The Chase

by Ishtar

(This story takes place after the "Warrior Princess" episode, and before "Unchained Heart" - Iolaus must have forgotten about it since he never mentions any of this later...)

Iolaus was angry. Not as angry as he had been when he first started out after Xena, just after she had tried to kill him and Hercules. Even not as angry as when he discovered that he had followed the wrong trail for 2 days, and had had to retrace his steps.

Almost four weeks he had spent on this quest, to find Xena and kill her - or at least humiliate her to the same degree she had humiliated him, by setting a trap for him, and making him stand against his best friend.

It should not have been this difficult to find her! After all, he was a great hunter, full of old tricks, and knew her wicked ways, and tracking a village plundering warrior and her army should have been easy. But times were tough; marauding bands were everywhere, burning and ransacking villages and small towns. The path of destruction he had followed, turned out not to be Xena's at all, and now Iolaus was lost. He could not remember ever having been in this area before, and the landmarks meant nothing. Rational thought took a back seat, and his anger flared again - mostly at himself this time. He drew an arrow from the quiver that was slung from his right shoulder, and notched it. Pulling back on the bow string, he tracked an imaginary Xena across the high grass and shrubs, to a tall tree some 50 feet away. The arrow left the string, and followed an almost straight path directly into the centre of the trunk. The thud of the impact was followed almost immediately by a high-pitched scream, and for a confusing moment, Iolaus thought he had actually hit Xena. Then logic came back partially, and he remembered that he hadn't found Xena yet. For the next fraction of a second Iolaus thought he had hit somebody else, and sheer panic flooded through him. As he started to run towards the tree, his thoughts sorted themselves out, and the situation became clearer: someone had been resting in the high grass beside the tree, and had probably been awakened when the arrow whizzed over his/her prone body.

The top part of this body now carefully lifted up out of the underbrush. Iolaus noticed a wrinkled face, topped with a wild mop of white hair. Before he had a chance to yell an apology, the creature started shouting, "Are you crazy? You could have killed me - what kind of manners are these, shooting at innocent people taking a well-deserved rest after a long day's walk. And who are you anyway? Shouldn't you introduce yourself before you start shooting at people? At least? What's this world coming to, by Zeus.." At this point Iolaus decided to jump in with at least the attempt of an apology, "I'm really sorry - I didn't see you lying there."

"Didn't see me?", the old - Iolaus wasn't quite sure whether the bedraggled looking creature was male or female... got to its feet. "What do you mean, you didn't see me. Don't you have eyes in your head? I should just turn you into a frog for your insolence - that'll teach you shooting at innocent people."

Iolaus was still running, his thoughts in a wild jumble. He found himself wondering fleetingly whether this person he had almost hit, was slightly crazy, then that that didn't really matter; he had almost killed an innocent person. As he came to a screeching halt in front of the now fully erect creature, the part about the frog crossed his mind, but he dismissed that statement as the ravings of a frightened mind. Up close the wrinkled face obviously belonged to a very old woman, dressed in a strange assortment of colourful fabrics and pieces of fur. Feathers seemed to be arbitrarily tucked in at various places, and a few bones of small unidentified animals were thrown in for good measure.

She started to muster him from head to toe, with squinting eyes, and almost seemed capable to see right through him. "Mmmh," she muttered, "definitely haven't seen you in these parts before. Who are you?"

Iolaus felt very uncomfortable, all of a sudden. He nervously started to finger the amulet around his neck, and tried to avoid the woman's assessing eyes. "Yes. Hi, um, I'm really sorry. I didn't shoot at you on, honest; Oh, they call me Iolaus!"

"Iolaus? Iolaus? That doesn't really mean much to me. Are you a traveling salesman?" His remorse suddenly diminished by injured pride, Iolaus replied," No, I'm a famous hunter and warrior! If you were a warrior yourself, you would have heard of me for sure!"

"Ha, not much of a hunter, shooting at trees, I'd say - and aren't you a bit short for a warrior?"

Without conscious thought, Iolaus straightened up, and tried to gain some height over the old woman, "Size has nothing to do with bravery or skill," he snapped, only barely containing his annoyance. He got the brunt end of height jokes all the time, especially when he was traveling with Hercules; usually he was quick to hand out bloody noses in reply to those jokes, but in this situation he obviously couldn't do that.

