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The Choice of Heroes (Part 4)
by Gerald L. Tonne
(Note: This is a Hercules/Xena story. It takes place sometime after the Xena episode "Return of Callisto".)
Hercules, Iolaus, Salmoneus, Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures.
No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction.
This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story. The level of violence in this story is comparable to episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.
SEXUAL SITUATION WARNING/DISCLAIMER:
This story includes sexual situations. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story. The sexual situations in this story are comparable to episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.
Xena threw more wood on the fire, sat down, and stretched before its comfortable warmth. They had traveled a long distance again today, and she was glad to sit on something other than a saddle. A few feet away, Hercules lay staring up at the sky. He had cooked this evening, creating a meal from wild fruit and herbs, mushrooms, and two rabbits snared by Xena. The food preparation had been swift, simple, yet surprisingly good.
"You're quiet this evening," Xena said.
Hercules rolled over on his side to look at her. "I think we've left the talkers behind this trip."
"I guess you're right." She shifted position gingerly. "Ah... I don't spend as much time in the saddle as I used to; it will take a few days to get the kinks out... The rabbit was good, by the way. You'll have to show Gabrielle the trick with that fruit. Who would have guessed that the great Hercules can cook?"
"I've had a lot of practice. I learned early on that Iolaus will eat anything. As a consequence his cooking is..." he considered a moment, "haphazard. Now my mother, *she* can cook. And Deianeira's roast venison was out of this world."
"Funny, it seems everyone's mother can cook. Mine certainly can..." She shook her head wistfully, "I don't go home often enough; it seems there's never the time." She paused, then said, "Hercules, can I ask you something? You needn't answer if you don't want to." With his nod she continued, "Do you ever get tired of it?"
"What? I don't understand."
"Not actually tired of helping people," she explained, "but... of it all. The travelling, the fighting, the danger... trying to help very stubborn people do the right thing, all the problems that never seem to have a good answer... and always, no matter what one does, it seems it's never enough."
Hercules sat up. "Well, it doesn't seem to let up. I guess I don't think about it that often."
Xena continued, "I mean, I've gained a certain amount of notoriety over the years, but you... Everyone knows Hercules, and they all look to you for help. You settle disputes of the gods, save kittens, and everything in between." She shook her head. "Don't take this the wrong way. I wouldn't trade a single hour of my new life for all my past triumphs rolled into one. Helping people is good, and it is good for me. But sometimes... The world is an awfully needy place."
"And the world is lucky to have a person like Xena to help set things right," he replied. "But you're right. It gets tiring... and lonely, sometimes. I lost my home when Deianeira and the kids died... And now that Mother lives with Jason, well, it's their home, not mine. But I've been given a very special gift, and it would be wrong to ignore it, or use it for my own benefit. So I travel, and try and help people when I can."
"I guess I haven't been able to make a home, either. There was always another village to conquer, another warlord to put down, or another enemy to fight. And now, although Mother still lives there, there is nothing for me in Amphipolis. I'm lucky though... With Gabrielle along, it's like taking a piece of home with me." Xena hesitated, "I know I have a long way yet to go. But after so many years, you should have earned the occasional respite."
Hercules smiled. "If I could find a few more like you, I could retire completely."
"Not what I meant. The world will always need Hercules."
Xena had moved closer during their talk. So close that Hercules had little choice but to put his arms around her. He cleared his throat and said, "Xena, I--"
"There's no need to say anything," she interrupted. "I know." She snuggled closer.
"Ah... This probably isn't--"
"Hercules, shut up and kiss me."
"I... guess I can do that." So he did.
An hour later Xena was tending the fire as Hercules slept. She had swept aside his hesitation and they had made love. While this may not be the right choice, it certainly was not a wrong one. But the sleep he always found so easily had eluded her, so she was staring at the flames.
Times like these still made her marvel at her new life. Through her decade as the Warrior Princess the qualities of friendship, trust, and love had grown foreign, to be viewed only as weakness. Weakness she could exploit. And sex had been just another of her weapons, used to ensure loyalty, or as a bargaining chip, or for the fleeting diversion it brought. But no longer.
