Not long after Hercules dashed out of the barn Iolaus flopped back into the hay and closed his eyes. If there had been just one part of his battered body, which didn’t throb or ache he would have focussed on that but he was truly beginning to think that everything hurt.
What had he been thinking? Challenging one of Hera’s creations wasn’t one of the brightest things he had ever done. Of course he hadn’t been aware of her superhuman strength or that she could fight as well as anyone he had ever seen. “It was still dumb Iolaus,” he muttered to himself. Now Hercules was facing Hera’s minion alone because he had been reckless.
The blond hunter pressed a hand against his aching ribs and tried to shift into a more comfortable position. After several minutes of squirming and wincing he realised that comfort was presently unattainable and gave up with a frustrated groan.
His mind wandered back to his encounter with Hera’s leather clad water woman and he sighed. What else could he have done? The Enforcer was intent on killing his best friend and she didn’t care who she hurt in the process. If Iolaus hadn’t taken her on then somebody else would have been hurt or killed. If faced with identical circumstances again, he’d do the same thing. “I guess that makes me stupid,” he said with a small dry laugh.
Iolaus hoped desperately that Hercules had arrived in time to prevent Nemesis making the same mistake. The young ex-god believed she had a score to settle with Hera and mindless of her recently bestowed mortality she had slipped away to engage The Enforcer by herself. Hercules would be devastated if anything happened to Nemesis and Iolaus had to admit to having become quite fond of the young woman, even if she had once tried to kill him. Iolaus growled in frustration and pulled himself up into a sitting position with a grunt of pain. He should be with Herc, fighting by his side. He shuffled to the edge of the hay bales and gingerly attempted to stand up. Things seemed to be going pretty well until he placed a little weight on his right leg. Red hot shards of agony shot up his leg and he toppled back onto the hay as his head whirled sickeningly. He took a few deep breaths and waited for the world to stop spinning. “Iolaus, you’re a mess,” he sighed.
This was definitely one of the worst beatings he had ever taken and his injuries, although not serious were many, painful and incapacitating. His face was indeed a mess. His left eye was beginning to swell, his lip was cut and still bleeding, he had a nasty gash on his forehead and an impressive assortment of colourful scrapes and bruises. “I had better be careful not to frighten any children out there while I look like this,” he groaned and dabbed at his lip with the back of his hand. His head throbbed, his ribs ached, every part of his body felt sore and bruised and his right knee was hurting like Tartarus. He rested a hand on the painful knee and frowned when he found it had swollen and was hot to the touch even through the covering leather. He wouldn’t be walking very far any time soon, he surmised but he was determined to drag himself outside to see how his partner was faring. On his second attempt, Iolaus found that he could stand and put a little weight on his right leg as long as he didn’t bend his swollen knee.
By the time he had hobbled half the distance to the barn door the throbbing in his head had turned into a relentless pounding, the ache in his bruised ribs had become a sharp stabbing pain and he began to wonder if he would make it as far as the door. Gritting his teeth determinedly the blond hunter shuffled the last few feet and leaned wearily against the crumbling wood of the doorframe. He wiped beads of perspiration from his forehead and began the long painful journey across the street to where a small crowd had gathered outside the town’s forge.
Iolaus had covered less than half the distance and had paused to lean against a wall when Hercules emerged from the forge with Nemesis in his arms. Several of the town’s folk offered assistance and Iolaus overheard Hercules thanking them and saying he could take care of her himself. By the time Iolaus arrived back at the barn everyone had begun to go back about their business and Hercules was alone with Nemesis.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” the hunter heard his friend asking.
“Yes, my head hurts a little but otherwise it’s only my pride that’s injured,” the young woman replied.
