Iolaus and Hercules were enjoying themselves. A small group of bungling bandits had figured the two men, even dressed as they were as warriors, were easy pickings and had attacked them. After all, the bigger one wasn’t even armed and the blond wasn’t tall enough to be a problem (or so they thought). As a result, demigod and hunter were giving the road brigands a lesson in not stealing and in humility. Iolaus hadn’t even bothered to pull his sword; instead, he used the sheathed weapon as an extension of himself, whacking those unfortunate or stupid enough to venture within range, while Hercules settled for a few pulled punches to get his point across.
After several attempts at overpowering the two had failed, all but one were willing to crawl off and lick their wounds. Their leader, however, was not about to admit defeat. Brandishing a sharp knife, he charged Iolaus one last time. The blond threw a punch that dazed the man. The leader hit the dirt, deeply slicing himself with his own weapon. Seeing their friend go down, the rest scattered, racing back into the forest from where they’d come.
Hercules and Iolaus knelt at the wounded man’s side.
“Easy,” the demigod soothed, taking a look at the bleeding gash. “It’s deep, but not too bad. You grazed a rib but, with proper rest, you should be all right.”
As the two warriors bound up the side wound, the sky suddenly darkened. Lightening flashed ominously.
“Where did this come from?” Iolaus asked, meaning the unexpected onslaught of the black clouds.
“I’m not sure,” Hercules answered, throwing worried glances at the sky, “but it can’t be good.”
High on the top of a mountain, unseen by mortal eyes, a metal-link chain snaked out to ensnare an ankle.
The bandit suddenly grabbed at his side. Severe pain lay across his features.
Another shackle closed upon a wrist, then another and, finally around a second ankle.
The thief gave a strangled cry, clutching the deep wound over his ribs. Blood soaked through the makeshift bandage, poured from the injury.
Hercules and Iolaus sprang to his assistance, but within moments, the man’s head rolled sideways as he exhaled his last breath. The blond hunter sat back on his heels, regarded his partner.
“What in Hades just happened?”
“I’m not sure. The wound was bad, but we could have saved him. I don’t get it.” Even as he said the words, Hercules could feel that something wasn’t what it had been a mere few minutes before. Perhaps it was a change in the air or a tingling of his godly second sense, but he knew whatever it was, it meant trouble.
Unable to place the feeling, the demigod moved to gather the dead man into his arms. “Let’s take him to the nearest village.”
A chill sound echoed briefly through the air. It sounded like a human scream of defiance. It gave both warriors pause.
“What was that?” Iolaus looked around, baffled.
“The screams of Prometheus,” Hercules answered knowingly. “This man’s death is no coincidence.”
“Prometheus has been captured by the gods.” Quickly, the son of Zeus gathered up the deceased bandit, then started quickly down the road. Iolaus, sensing his best friend’s urgency, kept up with the fast pace being set.
Cresting a small rise, they could see a village just down the road. Smoke drifted lazily from various buildings; they could see the blaze of the outside forge as the blacksmith worked his magic turning metal into plows and blades
“There’s something I don’t understand,” the hunter commented.
Hercules, obviously not in the mood to go into a full-blown explanation, stated gruffly, “Come on, Iolaus, you know that if Prometheus is ever bound, then Mankind loses the gifts he gave us.”
“Like fire,” came the agreeable response, “and the ability to heal ourselves, I know. What I don’t understand is the last time something happened to Prometheus, we only lost the use of fire, not our healing abilities.” And that seems like a very long time, indeed, he added silently, briefly thinking about Ania as well as the adventure that had helped his best friend find love.
Less curtly, the taller man explained, “That’s because Prometheus has been bound. His torch hasn’t been stolen, so we lose all his gifts eventually, not just the one.”
“Let’s drop off our poor deceased ‘friend’ and haul ourselves out of here. We’ve got a long way to go.”
“Vulcan Mountain,” Iolaus stated, his features grim.
After seeing to it the bandit would get a proper burial, Hercules set a hard pace for the rest of the day. Iolaus kept up, even though he had to push himself more than usual. Long after Helios’ chariot had fallen below the horizon, the hunter finally convinced his friend to get some sleep. There would be little they could do to help Prometheus if they exhausted themselves getting there.
Especially if they were going to have to take on any of Hera’s minions. And after a quick update from Hercules on the situation, Iolaus had no doubt they’d be battling followers of the Queen of the gods.
The next morning, they were traveling again, cutting across the countryside. As the mountain christened after the Roman’s name for Hephaestus loomed closer, Hercules finally came to a halt. “Iolaus, I need you to go to the nearest village and pick up something for me.”
“Now? Why couldn’t we have gotten it yesterday?”
Hercules looked uncomfortable. “I forgot.”
“You don’t forget,” the blond reminded his partner. “Not unless it’s deliberate.” When Hercules wouldn’t meet his blue-eyed gaze, he nodded. “That’s it, isn’t it? What’s the deal with the Cave of Hephaestus that you don’t want me around?”
“What? Why wouldn’t I want you around?”
“Come on, Herc, this is me you’re talking to!” He shrugged. “I mean, if it’s that big a secret, fine, but I don’t think you would have told me about Vulcan Mountain and the Cave and the Sword of Hephaestus if you never intended for me to use the information if necessary. Don’t make up some lame-brain excuse to get me out of the way. I’m insulted,” he finished with a mock-pout.
Hercules held up his hands in surrender, but an affectionate smile crossed his face that belied his exasperation. “All right! I really do need you to pick up something for me. It would be faster if you did that while I go to Vulcan Mountain and into the Cave of Hephaestus.”
“Because?” Iolaus prompted.
“Because, there are traps there. Traps that’ll be easier for one person to navigate.”
“There, now, that wasn’t so hard to do, was it?”
Hercules gave his friend a perturbed glare. “Iolaus”
“I’m gone, just tell me what it is I need to get and I’ll be waiting for you at the village tavern.”
The god Prometheus was bound spread-eagle at the top of the mountain. Naked his head as well as his body but for the loincloth that circled his hips, his bronzed body lay radiant in the sunlight. He tested his bonds, but knew that none save the one who wielded the Sword would be able to free him.
“Hera.” He spoke without moving his lips. “This won’t work. You’ll never break the spirit of Mankind.”
Hera’s peacock eyes shone upon him from above. “Yes, I will. As they lose your gifts, they’ll lose hope.”
“One of them will set me free.”
“You really think so?” she taunted. “Besides, I’ve taken precautions to ensure that won’t happen.”
As Hercules neared the Cave of Hephaestus, he noticed the lone golden-coated mare that stood quietly in the rock-strewn meadow. Almost immediately, he recognized the well-trained mount.
