Knock On Wood

Iolaus rolled over, catching at the blanket as he went. Pulling it up to his chin, he risked opening one eye to find out where his lover had gone. The room immediately visible was empty. Sighing, he opened the other eye and turned his head. The rest o f the room was empty.

Wouldn't it be just like him to wander off, just to make Iolaus get out of bed to search for him?

Iolaus laid his head back down. He wasn't going to do it. Herc could just fend for himself, alone, for another hour. He closed his eyes.

He opened his eyes. The room had not been exactly empty. At least, there was something here which hadn't been last night. Iolaus looked a second time.

Standing in the small area which served as the kitchen of the one-room house, was a very large statue. Iolaus got out of bed. Wrapping the blanket around himself -- in case the delivery men were hanging around waiting for payment or something -- he walk ed over. It was a large wooden statue, carved in a likeness of Hercules.

He grinned, and laughed once. Life-size replica, and the sculptor had been kind enough to carve Herc completely naked. Iolaus looked the statue over again, and saw that indeed the likeness was nearly exact. Almost perfect.

How in the world had the sculptor convinced Hercules to pose naked? Iolaus eyed the wooden groin. Very nearly exact. In fact... Iolaus stepped closer, and examined the rest of the statue.

"Huh!"

It was exact. If it weren't for the fact that it was made entirely of wood, he'd almost swear it was really Hercules standing there.

"Oh, shit."

Iolaus looked up into his lover's face. The expression there was a quiet, calm one, a pleased smile and absolutely no worry in his wooden eyes. The spell must have taken him instantly, without any warning. Instantly, a day late.

Iolaus sat down on a chair, and stared at Hercules, morosely. "I guess we were wrong."

Yesterday, out in the wilder boondocks of Corinth, they'd been chasing a couple of monsters who'd been ravaging the local villages. The two had stolen a chalice -- the monsters, that is -- and the chalice's owner had been understandably irate. While Hercules and Iolaus had promised to return all the stolen property after vanquishing the monsters, the furious man had taken his own steps to get revenge.

Delving into a scroll of magic, he'd found a spell and begun casting it just as Hercules and Iolaus were fighting the monsters. He'd finished the last phrase right after the last punch was thrown, and Hercules had picked up the fallen chalice to hand it back to its owner.

The man had stared at them, blinking, and accepted it, stammering an apologetic explanation. The spell had been aimed at 'the unrightful possessor' and as the monsters hadn't been actually possessing the chalice at the time the spell had been completed -- well, they all stood around the clearing for a few minutes, waiting to see if Hercules turned into a block of wood.

When he hadn't, they'd decided that his semi-devine nature had spared him, or else maybe the spell was a dud.

Now, as Iolaus stared at the Herculean statue, he realized it had just taken awhile. Iolaus sighed.

"I suppose I'll just have to go find the guy and get him to reverse it. What was his name? Calus? Cailos?" He glanced at his lover. "I know, I know -- 'Iolaus, why are you asking me? I'm made of wood, I can't exactly answer.' Well, who else am I supposed to ask? I can't just stand around talking to myself can I?"

He went back to the bedside and began rummaging through the piles of clothing. He found his vest on the floor underneath Hercules' pants, and found his own pants shoved under the blankets, near the very foot of the bed.

"How did those... no, I don't want to know. Hey Herc, one of these days you're going to have to let me finish getting undressed before you -- is that my boot?" He scrambled onto the bed and reached into the rafters.

After he'd dressed, Iolaus picked up his sword and scabbard, and looked around the kitchen for something he could use as a bag lunch.

"Pardon me." He peered around Hercules -- looked like his lover had been getting breakfast ready. He giggled. "Breakfast in bed? Herc! You trying to soften me up for something this morning?" Unable to see past Hercules to the larder, he gave his lover a shrug. "Hang on." He took a hold of wooden arms and carefully scooted Hercules out of the way. When he let go, Hercules wobbled for a second -- Iolaus' hands shot out and steadied him before he had a chance to think. He glanced up apologetically. "Sorry."

