A Change of Seasons

by Ziggy

Iolaus of Thebes knelt beside the tracks. The ground, still damp from the rains of a couple of days ago, made finding signs of recent game passage easy. A quick look and gentle touch told the experienced hunter the trail was fairly fresh. Lifting his head, Iolaus followed the tracks with his eyes, then frowned as, once again, the paw prints ended abruptly. *Tartarus!* He growled silently. It didn't make sense! The sudden end of the prints more than likely meant that a flying creature was involved, but it didn't explain why the beast would land and take flight so often.

The tracks seemed to have been made by a large cat of some kind; however, there were other marks with the prints, weird-looking scraping marks. It had even the skilled hunter wondering what kind of creature had taken up residence in the area. Still kneeling, Iolaus rubbed his chin with his right hand as he contemplated the marks.

When a farmer had come seeking Hercules' help to deal with a "monster" that was stealing livestock in the darkening hour just before night fell completely, Iolaus had offered his services since the demigod was still off doing Herculean tasks the gods only knew where. Nobody had been able to give an accurate description of the creature that was attacking; the fading light provided only quick glimpses and those only when a snatched animal made a sound that attracted attention. Setting up watches proved fruitless. The beast either failed to make an appearance or stole livestock from a less-protected farm.

The only signs Iolaus found of anything were the few paw marks in the damp earth. Iolaus figured it was an airborne attacker, but the tracks confused him. Flying creatures usually captured their prey on the wing and landed when they reached their lair or nest. There was no reason for landing, so why did it?

Sighing, Iolaus continued his pursuit, but soon lost any signs. The thing had finally taken to the air and stayed there. Since he was this far out, he decided to scout for game. Whenever Hercules was away helping people, which was quite often now that his family was gone, Iolaus took it upon himself to keep a watchful eye on his best friend's mother. Alcmene was like a mother to him, as well, so it wasn't an unpleasant task; besides, a visit more often than not netted him a hearty meal and excellent company to boot. These woods were rich with a variety of game; Iolaus figured some venison would be nice to add to his and Alcmene's larders, especially since harvest was nearly upon them and, soon after, the winter snows.

This thought led to another. With wild game so abundant, why would this creature risk raiding domestic stock? Certainly, it would be safer to pick off a fat deer than possibly face the weapons of angry farmers?

Iolaus approached an area where he knew natural salt licks lay. Stealthily, he edged near some bushes that grew near-by. He quietly eased a branch back and spied two large bucks licking salt off the ground. The majestic bucks' antlers were covered in ragged velvet, a sign telling the hunter it was coming up on the deer's rutting season. From here, he would be able to get a clean shot off using his bow. He would definitely have to remember to come back here on his way home.

As he observed the beautiful animals, Iolaus suddenly felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. A shudder of unease passed through him. It was as if the air had unexpectedly changed. It felt like something had suddenly gone wrong. Recovering from the feeling of disquiet, Iolaus looked up only to see the bucks bounding away, into the relative safety of the forest. The blond warrior knew *he* hadn't made any noise or movement that would have frightened the deer, so he wondered if they, too, had picked up on the ominous sensation.

He hesitated as, again, the ill-omened feeling coursed through him. He shivered, realizing that the air had suddenly grown colder and the wind had swiftly picked up. Raising his head in alarm, he looked up to see clouds were gathering in what was previously a beautiful blue sky.

"What in Tartarus?" He said aloud, then added, "*This* is not good!"

By the time he had reached his small camp, an icy rain was falling steadily. Already chilled to the bone, Iolaus quickly gathered up his meager supplies and journeyed westward, where the hunter knew there were some caves. A sunlength later, or what would have been a sunlength if one had been able to see Helios' chariot through the thick grey clouds, he found a suitable grotto. There he set aside his pack and swiftly got a fire going.

As he warmed himself by the fire, the warrior thought about the odd storm. They usually didn't get this kind of weather until *after* the harvest. If Demeter was upset about things, she usually made the harvest worse than usual to remind mortals who was running the show. This cold, icy stuff, however, this was highly unusual. Iolaus shrugged as he extracted an apple from his pack. What did he know? He was a hunter, not a farmer, no matter how much he had tried to make crops grow when he had been married to Anya.

