A stream of expletives were issuing from his mouth in three different languages. Russian, German and French all conveyed the complete and unfiltered agony of the moment.
Two agents of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement had found their way into a Thrush trap that was located within a lodge in the lowlands of South Carolina. How they had arrived there was still a mystery, as neither man had any recollection of the journey, and even less memory of being dumped into the marshy landscape in which they now found themselves.
At some point there had been a hunt, of that they were certain. The Russian, Illya Kuryakin, had an arrow projecting from his right shoulder at an angle that indicated the follow through of the trajectory would have it come out of his chest. The only way to get it out would be to push it through; there wasn't a good way to remove an arrowhead, especially one with a barb such as this one featured. There was no way to predict what might get torn up inside when trying to pull it out the same way it had gone in.
Illya was attempting to instruct his partner, Napoleon Solo, on the procedure; it was going to be gruesome and painful no matter the method, and the American dreaded the ensuing torment to his friend.
"Napoleon, you must break off the fletching…um, feathers. The barb will make it nearly impossible to pull out, so you're going to need to push it all the way through".
He grimaced at the thought of the arrowhead puncturing muscle and flesh, but there were no alternatives. The flash of pain when Napoleon broke the arrow was merely a precursor to what was coming, but he couldn't continue on with the thing as it was.
They had found shelter, at least. It looked to be a vacation cabin, perhaps. There were supplies in the cupboards, linens and basic first aid implements. Whether it was Solo's luck or just a favorable twist of fate mattered little at this point.
The reason for their being here was still unknown to either of them. That meant there had been drugs of some type, a Thrush specialty. And, with the evidence of the arrow he carried in his shoulder, an escape that had warranted pursuers who favored the tools of an archer to that of guns.
"Okay, Illya…man, I don't know…"
He hated this, and the ominous task that was forced upon him produced a queasiness he didn't want to admit. Still, to force the arrowhead through…
With a sudden thrust of his hand upon the flat rock he had found for the purpose of hammering, Napoleon felt the arrow move and then, with a sickening sensation of flesh being torn, it slid forward and deeper into the blond's back, the barbed arrowhead emerging just below the right scapula.
Napoleon felt his friend's body slump at the moment of impact, catching him before he fell forward onto the menacing metal that now protruded through his chest.
"Come on, Illya…stay with me tovarich".
Only the groan of a stubborn refusal to pass out met his entreaty, but he was satisfied that the man would stay with him long enough to completely remove the arrow. He positioned Illya with his back against the wall, guaranteeing he couldn't fall forward. The determined agent found a place to grasp the steel enemy that threatened his friend and, carefully but as quickly as he thought safe, pulled on the arrow, coaxing it through the sinewy shoulder mass, past bone and finally, completely through Illya's shoulder and out of his chest.
Quickly throwing the hateful object aside, he was able then to catch his friend as he finally passed out. With some alcohol and bandages close by, the newly anointed doctor in residence began the job of cleaning the wound, trying to staunch the flow of blood, and then to bind up the gaping hole that had been left.
To his credit, Napoleon didn't blanche at the mess he encountered; the flesh was torn from the barbed arrowhead, adding yet another gruesome scar to the already marked body of his partner. It was no wonder this type of arrowhead had been deemed unacceptable by legitimate sportsmen. The sight of this wound was a testament to the barbaric nature of the weapon.
He chuckled involuntarily at the idea of a humane weapon, but who was he to judge?
When he had finished bandaging, he eased his partner back down onto the cot. Illya slept for several hours, his groans evidence of the pain that still plagued him. The one thing missing from their hideout was a supply of painkillers. That seemed odd, considering how well stocked it appeared to be. He was grateful for what they did have, however, and determined that his stubborn friend would never yield to the pain if he were conscious.
"Let him groan. It probably helps".
The thought escaped his lips as he sat at the window, watching the sun setting beyond the marshy coastline. If the circumstances were different, this might be a pleasant place to spend a few days. He even considered that he would enjoy spending the time with Illya, getting to know the enigmatic Russian a little better. After several years as partners, he still had very little information about the man's past, and sometimes, he thought, even less about his life in America. Still, there was no doubt that they worked well together, and had formed a bond that few agents enjoyed.
A phrase or proverb…something he had heard years ago in church, he thought…came to mind.
