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The Ribbon: Marcus's Tales

Summary:
Marcus is a young man in ancient Etruria, who is in love with his master's daughter, Didyme. When her older brother, Aro, disappears under mysterious and frightening circumstances, Marcus and Didyme are torn from the innocence of their young love and thrust into a new and very different world. This is the story of the Volturi, told by the one who was there from the beginning and saw it all. He has kept his mouth shut until now, but if you come close and listen, he will tell his tales: how Caius became so murderous and cold, how the wives came to join the family, the beginnings of Aro's machinations and plots, and even the beginning of the vampires. Everyone has a tale to tell...and his might surprise you.


Notes:


1. Chapter 1:The Beginning, the Ending

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The Ribbon

Chapter One: The Beginning, the Ending

Marcus Speaks:

Yes, my friend, come in…Sit down, make yourself comfortable. I know your questions. I don’t mind. It’s just been so very long since I’ve told this story, and it isn’t an easy one to tell.

In order to tell you about the day I passed into immortality, my young friend, I must tell you something of myself, of my life as it was before. Only then would you be able to truly understand and appreciate the impact of such a transformation.

I was born long ago, in a time when calendars and schedules didn’t exist the way they do now. The world wasn’t in such a great hurry then. We measured our days by the shadows of the sun and the nights by the position of the moon; we counted our months with the moon and stars, and the years had no numbers: we remembered them by what had happened of particular notice that year, such as a drought or an epidemic or a particularly good harvest. All I know of when I came into the world is that it was springtime. My mother died giving birth to me, and she was buried wearing a crown of freesia and peony, and clutched a bouquet of hyacinth, which they say matched her eyes. That is how I know: for those flowers only bloom in spring.

I was the oldest child of a large, working-class family. My father was a laborer on a nearby noble’s estates, but we cultivated our own grapes and olives and even a small field of wheat, the fertile black, volcanic soil of the mountain slope we called home providing us with plenty to eat year-round. He remarried after I was born, which was normal: a wife was essential to maintain the home, and many children were necessary to keep the family business going.

We were Etruscans, and it was, as near as I can divine from research, about 1000 BC. My, how the years have passed.

Etruria was the foundation of what would become the great Roman Empire. It stretched for mile after prosperous mile across the western coast of Italia. My family lived a few leagues from the sea, near the town of Pisa, although it wasn’t called that back then, on the gentle slopes of Monte Pisano.

I don’t remember many details from my childhood. What I do recall are images, flashes of sensation, faces, voices.

I remember sitting on the mountainside, crook across my knees, herding my father’s master’s sheep, feeling the cool breeze against my face. I remember sleeping in a messy pile in one big bed with all my brothers and sisters, arms and legs entwined like a litter of puppies. I remember working hard, and playing hard. That was the way back then, children working as hard as adults, making time to play when they might. But it was a good childhood, I suppose. My father didn’t beat me, and we always had enough to eat. Many children can’t say that. I do remember that I was content.

And I remember Didyme. But I will come to her in a bit.

As I said, my father was a laborer for a local noble, a high-class merchant who traded in the lovely bronze and brass sculptures and vases and ewers that Etruscans have been famous for producing for thousands of years; he also traded in marble and ivory and other luxuries. His name was Cestus, his family name was Donati, and he and his wife, Lucretia, had seven children. They had a beautiful villa on the slopes of Monte Pisano, which bordered our own little humble plot of land. Their villa was surrounded by vineyards and olive groves and apple orchards, and they had stables full of cattle and horses and barns full of pigs and chickens. They had true prosperity, and my family was quite lucky to serve them, for we never lacked either. The Donati were good masters.

As I mentioned, Cestus and Lucretia had seven children. The oldest, the son of Cestus and his first wife (who had died in childbirth like my own mother had), was a serious, pale boy named Aro. He was a bit older than myself, and he was sent away to school in Rome when he was about thirteen, so I didn’t see him much until he returned years later, a man grown. I don’t remember any of the other children’s names… except for Didyme.

