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Norse by Norsewest Revisited
Iolaus pushed his fur hood back, squinting against the wind, getting his bearings again. The moonlight played starkly over the unfamiliar shapes of the mountains rising high on either side of the narrow trail, the thick blanket of snow gleaming. Overhead the sky was dark and clear, the stars like fragments of ice. The only thing to disturb the pristine sterile beauty of it was the faint marks in the snow, the shallow remains of the tracks he followed.
Iolaus plowed upwards determinedly, the high drifts making his progress slow and uneven. His old wool shirt and tunic, usually more than enough for the winter or a mountain trek back home, was woefully inadequate for this country. The thick sheepskin-lined leather jerkin that was too big for him, borrowed from the bottom of Jason's old clotheschest the day before they had left, had been warm enough during the day. Nightfall had brought new meaning to the word "freezing." "I was less cold when I was dead," he muttered.
He stopped to look up again and saw, superimposed over the frigid mountain landscape, an image of the Paths of the Dead. It was gone in an instant but Iolaus swore, shaking his head and blinking rapidly. Though he could remember the kind of things he had seen in that nowhere land between life and death, and the lonely desolation, he couldn't seem to remember what it had looked like. Kheper had told him to expect this, that a mortal mind couldn't hold those images and that they would fade with time. But some part of his memory must still be trying to hold on to them and the starkness of this winter landscape, the eerie quality of the moonlight, and the solitude had called it up from wherever it was hiding.
Didn't need that just now, he thought ruefully, but the jolt gave him the energy to plow rapidly ahead toward the top of the rise. Hopefully he wouldn't be out here alone for long.
They had picked a deserted building to camp at, a place Hercules knew from his last trip here and had said had been a meadhall, though to Iolaus it just looked like a big ruined barn with a fireplace. It was a relief just being out of the town, where everybody apparently hated strangers on sight, Greek strangers especially. Hercules had bitched about how awful Norseland was all during the long voyage here, but Iolaus had thought he was just in a bad mood about having to take the trip and exaggerating. I really thought he was making up that stuff about butting people. If anything, the demigod had been understating the case.
West, west is definitely better, Iolaus told himself. Next time we leave home, it's Egypt or Persia again. The thought of a hot sun and beautiful women who bathed frequently helped chase away the lingering inner chill of the vision of his last death.
Hercules had been determined to reach the old meadhall and insistent that Iolaus wait for him there while he went up the mountain. Iolaus hadn't argued, finding the frozen deserted place a more congenial atmosphere than the Viking town, but he had been equally insistent that if the demigod wasn't back by dark, he was going to look for him. His biggest fear was that Hercules hadn't managed to leave Asgard. Mortals couldn't cross the Rainbow Bridge, even if Iolaus could manage to find it. Worry about that when it happens, Iolaus reminded himself firmly. He also hoped Hercules wasn't stuck out here somewhere wounded. Iolaus had killed the biggest wolf he had ever seen in his life when it had leapt at him from an icy overhang, and the glowing eyes of trolls had watched him from the stands of trees further down the mountain.
Iolaus reached the top of the rise and stopped, staring. The trail opened up below into a flat plain, ringed by sheer walls of rock. On the white expanse of disturbed snow was the remains of a town. Except.... Not stone, not wood, Iolaus thought suddenly, eyes widening. Bones. That set of arches that looked like the framework of a rotted ship was half a giant ribcage. Those long timbers were leg bones, that big round lump the size of a small house...had to be the skull. "Uh oh," he whispered aloud. He took a dazed step forward, then another, then started to run.
The snow was crunchy underfoot, a layer newly-frozen over slush. Tumbled piles had collected against the towering bones and the icy indistinguishable lumps, but he didn't think this had been here long. Only an hour maybe. It doesn't make sense, he thought, stumbling as the thin layer of ice gave way underfoot. The sky had been clear all night.
At first he couldn't see anything. The moonlight played off the long shapes of the ice bones, making it difficult to discern what was shadow and what was solid. Iolaus searched the drifts, increasingly desperate, not wanting to think about what he might find.
Maybe he took shelter somewhere, Iolaus thought, but he knew that was wishful thinking. Hercules would know Iolaus would come looking for him and he would've left trail signs to tell him where he was. Maybe somebody found him. In this strange country, with unfriendly people and unfamiliar gods and monsters and what all else, that might be worse.
