With thanks to Richard Lattimore and his translation of Hesiod's poetry specifically "Theogony" and "The Works and Days" among others.
In the aftermath of the downfall of Dahak, the gods stood on the hillside above Thebes and considered the Four Horsemen. Down in the valley waited War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, patiently sitting on their horses, watching, waiting, threatening ....
Not so surprisingly, it was Ares who broke the silence. "Yeah, it's all been fun, but this isn't over yet." He turned to Aphrodite, "Sis, I'll admit you won the first round, but I don't think the love thing is going to work on those four freaks out there. We'd better get hustling!" He looked around. "Where's Athena?"
"Here, brother", the grey-eyed goddess strode forward. "You think we can work together for a change?"
For once, Ares was not sarcastic. "If this isn't the time, there won't be one - ever."
Athena nodded silently. "We'll need the armies. Summon the Kings for a swift council of war. It may be the last one we ever hold."
It was Zeus who spoke.
"No armies. Just us. We shall go out and face the Horsemen - we, the gods, together - and the people of Greece shall watch".
The rest of the gods looked at him in astonishment.
"Hermes, you shall go to King Iphicles and King Orestes. Reveal yourself and give them this message from me. They are to withdraw their armies to the surrounding hilltops and take no part in what shall follow. This is a matter for gods, not men!"
Hermes just stared at Zeus for a second, stunned, then gave a clumsy, unaccustomed bow and disappeared.
Zeus turned to the other gods. "The rest of you - reveal yourselves to mortal sight! All of you!"
"But we have never ...." came a murmur from the ranks.
Zeus' face grew grim. "True. But never before has there been a need to. Now there is." Suddenly in his hand there appeared the thunderbolt, the weapon of the King of the Gods, and he hefted it meaningfully. "I will not command you a second time. Do it! NOW!"
There was a fearful silence from the Olympians. This was not the Zeus that they were used to - the selfish, lecherous, easygoing, sometimes apologetic old man whom most of them regarded with affection or contempt. Instead they were facing the Lightning-Hurler, the Titan-Slayer, the King of the Gods, and the thunder was in his voice as well, as he went on: "Somewhere along the way, we of Olympus lost the faith of our people. That is how the foreign god was able to invade - because the our own people doubted us. So instead of fighting for us, our people will see us fighting for them. We shall earn their faith again - or we shall die!"
What happened next was told by every bard at every hearthfire in Greece for the next thousand years.
"And there stood against the gods of Olympos
Four great Evils, sprung from unbelief
In those same gods.
First was War, masked and cloaked in blackened blood,
Glaring horribly and gnashing teeth until they echoed.
Next was Famine, mouth sewn shut,
And dry skin rotting on bleached bones.
Then came Pestilence, the thief of health,
Stealer of strength, drinker of blood.
And lastly, Death, devourer of fighting men,
Cruel ravisher of senses and sower of despair.
And against these went four companies of the gods,
As ordained by mighty Zeus of the counsels."
A great cry went up from the armies and the people gathered on the outskirts of Thebes. Suddenly, at the top of the highest hill, the gods had appeared. In the peaceful after-years, there were many arguments over just what each of the gods looked like and who had seen whom, but for now there was not a shred of doubt in the heart of any of the observers.Their gods were present. Each watcher on the hillside felt the same thing. First, deep shock at the sight of Those in whom so many had lost their belief, standing now revealed in the light of the waning day. Then, like a tiny rivulet that gradually widens into a roaring river, a warm relief flowing through them. There was more to the divine world than mere Evil. The gods had come to help the mortal world. The shining company split into four parts, each group heading towards a different Horseman.
Iolaus stared in surprise at his comrade. Hercules rarely, if ever, swore, but this time the word came bursting forth.
"I thought I'd never see the day ... Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"
Iolaus nodded, dumbstruck. "Oh yeah ....", he breathed.
Hercules stared down into the valley, mouth agape. "They're actually doing it. They've actually gotten off their lazy butts!"
