How Many Fingers?

by Ceryndip

Challenge: Add scenes to "As Darkness Falls" dealing with the rest of Hercules' blind time and the meeting up with Iolaus before "Pride Comes Before a Brawl".

Hercules closed his eyes. There didn't seem to be much point in keeping them open. They weren't doing him much good.

Hercules' visual world was full of darkness and indistinct, grey, moving shadows. His auditory world, however, seemed to have been amplified. He could identify all the people around him in Penelope's home just by listening; the rustling skirts of the woman cleaning up the dishes from breakfast, the chair across the table creaking under Salmoneus' weight as he shifted uncomfortably in it, the healer and at least one other man tending to Marcus' leg wound in the next room, Penelope and her mother seeing off Cheris and her family outside. He could feel the heat of the rising sun prickling the skin on his arm.

Now, that it was quiet, the demigod realized he was tired, enormously tired. He'd been awake more than a full day now and most of that spent trying not to get killed and rescue the two young ladies. He just needed a short nap....Hercules' head slid down to rest upon his folded arms as his breathing slowed and evened.

The healer emerged from Marcus' room and glanced over his remaining patients. He turned to the one still awake, "Your shoulder, I believe?" he questioned.

Salmoneus put a hand to his left shoulder where he'd been knicked by an arrow trying to lead Nemis away from the cave and Hercules.

"It's just a flesh wound. It's not bleeding anymore. It can wait, better see to Hercules' eyes first. That's more serious."

Nodding the healer gently shook the demigod's shoulder, "Young man? I'd like to look at your eyes now."

Hercules sat up and faced the healer. The older man asked how it had happened, what Hercules had seen as his sight deteriorated and what he could see now, which wasn't much.

"Well, there's not much I can do for you, I'm afraid, but I am familiar with the plant that caused this. I assure you in your case, it is only temporary. You'll just have to take it easy for a few days and gradually your sight will improve."

"Thank you, that's good to hear."

"Not at all, son, glad to help even if I didn't actually do anything. Now, let's have a look at that shoulder," the healer said as he rose and moved to the other side of the table.

Hercules glanced around trying to see anything at all. He didn't want to get up and blunder around like an elephant in a pottery shop.

Penelope rescued him from his dilemma with a hand on his shoulder. "Hercules? I've got a bed made up for you in the barn. You must be exhausted. It's quiet and there's a load of fresh hay in the loft. If you're ready, I'll take you out."

Hercules nodded, "Yes, thank you." He rose and she hooked her arm through his to guide him.

Outside it felt like another beautiful day. The breeze was warm and so was the sun.

"Penelope? Will you reschedule the wedding?"

"Already done. We're getting married this evening after we've all had a good rest. Marcus should be up and around on his crutches by then." She led him to the ladder and placed his hands on it. Hercules began to climb and Penelope followed, "We don't want to wait."

"That's understandable." Hercules reached the top and waited for her.

Again, she took his hand, "Over here's a bucket and water, if you want to wash up. There are extra blankets here but I don't imagine that you'll be cold. I've laid out a blanket in the hay. Do you need anything else?"

"No, this'll be fine, thank you." Hercules was about to have the only thing he wanted, sleep.

"I'll leave you, then, and I'll see you at the wedding supper later."

"I wouldn't miss it."

Hercules was surprised when he felt her lightly kiss his cheek, "Goodnight."

"Night," the demigod listened to her climb back down the ladder before he collapsed on the blanket and didn't think another thought.

A short while later, Salmoneus found him deeply asleep. The salesman pulled the demigod's boots off and covered him with a blanket before succumbing to his own exhaustion.

Hercules woke late in the afternoon to the happy sounds of wedding preparations. He opened his eyes and was disappointed. He had hoped that with a little rest his divine blood would restore his sight. He wasn't that lucky. He found his way over to the bucket and proceeded to bathe. On reflection maybe the dark shadows were a little lighter, maybe.

Salmoneus called from below, "Hercules, are you awake?"

