Consequences: The Debt

Conclusion

by Beckers

"For Zeus sake, think of it as a last request!" Advisor Tallus exclaimed and walked into the prison followed by two soldiers. Heíd been arguing with the Captain for over twenty minutes and finally managed to get him to agree with the petition, reminding him that as advisor to the still "in office" Princess it was well within his power to discharge him and have all his soldiers executed if he had just cause. "Besides, Hercules can stay where he is. The Princess only wants to see the other man."

"Yes, Advisor." The Captain replied, aware that this man could still cause trouble. Tallus might be banished after the Princessí execution, and heíd be happy to see him go, but the advisor could take many with him if he cared to name names.

Unseen by the Captain, Tallus gripped something in his hand, hidden by the belled cuff of his tunic.

Hephestus had paid him a visit.

******

"Tell the Princess ..." Iolaus started.

"Go to her." he heard Hercules order from across the cell. "And donít start any trouble."

Iolaus stared at Hercules as the guard opened his cell door. A non-verbal exchange was made between he and the demigod. Telling Iolaus not to start trouble could only mean one thing. Hercules wanted him to make as much trouble as possible...for a diversion.

Something was up. Iolaus had seen a look pass between Hercules and Advisor Tallus, the man who delivered Gabrielleís message, "Oh fine, Iíll go see her!" he play acted agitation. In truth Iolaus did want to see Gabrielle. His anger abated, he was now ready to talk with her. Maybe the two of them could find a way out of this insane situation -- both personal and physical.

The first steps were being made by Tallus and Hercules. A plan was unfolding. Whatever is was it required Iolausí loudness and absence. Or, at least, his nonattendance would be a screen for whatever it was that was going to happen. Iolaus didnít and couldn't know any details but heíd been Hercules friend for too many years for this not to be the case. They could practically read each others minds.

Iolaus nodded and allowed the guards to tie his hands in front of him before escorting him from the cell. "Not so tight." he told the soldier, purposely hot-headed.

The guard, the drunk that had spilled bits and pieces about the trial to his prisoners not long before, smirked - "These eager hands will be free soon enough, little man, then you and the Princess can have the entire night to get reacquainted." He smiled lewdly and slurred his words, "Is the rest of her as pretty as the face?" he asked. Then, even lower - "Is she a screamer?"

Iolaus would have punched the guy whether he was suppose to create a distraction or not. Two fists, bound together, right in his gut. Furious, the guard lifted the butt of his club and was about to strike an awaiting Iolaus when the Captain came from Tallus side and approached them.

"What is this...?" he demanded.

Hercules and Tallus looked at one another and in that instant the Advisor lifted the key from his cuff, lipped the name Hephestus. and tossed it at Hercules who was just able to catch the key and hide it in his bound fist before the Captain had quieted matters between Iolaus and the guard.

"Are you drunk?" The Captain took his guard by the shoulder and leaned in to smell his breath, "You idiot!" He shoved the man away from Iolaus and out of the cell. "Get out of here, fool!"

"Iíd say discipline is really lacking in your soldiers, Captain. You might want to do something about that!" Iolaus exclaimed, sarcastically.

Tallus nodded at Hercules who replied with a nod of his own.

"Iíll show you discipline..." The Captain was about to lift a polished stick to strike at Iolaus, unconsciously mirroring his subordinates actions of only a minute before, when Councilor Tallus interrupted him.

"Enough, Captain!" Tallus quickly stepped over, "Take him to the Princess." He said firmly then lowered his head, "If matters go badly tomorrow this little incident wonít mean anything. He will face far worse agonies than a beating." He then turned to Hercules, "I have done all I can for the Princess. Her fate is with the gods now... But know this, Hercules, I will be back for you."

Hercules again nodded, understanding his meaning.

The Captain also nodded, unaware of what passed. "Heís under sentence from Ares. If the Princess dies tomorrow... gods help him and us all."

Iolaus continued his attitude even as they left the cell. "Hey," he shouted at the soldiers Tallus brought with him, "What was that look?" he asked petulantly. "Donít look at me again like that or youíll be picking your teeth up off the ground." With this, the guards laughed, their attention on this small warrior who was hardly in a position to be passing around threats.

Hercules heard more commotion as the voices faded away and he nearly smiled. When he was certain he was alone the demigod began to work with the key and his cuff. It wasnít easy but he managed. He was a halfgod after all.

*****

Iolaus grew quiet as they walked up the steep stairs. At first he wasnít certain what he was hearing but soon knew. Heíd heard from them before --

The women. The voices. They were speaking calmly and driving him crazy with their half truths and logic.

Remember me, Iolaus? Iím Cynea. You came to care for me when I led you to believe that the killing of a dragon was the only way into my heart. I deceived you. I wanted you and Hercules dead. I used you. You really meant nothing to me...

Nor me! came the voice of Regina, Your hometown girlfriend. Remember how I led you on, made you believe I loved you when all the time I was using you to make Dificlese jealous? No, I never loved you... I used you. You are just so easy to use, Iolaus...

