This story is meant to be a companion piece to my other fic, Becoming Jane. You don't need to read Becoming Jane to understand what is happening, but they are intended to go together. This story will be posted in three parts. It is rated M for violence and some abuse.
Disclaimer: The Twilight characters aren't mine; I only like to color them in a little.
I will never forget that day, the day that set me irrevocably on the path towards my uninvited and undesired immortality. That day stands out far and above the tedious monotony of the last three centuries. I am inclined to think that it will always remain one of the most significant memories of my entire existence.
After all, burning at the stake isn't something one is likely to forget.
It was a cool day. Cloudy, as I recall. A gentle mist fell, lending me a false sense of hope that maybe the fire wouldn't hurt as much or burn me as easily. I was terrified as the executioner strapped Jane and me to the tall wooden pole and hoisted us high above the eagerly shouting crowd of former friends and neighbors. I tried to reach for Jane's hand, needing to borrow strength from her in this most horrible and surreal of moments, but I was tied so tightly I couldn't move my arms. I watched in bewildered horror while the executioner threw bucket after bucket of oily black pitch onto the carefully stacked wood below us. While he lit the pyre evenly on each side, I remember thinking, how had this come about? What had happened that would lead me to become tied to this stake, above a heap of dry tinder that was about to become a raging inferno?
I looked out into the crowd and saw the faces of people I'd known my whole life; faces that had once been friendly and caring were now wearing expressions of hateful mistrust. Signore Camarreri, who'd hired me to help harvest grapes in his vineyard the past three summers, now scowled at me, a glowering grimace pulling down the corners of his mouth. Signora Sophia, who had been my mother's closest friend, stood near the front of the horde shouting curses and spitting spitefully at us. Sister Isabella, who had been so kind and generous during my recovery at the abbey, lingered off to the side with her hands clasped in prayer. Still trying to save our souls, even though she was the one who'd condemned us.
The flames grew hotter and higher. They taunted me as they licked my feet and burned the hair on my calves, the smoke swirling like a cyclone around us. I could hear the crowd screaming at my twin sister, Jane, calling her horrible names that made me want to cover my ears and hers. She couldn't possibly be the things they said she was. Not my odd, rebellious and protective Jane. At first I couldn't bring myself to believe that she was guilty of the horrible acts of which she'd been accused, even after hearing the evidence at the trial for myself. Now I realized I just didn't want to believe. That had always been my way: hide from the horror, hide from the ugliness, even if it was at the expense of the truth.
So that's exactly what I did while I was tied to that damned stake. I hid. As the crowd screamed louder and the hissing flames crawled and danced up my legs, I folded into myself. I let the familiar, comforting blackness consume me. It worked, until the smoke made me choke, and the pain of my broken ribs as I hacked and coughed was excruciating enough to make me black out in earnest. That was for the better; I had no memory of what happened after the blackness consumed me, until the red burning heat of my transformation temporarily overwhelmed my ability to lock it out.
When I began to feel again, I immediately and desperately wished I couldn't. I assumed, at first, that I was still burning at the stake. I had suffered much in my short life, been broken and battered and bruised at the hands of my father, and had been condemned to suffer the so called purifying fires by my neighbors and their church. However, none of that could remotely compare to the fire I felt eating me alive from the inside out. Naturally, I triggered my defense. I folded in further, deeper than I thought possible, and let the blackness consume me. Yet, even submerged in my black abyss, I wasn't able to completely block out the indescribable pain or memories I was trying so hard to escape from. Every day of my life had been dominated by two of humanity's most basic emotions: fear and love. Fate, it seemed, had dictated that, even in death, I would suffer through continually reliving the horror of one, and the excruciating loss of the other.
It was a hot and dusty July day during the first summer I worked in Signore Camarerri's vineyard. I was going about my business weeding the soft earth between the grape vines when I found my destiny. Or rather, my destiny found me.