By morning, things would probably be better, the storm will have stopped, and he could get on with his hunting. Quickly finishing the apple, he tossed the core into the flames, then pulled the thin, wool blanket around his shoulders and settled down to get some sleep.

The next morning proved Iolaus wrong. The storm had not abated; in fact, it had gotten worse. It was now snowing and the land was covered with a white blanket. Everything else was covered with a sheen of ice. The feeling of foreboding passed through the hunter again as he stared at the frozen world. "This is *definitely* not good!"

Standing around silently debating the nature of the gods and their whims with mortals didn't get the job done, so Iolaus fashioned a makeshift cloak out of his wool blanket and struck out once again. As the day progressed, the storm showed no sign of stopping and he had no luck finding the creature. He had managed to stir up a rabbit in his search, however, so he at least returned to the cave with something to eat.

After two more days of unsuccessful searching and hunting, during which the feelings of disquiet would not let up, Iolaus finally decided to head home. The storm was not letting up and, since Iolaus preferred to live off the land when hunting, what meager foodstuffs he had brought with him were now nearly gone. Maybe the storm had also cleared out the monster. Besides, he wanted to get back home and check on Alcmene. Even though the neighbors had assured Iolaus they would look after her while he was gone, he still felt it was his responsibility.

Wrapping the blanket tighter about himself, Iolaus bent his head into the wind and trekked towards Thebes. As he pushed onwards, the hunter ran across the extent of the storm's damage. Fruit trees were heavy not only with the year's harvest, but with the thick layer of ice that coated everything. Big tree branches littered the ground, snapped off from the heavy burden of ice. Frozen foliage cracked under his steps. It wasn't long before he started to find the carcasses of rabbits and deer, their bodies frozen solid by the icy weather.

"Why?" Iolaus asked himself. "What in Tartarus could *anybody* have done that warrants such waste? Gods!" he growled softly. Ever since Hercules' family had been slaughtered by Hera and Zeus had done nothing to stop it, Iolaus' respect for the gods had left as quickly as a star shooting across the sky.

Sometime in the late afternoon, after hours of battling wind and sleet, the cold hunter came across a cave. Well, this would make as good a place as any to stay for the night. He still had some time to gather wood for a fire. If he was lucky, he'd also find something to eat, but didn't hold out hope for much in the way of game.

As the dim light of dusk faded into night, Iolaus returned to his temporary abode. He had managed to find two half-frozen quail trapped in the deepening snow and had quickly put them out of their misery. When he had initially explored the cave, the hunter found the tunnel had curved, helping to block most of the howling wind, so the small blaze he now fed helped warm the alcove enough to take the chill from Iolaus' bones.

Picking up his knife, Iolaus prepared to get the quail ready when he heard a soft scraping noise. Quickly, he held the knife out in front of him protectively and looked around. He'd thought the cave empty, but there were several rock formations along the edges that could possibly hide someone... or something. Then he heard another sound. It could only be described as a mewling cry, a soft call of distress.

"Who's there?" Iolaus barked. "Come on out."

A sound of scratching against rock could be heard, then Iolaus' keen eyesight detected movement to his right. Something peered from behind a pile of rocks. Iolaus could see two eyes reflecting the firelight. Lowering his knife, but keeping it ready just in case, the blond warrior spoke softly. "It's okay, I won't hurt you."

The creature cautiously crept from its hiding place and into the light of the fire. It was a gryphon cub, only a few months old to judge by the downy fluff of feathers on its front raptor-half and the baby fuzz covering its back lion-half. The cub stared at the knife in Iolaus' hand, sharp beak open slightly, one of its taloned front feet scratching the dirt as he fluttered the hawk-like wings nervously.

Iolaus glanced down at the knife, realizing the baby gryphon recognized it as a weapon. Knowing that even a gryphon cub could do him bodily harm, he nonetheless gently laid the blade flat on the ground beside him. Looking up, he saw the cub's attention locked on the quail and could practically read the hungry thoughts it was thinking.

Moving slowly and speaking in reassuring tones, Iolaus selected one of the birds and his knife. He quickly cut up the quail and gently tossed pieces towards the cub. Almost immediately, the gryphon snapped up the offerings, swallowing the bits whole. No sooner had one quail been devoured bit by bit until everything, including the entrails, bones and feathers, was gone, then the cub was staring at the other one.

