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The Fruits of Hades

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She wakes alone in a large bed and lies still while memory floods back. Gathering narcissus flowers in a meadow on the slopes of Olympus, great black horses rising from the earth, a hand stifling her screams... and then unconsciousness.

She is still wearing her own tunic; the bedclothes are drawn up neatly around her and undisturbed. She has not been violated yet.

She draws in a few deep breaths. This is a small space to compose herself for what is to come. She girds courage around herself and prepares to face her captor. Whatever comes next, she will be prepared to fight.

****

Erinyes, goddesses of vengeance, lead her to a golden hall. Couches surround a table laden with the choicest food; apples and grapes, fresh bread and sweetmeats.

The Lord of this place comes forward to meet her. She has the impression of overwhelming power and strength, dark intense eyes under aquiline brows, the power to make and unmake creation confined in the flesh of a god. It is Hades, brother of Zeus, King of the Dead, who with his brothers overthrew the Titans and who now holds her entirely in his power.

"Lady," he says ironically, "welcome to my domain. Do let me offer you refreshments."

He waves her to a seat and takes the couch opposite. She sits carefully, warily, but rape does not yet seem to be on the agenda for the evening.

"Quite a welcome," she says. "I am more used to hospitality that doesn't begin with violent kidnap."

"In Olympus?" he asks. "I'm surprised you rule out any approach at all."

If she acknowledges this is true, she does not say so to the all-powerful deity who holds her prisoner.

"Do eat and drink," he says again.

"I thank you, but no," she replies.

"As you will," he says, and he begins to discourse on the beauties of the Peloponnese, effortlessly holding down two sides of the conversation while she listens in growing confusion. This kidnapping is not what she had expected.

"Your bedchamber is yours," he says at the end of the evening. "None of my creatures will disturb you there."

Then he leaves her and she returns to her room.

***

The Erinyes bring her to Hades' Hall again the next night and again the night after.

She is left to her own devices during the day, and each evening she sits at an abundantly laden table, while the ruler of the underworld talks to her as if she were an honoured guest.

And each night she retires to her room to sleep alone.

***

"Welcome, my lady."

"Lord Hades."

"I have had gastronomical delights prepared just for you. Quail eggs and tartlets made from the apples of the Hesperides. Can I not tempt you to eat?"

"Not tonight, I thank you. I find delicacies lose their flavour when given from the hand of a kidnapper."

"Another time then. Can I interest you instead in the latest work of a mortal poet..."

***

As the days pass, she begins to breathe a little easier. She doesn't let down her guard, never that; she still doesn't know why Hades brought her here. In all her experience, a god capturing a nymph can have only one outcome and it never ends well for the nymph. It would be the height of folly to trust her kidnapper. Yet she cannot live indefinitely in a state of terror and though she stays alert she also begins to relax.

During her days she starts to explore Hades' palace and when no one stops her, she ventures further afield. She walks through a great pomegranate orchard and sits among flowers in the Elysian Fields. These trees and flowers of the underworld are strange to a nymph of sunlit harvests, but strangely familiar too, and as she inhales the scent of narcissus or rests a hand against the bark of a pomegranate tree she finds comfort.

She sometimes comes to Hades' great golden hall as he sits in judgement, the three judges of the Underworld beside him and the Erinyes poised to do his bidding, but she prefers to be outside and, as promised, she remains unmolested by any of the god's creatures.

But she still takes care that no food or drink should pass her lips here in the Underworld, and each night, when Hades sets a feast before her, she smiles but does not eat.

***

They talk of drama and poetry, of mortal creativity and grace. But they have never talked of her life before he kidnapped her.

"Do you miss your mother?" he asks abruptly. "She must miss you."

She stills. How to answer? How much to give away?

She settles on: "My mother will no doubt miss a useful pawn in her games of petteia with Hera and Zeus."

He raises an eyebrow but does not pursue it.

