Mariqah looked up at the mountain with an awe and reverence. She pulled her thick woollen cloak around her closer to fend of the icy chill of desert winds in the nighttime. She took a stick from the ground and used it to help her hike through the steady path up the mountain. She didn't know how long she was climbing, but it eased her tension to hike and travel the mountain in the cold air. Her mind was calm, soothed by the vast the easy journey ahead.
If only all things were so simple.
After she had reached some height, she looked over at her land, the specks of flickering flame dancing in the darkness so tiny from where she stood. Her dark locks of hair flowed around her face as she looked over the fortress and all it protected. Mariqah grimaced.
"You've returned," called a voice behind her.
Mariqah wasn't surprised. She knew he was here. It was one of the reasons she wanted to come to the mountain.
"Uncle Haytham," Mariqah said.
He came and stood beside her, "You are troubled, my child," he murmured, leaning against his staff, "What ails you? Are you ill? Dying, perhaps?"
Mariqah scoffed, "No, uncle."
"Then perhaps there is some hope to be had in a solution to your problems, mm?" he said.
Mariqah shut her eyes and smiled. She paused a moment, the smile soon declining into a frown before she opened her eyes once more and said, "I can't seem to see a solution, uncle."
Haytham laughed, scratching his pointed beard, "Just because you can't see a solution, doesn't mean there isn't one, Mariqah," he placed a hand on her shoulder, "Come, sit with me."
Mariqah nodded and and followed her "uncle" into a wide cave. This was indeed the Haytham we often hear of, but rarely see - the father of Khadir ibn Haytham Al-Assadi. For Khadir and Mariqah are not siblings by blood, but in arms. And this now aging man, Haytham, had once been a fierce soldier that had taken Mariqah under his wing and taught her everything he knew. This bold man bore a resemblance to his youngest son, Khadir - lion-faced, tall and large in all ways but in stomach. But his face was withered, his hairs greyed almost completely. He was a man on the cusp of disappearing into the pages of history, but yet, somehow, he still stood before Mariqah. He sat her down on the stone floor and sat himself down in front of her, and smiled.
Haytham was the first person to smile at Mariqah since she had arrived, she noticed.
"So," he said, resting his chin in the palm of his hand, preparing himself to hear a story as a child might, "Tell me of your adventures, my child. Where have you been? What have you done?"
But all Mariqah said was, "I've... been nowhere and done nothing."
"Whatever do you mean?"
"It's all a waste of time. An enjoyment for a short period... before an inevitable destruction and ruin."
Haytham paused, "Mariqah," he said, "you know how much I hate the riddles."
Bit by bit, Mariqah told him about her time in the West Indies, about the struggles she met with a man named Captain Estaban Vasquez and the British who sought to colonise his island, Tortuga. She told Haytham about an adventure fraught with danger and peril - a pirate story worth retelling at a campfire. She also spoke of the death of her good friend, Captain Callum O'Brien - who had always loved her so dearly, but she could never love him the same way.
"It seems to me that you've been to many places and done much, Mariqah," Haytham said.
Mariqah scratched the dirt on the stone floor, "Quantity does not amount to quality, uncle."
"Perhaps not," Haytham conceded, "but I happened to have noticed a great number of your soldiers marching out today as I was tending the sheep. May I inquire as to where they have been sent?"
"I have sent them away to Normandy," Mariqah told him, "They are not safe here."
"And the rest? You? My son? Are you safe here?"
Mariqah shook her head, "They refuse to obey me and I cannot leave them to the uncertainty of this place."
"You have trusted your instincts, this is admirable," Haytham said, "But you stay because of your emotions towards your men and to Khadir... I cannot commend you for this."
Mariqah smiled, "I didn't suppose that you would," she sniffed.
"My child," Haytham said, touching her face, "Do not think for a moment that I am belittling you. You have a mountain to climb, and you must get up from your knees if you ever hope to reach the top."
Mariqah scoffed, turning away, "Perhaps I was never meant to," she muttered.
"Excuse me?" Haytham asked, with his brows raised.
"Look at me," Mariqah said, "Look at them. I've made a stupid mess of everything."
Haytham laughed, "Look at you, being all melodramatic."
"I'm serious, uncle," Mariqah insisted, the frustration tearing her voice, "I don't want this anymore. It's not meant for me."
"Oh?" Haytham said, "Then what is 'meant' for you, Mariqah? A quiet life, a cosy house, a loving husband whose every wish you obey, and seven beautiful children that case the man's hunting dogs around the fire-place? That was never meant for you."
"Perhaps if I had... decided something else, chosen a different path entirely," Mariqah mused.
"It wouldn't have mattered, my dear."
Mariqah looked up at him, "What do you mean?"
"This was decided for you, Mariqah."
Mariqah rolled her eyes, "Oh, please, uncle. Everything is a consequence of my own actions."
Haytham gave her a hard look, "Watch your words, girl. There are only so many kinds of people in this world, sheep and shepherds - and you are most certainly not a sheep," he smiled a wicked grin, "You know how to disobey and stay disobedient. You know how to say 'no'. And that is the first sign of a leader - to oppose, to think for his or herself," Haytham pointed at his temple, "So I wager it wouldn't have mattered which path you chose, you would have ended up in the same mess regardless."
"Thank you for your vast amounts of support," Mariqah muttered, "There's no real way of knowing, in any case."
Haytham giggled. He didn't scoff or laugh or guffaw. He giggled. Mariqah narrowed her eyes at him and his peculiar behaviour.
"What is so funny?" she asked.
Haytham smiled, "When you've lived for as long as I have, my dear child, you learn that there's always a way of knowing a thing."
Mariqah didn't know how to respond to that, so she didn't.
"I've seen a great many strange things, Mariqah," Haytham said, "But I've rarely seen a woman age backwards. A woman your age should have begun to weaken by now, but something has... strengthened you, made you younger. I've heard a great deal of stories regarding fabled items, but I suspect you've discovered the most common among them."
Mariqah looked at Haytham with a wary eye, "What has that got to do with anything?"
"Such items are gateways into new worlds, undiscovered and untraversed by anyone in this reality."
Mariqah paused. Slowly, she retrieved a strange stone marked with unreadable ancient runes from beneath the folds of her cloak and placed it on the ground. Captain Vasquez had used the stone to heal fatal wound Mariqah had sustained when they tried to seize control of Tortuga. From this stone emerged the many tales about a "Fountain of Youth". Vasquez had mentioned something similar to what Haytham had just told Mariqah, that the stone opened doors into different worlds - though Vasquez admitted that he's never once been to these other realities.
Haytham picked up the stone and examined it, entranced by the markings, "Fascinating," he murmured, "I never thought, in all my years, that I'd ever see something like this."
"I want to know," Mariqah said.
"What?" Haytham asked, broken from his trance.
"I want to know the outcome of other choices," Mariqah said, "I want to know... If I could have had a better life than this."
"I have my doubts Mariqah," Haytham said setting the stone down, "Those who seek truths always find it in sorrow."
"I cannot be happy when I'm ignorant. And it won't leave me alone until I know."
Without needing to be told how, Haytham acitivated the stone by striking it with flint and setting it alight, "Then enter the flames, and find your answers."
"Where will I go?" Mariqah asked.
"I don't know. All I know is that you will return, eventually."
Without questioning this madness any further, Mariqah put her hand into the flames and found that it didn't burn her. The smoke poured out of it and she was inclined to fall deeper into the fire - until she was blinded by its light.