San Gimignano, Italy
December 31, 1499
December 31, 1499
The Red Owl dreamed. They were fuzzy at first, heat-haze images. Then the images began to take solid form. He dreamed of his brother's death, of finding Kadin finally at ease, his guard down. Gore and blood had stained the room. He had carved his brother the way a butcher carved beef, sheering bone and organs and meat; he decorated the room with the bits and gave the walls a fresh coating of red before leaving.
He dreamed of killing, killing them all, his brother's spawn. Down through the line. Then him. Him. Him with the lion's maw. The words whispered in his ear...
Traps. All traps. Venice and its stinking canals, all made of traps... The Vultures turning on him, the Lion's axe ramming his stomach... It was a trap... The screams...
His eyes opened groggily. He frowned as he looked at the ceiling, the shadows shaped by the faint light of dawn. Mercifully, no bells tolled for morning prayers. This room... How am I here again? Sluggishly, head feeling like his skull and neck had turned to rock, he took in his surroundings. He rested upon his back on a straw mattress, a small pillow beneath his head and a woolen blanket drawn up over him. He knew the room, having spent many a night in it. I flew here. I flew. A man was with me, a stranger and two others.
His eyes fell then upon the one beside him, tanned fingers curled atop his bandaged chest, the Sparrow's head resting upon his shoulder. The Owl's icy eyes lingered upon his lover's face. My little bird... Shuddering, he dipped his head, pressing his lips to the smaller male's brow, fingers combing his wind-whipped hair into order, drinking in his scent as he pressed his face into the touselled brown mess.
Footsteps halted, made him bolt upright. Monster! He froze, the straw pillow in hand, a poor weapon. Two of the brown-robed brothers stared at him as if he was mad, one seeming hard-pressed to suppress his laughter. He knew then how absurd he must look with his face fixed in a raging snarl; he lowered the pillow.
Two small platters of food were left on a table barely large enough to hold them, one with a helping of meat and cheese, another bread and a crock of honey. A jug of ale rested beside them. At least the brothers had had the courtesy to move the table to the bedside. Adrenaline gone, his back screamed in protest as he propped himself against the wall.
Jameel nibbled at the food, forced a swallow of ale, ate a little more until he felt he would be sick. Taking another quaff of the drink, his throat burning, he set the jug down and rested his head against the wall, eyes shut. Taking in a long breath, he reached down, tracing the Sparrow's cheek with two fingers, cheek and jaw both, moving them over his lips. He has a little fuzz on his jaw now and his lips are chapped.
Opening his eyes, he rested his hand on Lex's shoulder, shaking it gently. He groaned a protest even as a hand went to his eyes to knuckle away the sleep that cling to them. Lex blinked up at him, the look as owlish as the birds that had come to their aid in the mountains. The Red Owl said nothing when their eyes met, the shadow of a smile on his pale lips as he pressed a honey-coated heel of bread to his Sparrow's lips and watched him bite down.
In the other room, Badr had finished his prayers and had eaten a bit of the food left him by the monks, his dogs slurping noisily as they ate from their own bowls. Bourkan finished his bowl and moved over to Asad's. The elder dog gave the younger a growl and a shove.
"Bas," the horseman hissed to them and the dogs quieted. He turned his head toward Shaun. He had felt out the man's position before; he lay on his stomach, face toward him, snoring lustily. One arm dangled over the bed--Bourkan had managed to lick his hand wet from wrist to fingertips, glove and all, but when it came into his head to try and take the novice's eyeglasses, most likely to bury somewhere in the monastery yard, Badr snatched them up and held them to his chest as if cradling an injured fledgling.
Reaching over, he found Shaun's cheek and smacked it lightly a few times. Groaning, the Englishman swatted at his hand, only to earn his wrist being caught in a vice grip. Shaun opened his eyes, blinked, and squinted.
"I was having a nice dream, wanker. Where are my specs?"
"You should be thanking me, Novice."
"Yeah, about that, thanks, but my name is Shaun and why should I thank you?" Shaun squeezed his eyes shut as the arms of his glasses threatened to poke both of them out. Shifting them, Badr slid the glasses up onto his face.
"Bourkan would have left you blind as I am otherwise, Novice."
"Y'know, I didn't come out squalling and bloody for my mother to look at me and name me Novice."
"I will call you Novice as much as I like, Novice's Novice."
