horizon. He wanted to set up a home with her, work with her, talk with her, love her and have her give birth to his children. He wanted to put her up on a well deserved pedestal. She deserved no less.
Shaken by his own careless emotion, Iolaus visibly frowned. Another not so nice thought occurred to him. Gabrielle was young and, perhaps, not as willing to leave her life of travel and adventure as he. She loved Xena. Could she leave her? Were Gabrielle's feelings for him as strong as her devotion to The Warrior Princess? Did she really have deep feeling for him?
Maybe he was letting his imagination take over. It wouldn't be the first time. Iolaus sighed. He was back to square one. A broken heart was nothing new to him. He'd given as well as received rejection on many an occasion. He could take it again if need be. Iolaus didn't know what to do yet knew he had to do something or lose her forever.
"I can catch a couple of fish too," Gabrielle murmured. Gently troubled and purposely not looking at him at this moment, she referred back to an earlier conversation. Her eyes then focused on Iolaus and she spoke a little louder, "Not that I don't think you can catch enough rabbit to keep us content but a little variety doesn't hurt -- and I know how you can eat, Iolaus."
Gabrielle felt a flood of affection for him as she watched Iolaus' handsome features melt into a smile he tried to hide with a gauntlet. He then laughed aloud in good humor. Was there anything better in the world than watching her handsome Golden Hunter when he was amused? The way those little lines around his mouth and eyes crinkled ... It made her feel warm all over.
Unintentionally, a pang of regret pierced her soul. He was too good for her. How would Iolaus feel if he knew she, incorruptible little Gabrielle, had manipulated him? But she had done it for Lila! Gabrielle clung to the thought. Her sister... She was saving her sister. Iolaus didn't know and couldn't know. Their experience together had been mutually satisfying and, eventually, it wouldn't matter because he would forget the whole thing ever happened. Ares promised.
Ares. How could she believe a word the devious god said? Besides, could she really be pleased that Iolaus wouldn't remember any of this? That beautiful, incredible time they had together and another exquisite encounter yet to come. He would forget it all and she would be the only one with those sweet memories to build on or to weep over as a lost opportunity...
He knelt beside her, laying a gentle hand on the bard's shoulder. "We need to talk," Iolaus said seriously then quickly added, "but not now. Tonight." His fingers strayed to the smooth angle of her throat, "I need to tell you a few things. Maybe we can talk after Hercules has gone to sleep."
Heart heavy, she stared at him but was unable to say the right words in response. Iolaus leaned forward and kissed Gabrielle on the cheek. Then, before he could make a move to leave, she raised a hand that was surprisingly determined and placed it to the back of his neck. Gabrielle pulled him so she could meet his lips with her own. The touch didn't last long but it was effective.
Both hearts were beating quickly but for slightly different reasons. With a soft, dreamy smile Iolaus whispered her name and got to his feet. Reluctantly, scooping up his bow, he turned and walked into the woods.
Tears, earlier suppressed, began to form in Gabrielle's eyes. I can't keep this up. she moaned silently. "I lov..."
Unexpected, a shadow materialized beside Gabrielle.
Startled, thinking it might be Hercules already returned, Gabrielle turned quickly but saw instead the form of a darkly attractive young woman wearing black, "Who are you?' she asked.
"The name's Discord." The goddess smiled sweetly with her too red mouth, hands balancing on the shapely curve of her hips. "Ares never spoke of me? I'm hurt."
Gabrielle was further startled when the goddess sat cross-legged in front of her on the turf, as if she and the bard were summer-camp girlfriends, and started to chat.
"I have to tell you something, Gabrielle. I'm impressed by you. I really am."
Silent, the bard stared at her, puzzled.
"How you maneuvered this whole thing." Discord looked the bard straight in the eyes, "Iolaus, I mean. I'm not much for humans but he is a cute one and I can see why you'd select him as your love-toy."
"Love toy..." Gabrielle murmured and looked passed Discord, uncomfortable.
"And the best part of this is he won't remember a thing. You'll have your fun, use the guy up, pay off Ares and that will be that. No guilt."
"Guilt..." Gabrielle realized she was repeating but couldn't help herself, "But, I really do care for him." She spoke urgently. "He's a good, gentle man and I think...I love him."
"Sure, you do," Amused, Discord looked off over the serene lake. "And using him like you are, well, he'd understand completely, right? As a matter of fact, if your roles were reversed, he'd do the same thing to you...right?"
Gabrielle's mouth opened to answer but she couldn't. Of course Iolaus would never do this to her. Tears of shame again formed in her eyes, "Am I horrible?" she asked, more to herself than the goddess.
