Other Side Challenge

by Owlharp

"Look at you!" Alcmene exclaimed. "Mud from your toes to your eyebrows!"

"Well, that's what you get when knee-deep snow starts melting," grumbled Iolaus. "And if I'd waited for the roads to dry up, I'd still be waiting! I wanted to get back here."

Hercules stood on the porch and grinned at his best friend's discomfort as Alcmene stripped the mud-sodden cloak and vest from his back.

"Get those filthy boots off right now! And you - " she looked up at her son sternly, " - go draw water from the well and build up the fire. Iolaus needs a bath!"

"Yes, Mother" both men replied in meek unison.

One bath, two bowls of steaming soup and a large mug of mulled wine later, Iolaus sat in front of the fire, wrapped in a blanket, listening to Hercules' account of his trip to the Underworld.

"Amazing!" he commented when the story ended. "You actually got Demeter to agree to let Persephone stay with Hades!"

"Only half a year," said Hercules modestly.

"Still, that's quite an achievement, given how pissed off she was when I saw her."

"Wait a minute - you met up with Demeter?"

Iolaus nodded and blew out a breath. "Oh yeah. And for a moment there, I was pretty sure I was going to be toast!"

The tavern gossip, picked up when he returned from a particularly long hunting trip, had alarmed him. Over their bowls of watered wine people had muttered darkly about the anger of Demeter at Hades' elopement with her daughter Persephone. What he'd thought was merely a spell of strange weather now assumed a more menacing aspect, and Iolaus decided to head for Thebes to see if Hercules knew anything about this, and in any case, to check on Alcmene.

Heading out to Thebes was one thing. Getting there was another. Iolaus had started the journey amid flurries of snow which had grown in size and intensity until they reached a full-scale blizzard. He had trudged on doggedly, using every tracking skill he possessed to keep his bearings and stay on the path, until finally he realized that night was falling and he would have to find shelter or freeze. In the leeward side of a small hill, beside a frozen spring, he spied a dark opening that spoke of shelter.

He had been too cold and too weary to immediately recognize the significance of the wheat sheaves that were carved all around the mouth of the grotto. All he'd cared about at that point was getting in out of the wolf-fanged wind that blew the snow in clouds which stung his exposed flesh like a swarm of angry bees. In his shivering arms he clutched a bundle of sticks and branches that he'd picked up along the way.

A fire. He had to have a fire or he would most assuredly freeze to death in this murderous, unnatural winter.

The floor of the grotto was smooth and chilly. He dumped the firewood and returned to the mouth of the cave to shake the snow off his cloak. No sense bringing in any more cold than was already here.

He knelt by the pile of wood and frowned. All of it was damp, and it was going to be damned difficult to get a flame going. He reached into his cloak and began pulling tufts of wool from the sheepskin that lined it. At least that was dry and could serve as tinder. He scattered it on the floor and arranged over it a pattern of the driest twigs he could find. Fumbling in his pouch, he brought out his flint and steel. For what seemed like hours he patiently struck the two together, watched the sparks fly out and land on the wool - and promptly go out.

Cursing softly, he stripped more wool from his cloak and added it to the pile. At this rate his sheepskins would be bald by morning. But this time when the spark landed, a tiny flame sprang up. Delicately he poked a twig into it and sighed in relief when it flared into light. One by one he added more twigs, nurturing the flame, careful not to smother it. Finally he added a larger branch, which smoked sullenly for quite a while before ultimately catching.

Small as it was, the fire put out just enough heat that after a while he pulled off his sodden boots and felt the welcome pain of the feeling returning to his frozen feet. Somewhere along the line he finally stopped shivering and even began to take an interest in his surroundings. That was when he noticed the sheaves of wheat crudely carved into the walls of the grotto. A soundless laugh shook him.

"Oh swell, Iolaus!" he muttered to himself. "Of all the places you had to stumble into, you picked a shrine to Demeter!"

Somehow it did not surprise him at all to look up and see the figure of a woman standing at the opening of the grotto. Nor did it astonish him that she was only lightly clad, and there were no snowflakes clinging to her silver-grey veil, despite the blizzard that was raging outside. Her sandaled feet left no wet prints upon the grotto floor, where his own still showed dark against the pale smooth stone.

