The Plot Thickens...
The Road of Reckoning
"What do you know about Ditea, Herc?"
"Not much. Itís soon to be ruled, through marriage, by Princess Armeta of Temptius. Sheís due to be crowned Queen on her next birthday. I think thatís sometime this week."
"Is she pretty?"
Gabrielle reach over and playfully punched Iolausí shoulder. Amused, Hercules continued to talk as if he hadnít seen his friends playful exchange. "Iíve never seen her but heard the prince sheís going to marry is only a child."
"Thatís 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 Gabrielleís staff as a walking stick as they hiked, considered something the bard and halfgod hadnít, "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.
"Iím 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 wasnít feeling a form of jealousy. His best friend had said very little directly to him since they started to travel early this morning, Iolausí attention was aimed nearly exclusively on their guest. Heíd obviously seen nothing amiss and was enjoying Gabrielleís 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, didnít 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 otherís company. There was a physical closeness there heíd 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 wasnít 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.
"Weíll 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 wasnít as it should be. The attack on he and Gabrielle by a stranger and the appearance of Aresí 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 Herculesí 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 sheíd 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 bardís 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 heíd 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 didnít 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 hadnít just been the impulsive intimacy they shared. There was so much more to her than that. But heíd 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 heíd ever been with. He couldnít really find the logic or put the feeling into words. It was just there.
On the surface she seemed a simple girl from Potedia 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. Gabrielleís 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, heíd 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 hadnít felt the emotions he experienced with Gabrielle, while they made love, for a long, long time. And, even now, he couldnít 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 Gabrielleís 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 wouldnít be the first time. Iolaus sighed. He was back to square one. A broken heart was nothing new to him. Heíd given as well as received rejection on many an occasion. He could take it again if need be. Iolaus didnít 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 donít think you can catch enough rabbit to keep us content but a little variety doesnít hurt -- and I know how you can eat, Iolaus."
Gabrielle felt a flood of affection for him as she watched Iolausí 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 didnít know and couldnít know. Their experience together had been mutually satisfying and, eventually, it wouldnít 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 wouldnít 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 bardís 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 didnít 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 Gabrielleís eyes. I canít 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 nameís Discord." The goddess smiled sweetly with her too red mouth, hands balancing on the shapely curve of her hips. "Ares never spoke of me? Iím 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. Iím 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?"
Gabrielleís mouth opened to answer but she couldnít. 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.
Discordís tone was mocking in its support, "Not at all!" she reached forward and patted one of Gabrielleís hands, "Iíve 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 Discordís apparent openness, "You donít like?"
"He's The God of War and my brother-lover. And when he looks at you -" the goddess turned to meet Gabrielleís eyes, "...he sees potential. Not just what he can get out of you for kicks. He has servants for that. Heís seeing something else." Discord abruptly stood, "What I donít know. He wonít tell me. Maybe youíre a substitution for Xena or an instrument of revenge. But he ís not thinking right, not telling me things he should. Heís being weak." Discord didnít 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. Youíre doing fine. Weíll 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 captiveís 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.
"Heís not so tough." One said.
"I heard a guy from Sparta beat him soundly." said another.
"Hercules? Heís never been beat. Youíre 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 wasnít right. These werenít 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 hunterís head bloody from an earlier confrontation.
Then the chain was thrown over Herculesí 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 itís Ares.
Hercules then heard a delighted and evil laugh.
"Now this is the way I like to see you..." Ares advanced on Hercules, mocking him, visually examining the chains that held the demigod to the wall and the cuffs which bound his wrists and ankles, "Confined and ready for..."
...slaughter. Iolaus nearly panicked at the thought, "You canít, Ares." Iolaus raised his bruised arms, his fingers gripping the bars between cells. "Youíre not allowed. Zeusís decree..." he started, anxiously. His own aches and pains meant nothing compared to the humiliation his best friend must be feeling.
