Iolaus entered Alcmene's yard staggering under the weight of the deer slung over his shoulder. This fine buck would keep both his and Alcmene's larders filled for awhile, good thing with this sudden winter. They were both running low on food, game was becoming scarce. The hunter in him silently thanked Artemis for her favor.
He used the last of his strength to hang the deer so the blood could drain. Iolaus wearily sagged against the pen containing Alcmene's cow who was miraculously still giving milk.
"Hey girl, how are you doing?" he asked reaching out to stroke the cow's nose.
"We're doing just fine, you could stand a little warming up though," Alcmene wrapped a blanket around his shoulders.
He hadn't even noticed that she was there. Tired eyes turned toward her.
"Come inside, Iolaus. It's too cold for you to be out here."
The hunter could tell that she was worried about him. It was something in her manner and the way her eyes watched him move. He nodded silently and followed her to the house.
Alcmene listened to her self-appointed provider and protector shuffling through the snow behind her. When all this began Iolaus has started checking on her more frequently. The colder it got, the more often she saw him. she knew he had promised Hercules, he would look after her when her son had left the last time. She tried not to worry but there must be something unnatural about this weather or Hercules would have been home by now. Iolaus kept telling her not to worry that Hercules could take care of himself. Well, that went both ways, she was fully capable of taking care of herself as well but she wasn't about to refuse Iolaus' help as long he didn't refuse hers in return. He had been chopping wood and hunting for both of their homes and looking more haggard from the effort each day. She knew he was going home too tired to cook for himself and she had been feeding him whenever she could coax him into the house long enough to sit down. It had to stop, now. They didn't know how long this cold was going to last and there was no sense in them continuing this way. Alcmene bullied Iolaus out of his ice covered cloak and wrapped him in a warm blanket before the fire. She made sure that he had a bowl of warm soup in his hands and then she brought up the issue.
She didn't ask him about it, she dictated in ways only a mother could. "Iolaus, you're staying here tonight. You are too tired and it's too late for you to walk home in this snow. You know how the temperature drops when the sun sets. Tomorrow morning we'll go over, close up your cottage and bring the cow and pig back to my barn. We'll move you into Hercules' room. There's plenty of space here for both of us."
"No, Iolaus, there is no need for you to kill yourself trying to keep both houses heated and both of us fed. You are going to make yourself sick and I need you well if we are to survive this. Now, that's what we're doing and I don't want to hear another word about it."
"Iolaus sighed knowing she was right and too tired to argue, "Alright, Alcmene."
"Good. Eat your soup. I'll make up your bed."
The entire next morning was spent butchering and preparing the deer for storage before it froze solid in the barn. It was early that afternoon before they made the journey into the village. Iolaus picked up a little black smithing work and Alcmene, a little mending to keep them tided over. They parked the wagon outside the tavern and went in to warm up and have an early meal before heading over to Iolaus' farm.
Not many were patroning the tavern this time of day so they sat at the bar and chatted with the inn keeper. Always first to hear the news he told them how Hades had stolen Persephone. Iolaus and Alcmene exchanged glances.
"Well, now we know why Herc's not here," Iolaus replied.
The inn keeper nodded, "I hope he gets it taken care of soon. Folks can't take much more of this."
Alcmene nodded looking worried, "I'm sure he will."
Iolaus patted her arm reassuringly, "He'll be ok. I told you he had good reason not to be here."
She smiled and nodded, "I know, but it's a mother's prerogative to worry."
They tied the cow to the wagon and Iolaus loaded Penelope and his smithing gear into the back of the wagon. They filled in behind Penelope with the wood that had already been cut and what meager provisions Iolaus had left.
Iolaus gathered a small satchel of personal items. He didn't know how long he was going to be gone. He paused latching the shutters to gaze out at the lonely snow covered graves on the hill. He felt a presence behind him, her hand on his back.
"It's best not to dwell right now."
"I know, I'm glad they're not here for this. Ania hated being cold." He locked the shutters and braced the door as best he could on the way out.
Alcmene scrambled over the seat and into the back of the wagon where she proceeded to hand Iolaus the cut wood to stack with the rest by the house. After she'd picked up the last armload of logs, Iolaus lifted her to the ground.
"I'll put the rest of this in the barn. Why don't you start the fire."
The snow was falling heavier with the setting sun.
"Don't be too long," she warned.
"I won't. I just need to get the animals settled and put out some food for them. Probably stow my gear, too." Iolaus climbed up into the seat and reached back to pat Penelope affectionately as she huddled up under his seat. "Don't worry, sweetheart, we'll have you where it's warm again in a jiffy."
Iolaus tossed a bundle of twigs by the hearth and left his small sack of belongings in Hercules' room before joining Alcmene by the fire. He sat on the floor and began undoing the bundle and sorting the twigs.
