Road to Baghdad Summer 1188 CE
The crossing looked busy, milling men, braying asses and neighing horses producing an almost unbearable din that surely could be heard for miles in any direction. Only the noise of the river could possibly cover it but not by much. Even quarter of a mile away as they were, Altair and Adah heard shouting as the cargo was prepared for transport across the river. In the same direction they were going.
The day had begun badly and was now getting worse. It had rained, soaking their clothes, bedrolls and food packs given by the Assassins at the post. They had spent a day wasted a day, in Altairs opinion drying out what had gotten wet. That had been yesterday. But the mud created by the heavy downpour of the day before had still not quite dried. And now this caravan what was a large caravan doing here at the smugglers crossing? was churning up the ground into a puddle of mud. Altair spat to the side.
How could we not see or hear them coming here? he wondered aloud, eyes scanning the long line of horses and asses that the handlers were trying to force onto the ferry that could only carry two horses abreast and two men. And why would they cross here? Look at how much they carry.
He pointed to bales of what looked like cloth silk or muslin tightly rolled for the journey slung across the wagons pulled by horses. The river was not too deep here but how were they going to get the wagons to the other side? He saw the caravan guards going up and down the long winding line of the caravan, taking orders as to the dispositions on this bank and the other. Looking across, Altair saw some of them already over there, guarding the so far little pile of transported goods. He growled in frustration.
This crossing is not the only one I think in this vicinity, Adah spoke from beside him, the first words this day. Neither had felt the need for talking after the rains and today promised more delays. In fact, Altair reflected as his eyes roved the line of the ever moving caravan, theyd not spoken since the morning after. Somehow the need to talk seemed to go away once they were back on the road and busy with its routines of setting up camp and the thoughts each carried on their soul. And neither to his surprise did he find himself uncomfortable with the silence. It was as if being back on the road had erased the events of the night and the emotional consequences. They were nothing more than traveling companions. Nothing more
His senses jarred as his eyes found something even more out of place than the long winding caravan that should not be here and had most likely made a road for many others to follow them here. How many more smugglers would come here and deposit tolls with the Assassins for safe passage was now in doubt. This particular caravan had not paid the tolls, he was sure. Hed have seen a large caravan how had his Brothers missed it? Who led these men?
All these questions were swept aside as a figure on a mount caught his gaze at the same time as Adah pointed him out. Look, is that not a Latin? she asked in the low voice shed adopted. It was more male and went along with the disguises of the mercenaries theyd taken on since leaving the Assassin fort. Few would dare question two armed men.
Altairs eyes never left the Crusader as a chill made its way down his spine. The man rode with a purpose and ease of long practice. His clothing, what Altair could make out at this distance, was black adorned with a white cross on the breast. Altair sucked in air through dry still lips. A Hospitaller. In the Caliphas lands. That he was alone spoke volumes of his daring, although Altair could tell no weaponry on him beyond the standard longsword in a saddle sheath. The man carried a satchel across his shoulders. A messenger. Or spy. His pace was measured, an unhurried trot that ate up the distance effectively nonetheless. As the two of them watched in silence he rode up to a man at the head of the ferry and a few words passed between them. Then the messenger splashed his way into the river to the waiting ferry that was still only half loaded. Despite the angry gesturing of the men on the ferry he dismounted on it, making his horse swim as the ferry cast off and began across to the other side.
Altair and Adah exchanged looks. A very important messenger, Altair thought, to warrant the taking over of the ferry at his behest. But how did he know of this crossing? And why was he riding the same road as them? Altair shifted uneasily in the saddle.
That was either a very insolent man or an urgent message, Adah commented echoing his own thought. Perhaps we should try to find another ford.
Altair shook his head. Any other fords could be days away. And in any case I dont know of them. They could be more crowded than this. He leaned onto his saddle looking over at his companion. Her face was half covered with a head scarf to hide the lower part of her face, to pass her off as a youth. The cloth muffled her voice enough so that when she spoke shed not be taken for a woman. The spies that he knew were on the road somewhere from here all the way to Baghdad would not fail to recognize her if she spoke too much or drew too much attention. The closer they got to their destination the more likely that theyd be spotted and recognized. At least she would be if allowed to be openfaced. Himself hed be safer he did not wear his robes and not many would know his face in any case, beyond the Lady Zubaydah and the palace servants. But the less risk he took the better.