Iolaus could almost see the wooden visage glowering at him. With the way clear, though, he could reach the bowl of fruits and dried meat they'd purchased a few days before. He prepared a sack, grabbing a couple of waterskins to fill outside, and faced his lover again.

"I suppose you want to come with me?" Yes, he could definitely see Herc glaring at him. "It isn't like I can carry you -- and I sure don't want to risk you breaking anything off." He glanced downwards. "Even if it wasn't up when you got zapped." He didn't bother glancing up to see what sort of expression he was getting this time. "I'll be right back, Herc. Shouldn't take more than a day to find Calios or whatever his name is and get him to reverse the spell. You'll be safer here...." Iolaus trailed off, thinking.

What if someone stopped by? A friend, or a thief -- would Hercules be safe here? No doubt mistaken for a mere, if well-crafted, statue, he'd be unable to defend himself should someone decide to... well, do anything. He'd hate to come back and find his best friend shellacked.

"I suppose I ought to find someone to keep an eye on you." But who? Alcemene and Jason had gone down to Athens for a week, and most of their neighbors were too busy with their own work to be able to hang around. Any of them would be glad to keep an eye on Hercules, but Iolaus hated to ask just in case he was gone for more than a day. Perhaps he could just leave Hercules here on his own and hope no one happened by--

Iolaus turned and looked out the window. That hope hadn't lasted long. Someone was approaching on horseback. Settling his things back down on the table, he started towards the door and stopped. He looked at Hercules. Naked as the day he'd crawled out of bed after a long night of vigorous sex. No, his lover wouldn't appreciate that at all. Iolaus cast about then finally just picked up the sheet which had somehow ended up tossed across the back of the other kitchen chair.

What had they done, last night? Iolaus thought back, and realized that it must have happened when Herc was screaming and throwing all sorts of things around the room. Probably how his boot had ended up in the rafters, and Herc's shirt in the middle of the hearth.

Maybe he should clean before he left.

Iolaus draped the sheet around Hercules' waist, and tied it in place with a belt. Patting Herc on the stomach, he grinned. "There. That should keep you--"

"Anyone home?" The visitor called out.

His grin widened. "Gabrielle!" Jumping for the door, he found their two compatriots waiting patiently outside. "Xena! What are you two doing here?" He frowned. "Is there trouble?"

"No, no trouble." Xena dismounted, and let Argo free to wander the front yard. "We were just on our way to Corinth and thought we'd stop by."

"We weren't sure we'd find you home," Gabrielle added. "We heard you were in Callminae, fighting some monsters."

"Oh, that. Took half a day; we were home before dark."

"We didn't interrupt anything did we?" Xena asked, and Iolaus saw the gleam in her eye. He was about to ignore it when he realized he might have just gotten what he'd asked for.

"No, you didn't," he answered absently, mind already working fast. "How long were you going to be around?"

"A few days. Why?" This time Xena spoke with suspicion in her voice.

"I was just wondering... if you could do me a favor? I have to go back to Callminae but I can't leave Herc here by himself. Wondered if you--"

"What's wrong with him?" Gabrielle asked, as both women headed for the house. "Do you need a healer?"

"No! No, he's fine... well he's sort of fine. I suppose it'd be easier just to show you."

With that he led them into the house. They stopped at the sight of Hercules, and stared.

Finally Xena asked, "Is that oak?"

"No, it's balsa -- he only weighs about fifteen pounds. That's why I can't leave him alone -- or take him with me. A strong wind could knock him over and break him in half."

"That wouldn't be good," Xena observed.

"You're telling me." Iolaus repeated his request. "So would you mind? The guy who did this won't be hard to locate. I just need to go tell him the spell worked and ask him to reverse it. If you two could stick around -- wouldn't be more than a day."

Iolaus watched as Xena and Gabrielle examined Hercules -- not nearly as thoroughly as he had, but he saw Xena's smirk when they realized why he was wearing a sheet which wasn't made of wood. He didn't comment when Gabrielle's hand made an aborted move towards the sheet.

"Gabrielle," Xena chided.

"What? It looked like it was slipping," she explained innocently.

Xena turned back to Iolaus. "We'll keep an eye on him for you. Rather, Gabrielle can, if you think you'll need any help with this magician."