He'd been half expecting this. He met her eyes - grey and shadowed as the clouds that crowded the sky outside - nodded and said calmly, "Come in and share the fire. What there is of it.."

She moved closer, into the tiny circle of light and warmth, never taking her gaze from him - a gaze which pierced him more sharply than the knife-edged winter wind. Finally she spoke in a soft, almost lifeless voice.

"You dare bring fire to Demeter's shrine?"

He shrugged. "I was freezing. It's cold out there."

"I know. Demeter has made it that way."

"So they say."

" 'They' say truly".

"Is it really true? 'They' also say that Demeter is a kind goddess. I find it hard to believe that this is Demeter's doing."

"You can believe it. Demeter is angry."

"At the whole world?"

"Yes! I want it to be cold! I want the Earth and everything on it to freeze!"

Well, his well-founded suspicion was now a certainty. "Why, Demeter? What has the Earth ever done to you?"

"It swallowed up my child!"

"No. That's not the Earth's fault. Nor is it the fault of anyone on it!"

"My child is gone!"

"Yes, she is. Blame Hades for that - not us. You're punishing the wrong parties!"

"Everyone will suffer until she is returned to me!"

Iolaus' temper snapped."Isn't that just like a god? You're all alike! One of you gets unhappy and we mortals have to pay the price!"

"I know one mortal who is going to pay - "

"Why, Demeter? For telling the truth? Hades is the one who took your daughter. Not me! Not any of those poor bastards out there freezing and starving, because of you! You've been wronged by one of your own, Lady - so why are you taking it out on us?!"

"I LOST MY CHILD!!!!!!!!!!!" The anguish in the cry was real.

"So did I." He closed his eyes and whispered. "So did I."

"Then you know the pain that I feel!"

"Yes. I do. But let me ask you something, goddess - who do you think will die first from the cold and famine that YOU caused?" He waited, but no sound came from her. "You don't want to answer that? Well then, I will! The weakest. The youngest. The children will die first. Mortal children of mortal mothers - sacrifices to YOUR anger! And those mortal mothers will grieve just the way you're grieving - and it will be because of you!"

OK, he was in for it now. He had well and truly told off a goddess, right to her face, and the chances were that he was going to pay for it in the next heartbeat ...

"You. Are. Insolent - " came the words slowly.

"Yes. I am. But I'm also right!" His voice echoed from the grotto walls. "You can do what you want to, goddess - zap me with a thunderbolt and freeze the entire earth - but it doesn't change the truth of what I've said!"

For what seemed like an eon she stared at him in frozen silence. Then suddenly she drew back her arm and he knew he was doomed.

A blinding flash knocked him back against the wall of the grotto.

A long time later when his vision cleared and the throbbing in his head died back to a dull ache, several things became clear.

He was alive.

The goddess had vanished.

And a flame higher than his head was burning smokelessly on the bare floor of the grotto, filling it with golden light and pouring welcome heat into every corner.

"Oooookay..." he breathed out, reaching his hands to the warmth. "I'm not sure what any of this means. But at least .." he stopped. "At least tonight I'm not going to freeze to death!"

"And that's the last I saw of her", said Iolaus. "The next morning when I woke up, it looked like spring had come suddenly. I headed back for Alcmene's, figuring that you'd show up here sooner or later. But that fire never burned down, the whole night I was there, and it was still burning the next morning when I left the grotto."

"That's wild," commented Hercules, "but you know something? When Demeter showed up at the entrance to the Underworld - I gotta tell you - I was figuring that she and Hades were NEVER going to work things out. It surprised the hell out of me when she actually agreed to Persephone staying six months with Hades! And I think that it was what you said about the kids being sacrifices to her anger, that must have softened her up a bit, made her willing to listen to reason. It was you that tipped the balance. Nice going, partner! We were working together, even though we didn't know it at the time!"

"Funny how that sort of thing happens!" commented Iolaus, laughing, and the two men clasped arms in the warm spring sun.

FINIS.

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