Disclaimer: Stephanie Meyer & Little Brown Publishing own all rights
The inferno inside me raged on, so furious and devastating that I wondered if it would ever stop. I didn’t think a lack of fuel would bring an end the relentless burning pain. I concentrated on the black abyss in my mind, and dredged up another memory. At least that way I could escape the agonizing hell I was enduring.
The days that followed the beating, I drifted in and out of consciousness. Every time reality forced its way through my protective black oblivion, I saw the same face. A woman’s face, aged and worn, yet still soft and kind. One whose eyes were concerned, and whose voice spoke in soft whispers. My waking moments were always accompanied by pain as I was turned in my bed or as the bandages I vaguely sensed enshrouding me were changed. Those kind, small brown eyes would look down into mine with guarded compassion. Her presence also meant that I must not be at home, for there was no chance father would allow me to be coddled in such a way. I continued to take refuge in the self-imposed darkness of my mind to mask the throbbing and aching sensations gripping my body. The blackness never failed to comfort me.
I’m not sure how many days had passed before I finally opened my eyes and was cognizant enough to wonder where I was. I saw the sympathetic face watching me with worried concern, the crow’s feet around her small brown eyes crinkled as she observed me carefully. Her thin lips, set between softly weathered cheeks, were smiling gently at me.
“Alec, I am Sister Isabella,” she began. “You are in the infirmary at the abbey.”
I nodded my head as well as I could. “How long have I been here?” My voice, weak and gritty with disuse, was hardly more than a whisper. The Sister offered me a cup of water which I promptly brought to my lips. My hands were a ghastly site, heavily bandaged and lacerated where the bandages didn’t cover my skin. My arms had taken the brunt of his lashings. I turned my eyes away to inspect my surroundings. I was in a large room; the stone floor and walls kept it cool and damp. A handful of empty beds lined the wall on my left. The wall opposite had three large and imposing Gothic leaded glass and wrought iron windows which the sunlight filtered through in bright rays.
“Three days,” she answered as I drank.
“Where is Jane?” I asked when I’d finished; I was terrified of what could have happened to her after I escaped into my own darkness. Father would not have hesitated to make both of us suffer.
“She is also here,” she answered.
“Why is she not at home, with Father?” I probed. Sister Isabella’s expression shifted infinitesimally, a strange sympathy filling her eyes.
“Alec,” she replied. “There was… an accident. At the river…” She hesitated as she finished, her eyes darting around the room as if to make sure she wasn’t overheard.
“Is Jane alright?” I asked, my brow automatically puckering with worry despite my painfully swollen left eye.
“She’s fine, just fine,” the Sister soothed. “But your father – ” She started but stopped; it was as if she struggled to find the right words. Suddenly every nerve in my body was taut. Her demeanor sparked my intuition; my father was not well, something was amiss. Was this what it feels like to stand on the precipice of a future you’ve prayed for? This fullness in my chest…is this the feeling of hope that the chains of your bondage might finally fall away?
“What of my father, Sister?” I pressed eagerly.
“He fell in the water, hitting his head.” Her tone was full of concerned condolence. “He’s with our Lord, in Heaven,” she finished and crossed herself with her calloused hand. I personally hoped St. Peter wouldn’t allow him entrance.
A great whoosh of air escaped my lungs, and for the first time in my life, I completely exhaled. I was free of my father. Cesca would be free from my father, and Jane would as well. Had I not been confined to a bed and under the watchful eyes of the Sister, I could have danced with pure joy. It was almost too surreal and wonderful to be true, the fruition of a nightly prayer I’d offered earnestly and humbly to God. I couldn’t help the slow smile that began to spread across my face. Who wouldn’t smile when they were told they had finally been given their liberty?
When I looked at Sister Isabella, she was watching me closely, her lips drawn into a thin line as she tried to understand why a son would smile upon learning of his father’s death.