"Here's a new trick for ya, mate. Take your head and cram it up your--"
"What were you dreaming of?" Shaun tilted his head to one side. "In your sleep, you spoke. Who were you calling habibi?" The Brit held his peace. Badr's lips curled into a smirk.
Shaking his head and straightening his clothes, Shaun pulled on his boots and went to the room Jameel and Lex had been given the night before. Amir had reached it before him, the boy cheeping happily as an owl hooted at Shaun from his hair. Lex reached up, handing it a piece of meat. The bird gobbled it down and hooted its thanks.
The historian cringed as the bird leaned its head out, its neck longer than he ever would've suspected, and preened Jameel's hair, hooting a final time.
"Safety and peace," he heard Badr say behind him. Turning, Shaun came face to face--well, face to cowl--with two of the red clad men from the day before. The two of them stood before him, seeming to stare, though it was hard to say with the peaked hoods masking their eyes. "Greet them, Novice." Badr leaned in the doorway with his dogs, arms folded.
"Erm..." Tongue-tied for a moment, Shaun left it to untie itself with his usual scathing humor, "Welcome to Le Chateau Assassin, chaps. Please, wipe your feet before you come in and don't despair of that owl never shitting on my friend's heads. It'll happen eventually." The two men continued to stand in front of him in silence. Everyone's a critic. He took his seat on the only free chair in the room and shut up.
Lex looked at the two men. They were of a height and dressed in the same burgundy red robes, their hoods masking all but their lips and noses. The one, however, had a sword slung on his hip. The scabbard was long and curved--doubtless, the blade within curved in a similar way--and the hilt snapped forward in a ninety degree hook at the pommel, which consisted of rounded black iron. Both were outfitted with full quivers and bows.
The swordsman stepped forward and spoke, "We thank you for getting our leader out of the hands of the Ravens."
The bowman added, "We have prepared your horses for departure." He looked over his shoulder at Badr. "Yours is still a raging b***h. She nearly took my hand off when we hitched our mounts."
"That is why you're still the novice son of a novice's novice who cannot learn a simple fact the first time you're told. Ya-Bint-al-Hawah is a war horse, unlike that little gelding of yours."
The bowman opened his mouth to respond and snapped it shut when the swordsman held up a hand.
"We will escort you to the Villa Auditore. We await your pleasure." Turning on his heel, he strode out with the other man. Badr followed them.
"Are you well enough to ride?" Amir asked the Red Owl once to the two men were gone. Jameel looked at him for a long, silent moment before turning his eyes to Shaun and gesturing him over. Rising, he leaned his weight onto the Brit, put his free hand on Lex's shoulder, and was helped to hop down through the short corridor and down the steps to where the horses stood.
Not only were the two red riders standing there with Badr already astride Fajera, but Ignacio and Uberto were there as well. The big monk had a war hammer strapped to his back and was tightening the cinch on one of the monastery mounts.
"You needn't come with me," he was saying to Ignacio as he went to Shaun's side and helped him get Jameel onto the back of one of Badr's horses.
"Is this Nasira?" Shaun asked, looking at Badr, who nodded. The historian lifted a brow, but clambered onto the mare's back, the blind Assassin handing him over his reins.
"Someone has to speak the Hail Marys for your trespassings and since I haven't heard you yourself doing so, I will say them for you, amico," the younger monk responded with a grunt, slipping a wooden staff through a set of straps on the back of his saddle near the bags.
"Shaun," Lex said, "I think we might've found an Italian Shaolin monastery by mistake." His fellow time traveller looked at the monks and shrugged, the balding one taking a lead at their head as Amir came trotting up on a large, fluffy-legged black and white cart horse with enough of a mane and tail to make an English sheepdog jealous of the fluff.
"Can that bloody horse even see where it's going?" blurted the Englishman. Amir giggled, grinned, cheeped, and nodded, bouncing in the saddle. With everyone mounted, the group set off, the monks at rear and head, the red riders, whom Jameel informed them were titled Owlets, sometimes flanking, sometimes scouting ahead and behind and around them.
The going was slow with frequent stops for the Red Owl to rest himself for a few minutes before they moved on again. When all their stomachs began to ache, the group made a stop atop a rise for lunch, the Owlets taking their lunch with their bows strung and resting beside them on the ground. Amir took the time to snatch a nap on his fluffy horse's back while the rest of them finished eating, the black-and-white-haired Coal Tit almost blending into the black-and-white-haired horse perfectly.
By the time Shaun's watch read two in the afternoon, the group could see the walls of the village rising up before them, all of them saddle sore and ready to dismount.