She was the only girl, a rose blooming in a wheatfield. She was younger than I by two years, but it didn’t matter. She was lovely, smart as a whip, and she loved me. She was my friend. She was my heart, from the first moment I saw her. And I, for some unfathomable reason, was hers.

People gravitated toward Didyme, like bees to fragrant flowers. She had something inside her that drew admirers of all kind; it was impossible not to love her. If she wanted it, it was done. Somehow she managed to not end up a spoiled child; instead, she turned out as the most unselfish and loving of women. Her father, normally a very stern man, couldn’t refuse her anything she asked—even when she asked him to let our friendship continue and develop, when any sane father would have stopped it right away, maybe even sent my entire family away to prevent our love from blossoming further.

You see, back then, marriages were made by families for the sake of the family’s best interests: love didn’t play a part in it. Often girls were betrothed to much older men when they were but babies, and often they wouldn’t see the man they married until their wedding day, when their crimson flammeum veil was lifted to reveal their face to their new husband for the first time. Surely, given his only daughter’s beauty and intelligence and obvious worthiness as a commodity, she would have made a fine alliance with some very high-placed man…But Didyme wouldn’t have it. She only wanted me.

I never understood why she loved me, the son of a poor man. Not even particularly handsome. But she did, and it was the greatest treasure of my life, to have that laughing, lovely being at my side.

It had started early, when we were children, her a very precocious barely eleven, me almost fourteen.

“Come on, Marcus, the apples are ripe on that tree in the north orchard!” she had whispered to me on a glorious late summer morning, grabbing at my hand under the table at breakfast. I always stayed with the master’s family during the week, to be available to help her father in the mornings. And Didyme always came down to break her fast with me, that morning unleavened bread and soft white goat cheese with fresh milk. “If we hurry, we can get the best ones first!” Her grin was sparkling, her dark brown eyes dancing with mischief. Hopelessly beautiful, even as a child.

I stared at her, torn. I was supposed to help my father tie up the new grapevines in the southern vineyard. If I missed, I was surely to be punished. My eyes must have said such; she wrinkled her nose and shook her head fiercely, golden curls casting fire everywhere in the morning sunlight.

“Oh, don’t be such a spoilsport, Marcus! I’ll talk to Papa, you won’t get punished!”

I sighed. I was lost. Apples it was. And probably a whipping as well.

But it had been worth it.

I treasured every moment of that stolen time, hidden up in the boughs of the apple tree. We laughed and talked all day, stuffing ourselves with apples til our stomachs hurt. And no whipping in the world could ever take away the burning imprint lingering on my lips from the first kiss Didyme ever gave me, there in the apple tree.

“Promise me, Marcus,” she’d said, seriously, her dark eyes holding mine as she drew her face back from mine. I simply stared at her, wordless with shock: I’d never been kissed before, although I had often guiltily daydreamed of kissing her. It seemed an unimaginable twist of fate that it had happened, that it had been her idea to kiss me! She reached up and pulled a red ribbon from one of her braids and looped it around my wrist a few times, tying it tight.

“Promise me, you’re mine. Always mine.” Her voice was low and urgent.

Did she even have to ask?

That ribbon, weightless as it was around my wrist, was the gravity that held the planet of my soul in orbit around the sun of her existence. I never took that ribbon off. It rotted away on my wrist years later, never to be replaced, for by then she was gone, and I was alone and directionless, drifting in the fog and emptiness left by the departure of her sun.

The years passed and we both grew. I matured into a young man, and came to take my father’s place as Lord Donati’s right-hand man. Lord Donati valued my opinion. He often told me I had an odd gift for being able to discern the worth of those around me, and how well people might work together. It was a good gift for a man in charge of workers to have, he told me. How ironic, that that odd gift served me in such different ways, later.

