Chapter 6: The Gathering-In
Ah, my friend, the next several centuries passed both quickly and slowly. Quickly in the way that years to an immortal always pass quickly, hardly noted by one who is untouched by the passage of time…slowly in the way that I was frequently away from home, away from my wife, which was agonizing, and also because I was traveling with Aro and often Caius as well, searching and searching. We must have combed the entire continent of Europe a dozen times over, ever-seeking the faintest spark of talent among the masses of humanity.
Didyme had to stay in Volterra with the other wives after we brought the first new members of the family home, which irritated me to no end. But, I had to agree with Aro's logic: it was the only way to keep the newborns under control. She needed to use her gift liberally to rein in their flighty and passionate ways, to keep disaster from striking. It still was not a foolproof strategy, though. There were several disturbing events, involving newborns escaping our compound and tearing into the city, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake.
We decided to relocate in 89 BC after two escaping newborns managed to slaughter at least fifty humans in the Volterra central market. Our house, though large and lovely, was not sufficient any longer. It was too easy to escape from (a simple leap over the walls), too exposed to human scrutiny.
We could not bear to leave Volterra, so we just decided to move ourselves up in the world.
I have to blame the whole ridiculous thing on Aro. He insisted on a castle.
There was good stone in abundance nearby, beautiful sandy rock that made for a beautiful structure. We hired human stonemasons and laborers to build during the daytime, and we put our newest family members to work in the evenings, excavating and shoring up the network of tunnels and chambers below, which would serve our needs well—the newborns often had to be penned up. The castle was completed in record time, and we moved into our new dwelling only four short years after its groundbreaking. That was lightning-fast in those times, for a castle that size.
But I digress. Much happened before we got to the point of needing to move into the castle, which you might find very interesting.
That first journey, to bring back the first of the human candidates, was significant. It laid the groundwork, it made precedent. It should have given warning. But I was too caught up in the moment to give heed to things the way I should have.
As I mentioned before, Aro bade me prepare for a journey; we were to round up the prospective humans we'd been observing. Luckily, this time Caius would accompany us; we would most likely need all the help we could get. And that first trip out, for Boadicea, Augustin and Alistair, we took Didyme with us as well. That was her last voyage: afterward, she was too busy playing nursemaid and jailor to a flock of newborns to leave Volterra, much to my disgust.
It was decided we would go to Britannia first, for two of the humans we sought were there, and we could pick up the third on the way back through Gaul as we were on our way back home.
Europa in those days was a wild place, practically untouched by humanity. I believe the human year that we made that first "maiden voyage" was approximately 500 BC. The thick green forests were echoingly empty of civilization for mile upon mile. We were able to travel easily and quickly, skirting the human settlements, reaching the shores of Gaul (what later became known as France) in a few days' time, near the site that would be the city of Calais in about three hundred years. We stood on the beach for a while, waiting for Aro to finish wrapping his papers against the water.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Didyme murmured beside me, threading her fingers through mine as we looked out at the sea, at the waters of what would eventually be called the Dover Strait, part of the English Channel. I could barely perceive, with my superior eyesight, the dim mass of land to the west, approximately twenty-two miles at the narrowest point. It was a clear, bright summer day, the sky a deep and cloudless blue, which was reflected in the water below. The waves crashed against the rocky beach ferociously, whipped into foaming whitecaps by the stiff, salty breeze. I inhaled deeply, and found the combination of the wild scent of the sea and the familiar yet always-intoxicating scent of my wife to be very… stimulating. We sorely needed some time alone.
"Yes, indeed," I whispered back, drawing her into my arms and looking down into her face, "Beautiful." She giggled, wrapping her arms around me.
A hand came down on my shoulder, and was just as quickly withdrawn with a disgusted curse. I had to laugh at Aro's discomfiture.
"No one told you that you must touch us so often, Aro. Sometimes the thoughts of others should stay private." I turned to look at him; his expression almost screamed aloud his distaste for what he must have read in my thoughts about his sister. "Sometimes I think you have a compulsive need to be a voyeur."
Caius gave a sudden, choking bark of laughter and whirled to look the other way, back toward the forests, to avoid having to look at Aro.
Aro stared at me for a long moment. "And no one told you that you must constantly go about in a lustful haze," he finally replied, his voice cold and dry. "It's decadent."
I didn't allow his disdain to faze me. "I should think a newly wed man such as yourself would not be so eager to leave his bride. A bit of decadence never hurt anyone." I idly polished my fingernails against the fabric of my tunic for a moment, inspected them carefully, not meeting his eyes. "Perhaps you'd be in a better humor if you followed my example, eh, brother? Not quite so…hmmm…tightly wound?" I smiled at him. "Then you might not need to listen in on the lustful thoughts of others, if you had more of your own."
Didyme shrieked with laughter, her hands flying up to cover her mouth, leaving only her blazing red eyes exposed, huge with hilarity. "Marcus!" she hissed.
Aro took a deep breath and looked away. I was surprised by that: normally he couldn't resist being drawn into a little battle of wits, he gloried in being able to call himself the victor over me, or over anyone, for that matter.
"Do not think to speak on things you have no knowledge of, Marcus," he finally said, flatly, and turned to walk into the surf without a backwards glance.
We watched him go, frozen in place by surprise. Didyme raised one eyebrow in puzzlement. "What was that about?" she asked under her breath, hoping, I'm sure, that the crashing of the waves against the sand would cover her voice. I shook my head: I had no idea.
To our disappointment, Sulpicia didn't seem to be holding her husband's attention much anymore. Yes, when he was home he was attentive and courteous to her, and I had no idea what they were like in private, but he seemed to be always ready to leave her again, and there seemed to be little passion in his attentive courtesy. She pined for him when he was gone, and lamented his coolness when he was home. Didyme and I had had many conversations about them, wondering what had happened.
