I'll Be Home for Solstice

by Ceryndip

December Challenge

Write a story called "I'll Be Home for Solstice"

Story must include: a solstice carol written by Iolaus, red and green, jingle bells and in the dialogue: "You never give me flowers", "My Grandma got run over by a chariot", "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire", "A bowl full of jelly", and "Do you hear what I hear?"

The cave was cramped but it was functional and dry. Dry was important, it had been raining off and on for days. Iolaus was tired of being damp all the time. He just wanted to stop this bunch of bandits and be onto something else. Not that the villagers weren't grateful to them, they were. When it became obvious that things weren't going to be fixed quickly, they brought homecooked food, blankets and warm furs for the two heroes to sleep on. A small price to pay for being able to sleep at night knowing that Hercules and Iolaus were on duty. They'd been here for nearly a week with no sign of their quarry.

Hercules crawled in through the small opening, "You know I think the view would really be spectacular from up here if it weren't raining."

Iolaus snorted, "Yeah, see that rain's the problem. The bandits are held up somewhere too. Probably someplace bigger and dryer than we've got. That or they've moved on to get out of the rain."

Hercules ladled out a bowl full of stew from the pot over the fire. "I don't think so, I think they are still around here. The pickings are too easy and too well off to give up that easily. We'll just have to wait out them and the rain. At least the food's better than average and we don't have to cook it ourselves. That's a good thing."

"Right," Iolaus idly pushed his stew around in the bowl.

"Hey, what's with you?"

The hunter sighed, "I don't know, too much rain, I guess."

"Try again."

Iolaus set his bowl down, "Do you know what today is, Herc? It's solstice and where are we? Someplace warm and well lighted and friendly? No, not Hercules and Iolaus, we're in a cramped little cave on a hillside overlooking a wet, very wet little valley waiting for a bunch of bandits that are not coming because it's raining and it's solstice. And...and," his shoulder's slumped, "and I miss the family, my family, your family, just everybody in general."

"I know, me too. Even if we didn't have to protect that village down there, I don't know where we'd have gone. Iphicles is out of the country setting up a trade agreement and Jason's at the Academy. I suppose we could have gone there. The holidays sure aren't what they used to be. I miss Deianeira's cooking. Nobody else ever made glazed ham quite like hers. After everyone went home and the kids were in bed, we'd always curl up in front of the fire awhile and just listen to the quiet. Now, you've gone and depressed me too."

"Sorry."

"That's ok, no sense in being miserable alone, is there?"

Iolaus chuckled, "I suppose not. This is where we're supposed to be thankful we have each other, right?"

"Right, doesn't help though does it?'

"No, but I am glad you're here."

"Me too, buddy, me too. So, who's got first watch tonight?"

"You do, I had it last night."

"You sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure and bring some more wood back in with you when you come, we've only got enough for my half night in the bed."

"Ok, I'll wake you in a few hours. Sleep well."

Iolaus watched as the demigod crawled through the opening and lowered the rabbit hide they'd hung in the entrance to keep the rain and wind out. The hunter sighed yet again and finally laid down on the warm bear skin. He pulled the wool blanket over himself and watched the flickering reflection of the fire against the cavern walls. He believed that sleep would be a long time in coming, if it came at all. He welcomed the oblivion sleep offered and was surprised when it came to him so soon.

The hunter had a spring in his step and wondered why. The day was bright and sunny, if a little brisk. The cool breeze reminded him that winter was near but the mud puddles in the road were drying quickly in the warm light. Iolaus knew immediately where he was. He knew this stretch of road better than any in all Greece. This was the road home.

From the top of the hill he could clearly see Hercules' house. He turned to pay his respects to Deianeira and the children but the markers were gone. The hillside looked as though there were no graves there at all. He ran to the other side of the hilltop and spied his own farm. Someone was obviously living there. There were chickens in the yard and flowers had been planted all around the house. Up on the hillside, those graves were also missing. Was he dead? Was this the Elysian Fields? He remembered it looking this way when he'd been here before but he didn't remember dying. He was sleeping in that cramped little cave, last he remembered.

No one appeared to be home at either his house or Hercules'. Iolaus headed toward the one house where he knew he could find the answers. Alcmene would know what was going on.

