Fuil 'o mo chuislean
I'm so glad you liked the last chapter; thank you for your kind reviews! I'm probably more shocked than you at how quickly this next chapter is up. I've decided to take Alistair's nature in a slightly different direction than I had intended so that I can protect my original writing and keep posting this story. For the purposes of this story, by the present day Marcus will have been pining for Didyme for a couple hundred years not a thousand.
I twisted you over and under to take you,
The coals went so wild as they swallowed the rest.
I twisted you under and under to break you,
I just couldn't breathe with your throne on my chest.
Neko Case - Furnace room lullaby
This was my first train ride. It was proving illuminating to say the least, and not nearly as fast as I'd assumed a modern form of transportation would be. But the steam that blew across my face, greatly dissipated by the time it reached me, explained the leisurely pace at which we travelled. It also gave me a strange sense of hope; surely the speed hinted at a lack of desire to escape on the part of my prey. I couldn't hear her at the moment as she lay just over three carriages away, but I could hear the passengers in the car on which I lay. An old couple who'd been bickering on the platform were now engaged in a contest of breathy hmmmphs and loud sniffs; the lady was still winning. Others were discussing whether or not to head to the dining car, which I hoped they would, as it made things quieter for me. I am not a fucking people person. I envy humans one thing, that their meals don't converse. When you're as asocial as I am, even with my own kind, human speech and searing thirst are an irritating combination. But as I couldn't take myself away to a rocky crag or grassy valley to get away from the chatter, I took myself to another time instead.
24th November, 1744. Volterra, Italy.
Mairie and I had journeyed a long way to be blessed at this small church. Our late great uncle Andrew had been a monk here many years ago. As he told it to me when I was a wee lad on his knee, the group he was travelling with had stopped to rest their horses and mules and to barter for food in this small town, as it had been then. He'd taken one look at the rolling hills that surrounded the place and refused to travel any farther. For a foreigner with no grasp of Italian, he'd proven highly adept at garnering donations from the townsfolk to build a new place of worship.
It had been my father's wish that we come here to receive the blessing of the church. Him being a Papist married to a Protestant woman, he'd had to hide his Catholic ways his whole life. But he would not brook his children travelling any further into adulthood without the sanction of both God and his emissary here on Earth. That was the public story, but I knew that this pilgrimage was in part his way of dealing with my introduction to, by way of the blacksmith, the old gods. Try as I might, I could not get my father to understand that it was simply superstition that made the man bless his fire and tools with strange names and ancient words. I had very little time for the god we'd had rammed down our throats at home and kirk since we were old enough to talk, let alone ones whose names I could barely pronounce and who required pigs feet for dinner. That's just…untidy.
The people here smiled and touched more than at home in Scotland. I'd almost drawn my dirk today, the first time a man had kissed my cheek in greeting. He'd laughed easily at my affront and simply ignored it, greeting Mairie in the same fashion, but held onto her hand just a fraction longer than I, the glowering older brother, deemed necessary. His wife had caught my eye and rolled hers in a gesture of lifelong understanding. She was wed to a man who appreciated a beautiful girl but saw no reason to worry. I in turn appreciated her dark eyed, languid beauty and understood why. Any man would have been an idiot not to add a prayer of thankfulness for such a wife whenever he passed the statue of the Virgin Mary.
Mairie had laughed and tossed her golden hair, taking no offence but sensitive of mine. Her look spoke volumes. Of an age at which many girls would think of marriage, her quick eyes had missed nothing in the exchange and I knew that I had no need to worry; she would settle for nothing less than this kind of husbandly devotion in whomever she chose as her own. I know that my expression told her plainly in return that if she found one who did not treat her as I felt she deserved, I'd have no qualms about dumping him down a well with a knife in his back. She smirked, I smiled, and we allowed the husband and wife to usher us into the small church to meet their priest.
I didn't understand a great deal of what went on before and during the blessing, only that the priest had a smile like a snake despite carrying the kind of fleshy rotundity that usually accompanied a jolly, generous disposition. Mairie seemed to like him as much as I did, using the wine to chase the wafer down before her repulsion got the best of her. It would have dishonoured our parents to have spit it out simply for having been touched by him but it was a close call all the same.
The brevity of the blessing was, well, a blessing. I had not thought to enquire prior to our arrival what it would entail, but I had imagined days of fasting, perhaps, or lying on cold stone floors to purge ourselves of sin as we'd had to do several times at home for various misdemeanours. It occurred to me then that the stone floors may have been my father's idea. There's nothing will curb a young lad's enthusiasm for village girls better than knowing that breaching the no touching rule would result in his softer parts being plastered against freezing Scottish granite for hours on end.