“Hello, Argo.” The demigod gave the horse a noserub, then patted her glossy neck. Argo lipped at him, searching for a treat from one she knew she could trust. “I should have known Xena would be here.”
Hercules decided to wait. If it had been anybody else but Xena in the Cave, he wouldn’t have given him a chance of making it out alive. Even Iolaus might have had a hard go at it, though with his knowledge of Old Hunter’s Tricks, his partner quite possibly could have made it, too.
Hercules sighed. He hated the deception he was about to play on his closest friend. It was a necessity, however, if he was going to keep the hunter safe. From himself, as well as anybody else.
He was saved the distress of further thought when Xena emerged from the cave. He could see the Sword of Hephaestus, its gold handle with the ruby embedded therein, resting in the scabbard the warrior woman wore on her back.
Xena paused when she saw the demigod. “Hercules?”
Hercules dispensed with the pleasantries. “Give me the Sword, Xena.”
Instead of complying, Xena drew her own sword from her belt then, with a familiar Xena yell, she charged. Though the action was not entirely unexpected, it still surprised Hercules. He snapped up a large branch, blocking her sword swing. He found himself twisting and turning to parry blow after blow endlessly volleyed against him. Even as he worked to keep her at bay, he realized she wasn’t trying hard to hit home. He knew she had to realize the same about him.
At one point, they were back to back, his impromptu weapon and her sword snarled together above their heads.
“I can’t let you do this!” Hercules insisted.
“You don’t have a choice,” she shot back.
Again, the two experienced warriors performed their swing-and-parry dance. Finally, Hercules backed off a couple steps. Xena’s sword was at eye-level, held with the tip facing the demigod, her grip on the handle as if she intended to hurl it like a spear. Her back was to Argo, a position that didn’t escape her notice.
“Xena, I’m not gonna fight! With Prometheus captured, a scratch could kill you!”
The warrior princess gave him a quick, sly smile before pushing herself into a high backflip into Argo’s saddle. Holding her sword elevated, she shouted, “Just you worry about yourself!”
With that, she urged the mare into a gallop. As his former lover rode off, Hercules tossed aside the branch, then started after her.
After fetching the items needed to finish their quest, Iolaus headed for the village tavern. The inn was nearly deserted, the few patrons huddled together at tables near the back wall. Near the bar stood a peasant girl in a debate with the man behind it. Hercules, obviously, hadn’t made it back yet.
Iolaus decided to ask anyway, just in case some emergency had come up and his friend hadn’t been able to wait. The hunter approached the darker-skinned man, who was oddly dressed in bright, multi-colored clothes and had a just as strangely colored round hat on his head.
“Hello,” he greeted, stopping beside the female. In front of her, on the bar, was a dish of something that appeared to be a gooey, yellowish mess on top of bread. Iolaus wrinkled his nose at the distasteful smell coming from the dish, then turned his attention to the two in front of him. To his pleasant surprise, the girl was actually a rather pretty young woman with blonde hair that hung past her shoulders down her back, dressed in a blue blouse, red skirt and darker blue long-sleeved shawl.
The oddly clothed man, whose name was Falafel, stated, “I bet this man would be willing to be the first to try my Athenian rarebit!”
Giving the strange-smelling food a grimace, Iolaus told him, “I’m afraid you have me confused with someone else. I would like to know if you’ve seen a friend of mine or if maybe he left a message for me? He’s tall, broad shoulders, big arms, very handsome,” he finished with a reluctant ‘you know what I mean’ nod.
“You mean Hercules?” Falafel asked, then stated, “I haven’t seen him, but I bet he would have the distinguished taste to enjoy this fine delicacy.”
Iolaus ignored him.
“Why are you looking for Hercules?” the woman queried.
“I, uh, have something he needs.”
“So you know him?”
“Well,” Iolaus shrugged, “he’s my best friend.”
“Really?” The tone of her voice was disbelieving.
Iolaus gave her a slight smile. “Yeah.”
“I see.” She seemed to think for a moment, then approached a few steps closer. “Would you mind if I asked you a personal question?”
“I suppose not.” The hunter said, slightly guarded. Now what does some pretty young thing want to know about Herc?
“What’s it like to be friends with someone like Hercules? Do you find it a little intimidating? Do you know what I mean?”
Expecting a query into his friend's availability, attributes or whereabouts, her question threw him off a bit. “Well, I’m not sure,” he admitted.
“Well, isn’t it hard to just stand around while he’s doing all these heroic labors?”
“I don’t just stand around,” Iolaus corrected, slightly defensive. “I’m right there with him, fighting by his side.”
The young woman considered his words. “Maybe I’ll try that. You see, I have a friend who’s a little bit on the intimidating side.”
“Who might that be?”
She nodded behind him. “Her.” Louder, she stated, “Xena, guess who he knows?”
Iolaus turned, somewhat startled to see the warrior princess again, but he was not taken aback so much that he didn’t see the gold-handled sword in her scabbard nor that her own sword was tucked into her belt.
Xena cocked an eyebrow. “Hercules?”
“You’re so good,” the blonde stated in awe.
“Hello, Xena,” Iolaus greeted.
“Iolaus.” Xena nodded acknowledgement.
“Doesn’t anybody want to try my new dish?” Falafel cried, frustrated at being overlooked. Again, the others ignored him.
“You know him?” the young woman asked Xena.
“We have a history.” Xena reached out, taking the blonde’s hand, then steered her towards the door. “Come on, Gabrielle, we’re in a hurry. Let's go.”
“Xena” Iolaus began.
Xena pulled her sword from her belt, angled it in the hunter’s direction. “Don’t you take another step.”
Standing at the tavern’s door, Gabrielle was aghast at her companion’s attitude. “What are you doing? He’s with Hercules.”
Xena stepped backwards, keeping her sword pointed threateningly at the blond warrior. “That’s exactly why I don’t want him at our back.” After pushing her friend out the door, Xena slipped her sword back through her leather belt, then they were gone.
Iolaus stayed put for a few seconds, knowing Xena would be expecting him to follow.
“You know, you’re gonna need energy to pursue a woman as feisty as her!” Falafel’s voice penetrated the thoughts going through Iolaus’ head. “My Athenian rarebit is just the ticket!”
Iolaus gave the man an peculiar look, then left the establishment. Stepping outside, he wasn’t surprised to see no sign of Xena or her companion, Gabrielle. But Iolaus had a very good idea which sword had been in the darkly-clad warrior’s scabbard. He also didn’t have a very long wait until Hercules came to meet him.
Up on the mountain, Prometheus questioned, “Hera, why are you doing this?”
“Prometheus, you waste your affections on Mankind. There are other creatures much more worthy of your respect… observe.”