He moved toward the skull, kicking the drifts aside. What he could see in the moonlight was horrible: huge fangs, razor-edged teeth, gaping eyesockets. He didn't want to think where the rest of the thing was, why it had dissolved into bones so quickly. Unless...the creature's bones were made of ice, maybe its flesh had been made of snow? Then his foot struck something soft in a drift near the broken hinge of the creature's jaw. Iolaus threw himself down, digging frantically, and as the snow flew away he saw fur and dark-dyed leather.
"Herc!" No, no he's not dead. He moved fast, clearing away the snow and gradually exposing the demigod's form where he lay sprawled face down. Iolaus struck a hard layer of ice and realized with a sick sensation that Hercules' right leg had frozen to the giant ice bone. He smashed at the ice with his fists, but it was like rock. He drew his sword, bashing at it with the hilt until the crystalline tendrils clutching at the demigod's leg shattered. It couldn't be ordinary ice; the chunks were trying to freeze to each other again and to Hercules, even as Iolaus clawed them away. He pushed himself to his feet with a curse, shaking off the large fragments that had already fastened on to his own hands and legs. He grabbed Hercules by the arms and hauled frantically, dragging him into a clear patch of snow.
Breathing hard more from fear than exertion, Iolaus dropped to his knees and rolled the demigod over, carefully brushing the encrusted snow away from his face. "Herc? Herc, can you hear me?"
Hercules twitched, his eyelids flickering, and Iolaus gasped in relief. "Okay, okay, you're alive." He searched for a wound as best he could in the dark, but couldn't find anything obvious. He must have gotten conked on the head. Hercules didn't feel the cold like a full mortal; he wasn't even wearing gloves or an extra shirt under his fur-trimmed leather coat. But lying face down under a layer of snow near that ice creature might be too much even for him.
Iolaus looked around, gathering his thoughts. There was no shelter nearby, no wood for a fire. And it was just too freaking cold on top of this mountain. There was no choice; he had to get Hercules back down below the treeline and the nearest shelter there was the meadhall. "Herc, listen to me." He patted the demigod's face again. "You've got to walk for me, all right? I can't carry you the whole way."
Hercules dragged his eyes open with obvious difficulty, peering unsteadily up at him. His hand lifted to brush Iolaus' face and Iolaus caught it, chafing it anxiously. "Do you hear me, Herc? You've got to get up now. Can you do that for me?"
Hercules blinked, and started feebly trying to move. "Great, great, hold that thought." Iolaus scrambled to his feet, finding his sword and sheathing it. Then he crouched beside Hercules, pulling the demigod's arm up over his shoulder, hauling him to his feet. Hercules leaned heavily on him, but stayed upright. "Just keep walking, all right buddy?" Iolaus said firmly. "We're gonna be fine."
Hercules gave out on the porch of the deserted meadhall and Iolaus collapsed next to him, exhausted from the long trek down the mountain. "We made it, Herc," he said hoarsely. "Just a little further now." Iolaus staggered to his feet, shoving aside the broken doors he had propped over the entrance before leaving.
Inside the dark high-ceilinged hall, the remains of the banked fire he had started this afternoon glowed in the long freestanding central hearth. Broken tables and benches were piled on the dais at the far end and snow drifts had collected in the corners, but the thick stone walls protected it from the wind and the roof was mostly intact. He had left their packs near the hearth and it didn't look like anything had been disturbed.
Iolaus dragged Hercules inside, his back aching from the strain, then stopped to fix the doors over the entrance again to block out the wind. Banging the last one into place, he slid to the floor, panting, his muscles shaking from the effort of the last few hundred feet. He shook his head, shedding a small shower of ice crystals and snow. The old hall felt as warm and cozy as the kitchen at the farm, but Iolaus knew that was an illusion. He shoved himself to his feet again, muttering wearily, "Come on, buddy."
Getting a grip around Hercules' chest, he dragged him over to the hearth. Forcing his numb body to keep moving, Iolaus dumped his cloak, gloves and sword, then turned back to Hercules. Wrestling him out of his ice-encrusted coat was almost as difficult as it would have been if the demigod had been actively resisting, but Iolaus managed it. Getting him out of his frozen boots was easier. Once that was done, he dug the fur blankets out of their packs and rolled Hercules into them. "Herc, Herc, come on, come out of it," he said, trying to keep his voice calm despite his growing desperation. He patted his face, chafed his hands, but Hercules didn't so much as twitch.