Pulling himself together, he used a deep breathing technique he had learned years ago, and tried to calm down. By his second breath the old woman started to laugh. "You are quite right, though keeping your emotions under control is important also. All your skill is wasted it you let your anger rule your actions." She started to dust herself off, carefully picking leaves and small branches out of her outrageous outfit. She bent down to gather up a gnarly staff that had been lying in the grass. "Well, come on then; it's time we got moving. I'm not getting any younger, you know." With those words she turned towards the east, and started walking along a row of smallish trees.

Iolaus was too surprised even to come up with a smart reply, and by the time his open mouth had closed, and his brain was working again, the old woman had already walked on. "Hey, wait a minute! Why would you think I'm coming with you?" Iolaus had to follow her to avoid shouting at the back of the walking figure.

As the old woman turned, a shadow seemed to cross the sun, and the air became chill with a sudden gust of icy wind. The smile was gone from her features, and her eyes seemed to glow like coals in a firepit. "Because I said so," she almost hissed the words, barely moving her lips. Iolaus was surprised by this sudden mood swing, but his warrior instincts took over immediately. Old woman or not, there was something definitely wrong about her, and he prepared for battle. His stance wide and balanced, one hand on the hilt of his sword, he estimated the distance between them, and watched for little telltale signs that might indicate her future actions. He hadn't noticed any weapons before, but it was easy to conceal daggers or darts, and even small rocks had to be reckoned with when thrown by a skilled hand. When the woman lifted her left hand, and moved it in a circular motion through the air, it wasn't really what Iolaus had expected. And when a second later his lights went out, and he dropped to the ground unconscious, it didn't matter that he hadn't really expected that either.

When he came to, it was dark, and meadow and shrubs were replaced by a tight web of large trees. A campfire was barely illuminating the small clearing Iolaus found himself in. He noticed that he could move freely, but, as the memory of what had happened came back to him, chose to carefully look around without moving. He could not locate his weapons in the dim light, but since he could not see the old woman anywhere either, Iolaus was not too worried - at the moment. He tried to assess what had happened: somebody must have snuck up on him when he was distracted by what that old woman had been doing, hit him over the head, and dragged him here. This seemed plausible, but Iolaus felt no pain anywhere, and since he wasn't bound, he dismissed that theory almost at once. Furthermore, nobody just snuck up on him; he was a hunter - eyes at the back of his head, a sixth sense for approaching danger - no, Iolaus was certain that he would have noticed any accomplices to his assault, had there been any. This conclusion left him without a clue as to what had happened of course, and so he decided to play along for the time being, and pretend that he was still out. Closing his eyes, ears as keen as possible, he tried to breathe as deeply and regularly as possible to give the impression of unconsciousness.

For a long time all he could hear were regular noises of the forest. But then he sensed a presence in the clearing, and every alarm bell in his body went off simultaneously.

Keeping his breathing in, what he thought, was a natural rhythm, his mind prepared for action. Visualization was half the battle, so he imagined himself jump up and overpower whatever opponent had entered the clearing.

"So, tell me more about this Xena person..." the cackling voice brought back memories of an old and wrinkled face, unpleasant conversation, and for some strange reason, frogs...Iolaus gave up. He sighed deeply, opened his eyes, and looked straight up at a face he would rather not have seen again. Since, somehow, he could not get away from her, and she hadn't really done anything nasty to him - yet - he decided to play along for now, and wait for an opportunity to gain the upper hand - or at least find out what was going on.... Only then did the full impact of her words sink in. "How do you know about Xena? What's going on here? And who are you? What did you do to me - and how do you know about Xena?"

The eyes in the old face sparkled with mirth, and her mouth was drawn into a toothless grin. "You should see your face right now - you don't much look like a mighty hunter at all, hahaha - aw, don't get uptight again, I'll explain everything. First let me introduce myself: my name is Atropos, and I live in this forest." She waved her free hand in a wide sweeping arc, encompassing the trees, the bushes, and the small fire. Iolaus followed the movement with his eyes, and wondered about the total absence of a hut, tent, or other form of living quarters. With a doubtful look he again regarded his - captor? She was already watching him again. "I brought you here after I knocked you out - and as for Xena - you told me about her yourself." Now Iolaus knew that she was crazy, and putting on a what he hoped was a gentle smile to prevent any ravings on her part, he looked around for his weapons, and a way out of the glen.

