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Title: These Years and Their Players (A Tale of the Assassins)
Fandom: Assassin's Creed
Spoilers: None
Summary: An Assassin takes a stand against the Templars.

These Years and Their Players

An Assassin's Creed fan fiction by xahra99

"Then these years and their players passed away

As though they had all been merely dreams."

Ibn Shaddad, Epitaph for Saladin, 1193.

Somewhere in twelfth century Syria...

The old Umayyad fortress had watched the pass for years.

Built by the Marwanid caliphate four hundred years before to guard the Syrian valleys from the soldiers of Byzantium, the castle had passed unscathed through strife and civil war. The caliphs had clad its gates with iron and flown their banners proudly from its towers. Their soldiers had worn robes of fine silk and carried blades of sharp Damascus steel. Armies had broken like waves against the castle's lonely walls.

Those days were gone.

Little remained. The gates had rotted long ago, opening the fort to any man who wandered by. Crows nested in the towers. The only banners that soared in the sky were the ragged wings of hawks. The fort was past defending, and the Assassins who haunted the old fort's dusty walls did not wish to make their presence known. One old man and a handful of boys was hardly an army. There were only five of them, sent from Masyaf to loot the fort of what little remained.

The boy set to watch the valley rubbed his eyes and dreamed as the sun sank from its zenith into a glory of saffron, scarlet and gold.

Mist from the river canyon threw a cloak across the valley. The haze masked the dust thrown up by the company of riders until it was almost too late. The riders came from the west, and they rode fast. West meant the Franj lands; Acre, Antioch, and Tyre. The speed meant trouble.

They'd covered their tracks well. That meant they were clever. If the riders had come earlier, before the hazy sunset, before the mists had risen from the river, then the boy would have spotted them long before. He blinked and cursed. As he got up, he turned to count the men, and saw a shield with a scarlet cross within the cloud of dust.

The cross, he knew, meant Templars.

The boy ran. He slid down the crumbling steps to the courtyard, running past piecemeal mosaics and butter-coloured stones as wide as he was tall; passing disintegrating stucco doorways and fountains that had long since run dry. At last he reached the chamber of the dai. Shafts of light pierced the dark room from holes in the old roof. The boy ran through a scattering of sunlight to reach the dai.

The old man was writing. He was always writing something.

"Riders!" the boy gasped. "Riders in the valley!"

The dai replaced his pen on its stand. "Riders?" he asked, screwing down the lid of his inkwell. "Quickly now. Tell me what you saw. Were they Assassins?"

"No. Templars."

The dai frowned. His eyes were crow-black, and very fierce. "How could you tell?"

"Their leader wore the red cross on his shield."

"How many?"

"Seven men, honoured dai."

"Are you sure?"

The boy nodded.

"Templars." The dai spat the word like a curse. The boy shifted nervously.

Nobody had expected Templars to visit the Umayyad fort. The locals believed the castle was haunted by for ghosts of its defenders. Nobody had been there for years before the dai had come from Masyaf, bringing four boys and two fidai'in to guard them.

The boys-new recruits, not even novices-had been chosen for their talents in scholarship. The fidai'in, bored after ten days of inactivity, had set out upon a circuit of the surrounding villages and were not expected back for several days.

The dai set down his pen and ink with a sigh of regret. He whistled once and rose to his feet, moving fluidly despite his years. The boy recognised the sound all too well. All Assassins learned to obey such a summons.

Footsteps echoed down the corridors as the other boys trickled from the corridors one by one. Their clothes were dusty, their hands full of scrolls and rolled lambskins to copy the citadel's many inscriptions. The old man raked his gaze across them like a knife.

"The Templars are coming," he said. "You must go. Head into the mountains. They won't find you there. Leave the papers. The Templars won't be interested in them."

"The Templars-" one of them dared to say.

"I will deal with them. Now run."

The boys scattered.

The boy who had seen the Templars from the tower was the last to leave. He was the only one who hesitated to cast a fleeting glance over his shoulder at the old dai by his desk, and he was the only one to see the dai crook a finger in his direction. "Not you." he said. "You stay."

The boy knew that he should have known better than be the last to do anything when the old man was concerned. He froze, one hand on the peeling wooden doorframe. His nails dug painfully into a gap where the wood had warped and come loose from the stucco. "Yes, dai?"

"I will need help," the old man said. He spat the last word out like it had offended him. His eyebrows drew down to meet above his nose.