On my hands and knees in the soft dirt, I was carefully extracting the weeds and trying not to disturb the roots of the vines they grew around. Out of nowhere, I felt a sharp pain in the rump and I fell forward into the vine in front of me. I spat out a disgusting mouthful of dirt and turned to see who had just kicked me in the rear, and I came face to face with a very defiant white goat. I stood up, wiping the dust off my face and clothes when a girl bounded into view. I recognized her immediately. I'd seen her at church and at the market off and on for years, but considering the social convention in Italy at the time, it wouldn't have been seemly for me to speak to her. I'd often prayed that God would grant me an opportunity to talk to her, or at the very least, find out her name. Her bouncing brunette curls and pale pink cheeks had captured my fancy and she became a nightly star in my innocent dreams. I glanced gratefully up at heaven, God must have answered my prayer at last.
She jogged up to me and the goat; the hem of her green skirt was dusty, and her little feet, bare.
"Did he hurt you?" She asked, panting and winded as she hunched forward, resting her hands on her knees as she tried to catch her breath. I noted one hand held a length of rope tied into a loop with a sturdy knot, presumably for the goat. Her brunette curls bounced and swayed around her flushed face, making her auburn highlights shimmer in the summer sun. "He got out of the pasture again, stupid goat," she huffed in annoyance between hitched breaths, and kept a wary blue eye trained on the black and spotted white goat who was eying us suspiciously from a few feet away.
I stepped toward her, my brain wracking itself to say something, but being face to face with her and hearing her address me directly was more than my inexperienced adolescent nerves could bare at the moment. I decided she'd probably appreciate my help more than any utterances I might mumble. Slowly, so that I didn't startle the goat, and took the rope from her. Just as slowly, I turned toward the goat and took a step forward.
"I'd be careful, he's grumpy," she warned me.
I threw her a look over my shoulder and gestured to my rear. "He made that clear a moment ago." She giggled and I advanced on the goat, the loop ready to toss around his neck as soon as I was close enough. I raised my hands, holding the rope, and moved toward him, my confidence rising as I came within a few feet of where the goat stood. I put my hand out, hoping the stupid goat would allow me to pet it, then perhaps I might easily slip the rope over its head. The 'stupid' goat wanted nothing to do with easy.
It leapt forward with a grace more befitting a gazelle than a common goat. I looked over at her, shrugging my shoulders in defeat. She sighed, snatched the rope from my hands and grudgingly began to run after it, muttering the whole time. Without a thought, I followed her. She obviously needed help, and I very much needed to find out her name. We chased that very stupid goat all over the countryside before we caught him. He finally gave up due to exhaustion. She slipped the rope over his head and smiled with obvious relief that the ordeal was over and bobbed a curtsy to me.
"Thank you for helping me, it would have taken much longer. This is the third time this week."
"It was my pleasure," I said and her brow rose in disbelief. I quickly amended my statement. "Don't misunderstand me, it wasn't a pleasure chasing the goat, but it was a pleasure helping you, Miss...?" I said, boldly requesting her name.
"Francesca. Cesca," she replied and put her hand out to me.
"I'm Alec," I said as I took her hand and bowed slightly.
Soon after, we parted ways. She went in the direction of her family farm and I returned to the vineyard. Signore Camererri was irate when he realized I'd gone missing and Father was furious when the Signore informed him of my disappearance. Needless to say, I was punished. Yet, the lashings didn't impart their usual sting. The lingering feeling of warmth from being with her protected me like a shield. I triggered my defense and blocked out the pain, replacing it with thoughts of her dark curls and cornflower blue eyes. The beating didn't matter. God had answered my prayer. God had brought us together. When she'd placed her tiny hand in mine, I'd held my future in my hand. It unfolded before me like the fronds of a fern uncurling in the sun, lush and bright and ready for a new beginning.
Each day after, I woke with a single thought. Cesca. She was always in the foreground of my mind, her voice always whispering to my subconscious. We were only able to see each other when we could arrange to meet in secret. Eventually we agreed that if we were able to sneak away from our homes without attracting attention, we would meet each day at the fallen Cypress tree near the Volterra city wall in the evenings after supper. Many nights, one of us wasn't able to get away, and the other would patiently wait for as long as possible. The nights we were able to meet were my most precious memories. I treasured those moments more than any possession I would ever have. Those forbidden rendezvous were always dominated by chaste and tender kisses followed by solemn vows for the future. Vows that no one heard aside from ourselves, no one but God.
