He struggled and found he could barely move, de Sable holding him easily. He felt a sharp stab of shame, thinking of Malik and Kadar seeing him brought low. De Sable’s hand squeezed his throat, and he found himself gasping for breath as the Templar pushed his face forward at him. A vein in his forehead throbbed.
‘You know not the things in which you meddle, Assassin. I spare you only that you may return to your Master and deliver a message: the Holy Land is lost to him and his. He should flee now, while he has the chance. Stay and all of you will die.’
Altaïr choked and spluttered, the edge of his vision beginning to fade, fighting unconsciousness as de Sable twisted him as easily as though handling a newborn and tossed him towards the back wall of the chamber. Altaïr crashed through the ancient stone and into the vestibule on the other side where he lay stunned for a moment, hearing beams fall and the huge pillars of the chamber crash in. He looked up – and saw that his entrance to the Temple was blocked.
From the other side he heard shouts, de Sable crying, ‘Men. To arms. Kill the Assassins!’ He scrambled to his feet and dashed to the rubble, trying to find a way through. With shame and helplessness burning him, he heard the cries of Malik and Kadar, their screams as they died, and finally, his head low, he turned and began to make his way out of the Temple for the journey to Masyaf – there to bring the Master the news.
The news that he had failed. That he, the great Altaïr, had brought dishonour upon himself and upon the Order.
When he finally emerged from the bowels of the Temple Mount it was into bright sunshine and a Jerusalem that teemed with life. But Altaïr had never felt so alone.
Altaïr arrived at Masyaf after an exhausting five-day ride, during which he’d had more than enough time to reflect upon his failure. And thus it was with the heaviest of hearts that he arrived at the gates, was allowed in by the guard and made his way to the stables.
Dismounting and feeling his knotted muscles relax at last, he handed his horse to the stable boy then stopped by the well to take some water, sipping it at first, then gulping and, last, splashing it over himself, gratefully rubbing the dirt from his face. He still felt the grime of the journey upon his body, though. His robes hung heavy and filthy and he looked forward to washing in the shimmering waters of Masyaf, hidden away in an alcove of the cliff face. All he craved now was solitude.
As he made his way through the outskirts of the village, his gaze was drawn upwards – past the stable huts and bustling market to the winding paths that led to the ramparts of the Assassins’ fortress. Here was where the Order trained and lived under the command of Al Mualim, whose quarters stood in the centre of the citadel’s Byzantine towers. He was often to be seen staring from the window of his tower, lost in thought, and Altaïr pictured him there now, gazing down upon the village. The same village that bustled with life, bright with sunshine and loud with business. To which, ten days ago, Altaïr, leaving for Jerusalem with Malik and Kadar, had planned to return as a triumphant hero.
Never – not in his darkest imaginings – had he foreseen failure, and yet …
An Assassin hailed him as he made his way across the sun-dappled marketplace, and he pulled himself together, pushing back his shoulders and holding up his head, trying to summon from within the great Assassin who had left Masyaf, rather than the empty-handed fool who had returned.
It was Rauf, and Altaïr’s heart sank further – if that were possible, which he sincerely doubted. Of all the people to greet him on his return it would have to be Rauf, who worshipped Altaïr like a god. It looked as though the younger man had been waiting from him, wiling away the time by a walled fountain. Indeed, he bounded up now with wide and eager eyes, oblivious to the nimbus of failure that Altaïr felt around himself.
‘Altaïr – you’ve returned.’ He was beaming, as pleased as a puppy to see him.
Altaïr nodded slowly. He watched as behind Rauf an elderly merchant refreshed himself at the fountainhead then greeted a younger woman, who arrived carrying a vase decorated with gazelles. She placed it on the low wall surrounding the waterhole and they began to talk, the woman excited, gesticulating. Altaïr envied them. He envied them both.
‘It is good to see you’re unharmed,’ continued Rauf. ‘I trust your mission was a success?’
Altaïr ignored the question, still watching those at the fountain. He was finding it difficult to meet Rauf’s eye. ‘Is the Master in his tower?’ he asked at last, tearing his gaze away.
‘Yes, yes.’ Rauf was squinting as though to divine somehow what was wrong with him. ‘Buried in his books, as always. No doubt he expects you.’
‘My thanks, brother.’
And with that he left Rauf and the chattering village folk at the fountainhead and began to make his way past the covered stalls and hay carts and benches, over the paving, until the dry and dusty ground sloped sharply upwards, the parched grass brittle in the sunshine, all paths leading to the castle.
Never had he felt so much in its shadow, and he found himself clenching his fists as he crossed the plateau and was greeted by the guards at the fortress approach, their hands on the hilts of their swords, their eyes watchful.
Now he reached the grand archway that led to the barbican, and once more his heart sank as he saw a figure he recognized within: Abbas.
Abbas stood beneath a torch that chased away what little dark there was within the arch. He was leaning against the rough dark stone, bare-headed, his arms folded and his sword at his hip. Altaïr stopped, and for a moment or so the two men regarded each other as villagers moved around them, oblivious of the old enmity blooming afresh between the two Assassins. Once they had called each other brother. But that time was long past.
Abbas smiled slowly, mockingly. ‘Ah. He returns at last.’ He looked pointedly over Altaïr’s shoulder. ‘Where are the others? Did you ride ahead, hoping to be the first one back? I know you are loath to share the glory.’
Altaïr did not answer.
‘Silence is just another form of assent,’ added Abbas, still trying to goad him – and doing it with all the cunning of an adolescent.
‘Have you nothing better to do?’ sighed Altaïr.
‘I bring word from the Master. He waits for you in the library,’ said Abbas. He ushered Altaïr past. ‘Best hurry. No doubt you’re eager to put your tongue to his boot.’
‘Another word,’ retorted Altaïr, ‘and I’ll put my blade to your throat.’