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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:


5. Chapter 5:The Telling of Old Tales

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Chapter 5: The Telling of Old Tales

What was that, my friend? Oh, yes. Aro. Aro and his plans. Yes, those were quite interesting, they shaped our future. Made us who we became, I suppose it is fair to say. Those plans began to truly take shape shortly after the weddings. What had been abstract ideas and thoughts to Aro before seemed to become more concrete; perhaps it was that Aro had finally found someone to truly support him in his endeavors, perhaps it was that he felt more of a man, perhaps it was vanity to impress his new bride. But regardless of the reason for his scheming shifting into reality, it began.

There was a happy time, the honeymoon time, of course, after the weddings, before things settled down and Aro began making his machinations in earnest.

The newlyweds were insufferable to be around, as newlyweds are wont to be, so very full of their newfound love and joy that they must visit it upon everyone else. Didyme and I watched them with fond tolerance, those couples so profoundly taken by their yearning for each other. After all, we had been quite insufferable ourselves…and still were quite often, to be truthful.

We watched and smiled at seeing Caius present Athenodora with gifts, his normally cold face so transparently eager to please, and nervous about her possible rejection…but she never did. Athenodora was a sweet-tempered young wife, as eager to please her new husband as he was to please her. They laughed a great deal together, something wholly new to Caius’s personality. I had never, in all the time he had been with us, seen him laugh. But laugh he did, especially after Athenodora had accepted something for him: a piece of jewelry perhaps, a new book for her growing collection, or even just a bunch of fresh-picked flowers. She took them all the same way, with glee, and told him that she didn’t need presents. Just his love.

I scrutinized the bond growing between them and saw that it was indeed strong, healthy, genuine. I also looked at the bond between Caius and Didyme, and, to my relief, saw it weakening as Caius’s love for his new wife grew. It never disappeared altogether, but thankfully it decreased to the point where I no longer felt threatened by him.

Aro was also greatly changed in many ways by his new state. He seemed constantly surprised: I would see him staring into space with wide eyes and raised eyebrows, as if someone had just told him something completely amazing. He watched Sulpicia hungrily, coveting her every move with his eyes, and she knew it; she preened like a well-fed cat beneath his gaze, a self-satisfied little smile gracing her lovely lips. They rarely spoke in front of anyone else, rarely showed any outward affection other than the touch of hands; I supposed they saved their words and gestures for their private moments, because their bond was indeed profound, perhaps more so than Caius and Athenodora’s. Their relationship was intriguing to me.

One morning I caught Aro in his library, but instead of being entrenched in his books or notes he was staring at nothing again, a slight smile on his face. I knew what he was thinking, or should I say, whom he was thinking of. It was obvious. Dust motes glittered in the sunlight pouring in through the library window, something that was rare: Aro said the light was bad for the books.

“Thinking of love, brother?” I asked him, amused by that distracted expression, those faraway eyes. He was normally so self-possessed, I took a great deal of satisfaction in seeing him brought so low, made so much like me, a slave to his passion for his bride.

He looked up, startled, something not easily done to one of our kind, and his expression darkened. “What I think is none of your concern, Marcus,” he finally said coldly.

I raised an eyebrow at him. “But you constantly make what others think your concern, brother dear. Perhaps you should share some of your thoughts with others. Gift us with them, as it were.”

Aro blinked, nonplussed at my reply. I normally kept my mouth shut against his arrogance. Then he shook his head and sighed, covering his eyes with both hands, as if hiding, or embarrassed. “I find myself distracted, brother. Very, very distracted.”

I chuckled and sat down across the table from him, leaning back in my chair. I glanced down at what he was supposed to be looking at: his notes about others of our kind. His list of names. Perhaps this was the chance I needed to speak with him about what I had read.

But I had to get a bit of fun for myself first. I didn’t have many opportunities like this.

“That is normal, Aro. You have only been wed for a few months. Give it some time.”

It was his turn to arch a sardonic brow at me. “Marcus Domitius, you still behave like a fool around my sister after more than a hundred years, so that does not give me much hope regarding reclaiming my senses.”

We both laughed, and it was good. I felt closer to him than I ever had. “True,” I conceded, ruefully: I was a fool. But a very happy fool. “Very, very true.”

Aro slapped the scroll he had in his hand down, frustration clear on his face. “I have so much work to do. I cannot afford to be…distracted… like this much longer.”

I nodded. “Perhaps. But sometimes plans must be altered in the face of events. You seem to enjoy Sulpicia. You seem to enjoy being married.”

He stared into nothingness again, a shadow of a smile at the corners of his mouth, and finally nodded back, as if he didn’t want to meet my eye and admit it. “Yes. Surprisingly…surprisingly, I do enjoy it. I had never thought I might.” Aro glanced sideways at me, a sly little smile quirking the corner of his mouth. “I never thought I might become such a fool as you.”

“And I never thought you would take so readily to being a foolish husband, brother.”

He bristled. “What is that supposed to mean?”

