Chapter 1: Prologue
I will not upload
Destroyer of Light
, but I figure that I’d give those who had not had a chance to read my first novel a shot and they can check out the second and third in their own time.
Please visit my blog at TheRKAlexander.com for more details about book releases and links to other fiction. And again thank you for all your support over the years!
~ Rachel Alexander, aka Kata Chthonia
She looked skyward and blinked back tears, determined not to let them fall on the infant's head. If Demeter shed tears, who knew what terrible consequences her sorrow would have on the newborn child?
The ten year war was over. Father Kronos was cast into Tartarus along with the other Titans, monsters, and demons of the old order. Her child was safe here at her temple in Eleusis. All the Olympians were safe.
Her heart was broken. She had been his first and his love, their child conceived to rule in peace or in war. But as her belly grew, Zeus Kronides turned his attentions elsewhere— first to Metis, then to Hera. Hera had not captured his heart; she'd secured his critical alliance with the priestesses of Samos. She had convinced several of the Titans to join with the rebel god, Zeus. She had ensured their victory and earned herself the title of Queen of Olympus.
And with that, Demeter was forgotten. She had been left to tend the growing things while her brother gods divided the firmament, the waters, and the earth.
The infant was oblivious, happily gumming her breast. Demeter coaxed her child to suck droplets of ambrosia from her finger. She smiled, enjoying the grip of her daughter's tiny hands and staring into her wide, pale eyes.
The soft voice of her servant Cyane interrupted her.
"My Lady," the nymph said, "Th-there is someone here to—"
"Hades Aidoneus," Demeter said to the looming figure behind her. She hid her breast behind her red chiton, brushed back her long blonde hair, and clutched the swaddled infant to her shoulder.
Demeter looked up at him; his dark eyes peered at her through the slits in his golden helm. The black plumes of the crest were stiff and caked, the helm and plate armor stained with the blood of ancient gods and monsters. The edges of his charcoal and crimson tunic were frayed, and his great black cloak was torn and flecked with blood. Cyane bowed and departed quickly.
"Deme," he said informally, removing his helm and shaking out his hair, "Please, I'm Aidon to you. I was— I am your ally, even still. "
"I will have no such familiarity with any of you. Keep your war and your scheming to yourselves. I'll have no part of it."
"But you did have a part in it. Just as we all did," Aidoneus said, standing over her. "Deme—"
"Address me by my proper name, my lord."
"Fine. Demeter Anesidora," he said, chewing on the words, "the war is over. I regret that all was not resolved the way you hoped."
She looked away, her green eyes filling with tears again.
He continued, "This war didn't turn out as I wanted either. When we cast lots to divide the cosmos, I received rulership of the Other Side. I, the eldest. Do you really think I fought for the privilege of having Kronos and his pantheon of monsters haunting my doorstep?"
"The Other…" Demeter paled. The third lot was not rulership over the earth as they had all thought, but… ruling the dead. Aidoneus would rule over the dead. And if he did… she held her infant daughter closer. "At least you were given something. What I have lost—"
"Enough, Demeter. Do you really want to be with him? To marry him? In just the past year he's had many and pursued more women than I can count. Not least among them Themis…"
"Stop it!" She screamed, jerking away from Aidon's hardened eyes. "Stop it." The wind howled coldly outside, and the baby squalled, balling her tiny fists. Demeter held her closer, cradling her head with her arm as the gale subsided. "You scared her." She turned back to Aidon, glowering.
He waited silently for her to calm the child. As he listened to her cries, something heavy and unfamiliar settled in his chest. Aidoneus shook his head, then straightened. "About Persephone—"
"Her name shall be Kore."
"Zeus— the Fates— named her Persephone. Given her name, and who she is destined to become…"
Demeter looked away from him. "She is not to marry. And certainly not to someone as hard-hearted as you."
He recoiled, then drew himself up and narrowed his eyes. Demeter wouldn't— couldn't do this to him. Too much had already been taken from him today. "When she comes of age—"
"She will remain with me," she said, but her voice wavered as she spoke. Demeter's eyes grew wide and pleading. "Aidon, please; she's all I have left." She looked down at her baby girl, who murmured softly as she drifted to sleep.
"We made a bargain," he said, growing impatient. "I rallied the House of Nyx against the Titans and their servants. The war would have been lost without me. She is part of the oath that both of you swore."
"There is no longer a both of us," Demeter cried. "He has taken that... that... bloodless, brainless, conniving—"
"Careful…," he said quietly, his teeth on edge. Love and loss were not his concern. He didn't understand matters of the heart any more than he understood childbirth or the movements of the sea. "His choice of queen has nothing to do with our pact."
"Marriage is now Hera's province, and I'll have no part of it. Not for me, and not for Kore! I swear off all the Olympian men and swear on the Styx that none of them shall have her. No one shall destroy her as he destroyed me!"
"I accept," Aidoneus said.
"You accept what?"
"Your oath. After today, I am no longer one of them. If you are so eager to keep her from the Olympian men, then I will renounce their company, and with them the sunlit world."
"That doesn't mean you can take her from me! I didn't mean—"
Aidoneus stood resolute. "For my part in the Titanomachy, when Persephone comes of age, she is to be my queen and consort and rule the Underworld by my side. You cannot change that!"
She glared up at him, tears staining her cheeks, saying nothing.
Hades shook his head and turned his back to her, walking to the door. "Do not think to see me again until that time," he called out behind him. "None of you will see me. If you are going to swear off the Olympians for her sake, then so will I."
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
"Kore!" Demeter squinted in the noon sun and called out again, "Kore?"
"Over here, Mother!" Kore stood amidst the sheaves of barley to wave Demeter over, then crouched again and poked her finger into the soil. Dark green leaves shot out in every direction, and she circled her wrist upward, raising a stalk out of the earth. She stood slowly. The plant crept toward her hand. Kore splayed her fingers wide and a purple blossom sprang from the thorny stalk.
"Oh, Kore, if you grow a thistle in the barley field, someone might prick their finger."
"Wait," Kore said, smiling. "Just watch."
A fiery copper butterfly fluttered on the warm breeze and alighted on the blossom. Demeter smiled.
"You see? I saw her wandering in the barley and made her a home. You don't mind, do you?"
"My sweet, clever girl, of course I don't." Demeter hugged Kore. The butterfly folded its wings, fed and content.
"My thistle won't interfere with the harvest, will it?" Kore knit her brows.
"Not in the slightest."
The butterfly spread its wings, sunlight catching them as they fanned. "I don't think she will be alone for long. Surely a good mate will come looking for her."
"What's wrong, mother?"
Demeter looked north, toward distant Thessaly and Mount Olympus.
Kore leaned on Demeter's shoulder. "I'm sorry. I didn't think before I spoke. The meeting is tomorrow, yes?"
"Why must you go?"
"Because," Demeter smiled and stroked her daughter's shoulder. "Although I don't dwell on Olympus with the rest of them, I am still a member of the Dodekatheon. I have my responsibilities here, but each full moon, I also have a responsibility to them and to the domain I govern. Just as you have a responsibility to the fields and all that blooms within them. And my going there… keeps us safe."
Kore swallowed. Demeter, she knew, had made Eleusis forbidden ground for the rest of the gods, specifically the male gods. She had known little of the Olympians since her childhood in the Fields of Nysa. Artemis and Athena visited infrequently, and she had seen Hermes on the rarest of occasions when he delivered news to her mother. She'd heard about Apollo and Hephaestus, and all the rest of her cousins, only from nymphs and in stories told by the mortals.
"There remains much for me to do before tomorrow. I need to go to Thassos and Crete. And I regret leaving you with Minthe again…"
"Daughter, you know you're safest here. Eleusis is under my protection, and with it— most importantly— you. Don't ever forget what Daphne was forced to do to protect herself from Apollo."
Kore's lips tightened into a line and she looked away. Maybe if she met these gods herself they would see that there was nothing at all tempting about her. Maybe she could convince her mother there was nothing to fear. Kore would wait until tomorrow. "All right," she said. "Perhaps I can accompany you to Crete next time, Mother? Or to… wherever you happen to go?"
Demeter grinned and stretched her hand out, opening up a pathway that would carry her over land and sea to the ripe fields across all of Hellas. "We'll see."
"I'll see you around sunset," Kore called out as Demeter disappeared into the sheaves of barley. She turned back to the thistle, watching the butterfly rest on the thorny stalk before it flew off toward the pasture. Kore danced after it down the pathway.
Rhadamanthus handed a scroll to Minos, who unrolled it and ran his eyes across it.
"The one before us is Aeolides, son of Aeolus and Enarete, king of Ephyra." He flattened the scroll on the ebony table before him and folded his hands.
Hades Aidoneus nodded to the judges, then leaned back on his throne, regarding the trembling mortal. "Aeolides, known to his people as Sis—"
"Please! You don't understand!" The dead mortal screamed. "I'm not—"
"Silence," Minos said, barely raising his voice. "You dare to interrupt the Receiver of Many? At your own judgment, no less?"
"There's been a mistake," he said, crumbling to his knees and weeping. The man raised his eyes to the inexorable god on his throne and the fearsome winged daimon beside him. "Please… Mercy. Please…"
"You will not speak unless spoken to. There are worse fates than even Tartarus," Rhadamanthys added before addressing Hades. "My lord, this one has been ranting since he arrived that he is not Sisyphus. Should we—"
Aidoneus raised his fingers from the arm of his throne and the brothers fell silent. "Hold, Alekto." The winged daimon relaxed her golden wings and stepped back. The Lord of the Underworld turned to the mortal. "You died three days ago, no? A mighty king leveled by tooth rot."
"No, no I wasn't, I was burned. I was burned by him!" The man trembled. "I am not him. I am not Sisyphus!"
"Aren't you now," Aidoneus peered at the mortal, his face a mask. "You know of my other names, do you not?"
"I know, y-your excellency. You are the Lord of Souls. Please, Merciful One, Righteous One, I beg you, look into mine. Look into my soul. My true soul," he cried, his words choked out through sobs. "Please. You will see. I am not Sisyphus. He betrayed me. The black henbane… the pyre…"
The barest hint of a smile crossed Minos's face. He snorted. "I've heard this before, my lord. Wealthy mortals, fearing an eternity in Tartarus, pay charlatans to cleanse them of their wrongdoings, and will even murder, thinking the sacrificed souls will take their place so they can escape your judgment." He leaned forward to speak to the weeping man. "How many talents of gold did that false trick cost you?"
Alekto snickered and folded her wings.
Aidoneus was not amused.
"Please," the mortal begged again, his voice a hoarse whisper.
"You wish for me to look into your soul, then? A brave request." The Lord of the Underworld narrowed his eyes. "I will tell you what I see."
"You," the mortal's voice shook, "y-you will give me a chance?"
"If your words are true, you will drink the waters of the Lethe. You will forget the suffering of your mortal life, and you will join the souls in the Fields of Asphodel. If, however, your claims prove false…"
"Thank you; thank you my lord. You are wise and just." His shoulders relaxed and he closed his eyes, sighing deeply.
Aidoneus stood, his staff held firmly in his right hand, his gaze affixed to the mortal. "I see one who defied Zeus, the King of the Gods."
The dead king's eyes opened wide. "No…"
"A host who murdered his own house guests."
"A kinsman who raped his own niece, compelling her to murder her children, then drove his brother to madness and death."
"That's not true. That was him! It was him!"
"I see a man who, through his own hubris, tried to elevate himself above the gods."
"Please, no, no, no," the man crumpled forward, sobbing.
Aidoneus had seen the wicked react this way before when the breadth of their sins was laid bare. He had very little patience for it. His staff pounded the floor, the echo resounding through the room. He stood tall, his shoulders drawn back. "Abandon all hope, Sisyphus, son of Aeolus and Enarete. For the murder of your guests, the violation of your niece, for offenses against Zeus and all the gods, you are denied the waters of the Lethe. I, Hades Aidoneus Chthonios, firstborn son of Kronos, sentence you to Tartarus for all eternity. Rhadamanthys and Alekto will escort you to the Phlegethon. You will be cast into the Pit where the Hekatonkheires will exact your punishment."
"No, it's a mistake! Please, Merciful One, please have mercy on me! Mercy! Mercy!" The man let out a wail of grief, his voice ringing through the granite halls as he was dragged bodily by golden-winged Alekto.
Aidoneus sat, exhausted. He rarely sent a soul to Tartarus, and disliked doing so. But it was a necessity. He pinched the bridge of his nose and slumped back into his throne.
"Are you well, my lord?"
"I'm fine, Minos."
"Hypnos tells me you haven't been sleeping."
"A full night's sleep would be worthier of Hypnos's gossip, no?"
Aidoneus opened his eyes. "Are there any more today?"
"No my lord. And no coming judgment of any other kings or nobles, either."
"That is good."
"You know, the harvest is on the full moon," the judge said. "Fewer die during this time. I truly believe the sick, weak, and old are filled with enough joy from the harvest festivals to stay alive a little longer than they normally would."
Aidoneus nodded, staring across the dimly lit expanse of the Styx outside the terrace of his throne room, distracted and deep in thought. "Perhaps."
"If you no longer require me, I'll rejoin my brother and Aeacus at the Trivium."
"You may do so. Goodnight, Minos."
The judge nodded to his king and shut the door of the throne room behind him.
Her every footfall was filled by small flowers, and Kore glanced back to admire the bunches of larkspur climbing toward the sun along the roadside. She skipped, and soft petals grew under her springing feet. She twirled, and left a spray of purple irises all around her.
"My lady!" Kore vaguely heard Minthe call out behind her, the blonde nymph jogging to catch up. "Please, milady, we must stay within these fields."
"What are you afraid of?" Kore brushed her hand across the bare earth. "You needn't worry about straying from your river. What could possibly harm you?" Roses, thorny and thick with pink blossoms, circled them. "I can protect you better than you can protect me, Minthe."
"That's not what worries me, milady. Your mother said—"
"She wouldn't object to this," Kore said, rolling her eyes. "We'd have to walk this road for half a day before we left the Thriasian plain, and there is no one for miles around!"
A fan of scattered saffron spread across the field as she ran. The pale naiad picked up her skirts and chased after the maiden goddess. "Wait! Lady Kore! Please!"
"Besides, Minthe, even if we were to see someone, Mother taught me long ago how to make myself—" She stopped cold and staggered back. White lilies crowded around her, perfuming the air, heady and sickly sweet. Kore's breath caught in her throat and her eyes grew wide.
"What's wrong?" Minthe said, catching up with her. A yearling fawn sprawled on the ground before them, bunches of beguiling aconite growing all around it. Its eyes were vacant and its mouth held a half-chewed wad of its last, poisonous meal. Flies swarmed its face. Minthe grasped Kore by the wrist, startling her. "Come, milady, you don't need to see this."
"Why not?" Kore answered distantly, rooted to the earth.
"It's ugly and… it's…" Minthe tugged at Kore's wrist again, encouraging her to continue down the road, to grow more roses, to forget the fallen deer. "Your mother wouldn't like it if she knew you were troubling yourself with such things."
"Why would she care? I've seen this before; it's part of life."
The naiad's mouth went dry. "But I can't… your mother told me to act in her stead. You are an earth goddess of young life and blooming things. She wouldn't want you around anything… a-anything that's…"
Kore gave the nervous nymph a half-smile. "Dead?"
Minthe nodded and wrung her hands.
She giggled. "Please, Minthe. There's dead grass under the plants, and insects, and…" She broke out into full throated laughter. "Did you think she meant you to keep me away from all of that?"
"No," the blonde naiad muttered. "Only the bad things."
"The bad things." Kore cocked her head to the side. "Like what?"
Kore grasped Minthe's hand and they walked away. Violets peeked out of the earth along their path. She wasn't altogether fond of being escorted through the fields like a little girl, especially by a nymph who was younger than her. But Kore knew that Minthe didn't, couldn't discuss certain things with her— that myriad topics were forbidden by her mother or simply made the poor naiad uncomfortable. Mating was off limits, and no topic was more forbidden than the process of decay in the fields behind them. "Alright, Minthe, we'll not talk about it."
"Thank you, milady," she sighed in relief.
"But your mother was from the river that flows through the world below, where the dead belong, wasn't she? The place where the spirit of that deer went…"
"I…" Minthe tensed again.
"Let's not talk about the 'bad things', Minthe. But…"
"What about something good? Surely there must be one thing. Tell me something else about the world below."
"I-I know very little," she demurred. "I wasn't born there."
Minthe looked to the clouds above them, trying to find something to appease Kore's insatiable curiosity and end this conversation. A butterfly flew overhead, settling on a flower. More followed, clustering around the sweet violets. "Well… my mother told me something once, a very sweet idea. I don't know if it's true, though…"
Kore licked her lips, ready to devour anything Minthe offered.
"She said that sometimes mortal souls get lost on their way to the world below."
"What happens to them?"
"She said they grow little wings and become butterflies. They find their way back faster because their lives are short. But sometimes, if they loved someone deeply, they will find the one they lost, and journey to the Land of the Dead together."
Kore clasped her hands together and grinned. "What a lovely idea! I wonder if that's true of the butterflies who found my thistle today."
"I grew a thistle this morning so the little copper butterflies could have a place to rest. Maybe they are wandering souls that needed to find each other and journey to the Other Side together."
Minthe grew pale. "F-forget what I said."
"Why? It's sad, but I think it's lovely, honestly."
"Milady, please! Please don't tell your mother what I said!" She looked horrified.
Kore raised a confused eyebrow. "I won't. I didn't plan to, anyway. But why should my mother be troubled by the Land of the Dead?"
The antechamber was dark, but Aidoneus didn't bother lighting torches. He strode the familiar path across the room, one he'd trod for millennia, and entered his bedchamber.
He removed his crown, robes, and rings, then drew the bed curtains, shrouding himself in total darkness. Aidoneus pulled up the cool bedclothes and closed his eyes. He slept in fits and starts, just as he always had, but if he lay still and purged his mind of thoughts and cares, sleep would come. Eventually, his body slackened and his breath became slow and measured. In his mind's eye dark and light coalesced and resolved, gaining form.
When he saw narcissus flowers dappled with sunlight, he knew. Fates, he thought, why now?
The dream, repeated throughout the aeons of his rule, hadn't manifested for centuries. But this past fortnight, every time he shut his eyes, there she was— lying entwined with him in a shaded grove, with flowers growing all around them.
Her face was hidden— it was always hidden. He got teasing glimpses: a flash of russet hair, his hand on her flared hips, her flower-trimmed ankles brushing against his shins, her soft fingers dancing across his skin. Her hand brushed across his chest and down his stomach. He closed his eyes, felt her breath on his cheek, and heard her whisper his familiar name into his ear.
He turned and captured her lips in a kiss, tasting distant memories of sunlight and heady new life springing from the earth. He could not see her, but he knew it was her— his unknown betrothed— that haunted his dreams. It was her that inexorably drew him to this shaded bed of white and yellow-trumpeted flowers time and time again. Her fingers tangled in his hair and he carefully rolled over her.
His pulse quickened as she encircled him in her arms, drawing him closer and covering her supine body with his. He grew hungry for her, giving in to the delights of skin upon skin, his mouth upon hers. The dream was always like this. He would caress her, she would kiss him, their hands, their mouths demanding more. These motions were familiar— their dance repeated across the aeons.
My lord husband, she said within his very thoughts. Come to me… Find me, Aidoneus.
He awoke with a start.
"Persephone…" Her name exploded from his lungs, and he lay back, light headed with the same rampant need he'd had for her in the dream—aching, and unfulfilled. It was always unfulfilled. Every time his body compelled him to complete their union within the dream, he would awaken. But this time was different.
She'd never whispered anything more than his name. Why did she call for him? Why now? Aidoneus breathed deeply and wiped the sweat from his face. He closed his eyes, shaking off the heady sensations of the dream world. After the ache subsided, he threw off the sheets and rose. He was grateful for the handful of hours he'd been able to lie still.
He couldn't banish the dream. He was certain the Fates wouldn't allow that. Morpheus had told him plainly aeons ago that there was nothing he could do. And any remedy Hypnos offered by way of poppies allowed deeper, darker things to dominate his dreams.
Aidoneus scooped a handful of water from the basin in his room and splashed it across his body before attacking his skin with oil, pumice stone, and a metal strigil. After he shaved his neck and upper lip with a razor, he neatly pulled back his long black hair with a golden torc, dressed, and opened the door to the antechamber. A figure stood by the window. He stiffly drew back his shoulders, annoyed.
Hecate turned from the open window, a knowing smile on her face. "Tonight is the full moon, my lord."
"That's hardly worth the intrusion," he said, knowing where this conversation was headed. "The moon waxed and waned before any of us came to be."
"Hermes's sandals alight here today, no? He will ask if you have any message for Olympus…"
"Yes." Aidoneus strode across the room, trying to avoid her next question.
"She danced in your dreams again, didn't she?"
"Were the steps the same as ever?" Hecate asked, walking toward him. "Or different this time?"
"I don't know why you bother with questions to which you already know the answer."
She smiled. "Different, then. What did she whisper?" He thinned his lips and looked at her helplessly. Hecate already knew exactly what she'd said. "It's time, Aidon. The moon is full."
"Lovely, as always," Demeter said. Kore picked a few violets, weaving them into a crown. Demeter gave her an orange poppy, and Kore smiled, adding the finishing touch. "More importantly, their crops grow thick this year. The harvest will provide for them all."
"I'd love to see Thassos some time."Kore clasped her hands behind her back. "So… the meeting of the Olympians is today…"
"Yes, it is. I will leave shortly. Minthe will keep you company."
" I don't want to be kept company, Mother. I wonder if I could go with you this time." Kore raised her eyebrows and grinned. Demeter's face fell.
"I cannot watch over you there. You've seen what a rage your father can get into," she said, gesturing toward the gathering clouds, "and some of your cousins are… not to be trusted." Zeus's thunder cracked the northern sky, calling the twelve Olympians to court.
"But I'm the first born of the cousins and have only been to the Mount once, Mother," Kore pleaded. "And that was aeons ago, when I was too young to remember it."
Demeter sighed. "Sweet child, I promise you can come with me someday… But not today."
"That is my final word," she said.
Kore folded her arms and turned away. "Fine. Someday."
Demeter squeezed her daughter's shoulders. "Next time the gods assemble, I will take you with me."
Eyes lighting up again, she turned to her mother.
"If," Demeter continued, "and only if, you promise not to speak with Hermes or Apollo."
"Really?" she smiled, knowing she could find a way around Demeter's restrictions.
"Yes, child." Another rumble of thunder rolled through the plain. "I must go. Minthe will meet you by the river."
"I don't understand why she doesn't join us," Hephaestus said, pouring another glass of nectar for Demeter. "She works far too hard."
Demeter smiled thinly at her nephew. "She's… shy. Kore prefers the fields and flowers. She's remarkably talented. You should see what she created yesterday."
"I'm sure my cousin's flowers are lovely. But she does the job of a nymph, not what she was born to do. Persephone might not feel at ease in court, but I'm here, and… well, look at me!"
Demeter shared a strained laugh with the crippled Blacksmith. She had worked all her life to protect Kore from the advances of the immortals. Zeus had fallen for woman after woman, human and immortal alike, and Queen Hera had fallen into petty jealousy and vengeance. Demeter hated to admit it, but Aidoneus had been right, about that at least. That could have been her.
Zeus sprawled on a cushioned divan, leaning on his elbow toward Apollo. His baritone carried over the chatter that filled the hall. "…as a bull, I tell you!" He grinned and gestured lewdly. Apollo threw his head back and guffawed. Demeter pursed her lips, remembering the lengths Daphne had gone to escape Apollo. The sons of Zeus were worse still— Kore would never suffer at their hands.
In a blur, Hermes flew through the white portico columns that stretched across the hillside of Olympus. The Messenger alighted and strode forward, gripping his caduceus with white knuckles. He whispered in Zeus's ear.
"Impossible! He hasn't left that place since…" The Ruler of the Sky's voice grew irritated. "Why would he come here for that?"
The king rose from his divan and climbed the steps to the top of his marble dais, settling onto his throne. He motioned to Hera, who obediently took her seat three steps below his. The other immortals hummed with questions.
A vise gripped Demeter's heart. It couldn't be. Aeons had passed— enough time for him to have let go of the matter, or to have forgotten altogether. No one had seen him outside his realm since the end of the war…
The linen chitons of the Olympians fluttered against their sun-kissed bodies as a cool wind blew through the throne room. A river of black smoke flowed into the hall, startling all but one. Demeter stood her ground, fists balled in anger.
Hades walked out of the smoke clad in black robes, his long, curling black hair pulled back with a golden band. He wore a simple crown of poplar leaves and three dark red gems shone on his left hand. His raiment looked austere among the rest of the bejeweled immortals. Aidoneus surveyed the room. This court is more revelry than rule, he thought, a social club in the sky for the deathless ones.
Hestia drew her veil over her face. Artemis whispered in Athena's ear. Aphrodite sneered and crowded toward Ares, who puffed out his chest. Apollo raised a golden eyebrow. One by one, they bowed their heads to the eldest of the Olympian gods.
