Hatching A Plan

by Rhiannon

Iolaus swung his pack from his shoulder and flopped down on the grassy slope. Above him, the steep crags of the mountain loomed large, the distant summit shrouded in cloud. Below, the village of Pythera had receded to a mere speck in the distance. They had emerged from the dense forest into clearer country of grassy slopes, dotted with rocky outcrops and isolated patches of pine trees. Up here out of the shade of the trees it was hot - very hot.

The hunter pulled a water skin out of the pack and gulped down a few mouthfuls. "Remind me again why we agreed to do this?" he asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and passed the waterskin to his companion.

Hercules sat down beside his friend and grinned. "Because the villagers asked us for our help."

"Yeah, I know, but why did we say 'yes'?"

"Because that's what we do - we help people. And because we love fighting monsters."

"Yeah, you're right," Iolaus sighed. "I just wish they could have found us a job that didn't involve climbing to the top of a very high mountain on the hottest day of the summer."

"We're not going to the top," Hercules replied amiably. "Perrius said the new mine shaft is about halfway up. In fact, I reckon it's probably just over the next ridge ..."

"You said that about four ridges back ..." Iolaus began.

He was interrupted by a thunderous roar that echoed around the valley and almost blew them off their feet with its intensity.

"Whoa!" Iolaus exclaimed, watching in some alarm as a few loose rocks broke free from the cliff and began to roll down the path. "What in Hades' name was that?"

"I think we may have found our monster," Hercules said, getting up and holding out a hand to help the hunter to his feet.

They proceeded cautiously up the path. Another roar erupted, much closer now. Hercules pointed to a low rise, off the path to their left. "I think it came from behind that rise."

When the two heroes reached their destination they dropped onto the ground and snaked their way up to the top of the grassy ridge. Lifting their heads cautiously above the edge, they were unprepared for the sight that greeted them.

Ahead of them was a large clear area, backed by cliff. To one side was what looked to be a large hole in the ground. But it wasn't the hole that drew their attention. It was the enormous, winged beast that seemed to be standing guard over it.

On the way up from the village they'd speculated on the kind of monster that had been terrorising the miners for the past week, but neither had anticipated this option. The smooth, sand-coloured body was solidly set on powerful haunches. The body merged seamlessly with a massive head, shaped like that of an eagle but with a square rather than a hooked beak. When the creature opened its beak to emit another deafening scream, two rows of razor sharp teeth sparkled as they caught the light. The only thing more threatening than those teeth were the claws on its forefeet, which were massive and honed to points as sharp as a blade.

"Gryphon!" Iolaus breathed, awed at the sight.

Hercules frowned, studying the beast. "There's something a bit odd about it. Don't gryphons have tails and long ears and feathers?"

Iolaus squinted at the strange creature. "Well ... now you come to mention it, this isn't like any gryphon I've ever seen. Bit far south, too."

Hercules shrugged. " Maybe it's a cross between a gryphon and a ... and a ..."

"Duck?" Iolaus supplied helpfully.

Hercules gave him a look. "A duck!"

"Well," Iolaus said defensively, "It's got a broad beak ..."

"What about the teeth?"

"... and webbed feet," Iolaus went on, ignoring the interruption.

"Where are the feathers?"

"How should I know? Maybe its mother was a bald headed eagle? Anyway," the hunter continued quickly, before Hercules could make a comment, "does it really matter what it is? The question is, what are we going to do about it?"

The creature either heard them talking or sensed their presence. It turned its massive head towards them, brilliant blue eyes whirling in anger, and extended its wings threateningly, emitting an even higher pitched shriek. Hurriedly, the two heroes scrambled back down the rise and retreated to the relative safety of a conveniently placed outcrop of rock at the bottom.

A few tense moments later, Iolaus cautiously poked his head up and was relieved to see no sign of the creature in pursuit. "You were saying?" he prompted.

Hercules continued, "According to Pellius, the creature's just been scaring people away from the mine shaft. It hasn't killed anyone."

"It hasn't killed anyone yet," Iolaus corrected him with feeling, head cocked as he listened to the creature, which seemed to be noisily working itself up into a frenzy. "And it won't get the chance, not if we kill it first." At Hercules' look, he put his hands up in a gesture of defeat. "Okay, okay, you win, you old softy. We'll try and find a way to chase it away from the area so the villagers can return to their mine. We won't kill it unless we have to. So, what's the plan? You do have a plan, don't you?"

