AN: This is something I've wanted to write for a while. The idea actually struck me midway through working on Battle Of Eagles (leaving me to refer to it as boe2 when it is emphatically not a continuation of that story.) This is preAC1, and since BOE takes place more or less towards the end of the game, I figure that writing these two massive things covers just about all the game territory I want to cover. I suppose I could still write postAC1, but then I'd have to figure out what to do with Maria.
Point being, this is probably the last huge fic I'll write for AC1. Probably. So I'm gonna go all out, make it long and dramatic and indulge all my silly little fantard fantasies. Oh, if only they'd make another AC game with Altair...
The usual warnings: violence, language, occasional fanservice. Some religious themes. Also, where BOE was relatively subtle in regards to its paring, this fic will not bother to hide its slashy tendencies. I have grown bored with subtlety. There is a (very) strong chance of an R-rated scene or two, later on. I'm not sure what I'm doing with that ratingwise, as I really don't want to have to bump the whole fic to an M rating when only a couple of chapters involve sex. We'll see. Either way, I'll post an author's-note-warning before the fun stuff starts.
Please review! Feel free to point out any inconsistencies, as I'm trying to keep this as canon as possible. Also, google assures me that 'sayyid' is Arabic for 'mister'. I hope google hasn't lied, because I really don't want to go back and fix that a thousand times over.
"Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honor.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?"
Prologue: Honor Guard
It is, Malik A-Sayf knows, an honor to be chosen to guard the flocks. An honor, and a responsibility, and something he can be trusted with now that he is ten. Malik has been ten for three whole days now, and is still flush with the pride of being an adult (or close to one, anyway).
His father, not usually one for emotion, had clasped him to his chest and recited a verse from the Quran which spoke of strength and honor and the love of a parent for his sons. His mother had bought him new robes and new shoes, had made him a spicy stew that she knew he loved. Kadar had stared after him in naked, honest awe.
Malik lowers himself to the ground, yearning to lean back against the grass and sleep through the brutal Syrian summer heat. He is surrounded by brown-green fields. In the distance there are the mountains; closer by, there are the sheep. Tucked away in the nearest valley is the village. And currently trudging up the hill Malik rests on is—
"Kadar?" Instantly, Malik sits up straighter. It is an honor to watch the sheep, especially all by himself. Only little boys would want to nap instead of fulfilling their duty.
Kadar would definitely fall asleep and let the sheep wander off the nearest cliff. Sheep aren't very bright, but—Malik decides now—it takes a wise person with years of experience to understand how to manage an entire flock on his own. Someone who is ten, for instance.
Malik rises to his feet to meet his brother, noting that the younger boy is lugging a small basket with both hands. "Lunch?" he calls out, hopefully. Even ten year old almost-adults need to eat.
"Mother made it for you," Kadar confirms, sounding out of breath but pleased. His brown hair, lighter than Malik's black and more tousled, spills across his eyes, which are the exact dark shade and shape as those of his older brother. "I brought it all the way here an' I didn't spill or anything."
Malik gives his brother a tolerant smile. Kadar is just a little kid, only six, but he's eager to please and doesn't usually get in the way.
"So…" Kadar plunks down, staring in an obvious way at the basket. His shoes, Malik notes, are already filthy: someone's been playing by the stream even though I told him not to. "Are you having fun?"
Malik sits down as well, and opens the basket. Kadar's ravenous expression as he pulls out a loaf of bread makes him smile, so he breaks off a chunk and hands it to him. His brother beams and crams half of it in his mouth in one go.
"Chew slower," Malik orders.
"Mmph." Kadar swallows. "Well? Are you? Is it exciting?"
Malik considers. So far, shepherding has consisted of herding the sheep to the right field, sitting around to make sure the sheep don't wander into the wrong field, and then just sitting around. But Kadar is looking at him so eagerly…
"I saw a snake," he says solemnly. This is true. "It was black and fat and hissed at me." This is mostly true. "I smushed its head in with my stick." This did not actually happen, but Kadar's eyes go huge with amazement, and it isn't really a lie. Just a…a not-truth. There was a snake.
