They had met with minimal resistance while gaining entry to the forecourt of the house and Maria was surprised to see the entire area had been cobbled, she had been expecting something more traditional. The villa unlike most of the private Cypriot residences was designed like a mini fortress. No ornate fountains or carved pillars here – only high walls and small windows which were shuttered and locked.
"It looks too old to have been erected by Crusaders why would someone have built this here?"
"You were not the first people to bring conflict to these shores Maria. Men have always needed strong walls to keep an enemy at bay."
They were standing behind the small out building which was being used as a stable having just dragged the two guards they had dispatched there to hide them. Maria looked across the open ground and sighed, "How do we get from here to there without being seen? There is not as much as a bloody bush to hide behind."
Altaïr looked to the house and smirked, the only lights on the outside of the house were two torches hanging on either side of the main door with a man posted beneath each. Would he ever admit to her that her idea to attack at night had been a good one? With not even shadows to lurk in daylight assault would have meant all out hand to hand combat. "We'll stay close to the walls and hope they are as disinterested as they look. If we get close enough I can reach them with throwing knives."
Her whispered tones had an edge to them; an edge the assassin knew well – readiness. "I'll take the far wall and you go down this side. When you are within range stop moving to show you are ready." Reaching over her shoulder she took her bow in hand, "We can strike them both simultaneously and avoid any chance of screaming."
He nodded and paused when she looked like she had more to say but her mouth remained closed. Returning his gesture she got down low and began creeping over to her position. Maria had once, more than once, called the assassin a dirty sneaking coward for the back stabbing dirty tricks his order used and here she was employing those very same tactics, the irony was not lost on her. "God help me I'm an assassin." She would have chuckled had her stomach not been knotted so tightly. Once she reached the wall she glanced back at the assassin at first struggling to see him against the light stone of the wall he was moving beside. She smiled when she saw him; she had almost told him she had been wrong about what they could be to each other but instead swallowed the words down. If they got through this in one piece maybe there would be a better time to tell him.
The assassin got within range and moved a few steps closer still. Maria was within range with her bow and arrow much sooner than he but he had never seen her use it and he wanted to be ready to strike the other guard in case she missed. Taking a blade from his belt he looked across at her with her bow raised and the arrow ready to be loosed. Dismissing the idea of having a blade in the other hand he stopped walking, "If she says she can take him then she will take him."
Maria's arm shook as she held the thing wooden stem between her fingers her eyes darting between her target and the man who would signal the attack. Her shoulder began to ache from the tension she was applying to the weapon then he stopped. The night was still and with no weather conditions to factor in this for Maria was a simple shot. She loosed the arrow and watched as it flew from her bow knowing instinctively its course was true as it sped into the darkness. The sentries clutched at their bodies in unison, Maria's his throat and the assassin had struck deep into his targets chest. The killers approached each other slowly still looking around for any sign of men but when they were close to each other she saw his eyes were shining and knew hers would be the same. There was no pleasure to be had from taking a life Maria understood that but to live with your life on the line, to taste the adrenaline which coursed unfettered through your body, you were never more alive than when your next breathe could be your last.
Her eyes screwed up when the heavy door creaked as it conceded to her shove and opened. They both became perfectly still, watching and listening. There was no reaction to the door proclaiming their presence and they went inside. Her heart was pounding so hard she could hear its beat in her eardrums and she wondered if he felt the same way, he looked utterly calm and steady but she had her doubts that those conditions reflected his true feelings. The hall was as bereft of decoration as the outside had been, it was as though nobody lived here and had it not been for the men on guard outside she would have believed they were in the wrong place. A door to the left of them was closed but there was a thin shard of light sneaking out from the bottom. She pointed but it was only a reaction he had seen it before she had.
The assassin crossed the stone floor silently and narrowed his eyes as he stood with his head cocked at the door.
'Are you listening for his heartbeat?' The notion was both amusing and frightening to her because a tiny part of her actually thought he might well be that good.
