“Some will, perhaps. But not Abbas.” Altaïr shook his head. “I should have expelled him thirty years ago when he tried to steal the Apple.”
“But my dear, you earned the respect of the other Assassins because you were merciful—you let him stay.”
He smiled at her slyly. “How do you know all this? You weren’t even there.”
She returned his smile. “I married a master storyteller,” she replied, lightly.
As they walked, they came into view of the massive hulk of the castle. But there was an air of neglect hanging over it, of desolation, even.
“Look at this place,” growled Altaïr. “Masyaf is a shadow of its former self.”
“We have been away a long time,” Maria reminded him, gently.
“But not in hiding,” he said, testily. “The threat from the Mongols—the Storm from the East, the hordes led by Khan Genghis—demanded our attention, and we rode to meet it. What man here can say the same?”
They walked on. A little later, Maria broke their silence by saying, “Where is our eldest son? Does Darim know that his brother is dead?”
“I sent Darim a message four days ago. With luck, it will have reached him by now.”
“Then we may see him soon.”
“If God wills it.” Altaïr paused. “You know, when I think of Abbas, I almost pity him. He wears his great grudge against us like a cloak.”
“His wound is deep, my darling. Perhaps . . . perhaps it will help him to hear the truth.”
But Altaïr shook his head. “It will not matter, not with him. A wounded heart sees all wisdom as the point of a knife.” He paused again, looking around him, at the handful of villagers who passed them with their eyes either lowered or averted. “As I walk through this village, I sense great fear in the people, not love.”
“Abbas has taken this place apart and robbed it of all joy.”
Altaïr stopped in his tracks and looked gravely at his wife. He searched her face, lined now, but still beautiful, and the eyes still clear, though he fancied he saw reflected in them all they had been through together. “We may be walking to our doom, Maria.”
She took his hand. “We may. But we walk together.”
Maria and Altaïr had reached the confines of the castle and began to encounter Assassins—members of the Brotherhood—who knew them. But the meetings were far from friendly.
One approached them and made to pass by without acknowledgment, but Altaïr stopped him.
“Brother. Speak with us a moment.”
Unwillingly, the Assassin turned. But his expression was stern. “For what reason should I speak with you? So that you can twist my mind into knots with that devilish artifact of yours?”
And he hurried away, refusing to talk any further.
But hard on his heels came another Assassin. He, too, however, clearly wished to avoid any contact with the former Mentor and his wife.
“Are you well, brother?” asked Altaïr, accosting him, and there was something challenging in his tone.
“Who is asking?” he replied, rudely.
“Do you not recognize me? I am Altaïr.”
He looked at him levelly. “That name has a hollow sound, and you—you are a cipher, nothing more. I would learn more talking to the wind.”
They made their way unchallenged to the castle gardens. Once there, they knew why they had been allowed to penetrate so far. Suddenly, they were surrounded by dark-clad Assassins, loyal to their usurping Mentor, Abbas, and they stood ready to strike at any moment. Then, on a rampart above them, Abbas himself appeared, sneeringly in control.
“Let them speak,” he ordered in an imperious voice. To Altaïr and Maria, he said: “Why have you come here? Why have you returned, unwelcome as you are, to this place? To defile it further?”
“We seek the truth about our son’s death,” replied Altaïr in a calm, clear voice. “Why was Sef killed?”
“Is it the truth you want or an excuse for revenge?” Abbas responded.
“If the truth gives us an excuse, we will act on it,” Maria threw back at him.
This retort gave Abbas pause, but after a moment’s reflection he said, in a lower tone: “Surrender the Apple, Altaïr, and I will tell you why your son was put to death.”
Altaïr nodded, as if at a secret insight, and, turning, prepared himself to address the assembled Brotherhood of Assassins. He raised his voice commandingly.
“Ah, the truth is out already! Abbas wants the Apple for himself. Not to open your minds—but to control them!”
Abbas was quick to reply. “You have held that artifact for thirty years, Altaïr, reveling in its power and hoarding its secrets. It has corrupted you!”
Altaïr looked around at the sea of faces, most set against him, some—a few—showing signs of doubt. His mind worked quickly as he concocted a plan, which might just work.
“Very well, Abbas,” he said. “Take it.”
And he took the Apple from the pouch at his side and held it up high.
“What—?” said Maria, taken aback.
Abbas’s eyes flashed at the sight of the Apple, but he hesitated before signaling to his bodyguard to go and take it from Altaïr’s gaunt hand.
The bodyguard came close. When he was standing next to Altaïr, a demon possessed him. An amused expression on his face, he leaned in to the former Mentor, and whispered in his ear: “It was I who executed your son Sef. Just before I killed him, I told him that it was you yourself who had ordered his death.”
He did not see the flash of lightning in Altaïr’s eyes. He blundered on, pleased with himself, and, scarcely restraining a laugh, said: “Sef died believing you had betrayed him.”
Altaïr turned burning eyes on him then. In his hand, the Apple exploded with the light of a bursting star.
“Ahhhh!” screamed the bodyguard in pain. His whole body writhed uncontrollably. His hands went to his head, scrabbling at his temples. It looked as if he were trying to tear his head from his body in an attempt to stop the agony.
“Altaïr!” cried Maria.
But Altaïr was deaf to her. His eyes were black with fury as, driven by an unseen force, the bodyguard, even as he tried to resist his own impulses, pulled a long knife from his belt and, with hands trembling as they tried to oppose the power which drove them, raised it, ready to plunge it into his own throat.
Maria seized her husband’s arm, shaking him, and crying again, “Altaïr! No!”