Demeter stood imperiously in the middle of the hall, the last to bow to the Lord of the Underworld. Aidoneus could feel wrath flowing from her, and was transported back to the last night any of the Olympians had seen him outside his realm.
He approached the throne and bent to one knee. The room was silent, every eye transfixed. He planted one hand on the white marble floor and bowed his head low.
"Lord Zeus, Queen Hera, I have come to claim what was promised to me during the Titanomach—"
"NO!" Demeter cried out. The room collectively gasped, then filled with chatter. Aidoneus kept his gaze fixed on the floor.
Hermes slammed his caduceus three times on the floor and Zeus bellowed, "Silence!"
After the roll of thunder subsided, Demeter calmed, her voice wavering. "Lord Hades, you cannot have her. She is sworn only to her worshippers, the fields, and to me." She walked forward and stared up at the dais. "Zeus! Your daughter tends to the young shoots and flowers—"
"Demeter," Zeus sighed. He had loved her once; had intended to make her queen until she had proven her ineptitude during the Olympians' war with the Titans. "Persephone was long ago promised to Hades. She is a woman now and has been of age for centuries. It is past time for her to leave you."
"I will not hand over my only daughter to the Lord of the Dead. I will not see her traded like chattel!"
"It's not your decision to make, my lady," Zeus replied stonily.
"Why not?! You had nothing to do with nurturing her; you have no right to give her away to someone who has been a stranger to us for aeons."
"It is not your responsibility to decide these things," Zeus said. "You did well in raising her, but Persephone is one of my—"
"My lords," she interrupted, raising her voice. If they would not listen, she had to leave now, before it was too late. She had to protect Kore. "Know this. If you so much as touch her," she hissed at Hades, "I will know of it. And rest assured, I will turn the world upside down before I allow her to be taken from me."
She bowed curtly to Zeus. A field of barley rose around her and she disappeared into the thick of the blades, her final words on the matter echoing back through the ether. "I have spoken."
Aidoneus rose and looked around the room, insulted and embarrassed. The others stood stock still. So this was how it was to be— no one would speak up for the oldest and most sacred pact of the Olympians. He wondered why that surprised him. Hades turned on his heel, and a soft rumble emanated from the throne. "Aidoneus…"
He looked back up at Zeus. "You must make Demeter comply."
"Leave us, now. All of you!" Zeus bellowed. "Except you two," he said, motioning to Hermes and Eros. Hades waited while the ten remaining Olympians and their attendants departed, nodding respectfully to Hera. The winged son of Aphrodite thinned his lips. Hermes fidgeted with his caduceus.
"Why them?" Aidoneus growled.
"Witnesses, of course. This is a marriage negotiation, is it not?"
"There is nothing to negotiate. I kept my end of Deme's bargain. I have been patient long enough. Persephone is due to me."
"Demeter will never agree."
His mouth went dry. "You and her mother swore her to me on the banks of the River Styx. A binding oath on the Styx, Zeus. Did either of you think I would forget?"
"I never said I wouldn't honor it."
"What about Demeter?"
"You know she's too stubborn to let her girl go."
"Persephone has been a woman, a full-fledged goddess, for nearly a millennium. Longer, perhaps."
"That doesn't matter to Deme. Persephone will always be her Kore."
Aidoneus clenched his teeth. "Then what do you suggest?"
"That's it?" He raised an eyebrow.
"I sired her; my consent is all you need to marry her. You want her? It's done. She's yours. Find Persephone and take her."
"I can't just… have her. What do you expect me to do? Turn into a swan? Rain down around her in a shower of light?" he said. "Those are not my ways."
"I know, Aidon," Zeus said, shaking his head. "You are too reserved, too somber. There's no way you can seduce her outright."
"Well, that's reassuring," he said, stung.
"I'm not giving you an impossible task, Aidon. You command more than just the dead; you can find ways to her that are closed even to me." Zeus shifted on the throne and rested his chin on his hand, knitting his brow. Then he smiled. "I may have something to help you along… Eros!"
The winged youth raised his bow, his arrow already nocked, took aim, and loosed. Aidon caught the golden arrow and winced, his hand clamped around its head, inches from his heart. He opened his fist. Parallel wounds from the razor sharp edges closed themselves. His blood quickened as he held the golden arrow in his shaking hands.
Heart racing, his head grew light, and he shifted his stance to steady his feet underneath him. Flashes of russet hair, a soft female voice, the twirling skirt of a green linen chiton, grass-stained knees, and delicate, flower-trimmed ankles invaded his thoughts. He looked at Zeus with a mixture of bewilderment and fury. "Was that necessary?!"
Zeus laughed. "We shall see."
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
Moist soil gave way to tender blades of grass and a host of flowers. Kore waved her hand over the barren earth at the banks of a stream and bright green shoots appeared in its wake. A twirl of her fingers drew gentle buds up from the ground.
"Larkspur, milady?" said Minthe, brushing her blonde hair behind one ear. "I doubt your mother would want even more in this field. Why not something else?"
"I'm feeling... uninspired right now," she said, annoyed by Minthe's high-pitched voice. Though Kore was older than Minthe, she looked younger, and her more youthful appearance made the naiad's cosseting chafe all the more.
It would be worse if Athena and Artemis were here. Though older than them by aeons, she still retained the countenance of a youth and they looked so… womanly. She was not alone among the immortals in her youthful appearance. Eros, Demeter would remind her, looked as young as she did and was nearly as ancient as Kore. She sighed. Perhaps that was what her domain would always mean for her. Flowers and budding shoots were young and she was their goddess. Kore frowned. And because of this, she thought— remembering that her cousins had been elevated to the Dodekatheon while she had not— she would always be a goddess of little consequence or responsibility.
Kore made short strands of larkspur and wove them about her wrist, then a strand around each of her ankles, contrasting the white blooms against her short, sage green chiton. Kore looked down at her bare legs. Though youthful, she was ages past her flowering and the same as every other woman who had her monthly courses, she wanted to wear the longer belted dresses of an adult, and to wear her russet brown hair braided up in a beautiful chignon.
Kore dropped her gaze, frustrated.
"What's the matter with you?" Minthe asked. "You've been like this all afternoon."
"Nothing…" she lied, looking to the storm raging around Olympus. While she had begged her mother to let her come today, she was now glad that Demeter had refused. The dark clouds and lightning did not lie: there must have been a terrible disagreement today.
The sweet sound of pipes in the distance caught her ear. A plucked string from a lute answered the pipes and grew louder, closer. She heard laughter. Kore started walking toward the music.
"Lady Kore, we mustn't. It's the mortals! Your lady mother forbids us to go near them."
Kore giggled. "The way you talk, they sound like monsters! Honestly, Minthe, we have nothing to fear."
"I cannot stray from the river, milady, please…" Minthe implored her. Her immortal spirit was rooted to the riverside, vulnerable anywhere else but here.
"Then stay. I'm going to see what they're doing," she said, quickening her pace.
"But your mother—"
"I won't tell her if you won't!" Kore called out behind her. Minthe nervously wrung her hands before disappearing into the grasses in a flash of green.
Kore ran toward a grove of venerable oaks and peered around the thick trunk of a tree. The villagers from Eleusis were casting white flowers into the wind around a tent they had erected in the clearing. From under a saffron cloth emerged a man and woman smiling at each other, followed by one of her mother's white-cloaked priestesses. They paraded around the tent with other guests, then sat at a small table while the rest gathered around. On the table were two small barley cakes alongside straw effigies of Kore and her mother that were draped with vibrant flowers.
She smiled. It was a wedding party!
The woman wore a long saffron peplos and a crown of laurel and olive. The man, bare shouldered and tanned, fed a cake to the woman. The bride picked up her cake and fed him a bite. They kissed, and the crowd cheered again.
Kore clapped her hands together with the host of friends and family. From her hidden vantage at the edge of the clearing, she felt a tinge of loneliness.
The couple entered the tent at the behest of the Eleusinian priestess, kissing each other, their friends cheering them on lasciviously. A short, red-cheeked man poured barley beer, and the guests passed ceramic cups to the renewed melodies of lute, pipes and tambourine. Kore crept into the clearing, casting a glamour of invisibility over herself as she approached the wedding party.
Through the swirling music and dance she heard a cry from the woman. Was she hurt? She found herself in the middle of the revelers, close enough to see through the fabric of the woven tent. Their saffron nuptial robes lay in a heap on the floor. The man and woman lay beside each other amidst blankets and cushions and strewn flowers, his hand trailing down her neck to her breast. When his fingers reached its apex, he gave her nipple a little pinch. As she cried out, Kore looked at her face. She was smiling, and curled her body against the man. He took the stiffening peak in his mouth and kissed her breast, his hand now sliding downward, fingers gently moving through the thatch of hair between her thighs.
The woman bucked and gasped, her hand caressing the man's chest and shoulders. Kore felt something deep within her start to tighten and coil, making her suddenly, and strangely, very aware of the place between her thighs. The woman turned and grasped at a part of the man, unseen to Kore, the woman's hand moving in long strokes. His face contorted in a strained sigh and he moved over his new wife, kissing her lips and pushing her hand away from his loins.
The woman parted her legs, lifting her knees above the man's waist and staring up into his eyes. Kore looked on, wide-eyed, as he pushed slowly forward. The woman's mouth opened and her eyes squeezed shut, her fingers curling as she grasped her husband's back. The man paused to stroke her forehead.
He leaned down, kissed her, and pushed forward again. The look of agony on the woman's face intensified, then melted away as he brought his hips to rest inside hers. The husband embraced his wife again, moving in a slow rhythm between her thighs, drawing her closer, kissing her, and caressing her breasts. The wife raised her legs higher, slender calves alongside his back, her hands raking his shoulders as she moaned her pleasure.
Her knees lifted to his shoulders, ankles crossed behind his waist, and Kore now saw between their bodies. A hard shaft of flesh protruded from the man and thrust rhythmically into the woman. Kore felt her insides coil tighter and her thighs squeeze together. Her nipples hardened and chafed against her dress.
The woman cried out and moaned, arching toward her husband. The man rose above his wife and his hips thrust faster through her. Kore's heart beat out of her chest, her breathing paced in time with the woman's strained cries, and then the man groaned and collapsed onto his wife.
They unwound together, breathing heavily, skin glowing with sweat. The man pulled out of the woman, his engorged flesh softening as he held her close, kissing her and whispering sweet praises into her ear, thanking the gods that he had her as his.
So this is how these mortals worship each other, she thought. The ache of loneliness grew stronger as she turned away from the tent.
The sky had become golden, small clouds tinted with pink on their undersides as they traversed the sky. She left the wedding party and walked back toward the meadow. Kore felt an unexpected slickness between her legs and blanched. It wasn't her moon cycle; that had ended a week ago. She reached under her dress, and shivered when she touched her nether lips, inexplicably swollen and… wet. Kore looked at her glistening fingers.
She raised an eyebrow. This was new— a fluid that wasn't water or moon blood, but flowed slick and clear between her fingers. Kore bent to wipe it through the grass as she walked. A thick shrub bearing clumps of white, pungent flowers grew from where she trailed her dripping fingers.
Kore sighed, knowing she would have to explain this new hedge to her mother. She made herself a crown of the pretty little flowers. It would be a decent excuse. She walked on, her mind filled with questions and a strange yearning for something unknown and unexpected. She'd felt loneliness before, had felt it painfully since her mother had moved them back to Eleusis from the fields of Nysa a millennium ago, but never this acutely. Oftentimes, it was a loneliness and boredom she could deal with on her own, busying herself with the simple acts of creation her mother taught her— her divine role as the Maiden of the Flowers. But this feeling… this wasn't anything she could possibly solve or satisfy alone. It tormented her— flooding her with a strange ache and curiosity.
The images of the husband and wife in the tent played back and forth in her mind, one to the other. Nature had been a part of her as long as she had existed. She knew what mating was, that most creatures needed to do so to create more of their kind. But what she saw today, the motions made, the things done, the dizzying heights to which the husband had taken his wife and what she had in turn brought to him had little to do with making more humans. If that was what they wanted, the man would have just mated quickly with her to plant his seed at the proper time in her cycle, like deer or rabbits, and that would be the end of it. But he'd taken his time. He'd ensured that she enjoyed it. And the look on the woman's face, the convulsions of her body, confirmed it. To see pleasure and desire and love… she'd only heard whispered stories…
Questions were all she had now, and there was only one person who could answer these riddles for her— one who had loved and had been loved, one who knew what it all meant. Her mother. The sky lit up in a soft flare of reds and purples. Demeter appeared, her emerald-pinned blue peplos echoing the colors of the sky, under a flowing gold mantle that matched the barley fields beyond Eleusis. The wind came in from the sea and whipped her long robes about her. Kore's feet padded through the grass, faster as she grew closer, eager to have her answers before it was time to rest for the night. She wrapped her arms around Demeter. "Mother!"
"Kore!" she caught her daughter and held her close, relieved. Her face was creased with worry. "Where have you been?"
"There was a wedding near Eleusis. I went to watch."
Demeter frowned. "Is that where you got those flowers in your hair?"
"Not from the wedding, exactly…"
"Tell me the truth, Kore. You didn't speak to anyone there, did you?"
"No, I didn't even let anyone see me. And the flowers are new. My creation," she said, turning once on her toes before walking toward the sunset. "I think I'll call them lilacs."
Kore raised her left hand over the fields and gently closed her fingers to her palm. All the flowers followed suit, resting for the night. "Mother?"
"Yes, dear one?"
"Will I ever get married?"
Demeter halted in her tracks and pursed her lips, struggling to hide her distress from Kore. Had he come unseen to visit her? Hades has been unknown and unseen by most of the Olympians since the war. Who knew what tricks he'd learned during all his aeons in the darkness? He could be capable of anything. Demeter quickly schooled her expressions. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, I…" she flushed and looked away from her mother. "The man and woman at the wedding looked so… so happy when they were alone together in their wedding tent. I just wonder if…"
Demeter watched her daughter twist. She smiled, relaxing. He hadn't come to her, and Kore was still innocent. It shone through in every turn of her ankle and her hands clutching at the edges of her chiton. She tried to explain the best she could. "Darling, what you saw wasn't true love, it was just lust. They were pricked by Eros, and their love will die someday. The husband will take a hetera or a lover, and the wife will be shut away in his home to bear his children. The love of men is fleeting. It is the way of things."
"He told her how much he loved her, that he would never leave her," Kore said, walking beside Demeter. She watched her mother shake her head, a disappointed grimace on her face. Kore knew that look well. "And… and he said that he was so very happy the gods had let him find her, Mother. That didn't sound fleeting to me."
Demeter stopped and turned to Kore, trying to keep irritation from creeping into her voice. "Child, you might be aeons old, but you are still young in the ways of the world. The only lasting love is that between a mother and her children. I am sparing you the agony of a husband who lords himself over you, then breaks his oaths and your heart. Please learn from my folly, my bitter experience. This is what's best."
Kore wilted as they resumed their walk through the field. Twilight descended, washing the fields in a pale pink. A tall oak rose over the hill as they crested it. Maybe her mother was right. After all, her father had left Demeter to wed another, and even then had not found his wife's attentions to be enough. The ongoing tales of his philandering had been impossible to avoid. But not all men were Zeus, were they? "Maybe it would be different for me," she muttered under her breath.
Demeter spun about to face her. "No, it most certainly would not. And don't ever believe any man who would tell you otherwise, Kore. Men will say and do anything to have… that."
"What they all want: a girl's maidenhead. They think to possess and own a woman once they take it, and they will say anything, do anything, to claim it. What you saw the man doing to that woman in the tent was all he wanted or cared to have from her."
"Doing to her? But she," her cheeks burned and her voice grew small, "she looked like she enjoyed it."
"Did she now?" Demeter knit her brow. "At first, even?"
Kore recalled the pain on the Eleusinian woman's face, the anguished cry. "No. But—"
"You saw how he hurt her when he took her. Kore, she clung to him out of desperation, not love, through the rest of the act once she realized what he had done— that she was a maiden no more. It is what is expected of wives. They must submit to the demands of their husbands. If she did not, he would have taken it from her anyway and with greater harm to her. When women fall foolishly into the bonds marriage— or worse and more often these days, when they are sold by their fathers— then they are obligated to submit their bodies to their husband. The woman you saw today only chose to go along with him to avoid more pain than he had already caused her."
Kore looked at the ground and felt tears sting the corners of her eyes before she willed them away. Ownership. Submission. The loss of her very self if she were no longer a maiden— no longer Kore. Her wise mother was right. It was foolish to wish for a husband, despite the softness and love and unbounded joy she had witnessed. What if Demeter's prediction was correct and they despised each other later and her husband strayed from her so he could claim another? Perhaps she should be glad that she was to remain a maiden, just like her cousins Athena and Artemis, and would never endure the shame of that.
"And those poor mortals," Demeter went on. "Half the women don't even survive childbirth. Including the woman you saw today."
Kore looked up at her mother in horror. "That can't be true! Please tell me that's not true."
"Kore, you know as well as I do that Eleusis calls on me to bear witness to their marriages. I can foresee their fates and that's the most likely cause of her inevitable death. I cannot stop her from passing to the Other Side."
"Mother, no! Please, these are your people! Surely there is something you can do?"
"It is not my role to decide who lives and who dies. And it is the natural order. All men and women must die, or mankind would overrun the earth."
"But can't you at least save just this one woman, Mother?"
"No, child. Those decisions are for the Realm of the Dead."
The look on her daughter's face made Demeter wish she hadn't let her current worries cloud her words. Even talking about that godsforsaken realm might pique Kore's boundless curiosity. The immortal Olympians shouldn't bother themselves with death anyway, and her little flower didn't need to trouble herself with these things. Kore was panic stricken, and looked helpless. Demeter immediately regretted filling her daughter's mind with such dreadful thoughts right before bed.
"Kore," she said, inclining her head and smiling. "You don't need a husband. On your own, you have a remarkable role to play in this cosmos. Flowers sprout, they live, then they wilt. These people are alive right now, and your gift teaches them to enjoy the fleeting days they do have, and to celebrate it with each other."
They passed under the sweeping branches of the great oak tree and stood outside Kore's bower. The Maiden turned her mouth up in a half smile at her mother's praise, and also remembered that there were others on Olympus she hadn't yet met— Aphrodite, for instance— who might be better able to answer these questions, if only she could find a way to visit them. "When are you next going to Olympus?"
"Not any time soon, dear. Today was... tumultuous. I won't be going for a long time, I expect," she saw disappointment cross Kore's face, remembering the promise she'd made earlier that day. "I'm sure everything will clear up some day. I'll take you then."
"So, I will see you tomorrow morning for the harvest?"
"Of course." She kissed Kore on the cheek before vanishing with a rustle of barley. "Sleep well, darling. You're safe here."
People throughout Hellas had built shrines of wood and living things to Kore and to her mother aeons ago, maintaining them generation after generation. Her private sanctums were always open to the sky, the sunlight, the honeybees and birds that helped her tend to the new shoots and flowers. One of Kore's favorite sacred places lay in this very clearing at the base of the oak tree. Clusters of white larkspur grew up the perfect circle of green willow shoots that served as her walls. Her ceiling was the vaulted branches and the stars wheeling above. The grass beneath her was soft, not wet with dew as it sometimes was, and strewn with rushes and violet petals upon which she made her bed.
As Kore lay on her side, she clasped her hands together and spoke a prayer in her own shrine, quietly pleading to Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to watch over the newly married woman and deliver her from pain and death. Maybe she would get to speak to Eileithyia directly before it was too late.
Marriage. They seemed so happy, so content with one another. Her mother had never had that before and perhaps she was wrong. Demeter was not omniscient, nor was her mother one of the Fates. The wife in the tent could live and thrive with her husband and child, and make many new children. She may have created a child today.
Kore's body grew hot as she imagined making a child, the act of love. She quaked as images from the wedding swirled through her head, casting her into a fitful sleep. Her hands came up around her shoulders, her arms pressing against her breasts under the thin chiton. Kore dreamed. In her mind, she felt the woman's joy again and felt it returned. She was the married woman, and could feel the husband's arms holding her. Except she was still her maiden self lying in the grove and he was—
He was holding her. Kore felt his chest rise behind her and saw that the hands upon her arms were not hers. He was here, and holding her and she was leaning back into his embrace. Warm, strong hands rested on her arms, then traced down to the crooks of her elbows. Heat followed their path. The realization startled her— and startled the owner of those hands, she realized belatedly, feeling his fingers tense and relax on her skin when she stirred.
"Shhh… Persephone," a voice whispered in her ear. Persephone; the name her father had given her. It was her official name, she always knew, that lay beyond her mother and the nymphs calling her Kore, maiden. "You're dreaming; there's no need to be frightened…"
She stayed still, not even daring to breathe. Who— why would he specifically call her this, or even know her true name? His voice had shaken just a bit, as though he were trying to assure himself that what he had said was true, that this was just a dream. The hands continued to move, lightly dropping from her elbows to her waist then traveling up her arms to her shoulders with a soft squeeze.
Only when his fingers touched her back did she realize that her chiton was gone. She was naked in front of… him. Kore's hands instinctively flew across her front to shield her mons, her stomach and breasts, but he gently pulled them away by her wrists, unwinding her. His careful, almost cautious movements made her breath catch in her throat, and when he didn't immediately caress what he had revealed, she relaxed. This wasn't real; it was only a dream. And he just felt so…
She knew that he spoke the truth. If this were indeed a dream, then surely she was safe. Wasn't she? Even if he tried to do something… unthinkable, she could wake up and escape him. Couldn't she? But as his hands moved back to her arms, her urge to wake, to leave him in the dream world, to leave the gentle stroking of his fingers, quickly diminished. Wordless answers to her unspoken yearnings after the wedding, as well as a pervasive calm, filled her the longer he touched her. His rich masculine voice rose slightly above the level of a whisper. "Let me look at you."
Kore felt the gentle stranger roll her onto her back, her eyes shut and her face turned away as he ran his hands down her outstretched arms. What was he? Who was he? Was he an oneiros from the dream world or some shadowy creature from the Other Side? She'd heard tales of their visits— some benevolent, some terrifying. Did his voice match or mask his true appearance? Would she scream if she saw him? She felt his eyes on her body, but kept hers closed. Fingers brushed through her hair, moving russet waves away from her face and tucking them softly behind her ear before his hand rested on her shoulder, deliberately— respectfully— avoiding the parts of her unseen by the sun. Kore felt the same coil form low in her belly, stronger than this afternoon, becoming an ache that made her hips move just to soothe it. No reprieve came.
"Open your eyes," she heard him whisper, his voice catching. Kore did so. She wanted to see who this was, a man who she had either conjured in her dreams or who had deliberately entered them. She needed to see what manner of man he was, but was afraid to look on him directly. With her head faced to the side, she first saw pale fingers brushing over her shoulder with short, smooth nails.
The moonlight danced along the shadows and rough contours of very male hands holding and caressing her. Kore's skin thrilled at the sight, and the ache became a dull, pleasant throb around a strange feeling of emptiness. She could feel the strain in his arms as he fought to keep his hands away from her breasts, fought to ensure that he didn't stray too far into intimacy and frighten her. A faint luminescence played under his skin, the tell tale sign that this was not a mortal man. He wasn't one of the frightful creatures mortals told their children about and swept from their homes at Anthesteria, either. Who was he?
Kore turned slowly toward him, taking in first the smooth defined muscles of his arms and wide shoulders, then the slope of his body pressed to the side of hers. His face loomed into view, a thin smile deepening as he examined her. He tensed, almost imperceptibly. Though his face remained steady, she saw the pronounced lump in his throat bob nervously, knowing that she was now studying him.
She stared up at him with her pale blue eyes, her lips parted in curiosity and wonder at his appearance. He was… she didn't have a word for it; she'd never looked at a man this closely. The sensation coursing through her— the tightening coil within, the quickening of her breath— gave her at least some sort of answer to what she felt today when she'd peered into the wedding tent. This was desire.
The eyes that met hers were wide and deep brown, almost black in the soft light and framed with black brows. Long, black curls of hair framed his moonlit face, falling away down his back. A narrow, trimmed black beard sat below wide soft lips and a regal aquiline nose. She felt the coil inside unwind into a flutter and gasped slightly.
They stayed that way, simply beholding one another before Kore felt his hand gently frame her face. He eclipsed her view, drawing closer. She sensed her whole body pulling toward his. His warm mouth tentatively brushed once over hers before capturing her lower lip between his, drawing her into a kiss. Kore had never been kissed before, and she realized she still hadn't. This was a dream. Wasn't it? He felt so real and warm and sweet. And the jolt his touch sent through her had her returning his kiss, her lips seeking out his and parting to enjoy him. His tongue darted across her teeth before she pulled back to see him.
"I never dreamed you would be this beautiful," he said quietly, trembling slightly, his baritone voice resonating low and intimate as he scanned the length of her body.
"What do you m-m—" she began, her voice swallowed by another kiss. This one was more insistent, and she felt her skin jump. Her hips rocked, her stomach tensed at the firmer press of his mouth against hers. It was only once she leaned into him that she felt something hard and hot pressed against her hip, eliciting a soft groan into her mouth and a shiver that moved like a wave along his entire body. She mewled a wordless question against his lips, wanting to ask who he was. His only response was to skim his tongue across her teeth until they opened, letting him taste her.
