Hades and Persephone Ch. 16bysushi_taco©
To my wonderful readers...
Thank you so much for all your kind messages with the last chapter, especially given all the emotional torture I put you through. Just as a word of warning, this chapter has very little reference to sex, so if you're looking for a quickie, it's best to look elsewhere. I'd recommend the top of Chapter 14 of this story, or any of the other fine offerings on this site.
I cannot thank you enough for all your support and kindness, and appreciate each and every one of you and the encouragement you've given me as I publish this, my longest story ever. Only 4 more chapters left! And with that, please enjoy Hades and Persephone, Chapter 16: Spring...
* * *
Askalaphos took a cautious step forward, his sandal padding softly into the grass. Cerberus howled in the distance, the unsettling harmony causing the gardener to jerk to a stop. He reconsidered his advance; Hecate had told him not to come here, that it was sacred ground and not meant for his care. The grasses and moss under his feet had grown in uncharacteristically wildly, stopping at the outermost roots of the intertwined trees. They were an untamed island in the sea of perfect asphodel and poplars that he'd spent millennia cultivating.
He heard a twig snap and held his breath, then realized that it had cracked under his own foot. The garden was still pitch black. Askalaphos had been finishing a final perusal of the grounds to make sure that Menoetes' ever growing flock of black sheep hadn't wandered in again, leaving their droppings, munching on asphodel flowers, becoming a toy or a meal— or both— for Cerberus. He was tired of cleaning up after them.
Just as he was about to retire to his bed, Askalaphos had seen all the lights in the garden dim. Then she had walked out, clad only in Lord Hades' cloak. He'd hid, not sure of what to do. She had dropped the himation at her feet and he had stumbled away and huddled behind a poplar tree, praying she hadn't seen him. He didn't dare imagine what the Queen— or, gods help him, the King— might do to him with the knowledge that he'd glimpsed her naked in the moonlight. Askalaphos had guessed that it was a ritual of some sort. He had never involved himself with any of the esoteric goings-on in Chthonia, and never questioned them. He'd heard rustling from Persephone's direction, then silence. It wasn't until Askalaphos saw the walls of the garden glow with the light of her fire, so very much like the Phlegethon itself, that he dared to turn around and slink from his hiding place.
He'd barely stepped into the grove when he saw it: a pomegranate, open, missing seeds, right where she had been standing.
"No, no, no..." Askalaphos wrung his hands and tried in vain to draw in a full breath.
Why did he always have to stumble into these messes? No one could find out about this; not Menoetes, not Hecate or Nyx... no one. And especially not Lord Hades! Askalaphos knew— everyone knew— about the rage that had beset Aidoneus in the throne room that day. Word traveled fast in the Underworld. Hermes was here. The Olympians had recalled Persephone to the world above, somehow, and she was to leave before dawn. If anyone knew that Persephone was now bound here forever, that she must return to Chthonia, and that Askalaphos had been present and could have stopped her in time, but didn't... He would be blamed for pushing the entire cosmos to war.
The pomegranate had been wrenched apart; a twisted, irreparable mess. He had to hide it.
Askalaphos took off his chlamys and shivered. Hades' hound bayed forlornly in the distance, and his skin prickled again. He bundled up the fruit and as many fallen seeds as he could find, and pinned it closed. Darting his eyes around, hoping desperately that no one had seen him.
He took a few steps, careful not to leave any tracks behind him, and wiped his feet in the grass. Askalaphos ducked under a branch, then broke into a full run. A frightened bleat was all he heard before he tripped and sprawled in the dirt. A black lamb shook itself off and bounded away into the asphodel. His parcel rolled away from him, coming to rest against a rough ebony staff. Askalaphos paled and looked up at the crooked knees of the bondsman.
"Askalaphos?" Menoetes said, holding up an oil lamp. The light was blinding, and he couldn't see the man's expression beneath his hood, only the flickering flame.
"I... I..." he said, scrambling to rise and dust himself off. Menoetes leaned forward and grasped the gardener's hand. He still favored his right leg, injured a few months ago, but hoisted the portly man easily to his feet.
"Easy there, friend. What are you doing out so early?"
"I-I could ask you the same."
"One of the littler ones squeezed under the gate," he said, motioning vaguely into the distance where the lamb had zigzagged through the garden and away from Askalaphos' clumsy feet. "I almost had her when you came charging out of nowhere. What's your hurry anyway?"