"Yes, dai."

The old man nodded, curtly. "Bring me my sword," he said.

The boy had never seen-had never even spoken to anybody who had seen-the old man wield a blade. He didn't even think the dai had a sword. He risked a question. "What sword?"

The dai jabbed his right hand towards the corner impatiently. "That sword."

The boy followed his gaze. Sure enough there was a sword, half-hidden behind a case of maps. It was a straight blade, longer than the boy's arm, with a scabbard of worn leather. He drew the blade a finger's width on purpose as he grasped the sword, and saw that the blade was both old, and very sharp.

He lifted the sword, not without difficulty, and handed it to the dai.

The old man wedged his hip against the wall and tied the scabbard onto his sash with his right hand. When it was fastened he reached across and checked the hang of the weapon. "Good enough," he said. "There are knives in that pack. Fetch them for me."

The boy did as he asked. When he came back the old man was buckling something on his right wrist with his teeth. The hang of his black sleeve blocked the boy's view, and he was too nervous of the Templars-who surely must be very close now-to delay the dai with more questions. He handed the belt of throwing knives to the dai. As the dai draped the belt over his head the boy heard the sound of hooves.

At first the noise was barely audible. It grew louder with every moment that passed, a soft drumming that echoed around the fort's empty interior and seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere in particular at the same time.

The dai drew a throwing knife and sent it spinning into the wall, where it sank two fingers' width deep into the fragile window-frame. The old wood disintegrated from the force of the blow. The knife fell to the floor.

The old man glanced at the boy. The boy, who recognised a hint when he saw it, ran to retrieve the knife.

"It will be enough," the dai said wryly as the boy handed him the blade. "It will have to."

He walked out into the courtyard and looked around the crumbling mud brick walls with a peculiar fondness. The sun was low over the mountains at their back. Its rays made the decaying fort into a castle from the Thousand Nights and turned the wings of the hawks that circled overhead to beaten gold.

The old dai went to the gate, and the boy followed. The courtyard narrowed like a fish-trap into a narrow passageway angled like a mule's leg. It was an old trick, a trap to catch and hold intruders. The schemes of long-dead Umayyad architects seemed a fragile shield against the Templar charge. The boy knew that in theory a few men could hold a gate like that against a much larger force, but knowing that it could happen and seeing it actually work were two very different things.

They walked out through the gate onto a patch of hammered dirt. The riders were much closer now. Sweat glinted from the arched necks of their steeds, and their mail gleamed in the light of the setting sun.

"What are you going to do?" the boy asked the dai. "Will the walls be enough?"

"This fort has held off armies," said the old man. "It will last." He gave the boy a wide smile that twisted into bitterness for a moment. "That's not the problem."

The boy looked at the dai, and at the riders. "I will stay," he said.

"You will do as you are told," the dai said sternly. "Now go. I've already kept you far too long." The air of command had returned to his voice. "And-"


"Tell the Grand Master-"


"Tell him I'm sorry," said the dai. He gave a shrug. To the boy, it seemed as if all the cares in the world fell from his shoulders, as well as several years. "Now go."

The boy ran, looking back over his shoulder as he crossed the courtyard. He saw the old man walk out into the shadow of the gate, between the crumbling, roofless walls. The Templars were very close.

Someone should witness this, thought the boy.

He ran, not to the hills, as the dai had commanded, nor to the closest standing tower, but to the second furthest, where the hills and the old fort's crumbling walls formed a natural amphitheatre. One could whisper in the courtyard and still be heard.

The stairs sagged beneath his feet. The boy knew that the floors in the fort were fragile things, mud and layers of dried reeds over worm-eaten wooden rafters. He slowed a little, but kept climbing until at last a square of golden light opened above him. The boy crawled through the hatch onto the flat roof of the tower. He was not an Assassin, not even a novice, but he knew how not to be seen. The Templars never raised their eyes.

The tower gave the boy a good view of the courtyard. He had keen eyes, and he had been trained to observe events and then report on them. He saw the sweat that striped the horses' necks, catalogued each scrape and dent in the Templar's well-used armour as they dragged their horses to a halt with a creak of leather and a jingle of harness. A man coughed in the dust. One horse snorted.

The Templar riders spread out in a horseshoe shape around the dai. The boy could see the top of the dai's scruffy greying hair, and the shoulders of his black robe, faded a little to brown by the Syrian sun.