And Didyme…she matured as well, into a willow-slim young woman, her skin like the silvery moon, her dark golden curls reaching her tiny waist. Her laughter was like silver bells, and her deep brown eyes, so full of wisdom and joy, only saw mine.

She was my personal miracle. My mind was boggled by her devotion. No matter how many well-set young men came seeking her hand (and there were many), begging her father for a chance to court her, he always refused. Lord Donati was helpless as a kitten against Didyme’s desires, he could refuse her nothing she asked with sincerity. It was as if she had a gift for making others love her…and she did, even then. And all she asked for was me.

When she was fifteen she was finally judged old enough to marry. Yes, I know it is young now, but back then, it was plenty old enough to marry. People matured and died much younger then, anyway. The years we waited seemed endless to us both.

Her father promised a good dowry, enough to set us up a nice farm of our own, but I had no desire yet to leave their estate in just anyone else’s hands. I had to train my successor, a man I had hand-picked, who seemed intelligent and capable.

Didyme and I set our wedding for the autumn, and she passed her time with her mother and the serving girls, laughing and chattering as they sewed her gowns and linens and all the things she would need to start a home with me. And her bright crimson flammeum, her wedding veil. On the morning of our wedding day they would part and divide her hair with the tip of a spear and then plait it, then drape the flammeum over her. She’d wait for me, wearing that veil, at the altar, and our life together would begin when I lifted it to see her face—the face of my wife. She and I. She would always be with me.

With me. With me! I walked on air.

Then, one day that summer, when the wheat was waving golden and heavy in the fields, when the orchards and vineyards were beginning to burgeon with ripening fruit, Aro came home.

Aro had gone away as a pasty-faced, rather timid boy, but he came home a tall young man possessed of a fine, intelligent mind and a strong determination to make something of himself. He was also arrogant and very self-assured, looking down his nose at everyone and everything, and seemed to always be plotting something.

As was the custom, he’d been sent to live with relatives in Rome, where he was educated by the finest Greek slaves in all the correct subjects and apprenticed to a successful lawyer to learn rhetoric and politics. Aro could discourse on history and science and mathematics, could lecture on military tactics and recite poetry and the famous orations by heart. He seemed very sure of himself, although I perceived that beneath the polished exterior was the heart of a manipulative coward.

He immediately found out about Didyme and myself, and he wasn’t very pleased.

“My sister, I should think, could do much better than you, Marcus Domitius,” he told me flatly one afternoon, eyeing me critically. He had sought me out, coming all the way out to the southern wheat field to find me, where I’d been directing the slaves in the reaping.

Beneath his critical eye, I felt every stain on my clothing, every unshaved whisker on my cheeks. For the first time in my life, I felt small. I had nothing to say. He was right, after all. Why would this shining goddess, this golden nymph, ever want me? I shook my head and refused to meet his eye.

Aro cleared his throat distastefully, not meeting my eye. He gazed off into the distance, as if I were beneath his notice.

“But no one could ever change her mind, though, could they, Marcus?” He sighed. “Not even our father. He’s a useless fool before that girl.” His lips twisted in a grimace. “Lucky for you both that Father didn’t die and leave me in charge. She’d have been sent away to be a Vestal Virgin long before I allowed her to marry a commoner like yourself.” Then he chuckled ruefully.

“But then again…perhaps not. Even I can hardly say no to her.”

I smiled to myself. How right he was. Even Aro had a hard time telling Didyme no. Everyone did. Everyone loved her. She always got her way, and those who gave it to her rarely regretted it.

“Well, whatever happens, Marcus, you must never mistreat my sister. She is the best of us all, you know.” He looped his thumbs into his woven belt and rocked back on his heels, scrutinizing me. “Do something with yourself. At least try to be worthy of her.”

He didn’t have to tell me anything. I knew, intimately, that she was the most wonderful thing in the world. I would rather gouge out my own eyes than hurt her. And regardless of his perception of me, she saw something worthy in me, and always had. Since she was so very perceptive and wise beyond her years, it had to mean I did indeed possess something notable, whether I could see it or not.

