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(Note: This is a Hercules/Xena story. It takes place sometime after the Xena episode "Return of Callisto".)
THE DISCLAIMERS: LEGAL DISCLAIMER: 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.
The Choice of Heroes (Part 5, Conclusion)
By Gerald L. Tonne
"This is it," Iolaus said, as he and Gabrielle stood before a low, ramshackle building on the edge of Pheables. Three days travel had brought them from the bridge in Agave to the east side of the Crateus Bay. "With luck, we'll find a boat to take us across the bay." He shrugged, "That is, if you believe the sign."
"Deli's Olympic Emporium and Lunch Counter," Gabrielle read, "Specializing in Hardware, Apparel, Boat Excursions, Collectibles, Ferry Service, Fast Food, and Live Bait." She made a face. "Some combination..."
Gabrielle hesitated as she reached for the door. "Iolaus... It may be a bit late to mention this, but I'm not very good with boats."
"If you can think of a better way across... Don't worry, you'll be fine. The bay is protected; it won't be as rough as the open sea." Iolaus took a deep breath. "I love the salt air. This will be fun. Dozing in the sun while a gentle breeze blows us to our destination..." He grabbed the door. "Let's see what Deli has to offer."
The proprietor came to great them as soon as they entered the sprawling shop. "Welcome! Come in! I have just what you need!"
Iolaus looked, blinked, and looked again. Deli was a tall, gangly, disheveled man. A full beard and mustache partially hid his bad teeth. He looked and sounded familiar, but surely that was impossible...
"I'll bet you're hungry," Deli continued. "Today's special is sushi!"
"Sushi?" Gabrielle asked.
"Bless you," Iolaus replied.
Deli glared at Iolaus, then turned back to the young woman. "Yes, sushi. A delicacy in many parts of the world. As today's special, it's just a dinar a serving... You start with a hand made pellet of cooked rice. With that you match a lovingly cut portion of the finest fish. The two are mated with a paste made of the most exotic spices. The rice and spice highlight the raw fish's delicate flavor in a--"
"Excuse me," Gabrielle interrupted. "Did you say *raw* fish?"
"Sushi. Raw fish. Of course!"
"You get paid for serving *raw fish*?"
"Or eel. Or octopus. Look... We aren't talking about some slab of raw bullhead here. This is some of the finest fish the sea--"
"Thank you, but we've just eaten," Iolaus said firmly.
"Raw fish!" Gabrielle muttered.
"What we would like," Iolaus continued, "is to take the ferry across the bay to Treacle."
"Treacle? You don't want to go to Treacle!" Deli dismissed Treacle with a wave of his hand. "No one goes to Treacle... Boring town!" He quickly rummaged through a box. "But you will want these." He pulled out some squares of parchment. "I call them 'picture cards'. There is a painting of Treacle on one side. You can write messages to your friends on the other side, and when they receive them, they will believe you've actually been there. It will save you the trip. Five cards for a dinar!"
Iolaus ignored the cards. "That's all very nice, but we really need to go to Treacle."
Deli looked solemn. "I am justifiably proud of Deli's Ferry Service, so it saddens me to say that the ferry no longer goes to Treacle. There has been some trouble over there, and visitors are no longer welcome. They actually told us they would sink the boat if we came back... However, I do have a nice guided tour of the ancient ruins just north of town. Five dinars each."
"Ok, we can't go to Treacle." Iolaus controlled his voice with an effort. "We need to take the ferry to another town somewhere *close* to Treacle on the western side."
"Ask any citizen of Pheables and he will tell you I have the finest ferry service on the Crateus Bay. So good, in fact, that it is the only service within sixty miles. So your request is no problem... ordinarily." Deli lowered his voice. "The ferryboat had an accident last week. It... wasn't a pretty sight." Then, briskly, "Look, the fish are biting this time of year... Why don't you go fishing? I have a special on leaches!"
"Iolaus, look at this!" Gabrielle had started browsing through the shop during the discussion, and as the two men came to join her, she held up a pair of pants and a shirt. They were identical to those worn by Hercules.
"You have a keen fashion sense, young lady!" Deli exclaimed. "Those are the two main pieces from the 'Son of Zeus' collection by Armanicles of Athens." He gestured the two friends closer, then looked over his shoulder as if fearing someone would overhear. In a low voice he said, "It is a well kept secret that Armanicles designs *all* the clothes of Hercules. These garments are as good as the genuine articles... And only fifty dinars." He slapped Iolaus on the shoulder. "With an outfit like this, you could look just like Hercules' little brother!"
Gabrielle giggled; Iolaus ground his teeth.
A fellow, who had been wandering about the shop, looking a bait and hardware, approached the group. "Hello there. The name is Gormas. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I couldn't help but overhear. You really want to go to Treacle?"
"Yes! Can you help us?" Gabrielle asked.
"See, it's like this. I'm a fisherman. I take my boat out early in the morning and work my way across the bay. Then I sell the day's catch in villages on the other side. My eldest son just broke his leg, and my other boy has the flu... Well, I don't get much of a catch working by myself. If the two of you are willing to help out on the way across, I'll be happy to drop you off on the other side."
Iolaus looked at Gabrielle, then said, "Tubular! Why not?"
"Good." Gormas gave a small smile. "Meet me tomorrow morning at the docks. I leave two hours before dawn."
As Gormas left, a woman and three children entered the shop. Deli immediately went to greet them.
