NOTE: Chapter 5 has been split into two chapters because I didn't think it was working well as just one. Any up-to-date readers will have read most of this already, but there is an additional section towards the end.
A Mother's Love
"Good!" cried Altair, before attacking again. Leilah jumped back, but this time Altair was prepared for it and took an extra step forward himself, jabbing her quickly in the stomach. As she doubled over, an idea struck her and she quickly dropped to the ground and rolled away, before scrambling to her feet, clutching at her stomach. His right side was now open, so she aimed fast and hard, elated at what she had done. The assassin, however, turned quickly and blocked, but only just. Leilah tensed herself and waited for her tutor's next move. He pushed her blade away with his own, and then kicked out, trying to knock her over. With a flurry of movement, Leilah moved out of the way of the attack again, and then aimed a punch to her teacher's stomach.
Altair saw the attack from a mile away; she had, after all, been dodging around him several times now. A lesson on variation was most certainly in order. However, she was getting the hang of thinking on her feet, so he let her have her moment. The punch itself was stronger than he had been expecting, but still not enough to actually wind him. He gave a grunt of surprise anyway, for her sake, and then doubled over, before blocking her next attack.
"Excellent," he said, before disarming her with little effort and tossing the weapon away. "But one small victory does not win the battle. Always bear that in mind if you hope to survive."
Altair could see a small fire burning in her eyes; he had made the right choice. She had gained some hope, but by not letting her win had sealed the illusion of her hit. "When we've completed your dagger training, we will discuss disarms. I personally do not favour them myself; I prefer to give the enemy a fighting chance before I cut them down, but I will be bringing another in to teach you."
"Another?" Leilah was confused. "Why, master?"
"Al Mualim is preparing an assassination and wants me to be the one to do the deed. I have chosen Malik to be my replacement while I am away. He is a cautious assassin, but a brilliant tactician, even at his age. Disarms and counter attacks are his specialties."
"Malik?" Leilah gawked while Altair chuckled at her horror. She blinked, and then continued, "but surely our...past history will make teaching difficult?"
"Malik is wise beyond his years, Leilah, and teaching is one of his true talents. He is patient and thorough, if a little lenient with his punishments. Babysitting maids, however, is not something he enjoys, and thus has little love for any of you. Prove you are worthy to be his student, and all ill feelings between you will clear away."
"Good. Because you have no choice in the matter." Altair took the training dagger off her and beckoned for Leilah to follow him up to the castle. "I feel we are done for the day, and so can now give you some good news."
"Oh?" Leilah scurried after him, struggling to keep up with his long strides. She looked up at him, curious.
"Al Mualim has given you permission to reside in the castle. Your things will be moved into your new home by tomorrow morning, before your lesson."
Leilah stared. She had been given approval, and so soon? There had to be a catch...or a reason. But she could not think of any. They walked in silence, Leilah struck dumb by the piece of news. Altair did not comment on it. He knew he the emotions she must be feeling right now; to be ripped away from familiarity was a painful action indeed.
Altair stopped at a door not far from the entrance, and touched it lightly. "This is it. Take a look."
Shaking slightly, Leilah brushed her fingers against it, feeling the texture of the wood at her skin. The door to her house was old and rickety; rotting slats held together with old, fraying rope. This was strong and thick, and flaunted a level of wealth that Leilah knew she would never achieve. She didn't like it. It was alien to her and made her feel uncomfortable. Taking a deep, Leilah grasped the handle and entered her room.
The door had not lied. Everything about her new room gave a sense of comfort and luxury. There were no gaping cracks in the walls, the rugs were not frayed, the cushions vibrant and plump. It was bigger than the entire of her house, and she even had a window to the outside world, the decorative frame letting in fresh air and rays of inviting natural light. There were stone shelves for possessions, and a desk for writing. In the corner, a beautiful wooden bookshelf stood empty, waiting to be filled. A small table nearest to her bed held a collection of candles, unused. Leilah hesitated at the doorway for a moment, and then went inside to inspect everything.
