Masyaf Autumn 1187 CE
You have forgotten the Creed, Altair.
Altair ignored that, staring intently at the page of the book before him. Maliks strident tones really grated on him these days. He knew Malik was only trying to help but he did not care for that. He did not need help. He simply wanted to be left alone. He did not really see the letters on the page. His eyes slid over to his left hand bound in bandages. The bones had been set the pain of it had sent a convulsion through him hed not been ready for it. The Healer Brother had hissed at the others, Malik among them, to hold him still. Altair had tried to will a calmness but failed. He had closed his eyes, seeking that familiar calm space but could not find it. It eluded him. His Spirit was unresponsive. He had spent the last weeks trying to find it again. He was angry and miserable. His attempts at covering it and maintaining some sort of tenuous control were failing.
Brother, you are becoming lost.
Maliks voice was tinged with sadness and concern. He had moved closer to stand over Altair, face creased in worry. His oldest friend, Altair reflected. The only man hed really ever known well among all the Brothers. They had begun together in the same classes, had stuck closer than burrs through thick and thin all the pranks theyd ever gotten up to had only served to bring them closer together. But now Altair felt as if that long cherished friendship were slipping away. Like sand through fingers: grain by grain. What bothered Malik, Altair knew, was his vow to kill every Templar hed ever come across. They were the enemy: a disease that had to be culled before it engulfed them all. Malik was the only one who knew hed heard Altair talking in his sleep. His Brother had hovered over him when Altair had made it back to Masyaf no matter how many times Altair had told him to return to Jerusalem to his duties as a Rafiq. Malik had simply looked at him. Just that. One look. But that had been enough. Altair had given way reluctantly. There had been a mixture of compassion, concern and this was the worst of it brotherly affection. Neither of them was a man to display his emotion, even under duress.
He took a shuddering breath, memories hitting him like an avalanche of stones in the mountains. They had caught him of course. One sick man out in the desert alone could not last long with but a single water skin to him. He had tried to keep his horse well but it had died anyway. He had continued on foot. The Templar and Keraks men were better armed and had supplies still reduced though theyd been by the Muslim attack. They had caught him just to the north of the Dead Sea. He had tried not to look at it he was thirsty by then and the water skin long since empty of all moisture. The back of his throat was parched as the dry sands and rocks around him. He had stopped in the shadow of some rocks to rest and sleep maybe. He had not allowed himself any sleep he could not afford it. He thought that if hed kept moving hed get a good head start on the Templars and Raynalds men. He had forgotten his training. And had paid for it.
They had sent scouts ahead and one of them had found him. Altair had not realized hed fallen asleep until hed been kicked awake. Before he even knew who they were the beating had started. The steel clad feet slammed into his body: ribs, back, chest. Hed not fought back but had curled up to try and protect as much as he could. He was too weak to offer resistance. He had been taken by surprise. Theyd beaten him to within an inch of his life as Raynald watched. The Templar Marshall arrived later angry, slapping the men aside with the flat of his blade. He had berated his men who were there, calling them fools and worse, telling them that their reputation as defenders of the Holy Land was more important than beating one man. Altair had lain on the ground, listening to this vaguely, gritting his teeth at his stupidity.
He did not remember much after that. The Templar Marshall de Treville had a potion administered to him that kept him unconscious and so less likely to escape, no compassion for his injuries there, o no and brought him to Jerusalem. Altair remembered the city very hazily as if a mirage before his eyes. The church spires, the minarets of the many mosques
The crowds of colour he had not seen individual people, that was too much effort. The Kings royal grounds had passed in a blur of green and grey: the trees and the steel of the royal guards. There also was a lot of bright blue like the sky above. Later Altair realized that belonged to the surcoats the royal guard wore with a golden cross stitched on the chests.
He did not remember the throne room or the King. Roderick had told him about it later. Hed also told of the backstabbing and the maneuvering going on around the court. The Assassins presence excited all sorts of rumours and intrigue. Roderick had been disgusted with most of it, especially Raynalds fawning obeisance to the King. Everyone knew that the man lied in every breath. Roderick had spoken quietly in the small room Altair was kept in, chained to the wall once more. The Christian had been afraid of being caught with the infidel. His master had punished him when hed found out how the Assassin had escaped. But Roderick, Altair had thought at the time, was more afraid of God than any earthly man. He risked incurring more of his lords wrath by feeding and sharing the news with the half-dead Assassin.
Dead now for all Altair knew. He raised his head slowly to the window, away from Maliks anxious gaze. There was no sun today. Clouds covered the sky. It would rain soon. And rain in downpours that would go on for days. Maybe itd rain on Rodericks grave, wherever that happened to be. Once more he heard the scream that had been ripped from Rodericks throat as one of the men loyal to the Templar Marshall stabbed him in the back with a knife. Roderick had stopped to hold back the pursuing Templars and the Kings guard to give Altair time to get away. That scream had ended in a wet gurgle but Altair had not stopped. Hed ran as fast as his battered body would carry him, his pursuers clattering after him in the noise of steel and heavy boots they wore. Hed even picked up a dagger someplace he realized later. He had no idea how hed made it to the gates of Jerusalem and out all that was hazy. His instincts mustve kicked in, he now concluded. The years of training paying off.
