Alcmene found herself wakeful. Not surprising, she thought. It's been quite a - quite a day.
She got to her feet and threw her wrap around her. There was not a sound in the house other than quiet breathing. No louder than that, she glided into her bedroom where Hercules was sleeping.
She looked down at him and the memories from earlier that day gripped her painfully by the heart.
Shortly after they had left the shattered hillside that now held Echidne prisoner, Hercules had gone colorless, clutched his side and collapsed. Both she and Iolaus had been half expecting this to happen and they caught him between themselves. With great difficulty they had bundled him into the back of the wagon. Iolaus had taken the reins, while Alcmene had fussed over her son in the back, tearing her skirt into strips to replace the blood-soaked bandage on his side.
Sheer willpower had given Hercules the strength to ignore the wound from Hephaestus' arrow while he fought Echidne and came to his mother's rescue. But not even his godly heritage could hold out forever and now that all was safe, Nature was claiming its due.
Iolaus had driven the heavy draft horses like the fiery steeds of Hades' chariot and they had reached Alcmene's house before sunset. She had restitched the wound and bound it with yarrow and willow ointment, and they had laid him down in her bed.
All through it, there had been no time for her to think.
Now Hercules slept the deep sleep of sheer exhaustion, his face white as the pillow under his head. But his breathing was even, and the bandage was unstained. Alcmene gave a silent sigh of relief and tucked the fur coverlet snugly over his shoulders.
She took a quick peek into the back room where Iolaus also lay sleeping, his tousled hair bright against the dark furs that covered him. A sad smile crossed her face. It was Iolaus who had saved them both, really, she reflected. He had kept Hercules from dying of the wound inflicted by Hera's Archer, and then stood at his back when the two had taken on first the Archers, and then Echidne herself. Without Iolaus, both she and her son would be dead.
True, all through the day there had been no time to think.
But now all of them were safe. Now she finally had time to reflect on what had happened.
And now the darkness of the room could not hide the bitter truth that rose up and accused her.
Given what he had been doing earlier that day, Iolaus would have expected to sleep slightly more heavily than Endymion, but sometime in the deadest part of the night, a sound woke him.
He sat up and listened intently.
Hastily drawing on his breeches, he padded barefoot into Hercules' room. In a shaft of pale moonlight, he saw his friend peacefully asleep.
Again came the noise.
Iolaus hastened out to the front room. By the light of the single flame that still flickered in the fireplace, he saw a figure huddled on the hearth-seat.
She looked up at his approach. Even in the dim and uncertain light it was clear she had been crying.
"Did I wake you, dear? I'm sorry." The words were normal. Her voice was not.
"It's not important. Alcmene, what's wrong?"
He caught her hands and looked her full in the face. "Your hands are like ice!"
Without another word, he turned to snatch up some of the wood in the nearby basket and built the fire back up. When it was roaring and spilling golden light and heat into the room, he turned back to her. Taking both her hands in his and sitting at her feet, he fastened a stern look on her and said firmly, "All right. Hercules is fine - I just checked on him. So what's the matter? Talk to me!"
For a long time she just stared at him and he was suddenly struck by the realization that she was old. It was something that he had never contemplated before. Ever since he had met her, she had always been something of a goddess to him - a cheerful, comforting, domestic deity whose beauty had never been in question. It was still there, but it was an echo of the past, like the ruins of a temple that still maintained the outlines of its former glory.
As if reading his thoughts, she turned away and stared at the fire, and new tears rolled down her face.
"Iolaus ... all of this is my fault".
"What's your fault?
"This whole thing with Demetrius. If I hadn't been such a blind fool, none of this would have happened!"
"Alcmene, you CAN'T blame yourself for - "
"Yes I CAN! And I do!"
"For what? Because you were deceived? Because you loved somebody and thought he loved you too?"
"Because I was vain and stupid - "
Iolaus felt his anger rising. "You are not vain, and you are CERTAINLY not stupid!"