Sometimes, I'd arrive at our tree with a new cut or fresh bruise, and Cesca never failed to notice. Her brow would furrow with concern as I'd lie and explain that my "clumsiness," or other such nonsense had been the catalyst yet again. I hoped that she believed me. It broke my heart to lie to her, but I couldn't possibly be induced to tell her the truth about my father.
My father was a blacksmith, and in the fall of my fourteenth year, he decided to apprentice me in his craft. In all honesty, it was an absurd idea. My gangly and meager adolescent physical strength was in no way suited to the profession. However, as was customary in that time, I was expected to take over the family business. One particular morning, I left the cottage I shared with father and Jane, and made my way toward the high walled city of Volterra. I was running late and father was adamant that I 'stop my daydreaming and become responsible. Determined not to disappoint him (or tempt his anger), I quickly finished my morning chores and hurried off to meet him at the smithy. I kept my eyes on the gravel road and tried to ignore how beautiful the autumn morning was as I made my way to his blacksmith forge. I tried to ignore how the golden wheat fields swayed in graceful rhythm to the soft morning breeze. How the sky was streaked in brilliant fiery orange gashes that cut through the peaceful blue like torn parchment. How the bright crimson Papavero blossoms dotted the hillsides like rubies nestled in the grass.
Beauty always struck me; it struck me dumb, occasionally. Beauty was my escape from a reality filled with drunken, irrational abuse. I couldn't help but notice beauty around me, it was the balm that soothed my soul of the ugly evil I'd seen far too much of in my short fourteen years. The world seemed such a harsh place, that sometimes I found myself amazed that there was anything left of beauty. I had to notice, so that I didn't allow myself to forget that, in the future, my life could be full of beauty, too.
My thoughts drifted back to Cesca as I kicked the dusty pebbles along the road. As soon as I was confident I could provide for her, I would ask her father for her hand. I knew resolutely that I wanted her beside me forever. As I squinted up at the sun gaining purchase in the sky, I vowed to myself to keep her free from the tyrannical hold that my father held over me. I had been doing much thinking about what could be done to keep her away from him and the reality was, I had few choices. In fact, I only saw one realistic option. Once I knew enough about the blacksmith trade, we could flee and I could find work in another village. I couldn't allow him to have regular contact with us or his harsh cruelty would extinguish the brilliant spark of her soul. I simply refused to allow that to happen. Only one thing could ever induce me to violence, and that was defending Cesca. It broke my heart to ask her to give up her family and move, possibly far away. What broke my heart more was the thought of him breaking her spirit.
Although Cesca was foremost in my mind, I deeply regretted that I might have to leave Jane behind. It was a prospect that caused me great grief and tormented me as I lay on my bed at night, endlessly thinking. Leaving my defenseless and diminutive sister to bear all of his beatings, all of the suffering alone was not only unthinkable, but mutinous. I had spent so much of my life trying to direct his anger at me that the idea of leaving Jane unprotected and vulnerable made me physically ill. Yet, something told me Jane might be jealous of Cesca and my feelings for her, if Jane were to find out about us.
Perhaps I should give Jane a choice, ask her if she wants to leave with us. The notion seemed like a good idea, and if Jane refused, then I'd leave with Cesca feeling confident that I did the right thing. And leave we must, no matter what Jane decided. Distance was the only way to shield Cesca from father's tyranny.
I arrived at the smithy a few minutes late and father was very obviously angry at my tardiness. Fortunately for me, it was too early in the day for him to be drunk and the presence of others kept his hands away from me. I worked diligently all day, never stopping to even eat, in an attempt to appease him for being late. My thoughts strayed to Cesca frequently. We hadn't been able to meet at the tree in several days, and I was a hoping tonight I would see her on my way home. As the sun began to set, father dismissed me, telling me to put my tools away before leaving.
