Altair dragged himself through the white wet snow, hand clasped to his side to keep the blood in. It was no use, he knew. The wound was too big to cover with one hand. Blood continued to trickle from the slashed flesh. Hed jerked the knife out and left it in the snow some way back. He hoped the pursuers would not see it. His blood was enough of a trail for them to follow.
His breath was vapour in the air. He crawled on, face frozen in a grim expression of desperate determination. Malik was waiting for him back at that abandoned farm out in the country behind a snow-covered hill. He was no doubt worried that neither Altair nor Abbas were back yet. But he could do nothing they had agreed that he was to be ready to ride out when they got back from the task they had come to do.
The snow hissed under him, yielding to his body. His fingers were frozen from digging through it. His hand was so numb he did not feel it anymore. Nor was he aware of the cold gnawing at him, steadily worming its way under his robes. He gasped for breath, painful as it was. His vision was getting more clouded by the minute. He had no idea how long hed been half-dragging himself, half-crawling through the soft snow. It had fallen only last night covering every road, house and hill in a thick woollen blanket of white. He had seen its deceptively mild fall, muffling every sound, deadening the senses.
He drew in great lungfuls of air, grateful that there was no sunlight on the surface of the crystalline snow to blind him. He stopped his slow tortuous crawling, resting his face in the cold whiteness to bring some semblance of life back to his rapidly-tiring mind and body. He listened for his pursuers. They were horsed. They should have caught up to him by now. His bloody trail was visible after all. He strained to hear but there was nothing. He seemed to be alone: out of time and place, suspended almost in some kind of limbo, unknowing of his way and unfamiliar to anyone. He was alone in the universe.
He moved on, gathering the remaining tatters of his will and Spirit, weaving them together into his sanity. He had to reach Malik. He had to tell him of Abbas betrayal. The mission had gone as theyd planned: the families were all dead as al Mualim had ordered. But not the children. They were only babies. They were to have been taken to safety of some village and left there to grow up all unknowing of their parentage. They were innocents. No one would ever know who they were. Or who had killed their parents. Altair had not been comfortable with the idea of living any survivors behind but such were al Mualims orders. He would not disobey. Neither would Malik. But Abbas
Altair ground his teeth, anger momentarily distracting him from the cold and the bodys insistent call for rest, for forgetfulness. The man had always been contrary, had always had a malicious streak in him that none of the other Assassins could comprehend. Abbas delighted in casual cruelty: be it a small rodent to a big horse, ever since he had joined the Brotherhood as a novice he had been a wild thing unknowable, untamable and intractable. He offered insolence to all from the elder Assassins to the other novices. The one man hed not dared to cross until now had been al Mualim, the terrible Master of the Assassins. Like all men of small stature and big ego, Abbas sensed that in al Mualim he had met his superior. The Master seemed to always ignore him and did not get up to Abbas challenges but only watched with his steady grey gaze. That indifference grated on Abbas who had this need to be the absolute centre of everyones attention. He bragged and bullied his way around the fortress, hoping for an important mission so that he would have a chance to show off how superior he was to everyone else.
, Altair muttered, sweating and wheezing. The knife had gone through his liver. He felt the blood seeping into it. His chances of survival were shrinking he would be lucky to make it to the hill, let alone to the door of the empty burned out farm theyd made home the last few months. He coughed, the shaking causing more blood to come out to redden the snow and his robes. He spat the bloody foam out of his mouth and lay for a moment gathering himself for the next stage. The hill was not far now, he saw as he wearily raised his head to look about. All was white and grey: there was no horizon the snow and the sky seemed to meld into one mass, adding to that feeling of suspension hed experienced earlier. A little bit more, he willed, just a quarter of a mile. Please, Allah, let him make it. He did not pray often he usually repeated the mantra of the Creed to steady his resolve in situations like this. He let his mind ran over the sacred words of the ancient guidance, let the anger drain away he would deal with Abbas later and plunged on through the day that was winding down.
He had not gone more than a hundred yards when he heard it. It was a whisper of a sound: a muffled thudding. He closed his eyes, sighing. He had been so close. Bile rose to his mouth and he spat again, gathering some snow in his hand and rubbing his face vigorously to awaken. With a moan he went on. He would not stop. He would not rest. An Assassin did not give up. He adapted. He would get to Malik and warn him. They had to get out of here now. Run as fast as the horses could carry them through this soft cover of the white snow.
