Cheiron and Hercules climbed halfway up the steep mountain slope before turning to study the face of the mountain across the valley. Cheiron's hooves kept slipping on the slick slope but he wouldn't allow anyone else to take the responsibility. Things didn't look good. The snow had built up along the ridge all winter and now in the warmer afternoons it draped ominously over the edge, threatening an avalanche that would destroy the village below.
"It is a good thing the villagers didn't wait any longer before calling us in to help."
"Agreed," Cheiron pointed out a spot near the center of the ridge. "If you applied your considerable strength there on the center of the cornice, it should start a slide that will be diverted around the village by that natural furrow down there. Hopefully that will relieve enough pressure that the village won't have to worry about a larger slide later in the spring."
Hercules nodded, "Yeah, I think I can do that. How long before the cadets get the village evacuated?"
"We'll give them until midafternoon. I want the villagers to have as much time as we can safely give them to prepare if this should all go terribly wrong. Controlling avalanches is a risky business at best. Come, let's get back to the fire. It's cold out here."
Jason leaped to catch the barrel Iolaus had brushed in passing before it could fall. "Careful, Iolaus, the slightest noise could set that mountain off."
Iolaus glanced up at the mountain and swallowed. "Yeah, thanks." He spied an elderly couple trying to load their wagon. "Come on, lets give them a hand." The two cadets bounded through the snow. They had wrapped rabbit pelts around their boots to keep their feet warmer. Iolaus had even taken the extra steps of wrapping a pelt around his head and tying pieces of cloth around his palms and fingers to keep them warm. Jason blew into his closed fist before stuffing it back into his armpit and decided though it was not attractive, Iolaus had a pretty good idea.
They quickly had the old couple ready to move to higher ground. Jason patted their old horse on the rump to get him moving. The old couple called out their thanks. Iolaus and Jason waved and watched in horror as the horse lost his footing on the icy road and fell. As if in slow motion, the wagon turned and rolled onto it's side making a terrible crashing sound. Everyone in the area froze and listened. The mountain groaned, a low painful moan and then all was quiet. Jason and Iolaus let out sighs of relief and ran to help the others right the wagon again.
The villagers were nearly all gathered up on the windward side of the slope out of the slide's path. The last few stragglers would be on their way soon. Iolaus and Jason walked with Hercules and Cheiron to the edge of the village.
"Make one last check and assure that everyone and everything is out of harms way. Then, head for safety yourselves," Cheiron instructed.
"Will do. Good luck, Herc." Jason shook his hand.
Iolaus followed in suit, "Yeah, we'll see you back at the bottom when it's over for the party."
"Right, just make sure you're out of the way."
"Worry wart." Iolaus flashed him a grin and followed Jason back down the path.
Cheiron continued to accompany Hercules halfway up the mountain. "Hercules, be careful, if we error and do this at the wrong moment or with the wrong amount of force, we could lose the whole village and it's going to be a bitterly cold night. Too cold for those people to be left without shelter."
They reached the point where Cheiron was to take up position to oversee and relay the all clear signal to Hercules. "Good luck."
Hercules nodded and began to carefully ascend the mountain. He had to take a round about path in order to stay away from the cornice. He didn't want to risk setting off the slide by accident.
Jason and Iolaus found no one left in the village. Jason raised the flag that would signal Cheiron that it was all clear. He'd give them enough time to get clear before passing on the signal.
"That does it, come on. Let's get out of here before Hercules does his thing."
Iolaus nodded and they headed for the safety of the temporary camp. At the edge of town, Iolaus paused and looked back up the mountain. "Jason, look! A whole herd of deer. They'll be right in the path of the slide. We have to do something."
"We can't yell. It might cause a vibration and set off the slide."
"I'll run up there and wave at them, scare them off." Iolaus took off at a run.
"Iolaus, wait! It's too dangerous. We've given the signal."
"I won't go all the way, just enough to scare them. I'll make it back. Go on up to the camp. I'll be right behind you."
Hercules picked his way up to where he was sure Cheiron wanted him. He had to climb up on top of the cornice. He could barely see Cheiron on the slope below. He was already waving the flag. It must have taken him longer than he thought to reach the top of the mountain. Hercules took a last look around and smiled at a herd of deer heading the other way at top speed, bounding through the trees.
"They must sense what's about to happen." He slid back down the backside of the cornice and took a deep breath, "Might as well get this show on the road."
He set his back against the wall of snow and ice, braced his legs against the ground as he began applying steady force behind the wall of snow at his back. His efforts were rewarded with a deafening crack and the wall left him as it plunged toward the base of the cliff. The whole valley was filled with the thunderous roar of the moving snow.
