Except she quickly thought of the man they'd come to aid. Seven pairs of eyes turned with hers to where Gabrielle still knelt, within Xena's comforting embrace. Hercules was already bending down towards them and the priestess heard him, or perhaps his brother, gasp. Nebula went to her knees as well, bowing low and sitting back again and again, sobbing openly as Ariella had not heard her do, till now. Morrigan laid one hand on the dark queen's shoulder in a comforting gesture, and amazingly, the Sumerian did not shake it off. Jason was beside Hercules now and Iphicles still stood, amazed.
They encircled the place Ariella had last seen the spirit form of Iolaus. Looking over Nebula's shoulder, she realized why they were all shocked. On the ground, covered by nothing against the raw sea wind, was the form of a man, fully human and fully substantial, no shade or spirit. It was the body of Iolaus, son of Thebes and of Corinth, hero companion of Hercules and Jason, beloved of Nebula, and many others, friend of Iphicles, Xena and Gabrielle. Only Morrigan and Ariella did not know the man while he lived, but that was no bar to fighting for or honoring him. This body though, seemed only to have died a few moments, not months before. Ariella felt her throat constricting with tears that these new friends should once more have to mourn his death. Quickly and as gently as they would an ailing child, his friends found decent covering for the still form. And the priestess, looking around, saw that despite their courage, there remained not a dry eye among them.
Lady, Ariella called out within her mind to the Goddess. Great Huntress, these two who are Yours are freed from the demon, by their own bravery and Your hand. Gabrielle can begin to find the peace she lost at its hands. But Your hunter, Goddess, I have learned so much about him while we made ready for this battle. He wished an end, he said. I know. Only, I don't remember him saying he wished for death. Can there be another way? So many besides these who came to Your call love and need the man they know. So much might remain. Goddess, I know better than to argue with the gods' will. I only ask if his death is their will.
Daughter, you are brave indeed. the Goddess voice came to her inner ear again. And far more have been set free by your courage here than these two. Truly you have all won a great battle for Greece and in the cause of the gods. But the ending of a life, any life, is in the Fates' hands. Shall I challenge them? Or would you care to?
"Ariella," the priestess heard Alcmene's son urgently calling her name. "Ariella, answer me, are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Hercules. Why do you ask?" the priestess looked up into the demigod's face.
"Well, you were . . gone for a few minutes. I supposed you were talking to my half sister. But then you turned as pale as a shade. I sensed one of the Olympians was here earlier, that was Artemis? Is she still here, cos I'd love to have a few words, in private."
"Why in private, younger brother? Have you some secret from these brave friends?" Artemis responded, smiling at the demigod as she appeared in a flash of silver light. Her hair was bound up, dark and gleaming all at once. Her chiton was alight with bronze and fur and feathers. Her boots were layered, soft and quiet, meant for forest paths, not city ways.
"No, I don't. But I can't help wondering if the gods do, as usual. Except for yourself they've been precious little help in this fight, sister. And the end result, as far I can tell, for Iolaus, is the same. And frankly, that doesn't sit right with me, or with the rest of us .I think something's still out of kilter, out of balance, somehow. I don't know for certain what. I don't pretend to understand everything that went on here today: that's not my line of work.
What I know is that Iolaus gave his life fighting the thing we finally got rid of tonight. What I know is he spent his life fighting that kind of evil and cruelty. What I know is what a debt of gratitude and loyalty and honor is owed to him, by mortals and immortals alike from Sumeria to the Norse lands and back again. And what I know is if I had the chance he once had when I was in trouble, I would be more than happy to say: if you must take his life, then take mine too, because I am Iolaus."
"And I am Iolaus!" Nebula called out, choking back her sobs, her eyes ablaze.
"And I'm Iolaus!" Jason echoed, holding his head high as he recalled the incident Hercules invoked.
"And I am Iolaus!" Morrigan intoned, lifting her bright head in the fading light.
"And I am Iolaus!" Iphicles added, exchanging glances with his younger brother, his dark eyes sad and proud.
"And I am Iolaus!" Xena responded, her eyes shining and sorrowful.
"And I am Iolaus!" Gabrielle lifted her head in as regal a manner as Ariella had ever seen.
"And I am Iolaus!" Ariella added her voice to the others, with a tiny smile, wondering if her senior priestess would have understood this.
"Well, that's quite a declaration." Artemis replied." You all feel that way? And am I given to understand there are many others who would if they had the chance? Hades wouldn't like that one bit, I'm sure. Can I take that under advisement for a moment?"
Hercules nodded, looked around at the others, and answered for them. "A moment or two."
The Huntress flashed out of sight in a burst of silvered light, then returned the same way almost before Ariella could draw a breath.
"Well its decided. You all declare you wish to share the same fate as Iolaus. So you shall, well, not identically the same, of course. Some of you have yet more to accomplish. Some are surprisingly far along their chosen paths. And some never cease to amaze me with their boldness. Hercules, what would you have said or done if the answer was no? Or should I
say, how did you guess it wouldn't be no?"
Hercules half smiled and patted Ariella on the shoulder. "I was pretty sure I had an inside track. My newest friend here has friends in high places, very high places. I guess if you . . . if they'd said no, I could have stormed Olympus, or Ellysia, the gods know I've done that before. And if that didn't work, well, it would have been a few months late but we would have had what Morrigan calls a wake. . . .for Iolaus, a big party celebrating him instead of mourning him."
"And now?" Artemis smiled at her half brother as brightly as the crescent moon.
"As soon as possible, we'll have a big party, celebrating Iolaus instead of mourning him." Hercules answered. "You're welcome to attend, of course."
"Hey!" a clear, somewhat weakened voice called out, getting everyone's attention. It came from a man just barely managing to sit up from the ground, wrapping himself in a horse blanket and saddle furs loaned by a certain golden mare's rider. Actually he only sat up with the help of that dark haired rider and her Amazon companion.
"I'll be glad to attend that party, brother. Farewell for now." Artemis said softly and was gone in another silvered flash of light.
"Hey! Aren't you forgetting something?" the flaxen haired man being helped to sit up called out.
"Hay is for horses, Iolaus." Jason cracked. "What do you think we're forgetting?"
"Somebody said something about a party celebrating me? I heard it, clear as . . .clear. So, just when my friends are you going to get around to inviting the guest of honor?" Iolaus demanded.
"That was only going to happen if you'd died, Iolaus." Iphicles laughed.
"Ah, well, no worries then. I'm going to live to be a hundred, right Herc?" The hunter laughed.
Hercules let go a deep breath. "At the very least, my friend." he nodded, grinning ."Or maybe I'll just ask the gods to make you immortal."
Finis? 3/4/99 3:50 am
Iolaos athanatos esti! Zei! Taynella kallinika, Kair anax Herakles! Autos te kai Iolaos aikmayta duo!