Alcmene's Ghost Challenge

by Jane

“Iolaus? Iolaus!”

Pound pound pound

“Iolaus, come on. Answer the door.”

Pound pound pound

“Iolaus, I know you’re in there. Please open the door!”

POUND POUND POUND

Silence from the closed up cottage.

Hercules sighed with exasperation and worry. “Well, maybe he really isn’t in there. Maybe he went into town to visit his mother.” Another sigh, as the tall demigod looked around the unkempt grounds surrounding his best friend’s home. “I just wish he’d told me! That’s not like him.” Hercules looked back at Iolaus’ door, and gave it one more pound. “Something’s wrong. I can feel it.” As the big man walked back to his own old home place, he turned once and addressed Iolaus’ silent cottage. “Please, Iolaus, let me in so I can help you.”

Inside the small house, all was dark. Windows were shuttered, no fire burned in the fireplace, and no lamps glowed. A plate dirty with the remains of a half-eaten meal sat on the table, along with a drying loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese. Ants crawled among the food. The floor was littered with kicked-off boots and socks, leather pants, and a worn purple vest.

In the rumpled bed was a figure huddled in sheets and blankets pulled tight around him. He stared out into his dark room, the dried trails of tears running down his cheeks. Yes, something was very wrong, but Iolaus didn’t know what it was, any more than did Hercules. All he did know was that it was bad.

It had begun on their last trip together. Everything had gone well—the pack of vicious dogs attacking the tiny village had been dispatched in record time, and the people were most happy and appreciative. They had feasted the heroes royally from their meager stores, and cheered as the two warriors had left to return home. But, something nagged at Iolaus, keeping him from enjoying the festivities.

During the battle, he and Hercules had been surrounded by the wild dogs. Iolaus couldn’t begin to guess how many were attacking—it just seemed that no matter what numbers he cut down, more were always there to replace them. He actually began to despair after a while. It seemed that for every two dogs he dispatched, at least one other would get by him to attack Hercules. His big friend yelled at him to watch out, more were coming. Iolaus was fighting as hard as he could, but the dogs kept attacking. Finally, FINALLY, there were no more dogs. The pack had been vanquished. Hercules and Iolaus were covered with blood, but, fortunately, none of it was theirs. Hercules had given his friend a big smile and slapped him on the back. “Whew, I hope we don’t have to do THAT again for a while. I’m bushed! How’re you?”

Iolaus gave his friend a tentative grin. “I’m fine. How about you, Herc? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m great! C’mon, let’s get cleaned up. I smell like dog!”

Hercules started off toward the village, but Iolaus hung back. “Herc, are you sure you’re all right?”

The tall man turned and gave his friend a puzzled look. “Yes, Iolaus, I’m fine. I said I was, didn’t I? Now, come on.”

Still, Iolaus didn’t move. “I’m sorry that I let so many get by, Herc. I couldn’t seem to move fast enough today. I just…well…I’m really sorry.” The smaller man couldn’t meet his friend’s eyes, and looked at the ground.

“Iolaus, you did fine. As well as anyone could against these numbers.” Hercules stepped closer to his friend. “Where’s this coming from, Iolaus? I don’t understand your questions.”

Iolaus glanced up at his tall buddy, and flashed a quick grin. “Oh, it’s nothing. I just feel I could’ve done better, is all.” He shook himself. “Wow, you DO smell like a dog! I think I’m ready for that bath.”

Hercules gave a hearty laugh, put his arm around his friend’s shoulders, and pulled him with him down the road.

But, ever since that encounter with the dogs, Iolaus had been uncharacteristically quiet. All through the feast, and then during the trip home, he said very little, answering only when spoken to, and seemed to be worlds away. Hercules had asked him several times if he wasn’t feeling well, but the blond warrior would only shake his head, saying he was just tired and looking forward to getting home. Hercules finally let the matter drop, but he began to worry about his best friend.

As soon as the pair reached Thebes, Iolaus hastily said his good-byes, and hurried off to his home. Hercules frowned after his buddy, but shrugged it off and turned to his own home. Surely, Iolaus WAS merely tired, and would be himself again tomorrow. Hercules vowed to check on him in the morning.