"Boats," Gabrielle said unhappily. "Two hours before dawn. What happened to dozing in the sun with a gentle breeze?"
"It won't be so bad," Iolaus replied. "I'm looking forward to it. Every time I'm on the water, it reminds me of my days with the Argonauts."
"I'm sure those were great times," she agreed. "Did that take place before, or just after I was born?"
Iolaus shook his head, then backed away a step. "A keen fashion sense... We'll see a lot of seaweed tomorrow. Perhaps you can make a skirt to match that top."
Iolaus fled the building.
The two heroes walked north on the coast road. They had traveled four days since getting the Hammer of the Titans, and the town of Treacle waited but a few miles ahead.
"If the farmer was right, there'll be a guard post ahead," Hercules said.
Xena replied, "Yeah... It's about time we found out what's *really* going on."
Hercules and Xena had spent the last night at a farmhouse, and along with food and shelter the young farmer had shared the local gossip. Treacle, he said, had changed in the last two months. The town had formed a militia and sealed itself off. Armed men guarded the town and the nearby hills, allowing no one in or out. There were also wild rumors of floggings, executions, and slavery for those who displeased the town's mysterious new rulers.
With Treacle so close, Xena had left Argo at the farm. And as they walked, the conversation had been light-hearted... But Xena knew Hercules. It amazed her still: He was worried about *her*.
Last night he had again asked that she let him go on alone. There had been no arguing, no raised voices. In the honest, sincere manner that was so much a part of the son of Zeus, he had stated the importance of her welfare. For Xena, it was an odd change of roles, and she now knew how Gabrielle felt. The more he cared--the fact that he *did* care--made her all the more determined to see this through. How powerful these forces of friendship, loyalty, and love! How could she have ever forgotten them?
"That would be the guard post."
In the distance Xena could see a makeshift barricade blocking the road. At least three soldiers were visible.
Hercules continued, "Let's hope they're reasonable... No need to hurt anyone if we can help it."
The soldiers watched warily as the two heroes approached, and several readied their weapons. As they reached the barricade one of the soldiers shouted, "Hey, Sarge... Come quick! I think it's him!"
An older, battle scarred soldier emerged from a nearby hut, and with two more soldiers at his back, approached the two friends. He said, "Yeah, has to be... OK, big fella, you can come on through, but you'll have to tell the bimbo to beat it."
Xena took a long stride forward. Standing face to face with the soldier, she said in a voice low and icy as winter, "Look... I'll only say this once. You're going to be a good lad and let us both in. That way no one, *especially you*, will get hurt."
From over her shoulder Hercules nodded and said in a friendly tone, "I'd... do what she says."
The soldier stared at Xena for a moment, then backed away. "My orders are to let the big guy in. They didn't say anything about stopping his... guest. Open the gate!"
Once they were out of earshot of the soldiers, Hercules looked at Xena and said, "Well, that's one way of convincing them."
"No one got hurt, did they?" she retorted. Then, more seriously, "I'm sure you noticed that several of those 'soldiers' were little more than boys... Not really soldiers at all--more like dressed up farmers or fishermen."
The two friends walked into Treacle. Unlike the lively bustle of Flarn, the streets here were empty. The few people they saw gave frightened glances at the heroes, then moved quickly away.
"I'm liking this less and less," Hercules stated as they stood at the edge of the deserted bazaar. "These people are terrified."
"Yep," Xena agreed. She gave a jerk of her head and said, "But I think we've just found someone who will talk to us."
Hercules looked. Crouched in the shadows of a doorway, an old man gestured.
"Won't be long now," Iolaus said as he guided the tiny boat toward shore. "It was sure nice of Gormas to lend us the boat, but it would have been easier if he would have just come close to shore and let us swim." He paddled with vigor. "Much as I like fishing, I wouldn't want to do it for a living... Still, it was great to be out on the water again."
Gabrielle, miserably huddled at the front of the little craft, replied, "I hate you."
"Now, Gabrielle," he chided, "it's been a glorious day. The sun, the water, the waves, the fresh air--plus honest work well done." He added encouragingly, "You did your share--handled those nets just fine for a beginner... And you only threw up twice!"
"Did I mention that I really hate you?"
"Hang on!" he said cheerfully as he jumped over the side and into the shallow water. Humming a sea shanty, Iolaus pushed the boat the last yards toward shore. Gabrielle followed. Tumbling into the waist deep surf, she staggered to the beach like a shipwrecked mariner. While Iolaus dragged the boat up the beach and into the bushes, Gabrielle flung herself face down in the sand, renewing her vow to never, ever, ever leave dry land again.
"Well, Gormas can come pick it up at his leisure," Iolaus said upon his return. He gave Gabrielle a hand up. "Treacle is just a few miles south. If we hurry, we can get down there and scout around before dark. Then we can sneak into town and check on Herc and Xena."
Gabrielle stared at him incredulously. "What?? Are you crazy??? Iolaus... I have blisters and I have rope burns. I'm sunburnt--some in places that shouldn't see the sun. But worst of all, I smell like fish. My hands smell like fish. My clothes smell like fish. Even my *hair* smells like fish--"
"Guess that means you got all the puke rinsed out, huh?" he interjected.
"Oh, that was unkind--thank you so very much." She backed a few paces away. "Even *you* smell like fish! Who would have thought fishing would be so... so fishy?
