“Nonsense,” Teragani said. “Altaïr was no traitor.” He looked at the old man keenly. “Altaïr was driven out—unjustly.”

“You don’t know what you speak of!” stormed Tazim, and, rising, he strode off into the darkness.

The old man looked at Teragani and Cemal from beneath his cowl but said nothing. Teragani looked at the face again. Most of it was shaded by the hood, but the eyes could not be hidden. And Teragani had noticed that the man’s right cuff just failed to conceal the harness of a hidden-blade.

The Assassin spoke tentatively. “Is it . . . Is it—you?” He paused. “I heard rumors, but I did not believe them.”

The old man gave the ghost of a smile. “I wonder if I might speak with Abbas myself. It has been a long time.”

Cemal and Teragani looked at each other. Cemal drew in a long breath. He took the old man’s gourd from him and refilled it, handing it back to him with reverence. He spoke awkwardly. “That would be impossible. Abbas employs rogue Fedayeen to keep us from the inner sanctum of the castle, these days.”

“Less than half the fighters here are true Assassins now,” added Teragani. He paused, then said: “Altaïr.”

The old man smiled and nodded, almost imperceptibly. “But I can see that the true Assassins remain just that—true,” he said.

“You have been away a long time, Mentor. Where did you go?”

“I traveled. Studied. Studied deeply. Rested. Recovered from my losses, learned to live with them. In short, I did what anyone in my position would have done.” He paused, and his tone altered slightly as he went on: “I also visited our Brothers at Alamut.”

“Alamut? How do they fare?”

Altaïr shook his head. “It is over for them now. The Mongols under Khan Hulagu overran them and took the fortress. They destroyed the library. The Mongols range ever westward like a plague of locusts. Our only hope for now is to reaffirm our presence here and in the west. We must be strong here. But perhaps our bases from now on should be among the people, not in fortresses like Masyaf.”

“Is it really you?” asked Cemal.

“Hush!” Teragani interrupted. “We do not want to get him killed.”

Cemal suddenly tensed. “Tazim!” he said, suddenly worried.

Teragani grinned. “Tazim is more bark than bite. He likes an argument for its own sake more than anything else in the world. And he has been as dispirited as us, which hasn’t helped his mood. Besides, he left before this little play reached its denouement!” He turned to Altaïr, all trace of his former despondency gone. “We clearly have work to do.”

“So,” said the old man, “where do I begin?”

Cemal looked again at Teragani. They both rose and pulled their hoods up over their heads. “With us, Altaïr,” he said.

Altaïr smiled and rose in his turn. He got up like an old man, but once he was on his feet, he stood firm.

FIFTY-FIVE

They walked toward the castle together.

“You say these men are cruel,” said Altaïr. “Has any man raised his blade against an innocent?”

“Alas, yes,” Cemal replied. “Brutality seems to be their sole source of pleasure.”

“Then they must die, for they have compromised the Order,” said Altaïr. “But those who still live by the creed must be spared.”

“You can put your trust in us,” said Cemal.

“I am sure of it. Now—leave me. I wish to reconnoiter alone, and it is not as if I am unfamiliar with this place.”

“We will remain within call.”

Altaïr nodded and turned to face the castle gates as his two companions fell back. He approached the entrance, keeping to the shadows, and passed the sentries without difficulty, thinking with regret that no true Assassin sentries would have let him slip by so easily. He hugged the walls of the outer bailey, skirting them until he was able to cross to a torchlit guard post not far from the gates of the inner, where he saw two captains engaged in conversation. Altaïr paused to listen to them. After a few words had been exchanged, he knew them to be men loyal to Abbas. Abbas! Why, thought Altaïr, had he shown the man mercy? What suffering might have been avoided if he had not! But then, perhaps, after all, mercy had been Abbas’s due, whatever the cost of it.

“You’ve heard the stories going around the village?” said the first officer.

“About Abbas and his nightmares?”

“No, no—” the first man dropped his voice. “About Altaïr.”

“Altaïr? What?”

“People are saying that an old Assassin saved the life of a merchant, down in the valley. They say he fought with a hidden-blade.”

The second officer shook his head, dismissively. “Rumors. I don’t believe a word of it.”

“True or not, say nothing to Abbas. He is sick with suspicion.”

“If Altaïr is anywhere in these parts, we should act first—seek him out and kill him, like the vile old cur he is. He will only spread discontent like he did before, making each man responsible for his decisions. Undermining the authority that has made Abbas great.”

“An iron fist. That is all anyone understands.”

“You are right. No order without control.”

Altaïr had taken his time to assess the situation. He knew that Cemal and Teragani were somewhere in the shadows behind him. The two officers seemed to be all that stood between him and the inner bailey, and their speech had proved them to be sworn to Abbas’s doctrines—doctrines that had far more to do with Templar thinking than that of true Assassins.

He coughed, very gently, and moved into the pool of light.

The two officers turned on him.

“Who the hell are you?”

“Clear out, old man, if you know what’s good for you.”

The first to speak laughed harshly. “Why don’t we just cut him down where he stands? The pigs will be glad of the extra meal.”

Altaïr did not speak. Instead, he extended his left hand, palm toward them, so that they could see that his ring finger was missing.

They took a step back, simultaneously drawing their scimitars. “The usurper returns!” barked the second captain.

“Who’d have thought it? After so long.”

“What brings you back?”

“A dog returning to its vomit.”

“You talk too much,” said Altaïr. With the economical movements an old man must learn, but with none of an old man’s slowness, he unleashed his hidden-blade as he stepped forward and lunged—once, twice—with deadly accuracy.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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