A cloud of dust shot skyward as Hercules finished sealing the entrance to Echidna's lair. Alcmene and Iolaus stood, waiting anxiously for the demigod to come stumbling towards them.
"Will she be able to get out of there?"
"With Echidna, you never know," Hercules answered his mother.
"I hope you understand why I couldn't have watched her die." Alcmene looked up into her son's eyes.
"Mother, I do understand," he reassured her.
Alcmene's gaze fell upon the blood staining her son's shirt. "Are you alright?"
Hercules chuckled. "I'm fine. I'm fine."
She turned towards Iolaus. "Iolaus, couldn't you..."
"I tried, but you know what he's like," he protested. "Can we go home now?"
"Why? Aren't you having fun here?" asked Hercules, eliciting a giggle from his mother.
Alcmene dropped her arm around her son's waist . He placed his hand on her back and they started back down the path that would lead them home. "Hercules, you make a mother proud."
"Hercules, ready for a home-cooked meal?" laughed Iolaus as he jogged ahead of them.
The hero shook his head teasingly at his friend. "Is that all you ever think about, Iolaus?"
Iolaus took the lead, walking quite a few paces ahead of Hercules and Alcmene to give them some privacy. A half mile down the road towards home, Hercules gasped and grabbed onto his mother's shoulder as he doubled over in pain.
"Iolaus, help!" she cried out in terror.
The hunter turned in time to see Hercules fall to his knees, bringing Alcmene down beside him.
"Herc!" Iolaus dashed back to the fallen man.
Removing the bigger man's hand from Alcmene's shoulder, he attempted to get Hercules to lie still. "Don't move," he cautioned.
Iolaus glanced over at Alcmene. "He's burning up!"
Moving Hercules' shirt aside, Iolaus was horrified to see that the wound had begun to bleed again. The dressing he had applied earlier was soaked through and the red stain was continuing to grow.
"Gods, no," he whispered.
"Iolaus? What is it?" demanded the worried mother.
"He's still bleeding, Alcmene. We have to get him to a healer."
After Hercules had defeated Echidna, he had seemed to be doing much better. Iolaus cursed himself, realizing belatedly that it was battle fury that had kept the other man going. Hercules' physical pain had taken a back seat to his need to rescue Alcmene. It was only now, after the danger had passed, that his body was able to give in to its need for rest.
"Aesculapius has a temple in the next valley," Alcmene said. She had pillowed Hercules' head in her lap and was stroking the hair back from his forehead. "Go get him, Iolaus. He's the only one who can help my son."
Neither said what they both were thinking. No one survived Hephaestus' arrows. Had Hercules only managed to delay the inevitable?
"You have to go," she said, trying to remove her torn cloak without disturbing Hercules. Seeing what she was doing, Iolaus helped her out of it.
"Tear it into strips," she directed. He did so, handing them to her to use to try to stem the flow of blood.
Iolaus' eyes were shiny with unshed tears as he knelt next to his friend. "You fought it before, Herc. Don't let us down now."
Alcmene raised her tear-stained face to the man she thought of as the son of her heart. "Aesculapius, Iolaus. Please, go to Aesculapius."
He placed his hand on Hercules' shoulder and squeezed once in farewell. "I'll be right back, my friend. Be here when I get back."
Iolaus rose to his feet and began to run towards the temple, one thought pounding through his mind. Hercules could not die!
The sun was high in the sky by the time the hunter reached the modest temple of Aesculapius. Ignoring the shocked outburst of the priests in the outer hall, he tore past them to the altar.
"Aesculapius!" he screamed. "Hercules needs your help!"
A guard came storming up behind him and grabbed Iolaus' arm to drag him away. Iolaus shook the man away mindlessly, yelling out for Aesculapius once more. He tottered on legs shaking from exhaustion, only his fear for Hercules keeping him on his feet. Iolaus drew in another shuddering breath, readying himself to call out once more.
"There is no need to shout, young man."
The guard's mouth gaped open in surprise. The God of Healing had materialized in front of Iolaus and was regarding the blonde thoughtfully.
"You may go now, Milo," Aesculapius dismissed the stunned guardsman.
"Now, what is this about Hercules needing my help?"
Hercules had often said that Aesculapius was one of the few residents of Olympus who actually cared about what happened in the mortal realm. Iolaus could only hope it was true. In a rush, he told the healer of the events leading up to the hunter's run to the temple.