"The first thing, *the very first thing* we are going to do is find some fresh water so that I can wash my hands and my hair and my clothes and *me*!" With that, Gabrielle grabbed her staff and marched toward the bushes.
A fresh water pool was found within minutes. A few moments later Iolaus was standing on the bank, pulling off his soaked vest. "You'll like it," he called. "The water's nice and warm." He had immediately jumped in, clothes and all, and a few splashes and dunkings had satisfied the demands of cleanliness and fish removal. Gabrielle was not to be hurried, and had stepped behind some bushes. He could hear her rustling around as he wrung out his vest. "I'll go take a look around, so you can have the pool to yourself. I--"
A twig cracked behind him. Iolaus whirled about and saw a soldier, armed with a spear, standing ten feet away. Assuming a defensive crouch, Iolaus held his wet vest at the ready.
More twigs cracked, and twenty more soldiers joined the first, all with spears pointed at Iolaus. Straightening up, he pulled on the wet garment. The soldiers spread out, and their leader motioned at the bushes, then back at Iolaus.
"Gabrielle," he called in a neutral voice, "there's something out here you should see."
"What?? Look, I just took my clothes off. You men *are* all the same!"
"I really think you should put them on again."
"Ha!" her voice exploded from the bushes. "I'm not putting those nasty things on until they and I are good and clean. What's so important that--" She poked her head out from behind a bush and saw the soldiers. "Oh... Hi! Nobody move. I'll be dressed in a jiffy." She ducked back behind the bush. "Oh, yuk!"
One of the soldiers addressed their leader. "So now what? Do we take these two to the Grund?"
"Are you nuts?" the leader responded, then he spat. "We'll let Bilgateous decide what to do--it's his job. I don't want to be around the Grund any more than I have to!"
The light was starting to fade in the wooded hills a mile west of Treacle. Hercules said, "I hear something. It must be the Grund bringing out the slaves."
"Grund. Not much of a name for--how did the old fellow describe them?... Demons from a nightmare," Xena replied. She and Hercules waited in the trees a short distanced from a cave opening. According to the old man, the Grund had come two months ago. They had killed or enslaved those who opposed them, and had taken others hostage. They found collaborators whom they placed in charge of the town and with these new henchmen formed a militia to keep the villagers in and outsiders away. At the same time, they started mining in the caves close to Treacle.
There was movement at the cave mouth. "Well, there's one now," Xena murmured. "Not a bad description." The Grund was huge--over six feet tall, bulky, and powerful. His skin was maroon in color, and it looked leathery and tough. The facial features, Xena had to admit, looked demonic--cruelly distorted yet too human. The Grund was joined by a second. "This should be interesting," she added, "they look like good warriors." Each Grund worn form fitting body armor, and each was armed with a huge sword in a sheath worn on the back. At each belt was another, shorter sword and a whip. Xena saw the sparkle of gemstones on the hilts of the shorter swords.
The Grund reentered the cave, and soon the Xena could hear the clank of chains and the crack of whips. "We've got to stop this," Hercules stated. "Any ideas?"
Xena raised an eyebrow, then said, "Well, we could charge them, with both of us screaming and waving our weapons. That would let them know we're here, we're unhappy, and that their little game is over."
"Sorry," she said with a half smile, "but it's kind of fun. When you're around, I don't always have to be the grumpy one."
"Glad to oblige," he said dryly. "And you're not that far off. It's not as if we're fooling anyone. They were expecting me... I'm going to go talk to them."
A group of villagers, filthy and dressed in rags, came out of the cave. Chained together in double file, they were guarded by three Grund.
"Talk to them? You can't be serious. We've seen what they've done to this village, to these people... Hercules, diplomacy isn't always the right answer."
There was an intensity in his voice. "Xena, we will do whatever is necessary to stop this. But I must see if there is a chance of doing it with no one else getting hurt, and see if it's possible to get the Grund to leave peacefully." He reached out to touch her arm. "And there's something else. This is a setup by Hera. There's a piece missing yet; something we don't know."
Xena looked at her friend, then nodded.
"Good. I'll go out and talk to them while you--"
"Be ready?" Xena supplied.
Hercules suppressed a smile, "Something like that... See what happens, then use your best judgement."
"Alright," she agreed. "You make them commit... Then I whack 'em from behind."
"Xena, you're incorrigible."
She reached out and touched his cheek. "*You* be careful." And with that she slipped away, moving silently through the trees to get a better view of the Grund and their captives.
From her new position, Xena watched the Grund warriors herd the slaves through the clearing. To her left, she saw a wide, sturdy plank that was leaning against the ruins of a stone fence, like some oversized child's seesaw. "Give me a big enough lever..." she murmured.
Two women, chained side by side, fell to the ground. The column came to a stop; the guards shouted angrily. Shoving aside the nearby slaves, a Grund stood over the fallen women and raised his whip.
The warriors looked from the slaves to the source of the shout. They saw Hercules, standing a short distance away. "You *really* don't want to do that," the son of Zeus said.
Throwing down his whip, the Grund shouted in his low, rumbling voice, "That's the Bastard. Kill him!"
The three Grund warriors charged, and Xena watched as Hercules grabbed a solid piece of timber from a nearby pile of mine supports. "Now that's diplomacy," she said as the son of Zeus blocked one sword stroke after another with his makeshift club. She leaned against a tree. "Well, I'm ready."