As the great god laid his head back on the rock upon which he lay, he saw a large, winged lizard soar by. The flying creature was a terrible-looking beast, with a long neck and tail, no forelegs and long claws on its hind feet.
“I don’t understand,” Prometheus moaned, but Hera deemed not to answer.
Hercules and Iolaus were walking down a tree-lined path. The pace was fast, but not overly so. They knew where Xena was headed and that this was the quickest path to take them there. Also, Xena’s traveling partner wasn’t exactly used to an adventure such as thisif the way Gabrielle was dressed was any indicationand would slow her down. Iolaus carried his sheathed sword in his left hand; over his shoulder, a full sack bumped gently against his leg. They slowed when a woman, dressed in varying shades of purple, drew near.
“Hercules?” she pleaded. “Yesterday, my brother cut his hand on a knife; now he’s very ill. Please, do something.”
“I’m gonna do everything I can,” he answered gently. “I promise.”
The two warriors continued walking, leaving behind the distraught woman.
“You know, I don’t understand. What would Xena want with that sword?” Iolaus asked.
“She plans to free Prometheus with it.”
“So, why don’t you two work together?”
“’Cause she knows I won’t let her strike the blow that breaks the chains.”
“Wait a minute.” Iolaus fought to understand. “People are dying of scratches and you two are concerned about who gets the credit?”
“That’s not what this is about,” the demigod stated brusquely.
“Well, it sure sounds like it.” Iolaus answered, disapproval staining his words. “Hercules, I thought you cared about her.”
Hercules abruptly halted, rounding on his friend. “I do care about her.”
Straightforward, the hunter stated, “Then let her strike the blow.”
“Iolaus, I can’t,” Hercules replied, exasperated. “Just trust me.”
But the son of Zeus was already walking away, not giving his best friend a chance to speak. Iolaus heaved a heavy sigh, then followed. They hadn’t gone far when they came across a building, a mill. Outside, Argo stood, contently munching on some hay that had been left at her hooves. The echoes of swords clashing, plus the occasional Xena yell, could be heard coming from the inside.
“Iolaus, take the right flank, I’ll go across to the left,” Hercules ordered.
“I’m on it!”
The golden-haired hunter circled around the mill until he found a side door. The door was swung open, so he stepped through it, pausing on the other side long enough to assess the situation. Xena was fighting what had to be some of Hera’s minions. There were five of the warriors, darkly dressed in brown gauntlets and body armor, wearing horned helmets and armed with swords or axes.
Gabrielle, he noticed, was standing in a corner, holding a rake with both hands. The peasant girl was watching Xena and would occasionally brandish the rake as if she wanted to join in the fray. He silently admired her courage and her good judgment in remaining out of the way.
He spotted Hercules entering through the door opposite his. At his friend’s signal, they both jumped forward, one to each side of Xena. Their appearance gave Hera’s followers pause.
“Hi,” Hercules stated conversationally. He glanced at the Sword in Xena’s scabbard. “That’s a nice sword.” He picked up a near-by rake, then whacked a rushing thug with it as Xena rejoined the battle by taking on two of the minions.
Unsheathing his sword, Iolaus bolted to one side of the mill. He parried a sword thrust from one of the dark warriors, then swung his own weapon. When it was blocked, he jabbed with the leather scabbard that he held in his left hand. He not only succeeded in giving the other a good conk to the head, but also in making him angry.
The thug kicked both items from the blond’s hands, then punched him in the face. Unperturbed by the loss of his arsenal, Iolaus returned the punch with a left-hook to the man’s chin. Iolaus followed the blow with a swift, whirling kick to the other side of his face. His opponent stepped back, crouching forward in pain. The hunter leap-frogged over the man, swiftly dropped forward onto his hands, and mule-kicked the ruffian in the back end, sending him stumbling across the room.
Meanwhile, Hercules was taking on another warrior, brandishing the rake like a quarterstaff, blocking blows easily, effectively. When a lucky blow from the thug’s sword broke the rake into two, he used one section to batter the man aside. The second half of the rake was knocked from his hand by another ruffian. The demigod punched him.
With a yell of defiance, the first thug charged headlong at Hercules’ abdomen. The son of Zeus simply grabbed the man, tucked his head under his right arm. He kicked him a couple of times in the face with his boot heel. When the second minion rushed again, he simply picked him up by the front of his armor and tossed him aside. Yet another warrior attacked, slashing at the demigod with an axe. Hercules easily punched him out with his left fist.
“What? You again?” Hercules asked when the one thug returned once more to challenge him. The demigod grabbed the one tucked under his arm, swinging him around, catching the persistent ruffian and knocking him backwards into some reed baskets stacked against the grindstone. He hefted his human “weapon” and tossed him after his buddy. Skimming the area with his eyes, he sought out his next opponent.
A minion armed with an axe rushed towards Iolaus. The hunter kicked him in the gut, knocking the wind from him, then battered the man repeatedly with his open palms, driving him back. He punched him across the chin, grabbed the stunned heavy around the neck and tumbled him to the ground. Iolaus rolled with the fall until he was straddling the fallen man, then punched his lights out.
Satisfied the man was down for the count, Iolaus surveyed the rest of the battle. He was content to rest on his knees as Hercules and Xena finished off their opponents. As soon as they were done, he jumped to his feet, walked over to join them.
Gabrielle emerged from her corner; the four regarded the unconscious thugs. None of them noticed the one warrior coming up behind them. The man charged, snatching the Sword from the warrior woman’s scabbard and driving a powerful blow down towards Xena’s exposed back.
Hercules jumped forward, throwing up an arm in defense. The Sword collided with his gauntlet. There was a sudden blue-white flash. Hera’s minion writhed in pain, then simply disappeared, leaving behind nothing but a smoking pile of ash and the Sword of Hephaestus.
“You all right?” Xena asked the demigod.
“Fine,” Hercules answered. “I blocked it with my gauntlet.”
Iolaus, standing with Gabrielle behind the two, stated, “Now I understand.” To his partner, he added sarcastically, “Nice little tidbit to leave out, Herc.” He was satisfied to see a hint of guilt on his best friend’s face before the son of Zeus turned his attention to Xena. Demigod and warrior princess stared defiantly at each other.
“Give me a hint,” Gabrielle suggested, not noticing the tension that hung in the air.
“Hercules’ gauntlets are forged by Hephaestus,” Iolaus explained, trying not to show how miffed he was at being left ignorant of such important information. “So are the chains that bind Prometheus.”
“So if Prometheus’ chains are struck by that sword”
“The sword handler turns to ashes.”
“So it’s a suicide mission.”
