Chapter 4

Dear readers,

Wow, it has been a while. So sorry for the delay, I had lots of other stuff to work on. Life got in the way. So much to do, so little time. I like to think I've gotten a bit better at writing since I published the last chapter of this story, and I will try to improve as I go. So without further ado, I present the fourth chapter of this slowly dying story.

Sincerely,

W'P

P.S. So yeah, I've changed my pen name. =_= So yeah, in case you were wondering if someone randomly copied this story. It's been done.

Song: Baby Doll, Cat Power

I breathed in and out deeply, trying desperately to keep my panicking heart rate under control. I was not able to move any of my limbs, or open my eyes completely. My heart jumped sharply as my hand fell through open air—I was suspended on something. The little that I could see through my half-lidded eyes revealed a large room bathed in yellow candlelight. The walls seemed to be mostly covered in bookcases or shelves of some sort, but my vision was suddenly blocked by a thin, wrinkled hand holding a clump of green and red leaves.

"Eat this, girl." The voice was dry and scratchy, but pleasant as I obediently opened my lips. The fingers pushed the soft leaves in and pushed my jaw shut. "Chew and swallow."

I did so, and almost immediately my vision cleared and my eyes snapped open. The plant left an unpleasant, bitter taste in my mouth, but I felt much more alive and well than I had in quite a while. The same hand extended to me, bearing my scarf. Faster than I thought I could move I had snatched the thing out of the wrinkled hand and wrapped the red cloth around my face in a hurry, wanting to cover it back up as quickly as humanly possible. After my face was sufficiently masked, I felt infinitely calmer.

"You're a pretty girl." A voice crackled. I glanced up at the source. It was a hunched old woman, donned in tattered green robes; gray hair lay in dry, uneven locks around her craggy face. She opened her mouth and grinned toothlessly. "Don't usually see pretty girls wantin' to cover their faces."

I frowned slightly. "Where am I?" The bookcases around the walls were not bookcases at all, but in fact shelves covered in vials, wooden boxes and glass tubes of varying sizes, as well as barrels and crates on the ground. The room smelled strongly of herbs and the stinging, coppery stench of blood. Small, stained white beds were positioned in the room as well, and I was not alone. Two more of the beds were taken up by men in white shifts. One of them was moaning quietly, gripping a bloodstained bandage that was wrapped around his middle.

The woman shuffled to the wall to my right, running a finger over the labels of the bottles on the shelves. At last she picked a small sack tied with a thin red string. She walked back to me and handed me the little bag.

"You're in the infirmary, in Masyaf." She wheezed. "You were hurt pretty bad, lost a lot of blood, but you'll live." She gestured to the bag in my hands. "Eat a couple of those leaves when you can't deal with the pain. It'll help."

I nodded and made to tie the bag at my belt when I realized I was wearing a white robe like the others here. Although it was plain and rather comfortable I found myself wishing for my clothes.

The woman smiled at me. "I don't believe I have introduced myself. I am Ikram. Most know me as 'the healer woman', but either one will do."

I bowed slightly. "Thank you for healing me. If you do not mind, however, I wish simply to begin training."

Ikram seemed to falter slightly. "You . . . aren't going to be one of the girls?" She asked quizzically.

My brows came together. "I . . . no, I do not believe so. Why?"

"Why?" The medicine woman laughed. "There are no female Hashashins! Where did you ever get the idea that you would be fighting?" I opened my mouth to respond, but was cut off. "Come." Ikram beckoned to me with a gnarled finger as she shuffled to the door leading to what I assumed to be the rest of the fortress. "I will show you the gardens."

My arms shook slightly as I lifted myself off the sturdy wooden table I was suspended on—despite my newly awakened state, I was still very weak. The stone floor felt like ice against my bare feet as I gingerly lowered myself to the ground. Pain lanced through my leg as I limped quickly after the retreating back of Ikram. We were almost out the door when a man on one of the wooden tables suddenly groaned loud enough that it was almost a scream. I halted for a moment and looked back at the man, his face twisted in pain, but Ikram continued on.

"Do you not have some herb that can heal his suffering?" I asked as struggled to catch up.

The medicine woman waved a hand flippantly. "He's a grown man. He can handle it. All I can give him is hashish, and he's so reliant on the stuff he's going to run my stores dry."

We continued in silence through a short, narrow hall for several paces before emerging in a large, airy hall. Ikram moved out of the way of a tall shelf of books; I vaguely recalled where I had seen such shelves and realized that we were in the stronghold of Masyaf. The entrance to the infirmary was somewhat hidden, and I wondered what imbecile thought to put the infirmary in a corner behind a bookshelf.

After rounding a staircase, we turned to the entrance of the garden I had glimpsed upon my arrival. As we passed the armed guards on either side of the tall entrance, I wondered how long I had been unconscious. Hours? Days?

The garden was revealed to be less of a garden and more of an outdoor brothel. Women in silky, translucent dresses flitted about the grass, powdered and painted like dolls. Flower petals drifted on the warm breeze, falling on the decorated roofs of gazebos, giving the garden a heavenly look. I felt my lip curl in disgust. I would rather die than become one of these polished whores. Ikram continued on, apparently oblivious to my immediate distaste.

"This is the garden, pretty girl." Ikram gestured around the flowered, grassy enclosure. "It's so beautiful here, no? I do hope you enjoy living here."

I stopped and turned to the old healer. "I will not live here."

Ikram laughed loudly. She seemed to do that quite a lot. "Why, of course you will, pretty girl! You must forget this nonsense about becoming one of the Hashashins. Now, I think you've quite tired of this place, no?" She chuckled hoarsely. "Let's get you some clean clothes."