It occurred to Iolaus, kind of as an irrelevance, that "lazy butts" was not a term usually applied to the gods, but then again, Hercules had a point.
"I don't believe it!"
"Believe it, buddy!" Iolaus chimed in. "I see it too."
"Look!" Hercules grabbed Iolaus' arm. "Dad's heading for Death!"
"Hey watch it! You almost ripped that off!" Iolaus pulled away, but Hercules didn't even notice. He took a step forward.
"Iolaus, I can't let him face that alone.I've got to go with him!"
"Yes, you do" agreed Iolaus. "And I'm going with you. C'mon - let's go!"
That stopped Hercules cold. For a single heartbeat all that he could think of was that he had just gotten Iolaus back and the chance of losing him again so soon was intolerable. It was an automatic reflex that made Hercules say "Are you sure?" and then curse himself for a fool as the words came out of his mouth. He braced himself for Iolaus' anger, but Iolaus just grinned.
"Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss this for the world! I've been dead too long and I've got a lot of kinks to work out. Being dead can make you soft and lazy!" He took off running in Death's direction, and the son of Zeus was hard-pressed to catch up.
Once again, it was the bards who told the story best.:
"Against War went forth great Ares, insatiate of battle,
Brandishing his flame-like spear,
And beside him the grey-eyed goddess,
Athene of the dreadful aegis and golden helmet,
And Strife and Discord, following in their wake.
Armed by Hephaistos, artisan of the immortals,
They clashed in battle, War against War.
Spears were splintered and swords shattered,
Until the mighty children of thundering Zeus
Laid low the black-cloaked, blood-soaked spectre,
Who vanished into smoke upon the wind.
Against the fearful bones of hungry Famine,
Zeus the crafty, father of gods and mortals,
Sent forth the gods and goddesses of plenty.
Fruitful Demeter, giver of harvests, mother of Persephone,
Great Dionysos who pours forth the sweet wine,
And all the gods of field and wood and vineyard.
Into the empty belly of Hunger they cast
An endless river of grain and wine,
And all the good things that the earth can yield.
And Famine could not swallow it all, but burst asunder,
Never to be seen again by god or mortal.
Against the unseen might of Pestilence, who breathes forth
Plague and illness, wasting weakness, and all the fleshly sorrows,
Great wide-browed Zeus sent forth the gods of healing,
Golden Apollo, god of light and learning,
Artemis, protector of those in childbirth,
Bright Hebe, goddess of youth and health,
And wise Asclepius, Apollo's son,
Who surpasses all the gods in healing.
Against each ill that Pestilence breathed out,
They set, in turn, the power of their knowledge
The light of wisdom, and last, the cleansing fire,
And Pestilence was scoured from the earth.
Last and fearsome stood inexorable Death,
Conqueror of men and gods and time
Dryer of oceans, grinder down of mountains,
Omnipotent and pitiless, deaf to lamentation.
Yet Zeus, the thunderer, the lightning wielder,
Father of gods and men, the cloud-bedizened,
Strode forth to battle, by his own command, alone.
Not god nor mortal followed in his wake,
Save only Herakles and brave Iolaos.
Zeus' son with his beloved comrade,
The half-god and the hunter, fully mortal,
Moved by love, to disobey the Thunderer,
And guard his back from Death's own treachery.
"Begone, O Death!" cried Zeus of the aegis,
"Though you shall conquer all of us in time
That time shall not be now!
Depart this field!
Lay not your hand upon a single soul,
Not god nor man nor beast within this vale!
The Fates shall cut our threads in proper time,
But not today! Begone! And stay no longer!"
And Death beheld the mighty Lord of Olympos,
Zeus the lightning wielder, the dark-clouded,
Crafty lord of counsels and right-dealing,
Speaking words of power and command.
Yet Death espied the two who had rejected
Zeus's plea to stay behind in safety,
The two who, out of love, had followed after
The King of Gods, to guard him.