“May I see Jane?” I asked, as I calmed my expression and tried to shift her focus to something else.
She shook her head no before answering. “I feel it would be better to wait until you are a little stronger, Alec. I assure you, Jane is fine. Rest and get well. That’s all you need worry about,” she said as she rose from the chair beside the bed. With a slight nod, she turned and left. I drifted easily off to sleep after that. My body was eager to experience the bliss of peaceful rest, without the ever-present awareness that even sleep had never been able to extinguish. Father had woken me from a dead sleep before with slurred vulgar words and the back of his hand, but now I could rest without fear, without nightmares and without dreading each day of my future. The cathedral bells chimed out a sad hymn that reminded me of Cesca’s humming and before long I was dreaming of her, sitting in the sunshine and smiling.
With the knowledge that I no longer had anything to fear from my father, I reveled in a new sense of freedom. Even though I was restricted to the confines of the abbey infirmary, I felt full of hope and happiness, more than I’d imagined was possible. The future I wanted was so very close, and it meant Cesca wouldn’t have to make sacrifices, nor would Jane. Lost in my daydreams, time seemed to pass swiftly. Drifting in and out of sleep, my body healed, the broken ribs mended and the myriad stripes of sickening black faded to yellow and began to disappear.
Often when I woke, Sister Isabella would be in the chair near the foot of the bed, praying or quoting Scripture. Her worn rosary beads wrapped around one hand and the glow of candlelight flickered over her weather-worn face. I knew all the passages by heart. A few Christmases before, Cesca had given me a Bible which I kept hidden in the barn, and I’d sneak off whenever I could to read through the ancient text. Yet, I gave Sister no indication I knew the verse. Instead I stayed quiet and let her soft, calming voice lull me back to sleep.
A certain familiarity grew between us and I wondered if it was the same feeling a mother’s attention would inspire. Somehow I doubted it, because while Sister Isabella was kind and attentive, she wasn’t exactly maternal. She was a dutiful and pious nun in a time when piety could mean life or death. I never blamed her for what happened. I understood it was her duty and she was a pawn of the dark times that surrounded us. Unfortunately for Sister Isabella, Jane wasn’t as forgiving.
One late afternoon she brought two men with her to my bedside. I was unable to see their faces; their heads were shrouded by the thick hoods of their dark cloaks. I looked questioningly at Sister Isabella as she introduced them to me.
“Signore Aro, Signore Eleazar, this is Jane’s brother, Alec,” she said briefly.
“How do you do, Signores?” I offered weakly. Sister Isabella stepped back, out of Signore Aro’s way, as he drew back his hood and came forward to my bedside. Signore Aro’s white claw of a hand was outstretched, reaching for mine. His appearance was unnatural, his skin had a papery translucence I’d never seen before, not even in the oldest person I knew. It wasn’t until he was directly beside me however and I noticed his blood red eyes that true terror gripped me. I laid there, frozen and speechless, as he took my hand up in his icy cold grip, while the well known stories of the red-eyed Stregoni ran unchecked though my imagination.
“Do not be frightened, my child,” he cooed. “I only want to offer my condolences to you and your sweet sister, Jane,” he explained. His voice wasn’t what I would have expected, considering his frightful appearance.
“Thank you, Signore,” I replied, on my guard and wishing he’d release my hand. Instinct told me to be cautious as fear rippled through me. I imagined it was a similar sensation to the fear that prey feel in the moment they lock eyes with their predator. At least prey usually had the chance to attempt to run, to flee and possibly escape with its life. Not I. I was trapped in that bed. Trapped in his grip.
“It distressed me so to hear of your plight,” he said with pity, before his tone suddenly brightened. “I’d like to help you and dear Jane, my young friend.” I detected a slight trace of genuine interest in our well-being, but I was wary. His pity a moment before had seemed forced; it had certainly dissipated quickly. He wanted something, although I couldn’t imagine what. I had no idea who the rightful owner of our father’s estate was, but even so the assets of the estate were laughable at best. Father drank his money away.