"Nothing. N-nothing important, Menoetes," the gardener stammered. "I'll-ll just be on... my..."
Askalaphos trailed off, dropping his gaze to the bundle that now had Menoetes' rapt attention. A few seeds had spilled out, shining bright red in the flickering light of the bondsman's lamp. Cold raced down his spine when Menoetes poked at the bundle with his staff.
"What have we here?"
* * *
He didn't want to do this.
Let her sleep, his heart screamed at him. Let her rest, and let her stay here forever right beside him. But he had to awaken her. They were waiting.
"Persephone," Aidoneus whispered close to her ear.
"It's... time to wake up, my love. You have a long journey ahead of you."
Persephone felt his hand petting her shoulder, and drowsily opened her eyes. The gently crackling hearth fire lit her husband's careworn face. She blinked slowly, wakefulness arriving along with recollection of everything that had transpired over the last day and night. She sat up and wrapped her arms around Aidoneus. He held her tightly, breathing against her neck.
She tangled her hands in his hair, and noticed a faint red glow. Her breath caught in her throat— it was coming from the rings on her hand, the Key. She breathed out slowly, hoping that Aidon wouldn't make the connection yet. Persephone pulled away from him and clasped his left hand, his three rings smoldering the same as hers. She opened her mouth in bewilderment.
"I saw them too. Before I woke you," he said quietly. "I'm going to take it... as a good omen— that you and I will be together again, someday."
"Yes." Persephone nodded, then swallowed. "Aidon, when did you wake up?"
"An hour ago. I couldn't sleep."
She frowned. "You need rest. Today will be no easier for you."
"I'm not the one who has to face the Olympians."
Perfect, she thought to herself. "What if I asked you to?"
He grimaced. "Persephone, we discussed this last night—"
"This is different," she interrupted. "I want to speak to them and convince Zeus—"
Aidon snorted derisively and shook his head.
She continued. "I need to tell them that I must come back. That the Underworld needs me. And I need you there to support me, Aidoneus."
"The truth is as true today as it was yesterday, and as it will always be."
"Should we just forget everything that's happened and wallow in denial? Please, my love, don't make this harder on yourself. There are only two paths diverging from this moment, and one leads to the end of the world."
"Please be there with me."
He furrowed his brow. "You overestimate me, sweet one. Do you think it will be easy for me to face those who are separating us? To just leave you there and come back without you?"
"Please trust me."
"This has nothing to do with my trust in you, my love. I don't have that kind of faith in myself."
"But I do, Aidon," she said, stroking his cheek. "You asked me to trust you before. Many times. Please..."
He lowered his head. What would stop him from tearing Zeus and Demeter to pieces when he saw them? For betraying him and ripping away the one thing he'd ever wanted or asked for or cared for?
"Please," she repeated. "This might be the last thing I ever ask of you."
A knock at the bedroom door interrupted his answer.
"Your majesties?" came a muffled voice. Hecate had come to escort her and Hermes to the world above, Persephone knew. What she didn't know was how the three of them would travel. Would they all journey through the ether together? About the other matter, the white witch had said yesterday morning. I can and should speak with you about it later. Tomorrow, perhaps?
At least she would have an answer about that. Hecate must have known all that would transpire and had wisely said nothing. Persephone wrapped a bed sheet around herself and cracked open the door. "Hecate."
The kindly Goddess of the Crossroads stood on the other side, her hair wound up with strands of selenite, an oil lamp in her hand. "All the world above waits, Queen Persephone. You and I can speak candidly on the way there."
She nodded. "If you could wait outside and give us a moment to prepare ourselves?"
"Certainly," Hecate said, and nodded her head before leaving the antechamber through the double doors.
Persephone lit the torches on the wall with a wave of her hand.
"You can do that almost effortlessly," Aidoneus mused.
"Thanks to you." She was about to ask him again, and worried her lip with her teeth.
"I'll think on it," he answered, reading Persephone.
She gave him a pained smile. "We should get dressed."
