Hercules wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his arm and picked his way carefully back down the rocky hillside. Collapsing the entrance to Echidna's cave had taken more out of him than he wanted to admit. He didn't feel very steady on his feet. His knees threatened to topple him but he held onto his balance with sheer determination. He didn't want his mother or his friend to worry over him further.
"Let's go home," Hercules said, the weariness evident in his voice as he began taking carefully controlled, measured steps toward the treeline.
Iolaus held Alcmene back with a hand on her arm. "I've got an idea. See if you can get him to sit down and rest a moment. Here," he handed her the satchel he'd been carrying. "There are bandages and salve in there."
"Where are you going?"
"See if I can round up some transportation," he grinned mischievously. "Be right back."
Alcmene stepped toward her son. "Are you really alright, Hercules?"
"I'm fine," he replied stubbornly, frowning at his friend's retreating back. "Where's Iolaus going?"
"He'll be right back. Let's sit down over here and catch our breath."
Hercules didn't want to stop. If he sat down, he might not get up again.
He had to keep moving.
"Hercules? Come on, I want to change that bandage before it gets infected. It's filthy. You wouldn't slow down and let Iolaus change it, would you? You are so stubborn sometimes."
He sighed and let her take his arm and lead him over to the cool shade of a tree. He leaned his back against the trunk and slid to the ground.
Alcmene kneeled beside him, "You're so pale." She brushed the hair from his eyes and felt his forehead, "And you have a fever."
"Hush, take off your shirt and let me see." She opened the satchel.
Iolaus glanced up and saw Alcmene helping Hercules ease his arms out of his shirt as he led the horse up to the wagon that had brought her to this place. It occurred to him that she might need some water. He tied the horse to the wagon and ran over to the small spring running from the rocks outside the cave. He approached as Alcmene was removing the last of the bandages. Iolaus crouched beside her and glanced at the wound with concern.
"Oh, thank you, Iolaus, just what I needed."
He set the bucket on the ground within her reach, "I'll go hitch the horse while you finish up."
She looked up, saw the animal tethered to the wagon and smiled, "Perfect."
"A horse?" Hercules asked.
"Yeah," Iolaus grinned, "You're gonna ride home in style, buddy." Iolaus ran off to finish his preparations.
"I can walk," Hercules replied stubbornly.
"Oh hush, Hercules, you need to rest, you've lost a lot of blood."
Hercules sighed. He knew there was no arguing with her. He winced silently as she cleaned the wound.
Iolaus led the horse and wagon over as Hercules' mother finished tying off the clean bandage.
Alcmene picked up Hercules' shirt from the ground and rose. Iolaus gave him a hand up. Hercules held on to his friend until he found his balance, then, he slowly walked over to the wagon. The padding and pillows were still lying in the bottom of it. He crawled up and sank wearily into them. Iolaus gave Alcmene a hand up and traded conspiratorial winks. She sat next to her son and leaned against the side wall. Iolaus climbed up into the driver's seat and took the reins.
Hercules was asleep almost before they began moving. Alcmene waited until she was sure he was resting comfortably. She covered him with a blanket and crawled up to join Iolaus for the ride home.
Hercules slept the entire trip.
The sun was just setting as Iolaus pulled the wagon up to the front door of Alcmene's home. They sat and enjoyed the last of the glorious show. Iolaus lifted her down, "You go on in. I'll bring Sleeping Beauty."
"I'll put on some tea."
Iolaus nodded knowingly. They had discussed the need for the wound to be stitched and he knew from experience which tea she was referring to. Iolaus had been concerned about poison from the arrow and left the wound open to drain. Alcmene assured him she'd seen no signs of infection or worse but she'd put a poultice on it as a precaution tonight. If it still looked good in the morning, they'd close it then.
Iolaus reached down and shook Hercules' foot. His eyes slowly opened. It took him a moment to focus.
"Hey, we're home. Let's get you inside."
"It's dark," Hercules observed.
"That's what happens when the sun sets. You have been kind of out of it, huh?"
Hercules pushed himself up slowly and slid to the foot of the wagon. He looked around bewildered, "Did I really sleep all day?"
Iolaus smiled, "Yeah, and I bet you'll sleep all night, too." Iolaus pulled him up and put an arm around his unresisting friend. He was pleased when he felt Hercules shift some of his weight, allowing Iolaus to bear it as they slowly walked into the house.
Alcmene had a fire going in the hearth already. Before he lay down, she changed Hercules' bandage again, this time adding a healing poultice to the wound. She handed him a cup of tea. He was sleeping soundly again before he had drank half of it. She left Iolaus to disrobe him while she warmed water for a sponge bath.
Hercules woke to find Iolaus sitting in a chair beside the bed. The sun was fully risen and obviously had been for some time. It took Iolaus a moment to realize Hercules was awake. He was intent on whittling something with his knife. It looked like a new float for his fishing line.
"Hey, how do you feel?"
"Weak," Hercules replied as he stretched.
"Easy, you don't want to pull the stitches."
"Stitches?" When had that happened?
"Alcmene stitched the wound closed this morning when we removed the poultice."
"Oh, I don't remember."
"That's because the tea she gave you last night, knocked you out. I know, she's used it on me."
Hercules nodded. He'd seen what that tea did to Iolaus. No wonder he felt groggy. Iolaus sat back in the chair and began whittling again. Hercules was content to be still and watch his friend work awhile.
"Iolaus, I want to thank you."
"Herc, you don't have to."
"Yes, I do, I wouldn't have made it without you to help me."
"Anytime, buddy, I meant what I said, this is family for me, too."