"A whole snake?" Kadar asks. "How big?"
"Huge. It might've eaten one of the sheep if I wasn't there to protect it."
"Wow." Kadar leans back with a heavy sigh. "I can't wait 'till I get to watch the herd. I'll fight off snakes, and—and—wolves—"
"Mm." Malik grins down at his younger brother. "And the village will be so proud of you they'll put up a statue and you'll be famous."
"An' I'll be rich and important. I'll marry like six wives!"
"Allah only lets you have four," Malik reminds him. Kadar is not deterred.
"Then you can have the other two. An' I'll build a palace for Mother and Father, an' you can live there too, and…"
Malik throws another hunk of bread at him. "First you have to fight off the wolves, brother."
"I will!" Kadar, inspired, leaps to his feet and lunges at imaginary enemies. Malik watches him and shakes his head.
Eventually Kadar tires himself out and begins the trudge back to the village, where no doubt their mother will scold him for taking too long. It's later in the day, and quiet…now there's no one for Malik to talk to but the sheep.
He shivers a bit. Being a shepherd is lonely. Longing hits him, sudden and sharp: until now he's always helped his father in the fields, and that was never lonely. His father's quiet presence was always comforting, no matter how hard the work. And if he grew too tired or too bored, he could just run back to the house.
But Malik is a shepherd now. He's a man, not a child, and men (he has been told) have duties to the world.
You are an older brother now. You must never forget your responsibilities as the eldest.
Strange, how used he's become to Kadar. Malik, sitting cross-legged in the grass, bored now that the novelty of shepherding has worn off, frowns in thought as he considers his younger brother. It'd been forever ago, but he can still remember being four and bewildered, forbidden from entering his own house, forced to stand outside with his father and some other men while village women darted in and out with bloody hands.
"Allah favors you," the men had told his father. "Two sons. A great honor. They'll be your pride in life."
Malik remembers how his father said nothing, just crossed his arms and looked pleased; he remembers wondering at that, at how his father let an opportunity to brag pass quietly by. He remembers being proud, in some strange way. Most other men would have crowed with smug joy. Sayyid Baqir, for instance, the village loudmouth, who was said to have beaten his wife when she bore him a third daughter. He'd be bragging about sons until he died of old age.
Maybe, Malik thinks now, that's why Allah never gave him any.
Still, there'd been a lot that four year old Malik hadn't understood at the time. Why his mother grew so big her robes grew tight, and then suddenly shrank again. Why one of the villagers knelt down in front of him, during that confusing day, and told him seriously that, "You should be grateful for what your family has been given. Everything will change for you now."
Malik remembers being finally led into the house by his father, being shown the squirming, whining bundle in his mother's arms. His father had taken that bundle and, almost solemnly, given it—him—to Malik. Malik had held his little brother, startled at how light he was, as his parents exchanged tired smiles.
"Malik," his father had said. He spoke gravely, and in Malik's arms the baby stared upwards and grew silent. "This is your younger brother. You must never forget that. He is your responsibility. As the older son, it is your job to help keep him safe. This is your duty. Allah Himself has willed it so."
Malik watched the baby—his brother? What did that mean?—and felt a tingle down his spine. "My brother," he whispered. The words, though he did not understand them, were strong.
"What two brothers have, no one else can understand," his father continued. "And no one can take it away. You must always remember that bond. You'll need to be strong for him. Sometimes it will be hard."
Hard? At four, Malik didn't have much of a concept of hard. For no reason at all, the Older Brother felt scared, and his father must have noticed for his tone softened and he smiled. "Don't worry. I know you are strong enough. Protect Kadar and Allah will bless you, all your life."
Malik wasn't sure what his father meant at four, and he still isn't sure at ten. But these are his responsibilities…surely protecting a younger brother is no harder than protecting a flock of sheep. Even if the younger brother is only six.