"I see that you don't believe me. Well, you won't get your weapons back yet - and you are not leaving either." Seeing the amused look on Iolaus' face as he assessed her frail body, she continued, bringing her face very close to his, "Sit!" Iolaus felt an uncontrollable urge to sit down, and could not prevent his body from following the command, though his mind tried. "You should know that I dabble in magic - though I may not look like someone you might have to fear - I am!" She closed her eyes briefly, and traced a complicated pattern in the air with her right hand. Almost instantly frogs of all sizes began hopping from under bushes, and from behind rocks, croaking up at Iolaus, who watched openmouthed, and dumbfounded.

When they had all crossed the clearing in various directions, and disappeared again in the depth of the forest, Atropos again faced the blond hunter, "Frogs are a hobby of mine. Many people don't like them, you know - but I think they are fascinating creatures." Here she seemed to remember that frogs wasn't really what they were talking about, and with some effort she focused back on their present conversation, "I brought you here because I felt your anger; it is blinding you to what is around you and what could be. The spell I put you under allowed me to question you about your anger - and Xena came up a lot in your tale."

Iolaus who was still slightly stunned about what had happened, turned his head away, "If you already know everything - what more do you want from me? And how did you do this thing with the frogs?"

"I told you I use magic - you are not very bright, are you? Now, you are getting angry again - try to contain this negative attitude of yours; it's really not helping you at all!" She waggled a finger in front of his face, as if to emphasize what she was saying, "Anyway, the spell that makes you talk about yourself is very powerful, but a lot of details are hidden from your own thoughts - we may have to use a different technique here."

Iolaus frowned, and thinking of Xena made him forget for the moment that he hadn't quite gotten the hang of this "magic" statement Atropos had made."Xena is evil, and if you will just leave me alone, I will find her, and make her pay for what she did! Any technique will work for that."

"Mmmh, she treated you pretty badly - but you really can't blame her for everything that happened." Iolaus looked up sharply, new anger flaring up in his voice, "Pretty badly? She lied to me, tricked me into believing she really cared for me, made me abandon my friends and my home, to follow her and fight in her army - she almost made me kill Hercules." At the amused look Atropos gave him he reconsidered this last remark, "Well, fight him anyway; never mind playing with me like a child's toy!"

Atropos looked him straight in the eye, and in the late afternoon light, surrounded by trees and forest sounds, her somewhat crazy exterior looked serene and fitting, "Maybe she played with you - but you are no child; you have a mind of your own. You were prepared to fight your best friend because you wanted to believe her. You never even listened to his side of the story. If you weren't ready to be tricked she could never have fooled you. The fact that she did shows that you carry at least as much of the blame as she does. Unless you can accept that, and live with it, and learn from it - finding Xena won't relieve any of your guilt."

Before Iolaus had a chance to protest her latest lecture on his emotional state, the clearing began to turn around him, moving faster and faster until he could no longer discern any details - a dizziness came over him, but just when he thought he might be sick, the swirling scene came to a halt - and things were different. Not only that he found himself in a wooden building instead of a forest clearing, but he just happened to look at his reflection in a piece of polished metal - and saw Xena looking back at him. His initial shock was tremendous, and for a few moments it never occured to him that he might be looking at his own face. He tried to launch himself at the image - strangle the object of his chase of the past four weeks - and only then noticed that he could not move at all, could not even see himself. Panic almost overcame him, but then a familiar laughter echoed through his head, and a cackling voice spoke soundlessly, "It's alright - just observe; you can't act yourself, and she doesn't know you are listening in, so just sit back and enjoy the ride." Iolaus tried to close his eyes to block out the madness that was surrounding him, but he could not. Actually he could not do anything other than look through Xena's eyes, think her thoughts, and feel her feelings. This whole situation was so totally utterly impossible that Atropos' crazy words that still sounded in his thoughts were the only sane part so far, and he clung to them with all his might. This must be the other "technique" she had been talking about - he had to believe that if he didn't want to go totally insane. Whatever it was, he was obviously incapable of changing his situation, so he did the only thing left for him to do: he sat back and "enjoyed" the ride.

Xena's thoughts were well organized and very methodical. She had plans for the immediate future mostly involving herself, and long range plans for herself and her army. This army was foremost on her mind, so Iolaus got a very good impression of what she felt about it. Seventeen men depended on her, mostly men who knew life to be a succession of wars, famine and oppression. They had turned to pillaging and plundering in order to survive; not a noble choice, but having known nothing but violence all their lives, it was a somewhat logical decision. The only family they had ever known was each other, and Xena was their leader. She was the one to pull them together as a unit for fighting and living. They looked to her for guidance, skill in battle, and as the one person who would protect their interests or die trying. They trusted her with their lives, and she was aware of that trust.

