The Length of God's Patience
An Assassin's Creed fan fiction by xahra99
Cover art for the Crusades series courtesy of the awesome caroline :)
"We're going to have to take your arm," the Masyaf surgeon said calmly.
Malik was aware that he had no choice, but he said "Do it," anyway because it felt like it gave him some measure of control. It had been two days since he had been wounded in the Temple of Solomon; more than long enough for him to know that his left arm was past saving.
Malik gritted his teeth as the surgeon ran gentle fingers down his sleeve. As the man touched his hand he yelped despite his best efforts. Even light pressure was agony. The fingers of Malik's left hand were dark and misshapen and curled under like an ill-fitting glove. It smelt. And it hurt.
"What did this?"
"A mace," Malik said briefly.
The surgeon nodded, as if Malik had confirmed his suspicions."Have you eaten?"
"Not since yesterday."
The surgeon nodded his head, satisfied. "Good. Then we'll begin." He turned to a trestle table that had been set up in the corner of the room and poured a flask of alcohol into a bowl.
There were a hundred questions Malik could have asked him, but he didn't want to know the answers, so he lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. There were cracks in the plaster, and a tiny spot that might have been dried blood or spilled wine or damp.
He knew that he should be satisfied. He had obeyed the Creed. He had retrieved the artifact. He had not compromised the Brotherhood. If he'd lost his arm, then so be it. He knew many men who would not have considered it a bad trade.
But he wasn't satisfied. He was angry. In pain, yes; and frightened (even if he tried not to admit it to himself) but mostly angry. He'd lost a brother and he was about to lose a limb.
And if that…if Altaїr had remembered the Creed and acted as we had agreed; I would not be in this position…
He was distracted from his thoughts as the door swung open. Two Assassins filed in. Their scarves were pulled up to hide their faces, but even so Malik could see from the look in their eyes that they wanted to be here even less than he did. He tried to put them at their ease. "How goes the fight?" He would have liked it if somebody had bothered to put him at his ease, but the surgeon wasn't good at small talk.
The surgeon leaned over him. "Hush. That is none of your concern. It will be as God wills it."
Malik bit his tongue. He would have liked to retort that it was his concern, as the castle would likely be razed to the ground when the siege succeeded, but it was never wise to antagonize your surgeon.
"Are you ready?" asked the surgeon.
Malik thought No, but he said, "I am."
The surgeon gestured to the two Assassins. They stepped to either side of Malik and gripped his arms, firmly but not roughly. The surgeon turned to the long bench on which he had laid his instruments. He tied a scarf around his own face and withdrew a sponge from a small sealed pot. "Breathe deeply," he said, and held the sponge to Malik's face.
Malik did as he was ordered, and breathed in.
The sponge smelt sweet at first, but it had a lingering bitter aftertaste that caught in Malik's throat. As he exhaled, his consciousness drifted away. It was a quicksilver, disorientating feeling; as if he had been thrown from a tower, but it felt good enough that Malik didn't care when the surgeon reached behind him and picked up a long, curved knife.
Malik noticed that the Assassin closest to the surgeon, was sweating. He opened his mouth to tell the man that there was nothing to be concerned about, that everything was as it should be. He inhaled again, and all that he could see was sun on the wall, and bright blue sky.
The pain came later, when he woke.
Malik was no stranger to discomfort, but the pain in his arm was severe enough that he lost all capacity to think, to move, to do anything other than simply exist. His throat was raw. There was a neatly wrapped stump where his arm had been, and there was a pale stain on the floor where blood had been scrubbed away. The small room was empty apart from Malik and his pallet.
He slept eventually, despite the pain. When he woke the bandages were soaked through. His skin throbbed, as if it was too tight. Darkness followed blinding sunlight as time flowed and ebbed like the river. Sometimes when he woke the room was empty, and sometimes the surgeon was there; changing Malik's bandages, or regarding him with a disapproving expression, like his weapons masters had when he hadn't trained hard enough. He pressed cool fingers to the pulse in Malik's good hand, and thumbed his eyelids open to peer into his eyes.
"Fever," he said.
Malik told him that that was ridiculous. He called the surgeon a quack, and told him that he couldn't have a fever because he was colder than a mountain winter. He cursed him and said other things that he could never remember, later. The words slipped away like the days. He tried to keep track of time passing by reckoning bandage changes, but sometimes he woke up and the dressing was clean, and sometimes it wasn't. He soon lost count. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered.