The Warrior Princess was a part of her, and always would be. But the long, numb years when ambition, talent, plus a stubborn adherence to a strict warrior code were all that separated her from a common marauder--those years and that life, along with the ruthless lust for battle and conquest, could all be buried. She could do it as long as she could see the good in the world. It was there to see, when she remembered to look. It was in Gabrielle's friendship, her unshakable trust, and the young woman's fierce belief in her. And of course, it was in Hercules.
She glanced at her sleeping friend. A set of contradictions, this man whom even Ares hated and feared. Had he been a swaggering bully, he would still be lauded for his mighty deeds. Had he been a vulgar lout with a woman in every village, his council would still be sought by kings. But here he was: kind, modest, shy, and yet so easily and unknowingly noble it was almost frightening. Much like Gabrielle, he always saw the good... He had seen it in her--sparing her life when thousands of others would have gladly given their own for the chance to kill her. And much more than just sparing her life, he had helped her start a new one. A life where friendship with Gabrielle, reconciliation with her mother, and her discovered love for Marcus were all possible.
She had not exaggerated. The name of Hercules brought hope to the downtrodden everywhere, much as it brought unease to those who would enslave and oppress. He was a symbol of hope to all--even to her. In a world where Hercules could persevere against the might and anger of the gods, a Xena could atone for her past and give help to those in need.
The smile she shared with the flames was both tender and bittersweet. They would never be together. She could feel destiny pulling her just as surely as it must pull Hercules. Their chances to walk together would be few. And some day, when he was ready, some courageous, giving, and beautiful young woman would steal his heart, and provide the home and family he so desperately craved. She might be someone like his beloved Deianeira--or even someone like Xena of Amphipolis, had the Warrior Princess never been.
But there was a link between them and there always would be. She could feel it so strongly, as if it had always existed. Perhaps it always had.
Had her army's success continued, a confrontation with Hercules would have been inevitable... But it had been in her power to set the time. And it was impossible to say what would have occurred had her standing with the army not been damaged by her failure to kill him. While her plan had seemed sound at the time, it was she who had provoked his intervention. Perhaps her soul, sickened at last by the fighting, death, and misery her army spread, had sent out to him... To help end that life one way or the other. In any case, he had captured her friendship, her loyalty, and a piece of her heart, repaying in kind with his own. No matter where their paths would lead, she would always be there for him.
Xena threw another stick on the fire and muttered, "If I keep this up, people will start calling *me* the 'Warrior Philosopher'."
Life in this world was uncertain; doubly so for those such as Hercules and herself. She looked again at his sleeping form. He could afford to lose a little sleep. Waking him with a kiss, she lay beside him. No matter the outcome, this would be a good trip.
* * * * *
"...so I left. Much as I wanted to stay with her, I'm not a king, and I could never pretend." Iolaus ended the story with a shrug, and in his eyes Gabrielle could see echoes of the pain that decision had cost.
"Well, we better get busy. I think it's my turn to wash the dishes." With a courtly bow he continued, "Give my regards to the horses." And Iolaus started collecting the dirty pots and cutlery, stuffing them in a large bag.
"Indeed I shall," she replied. As her friend swung the sack over his shoulder she asked, "I heard that Hercules was shipwrecked recently. Would you tell me about it later?"
Iolaus' face spit in a wide grin. "Oh, yeah! Interesting story." Turning, he started toward the creek. Calling over his shoulder, he added, "Big sand monsters... *Really* big sand monsters!"
Gabrielle rose and went to the supply wagon. Salmoneus had found a small caravan heading west, and arranged with the merchant owner for them to ride along. They were paying their passage with the promise to help defend the caravan from bandits, plus helping with the day to day work. This included tending the horses, preparing the meals for the guards and drivers, and any other odd jobs the shrewd but honest merchant, named Plobitis, could devise.
