Iolaus trudged through the snow. His feet barely clearing the knee-high drifts before plunging heavily downward again. Hercules broke through the snow ahead of him and Iolaus tried to follow in his path, but his friend took big steps. He hadn't felt his toes since they'd began to traverse this mountain pass early this morning. They'd been called north to stop a war and that done had decided to head south before a full-blown winter storm set in. Light flakes had already begun to fall but if they could keep going, they'd be through it and well on their way home before the storm broke in earnest.
The bitter, biting wind, Iolaus could have done without. He huddled in behind Hercules, grateful for the windbreak that his big friend provided. He pulled his fur-lined cloak closer around him and shivered inspite of it's warmth.
"Herc? Can we start a fire?"
"We just stopped a little while ago."
"I know, but I'm really cold."
Hercules halted and looked around. He wasn't always as susceptible to the rise and fall of temperature as others were. If Iolaus said he was cold, he probably was. He gave his friend a concerned glance. Iolaus clutched his cloak tightly about him and shifted his weight from one foot to the other trying to keep warm.
Hercules spied a cave just off the path ahead. The route through the pass was about to become rough. If he squinted through the fog he could just make out the beginning of the narrow ledge they'd have to follow around the mountain. It would be better for both of them to be warm and fresh before attempting to navigate that.
"Well, I guess we can stop for an early lunch. There's a cave over there. Hang on, while I check to see if anyone's home."
Hercules tentatively ducked through the small entrance. Iolaus shuffled around in the snow outside.
"It's ok, nobody's home."
Iolaus peeked in, "No bears sleeping in the corners?"
"No, get in here."
The cave was empty. It was also quite shallow, only one chamber just tall enough for Hercules to stand up in, but the entrance was narrow and short. It would keep out most of the snow and wind.
Hercules started a fire with wood left from a previous traveler. He made a mental note to leave some for the next passerby. He saw Iolaus shiver as he slumped down next to the small but growing flames. Hercules stopped to gaze at his friend's face. His cheeks should have been red from the cold. Instead his face was pale and drawn. Iolaus was always terrible at keeping secrets, his eyes gave him away every time. Hercules sighed.
"How long have you had chills?"
"You weren't supposed to notice."
"Since we forded that stream a ways back."
"And how long have you known you were sick?"
He nodded and Hercules frowned at his contrary friend.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"What's there to do? We have to get down out of these mountains."
"We can stay right here. There's plenty of dead wood outside. As long as we keep this fire going, it'll be nice and cozy in here. It's early in the season, game is still plentiful. We stay here until you're better."
"But the storm--"
"We'll ride it out here. It was debatable if we were going to make it through the pass before it hit anyway." Hercules' tone suggested he was not going to be argued with. "You'll never make it past that cliffside ledge with a fever. It's only an arms length wide and in places, less. One wrong step...No, you stay here by the fire. I'll go find some lunch."
Hercules found several sets of rabbit tracks in the snow almost immediately and soon had a pair of them in his pack. That mixed with the few vegetables he knew Iolaus was carrying would make a stew that would keep them fed for a couple of days once the weather set in.
On the way back to the cave Hercules gathered a big pile of pine boughs to make a soft warm mattress for them to sleep on. He also planned to cover the entrance to the cave to keep out the elements.
Hercules knelt down in front of the small opening and pushed the boughs in ahead of him before he crawled after them.
"Are we planning on taking up permanent residence?" Iolaus asked.
"We might as well be comfortable until this storm blows itself out." Hercules interlaced several of the branches and arranged the make-shift doorway in the entrance. He could feel the fire's warmth being held inside already. He climbed to his feet and took off his cloak, draping it over a rock, he leaned over and placed his hand on Iolaus' forehead and frowned. Iolaus frowned rebelliously back at him. Hercules reached down and pulled Iolaus to his feet, sitting him on a rock while he arranged the pine boughs beside the fire and threw his cloak, fur lining up, on top of it.
Iolaus crawled into the middle of the bed without being told and snuggled into it. Hercules pulled Iolaus' cloak out from under him and arranged it around him before pulling the rabbits out and setting to work on them.
"You are going to make somebody a great mother someday, Herc," Iolaus mumbled sleepily.
Iolaus woke to the smell of freshly roasted rabbit. It turned his stomach. He moaned and rolled over, putting his back to the fire.
"Is that a comment against my cooking?"
Iolaus sighed. "I don't want any."
"I'll make a stew out of it for tomorrow. Maybe that will be a little more palatable for you. I've got some snow melting down for it now." He indicated his pack that now hung over the fire as a pot. There was a pile of snow heaped over the top.
"I just hope it smells better. How's the weather?"
"Cold, wind's picking up and it's snowing harder."
"Storm's coming in."
"Yeah, afraid so. How are you feeling?"
"Are you warm enough?"
"No, but I'll live."