Finally I met his eye then, pulling myself up to my full height. We were about the same in build now, surprisingly; in fact, if you excused his scholarly pallor, we could almost be brothers, we looked so much alike. We both had the same standard Etruscan features, the same long, black hair.

Aro must have realized it too and cocked one eyebrow in surprise.

“Don’t worry, Aro,” I replied quietly. “Didyme will never pass one unhappy moment with me, if I have to die trying to make it so.”

He nodded curtly and left without another word, his red cloak vivid against the summer wheat as it billowed in the wind, and I was relieved that he was gone. I sought Didyme out, wanting to see her face, to hear her voice. I found her in the garden, weaving a crown of daisies.

She looked up, a wide smile parting her pink lips, showing her white teeth. She looked like a statue of a goddess, standing there among the flowers, caught in a sunbeam, her bleached linen gown pale against her lightly tanned skin. Her feet were bare, her hair unbound and cascading down her back, golden as the summer wheat. I stood in the gate watching her for a long moment, drinking in the sight of her.

Then she saw me. “Marcus!” she cried, and leaped into my arms, not caring that I was dirty and sweaty from work. She pulled back and looked up at me, grinning impishly, dropping her daisy crown on top of my head.

“King Marcus, lord of my heart!” She giggled, and the sound was like the beating of my heart. “Kiss me, my king!” she crowed, and without waiting grabbed each of my ears and pulled my face to hers. I didn’t resist. Who would have?

As always, when we were together, time seemed to alter: every moment like a thousand years, yet never enough time to be together.

Aro disappeared the next day.

When he rode out to hunt with his guards at dawn, no one thought much of it. It was common enough, Aro was a good hunter, and his men were well-armed. There had been peace in our part of the country for quite some time, so apart from occasional bands of roving bandits there was little to fear. The woods at the base of Monte Pisano were well-stocked with deer, hare, wild boar, and even occasionally a bear. Good quarry.

When he didn’t return that night, or the next day, the family began to worry. Lord Donati sought me out in the early afternoon of the third day, his face dark and lined with concern.

“Marcus, my son, would you please take a search party out and look for Aro?” He wrung his hands. “I am sure he is fine, but the fact that his men haven’t returned either is…worrisome.”

I put one hand on Cestus’s shoulder reassuringly. “Of course, my Lord. I shall leave immediately.”

I gathered up a few men and we rode out into the forest, in the direction that Aro had been seen heading in last.

It was a beautiful day, the sky bright blue and cloudless, hot, with insects buzzing and birds calling all around us. The forest was cool, the green-leafed branches blocking out most of the sunlight, casting the leafy forest floor into dappled shadows. We rode quickly, keeping our eyes open for signs of passage.

We found what we were seeking much sooner than I ever would have imagined.

It was barely five miles in when we found the remains of Aro’s men and their horses.

They had all been piled together into a gruesome heap, as if flung there by a giant. There was blood everywhere, staining the ground black, spattered on the tree trunks like horrid paint. Flies buzzed fiercely around the fallen, torn bodies of the men and horses, settling on the clots of gore.

I had to turn my face from the carnage; I heard the man behind me leap down from his saddle and stagger into the bushes, where he loudly lost his breakfast. I had to swallow hard against the urge myself, struggling not to inhale the stench of death which permeated everything. The afternoon suddenly was so much darker and sinister, the shadows no longer welcome shade but oppressive dimness.

Steeling myself against the sight of the blood, I slid down from my horse and went over to the bodies. I had to find out whether Aro was there in the tangle of dead men and animals. How could I tell that to my master, to Didyme, that Aro was dead? But what if his body wasn’t there…where could he be? I had an odd premonition; a shiver ran down my spine, full of foreboding.

