Today was the service, and also . . . well, I shall explain. After the service, I left Reginald talking to Mr. Simpkin on the steps of the chapel. To me, Mr. Simpkin said that he had some papers I needed to sign. In light of Mother’s death, the finances were mine. With an obsequious smile he said he hoped that I had considered him more than satisfactory in managing the affairs so far. I nodded, smiled, said nothing committal, told them I wanted a little time to myself, and slipped away, seemingly to be alone with my thoughts. I hoped that the direction of my wanderings looked random as I made my way along the thoroughfare, staying clear of carriage wheels that splashed through mud and manure on the highway, weaving through people thronging the streets: tradesmen in bloodied leather aprons, whores and washerwomen. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t random at all. One woman in particular was up ahead, like me, making her way through the crowds, alone and, probably, lost in thought. I had seen her at the service, of course. She’d sat with the other staff—Emily, and two or three others I didn’t recognize—on the other side of the chapel, with a handkerchief at her nose. She had looked up and seen me—she must have done—but she made no sign. I wondered, did Betty, one of my old nursemaids, even recognize me? And now I was following her, keeping a discreet distance behind so she wouldn’t see me if she happened to glance backwards. It was getting dark by the time she reached home, or not home but the household for which she now worked, a grand mansion that loomed in the charcoal sky, not too dissimilar to the one at Queen Anne’s Square. Was she still a nursemaid, I wondered, or had she moved up in the world? Did she wear the uniform of a governess beneath her coat? The street was less crowded than before, and I lingered out of sight across the street, watching as she took a short flight of stone steps down towards the below-stairs quarters and let herself in. When she was out of sight I crossed the highway and sauntered towards the house, aware of the need to look inconspicuous in case eyes were seeing me from the windows. Once upon a time I was a young boy who had looked from the windows of the house in Queen Anne’s Square, watched passers-by come and go and wondered about their business. Was there a little boy in this household watching me now, wondering who is this man? Where has he come from? Where is he going? So I wandered along the railings at the front of the mansion and glanced down to see the lit windows of what I assumed were the servants’ quarters, only to be rewarded with the unmistakable silhouette of Betty appearing at the glass and drawing a curtain. I had the information I’d come for. I returned after midnight, when the drapes at the windows of the mansion were shut, the street was dark and the only lights were those fixed to the occasional passing carriage. Once again I made my way to the front of the house, and with a quick look left and right scaled the railings and dropped silently down into the gully on the other side. I scuttled along it until I found Betty’s window, where I stopped and very carefully placed my ear to the glass, listening for some moments until I was satisfied that there was no movement from within. And then, with infinite patience, I applied my fingertips to the bottom of the sash window and lifted, praying it wouldn’t squeak and, when my prayers were answered, letting myself in and closing the window behind me. In the bed she stirred slightly—at the breath of air from the open window perhaps; some unconscious sensing of my presence? Like a statue I stood and waited for her deep breathing to resume, and felt the air around me settle, my incursion absorbed into the room so that after a few moments it was as though I were a part of it—as though I had always been a part of it, like a ghost. And then I took out my sword. It was fitting—ironic, perhaps—that it should have been the sword given to me by my father. These days, I rarely go anywhere without it. Years ago, Reginald asked me when I expected it to taste blood, and it has, of course, many times. And if I was right about Betty, then it would once again.
I sat on the bed and put the blade of the sword close to her throat, then clamped my hand over her mouth. She woke. Immediately her eyes were wide with terror. Her mouth moved and my palm tickled and vibrated as she tried to scream. I held her thrashing body still and said nothing, just allowed her eyes to adjust until she could see me, and she must have recognized me. How could she not, when she nursed me for ten years, was like a mother to me? How can she not have recognized Master Haytham? When she had finished struggling, I whispered, “Hello, Betty,” with my hand still over her mouth. “I have something I need to ask you. To answer you will need to speak. For you to speak I’ll need to take my hand from your mouth and you may be tempted to scream, but if you scream . . .” I applied the tip of the sword to her throat to make my point. And, then, very gently, I lifted my hand from her mouth. Her eyes were hard, like granite. For a moment I felt myself retreat to childhood and was almost intimidated by the fire and fury there, as though the sight of them triggered a memory of being scolded that I couldn’t help but respond to. “I should put you over my knee for this, Master Haytham,” she hissed. “How dare you creep into a lady’s room when she sleeps? Did I teach you nothing? Did Edith teach you nothing? Your mother?” Her voice was rising. “Did your father teach you nothing?” That childhood feeling stayed with me, and I had to reach into myself to find resolve, fighting an urge simply to put away my sword, and say, “Sorry, Nurse Betty,” promise never to do it again, that I would be a good boy from now on. The thought of my father gave me that resolve. “It’s true you were like a mother to me once, Betty,” I said to her. “It’s true that what I’m doing is a terrible, unforgivable thing to do. Believe me, I’m not here lightly. But what you’ve done is terrible, and unforgivable, too.” Her eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?” With my other hand I reached inside my frock coat and retrieved a folded piece of paper, which I held for her to see in the near dark of the room. “You remember Laura, the kitchen maid?” Cautious, she nodded. “She sent me a letter,” I went on. “A letter that told me all about your relationship with Digweed. For how long was Father’s gentleman your fancy man, Betty?” There was no such letter; the piece of paper I held contained nothing more revelatory than the address of my lodgings for the night, and I was relying on the low light to fool her. The truth was that when I’d re-read my old journals I’d been taken back to that moment many, many years ago when I had gone to look for Betty. She had been having her “little lie-in” that cold morning, and when I peered through her keyhole I’d seen a pair of men’s boots in her room. I hadn’t realized at the time because I was too young. I’d seen them with the eyes of a nine-year-old and thought nothing of them. Not then. Not ever since. Not until reading it afresh, when, like a joke that suddenly makes sense, I had understood: the boots had belonged to her lover. Of course they had. What I was less certain of was that her lover was Digweed. I remember that she used to speak of him with great affection, but then so did everyone; he had fooled us all. But when I left for Europe in the care of Reginald, Digweed had found alternative employment for Betty. Even so, it was a guess that they were lovers—a considered, educated guess, but risky, with terrible consequences, if I was wrong. “Do you remember the day you had a little lie-in, Betty?” I asked. “A ‘little lie-in,’ do you remember?” She nodded warily. “I came to see where you were,” I continued. “I was cold, you see. And in the passage outside your room—well, I don’t like to admit it, but I knelt and I looked through your keyhole.” I felt myself colour slightly, despite everything. She’d been staring balefully up at me, but now her eyes went flinty and her lips pursed crossly, almost as though this ancient intrusion were as bad as the
current one. “I didn’t see anything,” I clarified quickly. “Not unless you count you, slumbering in bed, and also a pair of men’s boots that I recognized as belonging to Digweed. Were you having an affair with him, is that it?” “Oh, Master Haytham,” she whispered, shaking her head and with sad eyes, “what has become of you? What sort of man has that Birch turned you into? That you should be holding a knife to the throat of a lady of my advancing years is bad enough—oh, that’s bad enough. But look at you now, you’re ladling hurt on hurt, accusing me of having an affair, wrecking a marriage. It was no affair. Mr. Digweed had children, that’s true, who were looked after by his sister in Herefordshire, but his wife died many years before he even joined the household. Ours was not an affair the way you’re thinking with your dirty mind. We were in love, and shame on you thinking otherwise. Shame on you.” She shook her head again. Feeling my hand tighten on the handle of the sword, I squeezed my eyes shut. “No, no, it’s not me who should be made to feel at fault here. You can try and come high-and-mighty with me all you like, but the fact is that you had a . . . relationship of some kind, of whatever kind—it doesn’t matter what kind— with Digweed, and Digweed betrayed us. Without that betrayal my father would be alive. Mother would be alive, and I would not be sitting here with a knife to your throat, so don’t blame me for your current predicament, Betty. Blame him.” She took a deep breath and composed herself. “He had no choice,” she said at last, “Jack didn’t. Oh, that was his name, by the way: Jack. Did you know that?” “I’ll read it on his gravestone,” I hissed, “and knowing it makes not a blind bit of difference, because he did have a choice, Betty. Whether it was a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, I don’t care. He had a choice.” “No—the man threatened Jack’s children.” “‘Man’? What man?” “I don’t know. A man who first spoke to Jack in town.” “Did you ever see him?” “No.” “What did Digweed say about him? Was he from the West Country?” “Jack said he had the accent sir, yes. Why?” “When the men kidnapped Jenny, she was screaming about a traitor. Violet from next door heard her, but the following day a man with a West Country accent came to speak to her—to warn her not to tell anyone what she’d heard.” West Country. Betty had blanched, I saw. “What?” I snapped. “What have I said?” “It’s Violet, sir,” she gasped. “Not long after you left for Europe—it could even have been the day after—she met her end in a street robbery.” “They came good on their word,” I said. I looked at her. “Tell me about the man giving Digweed his orders,” I said. “Nothing. Jack never said anything about him. That he meant business; that if Jack didn’t do as they told him then they would find his children and kill them. They said that if he told the master then they’d find his boys, cut them and kill them slowly, all of that. They told him what they were planning to do to the house, but on my life, Master Haytham, they told him that nobody would be hurt; that it would all happen at the dead of night.” Something occurred to me. “Why did they even need him?” She looked perplexed. “He wasn’t even there on the night of the attack,” I continued. “It wasn’t as if they required help getting in. They took Jenny, killed Father. Why was Digweed needed for that?” “I don’t know, Master Haytham,” she said. “I really don’t.” When I looked down at her, it was with a kind of numbness. Before, when I’d been waiting for darkness to fall, anger had been simmering, bubbling within me, the idea of Digweed’s treachery lighting a fire beneath my fury, the idea that Betty had colluded, or even known, adding fuel to it. I’d wanted her to be innocent. Most of all I’d wanted her dalliance to be with another member of the household. But if it was with Digweed then I wanted her to know nothing about his betrayal. I wanted her to be innocent, for if she was guilty then I had to kill her, because if she could have done something to stop the slaughter of that night and failed to act, then she had to die. That was . . . that was justice. It was cause and effect. Checks and balances. An eye for an eye. And that’s what I believe in. That’s my ideology. A way of negotiating a passage through life that makes sense even when life itself so rarely does. A way of imposing order upon chaos. But the last thing I wanted to do was kill her. “Where is he now?” I asked softly. “I don’t know, Master Haytham.” Her voice quavered with fear. “The last time I heard from him was the morning he disappeared.” “Who else knew you and he were lovers?” “Nobody,” she replied. “We were always so careful.” “Apart from leaving his boots in view.” “They were moved sharpish.” Her eyes hardened. “And most folk weren’t in the habit of peering through the keyhole.” There was a pause. “What happens now, Master Haytham?” she said, a catch in her voice. “I should kill you, Betty,” I said simply, and looking into her eyes I saw the realization dawn on her that I could if I wanted to; that I was capable of doing it. She whimpered. I stood. “But I won’t. There’s already been too much death as a result of that night. We will not meet again. For your years of service and nurture I award you your life and leave you with your shame. Goodbye.”
