"Persephone!" The nymph's call rang down the field. Just over the next hill, a young woman's head rose in response to the call. Sighing, she pushed herself to her feet and away from the earth that was warm from the midday sun. Unconsciously, her fingers rubbed in the loose dirt and left her fingers dirty. As she ambled slowly back up the hill, she rubbed the dirt absently between her fingers.
As she topped the rise, the fifty nymphs below her gave a simultaneous excited squeal. She narrowly stopped herself from rolling her eyes. Although she was fond of her companions, sometimes they were just too. . .enthusiastic. "Persephone!" Adamantia called excitedly. "We found a lovely new flower!"
Persephone's eyes lit up. Above all things, she loved the earth and its creations. She hurried down the hill as the nymphs chattered excitedly and pointed toward the far edge of the meadow. If she strained her eyes, Persephone could just see a single flower of startling white against the green of the grass. "Wait here," she murmured to Adamantia, who promptly took the other nymphs in hand and left Persephone to cross the field alone.
In seconds she was standing over the flower. Up close, it was even more beautiful. The petals were purest white, but if she looked closely enough it seemed as if there was a crimson shadow beneath the white. Fascinated, she knelt and brushed the velvety petals with one fingertip, leaving a smudge of dirt behind. Frowning slightly, she tried to gently brush off the dirt.
"Don't bother, lady." The voice was like black samite against her skin, and unconsciously she shivered even as she started. She turned to face the man behind her, frowning slightly. She hadn't even heard him approach. And obviously neither had her companions, otherwise they would have alerted her.
She stifled a gasp as soon as she saw him. He was clothed in a black robe and his feet were bare. His hair was like darkest night, and tousled as if he had run his hands through it repeatedly. His skin was a warm golden color, as if he were in the sun a great deal. But it was his eyes that caught and held her. They were like shards of obsidian, but there was no glitter to them. They were flat and cold and dead.
Persephone swallowed hard. He looked fairly young, but then so did all the gods. He wore no beard, which was odd. Usually men—whether mortal or not—had a beard. Yet he obviously scorned the practice. She idly wondered why even as she shivered. He was handsome, but there was something about him that made her uneasy. "Sir?" she said hesitantly. "Do I know you? You are obviously one of the deathless gods, yet I do not know you."
He studied her in frozen silence. She tried not to fidget, really she did, but she couldn't help it. Her fingers brushed against the dirt and anxiously rubbed it between her fingers as she waited for his response. Finally he said in that deep voice, "I am Hades, little one. Lord of the Underworld."
She couldn't suppress her gasp and the leap of fear. She started to kneel, and abruptly realized she already was. Instead she dipped her head and held it there, unwilling to so boldly meet his eyes now that she knew who he was. "Forgive me, my lord," she gasped.
Cool fingers gently gripped her chin and tilted her head so her eyes met his. "There is nothing to forgive, little one," he said softly, his dark eyes intense. Her mouth opened soundlessly, mesmerized by his eyes and the strange effect that his voice had on her.
It seemed that they stared at one another in silence for forever. Finally she dared to whisper, "Why have you come here, my lord?" Her eyes searched his, acutely feeling his cool hands still on her face.
He released her slowly and took her hand to help her to her feet. "Will you walk with me?" he murmured, ignoring her question. She shivered. Despite his bleak, slightly frightening appearance, his voice was touchable and sensual. It was like the softest samite sliding over her skin, or the finest wine warming her blood.
Studying his emotionless face, she obeyed him. She glanced over her shoulder and saw that her companions were nowhere to be seen. She felt an immediate spurt of panic, which he obviously sensed. "Your companions are all quite well, Lady Persephone. I've stopped time for them so that we may speak in complete privacy."
All the better to ravish me, she thought caustically, immediately shielding the unruly thought. She shot a sideways glance at Hades as they slowly walked. "You are of age to be married, aren't you?" he asked suddenly, not looking at her.