The routine, mundane preparations for the journey ahead helped keep her heart from bursting out of her chest. It took all of Persephone's will to suppress and conceal every thought about what she was to do today, and what it would mean for her, her husband, her mother, the mortals— all the cosmos, in truth. She stretched out the two pieces of fine wool that made up her black peplos, looking for any signs of their lovemaking. Satisfied that they were spotless, she folded the garment perfectly so it revealed only her ankles and pinned up one shoulder. Persephone felt Aidon take the other side from her, fibula already in hand.
He slid the pin in place and picked up her jeweled girdle. "She's not going to like seeing you in this."
"Unfortunate for her," she muttered. "I'm not returning to my mother as Kore."
He let out a long sigh. "That much is certain, according to the scroll Hermes read yesterday."
"I mean that I'm not going to my mother as a powerless, ravished victim, Aidoneus," she said firmly. "I will appear before her and Zeus as Queen of the Underworld. And as you said before Sisyphus' trial, one must look the part."
He nodded silently, fastening the catches of her girdle. Persephone wound her tresses up with a ribbon and started arranging the asphodel flowers that had spilled from her hair yesterday into a crown. Not one of them was creased or wilted. Immortal flowers did not decay. Persephone bade him sit in the chair in front of the hematite mirror. She ran a comb through his curls and pulled his long hair back with a gold clasp. His face was set in stone as he looked at her in the reflection. Persephone refrained from coaxing him to speak his mind as she normally would. There was a time and place for everything.
She set his poplar crown on his head and felt him bristle. He knew that she wanted him to present himself as the Lord of the Underworld when she confronted Zeus. The sinews of his neck tensed, and she stroked a hand down his back. "You said you'd think on it."
Aidoneus settled back in the chair and met her eyes in the reflection again. "I did. I still am."
"Please, husband. Follow me, but don't tell them that you will."
"I can't simply leave you there once—"
"Aidon," she said resolutely. "I trust you. No matter what. I'll..." her voice wavered, and she swallowed hard. She could still taste pomegranate seeds in the back of her throat. "I'm going to trust that you're coming. I won't even look back when we're on our way to the surface. I'll just trust that you're there behind me."
Her words pushed him ever closer to doing as she wished. As she had said, he might not ever get another chance to do so. They were separating him from his wife forever.
He immediately cast the thought from his mind. The more he dwelt on it, the harder it would be for him to let her go. He stood up in front of her, catching the scent of lilies and larkspur and a hint of pomegranate as she moved. Aidon felt her body heat against him as she arranged his himation to drape over his left shoulder, heard her steady breathing by his ear.
The sweet scent of pomegranate hung persistently in the air. He hoped it would last; when he shut his eyes, he could imagine that she was still there with her warmth and light. He pictured her lying against his chest yesterday morning, sated, blissful, the grass below and heavy fruits above, before everything fell apart. The trees in the grove were all that would remain of Persephone, the only trace that she had even been here at all. He violently banished that thought and focused on her.
Persephone was unnervingly calm, a serenity likely fortified by her desperately maintained notion that she could sway the King of the Gods to let her return. He cringed. He wouldn't be there when she was told with absolute and crushing finality that there was no going back. But Hades knew his wife well. She would almost certainly defy them. Please, Sparing Ones, don't let Persephone be punished on my account, he offered up in silent prayer to the Fates. She'll insist, she'll petition, she'll attempt to come back. Please Fates, don't let her destroy herself because of me.
"Aidon," she said softly, motioning him toward the antechamber door. He'd been lost in thought. Persephone was standing at the door, ready to open it. He watched her gaze across the room one last time, memorizing every detail. The antechamber and the bedroom were the first rooms he'd built— carved out of the cave he'd drunkenly retreated into after arriving in the Underworld. The rest of the palace was almost an afterthought. This was his sanctuary— a place for him to rest and meditate, to retreat. But it had only felt like home once he'd opened the door and let Persephone in.
He took a final look at the room, and then shut the door behind them with a hollow thud.
* * *
Hermes stood still, listening. He was restless, wanted desperately to go somewhere, anywhere, but any step he took with his winged shoes would echo far too loudly in Hades' throne room. The room was pitch black but for the silver light filtering in from the terrace, the heavy silence broken only by an occasional howl in the distance. Cerberus. Hermes' wandering mind alighted on the very real possibility that Hades would change his decision, lock him up in Tartarus, and declare war on the Olympians for breaking a Stygian oath.