But Aro wasn’t there. The horses had been butchered, their throats slashed too, but strangely, the only blood seemed to be theirs; it was as if the men had been drained, their bodies flat white and bloodless… Their throats had been torn open, the expressions on their still white faces horrified, as if in their last moments they had seen something unutterably awful. And as for the identities of the men, there were just the bodies of his men-at-arms: Aro was not among them.

“Great Zeus, what has done this!” one of my men muttered, making the sign against the Evil Eye, glancing around at the leaf-covered ground. “No marks from weapons except the throats, no arrows or anything so it’s not bandits…No animal prints or tooth marks, so it couldn’t have been wolves or bears…”

I shook my head, confused, fear prickling down my spine. I felt as if unseen eyes were watching us from the bushes; all the hair stood up on the back of my neck, my nerves jangling and overly sensitive. Fighting back my fright, I paced the entire area, searching for signs of Aro having gotten away from whatever had ambushed the party, tracks or drag marks, anything. But I did not find any trace…It was as if whatever had attacked the men had simply dropped onto them from above, and taken Aro when they vanished again the way they had come: into thin air.

It was strange. And very, very frightening. I had never seen anything like it before, not even when wolves had attacked the flocks and made off with several lambs…not even when a child had fallen prey to the same wolves a week later…Not when I’d witnessed the executions at the local magistrates…Nothing like this. The drained, white bodies of the men, the way the horses had been slaughtered, the way the bodies had been so casually piled atop one another, as if they’d weighed no more than a feather, with no drag marks or signs of struggle…Something supernatural was afoot. I made my own sign against the Evil Eye and mounted my horse again, motioning for the men to do the same.

“We must get back to the estate and tell Lord Donati,” I said heavily. “Tell him what has happened here…and send men back to bear these men’s bodies home to be buried.” I winced at the thought of having to tell their wives and children that their fathers wouldn’t be returning home ever again. Some of them were my family’s neighbors, and I had known them since childhood.

That night the atmosphere in the beautiful villa on the side of Monte Pisano was heavy, full of sorrow. I ate with the servants, as Cestus and Lucretia had not wanted to leave their rooms, grieving for their lost son. Even Didyme was closed up in her chambers, her sobs wrenching my heart through the closed door.

Earlier, upon returning to the villa, I had told my master what I had seen in as clear and unemotional terms as I could manage. He had listened carefully, his face growing more and more grim, until I had finished.

“So…the horses and the men were…dead…” he had murmured softly, taking a deep breath, his eyes far away, not seeing me at all. I nodded. “But…my…son, Aro…he was not…there?” Again, I nodded. Hope bloomed in his haggard face. “Then, perhaps, he managed to escape whatever it was…“ His fists clenched in the folds of his toga, the knuckles white with strain.

I stopped him, gently. I couldn’t allow the man to delude himself with high expectations. The chances of Aro still being alive were slim. “My Lord, there were no tracks of any kind leading away. If Lord Aro had managed to escape, he would have left some kind of sign, especially if he were…er, hurt.” Cestus cringed at the idea, his face grey. I hurried to reassure him however I could. “But tomorrow, at first light, I shall take another party out, with my best dogs and trackers, and we shall find your son. I promise, my Lord. I will do my best.”

He had stared at me with empty eyes and nodded back silently, then sat down heavily in an ornately carved chair by the window of his study. The view from that window was spectacular, encompassing the whole slope of the mountain, all his fields and orchards and vineyards, leading down to the dark forest below. The sun had been setting, the sky streaked with vivid reds and oranges and yellows, deepening to purples and blues and grays in the east. The light from the sunset reflected on his tired old face, catching the unshed tears gleaming in his eyes. None of that beauty matter, not the riches of his holdings. His son was missing.

“Yes, Marcus, my boy, do your best.” His voice was hardly audible.

I fled before the strength of his grief…but I still had to tell Didyme.

She had been lying across her bed, staring out the window at the same sunset that her father had been contemplating. The eternal aura of happiness that normally surrounded her was muted; she wasn’t smiling, her palely beautiful face was drawn with worry and fear, like her father’s had been. Although she and Aro weren’t as close as brothers and sisters could be, she still loved him dutifully. When I opened her door she sat up immediately, her eyes wide with hope.

