Alcmene shook her head in masked amusement. For a moment, time flew backwards. Instead of sounding like three grown men, Hercules, Iolaus, and Jason sounded very much like the cadets they'd once been at Cheiron's Academy.
"Who do you two think you're trying to fool?" Iolaus laughingly demanded. "You know I can outhunt the both of you put together!"
Jason exchanged an amused glance with his step-son. "I don't know about that," he judiciously considered. "I think the two of us could outhunt you."
"Only if I stayed here and didn't hunt at all," Iolaus scoffed. He jumped up as Alcmene appeared with a pitcher of juice and mugs. Taking them from her, he gave her an engaging smile. "You know who's the best hunter, don't you, Alcmene?"
Alcmene saw Hercules smother a grin even as Jason struggled not to smile.
"You've always been very good to share the benefits of your hunting skills with me, Iolaus," Alcmene smoothly replied.
Iolaus gave his friends a triumphant look. "See? What more proof could you want?" he demanded.
"Dinner?" Jason innocently replied.
"Fine." Iolaus gulped down the juice. "Here's the bet. You and Hercules hunt together. I'll go by myself. Whoever brings the most game back, wins."
Hercules hesitated. It sounded like Iolaus felt his hunting skills had been questioned. When his friend's pride was involved, the hunter had been known to go to extremes. "I don't think we need to be going after anything like boars unless we're all together," he cautioned.
"Afraid you'll lose?" Iolaus cockily replied.
"Well, there's one way to settle this," Jason decided. "Let's go hunting."
Not long after, Hercules gave Iolaus a final wave as the hunter disappeared into the woods. Then he turned to Jason. "Other than giving Iolaus a hard time, you want to tell me just why we're going hunting?" he asked.
Jason gave his friend a sharp look. "We've had a week of good spring weather," he pointed out. "Your mother's got that "Let's take everything out of the house and clean" look in her eyes." He grinned. "Or don't you remember that look?"
Hercules did. He settled his bow across his broad shoulders. "Let's go hunting," he agreed.
Iolaus tunelessly whistled as he shifted the weight of the doe across his shoulders. While the doe wasn't especially heavy, he would have been glad to see Hercules right about now. Still, he doubted the demi-god and former King of Corinth would be dragging back anything better.
He suddenly stopped as something in the brush caught his eyes. Standing very still, he carefully used all his senses. The hair on the back of his neck was trying to stand up. Something...or someone...was in the bushes. For a split second, he wondered if it were Jason and Hercules trying to sneak up on him.
That thought had barely gone through his mind when a grey blur shot out from the bushes knocking him to the ground.
Iolaus instinctively released the doe on his shoulders and tried to roll free from the attacking wolf. He screamed as fangs raked his forearm. Arching upwards, he managed to grab his dagger and thrust it into the wolf's side.
The wolf howled as Iolaus stabbed again and again and again.....
Hercules turned around. "Did you hear that?" he asked.
Jason also stopped. Listening carefully, he shook his head. "No. What did you hear?"
"I'm not sure," Hercules reluctantly admitted. "Whatever it was, it was far away."
Jason glanced at the sun dipping low in the afternoon sky. "Then we don't have to worry about it," he decided. "Come on, Iolaus is going to enjoy himself tonight." He disgustedly looked at the meager bounty he and the demi-god were bringing back.
Hercules grinned. "Now you know why I travel with Iolaus," he teased. "At least I won't starve."
Iolaus sat breathing heavily. The dead body of the wolf lay to one side. Cursing under his breath, Iolaus painfully began making a campfire. He hadn't noticed during his struggle to survive, but a closer look at the wolf's body had confirmed his suspicion. The wolf had been rabid.
Building the fire as hot as he could, he carefully selected a number of herbs and mixed a poltice on a bandage. Steeling himself, he lay his hunting knife in the flames getting the blade white hot. "I hate this," he muttered to himself.
Iolaus screamed as he forced the hot blade into the open wounds.
Jason was still grumbling as they got closer to home. "I would never have believed rabbits could travel so fast," he said.