Iolaus leaned against the wall outside the barn and breathed a sigh of relief. Everything would be alright now. Hercules had despatched Hera’s homicidal water-skin and Nemesis seemed to be relatively unscathed. Resisting the urge to slump onto the ground at his feet the hunter turned and peered through a crack in the barn wall. He was just in time to see his partner pull the young woman into his arms and kiss her passionately. Iolaus smiled and looked away feeling a little guilty for spying on his friend.
Hercules deserved a little happiness and right now the last thing he needed was a battered friend lying around like the aftermath of a road chariot accident. Hercules and Nemesis needed some privacy so Iolaus pushed his protesting body away from the wall and limped away to find somewhere to spend the night.
“Hercules it’s going to be dark soon,” Nemesis said softly.
Hercules sighed and stretched languidly, like a cat awaking from a nap. “Mmmm,” he said and ran his fingers through the young woman’s silky hair.
“I’m worried about Iolaus. You should go and look for him,” Nemesis urged in a voice tinged with concern.
The demigod rolled onto his back and sighed. “You’re right,” he said with a hint of irritation. “He has probably found some pretty young thing to take pity on him and is playing the wounded soldier for all it is worth,” Hercules sat up and reached for his clothes. “But I had better check on him.”
Nemesis frowned. “I’m not so sure Hercules, he was pretty badly hurt,” she replied.
Hercules became thoughtful as he pulled on his boots. Nemesis was right, his partner’s injuries were quite bad and the demigod had to admit to having been pretty surprised that Iolaus wasn’t still lying in the barn when he had returned.
Spurred on by an increasing feeling of guilt for not having checked on his friend earlier, Hercules set out to ask around the town for word of his partner’s whereabouts.
After an hour of fruitless questioning and searching his guilt turned to panic. Iolaus hadn’t been seen and Hercules didn’t have a clue where to start looking for him.
“He can’t have gone far Nemesis,” the demigod said in frustration when he returned to the barn. “Not in the state he was in.”
“I’ll help you look for him,” the young woman offered and slipped a comforting arm around the demigod’s waist.
Hercules turned and pulled her into his arms. “No, you had better stay here in case he comes back,” he said and kissed the top of her head tenderly. “I’ ll look around the edges of town. I only hope I find him before it gets dark. I hate to think of him out there hurt and alone all night.”
Iolaus shivered and moaned softly. He was lying face down on a muddy riverbank, he was soaking wet, freezing cold and feeling very sorry for himself. It really hadn’t been his day. He had headed for the river to set up camp for the night and all had been going well until a small section of the riverbank had given way beneath him and he had tumbled into the rapidly flowing water. In his weakened condition it had taken all his strength and determination to fight his way to the bank and pull his exhausted body from the water. That was the last thing he remembered before unconsciousness had claimed him. Now he was in a lot of trouble. He was shivering uncontrollably and if he couldn’t somehow find the strength to light a fire he would be lucky to make it through the night.
Even the small effort of rolling onto his back sent waves of pain through his battered body and he fought back the darkness that threatened to engulf him. Steeling himself against the pain the hunter slowly sat up. For several long moments he sat with his head bowed and his arms wrapped around his shivering frame, taking long shaky breaths. When the world had finally stopped spinning he tentatively moved his injured leg. It was worse than before and his face contorted in pain. Iolaus bit his lip and wearily resigned himself to the fact that he would not be walking or even hobbling back to the town that night. With an injured knee he couldn’t even crawl so how was he going to collect enough wood to even start a fire let alone keep it burning all night. He began dragging himself painfully across the cold ground and prayed fervently that by some miracle Hercules found him before a hungry predator did.
Hercules stood on the bank of the river and stared out into the fast flowing water in horror, “Iolaus,” he whispered. He had checked the river as a likely place to find his missing friend but on finding no sign of him he had been about to leave. Then a small piece of purple cloth snagged on a bush and a crumbling riverbank had led him to an inevitable conclusion. The demigod recovered his senses and set off, following the river downstream. The shadows had lengthened into evening gloom and once the sun had set there would be little hope of finding any sign of his partner in the dark.