As she measured out the horses' grain ration, Gabrielle reviewed the story she had just heard, filing it away in her mind with the many other tales she carried there. The irony of it made her smile. They had left Thelopus three days ago, and at every idle moment it was she who pestered Iolaus for stories--both for tales of Hercules, and his personal adventures.
Part of it was professional, bardic interest, of course. While stories of Xena were always well received--and to Gabrielle seemed the most interesting in a dramatic sense--it was the tales of Hercules that proved most popular. The handsome son of Zeus had touched so many lives over the years; he was looked upon as the people's champion. Tales of his exploits were always demanded at an inn or around the campfire. Gabrielle's friendship with the principals let her give the stories a warmth and insight no other bard could match.
But it was more than her interest as a bard that kept them close, and with the thought she felt a fresh pang of guilt. The death of her husband, Perdicus, was still recent. She missed him terribly, and knew she always would. Somehow it seemed wrong that she could feel so warm and comfortable in the company of someone else. Still, though she did not understand it, the attraction was there. If not for the pressing need to find Xena and Hercules, it would be easy to slip into the pleasant routine of each day and just enjoy the ride.
Iolaus' vigor, sense of wonder, and mercurial personality gave him an ageless quality that lulled her again and again into forgetting he was almost twenty years her senior. His age armed her with the perfect tease, which he suffered with resigned good nature. It always started the same: Iolaus would mention some incident from the past, and she would innocently respond with, "So that happened when I was... oh... about three?" He would either grit his teeth and continue, or look heavenward as if to ask, "Why me?"
Perhaps it was his lust to live life, to accept and enjoy both the good times and bad, that drew her to him. He faced each day with joy. Unlike Xena and Hercules, destiny had left him unburdened.
Gabrielle finished her chores and waited at the supply wagon. Iolaus, returning from the creek, gave her a smile and a wave--and then she knew. Xena was right about her; she *did* overanalyze. The answer was simple. Iolaus made her feel good. And perhaps, for the moment, that was enough.
* * * * *
Two days later Iolaus and Gabrielle stood on the crest of a hill overlooking a wooded valley, which marked the border to the Kingdom of Agave. The caravan was turning north, and Plobitis spoke earnestly to the two friends. "You're making a mistake, I tell you. Agave has been at war with its southern neighbor for years. Martial law is in force everywhere. The curfews are strict, and conscription is universal. You'll never get through."
Iolaus shook his head. "We haven't time to go around. Don't worry, we'll make it... Thanks for the ride."
"Well, I guess you'll do what you have to do," Plobitis said with a shrug. "If either of you ever need a job, come see me." He shook hands with them both, then to Gabrielle said, "We'll miss you around the camp fire. They were wonderful stories. Well told and wonderful." With that he returned to the lead wagon, and the caravan started north.
The heavy woods made it easy for the pair to elude the Agave border patrols, but the countryside soon became more open and settled. Several hours later they were hidden in a stand of bushes on the outskirts of a town.
"Look, we can't go on without information. I'm going into town and check things out," Gabrielle said, clearly exasperated.
"You can't go alone," Iolaus retorted stubbornly, "it could be dangerous."
"Iolaus, I can take care of myself!"
Her friend sat silently for a moment, then gave a rueful grin. "Of course you can. I still forget, sometimes. Sorry... But *be careful*."
Gabrielle gave him a quick hug, then slipped away. Two hours later he was still there, patiently waiting, when she returned.
Glancing at the bundle she now carried, Iolaus said, "I didn't hear any commotion, so I figured you were all right. What did you find out?"
"Plobitis was right; it's not good." Gabrielle sat beside him with a frown. "There's a kingdom-wide dusk till dawn curfew, and there are soldiers everywhere. The only way we can get to the western border is to follow the main road. And get this... Every able-bodied male over fifteen is required to join the army. *Every* male. They're so desperate for men that they don't care if you're a citizen or not. Iolaus, if they catch us you'll be given one chance to join up. Refusal is punishable by death."