Iíll say. and this was Xena, Our time together was nothing but a huge farce. I wanted Hercules dead and I took Iolaus to my bed just to make sure it happened. He has such an ego. Why would he ever believe someone like me could love someone like him? And now heís fallen in love with Gabrielle! This is really rich. Did you think sheíd really want you after all of the stories Iíve told her about us, Iolaus? How easy you were to manipulate...

Iolaus bit his lower lip as the soldiers continued to walk him upward.

"Fool!" cried Cynea.

Iolaus clenched his hands together as they were bound in front of him. Gabrielle would never purposely send me to my death. She was sincere when she said she didnít know this would happen...

"Fool!" from Regina.

Iolaus could feel a sweat break out on his forehead. Gabrielle isnít like you. Sheís honestly kind. She was forced to betray me because of Ares...

"FOOL!" from Xena. And was she really forced to tell you she loved you when she didnít mean it? Face it, Iolaus, she said it because sheís afraid. Gabrielle wants you to get her out of this castle and away from harm. Thatís the only reason she professed love... and you know what -- Youíre not that great a lover... Didnít you ever wonder why I ran from you straight into Hercules' arms? Now there is a man whoís good in bed...

Shut-up! Shut-up! Shut-up! Iolaus wanted to bellow. This was insanity. It wasnít real. It was in his head. What was happening to him? Who was happening to him?

Discord, unseen by Iolaus or the soldiers, stood to the side of the stone stairs and watched their progress. Her head tilted back in a silent chuckle.

Sparks were going to fly now!

Chapter 8 Do Unto Others...

"Iíve brought him his supper as well." Minya spoke to the two guards who were busily munching their way through the stew the mature woman lay in front of them, "Could one of you let me in to feed him?"

The senior of the two soldiers, coarsely bearded and dark, looked up at her from his sitting position, squinting suspiciously. "Whatís the rush, old woman?"

Minya grimaced at the disrespect, "As much as I like your stimulating company, I donít have all evening, boy. Are you going to let me in to feed the prisoner or not?"

He glanced into the bowl she held, "He eating the same slop we are?"

She smiled, "Are you joking? Heís a prisoner and gets curd like the rest."

Approving, sharing a laugh with the other guard who was plowing through his stew with enthusiasm, the soldier stood and pulled the key from a peg on a wall behind him. "Hear rumor this guy is Hercules but he hasnít shown me much..." They walked from the outer room into the cell block and, as he opened the cell door, the guard continued: "If heís so strong how come he canít break free from those chains?"

Minya rolled her eyes at his foolishness. Apparently not everyone had been told that Ares enlisted the aid of Hephestus. "And why would they make an old woman feed him?" she added with a weary tone, attempting to sound just as skeptical as the soldier.

Hercules was standing where he always stood, his wrists seemingly clamped, and met the womanís gaze as she entered his cell. He noted that she lifted a secretive hand as if to tell him not to make a move.

The guard locked the cell door behind her, "Give me a call when youíre finished."

"I will, thank you." Then she added, "Eat your dinner quickly, young man. I want to pick up the bowls on my way out."

The soldier mumbled a "Yeah, sure." over his shoulder.

The minute the outer door shut, Hercules snapped free of his cuffs and watched as Minya tossed the bowl aside.

Minya whispered, "Advisor Tallus told me to take you directly to him."

"I have friends I have to rescue first." Hercules walked quickly to the bars.

"No, not yet. Your friends will be fine tonight, Hercules. No one will touch them until the morning. They both have to remain alive to be publicly tried. But there is something bigger at stake here."

He looked at her, "Tell me."

"If that execution takes place tomorrow or if no proof is presented of wrong doing, Councilor Trecherius will become the indisputable king of both Ditea and Temptius. Itís his right and he has Ares backing. He is a cruel and ambitious man and the peace our two kingdoms have maintained with neighboring empires will come to an end. There will be bloody wars and destruction you would not believe."

"Ares likes that kind of thing." Hercules lifted his hands, his fingers wrapping around the bars as he looked out and determined just how strong the cell door was. "I thought the Princess was going to marry Prince Homer. Why isnít he next in line?"

"Homer is too young -- and Trecherius is his guardian, an uncle. It wouldnít surprise me if the child ended up dead after all this is over, just so Trecherius is certain to seize power." she answered, "However, there is a way to stop this... but we need your help. Tonight."

Hercules turned and looked at the woman, "What can we do tonight?"

"We can recover the real Princess Armeta."

Puzzled, Hercules brow creased. He opened his mouth to ask an obvious question but stopped himself. He then focused his attention once more on the cell door and pulled mightily. The door snapped easily off of its hinges and he quietly moved it to the inside corner of the cell. "Now for the guards..." he said and quietly shifted position to the door connected to the guards station.

"Not to worry." Minya spoke to him from the cell opening. "I put something in their stew. Theyíll sleep for hours before anyone discovers you missing."