Perhaps Aro had read something in Sulpicia's thoughts that disturbed him; perhaps he had little attention span for romance and physical love; perhaps he was simply so wrapped up in his machinations and plotting that he was truly wed to it, rather than to his wife in the flesh.
Caius and Athenodora were still quite smitten with each other, although the years had toned down their ardor a little, making more room for a real friendship and affinity. She adored him completely, and he, in his odd, cold way, seemed to adore her in return.
But even so…even though he seemed to love his beautiful and charming wife, there were times when I saw him staring at Didyme, when he thought no one was watching, with something reminiscent of that hopeless hunger that had bothered me so much before. The same jealous, angry desire that had been the reason Aro had taken him away in the first place.
I always made sure never to let on that I had seen him, because I didn't want to disturb the strange, delicate balance in our household, but I never forgot. I also didn't tell Didyme, which was a first in our relationship: I didn't want to bother her with what I thought was probably nothing, just a jealous husband's paranoia.
Oh, how I wish I had told her. How I regret my weakness, my passivity in not saying anything. But that is another story. I shall tell you in time.
Aro disappeared into the water, striking out for Britannia without a backwards glance. Didyme and I shrugged at each other, giving up on the whole matter for the moment, and then we ran out into the surf together, hand-in-hand, Caius following behind.
I've never particularly enjoyed swimming, although many of our kind do. Something about not being able to breathe underwater, perhaps. I enjoy breathing, even though it isn't necessary for me anymore, of course. I like to be able to take in the scents of my environment, to feel my lungs fill with the air and feel connected to the world again through it. The pressure of the water against my face, the stifling quality of it, the way my limbs couldn't move as freely, hindered by the drag and flow of the waves; it was all unpleasant for me. I was glad that it was a short swim. I'm not the fastest swimmer, either. Maybe that stems from my dislike of the activity in the first place—although it seems that I would move faster in an effort to get out of the water faster.
Oh, again, I am wandering. I am sorry, my friend. One of my many faults and foibles, I suppose.
Didyme, on the other hand, swam like a dolphin, or perhaps like a siren, a mermaid, graceful and fluid in every movement, like the water itself embodied in an ivory-skinned, ruby-eyed goddess.
At one point she paused and waited for me to catch up with her, easily treading water, hanging suspended a few feet below the surface. The sunlight streamed down through the water, striking her perfectly, seeming to set her ablaze with golden light, her short white tunic billowing gracefully in the current. She smiled at me, blew a kiss, mouthed, "Hurry up!" She was always faster than I.
I reached her in a moment, and even though it was underwater I couldn't resist taking her into my arms; we slowly began sinking, no longer swimming or treading water, the water turning darker and colder as we descended, but it didn't matter, because she was warm and beautiful in my embrace, her lips against mine, her legs around my waist, her hair a green-gold cloud enveloping us both.
I began to think perhaps I might not dislike swimming quite so much anymore. At least, not if it could be like this. Suspended in the grey-green darkness, surrounded by the coolness of the water, the heat and sweetness of her pressed against me, surrounding me. Her eyes were wide open as she kissed me, we stared into each other's eyes and knew without a doubt that there was nothing better, nothing more important, nothing more profound, than that moment, lost in one another.
Gods above, how I loved her. Love her. Even now.
After a long moment I reluctantly let her go; we had sunk far down into the black depths, and the water pressure had built up to the point of being almost painful against my eardrums and eyes. Regretfully, I took Didyme's hand and we kicked back up toward the surface, which we could see shimmering far above.
It was only a few more miles to the shore, so we swam them together, with her constantly complaining, teasingly, about my slow pace.
When we emerged from the ocean, dripping and laughing like happy children, Aro and Caius were waiting impatiently; Aro rolled his eyes and turned on his heel, striding away and up into the dunes, toward the green hills beyond.
Didyme squeezed my hand, her eyes following the lines of the towering white cliffs further up the coastline; she closed her eyes for a moment and inhaled the scent of the air, smiling a little. "Smells good here," she said quietly, leaning against me. I had to agree: the wind brought a rich mixture of green growing things, fertile earth, and the salt of the sea. She picked a long strand of seaweed from my shoulder and deftly tied it into a circle, placing it atop my head like a crown. "Hail King Marcus, lord of my heart," she whispered, bringing back memories of the last full day we had been human together. She'd placed a crown of daisies on my head... And the next evening, we were immortal.
But it was worth it. Truly.
Had I had a heartbeat, it would have stuttered like a lovestruck, tongue-tied boy at those words, at the sight of her eyes, so full of love, at the sound of her voice, so soft and sweet, and only for me. We stood there for a long moment, simply looking at one another.
"Come along, for the love of the gods!" Aro called back to us, his tone aggrieved. "They're not getting any younger, after all!"
Didyme and I smiled sheepishly at each other and followed after him, Caius trailing along behind us, kicking irritably at the grass.
I almost missed his narrow-eyed glare as I turned away. I felt it boring a hole in my back as we walked.
Yes, something was definitely afoot, and I had no idea how to deal with it.
We made our way north, following the coastline loosely. It was beautiful country, green and rolling, marshy in places, well-forested as it ran inland. The white cliffs towered above the iron-blue sea, the waves crashing far below, the spume cast up into the air and touching us even as high up as we were.
We came upon the village before sundown, and decided to hide in the forested hill overlooking the valley and watch until night descended, offering better cover.