Malik returns to the village that evening, fresh with the knowledge that the sheep are safe, due entirely to his wisdom. His father will be so proud. But as he starts down the dirt path that leads from the sheep pen to his home, he notices Kadar running towards him. There's a spurt of disappointment; Malik rarely bothers to lie to himself, and so he acknowledges the let-down. It should be his father coming down the path, to shower his eldest with quiet approval.
Then again, Kadar isn't a bad second choice. He'll be just as proud. Just not as quiet.
"Are the sheep safe? Did you see any more snakes? Were there wolves? Some men from the village are eating with us tonight so Mother says you hafta wash up careful before you come inside. Did the wolves get the sheep? I bet you fought them off, right, you definitely kept them all away. And Mother told me to make sure you used the well water for washing and not for spilling on the ground 'cause that's what boys usually do 'cause they hate washing up but you're not really a boy anymore are you? I wanna come visit you again tomorrow, Brother, 'cause you get to fight with wolves."
Kadar says this all very fast. Malik pauses.
"Village men are over again?" he asks as the two brothers fall into step together. The fading sun casts long shadows, and a slight breeze catches at the worn hems of their tunics. They leave light footprints, scuffing the sand as they walk.
Their shadows merge together and pull apart. Again and again, they are attached.
"Yah," Kadar says. "Sayyid Hamid. And Sayyid Maram and his nephew."
"I wonder what they want."
"Just to talk to Father, I guess." Kadar wrinkles his nose. "Oh, and Sayyid Baqir is here again. Why does he hafta come over so much, Malik?"
Malik shrugs. "'Because Father still lets him. Khalil told me last week that his father won't even invite Baqir inside anymore, because he's arrogant and lies to everyone's face."
"He should stay at home," Kadar grumbles, folding his arms across his bony chest. "Every time he comes over he asks for lots of food and doesn't even thank Mother when she brings it. And he smokes a lot, makes me cough."
"He's afraid to eat at his house," Malik says. "He thinks his wife is gonna…gonna send him to his virgins early."
"Oh." The younger boy is silent a moment. "What does that mean?"
Malik shrugs. "I dunno. Heard Mother and Father talking."
(And technically he hadn't been meant to hear that conversation, but he'd been right there, and surely it wasn't disobeying your parents to listen after being told not to if you just happened to be lingering outside the front door while your parents talked inside?
Even if you had been told to go to the stream and stay there a while.)
"I think it involves poison," Malik offers after a moment. "He's afraid to eat his wife's food."
"'Cause it'll turn him into a virgin?" Kadar frowns. "Malik, what's a virgin?"
This their father has explained to Malik, in great detail. The whole process sounds rather grim, and in Malik's personal opinion not very necessary. Anyway, it's nothing for Kadar to know.
"There's the house," he says, to change the subject. "Race you."
"You're gonna win," Kadar groans, but he looks thrilled nonetheless. "I can't ever beat you, Brother."
"Nope," says Malik, and takes off running.
Because there are guests and because he is a man, Malik resists splashing his brother at the well behind their house. The small, three room structure sits just far enough away from the village itself to need a closer water source. But the village is small, and the houses scattered; its people are used to long distances, and so it isn't rare to find guests over for dinner at the A-Sayf household. Men will travel miles for conversation, Malik's father often says.
(It's more than conversation, though. There isn't a villager around who hasn't asked his father for advice at least once. Even Sayyid Murtada, the village's richest man, has been by—and Murtada has three wives and five horses! Malik had been there to witness the man complain about the son who insisted on marrying some local girl he was in love with, rather than the girl chosen by his parents. He'd never actually asked a question, and Malik's father had mused on a solution without ever actually naming it as such…
But a week later Murtada announced his son's marriage, and suddenly the A-Sayf herd of sheep seemed several heads thicker than before.)