At a loss as to how we should feel now that we were accepted into the Catholic church, we exited the sanctity of its doors with no notion how to spend our time. We had lodgings at an inn, but many hours until nightfall. I wish to this day I had refused Mairie's request to explore the beautiful, larger building that dwarfed the church int he town square. I was even warned against it, but youthful ignorance is excellent at ignoring warnings, as mine was that day.
Any street corner anywhere could sport an old woman selling something in this country. This town was no different, but the old woman was. She didn't want to sell us anything but words. I didn't understand most of them, but Gaelic and Romany have common roots in a handful of words, and I wondered why she muttered something like 'give strength' as her bony fingers clutched my arm briefly. I'd given her a coin I didn't understand the value of and wished her a good day. She had just looked at it sadly and shaken her head as she wobbled away on tired feet, no doubt to warn someone else. I wonder if anyone ever listened to her. Mairie tugged insistently on my plaid and all but towed me through the grand archway under the clock tower into a stone cobbled passageway.
I soon noticed that others also strolled along the corridor, stopping to look at this carving and that relief. They were exquisite, I had to give them that. Mairie oohed and aahed at the intricate details hundreds of years old, some pristine, some crumbling a little around the edges. I was oohing and aahing internally at the others walking by; they were all beautiful beyond compare, and I wondered if the archway had been the entrance to a faery realm. A willowy blonde joined Mairie and I on silent feet, gliding into our sphere of conversation with ease.
"You are newcomers to our beautiful country, I can tell." Her smile had been warm and I'd felt surprised to have been put so at ease by a stranger.
"We are that, lady. Alistair Mackenzie at your service, and this is my sister, Mairie Mackenzie." I bowed slightly, as yet unsure of the more tactile Italian greeting I'd been subject to just earlier.
"I'm so happy to meet both of you." She dipped in a little curtsy to us and giggled. "I'm not a native here but have been here so long it feels like home. But I can't tell you how refreshing it is to meet someone else for whom English is a mother tongue. I'm Heidi, and would be honoured to show you the castle." Her smile was like the sun.
I'd not been tongue-tied like this since I was twelve and the village floozy had offered to show me her honeypot, only this time I managed not to mumble redfaced excuses and run in the opposite direction. Mairie was bouncing on the balls of her feet in excitement so I simply shrugged and smiled, happy to do whatever made her happy. And doing it in the company of the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen, and who seemed equally excited to meet us, would be no hardship.
Heidi clapped her hands and fell in step beside us, slipping her arm through Mairie's and chirping in Italian to the guards at two enormous, carved wooden doors who bowed respectfully and pulled them open for us.
She mentioned that we may meet the three kings, brothers she said, if they were currently in residence. Mairie and I were no strangers to life at court, it was something fairly normal to us. This didn't speak so much of our importance, although as heir to Chieftain of the Clan Mackenzie I understood that my future was important even if I wasn't, but of the boredom of royalty.
It was my belief that sovereigns paid more attention to the gossiping and petty squabbles than they would have us think, for how better to be entertained than at the expense of those around and beneath them. Court life at Castle Leod was less formal, or at least less opulent, but there wasn't a man, woman or child in the clan who did not know to bend their knee at sight of their Chief. My uncle had no sons nor daughters, so his duty would pass to me when he saw fit, which likely would mean only when he saw fit to die, tight-fisted bastard that he was.
I mentally checked that my appearance was in keeping with meeting such distinguished hosts, plaid fastened, sporran clean, hair…well that was a mite unkempt I thought.
"Scruffy beggar." Mairie apparently agreed with me and I felt her nimble fingers dragging it into a formal queue as we walked and fastening a piece of her ribbon around it, one of many things that have always left me highly sceptical of the mental state of men who claim to not need a woman. We are untidy creatures and quite frankly do a horrible job of looking after anything less immediate than sword and steed, ourselves included.
As we entered a huge, ornate chamber, my eyes were drawn upward to the high, domed ceiling. It wasn't bedecked with winged cherubs but with gargoyles and penitents and I felt an urge to kneel. Such a thing would not befit a future chieftain but it drew some effort to withstand. The three figures on thrones were engaged in idle conversation with their female companions so low in volume that I could hear nothing yet this silent discourse came to a conspicuous end as they, as one, turned their heads to look at us.
My mind assessed all three kings in less than a second; the jovial, dark haired lord wielded the power, the fair, miserly looking one wanted it, and the serenely happy figure with long, brown locks to match his tall body could have it any time he chose but had no desire for it. The queens would have a hierarchy among themselves, but I felt ill equipped to make its estimate in the same way; as my mother had told me often, if you do not know a woman's mind, don't earn her enmity with assumptions.