At that moment, both Hercules and Xena grabbed for the fallen Sword. Hercules was slightly faster. He rose to his full height, the Sword of Hephaestus in hand. “I’ll strike the blow.”
“I won’t let you do that, Hercules.”
Gabrielle finally caught the conflict between the two. “You two have got to work together.”
“Your friend is right,” Hercules agreed. “Hera will put plenty of obstacles in our way. We made a pretty good team once.”
“Yeah, we did,” Xena reluctantly admitted. A cunning look crossed her dark features. It was a look that wasn’t lost on Hercules or Iolaus. “All right, we work together, but it’s still not decided who’ll use the Sword to break the chains.”
“It is, as far as I’m concerned.”
“We’ll see.” Xena kicked up her sword from the ground, then walked away.
Watching her leave, Hercules became aware of the blonde woman, who now approached him. “Hercules, we haven’t been properly introduced. My name is Gabrielle.”
The warrior half-focused his attention on her. “Oh, well, it’s nice meeting you, Gabrielle.”
“Um, if I’m not too nosey, can I ask you a few questions about your labors?”
Hercules seemed rather embarrassed, as he always did when asked about his adventures. “Well, you know, actually,” he turned, finding Iolaus still standing behind him, “Iolaus is the one to ask. You see, he knows all the facts.” He looked at the hunter. Iolaus rolled his eyes in a silent, sarcastic I know where this is going. Thanks a lot, Herc. “And he loves to spin a tale. Right, buddy?” Giving his friend a soft slap on the shoulder, he turned to follow Xena.
Gabrielle looked at the blond warrior. “Would you mind?”
“No, not at all,” he replied lightly. “Ah, why don’t you go ahead. I’ll, uh, catch up later.”
Confused by the request, Gabrielle nodded nonetheless. “All right.”
Iolaus waited until she had left the mill, then grimaced. He reached his right hand under the left side of his vest. His fingers came back covered in blood.
Nice, Iolaus, real nice, he told himself sarcastically.
Iolaus wiped the blood from his fingers using some straw he found near-by. Quickly, he tossed the straw aside and trailed after the others.
The foursome strode along a lovely path lined with trees and flowers. Hercules and Xena, leading Argo, walked several paces ahead of Iolaus and Gabrielle. Gabrielle actually enjoyed the slower pace, as well as her current companion. “So, you fought side-by-side with Hercules? What was it like?” she queried eagerly.
Iolaus shrugged slightly, trying not to disturb his wounded side. He held his sheathed sword in his left hand, kept his left arm pressed against his side as inconspicuously as possible. “Exciting. I mean, as exciting as it can be for any two warriors fighting side-by-side, I guess.”
Oblivious to the hunter’s discomfort, the young bard pushed for more details. “But you weren’t just any two warriors. You were fighting with Hercules, the world’s strongest man! It had to be more than just ‘exciting.’”
“I never really thought about it,” Iolaus admitted. Any other time he would be more than willing to tell a tale of the adventures he and his best friend had encountered over the years, especially to such an attentive, and pretty, audience. Now, however, he didn’t feel up to going into it. “Sure, we’ve had a lot of adventures, helped a lot of people. It’s just what we do. I mean, Herc and I have been friends for, well, since we were kids. I guess I’m just used to his being able to lift more than ten men and going up against monsters.”
“Friends since you were kids. No wonder you’re not overawed by him.”
Seeing where the conversation was headed, Iolaus smiled. “Hey, don’t let Xena intimidate you. At least she’s all mortal! But she’s also very good at what she does. There’s got to be something about you she likes. She wouldn’t have let you be with her, if she didn’t.”
Gabrielle laughed. “She didn’t have much choice. I followed her.”
“That would do it.” Iolaus chuckled. Trying to hide the fact that the journey was taking more out of him than he would have liked, and just because he was interested, he queried, “So, how did you end up following the intrepid Xena?”
He was content to let her weave a tale wrought by her natural talent as a bard.
Hercules and Xena’s pace was just as casual. Hercules had the Sword of Hephaestus tucked into his belt, belying their upcoming task; otherwise, it could have been any other pleasant day.
“I’ve been hearing a lot about you,” Hercules commented.
“Don’t believe everything you hear.”
“From what I heard, I want to believe. You’ve been helping people.”
“Someone taught me it’s the only reason to be on this Earth.”
“Now, who would that be?”
“Oh, some legendary hero. I forget his name,” Xena answered casually. She stopped, gestured to the left. “Do you think we should cut through that pass over there?” As Hercules turned to look, she made a grab for the Sword.
The demigod grabbed her wrist. “Nice try.”
“It should be me,” she pleaded.
“’Cause the world needs Hercules.”
“It needs Xena, too.”
“Come on, people would hardly miss me,” she stated, all trace of beseeching gone from her voice.
“Your friend, Gabrielle, would,” he answered simply.
This gave Xena pause, but only for a moment. “She’d get over it. You’re needed more because you give hope to so many.”
“You underestimate yourself.”
“You’re not using your head.”
“Well, sometimes in life, you go with your heart, not your head.”
“What does that mean?” Confusion colored her tone.
“That means, I can’t let you die, if I can do anything to stop it.”
The demigod continued along the path, leaving Xena to look after him. Still unable to figure out the gist of what he was saying, she tightened her grip on Argo’s reins and slowly followed. “Come on, you two.”
Sometime later, they were nearing the base of the mountain upon which Prometheus was bound. The ground began sloping upward. At one point on the path, they found an ancient stone sticking conspicuously out of the ground. Near the stone, what looked like a deer trail snaked off from the main path into the overgrowth. Hercules stepped silently onto the rocky trail, the others following single-file.
Iolaus, his left arm pressed even more tightly against his wound, brought up the rear. The hunter was glad his friends were so caught up in their mission that they didn’t have time to notice the grip he kept on his scabbard, a grip so tight, he knew his knuckles had to be white. He wasn’t about to give in to the pain of his wound. They’d come too far for him to give up now. He wouldn’t let Hera win, wouldn’t let his best friend go against whatever the bitch had to throw at them without someone to properly cover his back.
Noticing the trail inclined downward, Gabrielle commented, “Hey, Xena, I thought we were going up the mountain.”
Xena only chuckled as the trail ended at the mouth of a cave. She positioned Argo near some good grazing, then pulled out two torches from her saddlebags. Handing one to Gabrielle, she held out the other to allow Hercules to strike a spark from his gauntlets. “At least we still have fire,” she observed, lighting the second torch from the first.
“So far.” Hercules lead them into the cave. “These caves and tunnels work their way up to the top.”
“We better hurry,” Xena urged.
“How did you find out about these caves, Hercules?” Gabrielle, ever the inquisitive bard, asked.