His head moved once to signal the man they were searching for was behind that door, or at least there was someone behind the door. Her pace increased as she moved to meet him no longer caring who saw them so long as she got to him nothing mattered anymore.
His hand on her breast plate halted her progress to the door, "Stay your temper Maria a cool head is far more useful to us."
The careful approach of the assassin had gotten her this far but Maria at heart was a scrapper. She nodded aggressively and grunted "Yes yes calm and steady but the coolest head in the entire world will never enter that room without first opening the door."
Unable to argue the basic truth of her statement he placed a hand on the heavy iron handle and slowly pushed it down. A load click from the other side of the door had him wincing because to his ears it was the loudest door mechanism he had ever heard in his life. Knowing he had no other choice he shoved the handle all the way down and threw open the door to see the oldest of the Marshal men beginning to rise from his chair with a question already forming on his lips.
Altaïr was across the room and at him in no more than the beat of an eye but the Templar was fast – far faster than a man of his years had any right to be and so it was his sword the assassin encountered first.
"Where is Stephen?"
Without taking his eyes from the man William snorted "Will you never tire of meddling with my son's life woman?"
"It's his death which troubles me more old man. Spare me the trouble of searching and tell me where he is."
"How is it Maria that you are so unaware of how much I detest you?" His top lip was curling as if his words needed any assistance to convey his sentiment. "We could have led him on the proper path were it not for you and your constant interference. Yes my boy has a tender heart but he is not immune to the words of his brothers and eventually he would have been one of us."
Maria moved past the low table and approached the desk he stood beside "You could not be more wrong William. I was much more likely to fall under the spell of the Templars than he."
He snorted but knew the truth of her words, had it not been his own idea to indoctrinate the woman into the inner circles of the order purely as a means to reach his boy?
"Tell me where he is William."
"No Maria I will not aide you in harming him." Lifting the tip of his sword he grinned, "Cowards and dogs travel in packs but even together I doubt you will offer much of a fight."
Altaïr matched his stance but spoke to Maria, "Go find your friend Maria and undo any evil this man has visited upon him."
Marshal looked panic stricken and pounced for the woman "You will not touch my son." He felt heat emanate from the line the cold steel of the assassin had just sliced in his arm and spun back to him. "So I was right? You're a cowardly dog who would attack a man when his back was turned."
"You were side on and I attacked a man who meant to inflict harm on a woman any cowardice is yours."
Maria had her own sword drawn but the assassin spoke with more urgency than before "Go now Maria your instincts were correct and you must save your friend."
He watched her sprint to the door and regretted not having more time to tell her what he heard Marshal tell Stephen in Acre. "It was the trinket my boy. It can't be held and that is why nobody uses it" Calling out to her as she vanished through the open doorway the assassin did all he could to warn her, "Maria he will not be the same person if he is affected by the artefact, do not trust him."
His words caught her as she reached the outer door to take one of the torches from the wall outside and the effect they had on her stopped her in her tracks. Maria was not a coward by any means but there were things she feared and these nasty little gifts people seemed so intent on finding were high on that list. Altaïr had called them "Those who came before" and while Maria still wrestled with the concept of their being an earlier civilisation the power of the items they had left behind was undeniable. She threw a look over her shoulder and heard the clash of steel from the room behind her. 'Changed how?' With much less vigour but with an admirable amount of courage she set her feet towards the stairs and began her search.
The stairs led to a hallway which funnelled off in two directions but Maria could see each of passages turned onto another hallway. She began walking left and caught a faint whiff of something but what that was she couldn't put her finger on and as her steps advanced further down the hall the smell lessened. Stopping she looked back to the passage she had rejected and retraced her steps. Maria had lived worked and slept with soldiers for years and she knew where people lived their smell lived too. By the time she had reached the left turn at the end of the corridor the smell was not only recognisable it was strong enough to make her cringe. She had once fished around in the innards of a dead horse to find maggots and would never care to recall how many times she vomited during that horrific labour but her stomach lurched again as the stench invoked the memory and she felt the increase of fluid in her mouth which usually preceded a bout of throwing up.