"Nah, I won't need any help. Calo isn't a bad guy -- he was aiming for the monsters and hit Herc, by accident. The spell didn't take until now; we thought it had failed."

"All right." Xena unbuckled her scabbard, and laid it across the table. "Why don't you take Argo, then? It'll make the trip that much shorter."

"Thanks, Xena." Iolaus smiled.

"Just don't get her into trouble," she warned.

"Me? Trouble?" Iolaus shook his head, and gathered up his things. "I wouldn't dream of it." He paused on his way out. "Not with you waiting here to bean me if I do."

Xena smiled, and nodded. Iolaus took a last look at Hercules. The wooden face looked so perfect. So unmoving.

"Take care of him?"

"We will," Xena answered softly.

Iolaus turned, and went outside.


Argo was willing enough to let Iolaus ride her -- after the first few steps when Iolaus proved that yes, thank you, he did know what he was doing. He was grateful Xena had offered the animal, thereby cutting his trip nearly in half. He wouldn't have expected it of the warrior -- it wasn't like there was any danger here. Hercules was simply a wooden statue, and Iolaus just had to get him changed back.

Unless there was some sort of time limit. If he weren't changed back within a certain period, would he be doomed to remain a statue forever?

"Hey, Argo, maybe we'd better hurry?" He strapped his sword to the saddle, waited another few minutes to be out of earshot. When he was safe from Xena's hearing him and demanding to know just how he'd learned it, he whistled softly, giving Argo the command to gallop.

He wasn't sure if Xena knew she talked -- and whistled -- in her sleep, and wasn't about to be the one to tell her.

It didn't take them long to reach the boundary of Callminae. Iolaus had stopped only long enough to let Argo drink from a stream and eat his own quick lunch. Fifteen minutes later they'd been running again. Now he slowed the horse, as this close to town they were likely to encounter travelers on the road. There was no point in frightening them. He did, however, ignore the ones he passed, more intent on locating what's-his-name.

He headed directly for the man's shop, when they reached town. Argo stood still as Iolaus leapt off the horse's back and ran inside.

"Cal-- oh hell. Is anyone here?" He shouted.

"Yes, yes, I'm-- it's you!" The man came out from behind a row of shelves. "What can I do for you?" He frowned, looking about. "Where's your friend?"

"That's why I'm here," Iolaus explained, suddenly breathless. "That spell you cast yesterday -- it worked. I need you to take it off."

"Oh my!" The man looked suitably astonished. Then he looked, unsuitably, apologetic. "I don't have the scroll any longer."

"You what?" Iolaus took the man by the shirt, and brought him closer. Obviously he'd misheard.

"I don't have it... after what nearly happened yesterday -- almost turning your friend into wood... er, I suppose I did turn him... well, I decided the scroll was too dangerous! I returned it to its original owner."

Iolaus took a deep breath. "And who would that be?"

"His name is Argellen. He's an Arab scientist, lives near the Grecian border. I studied under him a few years back -- that's how I got the scroll."

"Well the scroll can't have arrived yet. Did you send it by messenger?"

The man grew more upset. "No, actually. I merely... sent the scroll. It was in Argellen's library the moment I sent it. One of the first spells in the scroll...."

Iolaus dropped his hands, and the man stumbled back. It would take days to reach the border... He looked up, sharply. "What sort of time limit is there, for reversing the spell? How much time does Hercules have?"

The other man shrugged. "Not more than three days, depending... well, the spell should have taken effect immediately. I surmise that being half-god delayed the spell. No doubt it will protect him from permanently remaining a statue for... well, a few more days."

"Can you be sure of that?"

"No, of course not. There aren't any accounts of demi-gods being turned to wood, before -- there's no way to be sure."

Iolaus found himself sitting on a tall stack of rugs. "I can't reach the border in time to get the scroll and a spellcaster back to Hercules. I don't suppose the spell can be undone from a distance?"

"No... but you can get there in plenty of time."

Iolaus looked up, hopeful at the encouraging tone of the other man's voice.

"The same way I sent the scroll."