Hed hidden in an empty barn where hed stayed until it was dark. He had tried not to think of Roderick and tried to shut his ears to that last scream. Hed never told Roderick but Altair had come to think of him as a friend. He wondered now how many friends hed kill before his own life was over. How many more of those dear to him would die for his mistakes? The conclusion was terrible in its implications. He had shrunk away from this as hed made his way back to Masyaf on foot, stealing along food and water along the way. He stole money too usually preying on lone travelers unwary enough to be unescorted in this time when robbery was all too common. There was no time for morality.
He killed Templars too. Usually lone ones that traveled between their fortresses secure in the knowledge no one could touch them because of who they were. Altair had shown them how mistaken that belief was, how arrogant and blinded the Templars were by this conviction in their moral superiority. He would sneak up on them and stab them in the small of the back if they happened to wear a big helmet or slash their throat if they wore chain mail. His way back was littered with Templar corpses. He followed them for days. His clothes were so dirty that he knew he was indistinguishable from the ground. Hed crawl up to an unsuspecting Templar and stick him before the man had time to react. Sometimes he missed and so he had run. They had never caught him he had become an invisible menace. He had heard proclamations empty words promising reward to any who caught him. He had laughed at them as he lay hidden in caves, barns or even hay stacks. He would not be caught again. He would watch before he stepped into the bog or jumped from cliff to cliff. The Templars usually did not hide themselves they were too self assured for that. As the news of his killings among them spread, they began to appear in bands of ten or more. With only his knife he could not assault so many. He did not always go out of his way to kill them. Getting back to Masyaf was his primary goal. He had to have healing. Then hed avenge Roderick and what theyd done to him. He would kill them all even if it took him a lifetime to do it.
That was the problem that Malik could not live with. Altair knew that for his friend did not condone mindless killing and taught his students that one should follow the Masters commands obediently. The Master of the Assassins guided them in their tasks. Altairs vendetta against the Templars went contrary to that. And this had strained their friendship. This was not the first time Altair had gone his own way. He had always seen the Creed and the tenets in a different light, not so literally as Malik. But they had never openly fought about it as now. Altair had changed and to Maliks way of thinking not for the better. That was why Malik was here now to try and reason with him. Altair sighed.
I have forgotten nothing, Malik. His tone was hard yet quiet. He still did not look at him. Slowly he stood up, cradling his healing left wrist. He had not spoken to Malik of his fear of never using the Hidden Blade again. That weapon defined an Assassin in so many subtle ways that the man himself did not even know. The notion of never wearing it again terrified him. He had never thought that way before. He had been alive and well. In that dark room at Kerak and later in the torture chamber hed come face to face with his mortality. It was one thing to accept the thought of death. But to come that close to it and the brink of madness as well had shaken him more than hed cared to admit even now. He had realized that he was weak. Frail even. That all his confidence was nothing but a mask to cover up his inadequacies. He had almost been broken. No, Altair corrected as he stepped to the window in a gesture unconsciously like that of his Master, he HAD been broken. When his left wrist snapped so had his sanity. He had simply not realized it until now.
To be a cripple. To be useless. His face set. Enough self pity. He was training himself back to form and his wrist was healing as were the other injuries and bruises hed gotten on the way back. He would heal that much he promised himself. He was an Assassin, not a woman.
You play with fire, Altair, Malik warned him. Do not bait the wolves lest they tear you apart.
Theyre a disease, Malik. His own voice was harsh. They threaten the fragile peace with their stupid arrogance. Theyre blind to the fact that Salahadin could sweep them from the little land they hold now. All theyve left are isolated fortresses. Yet they cling to the idea that Allah will help their cause. He shook his head, turning to gaze at Malik whose concern was written in every line of his face. They did not hide their emotions in private with each other as they did in public. What they did to me was only a small part of their utter disregard for life. They even kill their own. Rodericks scream swam up from his memories once more. Men like that have no place here. but not many dare stand up to them.
You do this for revenge, Altair. Malik cut him off as Altair opened his mouth to protest. You would bring their wrath down on us because they hurt you. Because they killed your friend. That is not how the Master has taught us.
Altair looked away. Sometimes Malik was too perceptive. He knew him too well. To him, Altair was as clear as glass. That grated on Altair. He had come to the conclusion that the best way to live was to have no friends that way no one had to die for him if he made a mistake. He had to make himself hard, disciplined and alone. An Assassin did not have family, did not show his weaknesses. Maliks compassion and sententious words only served to exacerbate Altairs efforts in that direction. He did not want pity. He already was spending his days training to regain what hed lost mentally and physically. He knew that hed never be the same man again. Kerak had changed him. His misfortunes had been no ones work but his own. He would work on that until he achieved a level where no one paid for his mistakes. If that meant forsaking friendship so be it. He preferred to be alone anyway. All the risks of the mission would lie on him then no point in endangering others and innocents needlessly.
