Altaïr swung in the direction of the noise, seeing the shadows shift in a balcony above him. Bowmen? He tensed, crouching, his sword ready, offering the smallest target possible.
But if Talal wanted him dead, he’d be dead by now. He’d walked straight into the slave trader’s trap – the mistake of a fool, of a novice – but it had not yet been fully sprung.
‘But you are not the kind to listen,’ mocked Talal, ‘lest you compromise your Brotherhood.’
Altair crept forward, still trying to place Talal. He was above, that much was certain. But where?
‘Did you think I’d remain ignorant of your presence?’ continued the disembodied voice, with a chuckle. ‘You were known to me the moment you entered this city, such is my reach.’
From below he heard sobbing and glanced down to see more bars, more dirty, tear-streaked faces staring at him from the gloom.
‘Help me … Save me …’
Here there were more cages, more slaves, men and women now: beggars, prostitutes, drunkards and madmen.
‘Help me. Help me.’
‘So there are slaves here,’ called Altaïr, ‘but where are the slavers?’
Talal ignored him. ‘Behold my work in all its glory,’ he announced, and more lights flared on, revealing more frightened and beseeching faces.
Ahead of Altaïr a second gate slid open, admitting him to another room. He climbed a flight of steps and walked into a large space with a gallery running along all sides above him. There he saw shadowy figures and adjusted the grip on his sword.
‘What now, slaver?’ he called.
Talal was trying to frighten him. Some things frightened Altaïr, it was true – but nothing the slave master was capable of, that much he knew.
‘Do not call me that,’ cried Talal. ‘I only wish to help them. As I myself was helped.’
Altair could still hear the low moans of the slaves from the chamber behind. He doubted whether they’d consider it help. ‘You do no kindness imprisoning them like this,’ he called into the darkness.
Still Talal remained hidden. ‘Imprisoning them? I keep them safe, preparing them for the journey that lies ahead.’
‘What journey?’ scoffed Altaïr. ‘It is a life of servitude.’
‘You know nothing. It was folly to bring you here. To think that you might see and understand.’
‘I understand well enough. You lack the courage to face me, choosing to hide among the shadows. Enough talk. Show yourself.’
‘Ah … So you want to see the man who called you here?’
Altaïr heard movement in the gallery.
‘You did not call me here,’ he shouted. ‘I came on my own.’
Laughter echoed from the balconies above him.
‘Did you?’ scoffed Talal. ‘Who unbarred the door? Cleared the path? Did you raise your blade against a single man of mine, hmm? No. All this I did for you.’
Something moved on the ceiling above the gallery, throwing a patch of light on to the stone floor.
‘Step into the light, then,’ called Talal from above, ‘and I will grant you one final favour.’
Again, Altaïr told himself that if Talal wanted him dead his archers would have filled him with arrows by now, and he stepped into the light. As he did so, masked men appeared from the shadows of the gallery, jumping down and noiselessly surrounding him. They regarded him with dispassionate eyes, their swords hanging by their sides, their chests rising and falling.
Altaïr swallowed. There were six of them. ‘Little challenge’ they were not.
Then there came footsteps from above and he looked to the gallery where Talal had moved out of the half-light and now stood gazing down at him. He wore a striped tunic and a thick belt. Over his shoulder was a bow.
‘Now I stand before you,’ he said, spreading his hands, smiling as though warmly welcoming a guest to his household. ‘What is it you desire?’
‘Come down here.’ Altair indicated with his sword. ‘Let us settle this with honour.’
‘Why must it always come to violence?’ replied Talal, sounding almost disappointed in Altaïr, before adding, ‘It seems I cannot help you, Assassin, for you do not wish to help yourself. And I cannot allow my work to be threatened. You leave me no choice: you must die.’
He waved to his men.
Who lifted their swords.
Altaïr grunted and found himself fending off two at once, pushing them back, then straight away turning his attention to a third. The others waited their turn: their strategy, he quickly realized, was to come at him two at a time.
He could handle that. He grabbed one, pleased to see his eyes widen in shock above his mask, then threw him backwards into a fifth man, the pair of them smashing into a scaffold that disintegrated around them. Altaïr pressed home his advantage and, stabbing with his swordpoint, heard a scream and a death rattle from the man sprawled on the stone.
His assailants reassembled, glancing at one another as they slowly circled him. He turned with them, sword held out, smiling, almost enjoying himself now. Five of them, trained, masked killers, against a lone Assassin. They had thought him easy prey. He could see it in their faces. One skirmish later and they weren’t quite so certain.
He chose one. An old trick taught to him by Al Mualim for when facing multiple opponents.
Altaïr very deliberately fixed his gaze on a guard directly in front of him …
Don’t ignore the others but home in on one. Make him your target. Let him know he’s your target.
He smiled. The guard whimpered.
Then finish him.
Like a snake, Altaïr struck, coming at the guard, who was too slow to react – who stared down at Altaïr’s blade as it thrust into his chest, then groaned as he sank to his knees. With a tearing of meat, Altaïr withdrew his sword, then turned his attention to the next man.
Choose one of your opponents…
The guard looked terrified, not like a killer now, as his sword began trembling. He shouted something in a dialect Altaïr didn’t understand, then came forward messily, hoping to bring the battle to Altaïr, who sidestepped, slashing at the man’s stomach, gratified to see glistening insides spill from the wound. From above Talal’s voice cajoled his men to attack even as another fell and the two remaining attacked at once. They didn’t look so intimidating now, masks or not. They looked like what they were: frightened men about to die.
Altaïr took another down, blood fountaining from a slashed neck. The last turned and ran, hoping to find shelter in the gallery. But Altaïr sheathed his sword, palmed a pair of throwing knives, which spun, glittering – one, two – into the escaping man’s back so that he fell from the ladder. Escaping no more.