Hercules raised his eyebrows. He didnít have to fight anyone? That was a welcomed switch. Slowly, he pushed open the wooden door and looked at the slumbering men. He then watched the old woman who indifferently passed them.

"We canít have the whole castle know you escaped before dawn. We have too much work to do for that type of upheaval."

Hercules nodded and smiled as he followed Minya out of the room. She reminded him a little of Alcemne. He liked her.

*****

They were nearly to the top of the staircase when two richly dressed gentlemen were seen descending the steps Iolaus and the guards were ascending.

"Lord-Councilor Trecherius." one guard bowed slightly, regarding the official.

Trecherius paused and looked at Iolaus who stared back at him with contempt. Heíd obviously been to see Gabrielle and considering this man was with a prosecutor, Annoyus, it couldnít have been a good experience for her. Over his shoulder, in a tone that clearly illustrated distaste, Trecherius spoke with Annoyus - "So, heís what all this fuss is about." and the noble chuckled,

"Sheís not only naive but there is something to be said for her lack of taste as well."

Annoyus and Trecherius laughed cruelly as they continued their descent. Iolaus eyes followed them. Heíd see the powerful Lord Trecherius in Tartarus one day. A very young soldier was positioned at the top of the landing.

"Open up." the senior guard who stood at Iolausí right demanded, "Heís to stay the night with the princess. No one will disturb them." The young soldier nodded, blinked a little, but said nothing.

Iolaus thought he spotted a bit of sadness there in his expression. Maybe even a touch of jealousy. Apparently, he was sympathetic to Armetaís plight. Or, perhaps Gabrielle had charmed him as much as she had Iolaus. She was easy to be drawn to.

The ropes were removed from his wrists and Iolaus was propelled through the opened door. It shut with a crisp Ďthumpí behind him. He could hear the key inserted and the bolt latched.

Iolaus looked at her as she sat on the edge of the huge bed, staring at him. Her hands were folded nervously against her stomach, She said not a word.

He could only stand there for a moment. Awed.

She was the most gorgeous woman heíd ever seen. Gabrielle wore a green, deeply detailed off the shoulder gown. Her silky hair, left loose and long about her back and neck, was styled with small blond ringlets. When she stood and took a few tentative step forward Iolaus couldnít prevent a gulp. She was the picture of purity, beauty and aristocracy and he wanted to forgive her all past wrongs instantly.

Then he forced his eyes away and looked about the room, "Have you looked for an escape?" he asked her.

"Yes." she whispered, "I was told there is no way out but I looked anyway."

Iolaus crossed the room and gazed purposely out of the window. Nothing but solid ground below. If they attempted to jump theyíd surely die.

"Iolaus..." Gabrielle started and paused when he looked inflexibly at her, "... you wonít be executed."

"I know I wonít." he spoke firmly, again looking about the room to see what other alternative was open to them.

"No, you donít understand." She walked over to him and touched his arm, conscious of the bruises still visible on his beaten flesh.

Iolaus stood still, unnerved. He could smell a delicate fragrance. He couldnít be sure if it was cologne or Gabrielleís natural scent.

"I just spoke with Councilor Annoyus and he promised me that if I tell the court tomorrow that I am Princess Armeta he will see to it that you and Hercules are released."

"And you believed him?"

"Trecherius has influence with Ares."

He closed his eyes and shook his head at her gullibility, "Gabrielle, he lied..."

"Maybe he didnít." Frantic for him to understand, she clutched his arm all the harder, "They donít need you and Hercules. Not really. *I* am the one that is standing in their way. If Iím executed, as Trecherius has planned, then..."

"What?"

She met his eyes, "They will have what they want. Both kingdoms."

"Arenít you forgetting about Ares?" He attempted to move away.

Gabrielle pulled on his arm again, keeping Iolaus still - "I havenít forgotten." Her voice shook slightly, "But...with you, Xena and Hercules... The three of you can beat Ares. I know you can. Youíll make things right."

Iolaus took in a slight breath, steadying himself - "And youíll be dead."

"Does it matter?"

"Yes, it matters!!" Iolaus unintentionally shouted and stared hard at Gabrielle.

She scrutinized at him, stunned and a little hopeful. "Iolaus, I love you. I just canít let anything happen to you..."

She might have said more but Iolaus didnít hear it -- but he heard something.

The voices. Womenís voices...

She loves you, Iolaus. Cynea using a falsetto, Youíve heard that one before, havenít you?

What an act! Regina intoned, Are you buying any of this, Iolaus? Or is she winding you around her little finger like the rest of us have?

Gabrielle was always very good with that virtuous act. Xenaís voice, Remind me to tell you about the time she betrayed me in China... A lot of laughs there, I tell you.