Jameel took a long look around, smirking despite himself. Ezio had become a very rich man, it seemed. The last time he had been to the village, two men would've had trouble walking abreast down a street. Now the roads were wide enough to ride their horses through, the shops bustling, the walls manned.
The Red Owl reined up sharply, eyes fixed on one man atop the walls. His robes hung in tatters on his bony frame, the leather armor at his chest rotting even as he watched, falling to pieces in front of skeletal feet.
"Jameel." He nearly leaped from the horse's back. Lex lowered his hand from his shoulder. "What're you looking at?" The tall man shook his head.
"Shadows of the past, nothing more." They moved on. The stairs proved no obstacle either, the horses striding up either set of them in single file, saving the men the difficulty of negotiating Jameel up the steps while hobbling on leg. Aided in his dismount by Uberto and Shaun, Badr was quick to gather the horses and, with a curt nod, lead them away, a few stable hands rushing from the gates to meet him and his hounds, Bourkan tackling one of the unfortunate men clean from his feet as he began to lap all over his face.
Inside the Villa, they found Maria Auditore awaiting them.
Amir dashed forward to meet her, nearly bowling the woman over as he cried, "Mama! Mama! Look, I brought ahki and Jamtwist and more people and I rode my fluffy horse all the way here!"
"Very good. You must be tired now, though. Go and rest."
Amir cheeped and shook his head, crying, "Nuh-uh! I'm going to go take care of my coal tits!" With that, the boy immortal was gone. The woman lifted her eyes toward the rest of the group. Stepping forward, she rested a hand lightly on Jameel's shoulder.
"You know you are always welcome here, signore."
"As you know, I'm always grateful. Do you mind if the little bird roosts here as well with his northern harrier?"
"Oh, a Harrier am I now?" Shaun muttered, looking toward the woman. He bowed his head. "Madonna Auditore."
"I am not so old as to require that title yet," said Maria, looking him over slowly. Shaun was as travel-stained and worn as the rest of them, his hair, dampened with sweat and grown longer since their stay in the past began, hung a little in his eyes. "Take whatever you need--weaponry, clothing--and feel free to make use of that doccia Mario installed at your behest."
"Indoor plumbing!" Amir called from somewhere outside. "It's going to be a big, big hit! Invest now, invest!" Shaking her head, the woman gave them a nod and departed, leaving them to do as they would.
The monks departed for the village church, the Owlets and time travelers shown upstairs by servants to the guest rooms. Once their belongings had been placed in the rooms, they met at the head of the stairs.
"What do you blokes plan to do now?" asked Lex.
"My brother plans to do nothing but sharpen his sword. And not the proper sword at that." The comment earned the bowman a hard elbow to the ribs. "What of you?"
"I need a shower too." The Sparrow nodded to the others, then frowned. "You seen Shaun?"
"The novice may have had the same idea as you. Who's to say?" The swordsman brushed past him and down the stairs, the bowman following behind.
Shaun had marched after the Red Owl, intent on having a word with him; a maid was kind enough to guide him to the shower room. Now he stood frozen in the threshold, staring at Jameel. A very naked Jameel. The Brit's mouth fell open, drool trickling out of it as he looked the man up and down twice.
A smirk was stamped on the Owl's face as he watched Shaun gawking at him.
"Well, now that you know what I completely look like, I recommend wiping your mouth and regaining your composure. I'm sure you have something important to say."
Shaun had intended to ask something important, but whatever it was was gone now. He groped for him, but could only manage a stupid, "How big is Lex?"
"You haven't asked him yet, little Harrier?" If he plans to do something with the information, I'll show him that just because my talons are clipped doesn't mean I can't break his jaw. Shaun folded his arms, finally able to tear his eyes away from Jameel's hips.
"Oh, yes, of course, Jameel. That's excellent lunch time conversation. Nice weather we're having. Just splendid. Going to train later? Oh, by the way, Lex, just how massive is your d**k, considering your boyfriend's puts grown men to shame? And what do you mean by little?"
"Obviously, your answer says 'No, I haven't.' If you were smart, you would ask him when no one else was around and give him a reason why you asked. He would either answer you or punch your face in. Or both. It may simply be a case of whichever comes first." His own arms folded, making a mockery of Shaun's stance. "Little as in novice, Novice." Shaun frowned deeply as Jameel used Badr's words on him. "You haven't sharpened your talons or grown your feathers yet, fledgling. After those are in place, the baby bird must learn to fly and fight. From what I've seen, you can't do either well yet. Now will you leave me to my shower, or are you going to stand there all day and become soaked in more than one way while staring at my c**k?"