To her trained eye, it was clear that the Grund were skilled and powerful fighters. Hercules blocked the sword of one warrior with his club, backhanded the second, and then leaned over to solidly kick the third in the chest. To her right, Xena saw a fourth Grund come out of the trees. Drawing his huge sword, he started running toward the unprotected back of Hercules.
"Oh no. Can't allow this." And she started to run. "Ieeeieeeieeiee," she called as she entered a series of handsprings that brought her to the warrior--crashing into him feet first as he turned toward her in surprise.
Xena landed lightly as the Grund went sprawling to the ground. "Didn't your mother teach you that it's not nice to attack people from behind?" she said as the huge warrior scrambled to his feet. Easily handling the large sword in his right hand, the Grund attacked. Xena drew her sword as well, wielding it two handed. The clash of metal filled the clearing.
The Grund forced the Warrior Princess to give ground. His sword was both longer and heavier than hers was, and he had a strength that matched his large frame. Xena slipped under his guard and aimed a kick at his groin. She heard the ringing sound of metal as her boot connected. Just as quickly, the Grund grabbed her foot and lifted up, forcing her to flip backwards through the air. Steady as a cat, she landed five feet away and said, "Metal codpiece... Good idea."
From the corner of her eye Xena saw Hercules flying through the air, only to crash into a large tree. Shaking his head, the son of Zeus scrambled to his feet and charged his foes.
Xena blocked the Grund's sword with her own, and struck him with a hard backhand blow. He barely moved, then quick as a snake struck at her in the same way. His fist caught her solidly, and Xena was flung back several yards, landing hard on her rear end. She jumped to her feet, and she heard the warrior chuckle as she wiped at the blood streaming from her nose.
A Grund warrior went sailing through the air, and with a sickening crunch collided with the same tree that Hercules had hit just moments before. Falling heavily to the ground, the Grund did not move.
Xena's foe attacked again. She parried and circled until she got under his guard, and her sword bit into his left arm. Although she had landed a solid hit, the Grund's skin was tough as leather and the wound was neither deep nor serious.
Backing away from the Warrior Princess, the Grund spoke. "So... the little harlot has a stinger. Good." He jammed the huge sword point down in the dirt, and drew the bejeweled short sword with one hand, his whip with the other. "No easy death for you... I will enjoy this; women always scream the best."
"Alright. Two can play that game." And Xena took her whip in her left hand.
The two foes eyed each other warily, and then the Grund lashed out with his whip. Xena blocked it with her sword, and the whip wrapped around the blade. Just as the warrior moved to jerk the sword from her hand, Xena threw it, point first, at his head. As the Grund dodged the missile, Xena struck with her own whip. The lash wrapped around the Grund's sword. A strong pull and the sword flew through the air and into Xena's waiting hand. The Warrior Princess twirled the sword twice, then held it up as if to admire its brilliance. She looked at the Grund and said, "Nice sword."
"AaaaagggGGGGHHH!" screamed the Grund warrior, as he snatched Xena's sword off the ground.
"Let me guess," Xena taunted. "You have a warrior code; a set of sacred traditions. This is your family's sword, handed down from one generation to the next. I'll bet it's a big disgrace to lose it to an enemy... particularly a little harlot." She twirled the sword in her hand once more and said, "Well, this is what I think of your family." And Xena threw the sword high in the air.
The glittering weapon reached the top of its arc, and tumbling end over end as it fell, it stuck point down with a thud in the center of the wide plank, which leaned over the stone fence. The warrior threw Xena's sword in disgust. With a glare of hatred, he turned and ran to retrieve his weapon.
Xena sprinted to the nearest tree and bolted up the trunk. Fast as lightning, she ran from one branch to the next, from one tree to the next, always climbing or leaping higher. As the Grund stepped on the plank to reach for his sword, Xena leaped. "Cheeeeeeeeee!" filled the air as she neatly flipped and landed on the opposite side of the plank, propelling the surprised warrior high in the air.
Hercules, with two motionless foes at his feet, looked up as the Grund started falling. The son of Zeus stepped forward two steps and stuck out his arms. The warrior crashed to the ground just out of his reach.
Walking up to her friend, Xena asked, "You alright?" As Hercules nodded, one of the huge warriors started getting to his feet. Xena casually kicked him in the head. The Grund went down and stayed down.
"Your fame must be spreading, Hercules... You're picking up new titles all the time!"
Hercules gave her a look, then wiped some blood from her face. "I'll go free those villagers."
"Good," she replied. "I'll check out our friends here." And she prodded one of the Grund with her boot.
A short time later, they were again in the clearing. Xena was taking practice swings with a huge Grund sword while Hercules said, "Those villagers are safely away... The Grund had them mining for an odd bunch of crystals, which are unique to this region. Whatever they need them for must be ready; one of the guards said yesterday that now they were just digging for 'spares'." His voice hardened, "Ten of the slaves have been taken to the main cave in the last week... None of them came back."
Xena rammed the sword point first in the ground. "I didn't learn anything," she said flatly. "The two who were still alive committed suicide the moment they regained consciousness and saw they were tied up. They have a natural little pouch in their mouths... and they hide poison there. The bodies are in the mine.
"Hercules, if this is really the beginning of an invasion, we have to stop it. These Grund warriors are tough. A squad of twenty could easily beat three, four times that number of regular soldiers. Imagine what an army of hundreds, or thousands, could do."