Knowing there was no point in arguing with this woman, I obediently followed, silently grinding my teeth. After a small staircase down, we turned into a small room set into the base of the fortress. It seemed to be some sort of dressing room. A handful of girls and women were there, putting fresh kohl on their eyes and paint on their lips. A few looked up upon our arrival, and even called out words of greeting to Ikram, but did not seem particularly surprised. The healer led me past through the room and to a small cabinet, from which she removed a folded garment; one of the thin robes worn by the women. She tossed the robe into my hands and led me to a small seat positioned in front of a immaculately polished, slightly scratched mirror.

"Sit." She said pleasantly.

I remained standing. "No."

"Girl!" Ikram exclaimed suddenly. "Enough! You are here, you cannot leave, and you are not going to be one of the Assassins! You must quit this fantasy."

"Listen," I hissed, lowering my voice. Some of the women were beginning to turn their heads. "You have healed my wounds and for that I am grateful, but I am no prostitute and never will be. I will gladly fight my way from this fortress before I am forced into this life."

I set the robe on the seat and stalked out, my temper flaring. The effect of my walking out, which normally might have been somewhat dramatic, was ruined by the fact that I was staying standing only through sheer willpower. I walked out of the gardens and was just reaching the bottom of the stairs when I slammed headfirst into a wall. Stumbling back, I found that it was not a wall, but in fact Altaïr, who was now glowering at me with a very annoyed expression on his shadowed features.

"I want a verdict on my status here," I demanded, still seething from the garden. "Some here are apparently under the impression that I'm to become a whore."

Altaïr looked over my head at the entrance to the garden, the back down at me. "My master has not yet decided what to do with you. I was sent to retrieve you, as you are now to see him as soon as you are well enough."

I nodded, satisfied with having something to do, and started up the stairs as fast as I was able, which was not very. After a few steps I stopped when I realized Altaïr was not accompanying me. "Are you not to come with me?" I asked.

The Assassin took a step back to the main entrance of the fortress, face now shadowed even further. "You alone must speak with him. If my presence were to influence you in any way, you would be rid of."

Rolling my shoulders and wincing, I leaned on the stone banister and made the agonizingly slow climb up the stairs, then turned and repeated the process up the second staircase. By the time I reached the sunny, dusty library on top, I was gasping for air. The floor swam in front of me, and my head felt light. I blinked hard several times, pulled my scarf up further, and stepped up to the large desk that sat in front of a massive window that overlooked the training grounds I had seen earlier. More bookshelves occupied the upper floor, and a few robed monks flitted in and out of the shadowed isles.

"So, child," The voice pulled me from my observations. It was old and would have sounded wise, but if living on the streets had taught me one thing, it was how to distinguish someone who was not trustworthy. An older man stood straight and proud, silhouetted at first by the sun from the window, but as he moved closer to the desk I could make out a long beard and one milky, blind eye. "You are the one that Altaïr has brought back from Damascus." He clasped his hands behind his back and narrowed his eyes. "What is your name?"

I was reluctant to say anything at all, but instinct told me that that would be an unwise decision. "Areebah."

"A delicate name for an urchin." I didn't miss the scathing tone. "I am Al Mualim. I am the Master Assassin here in Masyaf, and oversee everything my Assassins do, and who they kill. It is a rigorous life, and one that most are born into." He inclined his hooded head. Unlike most I had seen, he wore a black robe. "What makes you think that you should join our order? You will not even show us your face."

I leaned my weight against the stone banister, still breathing a little heavily. "Surely it is not unusual for you to recruit new members?"

"Not so unusual, no. But never before has a woman become one if us."

"I have lived my life on the streets of Damas. I know how to fight, and run, and will do so willingly for your order. And, I know much about your Assassins." My words were dangerous, I knew.

Al Mualim placed his palms on his desk and leaned forward, his voice lowering dangerously. "Exactly how much do you know?"

"Enough that I would be a dangerous hindrance if I fell into your enemies' hands, but not enough that I myself can do much."

There was a pregnant pause. I kept eye contact for as long as I could with Al Mualim's seeing, black eye. It felt like looking into a churning pit of black water, in the depths of hell itself.

Almost as I was about to looks away, the elder man did first; to my surprise, he chuckled drily as he did so. "You're clever, girl. Too clever for your own good. I do not think I will make you an Assassin yet, but that does not mean I will kill you. You know the man who found you, Altaïr?" I nodded silently. "Good. He is currently on a series of missions, on which you will accompany him and provide assistance as necessary. Collect information for Altaïr, and follow our Creed, but under no circumstance will you assassinate his mark for him."

The Master opened a drawer and began writing something on a few strips of parchment. "I am regularly informed of goings-on and any assassinations made. If I hear this has happened, and you have taken Altaïr's mark, he will bring you back here and I will kill you myself." He straightened up again and peered harshly at me again with the horrible eyes he had. "Do I make myself quite clear?"

It was a more generous offer than I had expected. Honestly, I had believed my journey had come to an end. I bowed my head, the only time I could recall doing so for anybody. "Yes, Master." I found myself swearing.

"Very good." I looked up to see him securing the strips of paper to the legs of three doves, which had been sitting in a cage I had not noticed before. "Perhaps someday you may earn your place amongst our ranks, but for the foreseeable future, this will be our arrangement. Remember your punishment should you stray." The words were a clear dismissal. He pushed open the widows and released the three white birds.

Moments later, I found myself shuffling down the stairs, relieved to be away from Al Mualim. My feet were still quite bare, but now the cold stone was a way to bring myself down to earth. My visit to this Assassin Master had felt almost trance-like. Like a dream where I could see things happening before me, but I could do nothing to stop them, and simply watched the events play out of my hands.

Like a nightmare.

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Whew! A short 'sorry-about-the-huge-delay' chapter. Hope you enjoyed this little return, and I'll be back relatively soon with more!