Kore heard him sigh as his hand traced up her ribs and settled firmly on her breast. Her nipple instantly tightened under his palm and she cried into his mouth at the unanticipated pleasure of it. He languorously stroked her tongue with his and tasted of ancient groves and deep, warm earth, and the cold, faint sweetness of a foreign flower she knew but couldn't quite place. With a gasp she broke off the kiss to look up at him again, her face and neck flushed, her lips tingling, her heart pounding. The cool night air moved over her hot skin.
He smiled down at her again. "You taste sweet… exquisite."
"Who are you?" she said, barely able to hear her own words as her heartbeat thrummed in her ears.
He froze at her question and darted his eyes from her gaze, taking in, memorizing, her face and neck, the lines of her collarbone. He reached for a lock of hair that had spilled over her breast. "This is your dream, remember? Tell me who I am," he said smiling, absently coiling the long brown tendril around a finger.
She narrowed her eyes at him, her tone firm. "If this is my dream, oneiroi, then answer my question. Who are you?"
He was hearing her true voice— that of a natural ruler. His smile widened at her fearlessness, even though he was twice her size and loomed over her, caging her body with his. "I am not an oneiroi, sweet one."
"What are you, then?"
"Deathless," he said simply. "Like you."
"Wh-who are you?" she whispered.
He slowly lowered himself to her, hovering just above her, the heat of his chest making contact with her, making her quiver, making her want to pull the weight of his body down to cover hers. He whispered in her ear. "I am your lord husband."
Her eyes grew wide and he settled his mouth on hers for another kiss. She felt everything tilt, and drop away underneath her as he lifted her at the small of her back, pulling her against him to sit up with him. He grasped her leg with one hand, positioning her in his lap. Her trembling legs splayed around his hips and her body was flush against his. For a moment the heat she'd felt earlier pressed and pulsed against her lower lips as they adjusted. He pulled back, his face filled with caution and longing. Instinctively, her feet locked around his lower back, raising her higher and breaking that brief, intimate contact. His arms supported her upright frame effortlessly. He brought her inches from his face, and his eyes darkened with intensity and heat, midnight black, and Kore suddenly felt very small again. "M-my husband?"
"Yes," he said, feeling her arms rest on either side of his chest and her fingers grip his shoulders. "And you will be my queen, Persephone."
He whispered her name to her and kissed her again, letting her hands move up to his neck and weave through the curls of his hair. She grew curious and snaked her tongue into his mouth. Did he say 'queen'? Kore felt him surge against her as she led in kissing him instead of being kissed. He tightened his arms around her, his control starting to slip. It sent a thrill through her, but she realized how dangerous her forwardness could be.
Physically, he could easily overpower her and take whatever he wanted. But he didn't. In her sensual haze she wondered nervously for a moment if he intended to enter her here and now— to make her his queen in the deepest sense. Kore shuddered at this idea, wondering if by just entertaining that thought within the dream, he would do just that. But he didn't. She felt one supporting arm grasp at her shoulder blades and the other move down her back and firmly cup the cheeks of her rear as he lifted them up. Still holding her, he rose up on his knees and laid her back down in the soft rushes, fitting his body over hers.
Kore felt the world tilt back and squeezed her legs tighter around him. She was entirely at his mercy. What would it feel like for him to be within her? Would he go gently, knowing that she was a maiden? If he tried to take her now, he could. But he didn't. He arched above her and carefully fanned out her lilac-strewn hair and stroked his fingers through it, brushing it back from her forehead. He cupped her cheek and made her shiver as his thumb trailed over her lips, her chin and down the column of her neck. He drew closer. Black curls fell from his head and down his back, forming a curtain around them. The oak tree was blotted out. The stars were gone. There was only her and him, her body blanketed by his above her, their tongues mating together in a kiss, the throbbing heat pressed hard against her inner thigh. His hips rocked forward of their own volition and she felt him grind against her skin, his breath hissing through his teeth.
In a bid to salvage his control, he broke away from their kiss and pressed his lips against her neck, lifting his body away from hers, making her shiver in the night air. He planted light kisses across her collarbone, molding a breast with his hand.
The sudden absence of his skin against her made her delirious, her thoughts rapidly shifting back and forth between relief at his restraint and wanting to draw him down again to quench the ache consuming her. Kore's body was on fire. She didn't want him to stop. She needed him to stop. She needed to know who he was. She didn't care who he was as long as he didn't stop. Her frustrations became a moan, the sound surprising her and encouraging him, when his lips wrapped around a taut nipple. The electric sensation of his tongue rasping against the very tip arched her body toward him and shot pleasure through the center of her. Kore's mind snapped into focus as his hand came between them and landed with a massaging squeeze on the nest of curls covering her mound.
"Wait…" she whispered.
He pulled that hand away instantly, his breath shallow. His arms tensed and he stared straight at her, straining between holding himself back and pressing onward, deciding, weighing her single word against their shared desire. He smiled at her before inhaling and letting out a long cool sigh, shutting his eyes. "You're right."
She felt relief tinged with longing, her body cursing her for stopping him. He pulled himself away from her with difficulty, and Kore felt the sudden cool rush of air over her as he settled at her side. He tilted her chin toward him.
"You're right, Persephone. When we have each other, it should be in the proper place— in my own bed, after I've claimed you."
Kore felt herself blush from the bottom of her feet to where he pecked a light kiss on the tip of her nose. She resisted tilting upward to kiss him again, to draw his body back down to her. Into her, she thought with a shudder. Was that what she wanted? What she needed? She didn't even know his name. But in every way else she felt him, knew him, and knew intuitively that she was his and he was hers. That potent knowledge coursed through her very veins.
"Please…" Kore licked her dry lips and stared up at him, "I need to find you. Tell me your name."
He smiled at her and caressed her cheek, a soft sadness in his eyes. Sighing, he bent down to kiss her in the middle of her forehead.
She jolted awake, sitting up, alone, her heart racing. The grove was empty and cold, but her body felt hot and her inner thighs were slick with liquid warmth. She brought her arms around her and felt only her chiton, the peaks of her breasts chafing against the thin linen. She was dressed as she was before. It was a dream. Gasping for air, she looked around for the powerful lover— her husband, he had said— who had been holding her seconds ago, and then glanced up into the oak tree.
A thin pale figure, wrapped in a cloak and silhouetted against the faint light, turned to meet her gaze before vanishing into mist. She barely had time to register if it was real or imagined before she heard a sparrow chirp. The first flicker of dawn licked the eastern sky. The light grew stronger, revealing that the white larkspur had turned dark crimson overnight. Within her shrine, a new and beautiful light gray flower sprang from the ground, surrounding her.
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
Kore touched the gentle flowers growing around her and shifted the coloring of her dress to a soft white, mimicking the color of the blossoms. How beautiful they were… like last night, like him, though she knew 'beautiful' was seldom applied to men, and was too soft a word for him anyway.
Asphodel… she was the Maiden of the Flowers and knew that's what these were intuitively, but tried to remember where she had heard the name— and what their significance was.
She had only ever seen asphodel growing as a gnarled dark gray weed. It was one of the few plants her mother would rip out of the fields wherever she had seen it. Kore had always trailed behind her, doing the same. She had never seen asphodel bud and blossom. The white blooms were thin, veined with a center line of crimson, six petals with bright filaments bursting from the center and ending in deep red anthers. They were beautiful and foreign.
The man in her dream returned to her thoughts. She shivered at the idea of kissing him again, of tangling her fingers in the jet black curls of his hair, and melting into the heat of his body pressed so close to hers. She picked one of the small flowers from its dark stalk and twisted its stem around a lock of hair, her russet waves matching the red veins of the flower. She smiled, studying it, then walked from plant to plant, picking one bloom from each, and expertly weaved them into a crown, placing it atop her head.
And you will be my queen, Persephone.
Queen… he'd said 'queen'. Not wife, but something more. Something greater. What would he think of her now, in her simple linen shift, her hair hanging loosely like a child's? She wanted to change her clothes to something more womanly: lengthen it, cover her knees and legs in sumptuous, fine-spun wool, and drape a soft mantle over her shoulders but resisted the temptation. Demeter wouldn't approve, and would insist that Kore keep her youthful short chiton.
She wondered what he would like to see her wearing. Kore imagined him standing behind her and kissing her neck as she wore a beautiful burgundy peplos held up by bronze fibulae, and a girdle of bronze and polished sard stones, but her imagination quickly turned to him unhooking it from her waist with a flick of his wrist and pushing the gown off her shoulders to hold her against his body, as he had in the dream. Kore blushed, fairly certain that if she asked him what he wanted to see her in, his answer would be 'nothing at all'. She leaned back onto the bark of the great oak tree, remembering his hands stroking her body, both of them as naked as the day they were born, caressing each other under its sprawling branches.
"Persephone," she said quietly, remembering him whispering her true name, his lips grazing her neck. She faintly felt the same coil tighten in her belly she had felt with him last night, the same sensation she felt at the Eleusinian wedding. Kore crossed her arms over her breasts and closed her eyes, wanting him to appear to her again. If she willed it enough, would he come to her as he had last night?
The love of men is fleeting. I am sparing you the agony of a husband who lords himself over you, then breaks his oaths and your heart.
Her mother had said she wasn't to marry. She was just Kore, the Maiden of the Flowers, not a queen, not his queen. These thoughts were dangerous. And it was all just a dream, anyway. But if he were not real, if the dream was just a dream, then why were these flowers here? Had he left them for her?
Maybe it would be different for me. She remembered her words to her mother.
It most certainly would not. And don't ever believe any man who would tell you otherwise, Kore. What a fool she must be to moon over flowers, of all things. Flowers— her domain, even! But he hadn't taken anything from her or trespassed on her. He didn't grow bolder with his touch until she wanted it— until he felt her respond to him and ask for it with each gyration of her body against his. Her lips against his…
She felt ice pour over her. Demeter! Her mother was supposed to arrive any minute and they were to spend the morning together preparing the fields of Eleusis for reaping. She heard the familiar rush of barley, and looked around, panicking for a moment, wondering how she would explain the new color of larkspur that had appeared overnight.
"Coming, Mother!" She blanched and tried to push the dream from her mind before stepping out of her room. Kore would meet her outside. Maybe Demeter wouldn't notice the changed flowers. She pulled herself together, took a deep breath and put on a bright smile.
"Are you ready yet?"
Kore skipped out of the bower. "Good morning!"
Demeter's own smile quickly turned to horror when she saw her daughter.
"Where did you get those?"
"Get what?" Kore said, confused.
"The asphodel! Where did you find these poison weeds?!" she said, snatching at one of the flowers in Kore's hair.
She ducked out of the way as Demeter tried to pull at another. "Mother! What's the matter with you?! They started growing this morning in my—"
Demeter cupped her hands over her mouth with a gasp, not giving Kore time to finish her sentence before she ran into the shrine.
"Mother, why are you— Mother!" Kore stumbled in to find Demeter kneeling in the rushes amidst the newly grown flowers, tearing them out root and stalk.
Demeter turned to look at her daughter, her hands shaking. Her eyes were stained with tears, and her voice became a whisper as she looked around wide-eyed and pale. "He was here."
Kore's face paled as ashen white as the flowers that were withering in her mother's clenched fists. Gods above, she knows; she knows who he is. She swallowed hard. "Wh-who was here?"
"Do not lie to me! Did he hurt you?"
Her eyes started to water. "No, Mother, there was no one here. No one hurt me. It was just a dream. I woke up surrounded by these pretty white flowers."
Demeter grew angry, her eyes flashing, her voice low. "If that monster laid a finger on you…"
Kore blushed at the memory of his fingers, then felt her voice and breath catch in her throat, tears spilling from her eyes. "Mother, please! It was just a dream. I saw someone in it, I think, and then when I woke up— I told you— I was just surrounded by all these flowers."
Demeter stood up and took her by the wrist and marched out of the sacred place. "Dear child, you are no longer safe here," she panicked, her voice wavering. Kore heard the rushing of barley around them. Her mother prepared to transport both of them away, as she did herself when she visited the great mountain.
"Where are we going? Olympus?" Kore said, following her.
"No, we mustn't. You are in even greater danger there. We are going to the fields of Nysa. Pallas Athena and Artemis, the virgin warriors, will watch over you just as they always promised me they would if trouble came."
"But what about the harvest?"
"It can wait! They all can wait," she turned to Kore, brushing her tears away as the stalks of barley wound into the silver filaments of the ether, opening a pathway over land and sea. "I don't know what I would do if I lost you, my child."
"But nothing is wrong! I'm right here, Mother! And you're sending me away? At the harvest of all times?"
"There will be aeons of harvest for us Kore, but not if we stay here."
Kore clenched her jaw silently and looked down, hiding her anger from Demeter. She wanted to see him again, and hiding in Nysa would make that impossible.
"Your Excellency, I simply did what you asked of me." Even in the Underworld, the Lord of Dreams stood in shadows, his face hooded, his blind eyes veiled.
"Morpheus, I asked you to send me to Persephone so that I could introduce myself to her as her betrothed. Not to have us meet in the dream world naked and embraced!" Hades Aidoneus felt his frustration rise. White-hot memories of holding Persephone shuddered through him unbidden.
"I manifested what was in your heart of hearts. My world is not the waking world. You just can't walk into it with expectations of—"
"You saw us together!"
"I see all in the dream world. Do you really think I just sat there and watched both of you through the night? And honestly, Aidoneus, what I did see was relatively tame. For Fates sake, I have to preside over Thanatos's dreams, and let me tell you—"
Hades narrowed his eyes at him, his silent anger filling the room, palpable enough to be felt by Morpheus.
"Aidon, truthfully—" he said, stepping out of the marble column's shadow, "How you came to her, what you saw, what you did— all of it was of your own making. I am not responsible for the desires of your heart, and I will not be the focus of your anger over it. Those feelings are yours to contend with."
Aidoneus shifted uncomfortably between the wide arms of his ebony throne. He had arrived in the dream unclothed, holding her thin arms, his body pressed against her back. Morpheus had given Aidon the choice of appearing to Persephone in false form, or as himself. But the way he had come to her in the dream, the way he had felt when he was with her, the words he had dared to speak to her, were almost as unfamiliar as she was.
Morpheus felt the Lord of the Underworld's anger relent as Aidon retreated into thought. "If that is all…"
"Yes. Go, my friend. You need to prepare for tonight, and I've kept you long enough."
Morpheus drew out a thin gray arm and wrapped his black cloak around him before disappearing into mist. Aidoneus stood up and descended the stairs of the olivine dais. The room was still, and his footsteps echoed through the empty hall as he made his way to the torch lit terrace outside.
Its view swept out over the river Styx, silently flowing broad and dark across the fields below. He felt the cool air of the Underworld wash over him and sighed, leaning on the balcony edge. Aidoneus dug his fingers into his temples and closed his eyes. Next to the terrace was a waterfall that flowed upward along the cliff, its roaring cascade feeding the rivers of the corporeal world above. The sound of the falls and the cooling mist that fell from it usually gave him some measure of peace, but it couldn't soothe him now. The Lord of Dreams was right.
He took the golden arrow out of his robes and held it in his hand, turning it over. This small thing had only scratched his palm, and now her face was everywhere in his mind, awakening potent and dangerous feelings where there had been none before. He thought only about her flower-strewn hair, her pale arms and small breasts. The gentle curve of her hips. Her legs. The warmth between them.
Aidoneus pulled himself away from the balcony and walked back in, still clutching the arrow. Persephone had been only a name to him— the daughter of Demeter who was to be his queen— but was now made flesh, a woman. He had often wondered about her over the aeons, but had not expected to arrive in the dream world and find himself holding her so intimately, his body readily responding to the closeness of hers. All rational thought had vanished the moment he looked into her eyes. The small, inviting sounds she'd made in response to his touch had driven him mad… and continued to do so…
He would throw this cursed arrow headlong into the river if it weren't so dangerous— if he didn't already know the powerful consequences it had for him, and the unknown feelings it could bestow on others.
"Lord Hades," a rich female voice said. He turned to see a woman wrapped in a dark crimson peplos and cloak. Her long red hair, partially held up with a silver ribbon, cascaded down her back. Round selenite beads adorned the crown of her head, sweeping down to hold a silver half moon charm over her forehead. Hecate. Her bare feet were tucked up underneath her as she sat on the base of a column in the corner of the great chamber.
Aidon's breath hitched. "Have you found her?"
"The field from your dream was Eleusis. Demeter's and Persephone's worshippers reside there."
"I will go to Eleusis tonight, then."
"She's no longer there," Hecate said calmly. "I can see their thoughts… You'd think Demeter would be more careful. If she is traveling through the ether, I can find them."
"Why did they leave?"
Hecate closed her eyes to look into the ether. Within its hidden world were feelings, hopes, curses, the past, the future, the present, all flowing together in a chaos she alone could interpret. Hecate searched for Demeter and Persephone and tried to pluck the first coherency she could grasp. A smile crossed her face. "Did you plant asphodel in her shrine?"
"No," he said, confused, "I— Wait; is that a euphemism for something?"
Hecate opened her eyes and snickered quietly against the back of her hand. "No, my lord. I was being quite literal. I saw asphodel flowers, your own sacred blooms, growing where she sleeps. That made me curious— perhaps you had her, and wanted to make it known? In her dream, are you sure you didn't—"
"Dishonor her? No. I almost…" That part he remembered very clearly. Aidon swallowed, then gritted his teeth together. The need to be with her— within her— had bordered on pain. The memory of nearly losing control at her moan of pleasure, right before she stopped him, welled up through him. He turned away. "What is happening to me? I can't stop thinking about her; it's as if she's possessed me."
"Aidon, this is a new sensation for you; do not fear it, or fear the confusion that it brings," she said calmly. "You have only begun to glimpse how powerful these feelings truly are. Love is why most mortals call upon my priestesses. They work magic with my gifts, spells that can swell the desire of men and gods alike, giving them furious passion powerful enough to make them rend their own flesh."
"Zeus's little winged demon poisoned me!"
"And what a sly little monster he is, isn't he? Drawing forth your greatest desires with his arrows…" He narrowed his eyes at her, the words ringing true. "I assure you, Aidon, there was no poison on that arrow. The wound Eros made only broke the lock on your heart and set free what was waiting inside."
He put the arrow back into the folds of his robe. What was waiting inside… Aidon didn't know which prospect disturbed him more: that this had opened up in the first place, or that these feelings had been roiling under the surface unseen… for aeons, perhaps. "If Eros opened that door, then you need to close it, Hecate."
"So soon, Aidoneus? You've seen this treasure— tasted it, I dare say— and you'd have me shut it away again? I wonder why would you ask me to do this."
"Because this was supposed to be simple. Ordered," he said sharply, pacing the stone floor. "I've received what was due to me for my part in the war. She's already consecrated to me— I was to have my queen, and we would rule together. All I had to do was… take her and be done with it. Now it's been complicated by these… desires… to—"
"To win her? To make her love you?"
He thinned his lips and turned away from Hecate.
"Your influence here is great, but not all souls bend to your will. Not even your own, hmm? Our destinies are mysterious, Aidon; they are woven with threads we do not always expect to see. Even if you don't trust the weavers, you may be certain that they weave with a pattern in mind."
"The Olympians don't have to contend with this! Their adoration lasts only as long as their lust. Where are these 'mysterious weavers' for them?"
"Aidoneus, look…" she said, motioning to the inverted waterfall outside. "The rivers of their world don't flow like ours, or carry as much meaning. Our ways are not their ways. This is Chthonia; the Other Side."
Hecate closed her eyes, her mind prodding and exploring the ether, searching for signs of Persephone.
Aidon thought about the flowers growing where they lay together in the dream. He couldn't have grown a weed from the richest soil if the safety of the living world depended on it; Persephone had brought them to life herself. But why out of all the flowers did she choose his? He had taken great pains to conceal his identity to her.
"Oh, I see," Hecate said, her eyelids fluttering as she followed the trail of thoughts emanating from Persephone. Her silent smile turned into a light laugh. "She grew them while she slept, from the seeds you planted in her dream. Your true nature may yet be shrouded to her eyes, but another part of her knows you very well indeed." Hecate's gaze darted to his face.
Then Hades did something he had never done before in all his ageless years. He blushed.
"And every larkspur in existence, which for all the ages have been white, are now crimson, purple and pink? Hades Aidoneus, whatever did you do to her?" she said in a singsong voice, a wide smile on her face.
"Enough!" He looked away from Hecate.
"I daresay you did enough, indeed." Hecate smirked, until she felt confusion wash over him. Her face softened and she spoke gently. "Why feel shame, Aidon?"
"Because I'm not supposed to feel… alive! Look around you. These foolish— these dangerous passions have no place here!"
"So certain, are you?" Hecate silently walked across the floor to him and reached out a hand to his forehead, which he let rest there. "What you feel for her is not as far outside our world as you think. Open your mind."
Her eyes closed and she spoke to him in the three voices of her aspects, the Maiden, the Woman, and the Crone. He closed his eyes as her fingertips moved to his temples. Aidoneus felt her reach further from where her fingers met his skin, touching the deepest parts of his mind, restoring order to his thoughts, soothing him. He breathed out as the chaos and confusion that had plagued him since he awoke was given shape and form. Feelings gained sigils and signifiers through her intervention. Need. Purpose. Longing. Desire. Rapture. Lust.
"Love," the voice of the Maiden said.
"I never thought that word."
"You didn't have to," the three voices answered.
Hecate watched the maelstrom of thoughts flash through his mind. The past. The feel of her soft skin, the press of her naked flesh, their mutual need. Hands running through hair, lifting, entangling. The present. Cypress and wind; fire and union in the void.
The future. Red flowers clinging to a tree that rose from the field of gray, branches entwining through others' branches. Red, ripe fruit hung on interlocked boughs. Radiating out from the tree came soft grasses and flowers that spread over immeasurable ground. Hecate imparted in three voices what she saw. "Embrace and cherish these visions, Hades Aidoneus. They belong to both of you."
Aidon opened his eyes. Hecate was again seated on the column base as though she hadn't moved at all. In all likelihood, she hadn't.
"You need to feel her again and know that she feels you— don't you, Aidoneus?" Her voice was once again singular.
"Yes," he whispered hoarsely. "Yes, I do."
"I will search for Persephone for you," she said, and closed her eyes. Silence filled the room, and Hades stood still, waiting. A moment later, Hecate spoke of her vision.
"Nysa," Hecate said, reaching into the earth goddess's mind from afar. "She's sheltering Persephone in Nysa."
"The fields of Nysa?" Aidon shook his head in partial relief. "If I can count on Demeter at all, it's to not think anything through when she's angry," he said under his breath.
"It's too early for dreams; don't bother waking Morpheus. You must go to her yourself, but Demeter must not see you, or sense your presence at all. She is ever alert to you and the Helm will not help you. I'll send you in the wind this time."
"How will I find Persephone?"
"You won't have to. She will come to you."
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
Demeter and Kore emerged from the blades of barley into a rolling grassy meadow surrounded by groves of trees, each grove sacred to a deity. Nysa was the eternal field of the gods, and Kore's home as a child. She had played with her friends here. Kore remembered Ares swinging a wooden sword against the grasses under the watchful eye of Hera. Little Apollo once brought her a fistful of larkspur and recited awkward love poetry, to her mother's great consternation. Athena and Artemis ran with her in the field and played games of knucklebones by the creek. When Kore flowered into womanhood, her mother abruptly took her from their company and she hardly ever saw them again.
She heard her cousin Artemis call to her from the edge of the valley. She jogged toward them with her long, sandal-strapped legs. Artemis wore a quiver of arrows on her back, its leather strap holding her short white hunting chiton against her body. The virgin huntress's honey colored hair was short and simple, coiffed into a messy chignon at the base of her neck. She waved a hand to them as she ran.
Kore waved back, then turned to Demeter. "How long do I have to stay here?"
"Until I know for certain that you're safe. I will tend the harvest alone this time." She held Kore close and kissed her on the cheek. "They will look after you, my child. Do not leave the meadow. Do not talk to anyone or anything while I'm gone."
Kore watched her mother vanish into a rush of barley, bound for Eleusis. Nysa was the perfect place to keep her while she attended her responsibilities to the mortals. The virgin goddesses were usually here during harvest time. The humans seldom waged war during harvest, which freed Athena, and seldom hunted, which relieved Artemis of some of her responsibilities. They tended to avoid Olympus during the harvest as their divine siblings were usually bored and making mischief. Both Artemis and Athena were younger than her, but looked older, having already fully taken on their divine roles. Although she felt a faint twinge of envy, Kore was thankful to see them. Artemis, athletic and sun flecked, bounded over to Kore and gave her a hug. "Finally we get to see you again!"
"Artemis!" she embraced her back. "I wish it were under better circumstances. I feel like I'm imposing."
"Nonsense." Fair-haired Athena stood up from the grasses next to them, and quickly rolled up a short scroll before stashing it in the folds of her peplos. She adjusted the plate armor that held her flowing gown in place and joined their conversation. "We will make them better," she said. "And don't worry. Arte and I scour the plain regularly this time of year in case any troublemaking satyrs come along. Brutish creatures… You're perfectly safe here."