"Jason, you made the bet," Hercules chuckled. "And we both know Iolaus is far and away the better hunter. Did you really think he'd lose to us?"
"No, but I didn't think we'd do so badly," Jason snapped. "This is not going to be a pleasant night," he muttered.
Hercules shook his head in amusement then noticed a man running towards them. He stopped eyes narrowing until he recognized a neighbor of Alcmene's. "Theiris!" he greeted with a wave.
"I'm glad I found you!" Theiris smiled. "Iolaus wanted me to give you a message."
"Iolaus?" Hercules glanced at Jason. "Where is he?"
"I passed him on the road." Theiris pointed over his shoulder. "It looked like he was heading for his place. He said to tell you he had to leave. Something about an emergency. Ania's brother?" The man looked questioningly at him.
Hercules slowly nodded. Theiris had not lived in the village when Iolaus' wife had died in childbirth. "Thanks for the message," he quietly said.
Theiris gave them a wave and continued on down the road.
Jason saw Hercules' frown. "Go catch up to him," he urged.
Hercules hesitated. Iolaus' grief and feelings for Ania ran deep...deeper than most people realized. He knew the hunter would want time to get himself under control before seeing anyone. "Let's get the game home," he suggested. "Then I'll head out after him." He saw Jason's frown. "I remember when Ania died, Jason. He really didn't want anyone around him then."
Alcmene looked up as Jason and Hercules slowly walked towards the house. She hid a smile at the sight of the small amount of game they were bringing back. She made a mental note to ask Iolaus not to make too much of his victory.
"Not a word, if you please," Jason requested holding up his hand in weary resignation.
Alcmene smiled. "I'm surprised Iolaus hasn't gotten back yet," she teased.
"Actually, mother, Iolaus isn't coming," Hercules admitted. "We met Theiris on the road. Iolaus gave him a message for us. Something about Ania's brother needing him. As soon as I wash, I'm going to catch up with him." He stopped at the look on his mother's face.
"Ania's brother?" Alcmene frowned. "Hercules, Ania didn't have a brother."
Hercules stared at his mother then at Jason. "Are you sure?" he asked.
"Ania and I spent quite a lot of time together," Alcmene nodded. "She had three older sisters. But no brother."
"Maybe Theiris got the message mixed up," Jason suggested.
Hercules shook his head. "I don't like this," he muttered. He quickly kissed his mother on her cheek. "I'm gonna find Iolaus."
"I'm coming with you," Jason decided dropping the game on the ground. "I don't like this either."
Iolaus didn't like it either. He'd taken a calculated risk in mentioning Ania's non-existent brother. He hoped Alcmene didn't remember Ania had only sisters. But a message to Hercules that Iolaus was going to rescue a woman in distress would have his partner running after him. Now, helping a former brother-in-law....
Iolaus winced then glanced around his small house again. He'd gathered what supplies he could quickly stuff into a small carrysack. His arm didn't feel good and was bleeding again. At the very best it was infected despite the attention he'd given to it. More than likely, the rabid wolf had infected him. That meant he had to get into the woods and away from his friends...away from anyone he could possibly hurt.
Iolaus quickly wrapped another bandage around his arm. He'd take care of it later.
"Iolaus!" Hercules shouted as he and Jason barreled into Iolaus' house.
"I'll check the forge," Jason quickly offered.
Since Iolaus had never been a neat housekeeper, Hercules wasn't sure if he'd be able to determine if Iolaus had just left or if the clutter was the result of several days' inhabitation. Think like Iolaus, he told himself. What would the hunter take if he were trying to leave quickly?
"Nothing in the forge," Jason called out as he reentered the house. "In fact, it doesn't look like he's...Hercules?" He stared at the demi-god who was kneeling in front of the fireplace.
"Blood," Hercules flatly answered. "Fresh, too."
"This doesn't make sense. Even for Iolaus." Jason shook his head. "If he was hurt, he wouldn't run from us. If nothing else, he'd head for Alcmene to patch him up and fuss over him."
"Not to mention making up a false story," Hercules nodded.
