Author’s Note: Not a lot of notes to add this time. I’m having fun with this plot, but the prose is killing me for some reason. I know exactly what I want to say, yet it just isn’t coming out to my satisfaction. Still, I know better than to rework a single chapter over and over again before finishing the story, so out it goes, Chapter 9. I hope you all enjoy it. Oh, yes, and for those of you familiar with the myth of Hades and Persephone, the similarity is completely intentional. 😉
Nestled within the fold of two mountains fighting for space lay a sheltered valley where enough soil existed for the land to support a forest of trees and a large lake. There might have been magic involved, because just at the entrance to the valley, the temperature changed and the snow ended, revealing grass and moss and the new buds of spring on the trees. After fighting the snow and ceaseless wind, Febe saw the valley as a single slice of paradise in that landscape, and she rushed forward despite her exhaustion, pushing past Marcos.
The ground just beneath her began to tremble as her shoe first crossed from the snow onto the new spring grass. Febe took a hesitant step back and then another. Marcos shouted a warning, and then his arms pulled her against his chest before tossing her back onto the packed snow trail where she fell to her knees, the snow instantly soaking her trouser legs. She jumped to her feet, turning to him to ask why he’d done such a thing, the words never making it past her lips when she saw that he wore an amulet that glowed with a silver-blue fire. She was about to ask what was going on when the ground split apart with a deafening crack, only a few steps away from where she’d stepped on the grass. Marcos pushed her further back, blocking her with his big body from the growing fissure as the crack speared towards them, now splitting the snow-laden earth.
Febe clung to Marcos’s hard bicep as she peered around him at the gaping chasm that blocked their path. A massive warhorse bearing a robed and hooded rider leapt out of the opening in the ground. Febe wanted to run, but her frozen legs kept her in place, though her entire body trembled with her fear. Her grip on Marcos tightened, and she pressed against him as if he could possibly protect her from the god of the dead.
The time had come for her to face her future husband.
She caught only a glimpse of Morbidon’s features before she pressed her face against Marcos’s arm. This time, the god wasn’t wearing a bone mask or even armor, but somehow he looked even more intimidating in a flowing black robe with a cowl casting his upper face into shadow. Of his lower face, the cowl revealed only a strong, square jaw and lips that were tight with disapproval as he turned his attention from her to Marcos.
“You were to summon me when you retrieved my bride.” His voice had the hollow sound of a tomb door closing—deep, resonant, echoing, and absolutely terrifying.
Febe shuddered against Marcos, before the meaning of the god’s words sunk in. She gasped and pushed away from him, staring at him in distrust and dismay, almost forgetting the presence of the god of the dead as his magnificent warhorse pawed the frozen ground and snorted clouds of warm breath into the chilly air. “You serve Morbidon?”
“You needn’t speak my name with such horror, woman!” The god’s voice lashed out at her, brittle with anger.
Febe flinched, shifting further away from the horse, and despite her feeling of being betrayed by Marcos, she returned to his side, sidling behind him as Morbidon’s lips tightened even further until they were nothing but a thin line slashing across his swarthy skin. When she clutched at Marcos’s arm, silvery-blue flames rose from Morbidon’s robes.
“My Lord, I would have summoned you when we’d had a chance to rest in the valley. It took some time getting—“
Morbidon slashed an impatient hand through the air, trailing blue flames in its wake. To Febe’s horror, the flesh on his hand was peeling away beneath the burning flames, revealing bone as white as the snow beneath them.
“I’m not interested in your excuses, peasant. I sent you to retrieve my bride, not to seduce her.” Morbidon’s final words were hissed out in what could barely be called a human voice. His now bony hand clenched in front of him and his horse neighed, tossing its head as if it was disturbed by his anger.
Marcos glanced down at Febe, who was trying to hide completely behind him now. His eyes met hers and she saw the sympathy in them. If she wasn’t so afraid at the moment of the menacing god, she would have kicked him in the shin just for daring to pretend he had any softer emotion for the person he’d been sent to collect like some prize. She wished more than anything that she had a bunch of traps at that moment to hide behind instead of this untrustworthy man. Perhaps little mouse is an apt nickname for me. She frowned in self-disgust, searching for the courage to face the god without the help of the man who’d been lying to her.
