Destinies

by Rhiannon

"Every man has his own destiny: the only imperative is to follow it, to accept it, no matter where it leads him."
Henry Miller, ĎThe Widsom of the Heartí

Prologue

Slowly and deliberately, careful not to make his movements appear threatening, Iolaus laid his knife down on the floor between them, then drew his sword from its scabbard and put it down beside the knife. Straightening, he spread his arms wide before him and stood before her, defenceless. "Iím not going to leave," he said quietly, eyes locked on hers, "so if you want me out of the way, youíre going to have to kill me."

She stared back at him for a long moment, her expression unreadable, then glanced over at the King.

Iolaus watched her closely as the King of Eleusis responded by offering her his dagger. The emerald on her finger began to glow as the King stared deeply into her eyes and the glow deepened as he spoke. "Heís a threat to our happiness, my love. You know what you have to do, donít you?"

Without hesitation, Gabrielle took the dagger from him and turned back to Iolaus, still standing defenceless before her. Slowly she lifted the dagger high and prepared to plunge it into the hunterís heart.

Part One

Two months earlier

Iolaus was whistling as he strode along the track in the direction of Caria. As a close friend of Prince Meron, he had been invited to a festival to be held in honour of the golden jubilee of the king of Caria.

The hunter was travelling alone. Hercules barely knew the family, so he had taken the opportunity to visit his brother Iphicles in Corinth where Iolaus was to join him after the festival.

Iolaus reflected, not for the first time, that it felt somewhat strange to be travelling alone, without the demigod at his side. It had been several months since the last time they had parted company. While he missed his friendís companionship, Iolaus had to concede that it was good to be on his own for a while, to do what he liked when he liked. Festivals were high on his list of likes and, try as he might Hercules, could never manage to throw himself into the festivities in quite the same way Iolaus could.

Of course, this might have had something to do with the fact that the demigod was constantly in demand to judge competitions, to test his strength in wrestling contests and to generally be the centre of attention. Iolaus grinned to himself as he though back to the last festival they had attended together. Heíd laughed until he cried at the sight of Hercules running for the hills, hotly pursued by an entire chorus of dancing girls hired as entertainment for the evening.

He was still chuckling as he approached a bend in the road and heard raised voices ahead. As he grew closer, he recognised one of the voices and a feeling of pleasure spread through him at the sound.

On a wide grassy verge a little further along the track stood a large three wheeled cart. This in itself was common place enough, except that Iolaus hadnít often seen a cart with a huge yellow canopy over the top with smoke billowing out below it. Beside the cart a dark, swarthy man was offering something on a stick to a blonde girl, who was backing away hastily.

"Hey, I told you I donít want one!" The girl shouted indignantly.

"But why not?" The swarthy man pleaded. "Theyíre delicious. How do you know you wonít like it until you try it!"

Iolaus grinned as he sauntered up to the cart. "Oh, Iím pretty sure she wonít like it," he remarked casually. "How do I know?" he added, before the swarthy man had time to open his mouth. "Because your food is inedible, Falafel, thatís why!"

The girl swung round at the sound of his voice, ignoring the spluttering protests of the man addressed as Falafel, now almost incoherent in his indignation at this slur on his culinary skills.

"Iolaus!" The girl rushed forward and flung her arms round his neck. "Itís so good to see you!"

A little taken aback but secretly enormously pleased at the warm welcome, Iolaus hugged her back, laughing. He had been a little surprised at the spontaneous feeling of pleasure that had risen when heíd heard her voice. Heíd first met Gabrielle some years ago when he and Hercules had teamed up with her and Xena , the Warrior Princess, to free Prometheus from Heraís chains. Iolaus had almost died in the caves beneath that mountain as Hercules and Xena had raced against time to break the chains before the gift of healing was removed from the world forever. Even after all this time he still woke up occasionally, sweating from a nightmare of that dark time in those caves. Yet equally vivid was the memory of Gabrielle holding him, encouraging him to hold on, telling him stories to take his mind off the pain.

Heíd felt a connection with her back then. She was bright and funny and attractive, but she was also very young and very innocent. Over the past years as sheíd travelled with Xena, heíd noticed how sheíd matured. Her youthful innocence had been replaced by a more realistic understanding of the world, yet she still had a pure heart, and that made her all the more attractive to him. Heíd found himself thinking about her more and more and taking greater pleasure in the occasional times they spent together.

He suddenly became aware that she still had her arms round him and was holding him tightly. Gently disentangling himself, he took a pace back and looked at her. Something in her expression made him reach out a hand and touch her cheek gently. "Gabrielle? Is everything okay?"

She flushed slightly, smiling shyly in obvious embarrassed at her display of emotion. "Iím fine, Iolaus, really."

Iolaus turned towards Falafel, allowing her a moment to compose herself. "Well, it seems I arrived just in the nick of time, to save you from a fate worse than death! What are you trying to poison your customers with this time, Falafel?"

"Iolaus!" Falafel said in exasperation. "Just my luck. Will you get out of here! Youíll ruin my business!"

"You know each other?" Gabrielle asked Iolaus, recovered now and looking at him quizzically.

"Iolaus is a former customer of mine," Falafel said gloomily.

"Customer! Dupe is more like it," Iolaus retorted indignantly. "Last time I tried one of Falafelís new recipes, I was sick as a dog for a week!"

"That was a complete coincidence. None of my other patrons got sick! You must have drunk some bad water or something. Anyway, Iíve been improving my recipes sine then."

A horrible thought occurred to the hunter. "Falafel, you wouldnít be heading to the festival at Caria, would you?"

Falafel cocked an eyebrow. "Of course! Why else would I be on this road?"

Iolaus made a face at Gabrielle and groaned theatrically. "Looks like Iíll have to be careful where I eat, then!"

"So youíre going to the festival?" Gabrielle asked.

"Sure. Prince Meron and I fought together in the Carian wars a few years back. I know him and his father quite well."

Gabrielle laughed. "You and Hercules know everyone. Where is he, by the way?"

"Gone to visit Iphicles. Xena?"

"Sheís ... we decided to do our own thing for a while. So, I thought it might be fun to go to the festival."

There was something in Gabrielleís voice as she spoke that suggested there was more to the separation than that, but Iolaus chose not to ask. If she wanted to tell him, she would, in her own good time. Instead he said, "So, why donít we go to the festival together?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Iíd like that. Cariaís less than half a dayís walk from here, isnít it?"

Iolaus nodded. "If we get a few more hours in before dark, I know a good place to camp near the river."

Gabrielle glanced at Falafel, who was packing up his cart and muttering to himself about ungrateful customers. "Guess weíll be seeing you tomorrow, then, Folofel."

"Itís Falafel," he replied grumpily. "And not if I see you first!"

Grinning, Iolaus and Gabrielle returned to the road and set off toward Caria.

Iolaus watched Gabrielle surreptitiously as they walked. She gave the appearance that everything was fine, entertaining him with tales of her recent adventures with Xena. Yet the feeling that something was not quite right remained, and later that night, as they camped in a clearing near the river a few leagues from the town, he was proved right.

Iolaus woke to a piercing scream that cut through the night. He was on his feet in an instant, heart pounding, knife already in his hand. It took only a second for him to realise that the scream had come from Gabrielle.

She was sitting bolt upright, head in her hands, body shaking with sobs.

"Gabrielle?" He went over to her quickly, kneeling behind her and putting an arm around her shoulders. "Gabrielle, itís okay, youíre all right, it was just a dream."

She turned into him, burying her head in his vest, arms going round his waist. He held her tightly with one arm, the other hand moving up and stroking her hair. For a few minutes he just held her, whispering soothing words of comfort, until the sobs abated a little. Eventually she gave a long, shuddering sigh and pulled away a little so she could look up at him.

"Iím sorry," she whispered, voice shaking a little. "Iím all right now."

"I donít think so," he contradicted gently. "That was some nightmare. Want to tell me about it?"

She looked at him, seeing the concern and compassion in his eyes, but she couldnít tell him, she just wasnít ready. "I canít. Not now. Later ... please."

"All right," he agreed easily, not wanting to pressurise her. But he had a feeling that the nightmare had something to do with the shadows heíd seen in her eyes when theyíd met up earlier. He noticed that she was shivering. "Come on, youíd better lie back down and get warm." She lay down obediently and allowed him to fuss around her, pulling the blanket up and tucking it in. She watched as he went over to his own blankets and moved them to a spot only a few feet from her.

"If I sleep this side of the fire, Iíll be closer if you wake up again," he explained. "Do you think you can go back to sleep?"

She smiled at him. "Yes, I think so. Thank you, Iolaus."

Gabrielle tried to settle down to sleep. When heíd held her in his arms sheíd felt warm and safe and wished he hadnít felt it was proper to move away. Sheíd have liked him to carry on holding her. But she didnít feel she could suggest it, so she pulled the blanket tighter around herself and tried to get back to sleep. But she was still shivering, the coldness sheíd felt inside after the nightmare seeming to spread out through her limbs. She huddled in on herself, squirming as she tried to get comfortable.

A few minutes later Iolaus noticed that she still seemed restless.

"Gabrielle?"

"Yes?"

"Are you all right?"

"Yes. Itís just that Iím still cold. I canít seem to get warm."

There was silence for a few moments, then he said hesitatingly, "Would you .... would you like me to hold you for a little while, just until you get warm?"

"Yes, please," she responded quickly. "Iíd like that."

He picked up his blankets again and put them down next to hers, then he lay down beside her and pulled her into his arms. She snuggled up, burrowing into his side, head coming to rest just under his chin.

"Comfortable?"

"Mmmmm. Iolaus?"

"Yeah?"

"You are the nicest person Iíve ever known."

She could feel him smile, even though she couldnít see his face in the dark.

"Nice, huh? What happened to charming, handsome, witty, devastatingly ..."

She poked him in the ribs. "Don"t push your luck!"

He chuckled and tightened his arms around her a little. Then he leaned down and kissed her very lightly on the forehead. "Go to sleep, Gabrielle."

"Mmmh."

Within minutes Gabrielle was asleep. Iolaus lay awake for a long time, wondering what had happened to upset her so much. He was sure there was more to this than a simple nightmare. He tried to ignore the old feelings that had been reawakened by their meeting and tried even harder to ignore the way his body was reacting to the proximity of such a deliciously soft body curled up beside him. After a while, mind filled with pleasant thoughts, he drifted off to sleep.

It was still dark when he woke again. Gabrielle was moving restlessly beside him, muttering something incomprehensible. Then he had to dodge quickly as her arms came up as if she was trying to fend someone off. He knelt beside her, trying to wake her gently. Her eyes flew open and he saw the raw fear in them. Slowly she began to take in her surroundings. "Iím sorry I woke you," she said finally. "I guess I was having a bad dream again."

"Guess you were," he answered. He got to his feet to stoke the fire up, then sat down beside her again. She was shivering, so he pulled the blanket more closely around her and put an arm around her shoulders. "I think itís time you told me whatís wrong. It might help to talk about it."

So she told him about the incident several weeks ago. How sheíd been waiting alone in the forest for Xena to return, when sheíd been captured by bandits. Theyíd taken her to a nearby cabin. "He ... he tied me ... to the bed. I thought ... I thought he was going to rape me, but he didnít ... he said he wanted to save me for later." Iolaus tightened his arm around her shoulders, the other hand stroking her hair. Inside, he was ready to explode, but he knew his anger was no good to Gabrielle now. She needed reassurance and comfort. What he really wanted to do was smash something, preferably the face of the bandit who had done this to her. He tried to push away the image of Gabrielle lying helpless and terrified, just waiting for the bandit to return ...

"He kept me there all day. He came back now and then, and heíd touch me, kiss me." She was crying now, head buried in his shoulder, unable to meet his eyes as she told her story. "Eventually, he came back and I knew ... I knew Iíd run out of time. He was on top of me, pulling my clothes off, and I couldnít stop him ... and then Xena was there. She fought them, had to kill the leader of the bandits. When the others saw he was dead, they ran off, but Xena was injured."

"Badly?" Iolaus asked, concerned. He and Xena had a chequered past, but much as he often tried to deny it, he still cared about her.

"It was a deep wound, she lost a lot of blood before we were able to get to a village for help. I was afraid ... but the healer we found was good and Xena heals quickly."

"Iím sorry, Gabrielle," Iolaus said quietly. "Did it help to talk about it?"

"Yes, yes it did," she said, squeezing his hand. " Iím all right, Iolaus, really. I was pretty traumatised at the time, and I still get nightmares sometimes, but Iíll get over it. I know it just takes time."

"Youíll be fine. Youíre strong, Gabrielle, stronger than you think. But thereís something else, isnít there? Something that explains why youíre out here on your own."

"I needed to get away, to think. I stayed with Xena her until she was on her feet, then I told her I needed some time alone."

"How did she take that?"

"She didnít understand. But she didnít stand in my way."

"So, what did you need to think about?"

" Xena almost got killed saving me. I was confused. I stayed with her until she was on her feet, then I told her I needed some time alone Itís just ... I feel ..." She stopped, not sure how to go on. He finished for her.

"You feel that in some way you were responsible, that you brought it on yourself because you werenít strong enough or fast enough to stop it. Because Xena wouldnít have let herself be taken, you feel that you shouldnít have either."

She stared at him, eyes widening. "Gods, Iolaus, you do understand, donít you?"

"Hey, you think I havenít had thoughts like that, in all the years Iíve been travelling with Herc? Itís something you have to learn to live with, Gabrielle. Sure, I know Iíll never be as fast or as strong as Hercules. There are times when I canít keep up or when I donít win a fight. All I can do is the best I can. But itís okay, because Hercules and I donít just fight together. Weíre like brothers to each other and I know that Herc needs me with him for far more reasons than just my ability to fight. Do you understand?"

"Yes, of course. I can see how much Hercules relies on your friendship. You understand him better than anyone, he needs you."

"And thatís exactly the way Xena feels about you, Gabrielle."

She smiled. "I know youíre right, Iolaus. I guess I just needed to hear it."

"Good. Now, I think you should try and get some sleep."

She nodded slowly, and their eyes met. At that moment Iolaus desperately wanted to kiss her, but there was no way he was going to take advantage of her vulnerability at this moment. Instead, he kissed her softly on the forehead.

Vaguely disappointed, Gabrielle snuggled down beside him again. Before long she heard the rhythmic breathing that told her he was asleep. But she lay awake for a long time. The past few weeks had been so confused, so disjointed. Sheíd told Iolaus the truth when sheíd said that it wasnít her experience at the hands of the bandits that was concerning her. It was her relationship with Xena that troubled her more. Sheíd felt so clearly that it was her destiny to travel with Xena. Sheíd learnt so much from the warrior princess and she knew that she had been able to teach Xena a lot, too. It seemed that the fates had brought them together. But her experience with the bandits had brought home with sickening clarity the fact that while she was an asset to her friend, she could also be a liability. For the past few days as sheíd travelled sheíd grappled with the contradictions in the way she felt, but now, hearing Iolaus talk about his friendship with Hercules, it was suddenly all so clear. Of course there were good and bad things in every relationship. You could only be yourself and trying to be someone you were not would only end in disaster. She determined to rejoin Xena as soon as possible.

Yet she couldnít deny that she was looking forward to spending the next few days with Iolaus. She smiled to herself as she remembered how besotted sheíd been with him when they first met. That seemed like a lifetime ago, because she felt that sheíd lived a lifetime of experiences since then. Gods, sheíd been so young, so naive! He must have thought of her as little more than an annoying child. Yet, when heíd kissed her ... she snuggled her body a little closer to his as she remembered the way sheíd felt then, and allowed herself to admit how much sheíd like him to kiss her again. Finally, refusing to indulge herself in dreaming beyond the warm feelings this thought brought, she slowly drifted off to sleep.

When Iolaus and Gabrielle arrived at Caria the next day, the festival was already underway. The streets of the town were lined with stalls selling all manner of wares from cooking utensils to colourful cloth, from delicious smelling savouries to armour and swords.

They stopped first at the inn where Iolaus assured Gabrielle a room would have been reserved for him by his good friend Martius, who had served in Prince Meronís army before retiring to run the inn. Sure enough, after a warm welcome, Martius confirmed that the room was reserved. Gabrielle felt herself flush as Martius glanced at her, a slight smirk on his face, then looked pointedly at Iolaus.