"Yes."

"Good, they're about ready to start."

Hercules carefully climbed down to the floor of the barn and reached out for Salmoneus' shoulder. The salesman flinched beneath him, "not my left shoulder, please, the other one."

"Sorry." Hercules changed hands to follow on Salmoneus' right side.

"It's ok, just sore."

"I'm sorry, you got hurt helping me."

"I'm not. It's not everyone that can say they were wounded coming to Hercules' rescue. It'll be a badge of honor, someday, when it heals up. Maybe I can sell the rights to the story."

"It's always an angle with you, isn't it?"

"You say that like it's not normal."

Hercules gave a low chuckle, "It's normal for you, Salmoneus, normal for you."

After the ceremony and the wedding feast. Hercules and Salmoneus said their good-byes and headed down the path. Penelope wanted them to stay but both men felt strongly about not intruding on the honeymoon.

Hercules was to meet Iolaus the next day and knew that would be a good chance to relieve Salmoneus of the burden of taking care of him. Now that the crisis had passed, Hercules was feeling more than a little exposed being blind and was looking forward to the familiarity of traveling with Iolaus. The hunter was one of the few people he didn't have to play "the demigod" around. He could just be himself and if he was hurting that was ok. Iolaus would look after him. It was good to have friends like that.

They traveled several miles before they had to stop for the night and make camp. Salmoneus had to see even if Hercules didn't.

The next morning they made good time, arriving at the appointed crossroads a little ahead of midday.

"Ok, I think we're here."

"Any sign of Iolaus?" Hercules asked hopefully.

"Not yet, I'll stay and wait with you," Salmoneus led him off the road toward a group of shade trees.

"Salmoneus, you don't have to. Iolaus will be here soon. Just find me a nice place to sit and wait."

"I couldn't go off and leave a blind man alone out here. My appointment can keep."

"I'm not helpless. I did defeat Nemis and rescue the girls."

"I know but you knew where you were then. I'll wait. It's ok, I'd never forgive myself if anything happened to you." Salmoneus pushed on Hercules' shoulders indicating to him that he should sit down.

Hercules knew when to give in graciously, "Thanks, I appreciate the company."

"Sight any better?" Salmoneus asked.

"I think so. It's definitely getting a bit lighter." The shapes had seemed less blobby and more distinct as the morning wore on. Hercules had squinted, trying to force them into clarity but all he'd succeeded in doing was giving himself a headache. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the tree.

Hercules heard Iolaus coming long before Salmoneus saw him. The slightly off key whistle was unmistakable after all these years.

With greetings and explanations quickly given, Salmoneus went on his way leaving the two friends standing in the middle of the crossroads.

"Where do we go from here?"

Hercules hadn't thought about that, "I have no idea. I hadn't thought any farther than getting here."

"Ok," Iolaus gave it some thought, "well, we had talked about attending the games in Thrace, but that's a few days off yet. How about fishing? You don't have to see to hold a line."

"I don't think I'm good for much else, fishing it is. Lead on."

Iolaus picked up Hercules' hand and set it on his shoulder, "We're off."

"You're shorter than Salmoneus." Hercules observed.

"Keep that up and you'll be finding your own way to the lake."

Iolaus wasn't as good at leading the blind as Salmoneus had been, evidenced by Hercules whacking his head on low branches twice. It made him try all the harder to see what was in front of him.

"Stop that, Herc."

"Stop what?"

"Squinting to bring things in focus, you'll strain your eyes and they'll heal slower."

Hercules tried to stop but the dark blobs had definite shapes and he knew with a little effort he could focus on them.

Finally, Iolaus halted and rummaged through his pack until he pulled out a small roll of cloth for bandages.

"Sit down here."

"Are we there already?" Hercules tried to peer around them.

"No, I'm going to stop you from further injuring yourself."

"Huh?"

"Sit down."

Hercules slid down to find a fallen tree beneath him and Iolaus quickly began wrapping the cloth around his head and over his eyes.