Loyalty was given and received among the band only, and everybody outside their group was regarded as an enemy at worst - fierce competition at best. They followed their own rules, and breaking any of them brought severe penalties. The laws and sentences, that now lay open to Iolaus' scrutiny, were strange and incomprehensible compared to the outside world, but within Xena's frame of reference they made perfect sense.

Deep inside her, carefully guarded, but nevertheless controlling all her actions, was an all-consuming rage, kept burning by a life of violence, and the expectation of betrayal from anybody who did not belong to her "family." Iolaus was surprised to see how little leeway there was in her thinking. She was trapped by the anger within her, leaving her only one option to act: fierce aggression.

For her it made perfect sense to kill Hercules - he threatened everything that was important to her, and the people she felt responsible for. Within her way of thinking it was also totally acceptable to use any means available to reach this goal; Iolaus was not part of her world, and therefore expendable as a tool. He did not like this image of himself, but from where he was observing now, he could understand her reasoning. He could also see that he had allowed himself to accept her way of thinking as his own; driven by her rage at first he had stood against his best friend, ready to judge him with her eyes, prepared to fight him to the death. He couldn't even remember now how he could ever have thought that Hercules would betray him.

Afterwards it had been out of anger against himself for giving in to her, that Iolaus had ignored everything else in his life to pursue Xena and take revenge on her. With the realization of this fact a band of tightness that had surrounded his thinking, seemed to lift, and he remembered everything else in his life that was important to him.

At exactly that moment, a by now familiar laughter rang through his thoughts, and the scene around him disappeared in a swirling pattern of light and colour.

When the dizziness passed, Iolaus found himself back in the forest clearing, staring at Atropos who smiled at him, her eyes shining with understanding.

"When I brought you here - and made you look at yourself - you had no choice. It was all my doing - this is what it feels like to be forced to do something. When you were in Xena, all you could do was observe, and again there was no free will on your part, but when you were with Xena, the choices were yours to make, and," Atropos winked at him, "I find it particularly interesting that, given the right circumstances, you both acted very similar; the anger in you ruled all your actions." A cackling laugh followed as Iolaus seemed embarrassed, and looked to the forest floor, "It's not something I am proud of, believe me - but doesn't that just mean that there really is no choice; if we all behave alike, given the right circumstances, then..."

Atropos looked somewhat triumphant, as if she had him where she wanted him, and interrupted the hunter, leaning forward, and emphasizing her words with a gnarly finger, "Ah, but that's exactly it! Given the same situation - not everybody behaves the same; I'm pretty sure your friend Hercules wouldn't have - and maybe one or two other people I could think of...," for a moment her voice trailed off as she tried to remember names, and could not, "...anyway, we're not talking average mortals here, of course - but we can aspire to be like them - break out of the mold of pre-destined existence - take our destiny into our own hands - shape our futures - " Iolaus laughed, and waved her off, "O.k., o.k., I get the point. When anger clouds my thinking I behave badly - understood."

Atropos smiled and got up with some difficulties, leaning on her staff. "All you can do is try. But if you remember that anger leaves you with only one option, whereas usually there is more than one path to take - then my decision to talk to you was a good one." She used her staff to push a thick and lush shrub to one side, exposing Iolaus' weapons and other possessions. "Time for you to leave - I think you can have your bow back, too; I'm sure the next time you are using it, you will make certain you know at what!" Iolaus stood, tilting his head sideways, "Thanks - I probably could have done without meeting you - but I'm not sorry that I did." She reached forward and pinched his cheek - then patted his head, "It's been nice meeting you!" Iolaus gritted his teeth to keep the smile frozen on his face, and not flinch at being treated like a child. He picked up his belongings and looked around the clearing, somewhat forlorn - "Uh, which way did we come in exactly?" Atropos laughed and made a circular movement with her free hand...

When Iolaus came to, he was alone at the edge of a field beside a well-traveled path. For a moment he could not recollect how he had gotten here - and had vague memories of a forest glen, a small fire - and for some reason, frogs, - but then he remembered sitting down for a rest; he apparently had fallen asleep...

Both directions of the path looked equally inviting, so he swung his sword over his right shoulder, and began marching towards the setting sun. Xena would not get away - but revenge was not enough to overpower the guilt he felt at his own failings. Somewhat surprised by this revelation he decided that he needed to do a lot of thinking, and walking along a path in the dying sun of the early evening, seemed like a perfect place to start doing exactly that.

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