The dust settled. The riders were silent. Their horses champed at their bits and drooled long strands of saliva.

"Al-hamdullillah al-salaami," said the dai.

The boy blinked in surprise. The dai had used an exceedingly polite greeting, the sort that one gave to a man who had arrived safely after a long journey.

The boy had heard the dai use sarcasm like knives, but he had never before heard him use the word of God. Assassins were not generally religious men. They had the Creed. It was enough.

The Templars did not seem to appreciate the courtesy. They sat on their horses and looked down at the dai.

The dai shrugged. "We did not come here to fight," he said.

One of the Templars kneed his horse forwards and lifted his visor. He was al-Franj; tall, with pale skin, and he rode a tall horse with shaggy feathers that nearly covered its hooves. He carried a white shield emblazoned with the red cross of the Templars. He made a magnificent figure upon his white horse, and his mail shone in the sunshine beneath a white surcoat sewn with a blood-red cross.

He leant from the side of his horse and spat into the dust.

"That you are here at all is insult enough for me," he said in badly accented Arabic. "Assassin dogs! Your kind pollutes this holy land!"

"This land is ours," the dai said quietly in perfect French.

"The Holy Land is lost to you and yours, Assassin. We'll water this desert land with infidel blood."

"We will see." The dai's hand strayed to the hilt of his sword.

"The villagers betrayed you!" said another man. "They told us that you passed by."

"That comes as no surprise. I have found that men will tell you anything if you pay them or hurt them enough. Why are you here?"

"To kill Assassins," the Templar snapped.

The old man did not look impressed. "You can try."

Another of the knights leant from his saddle and pointed his sword at the old man. "Kill him now," he said. "This jackal wastes our time."

"We will kill you," said the Templar leader pleasantly, "and when you are dead we will find your whelps and kill them too."

The dai tapped the fingers of his right hand impatiently on the hilt of his sword. "Enough talk, Templar. I am an old man, and I grow weary. Shall we see this done?

"We'll clean our blades upon your body!" hissed a knight.

"No doubt." The dai shrugged. "Remember that you had the chance to leave with honour."

"Honour? You Assassins do not know the meaning of the word."

A genuine smile lit the old man's face. "You Templars do not know the meaning of a great number of words."

The Templar leader's horse sidled as he gestured to the Templars soldiers on each side. They were likewise Franj, tall battle-hardened men dressed with less splendour than their leader in mismatched hauberks and mail. "Geraint and Thomas," he said. "I find this gateway blocked. Please make way for me to pass."

The knights looked at each other. They swung their legs over the high saddles of their horses and dismounted, drawing their swords from scabbards set behind their saddles as they did so.

"Come on then," one of them said. "Let's make it quick."

The dai drew his sword.

The Templars looked at the old man and his sword, and began to laugh. The pair of Templar soldiers exchanged confident glances as they walked to the gate with a loose limbed stride, shining blades in hand.

"Time for you to die," one man said.

The dai took a step back into the shadows of the gate. "You leave me no choice," he said.

His blade flicked out like a silver snake. It cut twice, once diagonally across from left hip to right shoulder, and back again shoulder to hip.

Two cuts.

Two men died.

Their bodies fell to the ground like ripe fruit from a tree. The dai flicked blood from his blade and sheathed the weapon.

The Templars, abruptly, stopped laughing.

Silence fell over the courtyard. Nobody spoke. One of the dead men's horses snorted and jostled closer to its companions. The dai stood in the courtyard as calmly as if he were at prayer.

The Templar commander stared at the dai as if he were a desert jinni. "Have we no arrows?"

"We have not, sir."

The commander gestured to two of his knights. "Ride him down."

The boy crawled to the very edge of the tower. His hands clenched on the edge of the roof. Fragments of mud crumbled between his fingers. He made a conscious effort to relax his hands, squinting in the amber light of the sun as the Crusaders dug their heels into the flanks of their chargers.

The Crusaders were fighting into the sun.

The boy had paid little attention to his surroundings. As the pair of Templars began their charge he took a moment to assess the terrain. The mountains sloped steeply away on three sides of the fort and climbed in jagged peaks to a dragon's spine of red stone to the west. The soldiers were fighting uphill.

The boy smiled.

The horses crossed the last stretch of road at a hand-gallop. The dai retreated into the crooked arms of the gate. The boy could not see him. He leant out further, forgetting to be cautious, but the Templars were as fixed on the battle as he was. None of them saw him.