Lets mingle with the mercenaries, he decided at last. Two more in this crowd wont be noticed.
She did not object and followed him silently. She had let him take the lead so far. And that unnerved him. He was used to objections and obstinacy from her. Unless this was one more mysterious aspect of her personality, part of that courtly mask she enveloped herself in so easily. If she kept on like this working with her in close proximity would be hard, notwithstanding his own fleshly urges that he had learned to keep tightly bound. God, why this woman!
The next day he still kept thinking about that Hospitaller. Theyd not seen anymore of his tracks after the river. He must have taken a different route after all. Or perhaps he was simply passing from some other land back to the Crusader enclaves. Whatever it was, troubled the Assassins mind. It nagged at him, even though it probably had no bearing on his mission whatsoever.
The eagles lone high cry interrupted his thought, making him look up into a sky so blue that no paint could ever rival it. The bird flew low, so low he could see the feathers of the spread wings as it planed on the air currents of the hilly valley they were riding through. The eagle gave one more cry, calming Altair somehow, disrupting the rapid jumbled thoughts, enabling him to order them somehow. In moments like these, as he communicated with that spiritual presence within himself, he could relax, forget whatever nagged him for a short while. Hed not meditated for some time now. Tonight, he promised, hed do so.
Then the eagle veered off to their right and he heard a harsh caw of a raven. At the same time Adah motioned with her hand and called his attention to a flock of ravens circling and fluttering over a hill. He saw some vultures too but the black cloud against the clear blue already told the sad story. A group of bodies lay there, human or animal he did not know but felt uneasy all the same.
They rode off the path and up the hill. The ravens ignored them, too busy and sated to pay much mind to two humans. He heard Adah gasp as his own anxiety turned to ice. The side of the hill all the way down was strewn with bodies. Bodies in the bloodied white of the Templars. At least a score of them, hacked and stabbed viciously. The smell of the blood and putrid flesh was almost overpowering. But that was not why Altair turned away. The men were Templars. Dead to a man. Something inside him closed up. None of his business. He thought he should salute whoever had killed them. Less vermin in the world.
Lets get on. There is nothing here.
He felt her stare at him in astonishment. And ignored her.
These men are dead, Dai Altair. Yet there are no signs of their enemies among them. Does it not make you curious what happened here?
No, he bit off the word, flicking his reins. Even though, if he were truthful with himself, he did wonder why it was only the Templars here. They were ferocious fighters. Surely they did not just lay down their arms and surrender?
Her cold imperial tone stopped him cold. Not so much with the words as with the implications.
Dai, you swore to protect me and help me in whatever I ask of you. You will not go until I give you leave.
His teeth ground together as anger flared through his body. How dared she talk like that, so fearlessly? He could kill her in a blink of an eye.
You will disregard the fact that they are your enemies. They are dead men, Dai. Whatever harm they might have done to you or did not do you will not just walk away. Only a monster would do so. A beast.
There. Shed said the one word hed tried so hard not let enter his mind for the past year. The possibility hed denied as nightmares almost drove him mad. His hand strayed towards his left wrist to rub an old habit hed had tried to break himself of. He was still amazed that the Brothers restored function to his broken wrist at all. Roderick had made a clean break easier to set than a crooked one. He closed those memories off. Hed moved on with his life. An Assassin had no time to brood, not when his Master wanted his skills and mind at his disposal.
And now the Lady Adah had decided to remind him of her station. As if hed ever forgotten it. He treated her courteously as her rank demanded but he was no serving man to obey her whim.
One draught of wine does not a drunken man make, he said softly looking at the ravens and not the bodies strewn all about in various postures that confirmed his guess as to a battle here. A collar around a mans neck does not a slave make.
At this he gazed into her eyes as the ravens harsh calls grated on his ears. She did not back down from him, her golden eyes flashing at his insolence. Then she turned and rode down to inspect the field of battle with these words over her shoulder, I expect to see you here and not move beyond my eyesight, Dai. Should whoever killed these men return, you are to assist me in driving them off.