Another fifty yards. The thudding was getting closer they were galloping. His breath was rasping as he increased his speed, using his almost numb legs to push himself forward. The pain that brought to his side made him sweat and shiver even more. The bead of sweat were freezing on his robes and steaming slightly in the chill air. He took his hand away from the wound, hoping the shirt and the robes would stop the external bleeding. Using all four wearying limbs he kept on, grim as death. That he would die he could accept. But he would make sure before death claimed him to take Abbas down with him to that hell prepared for fratricides like him.
Another hundred yards. Circles of blackness were appearing at the edges of his vision. His ears were sharper now: he heard the rasp of the snow under him clearly, his lungs were labouring raggedly loudly. Mixed in with it all was the continuous thud of hooves on soft snow. He could almost see the clouds of snow rising from under the plunging hooves. Then he heard another sound. At first hed thought it no more than the sift of snow and his ragged lungs but soon it was more distinct. The thought chilled him: dogs. They had dogs with them. They could smell him even if his trail were not so visible thats why they were catching up now. Theyd used the dogs to find his scent not hard for a trained hound to do and now had him.
O, Abbas, he whispered hoarsely, you have a lot to pay for.
The edge of the hill was so close now. Crawling was useless. He had to move faster. He lurched to his feet, groaning and swaying. The world tilted for some time until he found his balance. He staggered forward, falling and getting up, the Creeds words sustaining his flagging will. The barking was closer now. He dared not look back. Not out of fear. No. Certainty: he would see them. As they would see him. His mind felt thick. His hands clawed at empty air as ghosts appeared before him. Not only the families hed killed but all other victims of his merciless blade. He shrugged them aside indifferently. He knew and understood why he did as he did. He did not feel guilt that feeling was empty. As empty as Abbas words of boast and curse. A man who understood his tasks and the reasons for them had no need of guilt. Only those of uncertain purpose indulged in that feeling, those too weak to see the reality of the world as it truly was. Those sunk in illusion.
There. The hut with its roof half burned and the barn beside it, still intact. All made of wood and stone, long since gone cold without a human touch. There was no smoke coming out. Good, Brother, Altair approved silently as he stood for a moment swaying with fatigue and the relief of having reached the safe haven before his pursuers had gained on him. That brought the sharp bark back to his ears and he moved on, hurrying now. They had to run. Now.
He banged on the door once, blinking the darkness threatening to take him deep into the realms he was not ready to enter just yet. Malik opened the door fast but to Altair, frozen and dying, it seemed like ages. Maliks eyes widened briefly at the sight of his Brother covered head to foot in snow and blood, then he quickly pulled him inside and shut the door. He sat him in a chair. He leaned back against the wall, breathing heavily as Malik went to make him a warm tea that the Assassins had brought with them into this cold clime.
Altairs urgency to tell him was so strong he shook with it. Yet his cold blue lips would not move. All he could manage were separate words that he was not sure Malik could understand. When the other Assassin brought back the steaming cup that warmed his hands wonderfully, Altair drank deeply, ignoring the searing heat. Malik pulled up another chair, eyeing Altair closely. He never let anything show on his face. His self possession was a byword among the Brothers. Only Altair ever knew the depths of feeling Malik could show. He could read concern in his Brothers eyes and questions. He held the cup, enjoying the warmth spreading all through him. He collected himself for a moment, then straightened slightly.
We have to go now, Malik. Theyre after me. He paused, took a breath. Abbas leads them. Hes betrayed us.
Maliks face registered shock but only Altair could see it. To many the mans face would have remained as impassive as always. But Altair knew his friend well enough to see the minute tightening of the eyes and the mouth.
He did that, Malik nodded at Altairs openly bleeding side. Altair nodded wearily. I knew it was a mistake to bring him with us, Malik went on with uncharacteristic bitterness. Hed ignored the jibes and the insults Abbas had hurled his way. But this struck at the core of the Brotherhood. That one would turn a hand on another Brother was practically unthinkable. What was the Master thinking? he burst out, getting up and pacing.
That is not all, Altair grated, sensing that he did not have much time left. They have dogs with them. They are almost here. Unsteadily, he rose, hand to the wall to balance. Again the world swayed as snow fell from him. He shivered, the momentary glow of the tea gone. The mission was a success, Brother. Theyre all dead. We can leave now. He spoke slowly, words coming to his lips with difficulty. Malik was already picking up the packs hed packed in advance. Food undoubtedly, clothing theyd brought as well as the materials to look after their weapons. Hed even packed Abbas things. They would take them back they could be useful on the long road home. Malik had been ready to leave since this morning. He did not like the cold, the wet, the snow. He had worn every tunic and pair of pants hed brought. There were many things Malik al Sayr could endure but winter was not one of them. Altair had to smile at that.