"Please don't let that be him." She spoke low and to nobody in particular but it felt better to say it than to offer a silent prayer. "I can stand almost anything but that unholy stench promises naught but ill."
Her hands shook terribly as she cautiously opened one door after another finding nothing but dark empty rooms. One door left and unless she was afraid of nothing more than a long forgotten stew he was behind this door.
As with the others the room was in total darkness but the smell was stronger, sweeter. Something below her crashed to the floor and she hoped that Altaïr had a better hold on things than she did. Holding the torch at arm's length from her body she swept the room with the light. There was a chest at the foot of a huge bed and a crate in the corner but otherwise it was as bare as the rest of the house. Tentatively she walked to the bed knowing full well anything alive in here knew she was there but still she found herself in no rush to get there.
The shape of feet and then legs began to form beneath the red of the coverlet slowing her even more. The illumination from the torch was ahead of her exposing the form on the bed and giving her a chance to react to any sort of threat it posed but the figure never moved not even when the glow reached his face, the face of her friend. He was placed dead centre in the bed with the cover pulled up to his chest but she could see his shoulders were bare. His cheeks had collapsed and the flesh on his jowls hung loose from the bone. She had allowed herself so many dark thoughts on her journey to find him that his death was a relief to her but not such a relief that his appearance didn't cause her pain.
"Why has he not buried you my friend?" She placed the torch into a holder on the wall beside the bed and whispered, "I have to go help Altaïr but when it's over I'll return and make sure you get a decent Christian burial."
With her knee on the edge of the bed she leaned over the body to take hold of the blanket to cover his face but paused to see him one last time. It offended her that such a brave man had been left to rot in a dark room, "You did not deserve this end Stephen forgive me for not being there for you in your time of need."
She stroked the skin on his face ignoring how wet it felt and regretting how she didn't have the stomach to kiss a man who had meant so much to her. There was not enough of the blanket loose to cover his head so she leaned to the bottom of the bed to free more up when a low gravelly voice spoke.
"Maria, I knew you would come."
She felt cold fingers wrap around her ankle and she fell to the floor screaming.
Altaïr had to dive to his left to avoid the stool the old men had sent hurtling at his head. He easily regained his footing and came up behind his opponent. The older man was tired and bleeding but he was far from beaten and the assassin knew it. Taking a few steps to the right with his blade directly in front of him he moved to the centre of the room. Sword fighting was as much a test of mental prowess as physical, Malik had once likened it to a game of chess and he had not been wrong. Each step was met by a countermove until eventually one man makes a mistake and leaves himself exposed. He heard a thud followed by a shrill scream from above and for a split second the assassin made an error he would have severely punished any novice under this tutelage stupid enough to make it – he took his eyes off his opponent.
William stepped forward and with one deft flick of his wrist his mighty sword sent the assassin's blade flying from his hand. Altaïr saw the second swing of his blade clearly enough and had to bend his body backwards to avoid the killing blow, he heard the whoosh and felt the wind from his blade on his face. The Englishman advanced swinging his sword wildly at the assassin not allowing him time to gain a solid position.
The assassin moved around the room with lightening speed never allowing the man a real chance to strike him but this defence meant he never had a chance to strike either - his short blade needed to be far closer than this man's long sword would allow him to get. He scanned the floor as he moved trying to find his lost weapon but it was nowhere to be seen. He kept moving, ducking and spinning all the while searching his brain for another option then he saw it. The simple black spiralled hilt of the huge broad sword Stephen had favoured. It was against the wall behind his foe but he knew he could reach it, the older man was both fast and strong but the assassin was faster and fitter.
With a drop of his right shoulder he moved left and darted past the wrong footed William but as he got behind him he felt something solid connect with the back of his head, 'He thinks faster than he moves.'
The blow from this gauntlet sent the assassin sprawling face first into the wall and the chunky sound of his head connecting with the hall brought a malicious grin to William's face. "Now we shall see who the better man really is."
