Hades and Persephone Ch. 07bysushi_taco©
The warm rush of divinity flowed back into Demeter—beating in her heart, coursing through her veins. She could feel energy from the Telesterion's altar nourishing her. When Demeter placed just a few drops of ambrosia on his tongue, Triptolemus' fever broke almost immediately.
The infant Demophon was far more difficult.
She rocked the restive babe against her breast, feeling utterly alone in the cosmos. Zeus had abandoned her long ago, and had added insult to injury with his betrayal of their own daughter. Poseidon was only ever loyal to his accursed brothers, and had made a disgusting mockery of her grief. Hades— she couldn't even think his name anymore without whipping up a wind that would shake the stone foundations of the great hall. Her daughter was trapped in the Underworld, dead by any definition the mortals could use. The people of Hellas had abandoned her. The other gods and nymphs cared nothing for her. Even loyal Minthe was nowhere to be found.
But the House of Celeus cared for her, had restored her life as surely as she would heal both their sons. She could have done so much more to save their daughters from Hades' grasp if she had just arrived sooner. Maybe after she finished with Demophon, she would make them all immortal— a new family to replace the family that had betrayed her.
There were other curatives she could use for the boy, but they would require the earth to be healthy and fruitful, which it most certainly was not. Without them, there was little left that she could do— only bestowing immortality itself on the child would save him. It was the least she could do for the last of her worshippers. She placed the sleeping Demophon back in his crib. The sacraments granting him deathlessness were almost finished, though the last would be the hardest to complete. It would be unwise to do so in daylight— not when she was in the constant presence of mortals.
"My Lady..." A warm tenor voice echoed through the cold hall.
Demeter turned and suppressed a smile. She nodded to the young man. "You are looking well today, my Prince. But I'm just a humble old priestess. Addressing me as 'my Lady' is unnecessary," she said, and walked over to the hearth to retrieve a piece of kindling.
Triptolemus wore a gold circlet on his head, similar to his father's. He was dressed in indigo to mourn for his sisters, the wool himation wrapped tightly around him against the cold. Recovery had been quick. The dark circles under his eyes were already fading. His skin was flushed with health and golden from a childhood spent in the sun. He smiled at her. "Whatever you say... my Lady."
Demeter looked back at him, the heavy crow's feet around her eyes giving away her amusement.
"And that's not entirely true, is it Doso?" Triptolemus said. Demeter placed the glowing ember of wood in the censer and wafted the vapors of dried parsley leaves over Demophon's crib. "My mother said that you come from a noble family on Crete."
He could see the glamour of advanced age fall away for just a moment, her hair momentarily flashing radiant gold and copper instead of brittle white. Anyone else would have missed it. While Demeter was healing him, Triptolemus had seen her radiant and youthful face many times in the delirium of his breaking fever.
"That was a long time ago," Demeter said. "Before you were born."
Aeons before I was born— isn't that right my Lady? He thought, but said nothing. He had never even met a nymph before, much less a goddess. Triptolemus had known from the moment her hand stroked his forehead at the height of his illness that Doso was none other than their lost and mourning Great Lady of the Harvest. Her skin and hair and clothes might be haggard. But when she walked, her gait was lighter than a crone's should be. Her eyes were free of jaundice or cataracts and sparkled a deep green. "What made you leave?"
She looked up at him, unsure of how to answer. How could she even compose a half-truth from the reality that her tyrannical father, the deposed King of the Gods, had swallowed her as an infant? That her mother the Queen had let him?
"You don't have to answer if you don't want. If it's too painful—"
"Those wounds have healed, Triptolemus. Fresher ones..." she began, trailing off before resuming her story. "An oracle once told my father that one of his children would violently overthrow and imprison him. My mother resolved that she would never go to his bed, and thereby not have any children by him, thus ensuring that the oracle's prophecy would never come to pass and thinking that this would please him. But my lord father lusted after my lady mother relentlessly. She tried to fight him off one night, but he took her against her will. The eldest of us was begotten that way. After he was born, after he was... hidden... she gave in and acquiesced to give my father his husbandly rights, her spirit broken. I was the last born girl."
