Assassin's Creed: The Secret Crusade Page 75

Long Hair and Bayhas shared a look. They were no longer smiling. For a moment the only sound around the waterhole was the soft creaking of the rope on the branch of the fig tree, Mukhlis watching everything upside down. His arms were untied and he wondered whether to try and to get free but judged it better not to draw attention to himself.

The two thugs moved apart, wanting to outflank Altaïr, who watched the ground open up between them, revealing the merchant hanging upside down. Long Hair passed his scimitar from hand to hand with a soft slapping sound. Bayhas chewed the inside of his cheek.

Long Hair took a step forward, jabbing with the scimitar. The air seemed to vibrate with the sound of ringing steel as Altaïr stopped him with his blade, sweeping his arm to push the scimitar aside, feeling his muscles complain. If the thieves made short attacks he wasn’t sure how long he could last. He was an old man. Old men tended gardens or spent afternoons pondering in their studies, reading and thinking about those they had loved and lost: they didn’t get involved in swordfights. Especially not when they were outnumbered by younger opponents. He stabbed towards Bayhas, wanting to stop the leader outflanking him and it worked – but Bayhas darted close enough with the dagger to slice Altaïr at the chest, opening a wound, drawing the first blood. Altaïr attacked in his turn, and they clashed, trading blows but giving Long Hair a chance to step in before Altaïr could ward him off. Long Hair swiped wildly with his blade, making a large cut in Altaïr’s leg.

Big. Deep. It gushed blood and Altaïr almost stumbled. He limped to his side, trying to bring the well to his flank in order to defend from the front only. He got there, the wall of the waterhole at his side, the hanging merchant at his back.

‘Have strength,’ he heard the merchant say quietly, ‘and know that whatever happens you have my gratitude and love, whether in this life or the next.’

Altaïr nodded but did not turn, watching instead the two thugs in front of him. Seeing Altaïr bleed had cheered them and, encouraged, they came forward with more stabbing, stinging sorties. Altaïr fought off three offensives, picking up new wounds, bleeding profusely now, limping, out of breath. Fear was no longer his weapon. That advantage was lost to him. All he had now were long-dormant skills and instincts, and he cast his mind back to some of his greatest battles: overcoming Talal’s men, beating Moloch, defeating the Templar knights in the Jerusalem cemetery. The warrior who had fought those battles would have sliced these two dead in seconds.

But that warrior lived in the past. He had aged. Grief and seclusion had weakened him. He had spent twenty years mourning Maria, obsessed with the Apple. His combat skills, great as they were, had been allowed to wither and, so it seemed, die.

He felt blood in his boots. His hands were slick with it. He was swinging wildly with his blade, not so much defending as trying to swat his attackers away. He thought of his pack, secured in the fig tree, the Apple inside. To grasp the Apple would be to emerge the victor, but it was too far away and, anyway, he’d vowed never to use it again; he’d left it in the tree for that very reason, to keep its temptation out of reach. But the truth was that if he’d been able to reach it he would have used it now, rather than die like this and surrender the merchant to them, surely condemning him to an even more painful and tortured death because of Altaïr’s actions.

Yes, he would have used the Apple, because he was lost. And he’d allowed them to turn him again, he realized. Long Hair came at him from the periphery of his vision and he shouted with the effort of fending him off, Long Hair meeting his parries with attacking strikes – one, two, three – finding a way beneath Altaïr’s guard and cutting yet another wound on his flank, a deep slash that bled copiously at once. Altaïr staggered, gasping with the pain. Better to die this way, he supposed, than to surrender meekly. Better to die fighting.

Long Hair came forward now and there was another clash of the sword. Altaïr was wounded again, this time on his good leg. He dropped to his knees, his arms hanging, his useless blade gouging nothing but the sand.

Long Hair stepped forward but Bayhas stopped him. ‘Leave him to me,’ he ordered.

Dimly, Altaïr found himself thinking of another time, a thousand lives ago, that his opponent had said the same, and how on that occasion he had made the knight pay for his arrogance. That satisfaction would be denied him this time, because Bayhas was coming forward to Altaïr, who knelt, swaying and defeated, in the dirt, his head hanging. He tried to order his legs to stand, but they would not obey. He tried to lift his blade hand but he could not. He saw the dagger coming towards him and was able to lift his head high enough to see Bayhas’s teeth bared, his gold earring shining in the early-morning sun …

Then the merchant was bucking, swinging and had embraced Bayhas upside down and from behind, momentarily arresting his progress. With a great shout, a final burst of effort, energy summoned from he knew not where, Altaïr thrust upward, his blade slicing up and into Bayhas’s stomach, opening a vertical gash that ended almost at his throat. At the same time Mukhlis had grabbed the dagger just before it dropped from Bayhas’s loosening fingers, jerking upwards and slicing at the rope that held him. He dropped, smashing his side painfully against the well wall, but scrambled to his feet and stood side by side with his saviour.

Altaïr was bent almost double, dying on his feet. But he raised his blade and stared narrow-eyed at Long Hair, who suddenly found himself outnumbered and unnerved. Instead of attacking, he backed away until he reached a horse. Without taking his eyes off Altaïr and Mukhlis, he mounted it. He stared at them and they stared back. Then he very deliberately drew a finger across his throat, and rode away.

‘Thank you,’ said Mukhlis to Altaïr, breathlessly, but the Assassin didn’t answer. He had folded, unconscious, to the sand.


It was a week later when the envoy from the brigand leader arrived. The people from the village watched him ride through the township and to the hills leading up to the citadel. He was one of Fahad’s men, they said, and the wiser among them thought they knew the nature of his business at the fortress. Two days before, Fahad’s men had come to the village with news of a reward offered for anyone who identified the man who had killed Fahad’s son, Bayhas. He had been helped by a merchant from Masyaf, they said, and the merchant would be unharmed if he produced the cowardly dog who had cut down the brigand leader’s beloved son. The villagers had shaken their heads and gone about their business, and the men had left empty-handed, muttering dark warnings about their planned return.

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