Sometimes he smiled, though, because he thought Maria would have approved of him mourning her. It would have appealed to the part of her that had stayed a spoilt English noblewoman, who had been as adept at fixing a man with a haughty stare as she was of defeating him in combat, her withering put-downs as cutting as her blade. And, of course, she would have approved that he had finally managed to take hold of himself, but most of all she would have approved of what he was doing now: taking his knowledge and learning and bringing them back to the Order. Had he known when he ended his exile that he had been heading back to Masyaf for that reason? He still wasn’t sure. All he knew was that, once here, there had been no other option. He had visited the spot where they had buried her; Malik’s gravestone was not far away, tended by young Malik. Altaïr had realized that Maria, Sef and Malik, his mother and father, even Al Mualim, were all lost to him for ever. The Brotherhood, though, he could take back.
But only if the young Malik was as good as his word. And standing there, feeling the excitement and expectation of the crowd like a weight he must bear upon his back, Mukhlis hovering nearby, he began to wonder. His eyes fixed on the citadel, he waited for the gates to open and the men to appear. Malik had said there would be at least twenty, all of whom supported Altaïr with the same fervency he did. Twenty warriors and, with the support of the people, Altaïr thought it was enough to overcome the thirty or forty Assassins still loyal to Abbas.
He wondered if Abbas was up there now, in the Master’s tower, squinting to make out what was happening below. He hoped so.
Throughout his life, Altaïr had refused to find gratification in the death of another, but Abbas? Despite the pity he felt for him, there were the deaths of Sef, Malik and Maria to take into account; there was also Abbas’s destruction of the Order. Altaïr had promised himself that he would take no pleasure – not even satisfaction – from Abbas’s death.
But he would take pleasure and satisfaction from the absence of Abbas when he had killed him. He could allow himself that.
But only if the gates opened and his allies appeared. Around him the crowds were becoming restless. He felt the confidence and assurance with which he’d awoken slowly ebbing away.
Then he became aware of a buzz of excitement among the villagers and his eyes went from the gates of the castle – still resolutely closed – to the square. A man in white seemed to materialize from the crowd. A man who walked up to Altaïr with his head bent, then removed his hood, grinning at him. It was young Malik. And behind came others. All, like him, appearing from within the crowd as though suddenly becoming visible. At his side, Mukhlis gasped. The square was suddenly full of men in white robes. And Altaïr began to laugh. Surprise, relief and joy in that laugh as each man came to him, inclining his head in respect, showing him blade or bow or throwing knife. Showing him loyalty.
Altaïr grasped young Malik by the shoulders and his eyes shone. ‘I take it back,’ he said. ‘You and all your men – your stealth is unmatched.’
Grinning, Malik bowed his head. ‘Master, we should leave at once. Abbas will soon become aware of our absence.
‘So be it,’ said Altaïr, and he climbed to the low wall of the fountain, waving away Mukhlis, who had come to his aid. Now he addressed the crowd: ‘For too long the castle on the hill has been a dark and forbidding place, and today I hope to make it a beacon of light once again – with your help.’ There was a low murmur of appreciation and Altaïr quietened them. ‘What we will not do, though, is welcome our new dawn through a veil of Assassin blood. Those who remain loyal to Abbas are our enemies today but tomorrow they will be our companions. Their friendship can only be won if our victory is merciful. Kill only if it is absolutely necessary. We come to bring peace to Masyaf, not death.’
With that he stepped down from the wall and walked from the square, the Assassins and villagers forming up behind him. The Assassins pulled their cowls over their heads. They looked grim and purposeful. The people hung further back: excited, nervous, fearful. So much depended on the outcome.
Altaïr climbed the slopes that, as a child, he had raced up and down, he and Abbas together. As an Assassin, he had run up and down, training, or on errands for the Master, leaving for a mission or returning from one. Now he felt the age in his bones and in his muscles, struggling a little up the slopes, but kept going.
A small party of Abbas’s loyalists met them on the hills, a scouting party sent to test their mettle. At first those men with Altaïr seemed reluctant to engage them: these were comrades they had lived and trained with, after all. Friends were pitched against each other; no doubt, if the fighting continued, family members might find themselves face to face. For long moments the outnumbered scouting party and Altaïr’s supporters faced off. The scouting party had the advantage of being on higher ground but otherwise they were lambs sent to the slaughter.
Altaïr’s eyes went up to where he could just see the peak of the Master’s tower. Abbas would be able to see him now, surely. He would have seen the people coming up the hill towards him. Altaïr’s eyes went from the citadel to the scouts, sent to fight in the name of their corrupt master.
‘There is to be no killing,’ repeated Altaïr, to his men, and Malik nodded.
One of the scouts grinned nastily. ‘Then you won’t get far, old man.’ He darted forward with his sword swinging, coming for Altaïr, perhaps hoping to strike at the roots of the rebellion: kill Altaïr, stop the uprising.
In the flap of a hummingbird’s wings, the Assassin had spun away from the attack, drawn his sword and rolled around the forward impetus of his assailant’s body to grab him from behind.
The scout’s sword dropped as he felt Altaïr’s blade held to his throat, and he whimpered.
‘There will be no killing in the name of this old man,’ murmured Altaïr, into the scout’s ear, and propelled him forward to Malik, who caught him and wrestled him to the ground. The other scouts came forward but with less enthusiasm, no heart for the fight. They all but allowed themselves to be captured; in moments they were either captive or unconscious.
Altaïr watched the short skirmish. He looked at his hand where the scout’s sword had nicked it, and surreptitiously wiped off the blood. You were slow, he thought. Next time leave the fighting to the younger men.
Even so, he hoped Abbas had been watching. Now men were gathering on the ramparts. He hoped also that they had seen the events on the hill, the scouting party treated mercifully.