One day love will find you,
Break those chains that bind you...
Gabrielle's heart sang as she looked upon the most wondrous sight she had ever seen.
Fire! Bright and warm and *alive* again!
The torch she had propped up behind her had flared into sudden flaming life with a hiss and a pop, painting the gray cavern walls with joyously dancing shadows.
"Look at me!" the newborn flame seemed to cry as it once more banished the threat of eternal darkness from the world of mortals.
Its loss had made Gabrielle realize what a precious gift she'd taken for granted all of her life. But what of the other gifts that had been granted Mankind by Prometheus, among them the mortal body's ability to heal itself? Had they been restored as well?
Almost afraid to hope, Gabrielle crammed her fist into her mouth to stifle a sob and turned to look anxiously down at the man whose head lay pillowed upon her skirted lap.
The light of the torch's flame brought a soft, gentle glow to Iolaus' ashen, sweat soaked face. Like a lover's caress, its warmth coaxed him back from darkness. His blue eyes flickered open and fixed on the dancing flame in almost childlike awe.
Gabrielle spoke his name so softly he barely heard it. Iolaus brought his gaze to rest upon her face, so sweetly lovely even when shadowed with anxiety, and managed a faint smile.
Her answering smile of relief and joy was radiant.
"They did it!" laughed Gabrielle as she gently hugged him, her cheek resting upon his damp hair. "He's free!" she exclaimed in an eerie echo of a similar sentiment spoken just moments before many miles overhead on a rocky precipice. "Prometheus is free!!"
"He's free." Darkness shadowed Iolaus' pallid features. "But at what cost?" he whispered as a pain greater than the wound in his side lanced his heart.
Hera had bound Prometheus high on a rocky crag with chains forged by the fire god Hephaestus. With the lesser god's body and soul imprisoned, his gifts to Mankind began to wither and fade. To restore those gifts, Prometheus must be freed. Not a simple task, for the chains that bound him could only be sundered by one very special, and mystical, sword.
To Iolaus and Gabrielle, Hercules' and Xena's struggle for possession of the legendary blade and the right to free Prometheus seemed an uncharacteristically selfish bid for glory. It was only by accident that they discovered what Hercules and Xena already knew -- that the instant the mythic blade struck the chains, the backlash of power would vaporize the wielder. It was a suicide mission from which only one hero would return.
Now, with Prometheus free, only one question remained to be answered: had Hercules been the one to strike the blow?
*Oh gods! Don't let it be so!* Iolaus thought in anguish. For how could he survive in a world devoid of it's greatest hero and his most beloved friend?
But as much as he hoped it had not been Hercules who had sacrificed himself, neither could Iolaus bring himself to wish that fate on Xena in spite of their tumultuous history of love and hate and betrayal.
Whatever the outcome, the only certainty was that Iolaus had lost a piece of his heart and soul. When he looked again at Gabrielle, he saw mirrored in her eyes the same fears and anguish.
"It will be all right," she said bravely, but there were tears in her voice and the light of joy was gone from her eyes.
Iolaus reached for her slender hand, enfolded it within his, and gave it a weak squeeze of reassurance. She squeezed back, then hugged him. They clung together thus, bathed in the warm glow of fire yet lost and afraid in the dark void of impending loss.
Which of their friends would walk out of the cavern to rejoin them, and which would remain lost to them forever? Hercules, Son of Zeus or Xena, Warrior Princess?
Freed at last from Hera's bonds, Prometheus wasted no time in vacating the scene of his torment. With a triumphant laugh, he flung wide his mighty arms and leaped from the mountain precipice into space. Before his giant bronzed form was lost from view over the rocky ledge, he suddenly vanished into thin air with a slight whoosh of displaced air.
For the two heroes responsible for his liberation, it was a joyous and rewarding sight to behold.
"He's free," said Xena with happy sigh.
Hercules nodded and shared her pride. They stood together, shoulder to shoulder, looking upon the broken chains and empty ledge. In the end it had taken both of them to accomplish the task they had undertaken. Miraculously, neither had been forced to actually wield the Sword. Hercules couldn't help but wonder if it was purely fate or a helping nudge by an anonymous god that had set into motion the events that allowed the Sword to sever the chains without a hand to brandish it.
But had they freed Prometheus in time?