“What news of my brother, Marcus?” she cried, bolting from the bed to throw herself into my arms.

As always, when I held her, I marveled at her: her tiny body pressed against mine in total abandon, the sweet smell of roses and jasmine in her golden hair, the unimaginable way she loved me. But now I knew I had to hurt her.

I told her, in as gentle a way as I could, what I had told her father. She wasn’t a stupid girl; indeed, she was very perceptive, and despised being patronized or lied to. Very early on in our relationship she had made me promise solemnly never to lie to her, or to minimize things. So I did as she asked: I told her the truth, including my belief that Aro was dead.

When I had finished, her breathing was coming in rapid little gasps, catching in her throat, the beginning of sobs, and she was blinking frantically to keep the tears from coming. I wrapped my arms around her closely, trying to hold her to me as tightly as possible, trying to keep away the sadness.

“Oh, Marcus, what will happen now?” she moaned into my chest, and her tears wet my tunic. “He must be dead, surely you would have seen some sign if he were alive…” she trailed off, sobbing, unintelligible.

I had no answer. I just held her and comforted her til the tears ended and she pushed away a little. Didyme looked up at me sadly, her pale little face streaked with drying tears; I caught one on my fingertip and put it to my tongue, tasting the salt there. She smiled weakly and patted my chest.

“Well, my husband to be, you need to get things put to bed around here, I suppose my father is useless right now…” She was trying to be brave. I didn’t want to leave her, but I knew I must. That foreboding feeling I had first felt in the woods that afternoon had been intensifying since; I felt the need to check the gates and double the guard, post more sentinels…Something bad was coming.

“I will come back…later, if you want…” I said quietly, caught by her deep, deep eyes. She smiled crookedly and winked.

“Of course,” she breathed, and stood up on tiptoe, face upturned like a child, waiting to be kissed. “I’ll be waiting, my Marcus…” Her fingers tightened on my tunic and pulled me down to her, and for a long, timeless moment I was able to lose myself in her, and she in me.

But when I eventually had to pull away and leave her, as I closed her door behind me, I heard her begin crying again.

The evening passed quickly. I posted extra guards at the villa gates and along the fence lines, armed guards with torches and horns, prepared to give warning if anything strange happened. I had others patrol the fences with dogs, hoping that the animals might notice something human eyes might miss in the dark. The images of those bloodless dead men hovered behind my eyelids, refusing to leave me. How strange…where had the blood gone? Had something…someone…drank it?

Night fell, dark and smothering. It was a moonless night, and clouds had rolled in, covering the stars with a stifling blanket; no wind rose to bring any relief. The flies and mosquitoes continued to buzz, and the only sounds I could hear outside were the insects. Nothing untoward, nothing strange.

I kept watch as well, standing guard by the front gate with the men for a while, until shortly before midnight. Then the memory of Didyme and her promise, to wait for me this evening, lured me away, back up the hill to the house. I felt I should check on her.

As I walked the short half-mile path from the front gate to the main house, I felt the night around me change.

Before, I could hear the insects and occasionally a night bird; but now, suddenly, everything was still, silent…oppressive. Frightened. As if everything around me were holding its breath in dread. I quickened my footsteps, my hand going automatically to the dagger at my belt, my stomach twisting in knots inside me.

Foolish, you’re just being foolish and superstitious, Marcus! I chided myself, even as I quickened my pace again, almost running. The lights from the villa swam into view, and I broke into a full-out run in my relief.

The house was quiet, too. All the servants had gone to bed, and they had put out most of the lights, except for an oil lamp waiting for me in the atrium. I picked it up and closed the door behind me, and started through the house, toward Didyme’s room.