“That’s very generous of you, Signore, but I assure you, we’ll be taken care of,” I lied. I hadn’t the foggiest notion how, but I certainly didn’t want to be indebted to him.
“Alec, I’m not sure you realize the severity of your situa-”
“We’ll make do, Signore,” I interrupted. I had no intention of accepting his help, his red eyes told me that to do so, I would spend my life in abysmal servitude. Having just been granted my freedom, I was, needless to say, reluctant. I pulled my hand out of his grasp and slid it under the blankets.
He chuckled in soft encouragement. “Of course you will, young friend, of course you will. I have every faith in you.” His gaze shot through me and while he smiled I sensed a double meaning in his words.
“I’ll take my leave. You need plenty of rest to recover,” he said and turned to leave, the silent Signore Eleazar in tow. He stopped in the doorway and faced me once more. “Should you ever be in need of my assistance, you have but to ask.” I nodded stiffly, certain that even if I faced my own death, I’d never request his help.
That night, I didn’t sleep. Despite my weary body, my troubled mind would not rest. Signore Aro’s visit had set my mind to considering the very real facts that awaited Jane and I outside the abbey walls. Realities such as where would we live, how we would survive. I hadn’t any idea of the financial condition my father’s property was in. He might have owed taxes or debts in the village, and I hadn’t the foggiest idea about the viability of the Smithy. Ironic that my future was finally mine, but I wasn’t sure if I had the means to reach out and grasp it. It was possible I had nothing to offer Cesca, no guarantee that I could afford to provide for her, and that her family might not see the match as advantageous for her. There was a very real chance that her father might refuse me when I asked for her hand.
My heart heavy, I sighed, understanding my future with Cesca might be pushed further away again. The moonlight filtered through the Gothic leaded glass windows intermittently; misty grey clouds blotted out its silver luminosity before floating away to hide the stars from view. I closed my eyes, determined to sleep and filled my mind with memories of past meetings with Cesca at our tree. The evening dew of twilight falling over the woods around us as we whispered to each other by starlight. My lips brushing against her soft cheek. Those memories brought forth my favorite tune, the one she used to hum. A small smile graced my lips with the thought, and I too hummed the melody. Our duet was what finally allowed me to fall into slumber. I could always count on her to lead me back to my dreams.
Early into the morning hours after I’d finally won the battle over insomnia, I was awoken by the crackling of nearby thunder. The windows shook from the thunder’s vibration and torrential sheets of rain bombarded the thick paned glass. Between the angry booms, I heard voices down the hallway behind my bed. Two voices, speaking in low, hurried tones. Their tones sounded frantic and at first I thought perhaps the churchyard was flooding or something equally disastrous. I strained to listen to their hushed words over the fury of the storm.
“I caught her about to drown a kitten…she was about to throw it into the well,” a familiar voice said.
The other person gasped in disbelief. “That’s the mark of the devil, that is. What person would murder a kitten?”
An angry cackle of thunder ripped through the air and I couldn’t hear for a moment. I carefully leaned around the side of my headboard, and waited for the lightning that would soon follow.
“The witness said she did it?” the same disbelieving voice asked in utter horror. “What’s to become of her?”
I heard a heavy sigh. A flash of harsh lightning exploded, illuminating the hallway behind me from whence the voices came. It was Sister Isabella that answered.
“She’s to be tried for murder, and Mother Superior is considering adding witch-” the thunder interrupted the good Sister and I didn’t need to hear the rest.
Scooting back down into the bed, I wondered what poor soul could be facing such a fate. Surely anyone guilty of murder deserved the harshest penalty. Yet, growing up as I did, I knew sometimes people were driven to commit a crime in order to survive. Sometimes, dire necessity dictated extreme action.