"I know," he replied. "All the activity seems to be in the main cave. Let's pay them a visit."
As they started walking Xena said, "Hercules... Another cave?"
"Yeah. And probably another dangerous place."
"Hurry up! We haven't got all night!" the soldier shouted. He gave Iolaus a shove, and the hero stumbled forward. "The assembly has already started."
Gabrielle and Iolaus, their hands tied behind their backs, were being marched down a Treacle street. Darkness had fallen, and the soldiers who guarded them were impatient.
"But it doesn't make any sense," Iolaus insisted. "This is your village. You men are armed. How can you just let some group of monsters move in? They are killing and enslaving your friends. You shouldn't be helping them, you should be *fighting* them!"
The lead soldier stopped the group. "Look, you," he said to Iolaus. "I told you before to shut up. Any more of this and we'll gag you again." He casually backhanded Iolaus across the mouth.
As he raised his fist to hit Iolaus again, Gabrielle interrupted brightly, "Hey, wait a minute! This Bilgateous, he's your leader, right? Well, I'm really smelly right now. I don't like it; neither will he. Why don't we stop somewhere so I can get cleaned up? You know, a girl only has one chance to make a good first impression!"
The soldier dropped his hand and looked at Gabrielle in amazement. "Gods! You really are a blond, aren't you?" He gave a nasty laugh. "Believe me, sister, how you smell won't make one bit of difference... Come on! Get moving!"
Iolaus caught his young friend's eye and mouthed, "Thank you."
They quickly reached the town square. A man in the robes of a magistrate was speaking to the villagers. There were soldiers mixed with the crowd, and bodyguards kept a sharp eye on the black robed leader. "All your patience and sacrifice was not in vain," he declared as the two friends were brought before him. "The Grund have asked a heavy price, I know. And I have had to rule with a firm hand..."
Gabrielle whispered, "*That* must be Bilgateous. Hardly the best public speaker."
"Not the most beloved leader, either," Iolaus replied, "if he needs those body guards."
"Shut up!" hissed a soldier.
"But the time of sacrifice is at an end," the magistrate continued. "The events foretold by the Grund have come to pass. Today, the son of Zeus was seen in the village. In the weeks to come, the Grund will make good on their promises, and we will know wealth and power beyond imagination. Now return to your homes, knowing that this night marks the turning point."
Gesturing to a henchman, Bilgateous said in a low tone, "Find out who let that woman in with the son of Zeus... Double the usual punishment."
"Xena!" Gabrielle whispered.
The magistrate looked at the captives. "What's this?"
"Intruders," one of the guards replied. "We caught them north of the village."
"The mine can always use fresh workers," Bilgateous replied, "but we don't have time for this. Hang 'em."
"What?" Iolaus shouted. Breaking away from his guard, Iolaus turned to the crowd. "What's the matter with you people?" he cried. "We've done nothing wrong! Have you all turned into murderers? We aren't the enemy!"
Two soldiers grabbed Iolaus, and a third punched him hard in the stomach. Gabrielle, struggling with two guards, shouted, "You have to listen!"
The two heroes were quickly subdued and gagged. "Tonight is too important," the magistrate declared. "Hang them now."
Hercules and Xena were standing in the gloom of a narrow passage. Xena whispered, "I think that's the main area ahead."
Hercules reached up to rub his forehead. "Ouch. Next time remind me not to head butt a Grund."
They moved forward, and the passage opened on to a larger chamber. Light from torches and flaming braziers let them see the many side passages that lead deeper into the hill. A single Grund warrior, his back to the two friends, was standing at the chamber's center,
"I'll get this one," Xena said, and she grabbed her chakrum. It flew from her hand, struck a boulder, then ricocheted off a stalactite high on the ceiling. As the weapon returned to her, the stalactite it had loosened silently feel, striking the Grund on the head and leaving him sprawled unconscious.
"Neat," Hercules remarked, and the pair entered the chamber.
The far end of the chamber showed signs of active construction. The cave ceiling hung low there, and pillars ran from ceiling to floor. The floor itself had been smoothed, with all of the smaller rocks cleared away. In a corner on the right was a long altar made of stone. Stains and burn marks on the altar rock showed its active use for sacrifices.
But it was a shining construct that dominated the scene. To the left of the altar stood a donut-shaped artifact of stone and metal. It was ten feet high, and its smoothed surface was studded with gemstones and crystal that seemed to shine with a light of their own. These glowing points created a diffused, eerie glow that clung to the stone ring and filled its center.
"That's the gate," Hercules said. "Let's get on with it."
The pair approached the glowing device. "Hercules, getting in here was awfully easy, don't--" Xena was interrupted by the low, rumbling shout of a Grund. Two Grund warriors, followed by a third Grund in robes, stood at the opening of a side passage. Xena noticed the Grund's robe was covered with patterns of gold stitching, and decided he must be a priest. The patterns were odd, yet strangely familiar.
"It's the Bastard of Zeus," the priest rumbled. "Kill him now!" And the warriors charged.
The heroes turned to meet the enemy. Hercules ducked one sword thrust and leaped another while Xena's sword crashed against the huge sword of her foe. Meanwhile, the Grund priest moved to a pillar a short distance away.