The silence seemed to deepen and thicken as I went, until the air seemed so heavy it almost felt solid. I felt as if I were struggling through liquid, as if something were holding me back from reaching Didyme’s room. My heart pounded within me, sweat breaking out on my forehead and all over my body, cold with fear.

Finally I reached her door, and went to open it. But something stopped me. I froze, hand outstretched.

A sound. From within.

It was…odd. Like a gasp, someone struggling for air. Then a chuckle, low and sinister.

Horror broke through my paralysis; I flung open the door, roaring in rage and challenge, the oil lamp flying to the floor and spilling onto the tiles, the flames put out on the cold stone. I paid it no mind.

I was focused entirely on what I saw there. Who I saw. My mind reeled.

Aro was there, standing in the middle of the room. He was deathly pale, his long dark hair unbound and tangled about his shoulders, his tunic and cloak torn and bloodstained…and then I saw his eyes.

They were red. Blood red, living flames. And blood stained his lips, trickled down his chin, over his chest.

“What in the name of all the Gods!” I gasped, stepping back in shock and horror.

Aro no longer looked human.

He turned his fiery red eyes on me and grinned. “Well, Marcus Domitius, how good of you to join us!” he murmured, and his voice was…different. Musical. Alluring.

Then I saw Didyme.

She lay crumpled at Aro’s feet, an inconsequential pile of pale green fabric and tumbled golden curls, unmoving.

“Didyme!” I screamed, and lunged for her. Was she dead?

Aro stopped me, quick as a snake, snagging my arms and holding me back as easily as if I were a tiny child. I struggled against his grip, my mind reeling but still conscious enough to realize how cold his hands were, how hard his fingers were, like stone, binding me. How had he crossed the room so fast?

“Ah ah, no, my friend, you must leave her be,” Aro said softly, mockingly, his breath icy against my ear. “She’s alive…or, she will be again, soon. Just give it time.”

And then Didyme shrieked, her back arching convulsively.

Her voice, her sweet voice, normally so gay and happy, was twisted and shattered with pain, with agony. I had never heard that before. I felt as if I were dying.

She moved, pulling herself up onto her knees, and she reached out an imploring hand to me. “Help me, Marcus! Help me, it hurts!” she cried, her hands at her neck, clawing.

My knees would have given out, had Aro not been holding me upright. He laughed, as if her pain and my anguish were amusing to him.

I turned to him, my eyes wide with rage and fear. “What have you done, Aro! What are you?”

He set me down as gently as if I were a kitten, next to my Didyme; she whimpered and curled up next to me, laying her face on my knees, every now and then a cry escaping her lips.

“Oh, Marcus, it burns, it burns!” she cried softly, and her tears once again wet my clothes as I held her close, trying to comfort her again.

“What have I done?” Aro repeated, smiling, mocking. “What am I?” He chuckled. “Well, my friend, you shall see soon enough, for my sister, your lover, will soon be like me as well.”

I shook my head in amazement, not understanding. “What happened to you, in the forest? We have been looking for you…we found the men and the horses…” I stared up at him. “We thought you were dead!”

Aro rubbed his strangely cold, stony hands together in anticipation. “I won’t tire you with the details, my dear Marcus, but let’s just say that I had an…encounter. And encounter with immortality.” His crimson eyes widened in glee, fastening on me. “I have found the answer to all that I desire, Marcus, and you and Didyme will help me get it all, won’t you?”

My mouth fell open, but words escaped me for a moment. Didyme shrieked again, her hands clawing at me, spasming with pain; I patted her head, feeling useless. “What do you mean?” I whispered, anguished, looking down at her and then at him.

He sighed, then suddenly he was there, right next to me. I hadn’t even seen him move, he was so fast. He knelt next to me, and he took my free hand in his. I shivered at the chill of his touch.

“Marcus, I can hear your mind now, I hear every thought you ever had,” he said softly, looking deep into my eyes. My mind whirled. “I know how much you love my sister, and how you love my family…and I also know how talented you are, the gifts that lie hidden within you…just as they lie within my sister.” He glanced down at her, shaking his head in disappointment. “But she won’t turn out as I thought she might…But you, Marcus, you could truly help me….”

