Her words had their effect at last. An instant later, visibly shaken, Altaïr broke free of the trance that had gripped him. His eyes became normal again, and the Apple withdrew its light, becoming dark and dull, inert in his hand.
But the bodyguard, freed of the force which had held him in its grasp, shook himself like a dog, looked around madly, in anger and fear, and with a terrible oath, threw himself on Maria, striking his knife deep into her back.
Then he drew back, leaving the knife buried where he had driven it. Maria stood, a faint cry forming on her lips. The entire company of Assassins stood as if turned to stone. Abbas himself was silent, his mouth open, but no sound came forth.
It was Altaïr who moved. To the bodyguard, it seemed as if his former Mentor unleashed his hidden-blade with appalling slowness. The blade snicked out and the sound it made might have been as loud as a rock snapping in the heat of the sun. The bodyguard saw the blade coming toward him, toward his face, saw it approach inch by inch, second by second, as it seemed to him. But then the speed was sudden and ferocious as he felt it split his face open between the eyes. There was an explosion in his head, and then, nothing.
Altaïr stood for a fraction of a second as the bodyguard fell to the ground, blood shooting from his head between the shattered eyes, then caught his wife as she began to collapse, and lowered her gently to the earth which would soon, he knew, receive her. A ball of ice grew in his heart as he bent over her, his face so close to hers that they seemed like lovers about to kiss.
They were caught in a silence that wrapped itself around them like armor. She was trying to speak. He strained to hear her.
“Altaïr. My love. Strength.”
“Maria . . .” His voice was no more than an anguished whisper.
Then, appallingly, the sounds and the dust and the smells rose up violently around him again, smashing through the protecting armor, and above it all the shrieking voice of Abbas:
“He is possessed! Kill him!”
Altaïr rose and, drawing himself to his full height, backed slowly away.
“Take the Apple!” screamed Abbas. “Now!”
Altaïr fled before they could react—fled from the castle, through its gaping portal, down the escarpment, and into the sparse wood that bounded the area between fortress and village on the northern side. And there, in a clearing, as if by a miracle, he was brought short by an encounter with another man, like him, but a generation younger.
“Father!” exclaimed the newcomer. “I came as soon as I’d read your message. What has happened? Am I too late?”
From the castle behind them, horns were crying out the alarm.
“Darim! My son! Turn back!”
Darim looked past his father, over his shoulder. There, on the ridges beyond the wood, he could see bands of Assassins assembling, getting ready to hunt them down. “Have they all gone mad?”
“Darim—I still have the Apple. We have to go. Abbas must not get his hands on it.”
For answer, Darim unslung his pack and drew a scabbard of throwing knives from it before placing it on the ground. “There are more knives in there, take them if you need them.”
The Assassins loyal to Abbas had seen them by then, and some were heading toward them while others fanned out to outflank them.
“They’ll try to ambush us,” said Altaïr grimly. “Keep a good stock of knives with you. We must be prepared.”
They made their way through the wood, going ever deeper.
It was a perilous passage. Often, they had to take cover as they spotted groups of Assassins who’d got ahead of them or who tried to take them from the side, or obliquely, from behind.
“Stay close!” Darim said. “We go together.”
“We’ll try to work our way around. There are horses in the village. Once we’ve got mounts, we’ll try to make for the coast.”
Up until then, Darim had been too preoccupied with their immediate danger to think of anything else, but now he said, “Where is Mother?”
Altaïr shook his head, sadly. “She is gone, Darim. I am sorry.”
Darim took a breath. “What? How?”
“Later. Time for talk later. Now we have to get clear. We have to fight.”
“But they are our Brothers. Our fellow Assassins. Surely we can talk—persuade them.”
“Forget reason, Darim. They have been poisoned by lies.”
There was silence between them. Then Darim said, “Was it Abbas who killed my brother?”
“He killed your brother. He killed our great comrade, Malik Al-Sayf. And countless others,” replied Altaïr, bleakly.
Darim bowed his head. “He is a madman. Without remorse. Without conscience.”
“A madman with an army.”
“He will die,” said Darim, coldly. “One day, he will pay.”
They reached the outskirts of the village and were lucky to make their way to the stables unmolested, for the village itself was teeming with Assassin warriors. Hastily, they saddled up and mounted. As they rode away, they could hear Abbas’s voice, bellowing like a beast in pain as he stood atop a small tower in the village square. “I will have the Apple, Altaïr! And I will have your HEAD, for all the dishonor you have brought upon my family! You cannot run forever! Not from us, and not from your lies!”
His voice faded into the distance as they galloped away.
Five miles down the road, they reined in. They had not—as yet—been pursued. They had gained time. But Darim, riding behind him, noticed that his father sat slumped in the saddle, exhausted and anguished. He spurred his horse closer and looked into Altaïr’s face with concern.
Altaïr sat low, hunched, on the verge of tears.
“Maria. My love . . .” Darim heard him murmur.
“Come, Father,” he said. “We must ride on.”
Making a supreme effort, Altaïr kicked his horse into a gallop, and the two of them sped away, specks disappearing into the forbidding landscape.
Having deposited the new key with the others in the safety of the Assassins’ Constantinople headquarters, and having delivered the copy of the Socrates Fables to a grateful and marveling Sofia, Ezio decided that it was time to make a report to Prince Suleiman on what he had discovered at the Arsenal.
He’d had some indication of where to find him and made his way to a fashionable park near the Bayezid Mosque, where he found Suleiman and his uncle Ahmet seated in the shade of an oriental plane, the sunshine intensifying the bright green of its broad leaves.