"Do you have another room, Martius?" Iolaus asked innocently, ignoring his friendís curious look.

Martius laughed. "There isnít a room to be had between here and the next four villages." He replied.

"No problem," Iolaus answered easily. He turned to Gabrielle. "You take the room, Iíll bed down in the barn - if thatís all right with you, Martius," he added.

Martius shrugged. "Plenty of room in the barn, Iolaus, if youíre sure youíll be needing it."

"Thatís settled, then." Iolaus said, once more ignoring Martiusí unvoiced query. "Come on Gabrielle, time to go and have some fun!"

Martius looked after the two thoughtfully as they left the inn. He was dying to quizz his friend about the girl. There was something about her - she didnít fit into any of the categories heíd expect. She obviously wasnít a villager, her clothing suggested a life on the road. And despite Iolausí firm demands for a space in the barn, the way they had looked at each other suggested to the innkeeper that they were more than casual acquaintances. He shrugged and went back to his work. It was none of his business anyway, but heíd lay money that Iolaus wouldnít be spending the night in the barn.

The day that followed was one that Gabrielle would look back on as one of the happiest of her life. The festival was a true spectacle, the king having spared no expense to make it the best festival that had ever been seen in Caria. Iolaus and Gabrielle roamed around the various stalls, tasting savouries and sweetmeats, trying their hand at some of the competitions. Iolaus won the knife throwing competition easily and insisted on buying a new dress for Gabrielle and an over shirt for himself to wear to the dancing that was to take place later that evening. Gabrielle put her name down for the bardic tales competition that was to take place later in the afternoon.

The day was marred only by one incident when Gabrielle noticed a stallholder mistreating a young boy and took him to task for it. Fortunately the man was all bark and no bite and backed down before Gabrielleís rage.

When it came time for Gabrielle to take the stage in the bardic competition, Iolaus stood near the front of the large crowd that had gathered. He had one eye on Gabrielle and another on a tall, handsome, well dressed man standing nearby. The man had been watching them all afternoon. He hadnít introduced himself, hadnít been obviously following them, but Iolausí experienced eye had been watching him in his turn. Most disturbingly, it was obvious that it was Gabrielle who had attracted his attention. Iolaus studied him now out of the corner of his eye. The man had his eyes fixed on the bard as she began to speak. Iolaus resolved to find out who he was and what he wanted later.

Prince Areion of Eleusis had arrived at Caria the previous evening. He had been invited to the festival to attend a meeting of all neighbouring kingdoms to discuss trade agreements. Eleusis was three days travelling time from Caria and when he finally arrived hewas travel worn and irritable. He hadnít wanted to attend the meeting or the festival, but his father had insisted that it was the diplomatic thing to do. Diplomatic! Areion thought his father was a weak and foolish leader. If he himself was in control of the kingdom, heíd soon show these neighbouring kingdoms what he thought of diplomacy. Conquest was what he had in mind, not trade agreements.

Areion had soon bored of the castle and thought it would be amusing to attend the festival and see how the commoners went about enjoying themselves. He and two of his friends had dressed in the simplest clothing available and walked down to the town. For a while they had simply walked around, joking about the deplorable behaviour and manners of the townspeople and villagers. Then Areionís attention had been drawn by a commotion at one of the stalls where a small crowd had gathered. He walked over and was soon watching in rapt attention as a young, blonde girl verbally ripped into an older man. From what he could gather, she was angry at the way the man had been treating a young boy, who was now nowhere in sight. He was amused at the way the old man seemed to wither under the verbal assault and eventually ran away.

Areion was intrigued by the girl. She was obviously a commoner, yet she wasnít dressed as the villagers were. She had fighting spirit certainly, but there was also an innocence, a transparency of soul that touched something inside him. That she was beautiful, no-one would dispute. He found himself following her, listening for the sound of her voice, her laugh, watching the way her face lit up when she smiled. When her turn came in the bardic tales competition, he pushed to the front of the crowd and watched mesmerised as she launched into the tale of the freeing of Prometheus by Hercules and Xena. She put so much expression and passion into her voice. Along with the rest of the audience, he was caught up in the excitement, the fear, the drama. As she came towards the end of the story he tried to catch her eye, but her eyes were fixed on the blond man who had been her companion all afternoon.

At first Areion had dismissed the small blond man as an insignificant nobody. He had been forced to re-assess that opinion when the blond had won the knife throwing competition. That was no fluke - the manís skill could not be denied. But Areion was sure that, as with many other men of short stature, the stranger had mastered the art of knife throwing so that he had some skill to impress the girls with. Yet there was something about the man that made Areion uneasy. He held himself like a fighter and, although he was throwing himself with enthusiasm into the celebrations, there was a watchfulness about him that bespoke a warriorís instincts.

Areion was shaken out of his reverie by the tumultuous applause that broke out when the girl finished her story. She had been last in line and the judges wasted no time in awarding her first prize. Her face lit up with delight and Areion felt a pang of jeolousy as she stepped off the podium and flung her arms around her blond companion in excitement.

Areion jumped as a hand came down on his shoulder.

"Still mesmerised by that witch?" His friend Nemos said sarcastically. "Youíve missed all the fun, Areion. Weíve been watching the grape pressing competition. Youíd have loved it. All those semi-naked women, writhing around in those barrels!"

Areion shook himself. What was he thinking, anyway? She was a commoner, he shouldnít be having such thoughts about someone like her. But there was no reason why he couldnít have some fun with her anyway. He grinned, suddenly pleased with himself. She wouldnít be able to resist a handsome prince and he couldnít wait to see what sheíd be like in bed.

He clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Sounds like I missed one of the highlights of the day! How about we go back to the castle for dinner, then come back for the dancing later?"

Back at the castle, despite his better judgement, Areion found he couldnít get the girl out of his mind, and he could hardly wait to get back down to the town. He found himself scouring the square where the main dancing was taking place. When he spotted her, he caught his breath. She had changed out of the green outfit and was wearing a dress of varying hues of russet and brown, cut low at the front. Her hair was tied up and she looked exquisite. She was dancing with a blond haired man wearing a deep blue vest who he recognised as the man sheíd been with during the day.

When the dance was over, Areion approached the girl and politely asked for the next dance. It was hard for her to refuse, although the man gave him a hard look as the prince whirled her onto the dance floor.

"You look very beautiful tonight, Gabrielle," he said.

"How do you know my name?" She asked, suspicious.

"I was watching the bardic tales competition. They announced it there. Congratulations on your win, by the way. You were head and shoulders above the rest in talent - and in beauty."

Gabrielle ignored the compliment. Iolaus had warned her that this man had been following them and sheíd spotted him herself several times.

"I saw you several times today, not just at the competition," she said. "You wouldnít have been following us, would you?"

"Following you?" Areion said casually. "Of course not. But this isnít a large town, our paths were bound to cross. Iím flattered that you remember me, though. But I havenít introduced myself. You must think me very rude. My name is Areion. Prince Areion, of Eleusis."

Gabrielle continued to answer his intense questions as the dance went on, uncomfortably aware of his close proximity and the fact that he was staring so intently at her. When the music stopped she thanked him politely and tried to move away. Areion took her arm in a firm grip. "Oh, no, you canít leave so soon. I want at least the next dance."

Gabrielle looked him in the eye. "If you donít let go of my arm right now, youíll regret it," she said firmly. Areion looked amused, but kept his hold on her arm. Gabrielle was wondering whether now was a good time to create a scene, when a voice at her elbow said, "Is there a problem here?"

Areion looked coldly at the blond who had appeared beside the girl. "Nothing thatís any of your business."

Iolaus draped an arm casually around Gabrielleís shoulder. "Well, it is my business because Gabrielle here promised me the next dance. So if youíll excuse us ..." He turned, pulling Gabrielle with him and Areion had no choice but to let go of her arm. Temper rising, Areion swore under his breath and put a restraining hand on Iolausí shoulder. Iolaus swung round like lightening, dropping automatically into a fighterís stance. He didnít want any trouble, but it looked like Areion was going to force the issue.

By now a small crowd had gathered, but parted swiftly as a tall, black haired, bearded man pushed his way to the front. Areion was astonished as the newcomer, none other than Prince Meron of Caria, ignored him and addressed the blond. "Iolaus! I was wondering when youíd put in an appearance. Itís good to see you, my friend!"

Iolaus relaxed slightly. It was unlikely that the stranger would cause a scene with the prince present. The hunter grinned at the heir to the throne. "Itís good to see you too, Meron. I would have come up to the castle, but I knew youíd be knee deep in preparations."

"Donít remind me! Iíve escaped for a few hours." He glanced at Areion. "Is there a problem here, Prince Areion?" he asked casually. He recognised the other man from their one previous encounter. He had met Areionís father, King Falcor, on a number of occasions and liked and respected the man. Areion, however, had seemed to be an arrogant, spoilt young man and, from the look on his face now, nothing had changed. Areion swallowed the words he wanted to say and merely answered, "No problem. Just a small disagreement."

"Good, good. Well, I expect Iíll see you tomorrow at the trade meeting." He turned to Iolaus. "Now Iíve found you, come and have a drink with me. We have a lot of catching up to do. And you can introduce me to your delightful young companion."

Areion watched, white faced with rage, as Prince Meron led Iolaus and Gabrielle away. He had been snubbed and he knew it. How in Hadesí name could the Prince have a commoner like that as a friend? His own closest friend stepped up beside him and said in a low voice, "Are you going to stand by and let that runt and Prince Ďlover of the populaceí treat you like that?"

Areion smiled mirthlessly. "What do you think? But timing is everything, Nemos, and now is not the time. When Iím king - then all debts will be called in and all scores settled."

"Thatís all well and good, Areion, but your father is strong and healthy for his age. It could be years before you inherit."

This time Areionís smile was genuine. "Youíre right, Nemos. However, even the strong are not immune to accidents, are they? In fact, I have a premonition that Iíll be inheriting the throne a lot sooner than people may think." Then, he added silently to himself, I will have everything I want. "Nemos, the girl, Gabrielle. I want you to find out everything you can about her." This wasnít over. In fact, it was only just beginning.

The sun was just beginning to rise over the horizon when Iolaus escorted Gabrielle back to the inn and up to the door of her room. She giggled when he insisted on accompanying her. "I canít imagine you feeling the need to escort Xena to her room!"

Iolaus grinned. "Oh, itís not that I donít think you can beat off a hoard of attackers single handed. I was just concerned that you might break your neck climbing the stairs after all the wine youíve drunk tonight!"

"Speak for yourself, mighty warrior. Iím as sober as a ... as a ..."

Gabrielle tripped and almost fell through the doorway. "Well, pretty sober, anyway! So, Iolaus, do you want to check for monsters before you leave?"

"Well, maybe Iíll just take a quick look. You never know ..."

A quick look around the room and under the bed revealed nothing but a lot of dust and a few small bugs. As he moved to leave, he said, "Goodnight, Gabrielle," and kissed her softly on the lips. Gods, he wanted her, but he didnít want to force her into anything she wasnít ready for. He was surprised at the immediate reaction as she opened her lips eagerly and wound an arm around his neck to pull him closer. Automatically, he responded, kissing her more deeply. After what seemed like an eternity, they broke the kiss and he looked searchingly into her eyes, trying to read in them what she was really thinking. Sheíd been through a lot and the last thing he wanted was to push her into something which sheíd regret later.

"Make love to me, Iolaus," she said softly.

He reached up a hand and very gently ran a finger along her jaw line. "Are you sure? Maybe this isnít the right time ..."

She didnít answer directly. Instead she asked, "Iolaus, do you care about me?"

"You know I do."

"Then make love to me. I need you. I feel like I need to be with someone who really cares ... to help me forget ..."

So he made love to her and much later, she lay in his arms watching him as he slept. She reached out a hand and softly traced her hand along the contours of his face. When theyíd first met and sheíd spent those lonely hours with him in the cave not knowing if he was going to live or die, sheíd sensed a connection between them. Now, as theyíd made love, sheíd known finally and without a shadow of doubt, that she belonged with this man. Whatever the future held, whether or not they were destined to be together, nothing could ever change that.

Iolaus woke early. Gabrielle was snuggled up to him, head on his chest, one arm draped round his waist, a leg entwined with his as if she was trying to get as close to him as she could. He watched her for a moment, thinking how young and innocent she looked in her sleep. And how beautiful. He was almost frightened by the intensity of his feelings towards her. Heíd been in love before. His love for his wife Ania had been deep and true. Then there was Niobe, whom heíd loved passionately. Heíd made love to a lot of women. But making love to Gabrielle had been different. Heíd felt a connection between them that he couldnít explain, that heíd never felt with another woman. His mind drifted back to the time theyíd first met and he remembered with sudden clarity the story sheíd told him in the cave, about the people who walked the earth trying to find the other half of their soul. Heíd felt something for her back then, but he hadnít really believed her story. It was just a myth. But lying beside her now, he finally understood. In a way he couldnít explain, he felt part of her, as if their souls were linked.

She stirred and he kissed her softly. Gabrielle smiled, mouth opening under his, the gentle kiss turning into something longer and deeper. She opened her eyes and looked at him shyly.

"Iolaus?"

"Mmmmm?"

"Iím not ... Iím not imagining this, am I?"

"Imagining what?" He replied softly, reaching out a hand to stroke her hair.

"Whatís ... happening between us. You feel it too, donít you?"

He looked at her, eyes serious. "Yes, I feel it, Gabrielle," he said slowly. "I feel ... I feel like youíre a part of me I never knew was missing and now that Iíve found you, Iím suddenly whole."

Gabrielle smiled softly. "Thatís exactly how I feel. I love you, Iolaus."

"And I love you, Gabrielle."

The festival was over and there was no need for either of them to stay in Caria any longer. Iolaus was due to meet Hercules in Corinth and Gabrielle was travelling in the opposite direction, towards Thrace.

They left the town and walked for several hours towards the place where their paths would part. As they walked they talked about joint acquaintances, catching up on gossip, anything other than the moment they were both dreading.

Finally, they reached the crossroads. Thrace was to the east, Cornith to the north. The two stood awkwardly for a moment, neither knowing how to say what was in their hearts. Finally, it was Iolaus who spoke. "Gabrielle, I donít think either of us can deny whatís happened between us over the past few days. But itís been so sudden - I think we both need a bit of space to think about what it all means for us."

Gabrielle nodded eagerly. "Iím so glad you feel that way. Iím confused," she said, adding hastily, "not about the way I feel about you, but about - everything else. About Xena, about what I should be doing with my life."

Iolaus drew her close and kissed her softly. "We know how we feel and thatís all that matters. We both have commitments, we donít have to rush into anything. Letís meet back at Caria in, say, two monthís time."

"Okay. Caria, in two months." She agreed. "But it seems so far away ..."

"Itíll come around sooner than you think." Iolaus kissed her again, then pulled back quickly and picked up his carry sack. If he didnít leave now, he was afraid he never would. "Good bye, Gabrielle. Be safe."

Gabrielle stood and looked after him for long moments after heíd disappeared into the distance. Then she sighed, picked up her own carry sac and took the road to Thrace.

Part Two

One month later.

"So, how well do you know the King anyway?" Gabrielle asked as she and Xena, leading Argo, made their way along the road towards Eleusis.

"Not well. I saved his life once when he was younger and bandits tried to kidnap him. Frankly, I was surprised to be invited to the coronation."

"But itís an excuse for a party, and I know how much you love parties ..." Gabrielle grinned as Xena rolled her eyes.

What the bard didnít know was that Xena had decided to accept the invitation to the coronation for Gabrielleís sake. The warrior princess had been concerned about her friend for some time. She had been aware that Gabrielle had been deeply affected by the encounter with the bandits, but had been unable to get the bard to discuss it. At a loss to know what to do, she had agreed that they spend some time apart, hoping that time alone would help Gabrielle work through whatever it was that was really bothering her.

She had been relieved when Gabrielle had arrived in Thrace on time. However, although she insisted that everything was fine, the blonde had been even quieter since her return than before. She had talked only in vague terms about travelling around a bit and visiting a festival in Caria but, unusually for the naturally talkative bard, had given no real details. Xena had thought that the party might cheer her up. Now, they were half a dayís travel away.

"You never know," Xena remarked, "Areion might have invited -"

"Areion? Thatís his name?"

"Have you heard of him?" Xena asked, surprised at the sharp tone in her friendís voice.