Then he heard another woman. He knew the voice but couldnít put a face or name to her... Her words pounded in his head louder than all of the rest -

Think of what sheís done to you... it urged, Think of the pain and the other deceitful women... Think of what you were willing to give up... Think of Hercules, your best friend, and what he must be going through because of her. Powerless! Think of her lies, Iolaus!

An over-powering fury took him. That lovely face, those rich clothes that framed her young body so perfectly and her manner, so virtuous and inherently regal, wanting to love him and needing his forgiveness. Her voice, low and feminine, begging his pardon and willing to sacrifice all. Those eyes, looking at him and filled with pain, searching his for some sign of absolution.

The voices were right. It was a lie. Every bit of it.

And suddenly Iolaus hated her. Despised Gabrielle with a passion unlike anything heíd ever felt before in his life. She was like all of the others. Regina... Cynea... Xena... But even worse because behind her treachery there was honesty. Sheíd gone against her own good nature to get what she wanted. And sheíd used him to do it.

He loathed her. He wanted her. Wanted to possess her, to hurt her, to take her physically in a way that was horrible and totally contrary to his own character.

Trying to ignore the voice and the fury-fever coursing through his blood, Iolaus turned from Gabrielle and walked toward the window again. He needed air. If I could I would jump. An odd, impossible thought. He wasnít suicidal. Iolaus didnít know what was happening to him. Why was he so angry?

He was irrational, being possessed by an evil he didnít understand... and it terrified him.

Then he felt her. Gabrielle had come up behind him, reaching out and touching his back. A light, understanding touch just between his shoulder blades.

It enraged him.

She knows exactly what she is doing to you, Iolaus! Donít let her get away with it! Make her know what it is like to be tortured by unrequited love... Make them all know!

"No!" Iolaus twirled on Gabrielle and grasped her wrists hard. Revulsion, paranoia and hate were plastered all over his once handsome face.

Gabrielle stepped back and gasped, taking in his change of expression, her heart beating wildly in her chest when his hands moved from her wrists to clutch her upper arms. Sheíd never seen him like this. Iolaus facial cast was fierce. She was absolutely terrified yet accepting. "Iolaus..." Gabrielle whispered and felt his fingertips bite deep into her flesh.

"Hit her! Hit her!" the voice shrieked.

No... no... he wouldnít do that but... but... She needed to pay! Then his mouth closed over hers greedily and Iolaus crushed her firm body to his. He then pulled Gabrielle with him. There was no doubt where they were going.

"I love you..." Gabrielle gasped, gently-pleading, between heated, hungry kisses. She suddenly felt a fire ignite in her own blood in defiance of the situation. This was horrid, indecent and heartless and - dear gods - she wanted him so much!

He heard her impassioned cry and hated her all the more as he collapsed with Gabrielle onto the plush bed, ripping violently at her clothing, hearing the light material tear, his lips savagely clinging to her mouth, trying to block her from his mind yet exacting a revenge that was brutal and just. He was only vaguely aware that Gabrielle was pulling at his clothes, in a near imitation of his own frenzy. That burning need...

She felt the leather string of his amulet brush her cheek, the black stone resting on her shoulder as he hovered above her. Gabrielle knew the warrior in Iolaus could hurt or cripple her badly right now. He could kill her. But even in this mad fury, their bodies moving together in desperate passion, he was not capable of giving her anything she couldnít take. Gabrielle knew this and was well aware that Iolaus didnít know it.

"I love you... I love you... I love..."

"No!" Iolaus cried in despair. She still spoke the words! How could she? He was taking her without any thought other than the fulfillment of his own need for dominance. She had to know this... She had to understand this was an assault... She had to...

"Please... forgive... me..." she sobbed.

The impassioned words ripped at his soul... Then, when his fury-passion was spent she was gently stroking his smooth back as he lay exhausted. Gabrielle whispered something that crushed Iolaus heart, filling him with shame, and caused tears of remorse to flood into his eyes...

"Thank you so much..."

...and he could hear the emotion in her voice as she said this, the total inoffensiveness and sympathy, the love and forgiveness... something he could not give...

...and Iolaus wanted to die. Gods above, how could he continue living? He wasnít a man. He was a monster. A foul, deranged creature that had no business existing...

Iolaus pushed himself away from her, falling to her side on the bed as a wail of complete devastation overtook him. "Nooooo." he keened. He couldnít breath. He needed to get away from her, this tender-beautiful woman, and hide himself in shame! What had he done? Gods, what had he done?!

Yet, she wasnít allowing it.

Gabrielleís body turned, her legs entwining with his, and she pinned him on his back -- her well toned body now above his. Her tender lips, still blushing from his ravishment, kissed his gently. Her hands fluttered over his shoulders and chest. Gabrielle whispered endearments, small fingers wiping the tears from his face, those tears which mingled with her own as they fell from her eyes and splashed on his cheeks.

And finally, unable to do anything but speak the soul-tearing truth, he lifted fingers of his own to her lovely temple and moaned what was in his heart, "I love you so much, Gabrielle!"

