Hercules came out of the barn, carrying a bowl full of bloodstained water. Moving away from the door, he dumped it in a patch of grass nearby and gave a weary sigh. Iolaus - whose blood had fouled the water - was doing better. The numerous cuts on his face and body had stopped oozing, and his knee had proven to be merely wrenched, not broken, as Hercules had first feared.
It was Nemesis who worried him. He had carried her back to the barn after the fight with the Enforcer, but so far she had not regained consciousness. He had been alarmed to see that one of her pupils was much larger than the other. He knew what that meant, having seen it all too often, and he had now begun to regret having brought her back here to the barn instead of immediately seeking out the town healer. But he had been driven by the need to get back to Iolaus, to tend to his friend's injuries as well ... another sigh burst from his lips. Two friends badly hurt, because of him. Once again, the innocent were paying the price of Hera's hatred.
Something made him look down the path in the direction of the village. Whatever instinct it was, he was grateful for it, because among the thinly spaced pine trees he saw the distant twinkle of torches. A crowd of people was on the move, and it was headed in his direction.
The seed of unease that had lurked in the back of his mind for the past several hours now flowered into full-blown worry. He hurried back into the barn.
From where he lay on a thick bed of straw, Iolaus noticed his friend's grim face. "What's up?" he asked hoarsely.
"The village, I'd say. We've got what looks like a mob with torches headed this way".
"Not good!" With a half-smothered grunt of pain Iolaus tried to lever himself to his feet, only to be stopped halfway by a gentle but inexorable hand on his shoulder that forced him back down again.
"Will you stay put?" Once certain that Iolaus was not going to try and get up again, Hercules went back to his post at the barn door. He heard Iolaus' voice behind him.
"Look, I know what you're thinking, but it may not be - "
"How could it be anything else?!" exploded Hercules suddenly. "And why SHOULD it be anything else? They're angry and they're coming after the person who made them that way! Put yourself in their place, Iolaus! Imagine that you've given your hospitality to someone - and in return, he's brought down the vengeance of the gods on your village!"
"But it's not your fault!"
The torches were getting closer. He could see that they had a wagon with them, which puzzled him. But there was no mistaking the determined stride of the crowd heading in their direction. They were people with a purpose - and he knew all too well what that purpose was.
"Do you think they care about that? Why should they? I wouldn't, if I were in their shoes! Half the village is in ruins, there are injured people all over the place, the festival is totally wiped out - and it's all because of me!"
"No! It's because of Hera!"
Hercules gave a Minotaur-like snort of exasperation. "Yeah! Like these people are going to stop and make that distinction! They're NOT marching on Hera's temple with torches in their hands! They're coming HERE!"
The vehemence of his own words seemd to snap Hercules out of his anger for the moment. His eyes went to Nemesis, lying pale and still in the straw.
"She can't be moved," he commented to Iolaus. His friend nodded.
"We're just going to have to face them down", Iolaus commented, this time successful in getting to his feet.
Hercules looked at him sharply. Iolaus was indeed on his feet - just barely. He was swaying, and the purple-black bruises that covered his face were in severe contrast to the ashen pallor of the rest of him.
"'WE' are not doing anything!" declared the half-god through clenched teeth. "YOU are lying back down, before I nail you to the floor! *I* am going to handle this!" With one swift motion, he swept Iolaus up in his arms and set him with a gentle but meaningful thump back down on the hay. "Stay there! And if it's any comfort to your pride - I'm relying on YOU to protect Nemesis, if this thing breaks the way I think it's going to!"
That shut Iolaus up for the moment. He curled himself protectively around the former goddess, who had not stirred.
Hercules went back to the barn door. The tramp of feet could now be heard, along with a wordless murmur of voices. In a voice thick with self-disgust, he commented, "You know, I can't even be angry at them. I've gotten that way with other people - seems like those whom I've helped the most, are the least grateful. But these guys..." he gave a short bark of mirthless laughter - "all they wanted was a good party! A fun time, a profitable market, the usual thing a small town wants for its annual festival. And I ruined it all for them!"
The sound of the crowd and the flickering light of the torches
was almost directly outside the barn. People could be heard talking
"- they're in there!"
"- the Enforcer. She destroyed my roof!"
"My son's arm was broken when - "
"The inn's a ruin! It'll take me six months - "
"What was he thinking of, running away like that?"
Then a voice rang out. "Hercules!"
Both men recognized it as belonging to Cletus the blacksmith.
Hercules squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. Then he headed out the door of the barn.
"Herc - don't!" But it was too late.
The son of Zeus stepped in to the circle of light cast by the torches in the hands of the mob.
Cletus was one of the ones bearing a torch. "Hercules," he said in a low, intense voice. "Why did you run away from the town?"
Hercules met the blacksmith's eyes squarely. "I had to come back to see how Iolaus was doing. He was hurt, trying to defend me - and all of you! " He raised his voice. "Listen to me, all of you! I know why you've come out after me! You've come for vengeance, and I can't blame you for it! I was the one who brought destruction down on your town and ruined your festival!"
"Hercules!" interrupted Cletus.
"No, let me finish!" He waved his hand sharply. "The Enforcer was Hera's creature - but she was sent after me! I know that! And I know that a lot of people were injured by her, and a lot of property destroyed. I didn't intend for that to happen! I didn't intend for ANY of this to happen!"
"Hercules!" Cletus tried once again to break in, but Hercules went on unheeding.
"Listen, I've got two injured people in here - people who were trying to defend your town against the Enforcer, just like I was! They've done nothing to deserve your anger. But I realize that I have!"
"Hercules, there's nothing - "
"Cletus, I KNOW that! I know that there is nothing that I can do to change the fact that your town has suffered - and I am the one responsible!"
"NO!" The bellow from the blacksmith was loud enough to cause Hercules to take a pace back.
Inside the barn, Iolaus tensed at the sound and crawled over the straw to place himself between Nemesis and the door. He grasped a pitchfork and prayed he would have the strength to lift it. At least they hadn't torched the barn - yet.
Outside, Cletus strode forward to stand eye to eye with the half-god. Angrily he reached out and grasped Hercules by the forearms. "Will you listen to me?!!!" he roared. "I've never heard such a load of goat-leavings in my life! You're responsible?! Never! HERA is responsible!!!! That creature was hers, and the destruction it left was hers, too! Do you think we are such fools that we can't see that?" He paused to take a breath and Hercules stared at him, dumbstruck.
Cletus went on. "We came out, all of us, to say 'thank you!'. You saved us from that creature. She'd have killed the whole town, if you and your friends hadn't stopped her. We realized that, but when we looked around, you'd already gone off. Someone said that you were staying in the barn here, so we came out hoping to find you!" He turned and motioned to several of the people behind him, then turned back to Hercules. "Now - if you will just shut up about how it's all your fault, we can get to work here! I've brought a wagon out to bring your two friends back to the town, and the healer is riding in it. Judging by the look of you, the healer's going to want to see you too! And if you are still so guilt-ridden after all this, you can damn well work it off helping rebuild things!"
Mouth wide open, Hercules just stood, staring, for several heartbeats.
Finally he turned and looked at Iolaus, who had crawled to the open door to see what was happening.
In a very small, very chastened voice, the Son of Zeus said to his friend, "Never mind."
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