Maiden in Love in the Underworld

Ceres stood at her cottage window. Outside, her beautiful gardens, the whole of the landscape was dying. Sacred sacrificial fires burned unceasingly within the temples; the populace clamored from Sicily to the Alps, and yet, she heard none. Their prayers fell on her ears, deaf to all but Proserpine’s cries. Her pitiful, horrified screams burned in her heart even now.

Ceres had spared nothing in her rescue; she’d searched high and low, for months on end; each night she lit torches at the fiery mouth of Mount Aetna to light her persistent search throughout mighty Rome, Greece, the golden fields of countries yet unknown. All she found of her beloved Proserpine was her beautifully woven sash, given to her with a sorrowful tale by a heartbroken dryad. With this, she charged up Mount Olympus and confronted the gods, demanding retribution.

It seemed they knew the tale all too well, for Jove took her aside and gave her the awful news: Pluto, stricken lovesick by those fiends Venus and Cupid, had taken her beloved Proserpine into his dark underworld, foolish, desperate to make her his queen.

They warned Ceres she must heed their wishes. Her people suffered. She must relent, they said.

No; she would not. Rage burned within her as she paced her cottage. Visitors came, begging her to rethink her decision. She turned them all away. Yet, Mercurius returned, repeatedly, trying to dissuade her.

“Mercurius –” She rounded on the god, and waved a testy hand toward Jove’s palace. “– remind them, if they must be reminded. Unless Proserpine is returned to me, safe and whole, the world will die.”

“But my Lady!” he protested. “You must see reason. You simply cannot allow this to be. Please –”

She refused to repeat herself. “You have my decision. Take that to His Damnedness. Lay the blame on him. He releases my daughter, or else.” She pointed to the cottage door and crossed her arms, shutting down behind them. “Go.”

Mercurius opened his mouth to argue, but Ceres gave him a stare as fiery as the mountain, though her eyes held ice in their pine bough hue. Mercurius sighed, bowed and flew off.

She sighed.  Months ago they had been happy. Proserpine was an innocent maid; nothing hindered her care, her warmth, her wonder in the face of the world’s gifts, and Nature responded in kind.

It was her own fault, Ceres thought, that Proserpine had been kidnapped. She’d not kept a closer eye on the maid.  What kind of Mother was she to allow this to happen?

It was not her fault — no. She’d done everything she could to protect her child.

Were it not for Venus and her scheming ways, not for crafty Cupid, or Pluto and his wandering eyes and greedy, grasping hands, Proserpine would be with her, and all would be well. But why Proserpine? Pluto was full of pure mischief, plain and simple. He was doing this out of spite, and until he felt this loss as deep as had she, Nature would remain in hibernation.

Mercurius returned, announcing Jove had summoned her to Olympus.

Upon her arrival, Ceres took in the Sky Father on his throne. The lights of his beautiful palace blazed softly, and she thought in a direct opposition to his demands. “No!”  How many times must she say it? In how many languages? “I will not relent until she’s returned. You have my decision.”

Jove sighed. “I cannot force him, Ceres. He would make her a fine husband, and you and I a fine son-in-law. Take that to heart, and do your duty. You mustn’t allow our people to suffer. Please, see reason.”

“There is no reason without Proserpine, and there will be no life, either.” Ceres barely contained her ire as she returned home. What did they expect? She must remain firm, determined. She couldn’t let Pluto win!

She only wished she knew how to reach her daughter. Sighing, the goddess stared across the landscape to her temple in Enna, longing. Proserpine, her heart cried, return to me!

*  *  *  *

Proserpine wandered the market, alive with enticing scents of all kinds, and rowdy, joyous sounds. Yet she couldn’t share their joy. Pluto had taken her without her leave, tried to win her heart, bade her settle in his dark world as she wished. He gave her everything she could want, anything to see to her comfort, insisted this was her home. The land was in fine bloom, the market noisy, full of song and conversation, cries of the merchants added to the din. They each offered her delights, cakes, fine clothing fit for a queen. Yet, no matter what they offered, Hades would never be her home. She craved true fresh air, warm sunlight, colorful, sweet flowers, majestic oaks, willows, pine, soft grass beneath her feet. She missed the fields and streams, and especially her beloved mountain!

