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And The Stars Remain

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The journey to Masyaf was a long and arduous one. Five days of hard riding in the unforgiving desert heat. The hours grew lengthy and stretched into a blur as the sun drained our energy. The first day tired me out and I was leaning against my horse’s neck by mid-afternoon. I had never traveled this far in my life, and especially not on horseback. My thighs were given quite the workout.

We made camp early that first night. I practically fell from my horse as we stopped in a small grove of bushes that lay not far from the road. The air began to cool considerably as the sun left the sky and hid beneath the earth. Though the fire and the labor taken to create it warmed us, it only did so for a little while. The desert was heartless, day or night, and could be dangerous enough to kill by any means possible.

The stars shone brightly that night and I found myself in awe of just how vast the space above me was, truly unhindered by buildings or trees. The blackness split into a chasm of wonderful colors, a streak that spilled unto us another universe. The stars beamed down onto me, raining their light down to the ground.

Were they really that small or were they so far away that the appeared to be so? And why were they here? Were they the ghosts of our ancestors, watching over us? Did Allah put them here, scattering them across our world to give us something beautiful to look at?

Or were the stars something more, something that we were incapable of comprehending, something that not even religion could explain? But how could anything so magnificent exist and not have been made by the hands of something greater? My mind spun in circles, wanting to know what could possibly be out there. Was there another place like our world? Or were we the only ones in an otherwise impeccable masterpiece?

Oh, my aching head could not handle the deep thoughts. I chose then to lose myself in the swirling colors of the crevasse before me, the splattered hints of pink and cyan exploding across the darkness, a stain beneath the stars.

I was aware of Malik rubbing my arm, tightly cradling me to him. He had wrapped a blanket around us to ward off the chill of the oncoming night. I leaned my head against his shoulder, pressing into his warmth. I glanced up to see he was watching me, his eyes glittering with the light of the fire. He smiled down at me and I snuggled closer to him. If Allah had created the perfection above me, than he had certainly had a hand in creating the man beside me.

After a restful sleep, we continued on. The land seemed ageless, with no beginning and no end. No boundary between the earth and the sky. The wind called my name and the sun burned my soul. The desert sands were painted different colors, depending on the time of day. A light shade of apricot in the morning hours, the color of golden cream come noon, and by sundown it had tainted itself a burnt umber and blood red.

The sand was a living, breathing being, constantly changing. It folded over itself and rose anew, like the waves of water, all that remained of a dried up sea. The winds carved a deadly magnum opus that no human could hope to tame.

The people we passed were as rough as the landscape itself, with dark skin that had dried and cracked in the sun, with dust hidden in every exposed nook and cranny of it. The clothing, no matter how fine, was worn thin by the heat, the ever present dirt and grit. Rich or poor, the desert did not care. It would take any one person’s life with greed, soaking them in like rain, however rare it may be. When the rains did come, I was told they were of the most violent kind, wiping away the face of the earth and anyone who stood upon it. Storms that turned the air to a whiteout so thick one could not see the hand that they had stuck out in front of them. These tempests, I was also informed, could put the ones in Jerusalem to shame. Somehow, I doubted that. If there was anything these strange people were good at, it was exaggerating stories.

The arid sands never gave up their dead, no matter how beautiful and innocent they may look. They displayed their arrogance in the bones that jutted from the ground, what remained of the souls the desert had sapped, and also in the constant heat that drained the spirit and the will to keep moving.

Shepherds guided their sheep and their goats along the trodden path and camels grunted and bellowed as they shouldered their load. Dust was kicked and scattered into the air, choking. Water seemed like a distant dream, unheard of in a place like this.

Roman ruins and the fortresses of Crusaders stood watch over the trade route as we ventured deeper into the Syrian Desert. The foreigners, with their pale skin and dense armor, marched in pairs and in droves, more of them gathered here than I had ever seen in one place at one time. Malik kept his head down, giving them no reason to investigate us.

By the afternoon of the fifth day, that sands had morphed into scrublands, but the heat did not go away. It made itself prevalent by searing away at my skin. There was no relief, nowhere to hide. My light skin had begun to redden and peel. I was sore and tired, oh so tired. I felt like I was whittling away bit by bit the farther we went.