Altair took a breath to retort, to tell her exactly how they stood but she would not listen. Despite his irrational wish to just go on and leave her to catch up with him if she could he stayed there and even after a while could not stay put anymore. Curiosity, ever his bane, drove him to dismount and walk the edges of the charnel house field. Hed smelled places like this before many a time so he did not hold his nose as he saw her sometimes doing out of the corner of his eye. She looked at him from time to time too, to make sure he was not about to wander off on his own.
The more he looked the more questions and suspicions he had. Shed been right after all not one of the bodies was not a Templar one. Did they fight one another? Absurd even by their strange Christian standards. And poisoning so many men seemed unlikely. He rather thought that the ambushers had picked their dead up after the fight. To bury? Perhaps, he allowed, squatting by a body of a fully armed knight who lay under his equally dead horse. Clouds of flies swarmed the field, their buzzing a drone overlaid by the ravens calls. His helmet had been cut open and the face beneath mangled beyond all recognition. Blood did not seep from his many wounds that spoke to a brutality Altair could not place. Even what theyd done to him paled in comparison. Most of the damage to the body seemed to have occurred after hed fallen down: the strokes were too deep and regular to be a battle wound. He went over to another body, then another. All spoke of hacking horror after theyd fallen down. And given the fact that these Templars had strayed to Abbasid lands, Altair did not think other Latins could have done this. Any sizable troop of foreigners would be seen and reported immediately to Al Nasir. Then again perhaps a small troop had managed to elude the Caliphas guard along the border and come this deep into his lands unnoticed. Perhaps these men were the renegades and the others had just been catching them up. That could explain no dead enemies among the carnage: whoever had done this wanted the act kept secret so as not to upset any civilians who might be about and so incite another riot for the beleaguered Calipha. Whod be so soliticious though?
Altair thought it more likely that the Caliphas men had caught up with the renegade knights and slaughtered them. But then, why take the dead if justice was the idea? Unless they had not wanted to attract anymore attention to the dead Templars than necessary. He sat back on his heels as yet another possibility struck him: what if the Hospitallers were involved somehow? That messenger
Like a hound on a scent Altair began to examine every inch of the battle ground for signs. The tale was a hard one: the muddy ground had dried since the battle. He guessed itd taken place in the rain. Three days ago then. Some bodies were decomposing already and the waste of the loosed bowels was as thick as mud. He had to step carefully.
As he went about his search he went deeper and deeper into a detached part of himself where memory and thought became one. He could almost see the battle as it played out, the desperate fight, the cries of the horses and the wounded men. But he felt no pity for these. Their kind had come so close to breaking him. In Maliks eyes theyd succeeded. But Altair did not think so. And with this mission hed prove Malik wrong. Moreover, the Master trusted him with this mission. The Master read him the best of any man.
Something caught his eye: a gaggle of ravens on a body. It was hard to see for all the squabbling black birds with beady eyes that seemed to know him, to look so deep into him that he felt disconcerted. He braved the birds anyway, walking with a steady step, staring right back at them, daring them to screech at him.
Arrogantly, the birds ignored him, pecking at the flesh, red gobbets of which he saw disappear down their gullets. He did not feel nauseated. He felt nothing at all.
He stepped over a fly ridden horse, stiff in death, speckled with blood, its riders body mangled beyond belief. Such savagery hed not ever seen in a large battle. Half his arm had been hacked off to lie beside him at a grotesque angle. His head had been sheared in two with an axe giving him a strange stare, glassy and lopsided.
But the body that interested him as it did the birds was that of a young knight, no doubt only inducted into the Order. Altair could tell by his pale fresh cheeks. Hed not lived long to fight for his religion and glory a cynical thought but one the Assassin did not stop. The monsters were made young. This one had been transfixed with several arrows before scimitars had done their grisly work. The arrow feathers were stiff, harsh like those of the ravens feeding on his chest and legs. His eyes were long gone: that being the first thing that the ravens took.