"Get home. Tell Jane to have supper ready," he ordered without looking at me. I shrugged and blew out the candle on my workbench. "Straight home," he commanded firmly as I walked out the door and into the street.
The evening was cool. The rising crescent moon cast a magical silver glow over the quietly rustling trees. I meandered through the streets of the city toward the main gate and relished the crisp autumn air. I passed the Bella Luna Inn and smiled as the merry sounds of good friends laughing and a skillfully strummed lute floated out of the open windows. The tune reminded me of the one I'd always heard Cesca hum softly. The humming was an adorable absentminded habit of hers, and it inspired my feet to move faster toward the fallen tree that had become our confessional. I could always hear her before I'd see her sitting on the fallen Cypress tree, waiting for me. She'd be humming her little melancholic lullaby, the tune that I imagined she hummed while she made bread or washed clothes. It was an endearing trait, and the haunting melody was a part of her that I carried with me constantly.
Francesca's family farm was not far from the city wall, and I stepped off the main road onto a foot path that ran along the edge of her father's goat pasture. The moon was just a sliver of luminescence that cast the boughs of the cypress trees in swaying silver romance. My pace was fast, eager to get to her, to hopefully see her waiting for me. I rounded the last bend in the path before our tree and saw the soft glow of her lantern. My shoulders relaxed. She had come. A few more steps and I heard her humming. I passed the last branches that obstructed her from my view, and smiled at the vision before me.
She sat perched daintily on the fallen stump. Her hands were busy as they flitted over her gown and smoothed out the folds of her skirt. Twilight was setting, casting her brown hair in midnight blues and making her fair skin glow in the starlight. The inky blue evening sky was sprinkled with twinkling stars that seemed to smile down on her, and a gentle breeze rustled the trees, blowing tendrils of her hair around her heart shaped face.
Seeing her waiting always produced the same reaction in me. My stomach dropped and my heart skipped, while my feet carried me toward her without needing a command. She heard me approach and looked up. Immediately, she flew to me and stood on her tip toes, throwing her slender arms around my neck. We didn't speak, as I held her to me and buried my face in her chestnut hair; we just held each other and savored the moment. She started to pull away, but I refused. She giggled softly and relaxed against me. I leaned down and kissed her her head back, she looked up at me, and her expression shifted from happiness at seeing me to worry instantly.
"Alec, what happened to your eye?" she asked with alarm, reaching up and brushing my hair away to see my wound better. I evaded her hand and looked up at the trees with a sigh. I'd forgotten the cut on my brow from the other day when I'd overslept. Father woke me up with his belt.
I looked back her."It's nothing, il mio amore," I soothed, looking down at her. "I tripped on a hoe that Jane left on the floor in the barn. I'm fine."
She frowned, and a little "v" formed between her delicate eyebrows, but it was there for only a moment. She pulled away from my embrace and took my hand, leading me toward the tree. She sat down and tugged on my hand, urging me to sit close beside her. I acquiesced readily, yet I could tell by her demeanor, she had something important to say. As I squeezed her hand, I braced myself for her questions.
"Alec," she began sweetly, and I held my breath, "do you trust me?" she asked, meeting my surely shocked gaze.
"Of course I do!" I exclaimed in surprise. "Why would you question that?" I was a little hurt, but I was more desperate to quell any doubts she might have had in me. She began playing with my fingers, a nervous habit of hers that I also found adorable, but it hardly registered in that moment.
"In all the time we've know each other, not once have I seen you trip or stumble. Not even stub your toe," she whispered, her eyes focused on our hands. I could hear her regret in her tone. She didn't want to doubt me. It was foolish of me to believe for a moment that she wouldn't see through my lies.
I sighed heavily. For months I had contemplated how to make her understand why I'd lied to protect her. I had fretted over a way to tell her and yet not make her worry. I realized then that I'd been making her worry all along. I felt her squeeze my hand.
"Alec, I need to know why it is that every time I see you, you have a new cut, or fresh scrape?" Her hands were wringing mine now, and in her voice I recognized a frantic pleading. Still I was reluctant.