Gabrielle, slightly battered herself, sympathized with Iolaus anxiety. How often had she seen Xena bound and imprisoned and feared there was nothing she could do? She reach a hand over and touched his shoulder. He didnít react and she didnít expect him to. Iolaus had told her in the prisoners cart that he was caught in a hunters snare, set by Ares soldiers. He was angry he hadnít spotted it... An old hunter's trick... he had murmured, nursing the wound to his forehead. A gray bearded guard had hit him when Iolaus made a not so gentlemanly remark about his parentage.
Ares turned casually to look at Hercules friend, noting the small bandage that hid the gash. It wasnít that easy to get the jump on the normally alert hunter-warrior. Ares decided he might have to reward his disciples for the clean catch. On the other hand, perhaps Iolaus had his mind on his latest conquest. Gabrielle was probably more deserving of plaudits.
"Iím not going to lay a hand on Hercules. Why should I?" Ares asked, "I like him this way. He canít move, canít interfere...and heíll stay this way - chained - for the rest of his life. Or at least until Iíve moved him from this dungeon to my temple. I want to be able to look at him whenever the mood strikes me."
Again, Hercules attempted to break his bonds. It was useless. "Hephestus made these restraints." he stated, eyeing Ares with contempt and wondering how he got The God of the Forge to agree.
"And He's constructing a cell for you." Ares looked about them and turned indifferently. "You are, after all, a son of Zeus. I couldnít just keep you here." His laugh was grating, his attitude mock-benevolent. "Just think, Herc. You and me. Brothers. You living in The Halls of War... Togetherness. Dad would like that." Ares move in Iolaus direction, "And your friends..." He glanced at Gabrielle between the bars and felt an odd pang that he chose to ignore. She stood just behind Iolaus, "Shortly they wonít matter." he whispered a bit more seriously.
"Leave Gabrielle alone." Iolaus urged, "She canít harm you."
The God of War folded his arms in front of his chest and continued to gaze at the girl, "Neither of you can harm me -- but you will both help me. No Iolaus, I canít let her go. Sheís too important to my plans..."
For a moment, while watching her wide-eyed and betrayed expression, Ares felt a twinge of pity. It was an emotion he wasnít used to and he forthwith decided he was glad the bard would eventually be out of the picture. He couldnít afford to have a defect when, right now, he needed all the focus and confidence he could summon.
"Have any of you ever seen Princess Armeta?" Ares asked suddenly, seeming to change the subject, and raised a finger. His god-power forced an unwilling Gabrielle to come closer to the bars, where he reached out and lifted her chin - "Sheís right here, gentlemen. Gabrielle looks so much like Armeta that when I arranged this little capture I knew she would be the perfect double."
Iolaus gritted his teeth together then spat out - "This is just like you, Ares. You act as if humans mean nothing to you but without us who would you use?" Iolaus barked and moved in close just in case the god decided to do more than just touch Gabrielle. "Tell us, what do you have planned that would require a stand in for the Princess of Temptius?"
Ares stepped back from the bars, releasing his power on the woman. He watched as she slumped weakly into Iolaus arms. Any fool could see he was in love with her. The ruling committee would have to be blind ...
Casually, determining just what he wanted revealed, Ares leaned his back against the damp stone wall behind him. His revelation took in Hercules as well as his friends, "Diteans are rather archaic. They tolerate very little and their laws, written on The Scrolls of Sovereignty, are absolute. Their king and queen, while quite respected, must also bend to the laws of the scrolls." He smiled obliquely and asked, "Now, what would happen if one of those very important laws, the law involving the character of a would-be queen, were to be questioned? What if it were to come out that lovely, thoroughly chaste Princess Armeta, the faithful betroth of Prince Homer, was - oh - of easy virtue? Ditea has a very strict foundation. Death sentences have been carried out for far less an offense."
Gabrielle, who had been concentrating on what Ares was saying, suddenly blanched. It sank in. "Gods..." she whispered, "Ares, youíre not...you havenít..."
"Tomorrow is the day Princess Armeta and Prince Homer are to marry." he interrupted, "A bombshell will be announced and a kingdom over-thrown. And dear Armeta, along with her secret lover, will die. It is established by edict in the scrolls and cannot be altered."