Hercules fell backwards and rolled onto his stomach to watch the awesome spectacle. He heard Cheiron shout and turned to look. Then, he saw what Cheiron saw, a tiny figure loping down the slope ahead of the onrushing wall of snow and ice. Hercules' breath caught in his throat. He was on his feet in an instant and running down the slope after the slide screaming at the top of his lungs.
He watched in horror as the slide engulfed his friend. He glimpsed a tangle of arms and legs in the crest of the icy wave and then he was gone beneath the snow. Hercules ran faster and fell, tumbling down the slope.
Cheiron caught him and stopped his headlong plummet.
"Let me go, I have to find Iolaus! He was still there, Cheiron! He wasn't clear!"
"No, Hercules, it's too unstable. I know where he went under, we'll start an organized search downhill from that point."
"No, I have to find him, I set it off, I did this!"
"Hercules!" Cheiron shook his arms, "If Iolaus survives, it's because he's in an air pocket under the snow. It's very unstable. If we step in the wrong place we'll collapse the snow on top of him. We must tread lightly. We'll get the others and come up the slide from the bottom with poles."
"Why wasn't he clear?" Hercules asked.
"I think he was frightening the deer away." Cheiron steered Hercules toward the now safe village. With the exception of Iolaus, the plan had worked flawlessly.
Hercules turned back to look at the slide and struggled, trying to pull away but Cheiron held him firm.
"I have to find him. He's hurt."
"I know, Hercules and we will find him but we must do so, safely or we risk further injuring him." Cheiron pulled him down the mountain.
Jason already had the cadets and villagers lined up at the base of the mountain when they arrived. Each man had a staff or a handle from a rake or hoe. Cheiron nodded his approval as Jason joined them.
"There is no healer here but the magistrate has opened his home for our use."
Cheiron still held Hercules. He could feel the tall cadet shaking beneath his coat. "Good, take Hercules inside and keep him there. He's in no condition to help in the search."
Hercules disagreed, "No! You have to let me find him. It's my fault, Cheiron, my fault!"
"Hercules, you are too upset. This is delicate work. There is no time to argue this. We have to get started before we lose the light. Jason, take him, now." There was no arguing with Cheiron's tone of voice. He gave Hercules a shove toward Jason. Hercules stumbled. Jason caught him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. He handed his staff to Cheiron before leading Hercules into the village.
"Come on Hercules, it'll be alright. He'll be ok."
"No," but it was a weak, plaintive cry without any force behind it.
Hercules collapsed at the table and put his head in his hands, muttering, "it's my fault. I didn't see him, my fault."
"Hercules, you couldn't have known he'd ran back into the danger area. It was an accident." Jason poured him a glass of water and set some bread and cheese in front of him. "You've been out all day, you should eat something."
Hercules shook his head, "Not hungry."
Jason didn't press the issue, "You have to drink something at least. You need to drink more when it's cold."
Hercules nodded despondently and sipped at the water. Jason helped Hercules take off his coat before removing his own. Hercules stared at the table top barely blinking. Jason retrieved a blanket from the bedroom and wrapped it around Hercules' shoulders before sitting down beside him to wait.
Outside Cheiron pulled his cloak closer about himself to ward off the bitter wind. He continued to poke about the base of the slide. He didn't dare try to join the men on top of it. His greater weight would endanger anyone trapped beneath and so he waited and watched. He'd have to return to the village soon and gather torches. They were losing the light and he feared any chance of finding his lost student.
Jason lit the lamp and considered trying to get Hercules to eat again. He saw the reflection of tears on his friend's face. He sat down beside him, "They'll find him, Hercules, he'll be fine."
Hercules stared at nothing in the air. "It's dark, getting colder, what if...What if he's hurt?...What if...Jason, I don't think I could live with myself if...."
"Shhh, don't think about that. They'll find him." Jason pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders.
Hercules leaned forward and lay his forehead on the table, "Jason, what have I done?" He whispered.
Jason didn't know how to console his friend. Hercules wasn't hearing him. He was somewhere far away, unreachable. So, Jason settled for just being there for him and hoped Hercules knew he was near.
Jason slid the glass of water over to Hercules' hand silently urging him to take another drink. Hercules stared at the glass awhile before finally sipping from it.
"It's not your fault."
"No, it is, Jason. My mother always said that my strength would get the better of me if I let it. I should have checked myself that it was clear. I was too cocky, it's my fault." His eyes never left the table top.
Jason gave his shoulder a squeeze and rose. "I have to go out for more wood. I'll be right back in."