I grinned impudently. “Aro, in the many years we have known one another, I never knew you to pay a female the slightest bit of attention. Human, immortal, it didn’t matter. You seemed too consumed by your plans, your travels to pay attention to matters of the flesh…” I paused, asking myself if I should dare to continue. I threw caution to the winds. “I wondered if you had any desire for a woman, and if so, if you had any clue what to do with her once you had her.”

If he had been human, I am sure Aro would have turned several different varying shades of crimson and purple in his indignant rage. His eyes widened until I thought they might start form the sockets, he half-rose and assumed a challenging stance.

“What are you trying to say, Marcus Domitius?”

I laughed at his discomfiture. “Nothing at all, brother. I was just a bit worried I might have to have a little chat with you before your wedding night is all.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “I was concerned you might try to read to her all night long.”

He growled at me, and the sound was welcome: finally, passion had broken the smooth, conniving surface of this man who had become, for better or worse, my brother. I wondered if I would have to fight him. It had been a while.

Then he subsided, as if realizing he looked ridiculous.

“Of course I know what to do with a woman,” he sniffed, looking anywhere but at me. “I wasn’t a complete innocent you know.”

No, I didn’t know, but I let it rest. Enough baiting the man.

“What are you looking at, Aro?”

He finally looked up to meet my gaze. “You know very well what this is now, Marcus. I saw it when you greeted me…before. I know you broke my code and read my secret notes.”

I rolled my eyes. “As if it were truly secret, brother. If you meant it to be hidden, you would have kept your things hidden much better than you did.” I pointed at his journal, lying to the side of the notes. “That being left in the open, unguarded? You wanted me to find it. You were practically daring me to read it.”

Aro smiled, clasping his hands together and leaning toward me eagerly. “And you did. You read my notes, broke my code…Which wasn’t an easy feat, by the way. That code took me quite a while to conceive of. Fell right into my trap. Passed the test, with flying colors. Now I know: you do indeed have a mind that I can use. You just had to begin using it, is all.”

I didn’t know whether to be insulted or pleased by the backhanded praise. Perhaps a bit of both.

“You know I am not stupid, Aro. I just choose to not bury myself in words like you do. I have other things that I enjoy as well.”

He stood up and came around the table, clapping me heartily on the shoulder. “And now you have proven that to me, Marcus. We have much to discuss. Much to plan.”

I sighed. “That is exactly what I have been afraid of, Aro. I know I won’t have a moment’s peace from now on, that I have fallen into your trap.”

And how right I was.

Aro began to try to monopolize my time, much to Didyme’s frustration. And mine. And Sulpicia’s, for that matter.

“Here, brother, read this. Tell me what you think,” he might say, pressing a book into my hands, trying to guide me by the elbow into his study. Sometimes I let him, other times I did not.

But I did become quite intrigued by the whole business. He explained to me what he was doing all those years, traveling all those miles, taking all those odd notes.

“I shall build an empire, Marcus. We shall build an empire. A secret empire. An empire of the underworld; we shall milk the mortals for what they are worth, live on them in every way…but they shall never know. Ingenious, don’t you think?”

I shook my head doubtfully. “Aro, they are many and we are few. I saw your notes. In all your travels, you saw no more than a bare hundred of others of our kind. We are strong, of course, and some of us possess powers beyond our kind’s norm, but still…”

Aro clapped his hands enthusiastically. “And there lies the key to it all. Those of us with powers. Did you not read my notes? Did you not see, how those with special abilities could be of great benefit to us?” He tossed something down in front of me onto the table.

I considered for a moment, looking down at the list he had just thrown at me. I saw the names (sometimes just descriptions) marching in orderly fashion down the parchment page. I’d read them before, but not with this in mind.

Lucius Patellus—Pavonia, Italia (sometimes). Appears to have some kind of influence over physical objects: saw him levitate a human during feeding. Amiable but determined loner.

Cerridwen—Brittania. Holds court in Southern Britain (Wales), revered as a demi-goddess by the tribesmen. Said to be able to bewitch others through music. Would not allow me to approach her.

Ailbric—Germania. Wanderer. Avoided me somehow, I could smell his scent quite close by, but was unable to locate him. I believe he may possess some kind of ability to camouflage himself.

Mariamne—Greek but resides in Egypt. In service to Sekhmet. Seems to be able to hear thoughts. Willing to speak with me regarding history but not interested in anything beyond her current lifestyle keeping the goddess’s library. Refused to allow me to touch her to learn more.

Antigonos—Crete. Partnered with Epiphania. They propagate the cult of the bull-god among the Minoan humans. He has a physical ability, manifested as being able to cast fire, while his mate can temporarily stun a mortal or immortal. Hostile.

I looked up from the parchment to cock an eyebrow at Aro. “How exactly did you learn these individuals’ abilities?” I shook my head in wonder. “After all, it isn’t every day that you would be in a position to see someone stunned or burned, if these beings dwell among mortals?” I tapped the last two names I had read, the ones on Crete. “What about these two? Hostile?

Aro suddenly seemed a bit embarrassed again, avoiding my eyes to look anywhere but at me. “Well, I approached all of them directly, after observing them for a time…You can learn a great deal about the ones that live with humans by speaking with them. They revere our kind as gods and goddesses, you know, in many places. But with those that are wanderers, I’d have to eventually simply approach them. Usually, I could persuade them to allow me to touch them somehow, in greeting, you know…” He trailed off, idly drawing a pattern on the wooden tabletop. How odd, Aro fidgeting like a human.