Shaun turned on his heel and fled, shouldering roughly passed Lex as the smaller man went towards the room. Rubbing his shoulder, the Sparrow stared after him before continuing on toward the doorway Shaun had vacated.
"Not gonna lie, that looks awesome." Jameel looked up at him as he reached for the lever. Lex chewed at his lip. "Can I join?" Jameel nodded, allowing his Sparrow to strip down before turning on the water. It wasn't a hard system, really, once they'd had all the mechanisms in place and Amir had approved of them, a system of pumps and a small stove to heat the water with.
Jameel made room beneath the warm spray for Lex after the younger man had shut the door. He kept half an eye on it. If Shaun decided to enter again with some quip or if anyone else decided to enter and question what they saw, the result would be a good lashing.
"So," he said, after they had stood long enough for their bodies to be coated with water, "Shaun came here to say something and ended up staring at me and making comments of a rather phallic and erect nature. How are you this afternoon?" He reached up and scrubbed at his hair, pushing it back from his eyes. It had grown longer since his captivity began, hanging down to his shoulders and into his eyes, long enough to where he could tuck his bangs behind his ears.
"Sore." He could see as much; Lex was quivering. His own lower back ached furiously from the long ride, even with the stops they'd been forced to make on his account. Stepping out of the spray to allow Lex to have the full force of the warm water on his body, he took up a small jar from a small shelf and shook it, dumping some of his contents into his hair. Scrubbing, they swapped places again. "You managed to get yourself out of your bandages, I see."
"They were hastily applied." Shaking his damp black hair from his eyes again, he poured some onto his Sparrow's head and rubbed it in. "That's not like you at all." His fingers slipped through the tangled waves and curls, pulling out knots. One came away as a dusty, matted clump that had somehow refused to be blown away by the wind. He made a face and shook it off his hand.
"We were kind of in a hurry. Crows and all." Lex reached over to the shelf and took up a cake of soap, holding it out to him. Jameel took it and scrubbed himself down the front. "Shaun's been having sort of a bad week."
"Sounds like he needs someone to have some fun with." Jameel grunted as he automatically reached to wash his back, pain raking his flayed flesh. Lex took the soap and turned him, scrubbing him down gently. The skin was raw, but it was returning all the same in healthy, pale pink patches. Allowing the water to sluice the soap away, he started on his own body, sniffing at the soap. The scent of honey, oats, and herbs came to him, probably one of the bars from the Valez family. Absently, he wondered if they'd gotten out of Venice, or if the apothecary and his brood had been taken by the enemy as Jameel had. "Your back's scratched, 'usfur."
"I had a rough landing on my first flight. Ran into a fence and the ground. No biggie." The crash that was no biggie had left long, shallow scratches running the length of his back. They were painful to look upon and just a little too red for Jameel's liking. Taking the soap, he ran it over them gently as he was able until his Sparrow's small back was lathered completely. Setting the soap aside, he worked it in with his hands, passing them low and high, kneading at the muscle beneath.
"Your neck is full of knots, little bird." A groan was his only answer, a flinch here and there. His hands slipped low as he dared, brushing over his a**. A flinch, a gasp, but no protests. They moved over his hips, slid along his belly, up to his chest. For a brief instant, he felt his lover's heart beating double-time beneath his fingers. Then Lex pulled away, whipped around to face him, his body tensed as if to attack, eyes wide. He swallowed, and swallowed, and swallowed once more, the silence a yawning gulf between them. Jameel leaned against the slick wall and closed his eyes for a moment; his broken leg ached furiously, though he had favored it as much as he was able with the slick floor beneath his feet.
Lex was the one to break the silence, the tension snapping like an overdrawn bowstring, "What're you thinking about now?" Jameel opened his eyes, looking down at him. "Do you want to talk about it? Whatever's bothering you?" The blue eyes continued to stare at him, not so much a snowfall in their half-lidded state as the world when the snow had already fallen, languid and heavy.
"The water's cold and there's still daylight. We should find something to do." Jameel turned the lever, shutting off the stream. The Sparrow knelt beside his Owl, applying fresh disinfectants and bandages to his wounds, replacing the splint on his leg. He made a mental note to put a cast on it later once he found some plaster. Maybe I can find some from that little art shop in the village.