The landscape had begun to lose its charm, the appeal dying away as the winds whispered across the land. Everything had become dull, unchanging. I felt like I was slowly being consumed by the land, evaporated by the sun. I leaned my head down and closed my eyes, wishing to be awoken when we were in Masyaf.

My horse stumbled and I was jostled back to attention and only then did I look up to find the mountains standing stately in front of me. They captured my attention, awesome in their height, jutting out confidently, kissing the sky. They gave no remorse, as fearsome, if not more so, than the desert itself. They unfurled and dipped into bottomless valleys, while some of the peaks were still snowcapped, the summer heat having done nothing to dampen their wrath. The air was cooler, yet it livened even the least cheery of people. If anything, at the very least, it made them walk a little bit faster.

Steep and rocky, with cliff sides deemed impassable. Trees grew atop these cliffs, jeering down at us below. A path sculpted itself upward, enduring in its way to the top. A distant minaret of smoke peeked out from beyond the mountain. A village was near. A village this far up seemed like something impossible, but from the expectant look on Malik’s face, nothing was impossible.

Assassins, the monk-like warriors they were, began to dot the crowd that filtered down the thin pathway. We were close. And soon, a gate appeared before us. And not just any gate. A wicked wooden, spiked number, to be specific, a gate straight from hell. Banners of red and white fluttered in the gentle breeze, boring the symbol of the Assassins.

I watched citizens wander to and fro, perfectly content with the hooded soldiers that stood guard along the path, as if they belonged. The people of Jerusalem did not grant such courtesy to the Assassins when they showed. We dismounted the horses, who gladly shed our unwelcome weight, and Malik guided me inside.

The air was different up here, clean and full of… life and hope. I did not know what to expect of Masyaf, only pictured what Malik had described. It was everything he had said, only more. The path continued up through the small, but bustling village. Clusters of shacks upon shacks lay gathered at the foot of the mountain, some built right on the cliff’s edge. Traders in the village market stood shouting into the crowd. The people looked dirty and smoke clouded the air. It was the poor part of town, but nonetheless, made fantastic by the fact it had been built atop a mountain of this size.

Malik kept leading me up the pathway and the guards became more frequent. They wore white robes that were similar to those of Altaïr and Malik, but some wore white cowls, others gray. There were markings on some, others were bare. They stood with their hands on the hilts of the sword at their side, waiting for a fight.

There was a second level, as crowded with houses as the first. The people paused to stare, not at Malik, but at me. I was a newcomer. Even in a village of this size, they could tell I was not one of them.

“Why are they all looking at me?” I leaned near to whisper to Malik.

“You are a new face. They’ll become used to you after a while.” Though he said that, he walked closer to me.

A third layer came into view, though it was much smaller, boasting a rather hulking building. But the road went on, with a drop off to one side, the river a blue string at the bottom. The soldiers were thick in numbers along the cliff, tense and observant.

The mountain blocked the view of anything behind me or in front of me. I looked over at Malik, wondering what more there was to see and why he was smirking and how was it –

How was it I could be confronted by a palace this high up in the mountains?! There it sat, beyond a few other building and a colossal wall with a heavy iron gate.

It seemingly grew out of the summit, built by the very stone that made up the cliff sides. There were towers that challenged the sky, knifing up to the heavens. There were domes, balconies and grey stone walls with carvings I could see from where I stood. The flags and banners were more vibrant, as if the castle did not call enough attention of its own. It dominated the mountain, laying claim to it.

I was struck dumb, standing frozen in disbelief of the sight. Jerusalem’s towers could not hold a candle to this structure. I doubted anything could. Why- and how for that matter- would anyone build a place of such grandeur? For what purpose could this castle serve? I had not expected this to be the dwelling of the Assassin Brotherhood. I had expected something a little less… conspicuous. I felt like a fortress of this scale could not exist in the same world that we lived in.

Malik was grinning like no other, drinking in my reaction. I blinked, my mouth still agape. I shook my head, my mind whirling. The castle could be fit for a king, for Allah, even! I could not wrap my head around the fact that I was staring at a citadel of such sheer magnitude. I couldn’t take it all in fast enough.

Malik began to make his way to the palace and I followed along blankly, still stupefied. The fortress grew in size, never ceasing to gain the ability to loom over me dangerously. I grew dizzy from looking up that far into the air and still seeing stone. This place was unparalleled by anything I had ever seen in my entire existence on this dear, green earth. Every place paled in comparison.