"This place is a mess."

"Well, Xena, Iolaus did leave in kind of a hurry." Gabrielle stood beside Hercules, looking up at him. "Do you suppose he can hear or see us?"

"I don't know. I've never known anyone who was turned to wood before."

"Balsa wood, is that what he said? It's nice -- a lovely colour. Although it really needs to be polished -- no offense, Hercules." She smiled.

"Gabrielle...."

"Yes?" She turned another innocent look on her friend.

"If we're going to be staying here all day, we might as well get something useful done." This time Gabrielle grinned very un-innocently. Xena saw it, and shook her head. "I didn't mean that. What I meant was, Iolaus has a bow and a quiver of arrows here. I think it would do you some good to practice with them."

"Oh, you're no fun, Xena."

"Yeah?" Xena raised an eyebrow. "And what if he can hear us?"

There was a pause. "Oh. Bow and arrows, you say? Sounds wonderful!"

Xena handed over the bow, and picked up the quiver. As they headed outside, Gabrielle asked, "Xena? Why is Hercules' shirt in the fireplace?"

"Probably the same reason his boot is in the window."


"Hello?"

Iolaus looked around. He was definitely in a library, and he had the impression it wasn't an often used one. The room was nearly dark, with only a single sliver of light coming in through a break in the curtains. As his eyesight adjusted, he could see two other large curtains completely covering whatever it was they were covering.

There were rows upon rows of shelves, set into the wall. Two large desks were set opposite each other, and every flat surface was covered in wrapped scrolls. There was no room for a scroll to be opened and lain flat, and the layer of dust his nose was telling him covered everything, told him that he was probably the first person to stand in this room in a long time.

He looked around, but couldn't tell which scroll was the one he needed. He needed light. He took a step towards the barely open window, and heard a crunching, cracking sound beneath his foot.

There was a scroll on the floor.

"Oh, Tartarus." Iolaus bent over and picked it up, pulling it open to smooth it out. He sighed in relief when it appeared neither the scroll -- nor, more importantly, the writing on it -- had been damaged. He scanned the index of spells, and saw the one Caliope had used. "This is it!"

"You're a clever thief, I'll give you that."

Iolaus froze in place -- and not of his own accord. He watched as a man walked towards him. He was an Arab, dressed in heavy robes and wearing a dark, thick beard. He gave Iolaus an appraising look.

"I don't know how you conned someone into using that spell to send you here -- but it doesn't matter. You'll lose your hand all the same."

Iolaus squeaked. He couldn't move, not even to talk. He wondered if he'd get unfrozen in time for the trial, so he could try to explain.

"I should simply have you thrown in the jail... but it's been so long since I was able to have a meaningful conversation. The servants here are so dull." He tilted his head to one side. "I don't suppose you're familiar with the theory of counting?"

Iolaus blinked mentally. Theory of counting?

"No, I thought not. Ah well. I suppose I should just turn you into a mouse until the magistrate can arrive."

No, wait! Iolaus screamed inside his head. I have to... he's got to let me explain! Iolaus struggled, but couldn't get his body to respond. Frozen in place -- this must be how Herc feels. The thought depressed him, and he struggled harder. Besides which, what was a theory of counting?

Oh, wasn't that what that old man was going on about? They'd happened upon him a month or so ago, trying to ford a stream. He and Hercules had helped him across, and in return he'd talked the entire way about counting.

"What did he say?"

Iolaus blinked, mentally, again.

"Oh, very well." The man muttered something in another language, and suddenly Iolaus could move -- from the neck up.

"What was that?"

"Nevermind it, the spell would take too long to explain. What was this theory the old man spoke of?" He leaned forward, excitedly.

"You've got to help me--" Iolaus began.

The magician, Argellen, frowned. "If you aren't going to enlighten me, I will turn you into a mouse."

"Er.. well I didn't understand most of what he said." Iolaus frantically tried to remember what the elder had said. "Something about... numbers not being real." It was, he thought, a sure sign of the man's infirmity of mind. But Argellen smiled triumphantly.

"Yes! What else?"