Kore smiled thinly to hide her feelings from Artemis and Athena. That meant the man from her dream wasn't here and would most likely never find her. She absently picked the last remains of the asphodel out of her hair. Her mother had cowed her about the flowers throughout the journey to Nysa until she had relented and plucked most of them out. "What were you doing before I arrived? Can I join you?"
"Well," Artemis said, "as soon as we heard you were coming, we started making a garland for you, because we hadn't seen you in so long. But… you know me; I'm no good with flowers."
"We hope you like it," Athena added, shyly holding it out for Kore's examination. The garland was a tidy braid of laurel and olive sprigs laced with wild celery, whose tiny white blossoms provided the only break in the greenery.
"Oh, thank you!" Kore said, accepting the gift from her cousin's calloused hands. She sat down in the soft grass and let Artemis wind her hair into a coronet.
"Your dress is still so short," Artemis said. "Do you keep it that way for the hunt?"
"No, I don't hunt like you, Arte," she said, smiling and lowering her head to hide her embarrassment.
Athena spoke. "Well, have you ever thought about letting it down?"
Kore looked at her bare knees and blushed. "Mother doesn't approve."
Athena stepped in front of Kore and pointedly looked to the right, then the left. She smiled and leaned down. "I don't see her here to disapprove. Come on! You can change it back when she gets here. We won't tell."
Kore fidgeted for a moment. "I'm— I can't do that to her. I've already put her through enough for one day."
Athena gave her a pained smile. "I understand. Sorry; I didn't mean to upset you."
"There! And beautiful, I might add." Artemis finished winding and weaving Kore's hair and placed the garland on top.
She froze, hearing her name on the wind.
"Who's there?" She looked at her cousins, her eyes wide. "Did… did you hear that?"
Athena and Artemis stilled and exchanged a quick glance. Artemis swallowed. "H-hear what?"
"Nothing… it must have been my imagination," she said, walking into the field.
Athena and Artemis joined her, keeping back aways as Kore explored her girlhood home. She had spent her childhood in the shadow of the sacred groves of the Olympians. As a young girl, Kore had laid a circle of river stones in the meadow and filled it with all her favorite flowers, hoping someday to have a sacred grove of her own.
"Do you remember the secret garden I planted?"
Athena smiled. "Of course I do! But it wasn't as big a secret as you thought it was. Father loved it! Said it was his favorite 'sacred grove'. I think your mother knew about it too."
"Oh," Kore blushed. "I'd wondered what happened to it. Want to visit it with me?"
"We'll finish gathering the leftover twigs from the garland. And I think I may take another pass around the meadow," Artemis said, "Can we join you later?"
"Of course!" Kore said cheerfully as she walked off into the grasses.
My queen… the wind whispered.
Her heart thrummed in her ears. She recognized that voice and turned in its direction, a narrow grove of cypress. Kore looked back at Artemis and Athena, still bent over in the grass picking up remnants of her floral crown. They must not have heard it. She walked slowly, one foot cautiously following the other toward the cypresses, her heart beating out of her chest.
Athena looked up to see her walk away. Demeter had enlisted their protection long ago in case anyone came for Kore. She shuddered, remembering dark Aidoneus stalking through the throne room toward her father yesterday, demanding his rights to Kore as Demeter cried out against it. Athena looked back to Artemis, who was biting her lip, her eyes welling up with tears. The huntress looked away to watch Kore walk toward the cypress trees, and moved to stand up and follow after her.
"Don't," Athena whispered, clasping her sister's trembling hand. "Father told us not to interfere. It will be alright, Artemis."
Demeter planted one foot after another in the sun-warmed soil. The Eleusinian priestess had plucked a single sheaf of barley and held it aloft, signaling the start of the harvest early this morning when Demeter had returned, sight unseen to oversee them. The priestess's acolytes had wandered through the fields all afternoon pouring offerings of kykeon and honey on the freshly threshed earth, singing praises to Demeter and Kore, carrying their effigies before them. The wheat waved across the fields, a sea of ripe sheaves that shone in the sun like swells on the ocean. Walled Eleusis stood on the other side of the hills, a beacon of rough-hewn white stones and whipping saffron banners. Wisps of white clouds moved across the azure sky, traveling on the breeze that wafted across the Eleusinian fields. Under an oak tree by the creek, a few elder women wrapped in dark linen himations, their backed bowed with age, hobbled after naked laughing children. They nattered after them to stay in the shallows and not splash too much water at the littlest ones. A toothless man with wisps of a white beard clinging to his face shared a cup of kykeon and laughed with his equally ancient wife.
The villagers dressed in bright reds and golds, the women with the hems of their peploi gathered up into their girdles, their hair wound back with strips of linen into tight chignons. They would stoop to gather large bundles of wheat, carrying them over to the ox drawn cart, giving the beasts a few sheaves here and there to keep them content. Most of the men dressed in nothing but loincloths, their skin glistening as they labored under the bright sun, sickles flashing. The rhythmic thresh of iron blades drummed a steady beat under their gossip and laughter.
Demeter was invisible in their midst, and could barely hear them. Hades was coming for her only child and she was preparing herself to meet him directly, to protect Kore from the Lord of the Underworld at all costs. She wiped a tear from her eye. Her daughter was safe for now in Nysa, but it was only a matter of time before he learned where she had fled.
She came upon the thistle her daughter had planted yesterday, its bright purple crown host to two of the little orange butterflies. They flitted around each other, one giving chase to the other before they settled, joined together on the flower. The small display of the earth's fertility and Kore's innocent wisdom should have given her joy, but she gritted her teeth, only able to see ghostly stalks of asphodel in her mind. The tall thistle withered, its flower drooping and blackening as she walked away.
Hades had profaned Kore's sacred house with his ugly bog flowers. He'd sown them around her daughter's sleeping body. Demeter angered, and the ripe silvery sheaves around her shriveled and turned brown. She walked away from the withered millet, barely aware of the dismayed voices of the villagers behind her.
There must be a way she could save her daughter from the Land of the Dead. She thought of the beautiful and virginal naiad queen Daphne, lustfully pursued by Apollo. To save herself from rape and destruction she had cried out to Gaia, the earth, who had answered her desperate prayers. Gaia had turned Daphne into a laurel tree, and she was saved and made sacred for all time.
For a moment she stopped breathing and stood where she was. The barley around her turned from living gold to dead gray. How could she even contemplate such a thing?
All she loved about Kore was wrapped up in her free spirit. Demeter thought about her light, her life, her every footprint filled with larkspur and roses, and the new ones— lilac, she remembered— flourishing wherever she went. She was pure and fresh and honest. Even in her defiance…
Demeter's eyes filled with tears. How could she let all these things about her daughter be wrested away to the land of the dead? For everything about her to turn cold and lifeless under the earth when she was made into Persephone? If she did nothing, Kore would be sacrificed on the marriage bed of the Lord of Souls.
Ice filled her heart. If she did this to their daughter, Zeus would never forgive her. She would be banished from Olympus, her high seat among the Dodekatheon removed, and she would be cursed to walk the earth as a minor goddess. But at least Kore would be safe. At least Demeter would know that her beloved daughter was saved forever from that fate. When Hades came to claim her, all he would find would be a new tree— a beautiful, flowering tree to honor her. Kore would be the loveliest tree in existence. Demeter wept. The waves of barley next to her rotted on the stalk and the grains filled with poisonous red dust.
Demeter would bring her back to Eleusis and Kore would be these people's sacred tree for all time. She sobbed, remembering her sweet girl toddling through the fields of Nysa as a young child. She knew that she would never see Kore running through the field, never hold her, never see her weave another garland or give life to another new flower, and her daughter would never forgive her for it. But if she did nothing, her warm and vibrant Kore would be trapped for eternity in the gray nothingness of the Other Side, prey to the will of cold and unfeeling Aidoneus.
The crisp smell of cypress met her as she stepped into the shade. Kore's eyes adjusted to the dappled light of the grove, and she saw soft wild celery covering the shaded soil with bursts of white asphodel growing in the patches of sunlight. Defiantly, she picked the flowers and wove them into the garland crown her cousins had given her.
The grove was silent except for her breath. In the meadow she had either heard his voice calling to her, or she was going mad. She picked a tiny asphodel bloom and twirled it in her hand. Her body warmed, feeling his presence. "Listen to me… I know you're here! And I know you came to me in my dreams last night."
Cypresses boughs rustled thinly as a breeze swept through their upper branches. She looked up, searching for him. "Why did you bring me here? And why did you plant the asphodel in my shrine last night?"
The wind in the grove closed in around her, words forming in its wake. "Your crown…"
Kore touched the flowered wreath in her hair. "You don't like it?"
"On the contrary," the wind whispered to her, "Your bridal crown is beautiful…"
"Bridal crown," she echoed breathlessly, her voice faltering as she remembered his words from last night. She reached without thinking to the wreathed branches. Her heart jumped into her throat when she realized what she was wearing: laurel and olive were for weddings. Kore looked around her, wishing she could see him.
"When I take you as my queen, Persephone, your crown shall be every jewel in the earth. Every ounce of its wealth will be your adornment…"
She spun in a circle, wishing she could find a source for his voice. It made her dizzy, this phantom wind, and these thoughts of leaving here with him, of being a queen, showered in wealth and jewels. And strange too, how he kept saying the name her father gave her.
"Why do you keep calling me Persephone?"
"It is who you truly are," Aidoneus said on the wind. "It's who you were born to be."
He wanted to give her anything. Anything and everything. His heart and mind raced at merely seeing her, knowing that she was real, just as beautiful as she was in the moonlight and not some illusion of dreams conjured by the golden arrow to torment him. When she was with him last night, she was a woman. A sensuous woman with delicate curves and warm skin. But she looked like a girl in the daylight, her clothes too young, too loose fitting, disguising her hips, her breasts… Aidoneus shuddered. He wanted to see her as she was. Who she truly was…
A breeze whipped past and she felt warm hands on her shoulders and arms. She flinched involuntarily, then settled into their grasp. "And what do I call you?"
His mind raced, thinking of all the horrifying things Demeter must have said about him. And not just her mother. Hades was a curse word to the mortals— only the gravest of sworn oaths invoked his name. But he had to tell Persephone something. He willed himself to coalesce enough to touch her and with a sigh of the wind, brush past her lips. "Please call me Aidon."
"Aidon…" she repeated, her voice smoky from his light touch.
"Yes…" He felt himself quicken when she said his name for the first time. Relief washed over him as she relaxed, unafraid. He brushed past her breasts, feeling the nipples pull taut under the thin chiton.
Kore felt his breath, warm against the shell of her ear, and felt arms encircling her as though the breeze itself were embossed with his form. The fresh and woody smell of cypress filled her, and she let out a soft sigh.
Aidon could feel her, not just in the dream world, but real and present. He was the very air around her, engulfing her. She was no figment of his dreams. He could feel the pulse of every vein, every twitch of flesh, and every small bead of perspiration as her heart beat faster from his incorporeal touch. His senses were suddenly filled with the heady scent of flowers. He concentrated, solidifying, wanting to touch her skin with his own hands.
Kore closed her eyes. He surrounded and embraced every part of her, lifting her gently. She could feel her heels start to rise from the ground, and the loose fabric of her sleeve slipped down one arm.
"I will come for you tonight, sweet one." Aidon tugged down the fabric and blew a kiss on her neck, whispering into her ear. "I'll come for you at sunset and we'll journey to my kingdom together with you as my bride. I promise. But forgive me; I couldn't wait that long to see you again."
Kore felt the edge of her chiton roll over her nipple. Her areola pulled taut, exposed to the air and to him. "Aidon…"
She moaned his name. Aidon felt pleasure roll through him and blew on her exposed nipple, watching her shudder and arch closer to him with a gasp. Kore felt a warm rush of air wrap its way behind her knee and around her hip. She felt a solid arm, a hand and fingers pressing into her skin.
She gasped as he encircled her, her feet finally lifting off the ground, her body supported by invisible arms before being set down on the soft wild grass. The skirt of her chiton blew back, exposing her thighs.
"You're almost too beautiful…" he whispered, his voice sounding as though he were smiling, though she couldn't see him.
"This isn't fair," Kore pleaded. "I want to touch you, too… I want to hold you…"
This woman he'd patiently waited aeons to have… she desired him; she wanted him. Aidon's heart swelled at the idea. She wanted to do all the things with him that he needed to have from her. To hold him. To touch him. To lay down as husband and wife and— dare he even think it— to make love with him. "Soon, sweet one…" His hands trailed over her exposed breast and her stomach, dancing along her flesh. "…very soon."
Her body reached for his touch and he wanted to give her more. Anything. Everything. He was overwhelmed. Aidon would give anything in this moment to materialize in front of her, to be as they were in their dream. He knew too that he wouldn't be able to stop himself from having her completely, and doubted she would stop him either. Moving across her body, he caught the scent of wildflowers again and delved for its source.
A hot exhale of air teased the curls between her thighs. Kore arched and parted them, feeling a hand brush over her mound. Unlike last night, she didn't stop him. He was mesmerized by the sight of her most intimate places, her deeper mysteries unknown to him. He wanted to bring forth everything he'd felt rise through her last night to completion. Her flesh jumped as he stroked her, learning her. Her creamy thighs were open to him, her scent pouring out on the wind. A fine down of dark brown curls covered her nether lips. He traced their seam; watching as her hips moved from side to side and her breathing became shallow.
Every shiver of her flesh, every arch of her body made Aidon's heart beat faster, urging him onward in his discovery. The tips of his fingers were met with slick warmth, and a punctuated gasp from Kore that made him inhale sharply, feeling the unfulfilled pains of his own arousal. Shaking with anxious longing, his fingers glided down to her entrance and lingered there for a moment before traveling upward slowly through the folds.
When he neared the apex, she let out a sharp cry and sprang back from his touch. Aidon instantly rose up along the length of her body, alarmed, smoothing his hand over her shoulder. "Did I hurt you?"
She shook her head. "No. It… Can you please do that again?" she said meekly.
He smiled in relief and trailed his fingers downward through the valley between her breasts, over the tautness of her stomach, and gingerly steadied her mound with the palm of his hand. His finger met soft heat and sunk between her labia, tracing a path upward through the center until he felt her writhe anew. He stopped, memorizing the spot, feeling the tiny nub of flesh pulse under his finger. He waited for her to still and relax against him. When she rolled her hips forward and pressed the tight bud against his waiting finger, he started moving it in a slow circle.
The feel of his unseen hand stroking her filled her body with fire and familiarity, a longing she couldn't place for something she never knew she needed. Her hands and feet clenched and tingled, flames licking through her.
His winding finger moved faster. Every stroke of his hand against Kore's new-found epicenter shook her. Her lips, the tips of her breasts, her thighs twitched. Her voice wasn't hers anymore; it responded only to his caress. Every motion was a new thrill of pleasure. Something primal and inexorable began to wind within her, tightening every muscle of her body, searching, deepening, arching her closer.
Aidon felt her rising to him, her cries heating him and spurring him on. Her voice made his need a torture, unquenchable and unrelenting in his current form. He leaned over her and took the exposed nipple into his mouth and sucked it gently, driving her over an unseen edge.
Kore burst. Light danced behind her closed eyes and her head tilted back. She twisted and flailed, cried out his name and gasped, and the world fell away. Waves rolled through her as she felt his hand move away and travel up the length of her body to hold her. His lips teased along her cheek and she heard him breathing in time with her, steadying her body and supporting her until the tremors stopped and all she felt was his unseen hand grasping her arm.
"Persephone, I—" his voice shuddered.
Kore felt cool grass against her back, the soft earth beneath it supporting her, and then the caress of the wind was gone. He was gone. The grove was quiet once again, save for the sound of her heart beating in her eardrums.
Aidoneus materialized in his realm, and looked around in shock, drawn away from her against his will. He stumbled backward and slammed his palm hard on the edge of his ebony throne, regaining his balance. His knees were shaking. Desire for her had come with him. He looked down at his erect flesh straining against his loincloth and robes, and cradled it against his body, covering and protecting himself as he doubled over and gasped for air. His blood coursed through him like the molten river Phlegethon.
Aware of his presence, Hecate's eyes were closed, her brow knitted. "Aidoneus—"
"How dare you!" he bellowed, "Do you have any idea—"
"A very good idea, yes. But leaving you there with her would have been more dangerous than delicious, I'm afraid. There will be trouble…"
He watched her eyes tighten again as she concentrated, listening for a voice in the ether. He didn't have time for this. Hecate needed to take him back. Persephone needed him. He needed to see her. To hold her.
"I have to have her," he growled as he waited for Hecate to speak, willing his legs to carry him to where he could sit down. "I must have her. When the sun sets—"
Hecate flinched and cried out, startling him to silence. A voice piercing her mind— a wail of grief from the ether that was bending slowly into madness. "It will be too late!"
"What do you mean?"
"Demeter. She's coming for Persephone."
"She can't stand in my way; not now," he said, feeling his control slowly come back, his pulse steadying, his lust subsiding.
"She won't. Aidon, she will do worse. I understand now— I could feel her fear distilling into something sharp and desperate, but I was too focused on aiding your visit to Persephone. To keep you immaterial was not easy, with you in that state..." Hecate stood. "You are familiar with the tale of Daphne?"
A pregnant moment passed before his eyes grew wide. Realization and horror scalded him like acid and what little color he had drained from his face. "Gods above…"
He stood and strode across the room. Hecate followed him down the halls and corridors, running to keep pace. His himation shifted its form, winding around his body. The folds of fabric hardened, becoming the golden cuirass of his armor. Aidoneus had not worn it often, and never for its intended purpose since they cast Kronos into the Pit and ended the war. His long black cloak unfurled behind him as he stormed out to the courtyard. He reached through the ether as Hecate had taught him long ago and felt his helm materialize in his hand.
"Hades!" she said as he raised it over his head.
He spun on Hecate, his face contorted in rage. "I'll cast Demeter into the Pit if I have to!"
She started and drew back, then followed him again as Aidoneus continued his march. The corridor opened up into to the massive open stable yard of his palace, its floor made of concentric ringed cobblestones of black granite. He grabbed his iron standard from inside the gate and walked out to the center of the yard.
"This madness is not fixed by fate, Aidoneus! If Demeter reaches Persephone before you, be assured that the world will know her only for her slender branches and the gentle shade she gives. But such eternal changes have rules, and you can still prevent it. And you can save your bride in a more peaceful way than throwing the goddess of the fruitful harvest into the depths of Tartarus!"
He hammered the staff on the ground, the ringing echoing through the yard. Dark granite cracked beneath it, a glow of orange light radiating out from the point of impact. Aidoneus calmly strode back to Hecate's side as the stones fell away, lighting the room with reflected fire. She looked up at him, remembering aeons ago how Aidoneus had single-handedly convinced her and Nyx to support Zeus's cause during the war. That same taciturn warrior stood with her now, watching the rising smoke and listening to the approaching gallop of horses from the chasm.
"What way?" he said, finally.
Hecate looked into his eyes through the golden, black-crested helm that rendered him invisible to anyone he chose. She raised her voice as the ground beneath them started to shake. "Persephone can only be transformed that way if she is as Daphne was— intact."
Aidon's head snapped down to acknowledge the weight of what she said. A maelstrom of realization and trepidation ran through him, the helm barely hiding his emotions. "That's not how—"
With a shrill neigh, four dark coursers burst upward through the smoking gap, their manes and hooves sable black, their eyes glowing with fire. They pulled a great quadriga chariot behind them. It gleamed in the molten light from the chasm below, and then the ground started to close again with a grinding roar. The chariot had served Aidoneus well during the war, and would now serve him again. He returned the standard to the wall and stalked toward the cart. There was no time.
As Aidoneus grabbed the reins, a cloud of black smoke flowed out around the chariot, the chargers whinnying and stamping their feet. Hecate's voice rang out over the cacophony of the giant beasts. "If you love her, Aidoneus, if you want to save her, you will do what must be done!"
She watched from the gate as the chariot drove away. Aidoneus rode headlong for the living world and his Persephone.
Author's Note: And in the grand tradition of excerpts, we end on a cliffhanger. My eternal thanks to all the people who commented on this book, who believed in me and believed in the success of this novel, those who pushed me to publish, the wonderful folks who created gorgeous fan art for this book. For more information, please visit my Tumblr, also listed in my profile. Again, thank you so very much, and I'll see you in September!
~ Rachel Alexander, aka Kata Chthonia
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
Every Wednesday from now until it is posted, I will be re-uploading Receiver of Many in its entirety. This book is 18+, so if you haven't reached majority in your country, please do not read past this point. For more information on this book and others, please visit my blog (link in profile). Happy Holidays!
It took several minutes for Kore to rise. He had left her there, had disappeared in the midst of speaking, leaving her bewildered. Her chiton was wrenched out of place and her back was damp from the floor of the grove. She stood, confused by his disappearance, and scanned the empty grove. Had he truly gone? Was he still somewhere nearby? What would make him leave her so abruptly? She would ask him later. Kore knew Aidon would come back; that he would return tonight.
A heavy feeling settled in her chest. No matter how natural she felt with him, she had no idea who he was. She would be surrendering herself to him— a complete stranger. Her thoughts returned to the wedding party in Eleusis, how the man had taken the woman in the tent, pushing in and out of her, the pain on the woman’s face when they first joined. Would she feel that same pain?
She remembered Aidon in her dream, the unseen part of him that had pressed against her thigh as hard as stone, pulsing and hot. She remembered him drawing his heat away, stopping himself from taking her. Her heart beat faster and a shuddering need flooded into her at the idea of Aidon lying astride her, entering her slowly. Her flesh still throbbed from his touch as she left the grove and returned to the sunlit meadow.
The sun was lower in the sky. In a few hours, it would sink below the horizon and he would come to claim her. His queen. Queen of what?
She could still hear her heart hammering in her chest as she gazed across the field of Nysa, its rolling hills blanketed in a host of flowers. There was no sign of Artemis or Athena. Down the hill from the cypresses, she saw the little stone circle she had created as a girl and walked toward it, readjusting her crown and tucking stray hairs back behind her ears. She felt around the garland’s edges, making sure the leaves and flowers weren’t crushed or lopsided from lying in the grove with Aidon.
Your bridal crown…
Kore shivered again, and stepped into the stone enclosure. Her little garden was almost exactly as she’d left it centuries ago. She knelt to pick a tall crocus, examining the wide scalloped petals in her hand. As she walked on, she was tormented by questions, trying to fit all the pieces together. Her lady mother must at least know of Aidon. His demonstration of his power— appearing in her dream, calling to her and caressing her on the wind— meant that he wasn’t just any immortal, but a mighty god. Perhaps Demeter was mistaken when she saw the asphodel, thinking it meant something else. Maybe she would rejoice when she found out that her daughter was to become a queen.
She picked an iris and a larkspur, blushing the same pink color as the flower she had transformed last night. In the end, wouldn’t Demeter simply want Kore to be happy? She imagined her mother coming to visit her in a beautiful palace once she was queen of…
What’s this? she thought. The very center of the garden had been carefully manicured, and not by her. The grasses were cut low in a circle, and in the center stood the most beautiful bloom she’d ever seen. Kore peered at the flower. Its white blossom stood out against the velvety green carpet of short grass. She walked toward it, mesmerized, her gathered flowers falling from her open hand. White, rounded petals perfectly surrounded and radiated out from a short golden trumpet. She gently reached out and turned the blossom over in her hand, examining it. It smelled so sweet, its fragrance heady and foreign. She reached for the stalk with both hands and gave it a quick snap.
The earth trembled.
Kore fell to the ground as it split underneath her, a great crack in the earth yawning through the center of her little garden. She looked around in horror and crawled backwards along the shifting earth, then got up with one knee. A rush of dark smoke jetted from the center of the chasm, surrounding her and obscuring her vision, clouding the sky and turning the sun blood red. Distantly, she heard horses galloping, their approach growing louder. She ran in the opposite direction, tripping once over the stone border.
A shriek from a horse split the air. She looked over her shoulder to see the silhouette of four horses against the darkened sky, drawing behind them a massive chariot. Their eyes glowed like fire and mist trailed from their nostrils. A cloaked shadow spurred them on.
Kore turned on her heels. “Athena! Artemis! Help me!”
The hoofs drowned out her cries. They were gaining on her.
“Mother!! Mother, please! Where are you mother?!” Kore yelled.
The rumble of the wheels and the dark shadow they carried were almost upon her.
“Aidon! Save me! Aidon !”
Aidoneus leaned hard over the side of the chariot, balancing on the edge for support, and grabbed Persephone around the waist, holding her in the crook of one arm.
Kore’s feet left the ground and she screamed long and loud, kicking and flailing against the shadow. Her feet met a shifting platform and a gauntleted arm pinned her fast to its owner. Persephone looked up to his face. It was covered with a dark gold helm, crested with long black horsehair. Only his bearded chin and mouth were visible beneath it. She screamed again, beating her hands against the hard plates of his golden cuirass until they were sore and bruised.
Her screams finally started to form words. “Let me go! Let me go!”