Silence followed for a count of ten.
Hercules leaned back in his chains, "But what about the real Princess Armeta? Where is she?"
Iolaus added, "And, whatever youíve done with her, do you really think she is going to stay quiet after this is all over? She has to have her own followers..."
The God of War had been waiting for this moment and he relished it with visible glee, "Princess Armeta is missing and I had nothing to do with it. Both kingdoms know it but refuse to say an official word. Her own people feel she ran away, frightened by the prospect of being Queen and marrying the child-Prince of Ditea. She is being searched for and most are still hoping she will show up for the wedding before itís too late. If Armeta doesnít marry Homer the two kingdoms will be at war. The Diteans donít want war because their army is not match for Temptius. But they know something..."
Ares glanced at his three prisoners. They were interested despite themselves. "Armeta is dead. I was told she was accidently killed while riding a favorite horse. Her body has been hidden by the Diteans but rather than be blamed for her death a plan was devised to make Armeta not worthy, running away with her secret lover. Another reason why we need Gabrielle."
"Those who wish to take over Ditea and Temptius. My followers."
"Of course..." Gabrielle breathed out, stricken. "I should have known ..."
"I still donít understand how you hope to accomplish your goal, Ares." said Hercules, "I never met Armeta but I understand she was a lady in every sense of the word. I donít believe she ever had an affair so how can you...?"
"Youíre right. She didnít. The poor girl died a virgin." and he stared directly at Iolaus and Gabrielle as he said this. "But I have evidence to the contrary."
Iolaus mouth opened and he was only minimally aware that Gabrielle looked as miserable, "You were watching when we..." he started.
"It was entertaining."
Furious, Iolaus suddenly reached through the bars as if to take Ares by the neck and throttle him, "Bastard!"
A wave from the war godís hand and the hunter was knocked against the cellís back bars. "Iolaus!" Hercules called, struggling uselessly with his cuffs.
Gabrielle ran to him and helped the groggy man into a sitting position on the floor. "Relax." Ares smirked, "It wasnít as if she didnít know I was watching..." Then he laughed, leaving the comment dangling, and disappeared in a flash of sparks.
Stunned, Iolaus looked at Gabrielle. An understanding, horrible and real, came to him as he stared at the guilt written all over her face. Hercules, confounded, watched his friends from his cell. He was silent. As much as he wanted to, this was something he could not help them with.
"I was going to tell you, Iolaus." she whispered, "But I never thought ... I..."
He moved back from her as he might from someone who just told him she had the plague, "I canít believe it."
"I had a debt to Ares..." she said, distraught. "I was repaying it... He gave me no choice. I didnít know about any of this, I swear... My sister Lila..."
"You used me." he whispered, sounding deeply hurt and not able to look at her now. She wanted to protest but couldnít. The sadness in his eyes, that blessed ignorance now lost...
"Please, Iolaus..." She lifted a hand, almost frantic, to touch his arm. He had to understand why she did this. Had to know that if she had had another option she never would have done this terrible thing. He just had to know... "I love you, Iolaus."
He pulled his arm violently away from her touch. "You donít know the meaning of the word." he snarled in a fierce, emotionally charged whisper.
Iolaus stood and walked to the other end of the cell, away from her.
Hercules closed his eyes and sighed.
Discord watched Hephestusí latest effort as he had a few of his men bring the cage into Ares temple. It was tall and solid -- not even Zeus himself could escape from it. She was impressed. However, the scarred and lame yet somehow still handsome God of the Forge did not look pleased. As a matter of fact he appeared positively irritated.
"So tell me Hephy, what did Ares do for you that made you have to pay up?" Discord asked with a sanctimonious lilt in her tone.
Hephestus crossed muscular arms over his massive chest and ignored her. He didnít like Discord and he detested Ares. The only near god he liked other than his beloved Aphrodite was Hercules -- and now he was being forced to aid in his destruction. Yet, there was something Ares didnít know...
"Oh, come on. You can tell me. What did Ares do for you?"
The cage was lowered into a corner, gently.
