He was entranced by it. Enchanted. It was a map, he saw, with strange symbols – writing he didn’t understand.
Behind him he heard Al Mualim speaking: ‘I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also was a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.’
Now Malik and his men rushed into the garden. With barely a glance at the body of Al Mualim, they stood hypnotized by the Apple. In the distance Altaïr could hear shouting. Whatever spell had been cast over Masyaf was broken.
He readied himself to dash the Apple against the stone, still unable to take his eyes from the spinning image, finding it hard to make his arm heed the command of his brain.
‘Destroy it!’ called Al Mualim. ‘Destroy it as you said you would!’
Altaïr’s hand trembled. His muscles refused to obey the commands of his brain. ‘I … I can’t …’ he said.
‘Yes, you can, Altaïr,’ gasped Al Mualim. ‘You can. But you won’t.’ With that, he died.
Altaïr looked up from the body of his mentor to find Malik and his men gazing expectantly at him – waiting for leadership and guidance.
Altaïr was the Master now.
23 June 1257
Sitting in the shade, safely out of the debilitating heat of the Masyaf marketplace, Maffeo asked me, ‘Al Mualim’s garden. Is this the same piece of land where his library is situated?’
‘Indeed it is. Altaïr decided it a fitting spot to use for the care and storage of his work – thousands of journals filled with Assassin learning, knowledge gleaned from the Apple.’
‘So he didn’t destroy it?’
‘Didn’t destroy what?’
Maffeo sighed. ‘The Apple.’
‘Not then or not ever?’
‘Brother, please, don’t hurry our tale to its conclusion. No, Altaïr did not destroy the Apple straight away. For one thing he had to quell the rebellion that erupted immediately after Al Mualim’s death.’
‘There was a rebellion?’
‘Indeed. There was a great confusion in the immediate aftermath of Al Mualim’s death. There were many in the Order who stayed true to Al Mualim. Either they were unaware of the Master’s treachery or they refused to accept the truth, but to them Altaïr was staging a coup and had to be stopped. No doubt they were encouraged in this by certain voices on the fringes.’
I laughed. ‘No doubt. Though one can only imagine Abbas’s internal conflict surrounding the turn of events. His resentment of Al Mualim was as strong if not stronger than his resentment of Altaïr.’
‘And Altaïr quashed the rebellion?’
‘Certainly. And he did so by staying true to the Creed, issuing orders to Malik and those he commanded that none of the rebels be harmed, that not a single man be killed or punished. After he had subdued them, there were no reprisals. Instead he used rhetoric to show them the way, persuading them first of Al Mualim’s guilt and then of his own suitability to lead the Brotherhood. Doing this, he secured their love, their faith and loyalty. His first task as the Order’s new leader was a demonstration of the very principles he aimed to instil. He brought the Brotherhood back from the brink by showing it the way.
‘That resolved, he turned his attention to his journal. In it he wrote his thoughts about the Order, his responsibility to it, even the strange woman he had encountered at the cemetery. Who had … More than once Altaïr had gone to write the word “captivated”, then stopped himself, changing it instead to “interested” him. Certainly she remained in his thoughts.
‘Chiefly he had written of the Apple. He had taken to carrying it with him. At nights when he wrote in his journal it remained on a stand beside him, and when he gazed at it he felt a confused mix of emotions: anger that it had corrupted the one he had thought of as father, who had been a great Assassin and an even greater man; fear of it, for he had experienced its power to give and to take; and awe.
‘ “If there is good to be found in this artefact, I will discover it,” ’ he wrote, quill scratching. ‘ “But if it is only capable of inspiring evil and despair, I hope I possess the strength to destroy it.” ’
Yes, he told his journal, he would destroy the Piece of Eden if it held no good for mankind. Those were the words he wrote. Nevertheless, Altaïr wondered how he would find the strength to destroy the Apple if and when the time came.
The fact was that whoever owned it wielded enormous power, and the Templars would want that power to belong to them. What was more, he wondered, were the Templars hunting for other artefacts? Did they even possess them? After the death of Robert de Sable they had consolidated at Acre port, he knew. Should he attack them there? He was determined that no one else should ever possess the Apple, or any others like it.
Nobody but him.
He mulled over this in his quarters, for too long perhaps, until he became concerned that he was allowing the enemy time to regroup. He called Malik and Jabal to him, placing Malik in temporary command of the Order and informing Jabal that they were to lead a squad riding for Acre port at once, to mount an offensive on the Templar stronghold, kill the plant at the root.
They left shortly afterwards, and as they did so, Altaïr noticed Abbas standing in a doorway at the castle approach, regarding him balefully. Recent events had done nothing to dull the blade of his hatred; it had sharpened to a vicious edge.
Night was falling over Acre port, the grey stone harbour bathed in orange, and the last of the sun painting the sea blood red as it melted into the horizon. Water lapped hard at the bulwarks and sea walls, and gulls called from their perches, but otherwise the harbour was empty, strangely so.
Or … this one was at least. As he watched over it and puzzled at the absence of Templar soldiers – in marked contrast to the last time he had been there, when Sibrand’s men were all over it, like fleas on a dog – something told Altaïr that any industry was to be found at the other side of the docks, and his concern grew. He’d taken too long making his decision. Was he about to pay for that?
But the harbour wasn’t quite empty. Altaïr heard the sound of approaching footsteps and hushed talk. He held up a hand and, behind him, his team came to a halt, becoming still shadows in the dark. He crept along the harbour wall until he could see them, pleased to note that they had moved apart. The first was almost directly beneath him now, holding up his torch and peering into the dark nooks and crannies of the damp harbour wall. Altaïr wondered if his thoughts were of home, of England or France and the family he had there, and he regretted that the man had to die. As he silently leaped from the wall, landing on him and driving the blade deep, he wished there was another way.