Alcmene walked in to find the two men clasping arms. "Well, I see you must be feeling better." She felt his forehead. "Fever's gone, good. Feel up to some lunch?"
Hercules woke from his afternoon nap with a clearer head, feeling much better and wondering when his mother was planning on allowing him out of bed.
"Maybe tomorrow, dear, " she replied.
"But, Mother, I--"
"I know you heal faster than everyone else does. That's why I said maybe tomorrow and not the day after." she sighed knowing she'd probably be repeating herself several times over the next couple of days. "Hera's archers do not inflict minor wounds. You are going to take it easy for a few days. It won't hurt you. You will live through the experience."
Hercules knew better than to argue with that tone of voice. He wisely kept his thoughts to himself. He watched her mending the hole in his shirt. He watched the birds outside the window and listened to their singing. There was a mild breeze blowing. It looked like a beautiful day. He sighed and watched his toes wiggle under the covers.
"I'm bored, where's Iolaus?"
"He went fishing right after lunch. He took that thing he was working on
this morning and said he was going to catch us a prize catfish for dinner."
"As long as someone else cooks it," Hercules grumbled. "He has all the fun."
"Now, dear, Iolaus has been stuck here with me many times while you got to work outside or go into town. It's just your turn, that's all. Maybe we'll let you sit in the garden tomorrow afternoon, if you feel up to it."
Hercules frowned but kept his quiet frustration to himself.
"Besides, I'm glad we have some time alone together. I wanted to say how sorry I am that I got myself into this. You were suspicious of Demetrius. I should have listened to you."
"Mother, you deserve a chance at happiness, too. I shouldn't have been so judgmental. I know it's lonely for you. Iolaus and I will--"
"You will not stop by here any more than you do now. The world needs you, Hercules, far more than I do. I'll be fine here. I always have--" Alcmene was interrupted by a racket outside. "That must be Iolaus. I better go see what he's caught. I hope it's edible, whatever it is. It's getting late." She rose and placed Hercules' shirt in the chair for finishing later. She leaned over the bed and kissed her son on the forehead. "Give yourself time to heal and let me know I'm sending you back into the world in one piece. I can take care of myself, you know, really, I can. I've been doing it for years. So, don't worry. Indulge me and stay put." She smiled sweetly at him and Hercules nodded his agreement to stay in bed and bored a little longer.
He watched her walk into the main room but couldn't to force himself to stay put as he heard her exclaim, "Oh, Iolaus! What is that and why did you bring it into my house!"
Hercules swung his feet out of the bed. He swayed dangerously but held to his feet as he staggered to the open doorway. He leaned against it and had to brace his injured side with his arm against the laughter. Iolaus had brought home an enormous eel and it was dripping slime all over the table. Iolaus was covered with the foul smelling goo and appeared immensely pleased with himself, as well.
"Look, Herc! Much better than catfish, eel steaks! This'll build your strength back in no time." Iolaus had the biggest grin on his face.
Alcmene was beside herself, "Outside! Take it outside. You're not cleaning it in here and wash that stuff off yourself before you come back in." Alcmene shooed Iolaus and the eel which he'd slung over his shoulder out the door. She picked up a rag and began mopping the table.
"And just what do you think you're laughing about? You're supposed to be in bed."
Hercules held his side with both arms as his tried to stifle the giggles, "I'm going, I'm going, but you better make some soup because I'm not sure I'm strong enough for the catch of the day."
"Eel soup?" she asked innocently inciting a whole new round of giggles from them both.
Iolaus poked his head back through the door.
"Out!" Alcmene yelled.
"I'm going, I'm going. I just wanted to give you the real catch." He held a pile of already cleaned catfish out to her. "See, I told ya the new lure would do the trick."
"Now, this is more like it," she accepted the fish, "thank you. Now, go jump in the lake."
"Your wish is my command," Iolaus bowed as he backed off the porch.
Alcmene shook her head and chuckled as she set down the fish on the kitchen counter before advancing on her son. "And you are going straight back to bed."
"I don't think so, show's not over yet."
"He's back," Hercules nodded his head toward the open door behind her.
"Do I dare turn around?" she asked.
"Aside from dripping slime, he looks harmless, well, as harmless as Iolaus can look."
Alcmene slowly turned and peeked out of the corner of her eye. "Yes?"
Iolaus bounced nervously on his toes, "Can, uh, can I have a towel or am I supposed to put my slimy clothes back on. Kinda defeats the purpose of the bath, ya know?"
"Oh, since when did you become so modest?"
"Hush, Hercules. Just because you both used to run around here in nothing but your breechcloths, doesn't mean that you have to now."
"Just look whose talking, Herc." Iolaus shot back from the doorway. Hercules glanced down to see he wasn't wearing much more than that. He blushed deeply.
"I think I'll go back to bed now."
Alcmene fetched a towel and another pair of pants for Iolaus.
"I think he's going to be alright." Iolaus commented quietly.
"I think we won't have any trouble keeping him in bed the rest of the evening."
Iolaus' mischievous smile returned, "Just do what you do to me, hide his clothes."
"That doesn't stop you."
"No, but it does slow me down." He grinned and turned to go. He stopped when she cleared her throat behind him. It was a sound only mothers know how to make. He turned back around and found Alcmene holding a mop in her hands. She offered it to him.
"Be sure to clean up your mess before you go," she indicated the puddle of eel slime tracked across the porch before closing the door behind her and leaving Iolaus alone on the porch.
No eels were seriously harmed in the writing of this story, the eel in question was released back into the wild after Iolaus had his bath. He was concerned the eel might be holding a grudge.
Written 4 Nov 1998
Revised 1 April 1999
Continue with the next story in this IWC challenge.
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