Inside the fortress walls was a training ring with a pathway that snuck around it leading to the inside. Two grey-cowled Assassins – I could only assume they were novices- fought viciously under the watchful eye of their mentor. Many others stood outside the rink, cheering on their favorite.

“There are so many of you…” I murmured under my breath. Malik only chuckled.

“That is why they call us a Brotherhood.”

“I know, but I have never seen so many of you in one place.” Malik only laughed.

Those Assassins were too caught up in their fight to care much about a strange new girl in their territory. Malik led me inside the monster of a castle and I found the inside to be as lavished as the outside, if not more so.

I was in the middle of a library, shelves upon shelves of books. Pillars lined the walkway that held up the second floor, with guards stationed at every one.

“All of you Assassins look the same.” I muttered, daunted. Malik rolled his eyes, grinning.

A staircase ahead of me led up to an open doorway and two stairways branched off on either side of the landing. I could see other arched doorways past the shelves that led to other wings of the complex. The Assassin symbol, either on a banner or carved into the wall, punctuated every side of the room.

Up the stairwell we went and through the doorway on the landing, I could see a lush garden in the back, the complete opposite of the tough exterior. I could see women gliding along through the grass and flowers. A paradise.

On the second floor, there were more shelves of books, to which many scholars browsed and scoured through. A desk sat in front of a huge, marvelous window, giving view over the entire fortress. Incense burned thick in the study, making a musky glow come over the space.

More of interest came from behind the desk. Altaïr looked up at us with eyes made tired from slaving over his paperwork. He immediately got to his feet and smiled as he hugged Malik and acknowledged me kindly. Old Eagle Eye was not nearly as fearsome when he was not killing people, nor nearly as arrogant. He had changed over the past four and a half months, along with my Malik.

He asked us of our travels, of which Malik replied that all went well. He ushered us back down the stairwell and through one of the hallways. We were treated to a bountiful feast, of which left me full and satisfied. I was still marveling at how such a spectacular abode could exist.

After dinner, we were shown to our sleeping quarters. I tried to keep track of where we were, but I got to looking around so much that I became lost. The place was massive, with endless passageways, all made similar by stone walls, wooden beams near the ceiling and colorful rugs along the floor, and rooms that led to Allah knows where. This could make for an interesting day trying to explore the whole castle.

Our quarters were separate rooms, directly across the hall from one another. My room was large, the ceiling lost from the rest of the room. The bed was plush, with thick blankets, and a bowl of water sat atop a table beside the bed. A desk took up one corner of the room, which was all alight by candles that defended the room from the dark. Two doors led out to a balcony that offered a view unlike any other.

Beyond the garden, beyond Masyaf, the mountains continued, eternal in their way. Night began to fall and the landscape lay shrouded in mist and obscurity. The heat of the desert was a forgotten myth as a frigid breeze raked its claws across my skin. The air was changing. A storm was beginning to brew in the distance, clouds materializing in the sky.

I shuddered. How far we had come. And yet the stars never changed. Such a petty distance to them, where we were barely more than a speck of dust in Allah’s eyes. Jerusalem was so far away and in this strange place where I would likely spend the rest of my life, I felt apprehensive. Everything dear and familiar to me seemed to have never existed and I had never been more unsure of myself or of my life. For the first time since we had left, I began to question my decision on leaving home.

“Is it everything you expected?” I turned to see Malik leaning against the doorway, the welcome glow of the inside illuminating him.

“It is and then some.” I replied, letting the awe of the intimidating place seep into my voice.

“But… it is not Jerusalem, is it?” Malik interpreted, seeing right through the disguise to my core. He came up beside me, bring his arm around me. I leaned into him, my rock, the only one I could depend on.

“No, no it is not.” My voice was neutral.

Malik sighed. “I did not want to leave Jerusalem. I did not want to tear you away from your home, but I could not leave you behind, either. Altaïr needs me here and so this was the only way I could have both. I am being selfish, but leaving you behind was unbearable.”

“It’s not like I did not want to come out here with you, Malik. I would have followed you whether you wanted me along or not. And this place is beautiful, beyond words, but it’s… I just…” Pangs of emotion welled up in my heart.

“You’re homesick.” He knew exactly what was wrong. I only nodded and leaned closer to him. He rubbed my arm, his head on mine.