But even this body was not what had attracted him here. He knelt on the closer side of the body and dug under the stiff back of the once white coat now saturated with dried blood. The metallic tang was as sharp as ever somehow reminding him of his ordeal at Kerak. God, would his life be forever defined by that dark place, the den of the beast? He shook off the foreboding and dug deeper. Then he had it: a steel belt buckle, engraved with the Hospitaller insignia. He studied it: chance or purpose? Had the messenger been carrying orders for the ambush? Or was he just a scout. He revised his opinion of the time of the battle. If it had happened after the messengers message then only a day had passed. But how to reconcile the churned mud? He rubbed at the stained buckle, musing.
Altair! Come here!
His head snapped up at her voice. Hed forgotten her completely in his search. What could she have found? He thought as he straightened, putting the buckle into his pouch for later thought. Stepping over bodies he made his way to the farther side of the killing field to where she knelt supporting a body in her arms.
As he came up to her, she said without looking up, This one is alive.
She felt him start beside her, his presence almost overwhelming in its intensity. But she also sensed the cold fury that the very sight of the Templars, dead or alive, brought out in him. Hed promised to tell her. She would hold him to it, if not today, then soon. The reasons for her own curiosity did not disturb her thoughts. She wanted to know him but the why of it was rapidly disappearing.
Then why have you not killed him?
His voice was like stones falling into a deep dark well: no mercy, no inflection of humanity at all. Monstrously bereft of even a shred of feeling. Boldly she looked up at his black eyes in a face so stony for a moment she doubted if he even breathed.
He has information that we could use to find out what happened here. I dont speak his language. But perhaps you do. I want to know what happened here. Until I do we do not move from here. Not a step. We will camp here.
She put all the mastery of a lady of the court accustomed to obedience from her inferiors that she could, past the sudden tightening of her throat at the look in his eyes. It was said that the eyes held the secrets of even the most closed of men. You only had to know where to look. In her training with the Lady Balsam and later the Caliphas wife, Adah had learned the subtle ways of reading muscle twitches but even more often the eyes, however inexpressive they might be. Some men only believed they were in control: slips happened all too often.
Adah read rage, obstinacy and finally resignation in his gaze and rigid posture. She tasted a small triumph as he knelt by the dying man whose breath was a faltering wheeze. His ribcage had been smashed in, ribs poking out of his surcoat. How hed survived this long she had no idea but her help would be of no use. His eyes were feverish but aware nonetheless of what went on around him. She read contempt for who they were writ large in his eyes. He knew they were not Latins, could tell by their speech that they were infidels hed come so far to fight. And to die by their hand too.
She watched as the Assassin placed a hand to the mans throat as if about to strangle him and defy her. He had never even looked at her as he examined the man. She did not object to that. He had surrendered once. He would do so again.
The sneer on the mans face was easy to read as his eyes met the Assassins. Altair let no change of expression settle on his own features as he drew one of his throwing knives and examined its sharp edge where the man could see it. The Templar was nothing but a piece of meat, anyway. Carrion. The ravens only waited for him to die. Soon hed be.
Speak, Templar, Altair intoned coldly, as if the very act of speaking to such a creature disgusted him. As in truth it did. And I might find it in myself to ease your passing.
The man breathed more, moving his lips, his voice barely a whisper.
. I know you
. My Brothers
Altairs lip curled despite his control. Stubborn to the last, the Templars. They feared him still which was good. He wanted them to tremble as hed done alone locked in that dank cell, hungry and dry and sick with it all. He wanted to spit and hack the man to pieces, all his pent up rage and frustration released finally. But Adah was watching him sharply, a commanding presence beside him. He knew she doubted him, sure that he would be rash endanger the mission. Perhaps, he reflected, itd been a mistake to allow her to see him kill the Templars. But he had sworn. Hed hold to his oath, no matter what. The vermin had to die.
Your fate, Templar, is all the same to me. Youll be dead anyway. He kept his voice dead, dull. I have sworn to kill every single one of you. But someone got you ahead of me. I want to know who. And I want to know why you were in the Abbasid lands.