Hercules didn't acknowledge that he'd even heard.
Jason piled logs into his arms until they were in peril of toppling before he headed back inside. The bitter north wind gave him chills. He tried not to think about his happy-go-lucky friend being trapped out here. He kicked open the door and let the logs tumble into the corner of the room. He turned to close the door and realized that Hercules wasn't at the table.
"Hercules?" No answer. Jason checked the bedroom, empty. Hercules' blanket lay on the floor beside the table. His coat still hung on the wall. Jason grabbed the coat and headed outside. In the dim moonlight he could just make out tracks leading away from the town. He'd expected Hercules to head for the slide, instead he'd gone in the opposite direction. Jason considered going after Hercules alone and realized how foolish it was. Cheiron needed to know where they were in case something happened and they didn't come back.
"Cheiron!" Jason hollered.
The centaur trotted toward him, "What is it?"
"Hercules has taken off. He headed toward that pass over there."
"He's left? Why?"
"He's still blaming himself. He won't listen to me. He's not wearing his coat."
Cheiron took the wool garment and folded it over his arm, "Stay here, I'll go after him."
Cheiron didn't dare move faster than a trot on the ice but even that was faster than the average mortal could move. He caught up to the distraught cadet at the edge of the village. He didn't try to stop him just matched his pace and walked alongside. Hercules stared at the snow-covered ground in front of him but he knew Cheiron was there.
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know. Somewhere I won't hurt anyone."
"Hercules, you are not thinking clearly."
Hercules stopped and faced Cheiron, "I think, I'm thinking clearly for the first time in my life."
"My strength may have gotten Iolaus killed."
"It was his choice not to stay clear of the area after the signal had been given. If anything, it was my fault for not being certain both Iolaus and Jason were clear. I saw Jason and assumed that Iolaus was with him."
Hercules ignored Cheiron's attempt to take responsibility, "I can't let people get hurt because of my actions."
"Hercules, you have to choose the path of the greater good. Sometimes those decisions are not easy, they never are, but you will make them and there will be consequences. You have face them and deal with them. Your strength can be a great gift or a great curse. You must choose which it is to be by how you use it." Cheiron wrapped the coat around Hercules' shoulders.
"What if I can't deal with it? What if I can't live with myself?" Hercules' eyes were unfocused with the deepening shock.
Cheiron turned the unresisting cadet back toward the village. "We'll cross that bridge together if we come to it. We still have time. Iolaus still has time." Cheiron fervently hoped that his words were true.
Cheiron took up his vigil at the base of the slide again.
"Is he alright?" Jason asked.
Cheiron nodded, "He will be. He'd been out long enough that there was ice on his clothes. I made him take them off before they melted and gave him a chill. Keep him warm. I've put on some tea, make him drink it. It'll help, that's about all we can do for him at the moment. Just be there and wait with him."
Jason nodded, "How long does Iolaus have under that?"
"I don't know. It depends on how badly he's injured and how long his body can hold it's warmth."
Jason entered the house and shook off the snow and ice to find Hercules wrapped in a blanket sitting beside the fire. He looked tired. There were dark circles under his eyes. Jason pulled up a chair beside him and poured two mugs of the tea. He held one and passed the other to Hercules.
"Nice just to hold it, huh?"
Hercules nodded. "You were at the slide?"
"Any sign?" His voice was not much above a whisper.
"Not so far but Cheiron says there's still time."
"What now?" Hercules asked.
Jason continued to add wood to the fire as needed to keep it roaring. He also built a fire in the bedroom hearth, reasoning that they'd need that room to be ready when they found their wayward friend.
An icy blast of air burst through the open door. The magistrate stepped through as Cheiron emerged from the darkness carrying a figure wrapped in blankets.
Hercules sprang to his feet, "Iolaus!"
They disappeared into the bedroom, the magistrate shutting the door behind them without a word. Hercules walked to the closed door and rested his hands and forehead against it.
"He's alive, Herc. They wouldn't have brought him in here if there wasn't a chance."
Hercules didn't move. Jason pulled him from the door, just as it opened again. Cheiron glanced at Hercules' haggard visage and spoke directly to Jason. "Heat water, bring whatever herbs you can find."
Jason blocked the door, "Please, Cheiron, will he be alright?"
"I don't know. We've got to get him dry and warm first. Then, we'll know how bad it is." Again, the door closed.
It seemed like hours, they waited. Jason didn't know which was worse, waiting for Iolaus to be found or waiting to know if he would be all right. Hercules was oblivious to the passage of time. He returned to the table, staring at the wood and waiting.