The closest horse was only a few strides from the gate when a throwing knife flew like a razor-winged bird from the shadows. The boy saw the flash but did not see the blade strike. It must have sliced the lead horse's tendons, for the beast went down in a cloud of dust and screams. The knight fell under his horse, and the weight of the frantic beast unseamed his armour as easily as if it were plain leather. The next blade cut the dying animal's throat.

The remaining rider's horse shied away from the dying animal, and so the dai's third blade went wide. The fourth traced bloody furrows in the animal's hide but did not kill it. The knight, with a control of his animal that would have been admirable if he had been an ally, spun the charger in a tight circle and charged towards the gateway. He made three strides before the fifth knife took the horse's right eye and threw it into dying convulsions. The Templar knight jumped from his saddle, cursing. His curses were cut abruptly short by the blade of the dai's last throwing knife as he toppled back against his slumping mount, the slender handle of the knife jutting from the eye slit of his helmet like a crucifix.

The old man had killed four men in the time a soldier would have taken to clean a good blade.

The Templar commander cursed. "Come out and face us fairly!" he called.

The dai unbuckled his empty knife-belt and tossed it aside. "Fair?" he said scathingly. "Is seven knights against one man fair? Or are those simply the odds the Templars need to beat one Assassin?"

A more cautious man might have retreated, considering the small fort beneath his notice. A less proud one might have accepted his losses and called the day a lesson learned. The Templar commander was proud, and he was not a cautious man. He drew his own sword from its sheath and unbuckled his shield from his mount's harness. Then he gestured to his men.

"We shall not let these bloody handed jackals of Masyaf beat us!" he called. "We shall teach this dog a lesson!"

The dai drew his sword again. "Your lessons are simpler than the ones we teach the children at Masyaf," he called.

The commander slammed his visor down. "Non nobis domine," he cried, the words echoing strangely inside his metal helm, "Non nobis sed nominae, tuo da gloriam."

The dai shrugged. "Nothing is true," he said, "everything is permitted. Let me teach you wisdom."

The Templars advanced.

The boy drew in his breath. He was not concerned for his own safety-the Templars had never as so much laid eyes on him. The dai faced a wall of steel. Only the commander held a shield, but the Templars were cautious now. They would take no chances. They would show no mercy.

The dai cast off his scabbard and kicked away the empty belt of knives.

If your enemy is secure in all points, be prepared for him.

The first Templar passed the pair of dead horses, advancing at guard. Blood soaked the soil. They passed the bodies of their companions with barely a glance. The dai backed up against the fort's crumbling walls as they closed. The knight on his left hand attacked first. His sword was slow, but he was better armoured than the Templars which the dai had killed. The old Assassin's blade moved like silver lightning, probing and testing the weak spots of the man's armour, but his sword did not penetrate. The Templar's armour was too strong. The knight swung his sword in heavy, sweeping arcs, but the old man was never there when his blows landed. He barely seemed to move.

If he is stronger, evade him.

The old man ducked beneath a blow.

If his is quick to anger, irritate him.

The tip of the dai's sword flicked out and caught the knight across his cheek. It was not a mortal blow, but it would scar. The knight growled and charged at the old man with his sword raised. A second later the dai's own blade sank into the unarmored patch below his outstretched arm. The sword struck deep. The Templar died.

Two left, thought the boy.

"Silence him!" howled the Templar commander.

The boy could have sworn that the old man smiled. "Many have tried," he said.

The second man advanced. He carried a war-hammer, a weapon common amongst religious orders of the Franj who were forbidden to shed blood. The dai had more trouble avoiding the hammer's blows than he had had with the sword. His breath hitched. After he jumped aside, he stumbled.

The boy gritted his teeth. He wished that he could have made his stand at the dai's side. He wished he could have done something.

He knew he would have died.

He was not even a novice. He had no weapon except a short eating-knife. He had come to the fort to study.

As he watched the dai he suspected that he had learnt something more valuable than all the teachings to be found in the fort's decaying library.

The dai's sword danced around the knight like a humming bird. The boy could have mapped his targets. The dai had taught him all the weak points that existed in a suit of armour. The elbow. The knee. The eye slit in a man's helmet. The area under his arm.