"I thought we'd just watch it for a bit, see what it's up to," Hercules said, observing his companion's reaction out of the corner of one eye.

Iolaus predictably rose to the bait. "Watch it!" He snorted. "What d'you mean, watch it?" "That's the master plan? Good job Pellius isn't here. He'd want his money back!"

"I just thought it would be helpful to try and work out what it's doing up here," Hercules explained mildly.

Iolaus sighed theatrically. "Sure, fine, whatever. We'll watch it."

They climbed back up the rise, Hercules ignoring Iolaus' mutterings about heroes being men of action, not bird-watchers. They found a place where they had a clear view of the creature without being easily observed and for the next half hour watched the beast in silence. Then they scrambled back down to their rock to compare notes.

"So - what do you think it's doing?" Iolaus asked.

"Well - it keeps circling round that big hole which I assume is the new mine shaft. Maybe there's something in there it wants?"

"Like what?"

Hercules shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe there's some precious metal down there. Gryphons are supposed to be able to hunt out treasure, aren't they? They line their nests with gold ..."

"And produce eggs made of agate!" Iolaus finished for him, giggling suddenly. "What do they do with agate eggs?"

Hercules shrugged. "How should I know? I'm not a world authority on gryphons! The point is, we have to get the creature away from the area so the villagers can come back to the mine."

Iolaus said, "But what if the grypho-duck ..."

"The WHAT?" Hercules yelped.

"The grypho-duck. It's my new name for it. Impressive, eh? I could be famous one day, you know, for naming a new species. Can't you just see the headlines - Iolaus of Thebes and his amazing walking, talking grypho-duck ..."

"IOLAUS!"

"Okay, okay, keep your sandals on. As I was saying, how are we going to persuade the grypho-duck that it wants to leave?"

Hercules grinned. "Well, now you come to mention it, I do have a plan ..."

"Some plan," Iolaus thought to himself in disgust as he stepped off the final rung of the ladder onto solid ground at the bottom of the shaft. 'I'll distract it while you nip down the mine shaft to investigate." He mimicked the demigod's deep tones disgustedly. Well, he was down. By the heightened shrieks coming from the gryphon, Hercules was probably having a lot more fun up top. What's more, it was cold down here without his vest. As he'd left to carry out his part of the 'plan', Hercules had grabbed his vest from him, explaining that gryphons are afraid of the colour purple. "Yeah, right," Iolaus muttered to himself as he began to take stock of his surroundings.

The mine shaft wasn't as deep as he'd thought at first. Even at the bottom there was still enough light filtering down from the mouth of the mine to enable him to make out objects around him - some planks of wood, a couple of barrels, a lot of loose earth.

As he explored, he almost fell over something large laying on the ground in the shadows. Further investigation revealed it to be a large, egg-shaped object. Well, large wasn't quite the right word. Huge was more like it. Even on its side, the egg reached shoulder height. It was perfectly formed, with a smooth, shiny surface of gold, red and yellow stripes, like a very large piece of agate ... agate! This was a gryphon egg! The hunter reached forward to touch it and was surprised to find it warm to the touch.

The egg moved. "Whoa!" Startled, Iolaus took a hasty step back, lost his footing and landed hard on his butt. He scrambled back onto his feet, absently rubbing a sore spot on his rear, and cautiously approached the egg again. The egg began to rock. "What the ..."

The egg was definitely rocking. Something was trying to escape. As he watched, a small crack appeared in the side of the shell. "Holy flying grypho-chicks!" Iolaus exclaimed as he realised what was happening. There was a real, live creature in there and it was beginning to hatch!

Iolaus furiously searched his memory for any information on gryphon reproduction, and realised quickly that he had none. All he knew was that gryphons were supposed to lay agate instead of proper eggs. This one obviously hadn't read the right scrolls. Ah, but this wasn't a gryphon, was it? It was a grypho-duck. And it had laid a real egg.

The creature's presence in the area made sense now. It was obviously her egg - either she'd dropped it while flying past, or it had rolled out of a nest, and fallen into the shaft. The shaft was too narrow for the mother to fly down and too deep for her to reach into. She wasn't terrorising the villagers for the fun of it - she was simply protecting her egg as best she could.