Alcmene reached out and fingered his worn, blue shirt beneath the vest, "This needs some mending when we get a chance." Actually, she thought it would make a good rag but Ania had made it for him before they were married and Alcmene knew better than to say what she thought. It was a matter of the heart and she'd mend it the best she could.
Iolaus nodded, "Yeah it does need a little work." He raised his vest and showed her a large hole down his left side where the seam had come out. "But you've got paying work to do first," he added indicating the item she was already stitching on.
They continued working in silence for a time listening to the crackling and popping of the fire. Alcmene rose and hung a pot of water over the fire. She watched Iolaus tying the sticks together, obviously he had a plan in mind for them.
"Iolaus, what are you doing with all that?"
"I'm making a couple of traps. I'll set them out tomorrow in the woods and see if we can snag a rabbit or two. I figure we're going to get tired of venison day in and day out."
"And I suppose Penelope is out of the question?" Alcmene grinned at the speed with which Iolaus' head came up to face her, his eyes wide.
"Totally out of the question."
Alcmene leaned over and putting an arm around Iolaus she hugged him back against her knees. "Iolaus, that's what I love about you. Hunter you may be, but you're a hunter with a heart."
Iolaus shivered as he set up the last snare. He pulled his cloak tighter about his shoulders, picked up his bow and surveyed his handiwork. He'd had good luck with this spot before. There was a small pond through the trees that the rabbits liked to congregate at. That pond was now frozen over but rabbits weren't too bright and the hunter was betting that their old habits were hard to break and they would come check the pond.
As he turned toward home a set of tracks near the other side of the clearing caught his eye.
"What have we here?"
The one set turned into several and they caused Iolaus more than a little concern. He kneeled to examine them more closely. Wolves, a pack of six or eight, they were rare in these parts. It was too cold too far out of season that they must have migrated out of the mountains, probably looking for food. Iolaus would stop and warn the neighbors on the way home, so they could begin spreading the word. A hungry wolf pack would not be something Iolaus wanted to mess with if he didn't have to.
Midday the following day, Iolaus headed out to check his traps, all his senses attuned to the forest around him. Something felt amiss. It was too quiet. The birds were not singing. The only sounds he could hear were the breeze rustling the bare trees and occasionally ice cracking and falling from their limbs.
Something made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Iolaus moved faster, eager to reach the trap and be on his way home.
What he found served to disturb him even more. The cage was in shambles and blood stained the snow. The blood of the innocent animal that had been violently ripped from the cage. Iolaus checked the second cage. It was empty and had been left undisturbed. The hunter picked it up and carried it back home with him. He wouldn't be party to helping any more rabbits to become helpless prey for a hungry wolf pack. The rabbit deserved a chance to run.
Iolaus slipped the cage into the barn and set about stringing up the deer hide for tanning. It was dusk as he was finishing, he heard Alcmene calling him in for dinner. On the way across the yard he glanced around and there across the field near the treeline were half a dozen of the biggest wolves he'd ever seen. He stopped and motioned for Alcmene to join him.
"Oh my, I've never seen them so close to the village before."
Iolaus nodded, "They're hungry. From now on you stay in the house unless I'm outside with you and neither of us comes outside unarmed."
"Iolaus, you don't think they'd come into the yard?" Alcmene asked pulling her cloak tighter to ward off the icy wind.
Iolaus put an arm around her and led her toward the house, "Hunger has made them bold enough to come this close, nothing's stopping them from coming closer. We're going to have to be careful."
Iolaus set up a signaling system, so that he could work in the barn. If Alcmene needed him to come in or if he was ready to go back to the house there was a metal pan on a string and they'd bang on it until the other person came out. In that way they were both watching the yard while Iolaus crossed it. Alcmene found extra containers for water and filled them from the well while Iolaus was outside chopping wood by the house or working on his black smithing which they both agreed made enough noise with all the banging that it would probably scare the wolves away. Life fell back into a routine, a wary routine.
Iolaus was chopping wood beside the house, his bow lay on the edge of the porch as he worked. Alcmene had made three trips to the well and was returning on the fourth when Iolaus called to her to stop. She slowly turned to see four of the wolves walking into her frozen garden. They were walking slowly, warily. She sensed Iolaus was moving behind her crossing the yard, drawing their attention.
"Alcmene get into the house and close the door!"
Hercules' mother turned and moved that direction but she didn't go inside. She ran to the end of the porch and picked up Iolaus' bow just as one of the animals sprang at him, knocking him to the ground. They rolled, Iolaus came up on top. He swung the axe that he'd been using to chop wood. Striking the animal solidly in the chest and rolled off it just as the others approached. One on one he had a chance but not against so many at once. He held his ground swinging his axe to keep them at bay. While he was distracted by one that had gotten behind him and grabbed his leg, another knocked him to the ground with a blow to his chest. the third grabbed his arm on the way down, knocking the axe from his hand.