"Maybe someone else's blood?" Jason guessed then shook his head. "Theiris didn't mention anyone else with Iolaus."
"Maybe Theiris couldn't see anyone else," Hercules grimly continued.
"One of the gods?" Jason's eyes widened. After a moment's consideration, he shook his head. "That doesn't make sense either." When Hercules silently challenged him, he explained. "Why would they allow Iolaus to come back here? Why not just take him wherever they wanted?"
Hercules hesitated. "We'll find out," he decided. Glancing outside at the darkening sky, he tried not to panic. "We can't track him in the dark, that's for sure."
Jason reluctantly nodded. "We'll start at first light," he promised.
Iolaus swore under his breath as he finally replaced the bandage around his arm. "Yeah, definitely infected," he muttered. "Never thought I'd wish something was only infected."
Shaking in reaction to the pain, he leaned back and started into the flickering campfire. Gods, he felt awful. He'd treated the wounds as best he could. All he could do now was wait and ride out the infection until he was sure one way or the other that the rabid wolf hadn't infected him.
Curling up close to the fire, he pulled a blanket over him and shivered. He knew he needed to get some sleep. He needed to be awake early and put more distance between himself and Hercules. It wouldn't be long before his partner would realize Iolaus' message was false and come after him. He knew just how fast Hercules could travel when he put his mind to it. And he wasn't sure just how much of a false trail he was capable of creating.
Hercules gave up trying to sleep in the early hours of the morning. Dressing quietly, he slipped outside and sat on the porch. Iolaus was running from something, he reasoned. Either someone, or something, was after him or he was running away from his friends in some misguided effort to protect them. In either case, Hercules was sorely tempted to shake some sense into his partner.
'Okay, he gonna head deep into the woods,' Hercules considered. 'He figures he can lose us there. And probably can.' Deep down, Hercules knew the blood he'd found at Iolaus' house had belonged to the hunter. Any bad wound would slow Iolaus down. 'But why run if he's hurt?'
That question kept the demi-god busy thinking until the sun began to rise over the horizon and he heard his mother's voice.
"Hercules! You haven't been out here all night, have you?" Alcmene demanded.
Hercules briefly smiled as he turned his head. "Not all night," he assured her.
Alcmene rolled her eyes. "Jason's getting dressed." She put a hand on his shoulder. "I know you don't want to stop and eat so I'm going to fix you something to eat on the way."
"Thanks, mother," Hercules nodded.
With a sigh, Alcmene returned to the house. She gave Jason a warning look when he joined her. "Hercules has been sitting outside probably most of the night," she said.
Jason nodded. "I'm not surprised," he nodded. He gave his wife a quick kiss and took the packages of food from her. "Don't worry. We'll find him."
They found Hercules impatiently waiting on the steps. "Ready?" he asked.
Jason nodded. "Come up with any answers?"
Hercules hesitated. "One," he admitted. "Whatever Iolaus was hunting turned on him or some other animal got to him. At least bad enough to wound him. Whatever happened made Iolaus decide to run instead of coming for help."
"The only reason he'd do that is if he thought he was protecting us," Jason continued with a slow nod.
"But why would Iolaus think that?" Alcmene asked.
Jason and Hercules exchanged a quick look.
"I want an answer!" Alcmene firmly demanded.
"Maybe he thought the animal was rabid," Jason finally answered.
Alcmene saw the fear in her son's eyes. "Then you'd better get going and find him," she firmly announced. "I trust the two of you can manage to drag him back?"
"We will, mother," Hercules smiled. He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.
It wasn't hard to track Iolaus from his house. It really wasn't hard to track Iolaus as he'd headed into the woods. Once they got several yards from the edge of the woods, however, the trail almost disappeared. Almost.
"He couldn't have gone far," Jason reasoned as Hercules knelt to study the tracks. "He's hurt and it was getting dark." He kept his voice pitched calmly and unemotionally. Hercules was strung as tightly as a coiled snake ready to strike.
"Makes sense," Hercules nodded. He knew what Jason was doing and was grateful. Left to himself, he probably would have torn through the woods in a mad rush to find his partner.