The Iceni tribe, of whom Boadicea was born, were a Celtic people: tall of stature, fair of skin and hair, and full of bluff and bluster. Men and women went about blue-tattooed and half-clad in the friendly spring air, doing their chores in their walled village with an ease and openness. There was singing somewhere below, a woman accompanied by a harp or lyre, and her voice was sweet and true even in that barbaric tongue. Aro and I had taken some time to learn a bit of it, the song was something about the beauty of springtime and the goodness of the gods.
"There she is," Aro hissed, pointing eagerly. "The tall woman, with the bright red hair." Didyme and I crowded closer; we were hidden behind a rocky overhang, with a cleft in the stones giving a clear view of the valley below. It was easy to tell who he was speaking of. The young woman was easily as tall as either of us, if not taller, and built strongly, with broad shoulders and long legs, and she looked no stranger to fighting. Her long, brilliant red hair was plaited with gold thread, a testament to her family's wealth, I assumed, and she wore a short linen tunic and armor, like a man. She was surrounded by a group of other young people who followed her every move and laughed and conversed as if they were her own personal court. A person of significant magnetism, obviously. It wasn't just that she was rich and popular: even from a distance we could see how the eyes of all around her followed her, iron filing to lodestone.
"What do you think she can do, Aro?" Didyme whispered.
He glanced at her briefly and shrugged. "It's difficult to tell, since this is really only the third time I shall have done this, sister…But I think, to the best of my observations, that she has some kind of gift for compulsion. Something along the lines of your gift, perhaps…but more powerful, I think."
Didyme didn't rise to the bait; she simply smiled blandly and nodded as if happy for the knowledge. I slipped my hand into hers and squeezed it encouragingly. Good girl, I silently said. It's always best to let him think he's won—even when he hasn't. She squeezed back.
"And the others?" Caius interjected coolly. This…Augustin? And Alistair?"
Aro wrinkled his nose a bit in distaste. "Alistair, ragged little bit of stuff that he is, seems to bear some kind of unusual ability to find things. He's highly regarded by his people as a tracker and a treasure-finder, although he's weak-bodied. Seems very cowardly in nature, very retiring. I only observed him from afar, but one of my prey in the area had quite a bit to say about him through his thoughts: apparently, he was Alistair's brother."
"And Augustin?" Caius persisted.
"Augustin…" Aro murmured, looking pensive. "Augustin might well be dead by now. Based on what I found, he has some kind of foretelling ability. The humans both fear and covet these kinds of things, but I believe that all depends on what is foretold: if the outcome is good, then the seer is holy, and of the gods; but if the outcome is bad, then the seer is a witch, and of the devils. A very mixed blessing, I should say, for a mortal. By now they might have burned him, I suppose."
"How very sad," Didyme whispered to me. "But how very lucky for us, if these three turn out the way they might!" I nodded in agreement: a compelling gift, a finder or tracker, and a seer? Yes, very useful and lucky indeed.
Night slowly rolled across the valley, deepening the shadows and turning the green of the trees to black. The fires were lit below, the smoke billowing up to the bright new stars, and the loathsome smells of human food cooking wafted heavenward. After a while the humans all congregated around a huge central bonfire, the music and laughter coming easily to us on the cool night breeze, and they began to dance and sing and carouse merrily as they ate and drank.
Boadicea stayed among her crowd of admirers, except to get up and dance a few steps with someone, or to have her tankard refilled. She wasn't beautiful, but the way the others looked on her said they thought otherwise; I thought she would make a very intimidating immortal, given her already unusual height and build and boldness of character. She seemed to watch everything and everyone with sharp, brilliant green eyes that missed nothing. Once, I almost thought she saw us, far up the hillside, watching her. Her eyes kept ranging over our position restlessly, like she knew we were there.
Finally, the party began to die down, and the humans began drifting away from the fire in pairs or singly, retiring to their thatched-roof huts, though some twosomes went out into the darkness to couple in the tall spring grass. Boadicea remained by the fire a long time, staring into it, her hair the same color as the flames. I wondered what she was thinking, if she had some clue as to what was coming for her. Finally, she rose and went alone toward one of the houses. We waited another hour or more, until the village was almost completely quiet, before Aro nodded at us and we crept from our hiding place, down toward the unsuspecting humans below.
The plan was simple: we would enter her dwelling and take her from her bed, Didyme would use her ability if necessary. But between the four of us, we didn't expect much resistance we couldn't handle. We didn't want to change her too soon, because an unmanageable newborn would make things much more difficult for the subsequent captures of the two other humans on the list.
Well, we should have planned better, because we weren't ready for Boadicea, human or not.
She was waiting for us.
When Didyme and I slipped into the darkened hut, soundless as a cat on velvet, a light suddenly appeared: a was lamp uncovered, revealing Boadicea standing with her back to the wall, her short bronze sword aloft, her bright green eyes fearless.
"Demons!" she shrieked in her odd language, making a sign against evil toward us.
Didyme and I glanced at each other helplessly. Apparently, we weren't going to be able to do it the easy way. She was going to go out fighting—but go out, she would.
Immediately, Didyme crouched down and tried to slide alongside the human, and I felt the odd, warm whisper her ability makes when she directs it at others. Only those so linked with her can feel it; I liken it to touching a spider web spangled with morning dew: touch an end of the web and the entire thing moves, the droplets vibrating in sympathy. "Calm, Boadicea, calm!" she whispered in the human tongue, which surprised me, since I had no idea she'd been paying attention during Aro's and my lessons. She never ceased surprising me.
The human turned her wide, fearful, defiant gaze on my wife, brandishing the silly, ineffective sword, and I could feel her responding to the caressing urge of my wife's gift, but she fought it mightily. "No! Leave me, by the Mother, I command you!" she cried, falling back against the wall in fear as Didyme approached. Then her green eyes shifted to me, who was coming around the other way. "Help me, Mother! Help me, Horned Lord!"