***

The next night there is a petteia board set out on one side of the hall: a genuine board with tiny gemstones for playing pieces, not the parody the Olympians play out with human lives in their never-ending power struggles.

"I thought you might play," he says.

She smiles and takes a seat.

**

"I had not marked you down as a great player of games," she says, moving one of her pieces.

"Oh no?" he asks

"You were furious when you left Zeus on Olympus," she says. "You called down curses and you shook the earth in your fury. It was a scene of great passion. It did not make me think of well-planned strategy and revenge delayed."

"You were there?"

"I was there. You wouldn't have seen me. When the gods gather in assembly, nymphs are only part of the background decor. It was the day before..." she trails off.

"It was the day before I swooped in to steal the latest nymph to attract Zeus's adoration," he finishes for her.

He places a piece on the board. "Your move."

***

For six nights they move game pieces on the board. For six nights the patterns become more complex. On the seventh, Persephone makes her final move. Hades is boxed in, with nowhere else to go. "I win," she says.

He surveys the board calmly.

"And you are a worthy opponent, my lady," he says. He gestures towards the table laden with its usual feast, but she takes no food or drink in her victory. Instead, she looks back at the game board and challenges him to a rematch.

***

Tonight's mortal poetry is a tale of the conquests of Zeus, of half-human children fathered on mortal princesses. Persephone shivers and pulls her expression back into its old, impassive mask.

Hades still notices of course.

"The poetry does not please you? It does not make you feel wistful for your Olympian home?"

"It hits a little close for comfort," she admits.

He waits in silence for her to continue.

"You said yourself that I had drawn Zeus's attention," she says carefully. "A nymph in Olympus has very few options. She can be seduced willingly or chased and caught against her will; either way her role is that of a conquest. If it's not Zeus, it will be Apollo or Ares. There is little choice and no lasting way to say no."

For once, his face is not impassive. He looks genuinely shocked. "But your mother?" he asks. "You're a daughter of Demeter; surely you're not without protection!"

"I was not without protection," she concedes, "while my mother had use for me in her schemes. But the value of a virgin daughter was fast giving way to the usefulness of a distraction for Zeus. I became adept at running and adept at hiding during my last months in Olympus."

"My brother's advances were not welcome, then?" he asks.

"Not welcome, no," she says quietly, then shakes herself. "But you should not suppose that made him want me less. I can assure you that my unwillingness will only have made him more furious to see me snatched from under his nose. Your kidnap is as effective as you ever thought it was."

***

"Do you believe I would not hurt you?" he asks abruptly a month later.

"You will only kidnap me and hold me prisoner?" She is sure that the lift of her eyebrow is every bit as sardonic as his.

"No, I mean... I can't even apologise for the kidnap." As if a god ever owed an apology to a nymph. "But I wouldn't force myself on you."

"I am entirely in your power," she points out.

"That's not.... I wouldn't... being stronger than you shouldn't mean I can do anything I like."

"So you won't be a rapist," she concedes. "How kind! Don't you think it's sad if that's the greatest tribute that can be paid to you? It's a great testimony to your character: he may be a kidnapper, but at least he's not a rapist."

"Don't. I know how petty it is. You are caught up entirely in my battle with my brother and I won't let you go. But I wouldn't rape you."

"No," she admits. "I believe you would not." And it's true. Even in her gilded cage, she feels safer now than she did on Olympus.

"You have been used in too many people's power struggles even before I kidnapped you. But you were a suitable means to an end and I would do it all again. For that I am sorry."

"I can only hope it has had the desired effect," she says.

"Oh yes," he says. "By all reports, my brother is most satisfactorily enraged."

"And that, at least, is something." She thinks of being pursued, of the terror of knowing that there is nowhere to run, and she is vindictively glad about every least inconvenience to Zeus.

But she still doesn't eat from Hades' feast.

***

Zeus sends Hermes to Hades to protest against her imprisonment. He claims to speak on behalf of her mother; that might even be true. The story of maternal grief she is sure is false.