"Iron sharpens iron; so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend".
That certainly sounded like the two of them; the wit and intellect of one constantly challenged the other to keep up, to remain in step. They had found a relationship that mirrored that proverb, and he could think of numerous times when Illya's quick witted and clever response to a situation had saved them both. He liked to believe the same would be said of his own actions. They made a good team, and the number of successes to their credit continually validated Mr. Waverly's decision to pair them up in the field.
Now, as he watched this iron sharp man lying in the shadows of twilight, fighting back the pain of his most recent encounter with the enemy, Napoleon was grateful to the old man for his decision. In spite of everything that might have led to disaster, they had overcome obstacles of culture and philosophy and reached a common ground on which UNCLE and the partnership guided them.
This unlikely pairing had produced more than a partnership. Friendship was the anchor now that held them safe in the perilous waters into which they so often traveled. Sacrifice had become a part of their vocabulary, and a willingness to do whatever it took for the sake of protecting the other man overwhelmed the enemy constantly; their heroics now a result of a vehement determination to not be defeated. It was good to be feared, and even better to always succeed in fulfilling the dread they instilled in those who would try and rule the world at their expense.
As the effects of the drugs wore off completely and they regained their memories, the details of this affair, like so many others, would be filed away before embarking on something new. That was a constant in the lives of UNCLE agents.
The other constant, the one he and Illya depended on, was the assurance of their dedication to the partnership that held them together. Bullets, arrows and general anarchy weren't to be dreaded as much as the possibility that one day, after some unforeseen cataclysm, they no longer had each other.
An involuntary shudder went through him as that thought surfaced. It was better to not dwell on some things.
Illya began to stir, possibly the pain drawing him back to consciousness as the throb of the wound began to announce its presence again. The blond hair caught a ray of light from the last glimmer of the day, and blue eyes searched the room for the man who had brought him here.
"Napoleon…?" It was a question, as though there were any doubt that the American was close by.
"Yes, I'm here. How do you feel?"
A stupid question, probably. Of course it hurt.
"I'm fine, for the most part. I could use an aspirin…"
"You just had an arrow pulled out of your chest. How can you be fine?'
He was immediately sorry about how abrupt that sounded. It was a continually irksome thing that Illya always maintained he was fine.
"We don't have any aspirin. It's the one thing missing from this assortment of supplies…sorry".
Illya squeezed his eyes, the grimace on his face proof of the pain. He would say no more about it, however. If this was all they had, then it was enough. He had endured worse.
"I think there's something we can warm up for a meal. I saw canned goods in there…"
Illya laid his head back down, then attempted to roll his body forward in order to gain some traction and push himself into a sitting position. He didn't get far before Napoleon was at his side, helping him to gain a balance against the wall behind the cot.
"Are you cold? I had to cut your turtleneck off…sorry. Let me see if there are some clothes around here…"
Napoleon went in search of a shirt or sweater. When Illya had passed out it seemed better to let him sleep rather than try to dress him again.
As he sat there now, half naked and without medication of any sort, Illya recognized a chill that was not a result of his lack of clothing. He sensed the onset of a fever, signs that an infection was attempting to invade the wound. There wouldn't be much time before it became serious; they needed to get away from here. A phone call back to headquarters and they could have their ticket out. But, it might be up to Napoleon to facilitate that.
Napoleon managed to find some flannel shirts, and dressed his partner, avoiding any additional damage to the bludgeoned shoulder. He felt the warmth radiating from the man, recognizing the fevered skin and glassy eyes. He needed to get something for the infection first of all. Then he'd find them a way out of here. Somewhere in his memory was the beginning of an image; a lodge of some sort and an assemblage of Thrush personnel that had tormented them both with drugs and mild abuse before setting them lose for the hunt. What he couldn't remember was the affair itself. Why had they come here?
"Illya, you have a…"
"A fever. I know". He closed his eyes and for an instant, Napoleon thought he might fall asleep again. Instead, he creased his forehead in the inimitable way he had when considering a question…
"I'm beginning to wonder if I actually killed Carl Voegler. What are the chances of being hunted by two archers, and within months of one another?"