A frown darkened his handsome features as the glow of triumph receded in the wake of concern. Somewhere in the caverns far below this rocky crag Iolaus lay dying. Although the wound that had lanced his left side was a small thing when compared to some of the hurts his headstrong companion had suffered in the past, it had festered and soured with the loss of Prometheus' gift of mortal healing. What would he find when he returned to his friend's side?
"He'll be all right," said Xena as she laid a comforting hand on Hercules' muscular shoulder. "You said it yourself. He's too stubborn to die."
"I hope you're right," said Hercules grimly as he started toward the rocky crevice through which they'd come.
*I hope so, too,* thought Xena, and followed him into the bowls of the earth.
"Hang on, Iolaus. You have to hang on!"
Gabrielle waited anxiously for a response to her plea but the blonde warrior remained deathly still. She silently begged for those blue eyes to open once more and tried to imagine what they would be like free of pain and worry.
With shaking hands, Gabrielle pealed back a flap of Iolaus' soiled purple vest and winced at the sight of the angry wound that violated the bruised flesh beneath his ribs. The wound was hot to the touch and a sickly blackish green fluid mingled with the blood that still seeped from the cut. Using the hem of her skirt, she dabbed gently at the wound's raw edges in an attempt to wipe the viscous fluids away. Iolaus groaned in pain at her touch and she snatched back her hand as if scalded.
*If I only had some water!* she lamented. But her waterskin, packed securely behind Argo's saddle outside the cave entrance, might have been half a world away for all of the good it was doing her.
Iolaus didn't feel the feather-light touch of her fingers as they ran through his sodden curls or the gentle rain of her tears as they caressed his dirt stained face.
"Stay with me, Iolaus," Gabrielle whispered in a trembling voice. "What will I say to Hercules and Xena if they come back and find you gone?"
Gabrielle's head came up as if she had been slapped as light flooded the small alcove in which she huddled with her charge. Hercules raced toward her from the adjoining tunnel. Barely a step behind came Xena, bearing a brightly flaming torch to light their way.
"Xena!" Gabrielle wanted to leap to her feet to embrace her friend but dared not move for fear of causing further injury to her charge.
Hercules knelt down opposite the Bard and anxiously took in Iolaus' condition in a single glance. He rested a callused hand on his friend's shoulder and winced at the heat that came from the flesh of his arm.
"Gods. He's burning up!"
Gabrielle shrank back from those sharp blue eyes. "I ... I did what I could!" she stammered wretchedly. "But he kept getting worse. Even after the fire was restored ... he just kept getting weaker and weaker. I didn't have any water, or any herbs -- there wasn't anything I could do!!"
"Nobody's blaming you, Gabrielle," said Xena, but the mournful expression on her young friend's face said otherwise. Xena longed to reassure her but one glance at Iolaus' waxen features told her she had little time to spare. Although his body glistened with cold sweat, his flesh was a furnace. She laid a hand on his chest and felt it's shallow rise and fall. Pealing back the cloth Gabrielle had placed on the wound, Xena ran her fingers around the jagged edge of the torn flesh beneath Iolaus' rib cage.
"The wound has soured."
"When the gift of fire returned, I thought he'd improve," said Gabrielle wretchedly. "But he didn't..."
Hercules looked imploringly at Xena. "Can you do anything?"
"Yes, if the infection hasn't progressed to deep." Xena glanced around the cavern and scowled. "I have some herbs in Argo's saddle bag. I can clean and dress the wound but it won't help unless we can get his fever down. If only I had some snow to pack around him..."
"Will ice water do?" asked Hercules. "There's a stream about a quarter mile from here. It's fed by the mountain snows."
"It'll do," said Xena. "We can wrap him in blankets and immerse him to bring the fever down. If it works, that'll be half the battle won."
Hercules leaned forward and slipped a strong arm beneath Iolaus' shoulders and knees. With ease, he lifted his friend into his arms and rose to his feet.
"This way," he said and purposefully strode off through the cavern toward the entrance.
Xena reclaimed her torch from where it had fallen on the rocky floor and followed, her mind already full of the herbs she would need and the poultices to be made.
Momentarily forgotten, Gabrielle sat alone, wretched in heart and soul, and blamed herself...
Iolaus was dreaming. He was standing on a jetty of rough-hewn rock on the bank of a river as black as ebony.
