Written for Not Prime Time Exchange 2016. Many thanks to Greenlily for beta-reading.
The nymphs remember a time when there was no winter. It was an eternal, unchanging time of gentle sunshine and growth. The meadows flowered and the trees gave fruit at their own will. Demeter passed across the earth, crowned with golden grain; she brought rain-showers in her wake, and all things ripened. And always her daughter was at her side. When the young Kore ran across the fields behind her mother, green shoots poked up from the earth and the flowers blossomed at her tread. She danced with light foot in the dances of the nymphs, those who dwelt in the trees and rivers, the fleet-footed followers of Artemis, and the daughters of Ocean. Together they wove garlands to crown their heads, or sang wordless songs to the sun and wind.
And then the Kore was torn from them, and the world was changed. She came back to them, but now she walks with the stately tread of a queen rather than the heedless grace of a girl. Now time is divided by seasons, and she who was the Kore goes yearly down to death. The river-nymphs sigh and prepare to hide themselves below the ice until spring comes; the dryads lament their trees shedding their leaves and feel the slower pulse of the sap in their veins. All of nature mourns with the lady Demeter.
Through all the spring and the long summer, Persephone has dwelt with her mother, has danced with the nymphs and gathered flowers as once she did as a girl. Demeter sends forth her power, and the grain ripens and stands tall in the fields. Demeter has taught mankind how to sow and reap, how to set aside seed grain and store food for the winter. Though her heart still holds sorrow and anger, she is not cruel, and she does not wish to send more shades to swell the kingdom of the dead.
And then the autumn draws to a close. Demeter walks through the woods and fields, with Persephone behind her. As Demeter passes, each plant and tree drowses in sleep, awaiting the awakening of spring. As Persephone follows, the pale stalks wilt, the brown leaves wither and fall. Demeter grieves, and a chill begins to gather in the air; the earth is lightly touched with frost.
They still have a short time together. Demeter grips Persephone's hand tightly, as if reluctant to let go.
"The descent does not hurt me, mother," Persephone says. "I am not frightened of it any more."
"I am a daughter of Kronos," Demeter says quietly. "I believe you have heard that tale: the prophecy that made him cruel, that he would one day be overthrown by his own child. To prevent it, he swallowed each of his children new-born. I barely glimpsed the light before I was plunged back into the darkness, swallowed by my monster-father. We are immortal gods and we cannot die, but for so long there was only the darkness. When we were released, the light smote against my eyes and I wept with the pain of it." She bows her head and is silent as they walk. At last she says, "I never wished you to know such darkness, my daughter."
"It is not all dark," Persephone says. "When he first brought me there, the lord of the realm below took me all through his kingdom and showed me everything. There are caverns full of gold and glittering jewels. It is not like the earth above with its flowers and trees, but it is beautiful." A stern, austere beauty; she imagines it might be like the earth in winter. But Persephone has never seen winter in the world above. Her mother wishes to spare her that.
"He became too used to darkness," Demeter says grimly. "When we were freed, he only wished to find a dark cave to hide himself in again."
"Do not grieve, my mother," Persephone says. "It was fate." She does not know if that is true. She is different now. She cannot truly remember what she was like before. She was carried into the house of Hades as Kore, the Maiden; she ascended as Persephone, she who brings death. She is Queen of the Underworld, and that has changed her.
"Necessity is stronger than gods and men," Demeter says. "I do not fight it; but I will never accept that this judgement was just."
Persephone does not know if it was just. She belongs now to that silent kingdom below the earth, and it belongs to her. The grain sprouts, rises and turns golden, dies and goes back to the earth. In the spring, the grain rises again; but is it the same grain? The flowers return, and the trees bud with leaves again, but the flower that arises is not the one that dies. The old leaves of autumn are replaced by young ones, but the old leaf still is gone. Persephone wonders sometimes if she is the same, the one who goes down into the underworld each year and the one who returns. How would she know?
When the moment of parting comes, Demeter weeps, embracing her; Persephone does not. She returns the embrace, leaning against her mother's warmth for a few moments. Demeter smells like sun-warmed earth, like ambrosia and ripe grain in the fields. "I will miss you," she says, and that much is true.
Demeter finally releases her and pulls an ear of wheat from the bosom of her robe. "Take this," she says, "and do not forget me." Persephone takes it, and she can feel how it holds the warmth of the autumn's last sunlight.
"Farewell," she says, and turns away.
Persephone walks until she is out of her mother's sight. Though Demeter accepts the necessity of their leave-taking, Persephone thinks it would pain her mother to watch her sink down through the earth. She could enter the realm of Hades anywhere; it is easy, very easy, to find the way to the house of the dead, where the gate is wide and always stands open. But she chooses to enter a cave that is sacred to Hades-and now to her. She walks deeper into the cave, and when she reaches the back of it, she keeps walking. The black rock opens before her. The sunlight is a narrow scattering of brightness before her feet, and then it is behind her. Though she does not look back, she can feel it dwindling, and then it is gone. Persephone descends, and the stalk of wheat burns in her hand like a torch.
She reaches the waters of the Styx, flowing dark and sluggish, and they too part for her; the Queen of Hades needs no ferryman. She passes through, and steps into the realm where she wields the power of Queen. The sighing host of the dead bow before her like a field of grain in the wind.
Behind her, Demeter still weeps. Behind her, winter gradually, softly takes hold of the earth.
There is a possibly apocryphal derivation of the name Persephone from pherein phonon, "to bring (violent or bloody) death."