I watched the traitor today as he moved around the bazaar. Wearing a plumed hat, colourful buckles and garters, he strutted from stall to stall and twinkled in the bright, white Spanish sun. With some of the stallholders he joked and laughed; with others he exchanged cross words. He was neither friend nor despot, it seemed, and indeed, the impression I formed of him, albeit one I formed at a distance, was of a fair man, benevolent even. But then again it’s not those people he was betraying. It is his Order. It is us. His guards stayed with him during his rounds, and they were diligent men, I could tell. Their eyes never stopped moving around the market, and when one of the stallholders gave him a hearty clap on the back and pressed on him a gift of bread from his stall, he waved to the taller of the two guards, who took it with his left hand, keeping his sword hand free. Good. Good man. Templar-trained. Moments later a small boy darted out from the crowds, and straight away my eyes went to the guards, saw them tense, assess the danger and then . . . Relax? Laugh at themselves for being jumpy? No. They stayed tense. Stayed watchful, because they’re not fools and they knew the boy might have been a decoy. They were good men. I wondered if they had been corrupted by the teachings of their employer, a man who pledged allegiance to one cause while promoting the ideals of another. I hoped not, because I’d already decided to let them live. And if it appears to be somewhat convenient that I’ve decided to let them live, and that maybe the truth has more to do with my apprehension of going into combat with two such competent men, then that appearance is false. They may be vigilant; undoubtedly they would be expert swordsmen; they would be skilled in the business of death. But then, I am vigilant. I am an expert swordsman. And I am skilled in the business of death. I have a natural aptitude for it. Although, unlike theology, philosophy, classics and my languages, particularly Spanish, which is so good that I’m able to pass as a Spaniard here in Altea, albeit a somewhat reticent one, I take no pleasure in my skill at death. Simply, I am good at it. Perhaps if my target were Digweed—perhaps then I might take some small measure of gratification from his death at my hands. But it is not. For the five years after we left London, Reginald and I scoured Europe, moving from country to country in a travelling caravan of staff and fellow Knights who shifted around us, drifting in and out of our lives, we two the only constants as we moved from one country to the next, sometimes picking up the trail of a group of Turkish slavers who were believed to be holding Jenny, and occasionally acting on information concerning Digweed, which Braddock would attend to, riding off for months on end but always returning empty-handed. Reginald was my tutor, and in that respect he had similarities to Father; first in that he tended to sneer at almost anything from books, constantly asserting that there existed a higher, more advanced learning than could be found in dusty old schoolbooks, which I later came to know as Templar learning; and second, in that he insisted I think for myself. Where they differed was that my father would ask me to make up my own mind. Reginald, I came to learn, viewed the world in more absolute terms. With Father I sometimes felt as if the thinking was enough—that the thinking was a means unto itself and the conclusion I reached somehow less important than the journey. With Father, facts, and, looking back over past journals I realize even the entire concept of truth, could feel like shifting, mutable properties. There was no such ambiguity with Reginald, though, and in the early years when I might say otherwise, he’d smile at me and tell me he could hear my father in me. He’d tell me how my father had been a great man and wise in many ways, and quite the best swordsman he had ever known, but his attitude to learning was not as scholarly as it might have been. Does it shame me to admit that over time I came to prefer Reginald’s way, the stricter Templar way? Though he was always good-tempered, quick with a joke and smile, he lacked the natural joy, even mischief, of Father. He was always buttoned and neat, for one thing, and he was fanatical about punctuality; he insisted that things be orderly at all times. And yet, almost despite myself there was something fixed about Reginald, some certainty, both inner and outer, that came to appeal to me more and more as the years passed. One day I realized why. It was the absence of doubt—and with it confusion, indecision, uncertainty. This feeling—this feeling of “knowing” that Reginald imbued in me—was my guide from boyhood to adulthood. I never forgot my father’s teachings; on the contrary, he would have been proud of me because I questioned his ideals. In doing so I adopted new ones. We never found Jenny. Over the years, I’d mellowed towards her memory. Reading back over my journals, the young me could not have cared less about her, something I’m somewhat ashamed of, because I’m a grown man now, and I see things in different terms. Not that my youthful antipathy towards her did anything to hinder the hunt for her, of course. In that mission, Mr. Birch had more than enough zeal for the two of us. But it wasn’t enough. The funds we received from Mr. Simpkin in London were handsome, but they weren’t without end. We found a chateau in France, hidden near Troyes in Champagne, in which to make our base, where Mr. Birch continued my apprenticeship, sponsoring my admittance as an Adept and then, three years ago, as a fully fledged member of the Order. Weeks would go by with no mention of either Jenny or Digweed; then months. We were involved in other Templar activities. The War of the Austrian Succession had seemed to gobble the whole of Europe into its greedy maw, and we were needed to help protect Templar interests. My “aptitude,” my skill at death, became apparent, and Reginald was quick to see its benefits. The first to die—not my first “kill,” of course; my first assassination, I should say—was a greedy merchant in Liverpool. My second was an Austrian prince. After the killing of the merchant, two years ago, I returned to London, only to find that building work was continuing at Queen Anne’s Square, and Mother . . . Mother was too tired to see me that day, and would be the following day as well. “Is she too tired to answer my letters, too?” I asked Mrs. Davy, who apologized and averted her gaze. Afterwards I rode to Herefordshire, hoping to locate Digweed’s family, to no avail. The traitor in our household was never to be found, it seemed—or is never to be found, I should say. But then, the fire of vengeance in my gut burns less fiercely these days, perhaps simply because I’ve grown; perhaps because of what Reginald has taught me about control of oneself, mastery of one’s own emotions. Even so, dim it may be, but it continues to burn within me. The hostale owner’s wife has just been to visit, throwing a quick look down the steps before she closed the door behind her. A messenger arrived while I was out, she said, and handed his missive to me with a lascivious look that I might have been tempted to act upon if I hadn’t had other things on my mind. The events of last night, for example. So instead I ushered her out of my room and sat down to decypher the message. It told me that as soon as I was finished in Altea, I was to travel not home, to France, but to Prague, where I would meet Reginald in the cellar rooms of the house in Celetna Lane, the Templar headquarters. He has an urgent matter to discuss with me. In the meantime, I have my cheese. Tonight, the traitor meets his end.
It is done. The kill, I mean. And though it was not without its complications, the execution was clean
insofar as he is dead and I remain undetected, and for that I can allow myself to take a measure of
satisfaction in having completed my task.
His name was Juan Vedomir, and supposedly his job was to protect our interests in Altea. That he
had used the opportunity to build an empire of his own was tolerated; the information we had was that he
controlled the port and market with a benign hand, and certainly on the evidence of earlier that day he
seemed to enjoy some support, even if the constant presence of his guards proved that wasn’t always the
Was he too benign, though? Reginald thought so, had investigated, and eventually found that
Vedomir’s abandonment of Templar ideologies was so complete as to amount to treachery. We are
intolerant of traitors in the Order. I was despatched to Altea. I watched him. And, last night, I took my
cheese and left my hostale for the last time, making my way along cobbled streets to his villa.
“Yes?” said the guard who opened his door.
“I have cheese,” I said.
“I can smell it from here,” he replied.
“I hope to convince Se?or Vedomir to allow me to trade at the bazaar.”
His nose wrinkled some more. “Se?or Vedomir is in the business of attracting patrons to the market,
not driving them away.”
“Perhaps those with a more refined palate might disagree, se?or?”
The guard squinted. “Your accent. Where are you from?”
He was the first to question my Spanish citizenship. “Originally from the Republic of Genoa,” I said,
smiling, “where cheese is one of our finest exports.”
“Your cheese will have to go a long way to beat Varela’s cheese.”