His stride lengthened as he neared the house. This couldn't be real but his heart wasn't listening to his head. "Iolaus, do you hear what I hear?" he asked himself aloud. He couldn't see the house through the trees yet but he could hear the tinkling of jingle bells. Alcmene always hung a bundle of holly and jingle bells on the front door during the holidays.

Iolaus practically ran down the lane and with more energy than he'd had in days, leaped the fence to cut through the yard. There was her house just as he always remembered it, with the eaves covered in green holly and red berries. Deianeira was holding little Ilea up so she could hang the last of the holly.

"Look, look! It's Uncle Eye-o-laus!"

The tiny girl ran and leaped into his arms. He carried her back to the porch before setting her down. Hercules' wife hugged him welcome as Alcmene came out from the kitchen to do the same, "So, glad you could come, Iolaus. Welcome home."

"Glad to be here, but how is this possible? You're all--"

"Shhh, some of us don't know that we're dead."

"Oh, right. I see your kids, Deianeira, but where's...?" He felt a presence in the doorway behind him. The breath caught in his throat as he turned and fell into his wife's arms. the moment was more than his emotional control could bare. He clung tightly to her and tried to control his sobs. She held him a few moments before pulling him back to look into his face.

"I know you've been gone awhile, my sweet love, but what are all these tears about?"

"I'm just glad to be home." He, again, buried his face in her neck. He could feel Alcmene's hand on his back.

After a few moments, Iolaus was able to regain his composure and dry his eyes. "Where are the kids?"

Alcmene led the way back into the house, "Klonus and Iolaus are out delivering solstice gifts to the neighbors and Aeson is in here." The boy was tending something over the fire.

"What are you up to?" Iolaus moved into the living area to inspect.

"I'm watching the chestnuts roasting over the fire. I burned them last year, so this is my chance to redeem myself."

The hunter nodded his understanding, "Chestnuts can be tricky."

Iolaus saw Alcmene's old cradle in the corner of the room. He walked over and the tears sprang to his eyes again at the sight of the tiny baby with it's big blond curls peacefully sleeping amid all the feast preparations. He gently retrieved the brightly colored little blanket that had been kicked aside and recovered his littlest one. He felt Alcmene's hand on his back again and he straighted up. She handed him a glass of warm apple cider.

"Don't think too much, just accept and enjoy while it lasts." She led him back to the fire. Iolaus sat on a bench and tried to absorb his surroundings. Little Ilea crawled up beside him. He put his arm around her shoulders as she snuggled into his side.

"It's cold outside. Mommy says it's going to snow tonight, maybe."

"Maybe, it's cold enough."

"Do you like snow?"

"Me? I love it. I don't like the cold but snow's different. There's lots you can do with snow, build forts and snowmen and make lots and lots of snowballs to throw at people."

"Aeson and Klonus do that stuff. I just like the snowmen."

He could hear the three women in the kitchen, talking merrily as they prepared the meal. The smell of the solstice feast cooking was always a favorite but he never remembered it smelling this good. He watched as Ania chopped vegetables for the salad. He almost laughed at Alcmene's wisdom. Ania couldn't burn the salad, as long as the vegetables were fresh, there was very little that could go wrong with a salad.

Through the window he could see the three older boys chasing around the yard together. Funny, he hadn't throught about his and Hercules' boys being nearly the same age when they passed to the other side. It was good that they could play together.

"Hey, Iolaus," Aeson asked. "Did you hear about my Grandma getting ran over by the chariot?"

"Oh, I did not." Alcmene responded, "Here, go put the bowl full of jelly on the table. Then go tell your brothers to come in and get cleaned up.We'll eat soon."

"Chariot?" Iolaus prompted.

She rolled her eyes, "Oh, you know how Hades drives that thing. I managed to get out of the way in time."

"Give him a piece of your mind?" The twinkle was back in Iolaus' eyes.

"Yes, I did. Why don't you help me chop this asparagus, so we can get finished here. Cider not to your liking? You haven't drank any?"

Iolaus hesitated and she paused waiting for him to speak. "Alcmene, I can't eat the food of the other side."

"I see. Well, it's true that you're not dead," she began quietly so that Ania couldn't hear them as she rocked and fed the baby nearby, "but you're not here either. This is just your dream. You can eat in your dreams, if you want to."

"But I want this all to be real."