“I came here a long time ago with my father,” came the even answer.
Gabrielle got excited. “Your father? Zeus? The King of the gods, the maker of all creations?”
“Huh,” she remarked, slightly perturbed by his lack of enthusiasm, “he’s about as talkative as you are.”
“Yep,” Xena agreed, amused. She and Hercules picked up the pace, disappearing around a bend in the tunnel, leaving their companions behind.
Watching them go, Gabrielle shrugged. “Actually, you know, I feel much more comfortable around a normal guy like you.” When no answer came from her companion, she wondered if she’d insulted him. “I meant that as a compliment.”
“Thanks,” Iolaus said, trying to keep the pain from his voice, “I’ll take it that way.” He grimaced, pausing in his stride. Quickly, he glanced at Gabrielle to see if she noticed.
“Are you all right?” Gabrielle brought the torch closer to the hunter’s pale face. Iolaus seemed on edge, more than a seasoned warrior should be in this situation. She noticed him clutching his side strangely.
“Yeah, fine,” he lied. He couldn’t stop her from reaching out to lift up the left side of his vest. “No, don’t.”
The scrape on his side was now an oozing, bloody mess. The ragged edges were gaped open, not even the slightest sign of any healing showing.
Perversely, he was pleased to see she didn’t shy away from the raw wound. “It’s all right, it’s just a small wound.” Even as he said it, Iolaus wasn’t sure whom he was trying to convinceher or himself. Probably both.
“We’ve lost the ability to heal ourselves. Even a small wound could kill you.”
“I’m fine,” he lied again, though his face said otherwise.
“I’ll get Xena and Hercules.” Gabrielle started to turn away.
Iolaus grabbed her hand. “Gabrielle, wait. They can’t do anything until Prometheus is free.”
“Well, then you should rest here.”
“I can’t. Not when the whole world’s at stake. I don’t want to be a burden. I wanna help.” Seeing her about to protest, he pleaded, “Please, Gabrielle.”
The bard was debating with herself when Xena hurried around the bend. “Are you two coming?” she growled impatiently.
Gabrielle met the golden hunter’s blue eyes. “Yeah,” she finally answered, “we’ll be right behind you.”
Xena retreated as quickly as she had come. Still uncertain, Gabrielle smiled slightly at the flash of gratitude Iolaus gave her. They turned, silently followed their better-known companions.
They found Hercules and Xena just around the bend in the tunnel, standing near an opening that bracketed a darker space beyond. Unseen by the others, Hercules gave his partner a peculiar look but, not seeing anything he could put a finger on, shrugged indifferently, his mind clearly on other things. He started forward. Xena just followed, letting the two trail behind her.
The foursome found themselves in a narrow room that opened just enough to allow them to walk double-file. Stalactites reached down from the ceiling. As they reached the center of the room, the stalactites cracked and fell, shaking the entire area, starting a chain reaction of falling stone. Dodging tumbling rock, they sprinted for the narrow exit at the other side of the room.
“Run!” Xena hollered. “Look out, Gabrielle!”
Hercules jumped ahead, then skidded to a halt at the narrowest part of the path. There, he took the full force of a plummeting boulder on his broad shoulders, stopping it before it could block their only escape. Xena wasted no time and breezed past the demigod, snatching up the fallen torch as she did so. Gabrielle slipped through the slim opening, tripping as she made her way through.
Iolaus reached out and helped the fallen bard to her feet. “Just like old times, huh?” he cracked to Hercules, who was straining against the weight of the boulder.
“If you mean I’m doing all the work again, you’re right,” the son of Zeus quipped. With his friends safely past, he let the boulder roll down off his back.
The heavy rock shook the ground. Off balance from helping Gabrielle regain her footing, Iolaus was thrown into the wall. Gabrielle slammed into him. Iolaus screwed his eyes shut to block the flash of pain that erupted from his side to encompass his whole body.
“Are you all right?” Gabrielle murmured.
The hunter gritted his teeth. “Never better,” he answered, though he made no move away from the hard wall.
She gave him an apologetic look. “I’m sorry.” She turned to the other two, who were watching them curiously, both realizing something was very wrong. “Iolaus was wounded back in the barn.”
Holding the torch aloft, Xena berated, “Why didn’t you tell us?”
Hercules stepped forward. “Because, he’s brave of heart and hard of head.” The words were spoken with affection.
“You’ll have to wait here,” Xena stated as Gabrielle came to her side.
“No.” Iolaus ground out.
“If you stand any chance of making it ‘til Prometheus is released, it’ll be because you’ve rested.”
“She’s right,” Hercules agreed.
“I can make it!” Iolaus began to push off from the wall. He fell back, his face contorted with pain. He didn’t miss the worried, yet torn, countenance on his sword-brother’s face; his guilt increased, knowing he’d put it there, for now Hercules had two concerns: freeing Prometheus and Iolaus’ life-threatening injury.
“I’ll stay with him,” Gabrielle piped up.
“It’s settled, then,” Xena stated. She didn’t mean to be abrupt, but knew time was of the essence, especially if they were to free Prometheus before Iolaus succumbed to his injury. She turned to her friend.
Gabrielle drew her into a tight hug. “Xena.”
“Hey.” Xena returned the embrace.
As they separated, Gabrielle pleaded, “Don’t strike the blow.”
The warrior princess gripped her arm. “Be brave.”
Meanwhile, Iolaus sighed in resignation. “All right, I guess I’ll only slow you down. Here.” He pulled his carrysack awkwardly over his head, then handed it to Hercules. As the demigod positioned the sack on his shoulder, the hunter gave him a meaningful look. “Hercules, goodbye.”
“What do you mean, ‘Goodbye?’” Hercules jested. “You’ll be fine. You’re too ornery to die.”
“Yeah, but even if I do make it” Iolaus couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought. Gods, Herc, why must it be you? Why must be any of us? Damn Hera and these games she has to play! He settled with giving his life-long friend a long look, hoping his feelings could be seen through his blue eyes. He knew he’d succeeded when Hercules gripped his shoulder affectionately.
“Me, too, buddy.” It was all Hercules had to say.
The half-god turned away, approached the two women. Xena handed him the torch, then walked over to Iolaus, still half-slumped against the wall, determined to remain stoic in front of Hercules and Xena. She held out her hand. He gripped it tightly, giving her a long look. She met his gaze unflinchingly, neither wanting to spoil the moment by speaking. They’d been through much together, as enemies and as friends.
With one last squeeze in acknowledgement to their unspoken sentiments, he released her hand. She stepped back, then turned and left. Iolaus met Hercules’ gaze one last time before he, too, turned to leave.