Outside the hut was a commotion, I heard the humans crying out to each other, heard their running as they came close to Boadicea's home. I wondered what Aro and Caius were going to do, faced with them all, since he'd told us to take the woman in hand, and they would be in charge of keeping us safe until we were all away.
It didn't take me long to figure that out: the cries of confusion soon turned to screams of fear, and the gathering of Boadicea's intended protectors quickly scattered in terror to the winds. I supposed Aro and Caius had decided they were thirsty. One hundred humans were no match for two of us, truly.
Boadicea must have realized it was fruitless to keep calling out. Her resolve was crumbling in the face of Didyme's urges to love her, to be loved in return. Didyme's eyes were intense as she channeled all her strength into the woman, battering her will with love. Boadicea's green eyes softened as she looked at Didyme, even at myself.
"Please," she whispered finally, dropping to her knees, her sword clanging to the ground at my feet. "Please, let me die a clean death, lord." She bowed her head, pulling her hair aside to show the back of her long white neck: she wanted me to behead her; she had no idea what we really wanted.
I was touched by her bravery. She had no will to fight us, because Didyme had made her love her, but she didn't want to die a coward. I know why she thought we would kill her: outside that small house, her entire tribe was being casually slaughtered. The screams and crashes were as loud as if we were outside with them.
"Hush, child. We come, bring you life always. Be quiet, come now." Didyme's grasp of the language was crude but effective, and in her sweet voice the brutish tongue sounded almost beautiful. Boadicea's eyes widened in wonder, and I saw something like hope stir in her face as she considered Didyme's words.
"Please, stop the killing. I will come," she whispered finally. Then, so quickly she might have been immortal already, she snatched up her sword and raised the blade to her throat. "Stop it now. Or I will kill myself, and you have come here for naught!"
We gasped in horror as the woman drew the blade slightly across the white flesh of her throat, and we both felt the thirst roar to life in our throats as we smelled her blood, infinitely sweeter than anything I'd ever smelled before. I had to clamp down hard on my self control so as not to reach out and take her to drain right there. She was serious, and it would ruin Aro's plans if we let her slay herself…and worse if I slew her.
"Marcus!" Didyme hissed urgently. "Go stop them!" I didn't hesitate. I charged out into the darkness.
It was a bloody chaos: the bonfire, which had died down with the passing of the night, had been churned up again by the frantic humans, some of whom had charged across it in a panic, burning themselves in their haste to get away from my brothers. There were dead everywhere, the blood pooled sticky and black in the firelight, eyes wide and staring at nothing, and the living were screaming and wailing as they fled into the dark. I saw Aro chasing a tall man, fire in his eyes, a wicked grin on his white face as he, in one swift graceful leap, overtook the man easily and bore him, screeching in panic, to the ground, and began to feed.
Caius was nowhere to be seen at first, then he appeared far across the village, casting aside a young woman casually, her body crumpling like discarded clothing in the shadows, and his eyes glowed with glee as he leapt upon another. It was like a scene out of some horrible painting, a vision of hell, but it was painted in real colors, the colors of blood and fire and night.
"Aro, stop!" I called. "Caius, please, you must stop! Now!"
They both paused in surprise, two pairs of gleaming ruby eyes finding mine. Bloodstained faces creased in shock, but then they were there before me.
"What is the meaning of this, Marcus? There's plenty for you and Didyme!" Caius complained, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, leaving a smear of bright red across his bone-white cheek.
"Why must we stop because you say so?" Aro asked haughtily, not bothering to clean his face.
"The human will kill herself if you don't stop. And then we lose her. She is not jesting; she cut her throat. Didyme is with her inside. She knew we were coming, Aro."
He blinked in surprise, finally dabbing at the blood on his chin with a corner of his dark cloak. "Really? She sees the future?"
"I have no idea, I don't think so. More that she is very aware. But she agrees to come, if we agree to not kill more of her people."
Aro sighed, a put-upon sound. "Very well, Marcus, if we must. Pity. These people have a lovely flavor."
Caius shook his head in disgust, turning without a word to stride up the hill, away from the village and disappearing into the shadows. I am sure once he was away from the light he went after more of the humans who had fled into the night.
"Show me this woman, who is so very aware," Aro muttered, brushing past me, heading for Boadicea's home. I trailed behind him, hoping that Didyme had been successful in keeping the human from further hurting herself.
The tableau was much the same as before, Didyme hovering fearfully beside Boadicea, who still held the sword to her throat. A long, dark trickle of blood threaded its way down her throat, the redness shocking against her white skin. The scent of that blood assaulted me upon entering the hut; I had to hold my breath and turn aside, something I was not accustomed to doing.
Aro's breath hissed as he gasped, his eyes going wide at the smell of the woman. "I—I have never—" he whispered, staring at Boadicea, whose own eyes showed the whites around the green irises in her fear at seeing Aro. I suppose it would be very intimidating, seeing him thus. Aro is a tall and elegant man, his aristocratic features handsome and compelling, but when he is consumed with the thirst or wants to be fearsome, he is very much so. "Such blood!"
Didyme nodded. "Aye, brother. Never before, for any of us. I wonder if it is because of her…special qualities?" She never took her eyes from Boadicea, who trembled, her eyes fixed on Aro and I. "Hurry up, Aro. The poor thing shall slit her throat from a shaking hand, not from a will to commit suicide, if you don't leave off frightening her!"
Aro nodded and closed his eyes, and he trembled visibly as he tried to master his desire for the human's blood. Then his eyes opened, flashing and determined, and he strode forward to lay his hand atop her head, at the same time yanking the sword from her numb fingers and casting it aside. "Now, let's see what you have for me," he muttered, staring down into her eyes.