"Hey!"

Iolaus slapped the interfering hand out of the way. "You won't stop straining your eyes. They won't heal that way. They have to rest, that means you can't use them."

Hercules was silent. He had to admit to himself even if he never would to Iolaus that the sudden darkness did feel better. The pounding in his head eased somewhat as well. Reluctantly, Hercules allowed Iolaus to finish wrapping his eyes.

The hunter found a nice small clearing near the secluded lake with thick, green grass and leafy overhanging trees. He knew that Hercules wouldn't want to be around people, especially strangers, until his sight was back. They didn't need anyone finding them and begging them to come slay monsters. Hercules would feel obligated to try and help even with his blindness and he didn't need that responsibility right now. Better if the needy villagers just couldn't find them.

Iolaus quickly gathered a pile of rocks and some wood and left Hercules to set up their campfire while he set a few snares and gathered more wood for the night.

The camp was still cold when Iolaus returned, "No fire yet?"

"No," a frustrated Hercules replied. "I can't get it to light. Is this wood green?" He struck his gauntlets but the spark didn't reach the wood.

"No, the wood's fine. You're in the wrong place." He lowered Hercules' arms closer to the dry branches, "Try it there."

Within seconds a fire was lit, Hercules sighed in satisfaction but he was still frowning.

"What's the matter, Herc?"

"Some help I am. I can't even light a fire."

Hercules was feeling vulnerable. Iolaus expected he would be, "It's ok, Herc. It'll get better."

"I know it will. I'm just feeling sorry for myself."

"You're entitled as long as it doesn't last too long or get on my nerves." Iolaus set about preparing the rabbit that he'd snagged on the way back to camp. He silently observed his big friend.

"You're still frowning. Got another problem?"

"Yeah," then his voice lowered to a whisper, "I need to find a tree."

Iolaus rose and walked around to Hercules and whispered back, "Ok, let's go find you one." Then, he chuckled.

"It's not funny."

"Yes, it is. I thought you were upset at having to eat my cooking. Why are you whispering?"

"Because it's not polite to talk about this stuff out loud."

"When you're three years old. Herc, we're both adults and there's nobody around to hear for miles."

"I know but it's hard."

"Why?" Iolaus waited on the opposite side of the selected tree.

"You didn't have my mother."

"Herc, your mother doesn't have nearly the inhibitions that you do. Face it, Herc, you're a goody two sandals."

"Iolaus, I don't wanna talk about this right now. You can go back to camp."

"You can find your way back?"

"Yes, all by myself. I don't need your help with this."

"Good, cause I wasn't offering to help with that. I just deliver. Don't get lost."

"I won't."

"Good," Iolaus grinned all the way back to the fire.

"Do my eyes look any different?"

The yellow blob swam into view and took a good look at his face, "I don't think so, do they feel different?"

"No, they just don't work."

"Are they better?"

"Yes, things are definitely brighter this morning."

A smaller blob appeared next to the blond one, "How many fingers?"

Hercules squinted at the flesh colored blob.

"Stop that."

"Four," he guessed.

"Wrong, Bandage goes back on."

"Iolaus...."

"When you can focus well enough to tell me how many fingers, it can stay off, but not until then."

They spent the day at the lake, lounging on large, flat rocks with their strings dangling into the water.

Hercules carefully slipped the stick his line was tied to under his foot, so he wouldn't lose it while he removed his shirt and laid it on the rock behind him. He picked up his line again and gave it a couple of tugs to entice the fish on the bottom into taking his bait. The demigod laid back on the rock and sighed, enjoying the feel of the sun warming his skin.

"Iolaus?"

"Hmmm?"

"You're going to tell me if I start to sunburn, right?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Are you sleeping over there?"

"Dozing, a little, maybe...I don't think there are many fish here. We've got great bait so there's no explanation why they are not biting, except that the fish aren't there."

