Then, having all the information he needed, Altaïr had visited Jabal to collect Al Mualim’s marker.
Now he moved around the outside of a building adjacent to the Hospitaliers’ fortress. As he had expected, there was a guard, an archer, and Altaïr watched as he paced the walkway, every now and then casting his gaze into the courtyard below, but mainly gazing across the roofline. Altaïr looked at the sun. It should be about now, he thought, smiling to himself as, sure enough, the archer moved to a ladder and let himself down.
Altaïr stayed low. He leaped from the roof to the walkway and quietly scuttled along until he was able to peer over the edge and into the courtyard below. Sheer-walled in dull, grey, forbidding stone, a well stood in its centre, but it was otherwise bare, quite unlike the ornately decorated buildings usually to be found in Acre. There, several guards were wearing the quilted black coats of the Hospitalier knights, the white cross on the chest, and there was also a group of monks. Moving among them were what looked like patients, barefoot and shirtless. Poor wretches who milled aimlessly about, their expressions blank, their eyes glazed.
Altaïr frowned. Even with the walkway unguarded it was impossible to drop into the courtyard unseen. He moved to the entrance wall of the hospital, so that he was able to look into the street outside. On stone painted white by the sun, ailing cityfolk and their families begged the guards to be allowed inside. Others whose minds had gone wandered among the throng, casting their arms into the air, shouting gibberish and obscenities.
And there – Altair smiled to see them – was a group of scholars. They were moving through the crowd as if it wasn’t there, heedless of the suffering and tumult around them. They seemed to be going in the direction of the hospital. Taking advantage of the disorder, Altaïr lowered himself into the street unnoticed, joined the ranks of the scholars and lowered his head to concentrate his gaze on his shuffling feet. Every now and then he risked a surreptitious glance to check their bearings and, as he’d hoped, they were heading towards the hospital where the guards stood aside, admitting them to the courtyard.
Altaïr wrinkled his nose. Where the street had held the scent of the city, of baking and perfumes and spices, in here was the stench of suffering, of death and human waste. From somewhere – through a set of closed doors – there came a series of pained cries, then low moaning. That would be the main hospital, he thought. He was proved correct when, suddenly, the doors were flung open and a patient careered madly into the courtyard.
‘No! Help! Help me!’ he screamed. His face was contorted with fear, his eyes wide. ‘Help me, please! You must help me!’
After him came a guard. He had a lazy eye, as though the muscles in his eyelid had once been cut. He ran after the escaping crazy man, catching him. Then, joined by another guard, he began punching and kicking him until the crazy man was subdued and on his knees.
Altaïr watched. He felt his jaw tighten and his fists clench as the guards beat the man, other patients moving forward to get an improved view of the spectacle, watching with faces that registered only mild interest, swaying slightly.
‘Mercy!’ howled the crazy man, as the blows rained down on him. ‘I beg mercy. No more!’
He stopped. Suddenly his pain was forgotten as the doors to the hospital swung open and there stood a man who could only be Garnier de Naplouse.
He was shorter than Altaïr had expected. He was beardless and had close-cropped white hair, sunken eyes and a cruel, downturned mouth, which gave him a cadaverous look. The white cross of the Hospitalier was on his arms and he wore a crucifix around his neck – but whatever God he worshipped had deserted him, Altaïr saw. For he also wore an apron. A dirty, blood-stained apron.
Now he looked darkly at the crazy man prostrate before him, held by Lazy Eye and the other guard, Lazy Eye raising his fist to punch him again.
‘Enough, my child,’ ordered de Naplouse. ‘I asked you to retrieve the patient, not to kill him.’
Lazy Eye lowered his fist reluctantly as de Naplouse came forward, closer to the crazy man, who moaned and pulled away, like a skittish animal.
De Naplouse smiled, the hardness gone. ‘There, there,’ he said to the crazy man, almost tenderly. ‘Everything will be all right. Give me your hand.’
The crazy man shook his head. ‘No – no! Don’t touch me. Not again …’
De Naplouse furrowed his brow, as though slightly hurt by the man’s reaction to him. ‘Cast out this fear, else I cannot help you,’ he said evenly.
‘Help me? Like you helped the others? You took their souls. But not mine. No. You’ll not have mine. Never, never, never … Not mine not mine not mine not mine …’
The softness was gone as de Naplouse slapped the crazy man. ‘Take hold of yourself,’ he snarled. His sunken eyes flared and the other’s head drooped. ‘Do you think this gives me pleasure? Do you think I want to hurt you? But you leave me no choice …’
Suddenly the crazy man had pulled away from the two guards and tried to run into the watching crowd. ‘Every kind word matched by the back of his hand …’ he screeched, passing close to Altaïr as the two guards rushed after him. ‘All lies and deception. He won’t be content until all bow before him.’
Lazy Eye caught him, dragged him back before de Naplouse, where he whimpered under the Grand Master’s cold gaze.
‘You should not have done that,’ said de Naplouse, slowly, then to Lazy Eye, ‘Return him to his quarters. I’ll be along once I’ve attended to the others.’
‘You can’t keep me here!’ shouted the crazy man. ‘I’ll escape again.’
De Naplouse stopped. ‘No, you won’t,’ he said evenly, then turned to Lazy Eye. ‘Break his legs. Both of them.’
Lazy Eye grinned as the crazy man tried to pull away. Then there were two sickening cracks, like kindling being snapped, as the huge knight stamped first on one leg, then the other. The victim screamed, and Altaïr found himself moving forward, unable to contain himself, seething at the wanton cruelty.
Then the moment had gone: the man had lost consciousness – the pain, no doubt, too much to bear – and the two guards were dragging him away. De Naplouse watched him. The sympathetic look had returned to his face.
‘I am so sorry, child,’ he said, almost to himself, before turning on the crowd. ‘Have you people nothing better to do?’ he barked, and stared darkly at the monks and patients, who slowly drifted away. As Altaïr turned his back to join them he saw de Naplouse scanning the throng carefully, as though looking for one who might have been sent to kill him.