Gabrielle looked thoughtful and a little apprehensive. "I met a Prince Areion in Caria. But it would be too much of a coincidence, and anyway, he was a Prince. This one is a King. Canít be the same person." She didnít say any more, but Xena got the impression that the encounter hadnít been a happy one.

As they walked, once more in silence, Xena made a decision. This had gone on long enough. Gabrielle had never kept things from her before and she was determined to get to the bottom of this. The only way was to wade in feet first. She took a deep breath and asked bluntly,

"Gabrielle, is something wrong?"

Gabrielle looked evasive. "Wrong? What makes you think that?"

Xena hesitated, then decided to plunge on, "I know you were shaken by what happened with those bandits. I thought that maybe you just needed some space to think it all through. But since we met up again in Thrace, youíve been distant, like your mind is somewhere else."

Gabrielle looked at her seriously for a moment. "I did need space to think. And I appreciated you understanding that. I ... I was able to work through a few things."

"Thatís good. But, Gabrielle, youíre still not yourself."

"Actually," Gabrielle answered slowly, "I think Iím more myself than Iíve ever been."

"What does that mean, exactly?"

"Nothing." Abruptly, Gabrielle turned away. Xena wasnít about to let the issue go.

"Did something happen while you were away?"

"No, of course not."

"So ... what did you do, anyway? You were gone a week. You must have done something."

"Nothing important. I just ... drifted. Went to the festival at Caria. I finished writing a new scroll ..." Gabrielle rushed into telling Xena about her scroll. The warrior decided to leave the subject for the moment. Gabrielle obviously wasnít ready to tell her friend what had happened, but Xena wasnít going to forget. Sheíd find out what was going on eventually.

Later that day, quite unexpectedly, the whole story came out. They encountered a travelling merchant on the road, and Xena impulsively bought Gabrielle a brightly coloured scarf as a gift.

Holding the scarf up, allowing the light to shine through it and highlight the russet colours, Gabrielle exclaimed in pleasure, "Itís exactly the colour of the dress Iol..." She stopped abruptly.

"Gabrielle?" Xena asked quickly. "What were you about to say?"

"Nothing. It wasnít important. Thank you for the scarf. Itís beautiful."

Xena was determined this time that she wouldnít let the subject rest. "It sounded to me like you were about to say, ĎIolaus.í "

Gabrielle shrugged. "Youíre right. I was. I met Iolaus by chance on the road to Caria. We spent a few days at the festival together."

"Thatís nice." Xena looked at her friend closely, but Gabrielleís face was expressionless. This in itself was a giveaway, for Gabrielle usually wore her feelings on her sleeve. "How is Iolaus?"

"Heís fine. Hercules had gone to visit his brother. Hercules is fine too."

"Iím glad to hear it. So, did you and Iolaus have a fight or something?"

Gabrielle looked at her in genuine surprise. "No, of course not! Why would you think that?"

"Because there has to be something to explain why youíve been so miserable for the past week, and why you chose not to tell me youíd met up with Iolaus."

"I havenít been miserable! And I just forgot to tell you about Iolaus. Itís not important."

"Gabrielle, thereís something on your mind. Please, just tell me about it. It might help to talk."

Gabrielle sat down abruptly on a convenient log and ran her hands through her hair. "Xena, Iím sorry. I didnít mean to block you out. Itís just ... Iím not sure I *can* talk about it."

"Is it something to do with Iolaus?" Xena queried tentatively, sitting down beside her friend.

Gabrielle nodded miserably. "Itís nothing, Xena, really. Iíll be fine. Itís just that ... I hadnít seen him for so long ..."

Xena was silent for a moment. She knew that Gabrielle had developed a terrible crush on Iolaus after her first meeting with the hunter, but the bard had been younger then and Xena had put it down to a passing fancy. The gods knew, Iolaus attracted women like flies. Since then, theyíd met up with Hercules and Iolaus several times and the two had been friendly, but no more than that. But Gabrielleís eyes told a different story and Xena was stunned as she suddenly realised the truth.

"You love him, donít you?" She asked softly.

Gabrielle held her gaze for a moment, then nodded slightly and looked down as her eyes filled with tears.

"Gabrielle, are you sure?" Xena asked carefully. "You know how Iolaus is with women ..."

Gabrielle shook her head fiercely. "You donít understand. He loves me too! I felt it the first time we met, and now I know it, in my heart I know it - weíre meant to be together."

Xena was at a loss for words. Whatever sheíd been expecting, it wasnít this. She couldnít quite work out her feelings. Surprise, yes. Shock, even, the revelation was so unexpected. Something else she wasnít ready to deal with. Her own history with Iolaus was so complicated. She couldnít think of him without feeling a mixture of guilt and shame at the way sheíd deliberately set out to seduce him and then betray him in the worst possible way. And then sheíd betrayed him again, in her relationship with Hercules. Yet he seemed to have found it in himself to forgive her, or at least he had once said that he didnít hate her, although theyíd never discussed what happened. Somewhere hidden deep within was also the memory of the way heíd made her feel as heíd made love to her, the memory of feelings, quickly denied, of how good it felt be to be with a man who truly loved her. Jumbled thoughts of Iolaus and Hercules and the whole situation flooded her mind but she forced them back. This was about Gabrielle, not her.

"Why didnít you say something before?" she asked then.

Gabrielle turned to her, eyes troubled. "I wanted to, Xena. It wasnít that I was trying to hide anything from you, itís just that I needed time to come to terms with it myself, to understand what I was feeling and what I needed to do about it."

"Have you come to any conclusions?" Xena asked, trying to keep her tone neutral. Suddenly, she was beginning to realise that there was a very real possibility of losing Gabrielle through this.

"I know that I love him. I donít know yet what Iím going to do about it. We agreed to meet back at Caria, to talk."

"When?"

"In a monthís time. Xena, I need you to know - my feelings for Iolaus donít change the way I feel about you. You are my best friend and I love you like a sister. I need you to understand that."

"Itís all right, Gabrielle, I understand. Donít worry. Everything will be fine."

But even as she spoke the words, Xena knew that everything wouldnít be fine. Someone was going to get hurt when all this was resolved and, selfish as it may sound, she fervently hoped it wouldnít be her.

King Areion of Eleusis surveyed his guests from the balcony above the ball room, a warm and satisfying feeling of triumph surging through him. A few hours ago he had been merely Prince Areion, held back from his rightful position as the most powerful man in the kingdom only by the tedious presence of his father, King Falcor. Now, after his fatherís fortuitous death, Areion had finally inherited the throne. The kingdom was his to rule in any way he chose and he intended to take full advantage of his power. Nothing could prevent his plans to take over the neighbouring kingdoms and turn Eleusis into the empire it deserved to be.

He lacked only one thing to make his world perfect. He needed a queen. And he had found her a month ago in Caria when the bard Gabrielle had walked into his life. Back in Caria he had never considered anything more permanent than a few nights of passion. But since she had rejected him, he had been unable to think of anything much beyond her. He had told himself that he was mad to even be thinking about her. He was destined to marry someone of noble blood, not a mere commoner, But his desire was too strong. He wanted more than a few nights with her, he wanted to possess her. He had to have her. Oreo had discovered that Gabrielle generally travelled with the warrior princess, Xena. Remembering his close encounter with the group of bandits, Areion had the perfect excuse to invite Xena and her friend to the coronation celebration.

Gabrielle had obviously been surprised to see him again and, he had to admit, not overly enthusiastic. But he knew he could change all that. When she realised he was serious about her, that he wanted to make her queen, she would change her mind quickly enough. What commoner would turn down the chance to marry a king?

He glanced round as Oreo appeared at his shoulder. The other man groaned theatrically. "What are you up to, your majesty? Oh, wait - let me guess. I can tell by the love-sick puppy dog face ..."

Areion turned on him, eyes blazing. "Youíd do well to remember who youíre talking to, Oreo," he said icily. "Iím the King now, and should be addressed accordingly."

Oreo was about to laugh at the haughty words when he caught the look on his friendís face and realised in dismay that Areion was in earnest. Replacing the grin with an expression of contrition, he said quickly, "I apologise, your majesty. I meant no harm. Why donít we go down and join the dancing?"

Areionís burst of temper dissipated as quickly as it had begun. He clapped Oreo on the shoulder. "Yes, indeed, my friend. After all, weíre the two most handsome men in the castle this evening. We shouldnít deprive the ladies of our company!"

As Areion led the way down the stairs, Oreo breathed a sigh of relief. Since the death of his father, Areion had become increasingly aloof, treating even his closest friends with reserve. Oreo was relying on taking over the position of Chief Adviser to the King and although he resented his friendís behaviour, he was also an opportunist who recognised the need to play along. Only occasionally had he forgotten and slipped into the old playful banter that the two had shared until only a short time ago.

Oreo watched with concern as Areion walked up to the girl and politely but firmly led her away from her current partner and onto the floor. Areion had been obsessed with her since the first moment heíd seen her and Oreo couldnít understand why. Sure, she was attractive enough and would make a good mistress, but a man in Areionís position he should be looking for a lucrative marriage to a princess, not pursuing a commoner. Oreo had a bad feeling that nothing good could come of this. He watched in rising apprehension as Areion led Gabrielle off the dance floor and into a small conservatory to one side.

As soon as they were out of sight of the other guests, Areion leaned forward to kiss his companion. Gabrielle pushed him away firmly. When he took no notice she was forced to employ a few of the tricks Xena had taught her. The King stumbled back, clutching his groin and hopping on one foot, face screwed up in agony.

Suddenly remembering that this was the King sheíd just kneeíd in the groin, Gabrielle headed quickly for the door, deciding that it would be best to let him cool off. Areion grabbed her arm as she passed.

"This isnít over, Gabrielle." The mixture of lust and anger in his expression frightened her for a moment, but she stood her ground.

"Yes, it is, Your Majesty. I think it would be best for everyone if I leave the castle in the morning."

"No!" Areion was all smiles again, the anger quickly disappearing. "Please, donít leave. I apologise for my behaviour. I was totally out of order, you must forgive me. I was simply carried away by your beauty."

"Nevertheless, I still think it would be better for me to leave."

"But where would you go? Xena is leaving tomorrow. Sheíll be gone for at least four days. I insist that you stay at the castle. I promise you that Iíll be the perfect gentleman."

Gabrielle had momentarily forgotten that Xena was leaving. Almost as soon as they had arrived at Eleusis, a runner had arrived, begging Xena her to return with him to help settle a dispute over the leadership of a village in a neighbouring land. The Warrior Princess had been instrumental in setting up the current leadership and the message had specifically asked that she come alone, as the parties involved would trust noone else.

Gabrielle had agreed willingly enough at the time. Although she was wary of Areion, she felt it was unlikely that heíd renew his attentions to her now that he was King and she had to admit that a few days of luxury would be welcome. Now, her heart sank at the thought of four more days in his company. Yet if she made a fuss, Xena would probably refuse to leave and Gabrielle didnít want to be responsible for letting the village down. She could handle Areionís attentions for a few more days, and after all, what could happen, really?

So she agreed to stay. If she had seen the look of triumph on Areionís face as she preceded him out of the room, she might have made a different decision.

In the early hours of the morning King Areion let himself into the small temple within the castle courtyard. The temple was dedicated to Hera and had been for centuries past. Areion had had little cause to call on the help of the Queen of the Gods during his young life, but now he had no option.

The temple was dimly lit, as always, by torches high up on the far walls, but no priest was in attendance at this hour, for which the King was grateful. He wanted no witnesses to the request he was about to make.

He put his offering on the altar as he had been taught, just in front of the pool of water through which Hera made her presence felt. The water looked black and impenetrable in the dim light. He knelt beside the pool and bowed his head. "Hera, Mighty Queen. Your humble servant, King Areion of Eleusis, begs an audience."

There was no answer. Areion waited a few moments, then repeated his request. Again, there was silence. A third time Areion repeated his request and this time the waters of the pool began to swirl and an indistinct image appeared within their depths. A voice echoed from the pool.

"So, King Areion of Eleusis, you finally come to consult your Queen."

Areion bowed even lower. "Forgive, me, mighty Queen."

Hera waited, but there was no more. No excuses or explanations. She was amused. She could tell that he was far from confident, his feelings even bordering on fear, but he was stubborn and arrogant enough to refuse to show it in a display of obseqience. So be it. She recognised and applauded arrogance, if it was employed in the proper way.

"You may stand. I will forgive your tardiness. Why do you choose to come to me now?"

Areion got to his feet, trying to keep the expression of relief off his face. He was aware that Hera despised weakness; obviously his show of confidence had worked. "Your Majesty, I have come to beg your help in ... an affair of the heart."

"Indeed?" Hera was interested, now. She had been sure he was there to ask for her aid in his conquest of neighbouring kingdoms. "Of what do you speak?"

Briefly, Areion outlined his desire for Gabrielle and his wish to make her his queen.

"So you love this girl, yet you wish for power over her, is that right?" Hera said when he had finished his story.

"I ... I only know that I must have her, at all costs."

"Even against her will? Consider your answer carefully."

Areion didnít need to consider his answer. "Yes," he answered at once. "Even if it is against her will. I must have her."

"Then," Hera said, "Why donít you use the Stone?"

"The stone?" Areion replied, puzzled. "What stone?"

There was silence for a moment before Hera spoke again. "The Eleusis Stone. The Stone I gave your family generations ago to be passed down from first born to first born. Your father should have revealed its secrets to you when you came of age."

"I, I donít know what youíre talking about, Your Majesty," Areion replied, mind whirling with possibilities. "My father spoke of no Stone."

"Your father was an idiot," Hera snapped. The she laughed, and her laughter seemed to fill the room. "Then, I must do what your father refused to do. Come closer, Areion, and let me tell you of the power of the Stone ...."

"Are you sure youíll be all right here while Iím gone?" Xena asked her companion as she prepared to mount Argo in the courtyard of the castle.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "No, Iím going to hate every moment of it. A warm, comfortable bed, good food, hot baths - not my scene at all. Just GO, Xena. Iíll see you in a few days."

Xena studied her friendís face closely for a moment, but Gabrielle smiled reassuringly. "Xena ..."

"All right!" Xena swung easily into the saddle.

"Watch out for King Areion," Xena cautioned as she prepared to move off. "I didnít like the way he was looking at you last night."

Gabrielle laughed. "Oh, Iím sure the new King of Eleusis is interested in a lowly commoner like me! Get going, Xena. And be careful."

Xena looked back and waved once as she kicked Argo into a gallop out of the courtyard. She had seen Areion take Gabrielle aside the previous evening, but when asked about the incident, Gabrielle had dismissed it as nothing. Xena was uneasy, but had no evidence that anything was wrong and it was unlikely that anything could happen to her friend within the confines of the castle. Anyway, it would be good for Gabrielle to have the unusual opportunity to enjoy some luxurious living and this dispute seemed like a simple enough task. Xena fully expected to be back within three to four days.

Gabrielle stood looking after her friend for a moment. She was almost regretting not telling Xena about Areion. Then she shrugged to herself. It was only a few days. All she had to do was stay out of his way and ensure that they werenít left alone together. How hard could that be?

The following evening, the old man standing beside him followed Areionís gaze with dismay as the kingís eyes alighted, for the hundredth time, on the blonde girl talking animatedly to one of Areionís cousins.

Espiron had been Chief Advisor to King Falcor for the past thirty years. He knew that Areion was looking for an opportunity to dispense with his services, but Espiron was loved and respected by the people of Eleusis and knew that the new King was wise enough to bide his time before officially replacing him. In practice, the old man had little influence over the new king, who had surrounded himself with younger men very much like himself - ruthless, inexperienced and power-hungry. A dangerous combination. Espiron had been Areionís tutor for the whole of his young life and had no illusions about the young man. King Falcor had been a wise and generous ruler and it had broken the Advisorís heart that despite his own attempts to guide and mentor the boy, the kingís son had grow up from a bad tempered and lazy child into an arrogant, reckless youth. He feared for the kingdom in the hands of this young man and had, too, his doubts about the hunting accident that had so conveniently brought about King Falcorís death. But he had no proof, nothing with which he could confront Areion, so he waited patiently but helplessly, doing what he could to curb Areionís excesses while he still could, hoping that as the young man matured, he would see the error of his ways.