Napoleon couldn't help a perplexed look when Illya made this comment. In the mix of his memories, the name suddenly jumped at him. It had been only a few months previous that they had encountered that bizarre event in France with Voegler and Robespierre. It had been tagged as the Virtue Affair; although virtue had been of little consequence, save for the lovely Albert Duboise. She had held hers firmly intact, in spite of the suave American's best efforts.
"Illya, do you remember anything about the past few days? Because, I'm beginning to have some recollections".
Even with a fever, the Russian maintained his ability to think and reason, at least for now. He shook his head, not able to conjure up anything useful. He still drew a blank regarding their trip here, the hunt… he didn't actually remember anything.
"I do not remember, but I have this uneasy feeling that Voegler is somehow involved in this. Let me see the arrow'…
He grunted at the pain when he attempted to extend his right arm in order to retrieve the proffered item. Napoleon winced in sympathy, sorry that his friend was once again the victim of a Thrushman's weapon.
"It is one of his arrows. He made a point of remarking on the colors: blue and orange. See, here…'
He indicated to Napoleon the distinctive color combination, and then leaned back a little, attempting to ease the ache in his shoulder.
"It is Voegler's arrow. I don't know how, because I am certain I killed him. I almost lost my own head because of it".
Illya shut his eyes as he remembered being shackled to the guillotine on Robespierre's property, the sick feeling of time running out.
The blond shook his head, and then leaned it back against the wall. He was tired, and succumbing to shock probably.
"I need to lie down. I don't feel well…"
Napoleon helped ease him down onto the cot, covered him with the blanket just seconds before the measured breathing let him know his friend was asleep.
Napoleon headed for the kitchen to search for something to eat, all the while coaxing the memory of the past few days back to life. Illya was right about one thing; the probability that Thrush had taken on archery as a new means of conquering the world seemed far fetched in a world where that term had great depth. Voegler hadn't been Thrush, but everything else about this fairly reeked of their presence.
What about the arrows?
Why target Illya?
How had they come to be here in this location?
The UNCLE agent found some soup to warm up, and set upon it with an appetite he found to be suddenly acute. When had they last eaten? He wasn't certain, but he knew that his friend needed some type of nourishment. He would let Illya sleep for a while, but determined that he would eat something before the night was too far-gone.
Illya was dreaming of a small room in which he had been tied to a chair and was facing a man who was a stranger. He looked familiar, though.
"Ah, Mr. Kuryakin, I have been looking forward to this meeting. You will remember my father, I believe. He was the man you murdered with an archer's keen aim. You were the hunted, and yet you prevailed. We will repeat that exercise, and I guarantee you this: I will not miss as my father did. You will not escape the lowlands with your life".
He awoke with a sudden movement that sent his shoulder into wrenching spasms, causing him to cry out in an unguarded moment of pain and surprise at the images in his dream.
Napoleon was startled at the sounds coming from his partner, and rose instantly to go to his side. He was relieved, at least, from the task of waking him for a meal.
"Illya, what happened?"
Perhaps the fever had broken, but the formerly flushed complexion was now pale, a cold sweat beading on the broad forehead. Illya had managed to sit up again, and Napoleon noted that the motion had caused more bleeding. Illya didn't seem aware of it, only the image of his dream.
"I saw where I was being held, and who…it's Voegler's son. This was some sort of retribution for his father's death. He reenacted the hunting scenario, with me as the prey once again".
Napoleon straightened his back, his own memories beginning to merge into what Illya was recalling. He had been there as well; along with the others he had previously remembered seeing. It wasn't for any information they might have provided. It was all about Voegler, and Illya's part in the man's death. What he didn't understand was why he had been brought into it. Or, was it that he had been an accident, just close by.
"Do you remember why we came down here? Anything at all?"
Neither of the men could think any farther back than the room where they had been held. Napoleon had remained unscathed by this entire episode, and yet he was alive and able to help Illya. It didn't make sense, but then Thrush and its members rarely did.
"Okay, you need to eat something. Maybe we'll gain more memories about this as the evening progresses. As it is, I don't know when we last had food, so let's make sure we don't miss any more meals. Can you make it to the table?"
Illya had his doubts about making it across the room, but he knew he should try and be mobile. The longer he just sat or lay still, the harder it would be to move when they needed to get out of this cabin. If Voegler Jr. and his men were still out there searching for them, it wouldn't be long before they found this place.
"I can…may need some help".