To a dying man, threats made little sense. He had nothing to lose, to hope for and so had nothing to hide. But Latins were obstreperous, fanatically defending their religion as one of peace while killing and raping as much as they could. Even in death they never gave up on that trait, that strongheadedness that lent their cause such sway that from Europe came men to defend what was only a memory, a dim history that many of them did not even understand. As Altair killed more and more of these Knights, he thought he was coming to understand them better, their reasons, in despite of himself. His ever eager mind was soaking up knowledge like a sponge, whatever his finer morality might think of such a seeming betrayal.
The dying mans eyes held his for a moment before he puckered his lips as if trying to kiss the Assassin. It took Altair a moment to realize the man was only trying to spit at him. In defiance. Disinterestedly, Altair sheathed the knife and got to his feet.
Lets get out of here, he addressed Adah, scanning the surrounding hills for any signs of the Caliphas men or any men at all come to investigate what the ravens were at. Let him be eaten alive by the birds. You should have known better than to waste my time on this.
Adah stared at him with a fury that equaled his own. She hated being balked and overridden. It was time to show her that the coils shed woven about him with her female magic were not as tight as shed like to believe. It was time to remind her of what he really was: an Assassin. Time to resurrect the fear shed thought shed put aside.
From below him came a sound: like dry leaves rustling. At the same time his thoughts prickled uneasily. The nagging sense that something was not as it should be. A cloudless day with a shadow hanging over it. The more he spied the hills the more disquieted he became. There were eyes watching, whether friendly or not he could not tell. But better if the two of them were not here when the owners of those sharp eyes got here.
saw you, the Templar whistled through his broken lungs. At Kerak.
Sharply Altair looked down at him, then knelt again and brought his face closer to that of the almost dead man. Unbelievably the man was trying to smile, in scorn. Their stares met, the feverish grey of the Templar Knight and the bottomless flat black of the Assassin.
. The Templar took breath, a rattle in his parched torn throat. Alone. Like me.
A sadness seemed to settle on the Templar as the Assassins heart thundered. The words sank into his mind like daggers. To hear this proud knight comparing his ordeal with this charnel field made Altair cold all over. Adah was giving him a long understanding look but he ignored it. Pity he did not need. He did not want her to understand his secrets.
Who did this, Templar? he asked quietly.
The man blinked several times, gathering breath to speak. Then his hand settled on Altairs with a firm grip for one so weakened. Altair stiffened, as if uncleanliness had touched him.
Hospitallers, the dying man croaked his eyes never leaving the Assassins.
Hospitallers? Altair whispered incredulously, his own tone close to that of the man who was breathing his last. He could hardly believe it. He did not know what to think.
How did they come to be here? How did you? Adahs voice, soft, kind.
The Templars eyes widened at her voice: hed not expected a woman to be here. But he answered her, infidel or not, where hed bluster at Altair.
We were to escort a caravan to Baghdad. He gapsed. Altair knew these were his last breaths. The mans lips were turning blue already. His face was pale under all the blood. Altairs unease grew as his gaze took in the silent hills. Too silent, except for this one where the ravens cawed their triumph. Or was he getting jumpy? Was it because of finding Templars where hed least expected them?
They ambushed us here
. we never saw the caravan.
Was the caravan to cross the Euphrates at a small ford? The question spilled of its own accord from his lips.
The Templar shook his head. He did not know. Altair did not think theyd get anymore out of him. The man was almost dead anyway. Altair reached for his knife once more, motioning Adah to walk away to the horses. She gave him a hard look but he had no time to explain. With every minute his anxiety grew. Something was amiss here, more than just Latins settling their disputes on the Caliphas land.
Altair made the work quick, eyes never leaving the Templars gaze. He stabbed once, in the throat. A wet gurgle, a spasm of the body as he twisted the knife and a last rattling breath. The Templar lay still, the last of his party, his gaze glassy, his face still. But Altair was disconcerted to find an expression of gratitude in the Templars eyes as he watched him die. It shook his perceptions of the Templar Order to the core. Gratitude was a human emotion, not that of a beast.
He had no time to reflect on that, however, as Adah called to him in alarm.
Altair, quick! Theyre coming!