In the care of the good sisters, I continued to heal over the days that followed. Through their constant and unwavering attention, my body was nourished back to health. Through their prayers, my soul was given over to God once again. I let them save my soul, for I believed that God had delivered me from bondage. He had, at last, answered the earnest nightly prayer I’d offered to Heaven before crawling into the cold bed that had never been a place of respite. Now, I could sleep easy; I didn’t have to be afraid anymore.
Sister Isabella would come and sit with me as often as her duties allowed. I confess it wasn’t as often as I would have liked, but I was well aware that the demands on her time never ceased. When she could catch a few moments between chores and mass to sit with me she’d tell me the news and gossip of the village, at least everything that was proper for her to repeat. I’d ask about Jane and hint about seeing her soon. That’s when Sister Isabella would extract her Bible from the fold of her habit and start reading verses.
Recently those demands had increased and I had begun to overhear more whispers about the murder in the village. However, I wondered who the unfortunate victim could be. Volterra was a quiet village in which everyone knew each other. I didn’t give it too much thought. I was too preoccupied with wondering why Cesca hadn’t made any effort to contact me. Of course, I knew it would be difficult for her; sneaking away to meet at our tree was a much easier feat than sneaking into the abbey to visit me.
Yet, I felt certain that my father’s death must be well known throughout the village; news traveled quickly in Volterra. She must know what had happened, she must be wondering what’s become of me. I imagined my whereabouts were just as commonly known as my father’s passing.
I was tempted to write her a letter. I considered asking Sister Isabella for some parchment and a quill and inkpot. I grew excited by the prospect, until I realized I had no way to deliver my note. I couldn’t address it to her – that would be too bold. Perhaps Jane would deliver it for me; if I could see Jane, perhaps I could convince her. I quickly decided that not only would I ask Sister Isabella for writing accouterments, but I’d also ask if I could see Jane that afternoon. After all, I hadn’t seen her once since we’d come to the abbey. It was only right we be allowed to visit. I was sure she was as worried about me as I was about her.
When the Sister brought me my noon meal, I took my opportunity. She placed the wooden tray across my lap and sat in her usual place. I debated how to ask her for what I wanted; she would want to know to the intended recipient. I shut my eyes and bent my head as she said the routine blessing for my meal.
Amen. “Thank you, Sister,” I said when she’d finished.
She only nodded shortly and moved to the chair. She sat there stiffly and obviously awkward. Not her usual manner at all. She fidgeted, unsure of what to do with her hands. I wondered why she simply didn’t take out her rosary like I’d seen her do many times and let her faith heal her worry. With a wrinkled brow, I broke apart the bread and dipped it in the hot broth , waiting for her to speak. When she didn’t, I decided to inquire about writing implements.
“I’d like to write a letter,” I stated as I brought the roll to my mouth and took a healthy bite. Her head cocked to one side.
“To whom?” she, of course, asked.
I chewed the mouthful of bread before answering her casually. “A friend. I’d like some of my clothes from the cottage.” I shrugged.
Her lips pursed in disapproval, but curiosity flickered in her eyes. “All right,” she relented easily, her curiosity winning out over propriety. “After your soup,” she promised.
Expecting me to hide the grin that stretched across my face was impossible. I dug into my watery soup with new vigor and began composing my note in my mind. I’d tell her I missed her terribly, and how I longed to hear her hum her quiet tune and feel her little hand inside of mine. I made quick work of my food. The Sister took my tray and before long returned with parchment, a quill and an ink pot. As she was about to leave, Sister Marguerite came running to her in a frazzled state.
“Sister Isabella, come quickly! There’s a fire in the courtyard!” Then she bent toward Isabella’s ear and began whispering. Sister Isabella’s face swiftly turned to righteous anger, mixed with an expression I didn’t understand, given that fire was usually considered a dangerous thing. Without a word, she turned on her heel and stormed away, Sister Marguerite jogging after her to keep pace.
