The mixture of dust and sand stung on his poorly protected face as he dragged his injured self along the beaten path. Dirt whirled up and clung to his sweaty skin, but worst of it all, it stuck to his bloody wounds. Licking his parched lips, the boy tasted the metallic sting of blood washing across his tongue – another bitter reminder of his recklessness.
Silently, only to himself, he admitted how foolish of him it had been to ride after the group of his father in a childish wish to prove himself. But what was he to do? Despite being Al Mualim's favoured student and pushing himself to be the best amongst his peers, his father would not acknowledge his success, choosing to pick at his flaws and mistakes instead. To the others, Alta´r had long ago made it clear that he did not care by masking himself beneath his grey novice hood, exuding his indifference that the least of the other novices dared to come near him.
The truth was that he did care. Each time his father looked at him with his yellow eyes, there was nothing but numbing disappointment. Alta´r had hoped – no, hope was for the foolish, his father had said - wanted to earn the praise of his father, his ideal, so desperately at least once in his life. Not that he would admit it out loud – admitting his desires was equivalent to revealing his weaknesses, the voice of his father growled in his mind. An Assassin has no weaknesses.
On the other hand, novice Assassins did, as Alta´r had to learn. Clenching his teeth, he dragged his foot forward. One more step, just a bit further, it's not far. Every step torture, every breath pain, every heartbeat a failure. His horse had fallen in the fray he had gotten himself in with a pair of soldiers guarding a cart for their unit. Their paranoia of the infamous white eagles of Masyaf didn't even seem to halt for children. While Alta´r disliked being called a child, strictly speaking, he still was. At least this child had taken both of them down, after being injured heavily.
But what use would the death of the two be, if the boy did not reach the gates of his home before night fell? The evening star was faint against the blue sky, but its outline was enough to tell Alta´r that it would not be long until darkness would obscure his way. He dared not look how long he'd still have to walk, how long he'd still have to endure the pain.
What felt like eternity passed and darkness was swiftly closing in on him. The throbbing pain of his wounds had long ago faded into numbness – instead, his feet were screaming at him to rest. Tiredly he slumped against a boulder, the faint warmth that had gathered throughout the day radiating through the left-overs of his tunic. As he sat, his muscles began to quiver after being released from the stress he had put himself through. The shaking wasn't controllable and it was uncomfortable, but he let it be, not sure how to feel about the ambiguity of this situation. The rest was necessary, no doubt, but the longer he waited, the more he would challenge his own wounds into stopping him.
Head falling backwards, Alta´r gazed at the stars twinkling down on him. The night allowed the evening star to shine brightly against the rest. Exhaustion began to spread through him, clouding his mind and he resisted valiantly. He knew, if he allowed himself to sleep now, it was very probable that he would not wake come morrow. Each blink of his eyes became a battle of mind over matter, the feeling of his eyes resting more tempting each time.
And finally, before he even knew it, he fell asleep.
"Hey, wake up, idiot."
Blearily, Alta´r forced his eyes open, his limbs feeling sluggish. With a groan, he sat up, joints aching from laying on the floor and his wounds stinging painfully as he shifted. Blinking, he looked up and could discern a figure standing over him, with another standing nearby. "What..."
"Never thought I'd see you not up to par. But I guess that's natural, with those wounds you got."
Alta´r reached up to rub his eyes and then looked again. The figures were two other young novices, brothers, the older one was his age. Nodding in greeting – and wincing when his neck cracked – Alta´r rasped, "Malik." He felt his throat burning as he spoke, lips sticking together in dryness and he added, "Water..."
Malik turned to his brother. "Kadar... go to the stream nearby and get some water for this idiot." The younger boy nodded and grabbed a small clay vessel from his belt, dashing off to wherever the stream was.
When his brother had disappeared out of view, Malik sat down into the dust in front of Alta´r, crossing his legs and leaning on his knees with his elbows. "You're lucky, you idiot. When you were reported missing last night, they sent out several teams to look for your stupid ass. But of course the great Alta´r would stray off the usual path one would take to Masyaf. What were you thinking?"
"Save your sharp tongue for someone else, Malik," Alta´r croaked, wincing as the wound on his lip re-opened. He was in pain, he didn't know where he was and he didn't need some fellow novice lecturing him like his master or father would. It was enough that Al Mualim was likely to punish him severely as soon as he got back and then inform his father. The boy could deal with Al Mualim's punishment – for all the pain he had to endure from it, he learned a great deal more. He only didn't want to face the wrath of his father.
