“Charles!” Haytham's voice rose an octave. “I had said he was to be watched, kept close. Not sent out on a ship!”
Charles Lee lowered his eyes, mortified. Had he misunderstood his master's orders? Then the Assassin's sneering face appeared in his mind, the indifference with which his enemy had listened, had submitted, to his fate had been unsettling. Lee's face coloured at the insulting image and he raised his eyes to find the cold eyes of his master, waiting expectantly.
“Sir,” he tried and cleared his throat. Haytham's face was as cold as ice and expressed about as much of his emotion. Haytham was a man of cold ire: it did not blaze but smoulder for a long time. “Sir, I thought – I believed -...”
“You believed that letting him loose on a slaveship would solve our problem, Charles,” Haytham interrupted him coldly. “Now he is out there, alone.”
Haytham walked to the window and stared out for a moment.
“This mistake has to be rectified...”
“I will, sir,” Lee promised. “I will do everything possible to -”
“No, Charles,” his master objected. “You will do nothing. You will continue the work of the Order. We need to get those supply routes secured, both on land and water.”
“But sir,” Lee remonstrated. “Can you risk your life for that of you son?” He held his breath in expectation of an explosion that did not come. When he dared to look up again, he found that Haytham's eyes had become glassy. Lee swallowed, suddenly aware that he had said too much. He had seen the similarity between Haytham and the Assassin, even back in the forest when he'd first met the boy. There was a certain look, a certain cast, to the features of both men.
“Charles,” Haytham ordered him in a deadly quiet voice. “You will not reveal this to anyone else. Guard your tongue well – or you will be parted from it, permanently.”
Lee opened his mouth and then closed it. He knew he was getting off easily. Haytham was not known for being merciful. His ruthlessness was a byword among the Templars. His long grudges even more so: he did not like failure and did not fail to reward miscreants appropriately.
“I hope I make myself clear, Charles,” Haytham said heading for the door, his coat fastened and his hat in his hand.
“Inescapably, sir,” Lee said respectfully as the heavy door was closed.
The night was dark, moonless and close. The air was warm and sticky, unusual for this time of year. The tall big man on the roan horse reached up and opened the collar of his coat, took of his hat and wiped his streaming face. He had been riding hard for a long time in haste to reach the house. On his way he had crossed a river and passed a large tavern, a church, a lumber yard and a doctor's house, the only place where lights were still on. He made his way up the hill, cautiously and keeping an eye out for any enemies. But all his eyes saw dimly were shapes of houses and no people. Only dogs barked occasionally.
The road up to the homestead was a muddy track widened by the passage of wagons, people and horses. The roan's hooves struck the soft earth with a dull regularity. The horse snorted at times, the tack jingled, the sound loud in the still night.
At last he reached the porch of the two story homestead. He sat for some time, not dismounting. He was thinking about his reasons for coming here. Not for the first time he asked himself why he was here, in front of the house of his enemy who was little threat. Achilles had holed up here and had not bothered the Templars for a long time. His apprentice, however, - his son, no less – that was a different matter. He was out on the ocean somewhere, alone but for the Native boy he had found out had left with the ship. Somehow, the boy had slipped onto the ship – hero-worship? Haytham had chuckled. His son was not charismatic enough for that. Then again, he had amended, Connor did not need charm. He let his actions speak for himself.
Dismounting, Haytham hitched his horse to a nearby rail and walked up the porch steps to knock on the door. The front windows of the homestead were dark. However, Haytham sensed that inside the house the lone inhabitant was not asleep. Achilles was old and needed little rest. His life hung on him too heavily to let him sleep.
For five minutes no sound, no footstep, was heard. Then a slow tread, the noise of locks and the door swung open. Achilles stood on the porch, lamp in hand, leaning on the side of the door lintel to steady himself. He did not appear surprised.
“Haytham,” he greeted his guest calmly. “What are you doing here?”
“I have come with news,” answered Haytham, sighing and adjusting his shoulders beneath his coat. “About Connor.”
“He is your son, Haytham,” Achilles said
“I know,” Haytham replied. “I need your aid.”
Achilles' brow rose and he opened the door a little wider.