Gabrielle watched the two depart, then set her attentions to the wounded man beside her. She gently lead him to another part of the section of tunnel they were in. Finding a suitable spot, she jammed the torch into a niche in the wall, then helped lower him to the cold floor. She found herself admiring Iolaus’ stamina, the courage that had kept him silent about his injury so he could accompany the friends who obviously meant a great deal to him. This self-sacrificing made the blond a hero in his own right and Gabrielle decided that no matter what the outcome, the world would know of this man’s valor and his chosen life by Hercules’ side.
Now that he didn’t have to keep up his healthful charade, Iolaus sank gratefully to the ground. As if admitting he had been wounded had opened the floodgate, he could feel the burning of fever across his skin as well as the tiredness that accompanied an infectious injury. He was grateful for Gabrielle’s company, for his own sake and for creating one less problem for Hercules and Xena to worry about. He was glad he’d made his peace with Xena.
Iolaus felt Gabrielle sit down next to him. She offered him the canteen; he drank gratefully. Handing it back to her, he stared down the tunnel where Hercules and Xena had disappeared. And waited.
Xena trailed Hercules through the passageway. Seeing him pause, obviously looking for something, she ventured, “Hercules?”
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to say to you to for a long time.” She hesitated, then forged onward quickly, lest she lose her nerve. “You two changed my life, you and Iolaus. You taught me how to live. I’ll never forget that. Thanks.”
The demigod turned to face her. He wondered why she hadn’t said that to Iolaus earlier. Then he realized they had “said” it to each othersilently, as he and Iolaus had “spoken” to one another through their eyes and body contact.
“Well, there’s something I have to tell you, too. When my wife died, I never thought I’d meet anyone who made me feel the way she did. But then I met you.”
“Oh, come on,” she berated, disbelieving.
“No, I mean it,” he insisted. “Why do you think I told you what oracle to go see if Prometheus was ever captured? Because I knew I could trust you with that secret.”
“Well, I guess we’re lucky to have found one another.” Xena stepped very close.
“Yeah, we are.” Hercules agreed, leaning down to accept the kiss the warrior woman was offering. He felt Xena’s hand clasping the Sword hilt. Quickly, he trapped her hand under his, then pulled away from her. “You never give up, do you?”
“Good, neither do I.” He started walking again, this time with Xena by his side.
Iolaus was lying down, his head pillowed in Gabrielle’s lap. He was sweating profusely, his breath coming in ragged pants as he fought against the pain in his side. His right hand was pressed tightly against the wound, but that did little to stem the continuous trickle of blood that stained the ground beside him
Gabrielle was doing her best to keep him comfortable. Between the times she wiped a wetted cloth across his pale features, she rubbed his blond hair in a soothing gesture. She’d tried to keep him pre-occupied with inane chatter, asking him about his adventures with Hercules or what Xena had been like when he’d first met her, but had finally given up when she realized the effort on his part was too great.
So caught up in her own thoughts, she started when she heard his pain-filled one. “Yes?”
“If you see Xena again, will you tell her something for me?”
“You can tell her.”
“Yeah, but just in case.” He took her hand with his left one.
Gabrielle ignored the tight grip as he fought to stave off the pain in his effort to talk. “All right.”
“Tell her, there are no hard feelings. I’m proud to have known her.”
“She’s really special, isn’t she? Sometimes, I wonder what she sees in me.”
“I see it,” Iolaus replied with a shaky smile. “You have a pure heart that is wonderful to be around.”
The bard blushed. Trying to hide her embarrassment, she pushed his sweaty bangs away from his face. “Shh, try to be quiet.”
Iolaus closed his eyes. He opened them again when he heard Gabrielle’s sharp intake of breath. At first, he thought he’d lost his sight, then realized that they had been plunged into darkness.
The torch had gone out.
Hercules held up his torch, still searching. “It has to be here someplace.”
The torch in his hand suddenly extinguished. “Uh oh.”
“The gift of fire,” Xena breathed. “It’s gone.”
“Let’s find that spot.” Hercules walked forward, at first unsteady, then with more confidence as his eyes adjusted somewhat to the gloom. “We haven’t much time.”
They rounded another bend. Not far from them they could see a light coming from the ceiling, where there was obviously an opening to the outside.
“Look!” Xena hurried over.
Hercules came up behind her, gazed upward into the light. “This is it.” He opened Iolaus’ carrysack; from it, he pulled a four-pronged scaling hook with a length of rope attached. “You ready?” he asked Xena.
Hercules swung the hook upward. It clattered on the rocks above. Carefully, he tugged the rope until he felt resistance, then pulled harder to make sure the hook was secure. “All right. I’ll go first.”
As Hercules moved to begin scaling the rope, he heard Xena remarking, “Gabrielle wants to go to an academy for bards in Athens.” He paused, confused. What the “Make sure she gets there.” Before he could react, he felt a heavy blow to the back of his head. Then he felt nothing at all.
Xena set down her sword as she gazed at the unconscious form of Hercules, felled by her own hand. She slid the Sword of Hephaestus from his belt, then sheathed it in her back scabbard. Gently, she gave him a kiss on the mouth, then stood and scaled the rope, using the few hand- and footholds as leverage.
Full daylight hit her eyes a few minutes later as she emerged from the tunnel. She was at the top of the mountain. A huge stone altar dominated the crater; it was on this natural altar Prometheus lay bound by chains forged by Hephaestus. Large green eggs lay scattered at the base of the altar.
She pulled the Sword from her scabbard, then cut the rope she had just scaled. She knew that Hercules wouldn’t be out for long and was determined to slow his progress as much as possible.
The metallic rasp made when the Sword left Xena’s scabbard caught Prometheus’ attention. He looked down at the mortal come to free him and smiled. He knew his faith in Mankind hadn’t been for naught.
Hercules awoke from his induced “nap.” The headache he incurred was quickly forgotten when he realized what must have happened. Scowling, he got to his feet, only to find the rope from the hook lying at his feet. Without giving it a second thought, he started scaling the wall, using the few holds available to him. Where the rock face was smooth, he used his fist to make his own holds.
Even in the gloom that made seeing near impossible, Gabrielle could tell that Iolaus was getting weaker; he fought to remain alive with a conviction that impressed her greatly. Hercules was a very lucky man to have such a companion by his side: one that fought beside him as an equal, yet was there during the peaceful times, as well. It was almost as if they were extensions of each other. She only hoped she could someday do as well for Xena.
At that thought, she stifled a sob. Xena may not be coming back. But she had to hope that between the two of them, Xena and Hercules might be able to come up with a way to free Prometheus without either of them having to be sacrificed. Hercules was half-god plus the son of Zeus to boot, and Xena was, well, Xena, so maybe there could be a way.