She twisted her fingers in anguish. "Iolaus. Dear, dear Iolaus. You don't understand. I brought this on Hercules - and on you! through my own selfish desires. Because I was tired of being lonely! Because I wanted to be loved! Because I was stupid enough to believe that a younger man might find me desirable! And because of my vanity and stupidity, my son almost died! We ALL could have died!"
"Alcmene, all of that was Hera's fault, not yours!"
She clutched his hands again and more tears started slowly down her cheeks. "Iolaus ...you just don't realize ... This just keeps happening, over and over again. Ever since Zeus and I - "
"What keeps happening?"
"All I ever wanted, was someone to love me. Iolaus, a woman needs a man. She needs him to make her feel special, to feel beautiful, to feel loved. Without those feelings, life is grey and joyless. Zeus knew that, when he came to me. But he left me, and Amphytrion died, and then I was alone, for a long time...until - well, let's just say that I found a lover. He was younger than me, but he loved me - or so he said, and I believed him. We were happy in the stolen moments we had together. But then, he too left me, to go adventuring, and eventually word came that he had married, and so once again, I was alone..."
"Alcmene - I didn't know about - " He was astonished.
A faint smile crossed her tear-streaked face, as she looked at him with love and tousled his hair. "No. I took care that you shouldn't. Neither he nor I wanted you and Hercules to know anything about it. You both would have been uncomfortable, and Hercules especially, would never have understood. But, anyway, my lover was lost to me, lost to a younger woman of royal blood. How could I blame him?'
'I thought that loneliness was simply going to be a fact of the rest of my life - that this is how it had to be. And then I met Demetrius, and suddenly all the possibilities that I had buried so deeply sprang up in full flower. It had been so long, and I had lost all hope, and then there he was, taking my hand, whispering sweet words, making ... making love to me. Making me feel young and beautiful and happy and loved."
She let go his hands and clutched herself as though suddenly cold. "I should have known something was wrong. Beautiful young men don't - "
"Alcmene. Stop it." Iolaus rose up on his knees and took her firmly by the shoulders."Listen to me. It is not a sin, to want to be loved. It's not stupid and it's not vain and it's something that all of us want in life. You acted out of love, and you are NOT responsible for what happened to Hercules! It was Hera's hate that caused him to be wounded, and it's Hera who is responsible, not you! Don't blame yourself for what Hera did! Don't blame love for an act of hate!"
For a long time she just looked at him numbly, noticing, as she did, that the firelight behind him caused his hair to glow in a halo of gold.
"Alcmene, you have got to believe me. Hercules would say the same thing to you that I have."
Another long silence. Finally she spoke. "Yes, " she whispered softly. "Yes. He would say the same thing, wouldn't he?"
Suddenly she seemed to relax just the tiniest bit. Iolaus leaned forward and wrapped her in his arms, holding her tightly, her head upon his shoulder. Her arms went around him and she clung to him fiercely, feeling the strength of him against her, feeling the warmth and the joy and the comfort that he poured out for her.
The fire flared up and died back to soft, reddish light that mingled with the first ray of dawn coming through the shutters.
Finally Alcmene released him and raised a stained and swollen face to look him. Her voice was scarcely a whisper.
"Iolaus. Thank you for what you did. You saved Hercules' life".
"Alcmene - " the words came out thickly from his raw throat - "he's my best friend. I'd give my life for him. And you are almost my mother. You know I'd give my life for you, too."
"Yes," she said, and smiled a little as she brushed the hair back from his forehead. "I do know it. But I pray that it would never come to that. I could not bear to lose any of my sons - neither those I have borne, nor you, the child of my heart."
She gave him a final firm hug, and stood up, motherly authority suddenly written all over her.
"And now it's time for you to go to back to bed, Iolaus."
His answering grin blazed brighter than the fire. "Yes, ma'am," he replied obediently.
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