“Truly? And why would the Grand Master of the Templar Order seek the aid of an old bitter Assassin, his inveterate enemy?” The sarcasm in Achilles' voice was as thick as a board. Haytham had to bite back a sudden sharp retort.
“I will not stand out here in the night and discuss this,” he said coldly.
Achilles grunted, unimpressed, and allowed his uncalled guest to enter, closing the door behind him.
“Come to the study,” he said, walking slowly, his leg aching. He felt old and worried about Connor. Something truly horrible must have happened to bring Haytham here. If the Grand Master felt himself unequal to finding his son...
“I will come to the point,” Haytham said settling himself into one of the wide chairs near the fireplace. The windows were open, the drapes stirring in the sluggish breeze. “I had captured your apprentice and had intended to hold him – imprison him for the rest of his life.” Haytham pursed his lips, uncomfortable with admitting weakness, especially to an enemy. “I blundered. And now he is on the ocean in a slaveship bound for the plantations.”
“I see,” Achilles acknowledged in his quiet way. “You want an old man to solve the mess that you made – or should I say that Charles Lee made?”
Haytham glanced at his adversary sharply. Achilles was old, bitter but not stupid or without his information. He waved his hand, as if to say that whether or not Lee was to blame was irrelevant.
“I need your aid, Achilles,” he said, a snake of discomfort, of humiliation, coiling in his gut. That a proud man like himself had to beg a defeated enemy for aid... one had make do with what one had. “Connor is not so much in danger from the slaver,” he continued observing that Achilles still looked disbelieving, suspicious. “There is a Native boy with him – I had hired him to kill Connor should the opportunity arise. As it appears the boy followed him onto the ship, in order to carry out that order.”
Achilles stared into space, seemingly at his uninvited guest but really past him. His heart misgave him, even though he would not admit to such weakness, not in front of this man. Deep down Achilles feared what would come to pass if Connor should die indeed. The Assassins would be finished, his friends' efforts notwithstanding. Connor had worked hard to restore the Brotherhood somewhat. It was still far from its former glory. The old man was not sure if it would survive without Connor to hold it together, to give it morale by his convictions.
“You are a Templar, Haytham. He is an Assassin. Why should you care if he lives or dies?” Achilles asked the Templar in his soft voice. On Haytham's answer hinged his refusal or acceptance of the task. He felt a vast reluctance to associate himself with Haytham, the man whose work had destroyed the Assassin Order, and yet... Connor was like a son to him – even though he could never tell the boy that for reasons that he himself could not quite explain.
Haytham looked away into space, bitter reflections whirring in his heart. It was hard to acknowledge weakness, hard to plead for aid.... Why, why did he care so much about Connor? The boy was nothing to him. He was an Assassin, a deadly enemy whose death would be a boon after all the ruinous work he'd done against the Templars. Why did he care?....
“He is my son,” he said simply at last.
“I lost mine. Why should I help you to find yours?” Achilles inquired.
Haytham chewed his lip, his anger rising. It was hard to control himself in the face of such audacious tranquillity. The old man had no fear of anything or anyone anymore. Haytham's eyes sought those of the old man who appeared sad but resolute, old regrets crowding both of the adversaries. Thoughts of what might have been – and what was.
“Because my agents would kill him on sight. While yours would bring him back alive – and free,” the Templar replied through his teeth, the words galling.
“You would set free your enemy? Really?” Achilles asked in disbelief.
“I promised so already, did I not?” Haytham asked, letting a growl into his tone. Achilles' eyes were very penetrating, making the Templar want to squirm, an impulse he controleld rigidly. “So, old man, what is it to be? His death on your conscience and the Assassins finished for good this time or would you like to see him again, alive?”
Achilles sighed, his eyes closing wearily, and nodded. He felt old, suddenly. Very old. Every one of his many years lay heavy on him. His youth was gone. In Connor he had found it again. Now his friend, his son, was in danger – would he let him die?
“Alright, Haytham, I will aid you – for my own reasons. I care not for Templars or for you. That boy is everything to me.”
Haytham nodded in grave acknowledgement.
They were in perfect understanding.