The Cross and the Sword
an Assassin's Creed fanfiction by xahra99
"What's this?" Steven snapped.
It was a rhetorical question; they'd had graffiti in Portugal. The drawing scrawled on the bathhouse wall depicted several white-robed men seated around a long table. They were eating babies. A horned devil seated at the head of the table presided over the meal.
The other Templars said nothing.
Steven frowned. "Who dares to mock the Order?"
"Oh, they're not Templars," said a sweating guard, "They're Assassins."
"Assassins?" Steven asked, realizing as he did so that he'd made yet another mistake. The guards to either side of him winced. Steven recognized the expression; it was the same old look-at-this-commoner-who-isn't-even-a-knight-yet-thinks-he-can-be-our-commander grimace that he'd been fielding ever since he'd stepped into Castel Blanc.
"Have the wall cleaned." Steven said.
"As you wish, Master."
It was Steven's turn to wince. In truth, he had not yet grown used to his sudden promotion, although he supposed one could become accustomed to a great deal over time. The guards had expected a Knight of noble lineage, and the arrival of a lowly sergeant (no matter how gifted) had disappointed them. Still, Steven had no doubt that they would learn to respect him, in time. He jabbed a finger at the guard who had spoken. "See to it personally."
Steven pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. "You may proceed with the tour," he told them.
"Of course, Master," the guard said obsequiously. He ushered Steven down a flight of uneven stairs, trying hard to hide the disappointment on his face when Steven managed to avoid stumbling over the cracked fifth step.
"Any chance of a drink of water?" he called out as the guards rushed him into the keep and past a large kitchen. It was midday and stiflingly hot. Although it had been warm in Portugal, Steven had experienced nothing like this heat. The sun was like a giant molten hammer, crushing him against the bare rocks of the castle and the town itself. He tried not to fuss too much with the collar of his itchy woolen robe.
The guard looked slightly more cheerful. "We have wine."
"Water will be fine." Steven said, deciding that now was not the time for a lecture on the virtues of Templar poverty.
"Water for the Master!" a guard called. A soldier slipped off from the tail of Steven's entourage. He vanished through the door of the kitchen and returned with a cup of water. It smelt brackish and slimy as Steven raised it to his lips, but he forced himself to swallow it all before handing the cup back to the guard. "My thanks," he said, hoping that the tour would be finished soon.
Of course, it took another two hours.
The guards showed Steven every inch of the castle, from the gates to the garderobes. They walked down endless shadowy limestone corridors and peered into dusty rooms full of straw and pigeon droppings. When they had passed a small but distinctive chip in a stone on the left-hand side of one of the corridors three times, Steven finally asked the guards if they were going the right way.
"Of course, Master. The castle can certainly be confusing, if you are not used to it."
"Of course." Steven said politely. He concealed his irritation, convinced that the tour itself was just another extremely subtle insult. The guards' lies didn't bother him, but the sheer pettiness of their tricks did. Fighting men should have more productive ways of spending their time than foolish squires' play.
And who would have thought there was any place hotter than Portugal in summer? he thought furiously as they passed the chipped stone for the fourth time.
He was finally allowed to return to his room an hour before the evening meal. It was spartan by most people's standards, the sole luxury a narrow window that looked out over the barren hills of Safita. Steven, who had lived in Templar cells most of his life, found the plainness reassuring. He nodded as he noticed that all his possessions had been dumped on the single pallet. No doubt a few of them were missing."Thank you, brothers."
The guards bowed and left him. As they closed the door, Steven heard one of them say gleefully, "He doesn't even know about the Assassins!" The second guard lowered his voice to a whisper, but Steven, standing with his ear to the wooden planks of the door, heard him clearly.
"Did you hear that they can turn into ghosts?"
The words sent a chill up Steven's spine. He listened for a while longer as the guards' footsteps padded off along the hallway, but there was no more conversation. Finally he told himself that Templars should not be prey to superstition, unbuckled his sword belt and leant his sword against the wall. Taking a deep breath, he clapped his hands.