Espiron had noted Areionís interest in the young blonde since the moment she had first arrived with the warrior woman, Xena. Now, as he observed Areionís intense interest in the girl, the old man was wishing they had never come here. She was certainly attractive - although obviously not of noble birth, she had a vitality and spirit about her that immediately attracted attention. What he didnít understand was that Areion and the girl had obviously met before. Yet although she had greeted him politely enough, she had then seemed to go out of her way to try to avoid him.

Unfortunately, Espiron knew that her wishes in the matter would be irrelevant to Areion if he really had set his heart on her. The Chief Adviserís suspicions were confirmed when Areion turned to him and whispered, "Sheís the one, Espiron. She is the one who will become my bride and rule over Eleusis with me."

"Your majesty, are you sure?" Espiron said cautiously. "Thereís no need to make a hasty decision. Perhaps you should reconsider my suggestion of a political marriage to forge an alliance with another kingdom ..."

"I know what Iím doing, old man," Areion interrupted irritably. "And before you start spouting off about her lack of royal blood, you know it doesnít matter. Iím the King, I can do what I like - I can train her in any way I wish, after she becomes mine. And if she is of lower blood, all to the better, no-one will miss her, will they?"

Espironís heart sank. "Sire, what if she doesnít wish to marry you?" he asked directly, already knowing the answer, but needing to hear it anyway.

Areion smiled. "Iím not going to give her the opportunity to refuse. I plan to use the Stone."

He watched with amusement as a look of horror spread over the old manís face.

"The Stone, sire? What do you mean?" Espiron asked.

"Donít come the innocent with me, old man," Areion growled. "You know perfectly well what ĎStoneí. The one I should have been told about when I came of age. The one my father was too stupid to take advantage of."

Espiron thought quickly. How had Areion come to find out about the Stone? King Falcor had confided in Espiron, told him of the Stoneís power and his decision to hide the truth from his son. "Sire, your father was a wise man. He knew the dangers of using the Stone ..."

"My father was weak," Areion said coldly. "He was weak and unambitious and that is why he ruled over a small kingdom, when he could have had so much more. His refusal to use the Stone left him tied to a woman who was unable to understand the needs of the kingdom and unable to give him the attention he should have commanded. I wonít make the same mistake." His eyes fixed on the girl again and he smiled, raising his goblet of wine to his lips. "Tonight, Espiron - tonight I will make her mine."

5 days later

Xena rode into the castle courtyard as dusk was beginning to fall. It had taken her a dayís hard riding to get to the village of Metos. Once there, the discussions had proved tedious and long winded and three days had passed before she was able to head back to Eleusis. The whole time sheíd been wondering why on earth theyíd asked for her in the first place. ĎDiplomatí wasnít exactly her middle name. Her brand of diplomacy had once come by the point of a sword. Sure, she had changed, but she still didnít exactly see herself in the role of peacemaker.

She grinned to herself as she dismounted, reluctantly handing Argo into the hands of one of the castle grooms. Ordinarily sheíd have seen to Argoís needs herself, but she was anxious to see Gabrielle and the young groom had proved himself able to handle the spirited animal.

Xena headed straight for her room to clean up. She was travel-worn and weary and in no fit state to present herself to the royal court. As she crossed the wide hallway, she glanced in through the open doorway of the banqueting room.

The royal party were obviously in the middle of their evening meal, King Areion on his feet seemingly giving a speech. Xena was about to move on when her eye was drawn to a head of blonde hair near the top of the table, sitting at the right of the King. Why would Gabrielle be seated in such a pre-eminent position? Areionís voice carried clearly across the room.

"... and therefore, Iíd like you all to join me in a toast to my future wife - Gabrielle!"

Time stood still as a shocked Xena met Gabrielleís eyes across the room.

Xena was unable to find an opportunity to talk with Gabrielle alone until the following night. The previous evening had passed like a bad dream. Seeing her in the doorway, King Areion had welcomed her and insisted that she join them for the celebration. Gabrielle had been especially vivacious, hanging on the arm of the King, making her infatuation with him embarrassingly evident. Initially confident that Gabrielle was playing some kind of role that she would later explain, Xena began to doubt that conclusion as the night wore on. Gabrielle was always so open, so honest. It was unlikely that she could keep up such an act for long.

The following day was even more frustrating. Xena had no opportunity to speak to her friend alone and Gabrielle had shown no inclination to do so, rather it seemed to Xena that she went out of her way to ensure that the two of them had no opportunity to speak.

Curbing her impatience, Xena had waited until the royal household retired for the night. She waited in a darkened alcove in the corridor near Gabrielleís room until she heard her friend returning. She stepped out of the shadows as the bard was opening the door to her room.

"Gabrielle."

Gabrielle jumped. "Xena! You startled me. I was just going to bed."

"Gabrielle, we need to talk."

"Not now, Xena. Iím tired."

"Now, Gabrielle." Xena walked past her friend into the room. Gabrielle followed silently, obviously noting the grim look on the warriorís face.

Xena turned and faced her friend. What she was going to say was difficult, but she had never been one to skirt around an issue. Far better to be honest and say it the way it was. "Gabrielle - youíre my friend. Gods, more than that - youíre like a sister to me. And you know I want you to be happy. But - this has all happened so fast. Are you sure this is what you want?"

"I love Areion and I want to marry him." Gabrielle answered simply. "Is that so hard for you to understand?"

"Gabrielle, six days ago you had no interest in him. You didnít even like him. How can you have changed your mind so quickly?"

"I didnít know him then, now I do. Weíve spent the last five days together." Gabrielleís tone was cold now. "I love him, I want to marry him. Donít bother to suggest that we wait a while before getting married, thereíd be no point - waiting wonít change the way I feel. Iím sorry you obviously donít feel able to be happy for me."

Xena felt her temper rise, but struggled to keep it in check. Starting a row wasnít going to help. She forced her voice to sound calm and reasonable. "Gabrielle - only a few days ago, you told me you were in love with someone else. I need to understand whatís happened to change that. How can your feelings have altered so dramatically in such a short time?"

Gabrielle looked at her strangely and for the first time seemed to hesitate. "That was a mistake. When I met Areion, I realised that Iíd never really known what love is. Now I do. Itís as simple as that. Iím going to marry him, Xena, with or without your blessing, so I suggest you get used to the idea. I donít know why youíre so upset about it. Are you jeolous?"

"Donít be ridiculous," Xena snapped. "Iím concerned about you. I donít want you to make a mistake."

Gabrielle stared at her coldly. "Iíll forgive you for your attitude, Xena, obviously this has come as a shock and you need time to come to terms with all this. In fact, I think youíd better leave right now."

"Well, I donít, Gabrielle. We need to talk this through."

The bard moved pointedly to the door, holding it open. "Thereís nothing to sort out. Please leave, Xena. Come back when youíre ready to be happy for me."

Xena stared at the person who had until recently been her best friend, but saw only a stranger reflected in the cold expression in the bardís eyes. She turned and left without a further word. Unusually for her, the warrior was unsure how to handle the situation - Gabrielle was right in one thing, the news had knocked her badly off balance.

As she marched down the corridor, her initial response was to confront the King, but reason prevented her. Something was wrong here and she needed to find out what it was before taking any action. Reluctantly deciding that there was nothing she could do for the moment, she went to her room.

Xena lay on her back, staring up at the ceiling of her room. Sleep eluded her. There was something very wrong here, and her mind was churning with possibilities. This was so unlike Gabrielle. Admittedly Xena hadnít spent much time with Areion, but her initial impression was of an arrogant, self-centred young man with a cruel side that he kept hidden under a veneer of charm. Her first impressions were usually pretty close to the mark and Gabrielle had certainly seemed to share this one. Were the gods involved then, and if so, why? One thing was for certain - Gabrielleís protestations about discovering true love when she met Areion just didnít ring true, particularly taking into account what the bard had told her about her love for Iolaus less than two weeks ago.

Thinking back to that conversation now, she was as sure as she could be that Gabrielle had believed that she had found her only true love. Xena knew Gabrielle, knew that when the bard gave her heart and her loyalty, it was impossible to shift her. What, then, could have happened to have changed her feelings so dramatically?

The warrior was so lost in her thoughts that the intruder was almost inside the room before she was aware of the sound of the door opening. Instinct took over and the man - if it was a man - was on the ground with a dagger at his throat before he knew what had hit him. In the gloom of the room Xena registered that her first impression was correct. The intruder was a man, old, thin and frail looking. He looked somewhat familiar. She let him go, warily, and gestured for him to stand up.

"There was no need for violence!" He exclaimed irritably, scrambling nimbly to his feet, rubbing his throat. Not as frail as she"d first thought.

"If you creep up on someone in the middle of the night, what do you expect?" Xena asked dryly, sheathing her knife and gesturing for him to a seat. She herself remained standing. She recognised him now as one of Areionís advisers.

The old man sat and Xena regarded him thoughtfully.

"Youíre one of Areionís advisers."

The old man smiled wryly. "ĎAdviserí is a loose term. I was his fatherís Chief Adviser for thirty years. Since Areion took the crown, Iíve become somewhat Ďdispensableí. He has his own men around him now."

"What do you want?" Xena asked abruptly. She was in no mood for polite conversation.

The old man turned serious eyes on her. "Iíve come to warn you that your friend is in grave danger."

"Gabrielle?"

"Yes. The pretty blonde. Sheís under the thrall of the Eleusis Stone."

"The Eleusis Stone?" Xena repeated automatically.

"The Stone contains mystic powers. It was given to the family by Hera many generations ago and has been passed down to each firstborn son in the line. It gives its master power over any woman who wears it."

Xena frowned. "Hera? Mystic powers - back up a bit here! What Stone are you talking about?"

"The ring she is wearing, the one she wears to mark their engagement," the old man replied impatiently.

Xena remembered the large gold ring with the huge emerald stone, a ring too large and far too vulgar for Gabrielleís usual taste. "What kind of power does it have?"

"Youíve seen it at work. Youíve seen how sheís besotted by him, how she hangs on his every word, does everything he says. She would take her own life if he asked her to. Thatís the power of the Stone. It commands love - even love that would otherwise be unwillingly given. It can only be used once by each person, and the choice must be approved by Hera herself for the power to be effective. Areionís grandfather used it to bind his queen to him. She didnít want to marry him, but he had fallen in love with her and his lust was stronger than his reason. He used the Stone to win her and she remained in its thrall all her life. Areionís father, King Falcor, refused to use it."

"Why?"

"He was a good man. He had integrity. He had no wish to bind a woman to him through any power other than that of genuine love. He was also wise enough not to want to be beholden to Hera. He made a decision not to tell his son about it, but Areion found out - from Hera herself, I suspect."

Xena nodded grimly. "So Heraís involved. Thatís the first thing about all of this that makes sense. So tell me, how does the Stone work?"

The old man shrugged. "I donít know. I donít think anybody has ever known, not even the family. "

"If we force her to take off the ring, wouldnít that break its power?"

The old man shook his head vehemently. "It isnít possible. The ring has a power of its own -thatís why King Falcor didnít try to destroy it, he was afraid of what would happen if he tried - but now that Gabrielle is wearing it, the power of the ring will have become entwined in her life force. If you remove it forcibly, it will kill her."

"Youíre sure about that?"

The old man shrugged. "It is said that Areionís great-grandfather used the ring to bind a woman to him. But she had a lover, and in desperation to win her back, the lover cut the ring from her finger. She died horribly." He paused. "I donít know for certain that the storyís true, but I wouldnít want to be the one to take the risk and find out."

"There must be some way to break the power," Xena argued.

The old man nodded. "Again, I can only tell you the stories handed down through the generations, but it is said that there is but one way."

He paused.

"Well! What is it?" Xena prompted impatiently.

"It is said that only true love can break the power of the Stone!"

Xena would have laughed at the dramatic phrase had the situation not been so serious. Instead, she said, "Gabrielleís my best friend, I love her like a sister. Would that love be powerful enough?"

The old man looked at her sadly. "Iím afraid not. Only romantic, passionate love can break through the thrall. If there is someone in her life that she loves in that way and who loves her back - only then may the power be broken, and then only at the threat of death."

Xena was silent, digesting what heíd said. If what Gabrielle had told her about Iolaus was true, then the hunter was Gabrielleís only hope.

Part Three

(2 days later)

Hercules ducked as a man shot along the table in front of him, landing in a crumpled heap on the floor. The demigod calmly took a sip of his ale and surveyed with interest the chaos around him. Three men lay groaning on the floor, yet another was wandering about with a dazed expression on his face. On a nearby table, a short, blond haired whirlwind was standing, kicking out at anyone who came within sight. As Hercules watched, Iolaus pivoted gracefully, sending one man flying with a backward kick and simultaneously head butting another. The blond paused to flash a grin at his friend.

"Enjoying your ale, Herc?" he called.

Hercules nodded comfortably. "Need any help there, buddy?"

"Nope! Iíve got it, thanks all the same."

Hercules nodded slowly. He put his ale back down on the table, folded his arms and put his feet up. A few moments before some of the men in the tavern, whoíd been drinking heavily all night, had decided it would be fun to challenge Hercules and his friend, Ďshortieí. Iolaus, never one to take kindly to a derogatory reference to his height, had thrown himself wholeheartedly into battle. Hercules, who reckoned his friend needed a good fight to let off some steam, had left him to it, occasionally offering some assistance in the form of a well-aimed fist when Iolaus chanced to throw a body in his direction.

Hercules had been a little concerned about his friend over the past few weeks. Since they had met up again after Herculesí visit to Iphicles and Iolausís week at the festival at Caria, the hunter had been uncharacteristically moody and Hercules hoped that a chance to let off some steam would cheer him up.

The door to the tavern opened cautiously and a small, wiry man looked in fearfully, eyes widening at the sight before him. Spotting Hercules, he scuttled across the room towards the demigod, ducking a few flying bodies en route.

"Youíre Hercules, arenít you?" he asked nervously.

"Thatís right," Hercules replied amiably. "What can I do for you?"

The man produced a scroll from beneath his jacket. "I have a message to deliver, to your friend Iolaus."

Hercules looked over at Iolaus. "Hey, Iolaus, thereís a message for you!"

Iolaus glanced over and paid for it as he took a right hook in the face. "Umph! Iím a bit busy right now, Herc. Can you read it for me?"

Hercules unrolled the scroll. The message was short. "Gabrielle in trouble. You are the only one who can help her. Come to Eleusis immediately. Bring Hercules. Xena." Hercules read the message through twice. Finally, he said to the scrawny man, "Thereís no return message. You can go." Hercules gave the man a few dinars for his trouble and he scuttled out, grateful to get out of the line of fire.

"Iolaus, we have to go!" The demigod called to his friend.

"What, now? Iím just getting warmed up!"

Hercules got to his feet, grabbed the two remaining men in either hand and brought them together. Their heads met with an audible thwack and they dropped to the floor. He grabbed a handful of purple vest and began to drag his friend towards the door.

"Fightís over. Iíll tell you all about it on the way."

Gabrielle was woken by sunlight streaming through the open shutters of her room. She lay quietly for a moment, enjoying the warmth of the sunís rays on her face. She felt a little strange, a little disconnected. Sitting up slowly, she looked around her at the opulently decorated chamber, quite unlike the kind of place she usually found herself staying in.

She lay quietly for a moment, trying to remember the events of the previous few days, but everything was a little hazy. She remembered Xenaís words, her friendís angry confrontation. Gabrielle didnít understand what the problem was. She was happy, why couldnít Xena accept that and be happy for her?

She tried to fix her thoughts on Xena. She knew that the Warrior Princess was her best friend. Theyíd travelled together for a long time, been through so much together, yet she felt now as if that had been a different life. More than that - it felt like a distant dream from which she had now woken up. The memories were vague, grainy, with no substance and no emotion. That was it - when she thought of Xena and their life, she felt nothing. Maybe her life with the Warrior Princess really had been a dream - maybe that was why she felt no sadness, no regret at moving on, leaving her friend behind.

She remembered their conversation and Xenaís accusation, Ďonly a few days ago, you told me you were in love with someone else.í With difficulty, she focussed on that someone else. Iolaus. She remembered vaguely that he had been an important part of her life once, but now, he too seemed like a dream. When she thought about him, once more she found she felt nothing at all. A stab of panic shot through her. There was something wrong. Surely she should be feeling something - some strong emotions as she thought about these people who had been so involved in her life. The problem was, they no longer seemed important. What had changed? When had it changed? She didnít know. She tried to remember, somehow it was important to remember, but it was like thinking through fog. She did remember a time when sheíd been with the King, she remembered feeling woozy, as if she was about to pass out. Areion had put something on her finger - her ring! She fingered the ring and smiled. Its very touch reminded her of him.