“Those two in Crete…” he murmured, sighing. “I made the mistake of trespassing in their dwelling. Well, on their dwelling. I was on the roof, to be precise. I had no idea they would realize I was there....They were, er, otherwise occupied…Seemed quite distracted…”

I had to laugh: the image of Aro creeping about on rooftops, spying on other immortals while they were together—and then being noticed!

“So, I am assuming they demonstrated their abilities to you. No need to touch them.”

I was trying to hold in my mirth, but it was terribly difficult. Aro steadfastly refused to look at me, staring determinedly out the window, as if the cloudless blue sky were the most interesting thing he’d ever seen. That was when I noticed for the first time that his hair was several fingers shorter than it had been before. He had cut it. Or…

“How very generous of them, to not put you through the trouble of an introduction! They just gave you what you wanted straight off!” I bent my head and didn’t bother trying to contain it anymore. I laughed so hard it began to hurt; if I’d been human tears would have streamed from my eyes. “So tell me, brother, is that where you stopped being a total innocent?”

Aro slapped the table irritably. “Enough,” he said coldly. “Please.”

I sat back in my chair, still chuckling. I couldn’t refuse him when he asked me like that. But that picture has remained engraved in my mind ever since: those furious Cretan immortals, disturbed from their love play, capturing and punishing my arrogant brother, the male burning off a few inches of Aro’s long hair while his mate held Aro immobile... Sometimes I will touch his hand and dredge that thought up, flash it prominently if Aro becomes too insufferable; it always serves to bring him down a notch or two.

I decided to keep reading. Aro needed some time to cool down. When his ego was bruised he was the most dangerous.

I passed a few minutes scrutinizing the names on those pages. The ones he had been able to interact with dwindled, until it was just a list of names and locations. Years and years later, I came across that list again, in the library in our castle in Volterra, and shook my head at the number of names I saw there which had indeed been revered as gods at some time. Just as Aro said.

“But these immortals are most often labeled as unwilling to help you. Or, help us. They’re happy where they are. Perhaps they might change their minds in the future, but unless we have some way to compel them, I fail to see how these people could help further your cause.” I put the scroll down and leaned toward Aro, who finally had composed himself enough to look back at me, his face stonily expressionless.

He nodded, his mouth twisting wryly. “Yes, I know. That has caused me no small amount of worry.” Then he grinned, and reached into a leather pouch that was hanging from the back of his chair, pulling out another scroll, tiny and tightly-wrapped. “Then Caius had a brilliant idea.”

I picked up the scroll and carefully unrolled it. Once again it was a list of names and locations, and each one had some kind of possible ability noted. I looked up at Aro, puzzled. “What is this?”

Aro leaned toward me, his smile slow and sly. “A list of potential candidates, Marcus.”

“Candidates for what?”

“For immortality.”

I blinked in shock. “These are humans?”

He nodded eagerly, reaching out to take the scroll from me.

“While Caius and I were wandering, we hunted, of course. One evening we were on Rhodes and Caius happened upon a particularly tasty-smelling young woman; we followed her for a while, until he could take her without fear of discovery. Luckily she left her home to fetch water, which took her out of the other humans’ notice.”

I waited patiently. Aro loves to tell a story, and despises being rushed when he is in the mood to talk.

“So Caius grabbed her from behind as she was kneeling to dip her jug into the stream; she screamed, of course, and I reached out to cover her mouth while Caius drank from her…And that is when I discovered something very, very interesting.”

I nodded.

Aro took a deep breath, washing his hands together as he does when he is excited. “I heard her thoughts, of course. I heard her fright and saw her memories flash back to her family, her parents waiting at home, and also something else.” He tapped the table for emphasis. “I heard her call out for help with her mind. And I heard the humans in the house respond to her call, a man shouting out that the girl, whose name was Bryseis, was in trouble.”

I stared at him in shock, waiting for him to go on.

“A few moments after she screamed out with her mind, the humans were there, and they attacked us. Insane. So sad, truly, I was barely thirsty. But at least Caius, being a newborn, was always thirsty, so it wasn’t a total waste.”

He stood up and strolled to the window, gazing out. “Later that evening Caius and I were enjoying the ocean breeze on the cliffs there and I was lost in thought about that girl. She had been human, but she’d had an ability, clearly: I suppose one might call it telepathy, she could speak—or, in that case, scream—to the minds of others.

“It made me remember my human years. I’d always been very sensitive to the thoughts of others, if I could touch them.” Aro absently touched his own face, remembering.

“Of course that was augmented greatly when I was changed, as was the case with you and my sister. Each of you had special qualities as humans that were multiplied greatly by the transformation. Didyme had always been lovable, but she became able to use that trait like a tool, as a weapon sometimes. And you, Marcus, were always good with others, you could always judge who would be loyal or shiftless. I know now it was that you were unconsciously weighing the ties that others have between each other: a loyal servant has a strong bond with a beloved master, while a lazy, ungrateful one has little bond at all. Correct?”

