Suddenly there was a great commotion from the fortress gates, which, grinding, rose. Altaïr craned his neck to see, first hearing the clip-clop of horses’ hoofs, then seeing the helmets of the King’s bodyguards. Next the crowd was kneeling, Altaïr following suit, though his eyes were fixed on the arrival of the King.
Richard the Lionheart sat on a splendid stallion adorned with his livery, his shoulders back and his chin high. His face was worn, as though carrying the imprint of every battle, every desert crossed, and his eyes were weary but bright. Around him was his bodyguard, also on their horses, and walking at his side another man, this one, Altaïr realized from the crowd’s murmurings, William de Montferrat. He was older than the King, and lacked his bulk and power, but there was a litheness about him; Altaïr could see he might well be a skilled swordsman. There was a look of displeasure about him as he walked by the side of the King, small in his shadow and heedless of the crowds surrounding them. Lost in his own thoughts.
‘… three thousand souls, William,’ the King was saying, loud enough for the entire marketplace to hear. ‘I was told they would be held as prisoners – and used to barter for the release of our men.’
‘The Saracens would not have honoured their side of the bargain,’ replied de Montferrat. ‘You know this to be true. I did you a favour.’
The Lionheart roared. ‘Oh, yes. A great favour, indeed. Now our enemies will be that much stronger in their convictions. Fight that much harder.’
‘I know our enemy well,’ said de Montferrat. ‘They will not be emboldened but filled with fear.’
Richard looked at him disdainfully. ‘Tell me, how is it you know the intentions of our enemy so well? You, who forsake the field of battle to play at politics.’
De Montferrat swallowed. ‘I did what was right. What was just.’
‘You swore an oath to uphold the work of God, William. But that is not what I see here. No. I see a man who’s trampled it.’
De Montferrat looked queasy. Then, sweeping an arm around him, as if to remind the King that their subjects were within earshot, he said, ‘Your words are most unkind, my liege. I had hoped to earn your trust by now.’
‘You are Acre’s regent, William, set to rule in my stead. How much more trust is required? Perhaps you’d like my crown.’
‘You miss the point,’ said Montferrat. Not wanting to lose face before the crowd he added, ‘But then again, you always do …’
Richard glowered. ‘Much as I’d like to waste my day trading words with you, I’ve a war to fight. We’ll continue this another time.’
‘Do not let me delay you, then,’ said de Montferrat, politely, ‘Your Grace.’
Richard afforded de Montferrat one last furious stare – a stare to remind a rebellious underling of exactly who wore the crown – then left, his men falling in behind him.
The crowd began to get to their feet and de Montferrat turned to say something to one of his guards. Altaïr strained to hear.
‘I fear there will be no place for men like him in the New World. Send word that I wish to speak with the troops. We must ensure everyone is doing their part. Warn them that any negligence will be severely punished. I’m in no mood to be trifled with today.’ Then he turned to the rest of his men. ‘Follow me.’
Suddenly there was a great surge towards the fortress, not just of de Montferrat’s guards but of traders hoping to find custom inside. Altaïr joined them, buffeted by their hessian sacks but staying in the crush and just squeezing through the gates before the guardsmen took control and slammed them shut. Inside, traders were being herded by irritated soldiers towards a courtyard, there to display their wares, no doubt. But Altaïr could see de Montferrat making his way along the lower bailey and towards the inner curtain. He ducked to one side and squeezed into a gap between the wall and an inner building, holding his breath, half expecting to hear a shout from a sharp-eyed guard who had seen him slip away. There was none. He looked upwards, and was pleased to see handholds in the sandstone surface of the building. He began to climb.
Of course. He’d been so pleased to elude the sentries down below that Altaïr had forgotten to consider those above. He stole another look over the edge of the roof, waiting for the man to turn his back. He needed him in the middle of the roof. Didn’t want him falling into the fortress and raising the alarm. When the guard reached the right spot, Altaïr struck, the throwing knife glittering in the sun, then burying itself in the sentry’s back. He grunted and fell, thankfully not over the edge, and Altaïr pulled himself up to the roof, crouching low and making his way across, one eye on another archer further across the compound, ready to dive out of view if he turned.
Below him de Montferrat was making his way across the fortress, shouting orders and insults at all who dared be in his vicinity.
Altair came upon the next archer. A knife throw later, the man lay sprawled dead on the roof. Altaïr glanced down at him as he passed, keeping low, seeing the body cease to twitch.
A third archer. Altaïr disposed of him. Now he controlled the roof; he had an escape route for when the deed was done. All that remained was to do it.
Below him, de Montferrat passed through a set of inner gates and Altaïr watched him upbraid the guard for some minor infraction as he did so. Then he was moving into the courtyard of a keep, a kind of inner sanctum for him, perhaps. Altaïr shadowed him from the walkway above. He kept out of sight but nobody looked upwards. They had no need to – or so they thought.
Now de Montferrat took his place behind a table at one side of the courtyard. ‘Men,’ he was saying, ‘gather round. Heed well my words.’
They took positions around him and Altaïr saw that, though they wore the same uniform, they were different from those stationed in the outer curtain. These were more grizzled and looked battle-hardened. If Altaïr was right, they would be de Montferrat’s personal force. He wasn’t going to make the mistake of thinking them ‘little challenge’ again.
In the courtyard, de Montferrat continued, ‘I come from speaking with the King, and the news is grim. We stand accused of failing in our duties. He does not recognize the value of our contributions to the cause.’
‘For shame,’ said one of the men.
‘He knows nothing,’ spat another.
‘Peace. Peace. Hold your tongues,’ admonished de Montferrat. ‘Aye, he speaks falsely, but his words are not without some merit. To tour these grounds, it is easy to find fault. To see imperfection. I fear we have grown slack and lazy.’