Jason delivered the water and herbs as requested. The quick glimpse of his blond friend didn't provide much information. Cheiron had him so wrapped up in blankets that he couldn't tell how badly he was hurt before the magistrate ushered him back into the living area. Without anything else useful to do, he resumed his seat next to Hercules.
They waited together, Jason kept the fire going strong against the cold wind battering the shutters. It was quiet. It must be late. It had been dark for a long time but there was still no sign of dawn. Jason wondered about the other cadets, the villagers must have taken them in. At least that part of the day had gone right. The village was safe.
A strangled scream erupted from behind the closed door destroying the silence. Hercules shot up from the bench. "Iolaus."
Jason pulled him back down, "Easy, Herc, if he can scream, he's alive. They are doing whatever they have to." Jason felt a sudden need to be strong for Hercules' sake.
"Frostbite?" Hercules asked in a whisper the color draining from his face.
Jason knew what he was thinking and shrugged, "I don't know, I'd think that it would be a little too early to tell for that. Might just be something broken. He probably got bounced around a lot. Listen, it's quiet again. I'd think that if they had to do...something drastic...that it wouldn't have gotten quiet again so fast." Jason didn't know if he was reassuring himself or his friend.
"Or he's unconscious," their eyes met a moment in understanding of the implications that would bring. Jason offered a silent plea to whatever gods might be listening. Hercules took a sip from the water glass. Jason's throat had gone suddenly dry, as well.
Hercules heard the latch being pulled on the door before it opened. Cheiron walked over to them. This was what they'd been waiting for.
"Iolaus?" Hercules asked rising from the bench.
"I believe he will make a full recovery."
Hercules closed his eyes and sighed with relief. Jason supported him with an arm afraid that he might collapse. He was still frightfully pale. Hercules' whisper was barely audible, "How bad?"
"He has a concussion which knocked him unconscious early on, probably saved him from being more severely injured. His body was limp so it moved with the snow and ice instead of against it. He has a couple of broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder."
"That was the scream we heard," Jason guessed.
Cheiron nodded and continued, "He was suffering from the cold but I think we've managed to restore his circulation in time. He's taken a beating and he's covered in bruises. He's going to ache for a few days but he will be fine. He wants to see you, Hercules."
The tall youth walked unsteadily toward the open door. Cheiron halted him with a hand and appraised his condition critically.
"He's still in shock," Jason contributed.
Cheiron nodded, "I see that." He pulled the blanket back up around Hercules' shoulders. "Hercules?"
"I'm OK," he insisted stubbornly.
Cheiron didn't comment, "Hercules, Iolaus needs to rest and so do you. I'll have a pallet made up by the fire in the bedroom. I'm going to make you some tea. After you've visited with Iolaus, you are going to drink it and then you are going to go to sleep. Do you understand?"
Hercules nodded agreeable to anything that would allow him in the next room and Cheiron released him.
Iolaus was propped up against the pillows wrapped and covered in a mountain of heavy blankets. Livid bruises were obvious on his cheek and forehead. Iolaus smiled tiredly at Hercules and patted the bed where Hercules could sit. Iolaus saw the puffy. red eyes and knew that his friend had been torturing himself.
"Herc, it wasn't your fault. I knew you were about to set off the avalanche. I had to try and save that herd. I had to. I sorta owed it to Artemis, you know. You couldn't have known I was being stupid."
A tear escaped and fled down Hercules' cheek. The battered but recovering Iolaus sitting before him was more than he'd dared hope for. That Iolaus forgave him was something that he couldn't yet comprehend.
"Herc, I'm ok, really. It wasn't your fault."
Cheiron cleared his throat from the doorway before entering the room and handing Hercules the mug. Hercules sipped the hot liquid slowly.
Iolaus looked up at Cheiron, concern for his silent friend filled his eyes. "Is he ok?"
"He will be, tomorrow. Like you, he needs warmth and rest," after a moment's pause, the centaur added, "and your continued reassurances that he is not to blame as we discussed."
Iolaus nodded Cheiron had tried to explain Hercules' state of mind before allowing him into the room. Seeing him like this worried Iolaus. He reached out and took Hercules' hand in his own. He gave it a little squeeze and was reassured when his friend squeezed back.
Jason laid out more thick blankets by the hearth. Cheiron put a hand on Jason's shoulder as he rose. "You can handle these two tonight?"
"Yeah, no problem."
"You know where I'll be." Cheiron closed the door behind himself.
Jason pulled a chair up to the bedside and sat down. He smiled at Iolaus, "Glad to see that you're ok."