"I'll make you some crutches once I've found the plaster for your cast." The two stopped, looking at one another. Slowly, Jameel began to laugh.
"Has your wittling improved since Masyaf?"
"No," Lex chuckled, "I haven't taken a shop class yet." The Assassins smiled at each other before Jameel ruffled Lex's hair and stood, using the wall as a support, hopping down to Mario's study to speak with Maria. Lex watched him disappear around the corner before heading out to the training yard. He stalled, looking at the two men in red flanking the entrance, one standing soldier stiff, the other leaned back, picking his teeth with a throwing knife. That's can't be good for the gums. "Are you guys staying here too?"
"For now." It was the swordsman who answered. "We are here to assist in any way we can." Lex nodded. "You seem unconvinced."
"Just kind of hard to judge the word of a man whose eyes I can't see. For all I know you could be rolling them or half asleep."
"True." He reached up and pushed back his hood. It was a young face, he was surprised to find, the man only a year or two older than him, three at most, his black hair cut in a way that reminded him of the one-armed Dai Malik's. Hazel eyes looked down at him from a ravaged face. Four ragged scars crossed his face. The first had torn from hairline to temple, the second from harline to jawline, shearing across his nose and just missing his eye. The third cut across his lips to his chin, the fourth the smallest, going across his right cheek from cheekbone to jaw. Lex tilted his head, looking at the scars, brows furrowed.
"They look like claw marks."
"The Metal Lion's claws." The swordsman shifted his stance so one hand rested on the pommel of his sword. "Do you have any plans for him?"
"Our master, of course," said the bowman, earning a snap from the swordsman in a tongue Lex couldn't understand. Although... That sounds familiar.
"The Lion. Do you have any plans for him?"
"Why?" The man simply looked at him, eyes moving up and down. Lex blinked, realizing then that the scarred man had moved in so they were inches apart.
"You would do well to take a lesson from my face if you ever should have any ideas in your head about him. He is not a normal man, but a demon in armor. He would eat a little fellow like you alive." The Sparrow shuddered. "You are Skandar, yes?"
"How do you know my name?"
"Our master mentioned you a few times."
"Oho, yes, he did," the bowman agreed, only to earn another snap from the man with the scars. He held up his hands, grinning. "Well, we have heard of your skill with medicines. Around the Underground, you're al Hakim."
"Al Hakim? Seriously? I'm not even through with medical school yet."
"Regardless, here you are. Skandar al Hakim in the flesh."
"Well, you know my name. What're you guys' names?"
"We're obliged not to give those out," said the swordsman at the same time the bowman said, "I'm Majid."
"What? He asked. I'm obliged by my sense of politeness to give him my name. It's only proper, brother."
"I'll reach down your throat and show you how to properly knit a sweater with your guts if you don't learn in the next minute how to hold your tongue." Majid smiled, popped his lips, and shut his mouth. He grinned and popped in a few more times until the scarred man shouted, "Stop that!"
"Well, then, uh...Scars," Lex said, for lack of a better nickname, "I'll stop bothering you guys now. Wanted to see if I could find some plaster for your master. The Red Owl doesn't seem to understand the concept of a simple fracture of the tibia."
"No, sometimes our master's just stupid." Scars gave Majid a glare then that would've made Jameel proud. Shaking his head, Lex smiled a little and headed down into the streets. Finding the little area of shops, which had really expanded into quite a large area of shops taking up about a block of space, he stopped at both the art and the apothecary shops to ask about plaster.
The art dealer haggled with him over the price of plaster, raising it higher until he mentioned Badr. Then it was signores and questions of delivery time up to the villa. It was then that Lex noticed the frenzy of activitiy around him.
Moving through the gate while avoiding being run over by a wagon full of animals, the Sparrow went to where Badr and Shaun stood by the stables. The conversation stalled as he came near, Bourkan springing up onto his shoulders to lick at his face as Amir squealed from the top of the wall, "They're coming! They're coming!"
"Who's coming?" Lex managed once he'd forced the wriggling dog down. Looking down the road, he got his answer. Uberto and Inigo were moving up the road and Nico, Maria, and their children were with them. "Maria! You're on a horse!"
"Yes, a New Years Eve miracle," Nico joked as she dismounted. The German woman gave her husband a sour stare before sliding down herself and rubbing her back.
"Really? It's New Years already?"
"Yes, Spaetzlein," she said, "and we've more news for you than just the date. Some old friends are planning to pay Monteriggioni a visit."