"However," she continued, "I did manage to get this..." And Gabrielle unrolled the bundle.
"No... You've got to be kidding!" Iolaus remarked sourly. The bundle contained a large, bulky cloak, a woman's shawl, and a blond wig.
"You have a better idea?... I didn't think so. Come on, let's give it a try," she encouraged. "The clothing and wig should suit you; I think you're a 'summer'."
Some time later, in his disguise, Iolaus looked at his reflection in a pool. "This is never going to work. Anyone looking closely will see I'm not a woman," he complained. "Of course, given the way I look, no one will *want* to look too closely... Yuk!"
Gabrielle walked up and looked him over. "Not bad... I do good work." She moved beside him. "You know, we should probably give you some practice, just in case." And she reached around and pinched his rear.
"Hey!" he yelped. Then, in a higher register said, "I mean... Hey, watch it! And don't handle the merchandise unless you can back it up, sailor!"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "If we meet anyone, *I'll* do the talking!"
Iolaus sighed. "I guess this is as good as it gets. There are a few hours of light left; we may as well get going. Tide and time wait for no..." he paused to spit strands of long blond hair out of his mouth, "...person."
* * * * *
Xena stepped out the tavern door and back into the bright morning sunlight. Flarn was a typical coastal town: there were docks, fishermen, sailors, and the increased activity that was part of a minor trade center. The last six days had passed without incident, and Xena and Hercules had reached the town two hours after dawn. They had split up to seek information on Giants Cave--agreeing to meet here at The Sea Lizard, a tavern at the edge of the bazaar which adjoined the docks.
As it turned out, information on Giants Cave was easy to come by. The area and its dangers were well fixed in local lore--everyone knew where it was because no one ever went there--all having a firm knowledge of which place to avoid. After talking to a handful of people, Xena had a good idea of where to go and what to look for. The directions had been easy to find, so it was a surprise that Hercules had not yet returned.
Her attention was drawn by the delighted shouts of children. She found the source on a grassy area on the far side of the tavern. Hercules was playing with a group of little ones--at some incomprehensible game who's sole rule was to run wildly for a few moments, then collapse into a large, laughing pile. From the shelter of some trees at the edge of the field, Xena watched, her expression sad and vulnerable.
Too soon it was time for heroes to do what they must, and Xena gave her lopsided smile as she watched Hercules swipe at the grass stains on his pants. Boys, men, and demigods... All the same.
As she walked toward the group at play, Xena noticed two young women standing under a merchant's awning on the field's opposite side. They were watching Hercules, and although they did not know who he was, it was obvious they liked what they saw. Xena recognized the look--women sizing up prime husband material. Indulgently, she murmured to herself, "Sorry girls, not today... He's busy." Then, to Hercules and the children she added, "Sorry kids, but it's time to go."
Hercules sent the little ones on their way with a wave and a smile, and soon he and Xena were out of town and heading west. Xena turned to her friend and said, "I couldn't help noticing; Autolycus was right... You *can* have any woman you want."
Looking embarrassed, he responded, "I wouldn't consider Autolycus a particularly reliable source."
"Anyway, it was nice to see you playing with the children. It's a reminder that there's good worth fighting for..." The tone of her voice became controlled and neutral. "Which reminds me... When you were young, you spent a lot of time with the Centaurs, didn't you."
Hercules looked at her, surprised by the change in topic and tone. "Yeah... With Ceridian. He was my mentor. Not just me... He taught a lot of people--Jason being one. Why?"
"No reason. Years ago, I fought a number of battles with the Centaurs. In the last year, I've finally managed to make amends--and some friends--with them. They're a noble people."
His expression softened with the memory. "Ceridian has passed on now. I didn't want to let him go, but that's the way of things. He was the wisest, finest person I ever knew. He taught me everything I know, and helped me grow up to become the person I am. In many ways, he was a father to me." His voice hardened, "Zeus was far to busy for anything like that..."
He continued, "You're right, there is something noble in the Centaurs... I didn't have a normal childhood, but it wasn't a bad one. I'll never forget Ceridian, or what he taught me."