Iolaus went straight to bed when he got to his little cottage. He was too tired to eat anything, or even put his clothes away. He just stripped out of them on his way to the bed, and then shrugged into his old nightshirt as he pulled the covers back and wearily lay down. Dragging the covers up tightly around his chin, he sought refuge from the horrible last few days he’d experienced, and their niggling, troubling thoughts.

He had never felt like this before in his life. What was the matter with him? He didn’t want to talk with Herc, he didn’t want to stop and fish as Herc had suggested, he didn’t want to eat—all he could think of was getting to the peace of his home and bed. Now, here he was, and he couldn’t sleep. He felt like crying, of all things. Why in the world was that happening? He never cried! At least, not since he’d been a little boy. And his dad had knocked THAT indulgence out of him quickly. But now, tears were always right near the surface of his eyes, as they had been since the battle with the wild dogs.

Herc had yelled at him. He’d told him to “be careful!” What did he mean by that? Did he doubt Iolaus’ skill? Was his friend angry with him? Disappointed? Did he think Iolaus was being lazy? WHY did he yell at him?

Iolaus rethought the day over and over again. He was fighting as hard as he could! Still, dogs got by him. He just wasn’t good enough! That’s why Herc yelled at him—he wasn’t good enough anymore. He couldn’t be Herc’s friend any longer because he wasn’t as good as he used to be he wasn’t as good as Herc Herc hated him Herc never wanted to be around him again Herc….

Iolaus jerked awake. The tears couldn’t be held back anymore. He lay there and sobbed, and believed himself a failure to his best friend and the rest of the world. He’d never leave his bed again. He was worthless, worthless, worthless.

The hurting warrior dreamed again. He was back battling the dogs. They got past him! Hundreds of them were on Herc, dragging him down. He heard Herc cry out, “Iolaus!” But, Iolaus couldn’t move. He stood helplessly and watched the man who was like a brother to him be torn to bits by the evil dogs. He watched Herc die. Over and over, he watched his best friend die. He stood there and cried, because he couldn’t change what was happening because he was worthless and Herc was screaming and dying right before his eyes and he couldn’t move and his heart was breaking because Herc was dead and he’d never see him again….

Again, Iolaus woke himself from the nightmare. He began to cry again. He was miserable. He had to get his mind off these awful dreams. He sat up on the edge of this bed, and tried to think of other things. It was pitch black in his home. He had no idea what time it was—probably the middle of the night. He needed to get something to eat. That was it—he was hungry.

He lit the candle beside his bed, and carried it to his pantry. He found bread and cheese, and a knife to cut them with. He carried his supplies to the table, and began to eat ravenously. He completely finished one loaf of bread, and went back for another, filling a plate with dried fruit this trip also. Again, he sat at his table and ate like a man starved for months. It tasted so good! It comforted him.

But, he HADN’T been starved for months. He hadn’t been starved at all. He didn’t even realize he was full, until he came to the point where he couldn’t put another bite in his mouth. He had eaten till he’d made himself sick.

He pushed the plate away, and stumbled back to his bed. Groaning, he lay down and pulled the covers up tight again. He lay there and listened to the quiet. He watched the candle he’d left on the table burn itself out, leaving dense darkness again. He was so sad, and couldn’t explain why. Finally, he dropped off into a dreamless sleep.

He was wakened by someone knocking at the door. It was Herc. He heard Herc call his name. Iolaus didn’t answer. He just lay there. After a bit, Hercules left. Iolaus remained in his bed. He had no energy and could think of no reason to get up. He was still so tired! All he wanted to do was sleep. It was the only way he knew to escape from his haunting thoughts.

When he awoke next, it had to be after noon. He couldn’t remember ever before sleeping a whole morning away. He made himself sit up on the edge of the bed. Sunlight coming through the closed window shutters dimly illuminated the room. Iolaus noticed his clothes on the floor, and the food on the table. He should get up and put everything away. But, he didn’t want to. He had chores to do, like chopping more firewood, and he had planned to clean and sharpen his knife and sword, jobs he enjoyed doing. However, he didn’t want to do any of those things, either. He just wanted to sleep. He was still so weary. He lay down again, and dropped off immediately.

