After his family was betrayed and disgraced by the most powerful families in Italy, young Erazo chose the path of vengeance-and entered a world of mysticism and murder beyond anything he could have imagined. But his quest is far form over...
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June 28, 2011
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Excerpt from Assassin's Creed by Oliver Bowden
The majestic ship creaked and groaned; its sails rippled, fat with wind. Days from land, it split the ocean toward the great city in the West, carrying precious cargo. A man. A man the crew knew only as the Master.
He was among them now, alone on the forecastle deck, where he had lowered the cowl of his robes to let himself be lashed by sea spray, sipping at it with his face in the wind. Once a day he did this. He appeared from his cabin to pace the deck, chose a spot to gaze out at sea, then returned below. Sometimes he stood on the forecastle, sometimes on the quarterdeck. Always he stared out at the white-crested sea.
Every day the crew watched him. They worked, calling to one another on deck and rigging, each with a job to do, all the while stealing glances at the solitary, pensive figure. And they wondered, What kind of man was he? What kind of man was in their midst?
Furtively they studied him now as he stepped away from the deck railings and returned his hood to his head. He stood there a moment with his head bowed, arms hanging loosely at his sides, and the crew watched him. Perhaps a few of them even paled as he strode along the deck past them and back to his cabin. And when the cabin door shut behind him, each man found that he had been holding his breath.
Inside, the Assassin returned to his desk and sat, first pouring a beaker of wine before reaching for a book and pulling it toward him. Then opening it. Beginning to read.
June 19, 1257
Maffeo and I remain at Masyaf and will stay here for the time being. At least until one or two--how shall I put this?--uncertainties are resolved. In the meantime we remain at the behest of the Master, Alta�r Ibn-La'Ahad. Frustrating as it is to surrender dominion of our own paths in this way, especially to the leader of the Order, who in his old age wields ambiguity with the same ruthless precision he once wielded sword and blade, I at least benefit from being privy to his stories. Maffeo, however, has no such advantage and has grown restless. Understandably so. He tires of Masyaf. He dislikes traversing the steep slopes between the Assassin's fortress and the village below, and the mountainous terrain holds little appeal for him. He is a Polo, he says. And thus after six months here, the wanderlust is like the call of voluptuous woman to him, persuasive and tempting and not to be ignored. He longs to fill the sails with wind and set off for new lands, show Masyaf his back.
His impatience is a vexation I could live without, quite frankly. Alta�r is on the cusp of an announcement; I can feel it.
So today I declared, "Maffeo, I'm going to tell you a story."
The manners of the man. Are we really kin? I begin to doubt it. For instead of greeting this news with the enthusiasm it so clearly warranted, I could have sworn I heard him sigh (or perhaps I should give him the benefit of the doubt; perhaps he was simply out of breath in the hot sun) before demanding of me, "Before you do, Niccol�, would you mind telling me, what is it about?" and in rather exasperated tones. I ask you.
Nevertheless: "That is a very good question, brother," I said, and gave the matter some thought as we made our way up the dreaded slope. Above us the citadel loomed darkly on the promontory as if it were hewn from the very limestone itself. I'd decided I wanted the perfect setting to tell my tale, and there was nowhere more apposite than the Masyaf fortress: An imposing castle of many turrets and surrounded by shimmering rivers, it presided over the bustling village below, the settlement a high point within the Orontes Valley. An oasis of peace. A paradise.
"I would say that it's about knowledge," I decided at last. "Assasseen, as you know, represents guardian in Arabic--the Assassins are the guardians of the secrets--the secrets they guard are of knowledge, so yes"--no doubt I sounded very pleased with myself--"it's about knowledge."
"Then I'm afraid I have an appointment."
"Certainly I would welcome a diversion from my studies, Niccol�; however, an extension of them I don't desire."
I grinned. "Surely you want to hear the tales I've been told by the Master?"
"That all depends. Your pitch makes them sound less than invigorating. You know how you say my tastes run to the bloodthirsty when it comes to your stories?"
Maffeo gave a half smile. "Well, you're right, they do."