In a soft voice she replied, "That's good to know..." Then quickly, "I mean, it's good you turned out alright."
Hercules turned to her as if to question further. The silent plea in her eyes made him stop. Instead, he said, "Yeah... I suppose I did."
They continued in silence.
* * * * *
Gabrielle and Iolaus walked briskly down the road. Luck was with them since Iolaus assumed his disguise. Both yesterday and today the many road patrols had paid them little heed. Last night, they had been given shelter in a barn by a kind old farmer and his two granddaughters. Iolaus was sure that none were fooled by his disguise, but they had said nothing--sharing their bread, cheese, and milk with the two travelers and asking that they resume their journey at first light.
Iolaus adjust the tattered backpack, a gift from the old farmer, that he now wore. The pack carried simple provisions of dried meat, cheese, and two long, thin loaves of bread that stuck out the top. "We should be reaching the river any time now," he said. "Are you sure you have the story straight?"
"Iolaus, if there is any one thing I can do, it's tell a good story. Relax. If the border guards are as careless as the road patrols, we'll be over the bridge and into Margarat in no time."
The top of the next hill brought the bridge into view. Agave was separated from its western neighbor, Margarat, by the Tequill river. The river ran swiftly through a deep gorge, and only a few bridges connected the two small kingdoms.
"This doesn't look good," Iolaus muttered. There were fortifications on the Agave side, with a guard post and large gate blocking off the bridge. Barracks stood one hundred yards away.
"Well, it's too late to turn around," Gabrielle replied, "they've seen us."
Five soldiers were manning the fortifications at the gate, and one of them descended the stone stairs as the pair approached. "Where are you bound, Citizens?" he called out.
They stopped twenty feet from the soldier, letting it appear that they were staying out of the gate's path. Gabrielle replied, "We need to go to Limsalt, in Margarat."
"Well, ladies," the soldier said as he walked toward them. "I shouldn't let you through without the proper papers. But if the reason--or inducement--is good enough, I just might be persuaded."
Gabrielle took a deep breath, stuck her chest out as far as she could, and tried a voice that sounded coaxing and sexy. "Oh, you just *have* to! I've just gotten word that my father has been injured. My aunt and I need to go help Mother on the farm. She'll *never* manage by herself!"
The soldier gave Iolaus a sharp glance as he stopped before Gabrielle. "I'm sorry to hear that. It sounds like an emergency... You know, I can't help but notice that you have a slight accent. Lived in Agave for long?" And he gestured with his hand. The four soldiers on the fortifications started down the stairs.
Gabrielle gave a big smile and shook her head, "Oh, no. Only for a year. We used to live in Trice."
Clasping his hands behind his back, the soldier leaned back on his heels with a smile. "That's certainly long enough to know the laws. For example, I'm sure you know that the penalty for woman helping a male avoid the draft is a two year sentence as an army comfort woman." He shook his head. "They say the ones that live through it are never quite the same..." He walked around Gabrielle and up to Iolaus. "Of course," he sneered, "you won't need to worry about *that*!"
The four soldiers had reached the ground and were hurrying toward the group. In a high pitched voice Iolaus said, "Aw, nuts!" Reaching to the backpack, he grabbed a loaf of bread in each hand and smacked the soldier above each ear with a loaf. There was a muffled 'thud' as the bread connected, and the dumfounded soldier collapsed to the ground. Shouting, "Come on!" Iolaus charged into the approaching soldiers.
Wielding the bread loaves, Iolaus battered first one, then a second of the soldiers into unconsciousness. Gabrielle's staff dropped another, and a flying kick from Iolaus finished the last. Iolaus shook away the tattered remnants of bread, and held up the two short wooden staves the loaves had hidden. "Jo sticks! Don't leave home without them!" The two heroes ran to the gate.
Iolaus began stripping off his disguise. He said, "Aunt? Who said anything about an aunt? What happened to 'sister'?"