Malik went to the window to see if the pursuers were anywhere in sight. Altair moved towards the back door that led out to the barn where the horses were. He nudged it open slowly, ears sharp for any sound. Nothing. All was still. Maybe theyd not reached the hill yet. They had to move fast.
Malik, he called back. But Malik was there, bags slung over his shoulder, face set in that decisive expression that said he would not be budged from whatever course hed planned out.
Lets go, he said shortly, going out first and moving rapidly towards the stables. The horses were saddled. They stamped their hooves impatiently, breath steaming the air. The smell of horse and straw was overpowering in the cold air. Altair leaned on the stall door, gathering his strength to mount Aisha. He did not know if he could do it. The clatter of hooves on the wood was loud but he still heard the barking. His heart gave a lurch as Malik stopped for a moment, gentling his horse, to whose saddle hed tied the bags. His face was intent as he listened. Then he walked to Altair and took his shoulder.
Mount first, Brother, he said tersely. Ill help you.
Altair would have refused had the circumstances been different. Dizziness threatened to swamp him but he held on to the pommel of the saddle with a vice-like grip. No time. No time for weakness now. Malik put something against his side. Altair felt for it with numb fingers, hearing the thuds of the hooves now, rapidly approaching. He held it in place.
That is the best I can do right now, Malik said as he mounted his own horse and led him out of the stable at a walk. You are sure you can hold on, Brother? His look demanded the truth but Altair could not give it to him. He did not know if he could survive the long trek home, to Masyaf, without a long stop over to take care of his injury. The look he returned Malik blazed feverishly.
I will be fine, Brother, he said slowly, through cold lips barely moving.
Malik looked once towards the hut, then suddenly dismounted and went inside. Altair watched him bemused. What was he doing? They had to get out of here. A moment later a tendril of smoke rose from the wooden remains of the hut. It sizzled slightly as it hit the snow. But the hut was made of a lot of wood: it was mostly dry and so burned. Gradually as the fire sparks spread, Altair came to understand what Malikd done.
Then Malik emerged from the burning building and ran towards the barn with a torch held aloft. He ran into the structure. Altair smelled smoke all around him as the straw inside took fire too. Then Malik ran out and threw himself into the saddle.
They galloped away as the pursuers who had split into two groups came over and around the hill and stopped. They stared at the fires now raging through the mostly dry wood. Then one of the men at the front of the group thatd come over the top of the hill swore and gestured for his men to spread out. The dogs they had on the leashes barked shrilly, smelling the smoke and not liking it one bit. The men moved down towards the burning buildings to try and salvage what they could.
Altair turned once in the saddle to look back at them. Those fires would hold them back for some time. Abbas would likely think that theyd burned something important: his chagrin would be endless. That thought warmed Altairs heart. The man had stabbed him when he least expected it. It was only fair that the two of them repay his kindness. Meanwhile, him and Malik would gain some time on them. They rode grimly on, plunging through the snow. The mission was accomplished. Masyaf called them home.
Two months later.
Two weary Assassins rode into the courtyard of the fortress of the Assassins in the Syrian mountains. They were thinner than emaciated. Their skin was taut over their faces like dried parchment. They were covered in dust which had gathered in the folds of their skin. Even their horses heads were lowered to the ground. They were blowing out harsh breaths with every step. One of the riders drooped in the saddle, clinging on for dear life. He wore blooded robes, torn. The leather of his belt and left-arm brace was stained brown and torn in places as if hes snagged it on something.
At this sight, every novice and Assassin stopped what they were doing to stare at these apparitions. Those nearest to the two ghost-like riders shrank back at first but finally, as the two stopped not far from the gates of the fortress inside the wall one of them whispered, Allah be praised! Its Altair. And Malik. Soon the awed words ran through the gathered men like fire through a steppe. Someone at the far back, closes to the doors, ran inside to inform the Master of their return.