*So much for fresh meat tonight,* Iolaus sighed. He picked up the other quail and proceeded to cut it up into gryphon cub-sized chucks. This time, however, he did not toss the pieces to his new companion. He laid them closer to him. The beast eagerly snapped up the morsels until there was one piece left. Hoping he wasn't making a foolish mistake, Iolaus held this last chuck in his hand and encouraged the cub to take it. The baby eyed the food, then the hunter. It seemed to be debating between its hunger and its uncertainty of being so close to a human. Hunger won out quickly, however, and the gryphon snatched the morsel from Iolaus' hand.

As the gryphon wolfed down the last bit, Iolaus boldly fingered the soft ear tufts, then lightly ran his hand across the down-covered neck and shoulder. Looking up, he saw the cub staring at him. Hunger abated, temporarily at least, the cub now seemed more curious than scared of this intruder. Iolaus was clearly aware of the sharp beak that moved closer to his unprotected body as he was investigated by his new charge.

"Well, Gryph, " Iolaus found himself automatically naming the beast. Gryph raised his head at the sound of the human's voice, golden raptor eyes gazed intelligently into the hunter's blue ones. "What's your story, huh? I doubt you're the 'terrible monster' that's been taking off with farmers' livestock. Maybe it was your mother, huh?" As he spoke, he stroked the soft, fluffy baby feathers soothingly. The cub inched closer and, tucking his haunches beneath him and settling his downy wings along his back, lay beside the kneeling hunter. Gryph's tail lashed a couple of times then stilled, except for the tufted end, which seemed to have a life of its own and twitched continuously.

That the gryphon had taken to him so quickly pleased Iolaus but did nothing to alleviate the questions that churned in his mind. It was a distinct possibility that a gryphon, probably Gryph's mother, had been taking off with the locals' livestock. From what little Iolaus knew of the beasts, however, this was unusual. Gryphons preferred to live away from civilization and rarely interacted with humans. They were seldom seen except for the occasional one spotted hunting in areas where human habitation was sparse. If wild game was abundant, as it had been in this area before the sudden ice storm, gryphons never bothered with livestock. Accounts of domestic animals being snatched had come to him before this whole mess.

As he contemplated these things, the blond became aware that he had unconsciously eased himself to the ground; Gryph had snuggled closer to him and lay sleeping comfortably in the curve of Iolaus' body. He sighed. *Wonderful!* He thought sarcastically. *Now I have two mouths to feed and I can't find enough for myself.*

At no time did the thought even cross Iolaus' mind that he could abandon the creature. He never rationalized that the unseasonably cold weather was excuse enough to figure "to each his own" and leave the gryphon to take care of itself. It wasn't in Iolaus' generous nature to leave another to suffer alone, especially when the other was just a baby. He would do his very best to see the cub through the problem with him.

Trying not to disturb his new charge's slumber, the hunter awkwardly added more wood from his small pile onto the fire, then wrapped the wool blanket about himself. He could feel the warmth that was the gryphon cub against him. He knew the down and thick fuzz would keep Gryph fairly warm.

So worried with Gryph's welfare, Iolaus never considered that there might be another whose sole concern was the cub that slept peacefully beside him. At least, not until he found himself confronted with a very large, very angry female gryphon.

Iolaus had just begun to doze off when he heard the very hawkish-sounding scream reverberate through the cave. Gryph was on his feet in an instant; he answered the call with a scratchy vocalization of his own. The adult gryphon, whose muscular shoulder easily reached Iolaus' blond head, rounded the curve of the tunnel then halted, its gaze met the human hunter's for a second before shifting to the cub's. Iolaus automatically pushed himself into a crouch, the action catching the quick-sighted adult's attention.

The gryphon screamed another challenge. Iolaus prepared to kiss his mortal life good-bye. There was no way he could defend himself against this beast; besides, even if he could possibly do such a thing, there was no way he would be able to bring himself to kill a mother who believed she was only protecting her young. If Fortune chose to smile on him, he might be able to get past the gryphon and escape into the forest, where the monster wouldn't be able to hunt him down as easily.

Before he could move, however, Gryph placed himself between the hunter and his mother. He made an almost kitten-like mewling as he approached the adult submissively. The mother checked over her cub, then she again gazed at the human.