"I thought he was alright. I really did. He looked fine, he wasn't in any pain. At least, he didn't act like he was in any pain. We were laughing. He and Alcmene were talking and then..." Iolaus took a deep breath, trying to maintain his composure. "Then it all came back, worse than when he woke up after I took out the arrow."
Aesculapius listened to Iolaus' tale, gathering up herbs as he did so. As Iolaus finished, the god asked, "Where is he now?"
"Just outside of Dronos, on the road from Echidna's cave towards Thebes. It took me three hours to get here." Iolaus' breath caught in his throat as he realized that his mission might have been in vain. The demigod might very well have been negotiating his fare with Charon even before Iolaus reached the temple.
Aesculapius favored the mortal with a smile. "Don't worry, he's still among the living."
"All of Olympus would have heard Charon's yelling."
Aesculapius clapped his hands and a young woman stepped into the hall. "Dora, prepare a horse for our young friend here." She bowed and left the room without saying a word.
"I will meet you there, Iolaus." He vanished in a sparkle of light.
Distraught as he was, Iolaus still muttered, "I hate when they do that."
Dora returned in a short while and motioned for Iolaus to follow her. They walked together towards the small stable behind the temple.
A large stallion had been saddled and was waiting almost impatiently for his rider. He tossed his head as if in annoyance and Iolaus could almost have sworn the horse was telling him to hurry it up.
Iolaus thanked Dora, who merely bowed silently once more as the horse and rider left the stable. Once outside of those four walls, the stallion began to run unlike any horse Iolaus had ever seen before. He said a quick prayer of thanks to Aesculapius as the miles flew by.
In what seemed like no time at all, he was within sight of Hercules and Alcmene. The God of Healing was nowhere to be seen.
Hercules still lay with his head in his mother's lap. Alcmene bent over her son, the sunlight sparkling in the moisture on her face. Iolaus choked back a sob, fearing the worst.
He dismounted before the horse had come to complete halt, half running, half stumbling towards Hercules.
"Alcmene?" he asked fearfully, his voice trembling.
"Iolaus! He's going to live!"
He dropped to his knees beside Hercules and placed his hand on his friend's arm. Hercules' skin was cool to the touch, perspiration beading up on the surface.
"Where is Aesculapius?"
"He just left," replied Alcmene with a soft smile. "If you hadn't gone to get him, Iolaus..." She left the rest unsaid as the man lying supine on the ground began to stir.
"Mother?" Hercules lifted his head from her lap. "What happened?"
"Shhh. I'll tell you all about it tonight, son. For now, you just rest."
He nodded and lay back down, closing his eyes.
"I'll go back to Dronos and get a wagon. Will you be alright for a while longer?"
Alcmene nodded. "Go. We'll be fine now." She wiped at her damp cheeks.
Iolaus caught up the reins of the stallion, intending to ride back towards Dronos. A flash of light caused the horse to rear in alarm. Iolaus tried to calm the frightened animal before he whirled around to face the newcomer.
"Aesculapius!" All thoughts of chewing out the god responsible for scaring the horse fled from his mind. "Thank you!"
The God of Healing waved a hand towards a dense cluster of trees. "There is a wagon and team waiting for you there, Iolaus. Hercules still needs plenty of rest, as I told his mother." He nodded at Alcmene. "Perhaps between the two of you, you will be able to get him to stay down for a few days."
Aesculapius took the reins from Iolaus' hand and left with the animal before Iolaus could respond.
He took off running towards the trees and stopped short in amazement. There stood a wagon with a team already hitched. The bed was padded with straw and covered in soft furs, awaiting the slumbering Hercules.
Iolaus led the horses to where Alcmene sat waiting. He managed to get his much larger, heavier friend into the wagon, then assisted Alcmene. She sat down next to Hercules and covered him with the woven blanket Aesculapius had left hanging over the side.
Iolaus clambered up to the seat in front and clucked at the horses. With a creak of leather and metal, the wagon rolled towards Thebes.
"Alcmene, about that home cooked meal..."
He laughed and ducked as a handful of hay was thrown his way. "Um, never mind."
Alcmene giggled softly at Iolaus and settled back into the soft furs, secure in the knowledge that her son was going to live. And in the knowledge that the son of her heart would be there for both of them, no matter what else would come their way.
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