Even as his eyes rolled in their sockets his sharp mind fought to hold onto consciousness, he heard the Englishman speak and the assassin used that sound to focus his mind but it was more instinct than reason which had him reaching for the sword and it was a lifetime of muscle training which told him arm what to do with it.
William Marshal pulled his sword fully behind him to lend as much power to the next blow as he could muster, his only intention to separate this weasels head from his body. He saw him turn to face him and was glad he would be looking into his eyes when he died then he saw what he held in his hand. With his own blade so far out of position he had no hope of deflecting the blow and he had no time to move only lower his head and watch as his own son's sword tore open his gut. The assassin rose with the blade and forced it higher and deeper into his body ending up face to face with the dying man. The Templar opened his mouth to speak but death robbed him of his final words. The assassin tugged the blade free and was already stepping past his body before it hit the ground. He ran for the stairs calling her name hoping she would respond to make finding her easier but there was no reply.
She had thrown herself from the bed and landed on her side on the floor with the scream which greeted his touch only now coming to an end. Panic took hold as she scrambled for the door on her hands and knees desperate not to face what lay on the bed until she remembered what lay on the bed was her reason for being here.
"Is the sight of me so repellent?"
The voice was hoarse and low but it was his voice. "I thought you were dead."
She heard him groan before he spoke but his words were too low to be heard. Moving closer to the bed she paused to free the dagger from her belt. If her feet obeyed her command to move her eyes remained resolutely averted from the man on the bed. Even when she knew was she almost at his side she could not bring herself to gaze upon the abomination.
"Speaking causes me pain and takes more effort than you could imagine. Stay near and hear me well Maria." Her eyes shifted enough that his form was on the edge of her vision but nothing more she nodded unsure if he could see it or not but he spoke again regardless. "In the chest at the bottom of the bed you will find box. Weight it down and sink it to the ocean floor."
"The artefact is in there?"
"Yes, he had it around my neck but I couldn't stand it being so close. Such dreams Maria the stuff of nightmare but in them I found only rapture. Bathing in the blood of my enemies and standing victorious atop the hill of corpses I had created."
The forlorn tone of his voice, the words he spoke. She moved her head to see him and her hand reached for his in a thoughtless act of compassion. "But it kept you alive."
He laughed but it sounded painful and dry, "Do I look alive?" Shaking her head she sat on the edge of the bed. "Were there God's before who ran the lives of men as the Romans and the Greeks believed? These things were not meant for the hands of mortals Maria and if you remain with the assassin tread wary my friend, they poison from the inside out."
"Will you die when I take it away?"
"No I will die when you do me the kindness of running me through. I have laid here too long Maria; one day resisting that thing is an eternity. If I was ever a friend to you then I ask mercy from you now."
His request was nothing more than she had planned all along but now she was with him and saw he was still in his own mind that would feel more like murder than mercy. "If it stays close but not too close could you not perhaps recover in time?"
His voice echoed the ache of his tired heart, "It was not meant for this Maria. Its true purpose is unknown to me but I know it offers nothing real. The knight who carried it back to the Holy Land wanted nothing more than to live long enough to complete his quest and so it gave him youth. The men who saw this believed it to be the function of the thing and told those who inherited it the same. I want nothing from it and so it gives me nothing but my Father wills it to heal me and the conflict in directives caused this." His hand moved over his chest to signal his own condition was what he spoke of.
Maria moved beside him the sweet smell of rotting flesh ignored, "I'll do as you ask."
"He faces the assassin."
He shut his eyes tightly and his sorry face looked pained. "Everything I own is in that chest Maria, take it with you and use it how you see fit." He opened his eyes one last time they were as bright as she had ever seen them. "Dispatch a messenger to England with the news I died in battle I would have my Mother mourn only the loss of a son and not suffer the indignity of having married a fool."
He closed his eyes and squeezed her hand, "You brought trouble and joy in equal measure but I have loved you from the first."
Her tears landed on his cheeks as the tip of her dagger hovered over his heart, "I love you too Stephen with all my heart I wish there was another way."
Her mouth landed on his just as it opened to react to the pain of her blade but it closed again immediately. Death came swiftly to the young man, one final kindness to a life which had only sought to serve.
