The City of the bloody Jasmine

1129 AD, Damascus, Syria

My road to Damascus was long. The sun beat down relentlessly and I squirmed in my heavy wraps, my varmbraces chafing my forearms even through the thick scar tissue accumulated after years of their use. My mount snorted, its head bobbing up and down as it trudged for the third hour up hill in the mid-summer heat. Its black hide was covert in a fine sheet of white foam, especially where the saddle blanket met horse flesh. Patting the heavy, muscle corded neck, my thick riding glove wet with our mixed sweat, I looked at the emerging view, as we ascended the crest of the rocky valley.

The vista that spread before me made my heart swell. The mountain sides fell away to give way to rocky slopes, in parts green, in parts grey and sandy, in parts sharp and jagged, in parts fine and smooth with thumb sized pebbles and fist sized boulders creating a mirage of stone cascades. Dry bushes grew sporadically, mingling with the lonely palm trees and dried out, yellow grass.

The harsh landscape was scored by a sash of glittering blue. The Barada River wound lazily across the flat lands and through the mountains. With the blue sky far and wide, seemingly boundless above me, I looked on, letting my mount pick its way down the mountain.

A thin path wound its way down the hill side and onto a wider road. It was mostly empty, the people hiding in their homes from the mid-day heat. Three caravans trudged slowly across the landscape heading towards the looming walls of the City of Jasmine.

Damascus rose from the planes like a vast giant. The high city walls cast menacing, however short from the high position of the sun, shadows across the graveled earth. They stretched thirty grown man high, the weathered rock sandy and unyielding, three score feet thick, the marked battlements heavily guarded. Men in grey tunics and head swats stood guard every ten feet, sharp spears glittering in the pouring sun. As I rode through the Bab al-Faradis, the Gate of Orchards, two score feet thicker than the city walls surrounding it, I felt the familiar feeling of bitter-sweet homecoming. I spent the best and worse years of my life in this city and, pushing aside the knot of emotion in my chest, the familiar streets and smells calmed me down.

The streets of the City of Jasmine were narrow, one or two storey buildings lining their sides. They were a jumble of simplicity and even rudimentary and high end carving and stone work. Beyond them, reaching for the skies, rose, twisted and spiraled the spires of Damascus's numerous towers, Madrasas, Basilicas and Mosques. If ever there was a city so divers in its structures and yet so beautiful for it, it is Damascus.

For the past half score years I had been traveling on the orders of my Lord Taj al-Muluk Buri and I had seen what was happening in our blessed country. I saw Jerusalem fall, I saw Edessa crumble and rise, I saw Antioch bow to the bloodthirsty crusaders from the North. And when my country run with innocent blood Damascus stood tall and proud, never yielding its ancient walls.

Amongst my people there is a belief that every one of us is born with the sins of our forefathers and that to purge ourselves of them we have to live our lives well. We have to walk the Thariq Thawil, the Long Road to redemption. And when we finally reach its end we will find ourselves in peace and Allah will take us to the kingdom beyond. I have walked that road for two score years, giving my life and dreams to my Buri and to the Long Road. And now I was at the end of it, home, to stay. At the thought a smile stretched my parched lips, cracking the brittle skin and a trickle of blood made its way down my stubbled chin. I didn't care. I was home.

I navigated through the maze of streets, heading towards the citadel. For all its glory nothing in Damascus overshadowed the citadel. High, heavy set and stripped down to ruthless simplicity and efficiency it stood guard over the city, like a watchful father. Colorful patrols of the Buri's personal guard past me, their multicolored uniforms contrasting sharply with their hard and ruthless faces, hid beneath the shadow of low drawn helmets. They passed me without a word, their boot clad feet drumming a steady tattoo on the paved streets.

Riding into the citadels courtyard I dismounted stiffly, my joints protesting with age from the long travel. I handed the reins of my mount to a stable boy that came jogging up to me. The tired animal followed the young lad obediently, its head hung low, its sides heaving. Shaking my head I turned and stepped through the gates of the citadel.

The shade was most divine, a gentle breeze blowing through the corridor and I almost moaned in relief, barely stopping myself from slumping against the nearest wall. I imagined the cold stone under my cheek and sighed in disappointment, steeling myself and forcing my feet forward.