"Then you shall have that, too. These are, after all, the tales of the great Alta�r Ibn-La'Ahad. This is his life story, brother. Believe me, there is no shortage of event; much of it, you'll be happy to note, featuring bloodshed."
By now we had made our way up the barbican to the outer castle of the fortress. We passed beneath the arch and through the guard station, climbing again as we headed toward the inner castle. There ahead of us was the tower in which Alta�r had his quarters. For weeks I had been visiting him, spending countless hours rapt by him as he sat with his hands clasped and his elbows on the rests of his tall chair, telling his stories, his old eyes barely visible beneath the brim of his cowl. And increasingly I had come to realize that I was being told these stories for a purpose. That for some reason yet unfathomable to me, I had been chosen to hear them.
When not telling his stories, Alta�r sat and brooded among his books and memories, sometimes gazing for long hours from the window of his tower. He would be there now, I thought, and I hooked a thumb under the band of my mortar and shifted it back, shading my eyes to look up at the tower--and seeing nothing but sun-bleached stone.
"We've an audience with him?" Maffeo interrupted my thoughts.
"No, not today," I replied, pointing at a tower to our right instead. "We're going up there..."
Maffeo frowned. The defensive tower was one of the highest in the citadel, and was reached by a series of vertiginous ladders, most of which looked in need of repair. But I was insistent, and I tucked my tunic into my belt, then led Maffeo up to first one level, then to the next, and finally to the top. From there we looked across the countryside. Miles and miles of craggy terrain. Rivers like veins. Clusters of settlements. We looked over Masyaf: the slopes from the fortress to the buildings and markets of the sprawling village below, the wooden stockade of the outer curtain and stabling.
"How high are we?" asked Maffeo, looking a little green, no doubt conscious of being buffeted by the wind and the fact that the ground now looked a long, long way away.
"Over two hundred and fifty feet," I told him. "High enough to put the Assassins out of range of enemy archers--but able to rain arrows and more down upon them. Here..."
I showed him the openings surrounding us on all sides. "From the machicolations here they could launch rocks or oil over their foe, using these..." Wooden platforms jutted out into space, and we moved over to one now, holding on to upright supports on either side and leaning out into the air to look down. Directly below us the tower fell away to cliff edge. Below that the shimmering river.
The blood draining from his face, Maffeo stepped back onto the safety of the tower floor. I laughed, doing the same (and secretly glad to, feeling a little giddy and sick myself, truth be told).
"And why is it you've brought us up here?" asked Maffeo.
"This is where my story begins," I said. "In more ways than one. For it was from here that the lookout first saw the invading force."
"The invading force?"
"Yes. Salah Al'din's army. He came to lay siege to Masyaf, to defeat the Assassins. Eighty years ago, a bright day in August. A day very much like today..."
First, the lookout saw the birds.
An army on the move attracts scavengers. Of the winged variety, mainly, which swoop upon whatever scraps are left behind: food, waste, carcasses both horse and human. Next he saw the dust. And then a vast, dark stain that appeared on the horizon slowly beetling forward, engulfing everything in sight. An army inhabits, disrupts, and destroys the landscape; it is a giant, hungry beast that consumes everything in its path, and in most cases--as Salah Al'din was well aware--the mere sight of it was enough to move the enemy to surrender.
Not this time, though. Not when his enemies were the Assassins.
For the campaign, the Saracen leader had raised a modest force. Ten thousand infantry, cavalry, and followers. With them he planned to crush the Assassins, who had already made two attempts on his life and would surely not fail a third time. Intending to take the fight to their door, he had brought his army into the An-Nusayriyah Mountains and to the Assassins' nine citadels there.
Messages had reached Masyaf that Salah Al'din's men had been plundering the countryside, but that none of the forts had fallen. That Salah Al'din was on his way to Masyaf, intent on conquering it and claiming the head of the Assassin leader, Al Mualim.