Then she collapsed on him, emotion over-whelming her. She rested her head on his shoulder and wept, feeling his gentle arms wrap around her. The warmth as he pulled the covers over them as they lay together. She could hear his sobs.

They would make love again and again, more gently and with an all encompassing affection, later in the night. But now they rested. Bodies touching, trusting, souls entwining, and minds drowsily contemplating their resent past and a very doubtful future.

Quite possibly they would both be dead by this time the following day.

****

DISCORD!!

Ares watched her from where he stood.

She was staring into his portal. Confusion. "How can she forgive him?" the goddess wondered, unaware she was speaking the words aloud, "Itís not possible. No self respecting woman can forgive a man something like that..."

Gabrielle should be traumatized. More than anything Discord had wanted to see the girl devitalized and broken. She should be cowering somewhere in a corner. A shell. An emotional mess. She shouldnít be sleeping peacefully in his arms! What type of deviant was Gabrielle?!

"Arrrg!" Discord pounded a fist into her other hand. This hadnít gone off at all as she wanted. Sheíd have to try something else ....

Silently, Ares walked up behind the goddess and purposely startled her with his booming voice, "I see the debt is paid."

Discord twirled to look at him, "The debt?"

"Yes, she managed it. Just in time. Gabrielle paid off her debt."

"Oh." Discord watched Ares closely as he advanced on her. Something was up. He was too calm. There was something on his mind or ... he knew something.

"Did you ever figure out what all of this was about, Discord?" he asked her, calmly.

"The debt..." she began.

"The debt was never an issue. Itís all about power, dear girl."

Licking her lips, a pang of fear suddenly penetrating her being, Discord stepped back from him slightly.

"The power of war, the power of wealth, the power of men over men and gods over other gods."

"And disloyalty." Hephestus added, unexpectedly appearing just behind Ares.

"What have you been telling him?" Discord quickly demanded from Hephestus.

The usually pensive Hephestus almost smiled, "As if." he said, having spent possibly a bit too much time with The Goddess of Love. Then, "I just opened his eyes a little." Time to go home to Dite. The God of the Forge disappeared.

Without preamble, Ares reached out and grasped Discord tightly by the throat, lifting the goddess off the ground, her feet dangling. "Tell me about Zeus, your petition as Goddess of War and - oh yes - how your meddling might possibly be destroying everything I have worked on between Ditea and Trecherius."

"Ares, itís not what you think ..." Discord cried hysterically.

"Well then, youíll just have to set me straight, wonít you?"

****

Morning came, Helios multi colored carriage sliding across the skies to bring in a day as beautiful as Demeter could grant. Behind her, he snapped the last of the fastenings on Gabrielleís new dress, the green gown having been destroyed by himself the night before. He then gently turned her about so he could get a good look at her. She was just as beautiful as she had been the night before, the cream coloring of the pearl trimmed garment granting Gabrielle an untouched quality. It warmed him and made the passion he experienced with her last night all the more significant.

Iolaus raised a hand to her cheek and she leaned into it.

No matter what happened next they were both ready for it.

Silently, Gabrielle lay a hand to his vest and, with a mischievous twinkle, pick an imaginary bit of lint from it.

They smiled at one another and said things without uttering a word.

They were as they once were.

Yet, Gabrielle did notice something new in Iolaus. Perhaps it was just the situation they were in, secrets which had been revealed, but a gleam of adventure had gone out of his eyes. A fire and passion for life. He seemed calm and almost too accepting.

But then, so was she.

"I wonder if Hercules..." Gabrielle started, with a mild smile.

"Maybe." he dreamily replied, also smiling but not really knowing what she wondered about Hercules.

They heard a key in the doorís lock.

Both smiles faded to be replaced by resignation.

The time had come.

*****

They had been bound again but this time a gag was not necessary.

The young tower guard, who appeared to have a soft spot in his heart for Gabrielle, was quick to agree with Minyaís request that the indignity of this cloth was not fitting for a woman of royal blood. Yet, to save face with his superiors, the soldier insisted on the hand bindings. However, he didnít tie either Iolaus or Gabrielleís too tightly.

Looking curiously at him, Iolaus wondered if there was something behind that.

His expression revealed nothing.

Advisor Tallus met Iolaus and Gabrielle at the bottom of the winding stone stairs, "Youíre late." he said, "Court is already in session, awaiting you."

Iolaus looked for something in the manís expression. Were he and Hercules planning for their escape? There certainly seemed to be something being implemented last night before he left the comfort of his holding cell, "Donít blame us." Iolaus said, "We can only go as fast at the guards push us."

A rude laugh was heard a bit down the hall from the four soldiers mentioned. Iolaus was nearly as impressed as Gabrielle. The courtroom was huge and the throng impressive. However, unlike the day before peasants and nobles were also in attendance, many expecting to attend a wedding, not a trial and execution.

Annoyus and Trecherius were both there, conferring and secretly plotting. The child, Prince Homer, dressed in finery for a possible marriage sat beside the Lord Councilor.