I continued to smile. “I am confident that it does. I am confident that Se?or Vedomir will think so.”
He looked doubtful but stood aside and let me into a wide entrance hall, which, though the night was
warm, was cool, almost cold, as well as being sparse, with just two chairs and a table, on which were
some cards. I glanced at them. A game of piquet, I was pleased to see, because piquet’s a two-player
game, which meant there were no more guards hiding in the woodwork.
The first guard indicated for me to place the wrapped cheese on the card table, and I did as I was
told. The second man stood back, one hand on the hilt of his sword as his partner checked me for
weapons, patting my clothes thoroughly and next searching the bag I wore around my shoulder, in which
were a few coins and my journal, but nothing more. I had no blade.
“He’s not armed,” said the first guard, and the second man nodded. The first guard indicated my
cheese. “You want Se?or Vedomir to taste this, I take it?”
I nodded enthusiastically.
“Perhaps I should taste it first?” said the first guard, watching me closely.
“I had hoped to save it all for Se?or Vedomir,” I replied with an obsequious smile.
The guard gave a snort. “You have more than enough. Perhaps you should taste it.”
I began to protest. “But I had hoped to save it for—”
He put his hand to the hilt of his sword. “Taste it,” he insisted.
I nodded. “Of course, se?or,” I said, and unwrapped a piece, picked off a chunk and ate it. Next he indicated I should try another piece, which I did, making a face to show how heavenly it tasted. “And now that it’s been opened,” I said, proffering the wrapping, “you might as well have a taste.” The two guards exchanged a look, then at last the first smile, went to a thick wooden door at the end of the passageway, knocked and entered. Then they appeared again and beckoned me forward, into Vedomir’s chamber. Inside, it was dark and heavily perfumed. Silk billowed gently on the low ceiling as we entered. Vedomir sat with his back to us, his long black hair loose, wearing nightclothes and writing by the light of a candle at his desk. “Would you have me stay, Se?or Vedomir?” asked the guard. Vedomir didn’t turn around. “I take it our guest isn’t armed?” “No, se?or,” said the guard, “although the smell of his cheese is enough to fell an army.”
“To me the scent is a perfume, Cristian,” laughed Vedomir. “Please show our guest to a seat, and I shall be over in a moment.” I sat on a low stool by an empty hearth as he blotted the book then came over, stopping to pick up a small knife from a side table as he came. “Cheese, then?” His smile split a thin moustache as he shifted his nightclothes to sit on another low stool, opposite. “Yes, se?or,” I said. He looked at me. “Oh? I was told you were from the Republic of Genoa, but I can hear from your voice that you are English.” I started with shock, but the big grin he wore told me I had nothing to worry about. Not yet at least. “And there I was, thinking me so clever to hide my nationality all this time,” I said, impressed, “but you have found me out, se?or.” “And the first to do so, evidently, which is why your head is still on your shoulders. Our two countries are at war, are they not?” “The whole of Europe is at war, se?or. I sometimes wonder if anybody knows who is fighting whom.” Vedomir chuckled and his eyes danced. “You’re being disingenuous, my friend. I think we all know your King George’s allegiances, as well as his ambitions. Your British Navy is said to think itself the best in the world. The French, the Spanish—not to mention the Swedes—disagree. An Englishman in Spain takes his life in his hands.” “Should I be concerned for my safety now, se?or?” “With me?” He spread his hands and gave a crooked, ironic smile. “I like to think I rise above the petty concerns of kings, my friend.” “Then whom do you serve, se?or?” “Why, the people of the town, of course.” “And to whom do you pledge allegiance if not to King Ferdinand?” “To a higher power, se?or.” Vedomir smiled, closing the subject firmly and turning his attention to the wrappings of cheese I’d placed by the hearth. “Now,” he went on, “you’ll have to forgive my confusion. This cheese. Is it from the Republic of Genoa or is it English cheese?” “It is my cheese, se?or. My cheeses are the best wherever one plants one’s flag.” “Good enough to usurp Varela?” “Perhaps to trade alongside him?” “And what then? Then I have an unhappy Varela.” “Yes, se?or.” “Such a state of affairs might be of no concern to you, se?or, but these are the matters that vex me daily. Now, let me taste this cheese before it melts, eh?” Pretending to feel the heat, I loosened my neck scarf then took it off. Surreptitiously, I reached into my shoulder bag and palmed a doubloon. When he turned his attention to the cheese I dropped the doubloon into the scarf. The knife glittered in the candlelight as Vedomir cut off a chunk of the first cheese, holding the piece with his thumb and sniffing at it—hardly necessary; I could smell it from where I sat—then popped it into his mouth. He ate thoughtfully, looked at me, then cut off a second chunk. “Hm,” he said, after some moments. “You are wrong, se?or, this is not superior to Varela’s cheese. It is in fact exactly the same as Varela’s cheese.” His smile had faded and his face had darkened. I realized I had been found out. “In fact, this is Varela’s cheese.” His mouth was opening to shout for help as I twirled the silk into a garrotte with a flick of my wrists and leapt forward with crossed arms, dropping it over his head and around his neck. His knife hand arced up, but he was too slow and caught unawares, and the knife thrashed wildly at the silk above our heads as I secured my rumal, the coin pressing in on his windpipe, cutting off any noise. Holding the garrotte with one hand, I disarmed him, tossed the knife to a cushion then used both hands to tighten the rumal. “My name is Haytham Kenway,” I said dispassionately, leaning forward to look into his wide-open, bulging eyes. “You have betrayed the Templar Order. For this you have been sentenced to execution.” His arm rose in a futile attempt to claw at my eyes, but I moved my head and watched the silk flutter gently as the life left him. When it was over I carried his body to the bed then went to his desk to take his journal, as I had been instructed. It was open, and my eye fell upon some writing: “Para ver de manera diferente, primero debemos pensar diferente.” I read it again, translating it carefully, as though I were learning a new language: “To see differently, we must first think differently.” I stared at it for some moments, deep in thought, then snapped the book shut and stowed it in my bag, returning my mind to the job at hand. Vedomir’s death would not be discovered until morning, by which time I would be long gone, on my way to Prague, where I now had something to ask Reginald.
After neglecting my journal for almost two weeks I have much to tell and should recap, going right back to the night I visited Betty. After leaving I’d returned to my lodgings, slept for a few fitful hours, then rose, dressed and took a carriage back to her house. There I bid the driver wait some distance away, close enough to see, but not close enough to draw suspicion, and as he snoozed, grateful for the rest, I sat and gazed out of the window, and waited. For what? I didn’t know for sure. Yet again I was listening to my instinct. And yet again it proved correct, for not long after daybreak, Betty appeared. I dismissed the driver, followed her on foot and, sure enough, she made her way to the General Post Office on Lombard Street, went in, reappeared some minutes later, and then made her way back along the street until she was swallowed up by the crowds. I watched her go, feeling nothing, not the urge to follow her and slit her throat for her treachery, not even the vestiges of the affection we once had. Just . . . nothing. Instead I took up position in a doorway and watched the world go by, flicking beggars and street sellers away with my cane as I waited for perhaps an hour until . . . Yes, there he was—the letter carrier, carrying his bell and case full of mail. I pushed myself out of the doorway and, twirling my cane, followed him, closer and closer until he moved on to a side road where there were fewer pedestrians, and I spotted my chance . . . Moments later I was kneeling by his bleeding and unconscious body in an alleyway, sorting through the contents of his letter case until I found it—an envelope addressed to “Jack Digweed.” I read it—it said that she loved him, and that I had found out about their relationship; nothing in there I didn’t already know—but it wasn’t the contents of the letter I was interested in so much the destination, and there it was on the front of the envelope, which was bound for the Black Forest, for a small town called St. Peter, not far from Freiburg. Almost two weeks of journeying later, Reginald and I came within sight of St. Peter in the distance, a cluster of buildings nestled at the bottom of a valley otherwise rich with verdant fields and patches of forest. That was this morning. We reached it at around noon, dirty and tired from our travels. Trotting slowly through narrow, labyrinthine streets, I saw the upturned faces of the residents, glimpsed either from pathways or turning quickly away from windows, closing doors and drawing curtains. We had death on our minds, and at the time I thought they somehow knew this, or perhaps were easily spooked. What I didn’t know was that we weren’t the first strangers to ride into town that morning. The townspeople were already spooked. The letter had been addressed care of the St. Peter General Store. We came to a small plaza, with a fountain shaded by chestnut trees, and asked for directions from a nervous townswoman. Others gave us a wide berth as she pointed the way then sidled off, staring at her shoes. Moments later we were tethering our horses outside the store and walking in, only for the sole customer to take a look at us and decide to stock up on provisions another time. Reginald and I exchanged a confused look, then I cast an eye over the store. Tall, wooden shelves lined three sides, stocked with jars and packets tied up with twine, while at the back was a high counter behind which stood the storekeeper, wearing an apron, a wide moustache and a smile that had faded like an exhausted candle on getting a good look at us. To my left was a set of steps used to reach the high shelves. On them sat a boy, about ten years old, the storekeeper’s son, by the look of him. He almost lost his footing in his haste to scuttle off the steps and stand in the middle of the floor with his hands by his side, awaiting his orders. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said the shopkeeper in German. “You look like you have been riding a long time. You need some supplies to continue your journey?” He indicated an urn on the counter before him. “You need some refreshments perhaps? A drink?” Next he was waving a hand at the boy. “Christophe, have you forgotten your manners? Take thegentlemen’s coats . . .”
