For many years the remembrance of Apollo's service kept Thessaly full of sunlight. Where a god could work, the people took heart to work also. Flocks and herds throve, travellers were befriended, and men were happy under the rule of a happy king and queen.
But one day Admetus fell ill, and he grew weaker and weaker until he lay at death's door. Then, when no remedy was found to help him and the hope of the people was failing, they remembered the promise of the Fates to spare the king if some one else would die in his stead. This seemed a simple matter for one whose wishes are law, and whose life is needed by all his fellow-men. But, strange to say, the substitute did not come forward at once.
Among the king's most faithful friends, many were afraid to die. Men said that they would gladly give their lives in battle, but that they could not die in bed at home like helpless old women. The wealthy had too much to live for; and the poor, who possessed nothing but life, could not bear to give up that. Even the aged parents of Admetus shrank from the thought of losing the few years that remained to them, and thought it impious that any one should name such a sacrifice.
All this time, the three Fates were waiting to cut the thread of life, and they could not wait longer.
Then, seeing that even the old and wretched clung to their gift of life, who should offer herself but the young and lovely queen, Alcestis? Sorrowful but resolute, she determined to be the victim, and made ready to die for the sake of her husband.
She took leave of her children and commended them to the care of Admetus. All his pleading could not change the decree of the Fates. Alcestis prepared for death as for some consecration. She bathed and anointed her body, and, as a mortal illness seized her, she lay down to die, robed in fair raiment, and bade her kindred farewell. The household was filled with mourning, but it was too late. She waned before the eyes of the king, like daylight that must be gone.
At this grievous moment Heracles, mightiest of all men, who was journeying on his way to new adventures, begged admittance to the palace, and inquired the cause of such grief in that hospitable place. He was told of the misfortune that had befallen Admetus, and, struck with pity, he resolved to try what his strength might do for this man who had been a friend of gods.
Already Death had come out of Hades for Alcestis, and as Heracles stood at the door of her chamber he saw that awful form leading away the lovely spirit of the queen, for the breath had just departed from her body. Then the might that he had from his divine father Zeus stood by the hero. He seized Death in his giant arms and wrestled for victory.
Now Death is a visitor that comes and goes. He may not tarry in the upper world; its air is not for him; and at length, feeling his power give way, he loosed his grasp of the queen, and, weak with the struggle, made escape to his native darkness of Hades.
In the chamber where the royal kindred were weeping, the body of Alcestis lay, fair to see, and once more the breath stirred in her heart, like a waking bird. Back to its home came her lovely spirit, and for long years after she lived happily with her husband, King Admetus.