Still, such a bother that there have to be guests tonight of all nights. Now Malik will have to be respectful, and silent, and most importantly not around. He and Kadar will be paraded past the guests as visual bragging rights for their father, and then sent into another room to eat with their mother. Malik itches to stay in the main room, to announce to his father and the others his success at shepherding. He won't be loud, or arrogant: he will simply sit down amongst the men, as if it were any other day, and his strength will show in his newly calloused hands.
And should the others ask him of his day—what of the sheep? they will ask. What of the herd?—then he will smile, and shrug, and admit that he does not mean to brag, but all the animals are alive and a great many snakes came to harm. His father will give him that slight, warm smile that means everything, and they will all nod their heads knowingly: faced as they all are with the work of men.
"Malik, come on." Kadar stands by the doorway, eager to slip inside but not so eager that he would leave his brother behind. "I'm hungry."
"I'm coming," Malik sighs. How frustrating it is to be ten and yet a child!
They go inside, entering the front room, where their father and the guests are sitting cross-legged on cushions around plates and dishes, dinner in the process of being brought out. Their father smiles when he sees them, a smile half-hidden by his beard.
"There they are," he says, eyes twinkling. "You two are late."
Malik murmurs an apology, which is drowned out by Kadar's protesting, "But there were wolves!" The older brother grabs the younger brother by the wrist and pulls him into the proper bow, mouthing the proper, respectful greetings for the villagers. Then he drags Kadar into the second room, where their mother is bent over the fireplace.
She turns around when she hears them come in. Her robes are long and heavy, and sweat beads her face. A few stray hairs are plastered to her forehead, despite how tightly her brown headscarf is tied. She smiles.
"There you two are. I send one brother to find the other brother and they both end up lost."
"Sorry, Mother." Malik goes over to her, taking the heavy pot off the flames before she can grab it. His tired arms protest, but he ignores them and hoists the pot higher. "Let me take this in for you."
"So helpful," his mother says. "Why is it you never make such offers when there's no one here but your father and I?" She glances over her shoulder at Kadar, who's yawning from his stance against the wall. "That tunic is filthy. Make sure you wear your other one tomorrow."
Kadar bobs his head. "I'm hungry."
"Of course." She turns back to Malik. "Take that to the next room," she says to him. "Then come back in and we'll eat. Then bed."
Malik considers the pot in his hands, almost but not quite pouting. His mother notices his hesitation and sighs.
"What is wrong, exactly?" she asks.
"Nothing," he says, and then adds slowly, "I'm just tired from herding all those sheep…"
"Yes, I know. My son is almost a man already." Malik is alarmed to see his mother's eyes misting over. "Ah, just an infant yesterday and now you're so strong and dependable. Both my sons are growing fast. Soon they'll be married and have their own children. Then will they even remember their mother?"
"I'm going to take the pot in now," he says hastily. This is not exactly the type of admiration he's been looking for.
As he hurries back into the front room the conversation he's walked into dies. The village men all glance in his direction, and he braces himself for the usual round of compliments, meant for his father's sake rather than his own. Sure enough…
"Nice to see your boy still helping his mother," the man on his right says in a gravely voice. "My own sons are too lazy to offer, even."
An older man across the circle shakes his head. "Don't be so harsh on them," he says softly. His beard is almost completely white and he strokes it when he talks. "Just having sons is a blessing, Hamid."
A voiceless murmur of agreement spreads through the group, half out of pity. Maram's wife never bore any children, and he could never afford to take another one; he'd been told to divorce her and marry someone more fruitful, but refused. Malik asked his mother once why Maram was willing to stay without heirs for the sake of his wife, but all she would say was that his marriage hadn't been arranged. Malik still isn't sure what she'd meant.
Hamid tsks. "You'll be given that blessing one of these days," he says. "Soon you'll have a whole brood of children, running you ragged."