And Death was most amazed, to see this marvel.
That the mightiest of gods was armored
By love and filial duty, given freely.
And Death raised up his eyes unto the hillsides
And there Death saw the multitudes were standing
In staunch array, nor were they fleeing
The terrors there before them, War and Famine,
Pestilence and Death himself unyielding.
There they stood, the folk of Greece,
The great and small, the kings and grizzled soldiers,
Standing their ground and trusting in their gods
To save them from the evils that assailed them.
And Death was most amazed to see this marvel,
And so he spoke to Zeus the cloud-bedizened,
Saying "King of the Gods, the words that you have spoken
Are true - over all things I have dominion.
And I shall conquer all in time's unfolding.
Yet in this single place and on this day
I shall pay heed to what you are demanding.
Not from fear of godly retribution,
But because I am moved by the love your people give you,
And the courage of your son and his bold comrade.
Therefore I shall depart, and this day only
Take none from those here gathered on the hillsides".
Thus was the will of mighty Zeus accomplished
That Death, the greatest of the earthly evils,
Did yield to the god's command and leave the field.
And all of those there gathered on the hillsides
Gave thanks and praise, in Muse-inspired paeans... "
"Paeans" were what the bards talked about, but in the memories of those who were there on the hillsides outside of Thebes, it was just one helluva fine party.
No one could ever quite recall exactly where the food and wine came from. There was talk of vines springing up from the earth in the twinkling of an eye, bearing clusters of amphorae that, when opened, poured forth rich red wine, and groves of trees rising up, heavy with ripe fruit. Others spoke of tables suddenly appearing, laden with roasted meats and breads and fine cheeses. Music was coming from somewhere, and the sound of voices singing. Bonfires flared up and burned brightly here and there on the hillsides, and people began dancing around them.
Some told tales of seeing the gods celebrating among mortals for this single night, and many a man boasted of getting a kiss from the Goddess of Love herself. Some of those wounded in the assault on Dahak swore that Asclepius himself had come to tend them, showing fresh-healed wounds to prove it.
Iolaus had a hazy memory of Ares, with a comely wench on each arm, swaggering up to him and declaring, "Ya know, blondie .... you may be my brother's annoying little friend ... but it took balls to go after Death... whether you like it or not, you're part of my army ..." Iolaus diplomatically declined to argue and just raised his winecup in a half-ironic salute to the God of War.
Being a half-god, Hercules' memory was never hazy. For the rest of eternity he would remember the look on his Father's face, when Zeus turned towards him after Death's departure.
"Why did you disobey me?" The thunder was in Zeus' voice once more.
Conscious of Iolaus' comforting presence by his side, Hercules squared his shoulders and looked his father straight in the eyes. "I couldn't let you face Death alone."
"I just couldn't. You're my father".
Slowly Zeus nodded. "Thank you" was all he said, and disappeared.
Iolaus looked up to see his best friend staring at him with a strange look on his face.
"What's up, Herc?"
"Listen, I gotta apologize to you".
Iolaus was dumbfounded. "For WHAT?" he demanded.
Hercules sighed. "When you said you were coming with me to back up my dad, I asked you if you were sure."
"I did it again, didn't I? I tried to keep you from risking yourself."
"Yep. And I ignored you. Just like I always do." Iolaus grinned.
"Well yeah, but ... anyway, I'm sorry."
"Herc ... S'okay. Believe me, I do understand. Really, I do. And it's OK. ..." He clasped his friend's forearm. "Now - will you PLEASE go get a drink or three, and start getting into this party?! Right now I'm going to go look for Nebula. And if I find Ares hitting on her, I'll kill him!"
Just as no one could say exactly how the great celebration started, no one could say exactly when it ended either. People woke up from a deep sleep on the soft grass of the Theban hillsides to a gold and rose-clouded dawn.To everyone's surprise, there were no hangovers - an event that the bards later deemed unique in Greek history. In groups small and large they began to disperse, headed home to rebuild their lives in a renewed knowledge that the gods were indeed present.