She gasped and blanched, almost collapsing beneath his touch, as I am sure she felt the force of him reading her thoughts, every thought her poor human brain had ever had in her few human years. I wondered if it was painful for a mortal to be so probed; I know it is mildly uncomfortable for immortals, if only a psychic discomfort, the feeling of violation at having one's most private thoughts laid bare for his scrutiny.
"Ah," Aro said finally, a sly smile spreading across his face. "Very, very interesting." Then he withdrew his hand. "You may cease your worries, young woman, for we have ceased our slaughter of your village. Get yourself up and come with us. We have much to do, many miles to cover."
Boadicea shot a terrified glance at Didyme, who smiled and nodded encouragingly. When she went to reach for her sword, Aro shook his head and chided her. "You shan't need that any longer, child."
Didyme helped the woman to her feet and slipped her arm around her shoulders; when Boadicea shivered and turned whiter in shock at the coldness of my wife's touch, Didyme smiled ruefully. "Perhaps a cloak? And a few personal items? We forget so easily that you need those things any longer." Her face wrinkled in a brief spasm of pain. "And perhaps we should wash that throat of yours, eh?"
So a few minutes later our unlikely foursome disappeared into the night, Didyme carrying a completely terrified Boadicea in her arms between us. The village burned behind us, the smoke from the houses billowing up into the sky like the smoke from their cookfires earlier had, and the sobs of the humans who had been left behind followed us into the dark.
We had traveled inland, west and slightly south, through the hills and forests of Britannia to find the lands of the Catuvellauni tribe, among whom Alistair lived. Of course, his name wasn't Alistair then, it was some word in their language that he eventually changed to Alistair, which sounded similar and was much more easily pronounced by more modern tongues. Their tribe was a people like the Iceni, in fact they were rivals with Boadicea's tribe, and her disdain grew when she realized where we were heading.
"What do you want with them?" Boadicea asked me with surprising candor during one time when we paused to allow her to rest. She was pale and disheveled, huddled into her cloak, seeming quite a bit smaller than she'd appeared from far away. She was obviously frightened, but was doing everything she could to rein in her fear. However, her pale skin, wide eyes and skittish movements conveyed clearly what she was loathe to speak of. "They are good-for-nothing horse thieves."
Didyme laughed and patted her hand in a way that was supposed to be comforting, but it made Boadicea shiver and draw deeper into her cloak, love or no love. "We seek other like you. Special man."
Boadicea barked a little mocking laugh. "The only special men among them are their women!"
I laughed too. She would make a fine immortal, indeed, I thought.
Aro stood surveying the three of us, one eyebrow arched mockingly. "Shall I leave the woman here with you two then, since you are already so well acquainted? Can you keep her from killing herself while Caius and I fetch the boy?"
I refused to meet his eye and simply nodded. "Go, please, Aro. She shall be well with us. But let us hurry. I want to get this over and done with soon, and be home."
He nodded curtly, motioned for Caius, and they were gone into the grey morning, the fog obscuring their departure quickly. Boadicea watched them go with obviously mounting dread. "Bringing another? A boy? To—to make…immortal? Like you, too?" Her eyes slid to mine.
Oddly, she seemed to have extended her semi-trust of Didyme to include me. Perhaps because I had resisted her in the beginning, perhaps because Didyme loved me and deferred to me as her husband. Perhaps because I hadn't first seen her covered in the blood of her loved ones.
"Yes," I finally replied, not wanting to mince words. "Special. Like you."
Boadicea leaned back against the bole of the alder tree, shaking her head a bit. "Special…What's so special about me?"
I regarded her with surprise. "You don't know? I thought you did, Aro seemed satisfied with what he saw in your thoughts."
She considered for a moment, her brow furrowed with thought. "Well, I suppose I've always been able to get people to do what I want them to do. To be loyal to me, even those who don't like me. I always thought it was because I was charming!" She gave a sad little laugh, disillusioned. "And because I was naturally worthy of loyalty. My father and mother are king and queen of our people. Or were. They are dead now."
Didyme's eyes widened. "Not from—"
The human shook her head. "No, some years ago. My uncle rules in their stead, until I am old enough to take the throne…Or, I suppose, he always shall rule now, that I'm not to be with them any longer." She trailed off, her eyes shadowed and somber. She was realizing that she would never see her home again, at least not with the same eyes.
"Does it hurt? What you shall do to me?" she asked suddenly, urgently, looking at both Didyme and I. "Please, tell me, so I may prepare myself!"
Didyme sighed. "Yes, child. Will hurt much. Burning. Like fire." She begged me with her eyes to help, the lack of ability to express herself well was frustrating, though she seemed to be learning more and more as she listened to Boadicea.
I cleared my throat needlessly, giving myself a moment to think. "Yes, Boadicea. It will hurt very much. For three days, more or less, you will feel like you are being burned alive, as your mortal body dies and the new one is born inside you."
Her green eyes sparkled with fear, then hardened with resolve. "Three days." She looked down at her hands, as if memorizing them. "I can do that for three days. I am strong. I am a warrior princess of my people." She held out her arm and pushed back the cloak, revealing a long and intricate tattoo in dark blue twining around her upper arm. "This was agonizing, but I never shed a tear during the whole process, which took a week of daily sessions that lasted for hours at a time."
Didyme and I exchanged an amused glance. There was no need to argue with her: the pain of the transformation would speak for itself. Let her think what she would. There was no way to prepare yourself fully for such intense and consuming pain.
After a while, Boadicea's bright head slumped forward and her body relaxed into sleep. The night of terror and travel had exhausted her, strong as she was, and we let her sleep. It would be one of the last times she would be able to dream, and I wished her good ones. Didyme drew closer, sitting down next to me, resting her head against my shoulder and slipping her arm around my waist as she watched the girl sleep.