He dreamed again. He was angry. Angry at Herc. Herc had yelled at him. He had no cause to do that. Iolaus was doing as well as he ever had. He was fighting the dogs! That’s all Herc was doing, too—fighting the damn dogs. He had no reason to get all huffy and superior with Iolaus. So what if he was half god and Iolaus wasn’t. So what if he had the strength of ten men, and Iolaus the strength of only one. It still gave him no cause to yell at Iolaus. Iolaus had been good enough to fight by his side all these years what was the difference now Mr. Perfect High and Mighty Half-God I should just go off and leave you to fight the dogs and monsters all by yourself how’d you feel then you’d miss me and realize how much I’ve helped you all these years you sorry pompous….

Iolaus woke, breathing heavily. He was so mad! But, what was he mad at? Nothing had happened. Hercules had merely shouted at him to be careful. That was all. He had lain there getting angry at something that had never even happened.

What was the matter with him? Why was he imagining these impossible scenes? Herc wasn’t dead, and Herc didn’t hate him for being mortal. At least, he didn’t think Herc hated him. DID he?

Iolaus could feel tears building up again. What kind of person was he, anyway? Herc probably SHOULD hate him. After all, what had he ever done right? His father had been embarrassed to have him as a son. He’d hurt his mother by getting into so much trouble, and running away. He’d failed Ania and their son. They would never have died if he had been a decent husband and father. If he’d been a true friend to Herc, he’d never followed Xena and turned against Herc. If he were worth anything, he’d never have dropped that woman from the bridge. Had he ever done anything right, in his whole, worthless life? Nope, nothing. He was worthless and stupid. He wished he were dead. The world would be better off without him. No one would miss him, anyway.

“Iolaus.”

The blond jumped at the soft, familiar, woman’s voice. But, he was alone in the house. He couldn’t have heard anything. It was just his stupid mind again and one of those stupid, horrible dreams again.

“Iolaus, dear, wake up. It’s me.”

This time Iolaus rose, pulling the covers up around him as he stood beside his bed, looking around, his heart beating wildly in his chest. Then, he saw he wasn’t alone after all.

She stood there, in the middle of the room. She glowed with a supernatural light, as beautiful as she had ever been. She smiled lovingly at the man she considered a son, even if there were no blood bond. That had never been important to her. His love for her son Hercules had been more binding than any blood kinship. It made him one of her boys.

“Alcmene?” Iolaus suddenly felt quite weak, and abruptly sat back on the bed. He shook his head, to clear it. This wasn’t happening. Alcmene had been dead for months. This had to be another dream. What was this one going to be? Alcmene probably hated him, too. She’d probably come back from the dead to tell him how sorry a person he was, and that Herc would be better off if Iolaus would just go away and that Ania and their son also hated him….

“No, Iolaus, that’s not true. That’s not why I’m here.”

Iolaus looked up, and there was Alcmene, kneeling right in front of him. His tears started again.

“Then why are you here, Alcmene? Why would you want to leave the Elysian Fields to come see me? I’m not worth anything.”

“Yes, you are, Iolaus. You are worth the world to your friends and family.” Alcmene cupped her hands around Iolaus’ face. The heartbroken warrior didn’t actually feel a human touch, but he felt a glorious warmth and closeness…and caring. “I’m here because I love you. I have felt your distress and confusion building up over these last few days, and I had to come and help you.” She reached up and wiped tears from his face. The dampness on his face dried with just the whisper of motion.

“Do you know what’s wrong with me, Alcmene? I don’t. I’ve never felt this way before. I hate it! It’s eating me alive. Am I going insane?”

“No, dear, you’re not going insane. You’re ill, Iolaus, but not with an illness of the body. It’s a different illness, of the mind, and it robs you of happiness, and self-confidence, and energy. It’s hard to recognize and to treat, but it can be treated. And you must treat it, Iolaus, or it will gradually get worse and worse, and could lead you to do something unthinkable. It’s also something you can’t treat alone. You must go to Hercules, and talk with him about your feelings. He’ll listen to you and help you.”

“Talk to Herc! I can’t DO that, Alcmene! He’ll think I’m just feeling sorry for myself. He’ll call me a whiner and a crybaby. He’ll think I’m stupid to get so worked up and out of control over such trivial things. He’ll hate me.”