The door opened quietly to admit a young servant, who took one look at Steven and instantly prostrated himself on the floor. "Master Marcell?" he gasped. His words came out all in a rush.
"Oh, get up, lad." Steven said. He hooked a stool with one sandaled foot and sat down. "I'd like some water, if I may. Clean water."
The boy bowed deeply. "Certainly, Master." His skin was the color of almond hulls and he wore the pale hooded robe of a local. He said the word 'Master' like he meant it. "Anything else?" he asked.
"A meal. Nothing fancy. Bread, and some dates."
"Is that all, Master?"
Steven thought for a moment. "No," he said finally."Bring me a scribe."
The food arrived within minutes. The scribe took a little longer. Steven had a mouth full of bread when an old Saracen man pushed the door open and stood with his head bowed in front of him. Steven swallowed quickly. "You the scribe?" he asked in Arabic.
The man inclined his head.
"Don't call me that," Steven said. He regretted the comment just as quickly. It was often good to be on good terms with the native staff, but he did not yet know the local customs.
The Saracen did not look surprised. "Then what name should I call you?" he asked.
"Steven." Steven said. He kicked a stool over to him. "Sit down."
The Saracen gathered his white robe underneath him and sat down carefully. "The Master honors me," he said. "How may I serve you?"
"Tell me about the Assassins," said Steven. He pushed the plate of dates towards the old man and poured another glass of water. Damn propriety. He didn't know much about this country, and it didn't look like anybody else would be willing to advise him.
The Saracen did his best to explain. Steven did his best to listen.
Half an hour later, he still wasn't much wiser.
"So let me get this straight," he said carefully. "The lasiq, fida'i and rafiq of the Assassins duplicate the lay brothers, sergeants and knights of our Order. Moreover, the elite among the Assassins, the rafiqs, wear white robes trimmed with red that correspond to the white mantle and red cross of the Templar Knights."
Hasan spat out a date stone. "Except that your Knights must come from aristocratic families," he pointed out. "Whereas the rafiqs can be of any lineage; rich men, or poor." He raised another date to his lips. "Even beggars, as long as they are loyal to their Master."
Steven ignored him. "The higher ranks of both orders, with priors, grand priors and Master," he continued, "are also similar; prior, grand prior and Master corresponds to da'i, da'i kabir and the Grand Master."
"Correct. The Rule of the Templars also bears several similarities to the Creed of the Assassins," Hasan spat out another date stone. "In fact, your fraternity of cross and sword is strikingly similar to the brotherhood of hood and dagger."
Steven glared at him. "Where do they have their stronghold?"
Hasan smiled. "Masyaf," he said simply.
Steven blinked. He had expected a shrug, or a blatant lie. He had not expected truth. "They ape us, dress like us, and murder us," he pointed out. "Why do we not kill them, if we know of their location?"
The scribe folded his arms on the table. "The Assassins can be deadly foes," he said. "There is a tale that one crept into your Lionheart's tent at dead of night and laid a dagger on his pillow," He shrugged. "Of course, I have heard also that an Assassin stole into Saladin's tent in the heart of his camp and left a poisoned cake. Maybe both tales are true. Maybe neither is."
"They kill Muslims?"
"They kill whoever they please," the old scribe said sharply. "Don't worry. They kill those who seek to persecute them. You and I are far too insignificant to incur their wrath. And you," he said, looking thoughtful."You are a good man."
Steven recalled the guards' conversation. "Can they turn into ghosts?" he asked.
"Only in the minds of superstitious peasants," Hasan said. He looked amused. "They are only men, no matter how they pretend otherwise. And they die like men, too."
Steven's gaze slid to his sword, propped up against the stones. "So you say that they can die. How exactly do they kill?"