Altair followed her in and then wrinkled his nose. He had forgotten what the initiate rooms were like. Small and cramped, with the meanest amount of furniture, and second hand rugs and cushions, Altair had been grateful when he had been moved to his current room. Those that became full assassins were treated to rooms twice the size of this one, with quality furniture and decor. Altair glanced to Leilah to give her a look of understanding over the unfavourable living conditions she had been saddled with, and then stared in surprise. Her features reflected a look of pure wonder, as if she had just walked into a palace.
"Do...do you like it?" he ventured.
"It's beautiful, Altair," she whispered, her awe making her forget to address him properly. Altair rocked on his heels. It wasn't the norm for him to do this, but...
"Come, let us go to your home. We need to collect your things."
Her stomach dropped. He would see! He would see her house and how she lived, and he would look down on her for how poor she was. "No, Altair. I am fine, really. I-"
"Master," Altair corrected, although he was starting to realise he didn't care. "And there are to be no arguments. Lead the way."
Flushing deeply, she obeyed.
"Mother?" Leilah knocked carefully on the door. "Mother, are you there?"
Silence. She raised a hand to knock again, not wanting to just bringing Altair in with no warning, when the door was suddenly wrenched open.
"Allah forbid you open the door yourself, girl!" Nahlah snapped, before noticing Altair stood behind her daughter. She blushed, and then gave Leilah a look of death for not warning her of guests in advance. "Welcome to our home, assassin. There is not much room, but please come in and make yourself comfortable."
Leilah and Altair entered the tiny house, while Nahlah straightened her dress, looking flustered. She clutched at the pendant at her neck, and then forced a perfect hostess smile.
"Mother, this is Altair ibn La-Ahad, my tutor. Master, this is my mother, Nahlah Seif."
Altair gave a slight, respectful bow. "Al Mualim has given your daughter permission to reside in the castle. She will be living there from dawn."
"Altair offered to help me carry my things," Leilah added, not daring to catch her mother's eye. Both of them knew she owned very little.
"I see..." Nahlah's voice was blatantly laced with sorrow at the news. But she was a proud woman, and would most certainly not make a scene in front of a guest. "But you must stay for dinner before you go! Both of you!"
"While I thank you, that will not be nece-" Altair began, but Nahlah waved her hand to signal silence. To his utter amazement, he obeyed her. There was something about the woman that demanded obedience, which was probably a required trait to raise someone like Leilah single-handedly.
"Nonsense! You are our guest! Sit. Sit! I have a pot full of food and you shall not leave until you have been fed and watered!" She hurried outside without another word. Altair blinked while Leilah giggled.
"It's not so bad, is it?" she asked her tutor, seating herself. "Come, sit with me. Perhaps you will enjoy the company."
Accepting he had little choice in the matter, Altair sat.
The evening flew by. At first, the chatter between Leilah and Nahlah was guarded, clearly for Altair's benefit. But when he simply smiled at their worried glances towards him, the conversation became more natural. The assassin simply listened, the scenario as unusual to him as the room had been for Leilah. He had never known his mother, and his father, almost as little. A servant had been in charge of raising him, but he had been so young, that he barely remembered her, either.
After a time, he had been brought to the brotherhood, and his life had become one of training, and later murder. No time for family gatherings...or, indeed, no family to gather with. So Altair sat with Leilah and her mother, a strange emotion stirring within him as he ate wonderful, homemade food, and silently observed the love between a mother and a daughter. He also occasionally glanced about Leilah's home, finally understanding her reaction back at the castle. The place was a shack, and he felt somewhat embarrassed for forcing Leilah to bring him here when it was clear she did not want to.
Occasionally, a polite question was directed his way, and he would try his best to answer it in a friendly manner. The two women would listen with patient smiles, and then return to their own talk. Finally, the night came to an end, both Altair and Leilah stood up. He found that he was actually hesitant to leave.
"I won't be a moment," Leilah said, and fell into a corner of the room, scooping up the few items that lay there. "Okay...I'm ready to go."
That is all she owns? Altair thought to himself. He took the possessions off her. "I will go ahead. Say your goodbyes to your mother." He turned to Nahlah. "Thank you for the meal, Madam Seif. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening...and the company."