Iolaus noticed her eyes matched her baby's and, again, realized there was intelligence in those eyes. As she stepped closer, the warrior automatically backed a few steps, unsure if he was about to become a main course. *Okay,* he conceded to himself, *maybe an appetizer.* She made no threatening movements towards him; however, Iolaus noticed she seemed to favor her one front leg. It was as she lay down across the fire from him that the hunter spotted the broken shaft of an arrow protruding from her shoulder, just under the wing.

Suddenly, the entire event made perfect sense. Somebody had obviously wounded her; in an area that it affected her hunting abilities. Unable to keep up with swifter wild game, she had turned to raiding fenced-in livestock to feed herself and her cub. The sparse tracks he'd seen were probably from times when flying got to be too much for her and she'd been forced to land. She must have been out hunting when he'd invaded her cave. It seemed she, too, had returned empty-pawed.

Well, first things, first. That arrowhead had to be removed from her shoulder. Iolaus picked up his knife, then slowly approached the a dult. "Easy, Mother," he soothed when the gryphon turned her head to regard him warily. "I'm not going to hurt you. I want to get that arrow out of your shoulder, okay?"

Mother blinked at him. She glanced at the arrow shaft then back. Gryph had settled down beside his parent; he, too, watched as Iolaus came closer. It was when he was right next to her that the blond hunter saw the dried blood coating the lion's fur around the wound and down the shoulder. After a quick moment's debate with himself, Iolaus strode to the other side of the fire, snatched up his blanket and waterskin then returned.

After ripping some strips from the blanket, Iolaus cleaned away the dried blood as best he could around the wound. A quick examination revealed the arrow was lodged at the base of the wing. It was a wonder she could fly at all! Glancing at his patient, he said, "Okay, Mother, this is going to hurt some. I think I can get this out without too much discomfort on your part."

Keenly aware of the sharp beak a mere couple of handwidths from his face, Iolaus probed the wounded area. Unfortunately, the muscles were inflamed. Iolaus feared infection, but right now he had to concentrate on removing the arrowhead. Working as gently as he could, he found out he was able to get a finger along side the buried arrowhead and work it out without having to use his knife. He felt the gryphon flinch slightly as he worked the barbed metal out of the wound, but that was her only reaction to the operation.

Seeing his every move was being scrutinized, Iolaus thought to himself, *Yeah, sure, Iolaus, offer yourself to her. If she were going to eat you, I guess now would be the time.* Quickly, he placed a piece of blanket-turned-bandage on the wound to staunch the freshly flowing blood. Taking a moment to relax, he found himself gazing into her eyes and, for the first time, noticed they were glazed over from fever and pain.

How long had she been living like this, with this arrow buried in her shoulder? Long enough for the wound to go bad. That, coupled with her inability to fly and, therefore, hunt properly, was taking its toll on her. *And, now, this damned ice storm. No food for her or her baby,* Iolaus swore long and loud in his mind. All that suffering and still she did her best to feed and protect her cub. All that pain and she had yet to make a threatening move towards him since realizing he didn't intend to hurt them.

Iolaus had no herbs on him and he sincerely doubted he would find anything outside. All he could do was hope that now that the arrow was gone, gryphons had better-than-average healing abilities so she could mend. Awkwardly, he took a long strip of blanket and wrapped it around the base of her wing in an effort to hold the other patch in place.

"I wish I could do more for you, Mother," he remarked as he tied off the bandage. "I don't have anything to pack the wound with. I'm sorry."

As she blinked slowly at him, Iolaus got the impression that she understood what he was telling her. She reached forward until her beak softly parted through his unruly hair. The hunter presumed she was thanking him for his help. As she drew her head back, Iolaus grinned. "It's okay. I'm glad I can help. I'll set out at first light and see if I can find anything for us to eat. You need to eat to heal."

He boldly gave Mother a pat on her neck, then wistfully regarded what was left of his blanket. Well, it wouldn't be the first time he'd slept without, but usually it wasn't so cold when he did so. He picked up the thin strips and started for the other side of the fire.

Talons closed tenderly around his chest. Iolaus started and twisted to regard the adult. *This is it. I'm toast!* As he frantically tried to think of how he was going to escape the soon-to-be rib-crushing grip, he felt himself being pulled gently towards her. When he was next to her, the gryphon released her hold on him, but nudged him closer to her side.