"In times of old they were feared precisely because they spent years insinuating themselves into the inner circle of important men." Hasan said. He stabbed a gnarled finger around the room, folding the other fingers of his left hand into his palm. Steven noticed that he was missing his left ring finger. "Anybody could be an Assassin!"
"Don't be stupid." Hasan said dismissively.
"You said 'in times of old'." Steven pointed out. "They've changed?"
"They seem to," Hasan said. He pointed at the last date and looked up at Steven with a questioning expression on his face.
Steven nodded. "Go ahead."
Hasan swallowed the last date. He licked his fingers with relish and wiped his hands upon his threadbare robe. "Under the current Grand Master, a man called Al-Mualim, the Assassins have become..." He paused. "How do I describe it?"
Steven shrugged. He poured them both another glass of water. "I apologize," he said. "My Arabic is poor."
"On the contrary, it is excellent." Hasan said. He raised his eyes for the ceiling, as if searching for inspiration. "Most of your race do not even bother. Anyway, the Assassins have become more...more obvious, perhaps. Their killings are carried out in public places, to enhance their reputation. They kill with small daggers, and often accept that they themselves will not survive," He frowned. "I personally disapprove of these modern flashy techniques."
"You know a great deal about the Assassins." Steven said sharply.
"I appreciate their skill, Master."
"Skillful they may be, but they could become a problem." Simon said. His gaze slid back to his sword. "Many thanks. You have been invaluable." He sighed. "I could wish that all folk here were as pleasant."
Hasan smiled. "I am flattered."
"It was sincerely meant."
"Nevertheless, I myself have found our talk extremely illuminating."
Steven inclined his head. Standing, he reached over for his swordbelt. "A thousand thanks. You may go."
The Saracen bowed, smiled and left, taking the empty dishes with him.
Steven buckled his sword belt over his robe, grimacing as he did so at the thin film of sweat that was beginning to build on his forehead as soon as he moved. By the time he had adjusted the belt to his satisfaction, drops of sweat were starting to bead at the margin of his tonsure.
There was a knock at the door. Steven walked over and opened it. The servant boy was standing there, a taller lad waiting patiently at his shoulder. The new boy was thin, with pockmarked skin.
"Your scribe," the boy said in bad Latin.
Steven froze. The sweat running down the nape of his neck turned cold and clammy. "I beg your pardon?" he managed.
The boy looked at him oddly. "Your scribe," he repeated.
"Your name?" Steven's voice sounded hoarse even to his own ears.
The tall boy bowed. "Hasan, Master."
Steven's right hand closed on the hilt of his sword. He could hear the old man's voice echoing through his head. I personally disapprove of these modern flashy techniques, it was saying.
Steven swallowed. "Hasan," he said carefully in Arabic, "Do you know of the Assassins?"
The boy nodded. He looked puzzled. "Certainly, Master," he replied in the same tongue. "Everybody does."
"Do they have any...marks? Distinguishing features?"
The boy nodded. "They sever their left ring finger," he said. "They wear hidden blades in their palms, and this allows the blade to extend more freely."
Everyone here knows entirely too much about the Assassins for comfort, Steven thought. The protrusions on the sword pommel bit into his palm. He sneaked a glance at the boys' hands. The servant boy had his hands clasped in the sleeves of his robes, but Hasan's hands were unmarked.
The scribe took a step back. "Master?" he repeated. "Can I help?"
With an effort, Steven let go of his sword hilt. "No," he croaked, "That will be all."
The boys bowed and left him. Steven walked over to the window and sank down onto his pallet. In his head, the old man's voice, dry and scratchy, said you are a good man.
I wish that meant something, Steven thought dryly. He stared out of the window as the sun set over the Holy Land. In his mind he saw the old man's hand, over and over again, opening up to reveal the missing finger, backed by a wash of crimson sunset shades that looked like blood.
They sever their left ring finger. They wear hidden blades in their palms, and this allows the blade to extend more freely.
Steven wished more than anything that he was at home.
Author's Note: This story is about as historically accurate as the game itself. Enjoy.