"You are welcome anytime, Master Altair," Nahlah replied, clearly pleased by his praise. He gave a short bow, and then left.
Nahlah raised an eyebrow to her daughter. "If you play your cards right..."
"Mother, please," Leilah protested, her cheeks blazing red. Nahlah grinned, and then moved to the centre of the room, lifting back the rug. She pressed on one of the stone slabs until its edge was raised, and then pushed her fingers underneath it, moving it away so that a hole in the floor was revealed. Leilah had never seen this before, and watched with interest as her mother removed a small box. She opened it, and then looked at her daughter.
"There are many secrets in here, child. Things I will reveal to you when I feel the time is right. Most importantly, a letter." Nahlah picked up a scroll, showed it briefly, and then put it back in the box. "I cannot read it, and do not want to, but should anything ever happen to me, remember this place. Remember this box. Remember this letter. Take it to the Wise Woman, and she will translate it for you."
Nahlah held up a hand, and Leilah fell silent. She watched with interest as her mother removed a beautiful piece of jewellery from the box, before shutting it and replacing it in its hole. When the slab was returned to its spot and the rug flat once more, Nahlah stood up and pressed the necklace into Leilah's hand. "It is your mother's...your real mother's, that is."
Leilah nodded. It had never been kept a secret from her that she was not Nahlah's natural child. She turned the piece over in her hands, intrigued. It was a cross pendant, one line longer than the other, and...
"Mother," she whispered. "This is gold!"
Nahlah nodded. "I wanted you to have it when you were old enough. Any younger and you could have had such a precious thing lost or stolen from you."
"But you could have sold it! Lived well for a year or more!"
"Yes, I could have."
Leilah's lip trembled. Then, for the first time since she was young, threw herself into her mother's embrace, crying.
Altair stared up at the ceiling, unable to sleep. For hours now he had been lying on his bed, desperately straining his mind, trying to provoke a memory to surface. The evening with Leilah and Nahlah had reopened an old wound that he had all but forgotten about. Now it was the only thought in his head, whirling endlessly, tormenting him. Rolling onto his side, Altair closed his eyes and tried to relax. His mother, he realised, wasn't important to him. She had died in childbirth. He didn't know what she looked like, or whether she had been a kind and gentle woman. Altair's father never spoke of her and had silenced his son's questions with a glare. It occurred to Altair now that perhaps his father resented him somewhat for the death of his mother. The assassin shifted to his other side, unable to get comfortable.
When Altair next opened his eyes, the world felt different. Larger. He looked down at himself to see that his uniform was gone, replaced with a simple green tunic that went down to his knees. The room, too, was different. Smaller, but brighter, the sun streaming through the window and lighting up all the carved wooden furniture.
"Altair?" a voiced called to him. It was as sweet as honey and filled him with warmth and comfort. He sat up and slid down off his bed, his small, sandaled feet making a slight slap as they hit the stone floor.
"Coming, Aziz!" he cried, his voice high with excitement. Before he could run to voice, though, an exotic woman, with skin so dark it seemed black, swept into the room, her robes trailing behind her. She knelt down and scooped him into her arms, holding him close and nuzzling him.
"Fanyana," she cooed, rocking him slightly. "My Fanyana."
Altair snuggled into her embrace, not understanding the words she used for him, and not caring. In the distance, he could hear shouting; screams and the smashing of wood pottery. It didn't matter, so long as Aziz was here to protect him. The heat was rising now, being to prickle along his skin, trying to make him uncomfortable. But there was Aziz. Aziz would keep him safe-
A bang at his door jolted him awake, and he tumbled from his bed, still clinging to the pillow wedged between his arms. He looked at it for a moment, pulled a face of bewilderment, and then tossed it aside before pulling himself up. Altair then strode over to the door and wrenched it open, causing the young assassin recruit to jump and cower in surprise.
"Altair," the messenger said with some force, clearly trying to counter his initial reaction, "Al Mualim wishes to see you. He desires for you to claim a life."
A/N: Apologies for the hiatus. Uni work and all that, as well as my mum being extremely ill over Christmas. It's all good now, though, and once uni finishes on the 8th, will have more time for writing. Yay!
fanyana - little boy