Sword of a Saint
Chapter 2 - Part 3
Michael's routine among the
Assassins proved predictable and grueling. He woke before dawn and spent
the morning running before a horse or dodging through obstacles to build
his agility. As the sun neared noon he went indoors with the other
apprentices for quieter lessons. Hassan spent weeks teaching him to
speak the Eastern tongue, and to write it. He learned to dance with
grace, to carry himself as if he were born to a throne. He also learned
to play the drum, flute and sitar.
Music was by far the easiest of the quiet skills to master. Michael discovered he had a natural talent with the many stringed sitar. After a few weeks spent learning to finger the notes he closed his eyes and played from his soul. The soft tones drew the pain away, leaving calmness behind.
A pair of hands applauded as he let the final notes drift into oblivion. Michael opened his eyes and froze. Grand Master Khuzaymah stood before him, flanked by Hassan and the old slave woman who taught music.
"You have skill. You may play for us at dinner." The Grand Master's smile did not reach his eyes.
Michael played through the meal, eating nothing himself. When at last the Grand Master signaled the meal over he stopped, his fingers aching from the bite of the copper strings. Khuzaymah stood, pulled a ruby the size of a hen's egg from his turban and tossed it to Michael.
Michael was put upon one of the spirited horses the next morning. The little mare snorted as he approached her, rolling her eyes and shifting her weight nervously.
Hassan laughed at Michael's hesitation. "Perhaps I should give your friend Fraoraosa have her. He at least has no fear of horses."
::That was not fair!:: Michael fumed as he steeled his nerve and reached for the mare's bridle. Fergus had spent his life around horses, and knew them well. He on the other hand had been packed off to a schola where he learned nothing of value in the world he now inhabited.
The horse's nervousness came to him as soon as his hand brushed her sleek coat. Michael reached out his mind, seeking to calm her. As soon as he joined minds with the horse he discovered the reason for her agitation. A small stone was lodged in her hoof.
He gave the mare a quick thought to reassure her and lifted the hoof. The stone came away so easily Michael suspected Hassan had put it there himself. Still, he realized his weight in the tall wooden saddle would have shoved the stone into the nerves of her foot, laming her irreparably.
He straightened and eyed Hassan. ::Would his teacher have allowed him to maim the beautiful mare through ignorance? Yes, :: Michael realized with an icy shiver down his spine. ::He would.::
With the stone removed the mare stood placidly and allowed Michael to mount. Hassan spent the rest of the morning teaching Michael how to guide the horse without using reins. With only voice commands, the pressure of his knees on her sides, and occasional mental touches Michael urged the mare over barriers and through low arches.
At last Hassan waived him into the shelter of the stable. Michael dismounted, feeling a twinge of apprehension. His teacher wore an expression so serious it sent a shiver through Michael's spine.
"Stable your horse, boy. Then come with me." Hassan pointed to an empty stall. "The Grand Master wishes you to join the older boys this afternoon. Your training will be advanced. It is an honor I do not feel you have earned, but his will must be obeyed."
"You're mocking me." Michael gaped stupidly at Hassan for an endless moment. "I'm not ready to join them. I haven't learned enough and they will make sport of me."
"It is what the Grand Master wishes." Hassan's lips thinned. "Do as you are told."
A horrible image flashed through Michael's mind. The older apprentices would laugh at him, no doubt they would point out his lack of training with glee. He was about to be made public entertainment.
He stiffened his spine. "I will not. You know you have not taught me enough. I'll not be laughed at."
"Boy, you will!"
When Michael shook his head one final time Hassan moved before he could react. The older man seized the back of Michael's neck and dragged him into the training yard. There Hassan shouted commands to several slaves.
Michael resisted as best he could but he was no match for four grown adults. He was wrestled to the ground, stripped of his clothing and bound to a tall wooden post in the center of the training yard. There they left him as the sun climbed to its zenith and turned the golden sand of the practice circles to a shimmering, sparkling hell of heat.
Michael struggled to remain on his feet. His pride would not allow him to sag against the chains that held his hands over his head. Nor would he beg for release and admit his mistake. He would sooner die.
Not until the stars shone full in the midnight sky did a slave arrive to unlock the chains that bound Michael to the post. By then his tongue had thickened with thirst, his skin blistered from the sun and his wrists bore bloody wounds from the chains. He was carried into the dormitory, bathed and Healed enough to be put to bed. The Healer did not finish his job completely, however. The wounds on Michael's wrists were left half mended, no longer bloody but still painful.
Thus did Michael learn the first secret to surviving among the Assassins. Never question, no matter how ridiculous the order may seem. The next morning he began training with apprentices who had been with the order for five years or more.
He was the youngest of the group by at least two years, and that coupled with his lack of training made him the brunt of many jokes as he had feared it would.
He learned to fight from the back of the little mare, using the bow, spear, sword, and throwing star on swinging straw targets. He learned to kill with his mind, stopping hearts, opening blood vessels, setting flesh ablaze and bursting organs at distance. He learned the niceties of a duel arcane, and how to fight without rules to assure his victory.
Because he hated to hear the other apprentices laughing at him and because he learned quickly the punishment for fighting, Michael directed his energy to becoming the best at whatever task was set before him. His single minded purpose soon won results. Within two months none of the other apprentices could challenge his skill with bow or sword, on foot or on horseback.