There were three stools in front of the counter and the shopkeeper waved a hand at them, saying, “Please, please, take a seat.” I glanced again at Reginald, saw he was about to move forward to accept the storekeeper’s offer of hospitality, and stopped him. “No, thank you,” I said to the shopkeeper. “My friend and I don’t intend to stay.” From the corner of my eye I saw Reginald’s shoulders sag, but he said nothing. “All we need from you is information,” I added. A cautious look fell across the shopkeeper’s face like a dark curtain. “Yes?” he said warily. “We need to find a man. His name is Digweed. Jack Digweed. Are you acquainted with him?” He shook his head. “You don’t know him at all?” I pressed. Again the shake of the head. “Haytham . . .” said Reginald, as though he could read my mind from the tone of my voice. I ignored him. “Are you quite sure about that?” I insisted. “Yes, sir,” said the shopkeeper. His moustache quivered nervously. He swallowed. I felt my jaw tighten; then, before anybody had a chance to react, I’d drawn my sword and with my outstretched arm tucked the blade beneath Christophe’s chin. The boy gasped, raised himself on his tiptoes, and his eyes darted as the blade pressed into his throat. I hadn’t taken my eyes off the shopkeeper. “Haytham . . .” said Reginald again. “Let me handle this, please, Reginald,” I said, and addressed the storekeeper: “Digweed’s letters are sent care of this address,” I said. “Let me ask you again. Where is he?” “Sir,” pleaded the shopkeeper. His eyes darted from me to Christophe, who was making a series of low noises as though he were finding it difficult to swallow. “Please don’t hurt my son.” His pleas fell on deaf ears. “Where is he?” I repeated. “Sir,” pleaded the owner. His hands implored. “I cannot say.” With a tiny flick of the wrist I increased the pressure of my blade on Christophe’s throat and was rewarded with a whimper. From the corner of my eye I saw the boy rise even higher on his tiptoes and felt, but did not see, Reginald’s discomfort to the other side of me. All the time, my eyes never left those of the shopkeeper. “Please sir, please sir,” he said quickly, those imploring hands waving in the air as though he were trying to juggle an invisible glass, “I can’t say. I was warned not to.” “Ah-ha,” I said. “Who? Who warned you? Was it him? Was it Digweed?" “No, sir,” insisted the shopkeeper. “I haven’t seen Master Digweed for some weeks. This was . . . someone else, but I can’t tell you—I can’t tell you who. These men, they were serious.” “But I think we know that I, too, am serious,” I said with a smile, “and the difference between them and me is that I am here and they are not. Now tell me. How many men, who were they and what did they want to know?” His eyes flicked from me to Christophe, who though brave and stoic and displaying the kind of fortitude under duress that I’d hope for my own son, whimpered again nonetheless, which must have made up the storekeeper’s mind, because his moustache trembled a little more, then he spoke, quickly, the words tumbling from him. “They were here, sir,” he said. “Just an hour or so ago. Two men with long black coats over the red tunics of the British Army, who came into the store just as you did and asked the whereabouts of Master Digweed. When I told them, thinking little of it, they became very grave, sir, and told me that some more men might arrive looking for Master Digweed, and, if they did, then I was to deny all knowledge of him, on pain of death, and not to say that they had been here.” “Where is he?” “A cabin, fifteen miles north of here in the woods.” Neither Reginald nor I said a word. We both knew we didn’t have a minute to spare, and without pausing to make more threats, or to say good-bye, or perhaps even apologize to Christophe for frightening him half to death, we both dashed out of the door, untethered and mounted our steeds and spurred them on with yells.
We rode as hard as we dared for over half an hour, until we had covered maybe eight miles of pasture, all of it uphill, our horses now becoming tired. We came to a tree line, only to discover that it was a narrow band of pine, and we arrived on the other side to see a ribbon of trees stretching around the summit of a hill on either side. Meanwhile, in front of us the ground sloped down into more woodland, then away, undulating like a huge blanket of green, patched with forestry, grass and fields. We pulled up and I called for the spyglass. Our horses snorted and I scanned the area in front of us, swinging the spyglass from left to right, crazily at first, with the emergency getting the better of me, panic making me indiscriminate. In the end I had to force myself to calm down, taking deep breaths and screwing up my eyes tight then starting again, this time moving the spyglass slowly and methodically across the landscape. In my head I divided the territory into a grid and moved from one square to another, back to being systematic and efficient, back to having logic in charge, not emotion. A silence of gentle wind and the songs of birds was broken by Reginald. “Would you have done it?” “Done what, Reginald?” He meant kill the child. “Kill the boy. Would you have done it?” “There is little point in making a threat if you can’t carry it out. The storekeeper would have known if I was shamming. He would have seen it in my eyes. He would have known.” Reginald shifted uneasily in his saddle. “So, yes, then? Yes, you would have killed him?” “That’s right, Reginald, I would have killed him.” There was a pause. I completed the next square of land, then the next. “When was the killing of innocents ever part of your teaching, Haytham?” said Reginald. I gave a snort. “Just because you taught me to kill, Reginald, it doesn’t give you the final say on whom I kill and to what end.” “I taught you honour. I taught you a code.” “I remember you, Reginald, about to dispense your own form of justice outside White’s all those years ago. Was that honourable?” Did he redden slightly? Certainly he shifted uncomfortably on his horse. “The man was a thief,” he said. “The men I seek are murderers, Reginald.” “Even so,” he said, with a touch of irritation, “perhaps your zeal is clouding your judgement.” Again I gave a contemptuous snort. “This from you. Is your fascination with Those Who Came Before strictly speaking in line with Templar policy?” “Of course.” “Really? Are you sure you haven’t been neglecting your other duties in favour of it? What letterwriting, what journalling, what reading have you been doing lately, Reginald?” “Plenty,” he said indignantly. “That hasn’t been connected with Those Who Came Before,” I added. For a moment he blustered, sounding like a red-faced fat man given the wrong meat at dinner. “I’m here now, aren’t I?” “Indeed, Reginald,” I said, just as I saw a tiny plume of smoke coming from the woodland. “I see smoke in the trees, possibly from a cabin. We should head for there.” At the same time there was a movement not far away in a crop of fir trees and I saw a rider heading up the furthest hill, away from us. “Look, Reginald, there. Do you see him?” I adjusted the focus. The rider had his back to us of course and was a distance away, but one thing I thought I could see was his ears. I was sure he had pointed ears. “I see one man, Haytham, but where is the other?” said Reginald. Already pulling on the reins of my steed, I said, “Still in the cabin, Reginald. Let’s go.” It was perhaps another twenty minutes before we arrived. Twenty minutes during which I pushed my steed to her limit, risking her through trees and over wind-fallen branches, leaving Reginald behind as I raced towards where I’d seen the smoke—to the cabin where I was sure I’d find Digweed. Alive? Dead? I didn’t know. But the storekeeper had said there were two men asking for him, and we’d only accounted for one of them, so I was eager to know about the other one. Had he gone on ahead?
Or was he still in the cabin? There it was, sitting in the middle of a clearing. A squat wooden building, one horse tethered outside, with a single window at the front and tendrils of smoke puffing from the chimney. The front door was open. Wide open. At the same time as I came bolting into the clearing I heard a scream from inside, and I spurred my steed to the door, drawing my sword. With a great clatter we came on to the boards at the front of the house and I craned forward in my saddle to see the scene inside. Digweed was tied to a chair, shoulders sagging, head tilted.
