He turned again, this time heading for the defensive tower. In it he could see archers taking aim and they were the best, he knew. Trained by the best. They never missed. Not with the amount of time they had to aim and fire.
Except he knew when they would fire. He knew that it took them a heartbeat to find their target and a second heartbeat to steady and breathe, then …
He swerved and rolled. A volley of arrows slammed into the ground he’d just left, all but one missing him. One of the archers had checked his aim and the arrow grazed Altaïr’s cheek. Blood sluiced down his face as he hit the ladder, scampering up it and reaching the first level, where a surprised bowman was dithering over whether to draw his sword. Altaïr dragged him from his perch, and he somersaulted to the ground below. He’d live.
Now Altaïr scrabbled up the second ladder. He was in pain. He was bleeding heavily. He reached the top of the tower from which he had jumped a lifetime ago, disgraced then as he was now. He hobbled to the platform and, as men scrambled to the top of the tower behind him, he spread out his arms.
10 August 1257
Altaïr means us to spread the word of the Assassin, that is his plan. And not just spread the word but set up an Order in the west.
Shame on me for taking so long to work it out, but now that I have, all seems clear: to us (specifically to me, it seems), he is entrusting the spirit of the Brotherhood. He is passing the torch to us.
We have had word that warlike Mongols are approaching the village and he thinks we should leave before hostilities commence. Maffeo, of course, seems rather titillated by the idea of witnessing the action and I rather feel that he would prefer it if we stayed. His former wanderlust? All but gone. Our roles are reversed, it seems, for now it is I who want to leave. Either I am more cowardly than he is or I have a more realistic idea of war’s grim reality, for I find myself in accord with Altaïr. Masyaf under siege is no place for us.
In truth I am ready to go, whether the marauding party of Mongols arrives or not. I long for home, these hot nights. I miss my family: my wife and my son, Marco. He will be three years old in a few short months and I am painfully aware that I have seen so little of his very earliest years. I have missed his first steps, his first words.
In short, I feel that our time in Masyaf has reached its natural end. Moreover, the Master has said that he wishes to see us. There is something he must give to us, he says, in a ceremony he would like to conduct with other Assassins present. It is something that must be kept safe, he says, and out of the hands of the enemy: the Mongols or the Templars. This is what his tales have been leading to, I realize, and I have my suspicions as to what this precious thing might be. We shall see.
In the meantime, Maffeo is impatient to hear the rest of my tale, now so close to its conclusion. He pulled a face when I informed him that I planned to shift the narrative forward in time, from the moment that Altaïr leaped from the ramparts of the citadel, a shamed and broken man, to a period some twenty years hence and not to Masyaf, but to a spot in the desert two days’ ride away …
… to an endless plain at dusk, seemingly empty apart from a man on a horse leading another horse, the second nag laden with jugs and blankets.
From a distance the rider looked like a tradesman with his wares, and up close that was exactly what he was, sweating under his turban: a very tired and portly tradesman named Mukhlis.
So, when Mukhlis saw the waterhole in the distance he knew he had to lie down and rest. He’d hoped to reach home without stopping but he had no choice: he was exhausted. So many times during the journey the rhythm of the horse had lulled him and he had felt his chin tucking into his chest, his eyes fluttering and closing. It had been getting more and more difficult to resist sleep. Each time the motion of travel rocked him towards sleep, a fresh battle was fought between heart and head. His throat was parched. His robe hung heavy about him. Every bone and muscle in his body hummed with fatigue. The thought of wetting his lips and lying down with his thawb pulled around him, for just a few hours, perhaps, enough to restore some energy before resuming the journey home to Masyaf – well, the thought was almost too much for him.
What gave him pause, however, what made him fearful of stopping was the talk he had heard – talk of bandits abroad, thieves preying on tradesmen, taking their goods and slitting their throats, a band of brigands led by a cutthroat named Fahad, whose legendary brutality was matched only by that of his son, Bayhas.
Bayhas, they said, would hang his victims by their feet before slicing them from throat to belly and letting them die slowly, the wild dogs feasting on their dangling innards. Bayhas would do this, and he’d be laughing.
Mukhlis liked his guts inside his body. Neither did he have any desire to surrender all his worldly goods to brigands. After all, things in Masyaf were hard and getting harder. The villagers were forced to pay higher and higher levies to the castle on the promontory – the cost of protecting the community was rising, they were told; the Master was ruthless in demanding taxes from the people and would often send parties of Assassins down the slopes to force them to pay. Those who refused were likely to be beaten, then cast out of the gates, there to wander in the hope of being accepted at another settlement, or at the mercy of the bandits who made a home of the rocky plains surrounding Masyaf and seemed to become more and more audacious in their raids on travellers. Once, the Assassins – or the threat of them at least – had kept the trade routes safe. No longer, it seemed.
So, to return home penniless, unable to pay the tithes that Abbas demanded of the village merchants and the levies he wanted from the people, Mukhlis might find himself and his family tossed out of the village: him, his wife Aalia and his daughter Nada.
He was thinking about all of this as he approached the waterhole, still undecided whether or not to stop.
A horse was standing beneath a large fig tree that spread over the waterhole, a huge inviting canopy of cool shade and shelter. It was untethered but the blanket on its back showed that it belonged to someone, probably a fellow traveller stopping to drink the water, refill his flasks or, perhaps, like Mukhlis, lay down his head and rest. Even so, Mukhlis was nervous as he approached the waterhole. His horse sensed the proximity of water and snorted appreciatively, so that he had to rein her back from trotting up to the well, where he now saw a figure, curled up asleep. He slept with his head on his pack, his robe wrapped around him, his hood pulled up and his arms crossed over his chest. Little of his face was visible, but Mukhlis saw brown, weathered skin, wrinkled and scarred. He was an old man, in his late seventies or early eighties. Fascinated, Mukhlis studied the sleeper’s face – the eyes snapped open.