Malik shook his head with a sigh. "What were you trying to do, Alta´r? From the looks of it, you got into a fight with some soldiers and got away by some stroke of luck."
Staring at the ground wordlessly, Alta´r suckled at his wound absently. The sword of one of the soldiers had nicked him just as he had taken a step backwards to avoid it. The cut ran vertically down the right side of his lip and hurt when he spoke. He was sure that it would leave a permanent scar, a constant reminder of his father's disappointment – because it had been the reason why Alta´r had acted so foolishly. "What are you doing out here?" He asked to change the topic; not that the answer interested him.
"If you must know, I wanted to show Kadar the nest of an eagle family nearby." There was a shifting sound and suddenly, Malik's face appeared in front of his own, a frown etched on the still childish face. "Will you ever stop acting so stuck-up? Don't think I didn't notice your lack of interest." His expression softened. "You can't always want to be alone."
"An eagle hunts on its own," Alta´r replied bitterly, repeating the words his father had spoken to him. Being a proud man, his father disliked all missions that required him to take others along with him, even if they were just novices who should learn from one of the masters. It was a slight toward his abilities and Alta´r had to admit, his father was one of the best the Brotherhood had to offer. If Alta´r were in his place, he'd feel no different.
"I don't know about you, but I think we as people don't." Malik leaned back again, giving the other novice a pitying look. "If we hadn't found you, you would have died out here."
Snorting, Alta´r would have loved to tell Malik that of course, he as a novice would think that way. But the pain in his throat was too intense for him to give a long reply. Instead, he glared at the other boy's look. "I don't need your pity."
"Oh really? I guess I'll just pick Kadar back up and head back to Masyaf. I'll wait at the gates to see you crawl through them," Malik spat and stood, dusting off his pants.
Steeling his resolve, Alta´r tried to push himself up from the ground to prove his point, using the boulder behind him as leverage. But as soon as his own weight began to pull at him, a flash of pain tore through his left leg, a long deep gash he had previously forgotten about ripping back open and he fell back onto his behind with a pained grunt. Malik crossed his arms, an eyebrow raised and looking expectant.
Baring his teeth, Alta´r gave the other boy a glare, but Malik was unimpressed. Any other of his age group would have cowered in fear, however, Malik was one of the few people who weren't intimidated by Alta´r's abilities or his position as Al Mualim's favourite. Quite often, they were paired together for training, simply because the older boy could challenge Alta´r. Where Alta´r often impressed with raw power and speed, Malik was a tactic and knew how to react to the other's attacks accordingly.
Through his gritted teeth, Alta´r finally spoke, "Help me, Malik...." And as an afterthought he added, much quieter, "Please."
A smile broke out on the other boy's face. "That wasn't so difficult, was it? We may not be brothers by blood, but by our cause. We are never alone."
Alta´r scoffed, but wasn't capable of articulating any further that Malik's words met deaf ears on him.
Malik sighed sadly. "One day, Alta´r, you too will learn that a house divided cannot stand."
Dawn was rising over Masyaf, colouring the buildings in a deeper shade of crimson than during the noon hours. Coloured cloths fluttered weakly in a gentle breeze, the only motion in the otherwise abandoned town area. Not a soul was loitering in the streets. The entire town was a shadow of its former life and glory.
Slowly he trailed along the path twisting through the low housings, dirt crunching beneath his boots. Sometimes, he'd stop and gaze through a window, finding set and abandoned tables, flies swarming around the left-over food or toys littering the floors where children had played their games. It was as if all life had been swept from Masyaf in a matter of seconds and that wasn't far from the truth.
Alta´r spotted a figure by the gaping gates and descended the hill a bit faster. When he reached the well, he recognized the tall figure of Malik standing next to a horse and saddling it. The younger Assassin came to a stop next to the Dai, grabbing the reins of the animal to stop it from moving around and making the saddling difficult. "Where are you going, Malik?"
The one-armed man looked up. "I am heading back to Jerusalem. Things are back in good hands here, but I cannot leave the bureau abandoned. The men need guidance and a safe house."
"There aren't enough people here, brother. I have informed the rafiqs in the other cities to send all of our brothers back to come to a mutual decision," Alta´r explained. Though he did not admit it out loud, he also felt that he couldn't trust anyone bar Malik. He was Alta´r's only link to his own past, a constant admonition of his own recklessness and arrogance, just like his scar.