His face was a mask of blood, but I could see that his lips were moving. He was alive, and standing over him was the second man, holding a bloodstained knife—a knife with a curved, serrated blade—and about to finish the job. About to slit Digweed’s throat. I’d never used my sword as a spear before and, take it from me, it’s a far-from-ideal use for it, but at that exact moment my priority was keeping Digweed alive. I needed to speak to him, and, besides, nobody was going to kill Digweed but me. So I threw it. It was all I had time to do. And though my throw had as little power as it did aim, it hit the knifeman’s arm just as the blade arced down, and it was enough— enough to send him staggering back with a howl of pain at the same time as I threw myself off the horse, landed on the boards inside the cabin, rolled forward and snatched out my short sword at the same time. And it had been enough to save Digweed. I landed right by him. Bloodstained rope kept his arms and legs tied to the chair. His clothes were torn and black with blood, his face swollen and bleeding. His lips still moved. His eyes slid lazily over to see me and I wondered what he thought in the brief moment that he took me in. Did he recognize me? Did he feel a bolt of guilt, or a flash of hope? Then my eyes went to a back window, only to see the knifeman’s legs disappearing through it as he squeezed himself out and fell with a thump to the ground outside. To follow through the window meant putting myself in a vulnerable position—I didn’t fancy being stuck in the frame while the knifeman had all the time in the world to plunge his blade into me. So instead I ran to the front door and back into the clearing to give chase. Reginald was just arriving. He’d seen the knifeman, had a better view of him than I did, and was already taking aim with his bow. “Don’t kill him,” I roared, just as he fired, and he howled in displeasure as the arrow went wide. “Damn you, man, I had him,” he shouted. “He’s in the trees now.” I’d rounded the front of the cabin in time, feet kicking up a carpet of dead and dry pine needles just in time to see the knifeman disappear into the tree line. “I need him alive, Reginald,” I shouted back at him. “Digweed’s in the cabin. Keep him safe until I return.” And with that I burst into the trees, leaves and branches whipping my face as I thundered on, short sword in hand. Ahead of me I saw a dark shape in the foliage, crashing through it with as little grace as I was. Or perhaps less grace, because I was gaining on him. “Were you there?” I shouted at him. “Were you there the night they killed my father?” “I didn’t have that pleasure, boy,” he called back over his shoulder. “How I wish I had been. I did my bit, though. I was the fixer.” Of course. He had a West Country accent. Now, who had been described as having a West Country accent? The man who had blackmailed Digweed. The man who had threatened Violet and shown her an evil-looking knife. “Stand and face me!” I shouted. “You’re so keen for Kenway blood, let’s see if you can’t spill mine!” I was nimbler than he was. Faster, and closer now. I’d heard the wheeze in his voice when he spoke to me, and it was only a matter of time before I caught him. He knew it, and rather than tire himself further he decided to turn and fight, hurdling one final wind-fallen branch, which brought him into a small clearing, spinning about, the curved blade in his hand. The curved, serrated, “evil-looking” blade. His face was grizzled and terribly pockmarked, as though scarred from some childhood disease. He breathed heavily as he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He’d lost his hat in the chase, revealing closecropped, greying hair, and his coat—dark, just as the storekeeper had described it—was torn, fluttering open to reveal his red army tunic. “You’re a British soldier,” I said. “That’s the uniform I wear,” he sneered, “but my allegiances lie elsewhere.” “Indeed, do they? To whom do you swear loyalty, then?” I asked. “Are you an Assassin?” He shook his head. “I’m my own man, boy. Something you can only dream of being.” “It’s a long time since anybody’s called me boy,” I said. “You think you’ve made a name for yourself, Haytham Kenway. The killer. The Templar blademan. Because you’ve killed a couple of fat merchants? But to me you’re a boy. You’re a boy because a man faces his targets, man to man, he doesn’t steal up behind them in the dead of night, like a snake.” He paused. “Like an Assassin.” He began to swap his knife from one hand to the other. The effect was almost hypnotic—or at least that’s what I let him believe. “You think I can’t fight?” I said. “You’re yet to prove it.” “Here’s as good a place as any.” He spat and beckoned me forward with one hand, rolling the blade in the other. “Come on, Assassin,” he goaded me. “Come be a warrior for the first time. Come see what it feels like. Come on, boy. Be a man.” It was supposed to anger me, but instead it made me focus. I needed him alive. I needed him to talk. I leapt over the branch and into the clearing, swinging a little wildly to push him back but recovering my stance quickly, before he could press forward with a response of his own. For some moments we circled one another, each waiting for the other to launch his next attack. I broke the stalemate by lunging forward, slashing, then instantly retreating to my guard. For a second he thought I’d missed. Then he felt the blood begin to trickle down his cheek and touched a hand to his face, his eyes widening in surprise. First blood to me. “You’ve underestimated me,” I said. His smile was a little more strained this time. “There won’t be a second time.” “There will be,” I replied, and came forward again, feinting towards the left then going right when his body was already committed to the wrong line of defence. A gash opened up in his free arm. Blood stained his tattered sleeve and began dripping to the forest floor, bright red on brown and green needles. “I’m better than you know,” I said. “All you have to look forward to is death—unless you talk. Unless you tell me everything you know. Who are you working for?” I danced forward and slashed as his knife flailed wildly. His other cheek opened. There were now two scarlet ribbons on the brown leather of his face. “Why was my father killed?” I came forward again and this time sliced the back of his knife hand. If I’d been hoping he’d drop the knife, then I was disappointed. If I’d been hoping to give him a demonstration of my skills, then that’s exactly what I’d done, and it showed on his face. His now bloody face. He wasn’t grinning any more. But he still had fight in him, and when he came forward it was fast and smooth and he swapped his knife from one hand to the other to try to misdirect me, and almost made contact. Almost. He might even have done it—if he hadn’t already showed me that particular trick; if he hadn’t been slowed down by the injuries I’d inflicted on him. As it was, I ducked easily beneath his blade and struck upwards, burying my own in his flank. Immediately I was cursing, though. I’d hit him too hard and in the kidney. He was dead. The internal bleeding would kill him in around thirty minutes; but he could pass out straight away. Whether he knew it himself or not I don’t know, for he was coming at me again, his teeth bared. They were coated with blood now, I noticed, and I swung easily away, took hold of his arm, twisted into his body and broke it at the elbow.
The sound he made wasn’t a scream so much as an anguished inhalation, and as I crunched the bones in his arm, more for effect than for any useful purpose, his knife dropped to the forest floor with a soft thump and he followed it, sinking to his knees. I let go of his arm, which dropped limply, a bag of broken bones and skin. Looking down, I could see the blood had already drained from his face, and around his midriff was a spreading, black stain. His coat pooled around him on the ground. Feebly, he felt for his loose and limp arm with his good hand, and when he looked up at me there was something almost plaintive in his eyes, something pathetic. “Why did you kill him?” I asked evenly. Like water escaping from a leaking flask he crumpled, until he was lying on his side. All that concerned him now was dying. “Tell me,” I pressed, and bent close to where he now lay, with pine needles clinging to the blood on his face. He was breathing his last breaths into the mulch of the forest floor. “Your father . . .” he started, then coughed a small gobbet of blood before starting again. “Your father was not a Templar.” “I know,” I snapped. “Was he killed for that?” I felt my brow furrow. “Was he killed because he refused to join the Order?” “He was an . . . an Assassin.” “And the Templars killed him? They killed him for that?” “No. He was killed for what he had.” “What?” I leaned forward, desperate to catch his words. “What did he have?” There was no reply. “Who?” I said, almost shouting. “Who killed him?” But he was out. Mouth open, his eyes fluttered then closed, and however much I slapped him, he refused to regain consciousness. An Assassin. Father was an Assassin. I rolled the knifeman over, closed his staring eyes and began to empty his pockets on to the ground. Out came the usual collection of tins, as well as few tattered bits of paper, one of which I unfurled to find was a set of enlistment papers. They were for a regiment, the Coldstream Guards to be precise, one and one-half guineas for joining, then a shilling a day. The paymaster’s name was on the enlistment papers. It was Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Braddock. And Braddock was with his army in the Dutch Republic, taking arms against the French. I thought of the pointy-eared man I’d seen riding out earlier. All of a sudden I knew where he was heading. I turned and crashed back through the forest to the cabin, making it back in moments. Outside were the three horses, grazing patiently in bright sunshine; inside, it was dark and cooler, and Reginald stood over Digweed, whose head lolled as he sat, still tied to the chair, and, I knew, from the second I clapped eyes on him . . . “He’s dead,” I said simply, and looked at Reginald. “I tried to save him, Haytham, but the poor soul was too far gone.” “How?” I said sharply. “Of his wounds,” snapped Reginald. “Look at him, man.” Digweed’s face was a mask of drying blood. His clothes were caked with it. The knifeman had made him suffer, that much was certain. “He was alive when I left.” “And he was alive when I arrived, damn it,” seethed Reginald. “At least tell me you got something from him.” His eyes dropped. “He said he was sorry before he died.” With a frustrated swish of my sword I slammed a beaker into the fireplace. “That was all? Nothing about the night of the attack? No reason? No names?” “Damn your eyes, Haytham. Damn your eyes, do you think I killed him? Do you think I came all this way, neglected my other duties, just to see Digweed dead? I wanted to find him as much as you did. I wanted him alive as much as you did.” It was as though I could feel my entire skull harden. “I doubt that very much,” I spat. “Well, what happened to the other one?” asked Reginald back. “He died.” Reginald wore an ironic look. “Oh, I see. And whose fault was that, exactly?” I ignored him. “The killer, he is known to Braddock.” Reginald reared back. “Really?” Back at the clearing I’d stuffed the papers into my coat, and I brought them out now in a handful, like the head of a cauliflower. “Here—his enlistment papers. He’s in the Coldstream Guards, under Braddock’s command.” “Hardly the same thing, Haytham. Edward has a force fifteen hundred strong, many of them enlisted in the country. I’m sure every single man has an unsavoury past and I’m sure Edward knows very little about it.” “Even so, a coincidence, don’t you think? The storekeeper said they both wore the uniform of the British Army, and my guess is the rider we saw is on his way to them now. He has—what?—an hour’s head start? I’ll not be far behind. Braddock’s in the Dutch Republic, is he not? That’s where he’ll be heading, back to his general.” “Now, careful, Haytham,” said Reginald. Steel crept into his eyes and into his voice. “Edward is a friend of mine.” “I have never liked him,” I said, with a touch of childish impudence. “Oh, pish!” exploded Reginald. “An opinion formed by you as a boy because Edward didn’t show you the deference you were accustomed to—because, I might add, he was doing his utmost to bring your father’s killers to justice. Let me tell you, Haytham, Edward serves the Order, is a good and faithful servant and always has been.” I turned to him, and it was on the tip of my tongue to say, “But wasn’t Father an Assassin?” when I stopped myself. Some . . . feeling, or instinct—difficult to say what it was—made me decide to keep that information to myself. Reginald saw me do it—saw the words pile up behind my teeth and maybe even saw the lie in my eyes. “The killer,” he pressed, “did he say anything else at all? Were you able to drag any more information out of him before he died?” “Only as much as you could get from Digweed,” I replied. There was a small stove at one end of the cabin and by it a chopping block, where I found part of a loaf, which I stuffed into my pocket. “What are you doing?” said Reginald. “Getting what provisions I can for my ride, Reginald.” There was a bowl of apples, too. I’d need those for my horse. “A stale loaf. Some apples? It isn’t enough, Haytham. At least go back to the town for supplies.” “No time, Reginald,” I said. “And, anyway, the chase will be short. He only has a short head start and he doesn’t know he’s being pursued. With any luck I can catch him before I have need of supplies.” “We can collect food on the way. I can help you.” But I stopped him. I was going alone, I said, and before he could argue I’d mounted my steed and taken her in the direction I’d seen the pointy-eared man go, my hopes high I could catch him shortly. They were dashed. I rode hard, but in the end the dark drew in; it had become too dangerous to continue and I risked injuring my horse. In any case, she was exhausted, so reluctantly I decided to stop and let her rest for a few hours. And as I sit here writing, I wonder why, after all the years of Reginald’s being like a father to me, a mentor, a tutor and guide—why did I decide to ride out alone? And why did I keep from him what I’d discovered about Father? Have I changed? Has he changed? Or is it that the bond we once shared has changed? The temperature has dropped. My steed—and it seems only right that I should give her a name and so, in honour of the way she’s already starting to nuzzle me when in need of an apple, I’ve called her Scratch—lies nearby, her eyes closed, and seems content, and I write in my journal. I think about what Reginald and I talked of. I wonder if he’s right to question the man I have become.