Gabrielle felt a pang of pity for the boy. He really had no idea what was going on. The Judge, Magleus, and his panel of experts were also there, expressions grim as they watched the couple brought before them.

Iolaus looked about. Hercules and Tallus had been making arrangements, he was sure. He was ready to move whenever the word was given. If the word was given. It just occurred to the hunter that Hercules might not have been able to do anything this time. Actually, when he thought about it -- just what could his best friend do to prevent a law sanctioned execution? After all, this wasnít Scyros and the King wasnít Menelaus.

"Please be seated." a bailiff told the spectators.

The room grew quiet.

Magleus stood and appeared genuinely uncomfortable. "It is with regret that this panel has decided that Princess Armeta and her lover, the man Iolaus, are guilty of adultery. A marriage between Armeta and Prince Homer is therefore a none issue."

A murmur of confusion and protest arose from the onlookers.

Iolaus and Gabrielle glanced at one another then at Tallus, who stood a bit to the front of them. He was passive.

"We also regretfully announce that because of this high crime - against the law written in The Scrolls of Sovereignty - the incarcerated will be executed forthwith and publicly."

Unexpected, a tall, muscular executioner in a black hood came out from behind a curtain.

A gasp was heard from the audience.

"Bring the man forward." the bailiff called.

"What?" Tallus stepped forward, "Your honor, this is unheard of! You havenít even allowed the accused to speak. If you did youíd learn this young woman is not really the Princess of Temptius at all but..."

Councilor Annoyus, with Trecherius nudging stood, "Your Judgeship, Advisor Tallus is obviously desolate. Of course this woman is Princess Armeta. Who else could she be? Weíve seen evidence of she and this," he thumbed Iolaus, "manís adulterous affair. The great god Ares himself supplied us with evidence. Now, who are we, as mere mortals to disbelieve what has been so generously supplied?"

"Supplied by a god who would like nothing better than to have some one loyal to him in power!" Tallus exclaimed.

Magleus took awhile to digest both pieces of information. Then, "I am sorry, Councilor Tallus, but I must rule in favor of Councilor Annoyus. You have shown this court nothing to make us believe..."

"I have indisputable evidence that will be here shortly, Your Honor. It will prove that this woman is not Princess Armeta and that the true princess is..." Tallus looked about, knowing how this bombshell was going to be greeted, "...dead."

He was not disappointed. Shouts of protests and cries of anguish met their ears.

"This is ridiculous!" Trecherius stood, "I am the rightful heir to the throne and this is merely Advisor Tallus method of delaying the inevitable. The girl is a slut and deserves to die!"

Iolaus couldnít take much more of this. Hands still bound but body and mind full of energy, he shouted: "Why donít you just stop with the stupid remarks and wait for the real evidence to get here?"

Gabrielle smiled. A bit of Iolaus' old fire was back and she liked it.

"Your Honor ..." Annoyus began again.

"The evidence is here!" Hercules suddenly busted his way through the solid chamber doors, pushing a large cart and dragging three shackled men behind him.

Those who had been sitting were now standing.

Shouts of: "Itís Hercules!", "Son of Zeus!" and "What is that smell?" echoed through the hall.

Iolaus met his friends eyes and grinned. How could he have ever doubted him? The Judge sighed and called the court to order, "Hercules, what is all of this?" he asked with a tired expression.

"In this cart is the body of Princess Armeta of Temptius." Through the gasps of onlookers he continued, "I am sorry, Judge Magleus, that I wasnít able to bring this to your attention in a better way but there was no time."

Gabrielle looked over at Trecherius who had suddenly paled.

"She was killed over a week ago and her body hidden in the burial vaults of a small palace recently purchased by Lord Trecherius!"

"Not true!" Trecherius bellowed.

"These three men," Hercules indicated the nervous, manacled soldiers, "guarded that vault and its contents." Hercules turned his attention to them, daring the men to lie - "Tell Judge Magleus what you told me."

A soldier, small and turned meek by the fighting fists of the demigod, said: "Councilor Annoyus told us to watch the body for lord Trecherius...that she was royalty."

"Ridiculous!" Trecherius insisted, "Besides, even if this were true, how do we really know this is Armeta?"

"This." Hercules lifted up what looked like a bejeweled pendant, "Armetaís royal seal. Who but the Princess of Temptius would have this?"

Iolaus glanced about as Hercules spoke. Not only was the crowd growing ugly but he noted several soldiers had moved into position all around the hall.

"Honorable Judge," Annoyus implored, "Somehow Hercules came across Armetaís seal. Probably stole it out of desperation to save his friend -- and now he wants us to believe that it belongs to the decaying corps underneath that blanket. How foolish does he think we are?" He then pointed at Gabrielle, "Princess Armeta is standing right there!"

Piqued, Gabrielle couldnít prevent an outburst, "And I keep telling everyone I am not Princess Armeta - but no one will listen!"