And then one evening he woke, and he was still not dead. The last of the drug-fueled haze wisped away like smoke through a window, and Malik could think again.
The surgeon looked up from his work. He doubled a linen bandage neatly over the stub that was all that remained of Malik's arm and began to circle the bandage up towards his shoulder. Malik shifted to make the man's job easier. The wound was neat flesh, already healing.
The surgeon looked up. "Good," he said, his voice as dry as dust. "You're awake."
"Your arm is healing well. Pray that the wound does not get infected again."
"What if it gets infected?" Malik asked. He felt a coward for even asking, but it was his arm.
"If it does," the surgeon said with as much passion as if you had asked him the best way to sharpen a knife, "you will probably die."
"Probably?" Malik coughed and spat. His throat hurt.
"As Allah wills it." The doctor dug in his robe and produced a little packet of dark leaves. He opened the packet and handed a couple of the leaves to Malik. "Chew on this. It will help your throat."
"Did I scream?"
"You nearly died. Of course you screamed. Everyone screams. There's no shame in it."
"I wasn't shamed."
The compassion in the doctor's eyes scared Malik worse than the knives had. There was little to be learned by finding out how long he'd been asleep, so he asked "How went the siege?"
"Well, as you can see, we are still alive."
"Don't mock me. The Crusaders?"
Malik nodded, pleased. He reached behind with his right arm to lever himself upright. His head swam. The movement was more difficult than he had expected. Surprised at how weak he was, he mentioned it to the surgeon, who nodded.
"Unsurprising. You've been here for a while. And it'll be longer before you're allowed to do anything besides rest."
Malik rubbed a hand across his jaw and felt stubble. "What happened to Altaïr?"
The surgeon shrugged. "Demoted."
Malik almost smiled. Demoted wasn't as good as dead, but it was better than nothing.
"It's not healthy to hold a grudge. You've got more to worry about, I'd say. I'll tell the Master you have awakened. No doubt he has some task for you in mind." He handed Malik a tiny vial. The liquid inside was dark and smelt musty and sweet like the sponge. "Drink this after the leaves. It will help you rest." He looked critically at Malik, as if he was a horse that wasn't worth buying. "I will visit you later. Try to rest."
"I'll be here."
The surgeon left.
Malik turned the bottle in his hand. He flopped back on the pallet and dragged his remaining arm over his eyes to shade them from the sun that shone blindingly from the whitewashed walls.
He thought of all the ways he would make Altair suffer.
It was the right of an Assassin to die fighting, or, failing that, falling from a great height. He felt like a knife without a handle, trained for war, and utterly useless.
The Master has plans for you, the surgeon had said. Lying on the pallet, Malik knew that whatever they were, they would not be worth the loss of his brother and his arm. What use was a one-armed Assassin? He'd seen men maimed in duty, but hadn't bothered to wonder what became of them.
Eventually, he slept again.
He woke when somebody in a white robe pushed the door open. At first he thought that it was the surgeon, but the silhouette was too stooped, too old.
It was Al Mualim.
Malik struggled to a sitting position. "Master?"
Al Mualim walked over to Malik's bed. He did not sit, but stood, staring at Malik down his long nose. "You did well," he said. "Anything I have in my power to grant you, you may ask."
Malik didn't hesitate. "Kill Altair," he said.
The Master shook his head. "That is not an option."
"He's a fool."
"At least let me take his arm. That is a fair trade."
The master shook his head again. "I said that you might ask for anything. I did not say I would agree. The Brotherhood needs Altaïr. We-I-have plans that require his presence."
Malik was clever enough not to ask what those plans were. He said nothing instead, and they stood staring each other, the young Assassin and the old, while the setting sun through the window turned the air to honey. Malik thought that Al Mualim would assign him a new task. But the old man said nothing and eventually he grew impatient. "Forgive me," he said cautiously. "But I have questions. The object I found-"
"It is nothing." Al Mualim said immediately. "You ask too many questions. But your curiosity may yet serve you well." He tapped on the floor and another Assassin came in with an armload of books. He deposited the books on the floor by Malik's bed and left.
Malik glanced at the stack. "You would make a scholar out of me?"