With that the two men limped to the kitchen table, where Napoleon poured the remainder of the soup into Illya's bowl and waited for him to begin eating.
"It's a good thing you're ambidextrous, my friend. I hate to think of the number of times you've lost the use of your right hand'…
He saw the half smile that was uniquely Illya's.
"At least you can always eat and shoot".
The expression on his friend's face was a slight encouragement, although it came from a complexion so pale, and eyes so gaunt and deeply set, that he nearly shuddered at the vulnerability it exuded. So much strength of character and sturdiness of soul in the compact frame and Slavic features. And what a contrast to his own dark and, according to some, more rugged looks.
"Napoleon…thank you. I know that was difficult for you as well…pulling that arrow through. A lesser man might not have survived".
The crook of the lips again, the half smile that signaled things would be all right.
"Yes, well…I believe that is true of both of us".
They ate in silence, both hoping to regain more of the events that memory was refusing to illuminate.
As the evening wore on, Illya tried to remain awake long enough to rehash the scenes that were playing out in both of their memories. Periodically he would close his eyes and lean his head back against the ever-present wall. It had become a comforting entity, a substantial ally in his need to remain alert during this process. Even if he did drift off for a few minutes, the wall was there to remind him to come back, to keep the memories in the forefront.
Now, as they found themselves sure of the series of events that had brought them here, he was losing the battle to his fatigue. Without any aspirin or, as a substitute, vodka or scotch to quell the pain, he would succumb to sleep as an antidote to the agony in his shoulder. As he drifted off, Napoleon helped him once again to lie down, covering him with the comforting blanket.
His last thoughts before slumber enveloped him, was the cruelty of the archer's bow as it struck an innocent animal. Some ancient agreement with creatures of the forest snuck into his dreams, as he became one of the hunted animals who sought escape from a violent death.
The two agents had determined the beginning of this affair. It was, in fact, to have been a rendezvous with a Thrush defector. The story they had been given was convincing enough for their superior, Mr. Waverly, to send them into the coastal lowlands in pursuit of this person who claimed to have vital information regarding a new weapon being developed in a lab in the region.
When they finally found the individual, it was obvious they had been led into a trap. Each of them drugged by a sleep dart, the two were taken to the lodge of Illya's dream, where both men were subjected to a minor interrogation and beatings, then given another drug. This one, they had deduced, must have clouded their memories of the entire sequence of events.
Once the insults had been hurled and the threats made, the two had been set loose into the countryside, with the hounds and Voegler in pursuit. Once on the run, the two had split up in order to draw Voegler out into the open, where Napoleon could stalk the man as he pursued the Russian, who was his real target.
The arrow from Voegler's bow had struck down Illya before Napoleon could take him. If there had been more men in pursuit, they hadn't come forward to finish the job. Napoleon believed that the operation had been a feeble attempt by Voegler to try and gain admission into Thrush. With him dead, they assumed the men from their memories had abandoned the lodge and left the area, no longer interested in the prey. Voegler had time to alert the others that the Russian had been killed; apparently, this particular group of Thrushies had no desire to encounter an enraged Napoleon Solo, and had decided to leave him for a later date.
So, here they were, in a cabin with no means of communication; Illya was in need of medical care, and Napoleon didn't have a clue where to go in order to gain that or a way out of this region. Tomorrow he would go and look for a town, or at least another human being. Illya didn't seem to have a fever, but he was still losing blood, and the possibility of infection remained a real concern.
It would only be after a reasonably good night's sleep that the CEA of UNCLE Northwest would consider going back to the lodge where this had all begun.
Early morning stole through the open windows like a young man in pursuit of a virgin. It was at once subtle and explosive, cloyingly bright with an energy that defied the earliness of the day. Napoleon felt a twinge of discomfort as he rolled over, his night having been spent on a similar cot to the one on which his wounded partner lay, still sleeping. He had a flashback to his army days, sleeping in cots and tents with the sounds of a war pummeling his consciousness.
He could hear the gulls squawking, and sighted several of them over the water that he estimated was about a half mile from the cabin. A few other sounds came through the morning haze, all of them animal, thankfully.