Blocking the sword arm of his opponent, Hercules grabbed the Grund warrior and lifted him from the ground, then threw him to the far side of the chamber. Xena shouted, "Get the gate; I'll hold 'em"
The Grund warrior pressed the attack, receiving several wounds as he forced Xena two paces to the left. After a final lunge that cost him a finger, the huge warrior abruptly stepped back. In that instant, silently but fast as a volley of arrows, iron bars sprang from the floor and zipped to the ceiling--trapping the Warrior Princess in a circle of iron like a bird in a cage. The priest closed a panel in the pillar that hid the switch. With a flash if insight Xena recognized the patterns of his robe. Stylized and distorted as they were, the patterns formed symbols of Hera.
The priest and warrior stood watching the gate. Xena whirled and saw the son of Zeus with the Hammer of the Titans raised high above his head. She screamed, "Hercules, NO!"
It was too late. The Hammer struck the glowing ring with a meaty 'thwack', and suddenly the black weapon was writhing and changing in Hercules' hands, transforming itself in the blink of an eye into a huge black serpent. Hercules squeezed tight on the neck of the beast, but the black snake oozed through his fingers. The snakehead drew back, then bit down hard on the shoulder of Hercules. He screamed.
As Xena watched in horror, the black serpent oozed and slithered into the gaping wound its bite had opened. In an instant, it was gone.
Hercules staggered, and sweat poured from his body. The Grund warrior charged. Barely dodging the sword thrust, the son of Zeus grappled with his foe. Then, with a loud grunt, Hercules landed a punch and the Grund flew back, colliding with the priest. The two hit the floor in a tangled heap as Hercules fell to his knees.
Xena struggled with the bars. "Hercules!"
Hercules regained his feet. His skin had darkened, his face and arms turning a sickly yellow shot with blue. A few steps brought him to a large rock, and his legs trembled as Hercules strained to lift the stone. His breath came in loud gasps. The son of Zeus flung the rock and the granite missile struck home. Sparks showered from the broken ring; the left side collapsed. And as the lights on its surface faded, the gate fell to the ground.
Arms outstretched, Hercules lurched forward. "Xena?" he rasped.
His sight had failed, she knew. "I'm here. Straight ahead."
Xena reached out and caught his hand as he approached. "Quick," he gasped, "help me." With her hands next to his, the two friends strained at the bars. The last strength of Hercules poured through his trembling arms and two bars bent... An inch or so each, but enough.
Hercules coughed, and blood stained his mouth. "Xena, get away... while you can." He stumbled backwards, the reeled drunkenly towards Hera's altar.
The Grund warrior and his priest had been slow to regain their senses, but the warrior was up and his sparkling short sword drawn. He had taken two strides toward the blind son of Zeus when Xena saw him. "NO!" she shouted, and her chakrum leapt from her hand. Passing between the bars, the deadly missile screamed through the air and buried itself in the neck of the Grund. His sword clattered to the floor by the altar as he fell, dead.
Coughing blood and convulsing, Hercules stumbled again, crashing into the wall by the altar. As Xena struggled to squeeze through the bars, he fell--collapsing in a heap before the altar of Hera.
"Hercules!" she cried as she ran to her friend. She found no breath, no pulse.
The Warrior Princess screamed in anguish. Half-mad, she drew her sword and whirled to face the Grund priest. But other Grund had come to the chamber. Two.. four... eight of the huge warriors had joined their leader, and they watched Xena with anticipation--their faces leering and cruel as they awaited the priest's command.
Xena snarled and panted as her sane half held her in check. She knew. The Grund were too many, too talented, and too strong. She could not defeat them all.
The priest was in no hurry, and his demonic features almost glowed as he gloated. "The Bastard of Zeus is no more; all is as Hera has said. The destruction of the apparatus is unfortunate, but it is the last time Zeus's bastard will try to thwart the Goddess. We shall build again."
His low, rumbling voice became questioning, "Warrior woman, you do not belong here... You are not part of the plan... My service to Hera must be tidy." Then, decisively, "We have many important things to do. You, warrior woman, are unimportant. Although my warriors lust for your blood, if you leave now, quietly, I will spare your life."
Xena's eyes were glacier blue flames, and she glared her hatred at the priest.
He continued, "You see, the sacrifice of the Bastard of Zeus on Hera's altar will give Her the means to power the gate and create a permanent opening between our home and here. And when we, Hera's true servants, come in our thousands, we shall change this world forever. Now stand aside; we will take what is ours."
"Over my dead body," the Warrior Princess snarled.
A Grund warrior standing in the back shouted, "Give up, Xena! Your luck has run out!" The priest glanced in annoyance as the warrior clamped a hand over his own mouth.
The words struck a chord... Luck. Luck? Luck!?! That child's lucky stone???
"Alright," said Xena, "just let me say goodbye." Moving Gaylen's lucky rock from her pouch to her left hand, Xena knelt at the side of Hercules. As she leaned forward, she slipped the stone in his mouth. A long, lingering kiss followed.
"Enough!" shouted the priest.
No pulse, no breath... no change. Xena whispered, "Goodbye, my friend... Till we meet again."
Her thoughts were clear; she was in control. It had been a foolish hope--a stupid grasping at a straw, and she should have known better. Well, so be it. The path stood before her and she would take it. When Gabrielle heard, she would understand.
"The time for good-byes is over," stated the priest. "The Bastard of Zeus is ours to offer to Hera. Her altar grows impatient."
Cold, with sword in hand, Xena rose to face the Grund. Blue eyes of death stared from the composed mask of her face. There was a wall to her left and the altar behind... As good a place as any.