Alarm bells jangled loudly in her head. "Yes," she said cautiously. "I am not sure what my mother wants to do about my marriage. We have not spoken of it."
"What do you want to do about your marriage?" he countered, his eyes resolutely not looking at her.
She blinked, startled. No one had ever asked her what she desired in life. Although she loved her mother, sometimes Demeter was a little…overbearing. She rarely asked Persephone's opinion on anything, and Persephone had never really considered that her opinion would have any merit with anyone. As a result, she had become a solitary soul. Although she had her companions—at her mother's wish—and she was fond of them, she was more than content to be alone a great deal of the time. "I don't know," she said slowly. "I have never given it a great deal of thought."
His head turned toward her, and she sensed his dark eyes studying her contemplatively. Now it was she who averted her eyes and stared at her sandals. "Why is that?" he murmured, and she felt pleasure tighten up her stomach for a moment. His voice was just so very. . .sensual. She couldn't help but react to it.
Instead of dwelling on the effect that his voice had on her, she answered his question. "My mother will do what she pleases," she said with a shrug and a small smile. "And I trust her judgment. So there is no reason for me to worry about it."
"Indeed," he murmured. "But I am not sure what I think about that thought, my lady. Do you not care about your future?"
She smiled slightly and watched as a bird nudged one of its chicks out of the nest. The chick shrieked wildly and flapped its wings frantically and soon found itself aloft. She felt a smile quirk her lips as she watched him circle the tree several times. "I care, of course," she told him, her gaze still on the birds. "But I am still a maid, my lord. My mother will know what is best." Although she believed what she told him, in the darkest nights sometimes she resented her mother's complete control over her. She had never even seen a man until now. She had never been around her father, or even around the other gods too much. Her mother had always feared that the gods would be incensed by her beauty and Persephone would be forced to be a mistress instead of a wife.
When the little bird flew away, she smiled and turned to face Hades, her eyes alight with pleasure. She found him watching her, his eyes contemplative and dark. She immediately felt a hot blush rise to her cheeks and ducked her head. Immediately she felt his fingers on her face as he raised her eyes to his again. "Do not ever be ashamed, little one," he murmured. "You are a precious gift, and any man would be lucky to have you."
She bit lip, staring up at him. "Even you?" she asked boldly, then her eyes flew wide and she clapped her hands over her mouth in mortification. Oh where had that come from? She moaned to herself, her stricken eyes staring up at his surprised face. Why did I say that? Fool, she raged. A thousand times of a fool! But even as she raged at herself, she waited for his answer with bated breath.
"Yes," he said slowly. "Even me." Then, to her surprise, she saw one corner of his mouth turn upward in something resembling a smile. Her hands dropped from her mouth in surprise. From his appearance and serious demeanor she got the impression that he rarely, if ever, smiled. Knowing that she had made him smile made her heart flutter, and an answering grin curved her lips. They smiled at one another for a few precious seconds before Persephone realized that they had stopped walking. Immediately she started strolling again, and he caught up with her in seconds, his longer stride eating up the distance between them.
He held out his arm to her, and she smiled up at him, trust shining in her brilliant blue eyes. She linked her arm through his and they walked in silence, merely listening to the earth. "It has been a long time since I came to the surface," he mused aloud, his voice soft.
She glanced up at him in surprise. "Oh, my lord! Why?" she asked, distress bright in her voice.
He glanced down at her, slightly puzzled. "Why does this distress you so, my lady?"
She blinked up at him. "Because!"
He didn't smile, although she thought she saw a glimmer of amusement in his dark eyes. "That was certainly enlightening," he said mildly, and she huffed at him before she caught herself.
"Because the earth is life," she said fervently. "It is joy and truth and. . .light."
She felt rather than saw him go cold. He gently withdrew her arm from his and took a small step away. "But I am none of those things, my lady," he said coldly. "I am darkness and death. That is my realm and that is me."