"Not me," Maram says with a laugh. "I'm too old. If Allah meant to give me children He would have done so twenty years ago." He shifts position on his cushion. "Anyway, I have Hassan here," he adds, and the scruffy teenager sitting beside him flushes and squirms. "He's been just as much of a son. If I'd had my own I couldn't have afforded to take him in, eh?"
"Allah is wise," Hamid agrees. "After all, He gave our gracious host two obedient children, and no one deserves them more."
Malik wants to protest—he isn't a child—but keeps his mouth shut. It isn't his place to speak, even if they are talking about him. He takes his time ladling out broth from the pot, giving each man a carefully measured portion. Once he's done he'll have to go back and eat with his mother and brother, like a child or a girl.
Maram reaches over and takes his bowl with a sigh and a nod of gratitude. But when Malik hands the bowl to the man on his right, he gets only an insincere smile.
"You're too old for women's work," Sayyid Baqir says. His eyes are black and narrow, his chin darkened with stubble. "Nine year olds should act more like men."
"I'm ten," Malik mumbles. Everything out of Baqir's mouth is a back-handed compliment. Why does Father keep letting him in?
"Hah? Then my point is even stronger." Baqir leans back, eyeing Malik curiously. "Ten years old? Almost ready to get married!" The other men echo his chortles with strained laughter of their own.
"Not quite yet," says Malik's father. "I think we'll wait a few years."
Not for the first time, Malik is both impressed by and proud of his father. The man sits tall in his robes, his brown beard adding a sense of strength to his face. When he speaks, no matter what he speaks, the room falls silent.
This, Malik knows, is his heritage. Someday he will be expected to be just as strong, just as brave, just as wise. The thought is a scary one: his father's role is so great. How can Malik expect to fill it, when he struggles just to keep Kadar entertained?
Head cloudy with admiration, he straightens and moves for the door. But before he can leave the circle of men his father speaks, in his smooth, deep voice: "Sit and stay with us a while, my son. Have something to eat."
And this is so unexpected Malik's mouth drops open. To be invited to eat with his father-! He stares for so long, stunned, that his father laughs into his beard.
And Malik, dazed and delighted and already picturing how he will describe his victory to Kadar, stumbles over to the nearest pillow and folds shaking legs underneath him. The village men murmur fresh greetings, less condescending this time than a few moments ago: he is one of them, finally. An adult, with all the responsibilities and all the burdens.
Not even Baqir's brown-toothed sneer can ruin the euphoria. "Joining us, are you? So you're not such a little boy."
"Malik watched the flocks today," his father says, and the rest of the men nod. Malik glows. The conversation turns to other matters, the men chatting as they eat (Baqir in particular keeps talking with his mouth full). Malik stays quiet, watching, too excited to focus on his food. He's lived in this house all his life, he's sat in the front room countless times, and yet now it seems changed. The dirt walls, the faded pillows, the small window—nothing has changed, but everything is so new. There's a general shuffle of bowls and platters, and then Sayyid Maram leans back with a heavy sigh.
"A good meal," he says. His nephew nods.
"Your wife knows how to cook," Baqir agrees, somehow turning compliment into complaint. "Everything mine makes tastes like mud. What's the use of a woman who can't even cook?"
"There are other uses," Hamid says, and grins. Malik, after a thoughtful moment, grins back.
"Bah," says Baqir. "She isn't so good at that, either."
"Always you complain about your wife. Are our lives so boring that there is nothing else to talk about?"
"So, talk," Baqir starts to say, but his nastiness is buried by Malik's father, who shakes his head.
"There is nothing wrong with boring lives," he says. "We're fortunate to have them." The rest of the men grow quiet; Malik looks at his father, sensing the somber change in mood. "We should be grateful that no excitement has come to this village."
"It's getting bad," Hamid says, slowly. "More and more of those bastards on the roads every day."