"Uh... he said... he said... what did he say? Um... numbers aren't real, they're just... regular expressions we invented in order to... to... to do something, I don't know. Look, you have to help me. My friend's been--"

"In order to do what? Did he say?"

"Look, I don't know! My friend's been turned into wood and you have to reverse the spell!" Iolaus finished.

"He's what? Oh yes, that's a simple enough spell. The caster should be able to take it off for you. Didn't the man say what we use numbers for? Do you know where I could find him?"

Iolaus sighed, stared at the ceiling, and tried again. "The guy who cast the spell can't reverse it, because he sent the scroll back here. He decided it was too dangerous -- and I agree. But my friend is a wood statue!" He thought again. "I think he said we use them to hold places. But that doesn't make any sense--"

"Place holders? Hmmm...." The magician began to pace. First away from Iolaus, then towards again. "If numbers aren't real, merely place holders... a form of communicating about the world rather than actually being part of it..."

Iolaus waited patiently for about three seconds, then interrupted. "Look, are you going to help me or not?"

"What? Oh! The spell... if that's all you wanted, why didn't you ask instead of sneaking in here to steal the scroll?" Argellen narrowed his eyes at Iolaus.

"I wasn't here to steal it! I didn't 'sneak in' either. Cal... Cali... the guy who cast the spell sent me here after it because there wasn't time for me to travel here the usual way."

"Ah, yes, the three day limit. A safety device, in case you accidentally turn your sister into a statue. Unless of course you meant to... That means we have plenty of time."

"So you'll help me?" Iolaus finally breathed a sigh of relief.

"Yes, yes. Now, where was it you met this old man with the number theory?"

"What?" Iolaus squeaked again. "What about Hercules?"

"What about him?" Argellen looked genuinely confused.

"He's the friend of mine who's been turned to wood. Remember? The whole reason I'm here?"

"Oh, right. I suppose we can take care of him along the way. Let's see, I'll need some fresh scrolls and clean pens...." The man moved out of the room, muttering to himself. Iolaus remained where he was, frozen from the neck down.

"Great." He rolled his eyes.


"It's getting late. Do you think he'll be back tonight?" Gabrielle stood in the yard, where she could see down the road Iolaus had taken.

"He might not. I wouldn't worry about him," Xena cast a look over her shoulder towards Hercules. "Not until tomorrow. If he isn't back by noon, I'll head after him."

"Do you think he ran into trouble?" She kept her voice low, in case Hercules could hear.

"Anything's possible. But he can take care of himself."

"Unless the guy turned him into a statue," Gabrielle said casually, then stopped, and gasped. "Xena! You don't think--"

"No, I don't. Iolaus said the man was one of the good guys -- or at least not one of the bad guys. Iolaus shouldn't be in any danger from him."

"But what if he were wrong? What if this 'Calo' person was trying to hurt Hercules? He might have captured Iolaus and all we're doing is sitting here, playing with ropes."

"Gabrielle, relax. Even if we left now, we wouldn't reach Callminae before nightfall and that region is too rocky to safely travel at night." Gabrielle gave her a mournful look. "All right, all right. I'll leave first thing in the morning. Happy now? "

"Thanks, Xena. I'm probably worrying for nothing. But if he is in trouble--"

"If he's in trouble, I'll get him out. Now, I want you to try that knot again. I got out of the last one way too easily."

"I didn't want to tie it too tightly," Gabrielle offered, as she took the rope from Xena.

"Don't worry -- you won't. Now try it again."


"I don't know where he is. It was a month ago -- he could have gone anywhere by now!"

"You didn't get his name?"

Iolaus stopped, and folded his arms. "I told you, we didn't. We didn't get his name, where he lived, his children's names or his dog's name. I don't know anything about him except that he crossed that river back there, a month ago. And that he thinks numbers aren't real," he added.

They'd been walking for hours. Argellen had brought them to the river's bend Iolaus described. The magician had interrogated him a dozen times before for more details -- primarily on the man's theory, but also on information they needed to find the man.

Unfortunately Iolaus didn't know anything more than he'd already reported.

"Look, can't we just go home, turn Hercules back, and then go look for him?" He thought of something. "Maybe Herc knows something I don't! The man's name or something. He could help us locate him."