"For this moment, this is as real as you believe it is, dear."

Iolaus began cutting the asparagus and pondered what she'd told him, "Then, I believe it's real." He paused in his chopping, "Do I have to eat the asparagus?"

She laughed. It was a beautiful sound to his ears, "No, eat what you want, it's your dream."

Iolaus leaned over and kissed Alcmene on the cheek, "Ok, good." The baby began fussing and Iolaus stood. "Here, let me take him." The infant quieted immediately, listening to his father's cooing and jabbering at him. "Let's go out on the porch and see what we can see out there, huh? We'll watch the big kids run around."

Deianeira sat beside Alcmene and picked up where Iolaus left off. "Thank you," she whispered.

"For what?"

"Talking Hades into arranging this. They both really need this time."

Alcmene nodded, "We all get discouraged and it's hard on them being there with us here. Besides, it was easy after the chariot incident. As long as they believe it was a dream, then it will be. "

Deianeira opened the kitchen window and called to Iolaus and the baby in the garden, "Iolaus bring the kids in, food's on the table."

"Ok, we'll be in in a moment."

The door burst open and the hunter appeared herding four kids in and carrying one. "We're all squeaky clean, I checked." He paused in front of his wife, "These are for you." He held out a handful of flowers from the garden.

"Oh, you never give me flowers."

"Not true, not true. I did so give her flowers. For special occasions."

She blushed, "Well, maybe you did, once or twice."

"That's better." He settled the baby in the cradle before taking his place between his wife and child at the table. "This looks and smells wonderful."

When Iolaus' stomach couldn't hold one mouthful more, he staggered back to the bench by the fire. "Oh, I think I'm going to explode. That was soooo good. Thank you, ladies. Thank you."

"You're very welcome."

"Too bad Herc's not here. He's been missing that ham, Deianeira."

"It'll be good left over later on."

Suddenly, Iolaus found himself under attack from several sides. "Hey, what's this!"

"Bandit attack," the three boys yelled and to Iolaus' surprise, Ilea piled on top of them all.

"Iolaus, would you please take that ruckus outside?" Alcmene asked.

"Right, you heard your Grandma, outside."

Iolaus returned to the house winded but still giggling, "I think I'm too old for this." He took great pleasure in tucking all the kids in and telling the bedtime stories. It was nice to share some of the new stories along with a few embelished favorites.

The hunter settled on the bench behind his wife where he could brush her hair with his fingers and plant little kisses on the top of her head and neck. He felt a pressure on his shoulder as if someone had touched him there. He looked but no one was behind him. It went away. He ignored it and stretched his arms around his wife's neck and held her.

The pressure came back firmer, like someone grasping his shoulder. He kissed the top of Ania's head again before lifting one leg over top of her and standing. He rubbed his shoulder as Alcmene approached him.

"Iolaus, it's time for you to go."

"I know. I don't want to leave."

"We'll always be here in your dreams. Stop by anytime. You better go now before Hercules gets too worried."

"What about Ania and the kids?"

"They'll remember your visit and that's all. Don't worry. They won't miss you too much. Hades sees to that small mercy."

"I'll miss them enough for all of us and you too." He kissed her cheek and was out the door before he changed his mind.

"Iolaus!" The voice sounded urgent.

The hunter opened his eyes and took a shuddering breath. A chill passed through him. Hercules immediately pulled the blanket up tucking it around Iolaus' shoulders and felt his forehead.

"You alright?"

"Yeah," Iolaus smiled as he found his bearings, "I'm fine, Herc."

"I couldn't wake you up."

"I guess I was just really tired." Iolaus sat up, "My turn at watch?"

Hercules nodded, "If you're ok."

"I'm fine now, really I am." He crawled outside, "Wow! Would you look at all these stars. What a pretty night."

Hercules handed out his blanket, "Better wrap up. It may be pretty but it's cold. Stay near the entrance so you can catch some of the heat from the fire."

"Ok, ok, no wandering off. It's solstice, Herc. No bandits are going to attack tonight. Get a good night's sleep. Enjoy your visit."

"My what?" Hercules shook his head bewildered at Iolaus' suddenly chipper mood as he settled in next to the fire. Just before sleep overtook him, Hercules could hear his partner singing quietly to himself.

"I'll be home for Solstice
If only in my dreams."

20 December 2000

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