She picked up a beautiful gold necklace, running its soft cold links through her fingers before she dropped it back to its case. Something niggled at the edges of her memory: A dark river, the laments of the dead, twisting tunnels that led nowhere. Outside this dream, Pluto’s world, in fact, seemed filled with darkness. This beauty was illusion, an imitation he painted for her. Wasn’t it?

And what she heard of the world above! It was enough to make a serene Lady like herself mad with sadness and fear. How could her mother allow such an act? She had tried–oh, she had tried many ways to escape, to tell her mother she need not lament; that she was safe.

Sick in heart and body, Proserpine sunk down to a colorfully woven rug, gaining a welcoming nod from the nearby rug merchant, before he turned back to his work. Dismissing her as she sat there sulking. A tear slipped down her cheek.

“What is the matter, my love?”

Startled by the deep voice, Proserpine looked up.

He stood before her, Pluto. Dread King of the Underworld. His dark eyes studied her; and she could see concern written in them, but she was unmoved. “Go away.”

He offered his hand. “Come now, love, don’t sit here in the shadows and brood. It’s not good for you.”

“Why shouldn’t I? That’s all you have here: shadows.”

Pluto’s dark brow rose. “Is it?” He peered upward, shading his eyes from the muted sun. “I see no shadows here. Phoebus’s sun burns as bright as ever, and warm.” He knelt down beside her, nudged a lock of hair out of her eyes with a gentle touch. “Step out from your hovel. You’ll see.”

Proserpine couldn’t be sure, but she thought her heart melted a little at the tender gesture.

He took her cold hands in his, pulled her to her feet, and led her through the market. She gazed upon the beautiful gold and bone necklace she had coveted earlier. Pluto picked it up in his strong hands. “Do you like this?” She bit her lip, afraid she might say the wrong thing. A tender smile curled his lip, and he circled her, leaned into her from behind. His warm breath tickled her ear. “Then you shall have it.” He reached over her head, dangled the necklace before her eyes. The little pomegranate pendant glinted in the sun like opal, the rind, the bulbous point at the end, as supple as the real fruit. She felt the chain, and his fingers, slide across her skin and she shivered. The clasp slid into place, the pendant fell against her chest with a soft thunk.

“Come.” He scooped her up in his arms, causing her to laugh, and carried her to his chariot. The horses galloped break-neck through the underworld until they paused in a peaceful meadow. Before them, the branches of a great olive tree wafted in the warm breeze; birds twittered overhead. She heard a brook babbling in the distance. Mount Aetna stood before her, majestic, silent. Proserpine gasped in surprise.

She took another deep breath. The air was sweet and smelled of crocuses and violets.

When had they returned home?

Pluto settled down beside her. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed him watching her. She smiled and plucked a violet from the grass, running her fingers lazily over its petals. She felt a light touch tickle across her forearm, and she looked over. He was studying her intently. “Tell me what you love.”

Heat blazed up her cheeks, and she brought the flower to her nose, to hide the sheen. “This.” Underlying its familiar sweetness, there was a hint of something strange, something old, dried, decaying. She wrinkled her nose, sneezing the undertones away. She offered him the flower. “This is what I love.”

His dark curls wafted in the breeze as he leaned forward to sniff. His beard tickled her fingers. “Lovely.” The delicate violet’s petals grazed his nose and the flower withered. “Absolutely beautiful.”

She blinked. “Beautiful?” She could see nothing beautiful in the drooping head.

Pluto shrugged. “Well, before it died? Such is life, Proserpine, don’t you agree?”

She frowned down at the withered treasure, caressed the brittle petals. They bloomed again with vibrancy and color. She sighed as she lowered the flower to her lap. “Would that I could do that with everything here.”

“You have.” He stroked a finger down her cheek. “You have, more than you know. For which I would gladly spend forever repaying you.”

She shaded her eyes from the sun. The landscape seemed so much like home. Could this be true? The stories she’d heard about Pluto’s home hadn’t come close to reality. It was a warm realm of light and beauty. The god himself didn’t fit the tales. He was sweet, and kind.

“If you will be my queen.” He took and kissed her hand, a light brush of his lips across her knuckles.

A thrill ran through her, followed by fear. She dipped her head, her hair falling across her face like a veil. She hoped it would hide her blush.

Had he really suggested what she thought? Is this, then, what he’d been leading up to? Proserpine scanned the landscape, wishing she could consult her friends, her mother. Could she really accept his offer without their counsel?

