Mukhlis recoiled a little, surprised and frightened. The old man’s eyes were sharp and watchful. He remained absolutely still and Mukhlis realized that, although he himself was much younger, the stranger was not at all intimidated by him.
‘I’m sorry if I disturbed you,’ said Mukhlis, inclining his head, his voice wavering slightly. The stranger said nothing, just watched as Mukhlis dismounted, then led his horse to the well and retrieved the leather bucket so that they could drink. For a moment or so the only sound was the soft bump of the bucket on the wall of the well as the water was fetched, then the slurping as the horse drank. Mukhlis drank too. He sipped then gulped, wetting his beard and wiping his face. He filled his flasks and took water to the second horse, tethering them both. When he looked again at the stranger he had fallen asleep once more. All that had changed about him was that he no longer lay with his arms crossed. Instead they were by his head, resting on the pack he was using as a pillow. Mukhlis took a blanket from his own pack, found a spot on the other side of the well, and lay down to sleep.
How much later was it that he heard movement and opened his eyes blearily to see a figure standing over him? A figure lit by the first rays of the morning sun, his black hair and beard wild and unkempt, a gold earring in one ear, and grinning a wide, evil grin. Mukhlis tried to scramble to his feet but the man dropped to his haunches, a glittering dagger going to Mukhlis’s neck, so that Mukhlis went still with fright, a whimper escaping from his lips.
‘I am Bayhas,’ said the man, still smiling. ‘I am the last face you will ever see.’
‘No,’ bleated Mukhlis, but Bayhas was already hauling him to his feet and now the trader saw that Bayhas had two companions, who were stripping his horses of his goods and transferring them to their own beasts.
He looked for the sleeping old man but he was no longer there, although Mukhlis could see his horse. Had they killed him already? Was he lying with his throat slit?
‘Rope,’ called Bayhas. He still had the dagger held to Mukhlis’s throat as one of his companions tossed him a coil of rope. Like Bayhas, he wore black and had an unkempt beard, his hair covered with a keffiyeh. On his back was a longbow. The third man had long hair and no beard, a wide scimitar at his belt, and was busily rooting through Mukhlis’s packs, discarding unwanted items in the sand.
‘No,’ cried Mukhlis, seeing a painted stone fall to the dirt. It had been given to him by his daughter as a good-luck gift on the day he had left, and the sight of it tossed to the ground by the robber was too much for him. He pulled away from Bayhas’s grip and rushed to Long Hair, who moved to meet him with a smile, then felled him with a vicious punch to the windpipe. The three robbers roared with laughter as Mukhlis writhed and choked in the dirt.
‘What is it?’ jeered Long Hair, bending to him. He saw where Mukhlis was looking and picked up the stone, reading the words Nada had painted on. ‘ “Good luck, Papa.” Is this it? Is this what’s making you so brave all of a sudden, Papa?’
Mukhlis reached for the stone, desperate to have it, but Long Hair batted his hand away with disdain, then rubbed the stone on his backside – laughing more as Mukhlis howled in outrage – and tossed it into the well.
‘Plop,’ he mocked.
‘You …’ started Mukhlis. ‘You …’
‘Tie his legs,’ he heard from behind him. Bayhas threw Long Hair the rope and came round, dropping to his haunches and placing the tip of his knife close to Mukhlis’s eyeball.
‘Where were you heading, Papa?’ he asked.
‘To Damascus,’ lied Mukhlis.
Bayhas sliced his cheek with the knife and he screamed in pain. ‘Where were you going?’ he demanded again.
‘His cloth is from Masyaf,’ said Long Hair, who was winding the rope around Mukhlis’s legs.
‘Masyaf, eh?’ said Bayhas. ‘Once you might have counted on the Assassins for support, but no longer. Perhaps we should pay it a visit. We may find ourselves a grieving widow in need of comfort. What do you say, Papa? When we’ve finished with you.’
Now Long Hair stood and tossed the end of the rope over a branch of the fig tree, hauling back on it so that Mukhlis was pulled up. His world went upside down. He whimpered as Long Hair tied the end of the rope to the well arch, securing him there. Now Bayhas reached and spun him. He revolved, seeing the bowman standing some feet away, rocking back on his heels with laughter. Bayhas and Long Hair closer and laughing too. Bayhas bending to him.
Still revolving, he saw the wall of the well go by, then came round again to see the three robbers, Long Hair and Bayhas, behind them the third man, and –
A pair of legs appeared from the tree behind the third man.
But Mukhlis was still spinning and the wall of the well went by again. He revolved, slowing now, to the front, where all three robbers were oblivious that another man was among them, standing behind them. A man whose face was mostly hidden beneath the cowl of the robe he wore, his head slightly bowed, his arms spread, almost as though in supplication. The old man.
‘Stop,’ said the old man. Like his face, his voice was weathered with age.
All three robbers turned to face him, tensing, ready to cut down the intruder.
And all three began to snigger.
‘What is this?’ scoffed Bayhas. ‘An aged man comes to stop our fun? What do you plan to do, old man? Bore us to death with your tales of the old days? Fart at us?’
His two companions laughed.
‘Cut him down,’ said the old man, indicating where Mukhlis still hung upside down, swaying on the rope. ‘At once.’
‘And why would I want to do that?’ asked Bayhas.
‘Because I say so,’ rasped the old man.
‘And who might you be to demand this of me?’
The old man flicked his hand.
The bowman reached for his bow but in two strides Altaïr reached him, swiping his blade in a wide arc that opened the man’s neck, slicing the bow in half and shortening his headdress with one cut. There was a soft clatter as the brigand’s bow dropped to the ground, followed by a thump as his body joined it.
Altaïr – who had not known combat for two decades – stood with his shoulders heaving, watching Bayhas and Long Hair as their expressions changed from mocking to wary. At his feet the bowman was twitching and gurgling, his blood blotted by the sand. Without taking his eyes from Bayhas and Long Hair, Altaïr dropped to one knee and drove his blade into him, silencing him. Fear was his greatest weapon now, he knew. These men had youth and speed on their side. They were savage and ruthless, accustomed to death. Altaïr had experience. He hoped it would be enough.