"So, first things first," Iolaus commented aloud, "Let's see exactly how much you weigh." He put his arms as far around the egg as they could go, and heaved. After a lot of effort, he managed to drag the egg a few paces away. He paused to catch his breath. "You're one heavy little chick, aren't you?" he muttered.

Iolaus folded his arms and surveyed the rocking egg thoughtfully. "Okay, chicky," he said. It always helped him to talk things through with someone, and the egg was a pretty captive audience. "As I see it, there are two good reasons why we can't allow you to hatch down here. One," he began counting them off on his fingers, "once you're out of that egg, there's no way you're gonna be able to fly up that shaft - your wing span will be too wide, and sure as eggs are eggs, I'm not going be able to carry you. Two," he pointed sternly at the egg, "I'm willing to bet that you won't be born all soft and fluffy. Noooo - you'll be coming out of that egg as a full-blown miniature version of your mother, complete with claws and teeth. And, no offense, but I'd rather not be stuck in a confined space with you when that happens. So - I'd better find a way to get you out now, and the sooner the better, by the looks of it."

The egg rocked violently in agreement. Iolaus sighed and began to reexamine the area around him. There wasn't a lot to work with. There were no tunnels branching off - the villagers had obviously only just begun construction before the grypho-duck took up residence - so there was no way out except the way he'd come in. No rope lying around conveniently. Then his eyes alighted on the barrels and the wide, wooden planks. An idea began to form. Crazy, but it might just work, and he certainly didn't have any other options. He grinned broadly and patted the shell reassuringly. "Don't worry, chicky. Uncle Iolaus has a plan!"

Hercules, gingerly perched on a branch high up in a nearby tree, was beginning to wonder firstly what had happened to Iolaus and secondly, how many more times the gryphon would have to throw herself against the trunk of the tree before it thundered to the ground. It was fortunate that the tree was to close to those around it for her to spread her wings, or she could have flown up and picked him off like just another berry. He was wondering to himself if gryphons were berry eaters, when he caught sight of a blond head peering cautiously from the mine shaft.

"Herc!" Iolaus called, keeping his voice as low as possible.

"Iolaus!" Hercules hissed back. "It's about time! What have you been doing down there?"

"Where are you?"

"Up in this tree!"

Iolaus squinted up, shading his eyes against the sun, and burst into giggles at the unlikely sight of the demigod perched precariously in the high branches of the pine tree.

"It's not funny!" Hercules growled. "This tree is going to come down any minute!" As he spoke, the gryphon obligingly threw her considerable weight against the tree once more. There was a loud groaning sound and the demigod tightened his grip on the branch as the whole tree swayed.

"Well, whose plan was this, anyway?" Iolaus asked innocently, then continued hurriedly as Hercules opened his mouth to reply. "Hercules, listen carefully, we haven't got much time." He glanced nervously back down the shaft. "I need you to get down from that tree, sprint across here as fast as you can and jump into the shaft. Got it?"

There was silence for a moment. Then Hercules said slowly, "I might be wrong, but I think you just said that you want me to get down from this tree, sprint across a clearing with a raging gryphon in hot pursuit and then just launch myself into a big, deep, hole in the ground."

"Yup!" Iolaus agreed happily. "That's about the size of it."

"Might I enquire why?" Hercules asked politely.

Iolaus glanced back into the hole and what he saw obviously alarmed him. "No time, Herc. You just have to trust me. Now, when you get to the shaft, make sure you jump in on this side, right in the middle. That's very important. I'll climb out and distract the gryph. Are you ready?"

Hercules shrugged. "I ... guess so!"

"Good. Oh, and Herc?" The hunter added as he eyed up the distance to a safe looking outcrop of rocks across the clearing. "Whatever you do, make sure you land on the plank!"

"Plank? What plank!" But Iolaus had already shot out of the mine shaft and begun running across the clearing, shouting and waving his arms.