"What're ya waitin' for?" demanded the Boatman in an impatient, craggy voice. "An engraved invite or sometin'? Come on, will ya! I ain't got all millennia, ya know."
A skeletal figure in a tattered black cloak poled a black canoe up to the jetty. "You got any gold coins on ya? Cuz dis ain't no free ... Hey, wait just a minnut!" His reddish-amber eyes narrowed as they looked closely at Iolaus' pale features. Suddenly he threw up his knarled hands and cried aloud, "Ay! It's YOU again!"
Iolaus stared at him without comprehension. "I don't under--"
"What is it with you, anyway?" demanded the Boatman. "You think we got a revolving door policy 'round here? In, out, in, out! For crying out loud, I wish you'd make up your mind already!"
Placing fists on his black robed hips, the Boatman glowered over Iolaus' shoulder expectantly. "Okay. Where is he?"
Iolaus turned to look behind himself with a puzzled expression. There was no one there.
"You bring the big guy with you this time or is he gonna come bustin' in later?" demanded the Boatman. "Cuz I'm warnin' ya, now is NOT a good time to piss off da Boss! He and the Misses are having a bit of quality time before she's gotta go back topside for the next six months, if'n ya know what I mean. He is not gonna be happy to see YOU back down here again. Ay! Ay! Ay!"
He shook his head in wild negation and bits of pale flesh dropped into the black water of the Styx with a sickly plop.
"Look, great blonde hunter or whatever your name is ... do old Charon an itty bitty favor, why dontcha?"
"Uh ... sure. What?"
"GO HOME!!!" yelled Charon and swung his boat pole at Iolaus' shin's with impossible speed.
With a cry of surprise, Iolaus jumped backward and suddenly found solid ground vanish beneath his booted feet. He dropped like a stone into the icy cold waters of the River Styx ---
"Aayyyyy!!!" screamed Iolaus as Xena and Hercules lowered his blanket swathed body into the frigid mountain waters. He began to thrash about wildly but could not free his arms from the tight folds that cocooned him.
"Hold him still!" cried Xena, "Or he'll rip the wound open!"
"I AM holding him still," exclaimed Hercules. He supported most of his friend's weight from waist to shoulders and was finding his feverish friend a surprising handful.
Iolaus kicked outward and caught Xena a solid hit in the chin with his heel. Grateful that they'd stripped him of his boots, Xena reeled back but did not release her grip on his legs and ankles.
Flinging his head from side to side, Iolaus began shouting incoherent threats as he fought even harder to free himself.
"We've got to calm him down!" exclaimed Xena. But her hands were full of kicking legs and feet.
"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," Hercules shouted over Iolaus' cries as he struggled to keep his friend's head above the water.
"Iolaus!" Gabrielle ran headlong into the icy water and gasped. The shock did not keep her from struggling to reach his side although the cold did steal her breath away as the waters crept up to her waist.
"I'm drowning!" screamed Iolaus. "Herc! HERC!! Where's Jason? The ship is going down!!!"
"IOLAUS!" cried Gabrielle and caught his violently tossing head between her small hands. With her small palms cupping either side of his face, she guided him to look at her and filled his vision. "You're safe," she assured him earnestly. "You're with friends."
Panting heavily from his exertions, Iolaus stared at her with eyes as wide as saucers, as if she were a Medusa with snakes in her hair. But she didn't turn into a monster and she didn't try to bite or attack him. Instead, she looked at him with an earnest, frightened expression and beautiful pale blue eyes.
"Friends?" he managed, clearly doubtful.
She stroked his cheek, gentle and soothing. "Friends," she said and offered him her most reassuring smile. "Just look up."
Something like understanding sparked in his wild blue eyes but he would not take his gaze from her face.
"It's okay," she assured him. "Just look up. Trust me..." When he continued to hesitate, she added, "Or are you afraid?"
"I'm ... not ... afraid of ... anything..." he assured her indignantly through chattering teeth. He looked up.
Hercules smiled down at him but his eyes were shadowed with deep concern and pain.
"Herc?" Iolaus frowned. Why did he look so sad? "What're ... you ... doing...?"
"Keeping your head above water, as usual," his friend gently chided.
"You may be keeping his head above water, but I've got the part with the intelligence in it," quipped a voice from his nether regions.