After bidding farewell to Kings Iphicles and Orestes, Hercules, Iolaus and Nebula accompanied Jason and Alcmene back to her cottage. Alcmene was quite concerned about the state of her garden, and chattered away about what needed to be done. Listening to her was balm to Iolaus' soul. After all he had been through, all the great dark events of the last months, it was an indescribable relief to be walking along in the company of the people whom he loved, hearing talk of simple, good and ordinary things.
"Nice, isn't it?" came Nebula's voice in his ear. "She's a good woman. I can see why you love her".
"She's not the only woman I love". He put his arm around Nebula's waist and they walked together.
"Oh really? Who else do you love, Monkey Boy?"
"There's this really hot pirate queen I can think of ..." His hand slid down to her backside, and she smacked him.
"Idle hands..." she whispered teasingly "you need to find something for them to do! And I know just the thing! Something very dirty ...."
"What did you have in mind?" he breathed heavily.
She gave a wicked smile. "Alcmene!" she called. "Iolaus and I would be delighted to help you with your garden!" She turned back to him. "Honest toil in the soil!"
There was indeed plenty of honest toil in the week that followed their return to Alcmene's. Hercules, Iolaus and Jason weeded and chopped back the vegetation that had run wild in Alcmene's absence. Nebula - explaining that being from a desert country, she was experienced with this sort of thing - designed and, with Iolaus' help, dug a series of channels leading from a nearby spring to bring water to the newly replanted gardens. With his godly strength, Hercules split and channeled stones to line the aqueduct, and then, in a burst of enthusiasm, split hundreds more to repair and reinforce the wall around his mother's house.
The days went by, full of work that was hard, but not too hard, and both Hercules and Iolaus found immense comfort in waking each day knowing precisely what would come and how it would be accomplished. The need not to think beyond the borders of the garden was a well-earned respite from the horrors that they had endured for so long. Each knew that it could not last, but while it did, they cherished every moment.
To Iolaus' initial astonishment, Nebula too, seemed to thrive in this peaceful environment as well. He'd privately worried that she'd find it too unexciting and, well, too gentle. But instead, Nebula took Alcmene's mothering with good grace, and seemed to enjoy it. Iolaus had been amazed to come in to the kitchen one morning and find her clad in one of Alcmene's house gowns, happily learning how to make bread. When he mentioned his surprise to Nebula, she just shrugged and answered, "I never knew my own mother - she died shortly after I was born. But Alcmene's everything that I'd want my own mother to be."
The only tension in the house was of the romantic kind - Iolaus and Nebula simply couldn't find the right time and place for most of the week. Finally one afternoon after lunch, Iolaus had turned to Alcmene with elaborate casualness and announced "I'm going out to see if I can get some rabbits for stew tonight". He reached for his bow and quiver that always hung beside the storeroom door. Without a word, Nebula followed him out the door, with Alcmene's "Good hunting!" ringing in her ears.
Hercules made as if to go after them, but Alcmene laid a hand on his arm. "I don't think they need any help right now" she said.
"It's kind of early in the day for rabbits", he commented.
Alcmene just looked at her son with a mischevious smile, and was amused to see him blush.
"Never mind", he mumbled, feeling silly and just a faint pang of ... jealousy?
There may or may not have been rabbits about in the warmth of the early afternoon, but Iolaus was not tracking any. Instead he headed straight into the forest, taking an unerring path towards a secret spot hallowed by fond memories, a tiny glade floored in emerald ferns and surrounded by a close-grown thicket of fragrant pine trees. He never looked around, but he was aware of Nebula close behind him. He drew back several of the pine boughs and ushered her in.
She looked around the glade and gave a satisfied smile. "Nice place you've got here, Monkey Boy!"
Between one heartbeat and the next, they were in each other's arms, and tumbling to the ground. The ferns were soft and warm beneath them and gave out a fresh green scent as they were crushed.