"Let's just take it slow and careful," Jason urged. "Iolaus doesn't need any help from us to stay hidden."
"I'm gonna wring his neck," Hercules angrily muttered as he got to his feet.
Jason chuckled. "I've had the inclination several times myself," he admitted.
With a groan, Iolaus opened his eyes. For a few moments, he wondered not only where he was but how he'd gotten there. Then a stabbing pain in his arm reminded him.
Holding his arm close to his body, he sat up. Part of his mind cataloged the wound in the arm, the fever flushing through his body, the dizziness...he just hurt all over.
Groaning again, he saw the sun was halfway to it's zenith. He'd lost a lot of time. Forcing himself to his feet, he kicked dirt across the campfire until it was extinguished. He stumbled to his knees more than once gathering his equipment.
'I want Alcmene,' he childishly thought. He wanted her to fuss over him. He wanted her to tell him everything was going to be fine.
Shaking with the effort, he stumbled deeper into the woods towards the sound of a fast-running creek. He'd soak his arm and head. Maybe that would help. He just wished it would stop hurting so much.
"I don't like this," Jason muttered.
Hercules nodded. Iolaus hadn't done a very good job in hiding his tracks. That meant the hunter was hurt worse than he'd wanted to believe.
It wasn't long before they found the remains of Iolaus' campsite. Jason knelt beside the ashes of the campfire. "They're still warm," he said in surprise. "He can't have gone far." He rose to his feet. "There's a creek over that way," he pointed.
Hercules nodded. "The tracks go that way." He glanced at Jason with worry. "He's not even trying to hide his tracks now."
Jason grimly nodded. He had the feeling it wouldn't be long until they found Iolaus. The question was would he be alive?
Hercules spotted Iolaus first. He later swore his heart actually stopped when he saw Iolaus lying half in-half out of the creek. "Iolaus!" he yelled running towards his friend. Hardly noticing Jason running behind him, he fell to his knees as he reached Iolaus. He grabbed his unconscious friend and pulled him into his arms. "Iolaus! Answer me!"
Jason knelt next to Iolaus and felt the hunter's forehead. "He's burning up, Hercules," he harshly said. "He can't answer you."
"Gods, Jason, look at his arm," Hercules half-whispered.
"Hold him still," Jason crisply ordered.
Sitting on the ground, Hercules held his friend close to his chest. He felt the weight of Iolaus' head against his chest and took a deep breath.
"Something clawed him good," Jason muttered. "Looks like he got bit, too."
"How infected is it?" Hercules asked surprised at the calmness of his voice.
Jason glanced up at him. "It's not good," he admitted. "We need to get him back home and to a healer." Surprisingly, he removed his carrysack. "First thing, we've got to lance that infection & get it drained as much as possible."
Hercules started to argue but one look at Iolaus' unbandaged arm closed his mouth. "What do you want me to do?" he asked.
"Just keep hold of him," Jason ordered. "I'll make a fire and set out some bandages. You'll need to hold him while I do it."
Mouth dry, Hercules nodded. This wasn't going to be pleasant, and he suddenly wished he was somewhere else.
Sooner than he wanted, Jason had the knife heated. As Hercules held Iolaus, Jason took the hunter's arm and braced it between his knees. With one hand holding Iolaus' arm steady and Hercules holding Iolaus' body tight against his, Jason took a deep breath and lanced the infected part of Iolaus' arm.
Depite himself, Hercules' eyes closed as Iolaus jerked in his arms. The stench of the infection was enough to make anyone sick. Not to mention the moan from Iolaus that tore at his heart.
Whitefaced, Jason drained as much of the infection as possible then quickly bandaged Iolaus' arm. Breathing hard, he sat back and reached for the waterskin. "It's times like this that I almost wish I was drinking again," he ruefully admitted.
"Not funny, Jason." Hercules found himself staring into the creek water.
"Don't I know it," Jason grunted. He dampened another bandage and began wiping Iolaus' sweaty face. Then he reached the waterskin to Hercules who drank deeply from it.
"I don't know that I could have done that, Jason," Hercules quietly said.