"At least drink some water." Hercules tossed the water skin over to him. Iolaus took several long drinks before setting it beside the bed and wearily crawling back under the covers.
Hercules waited until he was certain Iolaus was sound asleep before venturing out to gather more wood. He wanted to make sure they had enough to keep them good and warm for the duration of the storm.
Hercules returned to find Iolaus still sleeping but restless. He was continually moving and shifting in his sleep. Hercules felt his head for fever and found it much higher than before.
Iolaus began mumbling unintelligibly. As Hercules untangled him from the blanket, he only caught a few words. "Look out, Hydra!" Obviously it was one of those dreams. He put a hand on Iolaus' shoulder and gently squeezed until Iolaus woke.
"Herc?" It took him a moment to figure out where he was.
"Right here. Take a drink." Hercules held the water skin out for him. Iolaus took it in unsteady hands and swallowed several gulps before handing it back. Hercules dampened a cloth and laid it on Iolaus' forehead.
"Better?" he asked.
"Can you go back to sleep?"
"Yeah." Iolaus rolled over on his side and closed his eyes after adjusting the cloth so it wouldn't fall.
Hercules sat watching him a moment. Iolaus could feel his eyes on his back, "Go to sleep, Herc."
Hercules tossed two more logs on the fire before crawling into the nest of pine boughs next to Iolaus. His sleep was short-lived. Again, Iolaus began his restless, fever dreaming. He was becoming delirious and frequently called out warnings as his arms flailed helplessly at unseen menaces. Hercules tried to wake him but couldn't. The rising fever prevented him from reaching his friend. He just had to play along and hope he could talk Iolaus through the dreams. Hercules tried to understand what he was seeing, so that he could calm him but he wasn't always successful.
"Herc, hold still! Sand Sharks!"
"I'm not moving," Hercules replied as he mopped Iolaus' face with the cool cloth. "They don't feel us. They're moving away. It's safe now." Iolaus let out the breath he was holding and relaxed.
Iolaus' feelings of security didn't last though. Just before dawn, he began thrashing about again. " Herc, run!"
"Giant chicken," Iolaus whispered. Hercules didn't know what to say to that one. Then, Iolaus seemed to switch to something else.
"Rest well, my friend. I gotta get you in the house." Iolaus panted with unseen exertion, "You are heavy."
"Did the chicken get me?" Hercules quietly asked.
"Huh? No, Hera's archers, don't you remember? Herc, don't die, please don't die. Your mother needs you. I don't think I can save her on my own."
"I'm right here, Iolaus, I'm fine. I'm alright. We did save her. We did it together."
Again, Iolaus had an all-too brief respite before, "Callisto, No! No! Run, Alcmene, Run! NO!"
Alcmene's happy peace was disturbed by a voice calling to her. It was warning her of danger. It was Iolaus but he was so far away. She wondered briefly how she could hear him? She felt something was wrong. Why else would he be calling to her? Alcmene reached out and followed the voice.
It had taken awhile for Hercules to calm Iolaus from that last dream. His fever raged, but he had quieted somewhat. Hercules took a break and peeked out of the cave to find the storm had intensified over night. A few feet outside the mouth of the cave everything turned white in the blowing snow. He stuffed the branches back into the opening and returned to the fire. He cleaned the vegetables and threw all the stew ingredients into the pot over the fire. He yawned mightily and decided it was time for a nap. Being careful not to wake Iolaus he crawled back into the bed and covered himself with a corner of the cloak.
Iolaus battled the giant spider. It was huge, bigger even, than Arachne and he didn't think they got bigger than that. He was caught in it's legs and it was drawing him in. He screamed and struggled but it did no good. With a last valiant effort he reared up and kicked it with all his might. The spider sailed through the air and crashed against the cave wall. It didn't move.
For a brief moment Iolaus thought he glimpsed Hercules lying where the spider had been but it was only a fleeting glance. Where was Hercules? Iolaus thought his friend was taking care of him. Then, the spider gave a great jerk and it's torso split open. Green liquid poured from it and hundreds of baby spiders followed. They began to swarm the mother's body, devouring it, and soon there was nothing left. Then, with their tiny, red eyes, they turned toward the horror struck Iolaus.
He gave a yelp and fled from the cave. The spiders following at an incredible pace.
Hercules moaned and rolled to a sitting position holding his aching head. His fingers still came away sticky with blood from where his head had hit the jagged cave wall.
"Iolaus, I had no idea, you were that strong. What's *got* into you?" Hercules opened his eyes painfully and glanced around the cave. He didn't see his friend on the first pass, so he took another trying to quell the panic that rapidly flowed through him. "Iolaus?" He was not there. The branches covering the entrance were gone. They'd been broken as though someone had burst through them from the inside, desperately trying to get out.