Discord's tone was mocking in its support, "Not at all!" she reached forward and patted one of Gabrielle's hands, "I've been watching you and think it's a big improvement. You're always so wrapped up in being concerned with the welfare of others. All that morality. Not to mention how you pride yourself on not hurting other people's feelings. Oh, and that irritating way you have of knowing what is right and wrong... It's nice to see you have failings, Gabrielle -- But no, not really failings! After all, you are repaying a debt to Ares, a responsibility you're not shirking, and - hey -" her tone suddenly turned from overly warm to cold and an eyebrow arched deviously, "I'm sure you hated every minute back at the inn, when you were with Iolaus, right? That whole sex thing made your skin crawl... because you knew it was wrong. You and he together only because Ares made you do it."
Her smile was ice. Gabrielle wanted to collapse on the grass and weep uncontrollably but she spoke in a strong voice, with a deceptively straight face - "Why are you here?"
Discord shrugged and once again looked over at the lake, "Ares." she stated, honestly. "He's looking at you and I don't like what he's seeing."
The bard was surprised by Discord's apparent openness, "You don't like?"
"He's The God of War and my brother-lover. And when he looks at you -" the goddess turned to meet Gabrielle's eyes, "...he sees potential. Not just what he can get out of you for kicks. He has servants for that. He's seeing something else." Discord abruptly stood, "What I don't know. He won't tell me. Maybe you're a substitution for Xena or an instrument of revenge. But he's not thinking right, not telling me things he should. He's being weak." Discord didn't tell Gabrielle that weakness in Ares she could well tolerate.
After all, a ineffective Ares opened the door for other gods and goddesses. Discord thought she would make an excellent Goddess of War -- but not if it is proven that Ares was able to keep her out of touch, thus gaining power through whatever it was he was doing in Temptius and Ditea ... and with the unwitting help of this silly bard. Again, she shrugged, "Men ..." Then, "Take care, Gabrielle. You're doing fine. We'll be watching, honey." and she was gone.
There was going to be terrible trouble. Gabrielle could feel it. She had to tell Iolaus and Hercules. She had no other choice. Her eyes focused on the calm of the lake and she sighed audibly. Then, another shadow appeared. Discord back to dispense more sarcasm? "Look, I..." Gabrielle began.
She nearly cried out in surprise and, as an after thought, reached for her staff. But, caught off guard, Gabrielle was overwhelmed before her hands could grasp onto the weapon. No sound escaped her lips as a large hand closed over her mouth.
Then she saw Iolaus. Bleeding from his head, tied and gagged, he dully looking at her from his imprisonment in the back of a captive's cart. He seemed only semi-conscious.
Gabrielle heard a low, evil laugh in her ear as she was roughly pushed forward.
He sensed them before seeing them. Men. Big men. Soldiers. Warriors. They were on the prowl and looking for a fight. Hercules dashed off of the road when he felt them drawing near. No point inviting trouble before he got to where he was going but he did want to see who these men were. He crouched behind a large bush, brushing long chestnut hair out of his eyes, and watched the three leather clad thugs as they slowly traveled and loudly plotted their next acquisition.
"He's not so tough." One said.
"I heard a guy from Sparta beat him soundly." said another.
"Hercules? He's never been beat. You're crazy!"
The demigod had seen their kind before. Bullies, dishonorably discharged soldiers, out to make a name for themselves on there way to sacking and pillaging a small villages. Who better to defeat than the son of Zeus if you wanted to make a name for yourself? They had known he was going to be on this road. Perhaps someone back in Bantius told them.
But, no. His god-sense was off. Hercules shook his head as if you clear away a foolish thought. This wasn't right. These weren't typical thugs. They were traveling this road because they knew something. Men. Big men...
Diversions. They were working for Ares. Too late, but he knew it. Being a half god gave him this perception as well as his strength. Then he heard a warning. Muffled but clear -- and right behind him.
"Hercules! Get away!" came Iolaus cry beneath the gag.
He turned, only a split second of seeing Iolaus and Gabrielle imprisoned in the back of a wagon, the hunter's head bloody from an earlier confrontation.
Then the chain was thrown over Hercules' head. Lightning fast, in a way only another god could accomplish, cuffs were snapped around his wrist.
"We got him!" a rough voice shouted. "Praise Ares!"
And those were the last words Hercules heard before being slammed on the back of the head. Darkness claimed the son of Zeus just as he felt something cold and hard being clamped around his ankles.
Ares, He thought. Of course it's Ares.
Hercules then heard a delighted and evil laugh.
Continue on to Part Two