In what seemed like a heartbeat I stood before the thick, tall, wooden doors to the Buri's audience room. The doors were massive, beautifully ornamented and slightly ajar. Years of living on the road do things to a man, they change him. And where ten years ago I would have strode in with a friendly smile, I now crept up wearily and listened.

'This is madness, Your highness!' A high pitched voice argued lividly.

'You dare disobey the Buri's orders?' A rough baritone answered, the voice laced with anger and contempt, reigned in with years of military discipline and with a steel edge to it.

'But the Isma'ili number in the thousand in the city! We cannot just kill them all!'

'They will have my city sold to the crusaders for Tyre! I will not stand for this! It ends now.' A familiar voice snarled. I recognized Taj al-Muluk Buri's vibrant tenor and was taken aback by the venom in it.

'Those are but rumors, your Majesty! If you want control in your city you cannot stand for this…this massacre!'

A cold shiver made its way down my spine. I saw what happened in Jerusalem and Antioch. Straightening I knocked on the door and entered.

Three men stood in the room. One was tall and burly, wearing the colors of the Buri's personal guard. The other was short and thin, thinning dark hair sticking sickly to his skull, big brown eyes darting in an almost paranoid fashion around. The third man was almost exactly the same as I saw him ten years ago.

Taj al-Muluk Buri was a man of medium height, shorter than me, with a brawny built. He had a mop of thick dark hair and a pair of piercing blue eyes that focused on me now.

'As-Salāmu `Alaykum Taj al-Muluk Buri' I said softly, dropping to one knee as fluently as my old joints allowed me. Silence settled around the room like a thick, itchy blanket but I had learned long ago to ignore that blanket.

It was the Buri's sharp bark of laughter that snapped the room back into life. He closed the space between us in long, swift strides and gripped my shoulders, beckoning for me to rise.

'As-Salāmu `Alaykum, my friend. It has been a long time.' His strong white teeth flashed at me through his thick, dark beard and I let a weary smile tug at the corner of my own lips.

'So it has.' I agreed before motioning to the two forgotten men. 'What is all this about?'

The Buri's face closed in and clouded instantly.

'The Isma'ili Muslim's. They plot with the crusaders to overthrow Damascus!' He turned his back to me and stormed back to where he stood, by the window. 'They will give them Baniyas in return for Tyre!' Those piercing blue eyes turned again on me and the Buri grinned fiercely, a hard and humorless smile. 'You are just in time sadiq. You can lead my militia in uprooting this plague from my city.'

'My liege, this cannot come to pass!' The tall, thin man, silent till now, burst out. 'It will be the end of us.'

'My word is final.' Buri's voice was as hard as his face and I knew there was nothing I could say or do to change his mind. 'Tonight we unite and in the name of Allah we purge my city of the filth that sickens the Flower of Jasmine. We deal with them and that will be the worst of it. And that will be the end of it.' His fevered eyes again swiveled to me. 'Lead the way, sadiq.'

Sick at heart and stomach I did the only thing I could. I saluted.

It was a bloodbath and there is no denying it. As the sun was setting we headed out, a party of highly trained and well armed men, the cities militia. And with us came the people. Men, women, old, young, they came, armed in sickles, hammers, sticks, anything they could find.

There was no oriented beginning and there was no end. Doors were broken down, windows shattered. People, Isma'ili's, were dragged out, kicking and screaming onto the streets and butchered. By the crowd, by the guardsmen, be anyone and everyone, by a rock, a sword, a spear, a club.

As the people of Damascus rampaged the city in search of any Isma'ili I led a group of three hundred armed men on a hunt. We herded fifteen score man, women and children onto the Marjeh Square. Steel glinted as swords were drawn.

Till now I functioned with a practiced detachment, lifting my sword in precise, mechanical movements. But when I looked at the boy at my feet, not older than ten summers, all that crumbled away. There was nothing for the poets there, no forgiveness or pity in his dark, dark eyes. Just fear. Pure, primal, absolute fear. Fear that ruled his mind, his body, his soul. The cobble stones beneath him darkened, damp, and he whimpered, looking up at me.

And in that moment I knew that when our swords fell we would shatter three hundred Thariq Thawil. And I knew that my Long Road was not ended and that it would never end. Not after this. Never after this.

As one our swords glimmered in the setting sun and fell, sharp, accurate and absolutely deadly and the City of Jasmine wept with blood.