The moment I entered the palace’s grand stables, the servants’ voices fell to a heavy hush. They ceased their tasks and stood frozen in place on the cobblestone, all eyes in the aisle fixed on me. Even the horses lifted their heads from their hay and pricked their ears in my direction. I couldn’t blame them for their surprise.
I hadn’t exactly sent word to prepare them for my arrival. And as it was, I had not visited the stables in a very, very long time. I waited patiently between the colossal double doors of the barn with my hands folded in front of me until a servant rushed forward.
“Lady Persephone,” he bowed, “it is a pleasure to be in the presence of the Queen of the Dead once again.”
I looked at him closely, recognition tingling the edges of my mind. He’d been working in these stables for a long time, but I couldn’t for the life of me recall his name. Embarrassed, I simply nodded.
“Thank you,” I said. “I would like to go for a ride.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” the stable hand replied. “I will ready a horse for you right away.”
“Prepare Arion if you please?” I asked. The servant’s eyes widened marginally for a reason I could not guess. But he bowed again swiftly.
“Certainly, my lady. If you will just wait outside, I will saddle him now.” Then he was gone, back down the aisle to fetch my favorite horse. I cast one last gaze down the stable hall, disquieted by all the staring faces, then turned and exited. I understood my presence made things awkward for the servants and didn’t want to keep them from their work.
In the front of the stables was a fine fountain, surrounded by trees and flowering bushes. The end of my silver-colored dress rippled along the stone ground as I walked over to sit upon one of the carved benches.
This lovely place felt so old and yet so new all at once. Small changes had been made to the landscape. Some bushes were new, and some were trimmed into different shapes. I’d missed it here. I’d missed my horses. I’d missed the palace. I’d missed…
“My lady,” the servant called. I looked up and saw the colossal gray beast that was Arion. He pawed the ground angrily, his muscles tense and mouth chomping at the bit. I approached with a smile on my lips.
“Arion,” I greeted in excitement. It felt as if decades had passed since I’d last rested my hand on his silky smooth coat. I eagerly extended my hand to pet him. Arion pinned his ears and squealed. I startled, and disturbed at this behavior, looked to the servant.
“He’s been acting a bit strange since you’ve been away, I’m afraid. I’m sure with a bit of exercise, he’ll be back to normal,” he replied, avoiding the strikes from Arion’s pawing hoof. I gingerly accepted the reins from his hands, then moved to set my foot in the stirrup. Arion danced away from me, and I had to mind my feet, so they did not get squished.
“I’ve never seen him this antsy,” I admitted, approaching the stirrup again.
“Allow me to help you, my lady,” the servant said. He ducked next to my side and gave me a boost once I was near enough to the horse’s back. I sprung up, with his helping hand on my leg, and alighted on Arion’s back. My thighs had scarcely settled against the saddle before Arion leaped forward. I gripped the reins tightly then asked him to back up. Arion fought me again, resisting the pressure of the bit. I asked him to turn in a circle, and Arion resisted me then, too, preferring to jump forward and lash his front feet into the air.
“Very well then! Have it your way!” I snapped. Frustrated, I kicked him forward, hard. Arion’s back muscles bunched, then he bolted. I grasped his mane, clinging onto him for my life as I reestablished my balance in the saddle. I tried to steady my breathing and become one with Arion’s movements, but it didn’t come easily. I was shamefully out of practice.
I can’t remember the last time he’s wanted to run like this, I thought, slightly worried. But I saw no point in trying to slow the stallion down. His legs pounded away at the ground, and I could do little more than hope he would stay on the road until we cleared the Dead City. His desire for speed was absolutely ferocious. Luckily, I’d always liked to ride fast, and we had a lot of ground to cover.
The Underworld’s lands were vast and eerie, but they provided plenty of room to explore. And to get lost. If the swirling mists didn’t hide you, the sheer height of the peaks and the black canyons would. They were alluring in their own strange way. Not at all green or vibrant. That was the thing I disliked most when I first came to live here. How bleak and gray it all was. Well, not all, thanks to me.