"Now run away, warrior woman," the priest sneered.
"I don't think so," the Warrior Princess replied, soft and deadly. A bejeweled Grund short sword lay at her feet propped over a spent torch. She stomped down on the blade and the sparkling weapon flipped up into her left hand. "I'll leave *this* party with the fellow who brought me. You want him? You just come and get him."
The Grund priest shrugged--a gesture ludicrously human for the huge, demon-faced invader. "It matters little. There is room on Hera's altar for two."
A sign from the priest sent the massive warriors surging forward. Rage and the cloud fighting madness enveloped the Warrior Princess.
Some time later, Xena parried a thrust from two of the warriors before her. Her sword licked out, and left a crease on the armor of the one to the right. How long she had fought there--seconds, minutes, days--she could not say. Three warriors now lay dead on the floor, and a fourth had run spewing blood and screams after her sword opened him up from forehead to jaw.
She attacked, pushing them back, then landed a kick to the head of her center opponent. He rocked back, only to come at Xena again. The warriors pressed on eagerly, each one determined to be the warrior who brought her down. It was a joke, she observed dully. With their blood she had proven herself a worthy adversary, so it was now an honor to kill her.
Her left arm hung limp at her side, and fatigue pulled at her limbs. She bled from a half dozen wounds. But the body of Hercules--the man who changed her life and saved her, who saw the good she thought buried and forgotten--still lay safe behind her. When she fell, she would lie beside her friend this last time.
Xena dragged her sword to the right, barely deflecting a blow. It would happen soon.
A sword rushed at her from the left, and the Warrior Princess knew she was too slow to block or dodge. Suddenly, a long, gauntleted arm reached out... grabbing the warrior's wrist and stopping the blow mid stroke. "You *don't* want to do that!" Hercules croaked, his voice raspy and thick. Xena heard the snapping of bone as the son of Zeus bent back the warrior's arm and took the sword from his useless hand.
Hercules stepped beside her, and joining the battle said, "Mind if I help?"
Xena sneaked a glance. The skin of Hercules was old bruise purple, while his face was haggard and his breath short. His shoulder was torn open and he was covered with blood... his own plus that from Grund and Xena alike. He looked like Tartarus on a bad day.
He was the most beautiful sight she had ever seen.
"I'm doing OK, but pitch in if you want. I shouldn't have to do *all* the work."
They fought side by side. Landing a kick that crushed his opponent's armor, Hercules said, "Xena, you're a bad listener."
"No," she shot back, "you just ask for the wrong things." She knocked the sword from the hands of a Grund.
A fresh squad of warriors rushed forward.
Iolaus and Gabrielle lead the Treacle militia through the narrow passage toward the main Grund chamber. "They *must* be here," said Gabrielle, "the guard outside was down."
"We'll know soon--" Iolaus started as the chamber came into view. "This is it. Come on!"
They burst through the opening; no one opposed them. "XENA!" shrieked Gabrielle, and the young woman bolted for the chamber's far side. Then Iolaus caught sight of his two friends.
Hercules and Xena stood before a simple stone altar, arms around each other's waist... Not so much embracing, as holding each other up. The floor around them was piled high with fallen Grund. Gabrielle made a beeline for the Warrior Princess, exclaiming, "I was so worried!" as she rushed to embrace the larger woman.
Xena almost swooned from the pressure on her damaged ribs. "Easy... Gabrielle."
"Oh... You're hurt! Here, I'll help you."
As Gabrielle positioned her friend's right arm over her shoulder Xena took a good sniff and said, "Euuww... Gabrielle, where have you been?"
Iolaus carefully picked his way among the fallen. "Hercules, you two alright? The son of Zeus nodded. Iolaus watched Xena limp out under Gabrielle's care and noted Hercules' wound and unhealthy color. Grabbing a Grund short sword, he twirled it a few times, then motioned at the warriors on the floor. "Silly me... Here we thought you two might need some help."
"Look out!" shouted a militiaman. Five Grund warriors rushed into the chamber from a side passage.
"Don't worry," Hercules rasped. "We saved some for you."
"Thanks... That hit the spot," Xena said as she handed the water skin back to Iolaus.
"You're welcome... Anyway, I thought they were going to hang us. Then someone in the back shouted that they should let us talk. A few of the guards listened, and removed our gags. Let me tell you, Gabrielle and I did some fast talking." Iolaus grinned. "We convinced them that Bilgateous and the Grund were the enemy, and that they needed to take their fate in their hands, charge up the hill, and help you and Hercules.
"Look, our hunters have returned." And they watched as Hercules and Gabrielle followed a game trail through the trees and into the camp. "Looks like they got something," Iolaus added.
After setting down a bow, Hercules opened the bag attached to his belt and pulled out four ducks. Meanwhile, Gabrielle ran to fetch the good knife.
Xena, seated by the fire, shifted awkwardly. Hercules showed no ill effects from last night's battle. She made a face and looked to herself. Both legs were bandaged, her left arm was in a sling, her right hand was bruised and swollen, and she wore a heavy wrap around her ribs.
Iolaus saw her expression and leaned close. "I know how you feel," he said sympathetically. "It used to bug me, sometimes. I could be banged up for weeks, while Herc just... got better. Right away." He shrugged good-naturedly. "I would never tell him that, of course. I mean, it's just part of who he is."