"Well, I wanted to be convincing," Gabrielle explained. "And you *are* a lot old--more experienced."
Iolaus looked heavenward with a sigh.
Pulling off the blond wig he said, "No offense, Gabrielle, but if you want to do the 'chesty and sexy' thing, you really need to wear something besides that bile green top."
She glanced down at her clothes. "I know... It *is* awful, isn't it? Although *most* people are too polite to say anything..." She shook her head. "I don't know what happened; it looked fine in the store. But now, every time I put it on, it's 'What in the name of Hades was I thinking???'."
Together, they pushed open the gate. "It's an old hunter's trick, you know, hiding your weapon like that," Iolaus remarked.
The gate was open; the bridge to Margarat stood before them. Suddenly, Gabrielle said, "No it isn't!"
"I said, 'No it isn't'. Hiding clubs in bread loaves is *not* an old hunter's trick!"
Iolaus began to chuckle. "You're right... I just say that once in a while--to see if anyone is paying attention."
The two heroes heard a shout. A large group of soldiers were pouring out of the barracks and running toward the gate.
Iolaus turned to his friend. "Gabrielle, I know another old hunter's trick..."
"I believe I know that one as well," she replied.
"Run!" they said in unison. And the pair fled over the bridge.
* * * * *
The sun stood high in the sky when Xena spotted Giants Cave. The land surrounding the two heroes was hilly and barren, and they had seen the last evidence of people several hours before. After attending to Argo, they started up the steep grade that led to the cave.
"This has to be it. All the landmarks are here," Xena said absently as she followed Hercules up the boulder-strewn hillside. "I've always wondered, though... How come these enchanted weapons are always hidden in caves?"
She saw his broad shoulders shrug. "I don't know. Perhaps because it's always some dangerous place, and sensible people will stay away."
"Hercules, *we're* going into this cave."
He glanced back at his friend. "Yeah... Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
Steady climbing soon brought them to the cave entrance. While Xena lit a torch, Hercules walked a few paces ahead and peered in. The cave interior was black and forbidding. "It sure is dark in there," he remarked.
Xena came up behind him and offered the torch. "Here. We have light."
"Ladies first?" Hercules responded hopefully, as he stepped to one side.
"Oh, no. Wouldn't dream of it," Xena replied as she firmly handed him the torch. "Besides, sons of Zeus rate higher on the list than Warrior Princesses."
As Hercules cautiously led the way he muttered, "Just who makes these lists?"
The pair traveled deep into the hill and down. There were several tight fits, and once they needed ropes to descend a vertical drop. As they stopped to rest in a small chamber Xena asked, "Are you sure this is the right cave? I like small underground spaces as much as the next person, but when you've seen one rock..."
Hercules looked from Xena to the darkness ahead. "This is it. Can't you feel it?"
Wiping the sweat from her face, Xena sat quietly for a moment, then suddenly shivered. "Oh, yeah. Cold, old, and not that far away... Nasty."
"And no doubt where we need to go," Hercules added. "Well, we've come this far. We haven't even had a--" He stopped abruptly.
"What? Oh, you were going to say 'cave in'." In the torchlight Xena saw her friend wince. "Come on... I know we've been through a few, but just talking about it won't--" She was interrupted by the low, distant rumble of shifting rock, which slowly faded back to silence. The two heroes stared at each other, then Xena said, "So... How's your mom, and Jason?"
They had traveled several hundred yards farther when they spotted a dim light ahead. Continuing forward, they found the cave opened upon a mammoth cavern, which was lit by a diffused glow. The cavern floor was littered with boulders, and seated on a large rock at the cavern's center was a huge stone statue.
"Well, it's not a Titan, but it's big enough," Hercules said as they looked at the humanoid shape. "It must be five feet from foot to knee. And I suppose *that* would be the Titan's Hammer." Balanced across both of the statue's thighs was a huge war hammer.
"I've got a real bad feeling about this," Xena said flatly.
"Let's... be optimistic," Hercules replied as the pair moved cautiously into the cavern. "I'll come up from one side and grab the hammer while you," he looked at Xena and shrugged, "be ready."