Confused, Iolaus glanced at Gryph, who was watching with interest, then back, before realizing what she wanted. "You want me to sleep next to you?" he queried. Mother again nudged him. "I'll take that as a 'yes.'"

Easing himself to the dirt floor of the cave, Iolaus automatically snuggled close to the soft fur of the gryphon's body. A few moments later, Gryph lay on his other side and Mother spread a large wing to cover them both. Iolaus, too exhausted to be concerned he could still end up breakfast, quickly fell asleep and spent the warmest night he'd had since setting out to slay the 'terrible monster.'

As promised, Iolaus set out to hunt at first light. His efforts only netted him a couple of scrawny rabbits on the edge of succumbing to the bitterly cold weather. That, and the couple of apples leftover in his pack, would make for a very poor dinner, indeed, especially for a sick adult gryphon.

When he returned to the cave that afternoon, he found several large branches had been dragged into the cave. Broken down, the pieces would make good firewood. Iolaus smiled slightly as he realized Mother must have been busy while he was out. His joy was short-lived when he remembered his failure. Slowly, he trudged to the back of his temporary home.

Tail lashing, Gryph screeched happily and raced up to Iolaus in greeting. Iolaus rubbed the cub's feathered neck. Looking up, the hunter found Mother gazing at him expectantly. He sighed heavily as he laid his bow and quiver against the wall. "I'm sorry," he said, holding up his small bounty, "this was the best I could do. I'm lucky to have gotten this. I have some apples, so you and Gryph can have these."

Taking his catch to the far side of the fire, Iolaus knelt and hacked off a hind leg. He offered this to Gryph, who snatched it immediately and swallowed quickly. Cutting off a larger piece, Iolaus held it out for Mother, who gently took the tidbit, then offered it to her cub. Knowing nothing but his hunger, Gryph instantly grabbed the food. Since the piece was bigger, he had to hold down the meat with his talons and rip smaller portions off it.

Iolaus gazed at the adult gryphon in surprise. "That was for you," he scolded softly, not wanting Gryph to overhear. "How can you get well if you don't eat?"

Mother stared at him silently for a moment then turned her head towards her wounded wing. Iolaus gasped. The bandage had fallen off; the wound was festering, infected. He met her eyes again and realized she knew what he had been trying to deny. The wound had gone too long without proper attention and it was now killing her slowly. Maybe if this storm hadn't occurred and he'd been able to treat it properly, she may have had a chance; however, the lack of sustenance now made her chances of survival nil.

She had accepted her fate; she knew it was folly to waste what little food there was on her when she was going to succumb anyway. Her main concern was her baby and maybe, Iolaus rationalized, this was one reason why she hadn't killed him to ease her hunger or Gryph's. Maybe she hoped he would see to it Gryph survived and, thus, she would gladly step out of the circle of life.

"I understand, Mother," he stated, his heart heavy at the thought of the majestic gryphon not being around to raise her cub. "I would have given my life for my children, if I'd been given a choice. I'll do my best to see Gryph back with his own kind. This, I promise you. The other gryphons *will* accept him, won't they?"

She inclined her head in agreement. As her eyes locked with his, Iolaus saw gratitude shining there. Gryph's squawk of hunger broke the moment born of two different species bonded by the ties of parental status. As he returned to the task of cutting up the rabbits, Iolaus silently vowed to help this mother's child survive as he himself had been unable to prevent the deaths of his own "cubs."

Over the next couple of days, Iolaus' hunting expeditions came to naught. It seemed as if Greece had turned into a frozen, barren wasteland and even old hunters' tricks did nothing to help alleviate the pinch of hunger that accompanied them throughout the day and night. As the days progressed, Iolaus was also forced to witness the steady decline of Mother. She barely moved, except to acknowledge Iolaus' return and, even then, only with a turn of her head or to follow him with her pain-filled eyes.

Gryph finally realized something was amiss and spent most of his time cuddled beside his parent. One night, Iolaus sat beside the huge creature and watched her anxiously. Ignoring the heat from her fever, he stroked the matted feathers on her neck and tried studiously to ignore the majestic wings that now hung limply on the ground, the tufted tail that did not twitch when he touched her, the dull lion's coat. Gryph lay with his head on Iolaus' lap, as if to draw comfort from the human whose companionship he'd shared for many days.