I rose early in the morning, as soon as it was light, raked over the dying coals of my fire and mounted Scratch. The chase continued. As I rode I mulled over the possibilities. Why had Pointy-Ears and the knifeman gone their separate ways? Were they both intending to journey to the Dutch Republic and join Braddock? Would Pointy-Ears be expecting his confederate to catch him up? I had no way of knowing. I could only hope that, whatever their plans, the man ahead of me had no idea I was in pursuit. But if he didn’t—and how could he?—then why wasn’t I catching him? And I rode fast but steadily, aware that coming upon him too quickly would be just as disastrous as not catching him at all. After about three-quarters of an hour I came upon a spot where he had rested. If I’d pushed Scratch longer, would I have disturbed him, taken him by surprise? I knelt to feel the dying warmth of his fire. To my left, Scratch nuzzled something on the ground, a bit of discarded sausage, and my stomach rumbled. Reginald had been right. My prey was much better equipped for the journey than I was, with my half a loaf of bread and apples. I cursed myself for not going through the saddlebags of his companion. “Come on, Scratch,” I said. “Come on, girl.” For the rest of the day I rode, and the only time I even slowed down was when I retrieved the spyglass from my pocket and scanned the horizon, looking for signs of my quarry. He remained ahead of me. Frustratingly ahead of me. All day. Until, as light began to fade I started becoming concerned I had lost him altogether. I could only hope I was right about his destination. In the end I had no choice but to rest again for the day, make camp, build a fire, allow Scratch to rest, and pray that I hadn’t lost the trail. And as I sit here I wonder, Why haven’t I managed to catch him?
When I woke up this morning it was with a flash of inspiration. Of course. Pointy-Ears was a member of Braddock’s army and Braddock’s army had joined with forces commanded by the Prince of Orange in the Dutch Republic, which was where Pointy-Ears should have been. The reason he was hurrying was because . . . Because he had absconded and was rushing to get back, presumably before his absence was discovered.
Which meant that his presence in the Black Forest wasn’t officially sanctioned. Which meant that Braddock, as his lieutenant-colonel, didn’t know about it. Or probably didn’t know about it. Sorry, Scratch. I rode her hard again—it would be her third successive day—and noticed the tiredness in her, the fatigue that slowed her down. Even so, it was only around half an hour before we came upon the remains of Pointy-Ears’ camp and, this time, instead of stopping to test the embers, I urged Scratch on and only let her rest at the next hilltop, where we stopped as I pulled out the spyglass and scanned the area ahead of us, square by square, inch by inch—until I saw him. There he was, a tiny speck riding up the hill opposite, swallowed by a clump of trees as I watched. Where were we? I didn’t know whether or not we had passed over the border into the Dutch Republic. I hadn’t seen another soul for two days, had heard nothing but the sound of Scratch and my own breathing. That was soon to change. I spurred Scratch and some twenty minutes later was entering the same band of trees I’d seen my quarry disappear into. The first thing I saw was an abandoned cart. Nearby, with flies crawling over sightless eyes, was the body of a horse, the sight of which made Scratch rear slightly, startled. Like me, she had been used to the solitude: just us, the trees, the birds. Here suddenly was the ugly reminder that in Europe one is never far from conflict, never far from war. We rode on more slowly now, being careful among the trees and whatever other obstacles we might find. Moving onwards, more and more of the foliage was blackened, broken or trampled down. There’d been some action here, that much was certain: I began to see bodies of men, splayed limbs and staring, dead eyes, dark blood and mud rendering the corpses anonymous apart from flashes of uniform: the white of the French army, the blue of the Dutch. I saw broken muskets, snapped bayonets and swords, anything of use having already been salvaged. When I emerged from the tree line we were in a field, the field of battle, where there were even more bodies. Evidently it had been only a small skirmish by the standards of war but, even so, it felt as though death were everywhere. How long ago it had been I couldn’t say with certainty: enough time for scavengers to strip the field of battle but not enough for the bodies to be removed; within the last day, I would have thought, judging by the state of the corpses and the blanket of smoke that still hung over the pasture—a shroud of it, like morning fog but with the heavy yet sharp scent of gunpowder smoke. Here the mud was thicker, churned up by hooves and feet, and as Scratch began to struggle, I reined her to the side, trying to take us around the perimeter of the field. Then just as she stumbled in the mud and almost pitched me forward over her neck I caught sight of Pointy-Ears ahead of us. He was the length of the field away, perhaps half a mile or so, a hazy, almost indistinct figure also struggling in the claggy terrain. His horse must have been as exhausted as mine, because he’d dismounted and was trying to pull it by the reins, his curses carrying faintly across the field. I pulled out my spyglass to get a better look at him. The last time I’d seen him up close was twelve years ago and he’d been wearing a mask, and I found myself wondering—hoping, even—that my first proper look at him might contain some kind of revelation. Would I recognize him? No. He was just a man, weathered and grizzled, like his partner had been, filthy and exhausted from his ride. Looking at him now there was no sense of suddenly knowing. Nothing fell into place. He was just a man, a British soldier, same as the one I had killed in the Black Forest. I saw him crane his neck as he stared through the haze at me. From his coat he produced his own spyglass, and for a moment the two of us studied one another through our telescopes, then I watched as he ran to the muzzle of his horse and with renewed vigour began yanking at the reins, at the same time throwing glances back across the field at me. He recognized me. Good. Scratch had regained her feet and I pulled her to where the ground was a little harder. At last we were able to make some headway. In front of me, Pointy-Ears was becoming more distinct and I could make out the effort on his face as he pulled out his own horse, then saw the realization dawn on him that he was stuck, and I was gaining on him and would be upon him in a matter of a few short moments. And then he did the only thing he could do. He dropped the reins and started to run. At the same time the verge around us gave way sharply, and once again Scratch was finding it difficult to keep her feet. With a quick and whispered “thank you” I jumped from her to give chase on foot. The efforts of the last few days caught up with me in a rush that threatened to engulf me. The mud sucked at my boots, making every step not like running but wading, and the breath was jagged in my lungs, as though I were inhaling grit. Every muscle screamed in protest and pain at me, begging me not to go on. I could only hope that my friend ahead was having it just as hard, even harder perhaps, because the one thing that spurred me on, the one thing that kept my legs pumping and my chest pulling ragged breaths from the air was the knowledge that I was closing the gap. He glanced behind and I was close enough to see his eyes widen in fear. He had no mask now. Nothing to hide behind. Despite the pain and exhaustion I grinned at him, feeling dry, parched lips pulling back over my teeth. He pressed on, grunting with the effort. It had begun to rain, a drizzle that gave the day an extra layer of haze, as though we were stuck inside a landscape coloured in charcoal. Again he risked another look behind and saw that I was even closer now; this time he stopped and drew his sword, held it in two hands with his shoulders slumped, breathing heavily. He looked exhausted. He looked like a man who’d spent day after day riding hard with little sleep. He looked like a man waiting to be beaten. But I was wrong; he was luring me forward and, like a fool, I fell for it, and in the next instant was stumbling forward, literally falling as the ground gave way and I waded straight into a vast pool of thick, oozing mud that stopped me in my tracks. “Oh, God,” I said. My feet disappeared, then my ankles, and before I knew it I was in up to my knees, desperately yanking at my legs, trying to pull them free, while at the same time bracing myself with one hand on the firmer ground around me, trying to keep my sword raised with the other. My eyes went to Pointy-Ears, and it was his turn to grin now as he came forward and brought his sword down in a chopping, two-handed blow that had plenty of force but was clumsy. With a grunt of effort and a ring of steel I met it and parried, sending him back a couple of steps. Then, as he was off balance, I pulled one of my feet clear of the mud, and my boot, saw my white stocking, filthy as it was, bright compared to the dirt around it. Seeing his advantage being squandered, Pointy-Ears pressed forward again, this time stabbing forward with his sword, and I defended once and then twice. For a second there was only the sound of clashing steel, of grunts and the rain, harder now, slapping into the mud, me silently thanking God his reserves of cunning were exhausted. Or were they? At last he realized I would be beaten more easily if he moved to the rear of me, but I saw what was on his mind and lashed out with my sword, catching him at the knee just above his boot and sending him crashing back, howling in agony. With a cry of pain and indignity he got to his feet, driven on perhaps by outrage that his victory wasn’t being given to him more easily, and kicked out with his good foot.