I nodded again. I’d thought often of my gift, which I truly didn’t think had much practical value. But I supposed it had been worth something, after all.

“And so, you may ask, what does this have to do with my plans?” He didn’t wait for a response. “It has everything to do with them!

“I just need to get to the human before the change. If I identify a human with a potential gift, I can change them, and just like with you, and Didyme, and Caius…and now with the ladies…If I take them and train them as newborns, earn their loyalty, have you and Didyme help me in this, to help bind them to us, help weed out the bad seeds…Before too terribly long, we shall have a fearsome little army of immortals, dedicated to our purpose.”

I sat frozen for a long moment, thinking about his words.

It was true: newborns are terribly temperamental, but also terribly malleable. If treated properly with experience and patience, their wild natures can be tamed to be wildly loyal. Such had been the case with Caius and Athenodora and Sulpicia. Each of us, Aro, myself, and Didyme, had tamed a newborn in our own particular ways, and now they were loyal members of our family.

It could work. But at what cost?

I was still hazy on what Aro truly wanted. We had everything we needed or wanted now, living the way we did. Of course we would have to move eventually, start fresh again somewhere else, but that wouldn’t be too much of a difficulty. We had wealth for the asking, we had no real material needs without the human body’s mortal necessities. What was so very appealing to Aro?

I understand now, of course. Years and years have passed and I have seen his machinations become reality. I have seen his hunger for power, his desire to manipulate, in action. And I do have to say, he has created quite a little empire for himself. Immortals the world over respect and fear us. They look to us for guidance and civilization and structure. And it is all because of Aro.

But oh, my, at what a price it all came.

Aro kept making plans to leave again, to go back out into the world and find more mortals to keep under vigilance, but he also kept putting those plans off every time Sulpicia seemed even slightly upset about the idea of him leaving. I thought it was extremely sweet of Aro, and I was also quietly grateful to Sulpicia for reining him in a bit, because it afforded me more time with Didyme. I knew it was only a matter of time before Aro drafted me to go with him on his journeys, and I didn’t relish the idea.

Neither did Didyme.

“No, Marcus. Absolutely not! You’re needed here!”

She was in a fine fluster, raging back and forth across the floor like a beautiful little whirlwind, eyes flashing, gesturing wildly. I lay across the bed and watched her, smiling: I didn’t often get to enjoy one of her tantrums. She had them so infrequently now.

Aro had informed her that morning that we (as in, Aro and myself) would be leaving in two days time. To say she had taken it gently would be a terrible exaggeration. More like an outright lie.

“Let Aro take Caius. Let Aro take Sulpicia! Take them both! Anyone but you. You stay here, as always, and you guard our home. Right?” She whirled on me. “Unless you do want to go?”

I shook my head immediately. “Never in a million years, my love. My wandering days are over.” I held out my arms to her, inviting: she bit her lip, indecisive for a split second, then threw herself at me. “Why would I ever want to leave this, after all?” I kissed the top of her head and held her tightly to me.

She growled against my chest. “Whyever does he need you to go, Marcus?”

I sighed. “Your brother wants to involve me more deeply in his plans, Didyme. And you know I have pledged myself to helping him. As did you.”

Didyme dug her fingers into my tunic, knotting the fabric and pulling it tight. “I know. But still, why you? Can’t you serve his interests here?” She sighed. “With me?”

I ran my own hand through her hair, lifting a golden curl and wrapping it around my finger, stretching it out a little, until it sprang back. “Perhaps…perhaps, you could go as well?”

I knew Aro wouldn’t change his mind about making me go with him. But maybe I could get him to alter his plan a little.

Didyme sat up and looked down at me, eyes wide and eager. “Of course!” she cried, clapping her hands. “Sulpicia and Athenodora and Caius can manage things here. And I could help you! Surely my gift could be of some use to this mad scheme of his…” She smiled wickedly. “And we could be together. How long has it been, Marcus, since we have traveled!”

I nodded, all the while hoping that Aro would agree. A disappointed Didyme is even worse than an angry one.

Luck smiled upon us, and surprisingly, Aro agreed to the suggestion easily. “Not a bad idea, Marcus. After all, should we decide to actually bring someone home with us, my sister’s abilities would ease things quite a bit, don’t you think?”

So it was agreed. We would leave the next day, Aro, myself, and Didyme. The plan was to return in three months, which was as long as Didyme felt comfortable leaving our home in the charge of others. She drove them to distraction.

“Athenodora, mind my garden. Water every day, and be sure to prune back the roses and ivy.

“Caius, Sulpicia, you keep an eye on the slaves. And please, don’t let us be missing any when we return. It’s such a terrible bother to buy and train new ones.”

She left a list of a thousand things that needed to be done and not done. Caius rolled his eyes constantly at her admonishments, while the girls just smiled brightly and gritted their teeth, wanting us to be gone and the whole thing done.

But then we were on the road again, and I found, to my surprise, that I enjoyed it.

We left Volterra and traveled overland to the southern seaport of Bari, where we boarded a ship bound for Greece. We docked in Athens, Aro heading straight into the heart of the city, much to our surprise.