“ Hold on! ”
Her blood ran cold and she stopped moving. That voice… She looked up into his eyes through the helm and felt herself tilt backward, the entire chariot driving downward as she squeezed her eyes shut and screamed. The earth swallowed them whole. Persephone heard deafening cracks as chasms opened before them and shut behind them, each gallop bringing the heat of the earth closer to her.
The sound of grinding rocks was replaced with a roar of fire. She opened her eyes. They had broken through the earth into a great glowing chamber. The air wavered and scalded. Bits of rock hung from above, red and heated, melting like beeswax, drips trailing embers downward all about them. The chariot shook, falling, plunging through the air, the whinnying horses guided by their master. She looked behind her at the gaping maw of molten earth far below and grasped at his smooth planes of armor, scrambling to find a handhold. Fathoms below, there was nothing but molten rocks and billows of vapor rising around them. She was going to fall. She needed to get away from him but without him, she would fall. What if that was what he wanted?! Persephone’s eyes widened in terror pleading with the dark clad being who had stolen her. “Don’t let me go! Please! Don’t let me go!”
Persephone felt the heat grow more intense around her as they rode on. She smelled burning wool, and looked down to see flames licking up the side of her leg. The air itself had set the skirt of her chiton on fire, and embers started flying off the asphodel crowning her head. She shrieked and pulled it from her hair, using the laurels Artemis wove for her to fruitlessly slap at the burning fabric. Persephone felt her body wrench forward, the flimsy linen tearing away from her, splitting along her back with a loud rip, her thin girdle jarring her waist when it snapped in half. The flaming garments and the garland from her hair burned away in his uplifted hand, their smoldering remnants turning to ash as they scattered behind the chariot. Left with little choice, she grabbed onto the straps of his cuirass just under his shoulders and looked up to see him pull off his helm and smooth back his hair.
Wide-eyed shock replaced her screams. It couldn’t be… it couldn’t be… She shuddered and froze as Aidon looked down at her.
“Persephone!” he yelled at her over the sound of the horses and the roar of twisting molten earth below. “Persephone, I need you to trust me!”
She scrambled and grasped at his neck, barely registering the fact that she was now naked. Her bare feet burned and she jumped, inching them up his greaves, then his legs, wrapping herself around him to escape the heat. The blistering vapors seared over her back until she felt his great black cloak wrap around her, pressing her against him, protecting her.
Persephone felt him pull the reins hard with one hand and bring her body further up along his with the other, his arm encircling her. She locked her legs around his waist and was face to face with Aidon, his skin glowing in the red heat. Their eyes met. He looked tenderly at her for a brief moment, almost disbelieving that she was actually in his arms, then turned away from her to concentrate and steer them onward. She pleaded with him in sounds that weren’t quite words to turn back, to not burn them both alive.
The molten earth rushed toward them ever faster. She closed her eyes against the heat and buried her face into his neck with a sob, surrendering herself to her fate, waiting to feel the deep fires of the earth consume and devour them. Instead, the roaring heat stopped, and all grew quiet and cold around them.
For a moment she doubted how deathless she really was. Her eyes were awash in blackness and void. Her ears still rang from their passage through earth and fire. The horses pressed onward, quietly shaking the cart. Their cries grew silent, the only sound an occasional snort or nicker. Lifting her hand up in front of her face, she realized with a gasp that she couldn’t even see its outline against the darkness. She ran her hand through the messy tangle of her hair, checking to see if it were still there and unburnt. Her face was still smooth, unharmed. Persephone cautiously turned her palm until it met the side of his face. He was still there, unburnt as she was. She traced the outline of an ear and high cheekbones, making sure that he was whole and unharmed.
As her hand passed over his nose and in front of his lips, he quickly kissed her palm.
Persephone drew her hand back, startled and relieved, and listened to the sound of their breathing, the only noise now as the horses charged silently forward into the abyss. Persephone felt the heat of his face, the shortening of his breath against her cheek. She angled her head as he turned toward her and captured her lips. Aidon’s arm closed tighter around her and she melted into his embrace with a tiny moan, feeling his mouth hot against hers, sighing against her lips in relief. She kissed him back, shy at first, then eagerly when he responded to her.
Her fingers bunched in the dark curls of hair cascading across his cloak. His lips possessed hers gently, nipping and pulling, his kiss filled with relief, need and an anxious hesitancy that flowed into her from every place her skin came into contact with his. Persephone was suddenly very aware of her naked body wrapped around him. Her hands felt the pulse and cord of tendons in his neck and shoulder. Her ankle brushed against his thigh. His free hand pressed into her back and she leaned onto his breastplate, shaking nervously. Aidon broke away from her to kiss her cheek and neck, and then lightly pulled on her earlobe with his lips.
“Don’t be afraid, sweet one,” he said quietly, sending a shiver through her. “We’re only passing through Erebus. The light will return.”
“—and your crown. I apologize. Nothing mortal from your world can pass through the fire on the way to the Other Side.”
“Wh-why… Aidon… Why did you take me like this?”
“You were in grave danger,” Aidon said, relieved to hear his name on her lips. “I had no other choice.”
He tightened the reins and leaned toward her, feeling her legs locked around his waist. Persephone pressed against the front of him, and need started to consume him. Heat flowed from between her legs, and the scent of her body enveloped him. She was still drenched from their time together in his sacred cypress grove. He felt the muscles of his stomach clench as instinct drew his entire body closer to the source of that heat.
Aidon kissed her, relishing the softness of her lips, the feel of her fingers weaving through his hair. Locking her arms and legs tightly, she copied him, kissing his cheek and earlobes. She pulled on one of them with her lips, tasting the edge with her tongue. Persephone listened to him take a long, ragged breath as he arched toward her, his hissed exhale grazing the shell of her ear and sending heat through her.
Persephone shivered, repeating his words in her head. Erebus… the Other Side…
“Who are you?” she whispered low into his ear.
“I am Aidoneus,” he whispered back.
Ice ran down Persephone’s spine.
Hades Aidoneus Chthonios, Polydegmon. The Unseen One. Receiver of Many. Ruler of the Other Side and Lord of the Dead…
Aidon crushed his lips against hers before she could respond. Persephone surrendered, opening to him and racing her tongue across his teeth, trembling. He moaned and smoothed his hand down her back to calm her. He is… he is… Her mind couldn’t, wouldn’t process it.
I am your lord husband. The lover from her dream, who possessed a tender fire, who had inflamed her, entranced her, awakened her, was none other than… She felt herself burning for him as her mind battled between the truth of the man encircled by her naked body and the feel of his tongue tasting and possessing her.
His hand rounded over one cheek of her rear and gripped her flesh as she returned his deeper kiss, savoring him. Persephone mewled a soft moan into his mouth, feeling his hand drift lower, fingers brushing lightly over her vulva. He pulled back on her bottom lip with his teeth, before plunging his tongue into her mouth. As he canted his head, he curled one digit forward to caress the wetness of her crease, cupping her intimately, hearing her mewl at his touch. He sighed and broke off the kiss suddenly, leaving her gasping.
“I’m sorry.” His hand left her for a moment, reaching below her sex as he lifted the front of his short tunic and moved his loincloth aside. Persephone felt him grasp her below the tailbone, his fingers burying into her flesh. “I wish there were more time and some other way.”
She didn’t understand what he meant until she felt herself sliding imperceptibly down his body, a hard heat butting up against her entrance. Every jump of the chariot slid her closer to him until that heat parted her folds, perched outside her gate. She remembered the wedding in Eleusis and the feel of him pressed against her in the dream. Her eyes shot open and she searched in the dark for his.
The faintest of light grew underneath them, finally showing Aidon’s face. He looked at her with a gentle intensity; his eyes dilated dark with passion and determination. She eased against him and sunk lower as he pressed closer, lingering at her core, throbbing against her, then a slow stretch as he slipped a fraction deeper.
Aidon looked at her as she stared up at him. The growing light framed lips swollen from his kisses, a thin Grecian nose, and wild and wide pale blue eyes. He heard her heart beating, listened to her shallow breathing. He felt her open to him with a shiver and a gasp, and her flesh start to envelop and close around his, heat pouring out from her in this final moment.
Eyes locked to hers, Aidoneus quickly thrust upward.
…and now she was his Queen.
Persephone cried out in pain and squeezed her eyes shut, stars trailing behind her closed lids. The length of him sent fire through her as she struggled to stay still and not make the throbbing of her torn barrier worse. The fullness stretching her made her legs shake around his waist, offering no quarter against how completely he possessed her. Persephone realized that he had not moved within her at all as she adjusted to him. She slowly opened her eyes and looked up at him; his head was tilted back, his face strained, his eyes shut, his breathing shallow.
Aidon lowered his gaze to her, pleasure and remorse feuding within him. But above all else, he could feel the exquisite pressure of her surrounding, enclosing, the heat within her seeping into him. He gripped the reins with his free hand and watched her face, not moving until her pain subsided. Aidon kissed away a tear from the corner of her eye, and muttered half-formed words against her skin that wavered between an apology and a prayer. Her breathing started to grow ragged as his lips trailed down her cheek, searching for hers.
Trembling, she kissed him back, her heart at war with itself. Maiden no more. The man from her dreams that she desired so, who had caressed her in Nysa, who had just consummated his union with her in the dark, suddenly, fully, completely joined with her was… Hades .
Her anxiety melted in searing heat as he withdrew ever so slowly and reclaimed her gently. The pain dulled. She felt him touching every nerve within her, pushing upward, unfamiliar pleasure shooting through her. Her arms tried to gain purchase on his shoulders, holding him closer to her. Persephone willed herself to look at him, to know him, to see the face that had burned itself into her dreams— the face of the man who burned inside of her. His gaze met hers with the same intensity.
She instinctively squeezed around him and saw his eyes roll back and close. A low growl emanated from deep in his throat. Persephone met his next thrusting response to her with a sharp gasp of pleasure. The pain dissipated into the background as he pressed into her again, forming a rhythm between them. It was too much— too raw to look and feel and know all at once. Persephone closed her eyes and kissed him again, feeling— choosing to feel. She moaned into his mouth, everything but their joined bodies disappearing and falling away as he held her to him and she held him within her.
Persephone raked her fingers through his thick black curls of hair and felt his beard graze and chafe her chin as their tongues mated in concert with their bodies. She broke away and he gasped for air. He rested his forehead on hers and she locked eyes with him again. Aidon pushed into her, their breathing becoming one, her fingers interlacing behind his neck to pull back and see him. The angle forced him deeper and she cried out, feeling his fullness within her, her insides coiling again, reaching.
His eyes darted across every inch of her body, watching her breasts rock back, the liquid flesh moving of its own accord. Aidoneus saw surrender cross her face and felt her tightening around him with every thrust. He brought her against his body, looking deep into her eyes. “Persephone…”
Shuddering against him, she tilted her head back and exposed the long line of her neck. He kissed it as she rocked forward, moaning wordlessly, rippling around him, her fingers clawing his neck, heat pulling and stroking his shaft as he made his final thrusts into her depths. Molten fire shot through him rising from where they were joined, arching his spine and erasing all conscious thought, the sharp pleasure of it shocking him. Aidon threw his head back and cried out loud enough to nearly spook the horses. His shuddering body matched hers as she clung to him.
They stilled. In the distance, the outlines of his kingdom came into view. They were nearly there, and his shattered thoughts started to piece themselves back together, considering the gravity of what had just been done. He focused on her. Persephone. His wife. Aidon wrapped the heavy cloak around them once again, cradling her, protecting her. Her eyes fluttered closed.
Very slowly, he slid out of her with a shudder, the cool air hitting his softening flesh. Her shaking legs disentangled from his waist and her body started to go limp, overwhelmed and exhausted. Aidoneus held her close. The arm she had wrapped around his neck draped outside the cloak, her head craned back against his shoulder. Her breasts rose and fell in shallow breaths.
The River Styx came into view, its calm light caught in the afterglow of the setting sun in the living world above. The horses started to slow, the ground looming into view. Aidon landed them in the great stable courtyard and brought the chariot to a halt, finally testing his shaking knees. Behind the cover of his cloak, he adjusted his loincloth and smoothed down the front of his tunic, both stained with their combined essence and her blood. Persephone breathed lightly into the crook of his arm.
Aidon unclasped his cloak and brought the other side around her, covering her slowly so he didn’t wake her. He wrapped Persephone in its dark and heavy folds; her bare feet protruded from the edges. Kneeling down with one hand still supporting her shoulders, Aidoneus brought the other under the crook of her knees, lifting her into his tired arms.
Persephone turned toward him in her sleep as he crossed the length of the courtyard to the dark gates and corridors beyond.
Chapter 7: Chapter 6
Waiting dormant for untold aeons, the seeds took hold of the gray earth. They burst upward, writhing through soil made alive and fertile only for them. Carefully, the sprouts broke the surface, stretching. One pale leaf appeared after the other as they took their first breath and came to life. Each gasp for air grew a new branch as fragile as the gray flowers above them. They quickened and strengthened; sprouting new life, green, thriving…
The first sensation that Kore could feel was warmth. She lay with her eyes shut against the dappled flickering light. It had been a dream. The scent of warm olives hung about her. She had fallen asleep in the sunlight, under an olive tree in Nysa, and all this had been a dream. Mother would be there any minute.
But the ground under her was soft; too soft. It bunched in Kore’s hands in waves of warm spun wool smoother than any chiton she had ever worn. Her feet lay under it. It was tucked around her breasts.
She opened her eyes. There was no sunlight. What greeted her instead was the light of small oil lamp flames, hundreds of them, each housed in a separate niche in the wall, stretching upward in a cascade of light and perfuming the room with olive. She shifted. As Kore moved she flinched in pain, feeling the heat of the path Hades had blazed inside her. She muffled a sob.
Kore. Maiden. Maiden no more.
Her hand flew over her mouth. All her life she had been Kore. But in the mortal tongue, Kore meant ‘maiden’, and as surely as she felt the soreness overtake her center with every movement, she knew she was no longer a maiden. No longer Kore. Kore had burned away in the fires outside Erebus. She was Persephone. What was she now to this world when she had always been The Maiden? And where was she in it?
Surrounding her, walls of solid black marble with fine white veins reached upward to a domed ceiling above the bed, their smoothly hewn surface glowing in the flickering lamplight. The room was at least three times taller than Persephone. The vaulted ceiling above her was a translucent white onyx filtering soft light from outside.
At the base of the softly lit dome were intricately carved images of beautiful nymphs playing in the fields, carrying a garland of asphodel. Cascading down from the lower edges of the carved garland, six soft panels of white fabric draped down and pooled on the floor around the bed. The diaphanous panels caught and softened the lamplight, mimicking sunlight through leaves. She traced the panels down to the ripples of black sheets surrounding and enveloping her naked body, then looked back up to the thick base of one of the columns, its fluted edges framing one side of a great ebony door.
A woman sat against the column, her eyes shut.
Persephone gasped and shrank back, pulling the sheet up to her neck. The woman was barefoot, a cascade of selenite beads woven through her red hair. Wispy white curls framed her face, and crow’s feet stretched from the corners of her closed eyes. She listened to Persephone, feeling confusion sweep over the young goddess.
“So many questions. You are full to overflowing, poor child. I have answers for you,” she said, opening her eyes and lifting them to meet Persephone’s. “You are in the Palace of Hades. I am Hecate. Aidoneus asked me to watch over you. Those answers come in a good order, I hope?” Hecate smiled gently. “I must leave you soon, though. Aidon wants to know as soon as you are awake, and I have that news to bring him now.”
While the questions to those answers had crossed her mind, Persephone had not yet said a word. She wrinkled her brow at this woman.
“Ah yes— your last question has an answer too. No, I have never coupled with him.”
“Stop that!” she snapped, realizing that the woman had been reading her thoughts.
Hecate inclined her head in a slight bow. “As you wish, my queen.”
“What is this place?” Persephone said, looking around the room again.
“This room was created for you long ago,” Hecate said, standing from her perch. Persephone gazed around the room. This was all hers? What did this woman mean by ‘long ago’? Hadn’t she just met Hades? She sat up again and winced. Hecate gave her a compassionate smile. “You will heal, and quicker than you fear. Stay here, child, and rest yourself well. The journey through the earthen depths is long and… tiring.”
“How long was I asleep?”
“A handful of hours. It’s the middle of the day,” she said, opening the ebony door.
“But the sun was setting a few hours ago. How can it be daylight?”
“This is the Other Side,” Hecate said as she left the room, “we pass our days when it is night above.”
Persephone swallowed hard. She was in the Underworld. Lord Hades rules the Land of the Dead…
She puzzled how a place deep under the earth could have any kind of night or day. She covered her body again with the sheet and looked through the opening door as Hecate disappeared from the room. The bedroom opened into a large antechamber, with ceiling and walls of solid, smooth amethyst illuminated by the soft light entering through the columns outside.
Persephone turned to the delicately carved ebony chair and raised table next to the bed. She gathered the sheet around her and slowly walked over to the chair, seeing a length of fine black cloth with a gold braided belt folded over it. Beside the garment, a necklace and two brooches were laid out for her. The golden jewelry was set with rubies, fire opals, and garnets, and it glowed even in the gentle light. The gems were arranged in the same shape as the fateful narcissus she had picked in Nysa before the earth cracked open beneath her.
Persephone wrapped the sheet around her and picked up the necklace with shaking hands. She raised it to her throat and jewels cascaded perfectly across her collarbone and the top of her breasts, as though the necklace were designed to fit only her. She looked up and saw her reflection in a long mirror of polished hematite. The sheet slipped from beneath her arms and fell to the floor, and she stood staring at her naked form draped with blood red jewels. She shuddered and unclasped the necklace, nearly dropping it on the table. Persephone picked up the sheet and pulled it around her, feeling more naked than she had ever felt in her life.
When I take you as my queen, Persephone, your crown shall be every jewel in the earth. Every ounce of its wealth will be your adornment…
She sat back down on the bed and shuddered. Was this how the Eleusinian woman had felt after her wedding? And was she even married to Hades, or had he merely enjoyed her in the dark of Erebus outside his bonds? There was no ceremony, no words that bound one to the other. Tears fell on the sheet she clutched at her breast. She lifted the black cloth in her hands, buried her face in it and silently wept.
Persephone felt a hand stroke her shoulder, and looked up to see Hecate. She sobbed aloud, leaning her head onto the strange woman’s hip.
“You burn in many ways, many places, dear child, I know. It will be no worse, and then it will pass, and you will heal,” Hecate said, stroking her hair.
“—Ill prepared you for what to expect of this day, and fought the Fates too long trying to prevent it.”
“Expect? None of this was supposed to happen! I— one minute I was— I was with him, and he tells me he will come for me tonight, then— then I picked a flower and— and—” Words disappeared as tears ran down her face and collected on the soft folds of Hecate’s peplos. The woman stroked her hair silently, letting her cry. “My mother was coming back for me! He could have waited at least that long. I didn’t even get the chance to tell her or say goodbye! She doesn’t know where I am,” Persephone said. “I don’t even know where I am.”
“You are with me.” Persephone looked up to see Aidoneus standing in the doorway, his forehead etched with pain from listening to her sobs. A plain black tunic covered his chest, and a heavy dark gray himation was slung across it from his right hip over his left shoulder. His hair was bound back with a simple gold band. Three rings with enormous red stones glinted on his left hand as he motioned for Hecate to leave.
She narrowed her eyes at Aidon and looked down at Persephone, petting her hair. “I’ll return if you need me,” Hecate said, and bowed her head as she stepped away, “my queen.”
Aidoneus watched Hecate leave; confused by the way she glared up at him when she passed by. He slowly walked over to Persephone and sat beside her on the bed. Her skin glowed in the lamplight. She wiped her tears away, trying not to look him in the eye. They sat in silence, Aidon searching for the spot on the floor Persephone seemed to be staring at so intently.
“I couldn’t sleep either,” he finally said. Sleep never came easily for Aidoneus under any circumstance. But restlessness and strange dreams had plagued him in his own room until he finally gave up on sleep and waited for Persephone to wake. He ran a hand down her shoulder, cautiously trying not to touch her too much. Aidon was mildly surprised that she didn’t shrink away from his touch. Seeing her wrapped in the bed sheet, her back and bare shoulders exposed to him, started to inflame him. He had heard her cry out in pain in the dark of Erebus, and dared not be so intimate with her so soon. It was bad enough as it was, knowing that he'd hurt her. There would have been no blood at all if he had done as he should have— been gentle, been a good husband. But his guilt warred with the desire to hold her as close as he could as soon as he could. His body was drawn to hers like iron to a lodestone. He needed to get them out of this bedroom.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she whispered.
“Tell you what?”
“You said your name was Aidon. You are Hades,” she said aloud, his true name heavy on her tongue. “Why did you lie to me?”
He found the will to put distance between them and stood, facing her. “I prefer to be called Aidoneus; Aidon for short. Hades means too many things. It was the name my father gave me. It is the name the mortals give my realm,” he said, kneeling in front of her and lifting her chin to face him. “It’s a name that would have lost you to me.”
The sadness and fear in her pale eyes cut through him like a knife. “Don’t you think I at least deserved to know?”
“I wanted you to know me: Aidon. The person I am; the man who is your husband. If you had known me only as Hades, Ruler of the Underworld, would you have let me hold you? Would you have kissed me in our dream last night?”
Persephone turned away and blushed, heat rushing into her as she remembered Aidon caressing her, his hands running along her skin, and his tongue parting her teeth as they tasted each other. The heat flashing through her started to lessen the pain at her core. She cursed her traitorous body. “That’s not a good excuse. You lied to me.”
“Hades is also the name your mother would have used to turn you against me; to lie to you about me.”
“She only told me your name and your title once, and said that the mortals cannot call your true name above ground. She never said anything further about you,” Persephone said, narrowing her eyes at him. “Maybe she should have. And do not speak ill of her; ever. You stole me from her.”
His mood darkened as she unknowingly mentioned the woman who had shattered all his careful plans. Aidon had prepared everything— he would appear to her in the living world just before sunset, ferry her across the Styx at dawn when his kingdom was at the apex of its beauty, and gently guide both of them when they consummated their marriage that night. Demeter and her madness were the reason he had been forced to abduct Persephone and hastily couple with her in the first place. “She doesn’t own you.”
Persephone stood up in a flash of anger. “Oh, so you own me, then?”
Aidon came up from his crouch to rise in front of her, standing a head taller than Persephone. Calm dark eyes stared down at her. His hands moved gently to her shoulders, dancing over her hot skin. She shuddered, inadvertently dropping the clutched sheet and revealing herself to him. Aidon inhaled sharply before he averted his eyes, trying to look anywhere in the room that wasn’t her inviting body.
He turned back to her and stared directly at her frightened face and nowhere else. “You may be my wife, but no one owns you, Persephone.”
“Then let me go home.”
“This is your home.”
“You know what I mean!”
Aidon released her shoulders and turned his back to her. Once he’d offered her some privacy, he spoke again. “It isn’t that easy. One cannot just cross the River here and go back to the corporeal world.”
Persephone gathered the sheet around her again and sat down on the bed. “You flew me here; you can fly me back."
“If I do, then we might never see each other again,” he pleaded with her. Aidon thought about all the other ways Demeter could separate them forever. He softened his voice. “Your mother would— she already did too much to prevent our union.”
“Then why am I even here? Who says we’re even married?”
Aidon turned and looked her in the eye. “Your father.”
She creased her brow, thinking of Zeus—the distant and powerful god she hadn’t seen since she was a young child. This was the way of the world. If Zeus had given her to Hades, then that was the end of it. Her shoulders slumped in acceptance. “At least take me to my mother so I can tell her what happened.”
“Persephone, I cannot—” he stopped and sat next to her again, moving her long hair over one shoulder to stroke her back. He fought to keep calm. “I can’t surrender you to Demeter. You’re my wife; I need you here.”
“Then I am your prisoner.”
He pursed his lips and stood up, walking to the door. “Please get dressed,” he said with a backwards glance. “As long as we’re both awake, I might as well show you some of your new home. Our home.”
Her prison. But this was the way of the world. Her mother had told her so just yesterday. Women were passed from father to husband. It was inevitable.
Persephone watched him leave and looked back to the folded black fabric on the chair. She slowly wrapped it over her body, then fastened the cloth at her shoulders with the brooches before winding the golden ribbon so it girded her waist and wound under her breasts. She pulled at the fabric, draping it around her slim curves into an elegant chiton. Persephone looked down, sumptuous layers of fine black cloth cascading from her hips to her feet. She decided against wearing the necklace.
Outside in the long hallway, Hecate stood next to the door, her arms folded and an eyebrow raised. Aidon glared back at her. “What?”
“I am not the Oracle at Delphi, Aidon, but next time, perhaps, you will trust that I don’t need to be in order to give you a clear foretelling. She was not glad to awaken to me. You were in her heart, and you should have been beside her.”
“I had my reasons.”
“She is alone here—”
“She has me !” He spat at her.
“Now, or soon? By the time you arrived, certainly. But not this morning, when she needed you,” Hecate said quietly.
“I couldn’t stay with her. If I was tempted again so soon, I— I wouldn’t have been able to…” Aidon was afraid of what he might have done to her, what little control he would have had if both of them awoke in the same bed. He had barely been able to rein himself in when the bed sheet fell and exposed her to him.
