She was simply beautiful... Her eyes ... her face ... her slender, graceful body...
Hercules' mind was full of her. Suddenly all the world was beautiful too - just because she was in it.
He made a conscious effort to wrench his thoughts back to the task at hand. Somewhere in this tangle of trees and traps before him lurked his quarry - the Hind. He told himself, as he had barked at Iolaus many times before: "Pay attention!"
But it was no use. Serena's face floated before his mind's eye, even as he swiftly and stealthily made his way through the underbrush.
Some ways ahead of him there was suddenly a faint crackle of branches being broken. A flash of gold, like a spark, flickered for a second among the trees a good bowshot distant.
Keeping a careful eye out for more of Prince Nestor's traps, Hercules leapt ahead in pursuit. Branches whipped at him as he pushed between the trees. A small sunlit clearing lay ahead and he burst forth into it. Now to gain some speed...
The world abruptly turned very ugly.
Hercules stopped dead in horror.
In the clearing his best friend lay sprawled on his back, pale and blood-streaked, with a blue-feathered arrow sunk deep in his left shoulder. Even as Hercules cried out his name, Iolaus reached for the arrow with a shaking hand, trying to pull it free. The effort wrenched a cry of agony from him and he fell back, grey-faced and retching.
By this time Hercules was kneeling beside him.
"Lie still! I'll take care of it!"
Iolaus gasped, "It was the Hind ... I tried to tell her ... we were here to help her. I don't think ... she believed me..." He gave a sickly grin, but could not hold back a hiss of pain as Hercules gently took hold of the arrow-shaft. "It's not in very deep, Herc, but I think the head is barbed."
A frown creased his friend's face as he examined the wound. "I can't push it on through - there's bone in front of it. I'm going to have to pull it out."
Iolaus nodded grimly. "Do it, " he said, and shut his eyes.
Lightly Hercules rested one knee on his friend's body to pin him down and took a firm grip on the arrow with both hands.
Iolaus took a deep breath.
A single swift motion brought forth the arrow, a shower of blood-drops and a strangled scream. His eyes showed white and rolled back as he passed out from the pain.
Hercules felt for a pulse, found it, and patted Iolaus's uninjured shoulder.
"Rest for a moment, my friend."
His glance swept the surrounding area and soon lit upon a patch of woundwort growing in the shade of a nearby tree. He snatched up a handful of the leaves, crushed them, and packed them into the ragged, oozing hole in Iolaus' shoulder.
"Uh ..." Iolaus was coming to. "That... hurt..."
"You were right. It WAS barbed." Hercules held up the offending missile where Iolaus could see it, then thrust it through his belt. "Come on - we're gonna get you back to Hemnor's place." He started to pick Iolaus up. Iolaus struggled out of his grasp.
"Hey, I can walk it!"
"Yeah! Just give me a hand up."
Hercules hauled the smaller man to his feet. "All right. Lean on me."
They set off slowly, both men trying to look in all directions for the Hind and more of Nestors' traps.
The forest seemed endless.
"You OK?" Hercules asked, after they had gone a ways.
"Yeah," Iolaus replied. "The bleeding seems to have stopped. It hurts like crazy, though, and I'm cold. It feels like ... I must have bled a lot before you found me."
Hercules looked closely at his friend. Iolaus's face was flushed, where it should have been pale, and his eyes were strangely bright.
Hercules shook his head. "Let's keep going. We need to find some water for you."
Iolaus gave a weak laugh. "I'd rather have ale."
They trudged on in silence for a while. Hercules gradually became aware that Iolaus was moving more and more slowly, and leaning on him more heavily with each step.
Finally Iolaus spoke up. "Herc - something's wrong here..." His words were slurred.
"Well, yes, you've got a hole in you the size of a - "
"No! I've been wounded before ... this feels ... different..." He swayed. "I'm ... hot ..."
Hercules steadied him and felt the heat that radiated from his body. "There hasn't been time for that wound to go bad, " he said.
"I know..." Iolaus swallowed hard. "Herc ... check that arrow..."
Iolaus braced himself against a nearby tree to keep from falling, his head lolling back against the rough bark. He began to shiver, cold and heat chasing each other through his body.
Hercules pulled the arrow from his belt and studied the head carefully. The triple-barbed bronze arrowhead still bore smears of blood, but underneath it he could make out traces of something black that had clearly been rubbed on the edges of the barbs.
"Iolaus, " he muttered in a tight voice. "There's something on the arrowhead." He felt a clutching in the pit of his stomach.
Very carefully, Iolaus nodded. "I thought so ..." He gave a soft gasp. "There are times ... when I hate ...being... right..." The breath hissed out of him and he slid into a pitifully small heap at the foot of the tree.
Hercules snatched him up and set off in the direction of the town, with icy fear pursuing him, as he had so recently pursued the Hind.
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