"If you'd had to, you could have," Jason firmly answered. "I just wonder what animal got Iolaus?"
"Wolf," Iolaus whispered.
"Iolaus?" Hercules glanced down at his friend who was trying to open his eyes.
"Rabid wolf." Iolaus finally got the words out.
"And for that you head off into the woods instead of coming for help?" Jason shouted.
"Jason, calm down," Hercules quickly interrupted.
"Calm down?!" Jason angrily shook his head. "Alright, Iolaus, I know all the horror stories about being bitten by a rabid animal. But do you honestly think Hercules or I would let you hurt anyone?" He angrily refilled the waterskin. "Of all the stupid tricks, Iolaus, this one is the worst!"
"Hercules, is Jason angry with me?" Iolaus stared up at his partner.
"Yeah, Iolaus, I believe he is," Hercules nodded.
"Oh." Iolaus' eyelids flickered. "That's okay, then."
Jason turned around to see Iolaus lapse back into unconsciousness. He glared at Hercules. "And don't think being unconscious is going to keep him from hearing about this later!"
"Don't worry," Hercules grimly nodded. "I've got a few things to say myself."
Jason began packing their supplies. "You get him back home as quickly as possible," he ordered. "You can travel faster with him alone. I'll get Triminis and meet you at the house."
Hercules carefully got to his feet cradling Iolaus in his arms. "Don't be long," he cautioned. "And be careful. There might have been more than one wolf."
Jason grunted. "Just get going."
It took both Jason and Hercules to hold Iolaus while Triminis and Alcmene lanced his arm and completely drained the infection. By that time, Iolaus' arm was swollen to twice it's normal size and Iolaus had already suffered one convulsion.
While Triminis and Alcmene made up the poltices and teas to aid the hunter in his recovery, Jason and Hercules bathed Iolaus and laid him in a bed with fresh linens.
Seeing his mother enter with some tea, Hercules automatically sat with his back against the wall and held his friend in his arms. "C'mon, Iolaus, you gotta drink this," he soothingly murmured.
Iolaus mumbled something in his delirium.
"C'mon, Iolaus, just a little," Hercules encouraged. "It'll help."
Alcmene saw the fear in her son's eyes when Iolaus ignored him. "Iolaus!" she sharply commanded. "Open your mouth and drink this right now!"
Iolaus' eyes fluttered open. "Okay," he whispered.
Hercules exchanged an exasperated look with Jason. "All of it!" Alcmene ordered in a no-nonsense voice when Iolaus grimaced at the taste.
"Yechhh," Iolaus muttered as he swallowed the last of the tea.
"Hercules, put him down," Alcmene ordered.
"Oh, yeah, right." Hercules reluctantly slid from the bed.
"Alcmene, Jason's mad at me," Iolaus muttered.
"Really?" Alcmene frowned. "We'll deal with that later, dear. Now go to sleep."
Obediently, the hunter curled up and closed his eyes.
"Mother, how..." Hercules began.
"You two go downstairs and eat," Alcmene briskly ordered. "Don't argue with me. I'll sit with Iolaus. I know you're going to want to sit up with him tonight, Hercules, but you're going to eat and get cleaned up first."
"I will, Mother," Hercules smiled. He quickly kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you."
"Is Triminis still downstairs?" Jason quietly asked. When Alcmene nodded, he followed the demi-god.
"Men." Alcmene shook her head.
Iolaus slowly opened his eyes almost luxuriating in the coolness around him. He'd been hot for so long....then he was aware of something on his chest.
Looking down, he saw Hercules' gauntleted arm stretched across his chest. He looked to his right to find the demi-god asleep in a chair next to the bed. As Iolaus twisted his head for a better look, he saw Hercules was actually half sitting in the chair and half laying on the bed next to Iolaus.
"Now how did this happen?" Iolaus muttered.
That sound was enough to jerk Hercules awake. For a few seconds, he looked confused then he sat upright. "Iolaus!" he grinned. He reached out to touch the hunter's forehead. "Fever's broken." He blinked a few times to clear the sleep from his head. "You've been giving us quite a scare."