I know the tenets and the Creed, Brother. Altairs voice was cold as the river running below the fortress.
I know that you do, Altair. Malik sighed sharply, controlling his sudden irritation. Altair was being deliberately obtuse. You have forgotten the meaning of them. Do nothing that compromises the Brotherhood. Your hunt will only end when youre dead or we all are. He moved closer to Altair, emphasizing his words with gestures. They are strong. They can recruit more. You are one man. Would you kill us all?
The implied accusation of betrayal in the words of the one man hed cared for set Altairs teeth on edge. He had devoted his life to the Brotherhood by his own choice. He had immersed himself in the Creed and the tenets more deeply than anyone before had thought. He had sought a complete understanding of the tenets knowing that such would never be. The Creed precluded such an achievement: no knowledge could be total because there was nothing that could not be false in it. Every means to find out was to be employed so long as the tenets were not violated. The Creed was a guide a subtle one.
Everything is permitted, Brother, Altair reminded Malik. In order to kill your enemy you have to think like him. Become closer than his shadow. I am not doing this for revenge, Malik. I am taking preemptive action. The Templars are dangerous. Theyve tried to overrun us in the past. If I can make them afraid enough they will think twice about confronting us. I am defending the Brotherhood.
Malik looked skeptical. Have you listened to yourself, Altair? You glorify yourself as a hero. Malik shook his head, sadness etched into his face. You are not the Brother I used to know. Youve changed. Perhaps the Templars wrought better than they thought.
There was a bitterness to his words, a sundering, a cold finality. It cut Altair but that was what hed wanted was it not? Hed rather lose Maliks friendship than cost him his life. The sojourn with the Templars had made him hard hed thought hed been disciplined before. Now he knew better. He could make tough decisions, no matter how costly they would prove to be to himself.
It has to be, Malik.
Altair watched as the Assassins Mask settled over Maliks face, covering the anger he felt. It was not the first time Altair had seen anger seething in Maliks carefully disciplined mind. Malik looked at the floor, fist clenched to keep the emotion in. The effort was enormous, Altair was sure. There was a vast store of this rage that Malik had spent years controlling. Hed succeeded mostly. But sometimes, under unusually emotional stress like now, he cracked.
And how long, Malik said softly but with an edge Altair did not miss. Malik looked up again, staring him in the eye unflinching. And how long before they come down on us in force? How long before they bring their Latin allies with them from Jerusalem? How long before they declare a Crusade against us? His voice became harder as his hold on his strong choking emotions slipped bit by bit. How long before you bring ruin on us all, Altair?
Altair did not answer as they held their gazes locked, striving. There was nothing Altair could say. In Maliks eyes, hed become mad as the Templars had intended perhaps. But Malik had not been there, had not endured the starvation, the absence of the Spirit that had almost driven him over the edge, the beatings and the fears that hed not be an Assassin again. Hed put up a brave front for the Templars: hed not let them see his weakness. Yes, he realized he was weak. He could be broken his enemies had come all too close to that point. That galled and made him bitter than hed been in years. He had believed himself strong and confident. The months of captivity had sapped his energy and with it his confidence in his abilities as an Assassin. Hed felt shame and humiliation. His world lay in tatters around him. And he knew no way to bring it back together.
Altair refused to answer his friends questions. He had no answers. But this cutting ties with the one man whod been his friend and more, like a brother, for so many years was a necessary step in recovering all hed lost. If he was weak, hed give room for pity. An Assassin had no room for weakness that lead to death and failure. Altair could not afford that. He would recover he swore but knew it would be a different Altair: more stern, more confident. He needed missions, he craved work. He flexed his wrist. Impatience gnawed at him. When will it be healed? Another two weeks at least, he thought. He forced that feeling of impotence back down his throat. Once his body was whole hed begin work on his mind again, to relearn control, to assert discipline an Assassin needed.
Damn you, Altair, Malik hissed, seeing that Altair would not be budged from his stance. I wish now that Id never known you. He turned his back on Altair and left. Altiar let out a breath of relief. It was over. They would not be friends again. And that was for the best. Altair closed his eyes, sighing deeply, seeking that calm centre where the Spirit resided. There was work to do. The Master would name another mission for him as soon as he was well enough. From the hints Altair had heard from the Master it was a far journey. To some northern frozen country. Probably not a bad idea, he decided as he sat down again to leaf through the volume before him. The long road would give him time to think about what hed been through and restore some semblance of what Altair the Assassin was. He would not face the snide comments of Abbas or the anger and indifference of Malik. He would be alone with himself. Just as an Assassin was to be. He would regain his confidence, he knew. A few missions and hed be at the peak of his skills again. Hed work harder now: not to prove to the others he was still capable of carrying out al Mualims commands but to prove to himself that he was Altair the Eagle of Masyaf.
As for the Templars, they were marked men now. If any were in his way, hed kill them. But he would not go to seek them out not yet, not until he was sure he could kill them quietly like a shadow, a breath of wind, a brush of death. He smiled grimly at the book that he no longer saw.
You are wrong, Malik. I have defeated the beast and his madness. I am free.