Could she love the man behind the awesome power? The one that made humans the world over quake.

Looking into his soulful, expectant dark eyes, there was only one answer.

He kissed her hand. “Well?”

Yes. It was time, she realized, to grow up. To do what she’d always hoped she could do. Shyness flamed in her cheeks and she nodded. “I think I’d like that.”

“Do you really?”

She nodded once again, fondling her bone necklace. “If you love me.”

“You have no idea how much.” He wrapped her in his warm embrace, lips brushed across hers. The kiss sent her head spinning, filled her senses with sweetness, and a hint of ash. He pushed her back slightly and swiped a blonde curl from her forehead. An impish grin lit his handsome face. “Now, what are we going to tell your mother?”

* * * *

A hell of heat and drought burned across the plains of Italy. Flora and fauna, beautiful roses wilted, the olives shriveled on the bough, grapes withered on their vines. The river dryads slowed, stretched and seeped out their life’s blood into the veins of drying riverbeds. Animals panted, and dropped of dehydration; the dryads of every grove shielded their eyes from the burning sun and fled their homes, crying for the Earth mother. She refused to hear them. She had ears for only one thing, so Ceres returned yet again to the Gods’ Palaces. Jove himself came down from his throne to meet her.

“Gentle, lovely Ceres.” He put an arm around her shoulders. “Have you come to a decision?”

Again, she refused.

Jove sighed. “Then you force me. I will go speak with my brother and have her released.”

Ceres pulled away. “Begging your pardon, My Lord, that is as it should have been, long ago! Why wait so long?”

“She’s just a girl. There was never any need for you to hold her so close. Girls often leave their mothers for love.”

“She did not leave!” Ceres spat. “She was stolen from me! Raped! Yet, you stand idly by and tell me she left of her own free will? That does nothing to elevate you, My Lord.”

She counted herself lucky when Jove shrugged off the insult. Indulging her anger wasn’t normal for him. What did he have planned?

“Perhaps you will see it differently, when you have Proserpine here to explain herself.”

“She will have nothing to explain. Bring her back to me, or the world will remain cold and dead.” She crossed her arms. “I care not.”

“That is a lie.”

Ceres face turned red with anger; she raised a hand. Jove took hold of it. “If you wish them parted, I shall see it so, if—”

“If what?

“Pluto has a magic all his own. If she’s partaken of that then I can’t fight her wishes, can I?”

Ceres narrowed her eyes. “Her wishes?” What were the scheming brothers up to now?

Jove sent her away with a gentle pat of his hand, and a directive, “Go and rest.”

She couldn’t rest and so paced her withering garden. The soil dried and cracked as she charged back and forth in her rage. She could feel it spreading out to affect the whole of Italy, the entire world.

Was it true? Would he finally intervene on her behalf? Or was she forever doomed to lament her child’s loss?

Was he right? Fear skittered down her spine. Did Proserpine go of her own will? The goddess shook her head. No, that couldn’t be. She would never consent to be the queen of such a vile man as Pluto; the mere idea was insane.

* * * *

The well-tended streets of Hades sped by beneath the clomping hooves of Pluto’s night-dark steeds, and Proserpine tried to take it all in; at the shores of Styx, thousands of shades lined up, waiting patiently. She could just see the wake from Charon’s barge stirring the waters. He had departed not long ago.

She itched to see the Elysian Fields, the Plains of Asphodel, and Tartarus, but Pluto turned his chariot down the brighter road. Looking back, she could see the gleaming steel towers of the horrible Furies. Megaera stood over a criminal, her serpent locks hissing at him; Alecto brandished her bloody sword at another; Tisiphone guarded the prison grounds, her bloodstained cloak pulled at a jaunty angle over her shoulder, daring any brave enough to try and stop the work she and her sisters did here. The winds couldn’t quite dissipate the gut-wrenching stench, and Proserpine put a hand to her nose.

Pluto promised she would become accustomed to the sights, sounds and scents of his world, but Proserpine rather doubted it.

Further on, the waters of Lethe tinkled as it ran, like the sounding of a million tiny silver bells; Acheron’s whirlpool of boiling mud sent steam into the sky, while the slimy stench of navy Cocytus churned and poisoned the stagnant air. Hydra and monsters of all shapes and sizes loomed over the shades. Horrid screech owls and vultures dined on what, she didn’t wish to know. The reek was almost too much to bear. Three Judges rested in the shade of a sagging oak, dealing with each new arrival in turn, turning each shade aside to their destination, depending on their lives’ stories. The Elysian Fields glinted golden in the sunlight; laughter and deep sighs of longing love rang on the winds; the drab plains of Asphodel awaited some, others were led to Tartarus. She shuddered to think of with what she was sharing these streets.