"Something to do with Aphrodite?" Discord continued to queery, "Maybe telling you where she and a lover were meeting?"
The comment hit a nerve and Hephestus glanced in her direction.
"Thought so." Discord smiled. Men were such idiots. Always thinking with the lower half of their bodies rather than their brains. Still, that manly weakness had gotten her where she is today, as Ares second in command, and she would use it again to not only better her position but teach a certain bard the meaning of human life...
Gabrielle just thinks sheís so hot, attracting not only Iolaus but Ares, with her gullibility and goodness. And as angry as Iolaus was now he would eventually forgive Gabrielle. The little Amazon would be left off the hook before she watched Iolaus die and it boiled Discordís god-blood. She was sure that was the whole idea ... Ares wanted to kill Iolaus, have Gabrielle to himself, and - for whatever reason - keep Hercules imprisoned here at his temple.
Gabrielle, taking Discordís place in Ares bed. She couldnít have that. Or, if she couldnít prevent it she would at least show Gabrielle who is boss...and give her an experience she wouldnít soon forget. Her love for Iolaus and his for her would turn as cold as Heraís heart.
Sheíd show the little human wench just what she could really attract in men...
Four burley guards arrived.
Unlocking the door to Iolaus and Gabrielleís cell, the Captain stepped forward and took one of her arms, "The first part of your trial starts here, Princess." he said, "And it will conclude, with both of you tomorrow morning." He glanced at Iolaus, who sat quietly on the cot. The blond man made no move to stop him. The Captain had seen his fierce fighting nature early in the day, when the soldiers had picked Iolaus up while he was hunting in the woods, but now he was mute and nearly lethargic. His men must have knocked the fight right out of him.
Gabrielle glanced at Iolaus over her shoulder, hoping for some spark of worry or remorse but saw nothing. Not even anger.
It didnít occur to him that he was acting out of character. Distraught, Iolaus drew his knees up and consciously didnít attempt an escape. There was no point. Heíd only get slapped down and Gabrielle would be taken anyway. His world had, yet again, been shattered. When will I ever learn? he wondered with more than a little self pity.
When Gabrielle and the guards departed he looked over at Hercules who stood quietly in his shackles, looking about the cell. "Any ideas?" he asked, "Iíd really like to get out of here before tomorrow."
"Unless you can produce a key or magically make Hephestus appear and remove these chains Iím afraid weíre out of luck."
"You can usually find some way around that."
"Not always." Hercules corrected, "But I know Hephestus. There is a key somewhere. Maybe Gabrielle will pick up on something while sheís out."
He then paused, gazing at the silent and thoughtful Iolaus. "I hope sheís all right." Hercules said the last part more to get a rise out of his sullen friend than as a hopeful remark.
"Sheís a hand-maiden of Ares. Iím sure sheíll be fine."
Hercules recognized the vindictiveness, "Iolaus, donít."
The hunter stood and walked over to the bars that separated he and his best friend, "She betrayed us, Hercules. Ares double-crossed her but she did betray us. You canít deny that."
"Not entirely...but I donít think she knew anything about this, Iolaus." Hercules rattled the chains around his cuffs, "Gabrielle has always been a good person. Sheís kept Xena whole even while having to battle her own inner demons. But something happened somewhere. She was desperate. Ares must have threatened her with something pretty terrible for Gabrielle to..."
"...sleep with me?" Iolaus blurted without meaning to. Miserable and feeling violated, he bent his head backward and closed his eyes. He smiled ironically. "Itís getting so you canít trust anyone. I would have staked my life on Gabrielleís honest nature." Then, "The next thing Iíll find out is that youíve been Heraís love-slave since Diennera..."
The color nearly drained from Hercules face, "Iolaus!"
Realizing heíd gone too far the hunter raised his head again and opened his eyes, looking at a startled Hercules. "Iím sorry. I didnít mean that." Iolaus said with quick shame. "I know Iím feeling sorry for myself, Hercules. Letís just work on a plan to get out of here and Iíll deal with it later."