Hecate watched each unfamiliar emotion dance across his face. She gave him a pained smile and shook her head. “How little you know about women.”
“I think you’ve made my lack of experience abundantly clear to me over the last two days,” he said through his teeth.
“In that way the two of you are well matched. The river before you flows wide and wild. You can swim out alone, and be swept away by its currents,” she said looking up at him, “or you can build a boat together.”
Wherever she stepped, the plants withered and died. Hoary frost covered the fields of Nysa, each shocked blade of grass sparkling with ice under the waning full moon high overhead. Cloaked in indigo, her lustrous copper blonde hair newly streaked with brittle strands of white, Demeter carried a torch in her hand and cried out on the wind. Her voice was thin and hoarse, her words torn and scattered by the howling gales that whipped around her as she walked.
“Kore!” Demeter walked into the valley away from the sacred groves that stood on the hilltops. Rivulets of tears were dried on her face. “Kore! Where are you?”
She had to be somewhere. Demeter cursed Athena and Artemis, and then cursed herself for trusting Kore with Zeus’s virgin daughters. When she had arrived in Nysa at sunset, both had told her they thought Kore was already with Demeter.
They were lying to her. She could feel their lies.
“Kore!!” Storm clouds moved across the surface of the moon and the only light Demeter had now was her torch. She looked frantically around her, hoping against hope that her daughter would come running out of the darkness and into her arms.
She tripped forward, falling over freshly uplifted earth. The clouds parted again and Demeter saw a great scar running through a small stone circle filled with trampled flowers. She could see the gaping outline of the earth where it had been pushed apart from below. Her eyes watered as she surveyed the ruined remains of the secret garden her daughter had planted as a young girl. “No…”
Demeter stumbled to the widest part of the crack in the center of Kore’s garden and fell to her knees, her eyes brimming with fresh tears. “No! My Kore!”
She beat her fist on the cold ground, as the mortals did when they wanted answers from the dark god. “Hades! Hades Aidoneus, I know you can hear me!”
There was no answer.
“Hades!" she yelled, beating the ground with each word, "Cold-hearted ravager! Return her to me at once!” She opened her bruised fist, clenching the earth, fingers sinking into the upturned dirt. Tears fell down her face again and she shook, sobbing. “Aidon, please! You could have had anyone. She was all I had left…”
She looked skyward and wept, the wind churning around her as dark clouds rolled across the firmament and blotted out the moon. Lightning arced in a fan across the base of a cloud. “Is there nothing you cannot take from me? I’ve only ever asked you for one thing! And still—”
“We swore…” his voice answered her on a soft rumble of thunder.
Lightning illuminated the field and the trees, their leaves shriveling and falling to the wasted ground. Demeter pulled herself to her feet. “And you swore yourself to me, long ago! How can you answer for that?”
A loud boom split the air as a bolt crashed to the ground, its force nearly knocking Demeter off her feet. Zeus stood in its wake, his brilliant white himation wrapped around him as a cloak and hood against the icy wind.
“I couldn’t take you as my queen, Demeter. The earth did not yield any help against the Titans, and you did not seek aid outside your province.”
“You know I tried,” Demeter cried to Zeus. “Gaia would not help me.”
“No, indeed. Instead, she spit out Typhoeus, who nearly destroyed us all. The Titanomachy would have been lost if I had taken so weak a consort for my wife.”
“It didn’t mean you had to stop loving me!”
“We settled this aeons ago, Demeter!” he turned his gaze away from her and spoke under his breath. “You would not want me for a husband as I am now, anyway.”
The truth stung her. “Yet you couldn’t leave me one thing. Just one reminder of how much you once loved me!”
“Is that what our daughter is to you? A token of my affection, to be preserved forever in sentimental reflection? The toll on her was too great, Demeter. You sought to keep Persephone an ignorant child forever.”
“Childlike innocence was her nature—”
“It was the only nature you gave her!” he yelled, the sky cracking with blinding light.
Demeter fell to her knees in fear, her head bowed. “Mighty Zeus—”
“Do not interrupt me, woman!” he bellowed, the thunder rolling and echoing through the hills. “You taught my eldest child nothing ! I did not choose to keep Persephone ignorant to her divine destiny. But because of the love I once bore you, I allowed you more leeway with our child than I allowed the mothers of any of my other children. Including my own wife!”
She was weeping. He had loved her once. Zeus placed a hand on Demeter’s shoulder as she knelt, shaking in front of him. He knew her; anger was not the way to appeal to her. Her once golden hair was turned white with grief. The storm calmed.
“Demeter, Persephone is a queen now, and Aidoneus is not an unfitting husband. He rules over the richest part of what we divided at the end of the war."
Demeter raised her head to meet his gaze. Zeus's bold blue eyes softened.
"You must let her go,” he said softly, the wind starting calm. “You are the mother of the fertile fields. The earth’s people will be your children for all eternity.”
Demeter stood up slowly before the king of the gods, her eyes narrowed, her voice iron. “I forsake them. Just as you abandoned your child, I forsake mine.”
“You cannot,” he growled, thunder rolling again across the sky.
“Stop me, then,” Demeter replied, icily. The wind howled fiercely, turning cold, stripping more leaves from the trees, their dried edges cutting past them. “Return my daughter from the Pit, from the hands of that monster, and I will tend the earth. Until that time, your worshippers, and all the worshippers of the Olympians who betrayed me, will feel my wrath.”
Chapter 8: Chapter 7
The palace was beautiful and cold. Each room was different, displaying one rich color after another. Each step she took echoed empty and hollow, and she felt the profound silence closing in around here. Wide pillars and reliefs decorated each room, quartz giving way to marble, marble giving way to onyx, malachite, and granite. While the memory of Mount Olympus from her one childhood visit was hazy, she most clearly remembered the stark white walls and absence of color, an abundance of people. The Palace of Hades was its opposite.
One passage opened to an immense quartz-domed great hall with gold columns. Woven tapestries hung on each wall, their threads telling the story of the war long ago. She ran her hand along one such panel, tracing the outline of a golden chariot wheel, then stepped back to view the entire scene. Hecate stood to one side of her, Aidoneus to the other. He paid no attention to the tapestry, only to the wispy lock of hair on her neck that had escaped her chignon.
A warrior stood on the chariot, holding a raven-crested standard before a host of the underworld. The threads told a tale of frightening creatures— a dark haired woman wrapped in black standing with towering Cyclopes, bronze armored men with black and silver wings hovering in front of dark, unknown creatures, their hulking forms hidden in the shadows. A small girl dressed in white with strawberry blonde hair and a silver half moon hanging on her forehead stood ahead of their ranks, her arms outstretched and holding up a massive golden helm.
“The Helm of Darkness; our gift to Aidoneus to render him unseen to whomever he chooses. That was me, long ago,” Hecate said, pointing at the small girl, “But not so long ago…”
That surprised Persephone. Intuitively, she had guessed from the way Hecate carried herself and spoke that she was ancient. If she were just a child when the Titanomachy happened, it would make her not much older than Persephone. Her eyes followed the upheld helm and looked at the warrior’s familiar face. She moved to the widest of the panels. The central scene was wreathed in laurel branches. It showed the gods’ victory over Typhoeus, the deadliest of the Titan's allies, before her father buried him under Mount Aitne. In each corner was a depiction of the Olympian alliance. On a bottom corner stood three figures. A man and a woman dressed in white stood on one side of a river, and the helmeted warrior dressed in black stood on the other, his hand outstretched toward the woman’s swollen womb. Persephone peered at the woman’s face and her copper blonde hair.
She felt Aidon’s hand come up to hold her at the small of her back. “Do you recognize them?”
“My mother… the man next to her is my father…”
“And you,” he said pointing at young Demeter’s belly. “And I.”
She felt a chill crawl up her spine. If their betrothal was as old as the alliance of the Olympians, why didn’t her mother ever tell her?
“This is where we started, Persephone. And one day,” Aidoneus said, pointing at the vast empty wall opposite the entry, “Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos will finish weaving the tapestry that tells our story.”
Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, Persephone thought. The Fates themselves. Mother knew of this; swore it on the Styx. Why didn't she tell me? The last question repeated over and over again in her head. The walls felt suffocating and close, trapping her. A lump formed in her throat. She turned to Aidoneus, who was still smiling down at her. “Can we go outside? I… I want to see what it looks like beyond the walls.”
“You’ve never lived indoors, have you?”
“No. Even the shrines and temples I rested at were open to the sky.”
Aidoneus cursed himself for forgetting where she came from and what she had known all her life. At the very least he should endeavor to make his wife more comfortable with her new home. He smiled at her and pushed the stray lock of hair back behind her ear. “It would be my honor to show you the Fields.”
Hecate followed them down the corridors through the portico to the gardens. Aidoneus opened the door before them and stepped out with Persephone while Hecate hung back. She watched him introduce the young queen to Askalaphos, the pudgy little gardener who knelt to one knee before Persephone touched him on the shoulder. Hecate smiled. Once they had moved on, Hecate walked to where the gardener was pulling at something near the enclosing walls.
“Stop,” Hecate said firmly.
“My lady?” Askalaphos pointed at the tiny sapling. “It’s just a weed, and it’ll become a mighty big one if I don’t pull it now.”
“Let it become what it will, Askalaphos. If you see more like it, leave them untouched as well,” she said. “Don't let anyone touch them.”
“Lady Hecate, do you know what they are?”
She remembered the rush of imagery that had come to her yesterday as she had counseled Aidoneus. The flashes had been vivid, but understanding had escaped her. “I do not. But let them grow just the same.”
Aidon took Persephone to the edge of the garden, replete with blossom after blossom of asphodel. White poplar trees shaded the boundaries of the garden, set inside the tall stone walls. Gray mist, unmoving, hung high overhead. Beyond the garden, a gray field stretched on to the horizon, cut in half by a thin black river snaking toward them.
Persephone looked out over the field, and thought of her mother kneeling down and ripping these same plants from her shrine. She had known this entire time. When Demeter saw the asphodel growing where her precious Kore had slept, her mother had known who was coming for her. Why didn’t she tell me?
She reached out and brushed her hand across one of the asphodel buds, expecting it to open for her. The white petals remained closed and motionless. She chewed on her lip and tried again. Still nothing.
Persephone took a couple wide steps to catch up with Aidoneus, who was following the garden path to a large ebony gate. The gate to the garden creaked, and a man clad in black held it open for them. After they passed through, he closed it behind them and limped to the wall to retrieve a crooked herder’s staff. A flat expanse of gray earth stretched before them. Here and there, clumps of the white flowers grew out of the rocky soil.
“Menoetes, how are you? How's the leg?” Aidon said with a smile.
“Well, milord; doing better today. But that ram they gave us did a real number on me,” he said, smiling with missing teeth at Persephone. “And your ladyship must be…”
“Kor—Persephone,” she said. The herdsman bowed to her, favoring his leg as he clung to his staff. She was struck by the fact that Aidon addressed everyone by name— even his gardener and bondsman— called them ‘friend’ when he spoke to them, and asked after each of them.
“My Queen,” Menoetes replied before Aidoneus and Persephone walked on.
The plain itself was as bountiful with the dark stalks of asphodel as the garden. While the garden hosted rows of carefully pruned flowers, these grew wild and unruly, their roots thick and tangled. From the corner of her eye, Persephone saw a translucent white hand reach around a tall stalk, followed by short curls of brown hair, a stubbly beard, and finally a set of gray eyes peering out at her. She gasped and turned to look, but the ghostly face startled and vanished into a dark mist, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared.
…the Land of the Dead… Words from long ago teased her memory …drink no wine, eat no bread…
A young woman with pale skin, clad in a long black chiton, her hair bound up with black ribbon, stepped out from between two more stalks, absently twirling a white flower in her hand. Persephone could nearly see through her, and stopped for a moment to watch her. A serene smile lit the face of the shade as she pulled the anthers from the bloom. She glanced up at Persephone with a surprised gasp that melted into a soft smile. The woman cast her eyes downward and drew out the skirts of her chiton as she dipped into low curtsy. Rising again, she faded into a smoky mist that wafted back into the stalks of asphodel behind her, the flower falling from her hand to rest on the ground.
Lord Hades rules the Land of the Dead, where they drink no wine and eat no bread…
When Persephone was a child in Nysa, she and Artemis and all the Olympian children were taught simple rhymes to memorize the names and domains of the immortals. Before today, those long forgotten lines from her childhood were all she had ever known about her new husband, betrothed to her since she was in Demeter’s womb. Why didn’t you tell me?
Pale shades of mortals clad in black flitted between the plants, appearing one moment, and vanishing into mist the next. Two middle aged women looked at her and whispered, smiling. Both knelt to the ground as Persephone and Aidoneus walked past. An old man leaning against a staff clutched his hand to the front of his black himation and silently mouthed ‘at last’. He bowed low before vanishing. Five young women, three carrying newborns and two with empty arms, traipsed across their path. The childless women silently fawned over the shade infants, then disappearing into the flowers as quickly as they appeared.
“Are those mothers who died on the birthing bed?” Persephone asked Aidon, remembering the Eleusinian woman and what her mother had said about the mortal’s fate.
“There are too many,” he said grimly, “Far too many if you ask me. You’d think the mortals would have solved that by now.”
As they walked on through the fields, Persephone gathered a single white flower from each plant she passed and wove them into her hair. Aidon’s mouth curved into an amused smile as she did it almost unconsciously, fashioning a beautiful crown from the flowers of his realm. They heard a desperate bleat behind them, and a black lamb bolted past them and away into the fields, becoming a blur of rustling asphodel. “You have sheep? How did they get here?”
“Mortals do not build temples to me, as they did for you, and they rarely pray to me.” He placed his arm around her shoulder, trying to match pace with her smaller steps as they walked on. “But when they do, they send me their black sheep, and Menoetes takes care of them. It’s why all of the cloth woven in this realm is black.”
Persephone looked down at her own gown. “Aidon, would you mind if I changed mine?”
“Of course not,” he said, smiling as he heard her say his name. He spread his arm to show her the color of his himation. “I keep mine gray, after all.”
Aidon looked on as white framed in dark vermillion swirled across her gown to match the asphodel in her hair and throughout the open field.
“There we are!” Persephone smiled and smoothed down the edges of the chiton before looking up at Aidon, who stood transfixed, his eyes glinting as he shook his head in adoration.
“You’re beautiful.” Aidon pushed the same wayward lock of hair behind her ear, and brushed his fingers down her neck.
She stared up at him, the nervous smile on her face melting into desire as his fingers trailed slowly over her collarbone. Persephone felt his hand come up to her cheek again as her head tilted up, his face moving toward her.
A growl broke the silence, followed by loud baying. The ground started to shake. She turned chalk white in horror as a great monster came galloping toward them, its three dark heads baring sharp white teeth.
“Cerberus, down !” Aidon yelled out.
Persephone backed up and felt her feet start to carry her away. She picked up her long skirts and ran as hard as her legs could move, sharp gravel punishing her feet through her sandals. She didn't care.
One cannot just cross the River here…
The thin black river. It lay just up ahead. The field was hidden by mist, but now, caverns were visible beyond. Passageways to the upper world. She could run away back home. It was just a little further…
Aidon’s back was still to her. He patted one of the heads of the enormous hound. Another head yawned. “There, you see? He’s— Persephone?”
He saw her running headlong toward the river Lethe.
“Persephone! Stop! Don’t touch the water!”
She looked behind her to see him running after her, yelling for her. The great beast sat in the field behind him, blood red tongues lolling out of its mouths. She ran harder. She was almost to the river. She was going to go home, and be free of this gray waste. Persephone would feel the sun and the wind, see the green fields and her mother again. She had so many questions for her…
It was such a shallow stream; the silted bottom was clearly visible even at the widest part. She could cross it easily. Persephone dipped one foot into the water, then the other and… it was warm. Why was she standing here? She heard someone in the distance saying a name. The water was warm. Why was she here? The water was warm…
Aidon leaned forward and grabbed her wrist, dragging her dead weight from the shallows of the Lethe and back to the shore as her heels scraped across the ground. He knelt with her in his arms. Her body was limp and her eyes stared off into nothing.
“No…” he whispered. “Fates, no… please… Persephone, wake up! Persephone…”
Kore looked out at the gray sky and the endless field. White flowers covered everything. Someone was holding her and shaking her. She heard her other name as though it were coming from the bottom of a well. Kore knew that voice. It was closer to her now. She turned toward him, “Aidon?”
“Persephone…” Relief washed over him. Aidon held her against him, her arms slowly starting to move. “Thank the Fates…”
“You… came for me? Oh, I knew you would come!” she said, clumsily throwing her arms around him, still disoriented. He looked down at her, shocked as she continued. “But it’s not sunset yet.”
He gently broke their embrace and looked into her eyes. “Persephone, what do you remember?”
“I wasn’t expecting you so soon. I was just about to visit my garden but… this place isn’t Nysa,” she said, scanning the horizon. Kore saw a palace in the distance, set against a hillside, a waterfall cascading next to it. “Wait— I am with you . Is this where you live?”
Aidoneus relaxed and sat back. She wasn’t lost to him; she had just forgotten the past day. He could still save her memories. Relieved, he stroked her hair. “Yes, sweet one. You are with me in my kingdom… Persephone, you—”
“Aidon!” She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his neck. “I thought you were only in my dreams, or I was going mad, but… you’re here. You’re real… Now I can finally see you in the light and— and you’re beautiful and…” she said, smoothing a hand across his chest, then stopped. “No, beautiful isn't the word. It is, but, you're a man, after all. Handsome! Yes that's the word.” Kore looked down the length of her as she lay in his arms. “Did you give me this dress?”
“Yes,” he said quietly.
Kore brushed her hands over a glittering ruby and garnet narcissus brooch pinned at her shoulder and stared down at the diaphanous fabric clinging to her legs. “Why is it all wet?”
“We need to get away from here. You need to drink from the Mnemosyne pool.”
“Where did you go?”
“In the grove just now we— I had just…” she blushed and looked back up at him. “You were going to say something to me. At least it sounded like you were going to, but then you went away.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said, holding her. “Persephone, I wanted so badly to stay with you, but I was forced to come back here. I— there was something that I needed to do immediately.”
“So you didn’t leave because of me?”
“No, of course not,” he kissed her forehead. “But, right now we need to stand up and—”
“Wait before we go, just… stay. Please hold me,” Kore said as her hand slipped under the folds of his himation and stroked his collarbone, running her hand over his skin and tracing the edge of his tunic down to his chest. She could feel Aidon’s heart beating faster, and ran a finger back up the vein throbbing in his neck. She heard his breath hitching.
He whispered to her. “Please… Persephone—”
She cradled his face in her hand then leaned up and whispered in his ear. “I love you.”
A flash of hot, unwanted tears stung his eyes. Aidoneus tried to force them back, his voice choking. “Sweet one… we need to leave this place. Here— stand up with me.”
He rose and took her with him. Kore staggered forward, losing her balance, and leaned against his chest as he held her. Aidon braced his feet to hold her up. She peppered any piece of his exposed skin she could find with small kisses, her lips dancing along his neck and collarbone. Each press of her lips stoked the fires raging beneath his skin. Her breath came out in a warm whisper against his neck. “You make me feel so alive. I know you feel the same…”
She pressed her thigh into his groin. Aidon cursed himself and the growing hardness she had deliberately sought out as she rubbed against him. Persephone still wobbled on her feet and he supported her and held her close. The heat of her body through their clothes became a delicious torture. Persephone pressed against him again and heard him hiss through his teeth. Her lips brushed past his.
Aidon captured her lips in a fevered kiss, inhibition dissolved, and heard her moan into his mouth. Her hands traveled down his chest as she fitted herself closer to his body. He embraced her, all sound drowned out by the blood coursing through him.
The cautionary voice that would have stopped him from kissing her was extinguished when her tongue snaked out against his teeth. He opened his mouth and deepened their kiss, pulling her against him. Kore trailed her hands down his stomach, feeling him tense and jump at her touch.
How terrible could it be if she doesn’t remember how you brought her here? Look at her. Feel her. She is yours and she wants you. You could have her here and now…
Her hand reached lower, making him gasp. She whispered against his lips. “Lie with me. Make me yours.”
Aidoneus broke off the kiss and stepped away from her, gently prying her off him. “I can’t. I— Persephone, I can’t…”
“You don’t want me?” Kore said, her face falling.
“Sweet one, I do want you. Powerfully. But not here; not like this.” He held out his hand to her. “Come with me.”
Kore walked after him, her hand in his as they traveled through the silent field, passing one bunch of white flowers after another. They were nearly out of breath when they came to a pool reflecting the gray mist above, its shores ringed in white poplars.
“This may be easier if you’re lying down,” Aidon said. She blushed and the corner of her mouth twisted up before he realized what he had just said. “No, no… you need to drink the water, and the effects will be very strong and very sudden.”
“Why do I need to?”
“Please trust me,” Aidoneus said as he dipped the edge of his himation in the cold waters of the Mnemosyne pool. He watched her comply, lying on the flat stone embankment. A soft, expectant smile lit up her face and she closed her eyes. He shook his head at himself. Even now, she thought he was trying to coyly seduce her.
Cradling the wet fabric, he sat behind her. Aidon propped her up in his lap with her head leaned back against his chest and stroked a hand over her forehead to relax her. “Here; just a few drops. I’ll be right here with you.”
She opened her mouth and felt the cool water hit the back of her throat, then gasped and coughed. Stars trailed in her vision, then rushed through her in blinding white light. She shook violently, and Aidon wrapped his arms tightly around her. Everything around her disappeared and fell away. She could hear his calm voice echoing, as though it were emanating from the center of her. “I've got you… I’ve got you. It will be all right. Shhh…”
Her mind wound back to her first memories of her mother. The taste of ambrosia. Olympus. Meeting her father. The fields. The flowers. The harvests. The wedding she witnessed. The man who held her close that night. Let me look at you. The field of Nysa. Aidon. The cypress grove. Your bridal crown. The flower in her garden that split the earth. The chariot. The searing heat. The dark of Erebus. Her legs wrapped around his waist. Hades. Caressing her. Kissing her. I wish there were more time. The pain. Pleasure. Kore no more. Running into the Lethe. Memories escaping. Holding herself against Aidoneus. I love you…
Persephone’s entire body screamed as she turned to the side, curling her knees to her chest and crumpling against Aidon. He embraced her, his hand smoothing over her arms to comfort her through wrenching sobs. She went limp and shuddered against him at the onslaught of memories. He rocked her from side to side in his embrace, his head leaned down against hers, until she had no tears left.
After she had been silent for a moment, he stood her up carefully and looked into her eyes. “Let’s go home.”
Chapter 9: Chapter 8
Aidon held Persephone about the waist during their walk back to the palace, in case she should falter. He looked down at her tear-stained face. She looked ahead silently, leaning on him periodically to regain her balance. The rush of the falls grew louder, and the gray mist above them began to dim as they approached the gates.
“What happened to me?” she finally asked.
“You walked into the river Lethe. Its waters are drunk by the shades to erase the memories of their lives and the pain of their death when they first arrive. They cross over it and drink it once more when they are reborn to the world of the living.”
“And that pond?”
“The Mnemosyne— where all lost memories go.”
Persephone puzzled over this for a moment, then gasped and shrank back against Aidoneus as the great black beast from the field loomed into view. He was lying down next to the outer door, a low whine emanating from each of his three heads when he saw her.
“Persephone, it’s all right,” Aidon said, holding her. “Don’t be scared. It’s just my dog.”
“Your… that’s a dog?!”
“Mostly.” He lifted his thumb and index finger to his lips and whistled twice. The three heads lifted up. “Cerberus! Cerberus, this is Persephone. Say hello.”
Cerberus jumped up and trotted over to them before crouching down. He lowered two heads and raised one, lolling out a panting tongue. The beast’s shoulder was as tall as Persephone when he was lying down.
“He won’t hurt you,” Aidon said, roughly petting him. Persephone inched closer and gingerly reached out her hand. It met short wiry fur. She ran her hands through it, then stepped back with a start as the creature rolled over on its back, snorting.
Persephone stepped forward again and reached up to scratch his stomach, watching all three tongues hanging out of his three mouths. His serpentine tail smacked and shook the earth, his hind legs kicking in the air. She looked back to see Aidon crack a wide smile, showing his teeth. The expression looked foreign on him, and she guessed he didn’t smile like that very often, if ever.
“I think he likes you,” Aidon said. “He won’t even do that for me.”
Cerberus pricked up his ears. Persephone stepped back as he rolled away from them, then bounded across the garden, clearing the wall as if it weren't even there. Persephone heard him baying and barking. “What is he doing?”
“Cerberus helps me keep the world of the living separate from the world of the dead. He guards all of us.”
“Would he… is he guarding me?”
“Yes, but he would let you pass him. Mortals, living and dead, cannot,” he said as they made their way inside. He watched relief wash over her face.
Persephone followed him as they made their way back to her chambers, slowly learning the layout of the palace. The memory of him embracing her at the Lethe played out again in her mind. “Why did you stop?”
She sighed and looked down. “You could have… had me… on the banks of the Lethe when I lost my memory. I was willing. Why did you stop?”
Aidoneus opened the door to the amethyst room and took off his sandals before entering her antechamber. “I thought that would be obvious.”