"He's got to be okay, he's got to be okay," Iolaus muttered. Hercules looked, and felt, dead, except for his labored breathing. Iolaus laid his head against the demigod's chest to listen to his heartbeat. It was slow, too slow. Almost trance slow. And his chest felt like a block of ice. His own heart racing, Iolaus sat up and held the back of his hand to Hercules' mouth and nose. There was no warmth in his breath at all.
Trying to ignore his growing terror, Iolaus turned back to the fire, stirring it up and piling on more planks from the broken tables and benches. Pulling the pallet as close to the hearth as he could, he thought, He heard me up on the mountain, I know he heard me. And he walked all that way. He didn't want to think that Hercules had used up the last of his resources getting back down here.
Iolaus crouched by the fire, rubbing his eyes, needing a moment to calm himself. He was fervently glad at least that they had planned to camp in this hall, that he had had the chance to get the wood ready and have a dry place to leave their packs. It was going to make all the difference. I hope. He lifted his head and pushed the hair back from his face. "Okay, okay, I know what to do."
Iolaus jumped to his feet and headed to the far corner of the hall, to where there was a collection of junk abandoned by the last inhabitants. Away from the hearth, the frigid air made him shiver harder. He kicked aside the broken benches and other debris until he found a battered iron pot. He filled it with snow from the new drift near the door then carried it back to the fire, setting it near the flames to heat. Then he sat on his heels to dig through Hercules' pack, his frozen fingers making him clumsy. Finding the medicine pouch he sorted through it, brushing aside the bags of herbs used for drawing poison out of wounds and reducing fever. His nose was too stopped up for him to identify anything by scent, but fortunately Hercules had everything meticulously sorted. Finally he found a packet of the herbal tea Hercules always forced down Iolaus' throat whenever anything happened and he added it to the water to steep.
Iolaus realized he was sweating, the moisture cold on his already chilled skin, and he quickly shed his hooded jerkin, tossing it on the pile with the discarded clothes. On second thought, he took the time to drape his cloak and Hercules' coat over a couple of benches so the ice could melt off. If they dried out enough, he could add them to the pile of bedding. He tried to wake Hercules again, with no luck. Chafing his friend's cold flesh, trying to get his blood moving again, he pleaded, "Come on, Herc, you hate this place. You can't die here." He can't die here. Gods, what if he dies here? "You don't want to be stuck forever in Valhalla or whatever they call it. You'll go nuts."
The water in the pot finally started to steam, and Iolaus took a cupful and propped Hercules up. He got most of it down him, and he tried to take the fact that Hercules swallowed it without much difficulty as a promising sign. But he had seen enough warriors with terrible head injuries to know it might be only a reflex, like the breathing. And the warmth of the hot water felt negligible next to the terrible chill of Hercules' skin.
Iolaus laid him down again and tucked the furs carefully around him, then sat back, trying to think. The nearest reliable help was on the ship that had brought them here, more than a day's journey down the mountains. And he wasn't sure the Phrygian healer onboard would be able to do anything more than he had already done. He couldn't leave Hercules alone, anyway. There was too much chance the wolves or trolls or something worse would find him.
Iolaus dove sideways to snatch up his sword, drawing it and springing to his feet to put himself between Hercules and the figure looming behind him. He had a sick feeling the sword wouldn't help; he had been sitting with his back to a solid stone wall. The only way anyone could have gotten behind him was by appearing out of thin air.
"It's all right," the intruder said, smiling. He was tall and blond like most of the people here and dressed in fur and leather, but there was an inner glow about him, a shining quality. He had to be a god.
"Who are you?" Iolaus asked cautiously. The guy didn't look hostile, which was certainly a change. His face was friendly and open. But then Gilgamesh had looked friendly too, right up until he had bashed Hercules in the head and announced his allegiance to Dahak.
"I'm Baldur," the god said, as if that should explain everything.
Well, that's a straight answer at least. Iolaus tried to look as if he had heard the name before, since there was no point insulting the guy. The only god Hercules had mentioned meeting here was Thor, God of Assholes. He lowered the sword's point and asked cautiously, "Why are you here?"
"I was looking for you."
"Oh?" Iolaus managed to sound like that statement hadn't just caused a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. He was acutely aware of Hercules lying helpless behind him, of how vulnerable they were right now. Especially to a god. "Why's that?" he asked casually.
Baldur smiled kindly, as if he wasn't fooled in the least. "I wanted to meet you. I've heard a lot about you."