Suddenly, Hercules sat up, holding his stick with both hands. There was a noticeable tug, "Iolaus, I think I've got one."

"Good, we need at least one for supper, make it a big one, I'm hungry."

"Iolaus!"

"What?" The hunter sat up to watch.

"Come take my line."

"Why?"

"I can't see!"

"Herc, you can't usually see the fish until you drag it up on shore. It's all done by feel anyway. You bring him in."

"I'm not sure."

"When he's pulling let him run, when he stops to rest, you pull back, just like you've always done it, except when you're throwing rocks at them, of course."

Hercules reached out and took hold of the line with his hand to better gauge the movements of the fish. Slowly, he began reeling the line in, a little at a time.

"How does he feel?" Iolaus asked.

"Big."

"Excellent, keep pulling."

As the fish drew closer to shore, Iolaus stepped into the water beside Hercules.

"There he comes," Iolaus grabbed the end of the line and hoisted a solid looking fresh water bass out of the water. "Whoa! Great job, Herc! He is a big one, maybe 15 pounds."

"You got him?"

"I got him, but you caught him."

Hercules grinned, "Yeah, I did."

"You wanna clean him?" Iolaus asked.

Hercules thought about it briefly, "Nah, I better avoid sharp knives and fish have really small bones. You wouldn't want me feeling all over trying to figure out if I got them all."

"Good point, I don't like my food manhandled." Iolaus sighed, "guess I'm cooking again."

Iolaus removed the bandage again the next morning.

"Ok, How many fingers?"

Hercules tried his best not to squint and give himself away. "Give my eyes a chance to adjust first." He hoped Iolaus wouldn't notice the stalling tactic.

"Let's have breakfast then, hand me a piece of last night's catch of the day."

Hercules picked up one of the leaf-wrapped filets and another slipped off the pile. He handed one to Iolaus. Then, picked up the fallen one and dusted it off before putting it on top of the pile.

"Busted."

"What?" Hercules couldn't imagine what had given him away already.

"That thing you picked up off the ground wasn't fish. It was a stick. The fish is still on the ground. Come here and let's put this thing back on."

"Do we have to?"

"Yes, I can't trust you to control yourself and rest those pretty blue eyes."

"All right," Hercules sat still waiting for Iolaus to finish, "what kind of day is it?"

Iolaus glanced around, "It's overcast, going to be a bit cooler and if we don't get a move on with setting up a better camp, we're going to be wet before the day's out."

"Rain?" Hercules guessed.

"Looks like it."

"Storms or just rain?"

"Rain showers, I think, clouds look heavy but they're not rolling."

"What do we need to do?" Hercules asked.

"We? I'm glad you put it that way. We're not too bad off for location. It's high ground and we're under two large, leafy trees. We're going to have to shift everything over a little. There's a branch on each tree about chest height that we can lay a cross bar between."

"We're building a leanto then?"

"Unless you've got a better idea or you enjoy sitting in the rain."

"No, sounds like a plan to me. That tree I visited the first night had a dead branch that's probably about right for the cross bar."

"How do you know that?" Iolaus asked.

"It was right above where I was sitting."

"Oh, bumped your head on it." Iolaus nodded with understanding.

After placing the crossbar, they got to work tying together a framework of smaller branches that would be used as the wall. Iolaus left Hercules to finish while he quickly gathered a pile of leafy foliage to weave in the gaps and deflect the water.

"Hey, you missed a spot," Iolaus called from his side of the wall.

"Where?"

"Just left of your right hand."

Hercules slid his hand left until he felt the hole "got it." He stuffed another leafy branch into the gap. The wind picked up as they set the wall in place and quickly dug a channel around the back so that the pooling water would run off away from their intended dry spot.

As Hercules finished with the digging, Iolaus relocated their fire pit so that it was just beyond the edge of their shelter but still under the tree where it would be shielded from the worst of any precipitation they might get.

Hercules took the longer branches left and set them up at either end of the wall to prevent rain from being blown in from the sides.