"Ummm...sorry," Iolaus frowned. "How did I get here?"
"Jason and I tracked you," Hercules explained as he poured some water into a mug. "Here, you need to drink a lot of water." He easily supported Iolaus so he could drink. When he was done, Hercules gently lowered him back to the bed. "You got clawed and bitten by a rabid wolf, remember?"
Iolaus grimaced. "Yeah," he nodded. Then he looked at his partner. "You and Jason tracked me?"
Hercules grinned. "Well, you had a high fever and were probably half-delirious as well," he admitted. "It wasn't too awfully hard."
Iolaus grunted. "Jason's mad, isn't he?" he asked after a moment.
"Yep," Hercules grinned. "He's not the only one either."
Iolaus carefully scrutinized Hercules from the corner of his eyes. "C'mon, Herc, I didn't have a choice," he explained.
"Iolaus..." Hercules ran a hand through his rumpled hair. "What if it had been me?"
"You'd ‘ve gone off somewhere so you wouldn't be a danger to anyone," Iolaus smilingly replied.
Hercules calmed the urge to throttle his partner. "Okay, maybe I would have," he finally admitted. "And wouldn't you have been mad?"
"Probably," Iolaus grudgingly admitted after a moment.
"Here, drink some more water and let's get some sleep," Hercules wearily smiled. "It's the middle of the night."
He held Iolaus as he drank then settled him back in the bed. With a yawn, the demi-god climbed into the other bed after extinguishing the candles.
"Hey, Herc," Iolaus whispered. "Just like when we were kids, huh?"
"Yeah, Iolaus," Hercules sleepily replied.
"Jason's gonna yell at me, isn't he?" Iolaus whispered after a moment.
"Oh, yeah." Hercules smiled in the dark. "He is definitely gonna yell at you."
Hercules and Jason exchanged weary looks with one another.
"Is this worse than the Hydra?" Jason asked.
Hercules stood upright easing strained back muscles. "It's taking a lot longer," he admitted.
"You know what gets me?" Jason angrily muttered. "Iolaus. Sitting over there as petted and cossetted as a Prince of Egypt while we're killing ourselves!"
Hercules had to admit Jason was right. Now that Iolaus was on the mend, Alcmene had her "take everything from the house and clean it" look back on her face. Hercules and Jason had spent the better part of the morning doing the first part. The afternoon would be spent putting all the furniture back.
Iolaus, however, had been barred by Alcmene from lifting anything. His morning had been spent curled up on a bench in the garden while Alcmene made sure he had plenty of juice and food to nibble on.
As they passed Iolaus, Jason glared down at him. "I will get even, you know."
"Alcmene, Jason's being mean to me again," Iolaus called out.
"Jason, leave Iolaus alone," Alcmene ordered from the kitchen. "He's recuperating."
"He'll need to recuperate when I'm done with him," Jason muttered as he went inside the house.
"Hey, Herc, I offered!" Iolaus' eyes twinkled. "But your mother said I needed to rest and not move around a lot."
"Oh, I know," Hercules smiled. He saw Jason returning with a mug of water for both of them. "It just seems a little unfair that you get out of this so easily when you're the one who took the wrong path home."
"Ummm...Alcmene?" Iolaus called out. There was no answer. "Alcmene?"
"She's busy," Jason grinned. "In fact, she's going to be busy for quite a while."
"You know, I think Iolaus is getting a little too much sun, don't you, Jason?" Hercules asked.
"Definitely," Jason nodded.
"Look, I apologized, remember?" Iolaus scrambled to his feet. "I was just trying to protect everyone."
"And we're so very grateful, aren't we, Hercules?" Jason asked.
"Oh, very grateful," Hercules nodded.
"Alcmene!" Iolaus yelled as he jumped over the bench and ran to the house.
Jason and Hercules watched in silence for a few moments.
"What's Mother doing in there?" Hercules asked.
"Starting to wash and polish ALL those little figurines," Jason grinned.
Hercules silently nodded. "Better him than me," he said.
"Just as I planned," Jason laughed.
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