Illya stirred, and from his position across the room, Napoleon recognized the signs of a fever. The blond was sweating, his face flushed from the heat of a temperature above normal. It was inevitable that this should happen; the surface of the arrow might have been coated with something to ensure that, should he survive the assault on his flesh, Illya would succumb to whatever else might be contrived as a weapon. Retribution was always the worst kind of fight; emotions made for very bad parameters.
With an uncanny knack for having the right plan at hand, Napoleon suddenly had a distinct image of the road back to the lodge where they had encountered the Thrush personnel. That was where they should head, as he was certain they had all left by now. Without Voegler to prod them into action, there was no need for them to remain in this lowland country. Thrush was nothing if not expedient in abandoning a lost cause.
It seemed unlikely that power and telephones would be turned off, so he felt confident that the trip there would have rewards. It had appeared to be fully stocked, so medical aids or, at the very least, some alcohol, would be there. He wouldn't underestimate the benefits of a shot of brandy to fight an infection, although the stuff he had used to clean the wound had done little, it seemed.
Illya began to wake up, the process seeming to take longer than normal. He was sweating profusely, the clean shirt Napoleon had put on him the day before was now drenched, causing him to shiver from the dampness and the cool air in the cabin.
"I am not doing too well, it seems".
The blond head was sagging as Illya's already thin body seemed unable to support the weight of it in his weakened state. His efforts at sitting upright were destined to fail until Napoleon came to his side. As soon as he touched him, the heat of Illya's fever cut through the cloth of his shirt, causing the senior agent to curse out loud at this turn of events. It was worse than he had anticipated, and now he knew Illya couldn't make a trip of any distance, let alone walk back to the lodge.
"Illya…Illya can you hear me?"
The Russian seemed dazed, and his reflexes were slow. Napoleon lifted his head to get a better look into the blue eyes; blue eyes that were rimmed with red and so glazed over he appeared to be drugged.
"Illya, I need to go back to the lodge. Remember, we were there yesterday".
Still, no real response. He positioned him against the wall once again, heading to the kitchen for a glass of water. Illya would be completely dehydrated in a few hours if he didn't drink liquids.
How long would it take him to get back to the lodge, he wondered. It couldn't be much more than a couple of miles, based on the distance they had covered yesterday during the hunt. The trek here to the cabin had been less than half a mile, he was certain. Illya wouldn't have made it much farther than that.
"Illya, drink this…here…c'mon partner".
He coaxed and prodded until the nearly unconscious patient had drunk about six ounces. It wasn't much, but every drop was going to count.
Completely exhausted by the effort, the Russian slumped back down onto the cot, his eyes unable to remain open. Napoleon opened up the bandage and tried to clean the wound once more. Fresh blood indicated that it had been oozing for some time.
As well as he could, he replaced the bandage with fresh cloth next to the fevered skin. Looking at his friend, he was torn about what he needed to do next. He had no choice but to head back to the lodge. Illya wouldn't survive without help, and he couldn't get him anyplace quick enough without knowing where to go.
The question was whether or not he would be taking Illya with him.
What was it he had been thinking about yesterday…? Oh yes, the idea that one man sharpens another…
"Okay, then my sharp witted friend. What would you do in a situation like this? I mean, if it were reversed…"
Almost instantly, an idea came to the beleaguered agent. The cot could be used to make a litter, although he suspected it would operate more like a plow. Still, it would ensure than Illya accompanied him, and it wouldn't matter that he was unconscious. All he needed to do was to collapse it down so that he could somehow drag it behind him…
An hour later, Napoleon had jury-rigged the cot into a litter, utilizing a sheet to create a harness that he was able to put across his chest. Illya was barely conscious as the two set off down the sandy path that led away from the cabin and towards the lodge. Napoleon felt confident of his direction, and hopeful about the distance.
By the time Napoleon spotted the much anticipated lodge, the sun was just beginning to shed some much needed warmth. In New York it would be much cooler than this, but the dampness of the air kept a chill close to his skin. He checked his watch and noted the time: 10:30.
So, an hour and half to make this trek…he figured the distance to have been about three miles. Trudging along with his partner in tow, it must have taken him nearly twice what it would have had he been walking unencumbered.
Now that he was nearing his destination, it seemed prudent to take a few precautions before waltzing back into the place. He found a spot where he put the litter. Illya was unconscious, and he believed would be safe for the time it took him to go and check out the lodge. It looked empty. There were no cars in sight, which was good, although it would have been convenient to find one and drive away in it.