A long time later, when the afternoon sun had slanted and reddened, Iolaus turned his head towards Nebula where she was lying comfortably next to him, and found that she was looking expectantly at him.
At the exact same moment that he said, "Nebula, we've got to talk!", she was saying "Iolaus, we have to talk!"
An uncomfortable laugh ensued, then silence.
Iolaus eventually rolled over, propped himself on an elbow, and suggested, "Queens first".
"That's just the problem, " Nebula replied, stretching lazily among the greenery. "I'm a Queen. I don't want to be, but I am."
"I've got to go back to Sumeria".
Iolaus nodded. "I know".
"I love you".
"And I love you".
"That's why I am NOT going to ask you to go back with me".
"Nebula - " Iolaus started to say, but she put a finger to his lips.
"No, let me talk. I was watching when Hercules headed out after Zeus. I saw how you followed him without a backwards look."
"But Nebula - "
"I'm talking, remember?" Her brief smile took the sting out of the words. "It was then that I knew for sure - not that I ever doubted it! - that THAT's where you need to be. I love you! I will love you always! But you know and I know that you can't go back with me. I need to go to my people in Sumeria and be their Queen, and you need to stay here in Greece, with Hercules, to do the work that only you and he can do."
He had never seen her this serious. For the first time the flame of mockery that always danced in her eyes was doused, leaving them huge and dark and sad.
"Nebula ..." He took a deep breath to argue and then stopped abruptly, as the truth of everything she had said struck him like Zeus' thunderbolt. In an agonized silence he stared at her while through his mind ran all the stark realities that she was acknowledging.
"But I love you..." he stammered.
"That's not a point in debate. I know that. But I can't hold on to you, nor you to me."
She was right. He couldn't leave Greece. He couldn't leave Hercules. He'd left once, not of his own choosing, and the results had been disastrous. He couldn't do that again. How he loved her for seeing and voicing that simple, overwhelming fact. They could not stay together.
He realized that he was panting heavily, as if he was fighting an armed opponent. But this time his opponent was the truth, and Iolaus was helpless before it. "You're right, " he whispered finally, "I don't want you to be right. But you are."
A little of her usual fire blazed back up. "Of course I'm right". A smile flickered and died on her face, and again she was solemn. "You've been sacrificed for me once already. I won't let that happen again".
Iolaus closed his eyes for a second and felt the dimly remembered pain of Gilgamesh's dagger. It seemed a very little thing, compared to the sudden ache in his heart now.
Her voice came low and sultry in his ear. "But you can do something for me now...". Her hands went to his body, with easy familiarity. He moved back into her arms, and once again the scent of crushed ferns filled the gold-lit glade.
In the cool dimness of predawn, Alcmene moved about her kitchen. She loved the silence of the early morning, while all the others in the house slept. She blew on the coals that had been banked with ashes the night before and added kindling to nurture the newly awakened flames. A sound at the door drew her attention, and she drew back the bar. Iolaus stood there. She reached out and drew him across the threshold. One look at his face told her everything.
"Nebula left this morning?"
Iolaus nodded. "Yep. I saw her off at the morning tide."
"I'm sorry, Iolaus". Alcmene put an arm around him, and he turned gratefully into the hug.
"Don't be," came his muffled reply. "She's going to do what she's got to do. I'm very proud of her!"
"Of course", murmured Alcmene and hugged him closer. "And in the meantime - " she let him go, smiling broadly - "there's work to do here!"
Iolaus returned the smile. "Oh yeah!" he agreed. "After all that's happened, it's going to take a lot, to set Greece right again!"
"Well, actually I was thinking a little closer to home. The cow needs milking, and there are eggs to be collected."
His grin grew broader. "I'm on it!"
Alcmene looked towards the back room where Hercules and Jason could be heard snoring away. "And I'll roust those two out, and we'll have a huge breakfast. Eggs and griddlecakes and berries with cream. After all, you can't go rebuilding a country on an empty stomach!"
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