She cocked her head slightly to one side to study him in silence as he stared, his eyes dead and still again. "I don't believe you," she said slowly. "You are not like that."
"You lie to yourself," he said icily. "Do not think otherwise, my lady. It would be dangerous indeed for you to delude yourself into thinking that I am any of those things that you just described."
"Nothing is all darkness," she said seriously. "And nothing is always light. There is a shadow to the sun, and there is a candle in the darkness, my lord. And death is not such a bad thing."
His lips tightened. "You speak of things of which you know nothing about," he said, his voice clipped and hard. "You have not ever seen death, my lady, otherwise you would have a very different view of it."
She nodded her head. "I have never seen death," she admitted. "You are correct. But it is a final peace, isn't it? Not unlike sleep."
He hesitated. "The dead are not kind, little one," he said, his voice low. "They are not gentle shades of night. They drink blood and have no knowledge of their former lives unless prodded."
Tears sprang to Persephone's eyes at the bleak and terrifying picture that he painted. "How horrible," she breathed, surreptiously wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. "So lonely," she whispered. "I wonder how they stand it."
He watched her in silence. "Luckily you will never have to know," he murmured. "I would never want you to be one of those miserable shades, my lady."
She shivered delicately. "Nor I." She studied him sadly. "Does it hurt you to see them?"
"No," he said coldly. "I have lived millennia among them. It does not bother me."
She hesitated, almost believing him. But she pushed it aside and realized that somehow they had come full circle and were once more standing beside the white flower. But now there was a black chariot standing beside it, with a pair of matched black stallions pawing irritably at the ground. She gasped and looked up at Hades. "Is this how you arrived here?"
"The Lord of the Dead must travel in style," he said, dead-pan, and she laughed. She saw surprise flare in his eyes for a moment, then it was swiftly hidden. "Would you come with me?" he blurted out, and immediately clamped his mouth shut, irritation in his eyes.
Once she got past the shock of his request, Persephone decided that he hadn't meant to ask. And that made her wonder. She studied him, pushing aside her mother's voice in her head that was telling her that she shouldn't go alone with him. Shouldn't go with him at all! She felt the familiar rise of impetuosity that her mother hated.
"Yes," she said recklessly, and saw surprise flare in his eyes.
"You'll come?" he blurted, and she laughed, pushing her guinea-gold curls over her shoulder.
"Yes," she said, laughing and tilting her face up to the sun for a moment. "Yes, I'll come with you."
His tiny smile showed again for a brief second, but it sent a giddy thrill through her. She pushed down her mother's insistent voice in her head and followed him as he went to his team. They snorted angrily at them and he spoke to them in a tongue that Persephone didn't understand. She peered around his shoulder, and they screamed at her, the tendons in their necks straining with their rage. Biting her lip, she stepped quickly behind Hades again, feeling cowed and then hating herself for the feeling. They were only animals, after all, and she was a goddess. There was nothing for her to fear. But she couldn't tamp down on the fear that had seized her when they had nipped her teeth at her and screamed like a woman being murdered. Just the analogy made her shiver.
Hades stepped back from the horses after saying a sharp word. "Don't be afraid of them," he said calmly. "They won't hurt you."
Yeah right, she muttered to herself in her head. But she followed Hades to the chariot. He courteously allowed her in front, then stepped behind her. She froze as she felt his warmth enfold her. Although his hands had been cool, his body was warm against hers, and it made her belly tighten up with an unfamiliar feeling that wasn't altogether unpleasant.
His arms came up on either side of her and gripped the reins. The two horses reared, and Persephone felt something change in the air. As if something had shifted. She glanced around instinctively and saw her nymphs top the hill, their gazes searching frantically for her. She raised her hand to wave at them, then was forced to grip the edge of the chariot as the ground beneath them opened in a loud rumble that rolled through the hills. "Hang on," Hades murmured in her ear seconds before the ground crumbled beneath the chariot and the horses sent them coursing down into complete darkness as the earth closed above them.