A Stop on the Road - by Liva Wilborg
Malik sighed heavily and held his horse back. The black mare took a few dancing steps and halted her trot as her rider stared after the cloud of dust disappearing down the road. Altaïr…
Malik shook his head, the angry words he had spat at Altaïr still burning his lips. Altaïr… Was he ever anything but trouble? It had seemed that he had truly changed. The Mentor's corpse had gone up in flames; Altaïr had shouldered the burden of the dissent and confusion his actions had caused. He had stood firm amid the chaos of those days, six moons behind them, unflinching, his face an unchanging mask of stern determination.
There was so much work to be done. There was information missing, networks of contacts seemingly incomplete, trade agreements with merchant-houses that had been set up and which nobody seemed to know anything about. There were people from every part of the lands that send messengers and couriers to Masyaf, congratulating the new Master and attempting to flatter, beg and bribe their way into Altaïr's good graces. And then, of course, there was the problem of what the Order was going to become. The slow, tentative attempt to shape a new reality, a new future, out of a confused and angry present. And then there was the Apple. Always, the Apple lurked in Malik's consciousness. He and Altaïr had agreed it would be hidden, but Malik suspected that the vile thing was tugging at him as well. It ought to be destroyed.
The black mare resumed her unhurried trot at Malik's command. The dust cloud that was Altaïr had galloped so far down the road now that he was almost out of sight in Malik's horizon. The man could probably be back at Masyaf by nightfall if he managed to keep that pace and the horse didn't die under him. A grin reluctantly spread on Malik's face at the image, but he shook it off. No, he would not let any distraction cloud his anger. No hint of smile was welcome. Not after all he had been trough.
He had forgiven Altaïr, back before al Mualim had been killed and before Malik had any idea of the enormity of the forces at play, all of which seemed to somehow convene on Altaïr.
...He had still been rafiq of Jerusalem then. It seemed so long ago. Even his childhood seemed nearer. Childhood… Kadar; always fell happily for every trick Malik played on him, and laughed the loudest. And Altaïr; sometimes smiling, just a little, but with warmth in his amber eyes and life in his expression. He quickly banished the thought; it was raw and hurtful to dwell on, like a toothache in his mind.
Five weeks ago, Malik had learned that Altaïr had sent a courier from a wealthy merchant in Damascus packing. Altaïr had told the messenger not to presume to bribe him and that he was not the Master of Masyaf; that nobody was.
The poor messenger had been hard to calm down after his meeting with Altaïr but after Malik had convinced the man to accept Masyaf's greetings and promise of friendship and good business, Malik had gone in search of the apparently reluctant Master of Masyaf, boiling with anger. He had expected a furious shouting match. He had expected that Altaïr would be enraged at being reprimanded for his tactless behaviour but Malik had found Altaïr with the hood drawn over his face, his demeanour calm, promising curtly to remedy the situation.
It was midday, the sun merciless in a clear sky. Malik stopped in the shade of a small grove of olive trees off the road and ate his lunch and rested. His mind kept circling on Altaïr's decision in the wake of the messenger-incident. He had, at a moment's notice, created a council to govern Masyaf, in case an emergency should arise. He had appointed Malik the administrative head of the council of four other assassins and then informed them that he would be going to Damascus shortly to negotiate some trade agreements. The newly appointed council had sat in stunned silence as Altaïr got up to leave. "What!" Malik had finally shouted. "Who do you think you are to do this!" he had demanded and Altaïr's dispassionate answer had just been: "You have all called me Master of Masyaf. I leave in the morning.".
Malik sighed under his tree. He felt certain that Altaïr would by now be looking for something to hit, climb or otherwise injure himself on. When Malik had found him in the Damascus bureau yesterday, after more than four weeks had passed, where Altaïr had simply been gone as though swallowed by the earth itself, they had hardly spoken, and when they had left the city this morning at sunrise, there had been silence between them. Heavy, threatening silence. At least until they were alone in the road and Malik's month worth of fury at being left alone to manage both the confusion that was Masyaf and the new council and of desperately sending people out to find Altaïr without raising any alarms or letting anyone know that the reluctant Master had disappeared, had finally bubbled over and the venom was given free reins.
He didn't hurry. If Altaïr wanted to be alone, or even reach Masyaf before Malik did, he had no complaints. As long as he went back and didn't leave the chaos for Malik to sort through alone.
All through the lonely day of travelling, Malik's thoughts kept turning around the Masyaf mess. He was thinking up solutions to the problems, hoping to find ways to include Altaïr as much as possible, to keep him busy and hopefully in pain. Malik understood only too well the agony of leaving the life they had been destined for through harrowing years of training. A one-armed assassin was worth nothing in the field. It had taken him what felt like a lifetime to learn to ride again without losing his balance. Running, even walking, had been a challenge when he had lost his arm and the work behind a desk, either as rafiq or administrator, was a constant reminder of what he couldn't do...
When the sun finally finished its high climb in the heavens, hiding behind the western mountains in the far horizon, Malik saw a light off the road on the vast eastern plateau. It seemed like a speck of gold in the purple dusk of the rocky landscape.
The mare gave an almost relieved whinny when Malik dismounted, making him smile in the half-darkness and he padded the animal's soft muzzle as they made their way towards the light. It shone from the ruin of a small house that had once, long ago, been a way-station, when the road to Masyaf was more travelled than it had been in recent years. At a nearby little grove of date palms, Altaïr's horse was tethered, neighing softly in welcome. Malik took his time removing the bags and the saddle, grooming and feeding the horse and washing his hands and face, before he made his way to the ruin, listening as the gentle night breeze rattled the dry leaves of the palm trees.