She is present when Hades receives him, but stands pale and silent, tries to fade back into the walls, a perfectly decorative nymph. It is only then that she realises how much she has relaxed in this palace of the Underworld, how much she trusts that, even in judgement, Hades will act justly and without caprice.

The great dog Cerberus pads over to sit at her feet, putting himself between her and Hermes. She twists her fingers in his fur and finds his presence comforting.

Hades appears different in his majesty and state. He is forbidding and aloof and she remembers again how much power he wields with a single finger.

She knows his anger still burns strong against his brother, but Zeus is, after all, his liege lord no matter their temporary enmity. She surprises herself with how relieved she is when Hades sends Hermes away without her.

 

***

"You are not at all what I expected," says Hades over their customary game of petteia.

"In what way?"

"Oh, I admit I had not given you a great deal of thought, beyond how I could use you against Zeus. That was my failing, of course. I may have bought into your mother's propaganda. I suppose I expected a perfectly demure nymph. Beautiful, perhaps a little silly, adoring any god that came her way."

Once again she is reminded of the difference in their experience, of the power and privilege he takes for granted. She draws in a breath and wonders how to explain. "Few nymphs are like that really," she says. "But consider your power: you could do anything you chose to me and I have no way of stopping you. I may know you wouldn't, but you could. Before you abducted me, I had bent every thought for months towards how to escape your brother's attentions. I planned every move so as not to be alone with him; I memorised each rock and stream of Olympus for hiding places and so I never had to go anywhere without an escape route where I could run away. And even so I could not have kept him away as long as I did if he had not enjoyed my fear, the thrill of the chase."

He is silent, his eyes troubled."You are saying that nymphs adopt a kind of protective camouflage around the gods?" he asks.

"Of sorts," she agrees. "Our thoughts can be our own, even when our bodies cannot. And if we are seen as living accessories in the palace of the gods, there's a kind of safety in that."

"I thank you for the compliment," he says at last. For a moment she wonders what he means; then she realises that it's been a long time since she has truly guarded her words in his presence.

****

He obviously thinks about her words some more, and after he wins their next petteia match (eighteen games to her, twenty-three to him, seven draws) he asks whether she has friends she misses.

"Oh, yes," she says. Then her eyes widen in sudden horror. "But you are not to kidnap any more nymphs to keep me company. The Erinyes and I get on just fine." It is even true; between Hades' attendants and the freedom to roam his domain, she is building a second home here, even aside from their comfortable evenings together.

"I wouldn't dream of it," he assures her seriously.

"Anyway, my closest friend was Aetna and she moved away from Olympus years ago. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad she got out, but it's been some time since we could exchange girlish confidences."

"Aetna?" he asks. "Oh! She married..."

"She married Hephaestus," Persephone agrees. "Just months after he failed to marry me." She realises that Hades must have heard the story; no doubt that also fed his belief that she would be spoiled and silly. She flushes.

"Whatever you might have heard," she says, "it's unlikely to be true. I would have taken him no matter his scars. I didn't know him, nor he me, and it might have been a disaster, but he wanted a wife and he didn't want to stay on Olympus; that was enough to count in his favour. I wouldn't have judged him by his physical appearance."

It is suddenly very important to her that he believe she is not that shallow. Zeus's golden good looks swim before her eyes, fatally marred by his arrogance and selfishness; she compares them to Hades' aquiline nose and powerful, overcast brows and stops that train of thought abruptly.

"But that's not how it worked out," he prompts gently.

"No," she agrees. "My mother refused him before he ever spoke to me in person. And she did pass comments on his deformities. She was neither kind nor discreet and her remarks were repeated all over Olympus. It did not make him think well of me." She shakes herself. "Well, that's all old history now. He married Aetna and took her to Sicily and I believe they are happy together. But it did make continuing our friendship awkward, even before I was abducted by the King of the Underworld." She smiles at him. "Amazingly enough, not everything in my life is your responsibility."