"Not exactly." Al Mualim said. He considered Malik with sharp hawk's eyes. "You shall take Mahmoud's place as dai of Jerusalem."
"Dai?" Malik could hardly believe his ears. "Jerusalem?"
The Master frowned and shifted as if his legs pained him, but he did not sit. "You believe I do you a great favor. In truth I do you none. It is past time for Mahmoud to be recalled. The Regent Madj Addin has grown suspicious. I shall arrange a new office for you. You will be a copyist and cartographer; a dealer in rare manuscripts."
Malik knew rather less about rare manuscripts than a donkey knew of flight. "I do not object, but surely there are others more worthy than I," he said carefully.
"I have faith in you. Living among the people is difficult. It is easy to follow our Creed in Masyaf with the Brotherhood all around you. It is considerably more difficult to live among the people and conceal your true identity. But you will not lose your way. And I think you already have a talent for scholarship."
Malik shook his head. Al Mualim was wrong, he could not tell the old man that he had erred. "As you wish, Master."
"You will move to your new quarters tomorrow. I shall have books sent to you. It is essential that you read them. I need you fit to travel to Jerusalem in two weeks. You shall train with Rauf once you are fit to fight."
"If this is what you wish."
"I do. In your spare time, I suggest that you practice your script."
Malik bowed, as well as he could manage. When he looked up, the old man had gone. Malik felt the hackles rise on the back of his neck.
That is not natural. Nobody that old should move that silently.
He reached down for the books with the hand he didn't have and felt a flash of irritation. As he reached awkwardly across the bed with his right hand, his fingers hit the vial that the surgeon had left before he found the warm leather of the bindings. Malik retrieved the vial and held it up to the light. The liquid inside was a very dark red; the color of blood. The lid was sealed with wax. Malik made no move to crack the lid. He'd spent enough time asleep. He didn't need drugging. He wanted his mind sharp.
Nevertheless, he tucked the vial into the straw mattress of the pallet instead of throwing it away. After he had hidden the bottle, he threw the covers off and swung his legs over the edge of the bed.
The first thing he noticed was that his body felt different. Unbalanced. Wrong. He could feel the power of Al Mualim's apple still tingling in the fingertips of his missing hand, and the stump stung like salt, but there was a gap where his elbow used to be.
His head felt like he had spent too long in the sun.
Malik put his head in his hands.
As he only had one hand remaining, his chin slipped from the palm of his right hand and he went down, catching the floorboards with the tip of his fingers just in time to save himself from an undignified sprawl on the floor.
Would that I had my time again, he thought furiously as he righted himself. I would stab Altaïr in the throat and tell everybody the Crusaders killed him.
He pushed the books out of the way and walked grimly to the window, ignoring the sick feeling in his chest. The distance from the foot of his bed could not have been more than a few lengths, but it felt like a mile and Malik was sweating by the time he reached the window. He leant on the sill and looked out. Beneath him stretched the courtyard of the castle. Flags snapped in the breeze. Their shadows waved over Assassins sparring in the practice-ring below. Malik could see the flat roofs of houses beyond the walls of the keep, and the peaks of the mountains, like dragons' teeth, beyond even that. A hawk soared in an updraft over the valley of the Orontes to his left.
Malik felt blackness encroaching at the edges of his vision. He fought it, concentrating on details, and felt his head begin to clear. He forced himself to visualize each detail of the bird's feathers, its wings, outstretched to grasp the wind, its keen yellow eyes, before he remembered that the eagle was Altaïr's emblem, and turned his head away.
Malik made his way back to the bed, slowly and carefully. When he reached the bed he bent down to move the books, put his left hand out to steady his body as he reached the pallet and fell over again.
This story slots in neatly with my previous AC1 canon- it's a prequel to The Straight Path and fits in somewhere after The Cross and the Sword-but it should be able to stand alone. This one's dedicated to my beta reader, Caroline (go check out her art at my livejournal) who's a Malik fangirl. Other Malik fangirls might do worse than checking out doubleleaf's account over at deviantart.
There's not a lot of historical stuff to put here, so I'd like to seize the opportunity for a little self-promotion. Let me know what you thought of this, guys. If you liked this story then review it, and I'll do my best to write more. If you hated it, tell me what parts turned you off, and I'll try to do better next time. Author out.