I caught it with my other hand and twisted it as hard as I could, hard enough to send him spinning and sprawling facedown to the mud. He tried to roll away, but was too slow, or too dazed, and I stabbed downwards with my sword, driving it through the back of his thigh, straight into the ground and spearing him there. At the same time I used the handle as a grip and with a wrench pulled myself from the mud, leaving my second boot behind. He screamed and twisted, but was held in place by my sword through his leg. My weight on him as I used the sword as leverage to drag myself from the ooze must have been unbearable, and he shrieked in pain and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. Even so, he slashed wildly with his sword and I was unarmed so that, as I flopped on to him, like a badly landed fish, the blade caught me on the side of the neck, opening a cut and letting out blood that felt warm on my skin. My hands went to his, and suddenly we were grappling for possession of the sword. Grunting and cursing we fought, when from behind I heard something—something that was surely the sound of approaching feet. Then voices. Somebody speaking in Dutch. I cursed. “No,” said a voice, and I realized it was me. He must have heard it, too. “You’re too late, Kenway,” he snarled. The tramping of the feet from behind me. The rain. My own cries of “No, no, no,” as a voice said, in English, “You there. Stop at once.” And I twisted away from Pointy-Ears, smacking the wet mud in frustration as I pulled myself upright, ignoring the sound of his harsh and jagged laugh as I rose to meet the troops who appeared from within the fog and rain, trying to bring myself to full height as I said, “My name is Haytham Kenway, and I am an associate of Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Braddock. I demand this man be given into my custody.” The next laugh I heard, I wasn’t sure if it came from Pointy-Ears, who still lay pinned to the ground, or perhaps from one of the small band of troops who had materialized before me, like wraiths delivered from the field. Of the commander I saw a moustache, a dirty, wet, double-breasted jacket trimmed with sodden braid that had once been the colour gold. I saw him raising something—something that seemed to flash across my eye line—and realized he was striking me with the hilt of the sword an instant before he made contact, and I lost consciousness. They don’t put unconscious men to death. That would not be noble. Not even in an army commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Braddock. And so the next thing I felt was cold water slapping into my face—or was it an open palm on my face? Either way, I was being rudely awakened, and as my senses returned I spent a moment wondering who I was, where I was . . . And why I had a noose around my neck. And why my arms were tied behind my back. I was at one end of a platform. To my left were four men, also, like me, with their necks in nooses. As I watched, the man on the far left jerked and shook, his feet kicking at empty air. A gasp went up in front of me and I realized that we had an audience. We were no longer in the battlefield but in some smaller pasture where men had assembled. They wore the colours of the British Army and the bearskin hats of the Coldstream Guards, and their faces were ashen. They were here under sufferance, it was clear, forced to watch as the poor unfortunate at the end of the line kicked his last, his mouth open, and the tip of his tongue, bleeding from having been bitten, protruding, his jaw working in to try and gulp air. He continued to twitch and kick, his body shaking the scaffold, which ran the length of the platform above our heads. I looked up and saw my own noose tied to it, cast my eyes downwards to the wooden stool on which I stood, and saw my feet, my stockinged feet. There was a hush. Just the sound of the hanged man dying, the creak of the rope and the complaint of the scaffold. “That’s what happens when you’re a thief,” screeched the executioner, pointing at him then striding down the platform towards the second man, calling out to the stock-still crowd, “You meet your maker at the end of a rope, orders of Lieutenant-Colonel Braddock.”
“I know Braddock,” I shouted suddenly. “Where is he? Bring him here.” “Shut your mouth, you!” bawled the executioner, his finger pointed, while at the same time his assistant, the man who’d thrown water in my face, came from my right and slapped me again, only this time not to bring me to my senses but to silence me. I snarled and struggled with the rope tying my hands, but not too vigorously, not enough so that I would overbalance and fall from the stool on which I was so perilously perched. “My name is Haytham Kenway,” I called, the rope digging into my neck. “I said, ‘Shut your mouth!’” the executioner roared a second time, and again his assistant struck me, hard enough so that he almost toppled me from the stool. For the first time I caught sight of the soldier strung up to my immediate left and realized who it was. It was Pointy-Ears. He had a bandage that was black with blood around his thigh. He regarded me with cloudy, hooded eyes, a slow, sloppy smile on his face. By now the executioner had reached the second man in the line. “This man is a deserter,” he screeched. “He left his comrades to die. Men like you. He left you to die. Tell me, what should his punishment be?” Without much enthusiasm, the men called back, “Hang him.” “If you say so,” smirked the executioner, and he stepped back, planted his foot in the small of the condemned man’s back and pushed, savouring the revolted reaction of the watching men. I shook the pain of the assistant’s blow from my head and continued to struggle just as the executioner reached the next man, asking the crowd the same question, receiving the same muted, dutiful reply then pushing the poor wretch to his death. The platform quaked and shook as the three men jerked on the end of the ropes. Above my head the scaffold creaked and groaned, and glancing up I saw joints briefly part before coming back together. Next the executioner reached Pointy-Ears. “This man—this man enjoyed a small sojourn in the Black Forest and thought he could sneak back undetected, but he is wrong. Tell me, how should he be punished?” “Hang him,” mumbled the crowd unenthusiastically. “Do you think he should die?” cried the executioner. “Yes,” replied the crowd. But I saw some of them surreptitiously shaking their heads no, and there were others, drinking from leather flasks, who looked happier about the whole affair, the way you might if you were being bribed with ale. Indeed, did that account for Pointy-Ears’ apparent stupor? He was still smiling, even when the executioner moved behind him and planted his foot in the small of his back. “It’s time to hang a deserter!” he shouted, and shoved at the same time as I cried, “No!” and thrashed at my bonds, desperately trying to break free. “No, he must be kept alive! Where is Braddock? Where is Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Braddock?” The executioner’s assistant appeared before my eyes, grinning through a scratchy beard, with hardly a tooth in his mouth. “Didn’t you hear the man? He said, ‘Shut your mouth.’” And he pulled back his fist to punch me. He didn’t get the chance. My legs shot out, knocked the stool away and in the next instant were locked around the assistant’s neck, crossed at the ankle—and tightening. He yelled. I squeezed harder. His yell became a strangulated choke and his face began to flush as his hands went to my calves, trying to prise them apart. I wrenched from side to side, shaking him like a dog with prey in its jaws, almost taking him off his feet, straining my thigh muscles at the same time as I tried to keep the weight off the noose at my neck. Still, at my side, Pointy-Ears thrashed on the end of his rope. His tongue poked from between his lips and his milky eyes bulged, as if about to burst from his skull. The executioner had moved to the other end of the platform, where he was pulling on the legs of the hanged men to make sure they were dead, but the commotion at this end caught his attention and he looked up to see his assistant trapped in the vise grip of my legs and came dashing up the platform towards us, cursing at the same time as he reached to draw his sword. With a shout of effort, I twisted my body and wrenched my legs, pulling the assistant with me and by some miracle timing it just right so that his body slammed into the executioner as he arrived. With a shout the executioner tumbled messily from the platform. In front of us the men were standing, open-mouthed with shock, none moving to get involved. I squeezed my legs even more tightly together and was rewarded with a cracking, crunching sound that came from the assistant’s neck. Blood began pouring from his nose. His grip on my arms began to slacken. Again I twisted. Again I shouted as my muscles protested and I wrenched him, this time to the other side, where I slammed him into the scaffold. The shaking, creaking, coming-apart scaffold. It creaked and complained some more. With a final effort—I had no more strength left, and if this didn’t work then here was where I died—I rammed the man into the scaffold again and, this time, at last, it gave. At the same time, as I began to feel myself black out, as though a dark veil were being brought across my mind, I felt the pressure at my neck suddenly relax as the support crashed to the ground in front of the platform, the crossbar toppled, then the platform itself gave way with the sudden weight of men and wood, falling in on itself with a splintering and crashing of disintegrating wood. My last thought before I lost consciousness was, Please let him be alive, and my first words on regaining consciousness inside the tent where I now lie were, “Is he alive?” “Is who alive?” asked the doctor, who had a distinguished-looking moustache and an accent that suggested he was higher born than most. “The pointy-eared man,” I said, and tried to raise myself upright, only to find his hand on my chest guiding me back down to a lying position. “I’m afraid I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about,” he said, not unkindly. “I hear that you are acquainted with the lieutenant-colonel. Perhaps he will be able to explain everything to you when he arrives in the morning.” Thus, I now sit here, writing up the events of the day and awaiting my audience with Braddock . . .