Altaïr was sitting cross-legged by the hearth on the floor. A bowl of water sat nearby and he had obviously been washing the dust of the road off recently; his short hair was damp and his outer tunic, weapon belt and hood were off. The stubble growing tentatively into a beard, the simple shirt and pants, being able to see his eyes without him having the chance to hide behind the hood... All this conspired to make Altaïr look almost like a normal man in Malik's eyes. Albeit a normal man with a blade hidden at his wrist.
Altaïr calmly looked up when Malik entered, the flames lending a strange golden glow to his amber-brown eyes. Malik put the bags down and kicked out his bedroll by the fire before sitting down. A small cooking-pot was hanging over the flames, a stew bubbling gently inside, and flat-bread were warming on the stones of the hearth.
Altaïr handed him a bowl of food and Malik took it, surprised at his own hunger. He spooned up a chunk of light meat and held it up questioningly.
"Lizard." Altaïr commented. Malik nodded and they ate in silence for a while.
"I would have thought it would be crusader-meat, the way you ran away this morning. It looked like you were itching to pick a fight." Malik finally commented conversationally.
"I did. With a lizard." Altaïr said, his voice sounding flat and uninterested.
Malik gave a little laugh and they finished their meal without speaking. They sat a while, Altaïr seemingly in his own world, Malik watching him with a frown.
Finally Altaïr seemed to come back from the land of his own thoughts: "Someone dug a well, just out there." he said and gestured towards the back of the house.
"I know. I sent some workers from the village to restore the well that was here originally." Malik said, feeling a spark of irritation creep into his voice.
"Why?" Altaïr asked.
"Because it's a comfort to offer a traveller. And I see no reason not to make Masyaf more comfortably reachable. I will also have someone rebuild the house." he stated. "You may not like this strategy, but since you left me in charge, you get what you get."
"Masyaf..." Altaïr mused and got to his feet. He was about to say something more but Malik got up, bringing them eye to eye:
"Yes. Masyaf." he said: "But there is no reason for you to think there is still as much as a stone left of it. Especially since the man who destroyed everything that was familiar there, didn't stay to rebuild it!"
Altaïr lowered his eyes a moment, but when he looked up, all Malik found in his gaze was the familiar severe and emotionless mask; the same he had worn in the months before he left. Malik's fists clenched in anger: "This is arrogance!" he stated hotly. "I thought you were a changed man… But running away like a spoiled brat, believing you have that right after everything you have done… Making me chase after you like a love-sick maiden! What the hell were you thinking!" he shouted vehemently.
The mask suddenly crumbled and for the moment it took a heart to beat, Malik saw the emotion that had been so carefully hidden, lurking and ready to pounce the moment the mask fell: fear. Altaïr lowered his head, hastily looking away.
Malik opened his mouth to say something, but Altaïr stopped him: "I was thinking…" he said slowly, as thought every word was painful: "…that I didn't have the right to pretend to lead, simply on the merits of having murdered a man I cared about and admired since I was a child." he said. "I have been so wrong about so many things."
"Arrogant." Malik said quietly, unsure what to do with the sincerity he heard in Altaïr's voice.
"I did come back…" There was a minute hint of a smile on his lips.
Malik nodded: "You did. And you will take it upon your honoured shoulders to lead us, even if it jars your sensibilities to be weighed down by the tedious day to day workings of the Order. Your Order!"
"But you will be there to gloat at my suffering?"
"Oh, yes!" Malik stated. "Every step of the way. It will serve as your punishment for deserting me."
"Now who's arrogant?" Altaïr asked, the small smile winning a little more space: "I was on my way back. Doesn't it count for something?"
"It counts only to save your pride in that I didn't have to drag you back by that scruffy stubble of a beard you are trying to grow." Malik stated.
Altaïr scratched his chin thoughtfully: "I wasn't certain what sort of a man I was trying to become, out there. So after a while I just left it."
Their eyes met. Malik quickly turned his gaze upward to stare at the star-strewn heavens visible through the hole in the roof, trying hard to quench the old fire in his mind before it grew too prominent.
"What were you doing anyway? Where were you?" he said quickly.
"Thinking. In the desert." Altaïr responded.
Malik lifted his hand and scratched Altaïr's bearded chin, a sudden laughter escaping him: "Get rid of it." he grinned. "You are neither old enough, nor wise enough to wear it."
Altaïr's shoulders started bobbing up and down before the merriment forced its way into the open, but soon both men were chuckling, grinning, howling with laughter.
"I'm going to be Grandmaster of the Order…" Altaïr gasped.
"I know, novice! We're all doomed!" Malik laughed.
When the mirth had calmed to a snigger, and eyes were wiped, they stood giving each other an appraising look, Malik feeling as if it was the first time in years he really saw the man who had once been his friend. Suddenly Malik found himself in Altaïr's embrace. He stood unmoving for a moment, but then he put his arm around Altaïr's shoulder.
"Malik... What if I fail?" he asked quietly.
"Then people may get hurt. But if you do nothing, people will get hurt. The worst thing to regret is the action you didn't take."
Malik felt Altaïr nodding slowly: "When did you get so much wiser…" he said and slowly stepped out of the embrace.
"Wiser than you?" Malik asked, incredulous. "I always were. So was the lizard we just ate."
When their eyes met, both men were smiling.