Alcmene picked up an arrow, took aim and let it fly hitting one in the shoulder and then another in it's side as she advanced on the pack. When the second arrow hit home, the fourth wolf fled along with the first beast she'd wounded.
Alcmene ran to Iolaus and helped him up from the snow supporting him safely into the house.
"I told you to go into the house."
"If I had you'd be lunch by now. Hercules didn't get all his courage from the gods you know. Sit down here, hold still and let me see this leg."
"I didn't know you were such a good shot."
"You'd be surprised by what you don't know about me, Iolaus. I can take care of myself when I have to. This is going to need stitches, let's see that arm."
With Alcmene's medicines in him, Iolaus slept through the night and well into the next day. He woke with a clear head and a list of things that needed to be done immediately.
"Iolaus! Where do you think you're going? Lie right back down in that bed."
"Alcmene, we need to move those wolves out of the yard and take care of them before they draw the others back to feed on them, if they haven't already"
Alcmene set the tray she was carrying on the table and handed Iolaus the bowl of soup. "Already been taken care of. Casilon and Silious from next door came by last evening to make sure we were alright, it seems that they had a visit from our furred friends before we did yesterday. They killed the other two from the six we saw first. They took care of the bodies for us. Besides if you put weight on that leg, you'll pull the stitches and I won't allow that." She pulled the covers back up and tucked them around him. "You're going to stay right here in this bed and rest."
The next day Iolaus was still staring at the four walls and ceiling of Hercules room. He jumped startled by Alcmene's sudden entrance. She threw open the shutters. She was grinning.
"Hercules must have succeeded. Look!"
The sun streamed into the window and the breeze though still cool had a definite spring feel to it.
Iolaus lay back in the bed, "It's great timing. I don't know how much longer we'd have been able to hold out."
Alcmene nodded, "It wasn't looking too good. Now, since you've slept half the morning away for the second day in a row, let's change these bandages and see how you're doing. Do you think Hercules will come back here right away?"
"I expect so, when he sees the extent of the damage. He'll want to check and make sure that you're all right and feel guilty because he wasn't here to help."
"This leg looks much better. I think we can let you put a little weight on it now. Maybe you'd like to sit outside on the porch awhile this afternoon if it warms up enough. We'll have to put your arm in a sling to keep it immobile but I think you're definitely on the mend."
"Good, can I have my clothes back then?"
"But you're so much easier to keep in bed if you don't have clothes."
"Okay, you can have back what I've mended. I'm still working on your shirt."
Hercules walked through the sunshine with a heavy heart at the loss of his wife and children a second time. Even if it had been his own choice, it hadn't been easy to walk away. When he'd emerged from the underworld, he'd been astounded at the damage that had been done by the sudden and savage cold. What game hadn't frozen had been hunted to keep food on the tables. It would take awhile for everything to recover. Hercules was most concerned about his mother and finding out how she'd weathered the crisis. He knew that Iolaus was there and that he'd look after her like she was his own family but that didn't stop the demigod from quickening his steps toward home.
Iolaus sat on the porch with his left leg propped up on a crate, his right arm in a sling and the bandages covering the scratches on his bare chest covered only by his vest and the blanket Alcmene had draped around his shoulders. The snow had melted quickly in the bright sun. He took deep breaths of the warm air. Already it smelled again of spring flowers.
Hercules found Iolaus dozing on the porch. He sat beside his friend and poked him in his good arm.
"Hey Herc, nice to see ya about time you showed up." An impish grin played on Iolaus' face, "Hey, I gotta tell you about our new lifestyle. I'm shacking up with your mom."
Hercules half smiled, "Uh huh, I can see that. I don't imagine that she'd let you on your own looking the way you do. What happened to you?" Hercules felt a pang of guilt as Iolaus explained that his injuries were from defending Hercules' mother and home. It must have shown on his face.
"Hercules, you were straightening out this mess and saving everyone from freezing to death, that's where you should have been. We were fine here."
"We most certainly were," Alcmene appeared in the doorway and hugged her son. "You solved the problem while Iolaus and I held down the home front. We tackled the situation together. It's what family does." She put her arm protectively around Iolaus' shoulders, "I don't know how I would have managed without him."
"I'm glad you were here, Iolaus, thank you."
Iolaus nodded to his friend, "Sure, like she said, it's that family thing."
Alcmene patted Iolaus' shoulder, "I think you've been out here long enough. Hercules, would you help Iolaus back inside. I've got a big pot of stew ready."
Hercules helped Iolaus to his feet and put an arm around his waist for support as Iolaus leaned on his friend not yet willing to put his full weight on his injured leg.
"You should have seen your mom, Herc. She was great. How come you never told me she could shoot like that?"
Hercules shrugged his shoulders, "I didn't know she could do that either."
"Never stops surprising us, does she?"
31 January 2000
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