"Doso, if you don't want to continue, I won't make you. I was just curious." He knew his hymns. He knew that Cronus has swallowed nearly all his children— lastly her. Triptolemus placed a hand on her shoulder, forgetting for a moment that he was touching a goddess. Through her glamour as the healing priestess and beyond the true nature she hid, he looked deeper into her and saw Demeter, the woman.
Demeter shivered, though the palm of his hand was warm and soothing. If he were any other mortal, she would have turned him into a lizard for daring to touch her, but his presence was comforting and welcome. "No, my Prince, it's all right. No one's ever asked these questions about my past before. Well, once before, but the answers would have been too harmful..."
"He must have tried to kill all of you. Where were you hidden from him?"
"Everywhere," she answered. She thought about Hecate, her former teacher, for the first time in a long while. Demeter remembered the three of them leaving the protection of the ether each night, always emerging somewhere new. Aidoneus would build a fire and she would tend to it while he sharpened his sword in long strokes beside the flames. One night on Samothrace, when she was still a virgin, Hecate had taken her aside, away from the rhythmic scrape of whetstone against bronze. Amidst the chirping cicadas, the Titaness had whispered cryptic words to her, and explained Demeter's eventual part in the hieros gamos. Those were bloody, dangerous, and simple times. "And nowhere all at once."
"Was your father overthrown?"
"What happened to your brothers and sisters?"
"I don't speak to them anymore," she said, looking down.
Triptolemus could now see through the glamour Demeter had cast over herself. His hand rested on a shoulder whose joints were not swollen or bowed with age, but smooth and straight as though she were no more than thirty years old. The dusky himation she'd wrapped around herself was truly a bright red chiton held by fibulae in the shape of barley. He gingerly touched his thumb to her collarbone and her awareness came back, returning her form to wise old Doso. Triptolemus spoke to her. "If you can spare a moment from my baby brother, I have something you might like to see."
Demeter wrinkled her forehead and looked back up at him.
He stood and offered her his hand. She smiled and accepted, allowing him to help her up. Her joints had stopped aching days ago, but she tried to rise slowly nonetheless. She had to keep this appearance at least until she was done curing the infant. Otherwise, there would be too much to explain. She let Triptolemus support her at the small of her back and leaned into his strong hand.
They walked to the end of the main hall adjacent to Demeter's shrine. Triptolemus pulled back a tapestry that hung across one of the great oak doors. He cracked it open and motioned for her to step through.
The room beyond smelled like plants and growth— living, breathing things with their own green heartbeats. A pulse drummed from them, a rhythm that she had been able to feel so completely before her Kore was taken from her. In raised wooden boxes of rich peat and soil, dozens of small plants grew green and healthy, all carefully arranged in tight rows. She peered closely at them. Oat. Barley. Wheat. Rye. Millet. All had pregnant sheaves fuller and longer than anything she'd ever seen a mortal plant in the fields. The corns were ripe to near bursting. Demeter looked up to see a sloped plane of clear quartz held aloft by the stone walls and columns. A great iron pot filled with water hung over a brazier of coals and boiled away in the corner, flooding the room with heat and thickening the air with steam.
"What is all this?" Demeter said in awe, touching one of the sheaves, its velvety kernels sliding through her fingers. "How did you do this?"
"It started as something to pass the time. I called this place a greenhouse when I first started experimenting three years ago. The crops in here stayed green and grew a few weeks longer, while the summer turned the plants outside to brown," Triptolemus said. "That was the marvel that turned this from a pastime into the project that has consumed me ever since."
Demeter looked up at the sun filtering in through the polished stone above them.
"That was the hardest thing to procure," he said, following her gaze. "Truth be told, it is a good thing that the ice and snow hid the walls and ceiling of the greenhouse when the food started running out. Otherwise this would have been overrun and destroyed within days. I've always been fascinated with the gifts the Great Lady of the Harvest gave us mortals. Each time I harvested, I offered a third the fruits of my work to Demeter on her altar and thanked her for her generosity. I was so afraid when I fell ill that these plants would all die." He tentatively took Demeter's hand and looked into her eyes, afraid. "Doso, does the Great Lady of the Harvest think that I am full of hubris for what I do? That I overstep my bounds as her worshipper? What would she say to me if she saw this?"
Demeter looked at him in mild shock and placed her free hand on his shoulder. "She would commend you, my child. How did you do all this?"