“There is someone I would like you to meet, Marcus. I think you will be very interested in him.”

Didyme and I looked at each other and shrugged: it was always best to indulge Aro when he wanted something.

We wended our way through the busy streets of Athens, glad that it was a dark, overcast day. The wind spat rain at us, cold rain, the breeze smelling of the sea. I held Didyme in the circle of my arm and helped keep her cloak hood pulled up as we followed Aro through narrow alleys and crooked passages, up and up into the city (which is built on a hill, so everything is either up or down), until he stopped in front of a huge white wall with a heavy iron gate. Sentries barred the door, looking us up and down suspiciously.

“Let me in. He’s expecting me,” Aro said shortly, and threw back his cloak hood, revealing his eyes. Of course, at just that moment, the sun chose to peek through a gap in the clouds and a sunbeam struck us, revealing Aro’s face and hands as the shimmering things that they were.

The guards stammered apologies and opened the gate for us, bowing low so they didn’t have to look us in the face as we swept past them, then they closed the gate behind us with a clang.

“Go ahead, you can relax here. Didyme, put that hood back and show everyone your lovely face.” Aro was smiling, he had the air of a child showing off a secret. “Come on, he knows we’re coming.”

“Who?” I asked, grabbing at his arm to stop him. “Who is this person?” Our kind has tripwire emotions: we dislike surprises and become very protective when thrust into new situations, or meet new people.

He gently removed my hand from his arm. “Patience, brother. Follow me and see.”

Slaves bowed low before us, showing us the way through the gardens surrounding the house, which was huge, shining white marble, with graceful fluted columns in the ubiquitous Greek style of the time. Aro strode confidently into the house, waiting for no one, leading us down a long hallway, and bursting into a room as if he belonged there.

“Aro!” The voice that greeted us was strong, clear, and obviously that of one of our kind. “It’s so wonderful for you to come. Please, introduce me to your companions.”

The man who had been seated behind the desk rose and leaned forward expectantly, smiling. I stopped in surprise: he was the first older immortal I had ever seen.

He was tall and well-built, bearded (which was also unusual, I had never met another immortal man with facial hair), his features clearly Hellenic, with the proud nose and wide, bright eyes of nobility. His hair was curly, hanging down to his collar, glossy black mixed with gray and white, and his whole bearing was that of an older, more experienced man. Obviously he had been nearing forty when he was changed (humans aged very quickly in those days, they rarely lived to be sixty years old, so forty was a man entering his old years).

Aro smiled proudly and swept a graceful bow, then indicated Didyme and myself.

“Aethalides, I would like you to meet my sister, Didyme, and her husband, who is now my brother, Marcus.”

Aethalides came from behind the desk and approached us, and I immediately felt something from him: he knew me already. He was like Aro, he could hear our thoughts, but he didn’t need to touch us to hear them.

I wondered idly what that was like, living in a world where you never have any peace and quiet within your own head. I might be driven mad: I am the type of man who dearly loves his silence, his peace. Thank whatever gods exist that they chose to bestow those kinds of gifts on others who can appreciate them.

The man smiled and reached out to take Didyme’s hand; he bowed over it and then kissed it, his eyes never leaving my wife’s eyes, a small smile curling the corners of his lips as they touched her skin. “My lady, I am very pleased to meet you. Thank you for gifting my home with your lovely, most gracious presence.”

Didyme giggled like a girl; I elbowed her. Shameless flirt. She couldn’t help it.

“Charmed, my lord,” she murmured and inclined her head to him. “Aethalides?” She cocked her head to one side, her lips pursed, as she always did when she was trying to remember something. “Aethalides, the son of…”

“Hermes. Yes. So it’s said.” Aethalides grinned affably, and turned to me, giving me a little bow. “Lord Marcus. How good it is to finally meet you. Your brother has spoken highly of you.”

I glanced at Aro, one eyebrow raised sarcastically; Aro smiled merrily. “Yes, I’m sure he has,” I replied dryly, and wondered what types of things Aro might have told this man about me. “I am well pleased to meet you as well, Lord Aethalides.”

Our host indicated that we should follow him; he led us out of his study and into a larger room, furnished with comfortable chairs and couches, with a huge window looking out over the bay. Didyme and I sat on a leather-upholstered divan close to the window, so we could look out. It was a breathtaking view, the city spread out before us, and the ocean beyond. I was sure when the sun was out it was magnificent. Didyme sighed and leaned back against my chest.

Immediately Aethalides and Aro struck up a conversation, something about philosophy and mathematics and other people that they knew in common. The topics bored me, so I concentrated instead on the view, and studying the room. The entire house was huge, I could tell, and elegantly furnished with the finest taste. I wondered how long Aethalides had been living there, so openly, and with such a famous name.

I pondered that name, one which I had learned in my study of history during my times waiting for Aro to return. Aethalides had supposedly been one of the sons of the messenger god of the Greeks, Hermes; Aethalides, in the legends of Jason and the Argonauts during their search for the Golden Fleece, had been the voyage’s herald. He was supposedly blessed with a legendary memory. Of course, that story had begun several hundred years before, but if he was an immortal, that would explain a great deal.