Malik, despite the serious words, is distracted by mild awe. Hamid, a merchant, travels to larger villages regularly for merchandise. He even goes to the great city Damascus on occasion: a long journey, and a city beyond imagination. Malik, on the other hand, has been to a neighboring village only once, so long ago that he barely remembers the trip. In all likelihood he will never go far from his home. He will certainly never see a city as immense as Damascus, though sometimes at night he lies awake, filled with questions, with strange longings for lands he'll never know.
"That's why my wife stays in the house," Baqir is saying when Malik submerges from his thoughts again. "You know what they do when they see our women."
"But the Templars haven't reached this far," Hassan protests. "Our roads are safe."
"I heard a village three hours away was attacked," his uncle says. "These are dangerous times. Caution is a good thing to have."
Malik frowns to himself. Templars. He isn't sure who they are, exactly, or why they're here—Christian soldiers, his mother said once, out to claim Muslim lands for their faraway king. Violent men, who for years now have roamed the countryside, burning and killing as they will. Malik is too young to remember the last great battle (and praise be to Allah for that, his mother said), which left the Holy City of Jerusalem near ruin but still in the hands of the Faithful. Not that he will ever see Jerusalem, either…
But though that battle left both sides too weak for outright conflict, the Templars did not leave. Malik has grown up with the threat of bored, lost Templar soldiers, eager to prey on travelers and defenseless women out alone.
"Why are they attacking villages?" he asks now. "I thought there weren't many of them left."
"More're coming," Hamid says. "Their king is getting ready for another war. He wants Jerusalem real badly, the louse."
"It isn't just the king," Maram says. "They think their god told them to take our lands."
"Bah," Baqir grunts again. "What god? They worship the Devil."
Hassan nods, eagerly. "They're all cowards and infidels," he says. "If they want another war we should give it to them. Allah will wipe all of them out, and then we won't have to worry about their soulless bandits blocking the roads."
"If war comes, it won't just come to Jerusalem." Malik's father looks stern. "The violence will spread everywhere. Even here. We should hope for peace. If it is Allah's will, the bloodshed will pass us by and fade away."
"But they're the enemy…!" Hassan argues. "It would be honorable to spill their blood!"
"Careful, nephew," his uncle scolds, but gently. "Or it will be your blood that's spilled. No, our host is right. No good can come out of another battle in Jerusalem." The old man speaks with quiet confidence, and Malik finds himself nodding along in agreement. "Jerusalem will always be ours, Allah willing. What's best for our village is to keep out of the mess. The Christians will leave eventually. They have their own lands."
He shrugs. "They are infidels, but not madmen. When they realize they will never steal the Holy City, they will go. Meanwhile our families will be safe if we can avoid the fray."
"Unless they attack our village," Baqir says with the smallest of sneers. Malik feels a flash of anger; he has to look down at the bowl in his lap to keep his expression from being seen. Surely saying such evil invites it in!
But his father is unruffled. "They won't. This place is too remote, and too poor. What would they gain by attacking here? We have no riches to entice their greed."
"Men have killed for less."
"We are safe here. The Prophet, peace upon Him, will not betray His faithful."
Baqir falls silent, not bothering to hide his glower. Malik feels proud all over again. His father is right—his father is always right. There is no reason to fear. The conversation twists away to other things, lasting long into the night; he is half-asleep by the time the last of the guests leaves. He drags himself on legs made weary by the long day to the back room, where his brother is already sleeping on his mat. The next day will start at dawn, and Malik knows that, but still he lies awake for what feels like hours, somehow too drained for sleep. He stares into the darkness, and considers the business of being a man.
As finally he slides into slumber, Malik A-Sayf decides that his is a blessed life, an honored one he is grateful to own.
AN: Quote is from On Death by Khalil Gibran. Story title is also from Gibran's lovely poetry.
In case you haven't realized, my entire reason for writing this fic is "d'aaaw Kadar". It was inspired by the fantastic piece 'Reflection' by daltucia ( daltucia .deviantart gallery/ 24606514#/ d2lwk9t minus the spaces), as well as everything doubleleaf has ever drawn, ever.
7/4/12: minor edits