The two heroes separated and Xena made a wide arc so they could approach from opposite sides. Like lifeless stone, the statue sat. As he moved closer, Hercules studied the Hammer of the Titans. A total length of twelve feet, both the head and the shaft were made of the same flat black substance.
Xena was in position on the left. On the right, Hercules took a deep breath and stepped within arm's reach of the statue. Quick and quiet as a cat, the statue stood to its full twenty-foot height. It grabbed the hammer with its left hand and effortlessly slashed the weapon down at Xena, smashing the ground where she had been the instant before. Her echoing cry rang through the cavern as she ended her leap behind the stone monster.
Sparks flew as Hercules punched the figure in the kneecap. The blow, meant to disable, caused no damage. Ignoring Xena, the monster swung a backhanded blow that hit Hercules and sent him flying. His flight ended abruptly as he smashed into a large boulder.
Xena, sword in hand, had scored several ineffective slashes on the monster's hamstring. As it turned, she sheathed her sword and ducked around the other way, then entered a long run of handsprings that brought her to Hercules. Helping the groggy son of Zeus to his feet, she said, "Quick. Back to the cave. The smaller space will slow it down."
The stone figure lost interest in the two heroes once they reentered the tunnel. It returned to its central boulder. Hammer clutched in both hands, it froze in a watchful position facing the cave opening.
Hercules sat heavily on a stone a few feet from the opening to the cavern. "So much for the 'Walk Up and Grab the Hammer' plan," Xena quipped as she watched the monster return to the cavern's center. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah." Hercules painfully turned his head from side to side, as if testing its proper attachment. "Don't... let it hit you."
"No argument there."
While Hercules gingerly examined a gash on his left shoulder, Xena drew her sword. After inspecting the dulled and chipped blade, she slammed the weapon back in its sheath. "My sword isn't going to do us any good... You need some help with that shoulder?"
Hercules rose and joined his friend at the cave opening. "No, I can take care of it later. Our problem is out there." Staring at the motionless monster he said, "You know, this could set spelunking back twenty years."
"Hercules, I noticed a deep pit at the back of the cavern..."
The son of Zeus thought for a moment, then smiled. "Xena, that's a wonderful idea."
A few minutes later the pair again entered the cavern. The stone monster immediately stood and continued to face them, as if watching, as they darted to a spot thick with boulders.
"I'll make you a deal, Hercules," Xena said as the son of Zeus picked up a two foot in diameter stone.
"After this is over, *I'll* take the all the evil warlords, and *you* can have all the monsters."
"Xena," he replied with strain in his voice from the weight of the stone, "you're generous to a fault." And Hercules hurled the stone with all his might at the figure, which stood fifty feet distant.
The stone smashed to dust as it struck the monster in the chest. The strength of the blow drove it back a pace, over balancing the figure and causing it to sit clumsily back on its boulder. Several seconds later it stood again, and started striding toward the two heroes.
Hercules muttered, "Come on... That had to hurt a little!"
"So much for the 'Brute Force' plan," Xena added.
Hercules looked at her with a grin. "Hope springs eternal... And I got his attention. Ready?" Xena gave a quick nod and sprinted to her right, moving from the shelter of one boulder to the next as she made her way behind the monster. Meanwhile, Hercules kept the giant figure's attention by throwing more rocks.
As Xena reached the pit, she heard the crashing of stone behind her. The monster was chasing Hercules about the far part of the cavern, and was smashing boulders in its attempt to hit the son of Zeus. Ignoring the noise, Xena studied the pit before her. It was forty feet across, and Xena quickly selected a sturdy looking stalagmite that stood near the edge on the other side. Taking the rope she carried, Xena lassoed the stalagmite, stretched the rope taut, then tied it securely on her side. After checking her whip, she jumped up on the rope and walked out over the center of the pit.
Standing on the tightly stretched rope, Xena turned in time to see Hercules desperately duck behind a boulder. She shouted, "I'm ready, Hercules. You can stop fooling around!"