Aethalides glanced up from his conversation with Aro and smiled at me, putting out a hand to Aro to silence him. “Peace, old friend, we can catch up on this later. I think it would be best to explain things to your brother and sister.” He rose and came closer, sitting across from us.

“I am indeed the one who went on that journey with Jason, although at the time I was a mortal. My mother told me that my father was the god Hermes, and what did I know but to believe her, although I never saw any evidence of that.” Aethalides leaned back against the arm of his chair. “I had an exceptional memory, and I also seemed to be able to read the thoughts and feelings of others around me at times. I made a good herald, a good messenger, a fair poet, even. That is how I was drafted into that quest, to Colchis, to seek the Fleece with Jason and his friends.

“And that voyage to capture the Golden Fleece was much different than the story that was put out about it later. The story is much more glamorous than the actual quest was, truly.” He chuckled, and his eyes were far away, far in the past. “Perhaps someday I shall sit down with a true poet and have him put it all down for posterity’s sake.” He winked at me, and I had to smile back.

“Once we had returned from the quest and the crew disbanded to the four winds, I wandered alone for a while. That is when I met someone in the forests of Arcadia, a woman whose eyes burned like fire, supernaturally beautiful, fearsome in her presence.” He inhaled sharply. “And she changed me.”

I nodded, glancing back toward Aro, who was watching Aethalides, his eyes intense. I had to say the name, it was on the tip of my tongue. “Lillith.”

Aethalides nodded, his lips twisted in a tiny smile. “Yes, Lillith. I see you know something of her?”

I shook my head. “Not really. Just the stories from Sumeria and Egypt that Aro left lying around. I have guessed that she was the one who changed him, but I have no idea what her significance is. I supposed she was one of our kind, who came to be revered by the mortals.” Then I remembered the harsh things said about her and had to change that. “Well, not revered, exactly.”

Aethalides chuckled. “No, revered, not at all. Most people think of her as a demon. A blood-drinking demon.” He glanced from my face to Didyme’s; my wife was leaning forward, listening intently. “And she isn’t just one of us. She was the first, as far as we have been able to discern. The original Mother.”

The Mother. The mother of us all?

“Do you have any idea how that happened?” Didyme whispered. “Did she speak to you, tell you anything?”

He shook his head. “No. She took me, bit me, and left me there in the forest to go through the change alone. All I had was her name, which she’d thrown at me in parting, before I became lost in the pain. It was very…it was very difficult.”

Didyme reached out and placed her hand atop Aethalides’s. “I’m sure. I’m so sorry that you had to endure that. At least we had each other, and Aro had some small idea what it was like so he could explain it to us…” Her eyes were wide and full of sympathy, and the man looked as if he were about to drown in them.

Aethalides smiled at her, then looked over at me. “I both envy and do not envy you, having such a wife as this, Marcus.”

I grinned ruefully. “I am a wise man, Aethalides. I will only say thank you for your envy.”

Didyme smacked my arm gently, then kissed me on the cheek. “I’m not so difficult to live with, am I, husband?”

“No. No, never. Sweet as honey.”

We all laughed.

“Well, to return to the story,” Aethalides said, “I woke alone, changed, and did not know what to do with myself. I remembered everything about my human life, although I had no idea that this was strange until I met others of our kind, later. My superior memory had carried over into my new life, been magnified, in fact. I could remember everything in minute detail, and I always will.

“I immediately tried to follow Lillith, though I didn’t know her name at the time. I could still smell her, I pursued her until I lost her trail at the edge of the Adriatic Sea. I have crossed her path a few times since then, but she always eludes me. I do not think she wants to be caught.

“So, frustrated by my failure, I went in search of others of our kind, I wanted to know more about my nature. I realized with time that I could hear the thoughts of others when I hunted: I clearly understood what they were thinking as I took them.

“I decided to leave Greece, explore a bit. I hadn’t come across any of our kind there, although I know now that they don’t usually stay for long on the mainland, too many people.” Aethalides turned and looked over his shoulder at Aro. “Did you ever go and look up those two on Crete that I heard about?”

Aro nodded and looked out the window, studiously ignoring my chuckle.

Aethalides’s eyes widened a little as he must have been taking in our thoughts, and he quickly ducked his head to hide his spreading grin. “Er, well, anyhow, I left Crete and went into Asia Minor. I was familiar with the area from the quest, and I wanted to consult with Circe, if she’d agree to see me; I felt she, of all people, might know something about me, or something about Lillith.”

I thought back to the story of the journey with Jason for the Golden Fleece, remembering the character of Circe, the sorceress. She also figured in the voyages of Odysseus and Aeneas…I wondered if all the characters I had read about or been told of and always assumed were fictional were actually real.

“I managed to find her in Colchis, although she was much aged. I sent a message into the city and she agreed to see me; upon seeing my eyes and my changed features, she immediately called me a ‘child of Lillith’ and begged me not to kill her.”

He shook his head sadly. “Imagine. Even though I was still quite young at this life, I would never have taken an old woman like that. It almost hurt my feelings that she would think that.