Iolaus allowed a giggle. He couldnít help it. She just seemed so frustrated.

Trecherius bellowed, "This coming from the *condemmed* princess herself! Who should you believe?"

"Your Honor," this time it was Minya who stood, "There is another way and it will prove, without a doubt that Armeta is the body in that cart."

"Go on."

"When she was a girl, her crest was tattooed on her outer thigh. Only three people know of this. Her father, the late King Detores, was one and I was another."

"The third?"

"Me." A soldier, walking up the aisle, came to the attention of the assembly.

Gabrielle and Iolaus recognized him as the young guard who was watching over the tower room.

"When I was a boy I was asked to assist in the procedure. I held Princess Armetaís hand and we talked while she was tattooed. She and I became friends." he trailed off slightly, a sad look of longing in his eyes.

"I can say, with a certain amount of certainty, that this girl - although as beautiful as Armeta - is not the Princess of Temptius."

The Judge stood and nodded at Minya. Unprecedented, the two - along with Lord Tallus - walked over to the cart and lifted the covering from the bodyís legs.

The tattoo was there. Slightly peeling do to decomposition but a clear image of Armetaís seal.

Angered, the Judge turned defiantly to Trecherius, "Case dismissed!" he announced, "And I want Lord Trecherius and Councilor Annoyus brought up on charges. Arrest them!"

"No!" Trecherius bellowed.

Suddenly men, soldiers faithful to Trecherius, came out of the woodwork. Screams were heard as a battle, something nearly all expected, broke out.

Iolaus and Gabrielle, thanks to the loose bindings around their wrist, were easily able to pull free and they too took part in the conflict.

Yet, in the end, all knew who would win.

Even the executioner. He dropped his ax and walked casually over to Judge Magleus large chair. He sat heavily and crossed his legs. With his right hand he pull the black hood off of his head and leaned back, defeated.

Ares was not a happy war god.

*****

EPILOGUE:

In Ditea, after the quick coronation of King Tallus who promised to take care of Prince Homer and treat him as if he was his only son, the heroes stood in Ares favorite temple.

Hercules wanted to make certain his ambitious half brother didnít have anything further up a preverbal sleeve. Perhaps a Plan B to come back on the good king. But the heroes could find nothing. Ares had been so full of himself, his certainty that all would be as planned, that he hadnít looked any further than at the opportunity in front of him.

Typical Ares, Hercules thought.

"All is well." Gabrielle summed up with conviction, leaning casually on her staff. She shook her head back and forth, contemplating the absurdity of everyone and everything involved. The last couple of days had been like nothing sheíd ever experienced. "Amazing." she added. Iolaus stood beside her and she grinned at him.

Iolaus looked over at Hercules then at Gabrielle. "And now we can go on with our lives." His return smile never quite made it to his eyes as he gazed at her, "You'll be going back to Xena now." He said as a statement of fact. Then, "I'll miss you, Gabrielle." He leaned forward and placed a very gently kiss on her cheek.

She was confused. This seemed so abrupt considering all they had been through. Somehow she'd had expected more from him. Perhaps even a... "Iolaus... " The bard hesitated, noting his control and an odd lack of tenderness, "After last night..." She whispered. "I thought maybe..."

Iolaus glance once at Hercules, who had turned and was trying unsuccessfully to look as if he wasn't listening to the conversation, then back to Gabrielle, "I love you, Gabrielle. I said it and I meant it." He said, firmly.

"But?" she asked, puzzled, knowing there must be more.

He lifted his hands to touch her arms but, his head bowed, Iolaus could not look directly into her eyes. "I will never forgive you, Gabrielle."

A breath caught in the bardís throat. It was a she feared.

"I've tried. I really have, but I can't do it." Then, taking a practically invisible gulp he said, "I'm so sorry."

She stood still, too stunned to say anything. She wanted to cry out and beg just once more for him to forgive her. Gabrielle would do anything -- but she knew it was at an end. Selfishly, she had destroyed everything that might have developed between them.

Gabrielle watched Iolaus slowly turn from her, indicating to his demigod best friend that he would be awaiting them on the outside of the temple, on the road to the Seggi River.

Iolaus, his facial features turned from the bard and demigod, took a ragged breath. She would never know, by looking at him, how difficult it was for Iolaus to turn her away. But if he were to function ever again as a man and the hero some called him he would have to make a clean break. Gabrielle couldn't fathom how much he ached to hold her in his arms, how much he still loved her and wanted to be with her... And, most of all, she would never know the real reason they could go no further. Because yes, he had forgiven her. He forgave Gabrielle for everything the moment he admitted he loved her, as she lay helpless in his arms last night.

But it was what came before that he couldnít forgive. The brutal animal force he used on her and that complete loss of control. He was not worthy of Gabrielle or any woman with such a beautiful soul. He never would be. Iolaus could not forgive himself and knew that Gabrielle would try and talk him out of these feelings if she knew the truth -- He didnít want to be talked out of them. He wanted to grieve and live with his self hate for the rest of his days. It was his own private retribution.