"Huh?" Iolaus blinked. He glanced back down at Hercules. He's got to have us confused. Maybe all Greeks looked alike to him. "Are you sure-- I mean, I'm Iolaus."
"I know." Baldur smiled again and said gently, "Hercules came here last year because he mistook me for you."
"He...." Iolaus stared. The guy was Hercules' height at least and his hair hung straight nearly to his waist. He wasn't going to call Baldur a liar, but surely.... He said vaguely, "He was having a bad year."
"That he was," Baldur agreed. His face sobered and he said, "When he came here from Eire, I could tell he had been on a long journey, and not a pleasant one. He told me a little of what happened, that he had lost his dearest companion in a battle with an evil god." He smiled again wryly. "He seemed to be looking for something but he didn't know himself what it was. I'm glad he found it."
"Oh." It sounded as if Baldur really had met Hercules last year when Iolaus was dead. And I thought he didn't want to come back here because of the Vikings.
Baldur hadn't said what he was the god of, but the room had grown distinctly warmer since he had arrived and a diffuse golden light seemed to be coming out of the cracks in the stones around him. Iolaus glanced back at Hercules again, thinking rapidly. He couldn't take the chance that the demigod would get better on his own, not when he had this opportunity to ask for help. Hercules would go crazy when he woke up and found out Iolaus had made a deal with a strange god, but at least he would be alive.
Iolaus knew little about the Norse gods; the guy could ask for anything in return, from a vow of service for the rest of Iolaus' life and beyond to requiring him to lop off a body part or turn himself over to the nearest temple to get carved up as a sacrifice, but he had to take the risk.
Iolaus stepped back to prop his sword against the hearth, then faced Baldur again. He swallowed in a dry throat and plunged in, "He's hurt. He got in a fight with something huge, made out of ice."
Baldur nodded gravely. "A frost giant."
"Yeah." Iolaus didn't care what it was as long as it was dead. "And he feels like he's dying and I can't--" He took a sharp breath, trying not to sound so desperate. "If you could help him I'd do whatever--"
"This place is under my protection, and has healing virtues," Baldur said, before Iolaus could make the offer. "He will be all right, if you can keep him warm until morning."
Iolaus drew breath to answer and found himself looking away. He rubbed his eyes, planted his hands on his hips and shook his head, trying to swallow past the lump in his throat. "Thank you," he managed to say finally.
"It's little enough, considering what I owe him," Baldur said, smiling gently. "He saved my life." The radiance around him brightened for a moment, then the god vanished.
Iolaus turned back to Hercules, kneeling beside him. Keep him warm, okay. The hall was much warmer from Baldur's presence, that would help, and he had the fire built up as high as he could. He took Hercules' hand. His fingers were a little warmer but his chest still felt stone cold, and that couldn't be good.
All right, let's try this. Iolaus climbed under the blankets and awkwardly straddled his friend. Settling down on top of him, he shifted around, trying to cover as much area as possible, wincing when Hercules' belt buckle jabbed him in the thigh. He wasn't sure this was going to help; the cold in the demigod's body was so intense Iolaus was already chilled again himself. But it was the only thing to do.
After a time he thought Hercules' breathing might be getting easier, but it was hard to tell. Stiff and chilled, Iolaus climbed off him to heat more water and pour more of the tea down him. He chafed his arms and legs, then climbed back under the furs, draping himself over Hercules' chest again. He did this twice more as the hours of the long night stretched on, his own exhaustion making his movements slower and more awkward each time, but he was pretty sure Hercules' breath was warmer and his heartbeat felt stronger. "I know you're going to be all right," he said, nestling his head against the cold skin of Hercules' neck. "You're not going to let this lousy stinking place beat you -- no offense," he added, in case Baldur was still listening.
Iolaus was drifting, half-asleep, when Hercules suddenly rolled over on top of him. Cursing, he shoved and bucked, then tried to wriggle free, but the weight atop him didn't budge and his legs were trapped in the tangled blankets. "Ow, Herc, dammit!" he wheezed, working an arm free to pound on the demigod's shoulder as the need for air became urgent. "Get off!"
Hercules twitched. "Huh? Oh, sorry." He pushed himself up on one arm, looking down at Iolaus with a dazed expression. "Iolaus...what's going on?"