Hercules bit back his initial response. Then, "I know youíre hurt." he said, trying to control his own emotions. "But you know Iím a good judge of character, Iolaus. Try to believe me when I say there is something more to this than meets the eye. Gabrielle has a good heart but she stumbled. We all do. I did when Hera killed my family, you did with Xena and now Gabrielle... Sheís not the perfection you envisioned, Iolaus. But sheís warm and caring...and she does love you."
"Hercules..." He wanted to tell him to stop. He couldnít think anymore about Gabrielle or heíd go crazy. Iolaus hesitated for a long while before whispering: "Iíll try to keep an open mind." but his expression was far from forgiving.
He could hear a womenís voice in his head, laughing at him and telling him he was a fool. Yet, the voices also seemed sympathetic. They spoke truths: Woman just love to play with your mind, Iolaus. Wouldnít it be wonderful if just once you could smack a smirk off one of their faces?
No...no... His control took over. Iíd never want to do that.
Discord watched Iolaus, the bewildered expression on his face, from the portal in Ares temple: "Youíd be surprised what you can do if properly motivated, handsome." she whispered. Ares would hate her meddling -- and thatís why she was doing it.
Clenching her hands into fists, nails biting deeply into her palms, she smiled.
Trial and Error
It was an extravagant room. Pillars of bronze and ivory, cathedral ceiling and ornate tapestries decorated its expansiveness. Men and women, wearing flamboyant togas, grape leaves for head dresses and the most expensive but practical sandals available, lined the aisles. Some of these people, the law-givers, were seated.
Gabrielle doubted there was a courtroom this fine even in Athens. A hush came over the crowd of highly decorated officials - no peasants or nobles yet; that would come tomorrow for the second trial (or was it going to be a wedding?) - as she was escorted down the aisle to stand before the ruling committee. Men and woman from both Ditea and Temptius studied Gabrielle.
She heard someone whisper, "Where did the princess get those awful clothes?" Gabrielleís hands were tied behind her back and a gag placed over and inside her mouth.
"Councilor!" An elderly man stood and shot daggers at his opponent, "This is the Princess of Temptius, not a common criminal! You remove those bonds at once!" he demanded.
"Advisor Tallus, she has no station! The evidence is clear! Armeta is nothing but a common courtesan!!" Annoyus, the prosecutor, shrieked.
Gabrielle was shocked by the unexpected fierceness in both tones.
"How dare you?" A mature woman, with a round compassionate face, stood. "I am Minya and Iíve nursed Aremta since she was a baby. She was and is chaste child, I tell you!" She looked over at Gabrielle and the womanís eyes seemed to be searching for something.
A murmur arose from the crowd.
If this was a trial it was the strangest and most unorganized Gabrielle had ever seen. Men, women and witnesses standing about, tossing their opinions to whomever would listen. A defendant - who was royalty no less - brought before her accusers tied and gagged... Donít I get to say something? she thought.
"Observe!" the prosecutor demanded and waved an expressive hand to his right.
The portal, a swirl of color and light, appeared and opened.
The assembly gasped their amazement.
Soon, to Gabrielleís horror, all were looking at she and Iolaus - back at the inn. The conclave watched as she and Iolaus kissed. They observed the manner in which she eagerly stroked his smooth bare chest and the way he slipped the green half top off her shoulders...
Gabrielle, through her gag, couldnít prevent a sob. This was too much. No one but she and Iolaus should be a witness to this. It was private and beautiful but was being made to look filthy. She found herself silently praying, to Ares no less. Please make it stop...please...
Then, almost as if he had heard her, the God of War did appear and with a quick stroke of his hand the image disappeared. "Enough!" he called to the gawking assembly.
"The God of War!"
Shouts came from all over the courtroom. Scribes, thrilled by the unexpected appearance, began to quickly scratch on their scrolls.
Gabrielleís eyes widened. He was allowing himself to be seen. Why? "What youíve just seen," he announced, "was evidence brought to Lord Trecherius and Councilor Annoyus by me. My favorite temple is in Ditea and most of you have taken me to heart. I am your patron god. Youíve prayed to me, you trust me. I understand the laws of both kingdoms and know an injustice when I see one. Princess Armeta is all that the prosecutor accuses her of -- and more."
