‘Well fought, Assassin,’ came the cry from his right, and he turned to see Richard striding over to the ring, which parted to allow him through. ‘It seems God favours your cause this day.’
‘God had nothing to do with it. I was the better fighter.’
‘Ah. You may not believe in him, but it seems he believes in you. Before you go, I have a question.’
‘Ask it then,’ said Altaïr. He was very weary all of a sudden. He longed to lie in the shade of a palm: to sleep, to disappear. To die, even.
‘Why? Why travel all this way, risk your life a thousand times, all to kill a single man?’
‘He threatened my brothers and what we stand for.’
‘Ah. Vengeance, then?’
Altaïr looked down at the body of Robert de Sable and realized that, no, vengeance had not been on his mind when he had killed him. He had done what he had done for the Order. He gave voice to his thoughts. ‘No. Not vengeance. Justice. That there might be peace.’
‘This is what you fight for?’ said Richard, eyebrows raised. ‘Peace? Do you see the contradiction?’
He swept an arm around the area, a gesture that took in the battle still raging below them, the bodies scattered about the clearing and, last, the still-warm corpse of Robert de Sable.
‘Some men cannot be reasoned with.’
‘Like that madman Saladin,’ sighed Richard.
Altaïr looked at him. He saw a fair and just king. ‘I think he’d like to see an end to this war as much as you would.’
‘So I’ve heard, but never seen.’
‘Even if he doesn’t say it, it’s what the people want,’ Altaïr told him. ‘Saracen and Crusader alike.’
‘The people know not what they want. It’s why they turn to men like us.’
‘Then it falls to men like you to do what is right.’
Richard snorted. ‘Nonsense. We come into the world kicking and screaming. Violent and unstable. It is what we are. We cannot help ourselves.’
‘No. We are what we choose to be.’
Richard smiled ruefully. ‘Your kind … Always playing with words.’
‘I speak the truth,’ said Altaïr. ‘There’s no trick to be found here.’
‘We’ll know soon enough. But I fear you cannot have what you desire this day. Even now that heathen Saladin cuts through my men and I must attend to them. But perhaps, having seen how vulnerable he is, he will reconsider his actions. Yes. In time what you seek may be possible.’
‘You were no more secure than him,’ said Altaïr. ‘Do not forget that. The men you left behind to rule in your stead did not intend to serve you for longer than they had to.’
‘Yes. Yes. I am well aware.’
‘Then I’ll take my leave,’ said Altaïr. ‘My master and I have much to discuss. It seems that even he is not without fault.’
Richard nodded. ‘He is only human. As are we all. You as well.’
‘Safety and peace be upon you,’ said Altaïr, and he left, his thoughts going to Masyaf. Its beauty seemed tainted by what he had learned about Al Mualim. He needed to ride for home. He needed to put things right.
Masyaf was not as he had left it: that much become clear from the moment he arrived at the stables. The horses pawed and whinnied but there were no stable lads to see to them or to take Altaïr’s mount. He ran through the open main gates and into the courtyard, where he was struck by the silence, the complete absence not just of sound but of atmosphere. Here the sun struggled to shine, giving the village a grey, overcast tint. Birds no longer sang. The fountain no longer tinkled and there was none of the hubbub of everyday life. Stalls were set out but there were no villagers hurrying this way and that, talking excitedly or bartering for goods. There were no animal sounds. Just an eerie … nothing.
He stared up the hill towards the citadel, seeing no one. As ever, he wondered if Al Mualim was in his tower, looking down upon him. Could he see him? Then his eye was caught by a lone figure making his way towards him. A villager.
‘What’s happened here?’ Altaïr demanded of him. ‘Where is everyone?’
‘Gone to see the Master,’ said the citizen. It sounded like a chant. Like a mantra. His eyes were glassy, and a rope of drool hung from his mouth. Altaïr had seen that look before. He had seen it on the faces of those in thrall to Garnier de Naplouse. The crazy men – or so he had thought at the time. They had had that empty, glazed look.
‘Was it the Templars?’ said Altaïr. ‘Did they attack again?’
‘They walk the path,’ replied the villager.
‘What path? What are you talking about?’
‘Towards the light,’ intoned the man. His voice had taken on a singsong quality.
‘Speak sense,’ demanded Altaïr.
‘There is only what the Master shows us. This is the truth.’
‘You’ve lost your mind,’ spat Altaïr.
‘You, too, will walk the path or you will perish. So the Master commands.’
Al Mualim, thought Altaïr. So it was true. It was all true. He had been betrayed. Nothing was true. ‘What has he done to you?’ he said to the villager.
‘Praise be to the Master, for he has led us to the light …’
Altaïr ran on, leaving the man behind, a solitary figure in the deserted marketplace. He ran up the slopes, coming to the upland, and there found a group of Assassins waiting for him, their swords drawn.
He drew his own, knowing he could not use it. Not to kill anyway. These Assassins, though they meant to kill him, had been brainwashed into doing it. Killing them would breach one of the tenets. He was weary of breaking the Creed. He was never going to do it again. But …
With dead eyes they closed in on him.
Were they in a trance like the others? Would their movements be just as sluggish? He dipped his shoulder and charged them, knocking the first one down. Another grabbed at him, but he caught hold of the Assassin’s robe, took a bunch of it in his fist and swung him, knocking down two more of his attackers to make a gap that he was able to run through.
Then, from above, he heard his name being called. Malik was standing on the promontory by the fortress approach. With him were Jabal of Acre and two more Assassins he didn’t recognize. He found himself studying them. Had they, too, been brainwashed? Drugged? Whatever it was that Al Mualim was doing?
But no. Malik was waving his good arm, and though Altaïr had never conceived of a day when he might be pleased to see Malik, here it was.