Hades has every right to go to war, Hermes thought, then urged his thoughts onward to less terrifying locales. He tried to discern which of Cerberus' heads were baying when the beast howled. He couldn't tell them apart.
"A wonder you slept at all, Psychopompos."
He startled so violently that his petasos almost fell off his head. Turning, he saw a woman in crimson robes with a half moon held by intricately wound selenite beads on the center of her forehead. "I wa-wasn't expecting you, Hecate," he managed once his heart slowed.
"Few do," she smiled. "A grim task you've been given, no? To sever a man from his lawful, beloved wife?"
Hermes pursed his lips before he spoke. "I have no choice. You know who my father is."
"In that, yes. But what of the horses whose reigns you hold?"
Hermes blinked and shook his head rapidly. "What do you mean?"
"Selene proved herself a masterful storyteller— she spun such intimate details into her tale about your visit with Hades and Persephone in the palace grotto last week. But I know she has seen no such things..."
"I..." Hermes fidgeted as Hecate narrowed her eyes at him. "You see," he tittered nervously, "er, that is, you can't imagine how persuasive my brother Apollo is. He insisted—"
"Your tongue is too easily loosened, Hermes." She walked to the brazier and with a flick of her wrist, brandished an unlit torch. Hecate thrust it into the coals. "And loose enough to risk war between the realms."
He took a quick step back when the torch flared white hot in her hand, illuminating the room as she approached him. Hermes swallowed. He'd heard whispered stories about what she'd done to her enemies during the war. "H-Hecate, I'm not stupid."
"Aren't you, now..."
"I'll not repeat a word of what happened yesterday!"
"Few of the futures I see are certain, Psychopompos. But this is one of them," she said, advancing calmly.
"Please; I promise!"
"Pretty words. I need strong words. Perhaps I should be more direct, and burn out your wagging tongue..."
Hecate stopped her advance. The torch hissed menacingly between them.
He drew in a full breath. "I, Hermes Argophantes, swear on the Styx that I will not reveal a single word spoken by Hades in the throne room yesterday. Not one! To anyone."
"Hard to believe," Hecate intoned and lowered her torch. "You are known to do the bidding of oath breakers, Hermes."
"But I am not one myself," the God of Thieves said quietly. "Whatever else I may be, I take that seriously." Hecate's torch flamed out and disappeared from her hand. The lingering darkness left him almost blind. He waited for his vision to adjust and saw her calmly standing exactly as she was. "And despite what all of you think, I respect Aidoneus."
"Respect." She raised her eyebrows.
"The very least," Hermes said through gritted teeth, "I'm afraid of him. Of... both him and her."
"As well you should be."
She glanced in the direction of the tapestry-shrouded staircase, the sound of sandaled feet descending from the chamber above. Hermes swallowed. A slender hand moved the cloth aside and Persephone peeked out, dressed in the same manner as yesterday, when Hermes had tried to spirit her back to the world above. She nodded to him, her face blank of emotion, and Hermes returned the gesture. Hecate bowed deeply. Aidoneus was right behind her, his hand clasped within hers.
Hecate glanced at their hands, the rings smoldering with a light of their own, and exhaled in surprise and relief. She quickly returned her features to solemn regard, but not before Persephone noticed her reaction and understood that Hecate knew. She allowed the goddess' expression to give her a faint sense of hope, and prayed that Hecate would know to say nothing.
The four stood in the dark throne room without speaking. Silvery moonlight still lit the Styx and the marshes of Acheron, and all could hear Cerberus baying at the water's edge. Only Hades and Persephone could hear the cacophony of shades, those souls in Asphodel begging her to stay, lamenting that they were being robbed of their long-prophesied queen. She tried as best she could to ignore the plaintive cries; if she listened too closely, she would be lost. Persephone knew that her husband was more practiced at letting their voices fade into the background.
Aidoneus spoke first, quiet and staid. "Shall we?"
Hermes bowed to Hades and shuffled his feet before he followed the Dark One and his queen. The four of them made their way down the flights of stairs and passageways that Aidoneus had spent a thousand mortal lifetimes crafting until they at last came to the atrium and the golden poplar tree overhanging the great palace gates. The procession to the docks was slow but brief. Hermes saw the silvery inhabitants of the Fields crowding either side of the pathway for a last glimpse of their queen, each bowed to one knee and silently weeping.