"This is the seventh time I've planted. After each harvest I experiment further, culling the weaker stock and crossing the strongest seeds to create better ones. The Great Lady's priestess said I had a gift given to me when I was born, that I would somehow be given great honors and my works taught to all. I don't aspire to that. I only want to take care of my plants and let them take care of my family. My sisters used to help. With prayer and luck, mixing the right soil, and keeping the heat steady in here, I've been able to create wheat sheaves twice as long as any found in Eleusis. Helios does the rest," he said, pointing at the sun shining through the quartz roof above.
"I can tell you now that the Great Lady Demeter would be touched by your offerings. Her heart would be glad." For the first time in nearly a month, she smiled. For the first time since the morning she fell to her knees to rip Hades' profane asphodel flowers out of her daughter's shrine, Demeter felt joy. She cupped a warm hand to the young man's face and he smiled back at her.
Triptolemus leaned down and quickly kissed her next to her ear. "Thank you, Doso."
Demeter shivered at the warm touch of his lips against her cheek. "Sh-She would tell you to go into the world and teach this to all the mortals of Hellas once the cold ends— one Hades gives Kore back to the Lady of the Harvest. This needs to be shared."
"Everyone in Hellas?" he said with a smile. "My Lady, that would take longer than a lifetime."
"Yes," Demeter said, looking at the perfect rows of grain. "Yes, it would."
"My Lady, before I fell ill, and after I recovered, I prayed day and night for Kore's return from the halls of the Unseen One. We all miss her greatly. I know that as her priestess you feel her loss, more acutely than most. My mother said that you once had a daughter," he said, realizing even as he did that he might be tempting the Fates and incurring the anger of a powerful goddess. Trust me, he thought. Let me help heal you as you healed me. I know who you are...
Demeter turned from him, her eyes watering. "Yes. We were traveling to... Thorikos," she spun. "My daughter and I were driven from our familiar shores, hunted by a pirate, a thief of the seas who lusted for my daughter. I entrusted her to two warriors whom I thought would protect her, but they were in league with him. When he finally found her and carried her away, there was a mighty storm and she was dragged down to Hades."
The tale was creative, and one she'd probably told a few times on her journeys around Hellas. But Triptolemus knew that only the last part was true. "You saved me from the journey to the Other Side, Doso. I wish there were some way, any way at all that I could help return your daughter to you."
Demeter nodded to him, and then pondered her situation. The warmth and vital humidity of the room drifted around her, soaking into her skin. She was struck with realization. They stood in the last place on earth were food grew, and the bounty was all hers. The only sacrifices that could be made, the only honors left for any of the gods, weren't for Zeus. They were for her. She straightened her elderly frame and looked up at him. "I saved you from Hades, and I swore to your mother that he would not have you. I will continue to be true to my word," she said, sweeping her eyes across the garden Triptolemus had dedicated to her, "and I would do so forever."
"My Lady?" His mouth went dry. Surely she didn't mean...
"Triptolemus, what if I told you there was a way? A way that I could ensure that you would live, that you would be young, that you could share your gift with all once Kore is returned and the winter ends? A way that I am using to save your baby brother Demophon even now?"
"If I understand you, my Lady," he said slowly, remembering to whom he was truly speaking, "Then I would be favoring one god and angering another. The Unseen One does not like to be cheated out of souls. I'm only a man; I know my time is fleeting. I was ready to be reaped not three days ago when you arrived. If I try to escape my mortal fate and fail, I might burn in Tartarus forever."
"Only if your soul were still mortal. You must share your gift with all of Hellas one day. The Great Lady commands it," she said imperiously, lifting her chin.
"Are—" he swallowed, "are you saying that you would make me im-immortal?"
"You would need to trust me, my Prince. Wholly and completely."
Triptolemus thought about his mother and father, his friends. He imagined watching them wither and die, as he remained evergreen. He had thought to outlive his mother and father and rule Eleusis one day, but to outlive cities and kingdoms, to outlive forests and mountains... The fruitful crops surrounding them— were possibly the last in the entire world. What if something happened to him? Three days ago he nearly died from a fever, and years of careful work would have followed him to the grave. His parents thought his plants were a miracle, but they didn't know how to tend them or teach his methods. His sisters had only learned the most essential secrets, and now they were all gone to Hades, wandering as shades among the asphodel beneath the earth. To live forever would be lonely; but could he risk letting every mortal mouth go unfed?