"We're keeping you warm. A frost giant fell on you. Do you remember?" Iolaus sat up on his elbows. He felt himself grinning uncontrollably. It was just starting to sink in that Hercules was conscious and coherent again.
"A little. Something about...big ice fangs." The demigod slumped down on the blankets next to him. He was pale under his tan and beginning to shiver. "So it's dead?"
Iolaus sat up, almost giddy with relief. "What?"
"The ice fang thing?"
"Oh yeah, you got it. It was in pieces," Iolaus assured him.
"So you're dealing with everything and I can just lie here? Because I feel awful."
Iolaus grinned, and smoothed the hair back from Hercules' forehead. "Yeah, you can just lie there." He tucked the blankets around him again, then got up to add more planks to the fire. He ended up pacing from relief and excitement, then broke up another table for the wood just to give himself something to do.
Finally Iolaus wound down enough to feel the cold and settled on the pallet to pull off his boots, fumbling with laces encrusted with ice. He burrowed under the blankets and still shivering, huddled on the outer edge of the pallet so as not to disturb his partner. But an arm wrapped around his waist and tugged him into the warmth, up against Hercules' chest. Iolaus settled back against him, wriggled until he was comfortable, and smiling to himself, drifted off to sleep.
Iolaus woke when nature called, and pulled the fur off his head, blinking at the gray daylight coming down through the smokehole in the roof. He sat up, stiff muscles protesting as he disentangled himself from Hercules and the blankets. Everything ached and there was a tight spot of pain right between his shoulderblades. He shuddered at the freezing air outside the warmth of their nest, and rubbed his face and ran his hands through his hair, trying to wake himself up. Beside him, Hercules jerked awake suddenly and demanded, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing, it's morning," Iolaus told him, yawning.
"Mmph." Hercules collapsed back into the furs, out again despite the momentary display of alertness. Iolaus tucked the blankets back around him, smiling. He got his half-frozen boots on then stood and stretched, wincing at his new collection of sore and strained muscles. Staggering outside to answer nature and check the heavy gray sky, he saw it looked like it might snow, but then they wouldn't be leaving today anyway.
Back in the relative warmth, he propped the doors over the entrance again and started building up the fire. Food. He dug through the supply bag, pulling out a frozen chunk of some kind of unfamiliar fish. He banged it thoughtfully on the stone hearth, wondering how best to render it eatable.
Hercules drew back the fur enough to expose one eye. "You are going to cook that, aren't you?"
Iolaus pretended to look puzzled. "Why?" He had developed a taste for raw fish after having some at a tavern in Corinth owned by a Nipponese merchant; Hercules was unable to appreciate the taste or even watch while Iolaus did. After a moment of mute regard from the eye, Iolaus relented and promised ingenuously, "I'll cook your half."
The eye retreated into the blankets again, muttering darkly about certain people's culinary skills or lack thereof and bizarre habits. Iolaus tossed a couple more boards on the fire, then stirred the coals with a stick, looking for a good spot to bury the fish. He said casually, "Baldur stopped by last night."
There was a fraught silence from the pile of furs, then, warily, "He did?"
"Yeah." Iolaus glanced back to see the eye watching him again. "He said 'hi.'"
"Uh huh." Iolaus hummed tunelessly to himself, picking up the iron pot and dubiously studying the frozen slush of ice and herbs in it. He shrugged and put it back on the fire to heat. He added, "He wanted to meet me, since we look so much alike."
The eye retreated again, this time without commentary. Whistling now, Iolaus stuffed the fish into the coals, then put out a hunk of bread and some dried apples to thaw.
"All right." Hercules pushed back the blanket and sat up on his elbow. "I just wanted there to be one person who didn't think I spent most of last year a raving lunatic," he said defensively.
"Fair enough." Iolaus nodded, turning to sit on the hearth, his back to the warmth of the fire, resting his forearms on his knees. Hercules watched him, still wary. After a moment, when Iolaus didn't make any other comment, he started to sink back down into the furs. Iolaus shrugged. "Of course, now I have this image of you wandering all over the north, mistaking every blond guy you saw for me--"
"Oh, fine." Hercules flung the blanket back over his head and slumped down on the pallet.
"--but I still don't think you're crazy." He waited a beat. "I know you're crazy."
"Thanks, thanks very much," Hercules grumbled from under the blanket.
Disclaimer: No frost giants were harmed in the writing of this story.For more stories, visit http://www.rtis.com/nat/user/chimera/legends.htm
The Less Than Legendary Journeys