Moments later Areion entered the room and suddenly everything made sense. Iolaus and Xena were unimportant. Areion brought colour into her life. He was her life, and her future and all that mattered. As he came forward, she stepped willingly into his arms, lifting her face for his kiss and all other thoughts melted away.

Hercules and Iolaus had set off for Eleusis as soon as Hercules had showed the message to his friend. They moved quickly and made good time and were within sight of the borders of Eleusia by nightfall of the second day of travel. Iolaus reluctantly agreed that they should stop and make camp for a few hours, but to push on at the first sight of daylight.

Neither had much to say as they sat either side of the camp fire, finishing a supper of rabbit that Iolaus had caught earlier. Hercules gazed pensively into the fire, idly listening to the sound of owls gently hooting in the nearby trees, wondering how to reopen the conversation. On the road Iolaus had been willing enough to discuss the reasons Xena may have had for sending for them, but changed the subject every time Hercules questioned why Xena had asked for the hunter specifically. Finally, the demigod decided to push the subject.

"So, Iolaus, why do you think Xena said that youíre the only one who can help Gabrielle?"

Iolaus shrugged. "I have no idea." But he wouldnít meet Herculesí eyes.

"Iolaus ... is there something you want to tell me?" the demigod persisted.

Finally, Iolaus looked up. "I really donít know why Xena sent for me in particular, Hercules, but it may be because ... well, I ..." he sighed and looked away, his voice trailing off.

Hercules waited patiently for a few minutes, but his friend was silent. "Iolaus?"

The hunter looked up then, met his friendís eyes. "Gabrielle and I ... I love her, Hercules."

The demigod was about to make a glib remark about the number of times heíd heard his friend say those words, but something in Iolausí tone stopped him. He looked closely at his friend. "Youíre serious, arenít you?" he said finally.

Iolaus nodded. Hercules suddenly felt hurt, why had Iolaus waited until now to tell him? Before he had time to think through this reaction, he heard himself saying sharply, "So, when were you planning to talk to me about this, Iolaus? Or were you just going to send me an invitation to the wedding?"

Startled by his friendís hostile reaction, Iolaus looked up quickly and retorted, I thought Iíd tell you round about the same time you finally decided to talk to me about your feelings for Xena. Which isnít going to be sometime soon, is it, Herc?"

Hercules was stung. "Thatís completely different."

"Is it? In what way?"

"You know why, Iolaus," Hercules said, feeling decidedly uncomfortable at the unexpected direction the conversation was taking. "After what had happened between you and Xena, it was ... difficult. I didnít want to hurt you ..."

"Really? So choosing to hide what was happening between you was better than being honest with me?"

"Iolaus ..." Hercules said helplessly. He didnít know what to say.

"Forget it, Herc," Iolaus said suddenly, getting to his feet . Itís in the past. Weíd better get some sleep if we want to leave at dawn."

Hercules watched for a moment as his friend found a comfortable spot on the ground and rolled over, facing away from the demigod. Hercules lay down himself, but sleep wouldnít come. He was still trying to work out how Iolausí sudden revelation about Gabrielle had turned into an argument about Xena. All at once he felt ashamed, not so much of the hurt he had felt that Iolaus had not confided in him before, but that he had laid into his friend without taking the time to find out why Iolaus had kept his feelings to himself. Heíd gotten himself into the subsequent conversation. Yet heíd been totally thrown at the hunterís immediate reaction, revealing the strength of Iolausí feelings. Hercules had to admit that heíd been a bit of a coward at the time. He hadnít known what to say to his friend, knowing that Iolaus was still hurting from Xenaís betrayal, so heíd taken the easy way out and said nothing. Then, when theyíd parted from Xena, heíd found good excuses not to bring the subject up. The times theyíd met Xena and Gabrielle since then Iolaus seemed to have forgiven the warrior princess and there seemed no point in bringing up old wounds unnecessarily.

But he should have known that he was wrong. Iolaus was a passionate man who felt things deeply. He was quick to anger, but also quick to forgive, and Hercules had taken advantage of that trait.

Heíd chosen to ignore another aspect of Iolausí character - when he was really hurting, the hunter kept his feeling hidden deep inside, and even his best friend had trouble prying them free. On that occasion, Hercules hadnít even tried. It had been easier to let the matter rest. Easier for him, he admitted to himself, but maybe not easier for Iolaus. He finally fell asleep, still wondering how he was going to fix this mess.

They rose at dawn, finished off the remains of last nightís rabbit, and set off down the trail. After a couple of hours of silent marching during which neither spoke a word, Iolaus slowed up a bit and glanced up at his friend. "Iím sorry, Herc."

"No, Iím the one who should be sorry," Hercules replied immediately. "I was wrong. I should have talked to you about Xena long ago, cleared the air. I should have tried to explain what happened between us."

Iolaus cocked an eyebrow. "Actually, it was pretty clear what happened between you!"

Hercules smiled at the remark, knowing by the tone of Iolausí voice that it was made without rancour. "I mean, I should have tried to explain to you how I could ... did ... fall for a woman whoíd caused you so much pain. Sheíd changed, Iolaus."

"I know that, Hercules. I could see it at the time, but I wasnít prepared to accept it. I guess my pride wouldnít let me, and it did still hurt. All I could think was that my best friend had betrayed me."

Hercules winced at the words. But Iolaus was right, and he himself had felt the same at the time. Even when he was making love to Xena, heíd felt uncomfortable, feeling that he was betraying his friend by being with the woman whoíd used him so badly.

"Youíre right, Iolaus ..." he began, but Iolaus interrupted.

"No, itís okay. That was how I felt at the time. But who was I to feel betrayed by you, when Iíd already good as betrayed you myself? I almost killed you, for Zeusí sake!"

"But you didnít," Hercules said quietly.

"No, I didnít, but I came close, Hercules, and Iím going to have to live with that memory for the rest of my life. But you never blamed me for what happened, and I appreciated that. I understand what happened between you and Xena, and itís all right, really. Itís in the past. Iím sorry I brought it up."

"Are you sure weíre okay with this?"

Iolaus nodded vigorously. "I donít know why I brought it up, Herc, really. I guess Iím just a bit tense. Iím really worried about Gabrielle."

"So - do you want to tell me about you and Gabrielle, now?" Hercules asked tentatively.

"Sure." Iolaus looked contrite. "I wasnít trying to hide anything from you, Herc, though I can understand how youíd feel that way. Itís just that I hadnít quite come to terms with it all myself. Iím not sure where to start. Three weeks ago, while you were visiting Alcmene, I ran into Gabrielle on the road to Caria. She was travelling alone, so we thought it would be fun to go to the festival together." He grinned. "Well, we did have fun, but I got the feeling there was something on her mind ..."

"Iolaus! I - o - l - a- u - s!!" Gradually, Iolaus became aware of Hercules voice and realised that heíd stopped speaking, caught up in the potent memory of those few days. Hercules was looking at him quizzically and Iolaus felt himself flush. "Sorry, Herc. I was ... Where was I?" He continued with his story, telling his friend only that Gabrielle had been upset about something, that he had found himself comforting her, and one thing had led to another. Yet it was very obvious to the demigod that this encounter had gone much deeper than one of Iolausí usual romantic episodes. Seemingly reading his mind, Iolaus said, "Something happened between us, Hercules. I - I canít explain it. I just knew that everything was different afterwards and we couldnít go back."

Hercules was silent for a moment. He knew what it was like to fall deeply, madly in love. Heíd felt that love for his first wife, Deineira, and more recently for Serena. In some ways, he shouldnít have been surprised. Iolaus and Gabrielle had a lot in common. Theyíd certainly gotten on well together from the beginning when theyíd first met on the quest to free Prometheus. But Gabrielle had been so young then, it had never occurred to him that there was anything more between them than a mild flirtation.

Finally, Hercules said, "Well, Iím happy for you, Iolaus. Gabrielle is a wonderful person. And donít worry, weíll sort out whatever trouble sheís in. Xenaís with her, sheíll be fine."

Iolaus looked up at him worriedly. "If Xena has everything under control, why did she send for us?"

Hercules had no answer for that. The two heroes continues on in silence, unconsciously stepping up the pace.

Although her meeting with Espiron had revealed a desperate situation, in some ways Xena felt more in control. Knowing the nature of the problem was half way towards solving it. She was relieved, too, that the revelation about the Stone had at least explained Gabrielleís strange behaviour. There was nothing to be done now until Hercules and Iolaus arrived.

In the meantime, Xena changed her tactics with Gabrielle. Espiron had warned her that the Stone would cause Gabrielle to turn against anyone she felt was a threat to her relationship with Areion, and that warning had seemed apt, bearing in mind the conversation Xena had had with her friend the day before. Xena allowed a day to pass, then went to see Gabrielle, telling her friend that sheíd thought things over and while she was still concerned about the speed with which the marriage was taking place, she respected Gabrielleís decision and wished her every happiness.

Gabrielle had seemed to accept this capitulation without question and although Xena had seen Areion looking at her thoughtfully a few times, he had made no comment and had been nothing but charm, assuring her that she was welcome to stay until the wedding. Xena gritted her teeth and listened patiently to Gabrielleís chatter about the cloth for her wedding dress and her ideas on decorating the banqueting room for the reception, trying to hide her impatience and growing concern. Sometimes Gabrielle seemed like her normal self, but there were other, frightening times when Xena looked in her eyes and saw a blank emptiness, and yet other times when she seemed confused or in a dream.

The whole time Xena was filled with anxiety that Iolaus and Hercules wouldnít arrive in time. What if the messenger hadnít found them? Theyíd last been sighted near Corinth, but they could have moved on anywhere. Maybe she should have gone herself, but sheíd been reluctant to leave Gabrielle.

On the fourth day since she had sent the message, she was on the point of changing her mind and leaving in search of the two heroes. The wedding was due to take place in only three days time and time was running out. Then a messenger to the castle mentioned that heíd seen the great Hercules on the road. After casual questioning of the man Xena calculated that the two would probably arrive in Eleusis the following afternoon. She planned to meet them on the road, explain the situation, then engineer a chance meeting with Gabrielle. She hoped that the shock of seeing Iolaus would trigger some kind of response in the bard.

Things didnít go according to plan. As Xena prepared to set out on the road to Corinth she discovered that Gabrielle had already left with a servant, to ride out to a glade in the woods where there were reputed to be some stunning orchids growing wild, perfect for her wedding bouquet. Xena set off in pursuit, realising with growing panic that Gabrielle had chosen the very path Iolaus and Hercules would be taking. She prayed that sheíd be able to overtake Gabrielle and get to the two heroes first.

She almost made it. Approaching a bend in the path, she heard voices. Male and female voices. Familiar voices.

Rounding the bend, Xena walked into the scene sheíd been trying to avoid. Hercules and Iolaus stood side by side on the path, Gabrielle standing before them brandishing the enormous ring, a wide smile on her face. "What do you think? Isnít it the most beautiful ring youíve ever seen?"

Walking forward, Xena caught the eye of an obviously astonished Hercules. A white-faced Iolaus was staring at the ring.

"This is ... very sudden, Gabrielle," Hercules said, when it became apparent that the usually garrulous hunter could find nothing to say.

"I know," Gabrielle said happily. "But sometimes love happens like that, doesnít it. I fell for Areion the first moment I saw him."

Iolaus finally found his voice. "Gabrielle - I donít understand. I thought we were - I thought you cared about me. Last time we met ..."

"Last time we met we had some fun together, thatís all," Gabrielle interrupted airily. "It didnít mean anything."

Shocked, Iolaus just stared at her, oblivious to the presence of Xena and Hercules.

Iolaus recovered and tried again. "Gabrielle, you didnít give me the impression at the time that it didnít mean anything. In fact ..."

"Oh, come on, Iolaus. Iím sorry if you thought it meant anything more, really, but surely you of all people can recognise a little mild flirtation when you see it!"

She turned to Hercules, seemingly unconcerned by the stricken look on Iolausí face. "Nice to see you again, Hercules. I hope you understand that I canít invite you to the wedding itself, but youíre very welcome to attend the wedding gathering. I have to be getting on now. Iíll see you back at the castle, Xena." Without waiting for an answer, she strode off down the path, her maidservant scurrying along behind her.

Iolaus stood for a moment, seemingly rooted to the ground, pain and betrayal shining in his eyes. Hercules put a hand on his arm, "Iolaus," he began. Iolaus shook his hand off. "Not now, Herc. I ... Iíd just like to be alone for a minute. Iíll catch up with you later." He turned quickly and strode off the trail into the wood.

Hercules quickly regained his senses and made to follow the hunter, anger filling him at the memory of the look on his friendís face.

Xena put a hand on his arm. "Hercules, wait ..."

He shook her arm off angrily. "What do you mean, WAIT?! You heard what she said to him! If sheíd stuck a dagger in his heart, she couldnít have hurt him more."

"I know." Despite everything she knew, Xena too had been shocked at Gabrielleís hurtful words. "But, Hercules, you donít understand whatís going on here. This is my fault. I planned to talk to you and Iolaus alone, before you met Gabrielle. Gabrielleís under some kind of spell. I donít know how it works, but itís made her fall in love with Areion. She doesnít know what sheís saying or doing. Thatís why I sent for you. Iolaus is the only one who can help her now."

"A spell? Xena, whatís going on here?"

"Iíll explain it all later. We need to find Iolaus right now. Let me go and talk to him."

The demigod looked searchingly into her eyes for a moment, then nodded. Reassurance from his best friend probably wouldnít be enough for Iolaus right now. He let her pass reluctantly, for he wanted nothing more than to rush to his friendís side and help erase the pain in his eyes.

Iolaus began to run as soon as he left the path and didnít stop until he reached the river. He bent over with his arms braced on his thighs, trying to catch his breath. After a moment, he sat down on a convenient flat rock and ran his hands fiercely through his hair, trying to force himself to think rationally. He couldnít believe what had just happened. His mind kept returning to that night, reliving his feelings and what he had thought had been hers Sheíd told him she loved him. His feeling were still as intense now - how could her feelings have changed so radically in only a few weeks?

Xena found Iolaus sitting on the bank of the river, mechanically throwing pebble after pebble into its murky depths. He didnít look up or acknowledge her as she sat down beside him. After a few moments of silence, she began softly, "Iolaus, Iím sorry. I intended to talk to you, before you met Gabrielle. Thereís something very wrong, Gabrielleís under some sort of enchantment, I think the gods are at work. Thatís why I sent for you. She needs your help."

Iolaus gave no indication that heíd heard her words. Xena toyed with continuing her explanation, but something told her that no amount of explanations would undo the damage that had been done. She needed to find another way. She turned towards him, her voice firmer. "Iolaus, talk to me."

He turned to look at her then and the empty look on his face touched her heart.

She went on. "Iíll explain everything, and youíll understand whatís happening here, but for now you have to believe that of her own volition Gabrielle would never say anything to hurt you. She loves you, Iolaus. She told me so just a few days ago."

There was silence for another few moments then Iolaus said, slowly and softly, "I want to believe you. A few hours ago, I wouldnít have questioned it. But now ... itís hard to forget what she said." There was a catch in his voice as he finished, "I love her, Xena." His hands were balled into fists as he fought back the emotion that threatened to overwhelm him, and Xena silently put a hand over one of his, allowing him time to pull himself together, until she felt his tense body begin to relax.

Xena wanted to reach out and put her arms around him, but she knew that he didnít need sympathy, he needed to be convinced of the truth. She was shocked at the way a few cruel words from a loved one could so shake his self confidence. She suddenly realised that he really must love Gabrielle very much for her words to have this affect on him.

Then he said, quietly and with his eyes fixed on the ground, "Maybe thatís all Iím good for. Someone to hang round with until a real man comes along."

"Donít ever say that!" Xena said fiercely. "Look at me, Iolaus." His head stayed down. Xena raised her voice a little. "LOOK AT ME."

Reluctantly, he looked up into her clear blue eyes.

"Iolaus, you know me. After what weíve been through together, you know Iíd never lie to you again."

A slight nod of acknowledgement.