"What do you think of this job we are doing, my love? Is it well?"
I sighed and stroked her hair. "I don't know, darling. I don't know." And I held her against me and we watched the sleeping mortal girl, and both of us wondered at our part in Aro's game.
They returned after nightfall, Caius and Aro bearing the boy between them. He was tall and lanky, his long dark hair falling in his saturnine face, which was white and lined with fear. They cast him to the ground near Boadicea, who woke with a start and pulled back with a surprised cry.
The boy, Alistair, looked up at Didyme and I with eyes full of terror. He was perhaps eighteen and looked as if he'd led a life of ease, his body untested by the hunt or war, his skin smooth and unscarred, something unusual for humans during those years, who had to struggle for everything they had.
"Almost got away from us, little maggot," Caius growled, aiming a kick at the boy's side; Alistair jumped aside just in time, almost rolling into Boadicea, who drew away with a disgusted look. I was taken aback by that: I'd never seen anyone but an immortal evade one of us before. It was as if the boy knew what was going to happen.
Aro's lip twisted in scorn. "Yes, I was quite right about his gift. He's some kind of tracker. He finds things. Or, in the way it usually is expressed for him, he knows what he wants to avoid…and so goes in the opposite direction. Little coward."
Didyme giggled at the idea of her brother and Caius chasing this skinny little mortal and being vexed by him; she peered at the boy curiously. "What an inconsequential little thing you are, child," she said quietly, catching his eye, and I felt that warm whisper of love as she directed her gift at him.
His face relaxed visibly, his eyes going heavy-lidded as he gazed, star-struck into Didyme's face. He didn't understand her words, spoken in Greek, but he obviously knew she was no threat to him. I shook my head in disgust: I really must try to figure some other way to bind these newlings to us. I was getting quite tired of all the males developing hopeless crushes on my wife.
She looked up at Aro and smiled. "He's going to be easy to keep around, I think. Perhaps he and Boadicea…?"
Aro rolled his eyes. "Stop being a matchmaker, sister. And I seriously doubt that this female would have any interest in this male. They seem polar opposites, if I've ever seen them."
It was true: Boadicea was easily twice Alistair's size, and the human woman was regarding Alistair with the gaze of a woman beholding some truly disgusting species of slimy insect. Where she was all fire and life, he was pale and retiring and dark. He hadn't spoken a word yet.
"Do they speak the same language?" Didyme asked me, then shook her head at her own silliness and turned to Boadicea and asked her the same question in her tongue. Boadicea grimaced and made a motion that indicated "somewhat." So Didyme turned to Alistair again, reaching out to tip the young man's face to look up into hers. "Be calm. Everything will be good."
He swallowed convulsively, his adam's-apple bobbing in his skinny throat as he nodded quickly. He understood her. When Didyme let him go he looked away and slumped down, leaning against another tree and appeared to try to go to sleep. I was nonplussed: no screaming or protesting. Simply hopeless acceptance.
Boadicea snorted derisively. "Catuvellauni coward. I told you their woman are the best among them."
Alistair opened one eye and glared at her, but when she returned his gaze steadily and fiercely he quickly closed the eye again and hunkered down, trying to make himself as small as possible.
"So, now what, Aro?" I asked, standing and brushing off my tunic and leggings. I'd been sitting in the grass with Didyme while we waited for them to return. "The humans need a bit of rest before we travel, I think. And food, if they're not going to starve before we turn them."
Aro exhaled in frustration. "Complications. Always complications." He looked down at the humans for a moment, considering. "So find them something to eat, Marcus, since you seem so attuned to their needs."
Didyme touched my hand. "Yes, perhaps it should be you, my love. I should stay with them."
I managed to find them some food (robbing a nearby farm of some bread, cheese, and meat—disgusting stuff that it was), which both humans seemed grateful for when I returned. Then, at a look from Aro, Didyme bundled up Boadicea into her arms, casting a meaningful look my way, then at Alistair, who still huddled against his tree.
"Me?" I looked down at the miserable human and didn't exactly fancy picking him up. He smelled wonderful, of course, which wasn't going to make things comfortable to me, since it had been a few days since my last feeding, but besides…I just didn't want to carry him.
"Yes, you! I really do not think Aro or Caius will volunteer to do it, Marcus! And I don't trust them anyway!" She thrust out her chin in that obstinate look she got when she wanted something and was determined to get it. I, being well acquainted with that look, gave in gracefully. I awkwardly hefted the skinny boy, giving him a warning look when he opened his mouth to protest; that shut him up quickly, and I slung him over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes, ignoring Caius's snigger in the background.
The things I do for my wife…
Aro, trying to hide a smile, pointed eastward. "We need to head for the coast and steal a boat. After all, we can't exactly swim the Channel carrying these bundles of joy over our heads, could we?"
I shot Aro a withering glance, imagining myself trying to swim with this sopping, miserable boy held aloft. Aro knew I hated swimming. And there would be no enjoyable mid-swim diversion with Didyme, if she was likewise burdened with Boadicea.
So we headed for the coast, and Caius found a boat that would serve. I refrained from asking what happened to the boat's owner: Caius's eyes looked especially red, and he seemed satiated when he returned. I began worrying about Didyme and I, we needed to feed as well, and far from our charges. They smelled too good for me to put them in danger while in the grips of the bloodlust.
We crossed the Channel easily; at one point, Caius leapt into the water and pulled it, when we weren't making good enough time to suit Aro's purposes…and when we realized Alistair wasn't a mortal accustomed to the movement of the ocean. The second time Alistair leaned over the edge and vomited up that perfectly decent but perfectly revolting food I'd found him I had to restrain myself from leaping into the water as well, if only to get away from him.