"Don't you trust me?" she asked and I didn't miss the heartbreak in her voice.
I was quick to answer. "With my life, Cesca." My tone was colored with desperation for her to believe me.
"Then tell me."
I clenched my eyes shut and began. It was pointless to deny it any longer. "My father... is... a harsh man," I struggled to confess the shameful truth to her, the truth I thought I'd kept so carefully hidden. "He's raised Jane and I with a heavy hand."
She pursed her lips in obvious and undeniable anger. She was about to speak, but I silenced her as I brought my hand to her face and cupped her cheek. My thumb brushed her lips and she didn't speak.
"Don't pity me, Cesca. You've brought love into my life." Her gaze quickly shifted to the ground. She closed her eyes and tried to blink back tears as she leaned her face into my hand.
"We need to get away," she said plainly, like she was saying supper was ready. I looked at her in astonishment. Could she be that willing to leave Volterra? Willing to give up her family and everything she's ever known for me? I didn't even have to ask her; she volunteered.
"Are you sure you want to leave with me?" I felt I had to ask her outright, I had to give her the opportunity to walk away. I couldn't begrudge her the family I myself wanted so badly.
She looked up at me and confusion was clear on her face. "My place is with you. I love you, Alec. Don't you understand that?"
"I don't know how far we'll go, you may never see your parents again. Your brothers and sist-"
"Shhhh, husband," she cooed. Of course I wasn't her husband yet, but her use of the term meant she felt that way already. Gently, she brought the back of my hand to her face, and brushed against her cheek.
"That's why I want to wait, just until I am sure that I can take care of you," I finished in a broken whisper, and brought my other hand up to cradle her face in my hands. I kissed her with reverence for her loyalty and innocence. This kiss felt entirely different from any other we'd stolen before. The whispered devout vows we'd made colored the kiss with commitment and urgency that hadn't surrounded us in the past.
I heard a twig snap suddenly, and I ripped my lips away from the kiss, away from her. I peered into the darkness in the direction I thought the noise had come from, but was unable to see anything. The breeze picked up just then, obscuring any other sounds I might have heard as the wind rustled the leaves on the trees around us. A feeling of fear crept over me and I remembered with horror that I was supposed to go straight home. I'd forgotten my father's instructions and, in his eyes, disobeyed him. There would be hell to pay, chances were Jane was paying now.
"Cesca, I must go. I forgot he ordered me straight home," I said abruptly and stood up, immediately hating the worried "v" that creased her brow. I continued before she could ask questions. "Please, love, don't worry. I'll be all right." I couldn't bring myself to tell her the truth. She understood then and stood to kiss me again.
"Go. I'll look for you tomorrow," she whispered and wrapped her arms fervently around me. I held her back with equal affection.
"Until tomorrow," I assured her before releasing her, spinning on my heel and jogging off.
I was still some distance from the cottage when I could hear the shattering of glass and muffled curses floating out into the night. My heart sank with remorse when I realized that Jane was taking the brunt of my father's anger for my careless mistake. I instantly broke into a full run towards the cottage. I threw open the door and braced myself for my father's wrath, but when I looked around the tiny room, I didn't see him, I only saw Jane. She was a frazzled mess, her usually tidy braids were disheveled, her eyes were focused and her mouth was set in bitterness as she scrambled to start cooking the evening meal. Before I could ask where he was, I heard his approach behind me; he been behind the door I'd flung open.
He put a heavy hand on the door, slamming it shut with a brutal shove. "Off day dreaming again, boy?" he asked menacingly, instantly followed by the crack of leather strap he'd had hidden behind his back. I felt a searing sting as it slapped against my shoulder. I could tell by the pain it wasn't his belt he was hitting me with. In his hand he held his favorite device for beating us, an old length of leather from a horse's bridle. It was a weapon he reserved for special occasions and at seeing it, the confrontation took on a new severity. Instinctively I moved away from him, turning my body to protect my face, and raised an arm to protect my face. Jane's scowl darkened but she stayed focused on her task. She knew from experience that to get involved would only make it worse for both of us.