Hercules watch his friend then, when the hunter was gone from view, he came up beside Gabrielle.

"He really hates me, doesnít he?"

"He could never hate you, Gabrielle."

"But it will never be the same."

"He won't remember."

Gabrielle looked up at Hercules.

"I know about the deal you struck with Ares. Part of it was that Iolaus wouldnít remember what happened between the two of you -- or any of this. So you see, Gabrielle, there is still a chance ..."

"That's good for him." She said sincerely, "I don't want Iolaus in pain over something I did."

"Things can develop on their own. You two..."

"It wonít be the same."

"Of course it will. In the future you two could..."

"No." Her eyes grew haunted and the words were firm, "It won't ever happen again because I know what I did, Hercules. I'm not worthy of him. I won't let it happen. Ever." And her tone spoke of finality.

He could only stare after her, unable to give words of comfort, watching the small blond woman - with her Amazon staff - walk, as her one time lover did before her, from the temple. The pain and anguish in her words affected him in a way Hercules never thought possible. He suddenly remembered his own jealousy when seeing Iolaus and Gabrielle strolling together. Their happiness of that time. That was so unfair (of him) ...and so is what happened so recently to them.

And then a thought came to Hercules that was unlike him. It was crazy but workable. "Ares!" he called, his voice echoing around the chamber. Hercules moved further into the temple.

In what appeared to be a reception area, with blood red carpets and dark tapestries, he spotted the war god, sitting on his throne.

"Havenít you done enough?" A moody Ares asked his half brother, a low and very angry tone to his voice. "I worked for years on getting Ditea and Temptius where I want them. And now..."

"Ares, I donít care about that anymore." Hercules stared unsmiling at the war god. "I need you to do something for me..."

Ares, who had been staring down at the stone tiles of the floor before him suddenly snapped his head up and looked at Hercules, "You are asking a favor from The God of War?" he asked, interest suddenly creeping in.

"No." Hercules advanced, folding his arms confidently in front of him. "Iím willing to make an exchange."

Ares eyes narrowed, "An exchange."

"Zeus doesnít know what your plans were with those two kingdoms. He hasnít been told that you were going to use them as a stepping stone to further your position on Olympus. He doesnít understand that you want to overthrow him and become King of the Gods yourself. What do you think heíd do if he knew?"

That was something The God of War didnít want to think about. He wouldnít just be demoted, heíd be annihilated. Zeus had killed Chronos, his own father, for power... A son of The King of the Gods attempting to do the same to his own could easily find himself in the pit of Tartarus for eternity. "What do you want?"

"Iolaus is going to forget everything thatís happened with Gabrielle. True?"

Ares nodded, "It was a part of my arrangement with her."

"I want you to make Gabrielle forget, too."

Ares brows raised, "Why?"

"You donít need to know why. Just do it."

With a sigh of resignation, Ares nodded. "You do understand that making her forget doesnít mean she and Iolaus will live happily ever after. They may never even see each other again."

"But it will be up to them. Their choice. If they do get together again it will be because it was meant to happen, not because The God of War blackmaled one of them."

The brothers stared at one another, challenging.

"Fine," Disgusted, Ares took a breath. Hercules was an idiot. "Itís done."

Before he turned to walk away from The Halls of War, Hercules said: "No funny business, Ares. If I find out you went back on your word or you hurt Xena or Gabrielle in retaliation I will come back for you and Zeus will be standing by my side."

"No need for threats. Sheíll be on the road to see Xena in an hour and it will be as if you three never got together in the first place. Sheíll forget everything. Situation normal."

Hercules nodded and exited.

"Youíve turned into a soft touch."

The God of War, standing and stretching - feeling good about himself once more - swiveled to look at his sibling, "Howís that?"

"Seems to me you gave up a little too easily with Ditea and Temptius ...and now you agree with Hercules about that little tramp."

Ares smiled as he stepped closer to Discord, "Not really. Things are happening around us, My Dear. New gods are appearing from no where -- an evilness is coming amongst us unlike anything weíve ever seen before. Who do you think will be there to battle it?"

"Hercules."

"And Xena." Ares reminded, "Xena and her little friend... who still owes The God of War a favor." he laughed, "If she forgets everything that has happened then she also forgets that the debt was paid. I can use that. The opportunity will come."

"And what about me?"

"You?" Ares studied Discord for a moment. He liked her this way. Bound with gold cuffs made by Hephestus, in the cage Ares had reserved for Hercules. He wouldnít keep her like this forever, just long enough for the little goddess to learn a valuable lesson. "Take a nap, Discord." and Ares walked away from his sister, purposely not disappearing in a flash of sparks, smiling broadly.

This situation did have its humorous side, he decided.

"ARES!" Discord screamed with fury.

THE END (Discord was not harmed during the writing of this fiction but Annoyus and Trecherius are still awaiting Iolaus in Tartarus :)

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