“When I am with you, I want it to be with you as you are, and I want you to want me as well. I’ll not have you by way of deception. The girl who kissed and embraced me at the Lethe wasn’t you, Persephone. Or, rather, it was you before…”
“Before you abducted me,” she said, sitting down carefully on a chaise and removing her sandals. “Which begets my next question: why did you abduct me in the first place? You knew that I wanted you, that I was going to wait for you.”
“You were in danger. I had to act.”
“In danger of what?”
Aidon knew this would come. No matter how irrational Demeter had been, her daughter still loved her deeply. If he told Persephone what her mother was about to do, she would never believe him. “I can’t tell you.”
“Oh? Then I suppose you also can’t tell me why you said you wished there were more time, before we—”
“To save you I had to…” he stopped and took a long breath. “The threat to you would be ended only after we consummated our marriage.”
Persephone looked up at him skeptically, her brow wrinkled. “Aidon, at every turn you’ve asked me to trust you. How am I supposed to do that, exactly? You didn’t tell me your true name or reveal anything about yourself, when you very clearly knew all there was to know about me.”
“You took me from the world above, the only home I’ve ever known, and you can’t even tell me why.”
“Persephone, I promise you, all will be revealed in time.”
“Revealed in time…” she scoffed. “And you wonder why I cannot trust you? This is why I had to ask why you didn’t just take me at the banks of the Lethe when—”
“Because I love you!”
Persephone stared up at him in shock, his face echoing hers. He turned away, wide-eyed, trying to process the words he’d just said. She sat there, her skin prickling as she brought her arms around her body, feeling raw and exposed, remembering when she said those very words to him not an hour ago.
“Because I couldn’t do that to you,” he continued. “There was a reason and a purpose for everything that happened when I brought you here, and I know that it destroyed your trust in me. Believe me when I say that to save you, that was a price I was willing to pay. I— I don’t expect you to love me right away, Persephone. All I ask from you is for a chance to rebuild that trust.”
“You’re asking for a lot, Aidon,” she muttered under her breath.
“And even if I do come to trust you… or love you… it doesn’t change who we are. Who is to say that I’d want to live in this place… forever? Mortals pray to my mother and I for fertile fields. For life— not death. I don’t belong here.”
“Believe it or not, I felt the same way when I first arrived here.” Aidon stretched his hand out to her. “Come; I want to show you something.”
She curled her fingers around his and he helped her to her feet. They walked through the sweeping portico columns onto the terrace. Aidon stood behind her, his hand resting on her arm and a thumb rolling along the skin of her shoulder. She leaned toward him, almost dizzy as she took in the sweeping landscape. The palace sat on a rocky cliffside far above the gray plain. From her left, a vast river wound its way before the palace and outward, meeting an endless black sea. Thin mist hung over the still waters.
From her view on the terrace, the palace was far more massive than she could have guessed from the few rooms Aidoneus and Hecate had shown her. The polished black marble of the palace’s outer walls belied the wealth of colorful stone she had already seen inside. Its hundreds of rooms and terraces were connected by winding hallways and staircases between the levels. Several rooms and passageways were embedded in the cliff side, framed by columns carved out of the stone itself. The gardens and the flat plains surrounding the Lethe and Mnemosyne lay behind the palace, high above the river lands. Far below the terrace, a towering poplar tree grew, its shining golden boughs overhanging the entryway to the palace atrium.
“Did you build all this?” she said quietly.
“Yes; bit by bit. I had aeons to do so.”
The calm waters of the river shone a blue darker and richer than the sky in the world above. Suddenly, its color changed to a brilliant purple, fading to orange, lighting the land and the mists above in a soft glow. The river shone like a brilliant sunset, its light illuminating the crystal room behind them. Persephone’s eyes danced. She hadn’t ever seen a sunset this beautiful in all her existence. Overwhelmed, she looked up at Aidon, who smiled back at her.
“That was my reaction the first time I saw the river change from day to night,” he said, running his hands along her shoulders and down her back.
“What makes it change color?”
“The River Styx has no bottom. Beyond that, we don’t know. The river is far older than you or I; older than Hecate, or Nyx, even. Hecate says it’s been here since Chaos gave the cosmos form from the void. It is the mother of all waters above and below the earth.”
Persephone stood mesmerized as the river shifted from orange to bright fuchsia. She felt Aidon’s hand stroking her back and leaned closer to him. “You didn’t feel like you belonged here… A strange thing to say since you rule over everything we’re looking at right now.”
“I didn’t choose to rule here. But I’ve come to believe that this place chose me. We drew lots. Your father received the skies and rulership over all, Poseidon the seas, and I received the Underworld.”
“But you were the eldest…”
“Yes. The lot I received embittered me for aeons, but I eventually grew to love this place. In retrospect, I don’t think Zeus’s position would have suited me. I was callous and short tempered in earlier days. And I’m afraid of what that would have turned into if I were ruling in his place.”
She turned to face him as the light faded from the river, turning it violet as night fell in the underworld. “This is all very beautiful… but it’s not the same as the sky and fields of the living world. I worry that it will take aeons for me to fall in love with the Underworld, just as it did for you.”
“I’m fairly certain loneliness prolonged it for me,” he said, taking her hands in his. “I’d like to think I could help relieve that for you.”
She looked up into his eyes. “You couldn’t have been completely alone this whole time. I mean, the men of Olympus all have… companions…”
“I’m not an Olympian. And I knew I would have you beside me one day,” he said.
“What about during the war?” she said quietly, moving closer to him.
Aidon brought his hands up to her shoulders and a vulnerable smile lit up his eyes. He shook his head slowly.
Persephone’s lips parted and she blinked in startled revelation, her body shuddering, pushing her closer to his. “So that means… when you and I were in Erebus…”
“Yes,” he whispered softly.
She returned to that moment and the look of shocked pleasure on his face as he trembled and struggled to remain still, trying to soothe and comfort her after their bodies joined. Persephone remembered his arm locked around her, supporting her. Her body drew instinctively closer to his and she lightly traced her finger around the edges of his face, brushing across the trimmed beard framing his jaw line.
Aidon kissed the edge of her hand just as he’d done in the dark of Erebus when she’d reached out for him. He cupped her face, and leaned down to meet her waiting lips. She deepened their kiss, first tasting his lips then mating their tongues. Her body melted against his, feeling him arch toward her. Persephone’s fingers raked down his back as he encircled her within his arms, pulling her ever closer. He felt his flesh awaken yet again, and sighed against her soft lips.
“Erebus was unforgettable for me,” he said hoarsely. “But that wasn’t what I wanted for our first time. I owed you so much more. So much more tenderness, so much more consideration…”
Persephone renewed their kiss as heat filled her body, her breath shuddering through her as he held her. Her knees shook and she felt her heels lift up to stand on tiptoe, getting closer to the heat from him that pulsed between them.
“Show you…?” He drew away breathlessly to look at her face, her lips red from their kiss. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she said timidly. “I’m sure.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
She leaned up to his ear, nervously. “I believe you, Aidon— I want to trust you. I want to try…”
“If you want me to stop at any time—” She put two fingers to his lips. He kissed them, then turned to capture her lips again in a kiss. He cradled her shoulders and held her up to him as her knees shook in nervousness and delight.
Aidon dropped down and scooped up the back of her knees with his other arm as Persephone folded her body against his chest. He quietly carried her from the balcony portico to the faintly lit amethyst antechamber, following the pathway of lamplight to her room. His eyes locked to hers in a smile as he walked through the ebony doors.
He thought back to just before dawn, when he had carried her sleeping body in this same way to this very room and laid her down on the bed. Aidoneus had spent several minutes carefully untangling the ruined braid that had held her hair through the journey before unwrapping her from his cloak. Wiping her blood and his seed from her thighs with the edge of his cloak, he had cursed himself for hurting her. But despite his guilt, and exhausted by the journey from the living world, he had still felt himself harden painfully under his armor and tunic, her beautiful naked body spread out before him. Aidon had quickly covered her with the bedclothes and left the room, fighting his desire for her the entire way.
Persephone felt her foot pass gently by one of the gauzy panels draping from the ceiling to the bed— her bed— as Aidon raised a knee for leverage on the soft down mattress and placed Persephone in the center. She felt her body sink into the cool sheets.
Aidon closed the great ebony doors with an echoing thud and looked back at her, the room now theirs alone. He walked toward the center of the chamber and raised his hand above his head, looking at the surrounding lamplight. Slowly closing one finger after another, the lamps dimmed to flickers of orange dancing on the edges of low blue flames. Only a scattered handful of the small lamps held full light. Persephone shuddered at this subtle demonstration of his power, her eyes transfixed as he walked to the side of the bed and sat down.
Persephone stretched out her hand to him and he pressed her fingers to his lips. He kissed down the length of her bare arm and up to one of the brooches holding the chiton to her body. Aidon lay alongside her, propped up on one elbow as he moved his hand to the brooch and slid out its pin. He looked up into her eyes for approval and was met with lids half closed in passion and her parted lips. Unable to resist he kissed them again, pulling the brooch away. Her hand danced over his shoulder and neck to the golden band containing his hair.
Tugging on it, she felt his hand come up to help her, pulling the thin torc away from his locks and letting it fall. Long curls of black hair fell freely down his back. Aidon took the three large rings off his left hand and carefully set them aside with the clasp and brooch. Supporting her neck, he pulled at the ribbon holding her chignon and unwound her hair, spreading the dark russet waves on the pillow behind her.
Persephone watched his eyes dart down to her breast, now exposed by the missing brooch. His hungry gaze caused her to inhale sharply, and the nipple tightened to a point as he unconsciously licked his lips. His hand traced and molded her breast, a thumb circling inward. Aidon’s tongue darted out to taste the very tip, then sucked the puckered flesh into his mouth as Persephone moaned from deep in her throat and thrashed on the bed.
“Should I keep going?” he whispered against her breast.
She didn’t answer him aloud; she only nodded with her eyes shut. He smoothed a hand over her hot skin and the soft fabric until he reached the ribbon girdle that bound her chiton. The tie was easy to undo, but unwrapping it from around her was a little harder. She smiled at him as he fumbled with it, holding her at her lower back. He unwound it in each direction, then pulled it from under her and cast it over the edge of the bed.
His face scanned her body before he looked back at her and moved partially over her, that familiar heat pressing against her hip. His lips met hers in a long kiss as she moved her leg against him, causing him to groan into her mouth. Aidon pulled away the second brooch and set it aside. The chiton was now a long piece of unbound fabric, its shape held aloft by the curves of her body underneath. He sat up and unwound the shoulder of his himation, propping himself up to pull it from underneath where he lay, letting the heavy fabric fall softly to the floor.
Persephone stared down at sculpted calves that had spent aeons walking across stone floors, following their lines up to his thighs, and an unmistakable outline, hard and upright, concealed beneath his tunic and loincloth. Persephone’s breath hitched and she blushed and shuddered in anxious heat. Admiration and restlessness played across her face before moving closer to him. He took off his belt and removed the golden fibula pins that held the fabric in place at his shoulders. Aidon cast it to the floor, his loincloth all that remained.
She squirmed in pleasure at the sight of him and reached carefully toward his body. Aidon forced himself to stay still as her fingers landed lightly on his chest. She traced each rise and fall then curiously ran her ring finger around a flat nipple. Aidon inhaled sharply through his teeth. She shifted course, trailing her fingers down his stomach, mesmerized. A deep line arched from his waist to his groin over one hip and into the dark curls of hair that started in a thin line at his navel and thickened as they moved lower. The pronounced hip line met its match from the other side just below the straining cloth, all paths leading to…
“Not yet,” he said, picking up her wrist before her fingers drifted any lower. All his energy was focused on fighting the urge to throw the remainders of their clothes to the floor, wrap Persephone’s legs around his waist, and plunge into her. If she explored any further, it would end him.
Instead, he set her arm gently down at her side again and pulled slowly at the fabric still covering her. His lips touched her neck and she moved her hand up to his shoulder, gripping at his skin.
Aidon stopped. “Is this still what you want?”
“Yes…” She looked into his eyes.
Persephone helped him, raising her hips off the bed as he moved the fabric out from under her. She felt it scrape over her breast as more of her flesh was revealed to him. The newly exposed nipple puckered from the cool of the room and the heat of his touch. Aidon sat up and pushed the remains of Persephone’s chiton over the side of the bed before turning back to her.
He paused there, taking in the swell of her breasts from the underside, the curve of her stomach, the mound of gently curling dark pubic hair, her legs, her ankles, each individual toe. He reached behind him and untied his loincloth, then cast it away with the rest of their clothes. Aidon sighed in relief and heard her shift and hold her breath.
Persephone took in the full sight of him for the first time. In their dream, her view of his most intimate parts had been obscured by their bodies, and in Erebus, the darkness had covered him completely. When he took her, he had sheathed himself fully within her. She had only felt, not seen him, until now. His manhood jutted from his body as he sat up. She watched it fall against his stomach as he lay back down beside her, the weight of his engorged flesh tipping it toward the sheets. She felt her skin flush hot, and her breath grew short. It was no wonder the pain had been so great. She wondered how he could fully enter her again without it hurting.
“Are you alright?” Aidon startled her. He ran a hand down her shoulder, feeling her shake.
“It’s just—” She licked her dry lips. “I’m afraid it will hurt again.”
He cupped her face and kissed her forehead. “We can stop anytime you want. Say the word and I’ll stop right now.”
Persephone looked into his eyes, burning yet sincere as he stroked her cheek and sighed. He meant every word of what he said. “I don’t want to stop— not now. Not yet. But if I do… do you promise?”
She leaned into Aidon and felt him press against her. He shuddered at the contact. His lips found hers again as they held each other skin on skin, their hands moving and exploring, running across each angle and curve.
Persephone’s arm slid under his waist and held Aidon against her. He leaned down and kissed one breast, then the other, moving back and forth between them. Persephone moaned as he pulled each hardened tip into his mouth before kissing her along her collarbone and up her neck. Carefully, he brought his hand up her thigh and moved inward. Her legs wriggled open at his touch, her body seeking him of its own volition. His hand trailed along white-hot skin, her knees shaking as he drew closer.
When Aidon’s hand met the apex of her thighs he looked back up at Persephone, watching as desire played across her face. Fingers stroked across the soft hair covering her vulva as his palm came to rest on her mound. She felt that familiar coil tightening in her stomach. Aidon slipped a finger between the folds, sinking into the slick heat pouring out of her. He groaned. She arched against the finger moving down her seam, the flesh pulsing around him. He found her entrance and circled back up, her body shuddering a halted moan as he brushed over the hooded bud at the top.
Persephone pulled him in for a kiss as his finger circled that spot. Fire shot through her as she turned her entire body toward him, aching for him, needing to feel him closer. She brought a leg over his hips, opening herself to his touch, his finger massaging and stroking the nub.
Aidon shifted her back down to the bed underneath him and lay astride of her. He balanced himself above her on his elbows and knees, his lips locked with hers as his hand returned to the heat of her crease, gently rolling his fingers through the folds. Her feet rested on the backs of his knees, opening herself to Aidon's careful caress. He rose above her and Persephone looked up into his eyes, feeling the weight and heat of his arousal fall against her stomach. He watched her gaze trail down between their bodies. She saw the tip pointed straight at her, a tiny pearl of fluid glistening on the crown, and trembled.
“If you’re afraid—”
“I’m not.” She looked up at him, his hand smoothing hair back from her forehead. “I’m not,” she whispered again. She ached indescribably, needing him closer to her. She sighed under her breath. “I want you, Aidon.”
Relief washed over him as he moved his body back, and felt her raise her legs to the side of his hips. He kissed her neck and came up to her ear, returning her gentle susurrations. “I'll go slowly. This isn’t supposed to hurt. I didn’t…” He fought to find words, to ensure her that he would be careful, tender with her. “It was never supposed to hurt. But if you feel any pain, Persephone, any at all, I’ll stop. I promise.”
She ran her fingers through the curls at the nape of his neck and felt the tip part her folds at her entrance. Tensing, she breathed shallowly through her nose as Aidon moved his hand between them. Persephone bit her lip, her heart beating out of her chest, waiting. He drew back for a moment. Instead of entering her, he traced the tip up and down her crease, rolling it through her wetness as she relaxed and gasped. The feel of him hot, needy, and barely restrained while he touched the folds of her labia from top to bottom was exquisite. Persephone could feel every twitch of his flesh, the blood pooled at his groin reflecting his heartbeat.
For Aidon this was slowly becoming torture. When he moved the tip up to brush against the center of her desire, she moaned and pressed her fingers harder into his shoulder blades. When he pushed it down to her entrance, he shuddered at the heat pouring out of her, beckoning him forward. He fitted himself over her body. Coated in her wetness, shaking with the primal need to bury himself within her, he kissed her jaw line. “Persephone…”
“Aidon, please…” she brought her legs up higher and locked them around his waist, opening to him. She watched him rise above her on one arm. He guided himself toward her entrance and Persephone felt him pitch forward as the width of the head opened her.
He moved slowly, finally taking his hand away when he knew his own motions could carry him forward. He looked into her eyes, searching for what she felt as he entered her.
Aidon watched her wince as he slowly pushed past where her barrier had once been. When she cried out sharply in discomfort, he stopped and ran a trembling hand along her cheek. “Did I hurt you?”
“Only for a moment,” she whispered back to him, smiling up at his worried face.
“Do you want me to stop?” he said, drawing back.
“No! No. Please…” She closed her legs around his waist, pushing her hips forward to reclaim the fraction of space he’d withdrawn. “I need you.”
He closed his eyes as they rolled back in pleasure at her words and movements, feeling her inch herself forward, enveloping him. It was too much. Aidon grasped her thigh to steady her and moved forward again, hearing her gasp as he slowly filled her.
Her world started tipping back and falling inward, heat sinking into her. The center of their universe became where he was carefully joining her and Persephone felt her head spinning in pleasure. The only sound she could hear was her heart beating out of her chest and his ragged breathing. Persephone let out a short cry and felt Aidon stop again before he realized that it was from pleasure, not pain. He kissed her open mouth on each of her lips before capturing them fully and tasting her. They moaned in unison as he sunk in the rest of the way and held there.
Velvet heat closed in and rippled around him as he waited for Persephone to open her eyes. When she trailed a foot along the curve of his spine, when she dragged her fingernails across his shoulders, when she simply breathed, she felt him within her body. When she opened her eyes to him, Persephone felt Aidon within her soul.
She gazed up at him, her eyes dilated with need, and the instinct to move overwhelmed him. He withdrew slowly as she whimpered, his absence aching within her. When he pushed forward again, she tightened her grip on his body, welcoming him back into her with a cry of pleasure. He pulled away again, this time nearly every inch and looked down the delicately curved length of her shuddering body to where they were joined.
He cradled her head forward, his hand tangling in her hair, wanting her to see their flesh together as one.
Persephone’s eyes dizzily trailed down the clenched muscles of his stomach to the nest of curls between his legs and the thick shaft penetrating her, slick with her essence. They watched and felt as he pushed slightly forward and drew back, each short thrust drawing a moan from both of them. She looked up at his straining face as he slowly drove back into her, the space between their bodies disappearing as his hips met her soft thighs.
Aidon shook and smiled down as she stared back up, pleasure written across her face, the pain now only a memory. He smoothed his hand over her forehead and carefully withdrew and thrust into her again.
She looked up to see his eyes darkened with pleasure, the curls of his long black hair falling to one side. He moved up on his elbows once again and held her back and neck, embracing her as they moved in a slow rhythm. She gasped at how incredible he felt within her. His lips covered hers in a kiss.
Arching underneath him, she felt him rock her back with each thrust. Her stomach and thighs, the palms of her hands, the tips of her breasts and the soles of her feet began to spasm, edging her ever closer to that glorious crest. She reached down to his waist and pressed her hands into the hard curves of his hips, angling him deeper with each push.
The waves that rolled through her started to echo within him. Aidon could feel every nerve of her channel starting to pulse around him as he quickened his thrusts. Her arms and legs shook as she brought her hands up to his shoulders again, the pressure of her sheath tightening around him. He wanted to arrive there with her. “Persephone,” he whispered into her ear. “My sweet wife… just let go… Let go…”
She rested her forehead on his shoulder, her body curling forward to his as the paroxysms started, their waves as uncontrollable as her voice. She cried out, hearing her voice only distantly shouting his name and wordlessly pleading with him for more as he started to quake. Her back arched and her eyes squeezed shut, Persephone held fast to him as he rose above her and made one final deep thrust. Aidon answered her cries with a shout that echoed off the marble walls.
The swell rising through his body held him arched there as he came forcefully inside her before collapsing into her arms. Their breathing was erratic, their limbs tangled and their bodies covered in a sheen of sweat. Persephone felt him breathing hot on her neck as a last moan shuddered through him.
Her chest rose toward his, their breathing paced and slowing in unison. Their bodies remained otherwise motionless. Any movement was too much. Persephone opened her eyes. Her fingers were still twined and tangled in the curls of his hair as he lay still inside her.
She felt him shift and met his gaze. Aidon. Her husband. Her lover. His eyes scanned her face as he brushed a lock of her hair from her neck that had been trapped there by friction and the heat of their bodies. Hades Aidoneus. God of the Underworld and Lord of the Dead, who she had just given herself to willingly, who had just filled her with his seed. Her abductor, who would keep her here forever from the sunlit world, from ever seeing her mother again. Persephone had just proven herself his willing captive.
He watched her face fade from bliss and tenderness to fear and shame as she turned away from him, her eyes watering. Aidon pulled away from Persephone with a shiver. He watched her roll onto her side, away from him, her legs curling into fetal position. She shook, tears streaming under her eyes and over the bridge of her nose to land on the pillow. He turned away and sat on the opposite side of the bed staring despondently at the small heaps of their scattered clothes.
She is not to marry. And certainly not to someone as hard hearted as you.
Demeter’s words from long ago rang through him. Why else would she shrink away from him in revulsion? He looked back at her shaking body and pulled the bedclothes over her, feeling her tremble as his hand smoothed the covers down over her shoulder.
Persephone listened to the swish of fabric as he wound his himation around his waist and over his left arm. Aidon gathered his tunic and scattered effects. Please stay. The words caught in her throat and she choked back tears. Hades had taken her. Kore, the maiden of the flowers. Persephone, maiden no more. Cypress, his clean and spicy scent, still clung to her and she could feel their warmth radiating from the sheets. This was how he had wanted to make love to her before circumstances forced him in Erebus. Aidon had held her, making every moment careful and intimate, focusing on her pleasure as he relished in her and guided her. My sweet wife…
He stopped at the door. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry,” her voice cracked.
“You don’t need to apologize, Persephone.”
“It's just— I know what you said you felt for me, and I—” The lump grew impossibly large in her throat.
“I didn’t expect to win you over in one night, sweet one.” But Aidon had, hope against hope. He had seen the look in her eyes as they stood on the balcony, had felt her absolute trust in him as he slowly revealed her to his gaze, had felt her body keening for him, her voice crying out for him when he was within her.
“I— I need time, Aidon.”
“I know.” Faint hope flickered in his eyes. “But tonight, just rest. I’ve put you through enough as it is.”
The door creaked again. “Aidon?”
He turned back to her.
“Can you hold me?”
His eyes widened in shock at her request. He gently shut the door. Moving cautiously toward the bed, he unwound the fabric from around his shoulders and let it pool at his feet, naked before her once again. Aidon gestured to the walls with a flex of his fingers, the last light of the oil lamps around them extinguishing. Persephone moved over in bed as she felt his weight press into the mattress in the dark. He lifted the sheets and slid back under them with her, the bed already warm.
Her skin was soft against him, and her thighs shifted as he settled in behind her. Aidoneus curved around her body and stretched an arm out underneath her pillow to support her head. He ran his hand down her outstretched arm then twined his fingers over hers. With that, Hades and Persephone fell into fitful sleep.
The shoots hardened to the air. Their new skin would protect them— strengthen them. Hard branches drooped under the weight of larger leaves, testing and hurting them as they rose free of the cold earth. Rising at last over the gray flowers, they could now see each other for what they were.
Chapter 11: Chapter 10
“You’re wrong!” the flaxen-haired girl said. “I know all about the act of love.”
She was met with a sardonic laugh, tenor and melodic, coming from behind her as a hand brushed over her exposed breast. Its owner circled her and spun around, a chlamys draped across one shoulder, his only garment. “Oh, Elektra…”
“Voleta,” she pouted.
“Voleta. My apologies,” he said, pulling the fibula pin from a brooch with a stylized theta etched on its surface. It clanged on the floor like a bell. The black fabric followed it, slinking off his shoulders to revealing his pale, smooth frame. His black hair was cropped short on his head and between his legs. Piercing silver eyes stared out of a flawless, angelic face. “You know nothing about the act, other than which parts fit together. It’s why you came to me so readily. You’re curious.”
“But, the Great Lady—”
“Yes, yes… Hecate sent you to some village or another for the great rite of hieros gamos ,” he finished for her. “And then some noble youth climbed up your body and squirted inside you to bless the planting of the fields, or founding of a city, or what have you…”
Voleta gaped up at him, shocked at his flippancy. He ignored her and continued.