"If you say so."

"Aetna was my last resort," she says abruptly. "If Olympus became unbearable, I thought I might go to them. But I couldn't expect Hephaestus to welcome me and even if he had he couldn't have protected me against Zeus. I did think that in the worst-case scenario I might escape to them to raise the inevitable child of my rape."

He has no words to say to that, but he squeezes her hand comfortingly as they part for the night and does not even make his customary offer of fruit from his feast.

****

She places her petteia piece carefully on the board, leaving him nowhere to move and bringing their score level at twenty-six games each. He concedes with a graceful wave of his hand.

"I have been thinking," he says as they adjourn to the couches. "You were present for my last argument with my brother. You knew I was furious. You have survived all your life in the cesspit that is Olympus."

"Your point?" she asks carefully.

"You knew these things," he says, "and yet the very next morning there you were, gathering narcissus flowers in a meadow shaded by weeping cypress and white poplar trees. One might almost think you were trying to attract the attention of the Lord of the Dead."

Truth be told, she had expected him to realise this sooner. "And I was desperate..." she admits.

"Desperate to escape my brother's attentions," he finishes for her. "But to deliberately stage-manage your own abduction! It was a terrible risk. You had no idea what I might do to you."

"No, I did not. And I was genuinely terrified. But I had nowhere else to go. I suppose I had come to a point where I feared staying in Olympus more than I feared the unknown." She smirks a little. "I did not think you could be worse than your brother and even if you were as bad I would still have had the satisfaction of knowing I had frustrated him."

"My lady, I continue to be surprised by your unexpected depths. I salute you. I would have welcomed you to my realm more lavishly had I known you chose to be here."

He leans across the table, his smile warm and inviting as he offers her half of a perfectly ripe pomegranate. "Now can I persuade you to eat the fruits of my orchard?"

She can't help smiling back at him, sharing his warmth, but she shakes her head. "Why, sir," she says, "a forced choice is not a free choice and I will not share your feast."

***

Demeter is still furious at the loss of her daughter - and more furious still, Persephone deduces, at the loss of her influence over Zeus. She is trying to force him to assert his authority over Hades - no matter that that might bring on war between all the Olympians. The news is brought to the Underworld by the Erinyes, returning from their missions of vengeance; crops are failing and mortals curse the gods.

Persephone shudders at the chaos and suffering and shrinks further from the thought of war. If Zeus's anger with Hades turns to all-out war the whole earth will suffer for it. Yet she does not plead to be released. She is uncomfortably aware that to reward her mother's tactics would simply encourage more of the same. No god or goddess can be permitted to hold the Earth itself hostage; no one would ever be safe again if its bounty is destroyed at Demeter's whim.

Still, the peace Persephone has found here starts to feel fragile and she fears that Zeus and her mother may be able to force her from the underworld. Hades does not offer to let her go, though he looks more sombre as more newly dead enter his realm with tales of blight and starvation.

She spends more time wandering the Asphodel fields, murmuring nonsense to Hades' strong black cattle and running with Cerberus through the strange half-light. But she also spends longer in Hades' great Hall when he sits in state to hand out good judgement and she treasures every moment of their evenings together.

***

The inevitable happens at last. Zeus issues formal judgement in his role as King of the Gods; that judgement is in Demeter's favour.

Persephone may spare a moment to think cynically that other factors than justice are involved; yet still the moment has come. Hermes arrives in the Underworld in pomp and he recites the divine decree.

She freezes and she can see Hades tense. Will he concede defeat, or will he defy his brother? If he chooses defiance, she thinks it would be for her; perhaps she deludes herself and it would simply be a refusal to give up his revenge.

Hermes trembles in Hades' presence. He doesn't belong here and he knows it, but he has the protection of the name of the King of the Gods and he does not back away from the gathering thunder in Hades' face.

Persephone looks back at Hades. He has never said the words. Can she believe he loves her, or is she still just a valuable political pawn? Can she stake her future on having a place in his court? Put another way, can she risk losing the world to war if he does choose to fight for her?

