Through a haze of pain Iolaus' consciousness made a valiant effort to reach the uppermost level of his awareness. He was lying on the ground, a soft and sun soaked forest floor, fragrant with leaves and living plants close by. From far away dull sounds drifted into his muddled mind, but they were of no importance. An all consuming fire was burning in his chest, and he struggled to clear his thoughts enough to remember what had happened. With an incredible effort he opened his eyes, and tried to focus on the arrow that was inches away from his face, sticking out of his chest. For a moment he was confused, and could not understand how it had got there, but slowly realisation trickled into his thoughts. The golden hind. She had shot him. That explained the pain, but not the fire. Iolaus tried to concentrate, but everything was slowed almost to a standstill. The one thought that made it through at the moment was that the arrow had to come out. It was burning his insides, and better to bleed to death than to be consumed by flames. He attempted to lift his right hand, but nothing happened. Groaning in frustration and painfilled effort he renewed his struggle and managed to move his hand enough to grasp the arrow. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. Taking in a shuddering breath, he pulled with all his might. Slowly the arrow slid out, ripping through his flesh. Agony shot through him, and a tormented scream escaped his throat. The arrow snapped and fell from his grasp.
For a short moment the pain of the actual wound was stronger than the raging fire inside him, but then the burning began to spread again, slower than before, but insatiable in its desire to destroy. Instinctively Iolaus was aware of this. Forcing himself to follow one train of thought at a time, he focused on the one thing that penetrated through the haze of blood and pain that lay around his mind. Hercules was near. If he could reach his friend, Hercules would know what to do.
Iolaus rolled over onto his stomach, and pushed himself up to his knees. His arms were shaking with the effort, and nausea rose hot in his throat, but he stayed concentrated on his goal to get up. Breathing hard he staggered to his feet, and fell forward more than began to walk. Oblivious to the blood that flowed freely from the now open wound in his chest, his arms hanging limply beside his body, he began moving. Unaware of where he was heading, Iolaus crashed through the brush, stumbling forward, driven by the need to leave this place, and get back to where Hercules was waiting for him.
Hercules had been waiting a while at the place where he and Iolaus had split up a couple of hours earlier, walking in circles, looking in all directions, and getting worried when his friend did not show. The traps that were scattered all through the forest were amateurish, and easy to spot, of course, but Iolaus had the tendency to get side tracked at times, and there was always a chance he might have missed one of them, or had found himself entangled with some of the hunters that were still criss crossing the woods. Hercules stopped his pacing and considered. Of course it was also possible that his friend had found his way back to the village, and the local bar for a quick refreshment break. He sighed, and relaxed. Yes, that was the more likely reason why Iolaus had not made it back here yet.
He waited a few minutes longer, but then decided to follow his friend's tracks and catch him red handed at whatever it was he should not be doing at this moment. Hercules was glad to find that his friend had not tried to cover his tracks at least, and followed the footprints easily.
In the distance he heard the rather clumsy attempts by the hunters to herd the hind towards a point at the east end of the forest. Hercules shook his head. Did these people not realise that she was not an animal, but an intelligent creature who could not be panicked and driven that easily? At the same time though he was glad that the soldiers were this stupid; it gave the hind the chance to get away from immediate danger.
Fully expecting to come across Iolaus trapped in a pit, or under a net set by Nestor's trappers, looking up at Hercules with embarrassment and an indignant "About time you showed up. Are you gonna get me out of here?", he was not prepared for what he did find in the second clearing he came to.
Footprints on the soft ground, scuffmarks further on, a broken blue-feathered arrow off to the side, and blood everywhere. Hercules' first thought was that the assassins had found and killed the hind, but before anger and sorrow could enter his mind, it dawned on him that there was only one set of tracks in the clearing, and he had been following Iolaus up to this point. The hunters' shouts and clanking noises could still be heard in the distance, so apparently they were still looking for the golden deer-woman.
Suddenly worried he entered the clearing, and kneeling on the ground, carefully examined the arrow. The shaft was almost broken in two, and the tip sticky with barely congealed blood. The feathers were of an incandescent blue, and not of a local bird. A tingling sensation ran through his hand where it touched the arrow, and his own demi-god senses told him that no mortal had fired it. It had to have been the hind, and only one person had been in this clearing before Hercules. Gripping the arrow tightly, he swallowed hard, and got to his feet, searching the ground for further signs.
The trail of blood was easy to follow, and led off to the side, and into the deeper underbrush. Flinging the arrow away, Hercules headed for where broken twigs and torn leaves marked where someone had left the clearing, his heart heavy with what he might find.
He did not have far to go. About twenty feet into the lush greenery Iolaus was lying face down, in a desperate struggle to get to his feet.
"Iolaus!" Hercules dashed forward, and dropped down beside his friend. His facial muscles tensed in an effort to keep his composure, as he turned Iolaus over as gently as he could, and supporting the other man's head and shoulders, searched his face for signs of recognition. With his free hand he tried to staunch the flow of blood from the wound in Iolaus' chest, but was much more worried about his friend's general condition and the intense heat that emanated from his body.
Iolaus' eyes were open, but glassy and staring, burning with fever, and he was moaning softly. Every few seconds he was muttering unintelligible word fragments, his lips dry and cracked, and his body arched up in some private agony. He was still struggling to get up, seemingly unaware that Hercules was holding him. Sweat was glistening on his face, and his cheeks were hollow and sunken.
Hercules had seen signs of poisoning before, but there was no knowing just how powerful the hind's poison might be. Fortunately Iolaus had managed to pull the arrow out; maybe not all of the deadly substance had entered his bloodstream, and the free flow of blood might have washed out more of it. All this had slowed the process, but whatever was left was killing Iolaus nevertheless. Hercules had to draw out as much of the poison as possible, and then get his friend to a healer.
"Listen to me! You will be all right." Hercules spoke more to reassure himself than to get through to Iolaus, as he tore a piece from his shirt, and bunching it together, pressed it against the arrow wound in Iolaus' chest, in an attempt to prevent any further blood loss.
He then gently lowered Iolaus' body back to the ground, and jumped up. With frantic intensity he searched the shrubs and plants in the vicinity. A forest was a healer's paradise, and though he was no healer himself, he had learned a lot about plants and their properties from his mother. Alcmene loved flowers, but she was also very knowledgeable as far as herbs, roots and wild plants were concerned.
Spreading out in a widening circle, one eye on the semi-conscious Iolaus, talking to him constantly during his search, he began to look for bitter root and birthwort to draw out the poison, and sphagnum moss and comfrey to dress the wound. He was lucky, and within minutes found what he was looking for. Rushing back to his injured friend, Hercules wadded the herbs together, and gently pressed them against the arrow wound. Using a thin strip of his shirt, he carefully tied the dressing in place.
Iolaus was tossing in delirious hallucinations, yelling out to an imagined hind to warn her of approaching hunters. Hercules knew he did not have much time left. Sighing deeply, he picked up his friend with infinite care, and made his way back towards the clearing, and the way he had come just minutes earlier. Speaking softly to keep whatever was left of Iolaus consciousness from sliding into oblivion, Hercules carried his friend in his arms, and headed for the village at the edge of the forest.
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