The huge figure smashed the boulder to rubble with the Hammer of the Titans. Hercules dove away from the flying rock, and after a roll on the cavern floor, regained his feet and ran toward another boulder. His reply to Xena was short, sharp, and not quite discernable.
Ducking behind this new boulder, Hercules gave the rock a mighty shove, rolling it toward the monster in an attempt to slow its latest charge. As the monster stopped the rolling stone and pushed it aside, the son of Zeus made a huge and ungainly leap, which carried him back to the tunnel opening. Xena watched her friend land heavily. Grabbing her chakrum, she threw. The weapon bounced off a boulder, struck the stone monster in the back, ricocheted off a stalactite, then returned to her hand.
The monster paused. Xena threw the chakrum again and murmured, "Come on. I'm over here. I'm real interesting..." Turning slowly, the monster, with the Hammer of the Titans still in hand, started toward her.
Hercules scrambled to his feet. Once the figure turned, he followed. Xena threw the chakrum a third time, and the monster almost deflected it as it bounced off its chest. She waited on the rope as the figure loomed ever closer. Reaching the pit's edge, it raised the Hammer of the Titans and took a vicious swing at the Warrior Princess.
The Hammer missed Xena by less than an inch as she leaped backwards at the last instant. Her war cry ringing through the cavern, she arced through the air in a graceful somersault, landing on the pit's far edge with the whip ready in her hand. As the monster started to straighten from the missed swing, Hercules grabbed one of its ankles and lifted with all his strength. The stone monster flailed its arms as it tried to regain its balance, sending the Titan's Hammer flying up in the air. One last, tremendous shove sent the monster tumbling into the pit. Xena lashed out with the whip, wrapping its snake like tip around the Hammer's handle. A sharp tug on the whip brought the Hammer of the Titans to a safe landing at Xena's feet.
Falling seventy feet, the monster hit the bottom of the pit with a crash. As the two heroes watched, it slowly regained its feet and began an endless circling of the pit. "Must be looking for a way out," Xena remarked.
Hercules, who was making his way around the edge of the pit, replied, "I guess it's fallen... And it can't get up."
Xena prodded the twelve foot long Hammer of the Titans with the toe of her boot as Hercules approached. The black, uniform material from which it was made was slightly springy, but she had seen its devastating effect on the boulders. "You're going to look awfully conspicuous carrying this around. It come with any instructions?... Or warnings?"
"Nope." Hercules squatted by the Hammer, and after studying it for a moment, reached out and grabbed the handle. The black weapon writhed in his hand, reconfiguring itself into a proportional hammer four and one half feet long.
"That's handy. Task one complete," Xena offered. And her attention shifted from the Hammer to the son of Zeus.
"I can work up some type of sling and carry it on my back, much as you do your sword." Looking up, he saw Xena's smirk. Hercules was covered from head to foot with dust from the cavern floor and shattered boulders. In several places sweat or the blood from his shoulder had caked to mud. He stood, and shaking his head slightly, asked, "Stop... fooling around?"
Xena reached out and swiped at his jersey, sending a cloud of dust into the air. Hercules coughed once, then continued, "And next time... *jump sooner*."
Xena ignored his last statement. "If Iolaus were here, *he* would say--"
"Xena..." Hercules warned.
"*He* would say, 'Hercules, you're a really dirty guy!'." She continued quickly, "But he's *not* here, so no one will say that... I saw a pool of water back there. Let's get that wound, and the rest of you, cleaned up."
A short while later, Xena stepped back from the clean and freshly bandaged Hercules. She said, "That should hold. Of course, that gash will be healed by tomorrow, won't it?"
To her surprise, Hercules looked slightly embarrassed. "Yeah, pretty much... It irritates Iolaus to no end."
"We can swap stories. There are times when Gabrielle gets..." she thought a moment, "vexed with me, as well." She gave him a hand up. "Now, you suppose there's a quicker way out of here?"
To Be Continued.