How to start?
There are so many angles and perspectives I can write from, so many turmoils to capture, so many scenes to set. It would be impossible to capture this narrative in perfection, however I swore an oath that I would attempt it to the best of my abilities. It is the least I could do for an old friend. Oh, but it happened so long ago... So very, very long ago and I wasn't even present when all this began... But I remember all the details of her story as she had told me, and it was so vivid in my mind at the time. And then when I finally saw the chaos before me in its final stages... I dare say, my imagination couldn't have been too far from the reality of it.
It all began in a place called Masyaf.
I've been there. The sun's rays beat down on you like a steady, unforgiving drum and not even the winds would show mercy - blowing heat and sand in your face, cutting the skin like tiny little shards of glass. But no day was more furious and heated than that day. For a fury was speeding through the desert with urgency, desperate to tell her people what she knew and what she thought she had discovered.
Mariqah de Saint-Omer.
Not an uncommon name these days, I'm sure. I've seen the lady in person, heard her speak - and I can tell you this: she is the most terrifying woman I've ever met in my entire life. And her fury is a thing that knows no bounds. That day she cut through the tumultuous desert weather, ignoring the sand and dirt whipping at her face through the harsh winds, pulling along a stubborn camel who bore her meagre things.
And where was she going? To her fortress. A proud, stone stronghold, tall as it was wide - armed to the turrets with cannons, oil, and mercenaries watching at the outposts at all times. It was surrounded by a trench - the ditches being five meters wide and five meters deep, ingrained with sharpened splints of wood that crossed over each other - that snaked the area of Masyaf's land. And inside the boundaries set by the trenches lay the stronghold and its functioning outposts, a village filled with busy people of mixed heritage, and what used to be an abandoned building that belonged to the stronghold.
As Mariqah approached Masyaf, she took a moment to remove the scarf from her face and put it around her neck, and then beheld her home. She looked at the ageless stonework, the black banners that marked it as a mercenary stronghold belonging to a mercenary state. She closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, then readjusted the green tricorn hat upon her head and covered her face with the scarf once more so that the sands didn't torment her face. Mariqah muttered curses at her camel and tugged it along. She stood at the lip of the trench and regarded the man standing beside a draw-bridge on the other side that would allow her entry. The mercenary regarded her and folded his arms. There was silence between them for a while, their flowing outer-garments billowing in the wind as they looked at each other.
Mariqah uncovered her face, "Noel," she said, raising her voice only so that he would hear her. She hoped that he couldn't see the expression on her face clearly, for the shadow that was cast by her hat. Of all the people she would see within the walls of Masyaf, Mariqah had hoped that Noel wouldn't be one she'd see so soon.
"You've returned," was all he said, though Mariqah couldn't tell if he was glad or upset by it.
Mariqah let none of her own emotions show, "Yes," was all she said.
Noel sighed. He looked away, arms still folded, and asked, "Where did you go?"
"It's none of your concern, soldier," Mariqah replied, "Lower the bridge, let me in."
"My duty is to demand the business of any who approach our territory," Noel said.
This made Mariqah frown, but she again hoped that Noel could not read the expression from the distance he was standing. She never thought he could be so cold.
"My busniess, soldier," she sneered, "is to take back my rightful place in Masyaf as your leader. Now lower the bridge, I have urgent news to pass to my brother. News that affects all of us."
Noel said nothing for a moment, then said, "I'm also required to ask you the password, your Excellency."
Mariqah cringed, "What did you call me?"
"Oh, high and mighty one, we've so eagerly awaited your return," Noel bowed low in a mock courtsey, "Deliver us from evil. But first, I need a password."
"I enter a place of refuge for rogues and a place of punishment for pedantics," Mariqah recited, "There are no laws here, except the laws that keep us free."
Noel pulled a level and lowered the draw-bridge without another moments' hesitation, and Mariqah pulled her camel across it over to the other side, the heavy footfall of the camels hooves sounding loudly on the wood. Noel raised the bridge and said nothing more to Mariqah. Indeed, he didn't even look at her. But she did look at him, and let her gaze linger on the back of his head for a long time.
"I know what I did to you," she said, "Your spite is justified," she placed a hand on his shoulder, "Thank you for letting me through, despite all that. You're a good soldier."
Noel grumbled something under his breath and shrugged her hand off. Mariqah turned away and entered the city, passing under a stone arch. She didn't give herself time to connect with the nostalgia she felt as she saw the life and colour of the bazaar. She pushed through it to the gates of the fortress. She heard mercenaries and villagers alike whisper, mutter, speak and call her name as she paid them no heed. She passed her beast of burden to an attendant too flabbergasted to demand payment. Mariqah dropped some coins by his feet anyway as she passed and continued to rush with purpose towards the gates. They parted for her without hesitation, and she continued passed the courtyard, up the steps, through the corridors - ignoring the gossipping whispers around her - until she reached her study. She burst through the door.
The man who sat behind her desk with a sheaf of pages in one hand stared at her with eyes wide. His shock was so pure, one wouldn't have been able to guess if he was horrified or delighted by Mariqah's presence. All the lines in his face creased, such was his expression, his lion-face startled into silence.
"Khadir," Mariqah said, not knowing how to handle her brother's shock.
Second by second, Khadir put down the sheets of paper on the desk. Each sound rang in Mariqah's ears, amplified by her uncertainty. The crinkle of the pages, the steps Khadir took towards her, that peculiar sound he made when he cleared his throat to speak... All of them made Mariqah want to flinch.
Khadir touched his sister's face, rubbed her cheek with his thumb, looked deep into those dark brown eyes of her's - as if he couldn't quite believe she was there, standing before him.
"You came back..." he whispered, with wonder and relief in his gruff voice, "You came back!" He crushed her into an embrace. Now, Khadir was an exceptionally tall fellow, so Mariqah's face was buried in his vast chest as he expressed his affections for her.
"Khadir-" came Mariqah's muffled voice.
He let her go so that she could breathe and said, "You vanished without a trace! Where have you been? Why did you leave? And for so long!"
"Oh... But it doesn't matter now! You've come back! You've come back! So I'm sure whatever it is, we can work it out."
"Khadir!" Mariqah said, grasping his arms.
He sensed some urgency within her and said, "What is it?"
"Now's not the time to rejoice," she said, "We need to leave Masyaf, all of us together. Now."