One of the queens, hair like coal and skin like milk, seemed to be the focus of the brown haired king's happy gaze. Another, not yet twenty with skin like chestnuts and a neck like the stem of an arum lily was the polar opposite of her husband. Her close cropped black curls offered a unique balance to his long, white mane. I'd met many races at the docks of our coastal cities, some passengers, some slaves, others traders or deckhands; if she wasn't Ethiopian royalty I was a haddock. The king who grinned the widest was paired with the queen who smiled the least. She was almost ordinary in her brunette colouring next to the other two but her high cheekbones told me that her ancestors were of pure Magyar blood and her tilted cat's eyes were sharp and intelligent.
"My lords, my ladies." I bowed deeply and felt Mairie dip beside me. "Alistair MacKenzie of the Clan MacKenzie and my sister Mairie. We're honoured by your hospitality. I hope we do not intrude."
"Nothing could be further from the truth." The raven haired beauty at the side of the tall king seemed genuinely pleased by the appearance of guests. "We'd heard that two of Father Andrew's relatives were visiting our city but had not dreamed we would be so lucky as to meet them. You are both welcome here and it is our privilege as your hosts to offer you anything you should need. This city would not exist as it does today were it not for your great uncle's endeavour in building the church."
The jovial king and his serious, brown haired queen nodded vigorously in agreement and her hand dropped from his arm as he stepped forward. The other two were paying less attention now as the fair haired king appeared to have a headache; it must have been painful because his eyes were pressed shut behind his clenched fist and his wife was holding him quite firmly.
"I am Aro Volturi," said the dark haired king, greeting both of us in the tactile, Italian way of kissing cheeks and clasping shoulders, pulling away with a delighted smile. "And as my sister says you are most welcome. I do have some matters of state to attend to with my brother, Caius, but Marcus and the lovely Didyme I'm sure would be glad of a chance to show you our library. I seem to remember that the many documents created by your great uncle were stored with us some years ago when the church roof was being repaired and never found their way back again. I imagine my wife Sulpicia and Caius' wife Athenodora would be equally eager to show off their efforts in the palace gardens to your sister, if she has interest in such things. Ah! I see by her smile that she would indeed."
I turned to look at my sister and was bathed in the radiance of her smile. I couldn't stop my own grin and squeezed her fingers gently; no brother could help but be proud that his sister not only comported herself perfectly in such a situation but was deemed company for queens. As always, anything that might make her life richer or happier in any way was something I could not deny her.
"We accept your kind invitations. I have very few keepsakes of my great uncle and to browse some of his writings would be a pleasure indeed."
I had time to notice that Marcus' expression changed dramatically when I held Mairie's hand. He was looking between us with a kind of wonder, eyes moving from me to Mairie and back again. I wondered what he could see. But before I could ask I felt the large doors open behind us again and felt the draught as the Tuscan wind blew into the chamber. Marcus' face fell in shock. He held up a hand as if to stop someone; I didn't see who until I turned to Mairie to find the light haired king no longer on his throne but beside us, beside her, kissing her neck while a large group of courtiers and guards filed through the doors behind us.
"Caius, no!" I assumed Marcus was simply as shocked as I was at this hideous impropriety. I took a step forward in anger, I may be but a Laird-to-be but king or not, no man treated my sister like a common trollop. The king's arm felt strange under my hand but I thought little of it until after I had removed him from my sister.
"Caius, what have you done?" I had never heard a king whisper.
All my thoughts stopped as the pale king turned to face me, his expression jubilant and a trickle of my sister's blood at the corner of his mouth. Mairie's form slid down his body to crumple on the floor and my world ended. I could have touched her to find a heartbeat, taken her into my arms to see if her chest still rose and fell. If it hadn't been for her eyes I would have done both of those things. They were wide open and the colour was obliterated by the large black pupils, full and unmoving.
There'd be moments of our childhood together that I'd remember later, happier ones, but right then every part of me cried out for the little girl who'd wept bitterly when she had to kill a rabbit for supper for the first time, again when our baby brother was born dead, every time our father had to shoot one of the horses as they grew old. I'd held her every time and every one of her tears had cut at my heart like a blade. I wished that I had counted them.
It felt like something infinitely personal had been torn out of me. My body stood motionless for eight seconds in the throne room of an Italian palace; my soul spent a thousand years in hell without her.
~I give you strength~
Why did I hear the words of the old woman again? And how did I now understand them? I looked down and saw my fists clench and the tendons in my wrists snap taut.
I felt like I was boiling. That was the only way I could process the feeling of my muscles churning beneath my skin. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and my lips peel away from my teeth in a snarl. Did they do something to me, too? Was I dying?
I didn't see red. They always say you see red in anger. I didn't. It was a white thing, this rage, and I gave myself to it.
~I give you strength. Protect her.~
I wish I had understood the old gypsy's words sooner. Perhaps things would have turned out differently. The last thing I heard was the screeching of metal before I was lost in the snowstorm of someone else's mind.