“No, he won’t, Iolaus. None of your true friends will think any of those things. Because they love you, and know you, and can recognize that something out of your control is wrong. And, these troubling thoughts won’t leave you alone unless you talk about them. You’ve got to get them out into the open, or they’ll continue to eat at your soul. They’re not trivial. Please, Iolaus, go to Hercules, and talk with him.”

“Alcmene…I don’t think I can. It’s so hard!” Iolaus put his head down and sobbed. He could feel Alcmene’s spirit sit on the bed beside him and put her arms around him and pull him close to her. And she held him tightly as he emptied his troubled soul of its fearful, painful distress.

Finally, the tears stopped. The man looked into the eyes of his “almost mother,” and saw there tears of sympathy and understanding and unconditional love.

“Alcmene, I love you,” he whispered. “We, Herc and Jason and Iphicles and me, all miss you so much. I don’t know how to thank you for coming back for me, for knowing my needs. How…?”

He felt a softness against his lips as she put her finger against them, to quiet him. “I miss each of you, too, so very much. But, I’m always near you all. Iolaus, you’ll never be alone. You’re with me, and I with you, always. Know that, and find comfort in it.” Her smile warmed the heart of the man she counted as one of her sons. She clapped her hands together and stood from the bed. “Now, dear, get up and clean yourself up. Hercules is worried sick about you. I want you to go to him, and talk—really talk—to him. Also, ask him to show you where I planted the special worts, and start using them. They’ll help your mind get back on its proper track. Carry some with you always. Whenever you feel the doubts starting again, take some of these herbs. No one wants you to ever have to feel this way again. There is help out there for you. You are too good and dear a man to have to suffer like this.” The beautiful, caring woman bent over and placed a kiss on the warrior’s cheek. “I have to go back now, Iolaus. Soon, all this misery and doubt will pass, and you’ll feel like your old self again. And, never forget, I’ll always be with you. Because I love you very, very much.”

With that, Alcmene’s glow slowly faded, and Iolaus was again alone in the room. It was so quiet and still. He slowly rose from his bed, and went to a window. He opened the shutters, and drank in the fresh air and beauty of the waning day. It was a gorgeous sunset. He went around the room, opening all the windows and the door. A soft breeze wafted through his home. He hadn’t before then realized how stuffy and close it had gotten inside the cottage. He walked around the room, picking up his filthy clothes and dishes. His body actually ached from all the time he’d spent huddled in his bed. He did feel as if he’d actually been physically sick. But, like Alcmene said, he HAD been ill, just in a very different, frightening way. Iolaus went to the fireplace and knelt to start a fire, so he could warm water to wash his dishes and himself. Then, in the morning, he’d make himself go see Herc. He both dreaded and looked forward to it. It would be so hard to bare his soul, even to his best friend, but he desperately needed relief from his thoughts, and Alcmene said this was the only way to achieve that. The warrior sighed as his fire sparked to life.

Hercules looked up from his chores. He was still working on his mother’s wall, even though she was no longer there to benefit from its safety. It gave him something to do, and he actually enjoyed the work, remembering when his mother would be standing there, talking and laughing with him. That silly wall had become an excuse for the two of them to enjoy each other’s company whenever he’d return from one of his quests. In fact, he often felt as if she were still there, standing beside him and smiling her beautiful smile. It gave him comfort.

Then, he noticed a familiar figure walking down the path. Hercules grinned from ear to ear, as he put down his tools and hurried down the way to meet his best friend.

“Iolaus, it’s so good to see you again! Where’ve you been, anyway? I was starting to get worried about you, my friend. Have you been ill? Did you go to your mom’s? Why didn’t you tell me…?”

“Hercules, you’re babbling.” The small warrior gave a soft chuckle. “Remember, that’s my job.” Iolaus took a deep breath and looked up into his dear friend’s eyes. There, he saw the same love and concern that he’d seen in Alcmene’s eyes. Yes, Alcmene lived on in her son. Iolaus smiled, and his voice shook only a little as he addressed his soul brother.

“Herc…I need to talk to you.”

Finis

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