He had little time to savor the satisfaction of seeing the last of the apprentices bow before his skill. Hassan roused him early the morning after he had beaten all his rivals in an hours-long bout of swordplay and led him through the training yard without a word of explanation. At the far end of the yard, near the high stone wall that surrounded the compound, Grand Master Kjuzayman waited with several of Michael's peers, a pitcher of wine and a whip. The Grand Master wore a smile of eager satisfaction.
Grand Master Khuzaymah pointed to a strip of barrel rings set up across the yard. Some lay flat on the ground, some were tipped at odd angles. A few stood up, held in place by wooden blocks.
"I want you to run through the rings," Grand Master Khuzaymah said with an amused grin. "You've done this many times before. But this time your hands will be bound behind your back."
Michael nodded. One of the older apprentices bound both hands securely with leather thongs. Michael recognized the fellow as one of his last opponents the day before. He thought the apprentice seemed to be enjoying this a bit much.
"And there is one more thing." The Grand Master took a cup of wine from another apprentice. "Drink this."
Michael sensed the merasha in the cup. He tried to turn his head. The apprentice who had bound him caught his chin and held him so he had no choice save to swallow. He swayed as the drug numbed his limbs and paralyzed his mind.
The Grand Master shoved him toward the barrel rings. "Now run!"
Michael stumbled, and only by pure luck did he not fall on his face. His legs refused to obey him and his vision blurred, making it almost impossible to navigate the obstacle course. Again and again he fell, tearing his clothing and bruising his skin.
When he reached the far end, the Grand Master was there to turn him around. "Again!" he ordered. And again, Michael struggled through the course, the bite of the whip urging him to finish more quickly each time.
By the time the ordeal ended, Michael could barely stand. Slaves led him to his pallet and put him to bed. The next day's lessons were easier, focused on music and target shooting. After a day's rest he was brought back to the rings to run the drill again, and again.
Eventually, through training and force of will, he managed to dampen the effects of the drug. When at last he ran through the rings without so much as stumbling the Grand Master gave him a rare smile of satisfaction. Michael stared back at the older man and, to show that he could do it, set an aura of silver green light around his head. Scattered applause met his accomplishment
The Grand Master nodded and touched his forehead in a mocking salute. "The boy has, I see, become a man in a remarkably short time. Hassan, I believe it is time our young outlander received an education in the more refined arts of our trade. This night send him to a new schoolmistress."
Hassan nodded, smiling. The older apprentices, the same who had moments ago applauded Michael's accomplishment, chuckled among themselves. Michael's stomach knotted with apprehension.
Michael was taken to the baths, then given a thorough massage by a grinning eunuch. The steamy heat of the bath, the lingering effects of the merasha and the slave's attentions to his aching muscles left him in a dreamy, relaxed state by the time the soft linen tunic was slipped over his head. Hassan led him through the quiet halls to a room he had never before visited.
The door opened on soundless hinges. The room, Michael saw was hung with gauzy curtains embroidered with silver moons and stars and heavy with glistening pearls. Cushions covered in satin and velvet covered the floor, almost obscuring the rich carpets. A pair of fat eunuchs stood against one wall, curved scimitars at their hips, their arms folded over their hairless chests.
Everyone else in the room was female. Girls on the verge of womanhood, women in their prime and some few old enough to have silver threads in their dark hair reclined on cushions or danced to the music of a sitar and drum. Some sipped coffee from tiny silver cups or nibbled daintily from a platter of sugared dates and goat cheese. All were dressed in layers of filmy silk and samite so fine their flesh was revealed and then concealed again as they moved.
Hassan stepped into the room, pushing Michael before him. The music died away as the women turned to stare at them. Michael suddenly felt as if he were stripped naked, completely vulnerable under so many eyes. He clenched his teeth against the awkward feeling and strengthened his shields.
"Yasmina." One of the women rose and approached Hassan with graceful steps. A veil of gold samite covered locks of dark hair that hung to her ripe, rounded hips. Her face was shielded by a length of the same cloth, both embroidered heavily. Jewels studded both the calf length tunic and loose breeches she wore.
Hassan laid a heavy hand on Michael's shoulder. "Many times, lad, your job will be to uncover information rather than removing a problem. Women are often the best sources of that information. They are easily overlooked and tend not to guard their tongues if they are pleasured by a skilled lover."
Michael's stomach knotted. It wasn't that he hadn't had dreams of what it might be like to love a woman; he had them with embarrassing frequency. But never had he actually done it. And now, when he still felt weak from the day's exercise and had nothing to fill his rumbling belly, he was expected to do so?
Hassan shoved him forward. "Yasmina will teach you what you need to know." Before Michael could protest his teacher turned and left the harem.
Michael turned his attention to the girl called Yasmina. Her shoulders shook with laughter, sending the silver bells at her wrists and ankles tinkling. She extended a slim hand. When he took it he found her skin incredibly soft. His tongue seemed to cling to his teeth as Yasmina led him to a private chamber. The room contained nothing but a thick pallet covered in velvet, a heavy carpet of the same rich material and a small table with a tray of the same cheeses and dates the women in the common area had been enjoying. There was also a flask and a pair of cups.
The girl crossed to the pallet and draped herself gracefully over the cushions. Her tongue traced the outline of her lips as she regarded Michael with the same expression she might have given a particularly fat fig at the peak of its' sweetness. "What are you called?" Michael barely managed to stammer out his name. He felt like the veriest fool as she beckoned him forward.
"Don't be afraid." Yasmina's words slid through the air like ribbons of silk as she loosened the laces of his tunic. "After all, you are here to learn from me. I promise you'll enjoy the lesson." She leaned so close her tongue tickled his ear. "I know I will."