"Why should The God of War produce evidence of this kind?" Tallus, the defender, asked bravely. Ares looked at the worn attorney hard for a moment and was impressed when he didnít back down. "Because I appreciate the Temptian people and want them to worship me. Wisely, Ditea already pays homage to me and so should Temptius. A new regimen, lead by an opened minded establishment - preferably led by Lord Trecherius - will see to it. I gain much by having the truth revealed."
Gabrielle, now accustomed to Ares betrayal, narrowed her eyes as she watched the god. There was more to it than what his words insinuated. She knew it. There was something he wasnít telling the ruling committee. "What do you recommend, oh powerful God of War?" Annoyus simpered.
"It is not up to me to recommend anything." he intoned, "It is what the ancient scrolls demand. All I ask is that you do what is just." Then, taking a single glance at Gabrielle - meeting her eyes briefly -Ares disappeared.
"Execution!" someone shouted.
"Death by fire!í called another.
Magleus, the judge who sat at the head of the ruling committee weighed the evidence in his mind. "We must go into chambers to discuss this further." he told the men and women to his right and left. Then, to the assembly - "Tomorrow our decision will be rendered, immediately followed by the verdictís consequences."
Gabrielle understood. They would either be celebrating a wedding or implementing capital punishment. Iolaus would be with her, the guard had said. She had to talk with him. Iolaus. She had to explain her actions. She couldnít go to Tartarus without telling him how she truly felt, having him hate her for an eternity.
"ífraid matters didnít go well for your little princess."
Iolaus sat on the cot in his cell and watched the guard - fumbling with his wineskin - lean into the bars, "Is she all right?" he asked.
Hercules who had been watching the soldier, a man clearly in deep trouble if his Captain discovered him inebriated while on duty, drink from his narrow-mouth skin. He boasted, as most drunken men will, of what he knew. Hercules then looked at Iolaus. Despite his friendís hurt, what he considered a horrid betrayal, he was worried about her. Hercules couldnít blame Iolaus. Itíd been hours and the soldiers had yet to return Gabrielle to the cell. Neither of them knew what was happening but hoped, through this besotted soldier, to gain a little information.
"Now she is. Tomorrow will be another story. They said there was a commotion at her trial. Especially when Ares showed up."
Iolaus and Hercules looked at one another.
"But she pretended to be brave. Didnít fall apart like most of those filthy royals do..." The guard hiccuped and reeled a bit. He held himself up with one hand, clutching the cell door.
With an inward sigh of regret, continuing to listen to the guard blather on, Iolaus realized that if he held the key to either his cell or Hercules restraints he would be an easy target right now. But it was never that easy. This man did not have any keys on him.
"So, tell us what Ares did." Hercules suggested.
"Showed everyone just what a tramp Armeta is... What else." he laughed, "And now sheís going to the tower room. Whenever royalty goes to the tower room it means something. Usually that theyíre going to die."
Iolaus closed his eyes for a moment. He couldnít let this happen. He had to do something. He had to rescue Gabrielle and free Hercules. He was a man, some had even called him resourceful... But what to do... Where was the opportunity?
She expected to be taken back to the cell but grew confused and a little frightened when the guards steered her in an entirely different direction. They mounted stairs and seemed to walk forever before coming to the tall wooden door in an area at the highest point of the castle. A tower room.
The door was flung open and Gabrielle expected to see an executioner or something even worse. But there was nothing. Just a bedroom. A lovely but confining room decorated for royalty. The bed was a huge canopied monstrosity. The doomed were at least allowed a good night sleep before they were sent to the Otherside.
A young soldier respectfully untied her hands and removed the gag from her mouth. "You will be staying here until morning, Princess." he said in a monotone and gently pushed her forward.
Gabrielle thought she saw a spark of regret in his eyes. "Iím not Princess Armeta." She said but her words were hung up by another voice.
