The Assassins, watching, caught their breath.
De Sable moved and stood near the body, resting one foot on the dying man’s back with his arms folded like a triumphant gladiator. There was murmur of disgust among the Assassins as he called up to Al Mualim, ‘Your village lies in ruins and your stores are hardly endless. How long before your fortress crumbles from within? How disciplined will your men remain when the wells run dry and their food is gone?’ He could hardly keep the gloating note from his voice.
But in reply Al Mualim was calm: ‘My men do not fear death, Robert. They welcome it – and the rewards it brings.’
‘Good,’ called de Sable. ‘Then they shall have it all around.’
He was right, of course. The Templars could lay siege to Masyaf and prevent the Assassins receiving supplies. How long could they last before they were so weakened that de Sable could safely attack? Two weeks? A month? Altaïr could only hope that whatever plan Al Mualim had in mind was enough to break the deadlock.
As if reading his thoughts, Rauf whispered to him, from a platform to his left, ‘Follow me. And do so without hesitation.’
A third Assassin stood further across. They were hidden from de Sable and his men. Looking down, Altaïr saw strategically placed mounds of hay, enough to break a fall. He was beginning to understand what Rauf had in mind. They were to jump, undetected by the Templars. But why?
His robe flapped at his knees. The sound was comforting, like waves or rain. He looked down and steadied his breathing. He focused. He went to a place within himself.
He heard Al Mualim and de Sable trading words but he was no longer listening, thinking only of the jump, composing himself for it. He closed his eyes. He felt a great calm, a peace within.
‘Now,’ said Rauf, who leaped, followed by the other Assassin. Next, Altaïr.
Time collapsed as he fell, his arms outstretched. With his body relaxed and arcing gracefully through the air, he knew that he had achieved a kind of perfection – it was as though he was detached from himself. And then he landed perfectly, a haystack breaking his fall. Rauf too. Not so the third Assassin, whose leg snapped on impact. Immediately the man screamed and Rauf moved over to quieten him, not wanting the Templars to hear: for the subterfuge to work, the knights needed to believe that the three men had leaped to their death.
Rauf turned to Altaïr. ‘I’ll stay behind and attend to him. You’ll have to go ahead without us. The ropes there will bring you to the trap. Release it – rain death upon our enemies.’
Of course. Altaïr understood now. Briefly he wondered how the Assassins had been able to set a trap without him knowing. How many other facets of the Brotherhood remained a secret to him? Nimbly he made his way along the ropes across the chasm, doubling back across the gorge and to the cliff face behind the watchtower. He climbed on instinct. Fast and lithe, feeling the muscles in his arms sing as he scaled the sheer walls higher and higher until he reached the top of the watchtower. There beneath the boards of the upper level he found the trap rigged and ready to be sprung: heavy greased logs, stockpiled and stacked on a tilted platform.
Silently he moved to the edge, looking over to see the assembled ranks of the Templar knights, scores of them with their backs to him. Here also were the ropes holding the trap in place. He drew his sword, and for the first time in days, he smiled.
Later the Assassins were assembled in the courtyard, still savouring their triumph.
The logs had tumbled from the watchtower and into the knights below, most of whom were crushed by the first wave, while others were caught in a second load stacked behind the first. Just moments before, they had been assured of victory. Then their bodies had been pummelled, limbs snapping, the entire force in disarray, Robert de Sable already ordering his men back as the Assassins’ archers pressed home their advantage and rained arrows down upon them.
Now, though, Al Mualim commanded a hush over the gathered Assassins, indicating to Altaïr to join him on the rostrum by the entrance to his tower. His eyes were hard, and as Altaïr took his place, Al Mualim beckoned two guards to take their place at either side of him.
Silence replaced the congratulations. Altaïr, with his back to the Assassins, felt all eyes on him. By now they would know what had happened in Jerusalem; Malik and Abbas would have seen to that. Altaïr’s efforts in battle, then springing the trap – they would count for nothing now. All he could hope was that Al Mualim would show mercy.
‘You did well to drive Robert from here,’ said the Master, and it was with a measure of pride that he said it. Enough for Altaïr to hope that he might be forgiven; that his actions since Jerusalem had redeemed him. ‘His force is broken,’ continued Al Mualim. ‘It shall be a long while before he troubles us again. Tell me, do you know why it is you were successful?’
Altaïr said nothing, heart hammering.
‘You were successful because you listened,’ pressed Al Mualim. ‘Had you listened in Solomon’s Temple, Altaïr, all of this would have been avoided.’
His arm described a circle, meant to take in the courtyard and all that lay beyond, where even now the corpses of Assassins, of Templars and villagers were being cleared away.
‘I did as I was asked,’ said Altaïr, trying to choose his words carefully, but failing.
‘No!’ snapped the Master. His eyes blazed. ‘You did as you pleased. Malik has told me of the arrogance you displayed. Your disregard for our ways.’
The two guards on either side of Altaïr stepped forward and took his arms. His muscles tensed. He braced himself against them but did not struggle.
‘What are you doing?’ he said warily.
The colour rose in Al Mualim’s cheeks. ‘There are rules. We are nothing if we do not abide by the Assassin’s Creed. Three simple tenets, which you seem to forget. I will remind you. First and foremost: stay your blade …’
It was to be a lecture. Altaïr relaxed, unable to keep the note of resignation from his voice as he finished Al Mualim’s sentence. ‘… from the flesh of an innocent. I know.’
The crack of Al Mualim’s palm across Altaïr’s face echoed from the stone of the courtyard. Altaïr felt his cheek burn.
‘And stay your tongue unless I give you leave to use it,’ roared Al Mualim. ‘If you are so familiar with this tenet, why did you kill the old man inside the Temple? He was innocent. He did not need to die.’