He had been at the door long enough to have heard his warning about the apple but kept his distance. There had been no place for him in that moment his time to intervene was now. Closing the distance between them he took her by the shoulders and lifted her from the bed. She looked at him for a time perhaps searching for something sharp to say to cover her sadness but there were no words. Placing a hand on each of his cheeks she smiled through the tears, it was desperate smile it was never meant to convey an emotion rather it was a request, one he could easily grant. Taking her in his arms he pulled her to his chest and held her there. Her arms coiled around his neck as she clung to him she sighed, there was pain in the sound but also relief. Her fingers entangled with the fabric of his robes and her tears soaked the skin of his neck but he held her tighter because he understood that is exactly what she needed him to do.
He had left her sleeping on his blanket and gone back to the house to retrieve his sword and the chest Maria told him she would not leave without. She had spoken few words but that much she had been strong about. He placed it a few feet away from her and sat on the stones she had used the night before to watch as the first signs of her stirring from her restless sleep began to show. Her eyes were blood shot and puffy but she smiled when she saw him, "You haven't slept have you?"
"I got the chest. We can drag it behind one of the horses and I'll send men here to bury the dead."
Her back cracked as she stood to join him on the rock. The island was spread out below them and the Mediterranean twinkled in the low morning sun. "The last time we watched this ocean together we planned to travel to India."
That earned her a small smile, "Life had other plans for us." He told her of his plans to stay and help Markos then turned to her, "What of you Maria, where will you go?"
"Wherever you go there I go too." Her head dropped onto his shoulder and his rested upon it.
"In time I will return to Masyaf, are you saying you would live there?"
"Where else can I go?"
He closed his eyes and tried to think of the positives of being her only option but there were none he could see. "That response offers little by way of hope."
"You once accused me of being a slave to my emotions, of following my heart and I know you were right." She angled her body to face him, "You have my heart Altaïr. Everything I have to offer any man is yours."
He felt her fingers coil around his own but still he resisted, "Maria you can come with me if that is what you wish but don't come to me unless you mean to stay."
"I love you that much has been clear for a long time but it took me just a little while longer to learn how much I need you."
His eyes searched her face for any sign of doubt but there were none; she was being absolutely open and honest. He brushed a finger along her jaw and smiled, "I give you fair warning Maria I mean to have you with me forever." She smirked like as not about to offer one of her quips but her man was having none of that, "I love you Maria."
His head moved lower to hers as his arms slid behind her back drawing her to him and as their lips met he felt her arms move around his neck. The kiss was soft and broken by smiles but it was exactly how it should be, shared with the woman he would love for the remainder of his life.
The story is complete but there will be an epilogue in the not too distant future. It will be an all out fangirl celebration of our OTP so I think I'm giving you a heads up. You can stop reading this fic now if you just wanted to see how it ended the epilogue will be nothing more than the cherry on top, a small reward to myself for getting this done. And yes the ending was VERY low key but fangirls just wait I'm saving it all for the epilogue :)
This is going to be long but after 200k words you should know by now brief and to the point are not my thing. It is not related to the fic so there is no reason to read this beyond curiosity.
In the first chapter I thanked people who helped me get moving and now I want to thank people who kept me going.
Special thanks to DanAlaya, you showing up was honestly a dream come true, from advice to moral support and friendship you are a joy. Tahir and Gwen would both be dead if not for you and that would have been a horrible mistake. You know my OC's better than I do and you really should write more you have skills girl! Also Techne and tavingtonsbeauty are always there for a chat about plot or anything that comes to mind and that too matters a lot, you guys are beautiful and Techne get your damn laptop fixed I miss you!
Thank you so much for reading this, I appreciate the time all of you spend reading my fic. To the wonderful people who share my love of Altair and Maria and who take the time to create something to feed the hunger we all have for this pairing I say thank you, thank you and thank you. I will read them for as long as I am able and enjoy every single one, from all out shit fests to domestic bliss I am hooked on them all.