Melos saluted Hades as his chariot sped past.

“Not much longer now.” Hades’ voice broke through the din of the orations. “This road leads on towards your new home.”

Excitement shivered through Proserpine and she leaned forward, squinting, yearning for a glimpse of the fabled palace.

Sitting dead center of the realm, the majestic golden-bricked House of Hades rose up. Excited barks and yowls of Cerberus greeted them as they approached the elaborate gates. Pluto pulled the chariot to a halt, and she climbed down, and knelt before the hound, patting its three heads, while its tongues licked her hands in delight.

The elaborate carvings on the golden doors glinted in the muted sunlight. They squeaked loudly as two hulking minotaurs pulled them wide. Inside, beauty abounded, negating everything she had glimpsed in Tartarus. Here, torches and lanterns filled the palace with warm, inviting light. Music filled the air, and statues seemed to come alive as they passed. Servants bowed and seemed to hang on their Lord’s every word.

Hades laid his warm hands to her cheeks, rested his forehead against hers. “What think you now? Do you still wish to leave?”

The thought of all she’d seen, the beauty, the sorrow. No. A scheme brewed in her thoughts as she realized she could do something here. She gave him her answer, with a kiss. “Not just yet.”

A cronish-looking serving woman, with wiry black hair standing out every which way, gaunt face, and icy, talon like fingers, took her hand, drew her towards the stairs, her greetings and the slap of her sandals echoing off the marble and bone walls.

Sweet scents filled the room, amber, cedar, wafting from her bath as her ladies tended to her; the soft tug of combs and fingers through her hair as gems were woven into her coif, the whisper of fine linen as she donned an exquisite black tunic, over which the ladies draped a fine spider-silk stola, gray as the stormy evening sky, edged in silver and dappled with diamonds.

The table in the main hall was loaded end to end with succulent meats and fruits, the finest wines. The guests bowed to her as if she had already taken vows as their queen. Best of all, Pluto smiled, radiant as she joined him. He kissed her cheek and led her down to her seat at the head of the throng. “What think you?”

She scanned the assembly, a quiver of fear running through her to see all eyes on her. “It’s —”

What could she say? The look on her face must have answered for her. He patted her hand. “You’ll get used to it.”

She hoped so, and hoped her mother wouldn’t kill her when she learned of this decision. She wondered if the trembling crawling up the base of her spine was her trepidation, or if, somehow, Mother already knew and was having a fit even now.

* * * *

Time slithered slowly by like a bloated adder. Usually Ceres never thought of its daily passage — welcomed it, even; today, it was more than she could take. Would Jove be able to wrest Proserpine from his brother’s control? Would she ever see her beloved daughter again?

Night fell, morning arrived, afternoon, dusk, sunset, night returned and nothing. Ceres paced worriedly. No Proserpine, no spring. Let them die. She would not change her mind. What was happening? What had happened? What’s taking him so long?

Finally, the knock, and Jove’s voice came from her front stoop, thundering softly, as the threat of a future storm, held at bay. Ceres rushed into the foyer and thrust the door back. Jove stood proud, and strong, with a look of strange sadness on his face.

Ceres cared nothing for that, for beside him stood Proserpine — her beloved, lost Proserpine!

“Daughter!” She pulled the girl into her arms, tears blurring her vision as she hugged and covered her daughter’s face in welcoming kisses.

Proserpine cried, returning her mother’s embrace, and several times said something Ceres didn’t quite understand, but finally, she realized. Proserpine’s kisses tasted nothing like usual; rather, Ceres thought she detected a hint of ash. “Oh, my!” She grasped her daughter’s hand tightly, her own palm sweaty. It couldn’t be true! “Proserpine, you didn’t! You didn’t accept him.”

Jove sighed tiredly. “She did.”

Ceres wailed and reached out for her door, her daughter, something to steady her. “She can’t! She must remain with me.”

Jove shook his head sadly.

Ceres growled her frustration, and her willow trees groaned in answer. “I promise you, Jove, your world will end for this!”