Marcos gently detached her white fingers from his sleeve, taking her frozen hand in his large, warm grasp so that he could draw her back out to stand at his side instead of behind him. “I have done no such thing. If you’d take notice, your bride is frightened, not in love.” To Febe’s surprise, he leveled a glare upon the monstrous apparition in front of them—the god of the dead now fully skeletal and burning with blue flames, his tight lips having peeled away to reveal the death rictus of a skull. “It’s no wonder she views you with such fear, for even I tremble in your presence.”
There was a chiding note to Marcos’s tone that Febe couldn’t believe he’d dared to add when addressing Morbidon. Marcos hadn’t been lying about trembling though. She had felt the tremor of his muscles beneath her grip and even now, his hand around hers wasn’t so steady. Yet he faced the god and dared to censure him as if he couldn’t be wiped out of existence for the simple act.
This is the kind of courage I need. He faces Morbidon with fear, yet still stands tall!
A long moment of silence fell. Febe didn’t dare look in Morbidon’s direction again after seeing the horrifying reaper aflame. She kept her focus tight on the weave of Marcos’s wool tunic, just visible beneath the furs that covered his chest and most of his arms.
The sudden sound of Morbidon’s voice caused Febe to jump, realizing that she had almost gone into a trance waiting for the blade of the reaper’s scythe to fall upon her. “My bride has given you a chance, yet has not extended me the same courtesy.” The hiss was gone from Morbidon’s tone. It had returned to that deep, arrogant voice that he’d used when he’d pretended to be a mere necromancer in her mother’s court.
Now’s the time for courage! Though she still didn’t feel any, Febe dared a glance at the god and saw to her relief that he was back to flesh and blood beneath the robes, and the fire had died away, though his lips were still merely a thin slash. She wondered if he was even capable of smiling, or if anger or disapproval were his only expressions. “Why didn’t you come for me yourself?” She barely whispered the words as she returned her focus to Marcos’s sleeve. She hadn’t intended to say them aloud. The fact that Marcos tightened his grip on her hand in warning didn’t make her feel any more confident about the fact that she had dared to utter them.
Another long silence fell as if the god was considering her words, or perhaps he hadn’t heard them, which would have been preferable.
Then he spoke, revealing that he’d heard her just fine. “You ran into my sister’s arms seeking your escape from me. Would you have preferred I razed her temple simply to retrieve you?”
She shuddered, though his tone had been as calm and reasonable as she’d ever heard it. “Could you have done that?” She unconsciously sidled back against Marcos’s side, though she didn’t note it until after his furs tickled her cheek. When he put a heavy arm around her shoulders to shelter her further, a growl from the god of the dead raised the hair on the back of her neck, but she remained beside Marcos, cursing her own lack of courage. Had she been Eldora, she would have been standing before the god with her chin lifted and a seductive smile on her lips, trying to manipulate the monstrous creature as Eldora had manipulated so many men and women in the past. Instead, she was cowering against another man, one she had no reason to trust, yet she couldn’t find the strength to leave his embrace and face Morbidon even as she dared to question him. Her mother would be furious at her behavior. Isa would never have sought shelter in a man’s arms.
Morbidon’s voice was a growl as he answered her. “I could have, but I do not kill without reason. Instead, I sent my servant to return you to me peacefully.” His tone was cold and brittle, and Marcos tensed against her side, his arm pressing her closer to him.
I don’t want to be “returned” to you! She wanted to scream the words at Morbidon, but this time, she managed to keep her thoughts behind her lips. He was obviously already aware that she didn’t want to marry him. He also obviously didn’t care what she wanted. All her protests would do, would be to further anger him. She had to decide whether she should use what little courage she had to face her betrothal and honor her mother’s bargain, or face the monster that wanted to enslave her in matrimony and tell him she would never agree to such a fate.