When was the last time I’d even visited my gardens?
I realized at that moment how desperately I needed to reacquaint myself with this land. It was my home, after all. When had I become so numb to that fact?
Arion suddenly kicked his back legs out, slamming me forward into his neck.
“Hey!” I scolded, tightening the reins. Arion thrashed his head in resistance and bucked again. I was prepared this time and sat it a little better. With all the power in my arms, I gripped the rein and turned him in a tight circle. I pulled until his nose touched my boot, and we spun to the point where I became dizzy. Finally, Arion stopped circling and stood still. He was breathing hard, and when I looked into his eyes they flashed red.
“What is wrong?” I asked. Slowly, I set a hand to his neck to pet him. Arion snorted, and I felt the snot from his nostrils sprinkle my arms and face. I closed my eyes and sighed.
“Alright, I get it,” I said, wiping my face before slackening the reins.” You’re mad at me.”
Arion stomped one of his front feet and strained on his bit again. He wanted to keep moving.
“I’ll let you go if you promise to stop bucking,” I said, a hand on my hip. It’d been a while since I had to bargain with a horse, and I was aware my demands mostly likely meant nothing to him. He was magically born after all and renowned for having quite the mind of his own. Before coming to my stable, he had carried many mortal heroes, and even they were unable to tame him fully. He’d been a gift to me.
I allowed Arion to have his head again, and he pranced forward, increasing his gait until he was cantering nicely. The rhythm of his hooves clopped steadily along the brick roads until we left the city borders and turned off onto a dirt path. If my memory wasn’t failing me, this road wove through the fields of fog and into a small, hidden grove where my gardens grew.
As soon as Arion’s feet touched the valley floor, he surged to new speeds. I let him go, enjoying the feel of the wind and the mists on my warm cheeks. The grove opened up before us, and the treetops poked through the fog in the distance. It was so picturesque, I relaxed into the saddle and allowed myself to appreciate the scenery. That was when Arion began to buck once more.
“Arion!” I screamed, choking up on the reins. He stopped abruptly. I did not squeeze my legs in time to prevent myself from leaving the saddle. I sailed through the air over Arion’s head. As the ground neared, I focussed on landing on my feet. It halfway worked. One foot hit first, but before I could catch my balance, I fell onto my side and tumbled a few feet. I sat up quickly and turned to my horse in fury.
“What is your problem?!” I exclaimed. “I take you out for a ride so you can have some exercise, and you act like a butthead the entire time! Is this what you wanted?”
I rose slowly, already feeling some pain in my arm and shoulder from where I impacted the hard ground. My dress was slightly torn, too, and I huffed, brushing the dirt and gravel from it. Arion stood a few yards away, his ears pricked in my direction, his head high as the fog swirled around him.
“I know I haven’t visited in a while. I’m sorry, alright? I’m sorry! But I’ve been going through a lot!” I cried. The horse stomped the ground in reply, and I shook my head.
“Maybe that isn’t a good enough excuse,” I said, clenching my fists. “I realize I shouldn’t have neglected you…but you were just another reminder of my misery. How often would I cry during our rides? How often would you try and comfort me? I didn’t want you to see me unhappy anymore. I had to go away. Don’t you see? I had to figure things out.”
Arion nickered softly. It was the first kind gesture he’d made. I looked at him, tears filling my eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated. “But I’m back now. Let me fix things.”
Arion stood still, his mane and tail streaming in the soft breeze. Then, he took a step forward and lowered his head. He walked over to me and reached out his nose to gently touch my hand. I smiled and set my palm flush to his forehead.
“Thank you,” I whispered. Arion nickered again, then pricked his ears toward the grove behind me. I swallowed back my tears and turned to see the gardens. They were glowing.
“They’re calling me,” I said. Arion bobbed his head. I took a deep breath, and then I began to walk.
It was time to start fresh.