Plank? Hercules shrugged mentally and began to climb down from the tree. With a quick glance to ensure that the gryphon had moved away in pursuit of Iolaus, he jumped the rest of the way and began to run towards the shaft. With the creature's loud shriek echoing through his mind he muttered, "here goes nothing," and hurled himself into space. The thought, "what plank?" was still foremost in his mind when he landed feet first on what felt like, well - the end of a plank. Everything happened very quickly after that. The plank seemed to give way and as he and his end of the plank hit the ground with a resounding thud, something huge and egg-shaped shot up in the air from the other side of the shaft, seemingly making a break for daylight.

Iolaus had successfully reached the outcrop and rammed himself into a crevice that he hoped would be inaccessible to the grypho-duck. She was closing the distance between them at an alarming rate when the egg burst out of the shaft, high into the air. Iolaus fancied that he saw the grypho-duck's eyes open in amazement as she recognised the pseudo-missile. With a mighty heave of her powerful haunches she leapt upwards, flapped her wings once and caught the egg between her enormous front claws. She had barely had time to land and deposit the egg carefully on the ground before the shell split completely down the middle. Iolaus caught his breath as a chick - complete with very solid looking claws and an unusually shaped pair of horns - staggered out of the fragments of shell, emitting a high-pitched scream. Iolaus rubbed his head. He was beginning to get a headache with all this screaming.

A brown head appeared at the top of the mine shaft.

"Herc, you okay?" Iolaus called.

"What ... where ... how ..." Hercules spluttered.

"It was a gryphon egg," Iolaus explained.

"Gryphons don't lay real eggs!"

"Tell her that. The egg must have fallen down the shaft." Iolaus explained. "There was no way I could carry it up the ladder, so I balanced a plank of wood on a barrel, and put the egg on one end ..."

"You could have told me I was going to be on the end of a seesaw!" Hercules grumbled, but he couldn't help laughing. Only Iolaus would come up with a lunatic plan like that.

The grypho-duck had ignored the two heroes, her whole attention absorbed by the chick. She began crooning to it and its piteous cries lessened considerably in volume.

Hercules peered at her cautiously. "Do you think its safe to get out of here?"

"Try it." Iolaus shrugged.

Hercules carefully climbed out of the shaft. The creature looked up when she sensed movement, then obligingly took a few paces backwards, letting out a much more mellow sound as she did so. Almost as if she was trying to tell them it was safe to come out.

Iolaus extracted himself from the crevice and walked across to join his tall companion, taking a detour en route to retrieve a grubby looking but familiar purplish rag from a nearby rock. He held the rag up and raised an eyebrow at his friend who looked at it sheepishly.

"Um, er - well - I can explain," Hercules began lamely.

"Don't bother," Iolaus grumbled. "You can mend it for me later. And I'm not even going to ask what the sticky stuff all over it might be ..."

"Best not to," Hercules thought to himself, remembering how the gryphon had charged straight at him when she'd spotted the vest in his hand. Whoever had told him that gryphons were afraid of the colour purple had certainly got the purple bit right. Stuffing it in her mouth while he made his escape had been totally justifiable under the circumstances, he felt.

They stood in silence for a moment, watching the scene.

"Pretty cute chick, don't you think?" Iolaus commented.

Hercules smiled and clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Pretty cute," he agreed. "Looks like everyone's going to be happy this time round. I wouldn't be surprised if she decides to call the chick, 'Iolaus'!"

"Why?" Iolaus glanced up at the demigod in surprise. "You were the one who got the egg up."

"Ah, but you were the one who hatched the plan, pardon the pun. I really think you deserve the honour."

The grypho-duck turned swirling blue eyes on them for a long moment, then picked the chick up carefully between her claws, and launched herself into the air.

Hercules and Iolaus watched for a moment as she circled round before taking off towards the north, then turned and began to make their way back down the track.

After a while, Iolaus commented, "Achates is a good name for the chick, isn't it?"

"Yes, I thought so," Hercules agreed.

After a moment, Hercules asked, "How did you know ..."

Iolaus stopped so abruptly the demigod almost fell over him. "How did you know?"

They looked at each other in silence. Then turned and looked back to where the grypho-duck was now just a small black dot in the distance.

Looked at each other again.

Hercules shook his head. "No way."

"Nah," Iolaus agreed. "Just a coincidence."

Silence.

Iolaus cleared his throat. "So, I can feel a nice, long, cold tankard of ale calling to me from the tavern ..."

They turned and continued down the mountain towards the village.

The End



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