He crept up along the north edge of the property, heading straight for the back entrance. This particular slice of beachfront had a southeastern exposure due to a slight undulation in the shoreline. It had been built to accommodate tourists; people who came in for the season with family and friends, prepared to spend their days lazing in the sun, or digging for clams to be downed around fire pits with beer and corn on the cob in abundance.
For now it was empty, and whoever owned it was absent along with the goons who had been here yesterday.
Convinced that it was safe, Napoleon went back to where he had left Illya on the litter.
He was gone!
"Where the hell…?"
He turned suddenly as he recognized the pat of footsteps in the sand. Illya had gotten out of the litter and commenced searching for Napoleon. He saw him going in the wrong direction, heading back on the path they'd just traveled.
With a suddenness that nearly took his breath away, a man sprung up out of the tall grass near his injured partner. One lone Thrush had remained, it now seemed, and he had his prey within reach. It must have been even more surprising to the attacker when, as he reached out to grab the staggering Russian, the seemingly weaker man turned on him and delivered a decisive left handed chop to his throat, causing him to go to his knees as he clutched at his neck. Napoleon was there in time to finish him off with a piece of driftwood. The assailant was out, and there appeared to be no others like him.
Napoleon covered the short distance to his bleary eyed partner and, turning him around, managed to catch him as the blond stumbled and fell to the ground.
"C'mon buddy. Where did you think you were going?"
Illya put an arm around his rescuer's neck and collapsed in on him, meaning that Napoleon was half-dragging him up the path and into the empty lodge.
"Okay, Illya…here's a seat for you. Wait here for me…I mean it. Wait here".
Napoleon attempted to affect a scowl on his face, but his concern for the injured man made that effort useless. Illya nodded his head before leaning it onto the chair back, looking like he was asleep almost immediately.
Napoleon needed a phone, so he headed for the living room…great room. That's what they called it here in the south. He just needed to figure out which one that would be. Probably the biggest room, so…
The great room, and it was full of furniture. Chairs, sofas and tables…and a phone; a beautiful telephone atop the credenza on the west wall.
He rushed over and picked it up, listened for the dial tone that he hoped would be there. Yes, it was there. He dialed the number that would connect him to help.
Two hours later a helicopter landed just east of the lodge. Napoleon had been anxiously waiting while Illya continued to sleep on and off. His temperature had continued to climb, and the wound was bleeding still. There would be medics on board the chopper, so he knew that treatment would begin immediately.
A second unit from the Charleston office had arrived by car and would provide the clean up on this site. Voegler's body was still out in the dunes somewhere, as well as the man he and Illya had left on the path. It would be a shame for an innocent to encounter that on such a beautiful day.
On the ride back to New York, Napoleon hovered over his partner like the proverbial mother hen. The medics had sutured the wound, redressing it and starting an IV line with fluids and antibiotics. The fever would recede, and after a few days in medical Illya would regain the strength to begin complaining and demanding to be allowed to go home to his own apartment.
As for this 'mission'. It hadn't been one, really. It was just one of those things that happened to UNCLE agents who made enemies. He and Illya had their fair share of those, and sooner or later another one would show up and try to do some damage…or worse.
Napoleon, upon arriving back at UNCLE HQ, first made certain that his partner was checked in and under the doctor's care. He then headed for his office to phone Mr. Waverly and start working on the report. This time he would write it; he could do that much for Illya.
What he really wanted was a shower and a change of clothes, but before he could even sit down in his chair, the phone was ringing.
"Mr. Solo, I understand you and Mr. Kuryakin have arrived safely"
"Mr. Waverly…yes sir, he's tucked into medical"
"Did you discover the culprits in this scheme?"
"Yes sir, we did. Curt Voegler's son. He was attempting to avenge his father's death. His target was Il…Mr. Kuryakin. He is dead now, like his father".
"Ah…a shame for vengeance to overwhelm one's better judgment. Well, I suppose we shall consider this closed then, Mr. Solo. Your report tomorrow morning at nine"
"Yes sir. Thank you, sir"
Napoleon managed to get his shower and fresh clothes before heading back to medical. Like so many times before this one, he took a seat next to his partner's bed and waited.
When everything else was said and done, this is what they did best, it seemed.
They knew how to wait for the other one to live.