“It’s about your mother, Haytham.” He stood before me in the basement of the headquarters on Celetna Lane. He had made no effort to dress for Prague. He wore his Englishness like a badge of honour: neat and tidy white stockings, black breeches and, of course, his wig, which was white and had shed most of its powder on the shoulders of his frock coat. He was lit by the flames from tall iron cressets on poles on either side of him, while mounted on stone walls so dark they were almost black were torches that shone with halos of pale light. Normally he stood relaxed, with his hands behind his back and leaning on his cane, but today there was a formal air about him. “Mother?” “Yes, Haytham.” She’s ill, was my first thought, and I instantly felt a hot wave of guilt so intense I was almost giddy with it. I hadn’t written to her in weeks; I’d hardly even thought about her. “She’s dead, Haytham,” said Reginald, casting his eyes downward. “A week ago she had a fall. Her back was badly hurt, and I’m afraid that she succumbed to her injuries.” I looked at him. That intense rush of guilt was gone as quickly as it had arrived and in its place an empty feeling, a hollow place where emotions should be. “I’m sorry, Haytham.” His weathered face creased into sympathy and his eyes were kind. “Your mother was a fine woman.” “That’s quite all right,” I said. “We’re to leave for England straight away. There’s a memorial service.” “I see.” “If you need . . . anything, then please don’t hesitate to ask.” “Thank you.” “Your family is the Order now, Haytham. You can come to us for anything.” “Thank you.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “And if you need . . . you know, to talk, then I’m here.” I tried not to smile at the idea. “Thank you, Reginald, but I won’t need to talk.” “Very well.” There was a long pause. He looked away. “Is it done?” “Juan Vedomir is dead, if that’s what you mean.” “And you have his journal?” “I’m afraid not.” For a moment his face fell, then it grew hard. Very hard. I’d seen his face do that before, in an unguarded moment. “What?” he said simply. “I killed him for his betrayal of our cause, did I not?” I said. “Indeed . . .” said Reginald carefully. “Then what need did I have of his journal?” “It contains his writings. They are of interest to us.” “Why?” I asked. “Haytham, I had reason to believe that Juan Vedomir’s treachery went beyond the matter of his adherence to the doctrine. I think he may have advanced to working with the Assassins. Now tell me the truth, please, do you have his journal?” I pulled it from my bag, gave it to him, and he moved over to one of the candlesticks, opened it, quickly flicked through, then snapped it shut. “And have you read it?” he asked. “It’s in cypher,” I replied. “But not all of it,” he said equably. I nodded. “Yes—yes, you’re right, there were some passages I was able to read. His . . . thoughts on life. They made interesting reading. In fact, I was particularly intrigued, Reginald, by how much Juan Vedomir’s philosophy was consistent with what my father once taught me.” “Quite possibly.” “And yet you had me kill him?” “I had you kill a traitor to the Order. Which is something else entirely. Of course, I knew your father felt differently from me concerning many—perhaps even most—of the tenets of the Order, but that’s because he didn’t subscribe to them. The fact that he wasn’t a Templar didn’t make me respect him less.” I looked at him. I wondered if I had been wrong to doubt him. “Why, then, is the book of interest?” “Not for Vedomir’s musings on life, that much is certain,” said Reginald, and gave me a sideways smile. “As you say, they were similar to your father’s, and we both know our feelings about that. No, it’s the cyphered passages I’m interested in, which, if I’m right, will contain details of the keeper of a key.”
“A key to what?”
“All in good time.”
I made a sound of frustration.
“Once I have decyphered the journal, Haytham,” he pressed. “When, if I’m right, we’ll be able to
begin the next phase of the operation.”
“And what might that be?”
He opened his mouth to speak, but I said the words for him. “‘All in good time, Haytham,’ is that it?
More secrets, Reginald?”
He bristled. “‘Secrets’? Really? Is that what you think? What exactly have I done to deserve your
suspicion, Haytham, other than to take you under my wing, sponsor you in the Order, give you a life? You
know, I might be forgiven for thinking you rather ungrateful at times, sir.”
“We were never able to find Digweed, though, were we?” I said, refusing to be cowed. “There
never was a ransom demand for Jenny, so the main purpose of the raid had to be Father’s death.”
“We hoped to find Digweed, Haytham. That’s all we could ever do. We hoped to make him pay.
That hope was not satisfied, but that doesn’t mean we were derelict in our attempt. Moreover, I had a duty
of care to you, Haytham, which was fulfilled. You stand before me a man, a respected Knight of the
Order. You overlook that, I think. And don’t forget that I hoped to marry Jenny. Perhaps in the heat of your
desire to avenge your father, you see losing Digweed as our only significant failure, but it’s not, is it,
because we’ve never found Jenny, have we? Of course, you spare no thought for your sister’s hardship.”
“You accuse me of callousness? Heartlessness?”
He shook his head. “I merely request that you turn your stare on your own failings before you start
shining light on mine.”
I looked carefully at him. “You never took me into your confidence regarding the search.”
“Braddock was sent to find him. He updated me regularly.”
“But you didn’t pass those updates to me.” “You were a young boy.” “Who grew up.” He bent his head. “Then I apologize for not taking that fact into account, Haytham. In future I will treat you as an equal.” “Then start now—start by telling me about the journal,” I said. He laughed, as though caught in check at chess. “You win, Haytham. All right, it represents the first step towards the location of a temple—a first-civilization temple, thought to have been built by Those Who Came Before.” There was a moment’s pause in which I thought, Is that it? Then laughed. At first he looked shocked, perhaps remembering the first time he’d ever told me about Those Who Came Before, when I’d found it difficult to contain myself. “Those who came before what . . . ?” I’d scoffed. “Before us,” he’d replied tightly. “Before man. A previous civilization.” He frowned at me now. “You’re still finding it amusing, Haytham?” I shook my head. “Not amusing so much, no. More”—I struggled to find the words—“hard to fathom, Reginald. A race of beings who existed before man. Gods . . .” “Not gods, Haytham, first-civilization humans who controlled humanity. They left us artefacts, Haytham, of immense power, such that we can only dream of. I believe that whoever can possess those artefacts can ultimately control all of human destiny.” My laugh dwindled when I saw how serious he had become. “It’s a very grand claim, Reginald.” “Indeed. If it were a modest claim then we would not be so interested, no? The Assassins would not be interested.” His eyes gleamed. The flames from the cressets shone and danced in them. I’d seen that look in his eyes before, but only on rare occasions. Not when he’d been tutoring me in languages, philosophy, or even in the classics or the principles of combat. Not even when he taught me the tenets of the Order. No, only when he talked about Those Who Came Before. Sometimes Reginald liked to deride what he saw as a surfeit of passion. He thought of it as a shortcoming. When he talked about the beings of the first civilization, however, he talked like a zealot.
We are staying the night in the Templar headquarters here in Prague. As I sit here now in a meagre room with grey stone walls, I can feel the weight of thousands of years of Templar history upon me. My thoughts go to Queen Anne’s Square, to which the household returned when the work was done. Mr. Simpkin had kept us abreast of developments; Reginald had overseen the building operation, even as we moved from country to country in search of Digweed and Jenny. (And yes, Reginald was right. Failing to find Digweed: that fact eats at me; but I almost never think of Jenny.) One day Simpkin sent us the word that the household had returned from Bloomsbury to Queen Anne’s Square, that the household was once again in residence, back where it belonged. That day my mind went to the wood-panelled walls of the home I grew up in, and I found I could vividly picture the people within it—especially my mother. But, of course, I was picturing the mother I had known growing up, who shone, bright like the sun and twice as warm, on whose knee I knew perfect happiness. My love for Father was fierce, perhaps stronger, but for Mother it was purer. With Father I had a feeling of awe, of admiration so grand I sometimes felt dwarfed by him, and with that came an underlying feeling I can only describe as anxiety, that somehow I had to live up to him, to grow into the huge shadow cast by him.
With Mother, though, there was no such insecurity, just the almost overwhelming sense of comfort and love and protection. And she was a beauty. I used to enjoy it when people compared me to Father because he was so striking, but if they said I looked like Mother I knew they meant handsome. Of Jenny, people would say, “She’ll break a few hearts”; “She’ll have men fighting over her.” They applied the language of struggle and conflict. But not with Mother. Her beauty was a gentle, maternal, nurturing thing, to be spoken of not with the wariness Jenny’s looks inspired, but with warmth and admiration. Of course, I had never known Jenny’s mother, Caroline Scott, but I had formed an opinion of her: that she was “a Jenny,” and that my father had been captivated by her looks just as Jenny’s suitors were captivated by hers. Mother, though, I imagined to be an entirely different sort of person altogether. She was plain old Tessa Stephenson-Oakley when she met my father. That’s what she had always said, anyway: “plain old Tessa Stephenson-Oakley,” which didn’t sound at all plain to me, but never mind. Father had moved to London, arriving alone with no household, but a purse large enough to buy one. When he had rented a London home from a wealthy landowner, the daughter had offered to help my father find permanent accommodation, as well as employing the household to run it. The daughter, of course, was “plain old Tessa Stephenson-Oakley” . . . She had all but hinted that her family wasn’t happy about the liaison; indeed, we never saw her side of the family. She devoted her energies to us and, until that dreadful night, the person who had her undivided attention, her unending affection, her unconditional love, was me. But the last time I had seen her there was no sign of that person. When I think back to our final meeting now, what I remember is the suspicion in her eyes, which I realize was contempt. When I killed the man about to kill her, I changed in her eyes. I was no longer the boy who had sat on her knee. I was a killer.
En route to London, I re-read an old journal. Why? Some instinct, perhaps. Some subconscious nagging . . . doubt, I suppose. Whatever it was, when I re-read the entry of 10 December 1735, I all of a sudden knew exactly what I had to do when I reached England.