Xena, with a solemn nod, whispered, "It will be our secret."
Iolaus rose. "If you don't need anything else, I want to make a quick trip into town." He glanced at Hercules and Gabrielle, who where plucking and dressing the ducks. "I'll definitely be back in time for supper... And I'll try to pick up a few wine skins," he gave Xena a wink, "for those of us who are a little *less* noble." After a quick word with Hercules, he was gone.
Wiping her hands on a cloth, Gabrielle joined her a few minutes later. "How are you doing over here?"
"Just fine," Xena replied. "I see Hercules found a bow to his liking."
"Yeah... He borrowed one from the blacksmith." Gabrielle's eyes lit with excitement. "Xena, you should have seen it! I knew that Hercules was good with a bow from the tales of his Labors, but the word 'good' is just... way bogus. Those ducks were so far away you could hardly see them, but he nailed each one, easy as you please. Now that I've seen this, I have some stories to revise!"
"And being that good is probably the reason he rarely carries weapons," Xena replied. "Speaking of ducks... Any idea when supper will be ready?"
Gabrielle lowered her voice, "I'm not sure... I hope the ducks won't be wasted. Hercules is cooking. He says he wants to make something special to thank us--" she grinned, "well, you mostly, I suppose--for helping him."
"I imagine we'll be able to choke it down somehow," Xena drawled. "Tell you what... Why don't you keep an eye on things, just so Hercules doesn't 'foul up'?"
Gabrielle winced at the pun. "Ouch... Good idea, though. I'll supervise... That way no one will be embarrassed."
As the young woman left Xena said to herself, "Way bogus?"
Sometime later, as evening approached, the four heroes sat around the fire, finishing their meal. Hercules, seated next to Xena, said, "Come on! Give me *some* credit... I didn't want you to follow me. Do you really think I would open that message pouch in front of the first person I saw, much less *ask directions*?"
"It did seem odd," Xena replied doubtfully, "but I know what Molly said." Then, turning to Gabrielle, "Hey, pass me another one of those wings. You know, I can't remember ever having a better supervised duck."
Iolaus chuckled. Gabrielle replied, "Alright, alright! I didn't know, OK?" To Hercules she said, "The duck was wonderful, but please be careful... I have to do enough for her the way it is. We don't want Xena getting spoiled, now, do we?"
She changed the subject before Xena could answer. "But it *is* odd. For all the showmanship, Filbert sent Iolaus and me in the right direction. And what about that stone you gave Hercules?"
"I think we were guided all the way along," Xena said. "Not only with the stone, which must have been some type of ambrosia, but with the prompt in the cave that made me remember it. In retrospect, even the old traveler who got me involved seems suspicious."
"It was my father," Hercules said flatly.
"Zeus!?!" Gabrielle yelped.
Iolaus added, "So he was taking care of you... That's a switch."
Hercules shook his head. "I doubt my welfare was a concern. If Hera had succeeded... A Grund invasion would have been devastating--and almost impossible to stop. It very well could have changed the world. Remember, they were worshippers of Hera. The changes here would have been felt on Olympus, threatening the gods' hierarchy. Zeus couldn't allow that."
He paused, then said, "Hera hadn't counted on Xena." Gently, Hercules took Xena's injured hand and held it in his own. "Without you, Hera would have won. Thank you."
Gabrielle turned to Iolaus. "Saving the world *and* the position of Zeus. Boy, will this make a *tubular* story!"
"Tubular," Xena repeated. She looked at Hercules. "Tubular?"
Hercules sighed. "It's like a disease. Iolaus--"
"Hey, don't look at me. It's not my fault," Iolaus interrupted. "If you want to blame someone, blame Aphrodite; I picked it up from her... She's *your* sister!"
Later, as Iolaus and Gabrielle were cleaning up, Iolaus said, "About this story. I'm sure it will be great and all, but... Could you play up our part a little bit?"
The four heroes had stopped at a hill overlooking Trice. By an unspoken consensus, the trip from Treacle had been leisurely, with many stops and side trips. Xena had quickly healed, and her wounds were now but a memory. But the time had come to part, and they had paired off to say their good-byes. Gabrielle and Iolaus stood in the shade of a large tree.
"I've been dreading this day," Iolaus said unhappily. "It's hard to say when I'll see you again, and... well... we probably shouldn't have--"
"Iolaus, be quiet." Gabrielle stood before him and grabbed his arms. "I am a grown woman; I have been married. We did what we did because I wanted to. There's no reason to feel guilty.
"I know your place is out adventuring, just as mine is with Xena. And I know there'll be lots of pretty girls for you to romance, and show your 'old hunters' tricks'. We can swap stories next time we meet." Her eyes shone exceptionally bright from the single tear that formed in each.
Fiercely hugging her friend, Gabrielle said, "But promise me one thing... Don't you *ever* forget me!"
Iolaus, his arms around the young woman, whispered, "Impossible."
Some distance away, Hercules and Xena stood on the hill's highest ground. A steady breeze blew Xena's long black hair as they silently looked out over the rolling countryside. Finally, Hercules said, "Saying goodbye is never..." And his voice trailed off as his eyes met Xena's.
"Well, Hercules, we can stand here looking heroic and tragic... Or you can kiss me."
Hercules took her hands in his. "I know better than to ask you to be careful. Just be safe."
"And you," she replied. Then, touching his face, "Until the next time... And there *will* be a next time."