He looked Doso— Demeter— in the eye, slowly inhaling to calm his racing heartbeat. "I trust you."
She nodded. "It will not be easy, and you will feel the change. It will require fire and water, earth and air, and most importantly, this." Doso pulled the leather satchel she always wore around her neck from the folds of her himation and opened its string closure. Triptolemus peered inside and gasped. A golden glow grew from within, and warmth that eclipsed the balmy air of his indoor garden poured out. It smelled sweeter than warm honey. Was this truly ambrosia?
"What do you need me to do?"
"I require olive oil; enough to coat your skin. You will need to find me pennyroyal and honey to mix into kykeon. The barley mead must be free of all impurities, especially ergot," Demeter looked at him sternly as she said the last word.
Triptolemus nodded and shoved through the door of the greenhouse, running for the kitchen.
Whenever he decided to seduce a woman in the world above, it took concentration not to appear as a wraith. He needed to focus every bit of himself to keep his face, his hands, his very flesh warm and corporeal. One careless moment imagining what she looked like underneath her clothing, and he was once again a skeletal shadow cloaked in a heavy himation. Here, he was Death. The end. The hooded man in black with the bony fingers and the fearsome blade.
Thanatos didn't need to think about these things when he was with Eris. His conscious self could disappear. Whether she saw his angelic or skeletal aspect mattered little; if she ever did see his shadowy self, Eris never let on that she cared. Perhaps, he thought, she enjoyed it— the chaotic transition between vitality and death, youth and desiccation.
But whichever side of him Eris preferred, Thanatos knew exactly what state he was in at that moment. The hard smack of his hips against her inner thighs, skin on skin, was buried in the chaos of the smoking Chalcidian battlement where she'd found him. With thin black wings outstretched, Eris had swooped on him like a falcon, demanding her fulfillment. It was a habit of hers when she discovered him walking the killing fields, searching for those who had died honorably.
They'd had more trysts in these situations than he cared to admit— surrounded by the smell of freshly spilt blood, the screams of city folk and horses mingled with the cold puncture of bronze spears, the black smoke of olive oil burning in store rooms. For ages the mortal blood had soaked into the ground while they coupled, the dust of men returning to the earth, seeping through the rich soil and falling toward his home in the Underworld, rejoining his family and his king.
But now the blood stood fresh and red on the snow, frozen in time, bodies and souls trapped in the cold unnatural waste of the living world. It troubled him. But her high-pitched cries drowned out thoughts of the disastrous imbalance plaguing the world above and of his wearying role. Her velvety heat made him forget where he was, who he was, what he was each time he slipped into her.
Thanatos let their surroundings vanish from his thoughts and tried to find warmth within her, fighting against the cold that chilled his bones. Heat she had in abundance, but no warmth existed in Eris. It had always been that way with her, even when the world was fresh and green. Eris gripped his right arm, fingernails digging half moons into his wrist, and pulled his sickle dangerously closer to her throat with each flex of his hips. She stared at him with dark irises, light freckles framing a twisted smile. Just as he was about to question whether or not the Goddess of Discord could feel anything at all, he got his answer.
She gasped and opened her eyes wide, digging her slender fingers into the mortar cracks behind her, arching away from where he was joined to her. Thanatos dropped the sickle into the snow and grabbed her hips, quickening his thrusts. Eris screamed and laughed as she undid him. A groan forced its way out of his lungs and through his gritted teeth, and he felt a heat flash through his body that could have melted all the snow in the world above.
Stepping away from her, Thanatos picked up his sickle and himation, shaking the fallen snow from his cast off cloak. She leaned against the stone with her legs still spread open, a sated grin on her lips. Her skirts were hitched up around her waist, his expelled seed falling in a slow rivulet down one cheek. Eris whooped in gratification and triumph, then leapt off the masonry ledge and twirled in a circle. Death wrapped the heavy black wool around his slender frame while she sang to herself and danced about. She ran her tongue along her teeth when she came to a stop in front of him. Thanatos smirked.