Encouraged, she continued, "What do you think makes a real man, Iolaus? Strength and power? Or is it loyalty, compassion, bravery, love? All of these things you have in abundance, Iolaus. Gabrielle recognises that, thatís why she loves you. Sheís intelligent, isnít she? And she knows you better than most. Everyone knows that you travel with Hercules because heís your friend and because you share his desire to help people. But, Iolaus, if you werenít with Hercules, youíd be doing exactly the same thing on your own, because you are a brave warrior, a good and passionate man. People donít warm to you because youíre Hercules friend, but because of who you are. You know, donít you?"

He didnít respond, but his face was beginning to lose the stricken look.

Encouraged, she ploughed on, "Iolaus, youíre one of the bravest, strongest, people I know."

At this, his eyes widened a little and he looked at her quizzically. "Itís all right, Xena. You donít have to say that. What happened between us is past history. I made a fool of myself, but I donít hold it against you anymore."

Now it was her turn to find it difficult to meet his eyes, but she forced herself to anyway. What she had to say had been a long time coming, but it needed to be said, and now was the right time. "Iolaus, thereís something Iíve been wanting to say to you for a long time, but somehow, I never seemed to find the right moment." She had his attention now. "When I ... seduced you ... and made you fall in love with me, I was doing it out of hatred and my desire to hurt Hercules and all those who cared about him. I was full of anger and bitterness and blinded to anything else. But I found myself attracted to you despite all that. It was a long time since Iíd ... been ... with someone who really cared about me and wanted to make me happy, someone who was kind and thoughtful and ... tender and loving. Iíve always said that it was Hercules who showed me the way forward, the way to turn my back on my past and start again, and thatís true ... but it started with you, Iolaus."

She looked away, no longer able to meet his eyes. "And that makes what I did to you so much worse. I cared about you, but not enough that my hatred couldnít win through in the end." She stopped speaking and looked at him again, half afraid of the anger and accusation she was sure sheíd see in his eyes. But she found herself looking into eyes full of understanding. All he said was, "Thank you, Xena." But it was enough. She put out her hand and he took it and for a moment they sat there, hands clasped, words not needed, finally at peace with one another.

Then Iolaus broke the spell and said, "So, are you going to tell me whatís happened to Gabrielle and what weíre going to do about it?"

Xena smiled. "Well, thatís where you come in."

A meeting took place that night in a huntersí cabin deep in the wood. After their encounter with Gabrielle and Xena, Hercules and Iolaus had camped in the wood, unsure about the wisdom of being seen in the town. Once the palace was asleep, Xena and Espiron had left to meet them. Xena was positive that no-one had seen them and that they hadnít been followed. Terse introduction had been made, then Xena had encouraged Espiron to tell the others all that he knew about the ring. When he had finished, there was silence for a moment as Hercules and Iolaus pondered his words.

Finally, Hercules said, "Espiron, I donít understand. If its love that breaks the spell, why didnít something happen when Gabrielle met Iolaus this afternoon?"

The old man shook his head. "Iím afraid it isnít that simple."

Hercules cocked an eyebrow. "Explain."

Espiron glanced at Iolaus. "Iím saying that the power of the Stone is strong, and getting stronger by the minute. Iolausí presence here isnít enough. Her love for him is so far submerged that the only way it might be reached is if ..."

"If what?" Hercules voice was cold. He was beginning to see where this was going, and he didnít like it one bit.

"Is if Iolausí life is in the balance," Espiron finished.

Hercules looked from Espiron to Xena and then to Iolaus, whose eyes were fixed on a spot somewhere in space. The demigodís gaze narrowed as his eyes returned to the warrior princess. Xena had been uncharacteristically silent during Espironís speech and suddenly Hercules realised why. "Xena, you knew about this, didnít you? Before you sent for Iolaus. You knew what heíd have to do."

Xena looked up and met Hercules cold gaze defiantly. "Itís the only way to save Gabrielle. Tell him, Espiron."

The old man shrugged. "I have nothing to offer you in the way of proof, Hercules. Old folk stories only. All I know is that on one occasion the power was successfully challenged, and it was at a time when a life was about to be lost to the sword."

"So there are no guarantees that if Iolaus puts his life on the line, it will actually save Gabrielle?" Hercules said.

Espiron shook his head. "Iím sorry. I wish I could be more certain."

"Itís too risky."

"Itís the only way!" Xena cried.

"Excuse me." Hercules and Xena both turned as Iolaus spoke for the first time since the conversation began. "If youíd kindly stop arguing about me as if Iím not here, Iíd like to say something. Xena is right. Itís our only chance."

"NO!" Hercules was getting angry now. "Itís far too dangerous. Whatever plan we come up with, youíll have to go in unarmed. And if the plan doesnít work, if thereís a knife to your throat and Gabrielle doesnít have the strength to stop it, youíre going to die! I wonít let that happen."

Iolaus looked at him silently for a moment. Hercules was standing, arms folded, wearing his stubborn look. Iolaus turned to Xena. "Xena, could you and Espiron give us a moment, please. I need to have a private chat with the big guy."

Angrily, Hercules accompanied his friend to a spot a little way off, out of earshot of Xena and Espiron. Before the demigod had a chance to open his mouth, the hunter said firmly, "Thereís no point in arguing about this, Hercules. You heard what Espiron said. We have no other choice."

"Thereís always another choice." Hercules retorted stubbornly. "We could get Gabrielle away from here, buy some time."

"And what then? Sheíll still be under the influence of the Stone. All weíll do is put off the inevitable." Iolaus replied patiently.

"Okay then, we could appeal to my father, or one of the other gods ..."

Iolaus laughed mirthlessly. "Will you listen to yourself? The gods are already involved, Herc. You know as well as I do that Heraís behind Areion all the way. None of the other gods are likely to go against her, especially not Zeus."

"Iolaus ..."

Iolaus was beginning to get annoyed himself. "Look, Herc, do you think Iíd put my life in danger if I thought there was another way? You seem to think weíre doomed to failure before we start. Gabrielle is strong, she has a true heart. And I know how she feels about me, despite what she said before. I know this can work." He cocked his head and looked up at his taller friend. "Iím going to do this, Herc and I need to know youíre with me. I need you at my back."

Hercules hard look softened and he put a hand on his friendís shoulder. "You have my support always, Iolaus, you know that. I just donít want to lose you."

"I know that. And you wonít. Now, letís get back to the others and work out a plan."

"The wedding is to take place in the small temple within the castle," Espiron said. "The wedding party will be very small - Areion, a few officials and guards, no more. Areion isnít going to take any risks. The temple will be guarded and thereíll be guards posted all around the castle to prevent anyone entering. Heíll think heís safe."

"So, are you suggesting we fight our way into the castle?" Iolaus asked.

Espiron smiled. "I have no doubt that the three of you could overcome Areionís whole army if you put your minds to it, but thereís no point in tempting fate. I can get us into the castle through a secret passageway. Then the only guards youíll have to face will be the ones outside the temple. The temple door will be locked from the inside ..."

Iolaus grinned. "No problem there. He clapped Hercules on the back. "Herc here takes no account of locks, do you buddy?"

"And when we get inside?" Xena asked.

"Then itís up to Iolaus."

All eyes turned to the hunter. Iolaus shrugged. "Iíll ad lib it as I go along."

It was agreed that Hercules and Iolaus would stay at an inn in the town, keeping a low profile but not going out of their way to stay hidden. That way, Espiron reasoned and the others agreed, no-one could accuse them of suspicious behaviour if they were spotted..

Keeping a low profile proved to be a lot harder in practice. News that the great Hercules and his friend were staying in Eleusis spread quickly around the town and soon they could go no-where without someone calling out a friendly greeting, or being followed by a crowd of small over-awed children. Despite the care the heroes took not to do anything that would draw the kingís attention, it was inevitable that news of their presence would reach him eventually.

The news arrived via Oreo over a midday meal on the second day of their stay.

"Did you know that Hercules and his sidekick Iolaus are in town?" Oreo remarked casually, as he drained his second glass of wine.

Areion looked up, surprised. "Hercules? Whatís he doing here?"

Oreo shrugged. "You might want to ask Gabrielle. By all accounts she was the one who invited them."

Areion glanced sharply at Gabrielle. "I wasnít aware that you knew the great Hercules?" he asked carefully.

"Of course I know him, and Iolaus, too. They happened to be travelling this way and I invited them to stay to attend the wedding celebrations. Is there a problem?"

"No problem."

"Actually," Oreo remarked, "There might be one *small* problem."

"Whatís that?"

"Areion, have you ever met these great heroes?"

Areion shrugged. "Not in person. Iíve heard the stories. Much exaggerated, Iíll wager. Why do you ask?"

"Because I think youíll find that youíve met Iolaus before. At Caria." Oreo paused for effect. "With Gabrielle."

Areion went still, his glass halted halfway to his mouth. "Are you trying to tell me that the little runt from Caria is the partner of the great Hercules?"

Oreo nodded, obscurely pleased that heíd surprised and even unnerved the king.

Areion turned to Gabrielle, voice full of suspicion. "Why didnít you tell me that this Iolaus is the same man?"

He watched her face closely as she answered, but she looked back openly, her expression innocent and a little puzzled. "I didnít think it was important. Heís just a friend. Theyíre only staying for the wedding, theyíll be gone in a few days."

Areion studied her for a little longer until he was satisfied that she was telling the truth. Hercules, and especially his friend, really did mean nothing to her. The Stone was weaving its magic. He smiled at her and reached over to kiss her cheek. But he was still thoughtful. After Gabrielle had left them, he said to Oreo, "Oreo, send some men to the village and fetch this Iolaus. I want to talk to him."

Iolaus fought to remain calm as two of Areionís guard marched him into the throne room and brought him to a halt before the King. When the guards had arrived at the inn, ordering him to present himself to the King, his first inclination had been to resist. By the demeanor of the guards, they obviously intended to see that he obeyed the summons, conscious or unconscious. But a few words with Hercules had convinced him that co-operation would serve their cause best, there was a lot he might learn from Areion.

So he stood calmly before the new King, though he was simmering inwardly. He knew he had to put on a good act, and the only way to do that was to be in control of the situation.

The King looked him up and down appraisingly. "So, we meet again," he said finally.

"Looks that way," Iolaus responded casually. "I hope your trade negotiations in Caria went well."

"Very well indeed, thank you," Areion responded. Then he leaned forward. "Iíd like to know what youíre doing in Eleusis," he asked abruptly.

"Hercules and I were passing through," Iolaus answered easily. "We ran into Gabrielle on the road and she invited us to the wedding. So here we are."

"A bit of a coincidence, donít you think, that you should be passing through at exactly this time?"

Iolaus shrugged. "Not really. We often run into old friends on the road. When you travel as much as we do, Greece isnít as big a place as youíd think."

Areion smiled. "Old friends? I got the impression back in Caria that mere friendship wasnít on your agenda."

Iolaus shrugged again. "You win some, you lose some. Sure, I find Gabrielle attractive. Who wouldnít? I thought we had something going back in Caria. Seems I was wrong."

Areion was watching him closely. Iolaus kept his expression open and continued, "What do you want me to say? I already knew before we left Caria that the two of us werenít going anywhere. We had some fun together, that was it. I admit, Iíd have liked to have gone further, but Iíve felt that way about a lot of women. You get over it. Whatís your problem anyway?"

Areion smiled. "No problem. I just want to be sure you arenít here to cause trouble."

Iolaus looked at him innocently. "Have we done anything to make you think thereís going to be trouble?"

"Not yet." Areion stood finally, towering over the smaller man. "But I want you to be sure to remember who youíre dealing with, Iolaus. If I receive even a hint that youíve been anywhere near Gabrielle, Eleusis could become a very uncomfortable place for you."

Iolaus met his eyes with a steady gaze. "Are you threatening me, Your Majesty?"

Areion grinned. "You could say that. I donít like you and I donít trust you. If it was up to me, Iíd have you thrown out of town. But for some reason people around here seem to like you and your muscle bound friend. So you can stay until the wedding. Then I want you gone."

"Is that all?" Iolaus asked. "Because much as Iím enjoying our little chat, I have an engagement to keep."

Areion sat back in his seat after Iolaus had been escorted from the room. The man had been plausible, even convincing, but somehow Areion didnít believe a word heíd said. Just once or twice the king had felt that the blondís mask had slipped and heíd seen the tension behind it. He might have been wrong, but he didnít think so. If he was right, what was Iolaus planning? Probably he was hoping to win back Gabrielleís affections. Areion grinned to himself. Little did he know that the King of Eleusis had Hera on his side. What could the little man do, anyhow? Even if he threw himself at Gabrielleís feet and begged her to take him back, sheíd refuse him. Whatever she had felt for Iolaus before, Areion was confident that she now felt nothing. He had already won.

Later that evening Areion knelt once more before the altar in the temple to Hera. The temple was but dimly lit by torches on the far walls, but the King didnít bother to light the tapers around the altar. He preferred the semi-darkness.

He put his offering on the altar as before and knelt before the pool. "Hera, Mighty Queen. Your humble servant, King Areion of Eleusis, begs an audience."

He bowed his head and waited. This time the waters of the pool began to swirl immediately and an indistinct image appeared within their depths. A voice echoed from the pool. It sounded amused.

"So, King Areion, you come once more to consult mighty Hera. You sound very obsequious tonight. What do you want from the Queen of the Gods?"

"Your Majesty. I come to ask your final blessing on my marriage."

"Ah, yes. Your marriage. Iíd almost forgotten. When is it to take place?"

"Tomorrow, Your Highness."

"Then you have my blessing. When the vows are exchanged, I will give you a sign that will be seen throughout the kingdom. All will know that you have my favour."

Areion found it difficult to contain the feeling of triumph rising within him. He forced his voice to sound calm as he said, "I thank you, Your Majesty. You will not regret this. I will serve you well."

"See that you do. I look forward to seeing that meddlesome blonde bent to your will."

Areion waited for Hera to withdraw her presence, but the Queen of the Gods wasnít finished.

"I leave you with one warning. Beware of Hercules and his companion."

Areion was startled. "I can handle them. Anyway, they have done nothing so far. Iím more concerned about Xena, but she seems to have accepted her friendís marriage."

"The threat will not come from that ... woman. Or from Hercules. The threat will come from Herculesí friend."

"That little runt?" Areion couldnít hold back a snort of derision. "I could defeat him with one hand tied behind my back."

A clap of thunder echoed through the temple, making Areion jump. "Do not underestimate your opponent, Areion. The man is a mighty warrior, but more than that, he is the only one who can break the power of the Stone."

Areion felt it was best to agree with the goddess - it didnít do to antagonise the queen of all the gods. He bowed low. "Of course, Your Highness. I will take every precaution to ensure that the wedding is not disrupted."

"Make sure you do. This match pleases me, for many reasons. I cannot help you in this and I will be greatly angered if your plans are thwarted."

Hera withdrew her presence and the waters stilled into inky darkness once more. Areion rose with a feeling of relief. He disliked his little chats with the goddess, hated having to humble himself before her. But he knew he had no choice, if he wanted to use the Stone he needed her blessing, or she would remove the power from the Stone. That couldnít happen. He wanted Gabrielle, but not if he had to spend the time to break her will himself. He smiled to himself as he left the temple. The Stone was taking a stronger hold over her every day. Nothing could stop him now.

His face darkened as he remembered Heraís warning about Iolaus. He wasnít inclined to take her seriously, but she was the Queen of the Gods and if she said the man was dangerous - maybe now was not the time to take risks, he had too much at stake. Perhaps his original gut feeling had been correct - the only way to be safe was to get rid of the little runt. But with the villagers treating him like a hero, he would have to be careful, very careful that the murder wasnít traced back to him. As he made his decision, Oreo appeared at the doorway to the temple. Areion smiled.

"Oreo, my friend, just the man. I have a little job for you ..."

Hera sat back in her throne on Mount Olympus and laughed aloud in triumph. This couldnít be going any better if sheíd arranged it herself. Areion would undoubtedly now try to have Iolaus killed. It was unlikely that heíd succeed, but if he did, all well and good. If not, she was sure the little runt would try to stop the wedding and get himself killed that way instead. There was little chance that whatever love he felt for the irritating blonde would be strong enough to break the power of the Stone.