Well, it was out of her hands now. Her main concern was the wounded warrior struggling to stay alive. “You’re going to make it, Iolaus, I know you will,” she insisted as she stroked his sweat-matted hair with one hand, held his hand with the other. She wished she could see his face better in order to judge his condition.
“Yeah, sure,” he replied, his tone telling her he didn’t really believe it.
“Let me tell you another story.”
Thinking back on her own thoughts of Iolaus and Hercules being well-paired, she began, “Once, a long, long time ago, all people had four legs and two heads. And then the gods threw down thunderbolts and split everyone into two. Each half then had two legs and one head. But the separation left both sides with a desperate yearning to be reunited, because they each shared the same soul. And ever since then, all people spend their lives searching for the other half of their soul.”
Iolaus smiled unsteadily. “Like you and Xena?”
“Me and Xena?”
“Yeah, you two are good for each other.”
Pleased, Gabrielle asked, “You really think so?”
“Actually, I was thinking more of you and Hercules and how much he needs you in his life.” When she felt his grip on her hand loosen, she started to plead, “You’ve got to hang on, Iolaus! Hercules needs you! You’ve got to fight! Iolaus? Iolaus!”
Realizing he was beyond hearing, Gabrielle bowed her head and let the tears she’d been holding back finally fall.
Hercules pulled himself out into daylight. Like Xena, he had to blink a few times to allow his eyes to adjust to sudden brightness. When his eyes cleared, he saw the altar-like rock in the middle of the crater. Upon it, he could see the god Prometheus lying on his back. The huge immortal was watching the battle raging at the base of the altar: Xena was fighting several green clad, green skinned beings that Hercules figured camehatched?from similar colored eggs scattered on the ground.
More of Hera’s wonderful creations, Hercules reasoned sarcastically.
“Xena!” He marched forward. “Hey!”
The green men whirled to face the new threat. Immediately, they attacked the demigod, who punched several out of his way. He watched, dismayed, as Xena took advantage of the circumstances to climb onto the stone altar.
“I’ll free Prometheus!” she called, tossing him her regular sword.
Hercules sliced at a couple of the beings. He managed to give them pause long enough that he was able to glance Xena’s way again. He saw the giant, winged lizard swooping down. It quickly snapped up Xena by the shoulders and flew off. Both the warrior woman and the Sword were gone before he had a chance to give warning.
Hercules didn’t have time to ponder Xena’s fate. The remaining green eggs burst open, releasing more of the green men. The demigod waved the sword, taking out the enemy with well-aimed slashes. Others he stunned with a swift kick or arm thrust, throwing the beings into one another or smashing them unconscious against the rock wall that made up the crater.
There seemed to be an endless supply of them, but eventually the demigod managed to whittle their numbers down, taking them down singly or in pairs. There were only a couple of the beings left when Hercules heard a cry from above.
“Hercules! The Sword!”
Hercules looked upward to see Xena riding the neck of the winged lizard. He didn’t have time to ponder how she’d managed that particular feat when he noticed she had dropped the Sword, sending it plummeting towards him. Thinking quickly, he picked up a large rock and deflected the Sword towards the altar. The Sword broke one of the chains binding Prometheus.
The demigod again directed his gaze skyward. Xena was now falling through the air, the flying beast also plummeting to the ground beyond the mountain. Xena must have struck it a fatal blow with the Sword before releasing the weapon. He tossed the rock at the two remaining green eggmen, taking them out, then quickly darted to one side, easily catching her in his arms.
“Nice of you to drop in,” he remarked, setting her on her feet. They watched as Prometheus broke the remaining chains. After freeing himself, the god stood his full height and stretched. Prometheus gave the mortals a grateful smile, then simply vanished.
“Well done,” Hercules complimented Xena.
“You were pretty fantastic yourself,” she answered with a warm smile.
“All in a day’s work.” Hercules’ jovial mood swiftly vanished. “Iolaus.”
He raced for the opening, Xena right behind him, snatching up her sword as she followed.
“Fight, Iolaus.” Gabrielle, sniffing gently, told the blond warrior. “You’ve got to fight.”
Suddenly, the torch on the wall flared to life. Its warm glow filled the tunnel, allowing Gabrielle to see how pale Iolaus was, how matted his hair. And that he was still breathing. In fact, he gave a little start, almost as if something physical had occurred within him when fire was returned to them. Perhaps it had, since Prometheus’ gifts had been returned to Mankind, that also gave them the ability to heal themselves. Gabrielle just hoped he wasn’t too far gone.
Iolaus opened his eyes. “Hey,” he remarked softly, “we’ve got fire.”
“Yes,” she smiled at him, blinking away her tears, “they succeeded. That means you’ll be able to heal, too.”
The spark in Iolaus’ eyes dimmed. For a moment, Gabrielle thought the gift had been returned too late; that the hunter was still going to die.
“They succeeded,” he repeated monotone. “And who died? Xena or Herc?”
The bard gasped softly. In her joy, she’d momentarily forgotten about the price Prometheus’ released demanded. “Oh, Iolaus.”
Iolaus struggled to sit up.
“Iolaus, I don’t think you should be moving around yet.”
“The blasted wound isn’t bleeding anymore,” he answered tersely. “I’ll be fine. I have to know…” He started to get to his feet, but found his legs too weak to support him yet. Breathing heavily, he slumped against the wall beside Gabrielle. His wound ached from the effort.
She reached out and brushed his wet hair back. “We’ll know soon enough.”
“Herc wouldn’t have let Xena strike the blow,” he muttered, hanging his head in sorrow, though he fought shedding any tears. No, he’d do his grieving in private.
They heard the click of stone against stone. Somebody was coming. Iolaus didn’t raise his head, allowing his weakened condition to be the excuse for not looking. A moment later, he knew he had his suspicions confirmed when Gabrielle cried, “Xena!” She swiftly jumped to her feet and threw herself at her friend.
Iolaus turned his head further away, not able to even glimpse the reunion between the women. No, he lamented, I won’t let the tears come. That’ll come later. Oh, Herc, why? Why did you have to do it?
Stone crunched and Iolaus felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. Thinking it was Xena offering her sympathies, he refused to acknowledge it.
That’s not Xena’s voice. That’s He turned his head to find Hercules kneeling by his side, a very worried expression on his face. “Herc? But how? Who struck the blow? What happened?”
“All in good time, my friend. How are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” the hunter waved off his best friend’s concerns, still surprised to see him amongst the living.
“Yeah? Well, let me be the judge of that.” Without waiting for permission, he lifted Iolaus’ vest to check the wound. It had stopped bleeding; actually, it didn’t look as bad as it had earlier. “How do you feel?”
