Altaïr heard running footsteps from above. Talal making his escape. Bending to retrieve his knives, he took the ladder himself, reaching the second level just in time to see Talal scramble up a second series of steps to the roof.
The Assassin went after him, arriving through a hatch in the top of the warehouse and only just jerking his head back in time as an arrow smacked, quivering, into the wood beside him. He saw the bowman on a far rooftop, already fitting a second shaft, and pulled himself from the hatch, rolling forward on the rooftop and tossing two knives, still wet with the blood of their previous victim.
The archer screamed and fell, one knife protruding from his neck, the other in his chest. Further across, Altaïr saw Talal darting across a bridge between housing then jumping to a scaffold and shimmying down into the street. There, he craned his neck, saw Altaïr already following him, and set off at a run.
Altaïr was already gaining. He was quick and, unlike Talal, he wasn’t constantly looking over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. Which meant he wasn’t barrelling into unsuspecting pedestrians as Talal was: women who screeched and reprimanded him, men who swore and shoved him back.
All this slowed his progress through the streets and markets, so that soon he had squandered his lead, and when he turned his head Altaïr could see the whites of his eyes.
‘Flee now,’ Talal screamed over his shoulder, ‘while you still can. My guards will be here soon.’
Altaïr chuckled. Kept running.
‘Give up this chase and I’ll let you live,’ screeched Talal. Altaïr said nothing. Kept up his pursuit. Nimbly, he wove through the crowds, hurdling the goods that Talal pulled behind himself to slow his pursuer. Altaïr was gaining on Talal now, the chase almost done.
Ahead of him Talal turned his head once more, saw that the gap was closing and tried appealing to Altaïr again.
‘Hold your ground and hear me out,’ he bellowed, desperation in his voice. ‘Perhaps we can make a deal.’
Altaïr said nothing, just watched as Talal turned again. The slave trader was now about to collide with a woman whose face was hidden by several flasks. Neither of them was looking where they were going.
‘I’ve done nothing to you,’ shouted Talal, forgetting, presumably, that just minutes ago he had sent six men to kill Altaïr. ‘Why do you persist in chasing –’
The breath left his body in a whoosh, there was a tangle of arms and legs and Talal crashed to the sand along with the flask woman, whose wares smashed around them.
Talal tried scrambling to his feet but was too slow and Altaïr was upon him. Snick. As soon as his greedy blade appeared he had sunk it into the man, and was kneeling beside him, blood already gushing from Talal’s nose and mouth. At their side, the flask woman dragged herself to her feet, red-faced and indignant, about to let fly at Talal. On seeing Altaïr and his blade, not to mention the blood leaking from Talal, she changed her mind and dashed off wailing. Others gave them a wide berth, sensing something was amiss. In Jerusalem, a city accustomed to conflict, the inhabitants preferred not to stand and stare at violence for fear of becoming part of it.
Altaïr leaned close to Talal. ‘You’ve nowhere to run now,’ he said. ‘Share your secrets with me.’
‘My part is played, Assassin,’ responded Talal. ‘The Brotherhood is not so weak that my death will stop its work.’
Altaïr’s mind flashed back to Tamir. He, too, had spoken of others as he died. He, too, had mentioned brothers. ‘What Brotherhood?’ he pressed.
Talal managed a smile. ‘Al Mualim is not the only one with designs upon the Holy Land. And that’s all you’ll have from me.’
‘Then we are finished. Beg forgiveness from your God.’
‘There is no God, Assassin.’ Talal laughed weakly. ‘And if there ever was, he’s long abandoned us. Long abandoned the men and women I took into my arms.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Beggars. Whores. Addicts. Lepers. Do they strike you as proper slaves? Unfit for even the most menial tasks. No … I took them not to sell, but to save. And yet you’d kill us all. For no other reason than it was asked of you.’
‘No,’ said Altaïr, confused now. ‘You profit from the war. From lives lost and broken.’
‘You would think that, ignorant as you are. Wall off your mind, eh? They say it’s what your kind does best. Do you see the irony in all this?’
Altaïr stared at him. It was just as it had been with de Naplouse. The dying man’s words threatened to subvert everything Altaïr knew of his target – or thought he knew, at least.
‘No, not yet, it seems.’ Talal allowed himself one final smile at Altaïr’s evident confusion. ‘But you will.’
And, with that, he died.
Altaïr reached to close his eyes, murmuring, ‘I’m sorry,’ before brushing his marker with blood, then standing and losing himself in the crowds, Talal’s corpse staining the sand behind him.
Altaïr would make camp at wells, waterholes or fountains on his travels; anywhere there was water and shade from palms, where he could rest and his mount graze on the grass, untethered. It was often the only patch of green as far as the eye could see so there was little chance of his horse wandering off.
That night he found a fountain that had been walled and arched to prevent the desert swallowing the precious water spot, and he drank well. Then he lay down in its shelter, listening to dripping from the other side of the rough-hewn stone and thinking of the life ebbing away from Talal. His thoughts went even further back, to the corpses in his past. A life punctuated by death.
As a young boy he had first encountered it during the siege. Assassin and Saracen and, of course, his own father, though mercifully he had been spared the sight of that. He had heard it, though, heard the sword fall, followed by a soft thump, and he’d darted towards the wicket gate, wanting to join his father, when hands had gripped him.
He had squirmed, screaming, ‘Let me go! Let me go!’
‘No, child.’ And Altaïr saw that it was Ahmad, the agent whose life Altaïr’s father had traded for his own. And Altaïr stared at him, eyes burning with hatred, not caring that Ahmad had been delivered from his ordeal battered and bloody and barely able to stand, his soul scarred with the shame of having succumbed to the Saracens’ interrogation. Caring only that his father had given himself up to die and …