Malik's jaw clenched in annoyance. "And what am I supposed to do here, Alta´r? I cannot offer manpower like the others – I lack an arm." The bitterness of his words cut Alta´r more than any sword could. While Malik had assured him that there was nothing to forgive, Alta´r could not forgive himself.
Lowering his head, the younger Assassin hid his eyes within the shadow of his hood. "Masyaf was not built and maintained by manpower alone. It needs your wisdom." I need your wisdom, your guidance, a reminder to stay human and not to break.
"And Jerusalem needs a bureau leader," Malik replied gently, sensing Alta´r's unease. It was unsettling to see a man, who was paid so much deference and was the most capable of them all, so helpless and desperate for help. It was so human, so unlike the Alta´r Malik was familiar with since their early childhood.
Al Mualim's betrayal had cut deep. The Brotherhood was teetering on the edge of existence, the usually solid structure was unstable and difficult to maintain. Communication between Masyaf and the bureaus was difficult, considering that no-one but those in Masyaf truly knew what had happened. A large number of the civilians had fled the city when the Assassins had begun to behave strangely and there weren't enough clear-minded men to search and retrieve them – re-grouping was their priority anyway.
But for all the entire fortress and city had suffered, Alta´r had been off the worst. As Al Mualim's favourite student, and everyone had been sure Alta´r was to be his apprentice, he had stood closest to the old grand master. Somehow, Malik suspected, Alta´r blamed himself for the happenings, most likely telling himself that he should have realized earlier and understood the signs.
Alta´r knew it was inevitable to talk about more than he wished. Tiredly, he scrubbed his hand over his face, feeling the roughness of a growing beard rub against his palm. The last night had been exhausting. Since he was the highest ranking Assassin in Masyaf, he had automatically slipped into the role of the new grand master. As such it had been his task to go through all of Al Mualim's possessions and the Apple and its mysteries had only been an additional burden. The new grand master had been forced to stay awake all night, while Malik had been busy surveying and cataloguing the damage done to the city.
"Appoint one of the men you brought along with the task, so that he can send everyone visiting the bureau here. We are the highest ranking Assassins right now, Malik. And you were always a better thinker than I was. I fear... that I cannot trust myself alone in this task. I refuse to do so."
Malik gave Alta´r a look of surprise. Of course, he himself had said that the man had changed, but hearing such modest words from him was still something he needed to get used to. Throughout their entire lives, Malik had not known Alta´r any different than as prideful and arrogant, just like his father. "You can carry more weight than you suspect, Alta´r. Teaching a novice the tasks of a bureau leader will take time. And time is of essence now."
"Do you remember when I followed my father out of Masyaf and didn't manage to return by myself? You and Kadar found me in the fields just outside the walls and carried me back. If it hadn't been for you, I would have died to feed the eagles you wanted to show your brother," Alta´r softly recalled, golden eyes unfocused as if the memory replayed before his eyes.
A chuckle left Malik's lips when he remembered how thick-headed and insulted Alta´r had been at being supported by two other novices he considered beneath himself. "How could I forget? You were being particularly difficult that day. And your scar hasn't faded." Slowly he lifted his hand to gently trace the stark white healed wound that ran across Alta´r's lip with his thumb. "Because we were so close to the eagle nest, Kadar joked about us being Azizos and Monimos waiting for our camel."
The scar twitched and distorted as a reluctant smile graced Alta´r's lips. "You told me back then that a house divided cannot stand. The morning star Azizos cannot exist without the evening star Monimos – perhaps your brother was right... help me, Malik. Please."
Those were the same words Alta´r had spoken, but the tone used was so unlike the wounded, but proud, boy Malik had encountered out in the fields all those years ago. Suddenly, the reality of their situation sank in on him as well. He had already accepted his personal losses. But he had never realized that there were losses they both shared. They were the last of their order who were fully educated in their ways, the last of the class of novices that had trained together and they had been forced to use their blades against those old companions.
Most of all, they each were the only constant left in the other's life.
Laughing weakly, Malik embraced Alta´r, the realization making him cling to the other stronger than intended, as if letting go would result in Alta´r disappearing into thin air. "Took you long enough to understand."
"You will stay?" Alta´r's arms gingerly slipped around him as well, returning the powerful hug.
"Someone has to counter your stupidity... novice."