Argellen looked back, as he'd continued walking down the road. "I thought you said you and your friend helped the man, together."

"Well, yeah. But Herc might have--"

"But he might not have. It would be a waste to leave now, in search of information that might not even be there."

"What are we doing right now?" Iolaus muttered. But he began walking after the magician, anyway. "Look, it wouldn't take much time at all. Then we could spend however long you like, looking for this man. With Herc helping us, it would go faster." Iolaus ran a few steps, to catch up with Argellen. "Look, please!" He grabbed the man's arm. "Can't we just--"

The magician turned a fiery look on him. Iolaus dropped his hand.

"It's just...." He looked at man, half-crazed with intensity. He shook his head. "It's just that I'm worried about him. And my friends will be worried about me if I don't get back soon. If we can go back now, all four of us will help you search for this guy. I promise." Iolaus hoped Xena and Gabrielle wouldn't mind being volunteered for a search through the Grecian countryside for a nameless old man.

Argellen looked at him impatiently, then sighed. "Very well. I suppose the old man can wait one more day. If he's dead, however, I shall hold you accountable for his lost theory."

Iolaus' relief vanished. "Huh? What exactly do you mean by that?"

Argellen didn't answer. "Let's go."


"Where's my horse?"

"Hi, Xena. Oh... I suppose he's still in Callminae. Sorry -- Argellen's going to turn Hercules back. Then I'll go get Argo -- well, actually first we have to find someone then I can go get Argo. Look, can I explain later?" Iolaus babbled, slipping past the cross warrior princess, leading Argellen inside.

"Iolaus! You're all right!" Gabrielle greeted him, giving him a quick hug. "Is this Calo?"

"Who? No, this is Argellen. Argellen, this is Gabrielle, that's Xena... and this statue is Hercules."

Hercules was still right where he'd left him. Sheet still tied around his waist, face still calm and patient. Iolaus hoped he'd been waiting patiently. He wasn't feeling up for a lecture on gallivanting around the countryside while some people were pieces of wood.

"Ah, very nice. Balsa?" Argellen inspected the statue.

"Yes. Can you change him back?" Iolaus asked, half-fearful that the answer would be 'no'.

"He should have been polished. He's drying out rather badly." Argellen concluded his examination.

"Told you," Gabrielle whispered. Xena told her to hush.

"Look, Argellen--" Iolaus began.

"Yes, I can change him back. Give me a moment."

They all waited as the magician closed his eyes. Suddenly he spoke loudly. "Abracadabra! Allacazoo! Change back from wood to the original you!"

They stared dumbfounded as Hercules slowly transformed. Iolaus looked at Argellen in astonishment. "That was it?"

Argellen shrugged. "I don't normally work in this language. It sounds much better in the original Arabic."

"Iolaus?" Hercules spoke in a rough voice.

Iolaus stared. His lover was all flesh once more. "Herc! You're back!" He jumped for him, and Herc caught him reflexively. Very much all flesh. Iolaus plastered himself against Hercules' chest, and kissed him soundly.

When Iolaus finally let him go, Hercules smiled. "Thanks." He turned to the Xena and Gabrielle. "Thanks for keeping an eye on me while I was... indisposed."

"You're welcome." Xena gave him a smile. She looked him up and down, once. "You made a nice statue."

Hercules gripped the belt at his waist. "Thanks for the sheet, Iolaus."

"You're welcome. Couldn't let you go scaring the neighbors."

"If I could interrupt?" Argellen asked with a hint of impatience. He gave Iolaus a look.

"Oh... right. Uh... guys, would you mind helping us look for someone?"

"Sure," Hercules answered. "Who?"

"I don't know." Iolaus answered.

"Do you know his name?" Xena asked.

"No."

"Where he lives?" Gabrielle asked.

"No."

"Do you know if he has family?"

"No."

"How about his dog's name?"

"No."

"Well." Hercules gave them a shrug. "He shouldn't be too hard to find. Let me get some clothes...." He moved away, then stopped. "Iolaus? Why is my boot in the rafters?"