"I'm sorry," Iolaus apologized, his throat tight with grief, "I wish I could have done more. I wish I knew what Demeter wanted that she caused so much suffering." He watched Mother raise her head with extreme effort. She gently parted his blond locks with the tip of her beak, then softly caressed her baby. Gryph turned and touched beaks with her; a soft mewling cry issued from his throat. Iolaus felt tears well in his eyes at the sad, lonely sound.

Again she looked to the man at her side. "I wish I could have done more," Iolaus repeated. "I will take care of Gryph. You have my word as a warrior and fellow hunter."

Contentment replaced the fever-brightness in Mother's eyes. She lowered her great head to the dirt floor, heaved an immense sigh then quietly died. The baby nudged his mother desperately, as if to wake her from slumber. When his actions did nothing to rouse her, Gryph shrieked in anguish, causing Iolaus to flinch at the high-pitched tone.

It took a long time for Iolaus to get the cub to settle enough to calm down. Gryph mewed pitifully the entire night as he lay next to his mother. Caressing Gryph's head softly, Iolaus murmured soothing words even as tears slowly made tracks down his dirty face.

It was at that time the hunter made his decision to head out. There was no reason to stay in the area. They would fare just as well, maybe even better, traveling elsewhere. They could possibly find something to eat along the way and, if not, well, Iolaus would rather die trying than to just stay put and starve. There was really no other choice.

He would head west, towards Thebes. He had some food stocked in his larder, if his desperate neighbors hadn't raided his stores while he was gone. If need be, he could always go to Alcmene's. *She* wouldn't turn away a baby, even if that baby was a gryphon; she certainly wouldn't turn Iolaus away, either.

With luck, Hercules will have gotten home, unless he was somehow mixed up with this problem with Demeter. It certainly wouldn't surprise Iolaus to find out that his best friend was involved. Even though Zeus' son tried hard to stay out of the way of the gods, one way or another, he frequently managed to got caught in the middle.

The verdict met, Iolaus urged Gryph to get some sleep. It would be a long trek back to Thebes. If they left first thing in the morning, they'd get to Thebes not long after night fell. With Fortune's favor and barring any accidents, injuries, attacks by ravenous wild beasts, deep snows, blinding ice storms... *Iolaus!* He yelled at himself. *You gotta think positive! Sheesh!*

With Gryph's head in his lap, the hunter leaned back against the fading warmth of Mother's body and fell asleep.

The next morning, Iolaus gathered his sword, bow, and quiver of arrows. He decided to take along his empty pack just in case they found some food that would need to be carried. Gryph refused to leave his mother's side as the hunter started for the cave's mouth. Turning and crouching, the blond warrior said gently, "C'mon, Gryph, we have to go. We need to find some food. Once we find your people, we'll have them come back for your mother." Of course, Iolaus had no way of knowing if gryphons honored their dead in any way, but the comment got the cub's attention.

Gryph nudged his mother once more before padding over to the human. Iolaus stroked Gryph's ear tufts comfortingly then he stood, shouldered his bow and quiver and headed for the outside world.

What greeted him as he stepped outside halted him in his tracks. The storm had stopped, the wind had died and there was a decidingly warmer touch to the air. Gryph paused beside him, glanced around, looked up at his new "parent," then turned his attention to the landscape around them. He, too, seemed to sense the change in the air. It felt like things were starting to get back to normal.

*Well, Demeter,* Iolaus thought, irritated, *I'm so glad you got over your little problem. I only wish you'd gotten over it sooner. At least then, this little one would still have a mother!*

"Well, Gryph," he said aloud to his charge, "things are looking up. Let's see about getting something to eat, shall we? We'll travel to my place and stay there for a short while to recoup before going to find your relatives."

Gryph pushed his head into Iolaus' hand. The hunter smiled, giving his new friend an encouraging scratch. Helios' chariot was just beginning to rise above the eastern horizon as they started their trek towards Thebes. The soft chirping of birds joined them on their journey and the optimistic pair was able to push aside their hunger as the earth renewed itself around them.

Iolaus looked forward to hearing his friend's tale about this.

2/9/00

Go on to the next story in the challenge.


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