Mukhlis nodded. ‘A reward was offered for the killer, but the villagers spurned it. Abbas has perhaps not been so steadfast.’
‘Then the people are of good heart,’ said Altaïr, ‘and their leader is not.’
‘Truer words rarely spoken,’ agreed Mukhlis. ‘He takes our money and gives us nothing in return, where once the citadel was the heart of the community from which came strength, guidance …’
‘And protection,’ said Altaïr, with a half-smile.
‘That too,’ acknowledged Mukhlis. ‘All those things left with you, Altaïr, to be replaced by … corruption and paranoia. They say that Abbas was forced to quell an uprising after you left, a rebellion of Assassins loyal to you and Malik; that he had the ringleaders put to death; that he fears a repeat of the insurrection. His paranoia makes him stay in his tower day and night, imagining plots and putting to death those he thinks responsible. The tenets of the Order are crumbling around him just as surely as the fortress itself falls into disrepair. They say he has a recurring dream. That one day Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad returns from exile in Alamut with …’ he paused, looking at Altaïr askance and casting a glance at the pack ‘… an artefact capable of defeating him … Is there such a thing? Do you plan an attack?’
‘Even if there was, it is not an artefact that will defeat Abbas. It is belief – belief in ourselves and in the Creed – that will accomplish that.’
‘Whose faith, Altaïr?’
Altaïr waved an arm. ‘Yours. That of the people and of the Assassins.’
‘And how will you restore it?’ asked Mukhlis.
‘By example,’ replied Altaïr, ‘a little at a time.’
The next day Altaïr went out into the village where he began not simply to preach the way of the Assassins but to demonstrate it.
There had been fights in which Altaïr had had to intervene, disputes between traders that had required his moderation, land arguments between neighbours, but none had been as thorny as that of the two women who appeared to be fighting over a man. The man in question, Aaron, sat on a bench in the shade, cowering as the two women argued. Mukhlis, who had walked the village with Altaïr as he went about his business, was trying to intercede, while Altaïr stood at one remove, his arms folded, patiently waiting for a break in hostilities so that he might speak to them. He’d already decided what to say: Aaron would have to exercise free will in this instance, whether he liked it or not. Altaïr’s real concerns lay with the boy, whose fever had yet to break and to whom he had administered a potion, its recipe, of course, gleaned from the Apple.
Or with the basket weaver who was creating new tools for himself to specifications given to him by Altaïr, who had transcribed them from the Apple.
Or to the blacksmith, who had cast his eye over the drawings Altaïr had given him, turned them upside down and squinted at them, then laid them out on a table so that Altaïr could point out exactly what needed forging. Soon the Assassin would have new equipment; new weapons, the like of which had never been seen.
Or to the man who had been watching him these past few days, who had moved with him like a shadow, staying out of sight, or so he thought. Altaïr had seen him at once, of course. He had noted his bearing, had known he was an Assassin.
It had had to happen, of course. Abbas would have sent his agents into the village in order to learn about the stranger who fought with the hidden blade of the Assassin. Abbas would surely come to the conclusion that Altaïr had returned to reclaim the Order. Maybe he hoped that the brigands would kill Altaïr for him; maybe he would send a man down the slopes to kill him. Perhaps this shadow was also Altaïr’s Assassin.
Still the women argued. Mukhlis said, from the side of his mouth, ‘Master, it seems I was mistaken. These women are not arguing about who should have the unfortunate Aaron, but who should take him.’
Altaïr chuckled. ‘My judgment would remain the same,’ he said, casting an amused look to where Aaron sat chewing his fingernails. ‘It is for the young man to decide his own destiny.’ He stole a glance at his shadow, who sat in the shade of the trees, mud-coloured robes pulled around him, looking for all the world like a snoozing villager.
To Mukhlis he said, ‘I shall return presently. Their talk is giving me a thirst.’
He turned and left the small group, some of whom were about to follow until Mukhlis surreptitiously waved them back.
Altaïr sensed rather than saw his shadow stand also, following him as he walked into a square and to the fountain at its centre. There he bent, drank, and stood, pretending to take in the view over the village below. Then …
‘It’s all right,’ he said, to the man he knew stood behind him. ‘If you were going to kill me you would have done it by now.’
‘You were just going to let me do it?’
Altaïr chuckled. ‘I have not spent my life walking the path of a warrior in order to let myself be taken by a young pup at a fountainhead.’
‘You heard me?’
‘Of course I heard you. I heard you approach with all the stealth of an elephant and I heard that you favour your left side. Were you to attack I should move to my right in order to meet your weaker side.’
‘Wouldn’t I anticipate that?’
‘Well, that would depend on the target. You would, of course, know your target well and be aware of their combat skills.’
‘I know that this one has combat skills unmatched, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad.’
‘Do you indeed? You would have been but a child when I last called Masyaf my own.’
Now Altaïr turned to face the stranger, who pulled down his hood to reveal the face of a young man, perhaps twenty years old, with a dark beard. He had a set to his jaw and eyes that Altaïr recognized.
‘I was,’ said the boy. ‘I was a new-born.’
‘Then were you not indoctrinated against me?’ said Altaïr, jutting his chin towards the citadel on the promontory above them. It crouched there as if watching them.
‘Some are more easily indoctrinated than others,’ said the boy. ‘There are many who have remained loyal to the old codes, and greater numbers, as the pernicious effects of the new ways have become more pronounced. But I have even more reason to remain loyal than most.’
The two Assassins stood facing each other by the fountainhead, and Altaïr sensed his world lurch a little. Suddenly he felt almost faint. ‘What is your name?’ he asked, and his voice sounded disembodied to his own ears.