“But I reassured her that I wasn’t interested in anything from her but her wisdom, and she agreed to tell me what she had heard of my ‘mother’.

“It seems that Lillith was once the handmaiden of the goddess Inanna in Sumeria, which is now Babylonia. Sometime during her service to the goddess, Lillith managed to attract the attentions of Inanna’s consort, the god Tammuz. Inanna, in a jealous rage, tried to kill Lillith, but Tammuz protected her: apparently she was carrying the god’s child, and he did not want to see her die.”

I had to stop him. “Are you saying these gods exist?”

My mind balked at the concept of gods anymore: I felt that we were all alone in the wilderness of the world, and having to wrap my belief around the concept of the divine again was disturbing. If there was indeed “someone,” or even many “someones” somewhere out there who were looking down over their creations and judging them…what would they make of us?

Aethalides paused before answering, and his tone was unsure.

“To be honest, Marcus, I truly do not know what to think about that. But there is something to the old stories; there has to be. I have seen no trace of those beings in my travels, nor has anyone else that I know of…Perhaps they vanished, for some unfathomable reason, went away to leave us to our own devices. But there is too much to ignore, too many stories saying the same things…and now, there is us.” He indicated himself, then all of us, encompassing us all.

It was true. We were different; we were supernatural. We couldn’t be explained, but we were there anyway. Who knew what the fogs of time’s passing had obscured, had buried? I shivered for the first time in many, many years, but not with cold: with foreboding.

“Circe told me that when Inanna tried to kill Lillith, that Tammuz protected her. He took her away, far from Inanna, into the desert, where she could recover. The story says that he gave her some of his own blood to keep her from dying, because Lillith had lost so much blood during Inanna’s attack. Lillith lost her baby, but she lived, and when she awakened, healed, she was changed. Changed by the god’s blood, into something else, something not human any longer.”

Aethalides held out his hand, and the weak sunlight coming in through the wide window caught his skin, and caused it to glitter. “She was like us.”

Didyme gasped. “And then what?”

He sighed. “Well, Circe says that the story goes that Tammuz sent her into Egypt to serve Sekhmet, a goddess there. Another being like himself and Inanna, I suppose. One of the old ones. But I have never met her. Sekhmet is the Egyptians’ goddess of war and blood, and she welcomed Lillith as one of her servants. She tamed her and taught her about magic, because supposedly Lillith has amazingly strong powers, more than one. She is said to have control over the weather, she is viewed as a storm demon of some kind by those in Babylonia.

“But then Lillith ran away from Egypt, I don’t know why for sure, Circe said she heard some whisper of a scandal involving a man, a mortal man that loved Lillith. Named Cain. She either ran away to be with him, or she killed him, or she changed him into one of us…There are many stories. Many variations. All that I know now is that in that part of the world, Lillith is regarded as a blood-drinking demon, one who takes the blood of children and the innocent, and also that she preys upon men.”

Aro barked a short little humorless laugh. “Well, that part does seem to be correct, doesn’t it, my brother in blood? Or shall I say, brother in venom?”

I stared at Aro, then back at Aethalides. “And what of us? What does this mean, to us?” I looked again at Aro. “And why does she matter, really, in the grand scheme of things? She is history. You are looking forward into the future, after all, with your thoughts of your shadowy empire.”

Aro sighed and shook his head as if I was a terrible fool. “Because, Marcus, it’s part of the whole thing. Where we came from. What we are. How we are what we are. One must know himself to be able to succeed.”

Aethalides nodded. “Yes. That is true. Know thyself.”

“And so what now, then, Aro? Now I know the story. What do we do?”

He rose and crossed the room to stand before the window. “We go and we check on my human candidates. We watch them and when we are sure, we make them part of our family. And everything will flow from there.”

I turned to Aethalides. “Are you in support of my brother’s plans, Aethalides?”

Aethalides laughed, shaking his head. “All I wish is to be left alone, Marcus. Very similar to you. But unlike you, my dear friend Aro here has no claim upon me. I will remain pleasantly uninvolved, I think.”

We stayed with Aethalides for a few days, allowing him and Aro to catch up on their gossip and theorizing, while Didyme and I strolled through his gardens and sometimes the Athens markets and countryside. Sometimes, if he could break away from our brother, Aethalides would join us in our wandering, and he would talk with us.

I found out something very interesting about Aethalides: he had reinvented himself several times over in the past several centuries. He wasn’t called Aethalides anywhere outside of his house: in that time and place, the humans called him Pyrrhus of Delos, and he had made his fortune as a fisherman. But before that, he had gone by many names: first Aethalides, nearly a thousand years before, then Euphorbus, who had fought in the Trojan War and been wounded by King Menelaus, then a philosopher called Hermotimus, then Pyrrhus…

“My next life begins soon, I think. I’m going to Samos, and I have already chosen my name: Pythagoras. I think I shall do quite well for myself.”

Many years later, I would hold my friend Aethalides’s theorems of mathematics, the bane of human geometry students the world over, in my hands and laugh. The original immortal mortal, he sailed through history effortlessly. He even, as Pythagoras, came forward to the humans and told them he was the living reincarnation of all those men before. I will never understand his motivation: he went down in human history as a great philosopher and also as a great madman.