The light had all but faded into night when Hercules almost fell over the prone body of his best friend. Iolaus was sprawled on the damp ground beside a small pile of wood and as the demigod dropped to his knees beside his friend’s still form he realised that the hunter had tried to light a fire but had collapsed before completing the task. “Iolaus?” he said and gently rolled the hunter onto his back. To his immense relief his friend opened his eyes.
“Herc?” Iolaus murmured weakly.
The demigod’s relief turned to worry as he observed his pale shivering partner. “Let’s get you somewhere warm,” he said gently and helped his friend to sit up. Iolaus clenched his fists against his pain as his friend hoisted him to his feet and held him upright. “Can you walk?” the demigod asked.
Iolaus gingerly placed his right foot on the ground, gasped in pain and slumped dizzily against his tall friend.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Hercules said and lifted his partner into his arms.
The next thing Iolaus remembered was waking up back in the barn. He was cocooned in blankets and at some point he had been divested of his clothing. Despite the blankets he still felt chilled and when he moved slightly he immediately regretted it. His distressed moan brought Hercules to his side.
“Welcome back,” the demigod said. “How do you feel?”
“C-cold,” Iolaus stammered through chattering teeth.
Hercules clenched his fists as he regarded his shivering friend. Now that Iolaus was safe he had found himself fighting a rising tide of anger and he finally snapped. “Well what do you expect?” he barked. “You’re lucky to be alive Iolaus. What if I hadn’t found you?”
Iolaus blinked in shock and remained pale and silent.
Hercules wasn’t finished. “What were you thinking? Why did you leave the barn? One of these days your recklessness is going to get you killed.”
Iolaus was still silent, his eyes downcast and he didn’t look up until Hercules had finished his tirade and walked angrily away. The hunter’s eyes shimmered and he swallowed past an uncomfortable lump in his throat.
Nemesis had come into the barn with a basket of supplies in time to hear the demigod’s angry out burst and she was almost as stunned as Iolaus was.
Hercules flopped onto the hay and closed his eyes and the young woman sat beside the injured hunter and took his hand. “He was so worried about you Iolaus,” she said softly and gently smoothed the matted hair from his forehead. “And I think he is angry because you got hurt and with himself for not looking for you earlier.”
Iolaus nodded slightly but the hurt never left his eyes.
“Are you hungry?” she asked in an effort to distract him.
“No, thank you,” the hunter replied and closed his eyes.
Nemesis sighed. “Okay, try and get some sleep then,” she said and tucked the blankets around him.
Iolaus didn’t answer.
Hercules opened his eyes when Nemesis sat down beside him. She was regarding him questioningly and the demigod sighed in frustration. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper,” he admitted. “But I just don’t understand why he wandered off like that.”
Nemesis looked thoughtful as she replied. “I haven’t known Iolaus as long as you have Hercules but from what I do know of him I would be surprised if he didn’t have a good reason. An unselfish one.”
Hercules raised his hands in frustration. “Like what?” he asked.
Nemesis handed him a plate. “Why don’t you consider that while we eat,” she said gently.
The demigod sat quietly and considered her words while the young woman served a meal of cold meat, bread and fruit. She was right of course, there was probably a reason for his partner’s behaviour and the least he could have done was give him a chance to defend himself. His brow creased with concern when he thought back to his angry outburst. Iolaus had been uncharacteristically quiet. A sudden weight of guilt descended over the demigod as he chewed on his food. He looked across to where his friend lay. “Iolaus should eat something,” he said quietly.
“He said he wasn’t hungry,” Nemesis informed him.
Hercules frowned, put down his plate and went to sit beside his partner. “Iolaus,” he said softly and placed a hand gently on his friend’s shoulder.
The hunter’s eyes fluttered open and he regarded the demigod warily. “Why did you wander off like that today?” Hercules asked.
Iolaus looked away. “Because I’m reckless,” he muttered and shivered.