She recalled Marcos’s words about making a choice. This moment was where she had to make it. If she angered the god by denying him, she had no idea what would happen next, but if she agreed to the marriage—though the very thought of intimacy with such a creature made her ill—there was hope that she could influence him at some point. Then she might even have the power to usurp her mother and her sisters and free Barselor from the burden of their endless infighting.
Febe was hopeless when it came to men. She had no idea what to do or say to them, but Marcos had already said he would help her. Though now she knew that he had been working for Morbidon and not her sister, his intention had never changed, so technically, he hadn’t been betraying her. She’d always known that he’d planned on taking her back to marry Morbidon. However, if she were to return to Morbidon’s kingdom with the terrifying god, then she didn’t want to be alone amongst the dead. Given Morbidon’s obvious suspicions about her relationship with Marcos, her next request might be risky, but it was the only way she could work up the courage to do what she must. “I will willingly return with you to your kingdom and marry you, but you must grant me one request.”
“Are you making demands of me?” Since Febe didn’t dare look at him, she couldn’t read his expression, but his tone sounded surprised. Surely he doesn’t expect a wife to be as obedient and unobtrusive as his servants? Yet, he was male and a god, so perhaps he expected exactly that.
“If you want a wife and not a slave, then you will learn to give on occasion instead of always taking.” She trembled, despite the firmness of her tone.
Marcos squeezed her in encouragement. He was watching Morbidon, so perhaps what he saw in the god’s expression was enough to convince him she’d made the right decision in standing firm.
To her surprise, the god actually sighed. “Very well, make your request.”
“I won’t return with you to the Underworld alone. I need a companion.” She looked up at Marcos’s face, just as he turned his attention from Morbidon to her. His eyes widened when they met hers, and he slightly shook his head. She ignored the warning. “I want Marcos to be that companion.” She risked a glance at Morbidon to see how he was taking the request. Her heartbeat stuttered when she saw blue flames crawling along his robes again.
He was silent for a long time as the wind kicked up around them, whipping tiny flakes of snow into a whirl that left them all untouched. Marcos stood tense against her, though he hadn’t dropped his arm and pushed her away when he realized her intent, despite the fact that it might have put him in danger. He’d still stood with her. He was almost as much a stranger to her as the god they faced, yet she felt comforted by his arm around her and the implicit support it carried with it.
When Morbidon spoke, his tone was reluctant, but the terrible hissing of rage hadn’t returned. “Very well. I will allow you this…companion, as long as you agree to be a proper wife to me. You must swear that you will never attempt to run away again, or your companion will suffer dearly for it.”
Febe didn’t have any doubts about what he meant when he said “proper wife.” She shuddered at the thought of sharing the monster’s bed and pushed down her gorge at the very idea that he would touch her. Yet, her only other option was to tell him she would never accept him and deal with whatever came of that choice. She didn’t think it would be a good alternative. She would have to find the strength to endure, as she had endured all her life in her mother’s castle. “I agree to those terms…” She glanced up at Marcos, swallowing as she realized that she hadn’t even bothered to consult him. If he says he doesn’t agree—
Marcos met her eyes. Then he nodded, the movement so slight that she might not have caught it if she wasn’t watching him closely, but the brief squeeze around her shoulders was answer enough. He might not be happy about being put in the position she’d put him in, but he was in agreement with it.
“Then we are in accord.” At Morbidon’s words, his horse suddenly surged forward, charging right at them.
Marcos shoved her out of the way, but the horse followed her path as she stumbled back. Before she could fall or be crushed beneath pounding hooves, a hard arm swooped out and captured her around the waist, pulling her onto the horse’s back and—to her horror—settling her onto Morbidon’s lap as the animal spun around and thundered back towards the chasm.
A brief flash of Marcos’s wide eyes and gaping mouth rushed past her before the horse plunged into a darkness so all-consuming that Febe saw nothing but black, yet she remained uncomfortably aware of the solid arm holding her secure as she traveled with the god of the dead down into the Underworld.