We lost track of him many, many years ago, after he had a disagreement with Aro regarding authority. That was before we found Demetri, so we had no way to track him down when he vanished. But I have no doubt that he is dwelling quietly and happily somewhere in the world, enjoying his pleasant uninvolvement.

We said farewell to Aethalides with some sadness, because Didyme and I had really enjoyed his companionship. We invited him to visit us in Volterra, which he agreed to do in the next several years, since he would eventually migrate to Croton in Southern Italia.

“Good journey, my friends. May you find what you seek, as well as peace and happiness and love,” he called after us. It was almost as if he knew the future and was mocking us with it. Mocking me, especially.

We journeyed north through Greece and into Europa, where we tracked down all the humans on Aro’s list. He had confined himself to Europa for the sake of ease: the Celtic tribesmen of that continent were proud and superstitious, and also fragmented. They accepted the strange and unusual with reverence. Several times we simply walked into a village and were received with awe and deference, and often even sacrifices. It occurred to me then: why else do the stories of the gods so often call for blood sacrifice?

Because the gods love blood. And we are like their gods. In many cases, we are their gods.

Most of the humans on Aro’s list were young children. “Children have much more open minds,” Aro explained to me one day as we observed a young boy in Gaul, what would eventually become France. “Their thoughts are much more direct, and they haven’t learned how to hide things like adults have. I touch them once, I see what I need. They’re also much more accepting. We just need to wait until they’re a little older. I don’t think it would do, to have a bunch of immortal children running around. Too difficult to control, I think.”

Oh, how very right he was.

That boy did eventually join us, but he was one of the ones we lost in the war with the Romanians, a little more than a thousand years later. I shall speak of him another time.

We ranged through the continent for three months, then turned to head back to Italia as planned. Didyme was becoming fretful: she wanted her home and her garden, and she wanted time alone with me. She also worried about the three newborns at home.

“I shouldn’t wonder that they’d destroyed the place and slaughtered my slaves,” she muttered darkly to me one morning. “Come on. I want to run. Really run. I want to go home.”

So we ran.

When we arrived back at our house in Volterra, we found things in order. Mostly.

Sulpicia was fearfully apologetic: she hadn’t been able to resist the scent of the blood of one of the slave girls, and had taken her.

“But look, Didyme, I had them bring two more to take her place!” she said brightly, indicating the pair of young female humans standing behind her, quaking with fear.

Didyme sighed and held out her hands to the two girls, who came forward hesitantly, like dogs who have been beaten too many times. “Come here now. Let me have a look at you.”

She looked them over critically, then smiled and put her hand on each one’s head, and I felt her gift, like a rush of warm, fragrant wind, and I saw the bond between them shimmer into being. “There. Better now, I think.” The women no longer trembled, and they served Didyme well for many years, until their natural deaths.

Didyme raked over her dear garden with merciless eyes, searching for anything amiss, and was able to find nothing wrong, a fact that Athenodora received with almost puppy-like gratitude.

Caius stared at us from the shadows and smiled coldly at me while I waited for my wife to complete her inspection of every flower. “Welcome home, Marcus. Good journey?”

I nodded, watching him carefully. Something was off about him. “Yes, very good. And here?”

He came forward out of the shadows. “Well enough. Boring. Terribly boring.” He looked over at his wife, who followed Didyme around the garden. “I think I want to take Athenodora away for a while. Have some time alone.” He smiled, and lost a bit of his coldness as she stood up and smiled back at him. “Do you think Aro would mind terribly?”

I smiled to see his smile. It was still so strange to see on that face, which was so accustomed to the lines of a frown, or a scowl. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t mind. Go.”

Caius held out his hand to Athenodora. “Come, my love. I have a mind to see some of the world with you.” And of course she came, and they left together, without a backwards glance.

They were gone for a long time, not returning for over a year, but occasionally sending home messages that they were well. That frustrated Aro, that Caius had no mind for his plans, but he made do. Made do with me.

Aro drew me into his study almost every day, pounding more and more learning and planning into my head. “Soon, soon,” he kept saying. Soon several of the children we had been watching would be ready.

I would often sit and think about the story that Aethalides had told us.

I would imagine Lillith in my mind, seeing her as beautiful, fierce, with flaming red hair and eyes, wandering the world alone. Why was she creating us? Was it out of loneliness? Surely not, or she wouldn’t leave her creations to the dealings of fate, without her guidance. Was she cursing others with her own fate, determined she wouldn’t be the only one to endure immortality thirsting after blood?

Or was she planting seeds? Casting her offspring about in the world, seeing what would happen? Was she insane?

I didn’t know. But we would find out soon enough, unfortunately.

“Prepare yourself, Marcus, we leave again tomorrow. And this time, we don’t come home empty-handed!” Aro crowed one morning, slapping his list down in front of me. Three names were underlined emphatically.

Augustin, the boy from Gaul. Boadicea, a girl from Britannia. Alistair, another boy from Britannia. All of them were old enough to suit Aro’s standards.

And so it began