Perplexed and wondering if I should get out of bed and dress myself, I looked down at the smooth blank parchment before me. While the fire was important, it didn’t seem as though I was in any immediate danger and my letter was the most pressing matter, at least in my eyes. I had to get a message to Cesca. I snatched up my quill and laid the parchment on the tray setting the soup bowl to the side, and began writing in my thick scrawl.
It feels as though it’s been years since we last saw each other and I miss you terribly. I’m sure you know my father is dead. His death changes everything. I hope you can find an excuse to get away and come visit me at the abbey. Perhaps the future we’ve dreamed of can begin sooner than we expected, my love. Please come, I need to hear your sweet voice, your soothing hum.
Your Devoted Alec
I blew on the paper to help the ink dry faster, before hastily folding the note and put on the bed beside me. I heard shouting from the courtyard and thought that perhaps if I stood upon the chair, I’d be able to see out of the high windows. My curiosity got the better of me and I went about it quickly. Standing on the rickety wooden chair and leaning against the damp stone wall, my head was just high enough to peer through the thick uneven panes of medieval glass. It was difficult to make out anything more than blurred indistinct objects through the window, but the nuns were easy to distinguish in their black habits, floating about the bright courtyard like the shadows of dark dreams. All the way across the courtyard, I could make out the glowing bright flames of the fire, but it seemed like a rather insignificant little campfire. Why was there so much screeching going on?
The angry clicking of shoes on the stone floor told me that indeed something very bad must have happened, for there was fury in the sound of these steps. I hopped down to the floor as fast as my injuries would allow and pulled the chair away from the window, returning it to its post. Both Sister Isabella and Sister Marguerite came into view, Isabella’s face splotchy red and huffing like a bull, Marguerite’s eyes flitting nervously from mine to Isabella’s.
She spied the folded note lying on the bed and snatched it up. Unfolding it with rough hand, she quickly read its contents and shot me an accusing glance.
“You wrote this to Cesca? Cesca Moretti?” she questioned.
“There’s no mention of bringing you clothes.” Silence filled the space between us, and I felt as though she was waiting for an explanation. I had none to offer. She sighed heavily. “I abhor deceit, Alec,” she warned and my guilty gaze dropped to the floor.
“This cannot be delivered to her,” she continued and promptly tore up my note. I stared at her, growing angrier by the second. I knew writing to Cesca was considered improper, but I was becoming desperate to see her.
“Sister, as you gathered from the meaning in the note, I have important matters to discuss with her. I assure you, my intentions are honorable and we’ve committed no indiscretions. If I may simply speak with -”
“It’s not possible, Alec. She cannot be brought here,” she said. Impatiently, she handed the pieces of my note off to Sister Marguerite, presumable for disposal and waved her hand as if the matter of vital importance we were discussing was merely a trifling thing.
“I must insist that I be allowed to communicate with her.” She was the point of light in which my life orbited, I had to see her. It was imperative that I see her blue eyes and hear her hum her little tune.
“She died of scarlet fever the day after you came here,” Isabella blurted. The force of her blunt explanation knocked the wind out of me. My ears hurt as if they fought against hearing her words and attempted to push them away. It didn’t make any sense. I had seen Cesca the evening before her supposed passing and she was fine. Such an illness would last for days. She’s lying.
“I don’t believe you,” I whispered.
“Her funeral was at the cathedral, surely you heard the bells.”
The bells. The song that played and sounded so much like hers, but not quite. Not quite.
I sank into the blackness, mentally screaming at God to show some mercy and take me now. I tried not to think of Cesca. I wouldn’t, couldn’t allow myself to see her face behind my closed eyes, as I had every other time I took refuge from reality. I craved that comfort I had unknowingly become addicted to. Forcing myself not to fall into my habit of seeking comfort in the image of her flowing brown hair and blue eyes shining at me. She had been my reason for living. Now she was the reason I was praying for death.
I would never have guessed that not even Death would have mercy on me.