Hera smiled smugly. Losing his best friend so soon after the death of his wife would be a mortal blow for Hercules. The demigod had almost lost his mind when Serena died, and would have but for the intervention of his annoying friends. This time, the death of the man he thought of as a brother would undoubtedly tip him over the edge. The bonus was that Xena too would suffer as she watched her young friend come more and more under the spell of the Stone. Hera had always disliked the warrior woman who had no respect for her, but dislike had turned to hatred when Xena had worked with Hercules to free Prometheus from the chains Hera had used to emprison him. Yes, tomorrow would be a good day. Four lives destroyed in one blow and without her even having to lift a finger.

For the second night in a row, Hercules and Iolaus sat finishing their meal at the inn, surrounded by a group of young men, all eager to hear more stories of adventure and excitement. As usual, Hercules was uncomfortable with the attention, but Iolaus was entering into the whole thing with huge enthusiasm.

Hercules knew that his friend loved to tell stories, but he was also acutely aware that on this occasion Iolaus was using the opportunity to occupy his mind with anything other than the impending wedding. So the demigod sat back, drinking his ale, and listened with half an ear as Iolaus related story after story of monsters defeated, gods thwarted and warlords banished.

Herculesí allowed his mind to drift as he went over their plan in his head, always coming back to the fact that it was too dangerous. His attention was brought back with a jolt as he heard someone say, "By the gods, Iolaus, there canít be another partnership like the two of you in the whole of Greece!" He saw Iolaus start at the words and slowly looked up to meet his friendís eyes. Iolaus held his gaze for a moment, then looked away, obviously uncomfortable. The conversation turned as someone asked for the story about the Mother of All Monsters and the moment passed.

Several hours later the last of the revellers had departed and the two heroes were left alone. For once, neither had anything to say and unusually the silence between them, rather than being companionable, felt uncomfortable to Hercules. There were things that needed to be said, things that he should say to his friend before it was too late, but he couldnít find the words. Instead, he found himself draining his mug of ale and getting to his feet, forcing a yawn. "Well, I reckon Iíll turn in."

Iolaus glanced up at him, his gaze troubled. But he said merely, "Iíll stay down here for a while. Iíll see you in the morning, Hercules."

The innkeeper also retired for the night, leaving Iolaus alone in the tavern with a final glass of ale, sitting in the dim light of a flickering lamp. He knew that he should be mentally preparing himself for the ordeal ahead, knew too that if he wasnít sharp he might not live to see another night. Yet he knew too that sleep would elude him. He had a decision to make and now was the time to make it. Now, not tomorrow when, if all went according to plan, he would break the spell that held Gabrielle in thrall.

That he loved Gabrielle he had no doubt. But for a long time now, heíd felt that it was his destiny to travel with Hercules. It was the road marked out for him to travel. There had been occasions down the years when heíd felt doubt, when heíd questioned himself and Hercules and the life they had chosen. But in the months since Serenaís death, heíd come to believe even more strongly that Hercules had been chosen to walk his particular path and that Iolaus himself had been chosen to walk it with him. Nothing had happened to challenge this conviction, until Caria. Until he had realised that there was another person in his life who could command his love and his devotion. He loved Hercules like a brother. He loved Gabrielle with the passion of a lover. He knew too that he had to choose between them. And he didnít know what to do.

He sat for a long time, hands idly toying with an empty tankard. Finally, he reached a decision. The only decision he could make. It wouldnít be easy, but he felt at peace about it. Suddenly feeling unbelievably weary, he was half out of his seat on the way to bed when the door of the inn had crashed open. A dozen men surged through the door, dressed in banditsí garb, all armed with knives. Iolaus barely had time to draw his own knife before he was fighting for his life.

Hercules couldnít sleep. He lay on his bed, arms linked behind his head, gazing out of the open window at the stars. That one comment made in awe by a total stranger had hit him hard. It was true. There wasnít another partnership in the whole of Greece like his with Iolaus. Alone, he was strong and could usually win a fight. Together, they were a streamlined, mean fighting machine. After all these years, they thought and moved as one.

But that was only one small aspect of the partnership, in some ways the least important. The two of them complemented each other in so many ways. In personality they were very different. Hercules had acknowledged to himself a long time ago that he needed Iolaus. So many people looked on him with a kind of reverence. He needed a friend who wasnít overawed by him, who would argue with him and laugh at him and often defuse his anger and his depressions. Equally, he was aware that in many ways Iolaus needed him too, as a steady influence to check the hunterís sometimes uneven temper, to curb the enthusiasm that so often got him into trouble.

The bottom line was that he couldnít handle the thought that Iolaus was thinking seriously of leaving and settling down with Gabrielle. Even as he acknowledged the truth of his feelings, the demigod was honest enough to note the irony. He himself had easily made a decision not so long ago to marry Serena and abandon his life on the road with Iolaus. How could he have made that decision so easily? Heíd never really taken the time to understand how Iolaus had felt. He had been disappointed when Iolaus left, and happy when heíd returned, but never once had he bothered to really take the time to see it from his friendís point of view.

Thinking about it now, Hercules felt ashamed of his selfishness. He had been so in love, so blissfully happy that he just didnít care. And now he was being selfish again, and once more Iolaus might suffer as a result. Lying there in the darkness, Hercules made a decision. If this was what Iolaus wanted, then he wouldnít try to stand in his friendís way. He would give him his blessing and learn to get along without him.

Of course, there was still tomorrow to get through. Hercules was worried, more worried than heíd ever been. He and Iolaus had done a lot of dangerous things together, but somehow walking straight into possible death as Iolaus was about to do was worse than any monster or warlord or god theyíd faced, especially as the demigod knew that this was something Iolaus had to do alone.

His thoughts were broken by the sound of shouts and grunts coming from below. Leaping out of bed, he was out of the door and down the stairs in a few moments. Bursting into the tavern, he saw Iolaus fighting for his life against what seemed to be a whole army of bandits. His friend flicked him a relieved glance as he joined the fray.

"I though youíd never get here!"

Hercules grunted as he lifted one of the intruders, whirling him round his head as a club to fell several of the other bandits. "You werenít exactly shouting for help down here!"

"Iíve been a little busy," Iolaus panted, in the midst of a back flip that took him off the edge of the table. He lifted the end of the table, knocking two men unconscious as the far edge hit each of them squarely under the chin.

Working together, it didnít take the two heroes long to demolish the remainder of the resistance. A few of the bandit gave up and fled, the others lay unconscious around the room. Hercules and Iolaus sat recovering, while the innkeeper bustled round, exclaiming alternately in horror at the broken tables and chairs and in awe at the performance of fighting ability he had just witnessed.

"Who are these guys anyway?" Iolaus asked.

Hercules looked troubled, poking one of the unconscious men with his toe. "Theyíre dressed like bandits, but they fight like soldiers. I think I even recognise this one. Heís one of Areionís."

"Looks like Areion thinks Iím a threat after all," Iolaus commented grimly. He lowered his voice. "Maybe we should play it safe - get out of here and hide in the woods until tomorrow."

Hercules nodded. "Youíre right. We canít afford any more trouble." He called to the innkeeper. "Iím sorry about this, my friend. It was an unprovoked attack."

The innkeeper looked up gloomily. "Probably wanted to try their luck against the great Hercules. Hah! Some people never learn."

"If thatís the case, then weíve probably outstayed our welcome," Hercules answered, seeing a convincing reason for their hasty departure. "Let me give you something to cover the cost of repairs, then weíll just pack up our things and leave."

"You donít have to leave, Hercules. It wasnít your fault."

"Nevertheless, I think itís best. If anyone comes looking for us, can you tell them weíve left town?"

The innkeeper nodded and continued with his clearing up. Hercules and Iolaus fetched their gear from their room and walked out into the night.

Part Four

The following day dawned bright and clear although to Hercules and Iolaus, hidden deep in the woods, it was hard to tell if it was night or day. News of the Ďbanditsí failure had obviously got back to Areion, as the two had been forced to move around to avoid the patrols that had been searching the woods for most of the night. Areion was obviously getting desperate as this time his men had made no attempt to disguise themselves.

At the agreed time they made their way cautiously to the meeting point where Xena joined them.

The secret passageway began in the heart of the woods, half a league from the castle. Espiron had explained that it had been constructed by Areionís great, great grandfather as an escape route from the castle during an unsettled time when war was threatened.

The passageway led in a fairly straight line to a door which Espiron hd assured them led into the wine cellar. Sure enough, they found themselves in a cellar. Their luck held as they moved from the cellar up a flight of steps into the main courtyard of the castle. There were people moving about and across the courtyard half a dozen men could be seen guarding the entrance to the temple. Silently, they put their plan into action. Xena and Iolaus, dressed in the garb of a serving wench and manservant, moved quickly across the courtyard and parted, each disappearing into an entranceway either side of the temple doors. Once they were in position, Hercules, with no disguise, walked calmly across and stopped in front of the doors.

"Hi there," he said pleasantly to the startled guards. "If youíd excuse me, I have a wedding to attend."

Before the guards had time to register who he was, Xena and Iolaus appeared and the three made short work of the guards. More guards appeared, running towards the temple. Hercules glanced grimly at his companions. "Ready?" At their quick nods, he raised his foot.

Prince Areion and Gabrielle stood before the altar, about to make their vows. Areion was beginning to feel a sense of relief. Everything was going according to plan. For the sake of security, he had decided to keep the wedding party to the minimum - himself, Gabrielle and the priest, with Oreo and a contingent of guards. He had another contingent of guards posted at the castle gates and more at the door to the temple which was locked from the inside. He was confident that it would be impossible for even Hercules to break through such a company.

Suddenly, with an almighty crash, the heavy wooden door to the temple burst inwards. The guards inside the temple were so startled, they were easy targets for the three warriors who burst through the door. Hercules quickly jammed the door shut so that none of the guards outside could get in. Xena and Hercules took up positions mid way down the hall, leaving Iolaus to approach the altar alone.

As he walked, Iolausí eyes were fixed on Gabrielle. It was said that a woman never looks as beautiful as she does on her wedding day, but somehow, that wasnít true of Gabrielle. The dress was beautiful and she was beautiful, yet there was something missing. There was no sign of the joy, the glow of happiness that a woman should feel on her wedding day. Instead, her eyes seemed empty, her face devoid of expression.

Iolaus stopped walking when he was within a couple of feet of the wedding party. The priest, obviously bewildered and terrified by what was happening, was cowering behind the altar. Oreo made to intercept the hunter, but Areion raised a warning hand and shook his head slightly. Oreo stopped in his tracks, but stood tensely, waiting for a sign from the King to move in and take out this impertinent intruder.

Areion had drawn a knife and held it loosely in his hand, waiting. He sensed that challenging Iolaus straight off was not the right thing to do. This scene had to play itself out and Gabrielle was at the centre of it.

Gabrielle took a step forward. The vacant look had gone and her eyes were steel. "How dare you force your way in here. Iím about to be married and nothing can stop that. Leave, before Areion makes you leave."

Slowly and deliberately, careful not to make his movements appear threatening, Iolaus laid his knife down on the floor between them, then drew his sword from its scabbard and put it down beside the knife. Straightening, he spread his arms wide before him and stood before her, defenceless. "Iím not going to leave," he said quietly, eyes locked on hers, "so if you want me out of the way, youíre going to have to kill me."

She stared back at him for a long moment, her expression unreadable, then glanced over at the King.

Iolaus watched Gabrielle closely as Areion responded by offering her his dagger. The emerald on her finger began to glow as the King stared deeply into her eyes and the glow deepened as he spoke. "Heís a threat to our happiness, my love. You know what you have to do, donít you?"

Without hesitation, Gabrielle took the dagger from him and turned back to Iolaus, still standing defenceless before her. Slowly she lifted the dagger high and prepared to plunge it into the hunterís heart.

Hercules made to take a step forward. Xena grabbed his arm. "Not yet, Hercules. Wait."

Time seemed to stand still. Iolaus was aware of nothing but the thumping of his heart and the coldness in Gabrielleís eyes as she raised the dagger. He forced himself to stand his ground. This was the moment. If she wasnít strong enough to prevent herself from plunging the knife into his vulnerable body, then she was lost forever. He was well aware that he was risking his life, knew that the chances were slim of Xena or Hercules having time in that split second to prevent the knife biting into his flesh. But he also knew that if they intervened too soon, the moment would be gone and theyíd lose Gabrielle forever. The risk was worth taking.

Instinct told him to close his eyes, but he forced himself to keep them open, to hold Gabrielleís eyes with his. Then everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The hand holding the dagger began its downward descent, he felt the coldness of steel as it touched his chest, braced himself for the pain of the sharp blade biting through flesh and bone until it found his heart. Then she hesitated. The knife hovered over his heart, its edge nicking the skin. Iolaus tried to ignore the blood trickling down his chest and continued to stare into her eyes. He saw there a flicker of uncertainty and it was enough to give him hope. He began to speak again, slowly and softly, never taking his eyes from hers. "Fight it, Gabrielle. I know you can do it. Youíre strong. You can fight it. I love you. I need you. I need you to fight it, Gabrielle."

Hercules watched in anguish as the knife descended and only Xenaís fingers tightening painfully round his wrist prevented him from hurtling forward when he saw the knife drew blood. Iolaus stood completely still, softly speaking words that the demigod couldnít make out, his life hanging by a thread. A little more pressure on the knife and the demigod would lose the best friend he had ever had. Hercules felt his heart constrict with fear, yet he forced himself to stand his ground. It was the hardest thing he had ever done.

Gabrielle stood with the dagger raised. She knew she had to strike, knew that her world wouldnít be complete unless she killed this man. But she found her mind whirling, images rushing past each other. Iolaus, lying in her arms, dying, while she looked on, helpless to do anything but try to make his passing a little easier. Iolaus kissing her, telling her that their time together had been more than just fun; holding her, while she mourned the passing of another loved one. Then, with a jolt, an image of her body joined with his, a memory so vivid that she could almost reach out and touch it .

Her hand began to shake and once more the point of the dagger bit into the hunterís skin, but Iolaus saw the expression on her face change to one of confusion mixed with fear. After a moment, her whole body began to tremble and she uttered a small cry of pain. Iolaus forced himself to stay still, although he could easily now have taken the dagger out of her hand. Her struggle wasnít over yet. Not until she put the dagger down herself. Behind them, Areion was shifting uneasily. "Gabrielle! Whatís the matter with you?! Kill him! Kill him now!"

Gabrielle felt as if her world was turning upside down. Her mind was full of images of Iolaus and she knew with a sudden clarity that she loved this man, that he was the other half of her soul. The other half of her soul. What was she doing? What was happening? Jolted back to the present, she looked down and saw with horror the blood trickling down his chest from the cut made by her knife. What had she done? Then all her thoughts collapsed inwards as white-hot pain shot through her head and she cried out at the intensity of it.

Xena and Hercules stood tensely, weapons poised, watching the almost physical struggle going on within the blonde. Then Gabrielle raised her head and screamed, a sound of pure agony. The dagger fell from her grasp and she put her hands to her head. At that moment Iolaus finally moved, kicking the dagger out of the way and catching her in his arms as she began to fall.

Xenaís momentary relief turned quickly to fear as she heard Gabrielleís scream of pain, remembering Espironís descriptions of those who had been killed when fighting against the power of the Stone. She exchanged a quick, anguished glance with Hercules and began to run towards her friend. Then all Hades broke loose as the castle guards finally broke through the barred doors and Hercules and Xena were forced back to confront them.

As Iolaus lowered Gabrielleís unconscious body gently to the ground, the emerald ring fell from her finger and rolled away. Iolaus looked up and met Areionís eyes as the King darted forward to retrieve the ring. Hurling himself forward, Iolaus managed to flick the ring away just as Areion almost had it within his grasp. Swearing in frustration, Areion drew his sword. Iolaus lunged forward again and gripped his own discarded sword by the hilt.

"Come on then, little man, itís time to show me what youíre made of," Areion taunted, dropping into a fighterís stance. Oreo moved in to outflank the hunter, but Areion gestured him back. "Deal with Hercules," he ordered. "The little runtís mine." Iolaus sprung to his feet with easy grace and brought his sword up to parry as the King lunged forward.