Experience had taught me a great deal. I knew not to answer his questions, because no answer I could give would be acceptable and my insolence would only enrage him further. I knew that it was still early enough that he would be somber, which meant that his anger would not be tempered by drink, and his aim would not be affected by it either. Yes, I knew from experience that this was going to be a bad beating as I felt the searing sting of his blows. The cutting words he uttered while applying the lash, though, made this the worst beating I had ever experienced.
"I saw you with her," he growled as he pulled his arm back, readying for another blow. I backed up toward the wall, bumping into the kitchen table and sending a clay pitcher crashing to the ground. I hated the way he said her, as if speaking her name would cause Lucifer to appear before us, but still I didn't say anything.
"Tell me I'm a liar," he dared with a sneer and struck again, hitting my left hand.
I say nothing to the contrary.
"I forbid you to see her," he commanded. This time, I turned to look at him, my brow wrinkled in confusion as if he'd just spoken a foreign language. The concept of not seeing Cesca was not within my realm of consciousness.
"What did you say?" I mumbled.
"Her mother is a whore," he said with a knowing smirk, "and bitches beget bitches," he murmured and smirked as my face contorted in anger.
I stood up and faced him. I couldn't allow him to sully her, dirty her perfection with his ignorant, slanderous tongue.
"Father, no." I could feel the tendons in my hands contracting of their own accord, my fingers curling slowly into fists. I clenched my lids shut, Cesca's face, the face I lived to see everyday, the face that I endured everyday for, appeared behind them. A moment appeared from earlier in the evening, when she was staring down at my hands, playing with them, a soft smile on her lips and the moonlight shining on her hair.
"Has she spread her legs for you like a bitch in heat?" he taunted cruelly. My vision began to blur with rage and his words forced bile to rise in my throat.
"I'm warning you, father, tread carefully," I said as I squared my shoulders and faced him.
"Are you threatening me, boy?" he smiled as if he'd been waiting for my challenge for eons.
So many times I had wished for this moment, dreamed of standing up to him and freeing myself from his relentless control and regular abuse. I had never been sure I had the courage before, but with his filthy mouth and disgusting accusations, he had defiled her innocence and given me the strength I needed.
"No more," I muttered and threw my clenched fist at his jaw. I missed his jaw, but managed to hit his eye. He stumbled and I quickly hit him in the gut with my other fist. It was all for naught. The reach of his leather strap was much longer than the reach of my arm. Once he'd recovered himself from my inexperienced blows, he thrashed me about my head and the only choice I had then was to protect myself from him. The thought of running crossed my mind, but I abandoned it instantly. I couldn't leave until Cesca was my wife. Leaving now wouldn't serve anything, except prove the cowardice my father suspected me of.
He lashed me again and again, and I backed away, knowing there wasn't anywhere to hide. I tripped on something, causing me to fall to the floor. Then, immediately, I felt a kick to my stomach. In the same instant, and a searing slap from his strap lashed across the hand that covered my face. I started counting the lashes, that way I could gauge how close I was coming to the end, but he had already gotten about a dozen lashes in. He was kicking me as well; that had never happened before.
He was relentless. Lash upon lash he whipped me with that worn out leather reign, each sting of the strap whipping a piece of my manhood out from my soul. I had tried to stand up to him, and I had failed. I felt hot, silent tears falling across the bridge of my nose and to the wooden floor. They weren't tears of pain or even anger. They were full of nothing but my failure.
I curled up, and started to fade into my familiar welcoming nothingness, and thought of her. With every blow, Cesca's face became more vivid behind my closed lids. The last thing I saw was Jane stepping between us, his strap hitting her as he tried to reach around her to get at me. Jane's little face was emblazoned with fury, a wrathful angel of protection who stood firmly between me and my demon.
This fic has been nursed along by several people. I'd like to say thanks to my betas, LightStardusting and KrisBCullen. Also thanks to my prereaders and those of you who've been particularly encouraging: Izzzyy, Starshinedown, Hmonster4, TheHeartOfLife, Venti_Turtl and TwilightJems.