When we grounded on the coast of Gaul I shoved Alistair inelegantly over the side into the sand, where he gasped like a fish out of water for a moment, thanking the gods in his language for allowing him to survive. Didyme made a disapproving clucking noise at me and sat Boadicea down much more gracefully; the girl staggered a bit at first but found her bearings quickly. Again, I knew she'd make a fine immortal. Alistair? I doubted it. But Aro had decided.
We traveled inland, into the thick woods once more, south and east. The city which would come to be known as Cenabum (and, eventually Orleans) was our target, the stronghold of the Carnutes tribe. Our third and final candidate, Augustin, was last known to have lived there.
Here we ran into a problem of logistics, because we had the two humans to look after, and this town was substantially larger than the two previous human settlements had been. It would take a good deal more looking to find the human we sought among the many, and there was no telling whether he was still there or not. Humans were nomadic too, especially in those old times, before they knew the pull of a great nation or a sense of pride in anything but the tribe of their birth.
It struck Didyme first, of course, clever girl. "Why not use Alistair?"
Aro stared at her dumbly for a moment, his mouth half-opened to give a sarcastic retort, but he couldn't argue with her. Alistair looked up, eyes wild, hearing his name on my wife's tongue, seeming like he might bolt. Caius chuckled, and it was my turn to hide a smile at Aro's expense. "You know, that might just work," Aro murmured quietly, his eyes flickering to Alistair, who turned pale and began to tremble at his scrutiny.
"Human, I seek a mortal, his name is Augustin. He is known as one who sees things, sees the future. He was last here in this city. Can you help us find him, with your talent? It would behoove you to cooperate, if you can." Aro put his hands on Alistair's shoulders, inducing further trembling in the boy, and gave him a gentle shake, which seemed to rattle his teeth. "Will you help us?"
Alistair licked his lips and considered, his eyes slipping halfway closed as if lost in thought. "Y-yes," he finally replied, his voice rough and hesitant. "I-I think so. I think I feel him. That way." He raised a shaking finger and pointed toward the west. "It…it gets stronger the closer we are."
Aro's eyes flamed with approval and he smiled, which didn't seem to help improve Alistair's composure at all. In fact, it seemed to worsen it. "Excellent, boy. Lead us. Now." He motioned to Caius to follow him then made a shooing gesture at Alistair. "Go."
"And us, Aro?" Didyme asked quietly, her hand on Boadicea's shoulder. "Stay here and wait for you?"
"Yes," he called back over his should. "Wait. We shall return shortly, I hope."
It turned out that finding a man who can see the future makes things more interesting, especially when the pursuers are aided by someone who can find what it is he seeks. It made for a very frustrating and lengthy chase, apparently, because when Aro and Caius returned with Augustin, they were in an even worse humor than they'd been with Alistair. Alistair, in turn, seemed almost elated: he had been of service, and he'd been replaced in the eyes of Aro as being the most irritating member of the human faction of our party.
Augustin was much like Alistair in his build, tall and slender, but more muscular. His hair was dark and lightly curling as it hung to his shoulders, and he had a very open and honest face, with a wide and generous mouth that seemed given to smiling, and large dark eyes that seemed wise beyond his years but merry. He was afraid, he was frustrated and defeated, but he didn't wilt like Alistair had at the realization that he had come to this final juncture of his mortality. I liked him immediately.
Aro tossed him to the ground before me, as if giving him to me. "Watch over this one as well, Marcus. You seem well suited to being a mortal nursemaid."
Augustin also smelled exceptional, and he set my throat afire.
"Aro, I need to feed. Soon. These three are too tempting," I growled out of the corner of my mouth, while Didyme reached out to help the young man to his feet and began plying him with her gift.
The boy lifted his eyes to meet mine, and I felt something pass between us: he knew me, even though he'd never seen me before. I realized what Aro had said about him was true; he did see things. And he'd seen me, and Didyme, and he wasn't afraid of us. His dark eyes grew huge and sad as he looked at me first, and even more so when he looked at Didyme; tears actually appeared at the corners of them, caught in his long and tangled lashes. But they weren't tears of fear. He was sad. For us. For some reason.
I was seized with the desire to ask him what he had seen, but before I could, Aro swooped down and grabbed the boy up again. "Never mind, then, Marcus. I'll watch this one. You go feed. I can't chance you hurting these." I glanced up at my brother, startled at his sudden change of heart, and filed that away in the back of my mind. I would get the boy alone at some point, and I would find out what he had seen, what had made him so sad.
Didyme's strong little hand found mine. "Come love, let's both go. I think these two can handle the humans for a while. Let's go."
So we melted into the forest and then down into Cenabum, to slake our thirst as the evening deepened into mysterious shadows. As I hunted I let my mind lose the tight focus it had been wound into for so many days now, meeting the needs of my body with the automatic efficiency of a hunter born and bred.
There were three humans and four immortals. Surprisingly, Aro carried Augustin: he had not changed his mind in his decision to watch over that particular mortal. I never got a single opportunity to speak to him by myself, much to my frustration, because Aro almost jealously guarded Augustin's time. So I was, unfortunately, left to deal with Alistair myself, and Didyme with Boadicea, and lucky Caius could run unencumbered and smug.
Despite our burdens, we made good time back to Volterra. Sulpicia and Athenodora welcomed us back joyfully, and to our relief Aro seemed very glad to see his wife again. Perhaps he'd taken my words on the beach at Calais to heart. Without any real consideration for anyone else, Caius and Aro both disappeared into their respective chambers with their respective wives, leaving Didyme and I staring at each other helplessly and knowing we were to be in charge of the humans. This was to become a precedent in the coming years, one which Aro came to regret…as did I. Bitterly. But for very different reasons.