Hercules ignored his partner’s flippant remark and placed a hand on his friend’s brow. It was hot and dry and Hercules sighed. “You have a fever,” he said.
“Yeah,” Iolaus said and shivered again. “It’s my own f-fault for going s-swimming with my c-clothes on,” he grimaced as another violent bout of shivering caused shock waves of pain to course through his battered body.
Hercules squeezed the hunter’s shoulder supportively. “I was out of line Iolaus. It doesn’t matter what your reasons were I shouldn’t have lost my temper. I was worried and I…” he looked into his friend’s pain filled eyes. “I’m sorry Iolaus,” he said sincerely.
“S-okay Herc,” the hunter said and managed a brief smile before he began to shake again. “C-cold Herc,” he stammered.
“I’ll get some more blankets and something to reduce your fever,” the demigod said solicitously. “Hang in there Iolaus.”
The hunter nodded and closed his eyes. Every shiver was causing his bruised and aching body to protest and it was getting steadily worse. Hercules headed out of the barn to get blankets and fever reducing herbal tea. Nemesis sat beside the hunter and gently stroked his hair.
When the demigod returned he raised his shivering friend’s shoulders and encouraged him to drink the herbal tea. Iolaus obediently drank as much of the bitter tasting liquid as he could stomach before turning his head away. Hercules was about to lower his friend back down when another attack of shivering assailed the hunter and he sobbed in distress. Hercules pulled his friend against him and reached for the extra blankets. “You’ll feel warmer soon Iolaus,” he soothed and wrapped the blankets snugly around his partner’s shaking frame.
Iolaus shook with chills and moaned in pain for much of the night and Hercules continued to hold him close in an attempt to warm and comfort him.
Nemesis lay down on the shivering hunter’s other side and wrapped her arms around him too but it was some time before Iolaus fell into an exhausted sleep.
His fever broke during the following morning and he slept until early evening. He awoke to find his partner curled up asleep by his side with Nemesis in his arms. That evening after complaining of extreme hunger the hunter ate a hearty meal and was obviously well on his way to recovery.
Two days later Iolaus was hobbling around with the aid of a stick and was pretty much back to his usual self. Hercules was returning with Nemesis from a long walk and spotted his friend heading off across the meadow towards the river. “Oh great,” he said in exasperation. “He’s off again.”
“Go and talk to him Hercules,” Nemesis suggested. “Find out what’s on his mind.”
Hercules caught up with his partner as he was easing himself down by the bank of the river. He sat down by his friend’s side. “Iolaus, are you running off again?” he asked and indicated the bag of supplies his friend was carrying.
“Yep,” the hunter replied.
“Why?” Hercules asked.
Iolaus stared out at the river. “Because,” he began, “You two can’t be alone with me lying around and looking pathetic,” he continued. “So I thought I’d camp out here tonight.”
Realisation dawned on the demigod’s face and he flopped back onto the grass.
“Oh Gods,” he said. “Nemesis said your reason was unselfish.” He sat up again and placed an arm around his partner’s shoulders. “I should have known Iolaus. I’m sorry.”
The hunter grinned up at his friend. “I know that Herc,” he said. “But make the best of it because tomorrow night you two get to sleep out here while I sleep in the nice cosy barn.”
Hercules laughed and squeezed his friend’s shoulders. “You don’t have to do this Iolaus,” he said.
“I know, but I want to,” Iolaus said sincerely.
“Thank you Iolaus,” the demigod said and rose to his feet. “I owe you one.”
Iolaus cleared his throat. “Well now you come to mention it there is something you could do for me before you go back to the arms of a beautiful woman and leave me out here, all alone, injured and cold,” he said with a broad grin.
Hercules raised his eyebrows questioningly. “And what would that be?” he said.
“If you could just collect a huge pile of firewood, catch a nice plump rabbit, skin it, cook it…”
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