Iolaus strained to look down the length of his body, barely visible beneath the now gently lapping waters, and saw Xena supporting his feet.
"Did I miss something?" he asked, bewildered. "Is it ... my ... imagination, or are we ... having this conversation ... in the middle of a .... a ... bitchin cold stream?!"
"Communal bath," laughed Hercules. "How are you feeling?"
"Wet. How else should I ... feel ... with you two dunking me in the middle of ... a river?!"
Hercules looked across Iolaus' body at Xena who nodded reassuringly. Although his eyes were still bright with fever, Iolaus was speaking coherently. It was a very good sign indeed!
"Come on," said Xena with a grin. "Let's get him back to shore..."
Gabrielle stepped out of their way as they bore Iolaus out of the water and onto dry land. She trudged to shore in their wake, her sodden skirts dragging across the sandy soil. She felt like an intruder as she stood at a distance and watched Xena and Hercules tend to their friend. With care and concern, they removed the wet blankets, redressed Iolaus' wound, clothed him in warm dry clothing and left him to rest on a bedroll beside the fire.
More than an hour had gone by before Xena realized that Gabrielle was no longer with them...
Gabrielle didn't know how long she ran through the forest of trees that surrounded the base of the mountain or how far she had come, but she refused to stop until her breath was a fire in her chest and her legs threatened to collapse beneath her weight.
Night had fallen, casting a dark curtain around her. The boughs of the trees formed a heavy canopy, blotting out the cold, silver light of the moon and the stars.
Exhausted, she dropped her bedroll on the mossy ground and sat down heavily. The hot tears of anguish she had held inside for so long suddenly came in a torrent and rolled freely down her grime-streaked face. Burying her face in the crook of her arm, she sobbed as if her heart were breaking.
"Ho, little one! Why so sad?"
Gabrielle gasped in surprise and whipped around to stare at the owner of the deep voice so close to her shoulder. Alarmed, she looked into the eyes of a stranger squatting comfortably within arm's reach. She hadn't even heard him approach! A giant of a man, his head was clean shaven and his skin was so deeply bronzed he glowed. Garbed in only a loincloth, his chest and arms were impossibly broad and well muscled.
"Are you lost, Child?" he rumbled in a deep yet soothing voice.
"No," she said meekly. "You can't be lost if you don't have a destination."
"Tis truth," conceded the Stranger.
His eyes were are a deep, warm brown, and filled with such kindness it made Gabrielle's heart ache.
"But you are upset." It was an observation rather than a question.
Reluctantly, she nodded. "Because of me, a man almost died."
"Oh?" The Stranger folded his legs beneath him and sat on the cold ground, all attention. "Why say you so?"
Gabrielle opened her mouth to tell him that it really wasn't any of his business or concern, but something about the Stranger's dark eyes was compelling. Hesitantly at first, then in a torrent, the words spilled forth from her heart and carried her fears and guilt along with their tide.
"It's my fault he got worse instead of better when Prometheus was freed," she concluded in a voice hoarse from crying. "Back in the cavern, when we were alone...if I'd known how take care of him properly instead of just telling him stories."
"And you care for him."
"I hardly know him!" she exclaimed, but the Stranger offered her denial a knowing smile. Beneath his gaze, Gabrielle felt she could hide no secret. "But...," she said less forcefully, "I think I'd like to get to know him better."
"Oh, gods! What will I do if he dies??" she sobbed.
"He won't." There was a certainty in his words that rang eerily true.
Gabrielle stared at the Stranger. "You sound so sure," she said almost accusingly.
"That the one called Iolaus will survive? Of that I am certain," he replied with jovial good humor. "Even now, he awakens with a ravenous appetite and asks for food. He will mend quickly." The Stranger flashed a bright grin. "Perhaps a bit more quickly than expected. It was, after all, a small wound."
"How could you possibly know that?" demanded Gabrielle. "Are you a mage?"
"I have been called such. And I've been called worse." His grin broadened. "It depends on how you look at it." He held out his broad hand for her to see, palm open. It was empty. "Mostly, I am accused of being overly generous with my ... uh ... gifts." He tapped the flat of his palm with an index finger and for the first time Gabrielle saw that his wrists bore the raw scars of manacles like bracelets. "Come closer and tell me, what see you here?"
The question was an unusual one. "Nothing. Your hand is empty."