Knowing we had only a small window of time before they were changed and were thence extremely difficult to deal with, we put the humans in comfortable but completely closed quarters, leaving the slaves to guard the doors and serve them their meals for a while, and Didyme and I retired to our own chambers for some much-needed time alone.
We made love for two days straight. On the morning of the third day, knowing we needed to emerge from our warm and loving cocoon, we lay tangled together in our bed and watched the sun rise. I held Didyme in my arms and counted the breaths she took, and she mine: it was something we did sometimes when we were alone. Each breath is precious, even when it is not necessary anymore. I reveled in each inhalation of her scent, and she mine.
"Love, what do you think of Augustin?" Didyme asked me, her voice sounding strange after such a long period of silence, broken only by the murmurings and whispers and sighs of lovemaking.
I thought for a moment before answering. "I don't know." I thought back to the young man's face: those large dark eyes so wide and full of recognition and sadness. "But it bothers me, that Aro won't let me near him. It's…it's as if he knows something bad, something he doesn't want Augustin to tell me."
Didyme sucked in a surprised breath. "Really?" She rolled toward me, pillowing her arms, which rested on my chest. "What on earth could Aro want to keep from us?"
I ran my fingers through her disordered golden curls. "I don't know," I repeated. "The whole thing is baffling. But you know how protective Aro is of his secrets, love. It could be something that has nothing to do with us."
"Perhaps." She traced the line of my lips with the tip of her finger; I smiled and trapped her hand against my mouth with mine, kissing it. "Well, we could always go ask him now, you know. Before Aro comes out of his rooms. Before they're changed."
I was intrigued by the idea, but it was difficult to force myself to let her go. That bed had become the axis of the universe, the center of my world, and we were the only players on life's stage. I loathed to open the curtains and allow anyone else onto that stage. But I was also wildly curious about the matter, in an urgent and unusual way.
We dressed quickly, stealing quietly from our rooms to the humans' quarters. The slaves guarding the door gave way immediately, bowing low and parting before us; I pushed the door open, searching for Augustin.
But he wasn't there.
Alistair sat on his bed, disconsolate and alone, hardly daring to meet my eyes. The other bed was empty, seemed to have never been slept in. "He's not here, lord. The other, the one with the dark hair, came and took him yesterday morning," he said quietly to no one.
I hissed in frustration. What was going on? Why had Aro taken Augustin? Where was he now? Didyme clutched my arm and her huge eyes and slack mouth told me she was also shocked.
I went to look for Sulpicia or Aro, and they weren't there. The slaves cleaning their chamber told me they had left the morning before in a hurry, and they hadn't seen them since.
Caius and Athenodora were still locked in their rooms, so I didn't bother to even knock. Whatever this was, it was strictly Aro's plan.
We waited the rest of the day, through the night and well into the next day. When Aro finally did appear, Augustin was with him, a newborn, his eyes blood red and hungry, and although he did glance at me for a moment, I knew he was completely my brother's creature. I knew I couldn't get anything from him. Aro smiled and refused to meet my eye, patting Augustin warmly on the shoulder and trumpeting about what a wonderful team they made, he and Augustin: one to plan the future, and the other to see it happening.
For the first time in the centuries I had spent with Aro, my misgivings about his secretive nature and his thirst for power bloomed into true suspicion. Something was afoot. Something was wrong. When Aro announced that he and Augustin were leaving immediately to begin their survey of likely humans again, I wasn't surprised. Even Caius didn't go. They left without fanfare when I was out hunting with Didyme. Poor Sulpicia, leaning sadly against the garden gate, told me of their departure.
"He hardly said goodbye," she murmured softly, her lips pursed with grief. "I thought…I thought things might be different this time. But…he seemed so eager to go."
I put my arm around her slight shoulders and pulled her against me, Didyme on the other side putting her arm around Sulpicia's waist. No matter the woman's aristocratic bearing, no matter that she believed herself better than everyone else, her pain was evident. The man she loved had left her with barely a goodbye. As if glad to be rid of her. It hurt.
"Did he tell you anything?" Didyme asked carefully, tucking a strand of the other woman's white blonde hair behind her ear. "Anything at all?"
Sulpicia frowned. "Only that they were going hunting. But not for blood. For candidates." She turned and looked at me. "And he did say, very clearly, that you and Didyme are to change the others and teach them properly."
I sighed. "Of course."
Then the pride, the very backbone of the woman, asserted itself, and all the displays of weakness and softness disappeared. "Well, get to it then, Marcus. I'm not wasting more time here." She brushed her hair back and twitched at her gown needlessly, then left us, heading toward her chambers. The rooms she shared with Aro. When he was there.
"I bet you she would weep behind closed doors, if she could." Didyme's hand found mine, her eyes hard as she watched Sulpicia leave, her back ramrod-straight. "Poor thing."
I grunted. "Yes, poor thing," I drawled dryly.
"So, I suppose we must see to Boadicea and Alistair then."
"I call Boadicea."
"Damn you. Why? Why must I get the whiny little git?"
"Because you're you, my darling. And because I won't have your lips at on another woman again."
"As if I have ever given you cause for jealousy. What cause have you to be jealous? I'm not the one who makes every man love her from the first moment they see her!"
"I'd certainly hope you're not a her. That would complicate things between us a bit, my love."
So we went in to change them. And for a long time we were caught up in the daily grind of caring for the newborns, for teaching and training them. We forgot, for the moment, our fears of Aro's strangeness and Augustin's sadness. Much to our chagrin, we let the hours and days and months and years slip by.