"We'll need more wood," Iolaus observed.

"How are we on food?" Hercules asked.

Ok, I've got fruit and cheese in my bag. Maybe we'll get lucky when we check the snares."

A large drop hit Hercules' arm, "We'd better get the stuff moved in before we go for wood."

It began sprinkling lightly as they gathered the wood. Iolaus loaded Hercules' outstretched arms as they found it. Hercules tracked Iolaus' movements by his sounds when he couldn't feel his friend's presence next to him.

If he didn't think too hard about it, Hercules realized that he could accomplish what was needed without his sight. But if he stopped to think, he started doubting his abilities. As long as he stayed busy, like on that first day when he was rescuing Penelope and Cheris. He hadn't had time today to stop and think. It was a matter of scale, while he probably wouldn't do well against one of Ares' warlords or the local monster, in the day to day basic stuff, he was holding his own.

"Watch your head, Herc." Iolaus called back to him through the rapidly increasing rain.

Hercules had already felt Iolaus ducking and judged correctly how far to stoop.

Their snares were all empty, no meat tonight, but Iolaus had found a bush of ripe berries and took off his damp vest to carry more of them in.

They were both soaked by the time they arrived back at camp. Iolaus built up the fire and they shed most of their wet clothes, hanging or draping them over rocks near the fire to dry. Wrapped in blankets, they surveyed their shelter and decided their handiwork was well done. Their shelter held the heat and it was almost dry.

"Iolaus?"

"Yeah?"

"I've got a little problem here."

"What?"

Hercules held up a wet arm and traced a steady drip to the point where it was invading their temporary home.

"Hang on, I've got it." Iolaus unwound some of the fishing line and climbing over Hercules, he wedged the stick into the framework where the leak originated. The hunter then draped the line down the back of the wall and out the side of the shelter into the run off channel. Obediently, the drips ran down the string and back outside where they belonged.

"There, old hunter's trick saves the day again, as long as it doesn't rain any harder."

It didn't. It rained lightly the rest of the afternoon and evening, tapering off after dark. None of which mattered to Hercules, his world was already dark and had been that way all day.

"Dinar for your thoughts?" Iolaus asked prodding Hercules' leg with his foot.

Hercules smiled, "I was just noticing how loud the forest is when it rains. Is it time to go to sleep yet?"

"Yeah, Herc, it is." Iolaus threw another log on the fire and snuggled further into his blanket.

For the third morning, Iolaus dutifully administered the test. "How many fingers?"

"Two," without hesitation.

"Right, try again."

Hesitation, then, "Three."

"Are they better?"

"Yes, a little fuzzy around the edges but I can see," Hercules took a deep breath and sighed, the relief evident in his voice.

"Great! We'll hang around here one more day to be sure and then head for Thrace tomorrow."

"Sounds like a plan."

"Yeah, and tonight, you're cooking."

"Oh, I feel a relapse coming on."

They bedded down early so they could make an early start but they had rested so much in the past three days that neither man was really tired.

"Iolaus?"

"Hmmm?"

"Thank you."

"For what?"

"Not letting me feel sorry for myself. It's hard for me. I don't get laid up, you know?"

"I know. It doesn't get any easier when you're just plain mortal either, let me tell you. It's hard not to be able to help yourself. It's hard to let other people do for you, when you're used to doing for yourself. Makes you feel weak and useless and it's like everyone's looking at you because you can't do simple things without help."

Hercules thought about the times Iolaus had protested when he'd tried to help his partner walk or carried him when he was hurt and realized that Iolaus had felt this same self-conscious feeling then that he'd felt these last few days. And he realized how much Iolaus had helped him by not helping him. "I'll try to do better the next time, you're laid up. You made these last few days pretty easy for me."

"That's what friends do."

"Thanks, anyway."

"You're welcome, Herc, and how do you know that I'll be laid up next? I can take care of myself, you know. I've been doing it for a long time."

"Good night, Iolaus."

The end
5 Feb 2002

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