Hermes arrived at night. The ever-laden table is between them, overflowing with all the fruits of Hades. She stretches out her hand to take a single perfect pomegranate segment.

Hades' eyes widen - almost imperceptibly, but she has learned to read that forbidding, beloved face. He knows what she's doing, even if he barely believes it and his eyes gleam with delight and triumph. Reassured, she bites into the fruit.

Hermes leaps forward to stop her and there is a brief struggle; his strength is greater than hers, but Hades is there too. He catches her wrist and takes the pomegranate from her.

Hermes is silent as Hades inspects the fruit.

He raises his sceptre and it cleaves the Earth; his voice thunders from the underworld throughout the spheres and all the way to Olympus. "Persephone has eaten seven, pomegranate seeds," he declares. "For seven months she shall dwell in my halls as my wife; the remaining five she may return to her mother."

This time he does not resist when Hermes moves to escort her back to Zeus; it is she who holds up a hand to wave the messenger back.

She steps forward on tiptoe. "Five months," she murmurs into Hades ear, "then I will return to be your wife in more than name."

She draws his lips into a deep passionate kiss, the first fruits of loving to come. His lips soften and part under hers and he lets out a faint gasp. She sweeps her tongue between his lips, over his teeth and deeply, briefly into his mouth, chasing his faint sounds of pleasure.

When she steps back she turns to Hermes. "Now," she says, "I'm ready."

***

Life on Olympus is radically different when you are the wife of Hades and Queen of the Underworld as opposed to an anonymous nymph. Even Zeus dares not touch her now, and she dissuades her mother's more importune demands with a raised eyebrow and a mask of gravitas.

Bringing springtime abundance back from the Underworld also provides a wonderful excuse to escape from the heights of Olympus. Persephone walks through fields and valleys, skips lightly over mountaintops. Flowers bloom under her feet and fertility and abundance follow in her wake. If Demeter thought her control of the produce of the Earth was a sure new weapon, she has overreached herself. For five months of each year, Persephone will walk the earth and mortals will have full harvests, no matter what her mother's choices are.

The whole world has become her domain, and though she misses Hades with a deep, sharp longing she cannot but be moved by the praise and gratitude of the humans who receive her plenty. And when her path takes her to Sicily, she is reconciled with Hephaestus and spends long golden afternoons talking with Aetna.

But she is sure to return to Olympus when the end of her five-month exile approaches. Grand gestures, after all, mean more when seen by an appropriate audience.

With a fine sense of drama, Hades' sceptre strikes through the mountain and a chasm opens to the Underworld, stonework breaking apart in the central hall of Olympus. Persephone registers Zeus's fury with smug pleasure.

Erinyes flood from the ground, wings beating like thunder, forming an honour guard. She does not look back; with her head held high she steps into the Earth.

***

Hades is waiting for her at the centre of his realm. Five months has been too long to live on the memory of one kiss and she hurries forward.

He reaches for her hungrily, sinks his hand into her hair. "My lady, my love," he murmurs as he kisses her. His lips move over her face, then back to her mouth. He bites gently at her lips and then kisses her deeply.

Her hair falls from its pins into loose waves around them. She presses forward against him, returns to his kisses eagerly, passion consuming them.

"It's been too long," he murmurs as he trails his lips down the column of her throat.

"I'm here," she assures him. "I'm yours if you are mine."

With a wave of his hand the world shifts around them and they are in a stately room she has never seen before. A large bed is draped with luxurious hangings and he joyfully sweeps her towards it.

Now he is kissing her neck, sucking gently at the column of her throat. Their hands pull ineffectually at each other's clothes, reluctant to move apart long enough to undress.

She kisses him again and her hands trace the strong contours of his chest, delighting in the way he trembles at her touch. His own hands skim her nipples and she gasps in pleasure.

They fall together onto what will now be their shared bed.

 

FIN