Both the cloaks were still lying on the bed. Hercules grabbed one of them and hastily tied a bandage around his head before running outside. He had to find his friend before he froze in the storm.
Iolaus teetered precariously on the ledge. He clung to the rock face and tried to keep moving but he was so cold. His whole body shook with chills. The spiders were gaining on him. The last time he'd looked they appeared to be growing and more were coming. There was a sea of blackness behind him. It wanted to engulf him and destroy him. He kept moving.
He turned to see the first few spiders coming around the bend in the ledge. He hastily turned back and nearly lost his balance as Alcmene suddenly stood before him. She steadied him and smiled gently at him.
"Alcmene, we have to run. The spiders--"
"Iolaus, there are no spiders."
"Yes, I saw, they're--"
He turned and the path behind him was clear. "Where'd they go?"
She brushed a lock of hair from his forehead and felt for fever. "Just keep dreaming of me and they won't bother you while I'm here." She took him by the shoulders and turned him around. "Now, it's too cold for you to be out here without a cloak."
"You don't have one," Iolaus pointed out.
"That's because I'm dead, dear. I don't get cold anymore. We'd better get you back, Hercules will be worried about you."
"You'll come back and stay with us?"
"For as long as your fever lasts, no more."
"And you'll keep the monsters away."
"No more monsters." She spoke to him as if he were a small child. She stepped off the ledge as though it wasn't there and moved in front of Iolaus. She took his hand and led him back along the narrow ledge toward the cave.
It was getting dark. Hercules couldn't find any traces of Iolaus. The near blizzard conditions had wiped out all the tracks. Hercules guessed that he must've been unconscious for awhile for the trail to be this cold. He'd never find Iolaus without light. He had to go back to the cave for a torch. There was too much danger of passing right by his friend in this weather.
Hercules ducked through the cave entrance and stood in shock, unsure if he really saw what was before him. His head still hurt so much, he wasn't sure. Iolaus was there, sleeping peacefully in the bed. As if nothing had happened. Hercules dropped down beside him and checked his friend. Iolaus' fever was still high but he was warm to the touch. Hercules must've missed him returning just after he'd left. He'd obviously been here awhile. Hercules sighed with relief, took off his cloak and tucked it snugly around his charge again.
"Iolaus, what am I going to do with you?" Hercules thought a moment, then, as a precaution removed Iolaus' boots. He thought that maybe the cold snow on his bare feet would snap Iolaus back to his senses if he decided to go on another walkabout.
Hercules repaired and reset the covering over the entrance. Then, he set about cleaning up and bandaging his own wound. He observed that Iolaus did seem to be sleeping more peacefully than before.
Hercules sat up with his friend that night. He didn't dare turn his back on him for fear of a repeat incident. Iolaus' delirium had caught him barely awake, trying to hold him down. He wasn't going to let that happen again no matter how badly his head throbbed. Thankfully, Iolaus remained sleeping quietly through the remainder of the night.
Hercules slipped outside the next morning to gather a few nettles and bark to make a tea from. Medicinally, it wouldn't really do Iolaus much good but Hercules hoped the sweating it would cause would help to break his fever. The snow had nearly stopped falling but it was still darkly overcast.
Iolaus woke for brief periods during the day. He didn't remember anything that had happened or where he had been. He was weak and Hercules tried to coax the tea into him and steeled himself to deal with the usual recalcitrant patient. To his surprise, Iolaus seemed to be drinking the tea without putting up a fuss. Then, again, maybe he imagined the tea was something else. Hercules noticed that Iolaus kept looking at the rock beside him and smiling at it. His eyes were still bright with the fever. What ever it was he saw over there seemed to be harmless, as long as it stayed that way.
By evening he had to ask, "What are you looking at?"
"Can't you see her?" Iolaus asked with surprise.
"Are you sure it's my mother?"
"Yeah!" Iolaus replied as though his big friend was something of an idiot. "She keeps telling me to drink your teas because they're good for me. They taste terrible. She says you should put some pine needles in there to sweeten it up."
Hercules gazed at the rock, willing it to show him what Iolaus saw there. He didn't know what to make of this new delusion. Certainly, Alcmene wasn't there, but if Iolaus wanted to think she was and it kept him calm and reasonably rational who was Hercules to disagree. How did Iolaus know about pine needles anyway? He decided to try a new approach.
"Iolaus, why is she here?"
"She's come to help you keep the bad dreams away. Do you see her now?" Iolaus was watching him intently.
"Sure, I do," Hercules humored him and smiled at the empty rock wall.
Alcmene smiled back at him, slightly amused, knowing full well her son saw nothing. Iolaus looked at both of them and contentedly closed his eyes.
Hercules continued to bath Iolaus' face and fuss over the covers. During one of his more lucid moments, he bullied Iolaus into eating a half full bowl of stew.