“And because of this, you think you know anything about the act of love,” his smiling face came within inches of hers. He slid a finger under her chin and pushed up. “The first thing I’m going to teach you is to never open your mouth like that unless you intend to use it.”
“I came to you because I saw you and wanted you,” she said indignantly. “Our Lady said that after the rites we could have as many men as we like as long as we are mutually fulfilled.”
He laughed again. “And do you have the faintest idea what she was talking about?”
Voleta bit her lip.
“Well despite your ignorance, your Lady is at least right about that,” he said, pushing Voleta back against the sheets with a finger, “and I intend to make good on it. Allow me to educate you.”
“And what is it about you that makes you such an expert on something meant to create life, anyway? You’re—”
Voleta’s breath hitched as the beat of large, black-plumed wings guttered the flames of the oil lamps and fanned her hot skin. She saw them in full for the first time as he stretched them, their span spreading into the darkness of his room, eclipsing the lamps. Voleta suddenly felt very small.
She wavered again. “Y-you’re…”
“Death,” Thanatos finished for her. “Very clever. But consider this…”
He folded his wings back and knelt in front of her. Thanatos kissed her on her right foot, then her left.
“There isn’t anyone I cannot have, the old, the young, maiden or youth…”
He placed a kiss on her right knee, then her left.
“…because in the end, I take them all.”
He planted a kiss on her womb and slowly, deliberately slipped a finger inside her, curling it upward, beckoning her in pleasure. Voleta wriggled on the bed, her breath catching.
“The occasional young man is quite fine, but I prefer the maiden when I come for her.”
He placed a kiss on her right breast and on the slow withdrawal of his lips, teased the nipple to a point. Thanatos added another finger inside her and curled them in a fast cycle, brushing a spot she didn’t even know she had. Voleta gasped as he smiled up at her.
“Sometimes, she pleads to go; other times, she pleads to stay. But out of the scores I send every day to the shores of the river …”
He kissed Voleta’s left breast, sucking the nipple upward with a nip of his teeth as his mouth came away. He stroked his fingers inside of her, then added his thumb over her nub to rock back and forth across its swollen surface. He watched intently until her breath became ragged and her eyes glazed over.
“…there is at least one…”
He pecked a kiss on her lips.
“…who pleads for me .”
Thanatos pushed the pads of his fingers up into the secret spot and Voleta screamed out loud, her back arching and falling as she came, fingers gripping the sheets. Liquid coated his hand. The smirk never left his face.
When her paroxysms had ceased and her breathing had settled, Thanatos slowly withdrew his fingers. Voleta opened her violet eyes wide and stared up at him. “What was… How did you—”
“Make you come? That's my trade secret. Tell me— that sniveling mortal boy who took you maidenhead— did he do that for you?”
“No,” she panted. “Wait— was that the Five Fold Kiss?!”
He smiled at her, showing all his teeth. “You are a clever girl. And yes, it was. I figured I'd start with something you were familiar with before moving on.”
“You profaned it!”
“I enhanced it,” he shrugged. “Which brings us to our next exercise…”
Thanatos knelt down between her legs and ran his tongue through the wet lips of her vulva. He firmly pinned her thighs to the bed beneath his sinewy arms, and pressed down on her mound with both hands.
“Thanatos… what are you— oh!”
With his hand gripping her mons, Voleta couldn’t squirm out of reach of his mouth. The universe tilted over again for her. Words disappeared, lost in her cries as he extended her pleasure, chasing her long climax from peak to peak. Thanatos kept drilling the sensitive bud with the tip of his tongue. Voleta spasmed and cried out as every touch became a little death. He paused for a moment, giving her a small reprieve from his torment, then dove in once more, drinking her, and sucked the hooded nub hard into his mouth. He quickly pushed three fingers into her and curled them around to just the right place. She bolted upright and screamed, eyes rolling back in her head, finally forcing Thanatos to lose his grip on her.
He rolled back onto his haunches to admire his handiwork as Voleta fell limp against the bed, gasping for air. Standing up, he picked her discarded chiton off the floor and wiped her juices from around his mouth. “I couldn’t let you get up without at least having a taste. I take it he never did that to you either.”
She shook her head and reached out to him with one hand, eyeing his fully erect cock hungrily. Her tongue was thick in her mouth. Slowly, words started to form again. “Do I get to taste you?”
He thought about it for a moment, cocking his head to the side. “No. I don’t think so.”
Thanatos sat next to Voleta and traced a finger along her trembling lips. “Because— and this is impatient of me, I’ll admit it— you don't have enough experience to pleasure me with those lips.”
Her face fell. He ran a fingernail between her breasts and across her stomach before clamping his fingers on her mound, his palm squeezing and massaging her wet flesh. “But these lips on the other hand…”
She stared up at him, wordless and wide-eyed as he rose above her and moved between her legs, spreading her knees apart. Thanatos craned her ankles up over his shoulders.
“And since there's no hymen to worry about anymore, thanks to the goddess you serve and that idiot who had you…”
Thanatos spread his black wings with a shake, startling her, and held Voleta at an angle so she could watch him enter her. Voleta winced once, expecting pain, until he moved his hips around in a circle, stirring her insides with his cock, working his way into her depths. Her soaked and quivering channel offered no resistance. Voleta’s face and shallow staccatoed breath told him all he needed to know— he was filling her far deeper than what she had experienced in the rite. She was expecting him to stop, to be at the hilt much sooner, and opened her eyes wide to him as he continued to drive into her in slow methodical circles. He finally settled into her as both looked down to see short black hair touching short blonde where they were joined, his length sunk all the way inside her.
“…With that wretched barrier gone, I don’t have to worry about preventing pain. Only giving pleasure,” he said, withdrawing all but the crown. Voleta whimpered at his absence before he thrust in again and she rocked her head back. Thanatos pushed in deeper and stayed there.
“Please…” Voleta whispered.
He cupped his free hand to his ear and leaned in close to her face. "What was that?"
“Please…” she said louder, trying to breathe around the word.
“Please what?” Thanatos pouted his lips with a sarcastic smirk. “‘Please stop’?" he said as he slowly withdrew.
"NO!!" she cried.
Thanatos returned her ankles to his shoulders and held only the tip of his cock steady inside her. He came down an inch from her face and smiled, wings outstretched behind him, blocking out the lamplight. "You want me to fuck you, don't you?"
“Before I do,” Thanatos said against her whimpering protest as he came back up, “I’ll ask you again. What is it you know about the act of love?”
* * *
Aidoneus knew as soon as he rounded the corner to the hallway outside Thanatos's apartment that Death was entertaining a guest. The sounds of female pleasure, half-hearted protestations, and full-throated exclamations were barely muffled by the heavy ebony door. Every so often, the noises were interrupted by soft cajoling and hard, lascivious words from the Minister of Death. Aidoneus slowed his pace.
He had passed by this room under these circumstances many times over the aeons and had kept walking, bitten his tongue, and rarely voiced his opinion of his friend's private life. As long as he did his job, and didn't flagrantly disregard the rules or create discord, Aidon figured that Thanatos could be left to his own vices.
But today the sounds echoing from his Minister's chambers made his blood burn. He had known those pleasures, or at least had a taste of them. He thought about his wife, the very subject he'd come to discuss, and wavered next to the door, wondering if he should reconsider. The crescendo of noise on the other side only heightened his frustrations. Enough of this , he thought. He gave a slight knock against the frame.
Impatient, Aidoneus clenched his jaw and rapped loudly on the door.
* * *
Thanatos let Voleta anticipate each thrust as he slid in and out of her, her sheath learning how to grip his shaft. As soon as Voleta had measured his pace, he quickened his tempo. He grasped the top of her mound and circled his thumb over the top edge of the hood as she cried out again.
He rocked forward faster, pumping into her, listening to her wordless pleas. Voleta’s high-pitched moans barely drowned out the slap of wet flesh echoing throughout the room. He could feel himself getting close, but not before he could make her come one last time…
A loud knock at the door startled Voleta, accidentally driving her to another screaming crest, her body rising and reaching for his. Thanatos rolled his eyes back, holding still for a moment to relish in her muscles squeezing and fluttering around him, reacting to their interruption.
“Just a minute!!” Thanatos yelled behind him before gripping her hips and making his penultimate thrusts. He roared triumphantly as he came, the last thrust slamming his cock hard into her and raising him up on the balls of his feet as his knees buckled. His clenching fingers drove deep impressions into the flesh of her hips, marking her.
He withdrew from her with a long, hard exhale and stumbled backward, before stopping with his hand on his knees, the muscles of his stomach clenching as his wings curved over his shoulders.
He hushed her with a glare, holding a finger outstretched toward her. Thanatos gasped for breath and turned his head toward the door. “Who is it?”
“Open the door.”
Thanatos spun back toward Voleta and smacked her lightly on the rump. “Get up.”
“Do you have any idea who I’m making wait outside that door right now?” he whispered to her. “Lord Hades Aidoneus.”
Her eyes grew as wide as the full moon as she scrambled off the bed, picking up her soiled chiton and wrapping it around her. Thanatos slung his chlamys over his shoulder again, pinning it in place.
The door finally opened. Aidoneus watched a blonde woman dart past, barely nodding her head to him, a quick ‘milord’ escaping her lips as she ran. He heard her bare feet pad down the stone hallway as he entered his minister’s chamber. Aidoneus closed the door behind him, wrinkling his nose at the heavy smell of sex hanging in the air.
“My lord,” Thanatos said with a slight bow, adjusting the draped fabric under the base of his wings. “I would apologize—”
“I don’t expect you to,” he said. Thanatos lit a censer next to his bed and sat down to catch his breath. The smell of pennyroyal and wormwood started to cover the scent of the Minister of Death’s latest conquest. “Who was she?”
Thanatos looked at the ceiling, mouthing names as he thought back. Phaedra, Elektra, Voleta… “Voleta,” he finally said.
“One of Hecate’s Lampades nymphs?”
“I think so,” he said with a shrug.
“Thanatos, please tell me she wasn’t a new initiate. That you know a little more about her than barely remembering her first name,” Aidoneus said as he looked for a place to sit. He squinted at the surface of a chair near the bed, making sure it was clean before he leaned back into it.
“I’m not an idiot,” he laughed. “The only ones I take to my bed have already undergone the hieros gamos . The white witch would make my cock disappear if I touched any of her virgin initiates.”
“Hecate’s none too happy with you having them once they return, either.”
“They come to me willingly, and she’s none too happy with me in the first place, whether I fuck them or not.” He leaned back with a smile and a sigh. “I swear by the Fates, Aidon, I found this one already standing in my chambers when I got back. It was almost adorable how she tried to seduce me. She just looked at me and pulled the pins on her chiton before I even shut the door,” he guffawed, then grew quiet, watching Aidon blush. Thanatos leaned in closer to him. “Now that’s new!”
“In all the aeons I have known you, the only reaction you ever had to hearing about the women I’ve fucked has been disapproval.”
“It still is,” he said, cocking an eyebrow at his minister’s vulgarity.
“Yes, but there’s more now! Your chief concern was always about how my behavior might cause problems with Hecate. I couldn’t even get you to blink when I talked about sex. But now,” he said with a smile, “our new little queen has changed you.”
Aidon’s lips thinned and he looked at the ground. “I suppose.”
“And that’s not a bad thing.” Thanatos grew serious, the constant smile finally leaving his face. “I take it you didn’t come here to talk about Voleta or Hecate?”
Aidoneus shut his eyes. Every day at dusk he had come to Persephone as she looked out over the shifting colors of the river. Each time, he would take her to bed, reenacting their night three weeks ago. When he made love to her, he would extinguish the lights and just feel the press of hot skin, listen to her ragged breathing and sharp cries of pleasure as she held him ever closer. Tangled together in the dark of her room, he could feel passion and joy. But as soon as their embrace ended, her fear and sadness would return with a shiver. When it was over, he knew it wasn’t love she felt for him— just a potent mix of desire and fear. With the lamps doused, at least he couldn’t look into her eyes and know it.
“Aidon?” Thanatos said, watching sadness wash across his friend’s face.
“It's becoming unbearable,” he started slowly. “I love her.”
Thanatos snorted and shook his head. “If you’re coming to me for advice on love, I’m the wrong person to give it.”
“My experience with women begins and ends with her. Yours, however— Honestly, Thanatos, how many have you had?”
“Gods, I don’t know. How many days has it been since Prometheus handed fire to those fools?”
“You mean to tell me that you’ve been with one woman each day since…”
“At least, if I can help it; and you can’t blame me for trying! My job isn’t exactly pleasant, you know. I need diversions, and you don’t allow wine down here. Or ergot kykeon — a barley mead hallucination would do me good, just once in awhile.” Thanatos cleared his throat. “So when someone sees through that hideous shell I become in the mortal world, and wants me all the same, I give them what they want. It’s only fair if it’s someone’s last request. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Aidon narrowed his eyes. “No, I wouldn’t. These women throw themselves at you thinking that you’ll find it in your heart to save them from… you.”
“Entirely untrue. I tell each of them plainly what is about to happen to them and why I’m there. They know there’s no going back; I only show them how sweet death can be,” he smiled.
“All the same, I don’t understand the appeal. I thought you would have gotten bored with it and settled down by now.”
Thanatos laughed. “You’re talking to me, remember? It’s hard to settle down when you make a habit of never fucking a girl twice. Believe me, I only had to make that mistake with the one.”
“Dare I ask who?”
“Eris,” he muttered.
Aidon curled his lip. “Eris?!”
“Multiple times. Sometimes I still— I can’t help myself. She’s just…” he looked off into the distance and whistled low, running his hand through his hair. “Look— crazy women make for an amazing lay.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“My dalliances aren’t what you came to talk about, in any event,” Thanatos said, “This is supposed to be about you. Now, my king, what advice could you want from your humble minister on matters of love, knowing full well that I’m only interested in love’s counterpart?”
He was silent for a moment, deciding whether or not this was even a good idea. Thanatos waited.
“Sex itself is hardly a problem for us,” he said quietly.
“Really!” Thanatos smiled and leaned forward, his wings relaxing and spreading out behind him. With a glare from Hades they snapped back. “I mean no disrespect to our queen, of course. I’m just glad for you.”
“This isn’t easy for me to speak about,” he said, looking away.
“The door is shut, and nothing will travel beyond it. You can speak plainly to me, Aidon,” he said seriously, the smile gone from his face.
Aidoneus squeezed his temples with his fingers and began again. “That part of our lives is… it’s wonderful. Incredible, really. But it’s all we have right now.”
“Then keep it as it is,” he said with a shrug. “So many men would dream to have even that.”
“But that’s not what I want. I can’t keep doing this in perpetuity.”
“So what is it that you want from her?”
“I want her to want me to be more than just her lover.” Aidoneus paused, frowning. “I want to be her husband. I want her to be my wife; my queen.”
“Well, sorry to say, you can’t will her to love you, or make her love you with what both of you are doing right now.”
Hades looked down and ran his hand back through his hair again.
“Aidon, it’s not as dire as you seem to think.”
“No?” he snapped. “I know I can’t make her love me, or trust me, but Persephone can’t bring herself to do either.” He stood up and turned toward the door, muttering to himself. “This is foolish. I should just take your advice, and enjoy the way things are now. She is my consort; she’s ready and willing for me when I go to her, and I should just be content with that.”
“Wait,” Thanatos said. “Stay. You just said ‘trust’. How much trust do you put in her, exactly?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, from what I hear, our little queen has been wandering in circles around familiar parts of the palace for the last few weeks, either with Hecate, or to the garden with Askalaphos and Cerberus. Where were you?”
“This realm doesn’t run itself—”
“Except for at night when you’re with her, you mean.”
“What is your point, Thanatos?” he bristled.
“That it’s hardly a question of her trusting you. How much do you trust her? How much of our world has she seen?”
Aidon sat down again. “The last time I took her anywhere, she ran away from me and straight into the Lethe. I almost lost her.”
“She’d only been here for a matter of hours, and from what I heard from Menoetes, your big black three-headed puppy gave her quite a scare.”
“I keep her in the palace to protect her.”
“Like Demeter did?”
Aidoneus glared at him.
Thanatos stood firm. “Put some trust in her, Aidon.”
“I don’t know. I’m sure the situation will arise if you actually spend time with her outside her bedroom.”
Aidon sat there, absorbing his friend’s advice. For all Persephone knew, traveling beyond the palace would bring the same pain she had experienced at the Lethe.
I just worry that it will take the same aeons for me to fall in love with it as it did for you…
If she was ever going to love him, she would also have to love the land he ruled— the place that bore his very name in the world above. “I’ll speak with Charon. The best view of our realm is from the Styx.”
“There’s a start. Now, as to the real reason you came here…”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, please, Aidoneus, if you wanted to talk about women and love you could have gone to Mother Nyx or even Hermes when he comes down here.”
Color started to rise into his cheeks. “My biggest concern was discussed. Anything else is… incidental.”
“Hardly; you said so yourself. ‘How many women have I had?’ The reason you came to me was to talk about how you can better please your queen.”
Aidon felt heat rush to his face and saw a smile curl his friend’s lips again. “Well—”
“I thought so,” Thanatos said, leaning back and clearing his throat. “Lesson the first: in every way imaginable, know every inch of each other…”
* * *
She felt different. Persephone stood in front of the polished hematite mirror, turning this way and that, examining her figure under the long peplos in the glow of the oil lamps. Her hair was darker; thicker. She could dismiss that change— it may have been the darkness of the mirror’s reflection itself. Her hips flared out more than before, and effortlessly held up a jeweled girdle, another gift from her husband.
She cupped and shaped her hands under her breasts. That definitely wasn’t from the reflection. Her cheekbones were more pronounced. Persephone sucked in her cheeks, rounded and girlish three weeks ago, and saw the face of a woman staring back at her.
The changes grew more noticeable every passing day. After wandering into the Lethe, she had slept on and off for almost three days, according to Aidoneus and Hecate. It took a great deal of time to adjust to the opposite schedule of this world. Day was night, and night was day.
Persephone would stand at the balcony when the river Styx started to change color at dusk, her knees shaking, knowing that Aidon would come to her. As the river darkened, she could feel his presence beside her. His arms would wrap around her waist as they stood silently, watching the last light of the daytime dance across the water. His hands would caress her skin, running across her arms and her hips, curving over her breasts and thighs until her body ached with need and she turned to kiss him. Each night he would carry her into her room as he had after they first watched the sun set three weeks ago.
Before he extinguished all light in her room, she would watch his face as long as the flicker of the lamps allowed, his eyes filled with a longing that went beyond desire and pleasure. Persephone would surrender to him in a tangle of embracing limbs, alive, afraid, reaching, and fulfilled, then listen to his breathing as he held her to his chest until she fell asleep.
I love you… She had said it first. She had lost hold of her memories for the moment, but she had said it just the same. She couldn’t bring herself to say it again.
Last night, strange dreams of winding branches, growing leaves, and buds preparing to blossom alternated with visions of her home in Eleusis and nightmares of a widening maw of dark fire. She had cried out in her sleep and jolted awake to feel him rocking her back and forth, stroking her forehead. He whispered to her, tender words in the dark to soothe her back to sleep. It was only once she closed her eyes again and started drifting off that he whispered to her that he loved her. But when first light woke her that morning, just as it had every morning, he was already gone. She wanted him to stay, but how could she ask? The next time she saw him it would be for the nearly silent ritual they played out every night in her bed.
Hecate accompanied her each day. She toured the palace and gardens with Persephone, explaining the myriad complex rules of the underworld by way of hints and riddles. During those first few days walking with Hecate, Persephone thought her mind was playing tricks with her, echoing the cryptic words of the selenite-crowned goddess. But Hecate had in fact aged rapidly before her very eyes, her brilliant red hair streaking with more and more silver every day. Her pale skin grew wrinkled and fragile. Their walks grew shorter and slower. Three days ago, she had stopped visiting Persephone entirely.
When she asked Askalaphos the gardener what had happened, he simply shrugged. “She just does that,” he said, then returned to carefully pruning the poplar trees. For weeks Persephone had tried with all her might to make a flower, any flower, grow here. Even the flowers already rooted in the ground wouldn’t respond to her. She’d spent several days in a row trying to open just one asphodel before eventually giving up, deciding that these flowers were as dead as everything else here, and that the life-giving powers she had spent aeons perfecting in the world above had no effect on them. Askalaphos wasn’t any help there either, shrugging once more and telling Persephone that making the flowers grow down here was his job.
When he wasn’t busy harassing the sheep and chasing down wandering souls, Cerberus had taken to trotting up to Persephone as soon as she reached the portico. Persephone had nearly trained him out of bothering Menoetes’s herd by asking Askalaphos to fashion her a large stick out of one of the smaller poplar branches. Cerberus had gone tearing after it each time, tongues lolling out of his three mouths and after he dutifully brought it back to her. His long tail would wag and inevitably crush the asphodel in the garden, to Askalaphos’s chagrin, until she threw it again. The herd of black sheep grew every day. Menoetes himself said that he’d never seen so many offerings from the world above as he’d seen in the last two weeks.
A rustle of cloth interrupted her thoughts.
“My queen?” a small voice said from the doorway.
Persephone startled and turned around to see a young girl with strawberry blonde hair staring back at her. Her hair was crowned in selenite beads and her white peplos draped and gathered over her hips and hung to the floor, worn as if she were an adult. A half moon hung on her forehead.
“H-Hecate? Is that you?”
“Yes, I’m me! It’s very nice to see you again, Persephone,” she said in a very mature but tiny voice as she curtsied.
“What happened to you?!”
“Didn’t Aidon tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
Hecate rolled her eyes and let out a small sigh before shaking her head and grumbling to herself. “Aeons and aeons… I should know better by now.”
She walked over to where Persephone stood and cocked her head to the side. The young queen’s eyes were wide with wonder, her mouth dry.
“Ooh, look at you! You’re like a tree showing its first full leaves! And your hair got darker. It’s very pretty on you!”
“Thank you. I’m still not sure what that means for me exactly…” Persephone said trailed off. She was still trying to absorb that this little girl and the ancient wise woman who had guided her through the Palace of Hades were the same person.
“Oh! Yes, I’m younger now…” Hecate said, remembering where she left off. “See, your parents are Olympians, so they won't ever die, as long as there are mortals who worship them.” She paused and examined Persephone, wrinkling her brow. “Well, it’s like that up above, but it’s different for you down here. This world is changing you into the goddess you were born to be. Since you’re the queen here, you won’t need the mortals to worship you as much any more.”
“That I was born to be…” she thought about her younger cousins, Artemis and Athena, Hermes and Ares, who all looked older than her though they were born later. The woman who stared back at her in the mirror was who she was meant to become. But what was that, exactly?
“I don’t need worshippers to live forever either: I’m connected to the moon. That’s because I’m even older than the mortals,” Hecate continued with a giggle. “Up in the world above, the moon is small, but it’s getting bigger. And when it is, so am I! I’m a woman when it’s full, and then a wrinkly old crone when it’s disappearing again. And oh, you should see this place when it's full! Its light shines here at night through the Styx…”
“You’re older than the mortals… are you not an Olympian?”
“Oh, no; I’m much older than that. I’m a Titan.”
Persephone recoiled briefly and composed herself. Titans were the monsters her mother told her stories about as a little girl.
“It’s okay,” Hecate said with a laugh, reading her thoughts, “My mother told me all kinds of stories about the Protogenoi just like that. Oops! Sorry. I forgot I’m not supposed to read your mind anymore.”
“Don't worry, Hecate, it’s— Who are the Protogenoi?”
The girl rolled her eyes again. “Ugh, Aidoneus tells you even less than Demeter,” she whined. “Chaos, Hemera, Gaia, Ouranos— my mother had the worst stories imaginable about him— You won’t meet them. But Nyx and her sons live here. She’s the goddess of the night. And Charon is the boatman, and Morpheus is the king of dreams, and there’s Hypnos, who rules over sleep.” Hecate paused to frown pointedly. “And Thanatos looks like a skeleton and makes people dead.”
“What’s the matter with him?” Persephone asked.
Hecate wrinkled her nose. “Nothing. We… don’t get along.”
She could feel Aidoneus approaching her room. Warmth washed over Persephone and her skin prickled. Her entire body pulled in the direction of the hallway beyond as he came ever closer.
“Persephone?” his voice echoed through the amethyst antechamber outside her room.
She twirled a lock of hair and fussed with the crown of asphodel she had made that morning before turning around to see him slowly approaching the door.
“May I come in?”
“Of course,” she said. She thought it strange that he should ask since only last night they were tangled together in the sheets of her bed. Persephone glanced at the rumpled sheets and felt heat rush to her face.
Hecate failed to suppress a smile as she slid off the edge of the bed and walked toward the door. “Well… I have to go now. If you need me, my queen…”
“Thank you,” Persephone said, nodding back at Hecate.
The small girl strode regally out of the room, leaving her alone with Aidon. He watched her eye the bed nervously once more and push a loose lock of hair behind her ear, her arms folded across her chest. Aidoneus shook his head. This was the only reason she thought he would ever visit her. Then again, it was the only reason he’d ever given her.
He cleared his throat. “I was wondering if you would like to come with me today.”
A smile peaked the corners of her mouth. “Where are we going?”