"And yet it is full of wonders far beyond your imagining." The Stranger cupped his left hand over the open palm of his right, as if gently holding a bird or something even more delicate within. He held his cupped hands up and offered them to her. "Look closer."
"I ... I don't think I should --"
The Stranger did not move, nor did he open his hands. "Look," he replied simply, and waited.
Swallowing hard, Gabrielle leaned forward and looked into the gap between the Stranger's palms -- and clearly saw Iolaus! The stout blonde warrior sat within the cavern they had shared, his back to the rock wall and illuminated by the dying flame of a solitary torch. His handsome features were flushed with sweat and pain, and blood ran between his fingers as the wound in his side festered with abnormal speed. Alone and untended, he laid his head back against the cold stone wall and wearily closed his eyes. As the torch flame sputtered and died, a moan of despair escaped Iolaus.
"It's because of *you* that he lives, my young bard," murmured the Stranger's voice close to her ear. "With Prometheus bound, medicines would have availed you nothing. You did the best that you could with what little you had. You have a great gift, little one. Iolaus lives because you kept him awake and alert with your stories. If he had slipped into unconsciousness before the Gifts were restored, he would be dead by now. Your words -- YOUR *gift* -- held him enthrall long enough for Prometheus to be freed."
The Stranger chuckled then; a warm, joyful sound. "One day you will come to know the importance of the life you have helped save."
"He's Hercules' best friend," acknowledged Gabrielle. "And a hero. He's saved many lives."
"HO!" roared the Stranger. He sat back on his heels as his massive body rocked with laughter. "It is not his importance to *Hercules* of which I was speaking!"
"I don't understand."
"Look into your heart, my Bard. The answer is there."
The Stranger opened his hands and showed them empty, then suddenly flung wide his arms. The air around him erupted into a blinding white light that wrenched a cry from Gabrielle as she tried to shield her eyes.
"Go back, Little One -- and know that you and your companions have made me very proud of My Children."
The light enveloped Gabrielle like a warm blanket and bore her consciousness away...
"I think she's coming around!!" said a muddy voice from very far away. Oddly enough, it sounded a bit like Xena. Only deeper. Or was she under water?
Gabrielle sighed and tried to roll over. She groped for the blankets but couldn't seem to find them. Instead she felt her hand captured in a firm yet gentle grasp. She swam upward from the darkness and opened her eyes. Bright sunlight and a canopy of deep green leaves haloed the concerned face that filled her vision.
"Iolaus?" An unruly mop of blonde curls fell across his forehead and Gabrielle had a strong urge to reach up and brush them out of his bright blue eyes. That's when she realized that he held her hand tightly between his own.
"Thank the gods!" he exclaimed with happy relief.
"You're alive...!" she said, her voice filled with wonder.
"And kicking," replied Iolaus with an impish grin.
"I have the bruise to show for it," confirmed the Xena as she came into view. "You gave us all quite a scare. How do you feel?"
Gabrielle thought about that for a moment. "I'm really not sure," she admitted. "My head hurts."
"I'm not surprised, considering the size of the lump on it," said Hercules.
"You must have tripped and hit your head," he explained. "We found you a couple of miles from here, lying unconscious on the forest floor."
"If I weren't so worried, I'd take you over my knee and spank you," said Xena sternly. "Why did you run away?"
"Because ... I ..." Gabrielle looked at Xena and Hercules, then turned to Iolaus and blurted out, "I'm so sorry!"
"Sorry?" he said, surprised. "For what? Saving my life?"
"But I *didn't* save your life! If it hadn't been for me --"
"If it hadn't been for you," interrupted Iolaus, "I probably wouldn't be here now."
"I don't think any of us can really put into words the enormity of what you did," said Hercules sincerely. "And how much we owe to you."
She looked at him with wide, surprised eyes. "To me?"
Hercules nodded. "You knew your best friend was walking into a dangerous situation and might never return, but still you remained behind to help someone you'd known less than a day. That took a lot of courage."
"Knowing that Iolaus was being cared for made it possible for us to accomplish what needed to be done," said Xena proudly. "So you see," she concluded, "If it hadn't been for you, Prometheus might still be chained on that mountain..."
"And I'd be sitting down to dinner on the Elysian Fields," said Iolaus.
"And *that*, my young bard, is a heroic tale worth singing about," concluded Hercules.
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