“No, Mama.” Proserpine took her mother’s hand as she pleaded, “Mama, listen. We have come to an agreement, and you must, as well.”

She gave her daughter a suspicious look. “What kind of agreement?”

“I must stay with him ….” Ceres gasped, and Proserpine took a step back, as if afraid. “I may visit you from time to time, but Hades will be my home.”

She was aghast in disbelief. “What?”

“I don’t know how to choose between you, but I will, if you disagree.” Proserpine bit her lip. “Please, Mama, agree. You will see he’s not so bad.” Proserpine sheepishly looked away and dug a toe into the floor tiles. “He’s really sweet when he wants to be.”

Ceres’ eyes narrowed. “Is he?”

She looked up; light cheeks flushed the pink of a rose. “He proposed to me.”

“Marriage?” Ceres wondered if her heart stopped. “You’re to be his wife?”

Proserpine nodded, twisting her fingers as she bit her lip. “Can you believe it?”

Ceres glared at Jove, fists clenched around her daughter’s arms. “Is this true?”

“I am afraid it is,” the god agreed. “I promised you it would not be an easy thing to separate them. Now, will you accept them, or no?”

Ceres closed her eyes, sighed, and opened her eyes on her lovely daughter, and the drought-riddled landscape, beyond. “Mama,” said Proserpine, taking her arm, “it will be fine. You’ll see.”

“How can it be?”

“Love makes everything fine, doesn’t it?”

“You love him?” The pink in the girl’s cheeks deepened. Impossible! It couldn’t be true. Ceres glared at Jove, ice frothing the stare. “What kind of trick is this?”

“No tricks.” Proserpine slipped her arm through her mother’s. “Oh, Mama, wait until you hear what I have planned for them.” Mischief lit in her gaze. “Think of what I could do there!”

“Do?” She’d never considered any such thing before, but as she welcomed Proserpine once more into her arms, she understood perfectly.

“I will come and tell you about it, in the spring, when I return.”

Ceres thought she felt her heart seize within her chest. “What do you mean? You — you have a schedule?”

The maiden goddess shrugged. “Who doesn’t?”

She opened her mouth to forbid this silly plot, and yet, hesitated. Maybe, after all, her daughter was right. Though she was loath to give that bitch Venus any credit, maybe Proserpine would be all right, perhaps even thrive.

She looked to Jove to see him smiling behind his great white beard. Turning to her daughter, she fingered the bone pomegranate resting against her chest. What’s four months? She sighed, resigned. “When should we set the wedding?”

Ceres and Proserpine hugged one another once more and as they crossed the dried, cracking landscape, Ceres lamented the cruelty of Fate. As they walked and planned the marriage, overseeing the decorations for the ceremony, as Proserpine welcomed her new husband to their hallowed, pillared temple at Enna, and fiddled with the dainty white ribbons streaming down from her crown of slim pomegranate leaves, Ceres noticed her dread lightened to see her daughter’s joy. Flowers bloomed in their wake, setting the sacred mount ablaze in color, and coaxed spring from her cozy bed to brighten the land.

[JD Revezzo can’t remember the first time she fell in love with the Arthurian tales, nor the exact moment she wrote her first story (she thinks it was when she was eight or nine, and consisted of something about a faery courtship in her front yard), but her parents say she’s always told stories.  She can only point to a somewhat late discovery in high school when she was introduced to Michael Moorcock’s beloved hero Elric, inducting her into the wonderful world of Romantic heroic writing. That early influence was bolstered by her pursuit of degrees in literature and art history, and by devouring the works of many authors from the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, such as Michael Moorcock, Isaac Asimov and the late Marion Zimmer Bradley (specifically for her love of all things Celtic). Her short fiction has been published in Twisted Dreams, and Crossed Genres‘ “Posted Stories for Haiti Relief” Project, while her non-fiction has been included in The Scarlet Letter, the newsletter of the Tampa Area Romance Authors. On occasion, she has even been known to pen the odd poem. She spends what little writing time she has away from her fictional worlds reviewing books for fun on Café Pearl, and on The Examiner site, where she reports on the local literature scene as the Tampa Books Examiner. She has also edited the popular e-zine Nolan’s Pop Culture Review. She is a Pro member of the Romance Writers of America, and a member of The Tampa Area Romance Authors, and her first novel is currently in the works.]

]

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