The loyalist Assassins had stopped. They stared open-mouthed at Altaïr who moved his arm, pointing at them so that now they could see the wrist mechanism he wore.
It was a single shot, and he had used it, but they didn’t know that. None had ever seen such a weapon before. Only a few even knew of its existence. And seeing it turned in their direction the loyalists cowered. They laid down their swords. They moved past Altaïr and to the door of the tower to join the crowd, their arms held out in surrender, just as Abbas was pitching forward, tumbling down the steps and landing with a messy thud in the hall below.
Altaïr crouched over him. Abbas lay breathing heavily, one of his arms at an odd angle as though it had snapped in the fall; the front of his robe was wet with blood. He had moments left.
‘You want me to ask forgiveness of you?’ he asked Altaïr. He grinned, looking skeletal all of a sudden. ‘For taking your wife and son?’
‘Abbas, please, don’t let your dying words be malicious.’
Abbas made a short scoffing sound. ‘Still he tries to be virtuous.’ He lifted his head a little. ‘The first blow was struck by you, Altaïr. I took your wife and son, but only after your lies had taken much more from me.’
‘They were not lies,’ said Altaïr, simply. ‘In all these years, did you never doubt?’
Abbas flinched and squeezed his eyes shut with pain. After a pause he said, ‘Did you ever wonder if there is a next world, Altaïr? In moments I shall know for sure. And if there is, I shall see my father, and we will both be there to meet you when it is your time. And then – then there will be no doubt.’
He coughed and gurgled and a bubble of blood formed at his mouth. Altaïr looked into his eyes and saw nothing of the orphan boy he had once known; saw nothing of the best friend he had once had. All he saw was a twisted creature who had cost him so much.
And as Abbas died Altaïr realized that he no longer hated or pitied him. He felt nothing – nothing but relief that Abbas was no longer in the world.
Two days later the brigand Fahad appeared with seven of his men on horseback and was met at the village gates by a party of Assassins, led by Altaïr.
They pulled up at the edge of the marketplace, confronted by a line of men wearing white robes. Some stood with their arms folded, others with their hands on their bows or the hilt of their swords.
‘So it is true. The great Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad has resumed control of Masyaf,’ said Fahad. He looked weary.
Altaïr bowed his head, yes.
Fahad nodded slowly, as if mulling this fact over. ‘I had an understanding with your predecessor,’ he said at last. ‘I paid him a great deal in order that I might enter Masyaf.’
‘Which you have done,’ said Altaïr, pleasantly.
‘Ah, yes, but for a specific reason, I’m afraid,’ replied Fahad, with a cloudy smile. He shifted on his saddle a little. ‘I am here to find my son’s killer.’
‘Which you have done,’ said Altaïr, just as pleasantly.
The cloudy smile slid slowly from Fahad’s face. ‘I see,’ he said. He leaned forward. ‘Then which of you is it?’ His eyes moved along the line of Assassins.
‘Have you no witness to identify your son’s killer?’ said Altaïr. ‘Can he not point out the culprit among us?’
‘I did,’ sighed Fahad ruefully, ‘but my son’s mother had his eyes put out.’
‘Ah,’ said Altaïr. ‘Well, he was a weasel. You may console yourself that he did little to protect your son or, indeed, to avenge him once he was dead. As soon as he had two old men to face, instead of one, he turned tail and ran.’
Altaïr nodded. ‘Your son died as he lived, Fahad. He enjoyed administering pain.’
‘A trait he inherited from his mother.’
‘And she insists, incidentally, that his name be avenged.’
‘Then there is nothing left to say,’ said Altaïr. ‘Unless you intend to make your attempt at this very moment, I shall expect you presently with your army.’
Fahad looked wary. ‘You intend to let me leave? No archers to stop me? Knowing that I will return with a force to crush you?’
‘If I killed you I would have the wrath of your wife to contend with,’ smiled Altaïr, ‘and, besides, I have a feeling that you will change your mind about attacking Masyaf by the time you have returned to your camp.’
‘And why might that be?’
Altaïr smiled. ‘Fahad, if we were to do battle then neither of us would give ground. Both of us would put more at stake than the grievance deserved. My community would be devastated, perhaps irreparably so – but so would yours.’
Fahad seemed to consider. ‘It is for me to decide, surely, the price of the grievance.’
‘Not long ago I lost my own son,’ said Altaïr, ‘and because of that I came close to losing my people. I realized it was too high a price to pay, even for my son. If you take up arms against us you risk making such a forfeit. I’m sure that the values of your community differ greatly from mine, but that they are just as prized as they are reluctantly surrendered.’
Fahad nodded. ‘You have a wiser head than your predecessor, Altaïr. Much of what you say makes sense, and I shall indeed consider it on the ride back. Also I shall endeavour to explain it to my wife.’ He gathered up his reins and turned his horse to go. ‘Good luck, Assassin,’ he said.
‘It’s you who will need luck by the sound of it.’
The brigand gave another of his crooked, cloudy smiles, then left. Altaïr chuckled and looked up at the citadel on the promontory.
There was much work to do.
12 August 1257
So. We were too late to escape Masyaf before the Mongols arrived. Indeed, they have arrived. As a result we leave for Constantinople in a matter of hours and I’m scribbling these words as our possessions are removed by helpers to be loaded on to the carts. And if Maffeo thinks that the sharp looks he insists on throwing my way will be enough to make me lay down my quill and lend a hand then he is mistaken. I know now that these words will be of vital importance to future Assassins. They must be written down at once.
It’s a small skirmishing party, or so we’re told. But the main force is not far away. In the meantime the skirmishing party seems to want to make a name for itself and has been launching small but fierce attacks, scaling the walls of the village and fighting on the ramparts before retreating. I know little of warfare, thank goodness, but it occurs to me that these short assaults may be a way of gauging our strength, or lack of it. And I wonder if the Master ever regrets his decision to weaken the citadel by disbanding the Assassins. Just two short years ago no mere skirmishing party would have come within ten paces of the castle before falling to the Assassin archers, or beneath the blades of the defenders.