I shook my head again. I still didn’t understand. But he heard my thoughts, and he smiled. “Just let me…help you. Make you like myself, like your dear Didyme. Then it will all make sense.”

I looked at him again, at the white, cold, hard skin, the blazing red eyes…the blood staining his face, his clothes. And I knew I didn’t want to be like that.

Aro’s expression turned mocking, disgusted. “What’s so wonderful about being mortal, Marcus? Eventually you will grow old and die, and nothing of you will remain, you will have accomplished nothing. I can offer you more than that.”

He straightened, looking off into the inky darkness beyond the window in Didyme’s room. “And anyway, you couldn’t be with Didyme anymore, after she’s…like myself. Which is what is happening now, my dear Marcus. She changes more with every breath, every beat of her heart.”

I looked down at Didyme, wondering if it were true. But it had to be true. What other explanation could there be, for what was happening? I had seen the healing marks at her neck, the smears of blood there…was the blood staining Aro from his sister? Cold fear washed through me, paralyzing me once again. I would lose her.

I could not lose her. Ever.

I looked down at the ribbon around my wrist, the ribbon that bound me to her forever. Could I follow her to where she was going now?

Aro nodded, watching me carefully. “Yes, Marcus, when she finished this transformation she won’t look at you like her lover…she will look upon you as her favorite meal. And there’s nothing I can do to stop it, you see, the bloodlust is quite strong.” He exhaled with a shudder, his eyes wide. “It’s very difficult for me to withstand the urge to kill you right now, my friend, and drink your exceptionally sweet-smelling blood. But I must abstain…unless you say no to my proposal.” His grin was humorless and chilled my blood.

I felt as if my world were crumbling around me, every point, every thing that I had ever taken for granted as being good and solid and real in my life was being taken away, ripped from my hands…My sweet Didyme shuddering against me, her sobs wracking her frail body, the venom burning its way through her…would she truly lust for my blood? Would she become a monster, like her brother had obviously become?

Aro watched us both with covetous eyes, waiting for my decision.

For a long moment I thought. What would my life be, without the sunshine and air and rain that my Didyme was to me? Would I be able to live, without her, knowing she was forever denied to me, that she was foreign and untouchable? That she wanted to kill me, consume me?

Would I be able to live that kind of life, become immortal as Aro had said? What would it require from me? Could I be that kind of being, could I thirst for the blood of others? But would it matter, if I had no choice, if it was what my body demanded?

You must understand, my friend, that three thousand years ago. In those days the supernatural was as close as your own skin; we lived among our gods, among the ghosts and the demons and the strange, it was common and accepted. But to become part of it? Could I do that?

I looked down at Didyme’s pale face, her dark eyes closed in pain. I stroked her bright hair, tumbling over my knees. I looked down at my wrist, where her ribbon still twined around my wrist, a bit worn with the years, but still binding me to her, eternally.

Yes, yes I could do that. For her. For us.

Aro must have seen the decision on my face, for he smiled brightly, showing razor-sharp teeth that gleamed in the lamplight. “Excellent!” he whispered, rubbing his palms together in excitement. He drifted closer to me, so graceful, so alien, his bright red eyes shining.

“Now, my friend, this will hurt…But I promise, it will be worth it…”

And so it began.

When I awoke from the burning I found my beautiful Didyme even more beautiful than she had been before, and I found that our love had changed, metamorphosed, transformed into something so much more terrible and profound and eternal than our shy, passionate, breakable human love had been. She and I were strong together, and nothing could tear us apart.

So I thought. I would learn of the ultimate betrayal and pain soon enough. Too soon.

Oh, my friend, please, please, I have spoken enough for now…It pains me so, to think of her…please, go and leave me in peace. For a while. Perhaps I will tell you another tale, another time. Leave me to my silence.