“You’ll become used to this place. It may take a while, but you will. It only takes time,” He turned me to face him, his eyes soft, but serious. “I’ll always be here when you need me.”

I needed him now, very much so. He smelled of dust and travel, but there was also that dried ink scent. And I was taken back to the bureau, back home. He was home to me. He would always be home. He pecked me gently on the lips. “You need rest, Rajah,”

‘No, I need you.’

“I’ll be right across the hall if you need me.”

‘But I need you now. Can’t you see that?!’

But I did not voice my thoughts. I only murmured my assent and nodded. He did not need to know how wrecked I was. I could survive this. I had to. I had survived my life this far. I had endured the cruelty of Jerusalem’s streets.

But…I was no longer in Jerusalem. I was in a palace far away, in unfamiliar territory, where I knew not anybody or anything, where everything could be a threat. I needed something to hold onto, something to get me through the night, just tonight.

“Malik-” I called, but the only response I got was the soft click of my door shutting. He was gone. My heart sank.

“Stay…”

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

The storm rolled in an hour or so later. I had changed out of my grimy clothes and into my nightdress. I lay curled up in a ball under the wooly blankets, watching the candle flame eat away at the wax. There was no way I was going to endure the storm in darkness. The lightning flickered outside, the rain splashing against the windows, shadows dancing in corners and on the walls and I braced myself. The answering rumble shook me down to my core.

I hated this. I hated being alone in this cold, dark place, especially with a storm trying to force its way in. I wanted somebody to hold. I wanted Malik. I did not want to be alone. I flung my legs out of bed, the cold lashing at my unprotected skin. I went to my door and silently clicked it open. There was no one about and everything was eerily silent. I crossed to Malik’s door and only before my knuckles touched the wood did I begin to question myself.

What if he was asleep? His room was quiet. I didn’t want to wake him. What if he didn’t want to be disturbed? I didn’t want to intrude on his privacy. I did not want to make him angry. But I needed to be close to him. He had told me if I needed anything to come to him.

Well, this counted.

Thunder boomed and I rapped my fist on the door, shivering, not giving a rat’s ass at that point. I could hear him moving to answer and the door opened almost instantly.

“Rajah…” Malik spoke softly. He wasn’t surprised or angry. He seemed almost… relieved. Understanding, I daresay. His eyes were lustrous from the dim glow radiating in the room. He was still in his Assassins robes, save for his blue cloak, leather belt and boots. His red sash was loosely tied around his middle, his white robes slightly parted. His copper skin was striking against the white.

When he held his arm out, I did not hesitate to go into him. I wrapped my arms around him, refusing to let go. He turned so he could close the door with his back, leaning against it, stroking my hair.

“I should not have left you alone. I was going to come to you if you had not shown up.” He muttered.

“I hope- I hope I am not intruding.” I mumbled, uncaring when he was holding me.

“Rajah,” He pushed me away to make me look at him, “If I did not want you in here, I would have made sure you knew. I don’t normally let anyone into my space, but you… you are the only exception. I want you close to me. I always want you by my side.”

I smiled, watching him try to make me understand. Tears threatened to flood my eyes and I felt my heart swell.

“I just wanted to be with you. I didn’t want to be alone.” The thunder bellowed and I flinched. Malik clutched me.

“You don’t have to be, Rajah. I’m here. I’m yours.”

He was mine… My whole body soared on an unknown sensation and I reveled in it. I didn’t want it to end. “Don’t make me go.”

“I won’t. I want you to stay. Always…”

He pulled me to the bed and we fell beneath the covers. He pulled me flush against him and Allah, it was warm, with his fingers stroking patterns on my side. I was groggy without sleep and blissfully high off of his touch, of his heavy closeness. He was solid and powerful, he would protect me…

We watched the rain hit the windows, tapping ruthlessly for our attention. But it wouldn’t hurt us. Nothing would hurt us. His heartbeat drummed against my ear and his quiet breathing made everything so tranquil and serene, the strength of his arm around me, guarding me against the shadows of the stormy night…

And in that moment, I was not longer afraid. With him by my side, I believed I could do anything. I had done all of the things that could have killed me somehow, but I had survived. And for Malik, I would get through this, through it all. I would prevail somehow because my life, though he was snoring slightly at that point and his head had slumped slightly on top of mine, had begun anew.