Looking round desperately as he fought to keep back the stream of guards flooding into the temple, Hercules caught sight of Iolaus locked in combat with Areion. Only Xenaís urgent scream of "Hercules, look out!" warned him of his danger as Oreo bore down on him, taking advantage of the demigodís moment of inattention. Hercules nimbly dodged the sword thrust, putting Oreo off balance, then knocked the sword out of his opponentís hand. Oreo cursed, but was helpless to fight back as Hercules lifted him and sent him crashing into the door, to slide unconscious to the floor. Xena, herself engaged with three guards, panted, "Concentrate, Hercules! You canít help Iolaus if you get yourself killed!"

Iolaus was engaged in a desperate fight with Areion. They were evenly matched, but Areionís sword play was reckless and there was a hint of madness in his eyes. "This isnít going to work, Iolaus. Gabrielle is mine!" He hissed.

Iolaus danced away from a potentially fatal thrust. "She was never truly yours!" he taunted. "She didnít love you - she was under the power of the ring, and thatís broken now. Sheís free!" With a roar of anger, Areion charged, forcing Iolaus backwards behind the altar. Iolaus feinted a move, then found himself losing his balance as he stumbled over the priest, covering on the floor behind him. The hunter bounced up immediately, expecting Areion to be moving in for the kill.

As Iolaus fell, Areion felt a flash of triumph. This was his chance to finish his rival, to kill the man who had caused all his plans to crumble. But as he moved forward, he caught sight of a gleam of green under the altar. The ring! If he had the ring back, everything would be all right again. He would kill Iolaus, put the ring back on Gabrielleís finger and he would have won! He grabbed the ring eagerly and pushed it onto his finger for safety. But as he turned, the ring began to glow and then burst into flame. This was no ordinary flame, it burned with an intense white fire. Areion screamed and threw the ring from him, clutching his burnt hand to his body. But it was too late. Iolaus watched in horror as the flame spread from the Kingís arm until his whole body was bathed in the white light, and then in a sudden flash he was gone, a small pile of smouldering ash all that remained of the man who had wanted to conquer the world.

The shock of the kingís death took all the fight out of the remaining soldiers and the fight was soon over, the castle guard no match for the combined forces of Xena and Hercules. Espiron appeared from nowhere to take charge and his voice of authority was all that was needed to calm the situation. He arranged for the fallen guards to be taken from the temple and reassured the dazed priest that the drama was over. Finally, only four people remained.

Iolaus, holding Gabrielle in his arms, looked at Xena as she fell to her knees beside him. "Sheís unconscious", he said, voice trembling with panic. "Her breathing seems normal, but she wonít wake up."

"It was a shock. She needs time to recover," Xena responded, biting back her own stab of fear. She was desperately afraid that breaking free of the power that held her might have damaged Gabrielleís mind. Then, suddenly, the blonde stirred in Iolausí arms and opened her eyes. For a moment her eyes were full of confusion, then she looked up and saw Iolaus. Her face lit up and she smiled. "Hi."

Xena looked on, feeling slightly uncomfortable. If sheíd had any doubts about Gabrielleís feelings for the hunter, they were dispelled in that moment by the love shining out of her friendís eyes.

Iolaus let out a breath he hadnít realised heíd been holding.

"Hi, Gabrielle," he said softly. "How are you feeling?"

"I .... my head hurts."

"Iíll bet it does. But youíre going to be fine."

"What .... what happened?"

Iolaus glanced at Xena. She said, "Nothing that you need to worry about now. Weíll tell you all about it later."

Iolaus carried a still woozy and confused Gabrielle to her room where the palace healer was summoned to examine her. Immediately he banished Iolaus and Xena from the room and they hovered anxiously outside until he opened the door and beckoned them in. Gabrielle seemed to be asleep, her face pale but peaceful.

"Thereís no physical damage that I can find," the healer said. "Mentally - well, she was talking to me lucidly enough, so I donít think thereís any permanent damage done. She was complaining that her head hurts, so I gave her some poppy for the pain and something to help her sleep. Iím confident that with a lot of rest, sheíll be as good as new." He looked at the two anxious people before him. "I donít suppose thereís much point in telling you that sheíll probably sleep for hours, so thereís no point in sitting with her?" Xena smiled tiredly. "No, I thought not. Well, if she wakes up in the next few hours, you can give her a small dose of poppy, but make it small, she shouldnít have too much. Iíll be back in the morning to check on her."

Wordlessly Iolaus and Xena sat down on either side of the bed. For a while they just sat, allowing the relief to sink in. Then Xena looked up and said softly, "Thank you, Iolaus."

He met her eyes. "I didnít do anything, Xena. She did it all herself."

"She couldnít have done it without you. You risked your life to save her and Iíll always be grateful to you for that." She hesitated. "I want you to know ... I want you to know that if you and Gabrielle - if you decide that you want to be together, then you have my blessing. Not that youíd need it ..."

Iolaus smiled. "Oh, but I think that we would, Xena. I know how much she means to you."

"Well, then, just take care of her, thatís all I ask." She stood up abruptly. "Why donít you stay with her for a while - Iíll go down and see what Hercules is up to."

Xena and Hercules sat at a table in the castle kitchens in companionable silence, each aware of what was on the other personís mind. Now that the drama was over they both knew that they may soon be facing the loss of their best friends.

"Iím not going to ask him to stay," Hercules said after a while. "Gods, as if he hasnít already given enough up for me. He spends his life on the road with me, always in my shadow, hardly ever getting the credit for what he does."

"Itís his choice, Hercules," Xena answered softly. "Itís always been his choice and he does it because he loves you."

"I know that," Hercules said wearily. "And Iíve always taken it for granted that heíll always be there, you know? Not only that - I went off and married Serena, with never a thought for Iolaus and how heíd feel. But it somehow never occurred to me that he might want to go and make a life for himself. Could I be any more selfish?"

Xena reached out and put a hand on his arm. "Donít beat yourself up, Hercules," she said softly. "Iolaus doesnít see it that way. I just told you - itís his choice."

"I know. But Iíve never made it easy for him, have I?"

Xena shrugged. "Itís hard to let go of those you love. Do you think I want to lose Gabrielle? I lost her once, to Perdicus. Now it looks like Iím going to lose her again. But Iíll survive Hercules, and you will too."

Hercules smiled softly and his hand tightened round hers. "Yes, weíll survive. But nothing will ever be the same again."

The healer insisted that Gabrielle needed rest and confined her to bed for the next few days, allowing visitors for short amounts of time. Secretly Gabrielle was relieved, for it put off the time when she would have to face her friends and discuss what had happened.

She had plenty of time to think about what had happened. The frightening part was that although she remembered everything, the events of the past few weeks seemed like a dream, just as her past life had seemed to be a dream while she was under the influence of the ring. Remembering the way sheíd treated Xena, remembering word for word the hurtful things she had said to Iolaus, she wasnít sure how she was going to face either of them. Although they had explained to her about the power of the ring, she found it hard to accept that she could have allowed her love for them to be so easily superceded by false feelings for Areion; couldnít shake the feeling that sheíd betrayed those she loved most.

Espiron paid her a visit and related to her all he knew of the history of the ring. "The power of Hera resides in the ring, Gabrielle. No-one who has been chosen by the ring has ever been able to resist its power. And only once before have I come across someone who had the strength to defy its power once it had taken hold. You should be proud, Gabrielle. You betrayed no-one - but you saved Iolausí life."

"But Iím the one who put Iolausí life in danger in the first place - what if I hadnít been strong enough?"

"But you were," Espiron assured her strongly. "Iolaus chose his path, he had faith in you.

Remember that."

Gabrielle was silent for a moment. Then she brought up another subject that was on her mind. "Espiron - Iím sorry that Areion had to die. I find it hard to feel sorry for him after what he did, but I know you cared about him."

Espiron shook his head sadly. I served his father for fifty years. I watched Areion grow up from a petulant child to a self-centred, arrogant young man. I taught him, advised him, but to no avail. I kept hoping right to the end that heíd see the error of his ways. I loved him still, in a way. But Areion was one of those people who takes what they want with no thought to the consequences. He wanted to be king, so he had his father murdered. He fell in love with you, so he had to have you, whatever method he had to employ. But we canít live our lives like that. Sometimes, no matter how much we want something, we have to let it go because the consequences are not worth the risk."

Gabrielle looked at him thoughtfully. "Espiron, do you believe that everyone has a destiny they have to fulfill?"

"Iím not sure about that. I do believe that everyone has the responsibility of living their lives the best way they can. And I believe that there are some amongst us who have particular destinies. Why do you ask?"

Gabrielle smiled. "No reason. Thanks for the visit, Espiron. Iím a little tired, I think Iíd like to sleep now."

Yet after Espiron had left the room Gabrielle lay awake for a long time.

On the third day Gabrielle was allowed to get up, on the strict assurance that she didnít exert herself. Needing to be alone, she wandered down to the river and found a quiet spot. She sat there for a long time, wondering desperately what she should say to Iolaus. Heíd been so sweet to her over the past few days, and she hadnít felt strong enough to have the conversation she knew they had to have, sheíd just enjoyed the attention. But the whole time she kept remembering the things sheíd said to him, the way she behaved. She felt her cheeks flame as she remembered clearly the words sheíd spoken in the forest. How could she have done it? How could she have said those words that must have hurt him so much?

She jumped as she felt the presence of someone moving up behind her.

"Sorry," Iolaus said as he came into view, sitting down beside her. "I didnít mean to startle you."

"Itís okay."

"How are you feeling?"

"I feel fine. Iíve done nothing but sleep for the past few days, that probably did the trick. A slight headache, but thatís all."

"Thatís good."

There was an awkward silence. Then she turned to him and the words came tumbling out.

"Iolaus, Iím so sorry, Iím so sorry for what happened. You have to know that I didnít mean anything I said. Itís hard to explain. It wasnít that I didnít know what I was saying. I did, and thatís what makes it worse. But - I canít explain how I felt. All my thoughts, all my feelings were centred around Areion. I knew what you and Xena should mean to me, I remembered everything weíd been through together. But I just didnít feel anything. It was almost as if you were all a dream and nothing seemed important except him. Do you understand what Iím saying?" She looked at him, lips trembling.

"Gabrielle, itís all right. I understand, really."

"Iolaus, if you canít forgive me, if you say that things canít be the same between us again, Iíll understand."

Iolaus grasped her hand firmly. "Gabrielle, you have nothing to be sorry for, therefore thereís nothing to forgive. You just said it yourself - the ring was controlling you, you had no choice over feelings. How can it be your fault?"

"I know that," she said miserably, "but I remember how I treated you, Iolaus, and although I know that you want to believe I wasnít in control, Iím afraid thereís a part of you that might ..."

"No!" Iolaus interrupted firmly. "There is no part of me that thinks anything different. Gabrielle, if you let this tear us apart, Areion will have won anyway. Is that what you want?"

"No! Of course not."

He moved closer to her, reaching up a hand slowly and cupping her cheek. "I love you, Gabrielle. And I know you love me. Donít you understand? That love broke the power of the Stone. That isnít something we can afford to lose."

She smiled then, allowing him to draw her closer and kiss her softly. Then she put her arms round his neck, pulling him closer, holding on almost desperately.

He held her for a long time, holding onto her tightly, until finally he pulled back, knowing what he needed to say, trying to work up the courage to voice the words he didnít want to say. Keeping his hands on her shoulders, he took a deep breath and said firmly, "Thereís something we need to talk about, Gabrielle."

She nodded. "I know."

Iolaus took one of her hands in his. "Gabrielle, you know that I love you very much, donít you?"

"Yes, I know that. And I also know what youíre about to say."

Startled, Iolaus cocked his head. "You do?"

She nodded and smiled. "Youíre about to say that although we love each other, we canít be together. At least, not now. Because we each have another destiny. Yours is to be with Hercules, mine to be with Xena. Our lives are inextricably linked with theirs and the paths theyíve each chosen to walk, and itís our responsibility to see that through, wherever it may take us."

Iolaus looked closely into her eyes, frankly amazed that she had spoken so eloquently the words that were in his heart but which he had felt almost unable to express. "How did you know? How did you know that was what I was going to say?"

"Because I know you, Iolaus, I know your heart. You could never choose as Areion did, and do what you wanted regardless of the consequences. "

Iolaus sighed. "Neither could you. Thatís why you feel the same way."

"I guess destiny and true love donít always follow the same path." Gabrielle said. "But just because we canít be together, doesnít change the way we feel about each other. I know youíll always be there for me if I need you, and Iíll always be there for you. For now, that has to be enough."

"Maybe one day ...

"Maybe," she agreed. "But we hold each other to no promises. We follow our destinies wherever they take us."

Iolaus nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He put an arm around her and she rested her head against his shoulder. At peace with each other they sat together, the need for words gone, until the sun sank below the horizon.

Later, Iolaus found Hercules in his room at the inn, packing to leave.

"Where you going, Herc?"

Hercules continued to throw things at random into his carry sac and didn't look up as he said,

"I thought it was time I moved on."

"Okay," Iolaus answered amiably, "So, where are we going?"

"I thought I might pay a visit to ..." Hercules voice trailed off as Iolaus' words sunk in.

"We?"

"Of course, Ďweí. We travel toether, don't we? Unless you feel you need some time on your own ..."

The demi god looked up then. His friend was standing in front of him, arms crossed, wearing a broad grin, obviously delighted at the look of consternation on Hercules face.

"But I thought ..."

"I know what you thought. But you never asked me what I was going to do."

"I ... no, I didnít. I didnít want to influence your decision, I wanted you to do what you wanted, not what I wanted."

Iolaus was suddenly serious. "I do love Gabrielle, Hercules. We want to be together. But we both came to the same decision. This is the right thing to do. For now, itís right for me to travel with you and Gabrielle with Xena."

"Iolaus," Hercules said, "Are you really sure this is what you want? I don't want you to stay because you think you have to, because I want you to. Iíve always taken you for granted, I know that - I guess I just always thought you' be there and I've never considered the possibility that one day you might want to go off and have your own life." Iolaus started to interrupt, but Hercules held up a hand to stop him. "Let me finish, Iolaus, I need to say this. I don't think I tell you often enough how much you mean to me and how much your friendship has saved me over the years. But I've been selfish, I realise that now, and I want you to have a chance to be happy - to spend the rest of your life with Gabrielle, if that's what you want. I want you to feel free to go your own way."

"I appreciate that, Hercules, I really do. But I *am* going my own way. It's strange, but I've known for a long time that my place is with you. Only once before, with Niobe, did I ever really consider another path, and that wasn't to be. This time, the choice was even harder, because for a while I wasnít sure if my destiny was changing. But I thought about it for a long time and I realised that much as I love Gabrielle, the path I need to walk hasnít changed. Yes, I could have turned my back on it and gone a different way, but Iíd never have been content, Iíd always have known that Iíd made the wrong decision. Areion made a wrong choice, and look where it got him! So I need you to understand that Iím with you by choice and not by default and that Iím surer than Iíve ever been that my destiny is to be with you - at least, for the forseeable future." he shrugged and grinned. "When I'm old and decrepid and no more use to you, maybe then things will change."

"There will never be a time when you're no more use to me," Hercules said fervently. "Iolaus, are you sure? You're not doing this for my sake?"

Iolaus shook his head, "Hercules, how many more times do I have to say it? I'm doing it for my sake, Because it's the right thing for me to do."

"Iolaus, thereís something else. I never told you, but I'm sorry about what happened with Serena. About the way I just decided to marry her, without any consideration for the way you'd feel, for what would happen to our friendship."

"Hercules, you don't need to be sorry. You were following your heart, and your heart told you that to marry Serena was right. Well now, my heart is telling me that the time isn't right for Gabrielle and I."

"Iolaus ..."

"Hercules, if you say ĎIolaus, are you sureí one more time ..." Iolaus raised a fist threateningly.

Hercules grinned and put his hands up in mock defeat. "Okay, okay, I get it. So, Iolaus, what do you think the future will hold?"

Iolaus considered for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know Hercules. I guess we need to just take it a day at a time. So why don't we start right now, get out of here, and go find someone for the great Hercules to help!"

On Mount Olympus, Hera looked down on the two mortals. She was seething. Once again, Zeusí bastard son and his infuriating sidekick had thwarted her. Momentarily, her wrath was so great that she considered hurling a firebolt down upon them and finishing them once and for all. With difficulty, she reigned in her temper. If she deliberately killed Hercules, there would be all Hades to pay on Olympus. No, she would be patient. Her time would come. Oh yes, her time would come.

The End



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