"Thanks." They watched Hercules sip his tea. When he had drained the cup, Jason took it from him. "I think you two could use a little more time to talk. I'll be in the next room if you need anything. Get some rest. I'll be in to stoke the fire later."
Iolaus nodded, "Thanks," and turned his attention back to his friend.
"Hey, Herc, you ok?"
Hercules looked up at him, "Do you need anything?"
Iolaus smiled, "Yeah, warm me up, I'm cold."
Hercules' gaze wandered to the thick layer of blankets, "Under all that?"
"It's crazy, I know, but I can't get warm. Cheiron says it'll pass. I just hate being cold."
Hercules continued to watch his friend a moment, then looked at the already roaring fire. Iolaus knew he was trying to think of what else he could do.
"Herc, it'll pass, there's nothing you can do. I'll feel warm again eventually."
Hercules shook his head not accepting that answer and climbed off the bed. He slowly walked around to the other side and added his blanket to the top of the pile. He shivered realizing that he wasn't wearing anything but his loin covering. He didn't remember taking off his clothes. When had he done that? He dismissed the thought, he'd worry about it in the morning. He lifted the edge of the covers and crawled under, being careful of his friend's injuries, he awkwardly curled around Iolaus. For the moment sharing his body's warmth was more important than what Jason might think if he should look in on them. Hercules carefully laid an arm across Iolaus' chest.
"Better?" he asked.
Iolaus smiled with his eyes, genuinely touched by the gesture. "Yeah, Herc, that's a lot better." Then, Iolaus leaned his head against Hercules' warm shoulder and both boys allowed healing sleep to claim them.
Jason was startled to find the pallet empty. His fear that Hercules had given him the slip again was quickly allayed when he turned to the bed and saw two heads lying against the pillows. He built the fire back up and walked to the bed. Jason stood a moment watching his friends sleep. He counted his blessings that he'd found such friends and wondered if they realized how lucky they were to have each other. He smiled as Iolaus unconsciously snuggled closer to Hercules' warmth. "Yeah, you two'll be just fine." Jason blew out the lamp leaving them in the fire's light as he went to find his own bed for what was left of the night.
Hercules stretched and rolled over onto his side.
"Feeling better?" Iolaus asked.
Hercules raised his head. Iolaus was still in the bed beside him. The son of Zeus slid up to sit against the pile of pillows in the big bed. He vaguely remembered needing to keep Iolaus warm and figured that must be how he'd ended up here. Iolaus had a tray in his lap and was attempting to eat his soup and bread single handedly while still balancing the tray. Bandages held his left arm immobilized against his side and across his stomach. Hercules hadn't noticed them the night before.
"How are you?" Hercules asked.
"Shoulder feels like it's on fire but that's way better than last night. Head still hurts, actually, all of me pretty much hurts. How are you?" He asked again.
"Ok, I guess."
"Well, you're talking sense to me again at least. You didn't say much of anything last night." Hercules stared at the blanket on top of the bed and didn't speak. "Herc?"
"Cheiron said that my strength could be a great gift or a great curse. I guess this time it was both. I never thought that doing the right thing could get people hurt. Being able to do the things that I can do has a price. I don't want the people around me to have to suffer for my gifts."
Cheiron had said the same thing to Iolaus the night before. He also told the injured cadet that it was an issue the two friends would be discussing for a long time to come. Unexpected things were bound to happen and Hercules would need Iolaus' help to deal with the side of his life that truly was merely mortal. Iolaus sighed as he mentally shouldered the daunting task before him.
"Herc, sometimes you can't stop it. You saved the whole village. All these good people didn't lose their homes or their livelihoods, that's a good thing."
"You got hurt."
"Yeah and that's not a good thing but It's not the first time, probably won't be the last. I'm tough, I can take it."
"It's the last time, if I have anything to say about it."
"Herc, you can't stop me from doing dumb things. I'm too stubborn for that. Better you figure out that now. "
"I can try."
"And you're stubborn, too. It wasn't your fault, I got hurt. Say it, Herc....Say it."
Hercules frowned and sighed in resignation. He didn't have the strength to argue and knew Iolaus didn't either. They would talk about all this again when it didn't hurt so much. "It wasn't my fault, you got hurt. Are you happy now?"
"Yep, doesn't take much. Now, before you let go of all your guilt and start teasing me again," Iolaus leaned forward painfully, " scratch my back, it hurts too much to reach myself and it's driving me crazy. Herc? What happened to your clothes?"
Hercules clothes were eventually returned to him after they'd been properly laundered and ironed. He never did remember why he'd taken them off and was afraid to ask.
15 July 1999
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