Hercules helped Iolaus to sit up in the bed but his hands were too shaky to hold the bowl. So, Hercules began to spoon feed the broth to him. Knowing this situation made his friend uncomfortable, Hercules tried to make conversation.
"I could identify most of your dreams but you wanna tell me about the giant chicken? I couldn't figure that one out."
Iolaus tried not to choke. "No, not really. I'd rather not talk about it. You weren't around. I handled it. Had it covered. No big deal"
Hercules let it drop but made a mental note to ask again when Iolaus felt better.
Between bites, Iolaus noticed something different about his big friend. "What'd you do to your head?"
"Your head. It's got a bandage on it."
"Oh, uh, I bumped it," Hercules replied uncomfortably not wanting Iolaus to blame himself for what he couldn't control.
"Cave's not big enough for you. You should learn to duck."
Hercules shoved another spoonful into his mouth.
Alcmene enjoyed watching him care for Iolaus in the gentle manner that he did. Iolaus stirred and felt her hand on his forehead. Then, it slid down to rest lightly on his arm as he slept. A gentle reassurance of her presence.
As Iolaus slept, Hercules wearily continued to battle the fever in the only way he could with the cool water. He was baffled. Iolaus seemed perfectly lucid except for his insistence that Alcmene was there with them. Hercules chuckled, stranger things had been known to happen to Iolaus. Was it possible?
"Mother? Are you really here? Why can't I see you?"
She released Iolaus' hand and sat next to her son. "I wish I could speak to you son but Iolaus is the one with the fever. I'm not sure I'm really here, myself. I'd tell you how proud I am of the man you've become, but you know that already. We've said our goodbyes, you know my love for you. What else is there to say?"
Hercules' headache persisted. Not getting an answer from his mother, not that he had really expected one, he changed the bandage on his head for a clean one. The wound still seeped blood. He probably needed stitches but Iolaus was in no condition for that. He knew if he just got a little rest, it would probably take care of itself. These things usually did. His head kept nodding. He reasoned that Iolaus had had no more dream episodes since his return. If he just rested his eyes few minutes, Iolaus probably wouldn't even wake up. Hercules eased his tired body onto the bed and sighed. He imagined he felt warm hands pulling the cloak around him and tucking him in as he settled into a deeper sleep. Iolaus would be fine. The fever had passed. Wait, how did he know that?
He opened his eyes, "Mother?" Hercules looked around but he was still alone with Iolaus.
Once she was certain her son was asleep, Alcmene took Iolaus' hand and gently woke him. "Iolaus, I have to leave soon. Once your fever breaks, I won't be able to stay. You won't need me anymore."
"I miss you."
"I miss you, too. I miss your laughter." She studied him a moment as if an idea had just occurred to her, "Would you do something for me?"
Iolaus nodded, "Anything."
"Tell Jason he's putting too much manure on my flowers. He'll kill them."
Iolaus giggled, "Sure, I'll tell him. Of course, he'll tell me I'm an expert in the stuff." Iolaus grinned and closed his eyes sleepily, "I'm really tired."
Her shape began to shimmer and dissolve, "Keep taking care of each other."
Iolaus opened his eyes a moment later and she was gone. He shook his head as if to clear away the strange dream and rolled over to go back to sleep.
Iolaus didn't remember much from the two days he'd had the high fever, images of monsters and terrible things, then it stopped and he was warm and safe.
"Warm and safe, that's all you remember?"
"Yeah, What? Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Well, my delusional friend, you kept insisting that my mother was sitting on that rock, right there."
Iolaus reached out and put a hand on the rock where Alcmene had been and thought aloud, "Alcmene's was always the one place that I knew I'd be warm and safe like that. If I were sick or hurt, I knew she'd take care of me." He looked back at his friend, tending the fire. "Herc, I don't remember running out into the storm or throwing you across the cave. You needed too many stitches for that to have been a simple bump into the wall, but right after that, the dreams stopped. I felt like I was at home and she was taking care of me. D-Do you suppose somehow she brought me back here?"
"I don't know, did she?"
Iolaus continued staring at the rock, "I don't remember."
Iolaus and Hercules both rested another day before leaving their warm sanctuary. Hercules made sure he left a good-sized pile of wood behind them. They took the remainder of the journey across the mountains in easy stages, stopping often to rest and warm themselves and wonder.
"Herc, when we get back in more familiar territory, we need to go visit Jason."
"OK, any particular reason?"
"He's putting too much manure on the garden and he's gonna kill the flowers."
Hercules' mouth dropped open, "We haven't been back since... How would *you* know that?"
Iolaus stopped and stared at his friend, "I don't know. Do you think...."
Hercules shook his head in bewilderment, "Iolaus, why does this stuff always happen to you?"
12 October 1998
Disclaimer: No tiny imaginary spiders with red, beady eyes were harmed during the writing of this story, however the very real, hairy one that crawled under the chair got stomped flat.
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