Salah Al'din was regarded as a temperate and fair-minded leader, but he was as angered by the Assassins as he was unnerved by them. According to reports, his uncle, Shihab Al'din, was advising him to offer a peace agreement. Have the Assassins with them, not against them, was Shihab's reasoning. But the vengeful sultan would not be moved, and so it was that his army crawled toward Masyaf on a bright August day in 1176, and a lookout in the citadel's defensive tower saw the flocks of birds and the great clouds of dust and the black stain on the horizon, and he raised a horn to his lips and sounded the alarm.
Stockpiling supplies, the townspeople moved into the safety of the citadel, thronging the courtyards, faces etched with fear, but many of them setting up stalls to continue trading. The Assassins, meanwhile, began fortifying the castle, preparing to meet the army, watching the stain spread across the beautiful green landscape, a great beast feeding on the land, colonizing the horizon.
They heard the horns and drums and cymbals. And soon they could make out the figures as they materialized from the heat haze: thousands of them. They saw the infantry: spearmen, javelin men, and archers, Armenians, Nubians, and Arabs. They saw cavalry: Arabs, Turks, and Mameluks carrying saber, mace, lance, and longsword, some wearing chain mail, some leather armor. They saw the litters of the noblewomen, the holy men, and the disorderly followers at the rear: the families, children, and slaves. They watched as the invading warriors reached the outer curtain and set it ablaze, the stables too, the horns still blaring, cymbals crashing. Inside the citadel the women of the village began weeping. They expected their homes to be next under the torch. But the buildings were left untouched, and instead the army came to a halt in the village, paying little regard to the castle--or so it seemed.
They sent no envoy, no message; they simply made camp. Most of their tents were black, but in the middle of the encampment was a cluster of larger pavilions, the quarters of the great Sultan Salah Al'din and his closest generals. Embroidered flags fluttered and the tips of the tent poles were gilded pomegranates, the pavilion covers of colorful silk.
In the citadel the Assassins mulled over their tactics. Would Salah Al'din assault the fortress or try to starve them out? As night fell they had their answer. Below them the army began work assembling its siege engines. Fires burned long into the night. The sounds of sawing and hammering rose to the ears of those manning the citadel ramparts, and to the Master's tower, where Al Mualim called an assembly of his Master Assassins.
"Salah Al'din has been delivered to us," said Faheem Al-Sayf, a Master Assassin. "This is an opportunity not to be missed."
Al Mualim thought. He looked from the tower window, thinking of the colorful pavilion in which Salah Al'din now sat plotting his downfall--and that of the Assassins. He thought of the great sultan's army and how it had laid waste to the countryside. How the sultan was more than capable of raising an even larger force should his campaign fail.
Salah Al'din had matchless might, he reasoned. But the Assassins, they had guile.
"With Salah Al'din dead, the Saracen armies will crumble," said Faheem. But Al Mualim was shaking his head.
"I think not. Shihab will take his place."
"He is half the leader Salah Al'din is."
"Then he would be less effective in repelling the Christians," countered Al Mualim sharply. He tired sometimes of Faheem's hawklike ways. "Do we wish to find ourselves at their mercy? Do we wish to find ourselves unwilling allies against the sultan? We are the Assassins, Faheem. Our intent is our own. We belong to no one."
A silence fell over the sweet-scented room.
"Salah Al'din is as wary of us as we are of him," said Al Mualim after reflection. "We should see to it that he is made even more wary."
The next morning the Saracens pushed a ram and siege tower up the main slope. As Turkish horse-archers made passes, showering the citadel with arrows, they attacked the outer walls with their siege engines, under constant fire from Assassin archers and with rocks and oil pouring from the defensive towers. Villagers joined the battle, pelting the enemy with rocks from the ramparts, dousing the fires, while at the main gates, brave Assassins made sorties through the wicket doors, fighting back infantry trying to burn them down. The day ended with many dead on both sides, the Saracens retreating down the hill, lighting their fires for the night, repairing their siege machines, assembling more.
That night there was a great commotion in the encampment, and in the morning the brightly colored pavilion belonging to the great Salah Al'din was taken down, and he left, taking a small bodyguard force with him.
Shortly after that, his uncle, Shihab Al'din, ascended the slope to address the Master Assassin.