“I told you, fine! Especially now that I know you’re alive.” He silently berated himself when his voice cracked slightly on the final words; however, he did reach up to grip the hand on his shoulder.
Hercules smiled warmly. “Yeah, I was worried about you, too, buddy.”
“I’ll tell you later, Gabrielle,” Xena was saying as she stepped closer to the two men. She held the other flaming torch in his hands. “How are you, Iolaus?”
“I think I’ll live.”
“Good. What say we get out of here?”
“Good idea,” the demigod agreed. “Can you stand, Iolaus,” he cracked a wicked smile, “or should I carry you?”
“I can stand! I just need a hand up.”
Hercules eased him to his feet. Iolaus stumbled slightly, but quickly caught himself. The son of Zeus put an arm around him, allowing Iolaus to lean into him as they made their way back through the tunnel. He could feel his friend was still somewhat shaky. Just because the gift of healing had been returned didn’t mean the blond was ready for any major exertions.
Hercules suggested they rest for a couple of days in the area. There were trees, and the cave entrance, for cover; a stream not far away for water and, between he and Xena, they could hunt for food. Even Iolaus thought it was a good plan, proving to Hercules that his friend was, indeed, still weakened from the ordeal.
After a couple of days, however, Hercules was beginning to suspect Iolaus was taking advantage of having the three of them waiting on him. He didn’t mind, too much, though he teased his friend about it. Iolaus and Gabrielle, though mostly the curious bard, managed to get the majority of the story of Prometheus’ release from the two heroes. She had to be persistent in her questioning, as neither really wanted to discuss their efforts. Iolaus’ wound healed well; his strength returned quickly.
Xena and Gabrielle were cleaning up some things at the stream when Hercules got the chance to be alone with his friend. Iolaus was sitting against a tall shade tree, enjoying the light breeze that tugged at his golden hair, though he seemed distracted about something. “How are you, Iolaus?” he asked, settling down beside his friend.
“Are you sure?”
Iolaus furrowed his brow in confusion. “Yeah, why do you ask?”
“Just checking. You seem kind of, I don’t know, preoccupied.”
The hunter looked away, then back at his friend. “Well, I was wondering something.”
“The Sword of Hephaestus. You knew that striking the blow that would break the chains was a suicide mission, didn’t you?”
Hercules paused a moment before answering. He wondered where this was going with his volatile friend. “Yes, I did.”
“And Xena knew?”
“I’m sure she found out.”
“So, you didn’t trust me.”
It was Hercules’ turn to be confused. “Trust you?”
“Yeah. You didn’t trust me enough to tell me what welding the Sword of Hephaestus would do.”
“I told you about Vulcan Mountain, didn’t I?” Hercules asked, wondering how not telling somebody something was violating a trust.
“That’s not the same thing, Herc! You didn’t trust me enough to tell me about something that important.”
“Iolaus, it wasn’t about trust. It was about, well, I knew that if you knew about the consequences of using the Sword, you would have tried to free Prometheus yourself, just like Xena did.”
“But it was okay for Xena to know this information, but not your life-long sword-brother?” he accused, not bothering to hide the pain in his voice.
“Iolaus, I didn’t want to be worried that you would get hurt!”
“I got hurt anyway!”
“Exactly, that’s why I didn’t tell you about the Sword.” Seeing Iolaus about to continue the argument, and not feeling like going into it more, the demigod stated, “I need to talk to Xena about something. We’ll talk about this later.” He rose to his full height and stalked off.
“Later, always later,” Iolaus grumbled.
He looked up when a shadow fell on him. Gabrielle gave him a tentative smile. “May I sit?”
“Oh, sure.” He gestured to the grass beside him, glad to have something to distract him from being miffed at his partner. “Please, do.”
She sat down. For a while, they enjoyed the peace and the warmth of the sun. Gabrielle looked at him shyly. “Iolaus, I just wanted to say that I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. You’re a very brave man and an excellent warrior.”
He blushed slightly at the praise. “When I’m not lying in your lap dying from a scratch, that is,” he joked.
As if that reminded her, she turned towards him, then reached out and lifted his vest. She gave the injury the once over.
Iolaus took the attention good-naturedly, remarking, “You know, between you and Xena and Hercules, that wound can’t take much more attention.”
Guilty, she dropped the vest, but did not move away. “I’m sorry. It’ll be fine.”
“Iolaus, I just wanted to let you know that it’s been a pleasure getting to know you. Actually, it was more than nice.” She leaned against him slightly, began to give him a kiss on the mouth.
The hunter gently stopped her, pushed her back. “Gabrielle, I appreciate that you enjoy my company, that we’re friends and you’d like to make what we have between us something more, but I’m afraid it just wouldn’t work out. You’ve got Xena and I’m traveling with Herc. It just wouldn’t work.”
Disappointment flitted across Gabrielle’s features, but she quickly schooled her expression to one of acceptance. “You’re right, I’m sorry.”
He ran a hand through her long tresses. “No, don’t be sorry. I think we’ve got too much of a strong friendship starting to be sorry.”
She smiled. “You’re right. I’m glad we have that.” They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, then she stated, “I watched how you fought alongside Hercules. I wonder if I could do that? Fight side-by-side with Xena?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“You really think I could learn to fight like that?”
“Sure,” Iolaus insisted. “In fact, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially if you’re going to be travelling with Xena. As you may have noticed, she tends to get involved with things.”
“I noticed!” She grew thoughtful for a moment. “I think I’ll talk to Xena. I mean, if you can keep up with a half-god, I guess I can try to keep up her.”
“I’m sure you could. I’m sure you could do whatever you put your mind to.”
Gabrielle smiled. “Thanks.”
Xena was saddling Argo when Hercules approached her. He didn’t say anything for a while, knowing that it was time for her to leave, especially now that Iolaus was on the road to recovery. “Goodbyes are never easy,” he stated when she had finished, turned to regard him. “We do make a good team.”
“You, as well.” She mounted the palomino. “Till we meet again.” She wheeled Argo around, pleased to see Gabrielle was ready to leave. Iolaus was standing next to her. “Be well, Iolaus.”
“Take care, Xena.”
Xena gently nudged Argo with her heels. She kept her mount at a slow pace so Gabrielle could keep up. They weren’t too far away when they both looked back and waved. Hercules and Iolaus returned the wave.
Thinking back on Gabrielle’s story a couple of days before, Iolaus asked, “Hercules, do you believe that everyone has someone out there that shares a part of their soul?”
The demigod regarded his friend, then smiled. “I know it, my friend.” He clapped the hunter on the shoulder. “I know it.”
Iolaus was harmed during the writing of this story. However, the Green Egg Men went on to live long and prosperous lives.
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