The dai overreached again. The boy expected the knight to move in and take advantage of his enemy's apparent weakness, but instead the knight stepped back. The boy realised the Templar was wary. Frightened, even.

If his forces are in accord, divide them. Pretend to be weak, so he may grow arrogant. Appear when he is not suspected.

The commander stepped forwards even as his knight retreated. "I have killed better men than you," he said.

"No doubt you have," the old man agreed.

The commander raised his shield and stepped into the fray. The boy, watching, saw immediately that this enemy was different.

The commander was more cautious, more skilled and better armoured than his men. He was younger than the dai, and fresher. He used his shied as a barricade, punching out his one-handed sword from behind his shield to strike, and withdrawing it as soon as the old man retaliated.

The boy suddenly, sickeningly, understood how this fight was going to end.

The dai retreated once, and then again. The space between the blades diminished quickly until the old man could retreat no longer. The dai took one wound and then another, although he twisted his body to take the sword-strike on his left shoulder. The Templar commander slammed the shield down inside the old man's guard, lunged as the day retreated once again, and hammered the old dai down with a blow.

The old man went to his knees with a sigh like the turning of a page. The boy caught his breath as a kick sent the dai's sword spinning from his hand. The Templar brought his shield down against the old Assassin's body, again and again, until the white shield was stained with blood. At last he let his shield drop to the ground.

"God favours my cause, Assassin," he snarled. "Your skills have failed you." He dropped his shield and punched the old dai in his ribs with his gauntleted right hand. The dai rolled in the dirt and hissed a curse. The Templar smiled.

"Have you any final words?"

The dai's smile had a bloody edge. "Come closer, Templar," he said.

The Templar flipped his visor up and bent down towards the dying Assassin. "Such hatred in your voice," he said. "It brings me joy." He kicked the old man again as he bent down, as casually as a man would kick a dog. The old man's right hand scrabbled in the dirt.

The boy, watching, blinked back tears. The Templar bent closer."Any last words?" he asked.

The old Assassin reached up to clutch at his breast. His hand closed weakly upon the Templar's surcoat. The dai's black sleeve fell back and the boy saw, from his vantage point, the worn oiled leather of a gauntlet beneath the old man's robe. The Templar glanced down, but he must have mistaken the Assassin's hidden blade for a simple bracer, meant to strengthen the weak arm of a cripple.

"Only this," the dai said, and struck.

The gleam of sunlight on steel was the last thing the Templar saw before the blade sheathed itself in his throat. Blood cascaded down his surcoat, dying the linen the same scarlet as the cross stitched upon his breast. The commander grasped at his throat, gurgled and died. The only surviving soldier glanced around at the copses of his fellows and took to his heels. He clambered atop his horse and turned tail, heading in the dying light for anywhere where there were not Assassins.

The boy waited until the Templar was a speck of dust upon the path before he climbed down from the tower.

The old man was dead. The boy had hoped otherwise, but he was not surprised. He folded his old teacher's arms across his chest and unbuckled the hidden blade from the dead dai's right wrist. The blade did not loosen easily. Deep grooves had ben worn in the stiff leather after many years of use.

The boy tucked the hidden blade into his sash and walked to the old man's fallen sword. The blade looked slender. It was not. It was nearly too heavy for the boy to lift with both hands, let alone with one.

The only time the boy had lifted a blade had been to clean the weapon. Only Assassins of novice status and above were permitted to handle steel. The boy had been taught the basic exercises with a wooden blade. Nearly everyone agreed that he was very good given his age and lack of training. The blade was in his very name, which meant the sword.

He did not have the strength to move the corpses, so he left the old man with his fort and his books and the bodies of his enemies. It was not a bad place, not a bad way, to die.

He turned and bowed to the old man's body. "Thank you for your teaching," he said.

The sun sank at last behind the mountains, casting the valley in shades of lavender and pale gold. The boy walked over to the Templar horses. They milled nervously, but they did not flee from the scent of blood as farm horses would have done.

The boy would have liked to take the commander's stallion, but the animal was wall-eyed, which was a sign of an evil spirit, and anyway it was too tall for him to mount. He chose another horse, a shorter black mare, and held out his hand for her to sniff, calling her ya habibi, my child and ya rooti, my eyes, as he would have spoken to his parents' sheep.

It seemed to work. The mare did not protest as the boy sheathed the dai's blade in the scabbard behind her saddle. He mounted –not without difficulty-and rode towards the setting sun.

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