An older woman. "I am to serve the princess." she stated in a solid tone, "Lord Trecherius wishes to see her in two hours and her clothes are inappropriate. You know how Ditea is about tradition." She spoke in a nearly mocking tone.
Despite the circumstances, Gabrielle smiled at her words.
Apparently the womanís point was considered valid because the large door creaked opened further and the woman made her way in with a wash basin, pitcher and a few clean towels. The door was closed behind her and bolted.
Gabrielle faced her. Minya. The same servant who spoke up for the princess at trial. She couldnít quite meet her eyes and watched at the woman put the pitcher and bowl on a stand in the far right of the room. "Thank you for what you said." she said, unable to think of anything else.
"Someone had to say something." The woman had her back to Gabrielle and folded the towels.
"Iím not your princess. You know that, donít you?"
"Yes." Finally, she turned to look at the bard. "Although the resemblance is amazing except... You arenít wearing her seal."
"Armetaís royal seal. It identifies her. She never goes anywhere without it. She even has a small identifying mark on her body which matches the seal. Itís secret, only a few of us know. And you donít have that either, I take it."
"I couldnít possibly."
Minya moved forward, "Do you know where they are hiding her?í she asked, slightly anxious.
"I donít..." Gabrielle shook her head, wondering if she should tell the woman what she knew - "No, I donít."
The woman closed her eyes for a few seconds and took a breath, "I fear my sweet Armeta is dead." she said, "And you, poor child, are taking her place. I saw this coming over a year ago. Attitudes. Men and women talking in secret. And that preposterous marriage to the child king..." Again, she shook her head, lost in thought. "Advisor Tallus would make a wonderful ruler. If Armeta is dead he should be the one..." she trailed off.
Gabrielle stared at her for a moment. Tallus, her defender at the trial, had been more than an attorney. He was a man of position. Gabrielle had sensed he was a good man and Minya now confirmed it. A brave man too. Standing up to Ares the way he did. The bards eyes took in the room, "Do you know of any way I can get out of here?" she asked.
"There is no way. Nobles have been trying to escape the tower for centuries and it is just too heavily guarded. Not just by the lummox outside," She tipped her head with disdain at the wooden door, "but this room is so far from the ground... Iíve seen men and women plummet to their deaths before bars were put in the windows." She mimed to a boxed opening where long curtains were wafting in the breeze from outside, "It was horrible."
"Iím going to die tomorrow, arenít I?" Gabrielle asked in a strong voice.
The woman nodded, "Yes dear, I think you are." she said with sorrow in her dark eyes. Then, suddenly realizing why she was in the room with the girl, "You need to dress. There is a green gown ..." she moved to an clothes cabinet and opened its doors. Minya then pulled the garment she spoke of from its hanger.
"I wonít be needing that." Gabrielle started.
"Yes, you will." the woman countered. "Donít argue with me on such a silly issue, child." she warned, "Lord Trecherius will be here in an hour and if you want to get any information from him, which Iím sure you do, then youíll have to at least dress the part. Cooperate and you might save the two men down in the dungeon. You want to do that, donít you?"
Slowly, Gabrielle nodded. She didnít know what type of deal she could possibly strike with Trecherius but Minya was right. If she could say anything or do anything that might help either Iolaus or Hercules then, by the gods, sheíd do it. Iolaus might spurn her and might not mourn her death but she couldnít die knowing there was something she could do for him but didnít try. As the servant helped Gabrielle off with her clothes a sudden thought struck the bard, "Minya, do you think you could bring Iolaus here to me later?"
"A prisoner? I hardly think..."
"Please," Gabrielle turned around and took the womanís hands as she had them held up, "I need to talk with him. Itís important. You told the soldiers youíre here to serve me. After all, imprisoned or not, they still think me their princess. Possibly even their future queen. Tell them I ordered you to bring Iolaus here to me. I need him."
"They will use this against you tomorrow."
"It doesnít matter and you know it. Iím dead and so is Iolaus. The trial has already taken place. There is no evidence to support me." The last was said with a slight catch in Gabrielleís throat, "Please."
The woman nodded, "Iíll see what I can do."
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