Hands were stretched out to help the two dismount. Malik managed to do so himself but stood leaning on the saddle of his equally weary horse. The relief at having finally arrived home in one piece was overwhelming. The Brothers solicitude even more so. It was humbling in the extreme a feeling that Malik did not allow himself to feel often. He was a disciplined man and expected no less of others. As the Brothers gathered around him to take his horse he turned to Altair with a weary smile. Well, Brother
He never finished. Slowly, seemingly without even trying to stop himself or even willing it, Altair toppled from the saddle as Malik watched and moved quickly to his fallen Brothers side. He had willed himself to stay in the saddle this long. He had concealed the fact that his injury had reopened from Malik. They had enough troubles already without adding the obviously-healing wound into it. To see the fortress again and to hear his Brothers babble had been the one thought sustaining his will. That and the Creed. As theyd ridden up to the fortress, Altair had let the simple words take him to a safe place in his mind. He had only to see the fortress towering in its majesty above him to realize that all was fine now. He would not be cold, or hungry or fear death. That fortress that the Assassins made their home was a solid rock of his identity. Here was a place of rest, of recovery. Here the Assassins returned to report on their success, here they breathed the Gardens smells of jasmine and lavender and roses. Here they were invincible.
He could feel Maliks hands on him, heard him swear at this gross stupidity and pride that made him hide the injury as Malik pried open the robes around it. He dimly saw the shocked faces of the Assassins and the novices as the gaping pus-filled wound was revealed.
You stupid idiot, Malik muttered under his breath as he quickly barked an order for fresh water and a stretcher. Those were on the way already as he spoke and tried to staunch the fresh blood coming from his friends side. Damn your pigheadedness, Altair. You just had to keep this quiet.
And then the crowd stood aside to reveal a man that was feared through all the lands. A hush fell over the courtyard before the fortress as every single eye turned to the black-clad al Mualim striding through to peer down at the wounded Assassin on the ground and then his tired accomplice. Then the Master of the Assassins looked at Malik, an unspoken question in his eyes that saw everything and told nothing.
It is done, Master, Malik said in a dusty voice. He had not drank in days. Their last water had run out long since. Only by a tremendous force of will had they moved on to reach Masyaf before the end of the day.
Al Mualim nodded and turned to go back inside when there was dry raspy croak from under his feet.
Master. It was Altair. With the last vestiges of awareness hed felt the old mans presence. His hand was tightly clutched around one of the feathers hed dipped in his victims blood. Now he held it up brown, torn, dirty as a sign that the mission was indeed accomplished to the Masters satisfaction.
Altair watched the old mans face, so inscrutable, so emotionless. To those who did not know him at least. Altair did. So did Malik. The two of them caught the momentary flicker of satisfaction in the Masters eyes and pleasure at the strong will of the Eagle of Masyaf who even with his last breath showed his determination and loyalty to the Brotherhood.
A fit of coughing shook Altair as the ranks of the Brothers parted once more to let the Master through. The feather fell from his hand to the dusty ground to be picked up by a novice reverently with an awed expression on his face. But neither Altair nor Malik cared about that at the moment. Altair at last could let go of all thought, feeling or sensation. He could sink into that blanket of Spirit and sleep deeply, recover his strength and purpose.
Malik watched the light fade from his Brothers eyes and wished he could do the same. But the Master would demand a report now from him. There was much to tell. Their way back had not been uneventful. They had had to lie over at several monasteries along the way to care for Altairs wound. It had been healing fine until the Knights of the Teutonic order here had decided that the two Assassins were fair prey as the enemies of the Christians. A whole troop had chased them for many miles. All the jiggling and the shaking of the gallop had aggravated the injury. Malik had feared Altair would not make it hed been so pale that night when theyd finally shaken the Teutonics that Malik had spent a sleepless night watching over him. Altair, of course, could not know of it. Hed been sunk in delirium and fever, shaking and sweating, even though Malik had put every blanket he could think of around him. Altair had ridden on when his fever broke the next day, driving himself beyond all human endurance to reach Masyaf, to see it one last time. Malik had guessed such a thought had passed his friends mind but did not voice his concerns, keeping a sharp eye out instead.
He sighed as he wearily got to his feet. Their horses were gone. Undoubtedly eating in the stables, cleaned and watered. He needed a drink himself, he thought as he made his way to the dim cool interior of the fortress while Altair was carried to the infirmary to the care of the Healers who knew more about wounds and sicknesses than many an Assassin or even a court physician.
He pushed his way into the Masters study, feet dragging. He only wanted to sleep, to lose himself in the realm of dreams as Altair was doing just now. But duty called, duty kept his will up and allowed him to answer the old mans questions as best he could.
Later in his quarters, fed and sated, Malik lay in bed thinking, unable to sleep despite his great fatigue. His eyes felt heavy, body was full, yet his mind could not stop working and analyzing what had happened. He tossed and turned this way and that. He even drank the Assassin tonic but that only kept him awake. He swore, punching the pillow in annoyance at its shape. Finally he got up, grumbling, fully dressed, and went to the infirmary. He did not know why he wanted to be there or how he got there. His feet seemed to have a mind of their own.
He opened one of the double doors to the candle-lit infirmary, full of beds and smelling of the medicines that the Healers employed in their arts. Most beds were empty, softly glowing in the dim yellow light. He walked until he reached the one that was not.
Altair was not asleep. He lay staring at the ceiling. His eyes were still slightly glazed but aware enough. Malik sat on the edge of the bed, sighing quietly.
What are you doing here, Malik? Altair sat up slightly, wincing at the pain that cleared his mind of fog wonderfully.
Malik shrugged, not looking at him.
You told the Master everything, did you not? he asked Malik quietly. A nod was his answer. About Abbas?
Again a nod.
My mind does not seem able to let those events go, Malik confessed, rubbing his face. I cant sleep. My eyes keep seeing the cold snowy roads, the blue sea, the
. His voice trailed off. This was unlike Malik, Altair knew. The usual calm was gone. Something was rubbing his friend raw.
It is Abbas betrayal thats bothering you. He watched Maliks face twist in a grimace of irritation. That fool uprooted all we stand for, he defied the Creed. He showed how loyal he is. Altair leaned forward to lock his eyes on Maliks. The Master will deal with him. Do not let Abbas get under your skin. His own face hardened, the Assassin mask coming over with the ease of long practice, without effort. Once he is here, there was an ominous quality to his words, soft as they were. he will face a higher judge than either of us could be.
Suddenly he did not want to stay in bed. Maliks restlessness was contagious, he thought wryly as he swung his legs out of the bed. Malik tried to stop him, telling him he was too weak to walk.
Do you really believe that, Malik? Altair never raised his voice, yet his question stopped Malik in his tracks. Altair felt the twitch of pain in his side and ignored it. One night of wondering was a fair exchange for all the weeks he foresaw of lying here under the Healers watchful eyes.
The two of them wandered the silent fortress of the night, gradually making their way to the Garden that was never closed. They breathed the clean night air. It was almost dizzying. The water tinkled softly in the fountains a musical refreshing sound that brought moisture to a parched throat in the desert or watered a plant that gave nourishment. The two Assassins walked softly in the night. They spoke seldom and that softly, unwilling to disturb the quiet of the night. The sound of the water and the night life drove away thoughts of blood and death and toil, leaving a lassitude that spread through the two men. Altair sighed deeply of the night air, forgetting the aches and twinges of his battered body for the moment. This was recovery, this was the recuperation he needed not to be stuck in that bed for weeks. He already felt his Spirit becoming whole again, relaxing in the familiar confines of the Eagles Nest of Masyaf. That gave him hope. Not for the future he could not see that far, nor wished too: he was no soothsayer. But hope that things were right again. He was alive. So was his friend and Brother. They had gone through fire and blood. They had lived through snow and cold and faced death so many times theyd lost count, but not the respect it deserved. They knew better: that was the difference between an Assassin and the novice. A healthy fear of the unknown yawing abyss that lay before every man. To face death and hardship alone was a feat but to have a friend along
A slow smile tugged at the corners of Altairs mouth. He would not have made it back without Malik, he knew. Malik had dragged him through the snow and the water and the sand to Masyaf. When Altair was feverish and on the edge of giving up it had been Malik whod stuck to him like a burr, worrying over him like a fox with only one cub. Hed done so silently but Altair had caught concern and other feelings that Malik would kill him for telling him about. Malik was more than a friend. The two of them had been inseparable since the novitiate theyd shared. They were like brothers, always sharing, always holding the other up in times of trouble. All the dangers theyd weathered had only brought them closer. They had gone far on this mission, father than either had done before. Only their affection for each other which neither would voice aloud, Allah forbid had let them even contemplate going on when the Teutonics were biting their heels. Yes, Altair thought, we indeed traveled to unknown lands. But now they were home back where they belonged. As he looked at the stars and the silent whiteness of the moon, Altair smiled and was content.